Grief Diary, 10/12/12

10/12/12

The thing I’ve been having a hard time with in the last couple of days: The fact that grief feels horrible — and there’s pretty much nothing I can do about it.

I’m very used to tackling my problems. I’m used to trying to fix the bad things in my life, or at least taking action to alleviate them. And I can’t do that now. There is a basic, unfixable problem in my life, which is that my dad is dead. There is another basic, unfixable problem in my life, which is that grief happens, and takes time. And the only thing I can really do is to slog through it. There are a handful of things I can do that sometimes make me feel better, or at least that don’t make me feel worse: exercise, time outdoors, socializing, chocolate, making plans and having things to look forward to. But basically, all I can do is ride it out, sit and wait for time to pass. There’s a line from the movie “Tootsie” that Ingrid keeps reminding me of: “I’m going to feel this way until I don’t feel this way anymore.”

And I. Fucking. Hate. That. I’m a control queen. I hate just sitting around waiting for days and weeks and months to pass, so I can feel better. This helplessness itself is just one more fucking thing that feels bad, just one more shitty layer of meta piled on to the core of the grief itself.

I’m also realizing that I’m feeling cut off — voluntarily, but still cut off — from one of my usual avenues of connection and expression and participation in the world… namely, the ongoing conflicts and debates in atheism. I’ve always been someone who’s relatively unafraid of conflict, who’s willing to speak her mind even if it gets blowback. I pride myself on that, and to a great extent I’ve carved it out as a major part of my career niche. But right now, I just don’t have it in me.

And that’s very frustrating. There’s a whole host of pieces I’ve been writing in my head, pieces where I think I have a valuable and unique perspective that could make a real difference in some of these conflicts… and I’m not writing them. I don’t have it in me right now to moderate a flamey, 200+ comment thread about feminism, or sex work, or Atheism+. Even the fairly small or private conflicts I’ve been participating in have been upsetting me and depressing me and freaking me out, all out of proportion. I wake up to a couple of mildly angry emails, and it fucks me up for hours. I know that holding off on these fights for now is the right choice, the best thing I can do to take care of myself. But that sense of being cut off… it’s yet another shitty layer of meta. On top of the 23,452 ways that I feel uncomfortable and restless and like nothing feels right, I have the profoundly uncomfortable sensation of keeping my mouth shut when I normally would be speaking. Keeping my mouth shut does not come naturally to me. Not saying things, solely because I’m afraid that people will be mean to me and I can’t handle it, does not come naturally to me. I fucking hate it.

(A few hours later)

On the other hand — damn. Going to the gym. I really have to remember going to the gym. Made it to the gym tonight — absolutely did not want to go, was not in the mood to go, seriously considered being a bad angel and trying to talk Ingrid out of going and into hanging out with me at the cafe instead, had to pull together all my fortitude and inner resources to force myself to go — and was so very glad I did. Went to the gym, and afterwards we picked up take-out burgers and took them home and ate them in front of “Project Runway” and read Tom and Lorenzo and watched South Korean pop videos on YouTube and let cats crawl all over us… and it felt great. It didn’t feel ecstatic or mind-blowing or anything. It just felt like a Friday night. It felt like myself, enjoying my life and my home and my marriage. Yet another note to self: Go to the fucking gym, as often as you possibly can. Do not keep telling yourself, “I don’t have time.” Your productivity is for shit right now. You are spending hours every day staring blankly at a computer screen and re-checking Twitter for the fiftieth time. Your productivity will be vastly improved if you wake the fuck up. Going to the gym wakes you the fuck up. And besides, you just like it. So go.

Grief Diary, 10/10/12

10/10/12

A better day today. Took yesterday off from, you know, pretty much everything. I was having some female trouble, so I made that my excuse to do what I’ve been desperately wanting to do and have been afraid to for fear that it would push me deeper into my depression: namely, just check the fuck out. Lie on the sofa in my pajamas and nap and eat chocolate and watch TV for twelve hours. In this case, curled up around a hot water bottle. The kitties loved the hot water bottle, so of course they were visiting me off and on all day. I was really worried that a check-out day would make my depression worse, but at least this time it doesn’t seem to have done that. It wasn’t a great day or anything; but it seems to have actually re-charged my batteries a bit. At least, it didn’t make things worse.

And today I had some good stretches. Got caught up on some of the emails that had been piling up over the last few days: got started moving forward on taking care of a little business, scheduling some new speaking engagements and re-scheduling some ones that I had to cancel when Dad died. I’m feeling a little apprehensive about the speaking gigs: my moods are still so unpredictable, I’m still being fairly functional one hour and then shambling around like a zombie the next, without any warning, and I have no way of knowing whether I’ll be more on the “reliably functional” side of that balance in a month or so when I start doing speaking tours again. I suspect I’ll be doing better by the time those gigs come around, but I don’t know for sure. But I can’t keep putting my life on hold forever, just because I might or might not feel up to it in a month. And being engaged with my life and my future, making plans for the work that I love to do, does make me feel better.

I also think I’m getting a little better at figuring out when I’m reaching my limits. Spent about two, maybe three hours catching up on emails… and then realized I was starting to fade, the fog was starting to settle in, and I needed to shift gears. I felt bad, there was some important business that I had to leave unattended… but I heard the voices of every one of my friends and family, the voices of all my blog readers and colleagues and everyone in the Grief Beyond Belief group, all saying, “It’s okay. Give yourself a break. You don’t have to get back to work full-swing right away. Grief is exhausting. It’s okay to take some time.” And I put away the computer, and picked up my Kindle, and just read for a bit. It is funny, though. I had to first convince myself that reading counts as work for me, before I was able to feel fully okay with it. I’m glad I’ve learned enough self-discipline to be able to be self-employed as a full-time writer: I’m glad I have the instinct to want to actually work when I’m at home during the day, and not just fuck off and read books or watch TV. But it makes it harder to let go and give myself a break when it’s appropriate.

