The Grief Tornado

“They’re called the Stages of Grief, but don’t expect them to march along in a logical, predictable order. Their arrival may seem more like a swirling tornado.”

Mirroring this state of emotional chaos, the presenter whirled his arms through the air while I doodled row upon row of tiny circles in my notebook. Though his style was dynamic, it’s hard for lecturers to capture my attention for long, especially when I’m seated in a frigid banquet room under anemic lighting with hundreds of other whispering, coughing, fidgeting attendees.

His arms continued to spiral while he pantomimed a wild ride through the stages of grief: a sudden crash into depression, swift slide over to bargaining, explosion of anger, dip of a toe in acceptance, then a graceless stumble back to denial. As he said, “Sometimes that’s all in an hour!” and the audience laughed, I wrote Stages of Grief = Emotional Tornado below a row of tiny circles.

The trainer’s whirling arms were brought to mind a few days after my father’s sudden death two weeks ago, when Mom described a dream she’d had the night before in which she and Dad watched a huge tornado bearing down on them. These days, I’m caught squarely in the center of my own grief tornado, and I don’t need anywhere near an hour to spiral erratically through the stages. In a span of five minutes, I’ll sob my head off, narrow my eyes at a photo of him and mutter, “Thanks for bailing on us,” sob again, convince myself that this is just part of the relentless nightmare that is 2020 and he’ll be back at any moment, sob some more, tell God that I will totally start believing in him/her/them if this situation can be undone (please and thank you, amen), sob sob sob, then decide that staying in bed forever is probably the best idea. Clearly, acceptance has not yet found its place in my tornado. The pain is still so raw that acceptance seems like a betrayal to his memory. I know (hope/trust) that this will change with time.

When I arrived at my parents’ house the morning after Dad’s death, I found his to-do list on the kitchen table, his pill case beside his bed, filled up for the week to come, his day-to-day toiletries in the bathroom, his clothes piled on the dryer, and a pair of his shoes by every door. His watch, placed on the table next to his usual place on the couch, still tracked the seconds, minutes, and hours in which he no longer existed. Packages of fishing supplies he’d recently ordered arrived at the house alongside floral arrangements and sympathy cards.

Dad was yanked away so quickly that it’s hard to stop reeling from the shock. I hugged him and said goodbye just hours before he died. He was expected at my sister’s later that week to look after his grandsons for a few days. He and Mom had planned to take the Blue Ridge Parkway to visit my husband, sister, and me at our campsite that weekend. When we’d made the plan, he’d pulled out one of his trusty paper maps to plan the route and said, “It’s good to have something to look forward to.”

I’ve dreaded my father’s passing ever since his first major cardiac event in 1985, when I was ten years old. Despite the fervent protests of his loved ones, he was always cavalier about his death, replying to each, “Good night – see you in the morning!” with, “I certainly hope so,” and reminding us ad nauseam that he wouldn’t be around forever. But nothing could’ve prepared me for this abrupt loss. The finality. The permanent state of absence. As I told my mom the other day, “He just keeps being gone.” She said she’d been thinking the same thing – that he’d been away plenty of times before, but he’d always come back. And we took a step away from our separate tornados to hold each other and cry.

I know that my family, and everyone who loved Dad, will find a way to get through this. We’re huddling close and holding onto one another. In my journal, I’m writing a list of all the things he loved, and while it makes me break down now, someday it will make me smile. I’ve discovered two good grief strategies: the shower is a good place to cry, and the car is a good place to scream. And I’m not fighting the tornado. Like all forces of nature, even the most vicious, it will run its course, and in the wake of its destructive path, there will be opportunities for rebirth. While that future is unforeseeable today, I trust that it will come.

Another Week of Blursdays

When I started to see photos of ash raining down on my friends in California, I was so confused. Wait. It’s not wildfire season. I mean it’s…what, spring? Winter? 1992? When is it again?

Oh, right. It’s late August.

It’s late August, y’all. As ridiculous as it seems, after weeks and months of consecutive Blursdays, we’ve arrived at the end of summer.

As we all know, things we used to take for granted (e.g., time passing in a familiar way; basic neurological functioning) have been warped by the pandemic. I’ve been at a new job for four months, but my internal clock tells me that it started yesterday, or never. My ability to concentrate lasts anywhere from zero to three seconds. And my baseline emotional state is the unpleasant combination of tension and boredom that I normally associate with watching baseball. The problem is that this game has lasted for 5 months. It’s been well over ten thousand innings, and it just keeps going.

For a mental health worker, it’s a particularly troublesome time. Ordinarily, folks in my field help people identify the disconnect between their anxious/depressed moods and reality, but these days, extreme anxiety and depression are perfectly rational. Pretty much all I can tell people is: Try meditation. There’s a lot to be said for giving yourself permission to think about nothing.

On the upside, my husband and I fell victim to the lure of the Pandemic Puppy, and this little guy has been added to our family:

Say hello to tiny Titus. We’re thinking he’s a Mastiff/Great Dane/Horse/Godzilla mix.

Here’s how he looks on a paddleboard:

And here’s how he looks upside down:

As difficult and annoying as puppies are (and oh, they really are), Titus provides a spark of joy to our stupid, quarantined lives, and for that I am truly grateful.

There have been a few other sparks of joy during this utterly craptastic era. Alicia Bognanno, lead singer of Bully, livestreamed a few shows from her home, and they were amazing. We get to access The Moth’s storytelling events via Zoom. And I’ve seen some really cool mask designs. So there ya go! Three good things. But goddammit, I sure do miss hugging my friends.

In conclusion, I offer the same advice I give myself every day ~

Keep breathing. Drink water. Maintain hope. Be kind to yourself and others.

If you haven’t already, try meditation. It really does help.

And to all of you out in Cali ~ stay safe. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.

Virtual hugs to you all. 🤗

Back to Aret

For the past couple years, I’ve worked on a book of interlocking stories, all of which follow the lives of four siblings as they travel through the foster care system. Each chapter is told from a different point of view: the police officer who removes the kids; foster parents; the birth mom; social workers; the kids themselves; etc. In February, sixteen chapters in, I decided to go back to the beginning and work on revisions before moving forward. And then the world collapsed, and I stopped working on it altogether.

When I opened the document last week, I found myself reading about a cop sitting in a bar, drinking a beer and listening to a woman nearby talk to her friends. In the next scene, he waits in his patrol car while three kids step off a school bus. Well, shit, I thought. This is a pre-COVID world. And since I have no idea what a post-COVID world will look like, and I don’t feel like rewriting the whole book with the characters in masks and physically distancing, I decided the project needs to be shelved.

The upside of this is that I’m returning to Aret.

Book cover design by Fian Arroyo

Book Three has been sitting around tapping its foot for years, and it’s time to give it some attention. Besides, spending time on a world with multiple wars and man-eating dragons seems like a pretty decent option right about now.

That Time Jasper and I Almost Fell Off a Cliff

The last few months have been utter bullshit on both global and personal scales. While the world shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, my dear sister was diagnosed with blood cancer. As protests erupted in response to police officers murdering people of color, our next door neighbor overdosed, requiring CPR at 5 a.m. from my husband and me. (Giving chest compressions when you’re not sure whether or not the person is already dead is not something I would wish on anyone. It is haunting.)

Also, somewhere in the midst of all this crap, our sweet cat Shmee died.

We are not amused.

Others have written about the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement far more eloquently than I could ever hope to, and right now I could use a distraction from current horrors, if only for a few minutes. So I am going to tell a story about the day my dog and I almost fell off a cliff.

This was back in 2006, soon after we adopted Jasper as a goofy, big-headed, 1-year-old pup. We headed out on a hike with a couple of friends, intending to find a waterfall none of us had seen before. One of the friends was a paramedic and had a shift scheduled later that afternoon, but we figured we’d have plenty of time to complete the 8-mile loop before she was due to arrive at work.

About four miles into our journey, we saw a Trail Closed Ahead sign and merrily stomped past it. “How can the trail be closed?” we joked to one another. “Caution tape? A stop sign? This is the forest! It can’t be closed.”

Two miles later, however, we came to an abrupt halt as the trail dropped straight into a fathomless abyss. To our right, a cliff rose into the sky. To our left, the cliff plummeted into a ravine. About ten yards ahead, we could see where the trail picked up again, but in between our feet and the trail’s continuance was an insurmountable void. “Well…shit,” we said. We were a couple miles from the end of our loop. If we had to backtrack, we’d have six miles left, and our paramedic friend had an ambulance waiting for her.

