Grief: Anticipation Anxiety

(Thirty-first in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

There is something about the rise of a full moon that I just love. I’m not sure why it holds such fascination for me, but it always has. I’m greedy about it – I wish we had a full moon every night, like we have the sun every day. When I was growing up in Tucson, Arizona, I loved anticipating the moon’s first peek as it came up over the mountains on the eastern edge of our valley, creating a silhouette of Thimble Peak. Then, it was as if the moon just popped up and suddenly the entire valley was bathed in moonlight. I loved walking in the desert under its light. The movie, Under the Same Moon, captures the beautiful thought that regardless of where we are in the world, we can look up and know we are under the same moon as those we love.

Anticipation can bring pleasure or anxiety as we are waiting for or pondering a future event. Expectation – like a child waiting for their birthday. But during the Covid Pandemic, there is a sense of anxiety from there being no known end in sight. The anticipation is open-ended and we are unable to plan ahead, which has caused instability in many areas: our health, jobs, housing, food supply. We may anticipate a not-so-good outcome and the future is not predictable or knowable. Not that any of our futures are predictable or knowable, but there are fairly reasonable assumptions we can make when life is close to “normal”.

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Grief: Closure or Finding Meaning?

(Thirtieth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

When I finished writing Chapter 27, Grief Part 3: Accepting the Mystery, I didn’t realize what I had actually done. It was four years after our son had died, the pain from the first few years had diminished, I had gone through four of the Five Stages of Grief, and was moving forward in what I thought was the final stage, Acceptance. I was not dealing with denial, anger, bargaining, or depression any longer.

One day I was on a call with a friend. She was telling me her thoughts about the book and asked: “Do you realize what you have done?” No, I guess not. What? “You have gone through the sixth stage of grief: finding meaning. Your book was your way to find, and then share, meaning in the loss of JL’s life.”

She was right. But it wasn’t a goal I set out to accomplish. I think it was intuitive for me, something I had to do. Even after we finally accept the reality of a tragic loss in our lives, many of us want to find meaning. While we can’t find reason in the death, we can choose how we ascribe meaning to the life. I did not want JL’s life to seem meaningless.

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Grief: Acceptance or Acquiescence?

(Twenty-ninth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

I have never been one to accept something without question – anyone who knows me well, knows this – and they live with the frustration my incessant questions create. But it’s the way I need to process what is happening to or in or around me in order for me to honestly make the decision to accept or reject whatever the issue is at hand. I don’t think I could live with myself if I pretended I agreed or accepted something when I didn’t – the dishonesty would keep me in turmoil. And many times, it is ultimately for self-preservation that I accept something distasteful or painful when I finally understand there is no other option.

Death leaves us no other option – it is not negotiable. For most of us, our survival instinct brings us to the realization that in order to retain our sanity, we must eventually accept death – even of those we love the most in this world – whether we like it or not.

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Shredding A Life – Losing the Future

(Twenty-sixth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Nine months after our son, JL’s, sudden death, we were gradually unearthing our grief, as we gradually unearthed pieces of his life. We were miners searching for something precious, digging through the layers of years as if through layers of rock. Or perhaps we were more like survivors of an earthquake. Our entire earth, with everything we had built on it, was suddenly shaken to the point of collapse, and we were sifting through the remaining buildings and rubble to see what was left. Deciding what to keep and what to dispose of. “Dispose of” has new and unwelcome meanings now. Clothing, personal belongings, furniture, files, photos, childhood toys, keys, memorabilia.

John’s journal entry on May 12, 2015 expresses some of our feelings:

Dear JL,

It’s dad again. We are going through more of your things and I spent a half-day shredding your old papers and notes. It is so odd that much of our lives comes down to boxes of paper to shred. This is very, very hard for me. Shredding your life.

I love you – Dad

Grief is about what is going on inside us after a loss—how we feel. We have no more control over it than we have control over other feelings. Our choice involves how we deal with it.

Mourning is the action of dealing with our loss—what we do, the common rituals, the external part of the tragedy. Again, we choose how we mourn.

Some people put acts of mourning off indefinitely – leaving a deceased loved one’s belongings just as they were when they died until they die themselves. Others, urged on by society or their own distraught emotions, will almost immediately begin sorting and throwing. For us, there were some natural milestones when deep inside we seemed to know it was time to face the loss of another part of our son’s life. The grief-work we were engaged in – being aware of the various stages of grief and facing them as they surfaced – was our internal guide. We never let societal custom or any external pressure guide us, while we did read and listen to other’s experiences.

One thing became clear: this loss of our child was very, very different than the loss of our parents or siblings. Although each of those were difficult in their own distinct ways, the level of personal pain with our son’s death was unique. He was an intimate part of who we are – of course – he came from us. As he grew and became his own person, he yet remained a part of our life and more significantly, our future. All is engulfed in a thick fog. Which is why the quote in the photo is so poignant:

When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future.