Category Archives: grief

The Tenth Day of Griefmas: Holiday Grief Accounting

It’s Boxing Day. I am laying in the bathtub, my thighs, belly, and breasts floating coolly above the Epsom-salted water. I can’t smell the lavender anymore, but I know it’s there. In an hour or so, I will walk into its leftover cloud and rediscover the quieting herbal aroma. That will be after I’ve dried and dressed and moved on with whatever is going to become of this day. Right now, I’m soaking in brine and trying to get a grip.

“You need to reconcile your receipts,” comes a voice from behind the bathroom door.

If I didn’t recognize my imaginary counselor’s rodent-y timbre, I’d still know it was her from that barge-right-in timing.

“Leave me alone, Critter.” I grump. “I’m in the bath.”

“Oh, that doesn’t bother me,” she says, and a chilly draft sweeps across my exposed flesh and raises goose pimples as she lets herself in. “It’s a good thing I’ve got this amazing raccoon dexterity; you forgot to leave the door cracked.”

I wrap my arms around myself and roll my eyes.

“Close the door, you little maniac,” I say. Then, I do a double-take. “What the hell are you wearing?”

Critter hops up onto the kids’ stool to admire herself in the vanity mirror. She turns her head from side to side to get a good look at the transparent green visor, button-down shirt with armbands, and grey pinstriped vest. She tugs on the ends of her tidy black bowtie and grins.

“Not bad, huh?” she says. “Guess what I am!”

“A pest,” I answer. “Whose garbage did you root through to find this getup?”

It’s Critter’s turn to roll her eyes.

“First of all, it’s none of your business where I procure my apparel. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t know. I may have left a bit of a mess in the yard of one of your neighbours.”

I glare at Critter.

“Hey, I’m sorry! It wasn’t my fault; I was just about to start cleaning up, when a huge white dog came out of nowhere, barking like it was armageddon,” she says.

I raise a bullshit-brow. Critter shrugs.

“You wouldn’t be so flippant if I’d been mauled,” she says. “That beast could have bit me in half. Then, who’d be here to set you straight?”

I close my eyes and sigh. Yes, I guess I should be grateful that my imaginary talking raccoon didn’t get eaten by the neighbour’s dog.

Not that that’s possible. But I don’t want to be ungrateful.

Seeing me give up that fight, Critter relaxes.

“Anyway,” she says, “you still haven’t guessed what I am! It actually took four separate trash cans for me to find all the essential pieces.”

“Good god, Critter!” I say, “You didn’t knock over every can on the block, did you?”

Critter looks at me.

“I take the fifth,” she says.

“This is Canada,” I explain. “We don’t have amendments here.”

“Whatever!” Critter shouts. “I don’t care about your stupid judicial system! But I’m pretty pissed you aren’t even trying to guess my costume! I went to a lot of effort, here! This is for your benefit, you ungrateful primate. I’m trying to get you out of that funk. You’re stewing in your own fetid juices. It’s gross. Snap out of it. Come on!”

My jaw flaps open. I shut it. It pops back open. I shut it again. Finally, I find words.

“Did you just tell me to snap out of it?” I say, slowly.

Critter crosses her arms and scowls at me.

“What the hell, Critter?” I say. “I thought you were on my side?”

Critter’s face scrunches harder for a moment, and then she suddenly lets it go. Her brows soften, and her hands fall to her sides.

“Listen,” she says quietly, “I am on your side. I will ALWAYS be on your side. But if you can’t acknowledge that I have needs, too, then we can’t connect, and I can’t help.”

I open my mouth to argue; I want to say, “Isn’t this getting a little out of hand? You’re my imaginary friend, for Christ’s sake?!?” But I don’t. For a third time, I shut my yap without saying anything.

Because even though Critter isn’t real, she’s right.

I can’t expect anyone to support me if I don’t support them back.

I take a huge breath and sink down into the tub until my knees pop up like volcanic mountains, and my sigh turns into a motorboat sputter. I pause there, breathing through my nose, and watch the ripples radiate out from my face. These tiny waves create a disturbance, distorting the water’s surface and blurring the image of my belly button.

Everything I do radiates outward; it rocks boats and slaps shores. I can’t avoid affecting the people around me.

I close my eyes and groan. I think of my stressed-out kids, to whom I have given so little predictability these last weeks. I ache for my elderly grandmas, whom I couldn’t get my shit together to visit before Christmas. I picture my husband, his eyes sad and his mouth slack, because he doesn’t know how to talk to me.

My husband’s face cuts me the most; I am equal parts angry with him because he won’t spit out what he needs to say, and angry with myself for nagging and complaining so much that he can’t. Every time something negative pops out of my mouth, I see my husband pull back, and another brick slides into the wall between us.

I close my eyes.

“Goddamn it,” I whisper.

The wave of regret rolls up from my belly and over my head. It’s so intense, I can’t breathe until it passes.

When it does, I open my eyes and turn back to Critter.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” I say. “You matter to me.”

Critter smiles.

“I know I do,” she says. She drops off the stool and crawls over to the tub. I reach out and scratch her ears with a pruney hand. Fat droplets slide off my arm onto her head and form clear beads on her fur that catch the light. I pull back my hand.

“I don’t want to get your costume wet,” I say. “You make a magnificent… um… poker dealer.”

Critter laughs.

“Nope,” she says. “Try again.”

I frown as I concentrate, and look her up and down once more. Green visor… white shirt, vest armbands, bow tie…

“You look like you belong stooped over a table in a stuffy back room, with a feeble lamp and a wall of stacked papers,” I say.

Critter’s face lights up.

“Go on!” she says, clapping her paws.

“Aw, man… it’s on the tip of my tongue…” I say, struggling.

“Hang on!” she blurts and darts out the door. I am just about to shout for her to come back and close it, when she returns, dragging a cloth sack.

She stops, opens the top of the bag, and pushes it down to reveal the mystery within. It is a metal machine of some sort, with numeral buttons and a hand-crank on the side. I notice the paper tape sticking out the top.

“Is that an old fashioned cash register?” I ask.

Critter shakes her head with her hands clasped beneath her chin. She is practically vibrating with excitement.

“Do you give up?” she asks.

“YES!” I say.

“It’s an adding machine! I’m an old-timey accountant!!!” she reveals with as much glee as though it were a twenty-pound pile of fish guts.

“Ooooooh,” I say. “You’re an accountant! With a crazy old adding machine. Did you seriously get this all out of the trash on my street? Holy cow, Critter. That’s pretty good.”

Critter puffs up her chest and beams.

“I’m naturally resourceful,” she says.

I laugh.

“So you are,” I answer.

My water is getting cold, and I want to get out of the tub, but I pause, frowning.

“I’m totally impressed,” I say, “and I don’t want to be ungrateful, but I don’t get how this was supposed to cheer me up.”

Critter pads over and pats the top of my head.

“Simple human,” she says. “I am dressed charmingly like an accountant, and have brought along this adding machine, so we can make a reckoning of your Griefmas behaviour.”

My heart sinks.

“Critter,” I say, “my griefmas behaviour was shitty. How is that supposed to cheer me up?”

She rolls her eyes.

“Let me show you,” she says.

She bangs away on the mechanical keys for a few minutes, paws pumping like pistons. Occasionally, she reaches over the crank the crank, then resumes her key-hammering. Finally, all out of breath, she stops, reaches up, and tears off the long curled paper. She passes it to me, and this is what it says:

Laurie’s Griefmas Ledger

(1 point): Published 9 blog posts.
(-0.25 points): Failed to deliver the last 3 promised in the series.
(1.0 point): Ordered enough Santa pictures this year for all interested friends and family.
(1.0 point): Delivered Christmas presents and greetings to 15 people
(-0.25 points) Failed to deliver to 5 people.
(1.0 point): Spent a few minutes each morning cuddling with the girls
(-0.5 points): Lost track of time every morning and had to cancel almost all plans.
(1.0 point): Bundled up the girls to play in the snow and made them hot chocolate.
(-0.5 points): Did not join the girls outside.
(1.0 point): Made sure the girls got to see all their grandparents over the holidays
(-0.5 points): Skipped 4 out of 8 family events.
(1.0 point): Responded to Christmas greetings from a few friends
(-0.75 points): Failed to check in with people who have been left hanging for months.
(1.0 point): Wrote Christmas cards
(-0.75 points): Wrote some epically awkward inscriptions.
(1.0 points): Had two short yoga workouts
(-0.5 points): Gorged enough on holiday treats and leftovers to negate the physical and mental benefits.
(0.0 points): Did not take the girls out to skate, sled, or look at Christmas lights.
(1.0 point): Spent one hour with husband drinking tea from gorgeous new teacups and watching tv
(-0.75 points): Did not finish work early enough to visit with him before he fell asleep on the other 11 nights.

Points Tally: 5.25 out of 10

I re-read the ledger twice, then lay it on the floor and think quietly for a minute.

5.25/10 is a crappy mark. It’s 52.5%. That’s barely a pass… or an outright fail, in some metrics.

Although, I suppose it depends whether it’s graded on a curve. Is Christmastime Adulting marked on a curve? Who marks it, anyway? I don’t think Santa really gives a flying reindeer turd about maternal performance. He’s busy judging the kids.

I wonder what the average mom’s Christmas Correctness score is.

Then, again, maybe I don’t care. Actually, I don’t care at all how other families get through the holidays – whether they create Norman Rockwell, cocoa-by-the-fireside perfection for twelve nights straight, or whether they dine exclusively on pizza and Kraft Dinner, and their children’s eyes shrink noticeably due to overexposure to screen light.

In the end, it doesn’t matter to me one flying fig how the rest of the world moves through Christmas.

I hope there is joy. And I hope that everyone gets some kind of comfort and coming together during the holidays. We all need that, and we all deserve it.

But when it comes to judging, comparing, and setting a standard for proper Christmas celebration, that shit really doesn’t matter to me. At all.

That means, all this guilt I have been laying on myself about failing to live up to Motherly Christmas Duties, is a sham. I don’t genuinely believe that moms NEED to do all that stuff. And that means that I need to give up my hand-wringing over my Martha Stewart inadequacy.

What IS important to me is acknowledging the holidays with my family, reaching out to people that I love, and doing my best to make a little light when the days are short and dark.

That’s it.

And in general, I can honestly say that I did those things. Even if I didn’t accomplish half of what I planned, and made a mess of some of my efforts.

There were presents; there were gatherings, and there were hugs. Epic hugs. Hugs warm enough to last me until spring.

In that respect, it was a wonderful Christmas.

And I wonder, if I can remember this next year, the fact that I sincerely don’t give a shit about what moms are supposed to produce over the holidays, maybe Christmas will come a little easier to me. I wonder if letting go of my self-criticism will make the black hole that surrounds the anniversary of my dad’s death a little less dark and dense.

After all these years, I am still sifting through my holiday grief. Someday, I will separate the sadness of missing dad from the hopeless pain of hating myself for hurting, and feeling like I will never be as good or strong as the rest of the world.

I think the day that I finally see that I’m okay where it counts, will be a very good day.

My thoughts come back into my body, sitting in the cold tub. I pick the paper tape back up. Wet fingerprints are beginning to soak into transparent windows, blurring the ink. The more I look at the ledger, the less sense it makes, and pretty soon, the soggy mess reflects my new certainty: all that shameful accounting is utterly meaningless.

I pass the damp paper back to Critter. She is grinning.

“Did you see what I mean?” she says.

“Yep,” I say. “Thank you Critter. You’re an awesome accountant.”

Critter bows dramatically then comes close. I think she’s going to ask for a hug, and I start to say that I’m too wet, but instead, she reaches past me and dunks the paper tape into the water. She swishes it around until it’s thoroughly soaked. Then, she pulls it out and wrings it, with her remarkably dextrous raccoon hands. Finally, she wads the paper up and tosses it over her shoulder. It lands dead-center on top of the garbage can’s closed lid with a decisive splat.

“Ew,” I say.

“Nothing but net,” says Critter. Then she dusts her hands, pulls the sack back up over the adding machine, and drags it away.

She leaves me to climb out of the stew of my own filth. I stand up, listening to the water swoosh off my body and plunge back into the chilly tub. I lift the stopper with my toes and hear the unabashed gurgles and burps as the drain greedily swallows my sloughed-off skin, stale perspiration, and slicks of dirt-saturated oils.

I turn on the shower and quickly soap my hair and body, imagining a layer of self-hate rinsing off me like a thin black slime.

I look down at the drain and picture a swirl of emotional sludge spiraling around the chrome, dissolving into the clear water around it, diluting until it ceases to matter.

I pop the tap closed, wrap myself in a towel, and move forward, a little lighter, into the day that awaits.
Critter says that if you are keeping a mental list of all of your failings and inadequacies, you might as well put them on paper.

Get your self-directed accusations out where you can see them, and then do whatever accounting you deem necessary to figure out where you stand with yourself.

Critter and I hope that when your wins and fails are tallied, you make the same empowering discovery as we did.

Nothing matters, except what matters.

Take care of yourself, so you can take care of what matters.

And let the rest wash off you.

“And one last thing!” Critter says. “Remember that cosplay can change lives.”

Thanks, Critter.

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Ninth Day of Griefmas: 15 Christmas Gifts for Someone Who is Grieving or Depressed

It is always hard to know how to help when a loved one is grieving or depressed.

At Christmas, though, there is extra awkward pressure. You want to give something, but you can get paralysed if you start to worry about all the ways you cannot help.

You won’t be able to bring their lost loved one back. You can’t erase the trauma or heal the damage in their brain. There is no right answer that will make everything suddenly alright.

But that doesn’t mean your gift will be meaningless.

On the contrary, you have the power to make a huge difference. You simply need to reach out, convey empathy, and offer something that will make their dark days a little easier.

“Just bring them food,” says our favourite imaginary rodent. “That’s how raccoons offer support. Sometimes, we even change out the bedding in the den. Nothing says comfort like a fresh pile of dead lives, pinecones, and spruce branches.”

I think what Critter is trying to say, is it helps to be practical.

I have found that no matter what people have given me, the thing I have needed most when I am in my dark pit has been to hear, “Let me help you with that.”

Those are the most powerful words you can possibly say or write. They shrink our unfathomable misery from an inescapable negative force that pervades the entire universe, into a single, black cave; “I am here to help” centres us inside a contained experience of shittiness that has a beginning and an end. It helps us to realise our dark cocoon is surrounded on the outside by friends.

 

With that in mind, here are 15 gifts that say to your loved one who is struggling, “Let’s make this easier.”

The following list contains some items that are pricey or unavailable in some areas. Use these ideas as a springboard for your own supportive gesture.

If you do choose to purchase something through our affiliate links, Critter and I will receive a little thank-you from Amazon to help keep me supplied with Terry’s Chocolate Oranges (and keep Critter supplied with lickable wrappers).

