The Ebb and Flow of Grief

Grief is strange. It morphs so much with time. It doesn’t really fade, as much as it changes. Eight years ago today my Dad died and for awhile after his death, the grief was sharply painful. When it would hit, it would be like stubbing your toe, or getting hit in the nose with a ball – I would immediately cry without any moment of warning. The sadness would hit me that he was gone, and the tears would flow immediately. The triggers were varied – but they all brought with them tears.

But the tears were surface level. Just like when you stub your toe. They came immediately but they didn’t last long. Maybe it was because they came so often? But I rarely sat in a corner and just sobbed indefinitely that first year. It was like constant small moments of tears, but nothing grand and soul-wrenching.

I don’t cry as much any more. But holy shit, when I do? It’s convulsive and blubbery. The grief stays at a low level of dullness during most waves, just a sadness that permeates memories or moments. But when the wrong combination of mood and moment and memory merge…it’s the wailing of 1000 broken hearts over here.

Thank god it doesn’t happen often.

I feel like as my depression has been worse the last several months the grief has risen more to the surface. I really feel like Dad was a stabilizing force while he was here and no matter how many therapists or psychiatrists I see, none of them will every fill that space in my life. He was a unique fit for that job and so when I have bad ebbs of depression, they are always tainted with the pain of losing him to help me mediate all of that. In other words, when my depression surges, so does my grief because it reminds me how much my life is missing without him here.

I don’t always cry. It’s just like the grief rises with the waves of sadness, and I find myself aching in his absence more than before.

But holy crap, when the tears do come? They are loud and ugly and painful and VERY OFTEN HAPPENING OUT IN THE PUBLIC because my grief seems to like to also EMBARRASS THE SHIT OUT OF ME. The last big surge of tears came when I was a Target and I just grabbed some clothes off a rack and pretended I needed to try them on. I then spent the next 10 minutes loudly sobbing in a changing room, surely looking as though I was having an epic crisis of body image.

(Which – let’s be honest – we’ve all been there so that wouldn’t be too shocking.)

I guess when I’m depressed I just ache for his presence in my life more. As my depression rose post-election, my desire to talk to him did too and somedays it’s this strange manic desperation like I can feel my anxiety rising and all I can think is IF I COULD ONLY TALK TO DAD, which – as you know, just cycles back into the rising tension pushing it all higher on the scale until I’m sobbing in a room covered in mirrors.

(FYI: Don’t have a mental breakdown in a dressing room. No one should have the mental images of their heartbreak permanent etched into their memories.)

So that’s where I’m at now, 8 years later. I’m suffering from a post-election surge of depression which brought along with it several other triggers for my anxiety and the constant reminder that I don’t have my Dad through all of that magnifies everything to a DEFCON LEVEL 1 (it bothers me that the “worst” is 1, I feel like 5 should be the worst, don’t you?) and I find myself in the corner eating a box of donuts and drinking a caramel frapuccino for breakfast.

To celebrate this anniversary, I’m going to do something Dad never did. I’m going to make an appointment with my general practitioner. A doctor I’ve only ever met once when we first joined her clientele. I inherited my hatred of doctors from him, but I can see how much his life was diminished because of that. (Remind me someday to tell you about his stomach problems that went untreated.) I’m also going to my daughter’s Space Camp graduation, one of the many things he would have loved to have witnessed. He would have followed her around all afternoon letting her talk about all of the things she learned. He had much more patience than I have. I’ll probably tap out and grab some tater tots from the snack bar.

Watch For Falling Rock

My aunt (“the nun” is how I refer to her often, because I have a lot of aunts) was a regular reader of this blog. One of my “token” Aunt Marie stories that I tell is that I would forget she was a reader until she would email me about something I had written here. Once, when I wrote about taking your family to a Pride Parade, she emailed me a quick sentence saying it was lovely and she was going to send it to friends with children. When you are in the middle of several large Catholic families and the nun validates something you wrote about gay pride? It does wonders for making you feel like your gay family is accepted.

