Relentless Replay

Loss is powerful. Whether the loss is the loss of a lifestyle. Or maybe it is a spouse or a child or an aunt or a grandfather. It could be the loss of the family pet. Perhaps you are mourning the loss of a close friendship. You could even be mourning the loss of your health as you face a medical crisis. These are just some examples, the list is expansive.

All loss is different, even if it is the same type of loss, and they aren’t comparable. Many people lose their grandparents. None of our experiences are the same because my grandparents were different and I am different. Even two people who die from Alzheimer’s are not the same and their families loss is not the same. No other widow shares my exact experience either.

Even so, loss is a great equalizer. We all hurt when we lose something or someone precious. No person’s loss is greater or less relevant that someone else’s. In that sense, loss is the same–it hurts. 

It’s also true that while our experiences with grief are different, there are parts of grief, regardless of who you are or what you’ve lost, that are the same. For example, people who are grieving, tend to be rather disorganized and forgetful. This can make people feel almost crazy. Rest assured, you aren’t crazy (there is one thing you don’t have to worry about)–in fact, you are quite normal.

It is hard to do everything you need to do in order to tie up loose ends as well as remember to help kids with homework or drive the correct route home from work (we have all done it) and buy groceries. Which is probably why so many of us grieving are typically rather exhausted! There is an emotional and mental stress far more powerful than any set of exercises at depleting energy. And, a little nap probably won’t do much good. Be patient; keep working at keeping up with the routine. As you heal you will get there.

That brings us to another piece of grieving–lack of motivation. Chances are things that normally would have sent you rolling in the aisle laughing, now leaves you with only a little smirk. Or special nights out used to make you giddy with excitement now make you want to climb back in bed and just forget about it. Once again, it is normal. Keep fighting the urge. Where the smile anyway, try to get out even when you don’t feel like it. Staying inside and wrapping yourself in grief can be (ironically) comforting and facing the world very uncomfortable. If you don’t slowly start to face the world, it might turn into a habit that could be more life altering than your grief. It can take you to inwardly sad state quickly and it’s hard to turn it around.

I can deal with all of those things. The one characteristic that gets me the most is the relentless replay in my brain. This memory and that memory. Sadness and happiness. It is really hard to stay on task or sleep when your brain constantly heads back to the good times before your life fell apart.

Just like a broken record, here it comes again. It interrupts your thoughts, your music, and even dominates your conversations. It fills the space meant for dreaming. There is no escaping it. Every time it creeps in, unwelcome, and the tears flow. It’s hard to sleep through tears. It’s hard to focus through the haze of memories. It’s hard to feel rested when images constantly run through your head.

No surprises here, with these things going on, people who are grieving can be rather quick to lash out. A once patient person suddenly loses all desire to baby someone else when their own life is crumbling. Comments that never would have given you a second thought before are suddenly fighting words. Sound familiar? Yeah, me too.

These things are challenges that nearly all of us grieving feel. You may feel some or all of these. You might be feeling them but had no idea what was going on. Now that you are aware, you can take some steps.

Be patient with yourself and with others. If this is hard for you, imagine how hard it is for people watching you. See, for them, their lives have gone back to normal and all fairness, you look normal. So, when others see these characteristics of grief shining bright, they really might think you have just turned into the meanest person on earth or a sudden air- head. Grieving being what it is, you have zero desire to baby them along and open your sadness to share with the world. I understand, oh boy do I understand. And, maybe you don’t have to do all of that. Maybe you just say, “I am still struggling, I might need some time to adjust.” and leave it at that.

Here is a big one that is oh so hard to do–rest. Get yourself on a regular schedule. At night you lay awake because you can’t sleep and there is not time for naps because of kids or work and you are so tired, but when it’s time to lay down at night all you can think about is what you should have done and how things used to be…the list is endless. Try to set a regular schedule and stick to it. Even when you don’t feel like you have had enough sleep, don’t hit the snooze, get up and get moving. It will make going to sleep at night much easier. If you feel like taking a nap, talk yourself into a relaxing walk instead.

Go the gym. It feels great to run your tail off or slam a punching bag. It helps you sleep, empties some anger, and the bonus of a stronger tougher you will emerge. Believe me when I say, you won’t regret it.

Lastly, and maybe the most important, seek outside support. Find a support group or find a counselor to talk to, or both.  Be honest. If someone asks how you are doing, don’t feel obligated to give the ‘good’ or ‘doing okay’ answer. If you are having a crappy day, say it, maybe you need to just get it out. Things are so much heavier if you carry the load alone. If you share it and allow someone else to carry part of the burden, you will be surprised how much easier the rest of the day or week can be.