Without further ado…

  1. Empathy Cards by Emily McDowell: this line of sympathy cards says exactly what you feel but can’t put into words.
  2. Sunshine After the Storm edited by Alexa Bigwarfe: this collection of essays by moms who have lost a child holds comfort, connection, expression, and hope for grieving parents.
  3. A Self-Care Package: as part of their non-profit work, Sunshine After the Storm sends care packages to bereaved families. You can add your love and support to this effort by donating to SATS, requesting a package for yourself or someone you know, or creating your own bundle of pampering and self love for someone in your life you needs it most.
  4. Light Therapy for Seasonal Depression: this is kind of a personal item, but if someone you know has expressed an interest in Light Therapy, providing a lamp can bring big relief. Make sure the recipient knows to mention their Light Therapy to their doctor if they are also taking antidepressant meds, and to keep an eye out for issues with insomnia or manic behaviour.
  5. Roomba: this is an expensive gift, but if you happen to have the money (or access to a handyman who can repair a cheap fixer-upper), this little cleaning machine can be a life changer. Mine makes my house feel livable, and makes me feel like a competent homemaker, when I can’t seem to win at anything else.
  6. Meal Delivery Service (Canada or USA): This is a triple win for someone who is struggling to get by; it provides healing nourishment, relieves the labour of meal-planning, shopping, and produce prep, and gives another precious self-confidence boost when the receiver sits down to a fresh, delicious meal that they made with their own, worn-out hands.
  7. The Way of the Wizard, by Deepak Chopra: This book was lent to me by my sister when I was struggling with deep post-partum depression. I’ve had it for five years now, and am not sure I can give it back, because I go back to it again and again to find comfort, purpose, and hope.
  8. The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling: Harry’s horrible misfortune and mistreatment speak to me when I’m wrecked, and his very human struggles to do the right thing make me want to keep fighting. Even if the Dark Lord of my life is only my brain chemistry.
  9. The Song of Ice and Fire Series, by George RR Martin: Like all great fantasy, the Game of Thrones stories provide a passionate escape from one’s own head. In dark times, losing ourselves in another world can be the only pleasure strong enough to get us through the day.
  10. 50 Shades of Grey, by EL James: speaking of pleasure, these stories are all about the concept of pleasure-seeking, and there is a thin thread of comfort in seeing the anxiety-ridden Grey create a successful relationship – albeit a hopelessly unrealistic one. Nevertheless, I think 50 Shades went viral because it hit our need for escapism on the head, and this is a very valuable tool in the battle with depression and grief.
  11. An eReader: For a book-lover, an eReader means easy access to gazillions of books. The ability to purchase ebooks online or borrow them from the library means that a really worn-out individual can keep their mind fed even when they can’t leave the house.
  12. Alice in Wonderland Colouring Book: There is something dark and comforting about Lewis Carrols’ strange tales. Colouring the original illustrations could be a fortifying meditation on our own surreal experiences with grief, and the fact that, like Alice, we’re still standing.
  13. Curse Words Colouring Book: This is just a lovely way to process our fucking rage about all of the fucked up shit around us.
  14. Use Your Words – A Mothers’ Writing Guide, by Kate Hopper: This book is like a beginner’s workshop on how to write about the experiences that won’t let you go. It has guided me through many cathartic essays and writing exercises, and is definitely one of the reasons I started to blog.
  15. A Mini Chromebook: For under $300, a Chromebook mini laptop (like the Acer CB3-131 that I own and adore) gives easy access to everything that is good and healing about the internet: social media connections to people you can’t visit or don’t know how to talk to in person; forums, support groups, and blogs that connect you to other people’s real life struggles, triumphs, and insights; and the incredibly enriching experience of writing your own messages of strength through your social media or blog.

Critter and I hope that this list has reassured you that you can, indeed, make a difference for someone struggling with depression or grief this Christmas. Remember, this list is not exhaustive. Just let it get you thinking about the ways you can relate to what your loved one is feeling, and offer something from your heart that lightens their burden this Christmas.

Critter says, if all else fails, a nice pile of candy bar wrappers you haven’t finished licking always goes over well at raccoon Christmas.

That’s gross, Critter.

The Eighth Day of Griefmas: Adjusting Your Course when Holiday Grief Throws You

“What are we doing in the closet?” whispered my imaginary racoon.

“Shh,” I answered, and took a careful sip from my tea mug. I didn’t want to be discovered, nor to spill on all the coats. “We’re playing with the kids.”

Critter tilted her head and looked at me.

“Mooooooo-mmy???” Called my five year old daughter.

“Aaaaaah youuu?” added her two-year-old sister.

I could hear them nearby in the living room, lifting tossed blankets and digging through piles of toys as they expertly combed the scene for my whereabouts.

I took another quiet sip of long-cold tea, and felt the first smile of the day start to spread on my lips. It felt like my first smile all week.

“What’s so funny?” Critter asked.

“This is the best game, ever.” I answered.

In my pocket, the countdown timer on my phone silently ticked away the seconds. Only four more minutes and forty-two seconds left of engaging with the girls before I would have fulfilled my duty, and I could retreat back into the almost-manageable world inside my head.

This week had been hard on the girls and I. A few weeks prior, when I had realized the school holiday was coming, I had promised myself I would maintain our routine of getting up and out of the house each morning.

The plan was to bring the girls to the gym for our allowed two hours of childcare per day. I was counting on those pester-free periods to get caught up on my overwhelming pile of freelance work, and move forward on my personal writing.

After each morning work session, I saw myself taking the girls on an outing – to the library, the dollar store, or a visit to one of their great-grandmas. Then, we would return home for lunch and the baby’s naptime. While the littlest one dozed, I would squeeze in some quality one-on-one with my big girl, and then send her off to play while I hunkered down for another couple of hours of satisfying productivity.

“But what really happened,” said Critter, butting into my internal narration, “was that you slept-in every day, fought incessantly with the kindergartener, and took your Facebook addiction to new heights. It took you three hours to get breakfast on the table, five to brush your teeth, and seven to decide that you weren’t cooking dinner. Every single day.”

I turned to Critter and glared at her in the dark of the closet.

Being all gifted with night vision, my conscience personified had no trouble reading my expression. She just didn’t care.

“Honestly, I don’t know why you bothered,” she drove on. “It was painful to watch. And the look on your oldest kitten’s face was shattering when she asked you each morning, ‘What are we doing today, Mom?’ and you looked at the floor and answered, ‘I don’t know.’ I could see her pulse quicken every time. And then her questions came more often; ‘What’s for breakfast?’ ‘What’s for snack?’ ‘Are we going out today?’ It became obsessive. And every ‘I don’t know,’ drove her a little more batty. This morning, she looked like she wanted to shake you.”

My stomach turned. Although I felt Critter was being a bitch about it, I knew she was right. My daughter had become painfully anxious as each day passed and she watched my eyes fog over, thicker and thicker. Her disappointment and insecurity added heaps to my guilt and shame.

It bubbled up behind my lips like hot acid.

“Thanks for the recap, you mold-licking pest.” I growled. The words squeezed out through my clenched teeth and my breath steamed out through my nostrils.

Critter straightened up and eyed me coolly.

“If you think you’re going to scare me off this tender topic, you’re mistaken.” She said.

Tears burned in my eyes.

“God-DAMN IT, Critter!” I hissed. “ Can’t you leave me the fuck alone? Don’t you see that I’m a mess? I can’t do this with you right now. Go the fuck away! You’re not helping!”

The girls voices drifted down from the upstairs where they continued their search for me. Squished in between our winter coats and snowpants, I panted rage. My tea mug shook and sloshed precious caffeine onto my night shirt.

I felt the cold soak into my skin, and gasped. Critter and I both looked toward my belly, where the spill bloomed.

“I’m making a mess,” I whispered, and my mind started to float away to the numb place.
Critter called me back.

“Yeah, you are.” She stated.

I looked at her. She looked at me. My gaze started to slip down to the floor. Critter stepped forward and touched my arm.

“No,” she said. “Come back. Be here.”

I looked into Critter’s eyes, and tried to be there. My mouth was open. My mind was an ocean of grey, indistinguishable from the pea soup fog above it.

A tear spilled down my cheek.

“Oh, Critter,” I sighed. “What am I going to do?”

Critter looked into my eyes and stroked my arm. I could feel warmth radiate from the dime-sized patch of skin where her paw touched. It soaked deep and spread wide, into my bone, up my arm, and right through my chest. If this warmth were water, I would be sopping wet. Instead, I was sopping warm, thoroughly soothed and comforted inside every single cell.

