Etymology fascinates me. Where do words and phrases come from? I’m constantly intrigued.
Just the other day, I heard someone say, “Don’t give me grief.”
Grief and its verb, grieving, are states that I’m all too familiar with. It’s a natural part of life to be devastated by the loss of someone you love. It’s also something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
But to say that grief can be given, as if you can box it up and hand it to someone, like the world’s most ill-conceived birthday present, is a bit of a stretch. It’s also kind of insulting to the griever.
No, grief is too personal for that. It’s not something that is presented to you, fully formed, from some outside source. It’s what you feel. It comes from your very heart and soul.
No two people grieve alike. There’s no standard timeline (and anyone who tries to force you into one is clueless and rude). There’s no right way or wrong way to grieve.
Your grief is all yours. You most likely don’t want it. You can’t be blamed for wishing it would go away and leave you alone. But grief is the state in which all of us get to reside, at one time or another. In all probability, you enter that realm without warning, and have to blaze your own trail, in hopes of coming out the other side, much altered, but hopefully stronger for it.
Grief is caused by the loss of someone. It strikes me as wrong to say that it is given to you by someone. After all, it’s not as if you can say, “return to sender.”
Don’t give me grief about this. I know what I’m talking about.
Sooner or later, every train engineer will have someone step in front of his or her train as a way to permanently solve a temporary problem. That must be a heartbreaking experience. You want to stop, but you know you can’t. I suspect that all you can really do is close your eyes, swallow really hard, and get ready to fill out a boatload of paperwork.
No doubt this sometimes happens to bus drivers as well. And I’m sure ferry captains have their fair share of jumpers, just as we bridgetenders do. I can’t even imagine what first responders deal with on a daily basis. It’s a part of these jobs that no one wants to talk about. Helpless Stress.
It’s that feeling of being completely out of control. It’s that desire to save someone, and not being able to do so. It messes with your head. It’s the kind of vicarious trauma that people don’t quite understand until they’ve experienced it themselves.
The most frustrating thing about it is you know you’ve been through something big, but you’re not physically hurt. Nothing shows. Your wounds are on the inside, where no one can see them. So your friends and loved ones often expect you to “snap out of it.”
If you have experienced helpless stress, I urge you to take it seriously. Talk to a professional; someone with experience in crisis or grief counseling. Don’t try to simply power through. What happened is not your fault, but if you choose to not cope with it, that can compound the problem.
You’re not alone. Help is out there. Please seek it out.
It’s heartbreaking when a beloved dog dies. People who don’t have pets don’t understand, really. They become like your children. Only, if you lose a child, there’s a vast support network. When you lose a dog, people expect you to snap out of it. They nervously offer up something about the Rainbow Bridge, and then they feel like their job is done. They don’t want to dwell on it. That makes it really hard to grieve.
I’ve lost a lot of dogs in my lifetime. It absolutely destroys me, every single time. But I try to comfort myself with the fact that I always do all that I can to give my dogs safe, happy, love-filled, and comfortable lives. And they give me so much love in return. There’s no greater gift. “You are my person, so here is my heart.” It’s a rare human who is that generous.
The last time one of my dogs passed away, some fool said, “You can always replace him with another one.” I nearly lost it. My dog is not like a toothbrush. It’s not like just any old dog will do. “Honey, while you’re out, can you pick me up a carton of milk and a new dog?” None of my dogs could ever be replaced.
Having said that, though, you’ll probably be surprised at what I am going to say next. I sincerely believe that when you lose a dog, you really should get another dog as soon as possible. That’s what I have always done.
No, I don’t mean the dog you lost can be replaced. In fact, no two dogs are alike. I’ve had a unique relationship with every single pet I’ve owned.
The reason you should get another dog, and soon, is that you are needed. There are so many dogs out there who are desperate for love and nurturing. You have a lot of love to give.
I know many people who have been so heartbroken by the loss of a dog that they never get another. That devastates me when I think about it. Because there’s a dog out there somewhere that is supposed to be loved by you, and that dog isn’t getting that love. It’s so sad.
I know the pain of loss is horrific. I know that you don’t want to go through that again. But do you also want to never experience that kind of love again? How can you pass that up? There’s a dog out there, just waiting for you. And when you go get him, he’ll say, “What took you so long?”
