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.

Podcast: Grieving Futures, “Myths and History” chapter

Wow, it’s been a while. For such a short book, it’s taking me forever to podcast it. #FAIL

But here you go, the latest of it. This is the chapter “Myths and History” which was actually one of the very first things I wrote related to Grieving Futures, wayyy back in 1998. It appeared online at a mourning site for a little while, but has been substantially re-written since then. I hope you find some meaning in it. Thank you!



Sometimes we crack apart

It doesn’t matter how long ago we first started grieving, as children or adults, from a single catastrophic event or from multiple traumas, sometimes without any warning grief opens a door to feelings we locked away long ago. For me it has taken sixteen years for this particular door to crack open.

As part of my New Year commitment to turning my life around after the malaise-driven exercise in frustration that was 2012, I have started meditating again every morning. I vary the practice, from zazen to guided meditations to Hindu chants, but I figure the important thing is to get my butt on a cushion and practice mindfulness.

This morning, halfway through the session, the word “HOME” struck my brain like lightening. My eyes snapped open and I looked around, without much thought, at the living room of my apartment. It’s nothing special nor have I have tried to make it so. Quite frankly, I never have, not with any of the places I’ve lived since I walked out of my parent’s house.

…see what I did there? “My parent’s house.” Not, “my home.” Yet it WAS my home, for many years. It was my refuge and my anchor, the place where I could go and be safe. Sure, it was my parents’ place and they were not exactly “house proud” people (the place was a bit run down, and ugly) but it was home.

It is something I have spent a lot of time walking away from, and never trying to replace. Oh, I’ve lived in decent places, painted the walls, hung up paintings, and all that sort of thing. But they have always felt temporary. They’ve always felt like college housing, I suppose: my place, but not really, and not for long.

This apartment I’ve lived in for nearly five years now, a record for me. And as I looked around at it this morning, I realized how hard I’ve worked NOT to make it a home. Even with paintings on the wall and a studio where I do all of my writing and drawing and even some landscaping I’ve done for the hell of it, I have always mentally kept myself at arm’s length from thinking about it as home.

I could not do that this morning. Like being slammed by a summer squall, I sat in the middle of my living room on my meditation mat in shock, pummeled by the emotional onslaught of my insight: for me to ever have a home again, I have to create it for myself.

My parents died and part of me just assumed that “home” died with them. That when I walked out of the house on Alta Vista Street, I was walking away from home forever.

Part of me was, but now, so many years later, I know what I miss and what I need: HOME. My place, full of my heart and soul and hopes and dreams and tears.

I cried for a long time, way past my scheduled meditation time. I cried for the home I’m never going back to, that is well and truly dead, but in doing so I let myself actually mourn it. I acknowledged that loss at last, 16 years after the fact. Then I looked around at the temporary place I’ve lived in for five years, through graduate school and the souring of my marriage and divorce and the death of Pirate. I looked at it with fresh eyes and an open heart.

I’ve come home at last.

Independence Day, 1996 – letter to a dead man

This letter is something I wrote about three months after my father died. It’s hard for me to read this letter; I was 26 and I think both my youth and my naiveté are pretty obvious, as well as my grief. I’ve changed a lot in the years since then. But I think this is a good example of grief when it was fresh and raw and I was trying desperately to “normalize” myself.

Dear Poppa,

It is Independence Day, 1996, and I am independent. I am on my own at last, after all these years. It was a mutual dependence, I concede, but it is hard for me to be without it. The dogs keep me from being lonely, but they cannot replace a family that has disappeared. In a few days, I will be moving out of our old house, and with that move, my whole life will be left behind. You, Mother, the house, the bills….I have the dogs, the cat, my car, and entirely too much furniture.

Speaking of which, I have laid on the couch in the den for 10 days. It all boils down to the same chore: staying alive. If I could just come to the conclusion that it is not worth the effort, I might be better off by killing myself. No such luck, though: if nothing else, you taught me the value of every day as it is lived. You had an indefatigable way of assuming that, good or bad or worse, tomorrow will come anyway, so you just might as well be prepared for it…or unprepared, but with your eyes open. I am not preparing myself for anything, but I am at least acknowledging that I will be around tomorrow. Lying here, I can almost pretend (as if most of the furniture had not been sold in the estate sale) that you are still at your desk in the living room. That is actually a delusion worth living for.

I know you always hoped I would find a good, worthy man to share this burden with, but I am afraid I have let you down there too. Like you, I have a tendency to trust a veneer as the truth. I also want a man strong enough not to need me, although those are also the ones who don’t want me. The strength I am attracted to is nothing more than a veneer over emotionally shallow boys. You fell for a woman whose warmth and charm was genuine to the bone, but whose common sense and self-confidence was a rouse, and she financially ruined you. And you loved her anyway. After seeing what her death did to you, I think I might just be better off never falling in love at all.

This year, July 4th means more to me than a holiday that upsets the terrier. I do want to celebrate for once (we so rarely did, didn’t we?), and have a grill-out and listen to you lecture me about my vegetarianism. I want to hear you tell me how exciting my life is, and how many mistakes I am going to make – now I want those insufferable, fatherly lectures on how bad my life isn’t. We could eat salted watermelon for dessert on the back porch during the afternoon rain, and talk about how much Mother loved lazy afternoons and hated summer days.

On these patriotic holidays, everyone talks teary-eyed about our “American Heroes.” How many of them held the hand of a hero while he died? I did, by God, I saw a good man die: You. It is true that living heroes are mostly overlooked, and spend the rest of their lives wondering where their 15 minutes of fame went. Perhaps the only good hero is a dead one; eulogies are more impressive than checks to pay the grocery bills with.

You were a hero, Poppa, one of the top. How many men did you save during your stint in SAR during Viet Nam? And those victims you tried to help at that concentration camp during WWII – I am sure they saw you for the angel you are. How many remember you today? More than you would guess, you with your fatal humble pie. So your name is not being shouted from signs and billboards – hell, I don’t even have a flag to fly at half-mast – but it is inscribed deeply into the hearts of those who knew you. Like me. I miss you.

Love, Miss Boo.

Grieving Futures: Part #17: The Happy Ending

We all want the Happy Ending, no matter how unlikely. I am still looking for it, and in the meantime, I own boxes and boxes of my parents’ keepsakes that I do not know what to do with. They were a unique sort of pack rats, keeping documents more than things, so I have my father’s entire military career documented all the way back to World War II (carbon paper! It is not an urban myth!) and all of their tax returns. Yes, all of their tax returns. From the 1950s on up. No denying it is a daunting legacy [3] and that does not particularly make me happy. It also feels quite endless, whenever I am sorting through it!

There is, of course, always an ending though – every life ends, because everybody dies. No one is particularly happy about that, so what makes a “Happy Ending”, then?

When a story ends, the implication is that the characters live on. Even a “Happy Ending” presupposes not that everyone actually ends (dies), but that they continue on contentedly for the rest of their lives. “The End” means the end of the story, not the end of life, and so a happy ending is one where the characters living blessed and personally fulfilling lives. Similarly, in real life, we tend to break parts of our lives in to disparate stories: the high school years, the college years, the newlywed years, the parental years, the retirement years, etc. Things go wrong when we cannot end one story and move on to the next; everyone has the friend who never left their glory years of high school or college, forever bemoaning the loss of their youth and how miserable their life is comparatively. It can become a dangerous pastime to get stuck at the “The End”, and not move on to “In the beginning…” In my case, it was catastrophic.

I spent a long time living at The End of “My Family”, figuring there was nothing for me past surviving that particular story. I decided that my parents’ deaths were my own ending, and that the best I could do was simply survive, happiness be damned. I hoped that eventually I would move past the worst pangs of grief but I did not understand that happiness is not the absence of misery, it is its own tangible thing that must be cultivated and pursued. It can be gifted upon you, but never demanded, and it is most easily crushed by indifference.

The result is that when I finally started unraveling over ten years later, the worst part was not how much I missed my parents but how much I missed me. I was barely a person, nothing I would recognize as myself. Physically, I was unhealthy and out of shape and not eating nutritiously. I had shuffled through convenient but uninspiring career options, leading me in turn to shuffle through a series of dead-end (at least for me) jobs. Socially, I hid in a marriage that was comfortable and friendly but in many ways loveless, physically and emotionally. I got up and lived from day to day with no purpose or sense of self-worth.

Obviously, I was not happy either.

What took me a while to figure out, amidst many other issues completely unrelated to my grief process, is that being happy is the goal, but not an end. It is something I have to address every day, one way or another, much as I have to face my grief. Avoiding either leads to even bigger problems. I certainly do not have all the answers I need and probably never will, but most days, I am genuinely happy. My “happy ending” is waking up every day remembering who I am, who my parents were, and where I want to go with my life. It is being able to write this book without falling apart.

In a way, I guess I would say that my “Happy Ending” is simply a perpetual state of “In the beginning…”


(This represents to end of the book, as I have posted it in sections. You can always download the book for free as a PDF here at my website, or visit Smashwords and buy it for 99 cents in several different ebook formats!)

Grieving Futures: Part #16: Grieving Futures explained

I am always at a pain to explain the title of this book. It has had the same title, for the same reason, since I first toyed with the idea of writing it back in the late 90s. I have explained the title more times than I can count, and everyone likes it, and the reasoning behind it, but that does not mean that I feel as if I have truly related it properly.

My idea is not bold nor particularly original, but it is an aspect of grief that gets glossed over a lot because it is on first reflection a selfish one: that a large part of what we are grieving is not what was, but what will never be. I think parents dealing with the loss of a child feel this most keenly: that they will never see their baby grow up, graduate, marry, see the world, etc. When a parent dies, it is the reverse: that they will not meet our future spouse, or know their grandchildren, or see us accomplish our heart’s desire. We are grieving for the future that will never be, which is as dead as the person we have lost.

I think, though, that it is not an unreasonably selfish response and deserves more respect. We are not only grieving for what we will never share with that person, but also for what they, themselves, will never experience. In my mother’s case, I grieve for the fact that she died just when medications for bi-polar disorder were becoming advanced enough to actually help her.  She suffered the majority of her adult life from crippling emotional swings, which ripped up her massive potential and locked her in a cage of fear, anger, remorse, and shame. It is enough to make me weep that at the point when she was finally, finally able to construct a life outside of her mental illness, she died. Yes, I would have loved to see that evolution, to be a part of it, but mostly my grief is in on her behalf. It was so unfair.

In my father’s case, it comes back to that lock box full of mementoes I mentioned in the previous section. He will never get a chance to tell me about important times and places in his life, which may not sound like much but my father was a natural born storyteller, and even at 72 years old and stroke-ridden, he loved to spin a good yarn. We were just getting to really know each other as adults, and he was only starting to go back and tell me the stories that clearly weighed on his mind (good and bad) about his military career, his marriage, his childhood – experiences he wanted to share, and it was obvious that he had waited years to finally have a chance to talk to me as an equal. He died with many stories untold, so much left unsaid.

It is shattering to sit in a room full of the things that mattered to your parent and realize that any lessons they had to teach or learn or live with are over, that anything they wanted to explain will forever be a mystery. We certainly mourn for what was – those picture perfect moments of memory, traces of the lives we once lived with the people we still love – and rage at what was taken away from us. To me, though, the loss of their futures is the bitterest pill.

I will always want what might have been.


Grieving Futures, Part #15: Recuperation

I have avoided using the word “recover” in this book, for several reasons. First, I do not want to present grief as some sort of temporary illness that will eventually go away with no lasting effects. Second, recovery in common usage is often linked to illnesses like addiction and eating disorders, and I think it is false advertising to place grief into that category (even if parallels can be drawn, and even if such an illness can be linked to a person’s grief). Third, recovery always implies that the afflicted will “get back to normal”.

Grief will never go away, it is not a mental illness, and it is a guarantee that you will never “get back to normal.” Yet, it is true that over time the emotional extremes decrease in frequency and even intensity, and there is a point where most mourners turn that corner of “this is hell” to “I’m doing okay.” So, I feel a better term is recuperate, which is honestly a synonym of recover with an almost identical dictionary definition but is subtly different in its implication that the effects of the damages are not quite going away even if they mend. You recover from a common cold; you recuperate from trauma.

For me, recuperation began when I finally hit system meltdown, and I hope no one else ever has to go through the years of self-imposed stalling tactics I employed that lead to that catastrophe. My father died in 1996; my slow-motion collapse began in late 2007. I find that ten-year gap enormously frustrating, but then I suspect it would be just as frustrating at 20 years or two years. I still sometimes view it as a personal failure that I did not “bounce back” after my parents died, and my therapist has to constantly remind me to be reasonable with myself.

It happened like this: I saw the movie Hot Fuzz in late 2007, and the realization hit me that had my life gone any differently, it was exactly the kind of movie I would have made. That is discounting a variety of factors, of course – the point is not that I easily dodged a lifetime directing movies, but that my life was so far off course from anything I had ever dreamed about or hoped for or even planned that I did not recognize it. I was a stranger in my own life.

Nonetheless, using tried-and-true tactics of avoidance, I kept the wheels turning in my life up until April 2008, when I was going through a box of my father’s belongings. There was one small wooden lockbox that was, surprisingly, locked and I knew I did not have the key, if I ever had. I unscrewed the base of the box and out fell a lifetime of mementos and keepsakes, the small detritus of my father’s life that he found so precious and rare that he had to lock them away. I will never know why he did that, nor what the majority of the little trinkets meant to him (e.g. a name plate badge; a set of USAF wings which were clearly off his uniform but not visibly different than the other twenty I have; pieces of jewelry). I broke down, completely and unfathomably, going to bed and crying for 24 hours straight.

From that point on I could not avoid the fact that I was in crisis, but I had no way of dealing with it. I simply did not know how. All through that summer I trudged along, terrified and uncertain, until I tried calling Lee’s Place Grief Counseling Center. I say “tried calling” because the first two times I called, I hung up on whoever answered the phone (I am sure I sounded like a prank call. I would like to take this moment to apologize for that). I do not understand why it was so scary, but it was, and on the third try I finally kept myself on the phone although I was reduced to crying hiccups. Somehow the secretary managed to make my appointment anyway.

All of which proves that I am stubbornly slow to change. It took several cracks in my amour and a year of blinking at the world in shock before I sought the help I needed. It is no lie to say that after that, things got really difficult, but it is no less true that they also got better. I worked at it because I knew I was at a point of “make or break”, even if I was doing it in slow motion.

Therapy is not for everyone, but it worked for me. There are, I am sure, as many different ways to recuperate as there are people in mourning, and I know I do not have all the answers. What seems universally true is that you know what you able to deal with, and when. I hate the ten years I “lost” to doing nothing more than mere survival, but it is quite probable that I needed that much time just to recover from the extensive system shocks I experienced.

The thing I hammer home with anyone I know who is in mourning is to not set expectations (or levy judgments against) their recuperation process. It is wise to keep a weather eye out for self-destructive behaviors, of course, but never ever forget that losing a parent is nothing less than a form of personal apocalypse. Own your recuperation, and respect that process.


Grieving Futures, Part #14: The Lonely Codependent

As they say, every unhappy family is miserable in their own unique way. While I was blessed with parents who truly loved and treasured me, they themselves were cursed with serious demons that impacted how they lived their lives, how they raised me, and even how they died.

I mentioned Poppa’s PTSD and alcoholism earlier, born not just out of a history of alcoholism in his family but through surviving World War II as a reconnaissance pilot and the Southeast Asia Conflict (aka Viet Nam) as a rescue helicopter pilot. As far as I know, Poppa never received any serious counseling or psychotherapy to deal with his issues as a war veteran and survivor, and it showed.

Mother, on the other hand, was randomly bipolar and a hypochondriac. When I was young it was not “bipolar” yet, it was “manic-depressive” and to be honest, that was a better description of her life given her extreme mood swings. Her hypochondria was the kind based on actual health problems (for example, she really did have adult-onset severe asthma that almost killed her when I was about seven) but on top of those she piled on so many other “undiagnosed disorders” that it was hard to keep track.

I do not plan on going into too many details about my childhood in this regard, as it is outside the scope of the mission of this book to dwell on it. What I want to establish is that there were problems, serious problems that negatively impacted the relationships between the three of us from the time I was born until today, over a decade after their deaths.

There is a strange dichotomy at work in this kind of situation: I miss my parents, as I loved them very much and they loved me, but I would be lying if I did not admit to being glad sometimes that my mother is dead and that my father is out of his misery.

If that sounds a little shocking, consider that for many years as I thought about writing this book, the subtitle for this section was “How to Hate Your Mother When She’s Dead”. That is the kind of thing that gets you strange looks in conversation, and early query letters for this book were forcefully rejected by agents who were otherwise interested in the idea because they did not like the tone of that particular phrase.

But honestly, the elephant in the room after a parent dies is made up of all the issues you had with them. Maybe your mother was religious, and disapproved of your changing churches or going agnostic; maybe your father never forgave you for marrying the person you did; maybe one or the other parent suffered an addiction to alcohol or drugs; maybe one or the other or both were just kind of lousy parents. Worst case scenario is that the parent who died abused you, physically or mentally, or stood by while someone else did. Who in their right mind really believes that those kinds of issues die with the deceased? Actually, a lot of people do.

I got the “she’s dead, move on” speech in very flavor under the Sun so many times I could (still) scream. I got the “he’s dead, best to remember the good times” speech too. It always made me furious because those kinds of attitudes essentially invalidate my experiences, my regrets, and my anger. I never got the chance to resolve or address my feelings with my parents while they were alive, but that does not mean those feelings just went away on the day they died. Believe me, I really, really wish they had.

It is not about how much you love them, or how much they loved you, it is about the fact that everyone involved is merely human. We are complex emotional creatures and yes, it is entirely possible to love someone
you hate. It is possible to be angry at someone and still miss them. It is possible, and indeed probable, that for however much a part of our lives our parents played, we are sometimes glad they are not around.

I had to contort myself for years to avoid these conflicted feelings, much less address them. It felt weird to discuss problems I had with my mother since she was dead; but as my therapist has to remind me a lot, Mother’s influence in my life did not end with her death and her impact on my emotional development cannot be escaped.

In that sense, we are never truly alone…and that is what will drive you crazy if you do not acknowledge it somehow.


Grieving Futures, part #13: Paperwork and Ribbons

A friend of mine once commented disparagingly on car memorials stickers (where someone puts a tombstone text on the window of their car, e.g. “Sue York, 1942-1994, Loving Wife and Mother”), saying they were tacky and cheap. It is not something I would do (it would take up every inch of my car windows anyway) but I understand the motivation better than my friend did.

For one thing, even in highly religious environments, there is not much memorializing going on these days. There are religious ceremonies within a certain time frame of the death, usually, but after that the dead person’s life and death becomes invisible to the world at large. Mourning just is not done anymore, and while I think forcing people to wear all-black for five years or something (unless they are a goth!) is a little much, it is a shame that we do not do anything that counts as mourning. We have not been given options to replace these crutches, and by crutches I do not mean anything derogatory, but rather akin to the medical necessity of having a form of support after something important has broken.

There is a part of the grieving process that is intensely private, and I am sure there are people who would not want any kind of public acknowledgement of what they are going through. On the whole though, many people want their loss to be recognized at some level, and the car memorial stickers are one modern way of doing that, in practice not that much different than hanging a black wreath on the front door after a death in the household. Back in the day, everyone in town would know whom the wreath was for; these days, we stick the name onto our cars to fight the anonymity of modern death.

