Thursday, October 23, 2014

A lexicon of grief

I love words. I love their possibility and precision. I expecially love archaic words that once had significant context and meaning but now only reflect an outmoded way of thinking.

A great example of this is collective nouns.
A murder of crows.
A hastiness of cooks.
A blush of boys.

You would think such thorough lexicographers would have found a collective noun for just about everything.
A charm of finches.
A knot of toads.
A pity of prisoners.

They didn't.

There is no collective noun for a group of widows or widowers. There is no word that captures the utter isolation you experience when you lose a spouse. There are no specific words for the darkess of the night, the silence, the emptiness where once there was warmth. There are no graceful, antiquated words for the particular keening sound I make. There are no words

I don't have the words. My most trusted ally is absent.

So I offer you a few collective nouns, specific to those who are grieving. Perhaps the lexicographers can add them to their lists.
A keen of sorrow.
An echo of silence.
A singularity of widows.

Grief underscores the old axiom "needs must" and so in my need I must create new words. New patterns. A new udnerstanding of what it is to be a singular entity, even in a crowd. I have become a singularity of widows. 

(c) 2014 Laura Packer
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Friday, October 17, 2014

Writing about grief. Mathematics.


I wasn't sure what to write about this week. Truthfully, I rarely know exactly what I'm going to write about when I sit down for my Friday post. I know only that writing helps. That analyzing, sharing and being present with my grief through the written word helps. 

I started to write about exhaustion. But that felt trite and, really, how interesting is it to hear how tired I am? Then I began to write about the very physical nature of grief, but I've written about that before and I get tired of listening to myself say the same things over and over again. I then thought about how grief is a roller coaster. But I've written about that too, and I want that post to stand on its own since it's from the before. And then I thought about the dividing line, the before and after. But that's not for today, I'm not ready yet. I may write more about fatigue, the physical pain of grief, the inescapable cycles - heck, I probably will - but none of those are what I wanted to say today.

I started thinking about the process of writing about grief and that felt interesting. I thought about how writing shifts things and I knew what I wanted to say this week.

I've had some lovely and humbling comments about how helpful my public grief journey has been. Thank you. Honestly, I don't feel like I have a choice. By giving it voice, by writing about it, I can understand it more thoroughly and remind myself that I am neither the first nor the last to feel this way. Kevin was one in a million. Together we were one in maybe five million. But considering there are 7 billion people on this planet, we weren't as unique as I might imagine, so it helps me to think that maybe my expression of grief, my changing understanding, will be useful to one of those other thousand or so couples like us. Or, more accurately, to the remaining part of those thousand or so couples.

Giving my grief voice is important for another reason. I do not live in a culture with good models for grieving. I'm coming to think that part of my life's work is education around this inevitable part of living. If we live and love, we will experience grief. It's as simple as that. By sharing my own experience, as individual as it is, maybe the next person will be a little less afraid. Maybe they will feel a little less alone.

Maybe I'm fooling myself and this is all just self-indulgent. I'm sure that's part of it too. But that's okay. Grief is overwhelming and the mourner needs permission to experience it and to not be alone. Sometimes we all need to be indulged.

For me, part of that permission and indulgence is writing. Blogging. Journaling, which I do far more than any other form of writing. Eventually storytelling. All of this helps me believe that I still have a reason for being here and that I will be heard.

I have built my life on a public examination of my experiences. Whether I am telling a folktale, a myth, a piece of fiction or a story from my life, they are all really personal stories. Whether I am writing a blog post about grief, a recipe or directions to a place I love, they are all reflections of my own experience. Fellini said, "All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography." I don't know how to do this but to express it and I am profoundly grateful that there are people willing to share it. Here is my pearl.

I hope each of you can find your voice, however that may be. Silence gives the darkness power. Speak up. Be heard. Wail. Live.

(29 weeks. I love you.)

(c) 2014 Laura Packer
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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Two songs. A post in two parts

1.  How did I get here?

At this moment I find myself in a coffeehouse in Topeka, Kansas, waiting for a friend prior to her open mic.
Topeka.
Kansas.

At this moment I find myself not crying over the loss of Kevin, but I feel like a walking absence.
Kevin. 
Gone.

In another moment I will cry and try to pretend I'm just wiping my eyes, blowing my nose. An everyday thing in a coffeehouse in Topeka, KS.

At this moment I am drinking tea. I am listening to REM playing over the cafe stereo. I am watching the man across from me talking to himself.

At this moment no one in the world knows where I am. If I close my eyes I feel like I am floating. I am, in many ways, adrift. Not all. 

