It’s not because you have a bad attitude. Or you haven’t exercised. Or you don’t have (insert expensive product that will surely change your life). It’s not because you’re not eating right. Or haven’t had enough water.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I/we can always drink more water, but this isn’t about that.
This feeling you have like an anchor around your neck, this pull that makes it so hard, even hurt, to be upright—it’s not because you’re lazy or lack purpose or didn’t do what your elders, corporate advertising, or cultural norms told you to do. It’s not because you’re not trying hard enough, don’t care enough. You care. I know you do.
It’s because you’re grief deprived. Chronically. You haven’t had a chance to taking a fucking breath. To take a minute. To take a lot more than a minute. To cry or sigh or sob or collapse in a heap on the floor
Social media, capitalism, sound-byte, video bite, bite-sized everything has you jumping from one thing to the next, ushers you briskly past the in-between. Even though you can feel the in between. Smell the sharp of it and taste the sour of it on your tongue. Hear it groaning. Even though it tugs at the hem of you with a wild hungry mouth.
These two pictures are me, a week apart: the first with my support narwhal, Eleanor, and the second, a week earlier, fresh out of a second attempted colonoscopy in two days, woozy with anesthesia. Led by said drugs, I decided to take a picture of myself and send it to a few close friends who appreciate my dark humor. I entitled it “hot in the hospital.” Obviously.
In the first picture, I’m ruddy-faced, wearing a teal headband, cheek to cheek with my sea-blue narwhal stuffed animal. My eyes are alert, I’m smiling a little, and one of Eleanor’s flippers is squished up against my mouth. In the other picture, my skin is pale. My eyelids sit at half mast, lips a straight line, and various machines and tubes, some connected to my body, lurk behind me. I’m wearing one of those terrible scratchy hospital gowns with an unidentifiable pattern inspired by a faded sweater from the 80s.
The point is, there’s an in between these two pictures. There’s always an in between. And so much of our lives are set up to take a big step over the gap, even if it’s too much of a stretch for our bodies to take that step and we pull a muscle, or ten.
The in between is because a week before the first picture, I had two days in a row of invasive procedures. I woke up in pain during one of them and remembered it (!). I was full of harsh medicine and emptied out because of it. I was triple dosed with anesthesia. I hadn’t eaten for two days. I was in pain. I was bruised from various attempted IV placements.
And still, the doctor, who was kind and skilled, asked me after the second procedure, “So where are you going out for lunch afterwards?”
I mean, what? This picture is not the picture of a lady who’s ready to head out on the town. Afterwards, I was going nowhere but home and to the couch or bed. Afterwards, they took me downstairs in a wheelchair to meet Mike at the car.
On one hand, I get it—it’s part of the doctor’s bedside manner, to put his patients at ease by asking them what they’ll enjoy eating after they’ve been fasting, after an unpleasant procedure.
On the other hand, the learned and practiced obliviousness and bypassing breaks my heart.
I am lucky/blessed/graced to have people who love me who can say, did say, “Holy shit. That was traumatic. Go easy.” Who acknowledged that it would be almost impossible to jump back into “regular” life right after what I’d been through. Who supported me in taking several days to heal, rest, and grieve. I was privileged to be able to do that, without too much consequence.
But the thing is, people jump back in all the time, many times because of the brutality of systems that mean if you don’t jump back in, you don’t get paid, you don’t eat, you get evicted, or your children have no one else to take care of them. Many times because of the brutality of systems that have become so deeply splintered into our skin that no size of tweezers seems up for the task of extraction. We bounce back. This is what we do in our family. Or, this is America. Or this is _____. Whatever. We move on dot org. We Energizer bunny. You know
I mean, not inconsequential to now, in many places and spaces, you’d think this pandemic is over. I have whiplash from the constantly changing narratives, from the push, the drive, the pressure to jump to a new reality without so much as an I’m sorry for your loss, for our loss, for all the loss that was lost, and all the loss that’s still happening
The pace and spin of it all makes me want to throw down roots in this moment, throw up my arms like branches, open my mouth wide to the sky and yell STOP.
At the heart of me right now is a deep desire to give everyone a fucking minute. A break, a breath, a pause. A chance to deal. Yesterday in the shower, I started writing in my head, like I do, like water helps me do. The insistent phrase that came with the stream over my head and back was “a love letter to the chronically grief deprived.” We who don’t have a chance to transition. We who don’t have the space or time or whatever to feel and honor the passing of the world from one moment to the next, let alone passing from one room to the next, one weather system to the next, one experience of chaos to a sudden quiet spot. Grief is part of all of this. It’s tiny, sometimes. Just needing a simple sigh or breath between to mark a passage.