Speaking of which: All of this grieving shit is making me realize a big downside to being self-employed: I pretty much have to work if I want to pay the mortgage. And I can’t phone it in, either. I have to actually work… and I have to be self-motivated about it. If I had a day job right now, all I’d have to do is muster the self-discipline to drag my ass to the office. I could clock in for eight hours and wander around like a zombie and not get fuck-all done, and still bring home a paycheck. For a while, anyway. But I can’t do that now. I feel like a jackass, complaining about the downside of being a full-time self-employed writer when 98% of all writers would give their eyeteeth to be where I am in my career. But it is a downside, one I hadn’t thought about, and it’s making the grief harder to manage.

The main thing I’m wrestling with today: the unpredictability of my moods. I feel like I could manage my shifting moods better if I had some sense of when they were coming, and what sets them off. But I have literally no idea. Reading might make me calm and happy one day, twitchy and restless and unable to focus the next. Surfing the net and reading blogs might make me feel engaged and connected with my work and my community one day, irritated and enervated the next. One day I’ll wake up from a long night’s sleep feeling rested and refreshed; the next day, I’ll wake up from the same amount of sleep feeling groggy and like I just want to sleep for four more hours.

Part of the issue, I think, is that depression and grief aren’t the same thing, and I’m still struggling to learn the difference. If some experience cuts through the fog of my depression, if it wakes me up and lets me connect with what I’m feeling… well, the feeling underneath the fog could be anything. So even positive, engaging, depression-cutting experiences could make me feel crummy… because they get me to feel what I’m feeling. And a lot of what I’m feeling these days totally sucks. Cutting through the depression is like scratching off the gray schmutz on a lottery ticket: I don’t know whether what’s underneath is a thousand bucks or a “Sorry — better luck next time.”

Oh, I’m realizing a flip side of the whole “letting other people help me as a form of compassion” thing that I was writing about the other day: Listening to other people, getting engaged in their problems and their lives, is a way of taking care of myself. Hung out with my friend Rebecca tonight, and of course we talked about my dad and how I was doing, which was good and which I dearly wanted to do. But we also talked about her life, her work and her wife and her friends, and we talked about Ingrid, and we talked about stuff and people we had in common… and it helped, just as much as gassing on about my own grief did. Maybe even more. I want to let my friends support me and listen to me… but I don’t want to get so wrapped up in my own grief that it becomes a bubble, isolating me from the world. Listening to other people forges a connection, builds a bridge to the world outside the bubble. And it’s… I don’t know how to put this. It’s what I do, what I would do in my normal life. That’s really important right now.

Of course, the other thing I would do in my normal life is to quit writing because “The Player” just came on TV. So I’m going to go do that now.

Grief Diary, 10/8/12

10/8/12

A hard afternoon today. The fog is settling in over my brain a bit. I knew it probably would be. Today is, as they say, the first day of the rest of my life. Today is the first day that’s not being set aside to deal with death and grief, or the recovery from it. Today is the first day that I have to just live my life, and start moving forward through the coming days and weeks and months while managing my grief. That’s hard.

I’m realizing that there are some important differences between managing grief if you have a tendency towards depression, and if you don’t. If I didn’t have a tendency towards depression, if I hadn’t already been having a depressive episode when Dad died, I might be more likely to let myself spend a day or two in bed or on the sofa, just resting and recovering. But since I’m dealing with depression as well as grief, I know this is a bad, bad idea. I know that I need to get up, get dressed, leave the house, get things done. I don’t need to get as much done as I usually do; I don’t need to be as driven and workaholic as I usually am. Hell, if all I do is get up and get dressed and leave the house and then sit in a cafe all day reading Carl Sagan, that’s okay. But at moments when I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and like all I want to do is lie down on the sofa and flip on the TV or sleep, I absolutely cannot do that. That will not make me feel better. That will make me feel worse.

This is pissing me off. I really, really, really want to just lie down and sleep. I really want to be a person who, when they’re grieving, can just lie down and sleep for a couple of days, and come out of it feeling rested and refreshed.

However. That being said.

I am, once again, feeling immense gratitude for my years of experience in skeptical thinking and living; my years of understanding about cognitive biases and the importance of evidence-based decision-making and the fact that my brain isn’t always right about everything. At this point, after all those years, knowing that my brain isn’t always right has become natural, almost a reflex. The humility of skepticism is helping me manage this, is helping me do the things I need to do to take care of myself, even when I don’t feel like it and can’t see the point.

You know, I’m struggling to say what I mean here, and I already said it once in my piece Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective, so I’m just going to quote myself:

Because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, I am steeped in the habits of rational thinking. I’m not a perfect rational thinker, of course — nobody is — but I know about cognitive biases. I know how emotions color perception. I know that the perspective I’m seeing the world through at any given moment is not necessarily the most accurate one. I know that I’m not always rational… and I can take steps to counteract this. And because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, these habits of thinking — and of acting — are becoming second nature.

Which makes it much easier to act in a rational manner to take care of my mental health… even when I can’t immediately see any reason to.

