“Death has a cruel way of giving regrets more attention than they deserve.” – – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
My brother Joe passed away on Monday, July 8th. I got the news as I logged into my computer at work at seven a.m. and gave Facebook a quick glance. After the proverbial double-take at my sisters post saying farewell to him, I messaged her. He had indeed died just a few hours earlier after a years long bout with colon cancer. I was stunned.
I was not particularly close to Joe, just as there is distance between myself and my other siblings, but I have fond memories of us as kids. He was the one who got me interested in writing, as I published a one page neighborhood newspaper at his cue. It was also a nice way to earn five cents. It was Joe who got me interested in drawing cartoons. And it was definitely Joe who inspired my interest in music, the less mainstream the better. I had forgotten the depth of his influence on me until the day he died. Still, there was more going on inside me that I couldn’t quite put a finger on.
Irritability has been my companion for much of my days since his death. Considering that I work in a call center and take over one hundred inbound calls a day, irritability and my work make crappy bedfellows. Even with an awareness of my unease, it wasn’t until this past Friday that the full brunt of grief hit me. A few of my calls were recorded and played back to me during a coaching session. I was only a little surprised that I sounded as enthusiastic as Eeyore while talking with my patients. I miss Joe. And his passing was the trigger that made me release the hold button on all of the losses I’ve not fully grieved. I know that there are those reading this who can identify. There is a heaviness inside that takes very few breaks. I feel like doing little more than sitting in a chair all day once I get home. Depression rules.
There was the promise of a reconciliation with someone that I flat out slammed the door on a few years ago. We had gone our separate ways, and in our absence from each other I did little to dissipate my accumulated anger from our cat vs. dog last few months. All I saw was rage when I thought of her. When I had finally worked though a large portion of it, she was nowhere in sight. She is among my incessantly repeated “what if” scenarios. I also really miss her, and yet she too is a symbol. A symbol of my history of short-lived relationships or those that never got off the ground, several of them in the last ten years. It speaks as much to my fear of intimacy, but that’s another article for another day.
My best friend ever, Paul McGee died in 1983. My dad passed in 1991, and mom followed in 1993. In between, my sweet friend Susan died in 1992. I dated my first sober love in 1991, and in 2004 she committed suicide. In 2005 my sister Rose died, largely from liver failure. Her husband followed two years later. Throw in middle-age and still never having really pursued writing as a career, and I echo Henry Blake’s sentiment on a M*A*S*H* episode after someone stole his beloved desk: “I’m sitting right inside the middle of a big empty.” But I’m not in a sitcom. Or am I?
There have been frequent periods the last few days when I’m unable to focus on any single thing for more than a few seconds at a time. While I’m taking brief comfort here and there reading up on Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages Of Grief,” my apartment looks like a cyclone just hit. Laundry is undone. There is no pile of dirty dishes, probably because I’ve been eating so little. And my primary mood is fluctuating between anger, sadness, loneliness, and just plain feeling afraid. My friend David used to be a fire chief. I remember him telling me how he counseled one of his firefighters, including telling him “sometimes you just stack the bodies.” Indeed. Losses in whatever form do add up.
I have so far been spared anyone telling me to “cheer up.” For that I am very grateful. Grief has its own life, and I’m not about to tell it to leave prematurely. I have been in Al-Anon meetings and listened to someone talk out their own Pandora’s Box of grief, only to have the next person start off their share with, “if it makes you feel any better . . . ” Fact of the matter is that person is not being compassionate. They’re trying to shut down the person in grief so they don’t have to feel their own reaction. It is not only much more civil (and much more boundary-respecting in a meeting setting), but also more loving to let a person have their own grief space. Expressing condolences can be done without the knee jerk reaction of caretaking that is the norm.
My boss took me aside for a chat after we went over my calls on Friday, and I brought up Joe, explaining that I was not trying to make excuses. She wanted an explanation why my calls with patients, some of theme in dire need of help, seemed so lifeless. She had forgotten about my brothers death. I had not forgotten it, but had slipped into a deeper and deeper denial, somehow knowing there were many things to grieve behind the door. My emotions are in charge much of my days, and are often erratic. Grief can be a very unpredictable, dark tunnel. I will continue to do the things that keep me upright – going to Al-Anon and AA meetings, using my phone, writing. And while doing them I will remember the statement I forgot to tell my boss during our chat: I’m exactly where I need to be.
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