All of this is from either my own experience or watching others along the way. I am not an expert. It doesn’t mean everyone falls into this box or follows a certain pattern, but it gives you a great place to start. Accept where you are and work on ending the relentless replay. This grief will creep in every now and again probably forever, but it won’t be in the front of your mind day in and day out and you will be able to live again. It will feel so good!

 

 

You Have to Train Before Running a Marathon

There are many types of loss–some types of profound loss aren’t losses of loved ones. Divorce, loss of limbs, or even loss of a job can be emotionally devastating. Some experience a sudden loss of a loved one while others sit by helplessly watching the person they love slowly slip away. There isn’t one type of loss that hurts less than others–all feelings of loss are painful ones. Many aspects of grief that I experienced with the loss of Randy, ring true today as I watch my Grandma slowly lose a battle with Alzheimer’s–it’s a chronic loss. Every day, or every week, we grieve another piece of her.

When I come home from seeing her, I’m emotionally done. Often these days, I am physically worn out from running up the halls (and back) checking on her, talking to professionals about her care and how she is doing overall. Her and Grandpa are in the same facility, so often they have me fluttering around the halls getting her a pillow, him a shirt, a different drink, etc. And I do it, gladly, knowing my time is limited. The exhaustion doesn’t stop there, my mind is shot–I often feel like I might be suffering from dementia. My brain is full. My mind is constantly sorting through must do for kids, my honey-do list, and medical problems, insurance benefits, facility problems, or tasks to complete. The few hours I sleep at night, my only respite.

My social work experience/degree has helped tremendously. My EMT license, just as helpful. My time spent working in a hospital, specifically in Social Services, nearly priceless. I had complete living wills and Power of Attorneys taken care of years ago because I know how important they are. When we started noticing memory slips, we slowly took over household tasks as they became too difficult for my grandparents to complete/handle. We did that until we had completely taken over all the responsibilities for their house, bills, car, and health. My mom and I were solely responsible for their well-being and management of their standard of living.

I know there are times in our lives when other things and other people are more important than watching Grey’s Anatomy or folding clothes. I don’t regret doing all I can for my grandparents. I owe them that, at the very least–in fact, I wish I could do more. I have missed my family. I have not worked with my toddlers on language and motor skills. I didn’t open the pool and I don’t play outside with them. I often order out more than I cook, or worse yet, leave them to fend for themselves. My older kids are raising my younger kids. My husband is asleep when I’m home and I’m gone when he’s home. We don’t have date nights–we don’t even have conversations, unless he is listening to me vent and I don’t think that really counts.

I feel guilty. I feel like I should do more. Sometimes, I feel like I have failed everyone. Sometimes I want to cry, throw things and scream–other times I actually do it. I do sit, I do nap, and I do take long baths and I disappear to my bed earlier than I should in the evenings.  I sit alone in my car to steal a few more moments to myself. I pray quietly often. I try to write, but usually there are so many thoughts I can’t separate them.

My kids don’t understand. Maybe, my husband doesn’t either. For all I know, neither do you. I would like to say that it really doesn’t matter to me what you or anyone else thinks, however, guilt consumes me sometimes. What a bad mother I am to force my kids to watch their siblings while I take care of grandma–worse yet, I make them watch babies so I can do nothing. I sit on the couch while laundry piles up and floors collect crumbs. What kind of person am I? Intellectually, I can answer that–I’m human and can only do so much. Intellectually, thanks to my degree, I know I should take respite. I know that if I don’t use those stolen moments, I truly might lose my mind.

The other day, I met with a nurse. I was telling her my concerns about billing, money in general, and how this all works. She stopped me mid sentence. She put her hand on the table and said, “Sara, this is a worry free zone now. We are here and you are done being a social worker. You don’t have to be her nurse anymore. You get to be who you need to be. You are just going to be a daughter and grand-daughter. We will do the worrying, you do the loving.”

I have fought, with my mom right by my side, every step of the way to make sure we did the right things. Our goal has always been to make sure they are happy, comfortable, and safe. Every waking hour of every single day, being staunch protectors and ever available sources of comfort for Grandma and Grandpa. And just like that, one sentence freed me from those chains of guilt. Someone, who I trust, finally took control so we didn’t have to. I know I will worry, I know I will still spend hours with two of the most important people to ever enter my life, I will still bug nurses and sort through information–and, I know it only gets worse from here. It will be done through a grand-daughter’s eyes instead of a caregiver’s. I can assure you, the only thing that kept me from sobbing uncontrollably at the prospect was the shock of hearing such compassionate words from someone who barely knew me. 

