During our weekly Zoom call my dear mother said she read my post about our broken patio umbrella, and offered to buy me a new one. I could’ve explained to her that the warranty process is important, because I had spent $6 on the policy for the $49 umbrella, so goshdarnit, the warranty people were obligated to fix this problem. Her argument was that her girl just wants to sit outside comfortably for the last few weeks of her life (so buy another gd umbrella already), while my argument was that now is still a fine time to operate on principle. Principles, mother! But instead of carefully explaining my rigid logic in the face of her kind offer, I merely winced, shook my head, and changed the subject, in a superb display of 40-yo teenager.
Apparently, even after all this, I’m still learning how to receive, too. Meanwhile, John became a different sort of mama bear when he finally got on the phone with the warranty people and roared about how difficult they were making this process. I was shamelessly grateful for the privilege of having a straight white dissatisfied male husband, because I knew if even he couldn't get the attention of the Supervisor, no soul on this Earth ever would, and I could finally surrender to the disappointment of having a $6 warranty worth absolutely nothing.
My takeaway from this week? There are such diverse manifestations of true love.
Speaking of receiving, other noteworthy recent experiences include letting one friend give me a head massage, letting another give me a foot massage, and letting another wipe my runny nose and hold me as I mini-wept. All they required from me in each case was saying yes, yes, okay, yes. I accept.
With only two weeks of food, water, and appointments left, it’s hitting me that I don’t have much time. I’m quickly approaching the point where I need to create an auto reply on my email and put my inner people pleaser to rest. “But what if people take my non response to their messages personally? What if they think it means I don't care about them? What if they--gasp--decide they don’t actually like me after all?” The opportunities for working with one’s childhood stuff never ever end.
In the past few years, my favorite method for dealing with my free-range social anxiety at any given time is to delete 10-20% of my Facebook friends. I typically choose those who I don't actually know or haven’t heard from in a while. Unfriend, unfriend, unfriend. It’s a poor strategy though because unless someone is unapologetically racist or a vitriolic anti masker (unearthed courtesy of 2020), I usually end up regretting it. Like all good addictions/compulsions, it’s a control strategy with diminishing returns. My last purge-trance included over 200 mostly innocent souls and felt cathartic at the time, but was ultimately guilt-inducing. Plus, I’m pretty sure I now only have like 27 friends left, which is kind of embarrassing. And therefore increases my social anxiety.
What’s even more regrettable is that roughly half of my remaining friends are psychotherapists, which means I’m about to receive a bunch of PMs expressing concern. We then come full circle to the question of how I respond to more messages than I can handle. So it’s official, the universe does have a sense of humor after all.
The Serenity Prayer invites us to accept the things we cannot change, find the courage to change the things we can, and express the wisdom to know the difference. Here’s some of the things I cannot change: the past. Acquiring a disease for which there is no viable treatment. The momentum of my karma until this moment. The fact that Marjorie Taylor Greene walks this Earth the same time as I, and made it to Congress. Other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, including whether they trust I value them even if I don’t always acknowledge their kind messages.
Here’s what I can change:
My responses to everything I cannot change. How much water I drink and slow breaths I take. Whether or not I choose to ask for help, or receive it when offered to me. How I redirect my mind when I want to catastrophize the state of the world, or my cat’s health, or running out of my favorite flavor of Coconut Bliss. Whether I feed my cynicism or feed my creativity. The conception of the God I pray to.
My gratitude list for today:
Portable fans on a hot day, and the electricity to run them. A 12-yo nephew who gives me hope for the future of humanity. My kind caregivers. My mother who taught me how to love houseplants and gift-giving, and my father who gave me good hand-eye coordination, a tender heart, and an ability to find religion in nature. Having clean water and sheets. The potential of fungi restoring this Earth someday. Monkeys who hug, and photographers who capture it.
*All individuals referenced in this post approve of this message.
Photo of monkey hug by rabe dirk wennigsen, pixabay
First published on Facebook, September 4.2021
My calendar for the next month has filled up quickly. Nearly every day is already spoken for with friends visiting, zoom chats with family, nurse appointments, hair washes from my CNA, massages with the hospice volunteer, or the occasional days I’ve blocked out for John alone. And then I scroll down to October 3rd, and suddenly there’s a bunch of white space. No wonder i have that anxious, excitable feeling like I’ve been strapped into a rollercoaster and it’s starting to click up the tracks.
Meanwhile, I’ve been engaging in a power trip with the customer service reps who should be helping honor my warranty for a broken patio umbrella. Before any of you kindly suggest that I should no longer have to deal with such mundane crap, please know 1) you’re likely right, and 2) I’m still not ready to fully surrender this hokey pokey between Earth and spirit. The human experience these days is filled with bureaucratic annoyance and I only have about 29 days or so left to enjoy it. There’s only so much relaxing and love-and-joy accepting I can metabolize each day, and getting a wee salty with email reps seems to be a fine way to use up nervous energy.