When I’m feeling depressed, and am feeling entirely unable to see the possibility that anything could ever make me feel different… I can still know, rationally, that this is not the case. And because I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind, I find it much easier to take action to make myself feel better. I can make myself get up off the sofa and go outside: not because I can feel any point to it, but because I know, intellectually, that there is a point. I can drink a big glass of water every couple/ few hours: not because I have any appetite or desire for it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will help wake me up. I can take a long walk before I go to work: not because I take any pleasure in it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will alleviate the depression. Etc. I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind… even when I don’t have any immediate ability to see the point.

Which is why, after a hard afternoon, I had a pretty good evening. Made it to the gym — not wanting to go, not feeling like going, not having it in me to do anything but stay at home and sit on the sofa and eat and watch TV and play with kitties — and was so, so, so, so glad I did. I fucking love lifting weights. Lifting weights is one of the great sensual pleasures of my life. And vigorous exercise is one of the best natural anti-depressants I have. Vigorous exercise wakes me up, breaks through the fog. Vigorous exercise makes me feel like I’m actually present in my life. When we went home afterward and made a healthy dinner and sat on the sofa and petted kitties and watched Fashion Police, it didn’t feel like I was hiding from the world, or sinking into torpor — the way it would have if I’d just stayed home. It felt like… well, it felt like our life. It felt like a regular Monday evening with Ingrid, where we go to the gym and then come back and enjoy our home and each other.

And I was able to go to the gym, in large part, because I was able to trust my rational brain. I was able to trust the part of my brain that said, “I know you don’t feel like you want to do this… but trust me, you do. This will make you feel better. Remember that you don’t always feel this shitty, and that going to the gym is a pretty reliable way of breaking through the shit. Remember that in the years you’ve been going to the gym, there have been maybe half a dozen times when you’ve regretted going, and every single one has been when you’ve been profoundly sleep-deprived… which you aren’t now. So just put one foot in front of the other, and go.”

Thank you, rational brain!

Grief Diary, 10/7/12

10/7/12

Ingrid and I went to the Cindy Sherman exhibit today. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t have been the day to go see a challenging and disturbing art exhibition: we just got back home to San Francisco yesterday, and in a perfect world, this would have a day to rest, play with the kitties, maybe take a gentle little meditative walk. But today was the last day of the exhibit — we’ve been meaning to go, and things kept interfering — and I knew if we missed it, I’d hugely regret it. I’m feeling very “carpe diem”-y right now, very conscious of missed opportunities, and I didn’t want to miss this one. Very glad we went. It was somehow both cathartic and distracting: the exhibit was intense, on themes that resonate very strongly with me… but mostly not the themes I’ve been obsessing on in the last week. It was kind of a relief to be having intense, challenging, unsettling feelings about something other than loss and grief and paralyzing meta-meta-meta self-consciousness. (Although there was one photograph that was very close to home, one I kept returning to and flinching from and returning to again: one of the “centerfolds,” the one that to me looked like an entirely exhausted and defeated woman on the verge of finally falling asleep but with shell-shocked eyes that won’t quite close.) And I went out of my way to walk on the top-floor walkway, the one where you can see straight down through to the four floors below you. I think I wanted to have the experience of the ground not seeming solid under my feet… and experience it as adventurous and pleasurable, and know that it was actually safe. And the long walk to the museum — an hour, maybe a little more — was excellent, and much-needed.

Speaking of which: Memo to self about long walks. During this stretch of grief and depression, I’ll often have a moment during a long walk where I’ll think that I’m exhausted, a moment where I’ll think, “I can’t keep doing this, I have to stop, I have to sit down right this second.” It usually comes early on in the walk, not even fifteen or twenty minutes in, long before the time when I would actually be physically tired and needing to stop. Memo to self: I am not actually exhausted. Not physically, anyway. I am fully capable of continuing to put one foot in front of the other. And if I push through it — if I continue to put one foot in front of the other for a while, even if it’s in a zombie-like daze — I am always happy that I did. I push through it emotionally as well as physically, and feel more awake and alive.

Oh, I remembered what it was! The thing I wanted to say about ways that self-interest and compassion intertwine, the thing I wanted to say yesterday but couldn’t remember or put into words.

It’s this: I’ve been resisting, somewhat, the idea of letting people take care of me. (Except for Ingrid.) Lots of people have been saying, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know” — and I’ve been feeling reluctant to take them up on it. I’m somehow afraid that it’ll suck me into a vortex of self-involvement, that I’d be taking unfair advantage of their kindness. Or something.

But something occurred to me. When people in my life are grieving, or are otherwise suffering, I want to help. It’s not that I think I should help, that I feel obligated to help. I want to. I feel better if I can. I feel helpless and shitty in the face of suffering and grief, especially the suffering and grief of people I love — and being able to help, even a little, makes me feel better.

So letting people help me isn’t just self-involved or taking advantage. I mean, it wouldn’t be anyway, that’s dumb, my father just died and it’s okay for to ask for help. But letting people help me is also, in this complicated intertwining of self-interest and compassion, a way of helping them. My friends want to help me. If there’s a way that they can, I’m doing them a kindness by letting them. Besides, the help isn’t just about the practical help. It’s about the connection being created by the act of helping, and of accepting help. I’m reminded a bit of one of the vows Ingrid and I wrote for our wedding: “I promise to give you my help and support, and to accept help and support from you.” The second half of that is as important to the connection as the first.

Have been having thoughts about atheist views of death and meaning, and how we create our own meaning instead of persuading ourselves that it’s handed to us by God. But Kanani gave me her old Kindle today (she just got a new one), and I bought “The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan, and I want to get into it. I’m feeling slightly less frantically and obsessively driven to record every single thought and feeling every single day in this diary, slightly more willing to let things simmer, and I want to go with that. The atheist meaning of death is not time-sensitive. It can wait until tomorrow.

