Probably most people who know me don’t think of me as conflict-averse (I’m not) nor shy about sharing my feelings (ditto). But this blog https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2017/01/10/healthy-boundaries-in-grief/ about being able to set boundaries, especially with the people closest to me, really spoke to me today.
Like most women, I feel I have failed if I have not made everyone I love (or even know) happy. No amount of therapy or self-help reading has been able to cure me of my sponge-like absorption of everyone else’s feelings, especially the negative ones, nor of the ridiculous notion that it is up to me to fix every problem brought to my attention. So when Kyle died, my only relief was being cleared of nearly all my emotional-support responsibilities. Having failed to make Kyle happy enough to value his own life, I obviously wasn’t going to be expected to make anyone else feel happy anytime soon. (I am being sardonic; I recognize it isn’t my actual responsibility to make anyone else happy — but it was a relief to know I didn’t even need to try for a while.)
In the first months after Kyle died, I said no more easily and asked for what I needed more directly. I took a medical leave from my job, where I would once have considered myself too indispensable to arrange two months off. (As one friend said to me, not meaning to be unkind, “You can probably get away with pretty much anything now.”) And now I am on permanent leave, no longer employed, because I was able to say I needed space and time to figure out how to live with this loss. (And also because I am privileged and married to someone willing to undergo a lot of economic changes.)
As my son’s one-year memorial is approaching, I am having trouble being as clear about what I need, even with myself — or feeling as entitled to protect my time and energy. Is it OK to shut off my phone when my daughter sounded sad the last time I talked to her? Is it OK to tell my mother I don’t want to go to all her doctors’ appointments with her? Is it OK to tell my wife I want to be alone again this evening when I have already spent all day by myself? Is it OK to always make my friends come here to see me because I have a new social anxiety? Is it OK to read a novel when I am “supposed” to be planning a memorial? Is anything I’m doing OK?
It’s a lot harder to tell what is the right thing to be doing when there are no longer any clear goals being set for me — and when I occasionally hear, “Oh, come on, you’re home all day now, so surely you can __________.” (Fill in the blank with whatever it is that person wants me to do.) If I try a tentative no and am asked to explain myself, I have no good answers. Is it OK to have no excuse, to not explain how I am getting through each day, to say — as my therapist instructed me — that I thought about what I wanted, and I simply don’t want to do what I am being asked to do. It doesn’t feel OK. It feels scary and bad. And like my grief excuse might be expiring, which is even scarier.
Unfortunately, my body is doing a lot of the talking for me, as I have been suffering from itchy hives, spontaneous vomiting, a propensity to injure myself by banging into things, stiff necks and severe lower back pain despite daily yoga. A good friend who is practicing somatic-experience therapeutic techniques (“where does it hurt? why does it hurt?”) worked with me yesterday and we concluded my physical pains are manifesting to distract me from the more agonizing emotional pain that is always lying in wait when I run out of distractions. Perhaps there is wisdom in letting ourselves access the full depth of our grief. I am letting in as much at a time as I feel I can take, but it seems like my body wants me to let in more — rather than, say, spending a day acquiring new furniture on Craigslist.
I had been pressuring myself to feel a sense of closure — as if my grief is going to be wrapped up in some way because it’s been a year. This fellow grieving mother’s article helped me recognize that my first year of grieving was mostly spent in shock, denial and avoidance as I continued working, traveling, and helping loved ones through major moves and life transitions.
I feel like I am just now getting into the heart of my grief — whatever that is. Kyle’s father, Larry, whose heart is surely as broken as mine, takes comfort in working multiple jobs and staying busy; he doesn’t understand why Jamie and I spend as much time as we do looking at pictures and “making ourselves sadder than we need to be.” I appreciate that avoidance works for him and have often envied his ability to be cheery in the face of grim news. (His last voicemail to me, the day before Kyle died, assured me that I was worrying for nothing, that Kyle sounded great the last time he spoke to him. I never wished more for his endless optimism to be on target.)
Meanwhile, I am still practicing my own methods of avoidance and distraction: Facebooking too much, for example. Even writing this blog was a form of procrastination that allowed me to avoid the work I keep meaning to be doing with Kyle’s poems. I wanted to assemble them, and a scrapbook, and a video compilation, all before/for the memorial, but I’m starting to think I might not be able to get any — or certainly not all — of that done. Reading his writing hurts so much that I must pace myself; knowing there is no more of it hurts, too; maybe I am better off having these projects still waiting for me after the memorial. I am trying to trust myself, even though many days I wonder what I am doing, why I’m not getting more done.
So instead of asking myself if it’s OK that I sit many days in a room surrounded by Kyle’s writing and photos, talking to him, trying to figure out how this happened, how I can best honor his life, and what I’m supposed to be learning from this, I will try to just be — to practice the radical self-acceptance I praised in my wife the day we were married.
I welcome all of you to keep reaching out — or even to start reaching out if you’ve been waiting for an appropriate amount of time to pass before being back in touch. But I’ll be grateful to know you understand if I’m not ready to say yes to your requests just yet.