I looked back the way we’d come. “Okay,” I said, “we’re not the first people to hit this point. Someone’s figured out how to get around it.” We searched along the cliff beside the trail until, sure enough, we found a rope. I tugged, and it held fast. Handing Jasper’s leash to my husband, I said, “I’ll climb up. If there’s a rope leading down the other side, I’ll let you know.”

I pulled myself up the cliff about fifty feet to discover – hooray! – another rope dangling down the other side. I called to my friends, then lowered myself down the rope to land victoriously on the trail at the other side of the ravine. After doing a little happy dance, I called to my husband, who was now at the top of the first rope. “I’m back on the trail!” Knowing it would be impossible for him to repel down the rope while holding a leashed dog, I added, “Go ahead and let Jasper go!”

What I didn’t consider as these words left my mouth were the ramifications of a 60-pound dog running free down a steep, 50-foot slope. That reality became clear, however, as I heard the amplifying thunder of a high-velocity canine hurtling my way.

Hmm, I thought. I looked over my shoulder to confirm what I already knew: directly behind the thin ridge trail on which I now stood was that cavernous ravine we’d been so careful to avoid. Hmm, I thought again. Jasper and I are about to fly off a cliff.

As Jasper’s stampede grew ever louder, I took a deep breath, assumed as wide a stance as possible on the 18-inch trail, put all my weight on my back foot, and waited. The moment my flappy-eared, happy-as-could-be dog burst into view, I pitched forward and threw myself at him with full force, smashing us both into the cliff side in a shower of sweat, drool, and terror.

We lived. Our paramedic friend made it to her shift on time. And although I’ve been known to say I didn’t learn much of any value in high school, as I look back on that experience, I’ve gotta admit:

Physics saved the day.

Different Boats, Same Advice

I recently listened to a “Self-Care in the Age of COVID-19” talk, and the presenter mentioned something that bothers her about today’s pandemic dialogue. “People keep saying we’re all in the same boat,” she stated, “but that’s not the right metaphor. It’s more accurate to say we’re all in the same storm. We’re in very different boats.” Her words rang true for me, as I’m sure they did for all the mental health workers tuned in to the training. Over the past several weeks, I’ve counseled folks captaining a vast array of boats – from luxurious yachts to driftwood pieces lashed together with twine – all trying to stay afloat through a prolonged, deadly storm.

There’s a lot of advice being batted around on how best to get through this time. “Take the opportunity to deep clean your house and learn a new language!” is often countered with: “Don’t stress about productivity. If you get through the day, you’re doing just fine.” “Go outside and take long walks!” is met with: “If you go outside, someone is definitely going to sneeze straight into your mouth.”

Since the dawn of the pandemic, I’ve landed on just one piece of advice, but I believe it’s a solid one, and there is no true counterargument. It’s simply this:

Breathe in through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

Breathe in through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

When negative, intrusive thoughts try to capture your attention, make note of them and put them aside.

Breathe in through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

In through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

If you haven’t breathed properly in a long time, by now you probably feel pretty high. But keep going. That’s just oxygen doing its thing.

Breathe in through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

In through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

That’s it. Keep breathing. It won’t change our current circumstances, but it will keep you calmer, more rational, and better able to face what comes. In a time full of fears and unknowns, sometimes the simplest actions are the best option we have.

Ghost Cat Reborn

In 2005, my husband and I decided our cat Sid needed a friend. This was one of many incidents over years of pet ownership when human-to-pet communication would have been helpful, because if we’d asked, Sid would’ve let us know that the last thing in the world he wanted was a feline friend. Oh, well. We adopted Shmee, and Sid hated her immediately. For the first few days after she came home, he perched on top of the kitchen cabinets, growling at all of us. When he finally deigned to come down, he hissed at her, smacked her in the face, and chased her under a bed.

Sid was a beauty but also a terror. My nephew refers to him as “that mean cat who scratched.”

From that moment until Sid died ten years later, Shmee mostly lived under our furniture. Since she preferred the guest room bed for that purpose, we had to warn folks staying overnight that they might be awakened in the middle of the night by a sweet, fluffy kitty snuggling, head-butting, and licking them. Shmee always loved love; she was just too scared to come out and get it. It wasn’t just Sid who scared her, either. Any new sound or activity sent her running for a dark and quiet spot, and once she found one, she’d stay there for days. She was the quintessential “scaredy cat,” and therefore, we hardly ever saw her. Many of our friends didn’t know she existed, and even our other pets seemed alarmed whenever she made one of her rare appearances.