Grief Diary, 10/6/12

10/6/12

The problem with stress eating: It actually does work. Ate half a bag of Terra Chips, more than half of a big Chocolove bar, and two nasty generic shortbread cookies from the airplane… and I do, in fact, feel better now. Worse in the long run, better in the immediate run. Sometimes, that’s a bargain I’m willing to make.

Another kindness from strangers that I forgot to mention earlier, from yesterday or the day before, I now can’t remember which. Went to a cafe, and the barista didn’t even ask what we wanted: she took one look at us and said, “I’m going to make you the best latte in all of Chicago.” Like the gelato guy, I don’t know if she could tell that we were having a hard time and needed a little happy kind moment, or if she was just a playful person having fun. Didn’t matter. It still stuck with me. The funny thing was, I didn’t actually want a latte: I’d already had a biggish breakfast, and really just wanted a coffee. But I wanted the moment of kindness more. And yes, it was a pretty damn good latte.

Have been thinking some more — just for a change — about all this self-conscious processing about grief I keep doing, and am looking at whether it’s making it easier for me to be compassionate about the others in my family who are grieving over my dad. Or hell, with anyone who’s grieving over anyone. It seems like it is. I’m so hyper-aware of how out of balance my own thoughts and feelings and actions are… so when other grieving people are being stressed or paralyzed or displacey or obsessing over tiny decisions and details, I’ve been more able to recognize it, and cut them slack, and not take it personally. I do worry somewhat, though, about whether I’m going to start falling into my “wise counselor doling out sage advice and insight whether it’s asked for or not” shtick. Probably a bad idea. Especially now, when my insight and wisdom aren’t working so hot.

(Is that more than two layers of meta, Ingrid? Do you have to smack me with a newspaper now?)

I do notice, however, that I’m getting much more irritated by conflicts and arguments in atheism… and am taking them much more personally than usual. I just want all of it to stop, now. I want to put my hands over my ears and scream, “Shut up, everyone! My dad just died! I cannot deal with this! Can’t we all just get along, for one fucking week?” Ironic, since I was just chiding someone about making it all about themselves, and here I am making it all about me.

Oh, and can I just say: Two fucking Benadryls last night, and it still took me forever to fall asleep. Brain, will you please just shut the fuck up? I know you want to process everything and make sense of everything and figure everything out, and I know that falling asleep itself feels weirdly scary and you want to cling to consciousness like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon. But really. You will feel better if you get some sleep. You will do a better job making sense of things if you get some sleep. And you are not going to figure out the secret formula for making it all better if you just stay up for fifteen more minutes. Trust me on this. Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying.

Deeply, deeply tired right now. Feeling driven to write; not sure if I’m making any sense. But you know… I’m actually, uncharacteristically for me, not really caring all that much. Normally when I write, I’m very conscious of my audience, very conscious of the fact that I’m trying to communicate with people. Especially when I’m doing news reporting or making an argument. But the grief diary, not so much. I’m doing this almost entirely for myself. The feedback and kind words have been extremely valuable, for certain. And I am happy that it’s having a positive effect on people. There’s even a sense in which I am focused on that positive effect: part of what I’m getting out of this diary is that it gives my dad’s death and my grief some meaning, some value, makes it something more than just purely pointless suffering I have to slog through. But ultimately, it’s the self-interested desire for that meaning and value, and the self-interested desire to process and analyze and try to make sense of things, that’s driving this exercise. That, plus the fact that writing is one of the few times in all this when I feel something vaguely resembling peace, when I don’t feel restless and like I’m crawling out of my skin, when I don’t feel that no matter what I’m doing I’d really rather be doing something else. Publishing this diary doesn’t feel noble or brave or self-sacrificing. It feels necessary. There are things I’m doing to make myself feel better: walking outside, reminiscing and making sick jokes with my brother, eating junk food, mindlessly watching dumb TV, touching Ingrid, reading about the moon rock heist, blogging about my grief.

More thoughts roiling around in there somewhere about the ways that self-interest and compassion intertwine. But I can’t quite get hold of them. They made sense yesterday; they’re not making sense now. Maybe tomorrow.

Grief Diary, 10/5/12

10/5/12

Have been contemplating the different usages of the word “home.” A few days ago, I was flying home to Chicago because my father had just died. Tomorrow, I’m flying back home to San Francisco. Both of these phrases mean such different things, and yet they’re equally true.

I’m feeling a bit apprehensive about starting the “getting back into my regular life” phase of all this. As stressful and painful as it’s been, the intensity and drama of the “flying home on short notice and seeing the family and having the commemorative gathering” thing has been… not a distraction, that’s not what I mean at all, but something like that. It’s been like stepping out of my regular life, and into the land of grief. Next week, I have to start figuring out how to get on with my life, how to weave this loss into in my daily life, how to manage my grief while also meeting deadlines and paying bills and returning emails and scooping cat litter and watching Project Runway. Also, the time in the land of grief has an endpoint. The time living my life with this grief woven into it… I have no idea how long that’s going to last. The rest of my life, to some extent. It’s going to gradually dial down over time, with better moments and worse moments and an overall arc towards better… but it’s not going to have a stopping place. That’s daunting.

I’m noticing that my reminiscences and trips down memory lane are almost as much about Mom as they are about Dad. I guess that makes sense. Of course Dad’s death is going to remind me of Mom’s; of course remembering his life is going to remind me of hers, since for years they were so closely woven together. Plus, when Mom died, I didn’t process it for shit. Her death was so premature (she was 45), so out of the blue (six weeks between diagnosis and death), and it came at such a bizarre time in my own life (two months into my first year at college)… and I kind of just shoved it on the back burner. Where it periodically boiled over in stupid and self-destructive ways. In a weird way, it feels good to be re-processing her death in a more healthy way. (“Re-processing her death in a more healthy way”? Sweet fictional Jesus, could I sound any more like a Northern Californian?)

