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Filtering by Tag: 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.

 

 

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. 

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.

what to say {9/26/12}

Kelley Clink

Yet another friend of mine has lost someone to suicide.

First off, let me say for the record that I hate this. In addition to that: I am genuinely surprised when it happens, as if the fact that I don't want anyone to ever have to go through that kind of grief is enough to have eradicated suicide from the planet. Clearly it isn't. The latest statistics (from 2009) show that the suicide rate is at an all time high.

This breaks my heart. Every time someone I know becomes a survivor of suicide, I want to scream NO! and push them back over to the other side of the line. You know that line--the one that cuts across your life like a canyon, dividing it into Before and After. But I can't. The most I can do is apologize, offer an ear and a shoulder, and wander around in a state of shock for a few days.

I still have a hard time believing how bad I am when it comes to dealing with loss. I want to be that person who knows exactly what to say to make someone feel supported and comforted. I want to be that person who knows that they are supposed to drop off a casserole or clean a bathroom, send a card once a month or take someone out to the movies. Instead I open and close my mouth a lot, like a fish, and say things like "I wish I knew what to say."

Here's the thing: when I hear that a person I care about has lost someone to suicide, I try to remember what it was like in those first days. I try to think specifically about the things people said or did that were helpful. And that's how I end up with a fish face. I don't remember anything anyone said or did. I was so blown apart, so broke down, that nothing touched me. I remember wishing many months later that there had been more cards, more care, more people asking me how I was doing (how I was really doing).

But the truth is, there are no magic words. The closest I can find, the ones I say the most and the ones I really want to believe, are: "you are not alone." And then there are the ones I save for later, which I know unequivocally to be true: "it gets better. So so so much better."

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