Breaking out…but not yet.

I thought that when I was taking care of my parents as they died that I was in chrysalis. It felt like the right metaphor for the time: isolated and encapsulated by my own grief and my parents’ fears and pain, I was changing radically as a person.

I was in chysalis, but what I did not realize that even chrysalis has its stages. I was preparing for “deep” chrysalis. I was setting things up in preparation of even further metamorphosis. At the point where I was an orphan at last (homeless, broke, and alone) I thought I was emerging into the wild beyond, but in reality was sinking into a chrysalis that I, quite unknowingly, set up to destroy me.

Any creature that stays in chrysalis too long dies. It is supposed to break out and into the world, fresh and wet and reborn, and take off into a new life. A chrysalis is a death sentence if kept to.

I tricked myself, blinded by grief and deep fear of loneliness, into hiding inside my chrysalis. In the end I started eating myself alive, a gross turn on the metaphor but true nonetheless: I was tearing myself apart, hungry for something I did not know because it was outside of my chrysalis walls.

My epic, slow-motion breakdown of 2007-2008 was the result.

In my terror, I got therapy and made huge changes in my life. I thought, yet again, that I was emerging (finally!) from chrysalis.

Still, I was frustrated. I was not the person I wanted to be, and I’m still not. I’m doing the right things but I’m not what I would describe as “there” yet. My anger over that fact is very consuming, and scary, and counterproductive. I could not figure out why, if I’m finally free of the chrysalis and starting my new life, I still feel trapped. I shouldn’t. Even my therapist agreed with that.

Then one day, as I thought about moving to Seattle in a couple of years (I don’t know how I am, but I am), I randomly thought: that’s my new world. That’s what I’m preparing for.

Two years from now, I will have finally finished this transformation and be moving out of the chrysalis. Consciously, and with purpose—something lacking in all my past attempts, which were based on circumstances or terror—I will be at the point of actualizing my true self.

To fully transform myself inside the chrysalis, I had to first wake up to the changes. Simply sitting safely inside was not enough, in fact it was slowly killing me. When I realized what I was doing, I knew I had to decide to live a half-life or take control. Taking control meant radical changes (therapy, divorce, graduate school, paleo/primal lifestyle, to name but a few), and that’s where I still am right now: changing.

That doesn’t mean I’m not who I am now, or that the process itself is without value. I’m looking at it the way most people view a college education: a few years of hard work in a life-bubble that is one step removed from everything “out there.”

But that’s also why I’m frustrated, because I want this part of the changing to be done. I’m simply impatient and I get that, but all told I’ve been “in chrysalis” for nearly 15 years, and I’m emotionally ready. I’m anxious.

And maybe that’s the feeling that causes us to kick at the walls of the chrysalis until it breaks open and lets us free. Maybe I’m at exactly the right stage I need to be at: primed, ready, anxious, excited, and a little scared but a lot brave.

I’m ready.

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Last Chances

I have a love/hate relationship with all the 9/11 memorialization that goes on every year here in the United States; as with most very public group mourning events, I think there is power in sharing our grief, but there is also far too much overblown sensationalism surrounding it and cheapening it. Double edged sword, I know.

But a recent column by award-winning journalist LZ Granderson at CNN captured my attention, because he personalized what is overwhelming to us; he looked at what it means to have a last chance, that one moment you will never forget where you say goodbye to your loved one for the last time when you don’t know it is the last time. Instead of grandstanding the grief, he took a moment to say, “every moment is precious.”

If there is a universal lesson to grief (debatable, but I like the idea anyway), then it is just what Granderson reminds us:

Hug your loved ones while you can.

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Sum of grief

Yesterday was the first day of classes, and in one class a professor sidelined into the “text” of memorial markers such as gravestones and road-side markers (yes, these are the kinds of classes I take). She expressed her dumbfounded amazement at the phenomenon of car window memorials, disdain clear in her commentary. My impression was that she didn’t get why people would cheapen someone’s memory in such a low-class way.

She’s a great person, and I’m sure she did not mean offense, she simply did not get it. That’s okay, because as I’m always quick to point out, everyone grieves differently.

I think, however, that a critical aspect of grief that has been lost in modern society is the marker it places on the individual who grieves. Losing someone we love scars us and changes who we are. The deaths of my parents are as much a part and parcel of who I am as my alma mater, my job history, and the music I listen to, but it’s hardly something I’m going to stick on my CV or mention in line at Starbucks.

Yet, there was once a time in human history when everyone who knew me would know about the deaths of my parents as well as they know my hair cut. Anthropologists have estimated that early human tribes were usually only about 150 people strong; even later “large” agricultural settlements were a fraction of the size of the university I attend. Everyone knew everyone else, or were only a few steps removed.

It’s possible to have that kind of interrelationship these days, in small towns for instance, but it’s more unusual in the United States than not. We are a transient society with people who can’t visit the graves of loved ones because those graves are 1,000 miles away and we live surrounded by people who don’t know us outside of the job we have or the role we play in our community.

