The feel, the taste, the sensation of grief.

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There is only one way to describe it….. one of those days.

The sensation of weight, of carrying an invisible burden, the sensation of fatigue and of feeling somewhat sad, an occasional burst of what felt like a rising tide of emotion but  overall difficult to describe,  a sense of unease and not being able to put a finger on it… nothing but the option of going with it.

In part of an online retreat I watched recently,  by Teah Strozer a Zen buddhist teacher, she perfectly described the problem with grief…

“Grief is a kind of pain when someone dies …. a person you love. When you lose somebody like that there’s a kind of a grieving that is not mental; no words are going on. The body just wells up in grief. It’s painful but it’s also very cleansing, very present, very human, comes with life”

It is not mental, there are no words going on….the body just wells up in grief!

I have talked about in how to sit with sadness. Simply watching my mind, and it is always useful to follow your own advice!. It was during this sitting and watching today that an  instant recognition…. an AHA! moment  occurred.. and I found the analogy for the pain of grief, or at least an analogy for how I experience it.

The similarity of a sensation that none of us want was instantly recognisable..  this may not be the most pleasant visual picture (, but please stick this out.. it will make sense)….reflect back to the last time you vomited…. .. Can you instantly recall and recognise that rising, swelling feeling.. the sudden rush of metallic taste in your mouth and the rapid flush of heat or shivering throughout your body… No matter what you do you cannot control the overwhelming sensation that blooms throughout your senses in the moments before you have no choice but to let go…

Sure you can feel sick before vomiting, but that moment always takes you by surprise..

It describes my sensation of grief when it catches me unaware… even on “one of those days” where you only describe it as feeling off.. the sensation of grief hits. It does have the physical sensations accompanying it… it has it own taste, a feel of welling up and overtaking you no matter how you try to control it, and it reaches a point where you just have to let go and let the tears flow. Where you can no longer grasp and grasp, but must simply let go. It is not an elegant way of describing this feeling, but it really is like an emotional vomit……

As crazy as it seems Teah’s words about it being painful but also cleansing and present feel so true. It is a relief to acknowledge and feel this sensation, to let go and recognise the pain for what it is … the body welling up with grief.

My recent posts have contained a poem… written by me… but not this post… One of the other things that Teah shared in that online retreat was a poem by Anita Barrows called Questo Muro..which Anita describes as being inspired by a section of Dante’s inferno, and it being a poem about finding the courage to persist… for me it was very much about leaning into the sensation.. as I suggested in how to sit with sadness…..

Questo Muro

You will come at a turning of the trail
to a wall of flame
After the hard climb & the exhausted dreaming
you will come to a place where he
with whom you have walked this far
will stop will stand
beside you on the treacherous steep path
& stare as you shiver at the moving wall, the flame
that blocks your vision of what comes after.
And that one
who you thought would accompany you always,
who held your face
tenderly a little while in his hands—
who pressed the palms of his hands into drenched grass
& washed from your cheeks, the tear-tracks—
he is telling you now
that all that stands between you
& everything you have known since the beginning
is this: this wall. Between yourself
& the beloved, between yourself & your joy,
the riverbank swaying with wildflowers, the shaft
of sunlight on the rock, the song.
Will you pass through it now, will you let it consume
whatever solidness this is
you call your life, & send
you out, a tremor of heat,
a radiance, a changed
flickering thing?

As I am posting this just days from Mother’s Day here in Australia, I want to acknowledge the pain and suffering of all the mothers who will be doing Mother’s day without one of their children with them. I will be thinking of you.

A Metre or a Mile

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The quiet swish of metal and glass
Waiting patiently for me to pass,
Into a place well known,
Almost a second home.

A threshold crossed so many times
Sometimes with a smile
Sometimes with a frown
Often empty, but sometimes a line,
Coming or going in single file
Or people just hanging around.

An entry whose dimensions change
Depending on that frown or smile
When the distance can range,
Sometimes it’s a metre, sometimes it’s a mile.

Truth behind the mask

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You see me with a smile and a joke, you see me making the most of tough circumstances, and you see me propping up others. In fact you often compliment me on how I have handled the circumstances that got me here and the saddest duty in life. You congratulate me on the work that I do professionally and as a volunteer and the influence it has. You tell me what a difference that makes, you tell me of the lives it has probably saved. You tell me you admire me. You see a dogged and determined person, you see me as a success.

Sometimes you see me wearing a mask.

Picking a mask

You don’t see me picking my mask…. slipping it on to present to the world. Picking a mask to protect, to hide, to conceal.

