GRIEF or: I'M DEFINITELY HURTING I JUST DON'T KNOW IT MUCH OF THE TIME
Grief is a pain in the ass. I’m not being facetious. It’s garbage for the obvious reasons, but for some, those of us whose grief doesn’t manifest in tearfully obvious ways, it’s also one sneaky fucker. Most days seem regular and normal.
I lost one parent shockingly fast, but it was over two years ago that my mother died. Two years since her sudden death from lung cancer and a few months back I got to wondering, what the hell is wrong with me? Others who’d been through the loss of a parent told me the first year was pretty shit, but after that it’s less bad. Why then do I feel like I keep sinking back? Then it dawned me. Right, my only remaining parent, my father, is suffering from a debilitating neurological disorder that will ultimately kill him.
They say grief doesn’t only afflict us after a person dies. Who are they that tell us we might grieve whilst they are still alive? They refer to those who have been through this before. Their wisdom born of their experience. Wisdom one may be apt to doubt until you have experiences of your very own so you too can verify in what is cliched because it’s true.
The sneaky part with grief is how not all doom and gloom it can be. I too can feel spring creeping round the corner. The final arrival of a string of sunny days in Toronto in late March, or the morning singing of the birds in the just budding trees that you mimic with your daughter, walking her and her brother to school. These things all happen. The objective truth of the delight in a brutal winter’s end is very real. Real as the job I have to do.
You arrive at a certain age and you almost have no choice but to be a professional. The options have so rapidly narrowed. To change fields in your 20s is likely. In your 30s more than possible. But once you hit your 40s it becomes less and less probable that you’re going to spring from one career path to another. Of course it happens; it’s just not the norm. For those of us old enough to be fairly set in the path we will probably run out until we retire, we become all the more beholden to the work we have chosen, or that has chosen us, because to muck this up is to lose the only means of providing our families that we have. Which is of course the other major responsibility of adulthood, if you are so lucky, and/or inclined. To be a parent. What’s interesting is how these so-called burdens of work and parenthood both transmorph into something quite different when they become the very things saving you from your own pain. You give to your job, to your students. You play your family part as best you can as well. Your kids require so much. But in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make and the kids become a blessing. And the cliches, well they just keep on coming.
It’s not an acute pain to be sure. Much of the time you don’t even struggle with saying hello to neighbours in elevators, engaging in inane chat with colleagues in corridors; you smile your requisite smiles as expected. None of it fake.
Much of the time the smiles are real; you’re as pleased as your colleagues for the inane conversation taking you from the hamster wheel of your own daily duties, because you aren’t even aware there is a grief to be dealt with. Just, it seems to me, as all the major life-change moments, like transitions from decades of school to full-time work, or the sudden swing from single to married, and then - oh, whoa - children(!) all seem to happen so much faster than we can process, death too is something that often is upon us at speeds that defy comprehension, and certainly don’t allow for the kind of planning we might have hoped.
There is another less than idyllic way in which death of a parent is like all life’s biggest transitions. Poetry and story do little to prepare us for this one — namely the myriad logistics to be dealt with when someone close to us dies or is dying. As a novelist of the most old-school and romantic variety (I’m more in love with stories that comfort—or commiserate with!—my soul than ones that addle my brain: I’ll take the warmth and comfort of a Steinbeck over the anxiety and wordplay of a David Foster Wallace any day), it didn’t exactly play out as I planned that the very last meaningful conversation I had with my mother, less than a week before she died, was about the finances.
Cut to two years later and finally it is upon you and your sisters. Your father can no longer live alone. So you move him into long-term care. This, you think, will so much be about the emotional toll. How hard it will be. How incredibly conflicted and guilty you and your sisters will feel. And we did, and we do, but never would I have possibly imagined that we’d be so busy organizing my father’s daily schedule, his finances, his various insurances, as well as trying to sell his apartment, figuring out who would get which spoon, never mind the specialists he needs us to take off work and accompany him to go and see, some of which he sees as often as every few months. The heart specialist and the neuro-psychiatrist. One of us need to both there for those. And of course the Parkinson’s mobility specialist, and then now the urologist because of the constant UTIs. To name a few. I’m not exaggerating.
The point is there’s so much to do there isn’t time to feel or process any of it. Sounds, in a sense, like a good thing and it certainly is a functional thing until the months start to become years that you’ve been taking care of him and every single time you slow down enough to actually genuinely reflect, you realize you’re not doing so well. In fact, the line that inspired this post was not the one I’ve led with.
I was on the subway coming back from York, and I felt it like a wave crashed over me so much so I had to pull out my phone (by way of journal) to jot the following in the Notes section of my old iPhone: “I’m not doing so ok. I’m actually aching.”
Grief for me isn’t tears. It isn’t any kind of obvious overwhelming sadness, and nor is it the kind of rage a filmmaker might prefer to more easily display her protagonist’s trauma through. Often my grief is cold and empty. Sometimes it has no temperature at all. A temperature you can feel. What I’ve experienced is just this undercurrent that you hardly notice until suddenly you realize how far adrift it’s taken you and that you feel so lonely you don’t know how to fill the gaps.
Of what value is a post as unhappy as this in a world that sits as precariously as it does at this moment? Even as across the globe the strongman populist politics of fear and rage work to sever ties we spent the better half of the 20th century working to create, that might all be small potatoes compared with what they say is already the irrevocable environmental damage we have wrought and the unbearable extreme weather to come. So what of my little grief in this greater world? Who needs to hear this?
I had a pretty cushy teaching job in Japan in my late 20s and early 30s. On returning to a university teaching world (speaking of precarious) where I don’t get a day’s paid vacation, never mind sick days, where summers off teaching is a thing only for the tenured, friends were baffled as to why I left a university gig at a prestigious private university in Kyoto that paid me for five months of paid vacation. That’s not a typo. Five months, not weeks. The answer as to why I left was very simple: community. Beyond Ai and a best friend who returned to his home country after our first two years in Osaka, I never had much of one there. My community was here, in Toronto.
That’s the only way I can explain why this very diary-like blog post (that I wavered about posting for some days) gets put up at all. Because I’m one who believes in sharing. As a practice. As a very human need.
A study of PTSD with combat soldiers, a comparison I heard about on CBC radio (“The Current” maybe?), looked at soldiers in the US coming back from the war in the Gulf (and other horrific conflicts), to Israeli soldiers who’d been in bloody battles far closer to home that were as bad or worse. In both cases they were looking at men who had been in serious combat, men who returned home with severe PTSD. A fundamental difference emerged over time. In the long-run, the Israeli soldiers, by and large, showed no serious trauma at all, while the Americans continued to suffer years, even decades later, many never recovering from their PTSD at all. The difference? Community. Pain shared is pain being dealt with is pain eventually, hopefully, possibly, eradicated.
Like I said earlier, the novels I love are either those from which I can receive comfort, or those I can commiserate with. This post would obviously be of the latter variety.
Thus I put this up for anyone who has loved and lost. As confoundedly bizarre as grief’s symptoms can manifest, just know, you aren’t alone.