Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How To "Trick" Grief

When you're in the throes of grief, you need a few personal tricks to keep on moving through the pain, especially in the early months and years after sustaining a major loss. We all have tricks we play, we just may not be aware of what they are. Joan Didion called it Magical Thinking. I think a little mental magic might be essential to the new widow or widower's survival.

I was partial to frequent lunch and coffee dates with sympathetic friends because they made me feel that I wasn't alone after Ken died. Through laughing, crying, eating and talking together on a regular basis, I forgot for a while that Ken's loss had the most immediate and long-term effects on me and my kids, on our little family -- that his death was my problem more than anyone else's. My sense of community was heightened through these frequent coffee shop stops at the same time that my nuclear family had been blown apart, and I had become less like others around me. Pilates and yoga classes made for a nifty trick because while my faith in a good life had been severely weakened, my body was getting stronger -- a strategy I highly recommend for its ability to bring on personal power during an otherwise powerless time. Then there was the rock I bought that had the word "acceptance"etched into it. I kept it displayed prominently in the living room, an ever-present visual mantra that sat there staring me down every day. Why the word "acceptance"? Well, death had come to town, this time straight to my door, and who was I to resist death, something as natural as birth and breath? This loss didn't make me special; it made me human.

I used pilates to strengthen my core, yoga to build mental clarity, friends to remind me I was still connected to something even as I was cut loose, and acceptance to move forward with grace, and even joy.

The whole "why me?" avenue was not a logical destination, for me. Instead, and surprisingly so, I found comfort in the stories of so many who had lost before me, and those who will follow -- in effect, every single person on the planet. Anger felt illogical to me; my internal argument went something like this:

Babies die. Toddlers die. Teenagers die. Young adults die. Middle-aged people die and elderly people die. People are born in mud huts in impoverished war torn nations, or in stuffy train cars to parents escaping to give them a better life, or in nice suburban homes with every comfort. My husband died at 52 after two high-tech stem-cell transplants and the best medical treatment science had to offer. It was the worst thing that could have happened to me and our kids, and yet it was our crisis to honor and memorialize and come to terms with and understand and share and deal with and ACCEPT simply because we are human. But I couldn't do it without my little tricks.

Ken possessed a nature that was one of the most calming forces I have ever encountered. Just sitting with him could lower your heart rate, just recounting a troubling tale with him could turn it into something of little importance, and just feeling his steady hand on mine reminded me that everything would be OK no matter what feelings roiled inside me. People would say of Ken that you always left a meeting with him feeling better than when you had arrived.

No wonder in his absence I found that I needed that rock that proclaimed "acceptance." It's solid, firm, reliable, unchanging. It has weight. I trust what it says. It doesn't waver. I know, it's just a rock, but I gave it the magical power to help me. I needed to believe something. For me that something was the idea of acceptance.  So what tricks do you have to get you through the wild ride that is grief? Acceptance is a word I grabbed onto like a zipline of a mantra that smoothed my way over the hills and valleys of life after loss.

There's an old oak library table in one corner of my living room. On it are houseplants, a collection of amethyst rocks, a fake Tiffany lamp which was my one and only purchase from a home shopping channel, and a collection of smooth stones from the beaches of Rockport, Massachusetts from one of many vacations there with Ken and his entire family.  On one of those beaches, some of Ken's ashes were scattered. Among those stones, I've placed the one that sits solidly and steadily and says only "acceptance." Nice trick. It's one that I have learned to do too.

Magic won't make grief disappear altogether, but a few good tricks can help us get on with living. Even when one life disappears altogether, there's still magic in the world, and you can be the magician that makes amazing things happen all over again.

No comments: