New post up at AR: “The False Sentiment of Material Things”

It’s been a while since I wrote a post for Atheist Republic, which I regret. Hopefully, I can keep to a more frequent posting schedule this year, at least every couple of months. So much atheist space online is taken up by deconverted people debunking religion, which is valuable for those who need that kind of dialogue, but what I really want to see more expositions about life from a secular perspective. Love, marriage, birth, death are all topics that I feel many atheists shy away from talking about as atheists because those are aspects of life that our cultures variously overlay with religious faith and spirituality. But, these are also life events that we all share in common, to different degrees.

All I can write about with any true trust in my ability is, unfortunately, death, grief, and mourning. So, that’s what I’ll keep doing. <3

Grieving Futures Third Edition is released!

Grieving future cover

Grieving Futures – THIRD EDITION! Out now at your favorite book seller

This blog is not very active anymore but I still write about grief issues occasionally, and recently I decided to update my 2010 book Grieving Futures: Surviving the Deaths of My Parents. Seven years after writing it, and 20 years after the death of my father, I felt the need to come back around and discuss some of the things that have happened in the intervening years, as well as a few topics I purposefully left out when I originally wrote the book.

For one thing, I wanted to talk more about why I wrote that book when I did, and the long-reaching after-effects of that decision. It’s not like the book has ever sold much or hit any best-seller charts, but then, I never meant for it to do more than simply exist. When I wrote it, I felt that it was filling a hole in the realm of grief support resources and even now, I believe it still does.

Of course, I’ve also received feedback from readers — some people could not finish the book, finding it too upsetting. That always makes me feel bad because I never meant for it to be sob story, only a subjective recounting of my experiences. Of course, they were terrible experiences, but I don’t feel that emotion as keenly as others do, I suppose. Tragedy does have a way of numbing you to the extremes, even decades later. But, there were other readers who reached out and told me how much it meant to read something that resonated with their own experiences as adult orphans. When people tell me that my book made them feel less alone, well, that is when emotions swell and I cry. (Never for myself, but always for others…which is less a brag than a resigned sigh.) I went back to the book with an eye to making it more visible — more discoverable, in publishing terms — by revamping the cover and formatting, changing up the “keywords” and other metadata, all so it might reach others who need that kind of affirmation and support.

I also include a few pages about, surprisingly, fanfiction. I did not even reference fanfiction in the first edition, and that was purposeful. I talk about why in that part of the afterward, but suffice to say, it has a lot to do with the idea that it felt like a shameful thing and would lead people to take the book less seriously. Now, in 2017, I feel differently about it, and want people to know what a critical role it played in my recuperation.

So, the book is out there now for purchase, pretty much everywhere, including iTunes and Amazon and GooglePlay and international booksellers (thanks to StreetLib publishing!). I priced it higher than the older editions, mostly (ironically) because a higher price tends to help in the rankings, for non-fiction anyway. However, if anyone wants to read it and cannot at this time afford it, please let me know, I am willing to provide “hardship” copies for anyone who needs it.

As always, thank you for your support. <3

 

Poetry for the Living, and the Dead

I went to a poetry reading the other night, which is not something I do very often. Not for lack of interest, but, I suppose, lack of exposure.

For instance, some people do not grow up around music. Their parent’s didn’t play instruments and did not own records/CDs and rarely listened to the radio. I find that extremely odd, as some of my earliest memories are filled with the sound of blues, jazz, classical, Broadway show tunes, and of course the score to Star Wars. What is it like to live in a house empty of music?

On the other hand, as musically inclined and as literary as both of my parents were, poetry was not a thing in our house. My parents had the obligatory Shakespeare and Emily Dickenson on hand, along with my father’s treasured collection of Robert W. Service, and a few others but nothing that intersected much with my life as their child.

The result is that it’s taken me a lifetime to learn the value of poetry in everyday life, to understand that as obscure and opaque as some poetry may be, it can also be empowering, uplifting, and inspiring. Poetry, like music, can serve as reflection and revelation.

So, when I was Poetry for the Livinginvited at the last minute to attend a poetry reading sponsored by the Favorite Poem Project, featuring a reading by the magnificent Robert Pinsky (former U.S. poet laureate), I was happy to accept.

It was as deep, meaningful, silly, and entertaining as I expected. Alongside the “professional poets”, nervous people got up on stage and read their favorite poems, revealing their hearts to a group of (mostly) strangers. My friend Kim, a wonderfully talented performer and entertainer, expressed this when she talked to me about her unusual stage fright. This was not a role or a costumed gig, it was simply herself up there talking about her life, revealing aspects of her personal story in the most vulnerable way possible. She did a lovely job of it, by the way.

What did surprise me in a number of readings was the recurring theme of death. Several people talked about parents who had died, and how poetry helped them with their grief.

Should this surprise me? Probably not. Few things in our world are as moving as the death of a loved one. It’s natural that people turn to whatever outlets they have such as music and poetry to deal with their emotions.

Religious folk I think turn to prayer and psalms for the same reason. We all seek out a way of expressing our grief that resonates personally, but speaks widely. Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) is often read at funerals and memorials more because everyone knows it, than because the deceased read it or requested it, and so it serves as a balm to peoples’ grief.

Yet poetry, generally in this modern age, sits outside of religious conventions (even if a poet uses religious imagery and language). People are finding solace in words created neither as sacred text nor simple prose. Poetry, like life itself, can be short and sharp, or long and convoluted, or…or anything, really. Claiming a favorite poem is the ultimate way to express a state of being, outside of actually writing poetry.

Which makes me wonder, what poem encapsulates my life experience, or reflects my own memories best? I often say that I want Talking Heads’ song “And She Was” played at any memorial for me, because for whatever reason I have felt intimately connected to it since college. But a set of lyrics is tied to the music that goes with it – of course they can be read separately, but I assure you, a reading of “And She Was” without music is very emotionally unfulfilling, if not downright confusing. I don’t think I have a favorite poem as yet; but I also have not spent much time looking for one.

And, too, what poems speak of my parents?

For father, that’s pretty easy; his favorite poem was Service’s 1907 opus, “The Call of the Wild” which he loved as a child and was a motivating force throughout most of his early life. I memorized the first few stanzas to recite to him for his birthday, when I was a girl.  It’s a melancholy choice, for me, and perhaps for him, as the final third of his life was frustrating and miserable, spent in a bad marriage and drowning in alcoholism.

Mother is more difficult, as befits a difficult woman; she loved Shakespeare and would probably claim one of his sonnets as her poetic memorial, but the poem I remember her reading and laboring over, memorizing and analyzing, was Beowulf (specifically, the Klaeber translation). During one manic phase she taught herself the rudiments of Old English to better grasp the translation. Interestingly, she never talked to me about it. It was hers and hers alone, among a life spent in symbiotic codependency with me.

They are not alive to approve or disapprove these choices, nor do I think they exist anywhere as supernatural remnants of life. They are simply gone, as I too will be one day. Maybe I will not appreciate the poems people remember me by. But then, I think, poetry is meant for the living.

Homeless (where the heart is)

I had to call the landlord today about a possible water leak at the apartment. This simple act threw me into a long, dreary and painful panic attack. It is the absolute worst to be sitting on the bus, going to work, trying to count your breaths and not keel over like you’re having a heart attack. (I can’t say I’m proud of the fact that I have a lot of experience looking calm, cool, and collected while falling apart, but there you go…)

I have a pretty great landlord, and I like where I live. Yet, the thought of calling him set me on edge to the point where I fell off that edge and back into PTSD, which after all is home away from home.

Because “home” died 20 years ago.homeless-blog header

After all this time, I think I should be “over it,” in the sense of not feeling like I’ve been gutted and left abandoned, alone, and helpless by the deaths of my parents. But I’m not. I still feel like I did that day in the summer of 1996 – a day I did not mark or make note of, a day I don’t really remember enough about to set an accurate date to – when I walked out of my parents’ house for the very last time, carrying my mother’s “Poppy Field” painting which was her pride and joy. I had left it for last on purpose. That painting always represented “home” because when it went up on the wall, I knew we were staying. I knew it had to be the last item I brought out of the house to bring with me.

The electricity had been off for a while. Mold was setting into the carpets and the pool was green. I had only moved into my new apartment the week before, though, so I had lived there for a couple of months as it sank into disrepair and destitution. I was still living there when the bank put “no trespassing” signs on the door. I had no job, almost no work history, and just a few thousand dollars in the bank from my father’s $10,000 life insurance policy (part of which paid off the balance on my car). If I hadn’t had that much, I would not have been able to rent an apartment. As it was, the fraction of my belongings (my inheritance) that I could save were put into storage, where they would stay for a decade. Some boxes have yet to be unpacked.

Most everything else – mother’s music albums, father’s tool chests, random pieces of furniture and kitchen goods, junk I could not even name and about 80% of our collective books – had been sold in a “fire sale” yard sale. As I walked out with the painting bulky in my arms (it is large), I left behind one of their large “IBM” desks and a cheap bookshelf. Half the books left (the really awful ones that no one wanted to buy, less than 50 total), were tossed about on the floor by scavengers who had stripped what they could of value that I had not moved to the apartment, including a lot of Mother’s old clothes that did not sell. The painting had been locked away, hidden, so at least I had that.

When I left that day, getting into my already-old car and heading to my too-expensive apartment to start living a life I knew I was not prepared for, it felt like I was homeless. I was unmoored and I think I was in shock, honestly. The PTSD and the panic attacks had started years earlier, and this was just a denouement of listless proportions.  I remember the drive away. I don’t remember how it ended or bringing the painting into the apartment.

I never hung that painting up in that apartment. I was only there a year, anyway.

Every place I’ve lived since then has never been home. I’ve been in my current place six, maybe seven years now? It’s not home. I’m not convinced any place ever will be, again. I still live with the panicked terror of waking up tomorrow with no place to go, no place to live, no place to belong.

I fight it. I try to make my life my home. It’s hard when your heart is so damn empty.

New post up at Atheist Republic!

HDR_SecularizationofGrief-Kimboo-MF

 

Can we, as atheists with no real common denominator other than what we don’t believe in, use celebrity mourning as any kind of guide or measure for more personal tragedies? I think so. The thing that strikes me about the events I bring up here, from Princess Di to Robin Williams to Leonard Nimoy, is that the mourning was public. That seems incredibly obvious to point out, but think about this in comparison to personal losses. People refrain from bringing up the names of dead family members, don’t refer to their deaths, and generally help us build a wall of isolation around our losses.

Full essay at: http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/kimboo-york/celebrity-death-secularization-mourning

The Secular Power of Coloring Books

Recently, I told a friend to buy some coloring books. Even to me it seems like an out-of-the-blue suggestion, and after I commented on her Facebook post I felt a little idiotic. Who tells a grown woman in a stressful, chaotic time of her life to buy a coloring book?

Me, apparently.

We had chatted earlier about writing, as she is a writer and a full-time caretaker who was worried about not having the energy to write. My responses mostly consisted of kind, empathetic remarks like “are you fucking kidding me? Of course you don’t have the energy to write! What the hell are you thinking??!??!?!”

By the time I got around to making a comment on her post, I realized I needed to be proactive and suggest actual solutions to the problem, as opposed to mere kind, empathetic remarks. So: coloring books.

Coloring books for caretakers. It should be a thing.

Especially for atheist/non-deist caretakers.

My own grieving was highly affected by the fact that I was the full time caretaker for both of my parents as they died. It was only about three and a half years, all told, but it was pretty traumatic. In fact, my therapist suggested that my PTSD and dissociation disorder stemmed more from those years than the actual deaths of my parents.

The literature on full time care-taking is pretty robust these days, and most of it confirms what someone like me already knows: it is catastrophic for our mental health. It is stressful both physically and emotionally. It is a financial strain, it is lonely, and it is depressing. And there I was, in the thick of it, basically alone.*

Again, and as usual, atheists and other non-deists usually have the double hit of not only being full-time caretakers, but not having a built-in support network that religious communities often provide. It’s not true that every church “family” helps their brethren, of course, nor is it uncommon from even the most devout person to insulate themselves from their communities of choice during times of extreme stress. They do, however, have the fallback of prayer and believing that they are being “helped by God” through times of stress, and we can belittle that all we want from a skeptical perspective but they find emotional solace in doing so. Hence the old saw, “no atheists in a foxhole” as most people think that a high-stress environment will inevitably lead to prayer as a coping mechanism, no matter how many of us claim otherwise.

Anyway, there was me, deep in the foxhole of in my early 20s with two dying parents and feeling like my own life was over.

Most things related to “having a life” were beyond me, and I am grateful I did not have to hold down any kind of employment or work on a higher education degree. I had my bachelor’s and my parents had my father’s retirement income, and that at least held us up so I could stay home full time. I call them the “house wife years” because while I was the daughter, I was totally married to that house.

But most of those memories are a blur. I was too exhausted to write or draw regularly, if much at all. I watched a lot of vacuous television, and late at night when my parents were asleep I would sneak out of the house like a teenager and go dance (but not drink) at nightclubs. It was my one of my only escapes.

The other was coloring books.

My mother had picked up the “adult coloring book” habit years before. I still remember the main book she used, it was a very thick book of mandalas, and she never finished it (I mean, it had like 100 pages of mandalas you could color, over 200 drawings). She would retire to coloring books during downward slides of her bi-polar cycles, when she still had enough energy and brain power to be bored but not enough to get involved in projects.

I picked up a copy of the same book when I moved home to take care of my parents (adult coloring books were rare, and variety a pipe dream), and while it was not a constant companion, I remember many mornings and afternoons where I would doodle out colors between the lines, feeling free in the choice of colored pencils and yet not stressed by the requirement of intense creative effort. It was a way to reconnect with myself without stressing about productivity, because there is something about the restrictions of the lines that allows for the colorist to focus on one simple task to the exclusion of other things, but it is not so monotonous as to become taxing.

Coloring books exist on that fine line between drudgery and creativity. Coloring in the lines gives me structure and security while allowing me to flirt with the edges of my imagination. It relieves me of the burden of accountability for my output. That, of course, is usually exactly what a creative person – writer, artist, musician – aims for, not avoids. We strive to produce in some form or another, even if what we produce is practicing our skills. “Write/draw/play every day!” is the mantra, with an assumption of progression behind it: do the thing, every day, responsibly and with dedication, so you can get better at the thing.

On the other hand, I’ve found that coloring in a coloring book is meditative in practice. Or, in lay terms: you zone out. The restrictions of “produce and progress” are lifted and I’m left only with the interaction between myself and the materials (pencils, pens, paper, design). This is a mini-satori in a way, a short brush with enlightenment that cannot be sustained, its value derived from the experience.

I needed those moments desperately. Alone in my own head I could easily drive myself crazy with worry, fear, frustration and exhaustion. Coloring was a way to “get out” of my misery and fear in a creative but not oppressive way.

We need more examples like this for atheist/non-deist care-takers, tools they can use that are not dependent on supernatural or paranormal validation. Care-taking is, in the vernacular, a “soul sucking” job, no matter how much you love the person you are taking care of. It’s a thankless task and very little makes up for the frustration, fear, worry, and exhaustion. As atheists and non-deists, we need to be providing answers to these kinds of dilemmas. Coloring books are an example of a secular tool that can be accessed across cultural, social, and economic lines to help people when they are emotionally burdened or compromised.

All power to the coloring books.


 

*Ironically, during the time I was a care-taker I was involved in the Episcopal Church. Or, at least, I was trying to be. As I’ve written before, it was more a “going through the motions” thing and not something I got any emotional benefit from. Even when I tried prayer, it didn’t do anything to change my situation (no surprise there) or how I felt about my situation. Neither was there a lot of church outreach to my family, certainly not enough to counter the incredible trauma we were going through, and in general we tended to rebuff people who got too close. We were loners by default, a family unit of three iconoclastic introverts who were, at best, agnostic.

 

On Helplessness

There is a lot to unpack in philosopher André Comte-Sponville’s long essay, “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.” I have not, in fact, even finished reading it, but I’ll post a review of it when I do. (Spoiler: it’s going to be gushingly positive, highly fangirl-ish review. I love this book.)

But there is a lot to unpack in it, bon mots of brilliant insight that had me (at the bar of my favorite restaurant, no less) hopping up and down with excitement and exclaiming, “Yes! Exactly!” a lot. My bartender was amused.

What really grabbed me was that right out of the gate, Comte-Sponville tackled grief and mourning (this guy knows the way to my heart, for sure).This quote in particular has stayed with me: “Far more real, far more painful and unbearable is the death of loved ones. This is where atheists find themselves the most helpless.”

When people ask me about care-taking, grief, and mourning, they often hedge around the question “what was the worst part?” but it’s obvious that is what they want to know. I think because they often want to prime themselves for the experience, in hopes that being prepared for it will somehow make it easier to live through. It won’t, but that’s beside the point, because my answer generally confuses them: the worst part is the helplessness.

You stand by in horror when you watch someone slowly die, or stand transfixed by shock when informed of a sudden and unexpected death. Then they are dead, and there is nothing you can do. There was nothing you could have done. Nothing you do in the future will change what has happened.

Like an infant child abandoned in the woods, you are profoundly and terrifyingly helpless.

I have written before that I never once entertained ideas of an afterlife – not even on purpose, it just never occurred to me until other people mentioned it (“they’re happier now”; “you’ll see them again someday”…these consolations were mostly awkward for me, and confusing). So it was with a deep, yawning horror that I saw and understood how helpless I was during my parents’ deaths, because there is no consolation to an inevitable and permanent ending that cannot be successfully delayed or derailed or avoided. Death is, after birth, the most permanent human condition.

Ironically, during this time I was deeply involved in the Episcopal Church, mostly at my mother’s (surprise) urgings and my father’s approval. I was a lay minister, even. I prayed often. But it was empty of anything meaningful for me, despite my attempt to “find God” that seemed so important for other people. I was entirely sincere in my participation, but it was a lackluster experience. It gave me no answers, provided no solace, offered no hope. When I did pray, it was mostly for strength that never seemed to come. I was weak and devastated and helpless in the face of deaths I could not circumvent.

Not long after my father’s death (a year and half after my mother’s) I gave up on church and prayer. I would, ten years later, go on another “search for God” that was lot more organized and just as pointless, but in meantime I was dealing with a sense of helplessness that overwhelmed me, with no relief in sight other than depression. Depression is pretty awful, but I will say this: it does an excellent job of numbing your emotions. Oh, the good ones too, no doubt; joy, love, passion, excitement, kindness all get taken down in the same storm as grief, anger and helplessness. But it was the only reprieve I got.

Which is the backdrop for my reading that line from Comte-Sponville’s book. He is talking specifically about atheists like myself who are often sanguine about our own future death. Get a group of atheists together, and the one thing we can agree on is that we all fear dying but not death. I’ll die, that’s fine, that’s how it goes, here’s to hoping it’s not particularly painful. Whatevs.

But the same cannot be said about the death of loved ones, where we are left heartbroken and bereft by the permanent departure of someone who was an important part of our lives. What to do? What to do???

That is the essence of helplessness, I think, that desperate plea “What to do?” We must do something or go crazy, but there is nothing to be done. Religions do perform some service through the application of ritual (prayers, funerals, remembrances), and of course most deists believe in a version of carrying on in some way, even Buddhists (via reincarnation) and Jews (albeit without much fervor).

But not so, for us.

So, we stew in our helplessness. I dug out of it years later and after a nervous breakdown, which I truly don’t recommend. I’m not sure what could have prevented that catastrophe, but I’d like to think there was something. Therapy worked wonders in the end, but only when I was ready for it. There was no book or theory or practice that I ever found to help pull me, a “devout” atheist, out of my pit of bleak helplessness.

I don’t have answers for that conundrum. There is no point to prayer or rituals if you have no underlying faith in the framework they are a part of, which I learned through first-hand experience. Empty gestures just move air around.

I have not finished Comte-Sponville’s book, although a quick glance through proves he is adroit at asking the questions but hesitant with answers, a fine tone for a skeptic to take in my opinion. Perhaps these are things we must all simply power through and the key is not to find solutions but to learn to ask the right questions, each to answer individually on our own.

Which leaves me wondering what my questions would have been, 20 years ago.

 

Death Café, Tallahassee

I went to my first Death Café on Tuesday night. It was held at the Tallahassee Senior Center, which is busy place in the heart of “Mid-Town” Tallahassee, and just a block from where I live.

One aspect that attracted me to the whole concept of a Death Café is that it is secular, and welcoming of all people regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. It’s hard to find that kind of environment or organization when it comes to death, which is so heavily managed by religions.

I’ve known of Death Cafés pretty much since they started back in 2011, and have wanted to attend one.  I even considered trying to host one myself, but with graduate school and then full-time employment, I knew I could not do so effectively. Big Bend Hospice has been hosting them here in town for a while, though, but I did not know that until I saw it advertised on the big electronic sign out front the Senior Center (which happens to be where I wait for the bus each morning on my way to work, so you know, captive audience).

It’s probably not surprising that at 45, I was one of the younger people in attendance. It was about 30 people total, I’d guess, and we were broken up into smaller groups of five-to-eight at separate tables. There was a catered dinner, which was nice, since I had just rolled in from work (carting my backpack and wearing sneakers – bus riders gotta be ready to run, that’s all I’m sayin’!) and did not have time to go home first.

The group I was a part of was made up of people who had both lost loved ones and were also planning their own death/dying management (living wills, funeral arrangements, and such forth), so we all had that in common. There was no one there who was wary of talking about death and dying. Our shells were fully cracked by our life experiences and we were all ready to share.

I can’t say it was a particularly profound experience, but perhaps therein lies its value. There are few ways for non-deists to talk with death or our experiences as grievers in any kind of group setting outside of our circle of family and friends, and so we tend to just stay quiet.

But a Death Café, by its very nature, is designed to be that kind of secular, supportive place. It’s not the same as a grief support group, but then, I’m not at a stage in my life where I feel the need to be a part of a support group like that. I am simply looking for people who share my desire to break the taboo that surrounds death and dying, and talk to them about how our larger society frames our very personal issues. Since that was our common goal, it was a safe and comfortable place for me to participate without feeling judged or marginalized because of my atheism.

I will definitely attend a future event, although maybe not monthly. I’m unsure of what value I bring to the table, honestly, and would generally prefer not to talk about my own experiences but that’s just unavoidable. I do feel like a curiosity sometimes, and have since I was 26: tragedy writ large on memories of a long-dead family. It’s my story and I am comfortable in it, but people often react sensationally to it. That’s boring to me, but I understand how my life story is a little bit of a spectacle. My goal, though, is to try and talk less about “what happened” and more about “how do we function in society, and how ill-equipped is society to deal with us?”

I’m fortunate that Death Cafés are a thing now. I wonder – as I so often do – how different (if at all) my life would be if such resources had existed 20 years ago…

Regeneration

I’m here to talk about Dr. Who.

That might seem an odd segue for a blog about atheist grief, but last night when I was chatting with a friend, both subjects came up and I was spellbound. Why? Because in the end, both Dr. Who and grief are about personal regeneration.

This started when my friend J. was talking about her friend, whom we’re going to call British Steve. So the idea really tracks back to him, which is no big surprise when you think about it because British Steve is, as you may have guessed, British. His comment to her was that grief  recovery is a lot like Dr. Who’s life cycle: it requires complete regeneration.

I had to explain Dr. Who mythology to J., who wasn’t familiar with Time Lords. In the process, I realized, “holy crap, British Steve is RIGHT!”

In my book Grieving Futures I have a chapter about grief “recovery”, a word I don’t think applies at all to the process or the goal. It implies that you will get back to some kind of steady state, that you will “get over” grief and recover. But you won’t. You can’t, because that steady state of who you used to be has been shattered. It really isn’t like breaking a bone, although that metaphor has its uses. In GF I decided that the word “recuperation” fit better, although even at the time I knew it wasn’t perfect. You can recuperate from a broken leg and walk around like nothing happened, even if once in a while your leg twinges with pain or aches on rainy days. It’s the same leg and it works the same way, it looks the same, it IS THE SAME. Broken but healed: you have recuperated.

But regeneration isn’t like that. As I explained to J., when the Doctor regenerates, it’s a complete genetic remapping of his body (apologies to Dr. Who fans if I mangle this a little, I’m not really a hard core fan, I’m just familiar with the show). Intrinsically, he’s still the Doctor. But because his body has been remade, he’s also a completely different person, and not just in looks: his humor is different, his attitude is different, his reactions are different. His moral center as a Time Lord is the same, and he has all of his memories (mostly?) and he is always, always theDoctor. But he’s also not the same at all.

And that, my dear readers, is exactly what grief does to you. It regenerates  you.

In thinking this over, I realized that I have regenerated about three times (not counting childhood, but I think an argument could be made for that). The first time was when my mother was diagnosed in late 1992; the second, after my father died in 1996 and I was well and truly on my own; and the third, in 2008 when I hit the psychological skids and had to completely….wait for it….regenerate.  I think I’m actually undergoing a slow regeneration now, or maybe getting ready for one? Who knows how many times I’ll hit that reset, but now that I understand what is happening, I think I’m more prepared for it.

Back to the idea of regeneration, though: it’s painful, it’s scary, and there are no guarantees of who you will be on the other side. “Ten“, the tenth Doctor famously played by David Tennant, is known for the quote, “I don’t want to go.” It’s a heartbreaking moment because he knows he’s losing the life he created for himself in that form. When he regenerates, Ten "I don't wanna go"he won’t feel quite the same way about things and people, and he won’t react the same way either. Whatever he gains through regeneration (namely, an extremely extended lifespan) comes with great loss as well. And he damn well knows it.

I suppose this isn’t a very pleasant version of grief, but then, I pride myself in not pulling punches when talking about this stuff. It sucks, okay? It just sucks and it hurts and it’s awful.

But, and here’s the kicker: not regenerating at all isn’t a viable option. There is no stasis. You either rot in place or you change. To be honest, I rotted in place for a decade. I thought it was safe, but it was also pretty painful, and depressing, and in the end I had to regenerate anyway. It always comes back to that, and you can put it off until the pain is too great to continue or you can get it over with quickly and deal with the fall out. I’m not saying one way is good or bad, right or wrong, just that regeneration is inevitable.

This concept probably applies to a lot of traumatic life events, not just grief, and I find myself applying it liberally to my own story now. I understand clearly now why I am still the 26 year old young woman who lost her family, her home, and her pets and yet am someone so profoundly different I don’t see the similarities anymore. I have not lost a single experience, despite having a completely different outlook and personality. Friends from 1990 or 1998 recognize me as the same person, but also talk about how much I’ve changed. Part of that is the aging process, of course — brains change over time, we accumulate experiences that feed into our behavior and outlook. That’s the expected part of life.

Trauma, though, throws a wrench into the process. It takes a slow slide along the track of “getting older” and throws you bodily off it onto another track entirely. You’re still getting older, you still have all the memories and mementoes of “life before” but you’re going in a new direction in a different mind/body combination with different thoughts and different emotions.

You’re not recovering from grief or any other form of trauma, nor recuperating from it — the experience has, bodily by force, regenerated you completely. 

So it’s all scary and it’s got no guarantees and it means letting go of parts of yourself that you used to believe were permanent elements of your personality. On this side, that just sounds awful, and stressful, and painful. The irony here is that regeneration is the only way the Doctor can survive and by regenerating, he continues his adventures helping people and fixing time itself. For us, as mere humans, grief/trauma forces us into regeneration both as a protective measure to keep us alive and a progressive measure to help us continue on into a new stage of adventure.

You don’t wanna go…but you will, and when you do, you’ll find an amazing, brand new life. That’s just how it works.

 

Proof of Life

Grief is a burden, all on its own. It is as heavy as bags of sand set down over our shoulders, numbing our senses until all we can feel is the weight we carry.

It’s said that time heals all wounds, but what is left off of that pithy aphorism is that wounds are painful, and the healing process is painful, and in the end you have a scar that is, itself, sometimes painful. The body heals wounds but does not forget them, and the healing process records the memory through pain. Shock will sometimes relieve us of the memory of a traumatic event, but the healing process will never let us forget it.

The faithful, then, are told to pray or wrap themselves in their faith to try and ease the agony that loss brings down upon us. For some people, that might even work. Yet, even among true believers of one faith or another, I have found people grieving who suffer intense, burning anger and almost unimaginable sorrow so overwhelming that feeling nothing is better. No sadness, no joy, no anger, no pleasure: grief protects us by cutting us off from what will hurt most; the unfortunate part is that includes the healing process itself.

When that happens, people get desperate. We all know that nature abhors a vacuum, and that is as true for our emotional state as anything else. Grief numbs us to protect us but that’s terrifying.

What happens then, in my experience, is that people grab for the nearest “proof of life” — things like alcohol, drugs, sex, or dangerous behavior. In this, religious communities fair no better than the atheist grievers I have known: people go down in flames, trying to feel human again without suffering the excruciating agony of grief. It’s a catch-22, there no way to feel alive, or experience joy, happiness, and pleasure, without also feeling pain, sadness, and anger. Cannot be done. Which is why we go to the artificial stimulants or the quick fixes (sex, sky diving), because at least a hangover can be cured or will go away quickly on its own.

This isn’t a problem, though. It’s really NOT. Having sex is not a bad thing; doing drugs or drinking alcohol is not a bad thing; and while I think you’re nuts for skydiving or sea cave spelunking, it’s not intrinsically a bad thing. These behaviors can turn unhealthy if unchecked for extended periods, resulting in addiction and sometimes death. Yes, that is a terrible long-term result to be avoided. But like getting morphine when you’re in the hospital recovering from a major injury or operation, these behaviors are sometimes the only tool we have left to fix ourselves with.

Which leads to one huge thing I hate about the culture of grief support (religious leaders, therapists, support groups, doctors), and that is how it is mired in the Judeo-Christian morality of judging behavior negatively based on random and often inconsistent standards. They refuse to look at behavior like this as anything but harmful, mostly because someone once decided that such actions were morally bankrupt. (Okay, skydiving isn’t morally bankrupt by anyone’s standards, but the idea of risking your life for nothing more than an adrenaline rush is frowned upon, so mox nix).

I turned into a raging slut after my mother died, I cannot even tell you how many people I had sex with but it’s in the triple digits, and it was awesome. I had a great time. You will never convince me that there was anything bad about that other than the few times when I combined drinking and unprotected sex. That was a stupidly dangerous risk for my health, and therefore, “bad,” but the sex itself? The rampaging path of sexual liberation I took through the Orlando club scene of 1994-1995? Nothing bad about that at all.

Grief makes us desperate. It’s a natural protection, but like morphine it numbs indiscriminately. People who are grieving are caught in the strange no-where land of being too damaged to process emotions in a healthy way yet needing to find an outlet for them the same time. How can our choices be anything but twisted and reckless and sometimes painful, dangerous? How is that anything other than a part of the healing process?

The judgmentalism over those kinds of behaviors, claiming they are “bad” outlets for grief, leads back to this romanticized perception that grief is soft and sad, when it’s really all about spiked rage and jagged horror. People are only supposed to act out by crying a lot—no one likes a snotty crier but it is at least socially acceptable, something people can feel sorry about without feeling threatened by it. As a griever, you aren’t supposed to be angry at the person who died, you aren’t supposed to act irresponsibly, you aren’t supposed to let your feelings show or drag on too long. Most of those rules, though, are for the sake of those around you – they do nothing to support the person who is too numb to cry.

Labeling those kinds of reactions as bad or unhealthy out of the gate is a terrible thing to do, though. We don’t need to judge people who are in the midst of the turmoil, we should not add to their burdens by layering on our restrictive expectations of what grief should be in polite society.

I guess the difference between my perspective and that formed by the Judeo-Christian idea of black/white, right/wrong grief is that I think people need a chance to recover on their own terms before being labeled as failures.