I call this home for my writing Initiation Station, and sometimes I struggle to explain what that means. But this is it. This is what I mean by honoring initiation—sacred transition that allows you to be changed, that acknowledges you have been changed. Even a little bit.
Sacred transition. The thousand ways it happens every day, every minute. The thousand ways we’ve learned to override it. Caffeinate. Push through. Ignore. Power on
But overriding takes a toll. It drains our life force. It leaves us walking into walls or putting the keys in the refrigerator and wondering where we are. We don’t know where we are because we’re erasing so much of the landscape, pretending all those little grief hallways and bridges, mountain passes and canyons, stepping stones and corners aren’t there. No wonder we’re disoriented
The last time in my life that I drove regularly, I was living outside of D.C. in Maryland. Every morning, I got into my Buick Skylark and drove for forty to forty-five minutes to work. Every evening, I returned to the car and drove forty to forty-five minutes back home. I think sometimes about how I just breezed past miles and miles, tuned out to music or news or maybe an audio book, lost in thought, body tensed in rush hour traffic, just to get through
What am I trying to say? That those ninety minutes or so every day for the two years I lived in Maryland were unexpressed grief? Yeah, I am. Definitely not the same grief as losing my mom grief. Or losing the full use of my hands for a year and a half and to some extent for the rest of my life grief. But it was a transition I wasn’t able to be fully present for. A daily jettisoning of myself from one place to another without being able to feel my feet on the earth or acclimate to the changing environments. A daily pouring of myself into uncomfortable “professional” clothes, to sit at a desk under artificial lights, without fresh air, for a good chunk of the day. Then going faster than my body could keep up to a different town, to park, to climb the narrow flight of steps to our small apartment. To barely get my bearings for a few hours, then wake up the next morning and do it again.
This example may be, as Mike said the other day to me (about something else), “tiny potatoes.” But all of our tiny potatoes add up to heavy truckloads. Also, we have no shortage of massive potatoes—when we hear about something terrible, or witness something terrible, or are personally wrecked by something terrible. And there’s this Godzilla kind of footprint in front of us, left by the terrible thing, that we’re supposed to leap over then not look back. Or sometimes we fall in and have the shattering experience of people walking right over us without even looking down
I don’t know how to say how important it is that we get to grieve—to sigh or cry or mark the passing of anything and everything. I don’t know how to say this, but I’m trying
We have to be able to take a minute. Really, we need to take much more. I think to even make a dent in the collective, unexpressed grief, we’d need to designate one day a week for the rest of time for mourning. To be able to sob it all out
Honestly, I don’t think grief is meant to be roped off like that, compartmentalized. I think grief is meant to flow, early and often. But it feels like we have a backlog, and I don’t know what to do with that
I’ve been rereading parts of Malidoma Somé’s brilliant book The Healing Wisdom of Africa, particularly the parts on water rituals, for a class I’m facilitating. I highly recommend this book. It is profound medicine. In the chapter, “Water Rituals,” Somé writes, “I have heard many times people express their fear of grief because they feel that if they even begin to release it, they will be overcome, eventually drowning in their own tears. Indeed, this is how it feels, but this is not what actually happens.
Instead, Somé asserts that ritualized release of grief “can provide powerful relief and healing. Any time the feeling of loss arises, there is an energy that demands ritual in order to allow reconciliation and the return of peace. These are crises that water rituals can resolve.”
Perhaps we do need a weekly water/grief ritual for a while. I wonder what would happen if we all, say every Monday, could come together in loving groups, slowly drink glasses of water, voice our losses, weep and nap, nap and weep, until we’re done
I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking in the we. I know this is all true for me. I sense that it’s true for many others. Maybe I should just ask—who reading this feels like you’ve had a chance to fully grieve all of the loss you’ve experienced the last several years (let alone all the loss before that, or the loss happening right now)?
I also don’t know if it’s a fair speculation that war, that all manner of cruelty and violence, roots back into unexpressed grief. Disoriented, exhausted, chronically grief-deprived humans lashing out because they don’t know where they are or who they are. But I sense this is true. I know I lash out when I’m exhausted and haven’t had a chance to process something or fully experience a transition
I started by calling this a love letter, and now I’m wondering if it’s much of a love letter at all. I guess it’s not in the sense of me singing your praises, or proclaiming your beauty and magnificence. Although I could, because you are. But I’m remembering that love is also witnessing and acknowledgement, and I think that’s the kind of love letter this is. One that says, I see you. I witness you in this cavalcade of loss. I’m willing to sit with you in it. To be with your tears, the ones on your face, the ones about to break the levee in your heart. I’m not looking away. I’m shining a big old sunbeam on the whole map, all the hidden and in-between places. I’m offering my own tears as a prayer, a libation, and I’m holding out my hand.
*Originally published on Initiation Station and reprinted with permission