She stretched both paws up to my belly, and I bent to pick her up, leaving my tea mug on the floor. I held Critter’s body to my heart and swore I could hear the staccato rhythm of our heartbeats combined.

“You’re asking the right question,” she said, and wiped a tear off my face.

I inhaled deep and sighed from my navel.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

Without thinking, I answered, “I want to be present for the kids.”

“Then, do that,” Critter said.

“But it’s so hard,” I said. “I look at them, and see every beautiful thing that they are. But then they start talking, and I get overloaded. They babble, drone, speak over top of each other and ask meaningless questions… It makes me want to scream. I can’t process it right now. I just can’t.”

Critter put her forehead onto mine and looks through my eyes into the grey matter behind them.

“You can,” she said. “Just a little. Just enough.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Keep on doing this,” Critter said, waving her paw toward the hanging outerwear behind me. “Bite-sized bits of attention. Keep it manageable. Try to give them as much structure as you can.”

Then, she looked back into me.

“Stop saying, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing,’” she finished.

My heart started to pound again.

“But, I DON’T know what we’re doing!” I said. “I keep making plans and failing them!”

“Then, stop making plans.” Critter says. Like it was as simple as that.

I thought, What if it is as simple as that?

Critter watched me consider that for a moment. Then, she continued.

“It’s like when you or the girls are sick,” she said. “You pay attention to the symptoms, and try to make a call by bedtime about what is going to happen tomorrow. You give your big one a heads up if she might miss school.”

I thought about that.

“Sure,” I said, “but that’s much easier to anticipate than this. I can see and touch a cold or flu. I can take a temperature, listen to the cough, tally the patterns of sleep, appetite, or behaviour, and then make an educated guess about how severe it will be the next day. But with my mood, anything can happen. I can go from zero to a thousand, and back again, within a day.”

Critter raised an eyebrow.

“Is it really that hard to predict?” she asked.

I thought about it. I replayed the week, each day from morning to evening, and mentally graphed my levels of energy and functioning.

I realized I had known since Monday morning that the whole week was going to be a shit show.

“Holy cow,” I said. “You’re right.”

Critter smiled.
“I know,” she said.

“So, what do I do?” I asked. It felt like something was about to come clear.

“Read the signs,” Critter said, “and adjust your plans accordingly.”

Holy fuck. Did that ever sound simple.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“That’s it,” she confirmed.

Just then, like a herd of baby buffalo, I heard the girls come down the stairs.

“Mommy?” said my oldest; “Where are you hiding?”

Then, my phone deetle-deeted, as the timer ran out. I let it carry on while I watched through the crack where the closet door hinged. The two-year-old turned in a circle, while the five-year-old’s face lit up like a birthday cake.

She grinned as she walked straight to the closet, then paused with her hand on the handle.

She pulled the door open slowly, holding her breath with her mouth open.

“Tadaaa!” I said. “You found me!”

“I always find you, Mommy.” my daughter said.

“Yes, you do, my love.” I answered.

And it was true. She always helped me find myself. Someday, I might tell her how much help we both had received from a certain imaginary raccoon.

If you feel like your grief and depression throw you so far off-balance, that you can’t react and adjust your course, look deeper.

When you start to spiral downward, do you panic?

If so, who are you most loath to disappoint? Is it your kids, your partner, or your clients and colleagues?

Can you imagine a scenario where you gave these people a heads up about your state, adjusted your plans, and everyone took it in stride?

When I finally explained to my daughter that we had to change our plans for the rest of the week, she was disappointed. I had thought that would be excruciating for me, but it was actually easy. I just found myself explaining to her, as I did ten thousand times on the average day, that sometimes we feel disappointed; it’s okay to be sad about it, but ultimately, we need to figure out how to flex and find another way to meet our needs.

We will be rescheduling our fun for the week after Christmas, when my energy is very likely to be back.

That conversation with my daughter was incredibly liberating. Getting things out in the open and establishing new plans lightened my brain fog considerably. I was even able to get some of my freelance work done in the afternoon and release even more overwhelming pressure.

My daughter hasn’t forgiven me yet for letting our “fun week of holidays” dissolve into an unsettling stretch of cabin fever and tv overload. It’s going to be work to process this with her, but I feel like I can handle it. Confronting my fear about letting her down freed up some energy I have desperately need to manage this mess of a week.

I think I’m going to be alright tomorrow. We might even leave the house.

I hope that you find a way to brush off the fog that wraps around your brain, and that the solutions you need are sitting right there when your vision clears.

And if you need some ideas for engaging with your kids when your mental fuel gauge is on E, check out this brilliant post by The Ugly Volvo.

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The Seventh Day of Griefmas: Keeping the Christmas Train on the Rails

If you know me, you know that Christmas at my house is a bloody mess: the floor has usually not been washed since Thanksgiving, the tree is barricaded behind the coffee table to discourage the adventurous two-year-old from  climbing it like a cat; the decorations are few, and are perched precariously on top of the junk piles that anchor my “hoarder-chic” theme, and bits of my hair have fallen like a salt-and-pepper snow of anxiety over everything.

Although I can generally keep my housekeeping shame to myself (except when I’m blurting about it), the part of my Christmas shame that becomes obvious is my failure to gather and give presents.

Part of the problem is financial, but most of it is attentional. I start my lists nice and early in November, with huge amounts of anxiety over my budget and doubt in my ability to choose attractive gifts… and then forget to plan time for shopping. With the presents that I manage to buy, I often forget to bring them along when I visit the giftee. I get so overwhelmed attempting to wrangle all the factors that I waste money, forget people, and generally come off like I don’t care.

I know that the year I finally make peace with Christmas, everything will fall into place. In the meantime, I’m sad, ridiculous and struggling.

If you are in this boat, here’s a commiserating hug. Let’s promise ourselves that no matter how far we stray from the perfect-looking Christmas, we will drill down to the core of what matters to us most, and make sure that we do what really needs to be done.

For me, that’s making sure my kids have something to open on Christmas morning, and that we spend time with all of their grandparents.

This year, as my writing business picks up steam and demands more of my limited energy, I also need to discipline myself to put my laptop away and spend time with my husband and our girls. In past years, this has meant skating at our community park, and after-dinner walks to look at all the lights in our neighbourhood. This year, it might just mean curling up together in the living room to watch the Grinch as many times as possible before Boxing Day. The important part is just being together.

Tonight, as you think about what your bottom line priorities are, I will leave you with some pieces from other wonderful writers about their attempts to celebrate.

The Bloggess – I’m Not Ready

The Wing of Madness – Depression and the Holidays

I hope you give yourself tons of credit for the important things you achieve, lots of support for the things that kick your ass, and lots of grace for the things you need to let go.

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The Fifth Day of Griefmas: Looking Outward Through the Veil of Grief

“Watcha watching?” asks my imaginary raccoon, and she hops up on to the armrest of my chair.

“Hey, Critter,” I say. I reach up to scratch behind her ear, lean over and sniff her dry, dusty head, and then lay my hands back on my keyboard.

“I’m watching a clip on YouTube,” I explain. I breathe deep. The air aches in my chest. I’m watching something painful and beautiful.

Patton Oswalt is one of my favourite comedians. In this clip, he is talking to Stephen Colbert, another performer I adore. Patton is talking about his return to performing after a six-month hiatus following the sudden death of his wife.

He is talking about grief, and the process of sharing it publicly.

He is making my throat tight.

Critter watches the screen with me for a few moments, then turns to me. She tilts her head and says, “You’re trembling.”

I hadn’t noticed. But sure enough, I lifted my right hand, and it wavered. Just barely.

“Holy crap, you are fine-tuned,” I say.

“Don’t change the subject,” Critter scolded. “What’s up?”

