Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How to have a healthy relationship with Grief

I moved into my new apartment over the weekend. It is such a relief to be in my own space again, and yet it is also very hard.

My first night at the new apartment was scarier than I expected. I had prepared myself for the possibility of strong emotional reactions to seeing our possessions unpacked for the first time since It happened, and also to the even stronger possibility of seeing some of Andy's items that were mistakenly packed with mine instead of donated (like his bath towels). Surprisingly, overall the unpacking wasn't so bad and it was helpful to have friends around for support.

Then I made dinner.

Cooking has always been enjoyable for me when I'm not feeling tired or lazy. Doing the dishes and cleaning up after the fact however, is one of my least favorite things to do. Andy and I had had a good system going- dishes were his duty, laundry was mine. We both disliked the other's chore, so it was no issue to tackle the entirety of our 'assigned' chores. This meant he did all the dishes, and I did both of our laundry. For the most part.

After making and eating my first dinner at the new apartment on Sunday, I walked back into the kitchen and was confronted with cleanup duty. As always, my initial reaction was disgust at doing a chore that I despise. Also like always, that reaction was immediately followed by a habitual relief that Andy would tackle the dishes. Then, a new, final reaction completed the trifecta: a horrific pain at realizing (again) that he was gone.

How odd, right? How odd that the catalyst to the beginning of what was going to be a long first night in my new place wasn't anything that I had prepared for. It didn't take seeing our possessions slowly shape and furnish my new apartment, or even seeing something as intimate as his bath towels reappear... All it took was the simple act of doing the dishes.

Up until now, Andy has been gone. I knew he was gone, but 'gone' was all he was. Now he's dead. At the end of the day, it's not some friend's guest room I'm returning to, it's my own. Mine. And Andy's not there. He's missing. This is really happening, isn't it? The permanence is seeping in. Reality is hitting. And I'm scared as all hell.

When Andy was 'gone,' I was aware of my emotions. I faced them, endured them, and went through long spells of despair in private that I found healing. Now that Andy's dead, I'm finding myself running as far away from my emotions as I can. As soon as the first hint of the pain of his loss appears, my mind goes into immediate survival mode: Think of something quickly, anything, anything but that. The pain is worse now than I imagined it would be, and it is too much to bear for longer than a moment.

My need for distraction is up 100%. Before bed, I put on Headspace, a meditation app that I use to think of breathing instead of the pain. During the day, I distract myself with decorating the apartment, work, TV, and friends. Now, the only time I allow myself to dwell on the pain is in therapy:

"I'm worried that this is a problem. That I'm going to have a breakdown months or years down the road because I'm unable to confront the pain anymore and I keep pushing it away."
"I don't think what you're doing is unhealthy at all," my therapist said, "It's okay to give yourself space when you need it. This is a new relationship you're having, a relationship with Grief. Like any new relationship, you'll need to give yourself some space to process your feelings, especially in the beginning. Some people dive all in too fast, but you're taking your time, and that's good."

In many ways, I wish this wasn't the case. I wish I could confront the pain like I did before, back when I understood it. Now I'm too scared to even face it, so I save it for therapy. I am told that down the line the pain will become easier to bear, but for now I'm going to keep running. My relationship with Grief is going to be a push-pull one, and for the time being I need my space.

A Second Chance

Last week I had a dream that it was December 20, 2015 and I was visiting with my family for the holidays in Florida, where they have all recently moved. Everything seemed fine until I realized I couldn't remember traveling there. Or when I had booked my tickets. Did I come to Florida for Thanksgiving too? What did I do on Halloween? As my mind retraced its steps until it could recall a memory, I went into the kitchen to tell my mom. Sadly, she didn't seem surprised.

"I don't remember getting here."
"I know." She looked upset.
"Was I here for Thanksgiving?"
"Why don't I remember?"
"You have been experiencing amnesia lately. But it's going to be okay. We'll get through it together."

In the dream, I knew that the amnesia was because something bad had happened, and it had to do with Andy. Not once did my mind ever fully form the thought that Andy was dead.

For anyone who has ever experienced amnesia, this is a terrifying feeling. It was as if the day before was August 2015, and yet suddenly here we were in December, approaching Christmas, with no memory of anything in between.

When I woke up from the dream, I was so relieved. I hadn't been able to recall anything from August-December because in reality they hadn't happened yet. 

Before the dream, I was planning on giving up on the rest of 2015 because it was easy to assume that the remaining months were going to come and go in a blur, as they had been all summer. Just last week, I passed an old sign that said "Carnival coming July 13th!" and I kid you not, my first thought was: "Oh, my birthday is coming!" My birthday is July 18th which was a month ago. It's not like I forgot my birthday (I went to TN to visit my best friend and we went skydiving-- hard to forget), but I was very aware that I was struggling to keep pace with Time. 

Waking up from the dream where I had had amnesia was like getting a second chance. I'm not supposed to accept that the rest of 2015 will continue in a blur. Just because Andy gave up on life, doesn't mean I should give up on living. Only one of us is getting a second chance, and I think he realizes it. I think he realizes there are still ways he can be there for me from Heaven, as he always was for me here on Earth. Maybe this is Andy's way of telling me not to give up. 