One of my favorite bands is The Talking Heads. For years I loved the song And she was because it felt like it described my life so well. Now? Once in a lifetime feels more apt.

And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

Here. Listen.




2. I grieve.

When I was in college I experienced my first bout of major depression. I got through, though it was a near thing. Friends helped. A good crisis intervention hotline helped. And some music helped. The Peter Gabriel/Robert Fripp song Here comes the flood helped immensely; I am still here in part because of that song. I listened to it over and over in my dorm room, imagining what it would be like to let go and drown, what it would be like to choose to survive.

When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls

Since Kevin died I barely listen to music. Too much of it is too painful still, carrying memories and secret moments. As you know, music connects to emotion and right now I have more emotion than I can easily handle.
But...

A friend reminded me of this song. While it doesn't represent all of my experience of grief it captures some of it.

the news that truly shocks is the empty empty page 
while the final rattle rocks its empty empty cage 
and i can't handle this 

Once again, Peter Gabriel speaks for me. Thank you. And if anyone knows how I could get a letter to him, thanking him via paper and pen, please let me know.



(c) 2014 Laura Packer

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Grief is a verb

There were many things I was unprepared for as I grieve my beloved. I wasn't prepared for the depths of the pain. I wasn't prepared for how stupid I often feel, my brain clouded with sorrow. I wasn't prepared for the moments of light amidst the darkness, their utter beauty and how shocking it is that beauty can still exist. I wasn't prepared for how utterly exhausting it is to grieve and take a breath, grieve and take a breath.

Grief is not lying prostrate on a fainting couch. There are still dishes to be done, people to be talked to, chores to be accomplished. Life to be lived as best I can. Grief is a weight that is carried everywhere within me. To the pool. To work. To the supermarket. It's not dissimilar from depression in that it colors everything, but I am finding grief to be a hell of a lot more work than the episodes of depression I have experienced.

It's physical. There are days when my body hurts. I sometimes cry until I am on the verge of vomiting. Even in the easier moments, I find I am hunched, braced against the next blow.

Grief is an active process, albeit often an invisible one. To grieve is a verb and grieving is as active and involving as anything I have done.

Everything I do is colored with the questions of why am I bothering, would he have liked this, been proud of me. Every interaction I have has an unspoken dialogue running underneath, one that is unwelcome and distracting but present nonetheless.
How are you?
(why are you asking? I know we've never met, but can't you tell?)
I'm okay, and you?
(Do I really want to know? Oh, better listen.)
(Don't you know my husband is dead? How can your world still be vibrant when mine is broken?)


Living in this double world takes an enormous amount of effort. Even when I'm interacting with someone I know and love, grief circles like a shark that I must be wary of lest it decide to attack. And sometimes it does. The wariness is exhausting. The trying to keep it at bay is exhausting. I marvel at how tired I can feel and yet still function.

It helps when I give myself permission to rest, to put down the burden of everyday life and to not pretend I'm okay. It helps when I find a neutral space so grief can go about its business while I take a breath.


Grief is active and it helps when I rest up for the next bout.

It helps when someone meets me where I am and gives me the space to feel what I need to feel at any given moment. The inner dialogue calms. The shark may still attack but its watchful circles aren't so near. It helps when the grief is acknowledged and permitted space to exist without being called out.

It's active and it helps when you are present with me and accept that I am doing a lot of things all at once.

It helps when I and the world are able to come to a detente and recognize that grieving is much like running an ultra-marathon. It's exhausting. It's all-consuming. It's going to leave you battered and sore and incapable sometimes. Grief is active, as draining as intense physical activity or taking an ongoing test. It changes you and, if you're lucky, it leaves you stronger. Because you're going to have to keep running tomorrow.

(28 weeks. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer

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Friday, October 3, 2014

How it feels

You would think that we all understand how grief feels. We see it in the media all the time and that has to teach us something, right? Watch any action movie and the hero is moved by grief to destroy the bad guys. Characters are knocked off weekly on tv. Books, poetry, music, art... it's everywhere. Isn't it?

Frankly the most accurate modern media depictions of grief I have seen lately are on The Simpsons, when Homer sobs because something painful has happened. We're supposed to laugh at his reaction, at the noises he's making, at his distorted face. I don't laugh. I have wailed like that and will again. In the next moment Homer is fine, whistling and wandering off to another hapless moment. That, too, is true to my experience of grief. When the waves pass I have no choice but to wander off to the next thing I must do because there really isn't any other option. The similarities are minimal and shallow but there.

Homer gets to stop grieving. Minimal. Shallow. Few.