Despite her obvious preference for staying inside under furniture, each spring, we’d pull Shmee out from under the bed for a field trip to the groomer so she could have her thick coat removed. This continues to be an annual event that is absolutely hilarious for everyone except Shmee.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shaved.jpg

All groomers over the past 15 years have shared the same report: Shmee is the best cat ever. She loves to be touched, so grooming is like a deep tissue massage as far as she’s concerned. She just lies there, limp and purring. If we’d ever tried to get Sid groomed, he would’ve killed someone.

When Sid passed away in January of 2016, Shmee moved out from under the furniture and onto my lap.

Every time I sit down, she’s on my lap within seconds. Sometimes I don’t even notice she’s there until I try to get up. (And yes, she’s on my lap right now. It makes typing difficult.) On occasion, she has to share some lap real estate with Jasper, or at least Jasper’s ear.

This is how Shmee and Jasper spend about 90% of their time:

For the brief duration of their waking hours, they mostly attempt mind control, willing me to put food in their bowls.

Shmee is now at least 16, and her Golden Years are a mixed bag. Her back end has a hard time keeping up with the front, which makes for some wobbly walking. She rarely cleans herself anymore. Sometimes I’ll find her alone in a room, meowing at the wall. On the flip side, not only has she fully integrated herself into a regular on-not-under-furniture life, but she also recently decided that she likes to go outside.

Little Miss Out-and-About

Shmee never even came close to stepping outside until about six months ago when I opened the back door and she just strolled on out. Now she explores the backyard daily and waits patiently at the dog door when she’s ready to come back in. The funniest part is how ballistic the birds go whenever she’s in the yard, obviously screeching out the warning: “CAT! CAT! CAT!” while she looks at them with clear annoyance like, “Could you please pipe down, whatever you are? I’m trying to sniff this plant.”

Shmee reminds me of a lifelong recluse who decided at age 80 to hike the Appalachian Trail and play competitive tennis. She is a completely different creature than she used to be. And while I loved Sid, despite his violent tendencies, I am so thankful that Shmee has had the last four years to move out from under the furniture and into our lives.

Looking Forward

“Always have something to look forward to” was one of my grandmother’s sage adages, regularly administered to loved ones during times of stress. In these waning (yet persistent) days of winter, I think of her trusty advice, and as I peer into the future, I look forward to . . .

Short-range: Upon waking tomorrow, I will have coffee. I love coffee. It makes mornings far less annoying.

Mid-range: I’ve signed myself up for a “goat yoga” class at a local farm next month. Our stretching and mindfulness practice will be enhanced by the presence of bounding baby goats. I recently attended a “pilates with puppies” class in which I snuggled with puppies the entire time (I might’ve squeezed in a leg lift or two; I don’t really remember), and I expect this to be a similar experience. Plank pose = baby goat platform. I can’t wait.

Long-range: Someday, I hope to be a falconer. The first bird I plan to train is a kestrel, which is a tiny falcon.

LOOK HOW CUTE IT IS!

I’m sure falconry will have its share of frustrations, but omg, that diminutive-yet-fierce bird is ridiculously adorable, and the idea of getting to hang out with one every day is very exciting.

So there we have it – three simple points of anticipation, and I feel pretty great. When it came to mood-boosting strategies, Gaga had it dialed in.

Dare to Be Grateful

My mom, sister, and I are in the midst of a 52-week gratitude challenge. Each week, we’re assigned an area of focus and send responses to each other via email. The 52 topics are:

We’re now 11 weeks in and all agree that this exercise is offering a much needed boost to our wellbeing. For me, the best part is the requirement that we focus 100% on gratitude. As I consider my weekly responses, I have to halt the impulse to add disclaimers or counter-arguments, and each time I shed the negativity to shine a light solely on the positive, it’s like I’ve applied a magical, healing elixir to my beleaguered mind.

So far, my favorite week has been #8 – Express gratitude to 3 people. It provided an excellent reminder of something I’ve learned before (that people love it when they’re told, in a candid and genuine manner, how much we appreciate them) but have never managed to bring into regular practice. Unfortunately, I think this is true for most of us. Expressing gratitude to the folks in our lives, while important and uplifting, is rarely done.

