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Filtering by Category: Grief

falling {11/14/13}

Kelley Clink

Three years ago, in October, my grandmother died. The following October I lost over 20 percent of my body weight, was unable to eat, and doctors were unsure what was wrong with me. The October after that I lost the only pregnancy I've ever had. And then, this October, I lost my best friend.

I don't want to be paranoid, but I'm sensing a pattern.

Fall used to be my favorite season. I loved the crisp air and clear skies, the sweet smell of decaying leaves. I loved pumpkins and apple cider. I loved Halloween. And this year, before my dog died, as the air began to cool and the leaves began to change, I found myself reaching backward, scouring my memory for that feeling. I let myself hope that a piece of my life could revert back to what it used to be. 

I really ought to know better.

No, that's too harsh. I don't think we ever stop hoping to recover what we've lost, whether it's a person, a place, or something as simple as our innocence. It's part of human nature. We seek pleasure and push away pain. We struggle against change. We try to keep solid ground under our feet. 

Unfortunately, we're not capable of building ground solid enough to withstand life. As Pema Chodron says, trying to control our experience "is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later we're going to have an experience we can't control." We are going to lose someone we love. We are going to get sick. We are going to die. And, not surprisingly, we aren't going to feel very good about any of it.

But guess what: we don't have to. "We always want to get rid of misery rather than see how it works together with joy," Pema says. "The point isn't to cultivate one thing as opposed to another, but to relate properly to where we are." It's okay to be sad. To grieve. To be frightened or angry or anxious. Joy would not exist without sadness. Love would not exist without death. Spring would not exist without fall.

I think I loved fall so much as a child because it was a little death. I knew spring and summer would come again, and so it was easy to be right where I was, to enjoy everything the season had to offer. As the deaths in my life have gotten bigger, as the metaphorical springs and summers have become unpredictable and unknown, I've learned that love changes, life changes, and I change, too. The ground beneath my feet will continue to shift. It's time to get comfortable with falling.

consider this my armband {10/16/13}

Kelley Clink

I've been struggling to flesh out the marketing section of my book proposal, and so my editor offered up the following question:  "When you were first grieving the loss of your brother, what do you wish you'd had?" 

It was a heavy question, one that left me brain dead for a minute or two. I'd mostly wished I had my brother back. But after I'd had some time to think about it, I remembered the Elizabeth McCracken quote I've mentioned here before, and I thought yes, what I'd really wanted was a banner over my head that let everyone know what had happened, so I wouldn't have to say it out loud: My Brother Hanged Himself.  

That isn't exactly a marketing campaign in the making. (Although would people buy t-shirts that advertised their secret pain? God, could you imagine if everyone put it out there, just for one day? We might actually achieve world peace.) But it got me thinking about the intensely solitary experience of grief, and how much mourning has changed in this country. In the 19th century widows wore black for two years. Men wore black armbands to signify grieving well into the 20th century. People were not expected to attend parties or social events. When did this change into a day or two of bereavement leave from work and the encouragement to try and make life as "normal" as possible?  

I learned a couple of things after my brother died. One of them was that my life was never going to be the same, and that trying to live as though it was felt like a sham. It seems to me like the restrictions on mourners of yesteryear took that into consideration. People dressed differently when they were grieving, they behaved differently, because they were different. Of course this overlooks the solace and needed break from grieving that a party or gathering can provide. And maybe some people do feel most comfortable trying to keep their routines unchanged.

But me, I would have worn the shit out of a black veil. 

These thoughts are, of course, at the forefront of my mind as I mourn my dog. Like a friend of mine said, a fresh loss can trigger feelings about an older one. What I'm remembering most about grieving my brother is how lost for words I was, how much I wished I had something else--like a full-length black dress--to do the talking.

What surprises me is that I feel the same way today.   

Losing your dog is not supposed to be like losing your brother--but for me it is. Loss is loss. Grief is grief. Love is love. I'm not sure I'm eccentric enough to bring back Victorian mourning (though the hipsters might do it for me), so this time I'll have to weave an aching ring of emptiness with words to wear on my metaphorical sleeve.

 

 

text break {8/18/13}

Kelley Clink

Suffering is what happens when we are lonely and forget that we participate in the world. People often complain about love, or at least about its consequences, but welcoming the consequences is part of the game of generosity. The earth gives a Yes without regard to what is given back, and being a human is also a gift, not a purchase. Even the No’s we get are gates to the generosity of the world.
                                        - John Tarrant, “The Erotic Life of Emptiness” 

I have some images saved up, but this weekend I felt like closing my eyes. I need to see with my heart. I need this week's No to transform into a gate. I am waiting, world, for your generosity. Please don't make me wait too long.


 

staying ahead of the pain {3/1/13}

Kelley Clink

I had hip surgery a couple of days ago, and before I left the hospital my doctors and nurses repeated one thing a dozen times: stay head of the pain.

What they meant was that I should take my medications before I felt like I needed them, but I couldn't help thinking what a rare situation I was in. It isn't often that you get a heads up when something is going to hurt, much less a cure that fits in the palm of your hand. It got me thinking about all the pain that we can't stay ahead of, the pain that smacks into us out of nowhere like a meteor, shattering our lives and blasting us with aftershock.  

When we lose someone, or fall into a deep depression, taking care of ourselves can feel impossible. But knowing that suffering is a part of life, and that some days (or weeks or months) will be harder than others, we can do some prep work. So while we may not always be ahead of the pain, we can have a plan for taking care of ourselves when it comes. Here are four suggestions for making it through difficult times:

1. Be gentle with yourself: surround yourself with things that make you feel calm, nurtured, comforted, and safe. Start paying attention now and keep a list, so that you have it ready when things get tough. My list includes: meditation; getting outside; petting my dog; reading Anne Lamott, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh; listening to music; dancing; wrapping myself up in heavy blankets; and lighting candles.

2. Reach out. Have a list of people you feel comfortable calling when life gets hard. It doesn't have to be a long list, just a few friends and/or family members who will listen when you cry without trying to fix it. People who will tell you that you are not alone. 

3. Be present. Making space for your pain will help you identify your emotions. This is hard to do, because when we are hurting we seek distraction. But ignoring or pushing down our pain means it leaks into other areas of our lives.  If we can be patient with our pain and give it space to breathe, we are likely to move through it more peacefully, with less collateral damage. 

4. Look for changes, no matter how small. Write them down if it helps. Grief, depression, anxiety--these things are not the same everyday, and taking stock of the changes will remind you that nothing is permanent. 


say it loud {2/22/13}

Kelley Clink

This week I had two conversations with two wise, wonderful women, and both of them found their way to the same topic: how conditioned we are to keep our pain private. Whether we are mourning a death, the end of a friendship or relationship, the loss of a jo, whether we are anxious or angry about upcoming life transitions, whether we are sad for a reason we can't articulate or see, we somehow believe that others don't want to hear about it. Probably because, at some point in our lives, someone actually didn't.

Now, I'm not trying to point fingers at parents or teachers or friends. I'm saying that there is some truth here: it's hard to listen to someone else's suffering. Not because it is a burden, or because we don't feel compassion, but because it makes us feel helpless. Most of us (I hope) don't want anyone to suffer. And most of us, when confronted with another's suffering, don't know what to say. There isn't a handbook for this (well, there are probably lots of books that could help, but they aren't exactly being distributed on street corners). 

So, where does this leave us? With the scary-ass prospect of not only having to tell people what we feel, but also what we need. And the even scarier-ass prospect of being mindful enough to figure out just what the hell it is we feel and need.

I know. Yikes.

For a long time I thought it would be so much easier if, like Elizabeth McCracken wrote, we could summarize our transformative pain and put it on a card:

When I was a teenager in Boston a man on the subway handed me a card printed with tiny pictures of hands spelling out the alphabet in sign language. I AM DEAF, said the card. You were supposed to give the man some money in exchange. 
I have thought of that card ever since, during difficult times, mine or someone else's: Surely when tragedy has struck you dumb, you should be given a stack of cards that explains it for you. My first child was stillborn. I want people to know but I don't want to say it aloud. People don't like to hear it but I think they might not mind reading it on a card. 

