Archives for posts with tag: grief
Photo from National Geographic magazine.

May 18, 1980. Eruption of Mt St. Helens. Photo from National Geographic magazine.

As you may already know, Mt. St. Helen’s erupted on this day, 34 years ago. This is a mountain in the Cascade range, one of the two mountain ranges in my state of Washington. I was in the 8th grade when it happened and although the mountain is nearly 200 miles from the city in which I grew up, I could see the ash plume from the home of the neighbor at which I was babysitting.

It was the first time I remember there being a natural disaster near where I lived. Unlike earthquakes, this seismic event could be predicted. The area was evacuated. Nonetheless, there were casualties, people who refused to leave the area. Harry Truman, an elderly man who lived on Spirit Lake, was interviewed prior to the eruption. He stated under no uncertain terms, would he leave the area. He stayed and he died.

What was most upsetting to me was the fact that two children, Day Andrew Karr (aged 11) and Michael Murray Karr (aged 9), were also killed. They actually lived in my town and their father TOOK THEM to see the mountain erupt. A photo of Day Karr’s lifeless and naked body, sitting in the back of a pick up truck was on the cover of a national magazine. I found the photo and planned to put it in this post but honestly, it is still too upsetting to me. The child had not been identified at the time the photo was published. As I recall, Day’s grandmother recognized him when she saw the cover of the NATIONAL MAGAZINE! What a horrible way to identify a body. My mother was asked to sing for the father and the boys’ funeral, which she did.

As I have mentioned, I have been dealing with anger about my cancer in the last few months. And as I have mentioned, anxiety typically underlies my experiences of anger. I feel it bubbling and sometimes it smokes and puffs a little. I have been less patient with my family.

I know that I am not going to blow like Mt. St. Helens. But I can feel something coming and I’m not sure how to prevent it. I can’t evacuate from myself. I keep walking in the woods, meditating, and so forth. I am trying to take care of myself. But this feels like a grief episode and likely increasing in part because next Saturday marks 2 years since my breast cancer diagnosis.

The other waves of grief have been ones I had to ride until I got to the other side. I suspect this will be the same. I can comfort myself with the view of a snow capped Mt. St. Helens that I saw from the airplane on my way back to Seattle from New Orleans. It was part of a beautiful range of mountains.

 

As I mentioned last week, I am dealing with anger. I am pretty sure that it is about my stupid cancer. Getting sick for my New Orleans trip was really disappointing. I had seen it as an opportunity for a romantic “second honeymoon”. Adding to the frustration, the trip almost didn’t happen and was also quite expensive.

We still had fun but I’ve got to tell you, sitting on the plane on the way over was pretty uncomfortable. I was coughing a lot, I mean A LOT. I believe that I was the least popular person on the flight. The man sitting next to me had his body turned as far away from me as he could. A kind woman behind me handed me a cough drop. I already had one in my mouth not to mention the fact that I was fully loaded up with cough and cold medicine. And then I started having abdominal muscle spasms, which made me cough even more. That was a new one for me. I wonder if it has something to do with the abdominal muscle that was re-purposed for my TRAM reconstruction. I think that by the end of the flight, the man next to me was wishing that he’d sat next to a screaming toddler instead of next to me while I spewed my plague all over the coach section of the plane.

We arrived to New Orleans at about 3pm on Saturday. I took a short walk to the French Quarter with John. We walked down Bourbon Street until I finally said, “Yuck, I’ve gotten enough of an anthropological experience.”We walked over one block and had a delightful change of scenery to art galleries and such instead of Hustler clubs with horrible names like, “Barely Legal” with young and not so young scantily clad women standing in the doorways.

Sunday was our only full day without any band performances to attend. In the morning, I felt like I’d been run over so after John brought me some breakfast, I went back to sleep and didn’t get up until 4pm. I know I felt a lot better, showered, and got dressed for dinner. I have no recollection of where we went or what we ate though I know we walked there from the hotel, at my insistence and John’s objection. (I was still going to get in my 3 miles of walking in each day.)