Big insight of the day: I think I’m starting to see where some of my “am I doing it right?” self-consciousness about my grief is coming from. The thing that’s dawning on me: Grief isn’t just personal. It’s social. A grieving family or group of friends grieves together (ideally, anyway): comforts each other, supports each other, gives each other perspective and wisdom, takes turns taking care of each other. I don’t, in fact, just want to “grieve in my own way”: I also want to support my grieving family members as they grieve in their own way.

There’s a saying from Hillel that’s always stuck with me, ever since I first heard it decades ago: “If I am not for myself, than who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, than who am I?” The balance between caring for yourself and caring for other people, between resisting pointless social pressure and conformity while at the same time genuinely caring about not upsetting people, between being true to ourselves while at the same time being conscious of the effect we have on others… even at the best of times, this balance is both important and difficult. And during a time of grief, getting that balance right is both much more important, and much, much harder. Right now, I know that my usual perspective and my usual instincts are totally fucked up. So right now, I need to carefully think them through. Hence… self-consciousness.

Also, I strongly suspect that when we’re grieving, our personalities and natural tendencies get dialed up to eleven. If we’re naturally introverted, we probably tend to withdraw; if we’re naturally demonstrative, we probably tend to cry and vent; if we’re naturally work-oriented, we probably tend to throw ourselves into our work. I already have a tendency to be introspective and self-questioning. I generally value this trait, in fact I think it’s one of the best things about me. I don’t want to always assume that everything I do is right; I want to be willing to question my ideas and actions. But right now, this tendency is cranked waaaaay up, to the point where I’m spinning my wheels over ridiculously trivial shit. (Today, among other things, it was about which size and variety of Frango Mints to buy.) I’m reminded a bit of the time right after I read “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me,” the book about the process of rationalization, and was so conscious of my own processes of rationalization that I was paralyzed for a week with massive self-doubt over every tiny decision, and with massive guilt over every tiny mistake.

Today we — Rick and Ingrid and I — mostly walked around in downtown Chicago, visiting assorted spots from our past. It was good to be outside, getting exercise, reminiscing. And then I hit a wall. Actually, I ran into a wall at about sixty miles an hour. So far with the grief, I’ve often been able to feel myself beginning to fade, gradually getting less focused and more tired and foggy. Not today. Today, I was totally fine one minute, exhausted and paralyzed the next. The prospect of buying a train ticket in an unfamiliar train system seemed utterly impossible, like a brain-teaser for super-geniuses. Rick finally had to do it for me.

Of course, after spending hours being exhausted and wanting nothing more than to sleep, now I’m wide awake again. I think writing this diary tends to wake me up. A good thing in one sense: it makes me feel alive, connected, moving forward with my life, not buried in a fog. But it also wakes me up right when I’m about to try to get to sleep. I think I’m going to take a Benadryl and call it a night.

Grief Diary, 10/4/12

10/4/12

Self-conscious meta-emotion of the moment: Wondering how much all this public documentation of my grief is really helping. At the moment it seems to be — it’s helping me process the grief and make sense of it, and it’s helping it seem meaningful. But I’m also having the self-conscious “am I doing it right?” worry that this grief diary project will make me hang on to the grief for longer than I need to. I’m also wondering if it’s going to seem weird when I start wanting to do it less often. Well, I’m not going to stress about it too much. I’ll cross those bridges when I come to them.

Ingrid continues to be so patient, and so present, and so saying the right thing and knowing what tone to take pretty much every time. Yesterday at breakfast we were talking about the whole meta-emotion “worrying if I’m doing this right” thing, and she said, “You’re allowed two levels of meta. After that, I’m going to smack you with a newspaper.” It cracked me right up.

Had a hard time this morning: insomnia is a bitch, it’s been bugging me intermittently for a while as I’ve gotten older, and more so since Dad went into home hospice and my latest depression hit, and way more so since he died. My mind will not shut the fuck up about things I don’t want to think about, and will not let me switch over to happy fluffy restful thoughts that let me drift off. But much of the day today was okay. Am starting to feel more like my normal self for longer stretches of time. Rick and Ingrid and I took a long walk around the neighborhood: the neighborhood where I grew up, where Dad lived, where Rick lived until pretty recently. It was one of those ridiculously perfect Midwestern autumn days, and we walked and walked and walked, reminiscing, and talking about Chicago history, and admiring the beautiful neighborhood (Hyde Park really is sort of ridiculously gorgeous), and showing Ingrid the place behind Rockefeller Chapel where I used to get stoned in high school.

Tonight we had a small commemorative gathering: not any kind of public event or service, Dad wouldn’t have wanted it and none of us did either, so it was just a few family members and friends gathering to eat pizza and schmooze and remember Dad. We were hosting it at the bed-and-breakfast where Ingrid and I are staying, and I was flitting around anxiously beforehand making sure there were plates and glasses and chairs and clean flat surfaces and no junky crap lying around, and in particular getting very fretful about the exact right place to put one of the two soft comfortable chairs. Rick said, “You’re obsessing” — and I said, “Yes. I know. Every atheist on the Internet says it’s okay for me to deal with my grief however I want to. Right now, I’m dealing with it by displacing it into obsessing over where to put the furniture. Suck it up.” And we all started cracking up. I do love my family sometimes. My brother especially. We’ve had ups and downs, of course, it’s far from idyllic… but most of the time, we can tell each other the truth. I’m beginning to realize how rare that is in families, and how valuable.

