Friday, April 24, 2015

Conventional wisdom is a liar

Conventional wisdom seems to state that the first year of grief is the worst. You have to get through all the "firsts" and each one has its own pain. First birthday without, first holiday without, first anniversary without, first.... first everything without. It's brutal. Everything is a reminder of without. Conventional wisdom is wrong, however. The first year isn't the worst. The first year is simply the first year.

As I came closer to the anniversary of Kevin's death a number of widowed friends told me that they found the second year to be worse that the first. I asked them why and they all said, essentially, that the numbness had worn off. I didn't know what to think.

Now, less than a month into the second year, I am beginning to get it. I don't think it's that I'm less numb (though that may be part that I can't recognize yet) but it's something about magical thinking that is encouraged by conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom suggests that after a year I should feel better. Part of me has bought into that. There is a part of me that keeps thinking I've been good. I've been doing my best to be okay. I've been REALLY good. So you can come back now. I'm a good girl, right? There is so much cognitive dissonance in grief and so much frustration over the fact that I can change none of this. I have never been so powerless. No matter how good I am, no matter how diligently I move through the world, Kevin is gone and I will never, ever, ever see him again in this life. Which looks to be annoyingly long. Conventional wisdom is wrong. I don't really feel better, but I sometimes thing I should.

That's part of what I'm having trouble with as I move into this second year of life without. I think part of me thought that, if I got through the first year, got through all of the firsts, that things would somehow be different. That Kevin would somehow be back in my life or at least I would feel more balanced. I feel no better today, 56 weeks after his death, than I did 51 weeks after his death.

Conventional wisdom does us as much harm as good here. Because on some level I had some expectation that things would be different in the second year, the ongoing pain feels sharper, even if it is little different from the pain yesterday or a month ago. What's more, because of the conventional wisdom that it takes about year (to my shame I know I've said that to people before I experienced loss. Please forgive me.) others' expectations of how I should be doing are skewed. Grief takes as long and as much as it takes. Today it's taking a lot, my face is stinging from my tears. Tomorrow it might take less. I won't know until tomorrow comes.

I do know that this second year is bringing its own set of first. The first time I celebrate his birthday without him for the second time. The first time I observe Passover without him for the second time. The first time I experience the without for a second time. Layer upon layer of memory. Our lives are sedimentary.

I imagine this time next year I will write something about how the second year was both better and worse than I had hoped. I imagine there will be new ease and new pain. I don't know who I will be in a year. All I know is it will be another year, another layer, another set of new first and new withouts.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 17, 2015

Unwitnessed

There are so many things I miss about life with Kevin. Having my back scratched. Not washing the dishes alone. Laughing. The list goes on and on.

These were all things I could have predicted missing, long before he died. If someone had asked me prior to his illness, what my greatest fear was, I would have told you it was his death. If they asked what in particular I would miss, back scratches, the dishes and laughter might have shown up on the list.

I never would have imagined this one. I miss being witnessed.

When you are in a significant relationship, part of what keeps it going are the mundanities. The things you quickly take for granted, such as being able to tell someone about your day. Having someone to celebrate the small victories (the sauce tastes good!) and console the small defeats (those shoes don't fit anymore). Without a partner I am unwitnessed. We need witnesses to help us understand our own lives and to offer us external perspective. A witness offers us a reflection through which we can consider ourselves and our actions. Without a witness I turn to my journal to help me mark the victories and frustrations. Today I....

I know this isn't particular to being widowed. Single people the world over have to contend with this, be they single by choice or by separation. I am finding that being single via death means I have become acutely aware of how much I depended on this one relationship. Because it didn't end by choice and because Kevin and I were very close, I didn't build the kinds of friendships that could witness my life everyday. Frankly, that isn't really who I am. I don't want to talk with most people every day. I want to talk with Kevin every day.

I want Kevin. I want his laughter and insight. I want him to witness me as I build my business, as I write, as I succeed and as I fail. His absence in my life is part of why I blog about grief; you have become my witnesses for some of this. Thank you.

But in the everyday? I am unwitnessed. My pet guinea pig doesn't care if I screwed up a gig, he cares only if I have carrots. My friends, beloved and wonderful, have their own lives. We catch up in chunks, not in the every day. I don't want the artificial construct of a daily call. My family, supportive and caring, all have their own concerns as well they should. They are all witnessed by their partners. Again, I don't want a daily call out of obligation. I want the one person in the world whose daily life was part of my narrative. My journal is as close as I have now to a witness. And that's okay. I don't want to sound like I'm whining that no one cares about me. I am blessed with friends and family. I am surrounded by people who care and I know how very lucky I am.