You don’t see the feeling of abject failure, you don’t see the pain that racks every joint of my body. You don’t see the weight sitting in my shoulders. You don’t see the fear that rests in my gut. You don’t see me struggling to enjoy little things in life. You don’t see my frustration and the effort it takes to do almost anything.

You don’t see the tears the well in private, the tears that wet my pillow as I drift off to sleep, or the hours of tear filled eyes watching the ceiling in the middle of the night. You don’t see the tears that accompany my solo drives.

Behind the Mask

All those things are currently lurking behind that mask that I choose to show you and the world.

The truth is that lurking behind the mask you see is the deep and dark shadow of depression. A shadow that is currently cast over everything.

It doesn’t matter how successful you may appear to be, depression does not discriminate.

Knowing it…..

I’m fortunate, my training and my history means I recognise depression for what it is…. I’m fortunate to have a wife and children that love me unconditionally. I’m fortunate that I know where to go for help. I’m fortunate that to some extent I know how to sit with my sadness.

I’m fortunate that I know that seeking help is important (as hard as it is to acknowledge that depression has a grip on you and to take that step).. I’m fortunate for a wife that guides in that direction. I’m fortunate that medication has a good effect on my depression. I’m fortunate for a lot of things.

Don’t assume

You just never know what the person in front of you is dealing with behind the mask that they have chosen to wear for you that day. You don’t know what battle they might be facing in private. Be kind, be aware.

Know where to send people…..

LifelineBeyond BlueBlack Dog Institute, SANE

Image Credit for this post Richard Jonkman

Things I’m learning about grief

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After performing the saddest duty of life at Samuel’s funeral life continues… but it is not, and can never be the same.Today marks four months since Samuel died, and I’m learning new things everyday about the impact of his death.  Losing a child has a profound impact.

Many families experience this pain, and there are a few families I know learning the lessons of grief too. A consequence of having a child as special as Samuel is that you get to meet and know a lot of other families with really special kids and this year our network has experienced the loss of a few of these amazing little people, and a few more are struggling with declining health.

I am learning the hard lessons about grief, I am sure there is a lot more to learn, but this is still a new way of life…  so what have I learned so far?

There is no preparation

I am no stranger to death, I have witnessed it many times in my career. However, no matter how prepared you think you are intellectually for the death of those close to you, you can never be fully prepared emotionally for the loss and grief.

Through all of the challenges that Samuel faced, and all the times that we were “prepared” for the fact that he was going to die, there is nothing…absolutely nothing that can prepare you for that moment.

There is nothing that can prepare you for the sheer flood of emotions then, and in the days, weeks and months that follow.

Grief triggers are EVERYWHERE

Yes there are all the “expected” things that you know are going to remind you. I expect to have feelings around photo’s of Samuel, around places that were important in our time with him.

But the reality is that triggers are all over the place, and they can lead to sudden outbursts of emotion, and they happen in places and at times that you least expect them to happen.

I was reading a book that included the detail of some psychology experiments that involved people washing and the impact the act of washing had on thought processes around a separate task… and before I knew it my mind had jumped to pictures of me washing Samuel for the last time before he died, and washing him after he died… both beautiful memories…. but memories that had me sitting in my office in a flood of tears, overwhelmed by a deep feeling of loss.

This reaction has been triggered by songs, by other images, by conversations… by many things.

The pain of a loss is a reflection of love

The words of poet Mark Doty are a beautiful explanation …

grief might be, in some ways, the long aftermath of love, the internal work of knowing, holding, more fully valuing what we have lost. 

You can never regret having loved someone with all your heart, and grief is teaching me just how much love I had and continue to have for Samuel, and it is certainly teaching more and more about Samuel’s impact on my life.

You grieve your past, present and future with them

Some of the grief around Samuel has been with us for a long time, we had to grieve for the little boy he was before his accident, we still grieve for that version of Samuel.

Then there was the “little stream of losses” along the way as Samuel deteriorated and was no longer able to do certain things. 

There’s the now of grieving for him. Missing him, noticing the differences that life holds without him.

There’s the future of grieving from him…. thinking of all those things that he will never be a part of in our futures.

It is messy and it is confusing.

Most people have probably heard about the “stages of grieving” by Kubler-Ross… it’s a useful theoretical model for having an intellectual understanding of grief…. but like my experience of many other models for life “knowing” something does not prepare you for it……. and when it happens it’s not that clear cut…. it’s not stage 1 followed by stage 2 etc etc…. some days it’s every stage all at once, sometimes it’s 5 followed by one followed by 3….. there is no such thing as a linear process of grief it is messy and it is confusing.

