Tuesday, October 15, 2019

How to take care of yourself from the inside out; 3 things

photo: unsplash

Author Megan Devine says that whenever she meets a bereaved person within the first two years of their loss, she considers their pain as fresh as if it just happened. 

Which felt so amazing to read because it's exactly how I feel. All around me the normal world seems to be hurling along but in my mother’s heart, I am only moments away from that shocking day. Researchers tell us that this is what traumatic loss does, it distorts ordinary Time. 

One moment I’m driving down a sunny, neighborhood street on my way to our office. And BAM. The next second I'm being flooded with loud, crushing emotions. And there's Patrick. Crystal-clear and smiling right in front of me, so close I can reach out and touch his dark, wavy hair. He’s so real. And then I hear his voice--deep and teasing -when he came through the front door yesterday calling, “Hey Mama, what’s up?” Only yesterday was really 13 months ago on the actual calendar and suddenly the past is happening right in front of me while I'm blinking in the white sunlight, and my confusion is blurring into shock while my entire future vanishes in one explosive second. 

If this sounds like some scene out of The Matrix when Neo gets yanked into some parallel world he never knew existed, well...that's how grieving feels. It's so f--king surreal.

Robert Stolorow, a psychoanalyst who himself woke up to find his young wife dead in their bed only four months after her cancer diagnosis, calls these moments that blur the past with the present--  "port-keys" a  term he borrowed from Harry Potter. 

And like Harry Potter, a grieving mother is never far away from her original traumatic loss. I was once standing in the men's department holding socks when I felt a wave of memories and feelings so powerful that I literally had to sit down inside a Target dressing room, I was so disoriented. 

Our Public Face

But here's my point. 

Whatever our emotional struggles are, we learn to carry our painful wounds through our busy lives because no matter how much we're hurting, we can't stop living. And this means that there's so much happening behind our public face that others just can't see.

This is why I can’t blame my neighbor for her insensitivity. Maybe that’s why that entire bizarre conversation happened, because I waved and smiled and looked perfectly fine on the outside, which is the whole point of putting on your public face.

It's helpful to know that there are some people who have no ability to see things unless it’s with their eyes. And since I didn't show my pain on my face, my neighbor didn't consider that my heart had been broken into a million jagged pieces only months ago and that anytime I think of Patrick I still feel a stab into my chest.

She didn’t know that my cardiologist told me there really is something called broken-hearted syndrome that can cause a heart attack and in rare cases, even death. “That’s why your doctor wanted these tests,” he had said on that Spring day when I cried in his office.

This is the paradox of being really good at masking your feelings. No one can be faulted for not ‘seeing’ your sadness or anger or whatever feelings you have tucked inside. 
And I realize this. 
That when you see me arranging white pumpkins around my front door or hear me laughing with the boy scouts in front of the grocery store, who are selling me coupons that I’ll never use, you would never suspect that it's been 13 agonizing months since we lost Patrick--- and I'm still trying to figure out how I'm ever going to survive.

how our public face helps and hurts us

I had just taken the garbage out and was walking to my front door when the sweet, soft-spoken woman pulled over on the side of the street to ask me how Patrick’s one-year "angel-versary" had gone. She knew that his friends had come into town and although she was being pleasant, I kept my reply simple, not wanting to dive into a heavy conversation on the edge of my lawn. 

Over the summer I had become aware of an inner tiredness that happens when I have to put on my public face too much. It takes enormous energy when you’re grieving and it’s important to recognize the triggers that deplete you. 

By late summer I began to notice myself pulling away from Instagram and blogging as a way of reserving my energy. Mostly because these first-time-without-Patrick birthdays, anniversaries and holidays have felt like I'm balancing in midair on a shaky wire, knowing a windstorm is coming.

Prior to losing Patrick, sharing was never an issue to me. I’ve always had nice, clear boundaries about knowing who and when to share my private life. But now the littlest things can take so much energy.

I think most of us have gut instincts about who we want to entrust with our most fragile feelings. 

I wanted to keep this conversation short. And it actually felt finished when the topic shifted and I was suddenly listening to a long, elaborate story about a woman I had never met. 

I won’t go into the details, but for you to understand my reaction I do need to mention that the entire story I was hearing had to do with another mother who also had two sons and who also lost her eldest son unexpectedly and suddenly, like me. The only difference was that her son had died as a result of “some rare complication from pneumonia.”

As you can imagine, I was feeling queasy about where this story was headed and I was confused about the bizarre detour our brief talk had taken.

I didn’t know this mother and it felt like gossip.

Yet there was no break in my neighbor's speech. She was so engrossed in her story-telling she couldn't pick-up on my discomfort.

And my friend. When she lost her son, she couldn’t even get out of bed. And we were all so worried about her! And then we heard she was taking pills because she couldn’t sleep and the next thing we heard she wasn’t getting up-at-all!! And then she was getting upset at her husband. Because her husband wasn’t… you know, expressing his grief like her, But he had to keep working. You know. He has a really stressful job. And they had another son who was a lot younger…

And the details kept coming about this poor devastated mother.

