Posts Tagged ‘grief’

The Tears

March 7, 2012

The tears just came when they decided to. I had little control over it. I’d never been able to make myself cry, but I’d been able to keep myself from crying. Now it seemed my psyche and emotions were calling the shots and I could either accept it or stay holed up in my home for however long it took before I could emerge back into society without the threat of tears overtaking me. I decided to accept it.

Besides, my feelings and behavior were surprising to me and I was curious about them. How would I feel next? What would I do before the day was out? I felt pulled along by some higher force that knew what was good for me better than I apparently did. Mostly, I was okay with that. But when I dissolved into tears in public, it was, admittedly, a little disconcerting.

In January of 2011, I sobbed in front of the entire Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) group as I thanked them for their support. Little more than a week later, when I held an open house to honor Howard’s life, I managed to make it through that event without tears. But in February, I mistakenly thought I could attend that month’s CIPA meeting without a repeat performance of tears. I hadn’t considered that there would be people at the February meeting who hadn’t been at the January meeting. When our eyes met, the tears began to form at the corners of my eyes.

At home, no day passed without tears for the first three months or more. I missed Howard, to be sure. But sometimes I suspected the tears were more about the loss of what had once been between us than the absence of him in the moment. It was tricky stuff. At times the tears felt like the necessary discharge of built up energy–a kind of relief valve. At other times, I felt they were little more than a form of feeling sorry for myself. Mostly, they didn’t last long, but I could never predict what would trigger them. Going through his things? Making dinner for me instead of the two of us? Canceling his credit cards? Maybe those things would trigger tears and maybe they wouldn’t.

I was finally ready to have a face-to-face meeting with the Social Security Administration by the middle of April. I was there primarily to file for the death benefit–all two hundred and fifty-five dollars of it–but I had also been told I needed to talk with them about widow’s benefits, something I had no clue I might qualify for. I was taken aback by the almost immediate combativeness of the young clerk. She behaved as if it was her job to protect the government’s money from fraudulent filers, and I might be one of them. She disliked the marriage certificate I presented, but ultimately accepted it. She drilled me not only about Howard, but also about my first husband. I’d arrived an innocent, but had the odd feeling of being a criminal because I was being treated like one.

I managed to hold it together until she referred to my dead husband as my “second ex.” I clarified. I’d divorced my first husband. He was my “ex.” My second husband had died. I was a widow. Haughtily, and with a shake of the head, the clerk said that to them (the SSA), they were both my “ex” husbands.

That was it. I started to cry. I looked her in the eye and said that I guessed she’d never lost a husband.

And she softened. From that instant, the formerly combative clerk was more advocate than opponent. She apologized. I apologized for crying. I said that while she could refer to my first husband–the one I’d divorced–any way she wanted, I expected a bit more respect for my dead husband. She apologized again. But I couldn’t stop crying, and it was more than a few tears sliding down my face. I was sobbing and I struggled, with limited success, to curb it. The clerk handled my business as quickly as she could, apologizing again for making me cry.

When I’d finished my business (and discovered that I would, indeed, be receiving a widow’s benefit), I made my way back to my car and stopped trying to keep the sobs in check. I just leaned over the steering wheel and let them have their way with me. Once I could actually see straight, I drove home.

By summer, the post-death fog had lifted and the tears were no longer a daily event. But when my youngest sister was diagnosed with cirrhosis in the liver she’d been given some years earlier to replace her failing one, the impact on me was cumulative. She went into a quick downward spiral, and I responded to more than her plight. My feelings about her plight were piled on top of the still-raw loss of my husband. Grief upon grief. Threat of loss upon loss. Social events I’d been looking forward to were now impossible and drifted by without my attendance. Some of the returning life in me had been sucked out with the news about my sister.

Still, I was working. I was seeing clients. I was managing.

Then, in July, I presented a recently expired “bird bucks” certificate for ten dollars off to the clerk at Wild Birds Unlimited. The certificate had arrived shortly after Howard’s death and had been forgotten until I found it buried in my billfold, days before my trip to the store. I didn’t want to lose the ten dollars. My hope was to have the certificate honored and I actually thought I could make my case without tears.