In the same way that people have taken to “tribing up” to find belonging (you only have to find a particular music scene to see that phenomenon in action, be it country music, goth, or classical), people have to advertise who they are. We do this with the brands we buy, the clothes we wear, and, yes, the memorial text on our cars.

And, it’s America after all: we bond with our cars. More so than even the houses we live in or the brand-name shoes we wear, our cars are an extension of our identities. Memorials on them remind the world around us, populated mostly by people who are strangers to our histories, that we are the sum of many experiences, including grief.

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Changes on the Horizon

I started this blog with a very vague idea of it being, mostly, a platform for my book Grieving Futures. Then I started graduate school, my ex-husband moved out of the house, I changed many aspects of my lifestyle (food, exercise, haircut!), lost my car, became a published romance novel author, got a job…you get the idea.

All that and I still did not have much of an idea of what to do with this blog.

I have started a more general blog (kimboo york is kbs) to discuss aspects of information science, health, writing, and my life as a whole. So that left AYoLD as…what? I mentioned in a post here earlier this year that, surprisingly, I do not discuss mourning issues much at AYoLD, which is more than a little oxymoronic. Emphasis on “moronic.” ;)

Rather than letting AYoLD slide into being a general “improve your life!” blog, of which there are about 127 million already on the web, I’m going to rebrand this blog to deal specifically with grief, caretaking, and survivorship issues.

The location won’t change, but the name will, along with the graphics, the layout, and the tone of the posts I make. I will be posting the rest of Grieving Futures here serially, though, and the goal in general is to post more regularly which I think will be possible now that I have a much better grasp of what this blog is here to do.

As always, my goal is to help others discover that they aren’t alone in their grief, and to let mourners know that no matter how they feel or what they do, they aren’t really crazy. We just feel that way sometimes.  <3

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Totems

Meet Choco.

Choco the plushie totem

That’s short for “Chocolate”. A sophisticated piece of work, is our dear Choco; I made him when I was five, maybe. Really I don’t know for sure, and I certainly don’t remember doing it.

Like so many other projects I fumbled through as a girl, Choco became a fixture of our holiday trimmings, just one of many mutant plushies who kept the tree company until Santa showed up. I didn’t think much about him; he was another lame curiosity from my youth that Mother insisted upon clinging to. That is a parent’s prerogative, so I resigned myself to Choco’s annual appearance.

Then, Mother developed cancer.

I can’t say “she got sick” because heavens almighty, that woman was always sick. Born a century earlier, my mother would not have made it past thirty years old. In the end, though, one of her sicknesses was worse than the others, and so cancer killed her. Before that happened, there was a year and a half of bitter struggles, messy medical treatments, messier symptoms, and Choco.

Her last holiday season (1993), she pulled Choco out from the plushie menagerie under the tree and placed him on her bedside table, and there he stayed until her forever.

Mother was childish in a lot of ways, but I don’t put her affection for Choco in that bucket. Truth be told, though, I don’t know what he meant to her outside of the obvious, sentimental value. Lost youth? Her identity as a mother? A time of hope and optimism? Perhaps he represented something more grim, such as death or futility. Or maybe she just thought he was funny looking, and made her smile. I don’t know.

I don’t know because (like most of the important stuff), we never talked about he meant. However, I can tell you what Choco actually was, no matter the meaning behind it: Mother’s totem.

The official definition of a totem is an animalistic spirit that represents a group of people, such as a family or tribe. Over time that meaning has drifted (especially in the New Age crowd that Mother associated with) to become a representation of a person’s inner spirit, or in some cases their spiritual guide. I’m not claiming such esteem for Choco, who is about as animalistic as a rock. In some ways, though, he took on a similar spiritual significance.  He watched over Mother when I couldn’t, at night or in hospital; he was the holder of secrets and fears she could not share with me; he held some part of her in thrall, as guardian and confessor and friend.

Now, he sits on my bedroom chest of drawers like a sentinel to her memory.

For a long time, his presence bothered me, but I was helpless to relegate him back to the holiday decorations box. There was no question that throwing him away was not an option, because as mother’s totem, he symbolizes her very spirit. That was the source of my discomfort, actually: the idea that I was not moving on within acceptable parameters by not letting go of the silly, meaningless toy.

As mourners, we are often told by well-meaning friends and family to “let it go” or “move on,” but as advice it is lacking in specifics. What do we let go of? Memories? Things? Emotions? In that ambiguity I decided I was a failure for clinging to Choco. Wasn’t I supposed to “let go” and put him away? I began to feel like it was more childish of me to hold on to Choco than it was for Mother to do so.

But Mother did hold him, and looked for him, and needed him. He became an extension of her, during those dark, deadly times, and in the end he became the bridge over the impossible divide between me and my dead mother. Whatever he truly represented to Mother, he was precious to her, and that simply makes him precious to me. I’m okay with that.

