Grief Diary, 10/5/12


Have been contemplating the different usages of the word “home.” A few days ago, I was flying home to Chicago because my father had just died. Tomorrow, I’m flying back home to San Francisco. Both of these phrases mean such different things, and yet they’re equally true.

I’m feeling a bit apprehensive about starting the “getting back into my regular life” phase of all this. As stressful and painful as it’s been, the intensity and drama of the “flying home on short notice and seeing the family and having the commemorative gathering” thing has been… not a distraction, that’s not what I mean at all, but something like that. It’s been like stepping out of my regular life, and into the land of grief. Next week, I have to start figuring out how to get on with my life, how to weave this loss into in my daily life, how to manage my grief while also meeting deadlines and paying bills and returning emails and scooping cat litter and watching Project Runway. Also, the time in the land of grief has an endpoint. The time living my life with this grief woven into it… I have no idea how long that’s going to last. The rest of my life, to some extent. It’s going to gradually dial down over time, with better moments and worse moments and an overall arc towards better… but it’s not going to have a stopping place. That’s daunting.

I’m noticing that my reminiscences and trips down memory lane are almost as much about Mom as they are about Dad. I guess that makes sense. Of course Dad’s death is going to remind me of Mom’s; of course remembering his life is going to remind me of hers, since for years they were so closely woven together. Plus, when Mom died, I didn’t process it for shit. Her death was so premature (she was 45), so out of the blue (six weeks between diagnosis and death), and it came at such a bizarre time in my own life (two months into my first year at college)… and I kind of just shoved it on the back burner. Where it periodically boiled over in stupid and self-destructive ways. In a weird way, it feels good to be re-processing her death in a more healthy way. (“Re-processing her death in a more healthy way”? Sweet fictional Jesus, could I sound any more like a Northern Californian?)

Big insight of the day: I think I’m starting to see where some of my “am I doing it right?” self-consciousness about my grief is coming from. The thing that’s dawning on me: Grief isn’t just personal. It’s social. A grieving family or group of friends grieves together (ideally, anyway): comforts each other, supports each other, gives each other perspective and wisdom, takes turns taking care of each other. I don’t, in fact, just want to “grieve in my own way”: I also want to support my grieving family members as they grieve in their own way.

There’s a saying from Hillel that’s always stuck with me, ever since I first heard it decades ago: “If I am not for myself, than who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, than who am I?” The balance between caring for yourself and caring for other people, between resisting pointless social pressure and conformity while at the same time genuinely caring about not upsetting people, between being true to ourselves while at the same time being conscious of the effect we have on others… even at the best of times, this balance is both important and difficult. And during a time of grief, getting that balance right is both much more important, and much, much harder. Right now, I know that my usual perspective and my usual instincts are totally fucked up. So right now, I need to carefully think them through. Hence… self-consciousness.

Also, I strongly suspect that when we’re grieving, our personalities and natural tendencies get dialed up to eleven. If we’re naturally introverted, we probably tend to withdraw; if we’re naturally demonstrative, we probably tend to cry and vent; if we’re naturally work-oriented, we probably tend to throw ourselves into our work. I already have a tendency to be introspective and self-questioning. I generally value this trait, in fact I think it’s one of the best things about me. I don’t want to always assume that everything I do is right; I want to be willing to question my ideas and actions. But right now, this tendency is cranked waaaaay up, to the point where I’m spinning my wheels over ridiculously trivial shit. (Today, among other things, it was about which size and variety of Frango Mints to buy.) I’m reminded a bit of the time right after I read “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me,” the book about the process of rationalization, and was so conscious of my own processes of rationalization that I was paralyzed for a week with massive self-doubt over every tiny decision, and with massive guilt over every tiny mistake.

Today we — Rick and Ingrid and I — mostly walked around in downtown Chicago, visiting assorted spots from our past. It was good to be outside, getting exercise, reminiscing. And then I hit a wall. Actually, I ran into a wall at about sixty miles an hour. So far with the grief, I’ve often been able to feel myself beginning to fade, gradually getting less focused and more tired and foggy. Not today. Today, I was totally fine one minute, exhausted and paralyzed the next. The prospect of buying a train ticket in an unfamiliar train system seemed utterly impossible, like a brain-teaser for super-geniuses. Rick finally had to do it for me.

Of course, after spending hours being exhausted and wanting nothing more than to sleep, now I’m wide awake again. I think writing this diary tends to wake me up. A good thing in one sense: it makes me feel alive, connected, moving forward with my life, not buried in a fog. But it also wakes me up right when I’m about to try to get to sleep. I think I’m going to take a Benadryl and call it a night.

Grief Diary, 10/5/12
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6 thoughts on “Grief Diary, 10/5/12

  1. 2

    In two weeks time it will be a year since my father died. It was really only bad for me something like the week or so immediately following and only really bad for the first 24 hours. I think I’m coping fairly well now. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him – but remembering gives me good thoughts.

  2. 3

    One of the hardest things about dealing with the deaths of my parents and M-I-L was selling their homes. I had not lived in the one for 40 years and never in the other, but it just seemed so final. So many memories, attached to so much stuff that had to be cleaned out. I’ve established a bit of a museum for stuff I can’t yet let go of. It helps.

