Friday, August 15, 2014

Each grief is unique

We live in a culture that encourages comparison.

My car is better than yours.
Your house is bigger than mine.
Her grades are better than his.

I think this is a basic part of what it is to be human that has been vastly exploited by the machines of commerce and power. We have become so accustomed to these machines and pressures that we compare everything, down to the smallest actions and most intimate details.

My neighbor's lawn is greener and more even than mine.
Your mother's scrambled eggs are better than your own.
My little toe is prettier than yours.

And so on. It gets ridiculous.

The comparison I am encountering most frequently these days is this: What I'm going through doesn't compare to what you are, but...

This makes me nuts for several reasons.

  1. One grief is never comparable to another. The loss of my husband is my experience. The loss of your dog or job or marriage or parent is yours. Each experience is utterly and terribly unique. We each process, understand and grow at different rates. There is no map, no manual for this. Yes, there are some similar emotions and maybe similar timelines, but our individual griefs are tied into our whole being and each whole being brings their own history, their own strengths and weaknesses and their own ability to process into the equation. 
  2. Telling me your grief means you understand mine doesn't often help. Because each situation is different, each grief is different. What's more, if you use an example like the loss of your goldfish I have to work to remind myself to be compassionate because at least you are trying. That effort distracts me from the moment and means I chastise myself to remember that I don't know the context of your grief. In so doing I pay less attention to you and to my feelings and instead am busy justifying why you thought the loss of a goldfish and a husband are comparable. They aren't comparable because each grief is different.
  3. Comparing in general is isolating when I most need connection.
    I feel as though I have to reassure you that your grief is legitimate and take care of you when I am already weakened and in need. Because each grief is different it would be much easier to just know you have grieved and been through your own version of this process. Maybe that's what you meant, but by comparing, I suddenly am comparing too and don't want to be. 
  4. There are no winners in grief.
    We don't need to compete or compare. When your goldfish died when you were five it broke your heart because it belonged to your best friend who had moved away. That could have shaped your whole life. I don't know. All I need to know is that you care. That you want to connect with me. If you want to tell me about your grief that's usually fine, but we don't need to throw down to see who is hurting more.
We all have grieved something. If we stop comparing maybe we can just be present with one another, we can comfort each other, we can remember that grief is an integral part of human experience and that is enough. 

(20 weeks. I miss you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 8, 2014


All my life I have been able to find a way through most problems. I have been able to change the situation, change myself or just wait, knowing the issue was time-limited and would resolve itself. Some of the solutions have seemed incredibly disruptive (leaving a job, ending a relationship) but they've all been possible. There has always been some point I could negotiate until I found myself in a more tenable situation.

Death isn't like that. It's non-negotiable. Nothing I can say, do, avoid, embrace, bargain or buy will change the fact that the love of my life got cancer and died. Nothing will change the fact that I am still here without Kevin. Nothing will change the fact that his kids lost their dad way too soon.


Living in a non-negotiable state is incredibly uncomfortable and I think that's part of what makes grief so hard. Losing someone you love is a slap in the face reminding us that we have very little control over our lives. I can problem-solve all I want and I will not be able to negotiate my way out of this one. It sucks. I think most of us have a bit of control-freak in us and death is probably why. If we can control our environment then maybe we can control death.

We can't.
I can't.
I couldn't.

I hate it. I hate that controlling myself can't change this, that no amount of self-control will help. I hate that I cannot negotiate with death, a hostage release or exchange, anything to undo this. It's non-negotiable and that is incredibly frustrating for someone who defines herself as a problem-solver. Kevin defined himself the same way and believed we could find a way to problem-solve his illness, right until the end. And then he solved the problem by facing his death with incredible grace and generosity. He solved the problem by loving himself and us enough to be able to let go.

That, of course, is the only way to negotiate with death. Love each other. Love ourselves enough to remain in this world so the light of those we have lost lingers, reflected off of and carried by of our own light. Love is the only detente we can reach with death as we live in this untenable land of grief, of loss, of sorrow, of without. The love remains. And that, too, is non-negotiable.

(19 weeks. I miss you. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A walk in the park

We all know that grief and sorrow are not a walk in the park. But sometimes you just have to walk anyway.