In A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, Scrooge utters a line that I’ll never forget: “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” As detestable as Scrooge may be at first, that sentiment has always made sense to me. Christmas should never be forced upon anyone.
Part of the reason that I see a spike in jumpers at my drawbridge at this time of year is that when you’re depressed, being told that you’re supposed to be merry simply because it’s that time of the year is, well… depressing. It’s almost as if you have to bear an additional burden of guilt during this season, because you’re not feeling all Joy to the World.
And people seem to forget that there are as many ways to celebrate the holiday as there are celebrants. Some people are extremely devout and focus on that aspect of the holiday. Others are secular and celebrate mainly due to family tradition. Some people go all out, filing their yards with a million lights, synchronized to music, and buying gifts for even the most distant of relatives. Others are very quiet and discrete in their observance of the day. Some don’t celebrate Christmas at all. Everyone has a right to keep Christmas (or not keep it, for that matter) in their own way.
I must confess that for a few years, there, I wasn’t really keeping Christmas at all. When Chuck, the love of my life, died in 2014, I just couldn’t find it within me to even acknowledge the day, really. I didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t exchange gifts or go to any holiday events. In fact, I basically did my best each year to keep my head down and pretend the holiday didn’t exist.
Since I’m not a Christian, my Christmas focus has always been about love and family and warmth and togetherness. And suddenly I found myself all alone. I really didn’t see the point in even trying to go through the motions, when that tsunami of grief was liable to wash over me at even the most unexpected of times. I wandered through an emotional wasteland, where all the mistletoe had long-since withered.
This year, though, I’m starting to slowly lift my head and come out amongst the living again. I’ve attended a lot of holiday events both alone and with friends. And while I still can’t justify the expense and effort of putting up a tree and decorating it when I’d surely be the only one to see it, I did decide to decorate in my own special way. The first step was taking my Christmas box out of mothballs.
I pulled out my Christmas lights, and affixed them to my bedroom wall in the shape of a (decidedly abstract) tree. (Those Command removable hooks are one of life’s great inventions.) I replaced those lights that had burned out, and that process made me reflect on the passage of time.
Decorating was a bittersweet experience. I realized that on some level I had really missed my Christmas ornaments. They’re almost like family members that I had been neglecting. Each one has a story. There was the Nisse that my grandmother brought from Denmark. There were the many ornaments my mother made for me, and some that I made as a child. Many are keepsakes that I got during various vacations, which brought back happy memories. Some were gifts from friends. I chose a few of my favorite ornaments to hang on my abstract wall tree, and I must say, they made me smile.
And then, like a blade through my heart, I came across this ornament that I had made for Chuck. I had forgotten all about it. I held it in my hand and tried not to cry. But I decided to hang it anyway, because he will always be a part of me.
Another hard moment: Deeper in my Christmas box I came across the stocking that I had cross stitched for Chuck. I can’t remember if I ever had the opportunity to fill it for him. We only had 4 years together, and I don’t know when I made it. But I decided to hang it on my mantel so that the stocking I made for myself wouldn’t look quite so lonely. (I haven’t had a mantel since 2010, so it seemed worth decorating. Nice to use it for something more than a place to show off my book, which incidentally, makes a great gift. Just sayin’.)
After I finished decorating, I looked around, and felt rather proud of myself. Yes, I’m still alone. Yes there were tears in this process. There will probably always be tears. But I’m home. It feels like home.
To celebrate, I participated in one more tried-and-true holiday tradition: The annual humiliation of the uncooperative dog.
Recently I got an e-mail from Facebook. “Today is Chuck’s birthday! Let him know you’re thinking about him!” A better question would be, when am I not thinking about him? Since his death my life hasn’t been the same.
Were it not for Facebook I might have made it through that day without the occasional heart squeeze of memory. It might have been business as usual. I might not have been sitting here in a blue funk.
This is not the first hand grenade Facebook has dropped into my life. It does this “memories” thing, which I’ve turned off in my settings on multiple occasions, but it always seems to pop back on. Memories of Chuck. Memories of beloved dogs that have since passed away. Memories of my cock-eyed optimism that never quite panned out. It sucks.
I don’t suppose it’s Facebook’s fault that I lay my life out on their site for the world to see. They don’t know which memories are happy and which ones I’d like to forget, or at the very least, remember at a time of my choosing. Their algorithms don’t allow for the fact that context changes. People change. Memories change.