I felt a wave of heat travel from my belly up into my tongue. My mouth felt too small, all of a sudden. Packed tight.

“Patton Oswalt,” I said. “He’s amazing.” That’s all I could get out.

Critter looked at me. Then she looked back at the video.

Patton was saying that the hardest part of coping was getting out of bed, getting out the door, and getting into the car. But once he was at a gig, and as soon as he started speaking to his audience, his pain eased.

My heart pounded, like it was trying to speak on behalf of my tied-up tongue.

He said more, like how sometimes he felt people were thinking, “How dare this guy talk about this pain?” How sometimes people responded by sharing their own stories, and their experiences flooded out of them with a depth of grief that he felt unqualified to comprehend.

“Yes,” I whispered. Critter shoved her nose under my palm until it rested on her warm cranium.

He said that in the end, the only thing that weakens the monster of grief is facing it. Naming it. Getting right down the absurd truth about it and daring to say it out loud.

I picked Critter up and hugged her to my chest. She tucked her head beneath my chin. I just held her, and swayed a little, and thought about Patton’s face. His voice. His graying hair. The light that seemed to be coming out of his skin as he spoke, utterly grounded in the truth.

Patton said that the weirdest thing about his new, warped reality, was that the conversation about grief that he had with his audience made things somehow okay for everyone.

I hugged Critter harder and cried onto her back as I whispered, “I know.”

Whether you are naturally expressive, or not so much a sharer, I think you can touch this invisible ray of warmth, too.

If you want to see beyond the veil of your grief, do something for other people. Make their world better. It won’t matter whether or not you tell anyone what you are doing or why; what matters is proving to yourself that you have power. Your pain has purpose. Your broken world has hope and beauty and light.

Do something for your kids; your grandmother; your neighbour.

Do something wider to help:

Take action. Any action. There is no act too small, as long as it is meaningful to you, and helps your crooked world sit a little more upright.

Whatever you do, know that you are not alone. Critter and I are right here with you, loving you through the dark spaces that we share, and willing the space around you to feel warm and secure tonight.

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The Fourth Day of Griefmas – 5 Ways to Find the Light

In the spirit of what we talked about yesterday (that is, holding onto what’s important, and giving ourselves permission to let go of the rest), I am keeping it simple today.

This list about finding light is here to support you gently in your Christmas Grief. Have a look, notice what appetite it stirs in you, and then find a way to fulfil your hunger for light – either literal or metaphorical.

5 Ways to Find the Light When You’re Aching, Grieving, or Lost

1. Movement

Yoga with Adriene: Yoga for the Winter Blues

This is a free 30 minute video class with my favourite YouTube personality on the planet. If you don’t have a full 30 minutes in you, check out her channel for a shorter video, like this one:

Legs Up the Wall (11 minutes)

2. Music

Flight of the Conchords:

Hurt Feelings

Business Time

3. Humour

Funny or Die: Goodest Tweets This Week

Arrested Development: The Best of Tobias Funke

Robot Chicken: Best of Harry Potter

My post about a Hot Dog machine

4. Light Therapy

Portable Light for Seasonal Depression (this is an affiliate link; if you make a purchase Amazon will send a little thank you to the Critter and I)

It’s a good idea to get monitored by a doctor or mental health professional while using light therapy, because it alters your brain chemistry (serotonin levels); this can sometimes make mood problems worse, or cause difficult side-effects like insomnia. Checking in regularly with a trained expert will help ensure you don’t overlook problem reactions.

Sunlight and Tanning Beds

Experts warn that tanning (either indoor, or outdoor) increases your risk of cancer. However, there is also some evidence that ultraviolet light (i.e. sunlight or tanning bulbs) may increase endorphins. 

In spite of the risk, I feel like I have to mention the tanning approach.

On one hand, I am a gigantic weiner who detests sunburn. But on the other, I get a huge amount of relief from small doses of UV. A warm-weather holiday, or a couple of weekly 5-15 minute tanning sessions (I call it, “my warm nap time”) provide a huge boost to my mood.

If this strategy appeals to you, get educated and minimize your risk of catastrophic skin damage.

5. Christmas Lights

Although lights aren’t doing it for me this year, in seasons past I found it very comforting to spend time with candles and coloured strands in the dark. If you feel tugged toward toward these hopeful displays, make sure to give yourself some quiet time to take them in.

That’s all I’ve got for you tonight.

Whether your inner animal is a lizard who needs to soak in sweet solar rays, or a night critter who needs the moon’s cool glow to find her way, remember that light is the fifth food group. Feed your creature.

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The Third Day of Griefmas: Aw, Crap. I Screwed Up

I apologize for not posting yesterday. By the end of the day, my brain was full of cement, and I couldn’t finish my jobs.

It happens sometimes in depression and grief. And it happens in “regular” life, too.

When you’ve screwed the pooch, it can be hard to decide whether to let yourself off the hook, or grab your cat ‘o nine tails and bloody your back.

Let’s… Um… just a sec.

Critter is tapping my shoulder.

“Hey Critter. Can you hang on a second? I want to apologize to everyone and make a point about shitting the bed when you’re low.” I say to my imaginary raccoon/garbage-munching mental health therapist.

She twists her head down toward my lower back, puts her nose into my waistband, and snuffles.

“HA! Quit it. That tickles.” I say.

“I don’t smell anything,” she says as she emerges. “No shit here.”

I roll my eyes.

“I didn’t literally shit. It’s an expression. To ‘shit the bed’ means you screwed up; dropped the ball; failed to perform.” I explain.

Critter tilts her head as she absorbs this.

“People are strange.” she concludes.

“No doubt,” I answer.

“Anyway,” she sighs, I heard something about whipping, and I hoped we were talking about sex again.”

I chuckle.

“Not this time, Critter.” I say.

Critter droops. I scratch behind her ears, and her frown flattens into a lazy smile. She crawls up onto my lap.

“I was referring to emotional self-flagellation, beating yourself up when your brain crashes and you miss your mark.” I explain. “I think there’s another way.”

“Well, sure there is,” Critter says. “Whipping can be fun.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Hush, you. Take a nap” I say, and give her heavy strokes from scalp to tail until she melts into a fuzzy grey puddle on my thighs.

Okay… where were we…

Oh, right. I missed yesterday’s post.

I was afraid this would happen. When I hit publish to announce this daily series, stomach acid splashed up into my mouth. I normally post once a month or less. I knew daily output would be hard for me, and I dreaded this moment when I fell behind.

I am sitting here with itchy armpits, feeling a combination of shame and desperation to get back on track. The good thing is, this gives us a chance to talk about the Catch-22 of Emotional Overwhelm:

When you’re low, your brain runs poorly. The hallmark symptoms of depression and grieving (like fatigue, indecision, and difficulty concentrating) mean that you can’t do everything right now. Stuff is going to fall through the cracks.

That’s a problem, because life hasn’t slowed down just because you have. People need you, and you can’t deliver what they are expecting.

It hurts to see their disappointment. If you’re not careful, depression will attack you right then. Like a serpent’s shadow, it will slither into your ear.

“You’re disgusting. You need to pay,” it whispers.

So you punish yourself. You turn up the soundtrack that says, “I’m useless, I’m damaged, I’m a waste of flesh and bone,” and you mentally just lay down on the floor and listen to it, like Daryl Dixon at the Saviors’ Hotel.

Every time you repeat that garbage, the lights inside your skull dim a little more.

My counsel to you tonight, and to myself, is this: FIGHT THE LIE. It is crippling you more than your sadness ever could.

The only way to fight lies is with truth.

Today, I’m starting here:

Truth #1: I feel awful because I didn’t follow through on my promise. My word means a lot to me, and I hate to show people that I can’t deliver what they need from me.

Truth #2: What matters to me, even more than being impeccable with my word, is getting this job done.