The only real ongoing mourning practice we have these days is an unofficial one: paperwork – death certificates, hospital bills, legal papers, financial documents ad nauseum. My father, a former pilot with the U.S. Air Force, once said that in the military you could not get off the runway until the weight of the paperwork equaled the weight of the plane. I’ve always remembered that witticism, especially after my parents died and I was neck-deep in papers. Perhaps the equivalent saying is that you cannot bury your dead until the height of the paperwork equals the depth of the grave?

Anyone who has had the role of trustee for a loved one knows the horrors associated with trying to tie up all the loose ends of a person’s life: acquiring copies of the death certificate, closing bank accounts, dealing with outstand credit balances, figuring out insurance coverage and payouts, arranging for the transfer of property/assets to the legal heir(s). And that is just if there is no one contesting the will or that kind of mess, which with more propertied families is sometimes a huge trauma. Dealing with all of the paperwork that resulted from the deaths of my modestly middle class parents was daunting, though, and in my mother’s case (with all of her credit card debt, which is another story entirely) took over a year to finally just end.

By that time, I had grown used to always carrying her death certificate with me. I had it tucked into the day planner that I took everywhere, and I would often find myself turning to that folder to look at it. When my father died it was second nature to add his death certificate to hers in my planner, and I continued carrying the certificates with me for at least the following five years. It was a form of on-going mourning that worked its way into my daily routine and was profoundly comforting. When I felt totally alone and drifting in a big, bright world, I would look at those papers and remember that I did have a history, that my parents and lived and died and loved me.

It remained a private mourning tradition, for I learned quickly that other people (those who had not lost anyone close, for the most part) found the practice creepy. I kept it my secret, but that did not reduce the importance of having those papers close by. By the time a year had passed from Poppa’s Death Day, I had nothing else to mark me as “in mourning” and certainly nothing publicly visible or recognized.

For me this “anonymous mourning” was worsened by the age-group factor, because a mid-20something is not culturally expected to be dealing with these issues. Statistically, many are, and also issues such as spouse abuse and drug addiction and all sorts of heavy-weight things. No age group is immune. However the young adult is supposed to be reveling in her glory years, having fun and starting off her life and career and relationships with few burdens. I often wonder how much easier it would have been for me to face up to my defiance and denial demons if I had been given some public avenue for mourning.

But our society works hard to avoid, deny, and cheat death. Mourning is de facto an open acknowledgement of peoples’ deepest fears, and it is uncomfortable for them to even think about it. I know some folks who will detour just to avoid driving past a cemetery. And to think, back in the Victorian era, families used to picnic after church at the graves of loved ones as a form of memorial and mourning! Many people find that idea morbid but personally, I would love to share my life with the dead in such a straightforward, familial way.

For a few months in 1999 I worked on an idea I called the Black Ribbon Project; the red AIDS ribbon was ubiquitous in those years, and other colored-ribbon causes had not been fully born yet. My idea was to champion the wearing of small black ribbons to symbolize mourning. I made up a flier and faxed it around to newspapers but I did not really know what I was doing, and it is hard to drum up interest in something that is not an actual cause needing money; ironically, by asking for nothing I insured that my concept would get nothing, including attention. I still like the idea, as it is a simple and unobtrusive way to be in mourning that does not have any particular religious significance yet carries the gravity of tradition.

I honestly do not know what other traditions might work these days. There are so many different religious beliefs and customs that a generic mourning tradition is needed but is already fighting an uphill battle for recognition, not to mention fighting our collective knee-jerk horror at anything to do with our mortality. I wish I had a way to advance the black ribbon campaign again, but the same hurdles are in place, and at this point the deaths I am mourning are so far distant that it would feel pretentious to mark them visibly.

Yet I firmly believe we are all cheated by not marking grief in a public way. It might not be helpful for everybody, but for those of us who crave that kind of acknowledgement, it can be crucial to our whole mourning process. It is why car sticker memorials came into being in the first place. I often wonder what secret traditions other people have similar to my own desperate clinging to the paperwork of my parents’ deaths.


Grieving Futures, part #12: Life, Death, and Taxes

(…or, “It’s All About the Money”)

Finances were another way I did the denial dance, but I have pulled it into this separate section because of all the long-lasting effects that the early death of a parent or parents can have on a young adult, money is quite possibly one of the most complex and damning.

Not to say that drug and/or alcohol abuse/addiction is a lightweight problem, or things like emotional breakdowns. Pretty much every aspect of the grieving process is serious and can take a wrong turn towards self-destructive over the course of a bad week. Yet, money earned (or not)  during a person’s 20s can impact them well up into retirement. There are ways to get rich over 30, over course, and ways to lose everything when you are 50. What I am trying to get at is that money is powerful not just over a person’s day to day life but within the myriad of relationships and choices a person makes over the course of decades; its influence is, in a word, insidious.

Unless you are a profoundly well-balanced, mature individual (and I know a few, they do exist, I am just not one of them), derailing a career in your 20s leads to making decisions for the next ten years or so based on panic. You end up bouncing around, trying to find what sticks, or maybe you just jump ship every time a career option demands serious commitment. I am not talking about a logical, well-considered choice to change careers, but a situation where choices that once made sense are either impossible or ill-considered, and options that might be smart to follow through on are disregarded out of fear or a feeling of hopelessness.

I have already mentioned that after I graduated, I was floating along rudderless. I did not have a clear career path picked out, but I did have a path-of-sorts, in that I knew I was going to grad school. Given the economy of the era and my age, I could have just picked a specialty out of the hat and made a decent living at it. I had, in fact, narrowed my choices down to about three separate grad programs (each was a reach, as they were all top-of-the-field types of programs, but given my own alma mater I did at least have a shot). I did not have much of a plan but I was at least headed in the right direction. Then, I got derailed.

Remember that my parents’ deaths were protracted affairs; I did not wake up one morning, as some people do, and end the day as an orphan. I had a lot of time to watch the train wreck, but as I was watching from somewhere near the baggage car I was distracted from dealing with my own fate. I was not fortunate enough to live near a university with a good graduate program in any of my fields, and honestly I would not have made time for it if I had. I was entirely devoted to the role of caretaker, almost destructively so, and I stayed home. That is a separate issue, but probably common in the sense that whatever the circumstances, during the death and subsequent grieving process for a parent children tend to put themselves last on the hierarchy of importance.

In a perfect universe, my parents would not have been terrified of their mortality to the point of disregarding what was in my best interest. But they were dying and often in pain or confuzzled by drugs, so I do not blame them at all. There was no support group available to me and anyway I was too busy being strong for my family to even admit that I had needs or weaknesses. The result was that my crucial post-college phase was not spent working (gaining experience) or getting a higher degree (gaining credentials) and when I finally turned back to that paradigm, I was so psychologically broken up that it was like reading a familiar book in a foreign language: I knew the plot and the characters, but I still had no idea what was going on.

After mother died I took a few courses at the local community college with a vague and uncertain thought towards an architectural degree, which was a complete change of plans from all prior career tracks and was both ill-advised and doomed to fail. It was something, though, and it got me out of the house a little during Poppa’s final year, although of course it went up in smoke when Poppa died.

In the end, I did not even have a home anymore or any reason not to move on to do whatever I wanted, where ever I wanted, but I did not do it. I cannot stress how unimportant something like a “career plan” is in that situation, and how normal that unimportance is. As a young woman the expectation was that I would just keep moving, pick up where I left off or perhaps start over or something, but the gut punch that is grief takes away a lot of self-purpose. I was not even anyone’s daughter anymore; how meaningless was it to be an employee? Or a student? Or anything?

I floated from job to job, aimlessly and without direction, for over ten years. It felt right. It cost me dearly.