I know what you’re thinking.

 You’re wondering why I didn’t just end the conversation. But have you ever been listening politely and trying to find that ‘right’ moment to end a conversation that is going at full-blown speed?

As the words spilled out of her mouth, I caught myself thinking of my own struggle. Mornings are the hardest, especially in that blurry state between sleep and waking when I open my eyes, and instantly feel a fifty pound weight on my heart. Sometimes I’ll wake up because my chest is hurting so much and I know it’s time to meditate and regain control of my thoughts.

Jim tells me he sometimes hears me whisper in my sleep. “Oh my god. Oh my god...”  Or sometimes when I’m waking up, he hears me say, “Oh-my-heart, it hurts so much.” 

Occasionally, when I'm like this, I’ll feel Jim place his hand on my back and I know he’s trying to connect me with reality. Maybe he thinks I’m having a nightmare. But in those moments when I concentrate on his hand, it does help. At least it gives me a distraction to focus on. 

As I was standing on my driveway hearing about this other broken-hearted mother who needed medication for sleep and couldn’t get out of bed, I did wonder. Why is this neighbor—who I know as a sweet woman-- telling me this story?  

Not only that, but the longer I stood there the more this entire story was sounding like second-hand account from a second hand account. 

Seconds later, she delivered her crescendo ending:
“And then. One morning. She just never wakes up.”


And because my neighbor must have seen my face, she explains,
“Yep. Her youngest son went to go see her in her room and she was dead. Died of a broken heart!”

Honestly, I was flabbergasted. I think I even said, 
This is the end of your story?!

Taking care of yourself from the inside out:
 3 things

1. Don't run away your hard feelings

That evening, on the way to our monthly grief group I cried for a bit when I told Jim about this conversation.
Maybe I'll die too. I had blurted out. And when he tried to comfort me with kindness and logic I answered back. Why not me? After all, I feel that same excruciating pain in my heart. I have the same longing to be with my son. How do you know one morning you won't find me dead?

And there it was. Maybe the most gut-wrenching part of losing a child is the way it shatters your view of the world. Your cozy belief that everything will work out. That you can rely on the odds. Feel relief in your heart because of all those prayers you said on your Rosary.

When something so shockingly unimaginable happens, all those guardrails vanish. There is Nothing that can’t happen. 

That's why this conversation stayed with me for so long and evoked all kinds of uncomfortable feelings. Fears and sorrow for this stranger, a woman--whom I felt oddly connected to--and for my own pain that I needed to examine and allow myself to feel. It doesn't happen instantly, but making sense of your emotions delivers an ocean of relief.

2. Have others you can be Real with

Years ago when I worked inside a session room, a beautiful young woman who happened to be seriously bulimic burst into the room in tears. I had never seen her so agitated. She explained that one of her co-workers had complimented her, asking if she had lost weight recently. Although her looks were an important source of her self-worth, her personal life at that time was in utter chaos, with her binging and purging dominating her life. But no one at her office would’ve suspected this high functioning law student was by night, in crisis.  It turns out it was the timing of this single compliment –  when her shame was torturing her, that felt like a fatal jab in her smiley façade. A pivotal moment in her recovery.

Why does this session stand out in my memory after all these years?

The answer is simple. Even back then I realized I was watching my patient discover a basic truth that I had struggled with in my own life. 

Living out the best version of ourselves means living a life that  expresses our truest self. This means knowing ourselves deeply---including all our messy, uncomfortable feelings.

It was luck that I had my monthly grief group after that conversation with my neighbor and though I didn’t plan it, this topic was part of a larger discussion about the dumb things others say to grieving people. And yes, I felt touched by the outrage being expressed. And later I had a session with my therapist which also made me feel good. 

Having your feelings acknowledged by a supportive person feels like a deep sigh of letting go. You stop clenching that anger almost immediately.

And you realize that this is how to take care of your inner self, the part of you that’s the source of all your joy and wisdom. 
I hope you see that this post isn’t about criticizing anyone. My neighbor is like the nice person in your life who occasionally says something insensitive, even rude without realizing it.  
It’s going to happen, friends.

The key is how we take care of ourselves.

3.  Beware of the smiley façade

Honestly. I encourage you to drop your “mask” as much as possible. In my private life I aspire to have as little gap as possible between what I show the world and what I’m really feeling because at my age I finally get it.

No one can make you feel anything without your consent. 

Think about this. Because once you start living out this truth, you stop being so focused on what other people are thinking of you. Whether you feel embarrassed or inferior is really your choice. 
I don’t know... friends. But maybe experiencing the worst devastation of my life has helped me see this.

