The Expiration Date for Grief

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A major question that has been swirling in my head for the past year has been: when will I stop feeling this way?

“This” being the ticking time bomb of loneliness, sadness, rejection, worthlessness, hopelessness, self-loathing, sometimes dotted with sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and loss of interest in the things once enjoyed.

Who knew the loss of a loved one could trigger your own self-hate.

I am now a person I did not plan to be. A widow. A single mother of three very young children. I’ve lost my best friend, my significant other, my colleague, my co-parent, and my most loyal ally in life.

There have been many moments when I’ve felt like something I did triggered this karmic wrath of the universe. I must be the scum of the earth.

And then I remind myself that it’s all random. There is no meaning behind it. It just is. I don’t like it, but at least it makes it all a little easier to swallow.

Perhaps the best word to describe to the layperson about how I feel is: rawness.

I’ve been skinned alive. My flesh is exposed and my body is throbbing in pain. You can’t see it. I’m raw inside. The pain is a constant reminder of my change in circumstances, and I assume an unpropitious future.

What I really want to know is when will all of this rawness heal and become calloused skin. Or maybe I won’t heal. Maybe I will be permanently damaged, a societal castaway.

Psychologists do not diagnose “this” as depression if the root cause is grief. Apparently “this” is a temporary psychological disturbance in which time, to be determined based on the person, will heal.

I want to know what they mean by “heal.” Right now I can’t envision any such thing. You can’t throw a porcelain bowl on the ground, watch in break into hundreds of tiny pieces, and then expect the shards to come back together and form another perfect, seamless bowl.

Apparently I’m supposed to wait and see how it goes. I’m not very good at waiting. I always place the burden back on my shoulders. There must be something I can do. Or something I’m not doing enough of.

I’ve mulled over whether I should accept letting time do the healing or if I should try to speed it up. Of course I want to speed it up. It’s definitely in the plans to speed it up. I’m the type of person who thinks she can logic her way out of anything. I absorb as much as I can on the topic: death, suffering, meaning, happiness, purpose. Anything I can read. I want to know and feel all of it.

And that’s just it. This rawness has turned me into a hyper-feely person. It’s like I have exposed nerves. I once was a pretty emotionally neutral person, and now I’ve become a woman who sobs during the last chapter of a book on death as I eat my cake (earlier this week!). I don’t recognize myself. It both pisses me off and amuses me.

Somehow I think I can unbury who I was, or someone close to who I was, from out of the rubble caused by my life’s greatest tragedy. I can dig myself out. I know I can. But sometimes I’m skeptical.

Recently I emerged from dark cloud cover that had me trapped in 3 weeks of new lows. Up and down. Up and down. Down, down, down. I found myself Googling “what’s the difference between grief and depression?” According to the sources I researched, the main difference is a person with grief’s ability to bounce back. This isn’t an option if you were diagnosed with depression. I’ve teetered on that fine line between the two more times than I’ve felt comfortable with and I don’t like it.

There are only three major things that have keep me going in my darkest, ugliest days, when I felt like there was no reason to continue under the crushing force of life.

My kids. There is nobody who will be able (no matter how good-intentioned) to give them the life I planned and envisioned for them. I have to provide them with the stability they need to become the humans they deserve. My bossiness has finally served a functional, life-saving purpose in my life. I can not give up on my life because I have to be the one in charge of my kids!

Second, my traveling. I still have places I want to see. Basically the entire world. So I’ll be busy for, like, the next hundred years.

And finally, I have writing projects that need to be finished, and many more that haven’t even been brainstormed yet. I plan to live until at least into my 90s, being as prolific as I can possibly be. T.S. Eliot once said “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.” I have a lot of blood to spill.

Because I’m the type of person who likes to have a handle on my brain, I have arbitrarily decided that one year is a good amount of time to mope around, and now as year 2 approaches, I need to have a more serious exit plan to move past my grief.

So I wrote out a plan. An actual plan, in true bossy style. This is where I think I can logic my way out of things. I will somehow convince myself to accept and love my new life. Maybe if I say it enough times, I’ll actually believe it.

I started with a mission statement:

Year 2 Goals:

– To progress in my battle with grief.
– To actively live a happy, fulfilling life, centered around my primary interests and objectives, which include: 1) family , 2) writing , 3) reading, 4) supporting my kids’ passions, 5) expanding social circles, 6) traveling, 7) self-care, and 8) health.
-To give myself reasons to feel excited, challenged, and hopeful as I make a concerted effort to live a happy and fulfilling life.
-To be authentic in my journey.

I included a checklist of specific goals I want to achieve in each category of my primary interests, including finishing a novel that I have started, reading at least 2 books a month, going on 3 dates a year with each kid, hiking at least once a month, taking the children regularly to dharma school, having friends over for dinner, going on trips (including one by myself to D.C. to see Ruth Bader Ginsburg while I still have a chance), improve my garden, repaint all the walls in my house, hire a nutritionist, and reduce sugar intake.There are a lot more, which I will now logically place into my Google calendar so I can ensure that my goals are met in this process of convincing myself that I am definitely moving forward and enjoying this new life.

The reality, however, is that I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know how long it will take me to return to my baseline. I don’t even know what my baseline is anymore. I still have many unanswered questions swirling around in my head:

Will my kids be okay?

Am I making the right choices?

Will I be alone forever?

Will I be truly happy again? Or am I doomed to an unhappy life?

Will all of this misery ultimately lead to something bigger and better?

When will Peter (the 2 year old) stop driving me crazy?

The honest answer to all of these questions: I don’t know. People feel the need (either for their own peace of mind, or they think they are being helpful) to reassure me that everything will be fine. The truth is, they don’t know either. Nobody knows what will happen.

The best thing I can do is to keep plotting my way out of this with sensible interpretations and sensible and deliberate actions that I still have control over. Basically, all I can do is give it my best shot, and hope that it will be enough.
But for now, today is all about hosting a unicorn and rainbow birthday party for my new four-year old who thinks life is magical. That’s a good reason to keep going.

6 comments

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  1. Marta

    So true. I am so sorry you are going through this but in a sense happy that you are allowing yourself to feel the pain and grieve; this is a process and it seems you have a good idea on what to do in the mean time. Planning ahead and having something to live and work hard for will help tremendously. Thanks for sharing

  2. Diane

    Teresa,
    I lost my husband of 23 years in November from an 8 month grueling battle of esophageal cancer. He was healthy. Never smoked, didn’t drink and exercised regularly. I have two young boys 8 and 10. 7 and 9 at the time of his death. I read your blog frequently. I find it very helpful in maneuvering through the waves of grief that I’m experiencing. Your words are so poignant and spot on. I feel most of the feelings you write about. I want to say thank you from one only parent to another.
    Diane

  3. Karl

    I can’t relate to this blog at all so it seems pointless to try and contribute, but our own egos make us suffer, the ego desperately wants to know the future, but it’s impossible to know, because there is only the present moment, but it still desperately wants to know, which causes us great unease, it’s good to make plans but according to a book on Zen I recently read, the trick is to just ‘not care what happens’, not in an apathetic way, just in a more ‘whatever happens happens and I’ll deal with it’. Like most things, easier said than done. I’ve never really thought much about comparing ourselves to a shattered pot of some kind, we are highly complex organic creatures and our brains are just an infinite myriad of neurons, which fire/don’t fire, make/break connections every second.

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