  3. 4

    Going “home” for me was a mixed bag. After 3 days of devastating grief, end-of-life decisions, seeing my Dad breakdown in front of me for the first time ever, having many of the am-i-grieving-appropriately? worries that you mention it was nice to get back to at least a geographical place of normalcy (complicated by the fact that 3 days after my Mom’s passing, I was getting married!!). My parents home didn’t have the historical element that your parents’ place did (my folks only retired there and I rarely visited them, so it had little emotional baggage for me) but it was still a pressure-cooker of emotion given all the family pictures, Mom’s possessions, etc., so getting back to LA and trying to inch a toe back into the waters of my regular life (and more importantly, get away from grief-central 24/7) was a welcome change.

    It is tough because even back in MY WORLD, the reminders are everywhere. Even without pictures on the wall, or mementoes, everything that WE ARE has been so deeply influenced by THEM that you start to realize quickly the profundity of the parent-child bond. It’s pretty remarkable, and awesome, from a sober/unaffllicted perspective, but it’s also the most painful papercut you ever felt, constantly reminding you that everything that is YOU was based on THEM which is at-the-same-time beautiful and tragic.

    I do think that there is a good benefit to attempting to get back to the more mundane details of your life. They are a nice distraction. Not enough, mind you. The grief will creep in regardless, but I think getting back to the minutae of life really kick starts the healing process in positive ways.

    As always, you seem to be on the right track. Everything you mention is VERY common and normal, and you are doing well.

    PS- When the deacon at my Mom’s service (my Dad wanted that despite our family being largely agnostic with me being the only open atheist) learned that I had to quickly jet home to get married he said “Well life DOES go on” to which I believe I responded “There is no other choice.”

  4. 5

    Just found your site, Greta. I’m a 45 year old atheist who was “converted” at age 14 – not by atheists – but driven into a dark corner by the most pious, most faithful, most ardent Christians.

    The anger about/towards/within atheists is logical to me; we all think we live in a “free” society, meaning that the government will not send authorities to your house for saying something – the limits there are pretty unbounded, short of threats of crimes or insurrection.

    But the truth is that as a sentient being just standing in a crowd, we all know our freedoms are ultimately limited by what the people in our immediate vicinity will allow us to say. In a country where the “faithful” outnumber the atheists 9 to one, that puts limits on the minority. Sure, we can say it, but there are always consequences.

    The problem is that the “consequences” to free speech or free thought are ultimately managed at a face-to-face level. Sure, it may be illegal to deny someone a job or an apartment based on their religion (or lack thereof) but all they have to do is say they don’t like your credit rating or that someone else was “better qualified”.

    Put all of that outside stress on the community of atheists, two things happen: (pay attention, you’ll see an analogy to the country as a whole, if I’m any good)

    When we all come “together” because we think everyone else is hostile to us, there is an element of paranoia to find out which one of us said THE THING that caused so much trouble for the rest of us. Of course, it’s no one thing, because each event is unique and affects things in different ways – but the cumulative affects are all reflected at the community at large.

    Get the analogy to America yet?

    We all came together because we thought that we could build a place where everyoen is welcome and that all opinions are at least welcome, if not appreciated. But outside forces (in the US, it’s now the economy) pit one of us against another of us to find out WHICH ONE of us caused all the trouble….because nobody wants to be that poor slob, right?

    I don’t believe in prophets; but I do suggest that there are important noble thoughts that can be a cornerstone for society to build something on:

    Rodney King of the LA Riots fame was far from a noble man; he led far from a noble life – but in the midst of all the pain, the death, the destruction of the riots, with genuine human emotion that people “like him” are not supposed to posess, he said

    “People, I mean…can we all just get along?”

    And note that what makes it truly profound – the kind of thing that if a real prophet was claimed to have delivered down from a mountain on stone, I might actually respect it – he phrased it as a question.

    So, whether it’s strife and conflict within the atheist community, or within the US as the faithful and atheists live out our lives, or the US against the world (as we always seem to think it is – but we can’t understand why it is so, even when we so often pose it that way)

    the ability for us to get along comes from within.

    In the world view of the atheist, we have the power to get along through our own volition – it’s not left to the fates or some amorphous, ethereal force we can neither see nor interact with (in the same way we’d demand of a person standing next to us)


    My favorite atheist was Kurt Vonnegut, who punctuated “Slaughterhouse Five” with the sentence

    “So it goes.”

  5. 6

    the intensity and drama of the “flying home on short notice and seeing the family and having the commemorative gathering” thing has been… not a distraction, that’s not what I mean at all, but something like that.

    I think I know exactly what you mean. It’s like dealing with the grief is your full-time job, and yeah it’s a sucky job, but at least you can give it your full attention. For me, the whole “am I grieving right?” meta-anguish didn’t really kick in until I got home and back to my life. Because at work I can’t let myself be paralyzed by grief, it’s just not an option – but then on some level I feel guilty because I’m NOT paralyzed. The good news is, work is distracting as hell so whole hours go by without thinking about and actively missing my dad; the bad news is I then feel bad for not feeling bad.

    Face it: humans are messed up.

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