In other news, a friend wrote last week to say what struck her about my October plan is that it sounds like I have no fear of death. Since then I’ve wondered if this is true,. It feels true, but I also know the forces of repression, bypassing, and dissociation are strong and sneaky, and I’m just as susceptible as any other Jane.. Might my cranky exchange with the umbrella warranty people be a sideways expression of terror? Or maybe it’s grief talking? Or would all reasonable people get upset when corresponding with an insurance provider who appears incapable of opening an attachment!?
I think it’s understandable to be afraid of death, and skeptical of those who say they aren’t. Fear of death is normal. Who wouldn’t be afraid of leaving the light of the known world for the great dark mystery? On this side of the veil all we “see” of death while still living---if we physically see it at all in this death-hushed culture---is a dead body. There’s no animating force left. Someone is there, and then they’re not. You used to have conversations, and now you can’t.. And if you try to keep having conversations with the deceased, and feel you actually are getting answers, you best be careful who you confess it to; there’s still judgment aplenty out there for cross-corporeal communication.
In any case I’ve noticed most people who claim they don’t fear death are still very much alive. You Scorpios out there---I see you---are known for waxing romantic about the beauty of death, but I’ve noticed few have jumped on my suggestions to honor that attraction by volunteering for hospice. Why is that? I’m not here to start astro-rivalries though, many, many people speak with bravado about death while still holding her at a safe distance.
Yet there's a subset of people who genuinely have little fear of the transition---and indeed, call it a transition instead of merely an ending--- because they’ve had an exhilarating near-death experience or they’ve had undeniable contact with those who’ve passed. In the majority of cases these experiences simply can’t be written off as wishful thinking---they are often life changing. And those of us who prefer the easier, softer way, may have ingested enough entheogens (or other psychedelics) to claim embodied knowledge that consciousness itself cannot be destroyed. (My current best understanding is that the aperture surrounding it simply changes based on conditions of “light.”) If you try to argue with those of us who’ve witnessed as much, you won’t get far. It’s like we’ve had our own religious conversion, and materialist logic is a flimsy adversary to what we know in our bones.
But here’s the thing. Despite my trust that consciousness will survive the death of my body, it’s not as if I know where I’m going in the white space of my calendar. There’s no Fodor’s Travel Guide to the other side, and the glut of pastel-covered books in the spirituality/metaphysics sections, while sometimes compelling, are heavy in anecdote by necessity and often conflict wildly in message. Perhaps the other side of the veil is meant to be a mystery, it’s part of the design. If we could define and measure everything about Source /God/dess/HP/The Universe, I’m thinking it wouldn’t actually be very divine.
So I want permission to fear death. I want permission to feel everything and anything at the end of my life, without trying to hold myself to inhuman expectations. Grief, joy, heartbreak, tenderness, rage, lust, loneliness, despair, confusion, contentment.. The whole human shebang. Artists want access to the full color palette to express the nuance of their visions. Shouldn’t the dying/living be given the same freedom and dignity in their emotional lives? God save me from having to be “positive” all the time, because doing so only expresses terror and contempt for “negativity.” And it’s hard to be around someone unfailingly chipper. Like those who claim they never get annoyed with customer service reps. It’s suspicious.
Even if I know the roller coaster is safe, my stomach is still gonna drop during the fall. My loved ones can walk me straight to the edge of my calendar, and even if I trust there’s loved ones waiting on the other side of the blank space to catch me, i need to be willing to leap from one grasp to another. There’ll be a moment suspended in air, right? How could there not be? Sarah, my beloved nurse friend who’s coming to stay with us in October, tells me she’s never once seen a hospice patient dying who didn’t have a smile on their face or a profound air of peace surrounding them. Maybe it’s even easier than I think.
In either case, I’m sure the next few weeks will uncover much more. I’m trying to remember Ii have permission to feel everything. Everything! Until I’m no longer in human form, I want to welcome the full human experience, as messy as it can be, sans judgment. Annoyance at Allstate included. Nervous excitement included. Big love, big tears, and hopefully big laughter every day. Thanks so much friends for coming alongside for the ride---you all have really been showing up, and I’m so grateful for the good company.
Photo of woman leaping by Sammie Chaffin via Unsplash
It strikes me that the holidays are as good a time as ever to talk about grief, and the holidays of 2020? Lordy, pull up a chair.
So many of us are experiencing the existential willies right now for obvious reasons, yet the loss of homes due to the growing climate disaster and loss of lives due to the pandemic mean an unfathomable amount of our literal and figurative neighbors are drowning in overwhelming pain right now. And I’ve learned the best thing we can do for pain is, first and foremost, acknowledge its existence.
When going through our own acute pain of losing my health and then losing our home and belongings, hubby and I learned firsthand which responses from others helped, and which responses left us with an even greater loneliness.
It’s worth noting that no one fully knows what to do with grief--our own or each others’--unless we’re shown. In the larger cultural pushes toward militant optimism--also known as toxic positivity--we all are encouraged away from acknowledging our wounds. We’re told to just get over it, or look on the bright side; we’re told to use the experience to springboard into a better life, or get busy creating a new reality. This would be great if such advice actually worked, but with complex or early grief, it rarely does.
