Wednesday, July 22, 2015

When Couples Grieve, Part 2: Travelling in Different Directions

Our three-week road trip last month turned into two weeks. We never made it to Glacier National Park. We traveled with differently weighted packs of grief taking up more and more space in the car. I was eager to see new vistas and explore the route together, like we had on a wonderful cross-country trip the year before Noah’s decline began. My husband, tied to home as steadying comfort, was anxious and glum being away. Little things sparked panic; normal pleasures felt flat. “Do you want to turn around?” I asked, but he said we should continue. 

Then, in an unfamiliar town, the dog disappeared into the woods at dusk and didn’t come to our calls. He finally turned up half an hour later, but not before turning my poor husband ashen at the thought of another loss. We managed to have a good hike the next day with friends—and the dog firmly on leash--but I knew something was still wrong when my husband refrained from climbing a higher peak from the overlook. The next day, he left the farmer’s market after a few minutes without even tasting the local apricots. This time, we decided to cut the trip short.

On the long drive home, my husband seemed relaxed and relieved to be heading back to the familiar. I was glad for his sake but worried whether we’d ever be able to enjoy traveling together again for more than a few days. Once home, we reveled in the tomatoes and peaches that had ripened in our absence. Then I caught a glimpse of our shrine to Noah and my heart sank. Back to this again, I thought; still here, still dead. The reminders of Noah that fill our home are what I need to leave behind for fresh perspective--and what my husband needs to hold close for security and comfort. I look forward to the newness of travel; my husband is wary of feeling “unmoored.” A support group facilitator tells me this kind of divergence is common for survivor couples.

After stewing in some glumness of my own, I plunged into a work project. I’m trying to see the shortened vacation as a blessing, forcing me to journey inward with creative and spiritual pursuits. Maybe soon, I’ll think about travel plans with friends or shorter trips with my husband. Slowly, he and I are debriefing what happened and seeking other things to look forward to together.

Friday, July 10, 2015

"Inside Out" Wrenches

Spoiler alert: If you’re planning to see the movie, you may want to read this later.

My husband and I have been looking for fun, escapist movies in the past two years far more than in the past. We routinely reject movies that deal with death or troubled people; I can’t even enjoy British mysteries if they dwell too much on dead bodies. But who knew that a Disney-Pixar movie full of the usual cleverness and whimsy would remind me of Noah’s struggles and bring on tears?

The movie animates the inner workings of the mind of 11-year-old Riley, with Joy in charge of the other emotions (Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) in a huge storehouse of colorful balls (memories). Riley is a happy kid until her family moves to another city. Suddenly, the emotions are alarmed to see Sadness tinging Riley’s sunny memories with blue and Riley sinking into an uncharacteristic funk. As memories are tainted, entire “islands” of experience—family, friendship, sports--lose their color and motion and and collapse. Joy and Sadness go on a quest to retrieve Riley’s lost “core memories” and revive the islands that make her who she is. But Joy is flummoxed by the situation, and ultimately, it is the power of Sadness that brings Riley home after she runs away, prompts her to speak her heart, and allows the family to reunite around supporting her in her sorrow. What an unexpected message for a Disney film!

I saw the movie a few days before Noah’s birthday so maybe I was primed to be triggered. I couldn’t help thinking of Noah’s despair when I saw everything in Riley’s world being touched by Sadness, over and over. “I can’t help it!” Sadness says, and indeed, Noah’s depression seemed to have a life of its own. Like Riley, he became a shadow of his former animated self. He didn’t know what to do with sadness and couldn’t easily express it. It was sadness that made him notice others who were lonely or unhappy and reach out to them at college, as people he barely knew attested at his memorial. Yet he was ashamed of his own sadness and convinced he just had to “man up” to his problems.

As Sadness took over, Riley’s mind went out of control. More and more memories started to dim, as they no doubt did for Noah. When Riley’s islands of experience started to crumble in the movie, so did I. The longer Noah suffered from depression and anxiety, the more he lost parts of himself—his wit, intellect, curiosity, confidence, interests, pleasures, and ties to family and friends. Watching each island self-destruct in the movie was like watching the dissolution of Noah’s mind, piece by piece. It’s like watching a house warmly lit from within gradually go dark, window by window. This seems to be what many families experience as they live with someone who is mentally ill. I was consumed with fear and helplessness in the last 8 months of Noah’s life, though I always believed the devastation could be halted and fixed. 

When Riley finally confesses her sadness to her parents, she says she was afraid to talk about it because she knew they wanted her to be happy. Were we as blind as Riley’s parents when the seeds of Noah’s sorrow were first taking root? Did everyone’s high expectations drive him to silence and shame as sadness became more overwhelming? Noah once said that no one really knew him. Did I argue too much with his despair rather than really listening and giving him hope? 

Two psychologists who consulted on the film wrote, “The real star of the film is Sadness, for Inside Out is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness. . . . Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.”

If only we could rewrite the script for our lost ones. When their suffering and suicide have plunged us into such a well of sadness, how do we find what is to be gained and remake our lives?

Saturday, July 4, 2015


On your 24th birthday
I move through the house, kissing
your head in every photo,
from toothless babe to troubled man.
No springy hair grazes my lips,
only cool glass. That
is all I have.

I venture into your closet,
grab a zip-locked pack of T-shirts
sealed with your scent. I open it fast
and breathe you in, still thick
with thrift-store musk, smoke and sweat.
I ration these releases
to last the rest of my life;
each time I fear the trace of you
will vanish. That
is all I have.

Later we go to the beach
where you used to surf, where we used to scan
the waves for your lean, concave form,
poised astride the board. But
you paddled out too far, dropped
over the horizon. Now
we see only other people’s sons,
their brave bodies braced against
the ocean’s pull. That
is all we have.

Driving home under mottled clouds,
we spot a rare smudge of rainbow—
your gift,
an afterthought.*

How to spend the birthday of our lost ones? Nothing feels right. It's a day like any other--feed the dog, do the wash--with hours we dread to fill. We can't spend the whole day in remembrance. We've tried to go places Noah loved or would have loved and do something that reminds us of him--but I didn't feel connected to his spirit at last year's restaurant or this year's beach, with others or alone. I still can't help comparing these outings to eating or traveling with him, and feeling envious of families that can do those simple things. It will never be a happy day for us. But maybe I am looking in the wrong places. The sky, gold-infused, stunned me on the way home. Maybe on future birthdays, we should think about gifts: the ones Noah had, the ones we gave him and he gave us, the ones we would have exchanged.

 *Note: All poetry on this blog is original unless attributed to others. All rights reserved.