And I’m not saying it’s easy, believe me. When I hit the ‘publish’ button for this post I’ll feel that surge of queasiness. It's SO uncomfortable. I know there are people wondering how I can share so many intimate details about my grieving. And maybe I’ll be whispered about. 

But I try to focus on the One Person who might feel less alone because I’m sharing. 

And that makes it all bearable


Sharing this post with friends:


michele said...

Leslie, you are so lovely, and i honor these words from you. i honor your pain and how you are staying awake to it and making something beautiful with it. there are plenty of times i have gone to the canvas or piano or laptop without a plan - but with an openness to discover and a desire to allow beauty to flow. it's flowing from you, Leslie. i also honor that neighbor and the mystery of the exchange. plenty of folks believe they can appease the worry gods by worrying or can inoculate themselves from fear or tragedy by rehearsing horrific narratives. i have to wonder if at a subconscious level (oh dear lord, my shrink-y past surfaces) she wanted to inoculate you from your grief with a syringe of grief. to save you from perishing. by now you know i don't know anything at all though. except loveliness when i see it. like right here. xox

Brenda said...

No one knows!!!!

Brenda said...

P s
No one knows what it is like in that rowboat in the ocean with no oars-sometimes they don't even want to know

Sarah said...

Leslie, writing is one of your talents. I admire that you can focus your thoughts of all this and put it all into words. I admire you in so many ways. You've laid out your pain; your words are raw and truth. I'm not a professional, but I feel your writing and sharing is a healthy component of this horrific journey. Sharing your wisdom edged with pain will help so many. You are the dearest! Sending you a hug.

Unknown said...

I have never commented before...but was compelled to after your post. I am in awe of your ability to make this post such a teaching moment for all of us. Thank you for sharing your pain. I wish I could help.

sydney85 said...

I am so sorry for your loss and thank you for helping me.

Karen said...

Your journey has shed light on how grieving can manifest itself. I understand everyone is different but you've done such a wonderful job of explaining your feelings that it's been eye-opening and I feel like I have a better understanding of how loss can be, the trials and tribulations of life after losing someone so dear. It sounds like your family and friends are there for you and that must help some. Still, I'm happy you share some of what goes on with your readers. We all benefit is some way.

La Contessa said...

I read this last night on my phone.
AM I understanding that this is a Neighbor of yours who told YOU this story?Who knows what YOU have been through?
People Never STOP AMAZING ME!Perhaps in her mind she was HELPING YOU?!!!Or pointing out the difference between YOU and This she has NO idea from experience?
GEESH................happy YOU shared your thoughts and feelings and of course this will HELP MORE THAN ONE PERSON!

Linda @ Itsy Bits And Pieces said...

Oh Leslie. I can't begin to imagine what you were feeling during that awful conversation with your neighbor. I am so sorry it happened. This post was so raw and opened my eyes with the first statement from Megan Levine. It really does make you realize that the false face we walk around with to the world, isn't always helping us in the long run. I wish I could hug you, sweet friend. Please know I am sending love right now.

Carla from The River said...

Dear Leslie,
Thank you for sharing your heart. You have a gift of sharing honesty. I appreciate it so much.
Sending prayers and hugs,

gayle said...

You are amazing, so loving, talented and helpful. I just found you yesterday through Rough Luxe. I had no idea what I would read and how much your words help and will heal me. I will share your posts with my family who have lost a young boy to suicide and too many loved ones from cancer. Thank you.

Blondie's Journal said...

Sarah, Karen, and Gayle have worded my very thoughts, and I sometimes have a hard time expressing them to you, for you. Your posts are powerful and raw and take my mind and heart to places I don't know but fear in my gut. Yes, take me, not my child. I'll take a bullet for you, I'll throw my body down over yours no matter the circumstances...

You are living a parent's worst nightmare, yet you are sharing, in your own true voice, what the whole journey has been and what you fear and wholly anticipate in every day ahead. You have a strong message and I think we not only feel a true sense of your grief, we tuck it into our pocket, as we know one day it could be one of us.

Love you so much, Leslie...

Jane ❤️

Sandra Sallin said...

You take my breath away. Maybe one day your words will turn into a book to help light the way for others.

Loree said...

Sometimes, certain people do not know how to react and what to say to a grieving person. So they may blurt things out without thinking and to avoid awkward silences. I've learnt that sometimes a simple hug is so much more meaningful than a litany of words.

Jeannine said...

"To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who don’t understand, no explanation is sufficient." – unknown

I always come back to this quote. It is next to impossible for some people to know/understand that what they say to a grief stricken person at best falls flat and at worst is actually hurtful. I try to remember that people are doing the best they can with what they know. And if they haven't been through something like this they think they are helping when in actuality the best thing would be to say nothing and instead just do something: listen, give a hug, be there, send a card, give a small gift or meal.

After losing my son I have become much more fearless as my thinking is "I've been to hell so what are you going to do to me that is worse? There is nothing worse."

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