Thursday, March 30, 2017
Scattering Grief: Ashes, Cold Sand, and the Absence of Emotion
I scattered my mother's ashes in the cold dark ocean. I stood in my bare feet, the temperature hovering a few degrees above freezing. Unseasonably cold at the Gulf in the middle of March. Other family members stood nearby feeling all the feelings. I turned the bag upside down and let the contents fall into the lapping waves under cold stars feeling nothing. The gap of black water I had to wade through had surprised me and taking off my shoes seemed necessary in my hurry to complete the process. This one last heavy thing I had promised.
There were tears by others. I stood there feeling like a sociopath in my blankness. But I had given all I had to give over the last years with her and now was as empty as the plastic bag in my hand. Of course, the thing rushing in to fill up that space is guilt. Always guilt. The shameful thoughts of knowing I shouldn't feel this way. This distant. Emotionless.
Several years ago I was angry and sad, undone even, by something that happened. I felt rage that I didn't know was possible for me and it scared me. It was uncomfortable in some ways but in other ways it felt good. Honest. Real. I kept saying "I have the right to my emotions." Which is true. Anyone would have been hurt and been barely holding together under an avalanche of ragged emotions. I felt them without guilt.
And so in this moment, standing on the frigid sand, did I not also have the right to feel nothing? We aren't supposed to feel this way no matter how much someone siphoned out of us while they were alive. After death we expect to be washed over by waves of regret and sadness. Others are concerned for us, they ask loved ones if we are "holding up ok." Especially women who had mothers they could go to for advice, or lean on, or who were selfless and dear.
There is a place for envy of the brokenhearted. There's a sadness in not being sad.
I feel improper.
On the table in our rented condo the table is covered with faded photographs of happier times. Family dinners, holidays, first days of school. Our mom did the surface stuff very well. But some of the stories that get told along with the memories tug in the wrong direction. It's an effort to avoid bits and pieces of history. To remember just enough to make us smile and then skip ahead over the tender spots. My sister and I try hard. A story about this photo, a memory of that house. I ask "Tell me about this one, I don't remember."
I work to hold on to the happy pieces and unremember wide swaths throughout the tale.
There is a shame in knowing that my lack of emotion is unimaginable for others. Some of us have poured our energy down the drain of chaotic neediness for decades, so that in the end at the last wind of the road on a cold dark shoreline there is simply nothing left. Nothing except very deep down inside, trying not to raise it's head too high and be noticed; the shadowy whisper of relief.
So what do we do when we don't feel the appropriate emotions in life? How do we cope with having a vastly different experience than other people? What do we do with the guilt that comes when we don't feel a sense of loss when most people do?
First, let's recognize that these are emotions and thoughts. They are temporary. Your emotions, or lack of them, don't make you a bad person. It's quite possible that all the emotion has been spent earlier in the situation as it was in my case. It's not that there were never any tears over the loss of my mother. It's just that they'd already been shed over not having her as a trusted adviser when she was alive as well as exhausting myself trying to make her happy. For many people the lack of apparent grief at the very end is because the strongest emotions were felt during a long illness and death is indeed a relief for all involved.
Second, share how you are feeling about how you are feeling with friends you trust or a therapist. The worst thing to do is struggle alone thinking there is something wrong with you. You may not realize how much you've invested emotionally in the past, it's helpful to have a third party who is removed from the situation give insight from another perspective. Work with a therapist to make sure that your lack of emotion hasn't hardened into a grudge or unforgiveness. Counseling can help you make sure you're not slipping into unhealthy territory.
Third, recognize that not experiencing the socially acceptable sentiment on demand is okay. It's fine to experience your own grief in your own time. You may grieve for the loss of your parent with Alzheimer's the first time they don't recognize you or at the diagnosis. You may grieve the sudden loss of a loved one who died without warning weeks or months after the event when the shock wears off. You may feel no sense of loss at all for a relative who made everyone's life miserable when they were alive.
Every single situation is different. Unless you are trying to get away with murder, you shouldn't feel that you need to drum up emotion on demand when someone passes away. That's why people hate Valentine's Day. Use your energy to be kind and supportive of those grieving in a different way. Aim for kindness. But don't try to be anything but your authentic self.
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I write about simple projects and a sustainable lifestyle. I keep bees and I'm obsessed with books, travel and art. Most days you can find me writing, leading a tour at my city's art museum, or tending the bees.