I didn’t write this to receive accolades or atta-girls. As I tried to enjoy a long, hot bath tonight, I couldn’t help but ruminate on what happened. It really touched me. Beyond that, it made me remember those days and months after Randy died. It brought to mind some things that were hard for me while grieving. Maybe they are things you already know and do–maybe they are brand new way of thinking. Either way, it can’t hurt to share.

As I laid in the tub, I was thinking how nice it is to share the load with someone who knows what they are doing. Instant weight lifted from my shoulders.  The important part of this thought is, I let her in. Had I not admitted I (we) needed help, I’d never have discovered how important it is to get the right help. It was also a nice reminder to never give up. It reminded me how hard it was for me to open up and ask for help as a widow. Our tendency is to pull in and cut people off–we shut off friends and strangers alike. People surround us with very painful memories of happier times. While it is important to be introspective, it is potentially harmful if  you do it without a plan in place.

It is hard to reach out. Reaching out makes your pain public and it forces you to show the world how vulnerable you really are. I assure you, asking for help is not a sign of weakness–it will be one of the biggest tests of courage most of us will ever face. After I admitted to myself that I was all overwhelmed, I called Randy’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and asked to talk to someone. They connected me to a counselor (a social worker). I made an appointment.

I dreaded every second leading up to that appointment, and many appointments after. My anxiety was on overload and I wanted nothing more than a perfect excuse to stay home–or, better yet, in bed. Sometimes, I looked hard enough that I found one. Harder yet was sharing my story with her for the first time. I’m not sure how she even understood through my blubbering. Somehow, not only did she understand how hard it was, but surprised me with her caring nature and plan for getting me on track. Pulling into yourself and not letting others in, increases your work load and your anxiety. Fears and sadness run rampant. It isn’t easy asking for help , but it is damn sure easier than doing it alone.

Grieving, especially if you have children at home, can drench you with guilt. I felt guilty. Guilty that I couldn’t be the person I was before the accident. Guilty that I couldn’t manage to cook dinner and help them complete their homework all in one night or that the dirty dishes filled the sink and overflowed onto the counter.

If you were to slice your hand wide open, to the bone, you might feel a little silly explaining to someone how it happened, but you would never dream about refusing stitches to save explaining your lapse in judgment. You would head to the emergency room, let them treat your pain and the wound itself. You know that getting stitches might hurt, but letting a gaping wound go untreated and become infected would only make things worse. It would cause more pain, more extensive treatment, and a lot more time to recuperate.

Grieving with help is exactly like that. This is a wound so deep you probably do not have the know-how, where-with-all, or tools to manage it on your own and there is absolutely nothing wrong with calling in a professional before it is so infected you lose a piece of yourself. And, if you are grieving with children in the home, it helps them know you are okay–they have already lost one parent, I guarantee they worry about losing you too. It shows them you can be sad without losing yourself. It shows them how to take care of themselves in difficult situations. There is no reason to risk irreversible damage to you or your kids.

People spend years and years getting degrees to help people like you. Those counselors could have been engineers, teachers or scientists. They chose to be counselors and therapists because they want to help people. Many of them chose their careers based on their own troubles throughout life, so they might have a personal understanding of how vicious grief is.

I have written similar posts to this one, I’m sure. I strongly believe in its message and this new journey has reconfirmed that belief. While you may be a different person now, and you might not be able to take a step away from this situation to relax, there are things you can do. Do as many things as you can to come out the other side a whole person.

Counseling

No one’s life is perfect. We all go through our own storms and have our own troubles. Sometimes the storms we face are more than we can handle on our own. Some of us have great support systems and some of us do not. Even those of us with great family and friends don’t want to burden them with our problems, or maybe we don’t want them to worry about us. So, then what do we do when we are facing a mega-storm and feel completely alone? Seek help, professionally.

Over the years, I have had many friends who would talk about how alone they felt or how they couldn’t move past the fact they lost someone important. My response is the same every time: seek help, talk to a counselor. I’m not just talking here folks; I went to counseling myself. I was just as apprehensive about the experience as you are. I didn’t want someone analyzing my every thought. I couldn’t see myself sitting there spilling my every thought to a stranger who talks to me like they actually know me. I had seen enough television medical shows to know what to expect. And then 9/11 happened, just 25 days after my husband died.