I WANT to finish this series. I want to put these posts out there and spread whatever comfort, chuckles, and strength that I can.

So, even though I’m shaking because I fell on my face in front of all of you (these posts have reached almost 700 people so far!), I’m going to get up and keep going.

And I hope that you get back up, too.

If there are things you have let fall while you struggled through this season – lost your temper with your spouse, ignored your kids, bailed on social plans, or left your boss and clients hanging… I want you to take a moment right now to regroup.

  1. Listen to your inner voice; can you spot the lies among the whispers?
  2. Sort out your rat’s nest of feelings: What is the truth in there? What is the MOST important thing to you?
  3. Decide: if you can’t conquer everything right now, which tasks will you focus on?
  4. Get back on that horse; do your most important thing.
  5. Apologize. This can be the hardest part. We worry how people will react – will they be angry? Will they berate me? Will they bite off my head and spit it on the floor and paint the walls with my arterial spray?

In my experience, a genuine apology almost always brings peaceful relief. Usually, people appreciate it when you acknowledge your mistake; they are relieved to hear that you haven’t forgotten or dismissed their need.

When I apologize (and I’m not gonna lie, sometimes it’s HARD, and sometimes I do it in a, “Yeah, I’m sorry that I got out of line, but as long as we agree it was really your fault, I won’t feel too bad about it,” kind of way) but when I do manage a real, honest apology, I think of it as an opportunity to tell someone they matter to me. That’s a lot more motivating than fishing for forgiveness, knowing that they may not feel like granting it.

As I finish typing this, Critter stirs on my lap. She lifts her head, eyes closed, and then stretches out her arms and legs in an enormous yawn. She smacks her lips a few times, then cranes her neck to look up at me.

“You done?” she asks.

“I think so,” I say. “It’s not my most exciting post, but I think it needed saying.”

She raises herself up to peek at my laptop, and I scroll for her while she reads it through. Then she turns back to me and puts her paws on my chest.

“It’s not your best, but it will do,” she says. Then, she adds, “It’s better when I get to talk more.”

I laugh.

“I know, Critter. Next time, okay?” I answer.

“Alright,” she sighs. “Can we talk about sex next time?”

With a firm maybe, we’re going to leave that right here.

So, go ahead and face your “aw, crap” moments this Griefmas. And remember, somewhere out here, Critter and I are rooting for you.

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The Second Day of Griefmas: Going Deeper

“Hey,” says Dark Little Critter, my imaginary raccoon. “Where’s your pin today?”

She’s talking about my “You Are Here” pin, the thing that marks where I’m at on my Christmas grief map.

We talked about that yesterday, when I was awake and lost in the dark morning hours.

Taking that time to put my status into words was grounding. It took a while (and a lot of words) to figure out what I was trying to say, but once I got it out in front of me, I felt better. I cried out the stuff that had gotten stuck; it was like coughing up a phlegm wad after holding it in through Sunday mass. A relief.

Here’s where I’m at today:

Exhausted.

I need a full night – make that a week – with no shrieking summons from the baby to shovel her feces, reapply her discarded jammies, or keep her company because she’s awake and lonely.

It has been a long two and a half years, with that one.

For the love of god, why would they give a wakeful baby to an insomniac? Somebody was probably, thinking, “Oh, it’s a perfect fit. This mom will be up anyway. She won’t mind.”

But that shortsighted, ass-faced, uncommonly stupid brain humper did not realize that insomniacs DO sleep. It’s just that we only sleep a tiny little bit. And that sleep is so rare, and so precious, that to have it disturbed is like watching someone pee in your canteen in the middle of the desert.

It brings on the rage.

It also screws with your focus.

“Where the hell was I?” I mutter out loud.

“That’s what I asked,” Critter says, her eyes narrowed. “Earth to Laurie? You’re being annoying.”

I take off my glasses and rub my eyes.

“Back off, Trash Muncher,” I reply. “I’m not in the mood.”

“Ha! Trash Muncher!” Critter says, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Jesus Christ, Critter! I don’t have patience for your smart ass arguments today. Please, just fuck off.” I shout.

Critter levels her eyes at me. Then, she disappears into the living room. She comes back with a notebook and pen in her paws.

She climbs up onto the chair beside me, opens the book, and makes a dramatic gesture of licking the pen. Then, she starts scribbling.

“Eeeeeee-rrrrri-taaaaaaaaaa-buuullllllllll…” she pronounces carefully as she prints.

I roll my eyes.

“Yes, you smug-faced, flea-bitten, rotten-smelling pest,” I growl. “I am irritable.”

Critter lays down her pen slowly and rolls her head toward me, her mouth pressed in a hard line.

I glare back.

Without breaking eye contact, she slides off the chair, then drops down on all fours and walks quietly away.

I wait a beat.

She doesn’t come back.

Damnit.

“Critter?” I call, “Come on. Don’t…”

Nothing.

Goddamn it.

I put my forehead on the table and groan. My eyes cross and the woodgrain swims in and out of focus. I am too tired to hold my lenses steady. Too tired to fight with my imaginary friend.

What the fuck am I doing?

I lift my head.

“Critter?” I call. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m acting like a total dick, and you don’t deserve that.”

I tilt my ear toward the living room, but there’s no scritch-scratch of jogging claws.

Fuck.

“I’m really sorry,” I whisper, and press the heels of my hands into my eyes. I massage back and forth over the swollen grey pouches beneath them. God almighty, I am so tired.

How am I supposed to finish this post without her?

I’m almost mad, but the part of me that knows better is shaking its head. This isn’t an injustice. This is consequences.

I take a big breath, feel my chest balloon with resolve, and let it out.

“You know what, Critter?” I say out loud to her absence. “I’m glad you walked out. I would rather you leave when I cross the line, than hide your hurt and cut me later.”

I lay my face back down on the table, cheek-down this time, and stare at nothing. It looks grey.

I don’t know how much time passes, but next thing a voice drifts into the mist.

“Earth to Laurie,” it whispers; “where’s your pin?”

I sit up and rub my eyes. They are so dry; once they close, they don’t want to reopen. I turn my head toward the sound, seeking it blindly.

“There you are,” says the voice, and my lids finally drag across my corneas to reveal my furry, honest friend on the floor beside my chair.

“Hey,” I croak. I look in her eyes a minute to gather my thoughts. “I’m sorry.”

“I know,” Critter says, and lays her hand on my leg. “You went to a lot of trouble to avoid the question. Where’s your pin today?”

I frown and think about it.

“You know what?” I say; “I’m kind of okay.”

Critter lifts an eyebrow.

“Alright, I’m not great. I’m a dick and I’ve lost all feeling except anger. But I’m not a blubbering mess.” I say.

“Hmm,” says Critter. She lifts her nose and sniffs towards me a few times. “You smell okayish. There’s something to be said for daily hygiene.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment?” I ask.

Critter shrugs.

“What do you want from me?” I ask.

Critter smiles.

“Nothing,” she says. “Except for you to be here.”

“Aren’t I?” I ask.

“You’re in and out,” she says. “You’re nicer when you’re all here.”

I think about this.

“How am I supposed to be MORE here?” I ask.

Critter rubs her chin.

“I think you need to roll in the scent of it,” she finally says.

“What?” I ask.

“You know,” she says, shrugging. “Roll around in it. The thing that is eating your brain. Get that special stink all over you, and when your nostrils are right full of it, get on with what needs doing.”

I raise a brow at her.

“You mean, like when dogs roll in cowshit, or deer pee, or fucking compost?” I ask.

I’m remembering a little white bichon that my dad brought home out of nowhere one day. This was less than a year before he died… maybe just a couple of months. That dog had a prissy-poodle haircut and a disgusting habit of rolling in whatever putrid semi-liquid she could find. The behaviour baffled me. Somebody told me it was a hunting instinct – she was trying to mask her own scent so she could get close to her prey.