I'm sure if I were a social scientist I would nod wisely and tap my pen against my lip. I would find it significant that the most accurate depictions of grief easily found on television are in an animated show that is supposed to be funny. What does that say about our discomfort with grief?

When Kevin was diagnosed I was shattered. His death has sent me into some kind of transformational process I do not yet and may never understand. I am often still in shock. I find that I am perpetually startled because the idea that Kevin - Kevin! - had cancer and died is blasphemous. Sometimes I howl. Often I am living in a grey world that is utterly indifferent to me and my efforts, rather than the world that I once inhabited where I had some agency. Every once in awhile I feel okay and even that is startling. How can I be okay if he is gone? Guilt sweeps in and the cycle begins again.

That's one of the oddest things about grief. It changes by the moment. Some moments I'm okay. As close to okay as I can be without Kevin. I smile. I might even laugh a little. And in the next? Well.

Here. Try this. Imagine yourself. See your body, your expressions, your movement. Not in a mirror. In your imagination.

When I imagine myself the first thing I see is a flayed skin. Bloody, shapeless and incoherent. Grief means I have lost contour and form. Even in the best moments I am a ghost, grey and transparent, belonging in neither this world nor the world beyond.

That's how it feels.

It's not comfortable. But it is essential.

I would rather live in a world in which I grieve him than one in which I never loved him.

So it goes.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer

(27 weeks. I don't understand how this can be. I love you. I miss you.) Creative Commons License

Monday, September 29, 2014

Grief and story

Humans use narrative to understand our lives. We tell stories to process what we experience, we listen to stories to gain wisdom from others. It is among our most basic of tools for managing the world, for helping us find the small actions that we can control in a universe beyond our control. Whether we experience love or loss, hope or despair, greed or transcendence, there are stories that show us a path.

Storyteller Elizabeth Ellis says that narratives of trial are essential. The teller is saying I've been to hell. I came back. Here is a map. Each map is unique because we all have different inner landscapes, but they offer signposts for the journey. 

There is no one narrative to grief, each person experiences it differently. But the overarching story - love, loss, despair, survival - is an old one, and one everyone experiences. As I travel through the land of grief I am being offered so many story maps. Personal stories from those who have suffered loss. Myths. Fairytales. Each is inaccurate to my journey because each grief is unique, but each reminds me to look for the stacks of stones as I travel my own barren road, landmarks saying I have been here too. You are not alone.

I find myself turning to myths for consolation. At its heart our oldest recorded story, Gilgamesh, is a story of grief and endurance. The King Arthur stories are full of loss and sorrow. These old tales remind me that I am not alone but that I am in the midst of an essential, miserable human experience. Fairy tales, too, have wisdom. They so often begin with loss - I'm talking about stories that long predate Disney and their disappearing mothers - and then they show us that we can recover. We may be transformed into something unrecognizable - we may become the witch, the beast or the princess - but we can endure. 

Even now, as I hesitantly step back into the world of performance storytelling and writing beyond my own experiences of grief, I am handing out maps. My stories are changing as I am changing. Each story I tell says I have been to hell. The road is long but I will come back. I will not be the same. Neither will you. Here is a map. Each story is another stone in the piles along the barren road. I have been here too. You are not alone.
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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Six months


Six months ago today you took your last breath on this earth.
Six months ago today I held your warm hand against by chest, my breast, my cheek.
Six months ago today we stared into each others' eyes for hours, as connected and united as I have ever been with another human being. For awhile we were one being with each and every breath up until the last gasp.
Six months ago today I walked you through the gate. I saw you step into the light.
Six months ago today I did the hardest and most important thing I have ever done. I let you go.

I live in a world colored in shades of grey. The reds, golds and browns of autumn are seen by my eyes but they remain colorless. It's not a bad world, it just isn't the world we built together. I am not a very good architect alone. My world lacks wonder. There are sometimes sparks and glimmers of it, but not now. Not yet. Sometimes I think I'm living in a special effect from a 1960s sci-fi film, when black and white was becoming artsy, when granular imagery wasn't yet a cliché.

Part of me wants to reassure my readers here. To tell them that, yes, I know this will change, I will be okay, sometimes I am okay. To tell them that I know you are with me. The rest of me isn't interested in writing that stuff down. Because you are not with me in body and it's sometimes damned hard to believe you are with me in spirit. We don't speak the same language now. Because six months ago today you were still alive. I wasn't without you. Because now I am.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The world through my eyes: Kansas City Saturday

A gorgeous day here in Kansas City. I brought my camera with me to City Market, to home, to an abandoned lot and on the highway home again. This camera was Kevin's. He became interested in portraiture so he bought a camera and several lenses. He never really got to use it. This is one of those lessons in not waiting; he wanted to take classes first. I have been using it and making mistakes and capturing some nice images.
Every time I use this camera now I feel connected to him. I miss him terribly. Maybe now he sees the world through my eyes and his lens. All of these images (and all the images I have ever posted) are not retouched.