I am grateful. Thank you all.

And still, without Kevin I am unwitnessed and I sometimes wonder how much of life is due to an observer effect.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 10, 2015

What does healing look like anyway?

My friend Bridgette and I were chatting recently about grief. She lost someone close to her when she was young and it's had a lasting effect. I asked her about healing, how she knew when she was moving through the grief, and she replied, "What does healing look like anyway? I still miss him, even years later. The loss is still there. It's just easier to bear."

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Having just passed the year mark of Kevin's death, I already have people say things like, Well, it's been a year, you must be better now, right? I know these things are said lovingly, with hope and encouragement behind the words. The honest answer is no, I am not better. I don't know if I ever will be better or what better looks like.

What I do know is I experience more ease. The pain of losing Kevin is not gone. I doubt that wound will ever heal. But it is easier. Sometimes. I still have days when I wake crying, when I can barely function. They are slightly less frequent now. I am more likely to have days that are a blur where, while I may not be sobbing, I still am shrouded.

Rose Kennedy, a woman who knew something about love and loss, said, "It has been said, 'time heals all wounds.' I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone." I think she's right. I have the thinnest layer of scar tissue now, easily scraped away, but there nonetheless. The grief still comes in waves. I still drown sometimes. Now, at least, I know the wave will pass.

So what does healing look like? For me it seems to mean that I can talk about Kevin without immediately crying. It means I can visit some of our shared pleasures without falling immediately apart. It means I am beginning to think about what the coming days and weeks will be like without feeling only the lack of my heart. Healing looks like crying, like staring off into the distance, like laughing and stopping with a start. It looks like good moments mixed in with the bad. It looks like me.

I don't think I will ever recover from this loss, in the sense that I will recover who I was before he died. I am and will be different. A loss of this magnitude should leave scars. A love of this magnitude changes you. So does the loss.

My heart is still broken. It beats in a different time now, without Kevin's heart in rhythm. I am learning to hear the new rhythm and I may eventually find the dance in it. Not today. But I am still here. I am able to feel the sun on my face. That, perhaps, is what healing looks like. I am still here.

p.s. I've hesitated to publish this post because I don't want anyone to think I am done grieving. All I am noting is that things change. To deny the change would be as false as denying the pain, would be as false as denying the ease.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Listen to the world around you

I taught a storytelling class recently and started, as I always do, with listening. Afterwards one of my students asked me, "What do you mean when you say storytelling starts with listening? I get that we need to have people listen to us, but what about before?" I realized I hadn't done a good job explaining.

What follows was originally posted in this blog waaayy back in 2008. I've rewritten portions but it still stands. I will adjust the way I reach listening but for now? Listen. Listen to the world around you. There are stories in the birdsong, in the rain spatter, in the overheard.

*     *     *

Shhhh.

Listen.

Listen beyond your own inner monologue and the hum of the computer and your to-do list.

Take a moment and just listen to what's happening around you. What do you hear?

It can be hard to just listen, whether to your environment, to a selected sound such as music, to ourselves, or to another person. We're so accustomed to our own running monologues or to filling our environments with other sounds that when we take the time to just listen, it can be a little overwhelming. Yet this experience can lead to a transcendental moment, to a deeper understanding of another person or our own selves.

I listen a lot.
I listen to other people. I listen some to music, though less so since Kevin died. I listen to the natural world. I listen to the hums and rumbles of everything surrounding me. I listen to myself again, to see what might have changed. I've always been a listener, but even more now. I listen to the world to find myself, to find echoes of Kevin, to be reminded that I am not alone.

You already know I'm a storyteller, that I create my own works of fiction and non-fiction and perform them in front of live audiences. Well, good storytelling comes out of listening to the audience. More than that, it comes out of being listened to deeply prior to the performance. More than that, it comes out of listening to the world around you to find those kernels that become stories in the first place. Storytelling is an act of listening.

If storytelling is my life's work, as I believe it to be, then listening is also my life's work. Helping others learn how to listen and understand the impact of deep listening is part of that work.

Listen. Don't interrupt. What do you hear? What does it call upon you to say? What happens when you listen then speak for the world?

(c) 2008 Laura S Packer

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 3, 2015

A plague of loss

One of the many things I cherish about my relationship with Kevin is our approach to the Holy. Kevin was a faithful Christian. I am a struggling Jew. We had many conversations about what it means to have faith and how that faith could be expressed. This was one of the things that bound us to each other in the early days of our relationship; it was one of the things that helped us navigate the end.