On Monday, we went to a band performance, which went well. Then we took the street car to the Garden District to soak up the ambiance and to tour one of the cemeteries. We did a lot of walking that day. There were definitely some positives but I must admit that I was in a foul mood and complained a lot. Then John complained about my complaining and I said lamely, “But I’m sick! On our vacation. Waaaaaaaaaah!” (Okay, I didn’t really say, “waaaaaaaah!”) His suggestion was, “So you’re sick. Can’t you just make the best of it?” “But I am!!!!!!! I am out of bed!!!!! Also, your wife is sick and cranky. YOU make the best of that.”

So at this point of reading this post, you may feel sorry for my husband. And if you do not, you probably should because although I snapped out of my disappointed child routine for the couple of days following, once we’d gotten to the day after the fashion show, I was exhausted and mad again.

I was annoyed about every little thing. I have not been in a nasty mood like this in quite some time. And I don’t remember the last time it lasted an extended period of time like this. And John got the brunt of my perpetual dissatisfaction. I actually felt a lot better after I wrote my post complaining about how John often doesn’t answer me when I talk to him. Writing has a way of doing that for me. But by last night I was exhausted and fuming again. “Why is this house such a mess? Why do I have to live like this? This isn’t the way I want to live!”

Truth be told, although my husband is not the best at housework, he is a really hard worker. He is really bogged down with work and helping our daughter keep on top of her schoolwork. She missed nearly an entire week of school for that band trip and she takes a very difficult schedule. John spent many hours with her over the weekend sorting through what she missed, what she has to turn in, and what assignments needed to be done over the weekend. She is not easy to help, either, and is prone to getting frustrated and losing her reasoning skills. “What do you mean I have to answer in paragraphs? What does that mean? This is so stupid!”

He was so patient with her all weekend and here she and I were providing grumpiness in stereo. By the end of the night, I was feeling pretty remorseful. Today, my first thought was, “Put a cork in it, Elizabeth.” I know that my anger is very understandable and that I need to process it. Managing anger is tricky, though. There are ways of dealing with it that make it worse, for example, constantly complaining to one’s husband.

Maybe writing this post will help. Maybe I need to keep reminding myself that my anger, just like sadness and fear, do not last forever.

Even though all feelings are right. Anger FEELS wrong and I find myself looking ways in which I feel that I have been wronged in order to justify its expression. And then once I realize this is what I am doing, I feel wrong again.

 

I know that a lot of you have experienced great hardship this winter. Some of you have lost loved ones, some of you are sick or have been sick. And then there are the terrifying weather events that are getting increasingly common, most recently the impact of the polar vortex on a substantial portion of North America.

I made all of you a little film of a portion of my walk today along with some of the thoughts I have when I am in the woods. I am hoping this is an encouraging experience and if not, you get to see some very pretty trees and hear some crows having quite a conversation in the woods.

It’s funny to me because although I am surrounded by earth forms and plants so much larger than me when I am in the woods, It’s okay to be small. We don’t need to be big. We can just be.

Yesterday, I was reading through my posts for 2013 as a review. I’d had a good and productive day. I was happy all day. And then I came to my post from August when I was hit with grief over the anniversaries of my mastectomy as well as the death of my friend, Gina. I remember that day in August. I cried for hours, which is something I have done less than a handful of times in my life outside of the two times I had clinical depression.

Yesterday I cried for about 20 minutes and then I actually felt good again. I’m not one of those people who usually feels better after crying. I mean I know that it is necessary to express grief but I still usually feel exhausted and cotton headed after I cry. The grief startled me because I found instantly found myself loudly and sloppily crying. The intensity of my grief felt like the day Gina died. And my worries about my own mortality, especially the prospect of dying before my daughter is grown, only intensified it.

I’m of the opinion that life is complex and there’s usually not one reason why something happens. But I will say that viewing a series of black and white photos of a husband and wife over the course of the wife’s treatment and later death from breast cancer, likely was a catalyst for this latest crying jag. One of the photos is a head shot of the pair in bed, holding each other, each with a look of utter bliss. It’s a beautiful and happy image. And it reminds me of my husband and I. John is a very affectionate man. He hugs me in his sleep and if I awaken in the middle of the night and put my arm around him, he makes a sigh of contentment and holds my hand. And I don’t mean that he sometimes does this. He always reaches for my hand, every time over the past 23 years. So I looked at that photo and immediately inserted myself into the image. And this woman who was born in the 70’s died. And you can see the progression of her illness in the photos with each photo showing loves and losses in the most poignant way. I found myself thinking, “That could have been me. That still could be me.” I didn’t dwell on the thoughts but I had them nonetheless.

I had nightmares that night. (People, when you wonder why I am careful about watching intense, violent, and/or scary films. This is why. They have given me nightmares since I was about 6 years old.) In one, I was at a parade that included some past beauty queens, women who were now middle-aged. They were beautifully dressed but instead of being on a parade float, they were lying in open caskets on wheels! Even in the dream I thought, “What on Earth? What is this supposed to symbolize about women, beauty, and aging?” And then later in the dream, I was at the funeral of a relative. I don’t remember anything except she was a woman in my family. I remember having grief during the dream about missing my grandmother who died in 1993. In the final part of the dream, my daughter was acting completely and utterly out of control. As rebellious and angry as she could be. It was terrifying.

I am a genuinely happy person. One who has been through a lot. And lots of people have been through a lot in their lives with different impacts and different ways of coping. I am a person who feels things deeply but I am also a deep thinker. And I feel both positive and negative emotions as well as having positive and negative thoughts. I feel happy and calm most of the time. I think part of these intense moments I have of sadness and fear come from the enormity of what I have to lose, my family, my friends, my independence, my capacity to help others as a psychologist.

Today’s New Year’s Eve resolution is to remind myself of the strength of my connections, my connections to myself through my own self-awareness and the purposeful way in which I try to lead my life. My connection to my daughter who is doing so well and so happy right now. My connection to my husband who loves me so dearly that he reaches out to me even when he is fast asleep. Who trusts me so deeply that he allows me to be very open about the ups and downs of our relationship as well as our own personal shortcomings. My connection to my parents; I can’t imagine how hard it must be as older people, to worry about your child’s health and mortality. When my friend, Preben got cancer over five years ago, while still in his 30’s, I noticed that his parents started visiting him much more frequently. I told him half jokingly, “That’s what you get for getting cancer and scaring your parents.” My connections with my extended family have also strengthened. I have some wonderful cousins and sister-in-laws and my brothers have actually nudged themselves out of their comfort zone a little to be a bit more affectionate with their sister.

My friendship connections over the past year and a half have seen the most change. I have made a number of new friends who have startled me with their intense and generous kindness. I know that some of them will come and go but I think that a good number of them will be lifelong friends. I have had old friendships that have evolved into something much deeper than they were in the past. But I have also experienced some lost friendships and some that have been made weaker by my cancer. This mixture of bitter and sweet, of gains and losses, is somewhat dizzying to a person like me who craves consistency and solidity. But I have learned to cope with chaos in my life. I want to be happy and I know chaos happens no matter what I do. So what is my choice other than to try to make peace with it, live along side of it, and accept that I sometimes lose my footing.

Finally, today I remind myself of my reconnection with nature. I spend time outside every day. I have been able to travel to the mountains and to the sea. I am outdoors during good weather and in bad. Even in the most exposed and vulnerable parts of nature, there is beauty. I feel a strong spiritual connection to everything when I walk. It is both intensely personal and beautifully communal.

That is today’s resolution. Tomorrow is a new day and a new year. I wish all of you good things in 2014: moments of joy, moments of peace, and fortitude among the suffering and chaos. Thank you for your connection and support. Xoxoxoxo.

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I often read my old posts as a way to process my life experience. Today I was reflecting on the past year and I re-read my post, “No Words”. I can’t stop crying. I had a good day. But I read this post about the death my friend, Gina, and the tears just keep rolling. And I’m doing the “boo hoo hoo” loud kind of crying. John kept asking me what he could do for me and he finally just came into my office and gave me a big and welcome hug. I am not despondent. I am just sad that such a wonderful woman died suddenly and was not able to be there forĀ  the rest of her life or for the life of her son who was still an infant when she died.

I am not totally unselfish. I want to be there for my daughter. When I wrote this post, I was afraid that I would not be able to be there for her. This will always be a worry. At most times it will be so much more manageable. It will not elicit “boo hoo hoo” crying. But it will always be a worry. I am a strong woman with lots of support. How do people who are less strong and who have less support deal with this? How? Cancer sucks! People out there who have not dealt with this, you can tell me that I am a drama queen all you want. But I can tell you, as a strong and healthy person, having had a life threatening illness, one that can come back, and thinking about taking care of your child, WOW, CANCER SUCKS!.

You’d think that Gina had died of cancer. She didn’t. She had a brain aneurism and died in her 30s. I could go on about how unfair this was. But we are part of the natural world. It is not governed by justice or fairness. It is nature and some chaos is to be expected. But it still hurts and it hurts A LOT.

Every August, for the past several years, I get an unexpected wave of sadness. Then I remember that my friend, Gina died in the month of August. I can’t even remember how long ago; it must have been at least 15 years. Gina was just a beautiful person and friend. I met her in graduate school. I was in the clinical psychology program and she was in the counseling psychology program, which was housed in Education rather than in Arts & Sciences. We met through our mutual friends, Annette and Ellen, who are also now counseling psychologists. Gina had just returned from her clinical internship to finish her dissertation, her remaining Ph.D. requirement. She was also recently divorced.

Gina was so fun and such a kind-hearted person. After she graduated, she ended up taking a job at Duke University in onco-psychology. Yes, she worked with cancer patients. Gina used to talk about how happy John and I were together. “Elizabeth laughs when John tells stories you know that she’s heard a hundred times.” She and Annette were quite taken with John and referred to him as being the “most marriageable man” that they knew. Not that they thought he was available; they just thought he was well suited to marriage and were looking for someone like him. (And believe me, this is not the first time my girlfriends have talked about my husband this way to the point when my friend, Cheryl would even say, “I’ve got to get myself a computer nerd.” It was just fine.)

I suspect even more than being re-married, Gina wanted to be a mother. She eventually did marry her husband, Bob. We flew back to North Carolina for the wedding reception and John was the official photographer at the small family-only service at Coker Arboretum on the UNC campus. He took some really beautiful shots.

Gina did have a baby, a beautiful boy. We were so happy for her. A few months later, Annette called and I answered. “Gina died.” She’d had an brain aneurism and died while her husband was driving her to the hospital. There’s a boy in North Carolina who only knows the mother who waited for and wanted him so much through a video that Annette made. When she found out that Bob and Gina didn’t have a camcorder, she borrowed one and took footage.

I was wondering today why I was feeling her death again like the day Annette called. I looked down at my calendar. In fact I feel sadder than I have felt in many years. Today is August 8th. Today is the anniversary of my mastectomy. Today is a reminder of what I have lost and the greatest losses were not of my breast or my femininity, or my sense of self.

The loss I feel today is the loss of the ability to take for granted that I will be able to be alive for as long as my daughter needs me.

I have learned to be happy, to be appreciative, to have abundant and overwhelming joy in my life. But some days are just sad and that’s as it should be. In our sympathy card, I wrote to Bob, “So many words describe what Gina meant to us. No words describe our grief in losing her.”

Tomorrow is a new day. But today is the one I have right now.

There are no words.

