Grief Diary, 10/3/12


The phone rang this morning: it was Rick, and my first thought was terrible alarm. “Is Dad okay?” Then I remembered. It’s weird. For so long now, Rick’s ringtone has meant, “Is this the call, the one telling me Dad is dead?” I wonder how long it’s going to take for that to change.

I keep having stretches where I feel relatively normal, like I could just get on with my life without much problem… and then I feel guilty, like I’m not giving Dad his due. Then I have stretches where I’m dazed, numb, paralyzed, unable to make even the smallest decisions… and then I feel dumb, like I’m over-reacting to something that was completely unsurprising and indeed something I’ve been welcoming. No matter what emotion I’m having, it seems to be accompanied by a self-conscious meta-emotion, feeling like whatever I’m feeling is wrong.

I know. There’s no timetable. There’s no one right way to grieve. Everyone does it in their own way. Well, apparently my way is “self-consciously, and wondering if I’m doing it right.”

I think the bottom line is this: My dad is dead. No matter what is happening, it’s going to feel wrong.

I’m having a hard time with some very weird decisions. Like whether to put my bra on first, or my jeans. I have a tendency to do that anyway, even when I’m not grieving: I’m an over-thinker, and I’ll often spend more time thinking about the most efficient way to do something than it would have taken to just pick one way and do it. But this tendency is now dialed up to eleven. And it’s focused on incredibly trivial shit. Every decision feels fraught, loaded with symbolism and meaning. It reminds me a little of when Ingrid and I were planning our wedding, and we couldn’t make a decision like “cloth tablecloths or paper?” without feeling like it was communicating some great truth about our relationship and our values and our future together. It reminds me a little of that… except in a horrible, depressing, fucked-up way.

Today we — me, Ingrid, and Rick — went to see my dad’s wife Caroline, and sat in their apartment. Her apartment. I don’t know what pronoun to use. It was weird: this was the apartment I grew up in, the apartment I lived in from third grade until I left home, and it felt weird. Alien. Not like home. It’s been somewhat like that for some time: the physical space itself is very different from how it was when I lived there, and it has been for a long time, and it’s had that surreal “home but not home, familiar but not familiar” feel for a while. But it was much more like that today. It was hard not to keep remembering all the times Rick and I had sat there in the last few years. Which, to be blunt, weren’t all that different from today: Dad hadn’t been able to really communicate for a long time, so when I went home to visit, Rick and Caroline and I would sit in the living room and talk and watch TV, with Dad there in the room sitting and vaguely listening. Everything was happening around him and without him, even though he was the whole reason I was there. So it was like that today… except without Dad. Almost the reverse of how it was before: before it was like he wasn’t there even though he was, and today it was like he was there even though he wasn’t. Plus, today Rick and I would occasionally pause the conversation to look over Dad’s books and art, and decide what we wanted to hang on to. Plus, this was the room where Dad had his hospital bed for the home hospice care. This was the room where he died. So there was that. There were long stretches when it felt almost normal, just reminiscing and shooting the shit… and at the end of the afternoon I was exhausted.

Of course, now I have a stupid second wind, and am wide awake. Had a big slice of gooey chocolate something at a cafe, which I knew was a bad idea and would keep me awake; but I’m trying to be kind to myself and not resist small comforts, and a slice of gooey chocolate something at the cafe seemed comforting. Which it was, to be honest. Also, the counter guy at the cafe was really nice. Kept giving us sample spoons of gelato flavors: basil, pistachio, salted caramel, lavender, mocha, guava, Butterfinger. One of the things about having my emotions dialed up so high is that small kindnesses seem huge. I don’t know if he could tell we were having a bad day, or if he was flirting, or if he was bored, or if he was just a nice guy. But the little free tastes of gelato two and a half days after my dad died… I was touched by it, all out of proportion. I have a suspicion that I’m going to remember that for a while.

I’ll leave it at that for tonight.

Grief Diary, 10/3/12

Grief Diary, 10/2/12


Am having a ridiculous, totally dumb feeling that I didn’t expect: I’m worrying about whether I’m over-reacting to my father’s death.

This feeling is taking the form of a hyper-rational, straw-Vulcan thought process, which goes roughly like this: My father was almost 80. He was sick, and had been very sick for a long time. His quality of life had not been good for years, and had been seriously declining for months. Everyone close to him — including him, probably — wanted him to die, was ready for him to die, thought it was long past time for him to die. It’s not like this death was in any way unfair or unnatural, either: his poor health was largely self-inflicted, and anyway he was almost 80, and anyway death is a natural part of life that happens to all of us. And it’s not like he’d been in my daily life in any significant way. He hadn’t been for years. We talked on the phone for a couple of minutes every couple/ few weeks, if you can call it “talking” when one person’s language function is profoundly disabled and he’s literally incapable of saying more than a few coherent words. Even before the stroke, our relationship wasn’t close, he wasn’t in my life that much. In a day-to-day sense, my life after my father’s death isn’t going to look very different from my life while he was alive. And, of course, it’s not like the very idea of death is a surprise. I know that we’re all mortal. Like, duh.