In that spirit, I thought I’d offer some of what I’ve learned both as a therapist and grief survivor about the helpful (and less helpful) things to say to someone who is tossed about by acute loss.
First off, please, please say *something*. Even if it’s awkward, bumbling, and brief, your effort will be noted and appreciated. Don’t assume the grieving person knows you care without you saying so, or would be bothered by you acknowledging the loss. When a family member, friend, or coworker has lost something precious (their loved one, their home, their health, their pregnancy) and they know you know, your silence would be deafening.
If you don’t know what to say, try this:
“I don’t know what to say… But I want to say something.”
“I’ve heard. I’m so sorry.”
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here if you want to talk.”
“I care about you.”
Once we open the conversation, we may notice the urge to try and cheer the grieving person up. But if we investigate this impulse, we often find it springs out of our discomfort feeling our own pain. But I promise you, it’s safe to allow ourselves the occasion to feel our own heartbreak; the grieving person is handing you an invitation to not turn away.
So before saying the following:
“God/ Universe/ Source has a bigger plan,” or
“Everything happens for a reason,” or
“You can always find another spouse/have another child/rebuild a better home,” we can instead pause and try to empathize for another moment or two or hundred.
While these statements of faith may eventually prove true (I think few of us ever fully see the big big picture), and can feel comforting when someone arrives to these conclusions for their life on their own, they rarely comfort when lobbed toward someone freshly devastated. What’s more, they run the risk of dismissing someone’s pain, and may send the message that they should not indulge in so-called “negative” (read: difficult) emotions. Not only are fear, anger, sadness, shock, etc normal responses to loss, they will often hang around longer for anyone who feels it isn’t okay to feel or talk about them. And there is no spiritual wisdom in dismissing heartbreak, believe me.
Long story short, we need to first witness, meet, and hold space for each other in our full human emotional messiness. There will be time to harvest any silver linings later; as David Kessler asserts, finding meaning is the sixth stage of grieving--meaning a whole lotta other feelings come first, or at least come alongside.
If the ideas in this post are helpful, let me know, and feel free to share. I’d like to write a little series of posts on grief over the next month, getting more in depth about how to greet the grieving, and more on concrete ways to help. This collective storm will be more survivable if we all get darn good at helping each other through it.
Yesterday I started fantasizing about creating some grandiose post about how it’s so very un-woke for anyone to ever complain about turning forty, especially when it’s actually a huge accomplishment for some of us, and some people never get the privilege. But then I remembered competitive gratitude makes for tired tropes, and I’m sick of acting like a (cranky) inspiration mascot just because I’ve endured a wicked illness for longer than anyone expected, including me.
It doesn’t help that I’ve written a book that attempts to dismantle spiritual bypassing while also making a case for “gifts” coming out of illness. I’ll admit it’s been a tough needle to thread and most days I suspect I’ve failed miserably at pulling it off. Poor John suffers my mood shifts.
Today I cried, hard, because I want a haircut so bad. My mom took a picture of me and my pandemic hair and it’s a real catastrophe. I’m still struggling to accept that my mouth is so weak that I’m drooling in an increasing number of moments. The West is burning and it’s still a question for some whether or not Black lives fucking matter. JK Rowling has taken a swan dive into hate and Trump flags actually exist and people actually fly them. Days ago my friend’s kitten ran into the street and met a quick death, and she and her wife had to bury the little furry loveball in their yard, and sometimes I struggle to find any meaning in any of it and it sucks that no one, absolutely no one, has any satisfying answers.
In some moments I wish my powerchair had a super charged red eject button which could just pitch me into space beyond the gravity barrier so I can finally get some perspective, and float, and exhale.
But after the big feelings break through and I weep freely for America and kittens and John and my hair, it’s time for a sponge bath. And since I can’t take any more news because it’s 2020 we play good music and I get reminded that somehow, some pockets of life on Earth are still okay. After all these years Ani DiFranco still manages to name it like it is with a bebop to boot. Our space heater still makes the bathroom cozy and my exhausted husband still finds the energy to hum and smile at me while soaping up my limp arms. I can see the cottonwood leaves fluttering and yellow through the bathroom window and they are so beautiful and fleeting it hurts. And I already got to vote.
So I'll say if anyone else out there is feeling conflicted about the existential threat of turning forty when all currently available data hints you will likely live to eighty, sans paralysis, that’s okay. I’ll forgive you. Forty is an accomplishment, as is eighty, as is twelve, in this world at least, especially now. This shit isn’t for the faint of heart. I haven’t actually figured much of anything out about life but I think It’s fair to feel heartbroken and afraid even if things are generally working out personally, whatever that means---because we all know if things aren’t coming together they’re falling apart. Maybe if on some days we can only see the light reflected in tiny slivers in the world around us, that’s good enough.