I have many memories of road trips with Aunt Marie. I’m not entirely sure if it’s because she would go hiking and camping with us often, or if it’s because she was in our car for 30+ days when we went cross-country camping in 1989. Either way – it is her that I remember teaching us the road games like Finding the ABCs on signs or keeping lists of states on license plates. She also taught us songs (Like “Doe, a deer…a female deer…” which I didn’t know was from a movie until later in life.) and other ways to pass the time in the car.

I also hear her voice in the car at night explaining to me how the “BRIGHTS” setting on headlights worked and she casually said something like, “You want to make sure you turn them off when another car approaches so you don’t blind the driver.” Which – of course – I took very literally and spent a long time – even into driving age – flinching when I would look at a car with their brights still on…fearing losing my eyesight.

But specifically, something I’ve been thinking about a lot this weekend, is her telling me one story when we were weaving on a mountain road and had just seen a “Watch For Falling Rock” sign. I don’t remember the specific details of the story, it was a long time ago. But the general gist was that an American Indian Father had posted those signs after he lost his son: “Falling Rock”. There was a story of how the son got lost, which I don’t remember, but I remember she told the story with a “Legend says that…” air to it that made it feel mysterious. It was as if these signs, and her sharing the story, inducted me into some sort of folklore and I now also shouldered some of the responsibility for looking for this lost son.

Sister Marie Moore, my “Aunt, The Nun,” died peacefully Saturday night after complications from a stroke 2 weeks ago. I was able to visit her Friday and Saturday afternoon and say my goodbyes. I had also visited her several months ago when she was in the hospital following a heart surgery and that visit was good as her health was improving. I’m very glad I made that trip now, it gave me a recent memory of her to cling to when she was unresponsive this weekend.

I could write for days and not list all of her professional or personal achievements and accolades. I couldn’t begin to list the lives touched or souls counseled. To say she lived a “life of service” is an understatement. I read one article written about her in 1967 that mentioned her “14-hour work days” like it was just what you came to expect from her. And up until her heart surgery this last fall, she was probably still working that hard.

Just know she was amazing and she will be missed. I’ll be heading back to Knoxville for services again as soon as I know when they are. We had a great trip to Asheville which I’ll tell you about later, but today I wanted to pay tribute to Sister Marie Moore. She is the standard by which I hold everyone who every says they’re praying for me. She carried her prayer list around with her when she would visit patients in the hospital and if they were sleeping or unresponsive she would sit and pray for them, and then pull out her list and pray for those people as well. She didn’t say, “You’re in my prayers…” casually like I feel many do. She meant your name would be on her lips and delivered to God’s ears as long as she felt you needed it.

One more story:

In 2011 I went to her 60th anniversary celebration of when she took her vows. The priest at her church – a new church in Knoxville – told the story that he would get up and go to the rectory in the early days of the new buildings and Marie would be standing on a ladder and painting trim. Or working in the flower beds. SHE WAS 78. And she was working her ass off to get that church open and ready for business.

She did not mess around.

Love you, Aunt Marie. I’m sad you won’t get to hear about my trip to Asheville, but I also know a life where you couldn’t work would not be a life you enjoyed, so I truly believe your soul is at peace now.

Emailing Dad.

Sometimes I like to torture myself and go through old emails from my Dad just to feel like we’re talking again. It’s actually usually something I do when I’m in a good place with my grief, believe it or not. It’s usually a joyful thing, where I’m just missing him and can look back on memories with smiles instead of sadness.

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I found this one last week and it cracked me up. My Dad took us with some other family on a cross-country camping trip for a whole month the summer I turned 14. Our first stop was the Corn Palace which – to a 14-year old (and probably to most people) – IS THE MOST BORING PLACE IN THE WORLD. And I remember thinking, Great. This is what we have to look forward to for an entire month? Of course the trip went uphill from there, most places were amazing, but it’s been a long time joke about the boringness of the Corn Palace in our family.

So that email made me smile. I actually remember hearing the story and remember needing to tell Dad about it. I wouldn’t have remembered that without the email because it wasn’t anything exciting. But it was a nice treat.

My point? Email your kids sometimes. He and I didn’t email much, most of the emails look like this one, one of us sending something random or a quick update to the other. I wish we had written more. But they’re still a nice treat to have when I’m missing him.

Fresh Grief, All Over Again.