So why should I be so upset about his death? Why should I feel so paralyzed by it? Why should I be cancelling plans, speaking gigs, writing deadlines? I’m being such a baby, such a wuss. I should just get over it.

I know. This is dumb. You don’t have to tell me that this is dumb. I cannot imagine even the most hyper-rational straw-Vulcan rationalist telling me it’s irrational to grieve over my father’s death. In fact, the hyper-rationalists would probably point me to those lists of stressful life events, ranked by how stressful they are, and they’d point to “death of a parent” right up there near the top. They’d point out that yes, death is natural and unsurprising — and so is grief, every bit as much. They’d probably even tell me, ad nauseam, all about the neurology and neuropsychology of grief. (Which I’m curious about, by the way: if anyone knows anything about it, I’d be interested in hearing it.)

Not sure where this “worrying about whether I’m over-reacting” thing is coming from. I’m wondering if it’s an attempt to keep the grief at bay a bit, by minimizing it and trying to see this death as no big deal. I’m trying to just accept it — and also to accept the meta-feeling of “boy, is that dumb” — as part of the whole “my emotions are going to be all over the map for a while and I need to let that be and not give myself a hard time over it” program.

I do have to say that, hyper-rationality aside, being evidence-based and skeptical is helping, more than I’d thought. Mostly it’s helping to know that what I’m experiencing now is natural, common. Having my moods be this disrupted and unpredictable is very alien to me, and it’s been good to hear other people say, “Yup, I totally had that, it’s completely natural, it’s part of the process.” And just in general, it feels comforting to know that… I don’t know how to put this. It feels comforting to know that reality is real. That reality is solid. I’m feeling very disconnected right now, almost dreamlike: I’m having a hard time remembering what day it is, what time is, what I need to do, what I’ve already done, whether I’m hungry, whether I’m tired, how long I’ve been staring at that spot on the wall. I feel like I’m taking a trip into the land of grief, and it feels surreal, like one of Calvino’s invisible cities. It feels comforting to know that reality will be there when I get back.

Speaking of being reality-based: I’m having a hard time telling if I’m really hungry, or just stress-hungry. I was hoping to take a break from counting calories during all this, but now I’m thinking that’s not a good idea. I feel somewhat shallow for even worrying about this. My dad just died, and I’m fretting about my weight? On the other hand… my weight is one of the few things I feel that I more or less have under control right now. I’ve been having a little upward drift lately, but I’ve stayed very close to my target. I don’t want one of the things in my life that’s actually working and that’s actually somewhat under my control to slip out of control. And besides… see above, re: my dad’s poor health being largely self-inflicted. I don’t want to inflict that on myself, or on the people I love, if I can help it.

I’m also having a weird thing about participating in life online. I’ll be distracting myself by reading blogs or Facebook or Twitter or what have you, and I’ll think of a comment to make or I’ll want to re-tweet or “like” something… and then I’ll think, “No, that’s inappropriate.” It’s weird. I’m fine with the idea of having a private life that’s not totally focused on death and grief — I can play with the kittens, distract myself with stupid TV, dick around online reading blogs and Twitter — but it somehow feels weird to have any kind of public life right now that isn’t about grief. The kittens did this hilarious thing the night my dad died, Ingrid and I were cracking up and taking videos of it… but I think it’s going to feel weird to put that video up in public. It feels weird to even mention it in public, even though it felt totally normal and right to do it. Not sure why this is. Maybe I’m afraid that people will judge me for not caring enough. Or maybe I’m afraid that if I start to move on a little bit, people will expect me to stay moved on, and judge me if I slip back into the grief.

I know. Dumb. I’m not saying it makes sense. I’m just trying to record what’s in my head and my heart and my flesh right now, and not worry about whether it makes sense. I wonder if one of the natural, normal parts of grief that everyone goes through is “worrying about whether you’re doing it right.”

I also wonder if poking at your grief again and again, like poking at a bruise or a sore tooth, is one of the natural, normal parts of grief that everyone goes through. I think I should knock it off for now, though. Time to go read something distracting, and try to sleep.

Grief Diary, 10/2/12

Grief Diary, 10/1/12


Dad died today.

I’m surprised at how upset I am. This death was entirely expected. It was even wanted. He has been in such shitty shape for years; his life has been close to useless, to himself or anyone else, for months if not years. We’ve been on deathwatch for years, advanced deathwatch for months, super-advanced deathwatch for weeks. And yet when the call came, it still knocked the breath out of me. I was still only able to listen to my brother for about ten minutes before I had to get off the phone, that minute, that second, to call Ingrid and tell her to come home.

My moods today have been like weather on an unsteady day: pouring rain one minute, sunny ten minutes later, overcast and foggy ten minutes after that. I have stretches where I’m fairly calm and focused entirely on taking care of business — cancelling appointments, cancelling speaking gigs, notifying friends and colleagues — and then stretches where I’m crying and feeling overwhelmed with emotion, and then stretches where I’m in a daze, staring at walls, unable to decide even the smallest thing. These moods are entirely unpredictable. I don’t have any idea from minute to minute which I’m going to be feeling.

Packing to go home, I felt like Willow in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in the episode “The Body,” the one where Buffy’s mom has just died. The scene where Willow is trying to figure out what to wear to meet her friend at the morgue. I kept staring at my closet, obsessively trying to pick the exact right clothes, feeling like everything in my closet was wrong: too snazzy, too fashionable, too flashy, too dressy, too official, too colorful, too sexy. I picked out the things that seemed to strike the right balance — calm, respectful, reasonably comfortable — and realized that all of it was black or gray. Too somber. Not right either. I spent way too much time and energy thinking about it. Funny how you can know you’re displacing, and still keep displacing anyway.

That “nothing is right” feeling. That applies to more than packing clothes. It’s how I’ve been feeling all day. No matter what I’m doing, it doesn’t feel right. When I’m falling apart, I think about all the business I need to be taking care of; when I’m taking care of business, I wonder how I can be so cold-blooded — hours, even minutes, after I learned that my father has died, and here I am calmly emailing about work matters. When I’m sitting quietly, I’m restless and want to be moving; when I’m walking, I’m exhausted and want to sit down. It’s been this way for a few weeks, actually, ever since Rick called to tell me Dad was in home hospice care, ever since the depression hit. But it was worse today.

At least today, though, I feel like I have permission. When Dad was just sick, when he was dying but we didn’t know that for sure, I couldn’t just give in to it. I couldn’t just fall apart and feel horrible. If I’d fallen apart every day that Dad might be dying, I would have spent the last five years falling apart. Now that he’s dead, it finally feels legitimate to fucking fall apart already. And then to get started putting the pieces back together.

Ingrid is being so patient. Every shift in mood, she follows. When I need to take care of business and bury myself in my computer, she buries herself in hers. When I fall apart, she holds me. When I jabber, she listens. When I stare into nothing, she holds my hand. Nothing in the world like someone who’s known you better than anyone, for close to fifteen years.

Ungenerous thoughts of the day: Now I can start planning my life again, without feeling like I have an anvil hanging over my head. Now I can start scheduling talks, conferences, etc…. without having this constant “I might have to cancel at the last minute” caveat in the background. Now I can definitely punt the deadline on the new book, and nobody will blame me or get mad at me. Now Ingrid and I can definitely go on our anniversary getaway in January.

I keep feeling like I’ve forgotten how to breathe. I keep feeling like I’ve been holding my breath. I keep feeling like I’m not getting enough air, like I have to take a deep breath, like my breathing has been shallow, like I have a band around my chest.

I am loving atheism right now. Atheism has been hard lately, what with the flying hate monkeys of misogyny and all. But today on my blog, and on Atheism Plus, and in my email inbox, and on Facebook and Twitter, everyone has been wonderful. Supportive, kind, compassionate, loving, insightful, gentle. And nobody is telling me comforting lies. Nobody is telling me that reality isn’t real. It is such a relief to have a space — to have more than one space, to have space in my blog and in Atheism Plus and in Facebook and in Grief Beyond Belief, and for that matter in my own godless family — where I can tell the truth about how I’m feeling, and know that it’s safe. It is such a relief to know that I have spaces where I can tell harsh truths about death and people won’t be shocked, where nobody will gaslight me with bullshit dressed as rainbow sparkles. As painful as it is, I would rather have the ground feel solid under my feet.

I also deeply love that I am getting intense, sincere, deeply compassionate condolence comments from people named Squiddhartha, and Randomfactor, and Alethea H. “Crocoduck” Dundee, and mildlymagnificent, and fullyladenswallow, and Tony, Prom King of Sunnydale High, and Setár, genderqueer Elf-Sheriff of Atheism+, and Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant), and WMDKitty (Always growing and learning). Sometimes I love the Internet. I love the unique blend of goofy, wild, flatly ridiculous creativity with serious-as-a-heart-attack seriousness. Hundreds of years from now, people will be analyzing Internet culture of the early 21st century and trying to make heads or tails out of it. I love being part of it.

That’s enough for tonight. Flying home tomorrow. I need to try to pretend to get some sleep.

Grief Diary, 10/1/12