Bring on the dreams, Andy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How to Grieve Positively

One common side effect of being a SOS is experiencing the feeling of guilt. For me, it's not just the guilt of the “what ifs,” “could haves,” and “should haves,” but also of the grieving process itself. 

If I could put a value on what Andy meant to me and measure it in how I can grieve, he would be worth crying over every minute of every day for the rest of my life and then some. And yet, despite that being unreasonable and impossible, I feel guilty over the moments when I am not crying. When I feel good. How should or could I ever possibly feel anything other than despair when the man I loved, my other half, is gone forever?

As time insists on moving forward, I am slowly adjusting to his absence. It doesn’t make it hurt any less, but his loss is no longer brand new. In the beginning, everything that wasn’t exactly how I had been living up until June 25, 2015 was a rude reminder that my life had forever changed. While some days I still feel like I’m walking in a daze, at the end of the day, I return to my new “normal”- the life of a girl in grieving, who now sleeps alone, who surrounds herself with friends, and who works hard to stay distracted. As I gradually adjust, the distractions grow in length and number as the rawness starts to heal. 

Many of the distractions help me to feel good and ignore the pain for a few moments. Then a part of me screams out, “How dare you! Andy is dead! Isn’t he worth crying over?” Of course he is! God hears my pain, and I will show it so He and everyone knows how wonderful a man the world lost!

“So you’re trying to cry it out enough to show Andy that he was valued,” my therapist observed. “But why not try to honor him enough instead?” 
“Isn’t that what I’m doing?”
“Yes, but there are many ways to honor someone. Think about your positive memories and experiences with Andy. Focusing on the happy memories is a way to honor someone’s spirit too.”

This seemed obvious. 

“Ok, but I don’t like to think of him judging me. What if he’s looking down and doesn’t agree? What if despair is the better translation of how much I loved him and how much his loss has hurt me?”
“When one passes on, your soul retains all the best, positive parts of you. All the negativity is left behind. So how can he judge you for feeling good? Goodness is all that he has."

Andy, my positive memories of you are like little golden treasures and now they’ll be of greater use to me than I realized. While they hurt because all they can ever be are memories, they feel good because what we had was beautiful. Our time together was short, but I wouldn’t trade one moment of our years together for anything.

Lessons: Don't just let your loved one who has passed away see you cry; reflect joyfully on the positive memories and experiences you shared.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

3 D's

Tragedies can either destroy you, define you, or develop you. Aim for the latter.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How to deal with "Where is my loved one now?" as a SOS and a Christian

As a Christian, I had some immediate fears following Andy's death. However, the church has come a long way since her medieval days where suicide was considered unpardonable. Today, we have a greater understanding of the psychology of depression and the factors that might cause a victim to commit such an act.

I spoke with my parish priest not long after Andy passed. I was terrified. I wanted to make sure we did everything exactly right for him. He gave me much comfort.

1. Free Will vs. Disease
To start, we looked at the document Andy had left for us titled "Reasons". It was a long list, full of negative views of himself and on life, that attempted to explain his decision to die. I was told this alone was evidence that Andy did not have free will, one of the 3 conditions for mortal sin (this being #3- deliberate consent, following 1- A subject of grave matter, and 2- committed with full knowledge). Here's why:

I don't want to go into full details behind "Reasons", but I will say this: it was not Andy. This may have been physically written by him, but it was not written by the Andy we all knew and loved. At the time "Reasons" was written, it is clear that Andy was very, very sick. This is something that came from that sickness, not from Andy. Eventually the sickness became too much for him -just like any terminal illness- and his free will was gone.

Grief gets complicated when the loved one is both the victim and the cause of death. With Andy, I wanted to blame something out of our control like a drunk driver, stroke, or cancer, but I couldn't. At least not at first. Now I look at his death like the result of an illness or disease, and it becomes easier to understand. Suicide stems from depression. Though similar, a depressed person isn't necessarily suicidal, but a suicidal person often began depressed. Depression should be treated like any other illness, especially when it can lead to death (suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in the United States).

I don't believe Andy had free will in what he did. He was sick; "Reasons" is a perfect example that he was not himself, and therefore not able to consent. He hid it very well, and I wish he hadn't. I wish he had sought out help like we're supposed to do whenever we are ill. 

2. Psalm 139:
There is nowhere on Earth I can escape you,
Even the darkness is radiant in your sight.

God's has enduring love for us all, however we die.

3. This Franciscan's story:
(Taken from Harold Ivan Smith's "A Long Shadowed Grief: Suicide and its Aftermath") An unknown Franciscan monk first told a story of a man who, after suicide, found himself in God's presence. The man, overwhelmed by fear of God's wrath, heard God say, "It was tough down there, wasn't it? I know. My son had a tough time of it. Welcome home."

4. Compassion found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

And again:
"By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance."  Salutary repentance means even after death. God is always kinder and more loving than we can even imagine. "...equal to his majesty is the mercy that he shows." (Sirach 2:18) 

Lessons: Suicide is not the unpardonable sin that some have made it seem. We are children of an all-loving God who understands us better than we understand ourselves. God's mercy is wide, and includes those who have suffered and suicided.