But the more I think about it, the more I believe in the importance of saying it out loud.

I know. YIKES.

Here's my theory: the less afraid we become to share our pain, the less afraid others are to hear about it. In fact, the more we share with others, the more others share with us. And when we give ourselves (and each other) permission to be wounded, vulnerable, human, we create space for compassion.

Not everyone is going to get it, and that's okay. As one of my lovely friends said this week, if I share my story with someone and they aren't comfortable with it, it's their problem. Your compassion can extend to these people, too. Perhaps your story is too close to something they have also experienced, something that they are not ready to share. Or perhaps they just feel helpless. Whatever the reason, I'm 99.9% sure it isn't because they don't care.

It's taken me nearly a decade to understand this. And I spent more than half that decade pretending I was fine because I thought it was what everyone wanted to hear. I thought it was what I was supposed to feel. But when I started telling people about my pain--out loud--my life changed. My grief changed. My heart changed. And I began to heal.



 


living with a broken heart {2/8/13}

Kelley Clink

Over the past few years I have learned this: there are different kinds of grief, and each kind of grief has its own rhythm. Grief for my brother came in steady, pounding waves, like a hurricane. Grief for my grandparents pulled like an undertow. And now, grief for my inability to have a successful pregnancy rises and falls like a tide.  

Today the tide is high. At a doctor's appointment this morning the waiting room was full of babies, and the water rose up through my chest until it began to spill over into tears.

A decade ago this would have been the end of my day. I would have gone home, locked myself in, and spent hours obsessing about my feelings. More accurately, I would have spent hours searching for a way to change my feelings. This panic would have layered over the original pain, leaving me paralyzed for days, weeks, even months. Today, instead, I am trying something different. I am trying to live with the pain.

The crappy news is that there is no step-by-step guide, no "top 10 ways" to push through your grief. Some days you can walk the dog, take out the trash, read a book, or make a meal. Some days all you can do is keep breathing. The important thing is to treat yourself gently and honor your pain. That pain is valid. That pain might even have a silver lining. It might encourage you to reach out to someone new, or hug your family and friends a little closer. 

That pain also might do nothing but suck. That's okay too. In this culture of incessant positivity, it's hard sometimes to remember that we don't have to make something good out of everything. Actually, we don't have to make anything out of anything. If we can be mindful of our experience for what it is, without judging or trying to change it, we are succeeding. WILDLY. 

Mindfulness isn't about feeling good. LIFE isn't about feeling good. By trying to convince ourselves that it's possible to feel good all the time, we are setting ourselves up for more suffering.  

Today living with a broken heart looks like this: I fold a little laundry, make baba ganoush, talk to a friend on the phone, cry in the car, go to the gym and walk on the treadmill. I hug my dog. I hug myself. I write a blog post, even though it is scary to admit to the world that I am hurting. But I do it anyway, because maybe someone else who is hurting will read and know that they are not alone, that they don't have to look on the bright side, and that whatever they are doing is enough. 

stemming despair {12/23/12}

Kelley Clink

This article, by Andrew Solomon, appeared in today's Sunday Review section of the New York Times. By the second paragraph, I was on board:

Adam Lanza committed an act of hatred, but it seems that the person he hated the most was himself. If we want to stem violence, we need to begin by stemming despair.

In the days after Newtown I too had thought about Adam Lanza as both the perpetrator and a victim of the tragedy. I thought about his family, the people who cared for him that were still living, and wondered how they would possibly deal with the way he'd ended his life. I thought about his brother. I wondered how I would feel if my brother had chosen to take the lives of others before taking his own. And, though I knew it would be an unpopular, maybe even unfathomable reaction, I felt compassion for Adam Lanza. I kept it a secret, because everyone around me was showing anger. Even the Buddhist service I attended to honor the victims did not list Lanza (or, for some reason, his mother) among the dead. The pictures of Lanza in the media made his actions even more bizarre. This young man looked more terrified than terrifying. What had happened to him, I wondered, to cause such violence? 

