Thursday, August 20, 2020

Eleven months

Depending on how you measure it, today or tomorrow marks eleven months since my husband Nigel died. By date, that’s today, but tomorrow is 48 weeks. Either way, it brings the inevitable horrible anniversary too close. Next week—a week from today—is Nigel’s birthday. Add it all up, and it’s an extraordinarily shitty time in a year that more often than not was nothing but shitty, even when it wasn’t. The thing is, eleven months later, the loss of Nigel has still left my life derailed; it’s affected absolutely everything, and it will for a long time to come. What’s changed, though, is that I’m no longer pretending it can or will be any different in the near future. I’ve come to accept that.

As I've said many times, grief isn’t a straight road, or even a twisty one, but more like a roller coaster, the kind with hairpin curves, corkscrew sections that twist us and turn us upside down and up and down again, and sharp climbs up and rapid falls back down. Even that’s not a perfect analogy: No roller coaster ride lasts indefinitely, and many of them are actually fun to be on.

And that’s why the positivity of others can be so debilitating: When the roller coaster is heading through one of those corkscrews, it’s not particularly helpful for someone to say, “It’s okay. Just remember the roller coaster will stop eventually.” Because when you’re upside down, terrified, and hurtling forward at a very fast speed, the last thing on your mind is positive thoughts about an eventual better time when the roller coaster stops—you just want to get off that damn roller coaster immediately.

Life doesn’t work that way, and grief certainly doesn’t. So, the phenomenon now being called “toxic positivity”, thanks to Covid-19, can cause far more harm than good. This is true for anyone struggling with issues around their mental or emotional health, or even situational problems, like a job loss.

I read an article in the Washington Post about “toxic positivity”, and it struck a chord with me. I’m lucky in that my family and friends do it right, and don’t offer banal positive platitudes except when they run out of things to say. Others facing big challenges aren’t so lucky, and dealing with Covid-19 has exposed the dangers of “toxic positivity” on people who are struggling.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t try and focus on the positive, on controlling the things that we can control (and there are usually a lot). Even on the darkest days, there’s something positive, no matter how small, that we can focus on—if we want to. However, it’s also okay to not be okay, as the article puts it.

I wrote last month:
I used to think that the pain I feel, or at least its severity, would diminish in time. I don’t believe that any more, and now I think—though “hope” may be a better word—that I’ll eventually learn to live with it, just like I’ve learned to live with the side effects of my prescriptions.
That was my break-through realisation: I don’t have to pretend that I’m okay, I don’t have to pretend that I’m “moving on” (a phrase I despise, for reasons I explained earlier in July). What’s the point of covering up reality—for whom? Why?

My path isn’t pretty, it’s certainly not linear, but it’s mine, and I claim it in all it’s messy meandering. If I want to sit around all day, I do. If I want to cry, I do. If I want to think about and remember the life Nigel and I had, I do. All of that is necessary for me to eventually reach a place where the pain has eased, because it will—someday.

Which brings me to my newest understanding: I need people. During lockdown, the absence of people was the thing that was hardest on me. Sure, there were phone calls, visits over the Internet, and even interactions on Facebook, but obviously, it’s not the same.

Lockdown ended and life returned to normal, more or less—until the sudden emergence of a new cluster of community transmission in Auckland. I was terrified we’d head back under lockdown, and I talked about that in a blog post last week. The shorter version is that between fear of a new lockdown, and wearing a face mask in public for the first time, I sent my anxiety levels into orbit. I got a pretty bad gout attack as a result (now waning). This was on top of having a pretty bad couple months emotionally, for no particular reason, except that I had time to reflect on what I’ve been through, which is a vital part of moving forward.

What I realised is is that even my darkest patches were lightened by others: A phone call from my mother-in-law, an impromptu visit from a sister-in-law, all of us gathering at my brother-in-law’s house, going out for dinner with my cousin-in-law, friends visiting—all that and more was enormously helpful to me, and I invariably felt much better afterward. The better feelings didn’t last, of course, but they were repeated often enough to help smooth out the rougher patches.

And therein lies a lesson for everyone who has a person in their lives who’s experiencing profound grief: Just be there. I’ve said many times that no one needs to know what to say, they just need to listen. The grieving person needs to be included in events with others and brought out of their cocoon—if they want that. I believe that for people in deep mourning, being around caring people is therapeutic, sure, but also anaesthetising, because for a short time we can dull the pain, maybe quite a lot, and that’s invaluable—for many, but not all. Be guided by the person you’re supporting: If you listen carefully, they’ll tell you what you need to do.

However, fair warning: It may not be pretty. By definition, a person dealing with deep grief isn’t in a good space, and sometimes even in the midst of a good time we are stuck in the mire of emotional distress. For me, it comes out as negativity. There have been times I’ve been around people, just talking, and I got into an extremely negative conversational streak. In my head, I was telling myself, “ShutUpShutUpShutUp!”, but I just couldn’t. Even if I tried to go out of my way to say something positive, a negative barb would suddenly appear. It still happens. I’d like to think it’s less often than it used to be, but if I actually believed that I’d be kidding myself.

Nothing in my life is “normal”, as I’d define that, and I’ve come to accept it. I’ve also seen a way forward that actually works for me (but not necessarily others), and that’s to be around people so I can get out of myself, even if only for a short time, and when I want that. They don’t actually have to DO anything, just be there. And that’s the big lesson for us all.

With Nigel’s birthday next week, and that anniversary around three weeks later, it’s an extraordinarily shitty time right now. Eleven months after the loss of Nigel, my life is still derailed; it’s affected absolutely everything, and will for a long time to come. What’s changed, though, is that I’ve come to accept it—and understand it.

Eleven months ago, this particular journey began. I hate it. But you know what else? I’ve learned a lot, especially that the deep pain I feel is a result of the huge loss I experienced which was so huge because of the deep love that Nigel and I had for each other, and to skip the first two I’d have to also skip that love. As awful as things are for me sometimes, I’d rather feel it than to not have had the love at all. You could say that positivity comes from the toxicity of grief, because it does: That I can feel anything positive at all is because going through this has underscored how special and positive the life Nigel and I had truly was. That’s the treasure I found in this latrine I’m stuck in, that’s the rope that will pull me out of it, that’s what will clean me up and help send me on my way.

The pain, the gut-wrenching, aching, debilitating pain, and the resulting emptiness in my life, is more awful than I could ever put into words. But I still have the one thing that got me into this, and will get me back out: Love. If that isn’t worth all this searing pain I’m enduring, then I truly don’t know what the fuck the point of anything is. But I do know it’s that love that still gives me strength, even in my most anguished moments. That’s what I’ve come to understand most of all.

If only it hadn’t taken these past eleven months, and the event that started it all, to truly understand this. Let that be a lesson, too.


Granthor said...

Grief is so intensely unique to each of us. I appreciate you sharing this. I hope it helps. Let's Skype or Zoom soon.

Arthur Schenck said...

Exactly! There’s no such thing as one single journey through grief, a point I keep repeating. I share my journey mainly because it’s my way of working through things to gain understanding. But I’m also aware that others may see my posts and relate to some or even much of what I say, regardless of what their own circumstances are. At the very least, I hope such people can see they’re not alone, and so, that they’re probably not quite as screwed up as they think they are.

Meeting up soon through the Internets is a must!