I took these pictures this morning in the Kauffman Memorial Garden, a real gem in the heart of Kansas City. I am finding the camera's eye is helping me see things I might otherwise overlook. That helps. Movement and beauty can help us heal. The walk and the flowers brought me some comfort. I hope they do for you, too.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 1, 2014

Compassion, grief and education

Webster's defines compassion as "a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc. Sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

I believe in compassion. I believe in compassion in both the Western sense and the Buddhist sense, of wanting sentient beings to be free from suffering and, most relevant here, of compassion being love without attachment. It has helped me build bridges to those I thought were unreachable, it has helped me be patient when I really just want to bite, it has helped me be kind to myself in the midst of the darkest pain, it has helped me to remember to be kind to those whom I find frustrating. I believe in compassion.

I have been showered with compassion, in both the Webster's and the Buddhist senses, since Kevin became ill. I am deeply grateful for it. When those who care have been able to love me, care for me, ride the grief roller coaster with me without telling me how to grieve (in other words, loving me without attachment) it helps beyond measure. Compassion is quite literally saving my life as I mourn the life lost.

What's more, I have opportunities to exercise compassion on a daily basis. I have always tried to be compassionate but now I turn to compassion to help me be kind to those who are not on this grief journey with me. Which would be just about everyone.

For example:
  • I have been compassionate with caregivers who didn't understand Kevin. I reminded myself that they see dying people everyday and are doing the best they can. I did everything I could to help them to be as human as they could be, by asking them about their lives, about their cares, so they would see us as people, not just patient and family. And when they did something I didn't like, I didn't blame the individual but the methodology and, as kindly as I could, protected Kevin with everything I had. There was no sense in denying compassion to the caregivers; I used every tool I could to make sure he got the best care possible and caring for the caregivers was one of them.
  • When someone says to me, "I can't imagine what you're going through," I remind myself that they are afraid. I remind myself that they are so scared of losing loved ones that they can't let themselves imagine it. That I represent something they are too scared to feel. I strive for compassion for their fear, for the part of them that knows someday they, too, will be in my position.
  • Likewise, when someone says, "You're so strong, if it happened to me I would still be in bed," I remind myself that they, too, are afraid. I remind myself that they don't realize that what they're saying could sound like a condemnation of my being out in the world, that somehow they might be suggesting that my grief is less than theirs would be. I remind myself that they are trying to be kind. I remind myself that I am out in the world because I am still alive. To stay in bed for months would be to give up and I'm not ready to do that yet (though I certainly have days where I don't go far from bed). I remind myself to treat their blissful inexperience with compassion. Sooner or later they will learn that it's not strength, it's momentum.
  • And lastly, when someone suggests that it's time to move on, time to stop grieving, or asks if I'm ready to date yet, I remember that it is their discomfort with my loss that drives them. They are distressed that I'm sad and made uncomfortable by both their distress and my public feelings. I choose compassion for myself, by grieving in my own time and own season. I choose compassion for them by gently reminding them that this grief is mine and their discomfort is not my concern.
I don't live in a culture with good models for grief. We don't have the Victorian or Jewish year of mourning, there is no veil or ritual or public way of marking loss other than Facebook status. We are removed from the bodies of our dead - in fact, death has become something alien and hidden, so we never have a chance to learn just how much a part of life it is. Those of us who are lucky enough to have not yet had a big loss have no guidebook to help those of us who have. 

I find myself becoming a teacher of grief. All of us who are grieving must teach those around us what helps, what doesn't, and must remember that we are frightening premonitions of what everyone will become. We must be willing to love and be loved without attachment, without expectation, only with acceptance that we all are doing the best we can in any given moment.

I must remember to be compassionate every day, with those who don't know how to help me grieve, with those who are frightened by it, with those who have suffered their own loss. I must let compassion guide me, so perhaps the next time grief is encountered, there will be more compassion, more patience, more love. With or without attachment.

(18 weeks)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 25, 2014

Retreat and re-emergence

For the past decade or so Kevin and I co-taught a storytelling workshop in the Adirondack mountains with our friend Marni Gillard. It was wonderful, a chance to connect with nature, story and each other. This year I co-taught only with Marni, missing Kevin intensely the entire time. I could see him in each corner and yearned for him ferociously. It was very hard. It was also very good to return to work. To remember that I am a good teacher. That story has meaning to me and creates meaning for all of us.