Though Kevin and I came from different traditions and had different understandings of faith, god and spirituality, we found common ground. We respected each others beliefs, talked about it frequently and eventually built new rituals that honored us both. The new traditions honored religious calendars, community and common ground between us. Many of you may have heard about or participated in our Christmas celebrations. Far fewer knew about our Passover celebration.

Blood
Frogs

I was raised in a secular home. It was only once I was involved with Kevin that I really began to explore what it means to have more than 3,000 years of history behind me. While I am unlikely to ever be deeply observant, being Jewish has become an important part of my identity, one that is tightly bound to my Christian husband.

Lice
Enraged beasts

As I explored more of my own heritage, with Kevin's encouragement, I found that I particularly love Passover. I love the ritual and story of it, that it celebrates freedom and memory and does so through food and narrative. Kevin and I attended friends' Seders and then began to host our own. It was another piece of common ground for us, as descendants of enslaved people and as people questing for our own understanding of the world.

Cattle disease
Boils

Every year I would consider the Seder and the story told. I would look to my own heart for the parts that had the most meaning. I developed my own Haggadah and sought a deeper understanding of the ritual. Soon I noticed that the naming of the plagues always brought me to tears and I would find myself shaking as God forbade the angels from celebrating the death of the Egyptian firstborn, stating that all beings are beloved. It helped me understand the depths of enslavement, if it took something so terrible to break it. It helped me feel empathy for all people and helped me remember that everyone wants to feed their family, everyone loves their children, everyone grieves. I would encourage those at my Seder table to consider how truly terrible each of these plagues were, how they are more than words on a page and drops of wine on a plate, but each one brought pain, loss and grief.

Hail
Locusts

Now, in my season of grief, this is even more acute. Before the grief was a theoretical thing. Now it is intimate and personal. Kevin's death and my grief feels like my own plague and I keep wondering what I have done to deserve such punishment. Of course I know cancer is not my fault. Of course I know I did nothing to make him ill or deserve this loss. But grief has its own language and own fickle logic. In the middle of the night my heart cannot help but ask why, over and over again, wondering if there was something I could have done to change what has happened.

Darkness
Death of the firstborn

For the first time in many years, this year I am not hosting a Seder. I will go to a friend's home and say the prayers with her community. I will be the welcome stranger. I will close my eyes and hear Kevin's voice mixed in with all of ours as we recite the story together. And as we place drops of wine on our plates to signify the losses incurred by the plagues, I will add one extra.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Telling in spite of myself

This week's #askthestoryteller is an amalgam of my story life and my personal life. I was recently asked how I can keep telling stories, how I can keep performing, while at the same time experiencing deep grief. It's a good question, one I think deserves a public answer because we all will experience difficulties in our lives, yet still need to continue our work.

If you haven't been following this blog or don't know me, then you may not know that my husband Kevin Brooks died from pancreatic cancer just over a year ago. He was not just my life partner, he was also my work partner. He helped me think through stories, craft performances, hone my teaching and more. Losing him has had a significant and lasting impact on my work as well as every other facet of my life. Should you wish, you can read more about this by selecting the grief tag.

We each will experience loss. Whether it's a death, divorce, losing a job or something else, loss is a part life. We heal from these losses in fits and starts. It takes time. It takes remembering who we are beyond the pain, finding ourselves in what we hold most dear (in my case, in my work). It takes telling the story over and over again.

I tell stories because it is a basic part of what it is to be human. It is a basic part of who I am. I have discovered that even now, when my heart is aching and I feel more lost than I ever have been, that performing and connecting to the audience helps me find my feet again. What's more, 20+ years of professionalism kicks in and I want to give the audience the best I can. I do not want them to feel the need to care for me (performance storytelling is not a therapy session) so I step out of my lost and pained state. I find myself in the magical place where storytelling happens. I become more than my pain, more than my words and the way I use my body. I become a conduit for the story, a tool to move the audience beyond their own pain and cares, into the narrative where they can look at their own lives and experiences in the story mirror. I've written before about why I love storytelling; every single one of these elements is at play, even now, and more. Storytelling connects me to the best parts of myself. The wise parts. The parts that see beyond the blur. The parts that Kevin nurtured. When I tell stories I am more and that feeling lingers after the applause the lights have gone out.

When I step on the stage I find healing and solace in the work. I find healing and solace in loving the audience (as I write this All You Need is Love plays over the cafe radio). I find healing and solace in my ongoing connection with Kevin through our shared art. I find healing and solace in remembering that loss is part of the human story, that I am not alone. This is what storytelling is about at its most basic. I am not alone.