Solomon goes on to define the spectrum of perpetrators, the range of difficulty in predicting behavior, and, of course, the hindsight that prompts an outcry. The mad scramble to assign blame. Who failed? Was it the parents? The educators? The mental health professionals? Finding a fixable root for the cause allays the terrifying reality:

[P]eople are unknowable...We have to acknowledge that the human brain is capable of producing horror, and that knowing everything about the perpetrator, his family, his social experience and the world he inhabits does not answer the question “why” in any way that will resolve the problem. At best, these events help generate good policy.

So what is the answer, then? How do we stem despair? Solomon doesn't venture a suggestion. He falls back on the old, tired "better mental health screening for children." I'm not saying that we shouldn't be paying more, closer attention to our children. We should. But screening children won't solve anything. Treating children might. As might treating ourselves. 

As someone who entered the mental health system as a teen, I can tell you this: it was frightening, cold, impersonal, and filled me with shame. I only knew that there was something "wrong" with me. I believed I was broken. Psychiatrists did not educate me in medications or options. Therapists were a world apart from the psychiatrists, and they didn't offer any practical advice on how to deal with problems or feelings. I was treated as though I was a problem that needed to be solved. I felt like it was my job to get "well," and the longer it took, and the more I relapsed, the worse I felt about myself.

These days strides are being made with Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but I'm not sure how widely used they are, especially in regards to children. Here's the thing, though: they apply to everyone. Life is hard. We all need positive, productive tools to cope. What if they taught mindfulness in schools? What if they taught acceptance and impermanence? What if children, teens, and adults with depression or anxiety or bipolar or any other form of mental illness weren't singled out, pulled aside, and made to feel like they were missing something that other people had? We are all trying to learn to be kind, to be loving, to be gentle with ourselves and each other. Maybe some of us just need extra tutoring.

And maybe that's not a sufficient answer either. The truth is, I don't know how to stem despair in anyone but myself, and it took me 33 years to figure that out. But I do know that mental health is not an exact science. I know that children are in a constant state of change and development, and I worry that chasing after them with clipboards and diagnoses will do them more harm than good. Perhaps the best thing we can do for our children is to become a society of mentally healthy adults. Perhaps if they see us reacting to the world with more understanding, more curiosity, more compassion and less rage, their own fears and insecurities will feel less overwhelming.

We can change policy. We can change procedure. But first and foremost, we have to change ourselves.


at the end of the day {10/19/12}

Kelley Clink

Last night I turned out the lights one by one, until the world shrunk down to the puddle of reading lamp next to the bed--a circle too small to hold back the fears and desires I'd managed to ignore during the day. They spread like the dark, settled like the dark, and I was reminded of nights after my brother's death.

There were no easy moments in my grief. There were, however, easier moments. Those were most often the middle of the day, when thoughts about my brother could be buried by distractions: work, errands, exercise, television, books, chores. Evenings were a shaky sigh of relief, a weight dropped the moment before muscles quit. Mornings were harder: the fact of his death the first thought in my conscious mind; the realization that I'd have to do it all over again, figure out how to live another day without him.

But nights were the worst. All my day distractions stripped, the thoughts I'd been fleeing reared up in retribution. I'd lay down, close my eyes, and wonder about his last conscious moments. I'd press my hands to my throat, to see if I could feel what he felt. I'd catalogue all the ways I had failed him. I'd strain my ears in the quiet, sure I could hear death coming next for me.

Eventually, thankfully, the sleeping pills would kick in and wash my mind to a blank.

I can't remember when this changed. The first night that something else--an argument with my husband, work nerves, or even excitement--kept me awake. The first morning that, instead of Matt, I thought of breakfast or how much I had to pee. There wasn't a day when the grief magically disappeared.

There was, however, the day when I realized the grief was gone--and had been so for some time. I was sitting on a beach in the sun in northern California, alone, watching the Pacific crash against the earth. I was thinking about how my brother had never seen the Pacific. The thought didn't stab me, it was just there. Just a thought. I asked him to come and sit with me, to watch the waves and feel the sand and the sun and the expansiveness of sky, air, wind. 

On the drive back to the apartment where I was staying, I rolled down the windows of the car and let everything in. I felt so alive, so free, that my heart swelled enough to stretch its seams. It was a different kind of ache, but I knew that somehow it came from the same place.

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