Speaking of the truth: I keep waiting for the moment when I wish I wasn’t an atheist, when I wish I believed in God and an afterlife… and it keeps not happening. I’m beginning to think it’s not going to. This surprises me somewhat: Dad is the first person I’ve been close to who’s died since I abandoned any belief in any sort of religion or any sort of afterlife. (There was Jude, Rebecca’s son, who I loved; but he wasn’t around long enough for me to get really close to him. And there were cats, of course, but that’s not the same at all.) I’ve been assuming that this was going to be hard, that I’d be having a hugely hard time accepting the finality and the permanence of this death. So far, that’s not how it’s playing out. So far, facing this death without God feels totally normal. Beneficial, even. I’m not twisting myself into knots trying to make a nonsensical story make sense. Godless grief is hard, but it feels clean.

I get that this isn’t true for all atheists, that some grieving atheists do sometimes wish they believed. That’s totally fine, it makes sense… and, of course, for the zillionth time, we have the repetition of the grief mantra, “everyone does it differently.” But so far, I’m not having that reaction, at all. Some of that may be because Dad himself was a big old atheist, and facing his death without God feels like a way of honoring him and remembering him and keeping his memory alive. And some of it may be because my own atheism is now so deeply ingrained in me, such a central part of my philosophy. Falling back onto religion just seems alien. I’m way too familiar with all its weaknesses to see it as a useful or desirable crutch.

The commemorative gathering was good, by the way. Me and Rick and Ingrid; a friend of Rick’s; our aunt; some cousins I haven’t seen in ages. It was good. A little weird at times: more “schmoozing and catching up” than I’d been expecting, and not as much formal “telling stories and memories about Dad.” There were some poems that some relatives who couldn’t be there had suggested we might read, and we never found the right time to stop the conversation and do that, and that felt a bit awkward. It’s making me see the advantages to an organized service commemorating a death instead of an informal social gathering. But I think this was something that Dad would have enjoyed if he’d been here, probably more than a formal service. Just sitting around shooting the shit, telling funny stories about our childhoods and wild years, and comparing notes on New York pizza places, with pictures of him propped up on a nearby table.

I am wishing we could have read the poems, though. So here they are. The first is one that Dad loved, and recited often — especially the lines with the profanity. The second is from the Spoon River Anthology, which is strongly iconic in our family, and it’s the one Dad read at his own mother’s funeral: it speaks more to her life than it does to his, but the last few lines are very on-key. And the third is so perfect it almost scares me. [Read more...]

Grief Diary, 10/3/12

10/3/12

The phone rang this morning: it was Rick, and my first thought was terrible alarm. “Is Dad okay?” Then I remembered. It’s weird. For so long now, Rick’s ringtone has meant, “Is this the call, the one telling me Dad is dead?” I wonder how long it’s going to take for that to change.

I keep having stretches where I feel relatively normal, like I could just get on with my life without much problem… and then I feel guilty, like I’m not giving Dad his due. Then I have stretches where I’m dazed, numb, paralyzed, unable to make even the smallest decisions… and then I feel dumb, like I’m over-reacting to something that was completely unsurprising and indeed something I’ve been welcoming. No matter what emotion I’m having, it seems to be accompanied by a self-conscious meta-emotion, feeling like whatever I’m feeling is wrong.

I know. There’s no timetable. There’s no one right way to grieve. Everyone does it in their own way. Well, apparently my way is “self-consciously, and wondering if I’m doing it right.”

I think the bottom line is this: My dad is dead. No matter what is happening, it’s going to feel wrong.

I’m having a hard time with some very weird decisions. Like whether to put my bra on first, or my jeans. I have a tendency to do that anyway, even when I’m not grieving: I’m an over-thinker, and I’ll often spend more time thinking about the most efficient way to do something than it would have taken to just pick one way and do it. But this tendency is now dialed up to eleven. And it’s focused on incredibly trivial shit. Every decision feels fraught, loaded with symbolism and meaning. It reminds me a little of when Ingrid and I were planning our wedding, and we couldn’t make a decision like “cloth tablecloths or paper?” without feeling like it was communicating some great truth about our relationship and our values and our future together. It reminds me a little of that… except in a horrible, depressing, fucked-up way.

Today we — me, Ingrid, and Rick — went to see my dad’s wife Caroline, and sat in their apartment. Her apartment. I don’t know what pronoun to use. It was weird: this was the apartment I grew up in, the apartment I lived in from third grade until I left home, and it felt weird. Alien. Not like home. It’s been somewhat like that for some time: the physical space itself is very different from how it was when I lived there, and it has been for a long time, and it’s had that surreal “home but not home, familiar but not familiar” feel for a while. But it was much more like that today. It was hard not to keep remembering all the times Rick and I had sat there in the last few years. Which, to be blunt, weren’t all that different from today: Dad hadn’t been able to really communicate for a long time, so when I went home to visit, Rick and Caroline and I would sit in the living room and talk and watch TV, with Dad there in the room sitting and vaguely listening. Everything was happening around him and without him, even though he was the whole reason I was there. So it was like that today… except without Dad. Almost the reverse of how it was before: before it was like he wasn’t there even though he was, and today it was like he was there even though he wasn’t. Plus, today Rick and I would occasionally pause the conversation to look over Dad’s books and art, and decide what we wanted to hang on to. Plus, this was the room where Dad had his hospital bed for the home hospice care. This was the room where he died. So there was that. There were long stretches when it felt almost normal, just reminiscing and shooting the shit… and at the end of the afternoon I was exhausted.

