Stream of Consciousness: On Grief

This post is an unedited, stream of consciousness about grief, death, and losing a loved one.  I’m posting the content with minimal edits to give you the most intimate view of what losing a loved one does to your brain that I can.  There will be followup posts in the coming weeks.  This was written March 15.

My grandpa died three weeks ago today. It doesn’t feel like that long, but it also feels like an eternity since then. I feel like I was living some other life even though I’m basically doing the same things for the same reasons.

Keep going back to the thought, “I don’t know how to be in the world without him. How can there even be a world where he isn’t?”

Grandpa had Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s not like I was completely unprepared. I’ve been waiting now for about five or six years.

I heard from my uncle something had happened on the night of 13 February, and I actually thought he died that night, but it turned out that my uncle was only upset because there was a problem with the hospitals and he thought that my grandfather should just be allowed to “go home to die,” but that wasn’t really possible because my grandmother had gotten to the point that she couldn’t take care of him on her own anymore, and they needed hospice or some kind of help in order to get by.

So I kind of freaked out that night and spent about two hours in my living room just disconsolate, crying, screaming really, thinking he was either dead or going to die within the next few hours.

I remember physical pain in my chest. I remember feeling like my chest was just going to split and being afraid that I was going to scream so loud that someone would hear me and call the police.

Eventually, I found out what was really going on when I talked to my sister. But those first few weeks were really rough. I kept trying to get information, figure out what was going on, because I felt like I couldn’t really process anything because I didn’t know what was really happening or what the situation was.

The main thing was that I was trying to keep myself occupied because I didn’t know what was going on, and I had a lot of energy that had nowhere to go. I realize that’s a common thing with me, during or immediately after a problem or crisis. That I just have a ton of energy that needs to go somewhere. It used to bother me because on the one hand people are sort of condition to ignore their emotions and keep busy in some way because as a society we really don’t know how to deal with sadness and grief and etc. were terrified of anything that we perceive as “negative” especially when it comes to emotions. And on the other hand you have grief self-help books and counselors etc. always telling you to slow down, conserve your energy etc. etc., and that’s I guess really true for anything not just with grief. I basically here that any time I get involved in what I’m doing and start to develop a rhythm and move quickly, somebody’s telling me to slow down and wait.

So it kind of makes me paranoid about whether or not I’m self sabotaging or doing harmful things without really meaning to, but what I realize this time is that I’m not actually tuning out my emotions or trying to get away from them.

I think my default way of handling the problem is to try to solve it, and I know I spent a lot of time in my youth being “the responsible one” in dysfunctional situations, so that plus a natural tendency to be goal oriented and the probably overactive fight or flight response combines to dump a lot of adrenaline in my system at the onset of problem. Now granted, there isn’t always a way for me to take action or something for me to do that would solve any kind of problem, especially in this case where people are grieving or just don’t know anything, and had to be really careful with that and not the sort of go all crazy with my need to know what was going on and problem solve things because there’s nothing really for me to solve, but the cool thing is that I’m self-aware enough to know this about myself and to kind of back off and wait even if I don’t necessarily like it, so I don’t have to be so hard on myself about needing something to do or not immediately having a helpless reactions that I see a lot of other people having or what have you that makes me feel weird and unkind or at least it has made me feel unkind in the past. It’s just my way of dealing with life and problems as they come at me. So I learned something about myself there and I also kind of already know that different people cope with crisis situations in different ways, so that’s helpful to. Anyway that first two weeks is really difficult because of all of that, and then my grandpa actually died and it was very disconcerting because I felt like I had been processing all of this energy and grief and emotion and what have you for weeks already and then kind of had to do it again. I had expected to be worse but it really wasn’t… Sort of more mellow version of the same thing. I did have some anger for a while and a couple of days where I was just really insane, and then I think there was a day or so where I was just out of it.

Through all of this I was working on my story, and that’s a strange feeling because I figured it would come to a grinding halt. I think I may have overdone it and hurt my arm this past week, and I’m OUT of that crazy “need to do something” period now, I just wasn’t paying attention. Like everything was in a fog until there was suddenly this ripping pain in my shoulder, actually, so there’s a lesson there be learned about being more self-aware in terms of what I’m doing with my body and why I’m doing it. I’ve gone through the need to be where my body before but not really the why am doing it or what that has to do with anything.

I remember when Gram died, I didn’t really have any emotions for the whole first week or at least several days, and then I started to have them more at the funeral, but the funeral was a disaster and my dad and my uncle were getting into fist fights, and after that it I think I was back in the fight and flight mode and it took me a long time to really process because I got home and was trying to deal with the weirdness of the funeral itself on top of the fact that my grandmother was dead and the whole thing had happened so quickly and unexpectedly, which is actually pretty different from what happened now with grandpa.

It’s not the first or second time that I’ve had the death of a person close to me either. My brother died when I was 13. I had four friends die between when I was like 16 and 22, and I think I’ve coped with each of those differently to 1° or another but there are some things that I’ve noticed as similar.

I have like really intense emotional reactions eventually, not always at first, sometimes this sort of in the middle, and then I have kind of a period where I just don’t feel anything at all. It’s complete numbness, my brain is empty, I have a hard time even thinking, and I can’t come up with any ideas for anything.

In the past I’ve always felt obligated to attend services, out a sense of loyalty and propriety toward the person who’s gone, but this time I knew I couldn’t do that and it was actually a relief. It made me realize how draining and difficult it is for me to socialize when I’m in the middle of difficult emotions and how much better off I am to pay my respects privately because it diverts less of my limited supply of energy off to physical mobiility and dealing with people. I have a lot more understanding of how introversion and the physical demands of disability factor into my stamina for stuff like this now, so I realize I don’t have to power through and be exhausted after.

I also had this weird experience where I was like watching myself go trhough everything and saying “See, this is okay, this is healthy, this is what you’re actually doing, this is where you need to pay attention. It was like I had a bunch of little fairies floating around me that were also me, talking to me about me and the stuff going on in my head.

And if that doesn’t sound completely nuts, I don’t know what will.

So, this is basically what my journal is like, when I journal. I’ve never been able to journal THROUGH emotions, except with art, and that’s always abstract. I’m not very good at the collage-y type stuff for processing emotions. I feel like when I have emotions they’re so enormous I can’t move or think or do anything to contain them to a page. I always end up writing ABOUT them after the fact.
I admire people who can post moving and poignant tributes to departed loved ones in a timely way. I always read them with awe, because to me the thought of trying to capture and express emotions this wrenching, this close, is…well…even more wrenching. The personal essays I share here and on Part Time Monster were years in the writing. Not that it took me years to write them, but it took me years to feel like I could articulate anything for an audience to read.

I’ve never really had the cathartic purge experience either. Maybe a few times in college when I was first coming to terms with my divorce and all I’d been through. Was experiencing a faith crisis and somehow always managed to write myself back to center, but that’s not the same as the kind of “catharsis” people talk about when they’ve got some big emotional topic and pour it all into writing and feel “released.” That’s never been me–maybe I never felt bound by my emotions or my past in the first place. But I did keep waiting for that magical transformative moment to occur, for years, before I realized I was sabotaging my own process by trying to make it like someone else’s.

That’s got nothing to do with my grandpa, or very little, so I guess I will sign off for now. Not sure where this piece is going, or if it’ll go anywhere…but maybe it’ll help someone understand their grief a little better.

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