It would be fair to ask why in the world I thought I could do that. It would be fair to ask why I felt compelled to ask that the certificate be redeemed, even though it was expired.

My answer? I don’t really have one, but I suspect that there are clues in the words, themselves: lose, redeemed, expired. Maybe I just didn’t want to experience another loss. Maybe it seemed to me that enough had “expired.” Maybe my subconscious was looking for redemption. And maybe a cigar is just a cigar and a “bird bucks” certificate is nothing more than that. Life’s mysteries are not all profound and mystical. Sometimes they are mundane, the only profundity to be found in their abject silliness.

When tears threatened, the young man behind the counter went looking for help. The gray haired woman who emerged from the back room assured me that the certificate would be honored. Before long, she was offering words of solace that sounded right out of a grief training manual and I began to feel like a character in a Monty Python movie. I couldn’t laugh in that moment. Let’s face it, feelings of embarrassment bordering on mortification do not segue into belly laugher easily. That would have required a level of spiritual adeptness I most assuredly found lacking in myself in that moment. True, I wasn’t far down the road with my discounted birdseed before I saw the humor in it, but standing before the bird expert cum spiritual advisor, I just didn’t have access to it.

Tears and laughter do, I came to understand, often share the same psychic space . . . and I could hear my late husband laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation all the way home.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

The Organic Nature of Grief

February 5, 2012

When my husband died, I had many a conversation with friends and family members about the grieving process. The term “grieving process” was one most people seemed to understand, and I thought I had at least a sense of it, myself. I’d had a fair amount of time to get used to the idea that Howard was dying as he made his pilgrimage through cancer treatment. I expected to be heartbroken but also a bit relieved when he died and I expected to be my old self, whatever that was, fairly quickly after his death.

I was right about being both heartbroken and relieved when he died. I was wrong about being some version of my old self quickly after his death. I wasn’t even sure what my old self was when he died.

My “self” had been on its own pilgrimage for a dozen years or more. I’d transformed and transformed again. I was familiar with transformation and more comfortable with it than most of the people around me seemed to be. My friend Cindy Morris, a gifted astrologer, explained this by saying, “Well of course! You were born with Pluto in your eighth house.” My own take on it was that I’d experienced enough transformation to know there was little use in fighting it. Ride it as if riding a surfboard on a mammoth wave, that was my attitude.

But in February of 2010, I’d gone to Lake Titicaca in Peru to join with other shamans and many pilgrims in the reactivation of the Solar Disc. That experience had changed me profoundly. Many years earlier, during my shamanic apprenticeship, I experienced a change right down to the level of the DNA. That was profound. When I came back from Peru, though, I felt like someone who had reincarnated into the same body. I looked like the same person I’d been, but I wasn’t.

During the remainder of 2010, something in me opened further as I accompanied Howard on his slow march to death. After his death, when I could sort myself out from that part of his energy field still hovering about me, I realized that one of the blessings of having been with my husband as he was dying was that it further softened me, further opened me to what it meant to be human. One side effect of the transformation triggered in Peru was that I was better suited to accompany my husband on that march as it quickened its pace, and one side effect of having done so was that many of the barnacles and unidentifiable encrustations of life had been worn away. What was left of me was someone I actually wanted to know.

But that person I had become was grieving and it became very clear to me very quickly that grieving was not a process—at least not a process as most of us have come to think of the term. It was neither rational nor linear. It had an almost unidentifiable beginning, but a beginning sometime before Howard’s actual death. It could not be flow charted, Gantt charted, or PERT diagramed. There was no chain of events as predictable as Kubler-Ross suggested in her theory on dying and death.

No, grieving was far more organic than that. It seemed to flow according to the laws of nature, as opposed to following models structured by man. In everyday terms, that meant, among other things, that I could not predict what would take the wind right out of me, nor could I predict when that would happen.

I also couldn’t predict which days would be inexplicably sorrowful any more than I could predict which days would be filled with pure joy, just because I was alive. I couldn’t predict whether I would want to see others or be alone, nor could I predict who I might want to see. Much of the time, though, I did want to be alone. What I felt most of the time when I wanted to be alone was not unhappiness, but something more like curiosity about the very air around me and interest in my own internal landscape.