Of course, now I have a stupid second wind, and am wide awake. Had a big slice of gooey chocolate something at a cafe, which I knew was a bad idea and would keep me awake; but I’m trying to be kind to myself and not resist small comforts, and a slice of gooey chocolate something at the cafe seemed comforting. Which it was, to be honest. Also, the counter guy at the cafe was really nice. Kept giving us sample spoons of gelato flavors: basil, pistachio, salted caramel, lavender, mocha, guava, Butterfinger. One of the things about having my emotions dialed up so high is that small kindnesses seem huge. I don’t know if he could tell we were having a bad day, or if he was flirting, or if he was bored, or if he was just a nice guy. But the little free tastes of gelato two and a half days after my dad died… I was touched by it, all out of proportion. I have a suspicion that I’m going to remember that for a while.

I’ll leave it at that for tonight.

Grief Diary, 10/2/12

10/2/12

Am having a ridiculous, totally dumb feeling that I didn’t expect: I’m worrying about whether I’m over-reacting to my father’s death.

This feeling is taking the form of a hyper-rational, straw-Vulcan thought process, which goes roughly like this: My father was almost 80. He was sick, and had been very sick for a long time. His quality of life had not been good for years, and had been seriously declining for months. Everyone close to him — including him, probably — wanted him to die, was ready for him to die, thought it was long past time for him to die. It’s not like this death was in any way unfair or unnatural, either: his poor health was largely self-inflicted, and anyway he was almost 80, and anyway death is a natural part of life that happens to all of us. And it’s not like he’d been in my daily life in any significant way. He hadn’t been for years. We talked on the phone for a couple of minutes every couple/ few weeks, if you can call it “talking” when one person’s language function is profoundly disabled and he’s literally incapable of saying more than a few coherent words. Even before the stroke, our relationship wasn’t close, he wasn’t in my life that much. In a day-to-day sense, my life after my father’s death isn’t going to look very different from my life while he was alive. And, of course, it’s not like the very idea of death is a surprise. I know that we’re all mortal. Like, duh.

So why should I be so upset about his death? Why should I feel so paralyzed by it? Why should I be cancelling plans, speaking gigs, writing deadlines? I’m being such a baby, such a wuss. I should just get over it.

I know. This is dumb. You don’t have to tell me that this is dumb. I cannot imagine even the most hyper-rational straw-Vulcan rationalist telling me it’s irrational to grieve over my father’s death. In fact, the hyper-rationalists would probably point me to those lists of stressful life events, ranked by how stressful they are, and they’d point to “death of a parent” right up there near the top. They’d point out that yes, death is natural and unsurprising — and so is grief, every bit as much. They’d probably even tell me, ad nauseam, all about the neurology and neuropsychology of grief. (Which I’m curious about, by the way: if anyone knows anything about it, I’d be interested in hearing it.)

Not sure where this “worrying about whether I’m over-reacting” thing is coming from. I’m wondering if it’s an attempt to keep the grief at bay a bit, by minimizing it and trying to see this death as no big deal. I’m trying to just accept it — and also to accept the meta-feeling of “boy, is that dumb” — as part of the whole “my emotions are going to be all over the map for a while and I need to let that be and not give myself a hard time over it” program.

I do have to say that, hyper-rationality aside, being evidence-based and skeptical is helping, more than I’d thought. Mostly it’s helping to know that what I’m experiencing now is natural, common. Having my moods be this disrupted and unpredictable is very alien to me, and it’s been good to hear other people say, “Yup, I totally had that, it’s completely natural, it’s part of the process.” And just in general, it feels comforting to know that… I don’t know how to put this. It feels comforting to know that reality is real. That reality is solid. I’m feeling very disconnected right now, almost dreamlike: I’m having a hard time remembering what day it is, what time is, what I need to do, what I’ve already done, whether I’m hungry, whether I’m tired, how long I’ve been staring at that spot on the wall. I feel like I’m taking a trip into the land of grief, and it feels surreal, like one of Calvino’s invisible cities. It feels comforting to know that reality will be there when I get back.

Speaking of being reality-based: I’m having a hard time telling if I’m really hungry, or just stress-hungry. I was hoping to take a break from counting calories during all this, but now I’m thinking that’s not a good idea. I feel somewhat shallow for even worrying about this. My dad just died, and I’m fretting about my weight? On the other hand… my weight is one of the few things I feel that I more or less have under control right now. I’ve been having a little upward drift lately, but I’ve stayed very close to my target. I don’t want one of the things in my life that’s actually working and that’s actually somewhat under my control to slip out of control. And besides… see above, re: my dad’s poor health being largely self-inflicted. I don’t want to inflict that on myself, or on the people I love, if I can help it.

I’m also having a weird thing about participating in life online. I’ll be distracting myself by reading blogs or Facebook or Twitter or what have you, and I’ll think of a comment to make or I’ll want to re-tweet or “like” something… and then I’ll think, “No, that’s inappropriate.” It’s weird. I’m fine with the idea of having a private life that’s not totally focused on death and grief — I can play with the kittens, distract myself with stupid TV, dick around online reading blogs and Twitter — but it somehow feels weird to have any kind of public life right now that isn’t about grief. The kittens did this hilarious thing the night my dad died, Ingrid and I were cracking up and taking videos of it… but I think it’s going to feel weird to put that video up in public. It feels weird to even mention it in public, even though it felt totally normal and right to do it. Not sure why this is. Maybe I’m afraid that people will judge me for not caring enough. Or maybe I’m afraid that if I start to move on a little bit, people will expect me to stay moved on, and judge me if I slip back into the grief.

I know. Dumb. I’m not saying it makes sense. I’m just trying to record what’s in my head and my heart and my flesh right now, and not worry about whether it makes sense. I wonder if one of the natural, normal parts of grief that everyone goes through is “worrying about whether you’re doing it right.”

I also wonder if poking at your grief again and again, like poking at a bruise or a sore tooth, is one of the natural, normal parts of grief that everyone goes through. I think I should knock it off for now, though. Time to go read something distracting, and try to sleep.

Grief Diary, 10/1/12

10/1/12

Dad died today.

I’m surprised at how upset I am. This death was entirely expected. It was even wanted. He has been in such shitty shape for years; his life has been close to useless, to himself or anyone else, for months if not years. We’ve been on deathwatch for years, advanced deathwatch for months, super-advanced deathwatch for weeks. And yet when the call came, it still knocked the breath out of me. I was still only able to listen to my brother for about ten minutes before I had to get off the phone, that minute, that second, to call Ingrid and tell her to come home.

My moods today have been like weather on an unsteady day: pouring rain one minute, sunny ten minutes later, overcast and foggy ten minutes after that. I have stretches where I’m fairly calm and focused entirely on taking care of business — cancelling appointments, cancelling speaking gigs, notifying friends and colleagues — and then stretches where I’m crying and feeling overwhelmed with emotion, and then stretches where I’m in a daze, staring at walls, unable to decide even the smallest thing. These moods are entirely unpredictable. I don’t have any idea from minute to minute which I’m going to be feeling.

Packing to go home, I felt like Willow in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in the episode “The Body,” the one where Buffy’s mom has just died. The scene where Willow is trying to figure out what to wear to meet her friend at the morgue. I kept staring at my closet, obsessively trying to pick the exact right clothes, feeling like everything in my closet was wrong: too snazzy, too fashionable, too flashy, too dressy, too official, too colorful, too sexy. I picked out the things that seemed to strike the right balance — calm, respectful, reasonably comfortable — and realized that all of it was black or gray. Too somber. Not right either. I spent way too much time and energy thinking about it. Funny how you can know you’re displacing, and still keep displacing anyway.

That “nothing is right” feeling. That applies to more than packing clothes. It’s how I’ve been feeling all day. No matter what I’m doing, it doesn’t feel right. When I’m falling apart, I think about all the business I need to be taking care of; when I’m taking care of business, I wonder how I can be so cold-blooded — hours, even minutes, after I learned that my father has died, and here I am calmly emailing about work matters. When I’m sitting quietly, I’m restless and want to be moving; when I’m walking, I’m exhausted and want to sit down. It’s been this way for a few weeks, actually, ever since Rick called to tell me Dad was in home hospice care, ever since the depression hit. But it was worse today.

At least today, though, I feel like I have permission. When Dad was just sick, when he was dying but we didn’t know that for sure, I couldn’t just give in to it. I couldn’t just fall apart and feel horrible. If I’d fallen apart every day that Dad might be dying, I would have spent the last five years falling apart. Now that he’s dead, it finally feels legitimate to fucking fall apart already. And then to get started putting the pieces back together.

Ingrid is being so patient. Every shift in mood, she follows. When I need to take care of business and bury myself in my computer, she buries herself in hers. When I fall apart, she holds me. When I jabber, she listens. When I stare into nothing, she holds my hand. Nothing in the world like someone who’s known you better than anyone, for close to fifteen years.

Ungenerous thoughts of the day: Now I can start planning my life again, without feeling like I have an anvil hanging over my head. Now I can start scheduling talks, conferences, etc…. without having this constant “I might have to cancel at the last minute” caveat in the background. Now I can definitely punt the deadline on the new book, and nobody will blame me or get mad at me. Now Ingrid and I can definitely go on our anniversary getaway in January.

I keep feeling like I’ve forgotten how to breathe. I keep feeling like I’ve been holding my breath. I keep feeling like I’m not getting enough air, like I have to take a deep breath, like my breathing has been shallow, like I have a band around my chest.

I am loving atheism right now. Atheism has been hard lately, what with the flying hate monkeys of misogyny and all. But today on my blog, and on Atheism Plus, and in my email inbox, and on Facebook and Twitter, everyone has been wonderful. Supportive, kind, compassionate, loving, insightful, gentle. And nobody is telling me comforting lies. Nobody is telling me that reality isn’t real. It is such a relief to have a space — to have more than one space, to have space in my blog and in Atheism Plus and in Facebook and in Grief Beyond Belief, and for that matter in my own godless family — where I can tell the truth about how I’m feeling, and know that it’s safe. It is such a relief to know that I have spaces where I can tell harsh truths about death and people won’t be shocked, where nobody will gaslight me with bullshit dressed as rainbow sparkles. As painful as it is, I would rather have the ground feel solid under my feet.

I also deeply love that I am getting intense, sincere, deeply compassionate condolence comments from people named Squiddhartha, and Randomfactor, and Alethea H. “Crocoduck” Dundee, and mildlymagnificent, and fullyladenswallow, and Tony, Prom King of Sunnydale High, and Setár, genderqueer Elf-Sheriff of Atheism+, and Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant), and WMDKitty (Always growing and learning). Sometimes I love the Internet. I love the unique blend of goofy, wild, flatly ridiculous creativity with serious-as-a-heart-attack seriousness. Hundreds of years from now, people will be analyzing Internet culture of the early 21st century and trying to make heads or tails out of it. I love being part of it.

That’s enough for tonight. Flying home tomorrow. I need to try to pretend to get some sleep.