I just knew this had to be the end. I had lost my past, present, and future and now New York was erupting in fire, people were jumping from buildings, and the streets covered in dust and debris. It’s nearly identical to how I had pictured ‘the end’. Nothing was making sense, it all was a blur. One day, in a relative moment of clarity, I noticed I was sitting on my bed, watching people jump from a building in the endless news coverage of 9/11, rocking and shaking. For a moment, I thought I might have finally gone crazy. But, then it hit me, this was bigger than me. This was more than I could handle and for my sanity and the future of my kids, I had to get help.

Mind you, I didn’t jump up off the bed and dial the phone. It was very overwhelming. It took me awhile to do what I knew I needed to do. I couldn’t shake the TV image of counseling. I just dreaded making the call. I didn’t know where to start anyway. It was too complicated. Those were all the excuses I fed myself. As I laid on the couch one day, trying to talk my 8 month old baby into taking a nap, again, so I didn’t have to get up and do anything, I realized that wasn’t fair to her and I really did have to do something.

I found my husband’s employee handbook from Illinois Power. I was only 25 and ignorant to the ways of the world, but I did remember looking at the book with him and I remembered there was an Employee Assistant Program (EAP) that offered counseling. I didn’t know anything EAPs. I took a deep breath and dialed the phone. The person on the other side was very nice, and knowledgable. It was a man, his name was Jeff.

We found a place that was close. He told me if I didn’t like that place, we would try again. I took the number, thanked him for his time, and hung up. Now came the really hard part–I had to call and make the appointment. Every part of me was screaming at me to put it off, but I knew if I did, I might never follow through. I knew I had to follow through.

Again, the woman on the other end was fairly nice, although I could tell they were busy. I made the appointment. I made it for just a few days later. I asked my grandma to babysit the baby so I could go alone the first time. I wasn’t sure this is what I wanted. And, I wasn’t sure how this worked, but I knew it wouldn’t work if I didn’t like the person. I wanted to be able to talk without the disruption of the kids.

Appointment day came fast. I cried all morning. I did not want to do this. I just didn’t. I tried to think of a way to get out of it, but I had already told Grandma why I needed her. There was no way she was going to let me out of this, at least not easily. It probably would be easier to go to the appointment. I tried to look decent, like I hadn’t been crying for a month. When Grandma showed up, I headed out. The one upside is I knew even though my house was clean, it would be better when I got back. Chances are, supper would even be done. Grandma could not resist cooking and cleaning. My standards were never as high as hers, so if nothing else, I wouldn’t have to clean or cook for the rest of the day. I figured that alone, made it worth it.

I cried all the way to the appointment, in between deep breathing to calm myself. I walked through the door to see a rather long, nearly empty waiting room. The office had several therapists/counselors in it. The only thing I knew about my counselor was her name: Tamra. After what seemed like an eternity of completing paperwork, I turned it all in. Just a few short minutes later there was a woman at the door calling my name.

She was a heavier woman, dressed very nicely. She was pretty. Her hair and make up nearly perfect. We took a short walk to her office. She sat in a chair off to the side of her desk and I sat in the nice comfy chair in front of her. She introduced herself and shook my hand. “What brings you in today?” She asked. I knew she had read the paperwork.

“Well,” I started, not exactly sure what to say, “I guess you know my husband died.”

She nodded. “I did see that.”

I could feel my lip trembling. I was trying so hard not to cry. Instead, I rambled “So, that’s why I’m here. I’ve never done this before and I’m not sure what its like. I’m not even sure I can do this. I called the EAP because I think I need to be here. The one thing, the only thing I know is I have to be comfortable, and no offense, I have to like you, or this won’t work. Please don’t be offended if I move on and find someone else. I might like you, I hope I do, but I just want to be upfront about this.” I stopped when I ran out of things to say.

“I completely understand,” She said so sincerely, “the most important thing is that you are comfortable and if you aren’t with me, I want you to find someone you are comfortable with.” She explained her credentials, what she does, and how it all worked.

Whew. I was so glad all of that uncomfortable talk was over. It was such a relief, I almost smiled.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened to your husband?”

I did just that. I spilled my entire story about Randy from start to finish. She listened patiently, asked only questions to clarify. She showed intense, sincere concern.  Every once in a while she would hand me a tissue. It took awhile to get through it all, sobbing makes everything take longer, but I did make it to the end. She looked at me and said two words. With teary eyes she said, “I’m sorry.”

She meant it. I could feel she meant it. The only thing I could say back was, “Me, too.”