I started out at City Market. The harvest colors were amazing.
I got some lovely veggies for the week.






Once home I found I had a new friend.




After some puttering I set out to meet some other widows at a mall in Kansas City, KS. 
I deliberately gave myself some extra time so I could wander in the abandoned lots not too far away. 
I found beauty.
For scale, these daisies are about the size of a nickel.
I suggest double clicking on these; I was only able to get so close before they flew away.





On my way home I pulled over to watch the sunset.



(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 26, 2014

The thief

Right now? I'm okay. Okayish. I'm not crying, I'm looking forward to time with a friend, I'm drinking tea. Each moment of being okay is a tender new thing, fraught with complexity. And I know it won't last. Grief comes in waves and each time I wish I could call the authorities and tell them about what has been stolen from me. I wish I had a formal vehicle for complaint and resolution other than writing, talking and time itself. My life is so different now.

Death has stolen so much.

It has stolen my comforts. It has stolen the every day joy of holding hands, of knowing there is someone I can call to say I'm on my way home, of knowing that call will make him smile. (And yes, I know there are others who will hold my hand, others I can call, others who will smile, but you know it's not the same.)

It has stolen my delight in the physical. It has stolen back scratches and making love and the good sweat you work up when you exercise with your beloved because you might show off for them just a little. (And yes,  I know I can buy a back scratcher, sex is always findable,  and I still sweat when I exercise, but you know it's not the same.)

It has stolen my intellectual certainty. It has stolen my mirror, my examiner, my thinking companion. (And yes, I can call upon others to reflect, to examine, to accompany me on flights of fancy, but you know it's not the same.)

Death is a thief. It is the greatest thief because, on top of all these and more, it has stolen the known future. It has stolen my present day comfort and the knowledge of comfort at hand. It has stolen companionship expressed through the body and the certainty of comfort to come. It has stolen plans and hopes and aspirations. It has stolen my understanding of myself and my place in the world.

And yes, I know many of these things will come back into my life. I know that part of grief is a process of rediscovery and rebuilding, that I will find all of these again in new ways. Even in this present moment I find things to appreciate. The comfort of tea. The feel of the breeze on my cheek. The process of writing. I know there is comfort and physicality and intellectual companionship in front of me. I know I will discover new ways of being in the world.

But none of these will be with him.

You know it's not the same.

(And please don't tell me but it might even be better. It won't be. It will be different. It may be very good. But it will not have the same flavor and hope that I lived in before. It cannot be the same. Comparing one future to another is as foolish as comparing one grief to another. They are never the same.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer

(26 weeks. I love you.)

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The world through my eyes: Alaska big and small

My final day in Alaska was splendid. My wonderful new friend Melissa took me to Independence Mine State Park and other great sites. I posted pictures from the mine here. And this is the rest of the day.

As before, these are large images so you may want to double-click on them to see them in a larger size.

As we drove along we passed this farm. Note the lovely fireweed in the front and the old bus.

The farm had reindeer (who were camera shy) and this very friendly buffalo. He followed us as we walked along the fence.

Views from the farm.
The Alaska Range. Looking the other way from the farm.

I loved the light on this ridge.

As we were admiring the buffalo, mountains and reindeer, we heard a peculiar cry overhead. Sandhill cranes migrating.
It's worth double clicking on this one and looking at the birds close up. They are lovely.

From the farm we came to this river overlook. If you look carefully you'll find my heart of the day from Kevin.

Wisdom from philosophical graffiti.

Note the Alaska range in the distance.

A different river. The river bed is utterly clogged with glacial silt.

Close up of the silt.

An eagle being harried by a crow.
As we continued our drive Denali (Mt. McKinley) came into view. We were about 160 miles away. It's a BIG mountain.


I liked all the contrasts here. Mountains, traffic, Target. We were in Wasilla, home to a certain Alaska politician.
The photo is dark because it was taken through the car windshield.

From there we went to Independence Mine and then this state park. I don't remember the name.
Note the teeny tiny people on top of the ridge.



The biome in these mountains are alpine tundra. I fell in love with the foliage. 
Each of these plants was TINY. Such beauty in miniature in the midst of overwhelming grandeur.


These mushroom caps were the size of a third of dime.



This is reindeer moss.
It was a good trip and this last day was stunning. I am grateful.


(c)2014 Laura S. Packer
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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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