I stayed on for Women's Writing Week, a retreat full of brilliant women, good classes and thoughtful language. I've written about this retreat before, but this year was different. I spent a lot of time writing, dreaming, crying and being held in community. It helped at the same time that it hurt, reminding me that I am coming home to an empty house.

On the next to the last day we found a luna moth, clinging to a lamp post. My friend Phillip sent this to me, on the symbolism of the luna moth. "They are born, they transform, they love, they die, and then are again reborn. Their cycles are short, as are our years while we are here. We are reminded to make the most of our moments and to live and love to the fullest." A new story, a new piece of meaning to add to this time in my life. Emergence, even for just a day or so.

So it is.

I am going home from the mountains to an empty house. I am heartbroken. And in that loss I am reminded over and over of the love. Always the love. The love between me and Kevin that will never cease. The love I felt from all my friends at the retreat. The love I feel for the world, in spite of my brokenness. I am reminded that we are born, live, die and continue, in love.

And in the end
the love you make
is equal to the love
you take.

 (17 weeks. I miss you with all my heart. I will continue to look for you in moths, in the light reflected  on water, in my dreams, in every breeze. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 18, 2014

How to go to sleep. A primer.

It’s hard to sleep when the one you love isn’t there. You already know that, from business trips and the occasional separate vacation. Now imagine they will never sleep by your side again. You will never hear them breathing. You will never nudge them to make the stop snoring. You will never again be able to wake them when you had a bad dream and know you don’t even have to ask for them to hold you. None of these will even be faint options, the poor choice to be regretted later. They are beyond your reach.

Imagine that.

So the question naturally arises, how do you go to sleep without them? Here, in the first of a series of  occasional instructional farcical posts, are directions. 

How to go to sleep when the one you love is dead.
  1. At first you may find sleep is your only ally. Your fatigue from the long sick nights finally has a chance to be appeased. Sleep becomes the place where you can hide and pretend none of this is happening. Like a child, you burrow into your covers and put pillows all around you, a fort against the pain of the outside world. This won’t last so enjoy it while you can.
  2. The laws of physics shift and, while you know it’s impossible, the nights become unbearably long and impossibly quiet. Perhaps the planet has tilted in some new way. You will wonder if you have gone deaf or if the voices in your head have become so loud you can hear nothing else. So you do everything you can to delay the moment when you turn out the light and you are alone in the dark.
  3. Avoidance is an excellent tool. Do laundry. Do dishes. Watch shows on tv at which you previously scoffed. Go for a walk. Go out with a friend. Do everything you can to avoid that still, silent moment when the light clicks off and all you can see is nothing.
  4. The time will come when you need to go to sleep. Some of you may choose to avoid your shared bed. That’s fine. Some will choose to remain there. That’s fine, too.
  5. Surround yourself with the things you love, that which has given comfort in the past. Your books, your journal, your tv remote. Now may be the time to find your old teddy bear and hold her as close as you can. While none of these will help, they are at least cardboard arms against the dark.
  6. Build your fort. Pillows at your side to remind you of the warmth of your love when they lay beside you. Blankets around you, swaddling as if you are being held. Whatever you need to know you are safe. Or as safe as you can be without them there.
  7. Avoid the dark until your eyes are so sandy they hurt. Then.
  8. Be brave. Turn out the light. This is your second bravest moment of the day, exceeded only by getting out of bed in the morning. Notice the shifting shadows and the soft sounds. Cry if you need to, your eyes shut tightly against the night. Talk to your beloved and beg them to be there, even if you can’t hear them answer. You don’t know for sure that they can’t hear you.
  9. Finally, after many gasping breaths, starts and stops, the light turned on and then off again, lie back. Breath. Look into the night because the night has no terrors in it now. You have already survived the worst.
  10. And wait. Eventually sleep may come. Or not.
  11. In the morning avoid the mirror. You know the smudges under your eyes already, they have become your flags of honor. Go through the day. And then finally, when it is late enough, try again.

(16 weeks. I would stop time if I could. I don’t know how. I would do anything to have you here and whole again.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 11, 2014

Cognitive dissonance; healing and betrayal

I've written before about the complexity of grief. About its twistiness, its odd intersections, its self-contradictory nature. I am living in a state of cognitive dissonance. Because grief is what it is and I am who I am, I find the nature of the dissonance changes almost daily. Some days I'm torn up because I didn't do something while he was still here, other days it's because I forgot something - do I remember the shape of his hand? It changes.

