Thursday, July 28, 2016

Processing grief: run your race

It’s really difficult to admit defeat. I pride myself on my “grit” and tenacity. Those who know me speak of it and have teased me about my tenacity, and I've developed quite a reputation for fortitude. The Finnish call it "SISU." Perhaps it's just a stubborn inability to stop, a will that refuses to allow things keep me from moving forward, but I pride myself on this reputation. I do not let things get me down. Ever. I learned from my days riding horses that you always get back up on that horse - or the sled runners, as it were. I have been in weather that would make others cringe and not stopped.

But, seven months ago, life handed me a series of sucker punches - quick right/left blows in rapid succession - that left me unable to get my bearings for awhile. I hit the mat, tried to get back up, and was handed another quick one/two punch that caused me to hit the mat harder.
As a musher, one thing we learn is to be adequately prepared. One of the surest ways to disorient someone is to throw a blow when they're unprepared. I was prepared for the first blow when I filed for divorce from a 14 yearrelationship. The next blows - which were much heavier-handed with the loss of my job and the death of my father - I was admittedly unprepared for.

The dogs have taught me that, sometimes, it is necessary to hunker down and simply take shelter. Trying to advance forward prematurely can make matters worse. I tried to advance prematurely at one point, but was handed another blow, so I decided to take a cue from the dogs and wait. 
When my dad died, time suspended. I felt like I was free falling but in slow motion. Everything else fell away. It took the wind out of me. Things that were seemingly meaningless took on great meaning, like a small nail file he used to obsessively file his nails with. Grief and loss - this kind of loss with divorce, job loss and the death of a parent all within two months of each other - changes a person forever. I could never have understood this kind of loss previously. 

These blows and the time that suspended subsequently froze several months. It seems, looking back, as if I was suspended in time, frozen like a still frame trapped within a film. All was silent in that frozen world and yet, life went on in a haze. 

Now, suddenly, it’s been seven months since those events, and I am no longer frozen by grief and debilitating loss. 

The dogs never lost their voices; they did not join me in my frozen stillness, and their life has helped breathe life into me again. They celebrate every day with a cacophony of howls that echo around the hills of the home. Those howls have fed my soul. The dogs remind me of who I am. They remind me of what's important: to hunker down if the storm is too bad, and then move on. Keep moving forward. . 
Slowly, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, I’ve oiled my frozen joints and started to move. Slowly, I've started gathering up the pieces. Part of gathering up the pieces is thinking hard about this healing process. Some might judge me for writing honestly about my vulnerabilities. But it seems the surest way to show strength is to, in fact, be vulnerable. Sometimes the truest way to show fortitude is through grace.

Grace: unmerited, undeserved pardon;poise and steadfastness in the face of adversity. Finding grace during this storm has been difficult at times. Sometimes we show fortitude through fighting back. I tried that tactic, but the storm grew bigger. I thought my anger would protect me. It did not. I made anger my best friend for a time because it seemed like my only safe ally. I felt justified to my anger and I held onto it. I slept with it, fed it, named it, confided in it, nurtured it, groomed it, and whispered dirty things in its ear to keep it near. But I came to realize my anger was not my ally. It didn’t protect me. My anger only fed my pain and alienated those who truly loved me.

I tried for a time to find a way to soothe the pain. But, there is no way to alleviate it, no magic elixir to wipe away the devastation or the hurt. It’s uncomfortable and messy and it takestime - sometimes a long time. You have to sit with your pain, and nothing will rush healing. You cannot evict pain before it’s ready to vacate the premises of your heart. You cannot cry it away or fight it away or fuck it away or run it away or push it away. Eventually, I had to accept it and sit with it, not with anger as my ally but with a cold, quiet acceptance and patience.

You can do a lot of things that at first seem unbearable and don't think you can do. The call woke me at 5:13 a.m. My dad was dead

I scurried out of the house in my pajamas and slippers and drove west to my parents’ house. He was lying in bed exactly how I’d last seen him. His hands were folded neatly, but his mouth hung open and one eye seemed to peek out of its half-open lid. 