And then to make matters worse, I went and visited Chuck’s still active Facebook page. (I just can’t quit him.) He was so loved. And I saw a picture of him that I’d never seen before. That cut right to the heart of me. There he was, sitting, being his unwittingly sexy self. I wonder what he was talking about? He was smoking a cigar. I hated when he did that. But if I could have him back, he could smoke one every single day, for all I’d care.
So far, the joy I get from connecting with friends and family on Facebook far outweighs the occasional shiv to my ribs that it delivers. I guess it’s not Facebook plunging the knife in, really. It’s life. It’s just life.
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Once, I was crossing a very long bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. Actually, I should say that I was trying to cross it. Traffic was backed up for miles. Ah well. At least I had a wonderful view.
And then I heard the sirens. An ambulance was attempting to get by. My heart went into my throat. I didn’t think this would end well for its occupant.
But an amazing thing happened. Every single car, and there were hundreds, all pulled over to both sides of the road as if they were acting as one. You would have sworn we had been working with a choreographer for months. It looked like the parting of the Red Sea or something. It was beautiful.
The ambulance blasted past on the center line without even having to hit the brakes. I was kind of proud of all of us that day. It’s probably why the memory has stayed with me.
In a society that is more and more polarized, it’s a rare thing when everyone comes together and cooperates without hesitation. We can’t even seem to agree on what constitutes a crisis these days. (In case you hadn’t noticed, global warming is an actual thing.)
It is interesting, though, to see how we come together in cases of emergency. Even neighbors who don’t particularly like each other will be there when the flood waters start to rise or the wind starts to blow. An earthquake is a great equalizer, destroying mansions and shanties alike. And during candlelight vigils we are united in our grief.
We need to figure out a way to show this same spirit of cooperation during times of feast as well as famine. Actually, we need to find a way to do it even during moments of routine. We don’t always have to agree, and I’m sure we never will, but when all is said and done, we’re all in this together.
I’ve written a lot of posts about my late boyfriend, Chuck, about how much I miss him, about coping with my grief, about how I think about him all the time, and also about how complicated our relationship was, due to his Traumatic Brain Injury. Well, the other day, I was contacted by one of his former schoolmates, who said, “I have read your articles about Chuck. I also read his posts about living in his pick-up truck in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Which is true?”
I immediately responded, “Both. With his brain injury he’d lose his temper, storm out of the house and stay in his truck for a few days. Then come back. His brain injury had a kind of Jekyll and Hyde effect on him.”
It’s true. He knew when he wasn’t acting right in the head, and he wanted to protect me from that. He was never physically abusive toward me, not once. But he certainly could shout. So his solution was to leave. Quite often while he was gone, we’d be texting back and forth.
He once told me that I was the only person he could rely on to tell him when he wasn’t acting rational. It wasn’t the easiest relationship in the world to have, but when it was good, it was phenomenal. Chuck was the most generous, decent, intelligent, passionate and funny man I have ever known in my life. I therefore have no regrets.
But here’s what’s interesting. When his friend asked me that question, I didn’t hesitate to respond. Basically, I was being asked to justify my grief and prove I wasn’t lying. My first response should have been to be offended. I could have simply said eff you and been done with it. That would have been a reasonable reaction to have. But that didn’t even cross my mind. And I find that kind of sad. I’m glad I didn’t do it, but I think it should have crossed my mind, at the very least. What does that say about me?
The fact is, I’ve been expected to justify my grief for Chuck from the very start. After 4 years together, some of his family members still view me as less legitimate than his ex-wife. Those who had the pleasure of only seeing his good side are uncomfortable hearing about the bad. Those who witnessed the bad cannot understand why I grieve for him at all.
Our relationship wasn’t cut and dried. It was complicated. But it was still priceless to me. No one should have to justify their grief. You don’t have to agree with it. It does not require your seal of approval. In fact, I think under the circumstances you might want to cut me a tiny bit of slack.
But as it turns out, I was glad I responded to his friend. I genuinely think she meant well. It turns out that she had been nursing a lot of guilt, because she lived near that Wal-Mart parking lot, and was unable to help him. So I learned how much she cared. I learned that I wasn’t the only one who worried about him. And she learned that Chuck was never completely alone. So we both, I think, got some comfort from the conversation. It all turned out for the best.
Life certainly can be complex. But what I took away from this experience is that it’s better to talk things out than to go on the defensive. You might learn something.