These days, most of the dissonance comes from the inescapable fact that parts of me are starting to heal. This isn't to say I won't always miss Kevin, won't always grieve him - I will - but parts of me are beginning to scab over. I am no longer always an open wound. Much of the time I feel raw and exposed, but I am aware that I've laughed. I've thought about the future in some limited way. I have had days where I didn't cry.

I can hear some of you cheering, telling me this is great. And it is. It is also beyond comprehension, cruel, an act of betrayal. Just writing it down feels like betrayal. Part of me knows without any hesitation that healing is betraying him. betraying my love for him. That part of me wants to remain suspended in this pain, in this grief, because it's a connection to him. That part of me states, quite loudly, that if I move forward, if I let the wounds crust over, I am choosing to forget him and betraying the love we have for each other (ignore the tense issues. I prefer present tense for this stuff). That part is loud, powerful and angry.

Other parts of me know differently. They tell me that I can remain connected to him, even if I heal. That the love between us is so strong that nothing can end it, not even death. That, frankly, I will never stop missing him, but it is okay to move forward (not on, never on) and it is, after all, what he would want. Wants.

These parts battle it out every day. In some ways it's interesting, stepping back and watching them fight, but mostly it's just tiring.

I know healing takes time. I know I will eventually not be this sad all the time and that this is a good thing. I know that living my life fully is the best way I can honor Kevin and it is what he wants. I know these things. Equally, I know that I have been through something traumatic and any change is frightening now. Suspension is easier, in some ways, than movement. And lastly, I know that I will change. That my feelings will ease, that I will eventually scar over and become someone new. Similar but not the same.

I just hope that new Laura never forgets this one, that she understands that healing is not betrayal, that she can be tender with us both.

(15 weeks. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 4, 2014

Time is a liar

Happy fourth of July. Last year Kevin and I spent this holiday with friends at their cookout. As we were walking home we held hands and talked about how coming to Kansas City was the right move. I still think it was the right move, though everything is different now.

Today marks 14 weeks since Kevin died. 14 weeks is both a long time and nothing.

A 14 week old fetus is about the size of a nectarine.

At 14 weeks I am beginning to really understand that he is gone. The pain is a deep, grinding thing. It's no longer constant razor blades, but it's more endemic, more inescapable. The illusions are thinner now. In some ways, I am sadder now than I was 6 or 10 weeks ago. I have begun to drift towards the middle of our bed. I wake up and move back over, wanting to leave room for him.

14 weeks into a college term, everyone is panicked about finals. 14 weeks into elementary school the kids are dreaming of their December break. It's cold enough they need to wear coats outside at recess.

At 14 weeks I find I am more able to function, though I am still utterly exhausted. I am cooking occasionally. I spend time with friends. I'm thinking about work again. I still get tired easily and have very little tolerance for crowds or even long conversations. I am still deeply internal. I am still in some amount of stasis, though I know holding still won't bring him back.

14 weeks into a new job you are starting to get your bearings, but you still worry that you'll offend your new work friends or forget some vital piece of HR knowledge.

14 weeks into grief, I still cry almost every day. I might skip a day here or there, but no longer than that. I still feel the lack of him every night and in every decision. I rarely laugh. I don't want to be forced into it, I'm not ready yet. Funny how crying and laughing use most of the same muscles.

14 weeks is just over a quarter of year. It's a fraction of a lifetime. It seems like such a long time. It seems like such a short time. 

I'm beginning to get hints from a few friends that I should decide to feel better. Decide to have a good time. Decide to move on. Grief doesn't work like that. Time is a liar when you're mourning the  love of your life. It's hard to understand both how little time and how long it has been if you haven't gone through something like this. It may even be hard to remember what it was life, if it was long enough ago.

Time has always been an elastic and confusing thing; when we're happy it moves so quickly and when we're sad or bored it becomes interminable. Our perception of time turns us into liars and the lost.

I can't believe it's been 14 weeks since I last kissed him, it doesn't feel that long. I can't believe it's been only 14 weeks since I kissed him.

I think the Victorians had it right, that it takes a good long year to be ready to be in the world again. Or maybe it doesn't. I won't know until I know. And until then, please remember that your measure of time and mine are very different right now. I am living without. Are you? If not, then please be patient and wait for me to measure my life in minutes again, instead of breaths, absence and growing distance from the one I love.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Grief has turned me into a four year old

Have you ever seen that little kid in the supermarket having a full on tantrum? Crying, stomping, shouting, declaring that they don't wanna? Yeah. That's me these days, though I usually have my tantrums in private.