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New column at Open to Hope

There are several good websites online which provide forums for mourners to meet, talk, and share. One I really appreciate is Open to Hope – it offers a wide variety of writers who talk about their different forms of grief openly and honestly.

Sometimes it’s not easy to read, and sometimes it’s life changing. Sometimes it’s a good place to go and think, “oh yeah, I know that feeling.” We need that, if only so we know that we are not crazy.

I’m fortunate that Open to Hope has offered to let me write for them. It’s a “pro bono” gig, as they say, and that’s fine. It’s just opening myself up to a wider audience, in hopes that what I have to say helps other people. My first article went up earlier this month, and the comments I’ve received for it are heartfelt and heartbreaking.

That post was a re-write of something I posted here, but future columns will be original essays. Here’s the link to my first post there: Walking Backwards into the Future.

You can keep up with my writings there by checking my Bio Page there, although I will also post links here when the new columns go up.

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Grieving Futures, part #5

Authoria: This is the next section of the book that comes right after “Circumstances.” It is actually based on a very old essay I wrote only a couple of years after my parents died, and while I’ve changed it considerably over the course of time it still reflects how I feel.

Myths and History

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Caretaking is Surreal

A friend recently wrote in her journal about having to take time off to be a temporary caretaker for her partner, who had not-minor surgery on his shoulder. I sympathized with her experiences, but she was careful to point out that the few weeks she spent caretaking in no way compared to the years I devoted to helping my parents die.

I disagree.

Caretaking for long periods of time is different, sure; and the cumulative effects of the stress is severe. No argument.

But I think any time you take responsibility for the life of someone who is physically or mentally unable to tend to their own needs, you slip into a surreal world of suspended priorities. In my book Grieving Futures I talk about “The Miserable Tolerance,” the point at which everything flattens out into two dimensions of importance: what needs to be done now, and what needs to be done later.

In that strange place, the caretaker’s next coffee is as important as the next feeding or wound care session or medicine dose: everything is so damn important that it becomes impossible to give weight to anything. It’s a blur of exhaustion and desperation. Sleep is planned for but rarely truly achieved. Worse, outside of the bubble, the world continues on without noticing.

It’s that part which causes the most dysfunction, even for short term care-takers. Life — your job, your social life, your car repairs — continues on as if nothing cataclysmic has happened. To be honest, although I don’t mean to sound cruel, this is one area where mourners have the upper hand because society at least allows mourners the right to be divorced from reality. That right isn’t granted to caretakers, who are expected to “work around” their obligations as if caretaking is the mental equivalent of walking the dog.

I sometimes get that “look” when I tell people I moved home at 22 to care for my parents full time. I know they are wondering why the hell I didn’t get a job, or go back to school, or something normal and sane like that. To be honest I planned to, at first. Then I sunk like a lead marble under the surface of trying to take care of two physically damaged people who were unable to take care of themselves or each other. Words cannot describe how exhausting that was for me.

So when someone says they have to be caretaker, even for a brief period of time, I remember those days when The Miserable Tolerance ruled my world, and I hope for better for them. I hope that every caretaker gets a chance to sleep at night. I hope they get to take off early from work or even just take off from their job for a while. I hope that their time in the surreal bubble does no lasting harm. I hope, anyway.

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Grieving Futures, part #4

Authoria: This is the final half of the opening chapter “Circumstances”, which tells the story of the deaths of my parents and what happened to me before, during, and after.

CIRCUMSTANCES, part 2

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Tripping through Hell Month

You know it’s going to be rough when your therapist keeps describing the current month as “Hell month.” Because it is, it totally is.

My father died on April 26th, at about 2a.m. in the morning (although for me, it was “late at night”). I’m beginning to realize just how profoundly this affects my yearly life cycle; I don’t think it is coincidence that, historically, I am most often laid off/quit my job in late May/early April. I do think it is coincidence that my divorce happened one year ago in April, but it is an eerie coincidence all the same.

This year I’m heading into my father’s Death Day anniversary right on the heels of finals week in graduate school. I’ve barely scraped by with my academics, which for me means that I’m getting straight As for what I consider marginal work. I have not updated this blog in a month, and my creative writing has fallen off the radar. I’m clinging. Just…clinging.

I started a new part time job that is fairly stressful, although I was honest with my employer from the first that I consider this a temporary gig (as it has no relation at all to my various career paths) and that hiring me during the last two weeks of the semester meant she was not getting my 100% effort. It felt good to be honest about that, even if it hurt my pride a little. I suppose that, right there, shows some personal growth. I hope.

I’m also not sure anymore what I’m doing with this blog. I created it mainly as venue for Grieving Futures, so that people who need to read that book can find it. Four months in, I think the tone I set for it is wrong, and I need to revamp it. I’m just not sure how.

So, yes: Hell month. I’m putting one foot in front of the other, keeping going because that is the best I can do right now. Grief has a way of scrubbing us down to our marrow.

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