Yeah. Wouldn’t want that reeking lump of canned cow barf in her bowl to get suspicious.

Critter sees the memory roll across my face and laughs.

“Same idea, but you’ve got it backwards.” she says. “Dogs aren’t trying to fool their prey; they’re trying to quell their obsession. Every cell in their body wants to stalk and chase and kill, but they’re domesticated, so they can’t. Those urges rise every time a dog feels tense, and the pressure becomes excruciating. At some point, on the verge of totally snapping, the dog dashes for any nearby smell that approximates blood and guts, and rolls in that stuff until they are covered. With gore caked into their fur, they can finally breathe. A cloud of filth can be a great comfort. It satisfies the beast within.”

“No shit!” I laugh.

I rub my forehead while this idea sinks in. Something about it feels weirdly right.

“The question is,” Critter says; “What is Your Filth?”

So, let’s you and I go deeper into our filth today.

Before you go dump out your trash bin, let me clarify.

I think Critter is suggesting that when we’re in the angry place, which happens a lot in depression and grieving, we dig into our dirty urges and find a reasonable way to satisfy them.

For me, that sounds like storytelling.

When my rage is stalking back and forth behind me, sometimes it feels really good to feed it with stories that are bleak, awful, or downright horrifying. Here are a bunch that scratch that particular itch; they help me process the shitty truths and figure out how to live with them.

(Disclaimer: There are affiliate links below, which means, if you purchase through them, the Critter and I will receive a little thank you from the vendor.)

TV

Rescue Me
Denis Leary as a New York firefighter. Also a drunk and often horrible human being, who tries his damnedest to do the right thing, but usually fails.

American Horror Story
Supernatural terror that is horrifyingly believable, because each storyline is powered by the worst in human nature.

Shameless
William H. Macy as another drunk, this time an unemployed slimeball who screws-over his young family at every opportunity. He will blow your mind with his ability to limbo below your worst expectations.

Music

Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Like Bad News
Every genre of music mashed together into a hypnotic rock fruit salad, with lyrics that make you want to drive around with your hand on the horn at 3am. Because, goddamn everything, and yet, never give up.

Books

Suicide Stitch by Sarah Johnson
This collection of shivery dark stories made me cry in a dozen different ways. Every tale pits the best in us against the worst, and somehow gives me comfort. It in shows how the awful things we do make perfect sense; reading Suicide Stitch is like sticking your head inside the steaming carcass of human tragedy and seeing how all the parts pulse and quiver to the same rhythm.

Nix by J J Reichenbach
This story centers around a sarcastic supernatural asshole that you will kind of hate yourself for loving.

And… that’s my filth.

What’s yours?

Whether your tastes run darker than mine, or lighter, I hope you make room for them this season. I suspect that a proper coating of slime on your clothes might prove strangely soothing, especially when the “clean” world looks black.

 

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The First Day of Griefmas: Placing the “You Are Here” Pin

“So?” Critter asks, her voice shaking me out of an open-eyed doze. “You still standing?”

I can’t answer. For one thing, I’m laying down; so, that’s confusing. It’s 3am, and I just changed my toddler’s night-poop diaper. This is one of her “new things” that is decidedly uncute. I’m thinking of having a cork installed that I can just remove during the day, so we will stop getting woken in the middle of the night for “scrape the horror off my hiney” duty.

I know what my imaginary raccoon means, though. She wants to hear me say that my fears about starting this “Coping with Christmastime Grief” campaign were unfounded; Look! I put it out there, and the world kept turning. All is well, right?

Except, it’s not. I have been laying here for an hour, wishing I was back asleep, and re-reading yesterday’s announcement in my head. All I see is a mess; screwed up verb tenses, muddled-up metaphors, and a confused rant about my self-conscious anxiety that basically said nothing useful.

My mouth is dry and my throat is locked. I am choking on shame.

I swallow nothing and force my jaw to move.

“Yup,” I say. “Still standing.” I look away from her as I say it.

Critter’s brow furrows.

“Come on,” she says, shaking my shoulder with two paws. “You did fine.”

I do NOT want to get into an argument about whether the post was or wasn’t awful. There is nothing more defeating than fighting with someone to convince them that you are disgusting.

I don’t say anything, but Critter sees the thought ripple across my face.

“Hey,” she says, taking my cheeks between her paws. “Do not go there. Why do you humans work so hard to justify your shame? Can’t you see that is the problem?”

I roll my head towards her and frown.

“I feel ashamed because I did a shitty job, Critter,” I say.

Critter looks me hard in the eyes.

“No,” she says. “You feel ashamed because you think that a messy job is worse than not trying at all.”

My mouth opens, but nothing comes out. She’s right. My eyes well up.

“Listen to me carefully,” she says. She strokes my forehead and her eyes get soft. “That post was not your best work. And that is okay. You didn’t knock it out of the park, but I am proud of you for trying.”

And now I am crying. I sit up quietly and scoop Critter onto my lap. I stroke her back, soothing myself with the feel of her coarse coat sliding against my palm. The tears run down my face in the dark.

After a while, she looks up at me and says, “Let’s go downstairs. We need to talk, and we don’t want to wake the whole household.”

Next to me on the bed, my husband snorts loudly in the back of his throat and rolls over.

Critter climbs up onto my shoulder. I grab my sweater and glasses, and slip out of bed.

Down in the living room, I turn on a light and sit on the floor. Critter settles herself back onto my lap, and I resume the hypnotic petting.

I think about what she said; You didn’t do great, but I’m proud of you for trying.

What would I give to have heard my dad say that, at least one time before he died?

Yesterday was the anniversary of his death. It has been twenty-three years. Although you might think that this heartache from my juniour-high days would have healed by now, the truth is, it hasn’t. Not completely, anyway.

My dad died two weeks before Christmas when I was thirteen. He had a heart attack while my family knelt around him, and he has been haunting our Christmases ever since.

I think that’s how it goes with traumatic stuff around the holidays. The memories of the shock and pain become permanently connected to the season. I’m sure the experience is slightly different for everyone, but at the heart of things, many of us sleepwalk through the holly jolly season with a similar damp weight in our chests.

Today, here’s what I want to say about grief at Christmastime: We don’t have to be fixed, but it will make it easier to get through it if we tune-in to where we are.

Let’s put one of those “I am Here” pins into our Crappy Christmas map.

I’ll go first.

I am here:

My head is full of cotton, and I am overwhelmed. Don’t want to look at the lights and glitter going up everywhere. I can’t make myself do any holiday decorating, and am ashamed that my husband and daughters have to do it without me. I know I should be involved, but I just can’t. The lights are glowing and garlands sparkle, but to me it all looks cold and grey. I can’t touch it because I don’t want to feel the gloom that registers in my skin and eyes chaffing against the warm delight that my brain was expecting. I just can’t.

Instead of trying to summon holiday magic, I am focusing on work. Obligations. To-dos.

I am deeply thankful for the work I have found, a handful of freelance jobs that force me to schedule every waking minute which does not already belong to childcare, into my business. I am writing, reading, organizing, editing, and dealing with a world of information and communication where I feel safe from misery. It doesn’t matter how hard I am sweating or how badly my tics are coming out when I interact with the world through my keyboard.

Except, sometimes it does.

Although I am pouring myself into work, there is less of me to pour. In the last week, I have fallen behind on all of my major projects. The solace of my low-pressure tasks is getting canceled out by the anxiety that I won’t make my deadlines and fulfill my promises.

And then there’s the mental fog. The awful writing that I don’t recognize until after it is sent; the snacks, meals, and bedtimes for my kids that keep creeping later, and are getting thrown together thoughtlessly; the sneaky increase of screen time for the kids, and accompanying irritability and fights that I know are my fault, but I just can’t under control…

That’s where I’m at.

