Listen to the song while you read the post! Performed by Josh Groban, from the Beauty and the Beast (2017) soundtrack.
It’s been a year since I launched this blog. I’d spent what feels like a lifetime collecting Disney inspirations and insights that helped me sort through the many emotions involved in caregiving and grief. I have learned a lot as I have written blog posts and corresponded with caregivers and those with ALS and other illnesses. I am grateful and humbled to have made new good friends through bad circumstance. I am also coming to a more peaceful understanding that the people I’ve lost are and will be with me and part of everything I do and everything I am, evermore.
My very first post began with one of my very first quotes, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think,” which Christopher Robin told his friend Winnie the Pooh. I continue to remind myself of this and often to be surprised at just how true it is in caregiving, grief, and life! Wise little boy, and not so silly old bear!
I do reflect on my experience in grief, and on the judgments I’ve felt from others, and have made of myself. Last week, I wrote about how Ben was not defined by what ALS had done to his body, that he was still Ben inside, and he needed, and deserved, to be related to as he always was. As I wrote “What Aladdin Knew About Appearances,” I thought about how grief is not always displayed on the outside. I have sometimes altered my outside to cover what is going on inside, so that people who care about me will feel relief that I am doing well and not find me to be a drag. I will admit that sometimes acting cheerful on the outside can help cheer me up on the inside. Unfortunately, that does not always work, and sometimes it has backfired, leaving me drained and even sadder. I will always be grateful for waterproof mascara!
Even before I was ever in grief myself, I heard people comment that a particular period of time had passed, and someone should have “moved on.” If you’ve read this blog, you know I don’t like that phrase because it feels like it is saying that I have left my loved one behind. Maybe it’s just semantics, but that’s the way it resonates with me. I never understood the concept of a designated amount of time for grief. Did people think I was over the loss of my dad too soon, since I had returned to my caregiving routines quickly? Or, since I didn’t get to grieve my dad’s loss, was it two for one grief or did I get an extension on my time to grieve after Ben died? Ridiculous, indeed!
After I lost Ben, many people rushed to tell me that I had my life back so I should be happy and make this time about me. Happy? Really? Telling me I have my life back was not helpful. Yes, I did understand that they meant I had more freedom. Note to self: I have to be less understanding of people who tell me what and how to feel rather than asking me how I’m feeling. The truth was that after caregiving for my dad and then Ben for more than seven years, I did not know what to do with this life and freedom that had been returned to me. And, there were many times that I did not want to know. I was simply having a hard time without them. But, it was easier not to argue the point, and, I either kept my distance from these people or superficially put on a happy face. Those people never really saw what was going on inside my head. I don’t even think they would have understood, but the potential frustration was not worth it to me.
My friends know that I cry easily, so to cry in front of them was nothing new. But, I tried to enjoy myself with them, particularly shortly after Ben left. They felt relieved to see me smiling but they were very sympathetic, too. However, I was very conscious of and uncomfortable with my smiling and laughter because they did not match what I was feeling inside. For at least a year, and still at times, I arrived home in a puddle of tears. It is very stressful to fight your emotions. But, I had to test the waters and slowly ease myself into the land of the living. Fortunately, I did have some wonderful people supporting me.
From the time that Ben “left” (his word), I have also judged myself in my grief. Am I doing enough? Am I getting out? Am I crying too much? Dwelling on the loss? Am I OK? What is OK? When I joined a support group and said that I’d cleaned out our storage space after a few months, and another woman said that she had not cleared out a thing, I immediately felt guilty. I thought about how my dad never removed my mom’s bathrobe from their bathroom- time stood still. What’s right? I have come to believe that everything and anything can be “right” if it feels that way, and it might feel that way in one moment, but wrong in another- that’s the hard part.
As I look back, I think that it was the man I hired to repaint and carpet my apartment who genuinely understood what I was grappling with as I tried to reclaim my life. He spoke little English, but since I speak Spanish, we communicated pretty easily. But, he seemed to understand my struggle as I explained things about the apartment and what I was changing. He saw the conflict between excitement about the changes and painful memories of ALS, caregiving and loss. He did not know me, he did not judge me, but he supported me as we respectfully changed things together.
At each instance where I have done something for myself, I have been so touched by the support I have received. People want me to be doing better. I want me to be doing better! My visit to London after many years, my theatergoing, my increased socializing, and now, my dating, has made my friends and family so very pleased for me. I have to admit that I am proud of myself. But, sometimes I put that information out there almost to convince myself that I’m okay. This is a strange summer, in which I’m back in the land of the living while in my head and heart I am reliving all of my memories of my last summer with Ben. My emotions are “Inside Out” now, and I wake up every single morning thinking about my summer in the hospital with Ben. I put my posts on Facebook with all of the Broadway and ballet I’m seeing, and the lovely times with friends. I feel unsteady because my moods fluctuate quickly from happily engaged to distraught and in tears. But, I’m still living, and more and more often without guilt. Some people quickly move beyond any mention of Ben and my dad to remind me that those days are over. Well, the days are over, but the emotions are not and the memories live on. It’s a juggling act. The sadness does not bowl me over as frequently, though on the anniversary of the day Ben went into the emergency room, I stayed in bed crying and watching “Monsters, Inc” with our Sully dolls. And, no matter what anyone says, I think it’s okay.
My experience with grief has shifted. From barely being able to grieve the loss of my dad to losing Ben and feeling like I was grieving the loss of both of them, what I have learned about grief is that my emotions are my own. I don’t have to explain or defend them. I do not have to listen to judgments from anyone, and I need not judge myself either. I’m doing okay. Sometimes, smiling and engaging in life does help me smile more on the inside, but sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the lousy side of grief- it’s unpredictable. These days, I am not as vulnerable to the judgments of others. People may have a timetable for grief, but my own timetable is all that matters to me.
In the past nearly two years, some people have commented that they are amazed at how much I handled when caring for my dad and Ben at the same time and losing them within a short time of each other. Some people have commented that they think it’s great that I have reached out to offer support to others who are dealing with ALS as patients and/or caregivers. Some people feel like I’m caught in the past. Some people feel that I can’t really begin dating because Ben is still so much a part of my life. I know that the judgments are usually grounded in a desire to see me thrive. I want people who care about me to feel like I’m doing better. And, I am, but it has to be on my terms and in my way. It’s not easy for me to say that, but maybe reflecting on my caregiving experiences has revealed to me my resilience and given me a bit more confidence.
My weekend in West Hampton was filled with less guilt for a good time (click here for that post). The Fab Faux concert was filled with much more smiling than sadness. In the lyrics to “Evermore,” Beast was talking about Belle, and I feel the same way about Ben, and the loved ones I’ve lost. The grief process has led me to a place where having them close to my heart in so many memories is always a comfort, even if it comes with tears and missing them. I’m learning to be here in this world with the knowledge that Ben is a part of everything I do- as are my mom and dad- and they will never leave me. I am creating a new way of relating to them and they are here, without physically being here, evermore.
If you are in grief and you feel that you need additional help, join a support group, seek therapy, or contact an association working with you or your caree to see if social work services are available to you. If you are dealing with someone in grief, ask them how they are feeling, let them have their emotions, and let them know that they also have your support.