Several years ago, I listened to a colleague as he spoke at length about how much he loved and valued the mother of his four children. When he finished, I asked if he’d ever shared that feedback with her, and he shook his head, admitting, “We mostly just argue about the kids.” I suggested that, the next time they were alone, he tell her everything he’d told me. “It’s nice to hear how much you admire her,” I said, “but I’m not the one who needs to hear it.” He agreed and said he’d talk to her. I hope he did.

Although it can feel a bit awkward to express gratitude in person, it really doesn’t matter how it’s done. I sent my week 8 accolades via text and email, and not one recipient complained. Instead, I was told I’d brought tears to their eyes, made their day, and reminded them to take the time to appreciate their loved ones. In short, expressing gratitude is a win-win. Since good feelings get passed along just like bad ones do, sharing positivity provides a chance to shift the scales, creating ripple effects of joy rather than misery.

As individuals, we have very little control in this world, but we can choose how we think, react, and communicate. My goals for 2020 are to focus on the positive, immerse my thoughts in thankfulness, and get more comfortable with letting people know how much they mean to me.

Wishing you all a happy (and grateful) New Year.

Going Through Hell

When I spoke to a client a few months back, she was “goin’ thru it,” as my husband tends to say when life falls apart. Her kid was in a medical crisis that had caused her to miss exams and fail a class, thus screwing both her financial aid situation and pending post-graduation employment. It was one of those painful phone calls during which, as a counselor, I couldn’t offer much besides: “I am so sorry,” “That’s just awful,” and, “Don’t forget to breathe.”

I talked to her again last week, and when I asked how school was going, she replied, “Great! Graduation’s tomorrow!” She’d gotten an emergency loan, powered through the last semester, had a good job lined up, and all was well with her kiddo’s health. She sounded fantastic.

This conversational juxtaposition reminded me of something my uncle said throughout his many years of cancer treatment: “When you’re going through Hell, don’t stop. Keep going!” In a similar vein, I recently saw a sign that read: Rearrange the letters in depression, and you get “I pressed on.” Sure, it’s kinda hokey, and I don’t know how much weight should be put on the significance of rearranging letters (“live” rearranged makes “evil,” after all), but I still appreciate the sentiment. Sometimes hokey can be helpful.

I need to hold onto those valuable lessons during this season, aka “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (a Christmas song often referenced with pronounced sarcasm). As we all know, this time of year can be less than wonderful. It can mean horrendous traffic, long lines, crowds, financial stress, family drama, travel nightmares, and general impatience/crankiness. And for many, it’s a time fraught with anxiety, sadness, and anger.

Perhaps the best thing we can do to muddle through the next couple weeks is act as one another’s cheerleaders. The next time I see someone red-faced and bug-eyed with distress, I’ll try offering a kindly wave and smile of encouragement. Hopefully they’ll hear the message behind the gestures: “Looks like you’re goin’ thru it, friend, but don’t stop ~ keep going! And don’t forget to breathe!”

Why Is My Phone So Boring?

Everywhere I go, people are gazing fixedly at their phones. It doesn’t matter if they’re out to eat with loved ones or at a summit facing the most beautiful view in the universe or touring an exhibit of priceless, never-before-seen artifacts – phones remain the focus of their attention.

Given most people’s level of interest, I must admit I’m disappointed in my phone. Once in a while I pick it up and command, “Distract me!” but it just sits there, inert. I log onto social media and declare, “Entertain me!” but my interest soon wanes. I consider clicking on news sites, but then I come to my senses. In the end, my phone and I simply stare at one another, both seeming to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Perhaps my phone is mad at me because it knows I’ve never liked phones. Many years ago, in a choking fog of resentment, I finally got my first cell phone, and I would turn it on only to make calls and turn it off as soon as they ended. My voicemail greeting was: “This is my cell phone, and it’s usually off, so please don’t leave a message. If you need to reach me, call my land line at…” But people don’t listen, so I still received voicemails, usually retrieved several days after they were left. The best ones came from my friend Carolina, who said I used my cell phone the same way her octogenarian grandfather used his. All of her voicemails started with: “Hola, Grandpa!”

So maybe that’s the answer: my phone doesn’t like me because I don’t like phones, and therefore it insists on being boring. Or maybe it’s heard me describe it as a not-so-smart phone, and that hurt its phoney little feelings. Whatever the reason, it seems phone fascination is not for me. But that’s okay. Everyone’s different. I don’t understand most people’s attachment to their phones, and most people don’t understand my obsession with mushroom photo shoots.