This is my first week’s homework assignment from Hospice Bereavement. I wrote a letter to ‘someone’ who hadn’t heard the story yet. Homework is not required, but I really want to do the work. I can say this has really helped.
Dear Ann, March 4, 2014
I wanted to give you an update of where I am these days. As you know already, my uncle Ken recently died. It has hit me harder than I expected because it carries the weight of my earlier experiences with loss. My uncle was sick and had been for years, but healthy enough to keep enjoying his life. He was an amazing man. I learned so much from him and I wished I had told him that. It wasn’t a total surprise that he was back in the hospital. However, I was not prepared to hear that he had died or for the deep feelings that his death has brought up. Years ago, after my father died, my uncle was a role model for me. Now, through my uncle’s death I am revisiting my father’s once again. It’s a gift and I am very grateful for this as it was a very complicated time for my family. I am also in a new place and my grief has shifted. I am progressing.
My father died in a car accident when I was 9 years old in 1977. He was driving home from work late one January night. He owned a restaurant in a nearby community. Another car swerved into his lane smashing into him and just like that, he was ripped from our lives. We had recently moved to Binghamton, New York. Family from NYC area and Philadelphia traveled to us, but they too were still grieving. Earlier that year my paternal grandfather had died. I didn’t really know him that well. Then a few months later my Mom’s brother, my Uncle Bill died in a motorcycle accident; that death was little closer to home. I didn’t go to either funeral. I guess that was common in my family. So when my father died, both sides of my family were beyond themselves with grief. To me, as a 9 year old, people were ‘disappearing’ rapidly. My Mom did her best to survive it. I know her parents stayed with us for a while. There was a discussion between my grandmother and Mother about me and it was decided that I should not go to the funeral. My grandmother felt it would scar me because of her early experiences. I believe the opposite is true. My entire school went to my father’s funeral and I didn’t. There are so many things that anger me about this and I believe this is the start of my lifelong issue/fascination with death, dying, and dead people. Maybe not, maybe it was just my path to travel. The night of the funeral I had spent with a friend and in the morning, my family was gone. I couldn’t believe that I was left behind. As a 9 year old I had this vague notion that I was on my own with this. Now years later, I see that I was abandoned emotionally during a time when I needed my family more than ever. I know that it came from a place of love and protection, but that doesn’t change the feeling any. My mom told me years later that she just didn’t know how to hang onto all 3 of us kids. I was the youngest and I was the one chosen to be left out, set adrift if you will. After losing my grandfather, my uncle and father, I also lost a lot of my mother. She was there physically, but emotionally preoccupied with her loss. I don’t blame her, she was hit hard. I have feelings around all of this, but I love her so much and feel for her pain too. We rarely spoke of my father. I think she was trying so hard to be strong for us that she forgot to show us how to be weak. Maybe it was me, maybe I just didn’t want to upset her or see her cry. Every once in a while she might mention him and to this day she still grieves that loss. Through all of this I learned how to ignore the pain, stuff it, and not let it show. I learned how to not talk about difficult emotions to protect the feelings of others. The last few years I have been unlearning this because I can see how destructive it is. Difficult emotions don’t go away. They bury themselves inside your bones, muscles and tendons and they wait. They wait for the chance to ‘speak up’. They hit you on an emotional level every time you experience a similar event. They are that gnawing in your stomach or the ache in your shoulders or quite possibly, the cancer in your throat. Those feelings need to come out. If there is no safe place for expression they’ll come out sideways and wreak havoc in your lives. I never really had that safe place or if I did, I didn’t recognize it. No one ever says “it’s OK to be vulnerable’. There is a misplaced emphasis on ‘being strong’. My marriage played out this theme perfectly. I think many of us have no safe place. I think many of us don’t know how to provide a safe place. Our society is wired for production and go, go, go and little respect is given to reflection. I’d like to see this change. I’d like to BE this change. I AM this change. I carried my pain for 30 plus years, medicated with drugs and alcohol so I wouldn’t feel it. Are you carrying pain? Most of us are. There is no shame in that.
I’ve had a lot of death in my life. Some pretty gruesome, most were accidental; almost all of them were sudden. Each time I stuffed the emotion. I’d cry sure, but never allowed the grief to fully own me. It wasn’t until I was divorced 8 years ago and entered grad school (Goddard College) that I finally found a safe place to feel my grief and express it through writing, art and performance. I didn’t plan it. It was like it had exploded out of me and it was too big to ignore. In fact, I really didn’t want it. I tried to distance myself, but it was too strong. I studied every aspect of grief, cultural, historical, and psychological using my own as a springboard for learning. I’ve done a lot of work through the years. I’ve done talk therapy, EMDR, dream analysis, mediation, trauma yoga, Reiki, massage, Art, poetry, journaling, performance, physical labor, exercise and it all helps, but the grief is still there. It will probably always be there. Now I’m actually trying to allow it. I am actually trying to feel it and give it the room that it needs. I figure that I can share my life with it in a more healthy way. I can see that it doesn’t just go away if I ignore it. People will continue die and I will always miss them terribly. I can keep my grief right next to my love for them, all mixed up. I can smile and cry at the same time because these people who have died are the most amazing people you have ever met and I love them all! And so I am going to my hospice bereavement group and I am going to cry my eyes out to express and to share the loss that I feel. I can’t do this at home all alone. I need to feel connected to real humans. It is my safe space. It is the place where they will not judge me for ‘still’ crying about this. It’s the place where I can learn how to not judge myself for crying. Just the very fact that I am telling you this story, speaking out loud about my pain and showing my tears to you, all of this is hard won. Many people can’t hear it because it brings up their own buried pain. I know it’s not comfortable, but I truly need you here to listen. And I thank you tremendously for being here for me. If I can release the pressure valve even a little it will help. Everyone grieves differently. Personally, I need people to see me, to listen, to witness my grief. There is no wrong way to do it. Thank you for allowing me to grieve in this complicated way without the judgments or the unkind or thoughtless remarks. The world can be a safe space for all of us, but it starts with us. Thank you for holding a space for me to do this work. Many blessings to you.
Doing this exercise was very powerful for me. Thank you, Hospice, for the work that you are doing. Uncle Ken, Thank you for this gift you have given me, the ability to sit with my pain so that I can sit with others. Mom, you know how much I love you, and you did exactly what you were supposed to. I am here to learn this lesson and I am ever grateful for all of it. I love you!
* I know many of you are grieving too. Maybe you’d want to try this exercise too. You don’t have to blog it or show it to anyone. You don’t have to go to a group. Sometimes the pain is just too overwhelming. I just hope you can give yourself the space to feel it, but only as much as you can handle. I’ll keep sharing my homework if you find it helps. Let me know. Much love!