Grieving, it seemed, was filled with surprises—some of them pure astonishment and others numbly shocking. And it was as organic as fertile earth.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Widowhood 101

January 22, 2012

“Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll be fine.” The naïveté and hubris of those words are breathtaking. But, then, I’ve had some time to learn just how wrong I was about it.

I had lost both of my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, beloved animal companions. I thought I had some experience with death. In fact, I did have experience . . . I just didn’t have experience with losing a husband.

I made that pronouncement within days of Howard’s death. I used it as a shield against the pain I saw reflected in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances. Even when they said little or nothing, their eyes were a mirror of the grief I held and refused to admit to others. I’d already been through the hard part—the long process of his dying. If I’d handled that, I was certain I could handle what came next. As it happened, I was right . . . and also just a little wrong.

Within twenty-four hours or so of my husband’s death, I’d packed up most of his clothes and shoes (with my sister’s help) and handed them off to my friend Gretchen Minney for donation to the Birds of Prey thrift store. If anyone but family and close friends had known how quickly I divested myself of his clothing, they would have been stunned. But I’d had a long time to plan the chain of events following his death. Months later, I saw the wisdom of it. If I’d waited, I might have clung to more than the few things I kept. It was a good move.

I also wasted little time rearranging the house. It was a relief to have the hospital bed, oxygen concentrator, and other accoutrements of end-stage cancer out of the house. Just looking at them made me weary. I moved furniture around, too, and got rid of a few pieces. I needed to reclaim my home for the living, so I bought a comfortable reading chair for my bedroom, moved Howard’s leather wing chair from the living room, replacing it with something new and comfortable, and rescued my small secretary from sickroom status.

Within a month, I held the post-death party I’d promised to have at the house. It was something of a homecoming for Lakewood PD people with whom Howard had worked in the 1970s. Many others came, too, including some of my friends, colleagues, and clients. I was grateful for that. Still, it was something of a blur. I fortified myself with champagne to serve as hostess—rather than crumbling widow—and got through the day.

My friends and colleagues in Boulder Media Women sent cards, many with checks. It was more than a thoughtful gesture, it was a gesture that saved me from worrying about the cash I needed to live on for that first month following his death, a time when I was completely unable to even contemplate work.

For the first several months after Howard’s death, I moved through my days, attending to the administrative and mundane details that had to be managed. I filed the will. I got Howard’s name removed from the vehicle titles. I battled with the annuity company to distribute the funds coming to me in a way that would benefit me optimally over time.

I learned a thing or two in that battle with the annuity company. Those who have just lost a spouse are easy prey for questionable behavior on the parts of those who have something to lose by that death. If I had folded in my grief, it would have cost me a good deal of money—at least a good deal of money for a simple woman with limited funds. Howard had worked hard for that small bit of money he’d tucked away and I refused to allow it or his efforts to look after me with it to be disrespected by problematic practices on the part of the annuity company. Besides, I knew I would need those funds over the next few years.

They gave IRS citations I knew didn’t apply. They blithely argued that they simply couldn’t do what I asked. The agent who had sold the policy—one of Howard’s oldest friends, a man who considered him a mentor—had difficulty believing that if the company said they couldn’t do something, they could be wrong.

I called in my own version of the “big guns”—my longtime broker and financial advisor. I’d always been a minor client, but he rose up to offer support as if I were a major account. Ultimately, I didn’t have to press my broker into service. My tenacity got the case taken all the way up the chain of command to the highest levels of the company for a decision. They agreed to distribute the funds as I requested. I wondered how widows and widowers with less tenacity dealt with these things. I was sure I knew the answer: many didn’t—and got run over by big companies during the most vulnerable time of their lives.

But I didn’t expect the fog that hovered over me. Hadn’t I removed the cords that connected Howard and me during the death ceremony before he died? What was this miasma enveloping me? I was a shaman; I read energy. What in the world was I experiencing? It took a while to understand. Howard’s energy field and mine had overlapped more than I had ever guessed. He was gone, but remnants of that field remained and the part gone felt like a black hole. It felt a little like being blindfolded, spun around, and set loose in a room that was completely familiar but disorienting because it wasn’t being experienced in the usual way.

I couldn’t even bring myself to use the word “widow” yet, but I was beginning to understand what it meant.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall