It comes in waves, this grief thing.  One minute I'm fine and the next minute, I'm swimming (sometimes drowning) in an ocean of sadness.  Unlike real waves though, grief waves are invisible and unpredictable; there is no regular ebb and flow, just seemingly random tidal waves that knock you over in the midst of everyday life.   

Ah... but there are triggers, and part of the learning curve to the whole grief process is realizing what your triggers are, and learning how to appropriately interact with them.  Last night, Jay and I were out doing some Christmas shopping, trying really hard to feel "in the holiday spirit".  There's nothing jolly or festive about grief, even though it is coinciding with Christmas.  Grief just dims everything.  But there we were, out co-mingling with the masses in the madness of a shopping center.  I had tucked my grief away for the day; I folded it up and put it in my pocket.  I traded it in for my best "happy face" and went out in search of joy and holiday cheer, via consumerism.  I have to say, it kind of worked.  Not that I felt jolly by any means, but it was pretty fun to walk around and make fun of all the crap that people waste their money on.  And it was fun to join them and buy some crap for Christmas.  I do every other year, so I might as well this year, too.  It helps to feel normal, in any way you can, in the midst of upheaval. 

In between stores we stopped at a Five Guys for a quick burger.  It was delicious, and was really hittin' the spot... until it hit the spot: the grief spot.  You see, the last meal I shared with my Dad was Five Guys.  It was one week before his death, and in retrospect, it was the first day of his final decline.  There was a lot that he couldn't do that day, but when I asked him if he wanted a cheeseburger from Five Guys, he said (in a way that only my family can appreciate), "Yah", and so I went out and got us all burgers.  We sat around the kitchen table (dad in his wheelchair) and ate Five Guys Burgers and Fries.  That was the last meal I had with him...  And so there I was at Five Guys, during the holidays, amongst happy shoppers when all of a sudden a tidal wave came and knocked me over.  Tidal waves are dangerous enough as it is, but even more so when eating a cheeseburger.  Talk about a choking hazard. 

Then today, as I was cleaning up the huge pile of clothes that are permanently parked at the foot of my bed, I found the dress I wore to his funeral.  Ouch.  Another wave.  What am I supposed to do with this dress?  Do I hang it in the closet with all of my non-funeral clothes and pretend that it's just a regular dress?  Do I fold it up and put it in storage?  Do I burn it?  

So- now I know; Five Guys and that dress are triggers for me.  Maybe they won't always be, but for now, when everything is recent and feels so raw, they are.  Now the question is, what do I do about that?  Do I avoid that place and hide that dress?  Do I do the opposite and go to Five Guys weekly, and incorporate the dress into my regular winter wardrobe?  How do I interact with these tangible reminders that my dad actually died.  It feels wrong to ignore them, like ignoring them means that I'm ignoring the truth of what happened.  It's tempting; ignorance is bliss, after all.  But ignorance is still ignorance, and the truth is still the truth, and and no matter how much I want to fold up my grief and fold up my dress and eat a cheeseburger without thinking about death, I'm simply not there yet.  

The truth is that my dad died (even typing that hurts), and we ate cheeseburgers on his deathbed, and I wore a black nondescript dress to his funeral.  Sure, I can take away the things that remind me of the awful reality of his death, but taking them away will not bring him back.  Similarly, I can eat Five Guys while wearing that dress every single day and it won't change a thing.  If anything, I would have a heart-attack from too many cheeseburgers, and well, that's just sad.  

And as for tidal waves and triggers, they are messy at times and don't always present themselves at convenient times, but I'm learning that they are a necessary part of the grieving process.  So I think I'm going to embrace my triggers when they come -- not totally avoid them, nor immerse myself in them -- and let the waves wash over me.  Dad always taught me to respect the ocean and not to fight the waves but to go with them.  He also taught me that no matter how bad I got slammed by a wave, I should always get up and get back out there.  So that's what I'm gonna do... one day at a time. 

Living While Losing, Part I


I think it's funny (funny? maybe ironic... yes, ironic) how my last post was about my brother dying, and how at the time, I had no idea what was about to happen.  

Five days after I wrote that last blog post, it was a Friday, it was October 1, and I had just left work and was walking towards the train station.  I called my Dad's cell phone to find out the results of a fairly routine MRI (that's the thing about managing a chronic illness - MRIs become routine).  I'll never forget it, I was walking up 15th street, from Chestnut St. I was walking on the east side of the street, up towards where the sidewalk ends and you either have to cross the street on the right and head towards City Hall, or cross the street to the left and head towards Market St.  Right there, right as the sidewalk was ending, my Dad told me, in a very casual and calm manner, that the scan revealed an "explosion of metastases" in his brain.  A few minutes later, I was on the train, in the "quiet car", quietly sobbing.  

Three days later, on Monday, October 4, I was in Pittsburgh for a work thing.  What's most incredible about this is that I went to Pittsburgh for a work thing, even though my dad had "an explosion of metastases" in his brain, and all I really wanted to to was curl into the fetal position and hide under blankets and cry.  But I didn't.  I went to Pittsburgh to "train the trainers" about how to educate folks on Medicare fraud.  

I'll never forget it, we were at Kane Regional Center in Pittsburgh, and I stepped out of the training to answer a call from my brother.  I stepped out into a noisy hallway and all I heard was the panic and confusion in his voice; he said something about Mom crying.  I hung up with him and instantly dialed my parents.  There was a bad connection.  In retrospect, I appreciate the irony of this bad connection, because in 1997, when Dad called me in Philadelphia to tell me that Steve had died, we had a bad connection.  I now associate bad connections with bad news.  Anyway... we had a bad connection, so I stepped outside the building into the misty, cold rain and that solved the connection problem.  It did not, however, solve the cancer problem.  Dad went on to explain that they had met with his oncologist and the prognosis was grim: he had four weeks to live.

In a way, everything after the utterance of those words was a blur.  In another way, my senses were operating in a heightened and awakened state, albeit numbed, and I remember every detail of the ride home from Pittsburgh that afternoon.  It's like I have a series of still shots - the way sunshine splashed against the dark gray clouds, the cheesy classic rock radio station, the cheeseburger I wolfed down at Roy Rogers at the rest stop in bumblef*ck, PA while a parade of Amish people passed me by; the raindrops that seemed to be pregnant with more rain; the awful parallel park job I did once at home, and how Jay and I held each other and sobbed together once I walked in the door.  

48 days later, on November 21st, my Dad died.  Someday I will write a book about those 48 days, because they were some of the most joyous, heartbreaking and all-around surreal days of my life, and they deserve their own story.  I will write more about those days here, too, but I just know that at some point, this whole saga will be a book.  It has to be...

Until then, cherish each moment with your loved ones, because as cliché as it sounds, the only guarantee we have is this this moment.  We have no idea what will happen in between this blog post and the next...