Neither are you. No matter your pain and loss you, too, can connect with others through story, through listening, beyond the darkness and into hope.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kevin M. Brooks, loved

Kevin was and remains the love of my life. He was a devoted father, completely dedicated to helping his kids make their own way in the world with as much support as he could provide. He was a seeker of wisdom and laughter and life. He was a dedicated friend. He loved playing with ideas, with juggling balls, with anything he could balance on his palm. He adored his mother even as he would conceal at smile at some of her antics. His stories touched everyone, breaking down barriers of color and class. He was a miracle.

Kevin was a gift to the universe. I am so sad he is gone, I doubt this wound will ever heal but that's okay. I am so grateful for him. I am so grateful for his life, for his love, for his being. I remain awed by the mere fact that he loved me.

He died holding my hand. The last words he said were to tell me he loves me. I have never been more connected to another human being. I doubt I ever will be. In his last days Kevin was surrounded by people who love him. Frankly, I can't imagine a more graceful or holy way to go. While I hate that this happened, I am so glad he was able to make his peace, so glad he was able to be present with his kids, so glad he knew how much he is loved.

Now I see Kevin everywhere. His energy remains in some form because energy can be neither created nor destroyed. I see him in the technology I use, in the media I consume, in the stories I tell. From time to time something happens that I can only explain as Kevin saying hello. He is in the air I breathe so I breath deeply so, when I remember, I close my eyes and feel the molecules of air that passed through his lungs enter mine. We are still connected as are all of you who love him so well.

Thank you all for accompanying me through this year. Writing has saved me again and again. More than that, knowing you are reading what I've written means that I feel less alone. I remember that I have a voice and that maybe I have something useful to say. I wouldn't have made it through without you.

Kevin, thank you.
I love you. I always will, as you will always love me.
Laura

video


(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 27, 2015

Without words



(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kevin in his own words

A year ago today we were holding him. He would purse his lips and I would kiss him. We knew what was coming even as we didn't name it.

For today, here is Kevin in his own words, a much better thing to remember. I love you honey. I always will.

Thanks to massmouth for this video.



(c)2015 Laura S. Packer and Kevin Brooks Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A year ago today, 2

This time a year ago we were still in the cardiac ICU, holding hands.

A year ago this morning it was clear Kevin was on the road. He had made his peace overnight and was as ready as he could be. He was laughing, smiling, talking with people we couldn't see or hear. From time to time he would come back to us and would look at us with such incredible love. He held hands. He hugged. He would purse his lips for me to kiss him. I kissed him every time.

Around 11am the gentle cardiologist from the night before came to our room. He said, "You wanted to revisit the DNR and comfort care. Have you had a chance to talk about it?" Kevin was far away. I don't think he was sleeping. I know he wasn't. He was scoping out the road ahead, the path beyond. I stroked his forehead until he could focus on me. By now he was barely speaking.

I reminded him that last night we said we would revisit the DNR, we would decide if he wanted to remain in comfort care or if he wanted to fight, even knowing the fight was done. It took a few tries for him to focus enough to hear me. When he was as close to present as he could be I asked, "Kevin, do you want to let go? Or do you want them to do everything they can to revive you?" He looked at me without answering, so I asked again, "Kevin, do you want to call off the DNR?" After a moment he shook his head, no. "Do you want us to let you go?" Another moment, and he nodded.

Writing this, I am struggling not to cry, just as I was then.

I turned to the doctor and said, "We'll stay in comfort care."

He said something, I don't know what, and left the room. I turned back to the man I still love.

A few minutes later the doctor asked if I could come out into the hall. My heart sank. There was something else? What other decisions did we need to make?

In the hall I found the cardiologist, a couple of the ER doctors and a bunch of interns. The cardiologist drew me into the group and said, "I have never seen anything like that. I wish you could teach our doctors and families how to be so patient and help the ones they love." I thought of all the years Kevin and I had listened to one another. All the years that were stolen by cancer. This was a new kind of listening.

"I know I had legal power to make the same decision but I wanted it to be his choice. He needed to be able to do that."

One of the ER doctors and a couple of the interns were crying.

I don't remember what else we said. It doesn't really matter.

I went back into the room.

Later that day we were moved to a comfort care room, a big space where we all could fit. Kevin's beloved children arrived. He continued to weaken at the same time as he talked without speaking to people we couldn't see. He kept pursing his lips for kisses. He hugged his kids and told them, as best he could, he loved them. He kept venturing forth into the other world and coming back. I wish he could have told me what he saw.

A year ago today he still held my hand.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com.
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