7 years ago today I was sitting at my desk at work when I got the call I had been expecting for weeks. Weirdly, though, it was unexpected. My brother had visited my Dad the night before and Dad had been weirdly lucid and healthy and he even considered that maybe he wasn’t actually dying, that maybe they had gotten the diagnosis wrong. And while we both new that one of the common stages of dying is a weird final rally, sometimes hours before death, we both found ourselves considering the possibility, “Wait. What if he’s not really dying?”

So, in some strange way, some part of me was surprised by the call.

“What? My Dad who is in hospice while his failed kidneys cause his ultimate death…actually died? Huh?”

I’m certain the nurse was perplexed by my shock.

The stress of trying to sell our house last year, and now again, has been some sort of weird grief trigger the last 12 months. I remember feeling like I was really missing him on the anniversary of his death last year, more so than usual, and basically that feeling never left. I think it was the combination of turning 40 and the stress of trying to sell our house on top of a job change last year but the last 12 months have truly felt like the first 12 months all over again.

Actually, more accurately, this last 12 months have felt like the first WEEK all over again. I’ve been crying spontaneously a lot more, I’ve been talking to him out loud in my car like he just died yesterday. I’ve been pulling out things that remind me of Dad and holding them tight, letting the waves of memories wash over me like a depressing cleansing shower.

Oh! And I’ve been looking for a therapist! Although, it may be hard to understand why I would need one.

AHHHH…sarcasm…an instinct stronger than grief.

Let me just say that Flash didn’t help this week (no spoilers!) because Barry time-traveled and got to see people who had died AND DUDE, THAT IS NOT FAIR. I WANT TO SEE MY DAD AGAIN. WHERE IS MY SPEEDSTER?

(Don’t worry…Irrational anger and jealousy towards fictional superheroes is going on my “List of things I should tell my therapist.”)

When I quick smoking back in 2003 I remember reading a pamphlet (remember those?) that said to do ANYTHING you had to do for the first three days. Eat, sleep, cry…whatever you needed to get through those first three days. Don’t worry about being healthy or active or productive, just get the toughest part of the physical addiction beat and THEN get back to trying to live.

That’s what I feel like March has been this year. I’ve just been struggling the whole month to keep my head above water. March is always terrible but this year it was incredibly hard and I just have to get through today and then maybe tomorrow I’ll finally feel better. Today, the anniversary of his death, is the last bad day and then I really need to try to clean myself off and rejoin the living again.

I just have to get through one more day. Then I can wash March and the terrible memories that always come with it, away. At least for the next 11 months.


On “Hamilton,” Grief, and Forgiveness.

I’ve already told you how much I adore Hamilton. It is still played every day around here and I’ve gotten the kids hooked on it. Nikki won a bet with her teacher at school based on her new knowledge of the founding father and got to call her teacher Alexander Hamilton all day as a prize. I’ve used my interest in this musical to drive investigations into lives of other characters like Eliza Hamilton (who is my favorite, by far) and Theodosia Burr and her relationship with her Father (which oddly, reminds me a lot of my own).

But the part that I’d like to talk about today is the one song that – no matter how many times I listen – makes me sob. I mean, SOB. And it’s because it’s such a perfect commentary on grief and forgiveness. And I need you to remember something: I HAVE NEVER SEEN THIS SHOW. And also? I’m not a musical theater expert. I’m just a Mom in Alabama who has never seen a Broadway show. I’ve seen some amazing high school productions and some decent traveling productions, but my knowledge of musical theater is minimal and I’ve NEVER seen this one at all. This is how powerful the song is, I have the pictures of the actors in my head, I’ve seen clips of their performances of another song from the Grammy’s so I know the costumes and the general stage setup. I can imagine this song playing out but I’ve never seen it. I feel all of the emotion I describe JUST from listening to it and to me – that is the power of this show. You don’t have to see it. I want to with all of my heart, but my heart has already seen it because it’s written and performed so well on the cast album.

Let me set the stage. Eliza and Hamilton were probably not on speaking terms as he had publicly humiliated her with an affair. The song where she expresses her grief over that is just 3 songs prior in Burn, so you are still, very much feeling her broken heart over that tragic scandal. Then, in Stay Alive (Reprise) you listen to her and Hamilton at the bedside of her eldest son Phillip as he dies post-dual. That song will rip out your soul and I encourage you to listen to it by clicking the “play” button on the top hand of this page. It will rip out your heart because you can hear the pain in Eliza as she sings Phillip to his death reciting the scales they use to play on the piano when he was a child.