And the part that bothers me most this year is that even though thoughts of my dad are sitting on top of every pile of the mess around me, I can’t actually feel him.

Most years, I can feel the loss, the sadness over missed opportunities and the absence of his warmth. But this year. I’m just numb. I think I numbed him out. Maybe my strategy of putting 110% of my attention on work, in hopes of keeping my head above water this Christmas, have backfired.

I want to see him in my kids’ faces again. I want to picture him with startling vividness in those out-of-the-blue moments when I see exactly what he would be doing or saying if he were here right now. I want to have those daydreams where I get to see him be a granddad, kneeling down and showing the girls how stuff works, and laughing with his eyes crinkled shut at their hilarious takes on the adult world.

I want to look around at older men and their adult daughters sitting at the table next to me when I’m working at the coffee shop, and experience what that would be like with my dad, in an imagined alternate reality.

Most of all, I want to feel the love for him again. That’s the real thing that went away this year. The love – the absolute certainty that he loved me and did his very best to take care of me and our family. The trust I had in him, that even though he could be cruel and we would fight, I knew he would always be there. He would crawl over broken glass to help me, if I needed. And I know that at many times in my childhood, he did.

So, that’s where I’m at with my Christmas grief.

Critter is looking at me now. She almost fell asleep on my lap while I worked this out and cried, but I woke her when I got up to grab some kleenex.

Critter’s face is so warm right now. She has this way of gazing at me that is so calm and still; she doesn’t need anything from me, she is just fully present. She seems glad to be with me, even though I’m broken. And I’m so glad to be with her.

It is everything to know where I am, and that I’m not alone. It changes the whole picture to know that someone can stand to be in this dark place with me. It helps me accept being here with myself.

Now, I want to share that acceptance with you. Whether you share your “I Am Here” with me, or not, please take the time to put that pin in your Christmas grief map, for your own comfort. I promise, it helps. And you can be sure that Critter and I are rooting for you, and we have faith that you are going to still be standing when the New Year comes.

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The 12 Days of Griefmas

Ah, Christmas and grief. They go together like raw eggs and rum.

Hello, my friends.

I’m typing to you with sweat-slicked palms. I have this idea about dark feelings during the holidays. This idea wants out. It’s chittering like a pissed-off chipmunk and giving me a headache.

Critter is here – my faithful friend, straight-talking muse, and imaginary raccoon. She just shook her head at me and yawned. Apparently, mouthy nut-hoarding tree-dwellers don’t impress her.

So this idea keeps buzzing in my skull. I can’t spit it out. It’s been there for two weeks.

My jaws are locked tight by an exaggerated nervousness about Things I Might Regret. It’s getting rather constipated in here.

This giant feeling of foreboding has been standing in front of my expressive outlet, looking like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It is crossing its tree-trunk arms and giving me a cocky grin that says, “Good luck with that.”

This smug censor is an agent of Doubt, and is the biggest pain in the ass on my internal executive committee. When I get threatening ideas, Doubt’s henchman cracks thick knuckles tattooed with his motto: Don’t Write Checks You Can’t Cash. Or Else.

Well, the chipmunk isn’t having any of that. He has started stomping his tiny feet and waving his paws, and just squeaked something like, “This nut needs to be cracked!” Or, it might have been, “You’re gonna get smacked.” I don’t know; I don’t speak chip-squeak.

Anyway, these two lunatics started a brawl in the backroom of my mind. The stale grey air filled with echoing screams and hunks of fur that fell like snow. Flying chairs and tables dinged the walls.

At the height of the melee, I left the building. I propped the back door open with a dustpan, and squatted against cold, gritty brick in the back alley. I laid my head in my hands. I breathed hard and listened to the wheezy in-out huffs, trying to get grounded and figure out what to do.

On one hand, I know I am in a messy place. I’m so far behind on my obligations and so run down on my reserves that making another promise right now seems like masochism.

But on the other hand, I think that maybe Mr. Chubbycheeks is right; maybe this nut DOES needs cracking.

I tossed this question back and forth for awhile, like an exhausting game of one-man badminton.

All of a sudden, an impatient, “Ahem,” broke my thoughts. I looked up, and there was Critter. Her arms were crossed like captain beefcake, but her message was totally different. Instead of sporting a menacing grin, she was rolling her eyes.

“Are you done?” she finally asked.

“Done what?” I asked back.

“This!” she said, waving her paws around the alley. “And that,” she added, cocking a thumb toward the door; “Your drama made one hell of a mess.”

“That wasn’t me!” I protested, “Those guys are nuts! I came out here to get away from it.”

Critter gave me the “bullshit alert” eyebrow. I closed my eyes and rubbed my palm on my forehead.

“God. Okay. Fine,” I grumbled. “The drama is me. The chipmunk is me, the meathead is me…”

“And the lily-livered whiner cowering behind the dumpster right now is DEFINITELY you,” Critter finished for me. Helpful, as always.

“Fuck off, Critter.” I said. But she didn’t flinch. Instead, she came closer, and laid a paw on my thigh.

She waited until I looked at to her and said gently, “Just do it.”

I looked at her. I didn’t know what to say. My heart pounded in my ears. My breath scraped in my chest.

I couldn’t even make words for my excuses.

Critter waited patiently, breathing with me. We stared at each other, and I started to get lost in the soothing neither-nor-ness of her brown-grey coat, and her yellow-green eyes.

For a moment, I forgot what we were talking about. My face relaxed. Critter saw the shift, and her ears perked up.

I picked up her wordless expectation, and sighed.

“Alright,” I said. “Fine. I’m doing it.”

Critter smiled and patted my leg.

“Atta girl,” she said.

“What if I can’t keep it up, though, Critter?” I asked, “What good will it do if I get started and can’t follow it through?”

“We might as well find out,” she answered. “It’s not like this holding back has helped anyone, or preserved your inner peace.”

I snorted. No kidding.

Alright. So… here we go.

I have this idea, and I’m just going to say it:

I’m going to run a campaign, starting today. It’s called 12 Days of Griefmas, and it’s for everyone whose heart breaks over and over again, every single Christmas.

I know there are a lot of us; the sad truth about the Christmas season is that it is kind of a magnet for grief.

The story is in the numbers; rates of illness, death, divorce, suicide, and self-harm spike in the dark of December. I think part of the problem is the crushing reality that the perfect Christmas dream we sell to each other isn’t real. It cannot exist in our brains, bodies, and families.

We push ourselves to the brink physically, emotionally, and financially, trying to produce the holidays we think our families need from us. And instead of drawing comfort from each others’ warm bodies at this time of year, we beat ourselves up and lament our loved ones’ failures. We drown our disappointment in food, drink, overwork, and meanness. We push ourselves further and further away from the connection we crave.

And all this is happening in a season when we’re low, anyway. The short, dark, shivery days and merry-go-round of snot-spewing contagion make winter a necessarily hard time. No wonder so many species migrate and hibernate to avoid it.

Since we can’t avoid it, and so many of us are sitting here feeling shitty anyway, I thought I’d light us a fire.

I’m going to pop on here every day between now and Boxing Day to keep the flames stoked with whatever tinder I can find: tips, songs, jokes, games, stories… who knows. I haven’t completely thought this through. I haven’t even counted the days… I think it might be more than twelve. Whatever. That’s not important.

What matters to me is reaching out to you, and clearing a place in the dark forest where we are wandering so we can come together.

I hope you can join me, and I hope it helps you get through this long night.

If you like this idea, go ahead and share this post. You all know I’m not shy about broadcasting my brokenness. Maybe it will find someone who needs it, and help them feel less alone.

Whatever it is you really need, I encourage you to find it. Sniff that shit out, gather it up, and line your nest with the things that express and soothe your ache.

And have yourself a grievy little Christmas. Let your heart be embraced by the dark critters all around you, and the love that comes from relating.

 

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