“Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It is the way it is. The way we cope with it makes the difference.” ~Virginia Satir
It has been almost four months since Mark’s fatal stroke, and I am still grieving. Which is a surprise to me. I thought if I applied the right amount of research, yoga therapy training and blinked three times I would be over this. But grief is not easily eradicated.
And it shows up in unexpected places.
For example, there are times of the day where I can’t stop looking at my phone. An article in Real Simple magazine titled “Unplug and Recharge” suggests taking note of your feelings when you are grasping for your phone - and when I did - I realized I was picking up my phone when I was missing Mark. He used to text and call me all day - so much that it could be overwhelming. But now I miss that – and him.
As a result, I have started to put the phone away in a drawer so I cannot see it – just like my teenage son’s chocolate cookies. Weaning myself from this phone habit is difficult – but seems a necessary part of the grief and acceptance process.
Missing Mark’s good morning texts had been the hardest part of my day until I established a new habit – making daily quote memes. This started sporadically when Mark was in the hospital – but became a routine after his death. The memes reflect how I am feeling, what I am reading/learning and recent pictures. I tag them on Facebook and Instagram with hashtags like #griefrecovery or #writingheals and my social media handle @downdogdiva. Creating them gives me something to focus on each morning – which makes starting the day without Mark a bit easier.
Also I have been writing in my journal daily (as suggested in Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way”), which has helped inspire my blogs and articles.
The healing benefits of creative pursuits have been well documented. Stuckey and Nobel note in their paper entitled, “The Connection between Art, Healing and Public Health” that:
“Expressive writing can improve control over pain, depressed mood, and pain severity… Our voices are embodiments of ourselves, whether written or spoken. It is in times of extremity that we long to find words or hear another human voice letting us know we are not alone.”
The paper notes similar benefits from music and art therapy, which explains my re-emerging interest in the piano and crafting.
Pema Chodron’s “The Places that Scare You” (what an appropriate title) has also been helpful. Chodron encourages us to explore the things we fear and to see every experience as part of life. She writes:
“Whenever someone asked a certain Zen master how he was, he would always answer, ‘I’m okay.’ Finally one of his students said, ‘Roshi, how can you always be okay? Don’t you ever have a bad day?’ The Zen master answered, ‘Sure I do. On bad days, I’m okay. On good days, I’m also okay.’”
Chodron calls this phenomena equanimity -- defined as catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping (for cell phones, for example) or negativity. Whatever arises, no matter how bad it feels, can be used to extend our kinship to others who suffer the same feeling. She suggests we all strive to achieve equanimity – although the journey is long. She writes:
“Training in equanimity requires that we leave behind some baggage: the comfort of rejecting whole parts of our experience, for example, and the security of welcoming only what is pleasant. The courage to continue with this unfolding process comes from self-compassion and from giving ourselves plenty of time. If we continue to practice this way over the months and years, we will feel our hearts and minds grow bigger. When people ask me how long this will take, I say, ‘At least until you die.’”
Which may be why the Buddhists call themselves warriors.
The scary yogi emerges
It is comforting to know that finding equanimity is hard. Especially since somewhere along this grieving path my temper has re-emerged. It had previously been buried under sadness and meditation miasma. But now it’s back. And flaring at the stupidest things, like unfolded clothes and dogs pooping in the house because of weeks of rain.
Or the largely unused 7-passenger vehicle I leased to accommodate Mark’s three kids and my two. When I recently received an offer in the mail to trade it in, I fell into a raging sobbing heap. Here I was with this huge SUV for a family life that died with Mark.
Yet I couldn’t let it go. Just like the clothes that still smelled of him or the sushi pillow he gave me to commemorate his “win” at getting me to like sushi. That sushi pillow is hideous – yet it’s not going anywhere.
At a recent session my therapist listened quietly to my angry rants and resulting self-hate. When I finally took a breath she said, “Donna, of course you are angry. Look at what you have been through.”
I love those two words – of course. It is so hard for me to ask for things. Or allow vulnerable feelings. So when friends or my therapist give me the solace of those two words – of course – the inclusivity and empathy inferred softens and saves me. Those feelings help me refrain from welcoming only what is pleasant, and summon the courage to wade into situations that are painful and sad.
The funeral tour continues
Which is helpful as the funeral tour continues. Mark’s death has come with visits by friends far and nearer. Which is wonderful. But I don’t want to relive how Mark died anymore.
So I have taken to bringing friends along as a buffer. To prevent the discussion from sliding into all things death. The time for those conversations was the days surrounding the funeral. Reliving them now undoes the difficult healing already completed.
The grief herd
The impatience and rage I have been experiencing make it hard for me to continue sitting in a grief group of strangers. I can’t seem to make myself listen to their stories – it is just too difficult. I continue to work through my grief by seeing a therapist, but I am now alone in the grief experience.