But the NEXT song – It’s Quiet Uptown – is the one I want to talk about. You can listen to it on the genius page here if you’d like. So, they’re still in the post-infidelity heartbreak and they’ve now just lost their son. Eliza’s sister Angelica – a close friend Hamilton’s as well – opens the song with this verse:

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down

And that broken rhyme after “unimaginable” – your brain fills in the rhyme with “pain.” This pause after “unimaginable” repeats through this whole song and destroys my heart. That unspoken pain – of the heart from the recent infidelity and the new and much deeper pain of the loss of their child – that pain is never spoken of in the entire song. That word “unimaginable” is hanging at the end of every line in song. Because some pain…some grief…some heartache…it just can’t be described and my heart breaks with that line and I spend the rest of the song sobbing.

But it gets worse.

So the family moves uptown and the song first walks us through Hamilton’s grief, how he spends time alone is garden and walking alone in the city and everyone pities him. He even talks out loud to his dead son at one point, telling him he’d like it where they’re living now, and if I had a dollar for every time I talked out loud to my Dad I’d be rich.

Then we move on to he and Eliza grieving together. But remember – she has removed herself from his narrative using these lines from Burn

I’m erasing myself from the narrative
Let future historians wonder how Eliza
Reacted when you broke her heart
You have torn it all apart

Her heart was already frozen where he was concerned but now, now they are grieving together in a way only they can each understand. No matter how much she might still hate him, imagine her broken heart over losing her son and knowing the only person who knows that pain is this man who broke her heart.

So…we now see them grieving together and he sings to her…

Look at where we are
Look at where we started
I know I don’t deserve you, Eliza
But hear me out. That would be enough

If I could spare his life
If I could trade his life for mine
He’d be standing here right now
And you would smile, and that would be enough
I don’t pretend to know
The challenges we’re facing
I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost
And you need time
But I’m not afraid
I know who I married
Just let me stay here by your side
That would be enough

He’s just basically saying he’s sorry but that he needs her and if he can just grieve next to her, that would be enough. I can’t imagine how hard that would be because my brother and I grieve together constantly over my Dad and I don’t know what I would do without having him and knowing he’s feeling my same pain. Eliza and Hamilton need each other to get through this but there’s so much pain already there.

So then we see them together a little bit. The ensemble narrates that he’s now talking to her as they walk around uptown (as opposed to earlier when he was talking to himself) and you imagine her there, listening politely, but not talking back.

He is trying to do the unimaginable
See them walking in the park, long after dark
Taking in the sights of the city

Here I like to think that the unimaginable thing he’s trying to do is earn her forgiveness. He needs it to allow himself to grieve. He needs to grieve with her. And then Angelica harkens back to the lines that she opened the song with here but now we’re talking about grace of forgiveness instead of the pain of grief.

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable
They are standing in the garden
Alexander by Eliza’s side
She takes his hand

That moment…she takes his hand. In that moment, they begin grieving together. She says the only line she says in the whole song, and it’s the same line he sang to his dead son earlier:

It’s quiet uptown

The ensemble sings

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

And then they begin really healing together. Healing over the heartbreak of his infidelity and over the pain of losing a child. I dug into Eliza’s history and she really was a champion for him for the 50 years she outlived him. She fought to have his letters published and she maintained a respected standing in society and with members of the government. She opened an orphanage – as her husband had been an orphan – and she raised their giant family without him, still managing to keep them all educated and fed. She was an amazing woman and knowing that makes this song even more powerful. She truly did forgive him but more importantly – she loved him. And she carried on his story and his legacy even after his death.

THIS SONG, y’all. I hope you listened to it. This is the best page to listen to it on because you can read who is singing as you listen so it helps a little with understand what might be happening on stage. Basically the entire second act is just one sob fest after another with a few rap battles over legislation thrown in.

Some day I’ll see the show on stage. Some day. And I’ll sob like I have never sobbed in my life, I’m certain.