Then there is the anxiety that comes with grieving which is not something that the “models of grieving” discuss or have you expect…..the heart palpitations, shortness of breath and other anxiety symptoms that spring out of nowhere as part of the experience of grief.

You cannot compare grief and loss

With the best of intention people will try….. yes, there might be some similarity in the events, and there is certainly the shared experience of broken hearts and loss….. but each and every experience is different.

They didn’t lose Samuel… they didn’t have the relationship with him that is unique to me, the relationship that is unique to Jo-ann, or the relationship that is unique to Tanja or Taylor.

Grief is a unique and individual experience… I can’t compare my experience of it with my own wife’s experience due to the differences in the relationship between a mum and a dad and their child, we are all grieving but by necessity have to do it in our own way that honours our unique experience and relationship with Samuel

So there is no way I could even begin to comprehend another families grief and loss… I can sympathise with the sense of loss and the broken heart but I will never know what it feels like to have lost their unique child… and they will never know what it is like to have lost Samuel.

There are days when you will feel totally and completely alone

It doesn’t matter how many people are around, how supportive people are, and even in the midst of family…. the sensation of being completely and utterly alone can hit.. and nothing can shift it.

Time does NOT and cannot heal this wound……

The Rev Graham Long from the wayside chapel put it beautifully in a remembrance ceremony held by Bear Cottage. to paraphrase him

 Time does not heal the wound of losing a child, and nor would we want it too. To heal the wound would be in some way a signal that we have forgotten them, and we never want to forget them. In time scar tissue forms on the heart.. and that scar on our hearts is a reminder that they lived, a scar we WANT to carry with us because of everything it reminds us of.

 

I miss my little man every single day, with every fibre of my heart. Life does go on, it’s not the same, and it never can be…. I will always love him, and carry him in my heart…. and continue to learn to how to grieve for him.

The slow boat to China – or cruising through 20 years of Marriage

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Who are these young people… Me and my beautiful wife back in 1993

Twenty Years

The second of October 1993 to the second of October 2013…A time to celebrate twenty years of being married. Twenty years that feels like it has been a long time, but twenty years that also feels like it has gone by in the blink of an eye.

Twenty years that have been filled with highs, lows and everything in-between. Twenty years that have given us three beautiful children, that have filled us with joy.. and the inevitable sadness of Samuel’s situation.

Twenty years with Jo-ann who is probably expecting me to make a crack about the possibility of being paroled for murder (twice over) by now…[or as a friend put it more politely the other day.. day years married to you Michael, I’m sure she thinks about murder and being paroled every day] …. but no… I’m more romantic than that 🙂 (shhhh stop laughing Jo-ann)

Taking the slow boat to china…

I’m sure you have all heard the term “on a slow boat to China”.. in general use it means something that takes a long time is very slow and may never reach it’s destination. The term also has a few cultural references to romance too with a 1948 hit song by Frank Loesser that has been revised from time to time by the likes of Peggy Lee and Bing Crosby, Bette Midler, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin and many others.

In the romantic sense the term is about wanting to spend as much time as possible with the one that one love…..  and the reality is that I’d be happy to do twenty years with Jo-ann all over again.. and I look forward to spending the next twenty on another ride on the “slow boat to china”… because who really knows that the destination of life is, or when we’ll get there?

But….I’m also playing on words a little…..

The symbolism of twenty years

A twentieth wedding anniversary is represented by China….no not the country! Gifts of fine china are the traditional gift associated with a twentieth wedding anniversary.

It is meant to symbolizes the beautiful, elegant, and delicate nature of your love for one another over 20 years (However, there was no way I was going out to get Jo-ann a nice china dinner set…)

Jo-ann is one who likes symbolism and some of the associated tradition and the romance that it represents … so my gift to Jo-ann for our twentieth wedding anniversary  is this…

Doulton Forever

A Royal Doulton, Fine China Figurine called FOREVER.

I think it is a nice blend of the tradition of China as a twentieth anniversary gift, a reminder of our wedding day (and how damn young we looked!), and that we are on the slow boat to China forever…..

My anniversary message to Jo-ann.

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I Love You… through thick and thin, through the highs and lows. I’m glad you’ve shared the last twenty years with me, I look forward to sharing another twenty with you….[and just so you don’t think I’m getting too mushy… just remember… you’re stuck with me 🙂 ]