I climbed in bed next to my dad and curled up on the right side of him, resting my head on his shoulder. I remembered as a girl cuddling with him this same way. He’d put his big bear arm around me and I’d feel his curly chest hair against my cheek. He smelled like man, like dad, a mix of Old Spice and sweat. 

Now, his chest was bony, hollow, gaunt, the outline of his pacemaker clearly visible through his paper-thin skin. The curly hairs that rested there were gray and thin. I sobbed, wrapping my arm around his body this last time. I’d lost both of the men in my life - my father and my husband - within two months of each other. 

The men from the funeral home came, finally, after my family grieved around my dad’s small body in the hospital bed in the spare bedroom. They put a thin gurney in the narrow hallway. It didn’t look wide enough to hold an average-sized person, but it was perfect for my dad. As they began removing the blankets that covered his lifeless body, I asked routinely “do you need help with anything?” not expecting an answer. 

Surprisingly, one of the men said, “Yes, in fact,” and asked me to stand at the head of the gurney to steady it for placing my father’s body on it. I did what I was asked. I am the daughter of a Marine, after all.

I stood holding onto the cold metal rail at the head of the thin gurney, bracing myself for him to appear. The hallway and time seemed to stretch, becoming longer, narrower, and my head started to spin. I sobbed in anticipation of seeing him carried out of his house this final time, questioning to myself whether I had the strength for this duty.

And then he appeared. Wrapped in a white sheet, naked except for his t-shirt and an adult diaper, the big man I’d known as my father appeared a gaunt, tiny, frail person in the funeral man’s arms. He carried him like a baby, cradling his head against his arm and chest and walked slowly, carefully toward me. As he lay my father down before me on the stretcher, time seemed to stop, a chasm of black where all sound and everything around me fell away. All there was was my dad.  

I looked down at his face from above and great swells of sobs took hold of me uncontrollably. The funeral man placed a navy blue velour blanket over my dad, pulling it taut up to his chin over the white sheet. I could see his thin legs under the blanket in repose and the knob of knuckles underneath where his hands were folded neatly over his rib cage. He looked peaceful finally as I looked down at him there. His mouth finally closed. 

I pulled the stretcher out of the hallway with the two funeral men, our informal private calling hours now taking place in my parent's living room, and my mom began to wail. 

“I can’t let him go!” she repeated, and leaned down and kissed my dad’s sunken eyes and cold cheeks and forehead. I wrapped my arms around her sobbing body. She shook with grief. I wanted so much to protect her from this pain. But I couldn’t. Grief is a process, and it comes in waves, and the waves crashed hard within my parent’s living room that morning.

I won't lie: while this storm raged, I didn't think I would emerge. But I have. I sometimes have to pinch myself to ensure it's real.

And now, I am thankful. Going through a series of adverse events that you think you can't walk through, you come out the other side having tools you didn't have going into it. There's new wisdom; there's new grace. 

Grace. Amazing grace. How do we come to grace?

You come to it sometimes moment by moment, hour by hour, letting the days turn into nights and the nights fade into mornings. You may walk around in a haze for awhile. That’s okay. Keep pushing through. You come to it by loving yourself, even on the days when you feel unloveable. You come to grace by showing up, and that can mean showing up for the little things or the big things: brushing your teeth, going to the dreaded grocery store, getting up out of bed when the alarm goes off, filling out tedious paperwork in some obscure office. And you come to it by being real, and vulnerable and honest. Sometimes that, too, is messy. In fact, that can be the messiest part. Owning mistakes - recharting the course back to that fork in the road when, if you had only done one thing differently, chosen the other fork, life would have been different - is messy and difficult to admit. 

There is a saying oft repeated in mushing. I’ve said it to myself countless times before pulling the snow hook finally to launch through the starting chute of a race, all dog power, butterflies and adrenaline. It is a quiet mantra in dog racing: Run your race

What this means is this: do not get caught up with worry about what other people in front or behind you are doing. The mind can play evil tricks when we get caught worrying about what others are doing. Worry about yourself. Take care of your dogs. Race how you train. Focus. Be alert. And most of all, enjoy the ride.

You come to grace when you run your race