When my daughter got home from college I picked up Mark’s kids and we all went to lunch at one of the restaurants he liked. It was a pub where kids eat free on Tuesdays – an important selling point for someone supporting three kids on a teacher’s salary.
After the initial awkwardness of being together without Mark – we all got on like nothing had happened. The kids had missed each other and there was an ease about their interaction – maybe because we were the only ones who knew how each other felt. And importantly, no one talked about what had occurred. Turns out I don’t need a grief group of strangers – I have my own grief herd.
And as my daughter wisely reminded me as we drove home – my large SUV is still needed to transport the remaining six members of our family.
The engagement ring Mark gave me (see picture below) was a bit unconventional – but I agreed to it because it was so important to him. It was a mother’s ring with a stone for each of our five children. He saw that ring as a symbol of the family we were creating.
It now symbolizes the connection our love created. The ring still binds us together - even though the person we had in common is gone.
“I Like Me Better When I’m With You”
Like the grief feelings that seem to always be present, certain music is resonating in my mind like a low hum. Many times, I gravitate toward a song without even noticing the words.
For example, I was listening to Sting’s “They Dance Alone” and was about to put it in a yoga class play list when I realized how sad the words are. The song was released in 1987 to protest Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose regime killed thousands of people between 1973 and 1990. I hadn’t realized the history– I just gravitated toward the song’s energy.
And last year I loved the song “I Like Me Better When I’m With You” by Lauv and played it in my yoga and Pilates classes. It made me think how much happier and better a person I was with Mark. But after his death I pulled it from my playlists – it was too hard to hear.
And yet, when that song came on the radio while I was driving all five kids of our in that huge SUV, I realized it wasn’t a sad song after all. I do like me better when I am with him – or what I am because of him. I am not sure that pre-Mark Donna would have faced her fears and pain to bring our kids together after his death.
I used to be afraid of facing painful situations. I would avoid them. But he taught me to put the kids first – something I did not grow up with. And Pema Chodron has given me the awareness, courage and permission to move forward with the uncomfortable. And we have all been blessed as a result.
Another tool I have found helpful as I persevere through the grieving process is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which involves 1) identifying specific issues that are bothering us and 2) tapping on specific points on the body with our fingertips. The points, or meridians (also used in acupuncture), release emotions and energy, helping to alleviate and even resolve the issue. This technique is specifically helpful with grief, anxiety and cravings. (Plenty of sites on-line describe the technique in detail, but I have found Helena Fone’s “EFT for Dummies” very helpful.)
EFT came in handy when I took my two grieving children to Disney’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” I can’t imagine a worse film to see while mourning the loss of a loved one. I spent the whole movie holding tightly to my daughter’s hand and tapping various meridian points. I must have looked like a crazy person.
Remember the good old days when Disney only killed parents in their movies (like in “Bambi” or “The Lion King”)? Turns out that wasn’t enough for Disney – SPOILER ALERT - now their Marvel franchise is killing off half the universe too!
As we watched the movie’s credits - waiting for the usual Marvel sneak preview to be revealed – I couldn’t help but think about Mark. The last time we had waited for credits we had missed Marvel’s second reveal, and he had looked all over the internet for it, eventually sending a video link via text.
He is watching over us
Although Mark is no longer available by phone, he is watching over us. Earlier this month my daughter had a procedure that required anesthesia. Entering the medical facility that morning, I was reminded of the lower back and kidney stone surgeries Mark had months before he died – and the days in the hospital after his fatal stroke.
So my daughter and I were both anxious when we entered the procedure room. And when they put her under, I remembered Mark’s reaction as he woke from both his back and kidney stone surgeries. He insisted we get married. He didn’t want to wait, as we had decided, until the kids were in college. He wanted to be married immediately.
As I waited in the operating room lobby for my daughter, “Flea Market Flip” came on HGTV. I felt comforted. Mark and I had enjoyed watching it every week. And when my daughter woke up from her procedure, she was happy. She said she had talked to Mark while asleep. It felt as though he was there, watching over us.
Later in May, my daughter received a mermaid bath bomb she had purchased from Amazon for her birthday.
How strange, I thought. After Mark died one of his friends said he’d purchased (and had delivered) two bath bombs. One was for me (for Valentine’s Day) and one for his daughter’s birthday – both of which occurred shortly after he died. The bath bombs had rings inside them.
I never told my family this story because it was just one more sad event surrounding Mark’s death. And there had been enough of that.
When I asked my daughter about her purchase, she said,
“It just showed up on my ‘you might like this’ Amazon list” a week or so ago.
I told her the bath bomb story.
“I know it’s crazy, but I think Mark found it for you. He was always finding mermaid-themed things for you.”
Later when she opened the bath bomb, the ring inside had an emerald stone on it – her birthstone. She told me that confirmed that Mark had “sent” her the bath bomb.
He is still out there remembering us – just as we continue to remember him.
Below is a #memeaday I created using a picture of our kids on one of our outings. Although we continue to grieve his loss, Mark’s (and our) love lasts through our children and their connection.