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Every August, for the past several years, I get an unexpected wave of sadness. Then I remember that my friend, Gina died in the month of August. I can’t even remember how long ago; it must have been at least 15 years. Gina was just a beautiful person and friend. I met her in graduate school. I was in the clinical psychology program and she was in the counseling psychology program, which was housed in Education rather than in Arts & Sciences. We met through our mutual friends, Annette and Ellen, who are also now counseling psychologists. Gina had just returned from her clinical internship to finish her dissertation, her remaining Ph.D. requirement. She was also recently divorced.

Gina was so fun and such a kind-hearted person. After she graduated, she ended up taking a job at Duke University in onco-psychology. Yes, she worked with cancer patients. Gina used to talk about how happy John and I were together. “Elizabeth laughs when John tells stories you know that she’s heard a hundred times.” She and Annette were quite taken with John and referred to him as being the “most marriageable man” that they knew. Not that they thought he was available; they just thought he was well suited to marriage and were looking for someone like him. (And believe me, this is not the first time my girlfriends have talked about my husband this way to the point when my friend, Cheryl would even say, “I’ve got to get myself a computer nerd.” It was just fine.)

I suspect even more than being re-married, Gina wanted to be a mother. She eventually did marry her husband, Bob. We flew back to North Carolina for the wedding reception and John was the official photographer at the small family-only service at Coker Arboretum on the UNC campus. He took some really beautiful shots.

Gina did have a baby, a beautiful boy. We were so happy for her. A few months later, Annette called and I answered. “Gina died.” She’d had an brain aneurism and died while her husband was driving her to the hospital. There’s a boy in North Carolina who only knows the mother who waited for and wanted him so much through a video that Annette made. When she found out that Bob and Gina didn’t have a camcorder, she borrowed one and took footage.

I was wondering today why I was feeling her death again like the day Annette called. I looked down at my calendar. In fact I feel sadder than I have felt in many years. Today is August 8th. Today is the anniversary of my mastectomy. Today is a reminder of what I have lost and the greatest losses were not of my breast or my femininity, or my sense of self.

The loss I feel today is the loss of the ability to take for granted that I will be able to be alive for as long as my daughter needs me.

I have learned to be happy, to be appreciative, to have abundant and overwhelming joy in my life. But some days are just sad and that’s as it should be. In our sympathy card, I wrote to Bob, “So many words describe what Gina meant to us. No words describe our grief in losing her.”

Tomorrow is a new day. But today is the one I have right now.

There are no words.

I’ve been thinking about a mother and her teen daughter with whom I’ve worked in my psychology practice. They had lost their husband and father ten years previously to cancer. What I remember most was the mother’s comments about their grief as a mother and daughter, that they loved their new family (she had remarried and had another child) and that they were capable of happiness. But each day they grieve for the loss of a father and husband and the grief co-exists alongside the happiness.

I feel in my own grief process regarding my breast cancer that my efforts to integrate it into the rest of my life experience is resulting in this kind of accepting co-existence. I am still working on it, but I feel close to the next place I need to be in this. And I know that I will additional opportunities to grieve my experience. (Our brain is kind and often gives us breaks in between periods of grief.) And I know that I will have other losses and challenges in my life that will test my fortitude and serenity.

But today, I am reminded of my favorite hymn. I don’t really write about my religious beliefs. And part of that is because people fight about it. I don’t need to have people fighting on my blog. Another part of it is that I really haven’t managed to hammer out all of the details of my beliefs. And suspect that I never will. That God is love and that we are here to care for one another, are my central beliefs, which I suspect will never change. And I will always love this hymn. I hope that whatever you believe that you will appreciate the message of hope, love, and resilience.

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What tho’ my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heaven and Earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

(The history and text for this hymn can be found here.)

(Enya recorded a lovely version of this hymn in the 90’s though I prefer to hear my mother’s and perhaps I will be able to twist her arm into singing it for my blog.)

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