“Sara, I don’t usually share anything personal, but I want you to know that I have been through some of this in my personal life. My sister’s husband was also killed by a drunk driver. She was alone with children, too. I helped her through some of her hardest times, as a sister, not a counselor. I really do understand. I really think I can help you and together I think we can get through this.”

Instantly, I felt at ease. I knew she was the one. I had a million and one questions about her sister, but I refrained.

“I wish we could go on, but our hour is up. Do you think you want to make another appointment?”

I nodded. “Thanks. I know this might be a strange way to do things, but I want my kids to have the same benefit I do. Is there anyway I can bring them with me sometimes, or every time if they want to?”

“Absolutely, Sara. I think that is a great idea. I know it’s hard, but it really sounds like you have a natural way to deal with stuff like this. I really like the things you have said to your kids and the way you are handling this. Bringing the kids if they need to is an example of that.”

Wow. That almost made me feel human and gave me an air of hope. Made me feel like we might make it out of this as whole people.

We walked out of the office together. She went into the back and I walked to the front window to make another appointment. The goal was to go 2-3 times a week for a three weeks. And, then step down to 1-2 times a week.

Before every appoint, I spent a lot of time taking deep breaths and searching for a way out.    There were a couple of appointments I succeeded. When I missed an appointment, she called me. I didn’t miss many, but when I did she worried. She knew how complicated and sad my life was at that point. She genuinely cared.

Every appointment started with “So, Sara, how is everything going?” And, every appointment, I told her my struggles and my accomplishments. Sometimes my accomplishments were as simple as taking a shower every day, falling asleep with the TV off, and getting all the kids homework done for the week. She was so proud of me when she learned I was volunteering and working out. Those were huge steps. She even helped me identify and end my panic attacks. She listened to Kayla. She played with Brendan and Emily. Sometimes, if it was a particularly bad week for me, or if I wanted to talk about something I didn’t want to burden the kids with, I left them with my Grandma or made the appointment for when the older ones were in school.

Those appointments had a lot of emotion and a lot of tears, especially the first six months or so of counseling. It felt like the tears washed away the anxiety and the fear. I didn’t see many people then, except family. Seeing her face really made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I could tell her anything, literally. After I spilled my thoughts, we would talk about them. We would talk about how that was helpful or how far I had come. We would look at some of the things I had struggled with that week and try to find tips or solutions to make it easier next time. We glanced ahead to see if she could help me gain some confidence or give advice to make the coming days easier until we could meet again.

It always felt like I was lighter when I left the office. I felt like I had handed off some of the weeks problems to someone else and like I had a step up on the days ahead. Gradually, I spent less and less time crying, I could focus better and for longer periods of time. I remember the first time I genuinely smiled. I remember the first day I didn’t cry.

The EAP paid 100% at first, then it went down, and down, until they paid nothing. Your EAP, or your husband’s, might be different. I saw her for over a year. She helped me enter the dating world and navigate my way through it. She helped the kids through it too.

When it was time to say goodbye, it was as hard as meeting her for the first time. If someone would have told me that in the beginning, I never would have believe them! I actually cried leaving. Part of that was her. I knew I would miss her. Part of it was knowing that I was on my own now. She had given me the tools, confidence, and knowledge, but now I had to put it into play, everyday. Oh, that was scary!

I did it though. I did it and I did it well. Looking back, I don’t know if I could have gone through that without her. If I would have been able to make it without her, it would have been much harder and taken much longer.

I am constantly telling people, “Get help.” I tell them I did it and that it was hard, but I have never explained what you can expect when you see a counselor. Not every counselor is the same. That is great news! It’s great because we all are different too. None of our experiences are the same and we don’t react to experiences the same. I wanted to take some time and explain how I started seeing a counselor and what I experienced, in better detail.

I should mention, not only did Tamra influence my re-build after the storm, but she also shaped my career. She told me she was a social worker and explained what they did. She asked me if I had ever considered social work (I had no college education at this point) because I seemed to have natural instincts that would help me with social work. I hadn’t ever thought about it, but I started researching. Within months of ending our time together, I was enrolled full-time in college. I also got an entry-level social work job working with at-risk youth who were lockouts or runaways. My goal for my degree was social work. I completed my degree 4 years later. It turns out, many of my professors and my boss agreed with Tamra. Social Work doesn’t come easy to everyone, some have to work at it. Apparently, I am a natural.  That education, combined with my experiences and my personality lead me to follow my passion for helping widows.

Counseling really did help me, in more ways than one might imagine. Now that you know how counseling works, hopefully you will give it a shot. Your sanity and future are worth it. You are worth it.