Grief has turned me into a screaming four year old. My world has changed in ways I don't understand, nor do I want to understand it. I don't like. I. Do. Not. Like. It. I want it the way I want it and that just isn't going to happen.

I'm in an anonymous motel in Ohio on my way back to Kansas City from Boston. I got here and more than anything else wanted to call Kevin, to let him know I am safe and sound, stopped for the night. This was the first time I've been on a road trip, stopped in a motel and he wasn't there for me to call. As soon as I realized this I started sobbing. Full-on, howling, contorted face sobbing. I cry like this fairly often, and often I find myself thinking I don't want this! I want my old life back!

These are not unreasonable things to think; my old life was one of love and companionship. This new life is indescribably lonely and often indescribably painful. But it's the life I have. I am still blessed with friends and family, but it's not what it was. It isn't Kevin. I miss him. I want him back. And that can't happen the way I want.

Sometimes I can see a path through this pain and loss, a way to be okay. Other times? I have tantrums. I am four years old. I howl because I want what I cannot have and my heart is broken.

So it is.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Happy birthday sweetheart. An open letter

Today is Kevin's 56th birthday. I suppose some would suggest I should say "It would have been his 56th birthday," but I disagree. It still is the 56th anniversary of his birth. He isn't here bodily to celebrate it, but I am. His kids are. Others who love him are. So, it is his 56th birthday.

This is the first Kevin's birthday that we are observing without him. Later on today his kids and I are going to grill some salmon and drink a toast, reminding ourselves and the world that he is loved. Death doesn't stop love. The observance will hurt, I'm sure. But that's okay. That won't stop the love either. Frankly, I'm grateful for the pain because it means the love is still that strong.

A few weeks after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, one of the medical personnel asked Kevin why he was so intent on chemo, even knowing the cancer was advanced and treatment would be trying. He wryly replied, "I'm 55 years old. I'd like to make 56." I remember thinking, and possibly even saying, "Honey, that's only a few months away. You'll make it."

I was wrong.

Today is not only Kevin's 56th birthday, it marks three months to the day since he died. It's been a hard three months. That's an understatement. But as much as I have tried, I can't stop time. I can't undo what has happened. So I grieve and I live.  I know he wants me to keep going, so I do.

I write to Kevin every day, often several times a day, so in lieu of a gift or a card, here is a letter to my husband, on this, his 56th birthday. You can read it in his stead. Thanks.

Dear Kevin,

I'm not sure what else to say. Dear, beloved Kevin. My love, my heart. I miss you, but you know that. I love you, but you know that, too.

Today is your birthday. Do you remember, last year, when we celebrated by grilling steaks, drinking a bottle of wine and sitting on the porch until the bugs were too bad to bear? I think we talked about the year that had passed, how much had changed. Changing jobs, moving from Boston to KC, getting married. You know, little things like that. 

Little did we know what was coming. Talk about change.

I don't want to dwell on it. It sucked. It was unfair and brutal. You know that, too. And I write to you enough about how much I miss you, how much I hate what has happened.

Here is what I want to say, on your 56th birthday. 

I am so glad you were born. I am so glad, so grateful that you had your mom, your sister, your grandparents, all of those people who helped you became the man I love. I am so glad your kids are the amazing people they are. I am so glad you and I had 15 really good years together and even those last few desperate months. Even those months had elements of good, because we were together, because it only underscored the love.

Kevin, if someone were to travel back in time and tell me that this relationship would eventually lead to the worst pain and grief I could imagine and beyond, I would still say yes. 
I would still lean against you at that conference all those years ago. 
I would still make the hard decision to learn how to be a stepmother and make mistake after mistake after mistake and fear I was getting it all wrong
I would still love you fiercely, with every iota of my being, even knowing I would have to watch you feel pain, watch you die and be unable to stop it, even knowing I would be left behind to manage without you.

I do not regret any moment of us. You are the best thing that could have happened to me and you did.

Thank you. I love you. You are still the star in my sky, the voice I long for, the touch I crave. Happy birthday, sweetheart. I'm so glad you came into this world. 


(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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