Tag Archives: trauma

Grief and Motherhood– Lessons Learned While Grieving as a Mom

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If you’ve been following along over the past months, you may have noticed my once plucky mommy blog has been devoted almost entirely to the death of one of my best friends.

E. died in October.  She died suddenly, or at least it seemed sudden to me.  Had my eyes been open, I might have seen it really was not so sudden.  She’d been ill.  I’d been in denial.  Part of my grief’s rawness these past months is in acknowledging that, had I not been in denial about her age and health, I might have had prioritized more opportunities to see her, to love her, to speak and share with her.

Sometimes I don’t make the time I should.  While juggling the responsibilities of my life as a working mom and wife, I forget to make the call or send the card.  I’m not assertive enough about making plans with people.  It’s a crappy excuse, and an even crappier feeling to realize you missed a chance because you were stupidly blinded by the day to day.

I take comfort in knowing my last interaction with her was loving, sweet, and happy.  And about a week before she died, I left a voice mail for her which ended, as it always ended, in “I love you.”

I’ve also taken comfort in writing about her.

E. was my first major loss.  It doesn’t matter that I’m a therapist with training in grief and trauma.  When you experience this stuff for the first time, it’s like any other new, uncomfortable experience.  I’m bumbling  through the dark tunnel, and channeling my frustration, and sorrow into posts and poems.

Grieving as a mom has also been challenging.

When E. first died, a friend said she hoped I could find space to grieve because it’s hard to do when you are a working mom, already stretched translucently thin.  I’ve thought a lot about this over the past couple months- how as moms it is so hard to find the space we need to integrate all of our parts into one cohesive package.  We can’t sit around and cry in bed when kids need to be brought to school, karate, and dance; need to be fed, washed, and snuggled.  We still have to rise and go to work to keep heat on and food stocked.

In some ways, I wonder if my grief is taking me twice as long to “go through” because I pigeon hole it into these tiny chunks.  As moms, we keep bits of ourselves in little boxes, high up on shelves.  It seems we rarely have time to take them down, open them up and spread the contents all over, let alone pack it all back up in the proper compartments.  I tell myself things like, “If I just hold it together for the next seven hours, I can cry in the car on my commute home.”

It’s exhausting, but it is what it is.

Despite the lack of time and energy, I’ve tried staying emotionally open to lessons this time has to teach me.  I’ll share what I came up with so far:

1. It sounds like a cliche, but if I learned one thing about bereavement, it is that talking and sharing about the lost loved one helps.  A selection of special people have been ready, willing, and able to bear witness to my memories and stories about E., and this blessing has not escaped me as it heals the heart.

2. Part of me knows I will look back on this time and see it as something precious, painful though it has been.  E.’s final gift to me was the realization, that in leaving of this earthly plane, love remains stronger and truer than ever.  There are ways we still connect and touch one another.  It is a time rich in wonder and affection.

The intensity of the emotion paints layers of it’s own complex beauty onto my existence.

I haven’t written much about my kids, family, or life as a working mom.  I’m still doing and feeling all the stuff that goes along with being a mother, but in my writing all of that has taken a back seat to my need to process my friend’s death.  Anyway, there isn’t really anything new or different I can say about all of that right now.  I’ve had mixed feelings about this shift in content, but it has needed to be, so I let it.  Which leads me to my next lesson of sorts. . .

3. It is more helpful to hold our pain, sit with it, cradle it and explore its bizarre face than it would be to cover it up and hide it away.  In my professional training, I learned, years ago, that trying to suppress trauma is like trying to hold a beach ball under water.  It is slippery, unwieldy, and untenable.  When I sit with client’s in the crisis of grief, I often share this analogy with them.  I’ve been granted an opportunity to practice what I preach.

These lessons seem to be gifts from beyond.

Even as I embrace these things, I feel uncertain.  Someone remarked that dealing with grief is almost like having another child to care for.  It’s an apt analogy.  And as though I am holding a newborn child, I am wondering if I am doing it right, if it will like and respond to my touch, if I will be able to handle it.

My uncertainty lies in the fear people won’t like or understand my current poems; that people will get bored with me and stop reading; that people won’t appreciate how fully my blog has shifted from life of a working mother to dealing with death.  I worry people won’t see the connection.

But there’s always a connection, tenuous though it may be.

Being a mom is my most important role in life.  I mean, two living and breathing organisms kind of count on me to keep them alive.  But other parts of me sometimes do not get the time and attention they truly need.  My blog gives me space to process and complete my emotional self so I can tackle the other stuff I need to do.  It helps me integrate and  consolidate the contents of all the little boxes into the whole me.

I have faith in myself and in the process.  Being a mom may have prepared me to patiently nurture and understand grief, even as it has complicated my grieving process.  We are always stronger and more flexible than we think or dream.  Sooner or later, I’ll get back to writing about all of the other stuff.  In the mean time, thank you for bearing with me and for bearing witness.  Every like, comment, and share has meant more to me than I can properly explain.

 

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Ringing in the New– In Which I Disembark the Struggle Bus and Celebrate Myself as I Really Am

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A funny thing happened after I gave my notice of resignation at the place where I worked for over a decade.

I started hearing things like, What is this place going to do without you?  You’re a rock here; I can’t believe you’re leaving!  You’ll be so missed.  How will your program run without you? You’ve made sizable contributions to this agency.  I’m sad to see you leave.    

People expressed heartfelt respect, admiration, and affection for me and for the work I’d done for the community.  While people were happy for me, some expressed fear, worry and some even cried.  The reactions of my clients was very similar to that of my coworkers.

It was surprising to me, and initially was difficult for me to accept the kind words.  I thought maybe people were just being nice, or maybe they were just flattering me.  The compliments felt awkward for me to hear, and it took me a few days to realize they were utterly gracious and genuine.

I’d never felt that way about myself in that job.

I’d felt overworked, stressed, frustrated, burnt-out, and traumatized.

I’d never felt valued or like I was doing much more than showing up day after day.  It was really hard to see any change in the clients with whom I worked, so deep was their trauma, poverty, and despair.

The vicarious trauma of over a decade of riding this struggle bus to and from work took its toll on me emotionally and physically.  But I continued to show up.

Sometimes showing up is about all you can do.

It makes me think of Super Grover from Sesame Street, who’s motto is “I show up.”

It is hard to celebrate that just showing up is a worthwhile endeavor.

It also can be hard to see ourselves and appreciate ourselves as others do, to appreciate our strengths and not focus on all our short-comings.

While my new job will be in the same field, it will have a lot less focus on poverty and trauma.  Working with a high-risk population is a very worth endeavor, however it can deplete our resources quicker than we can replenish them, even while attempting to practice the best self care.

For a long time, I beat myself up for not being able to hack it as well as I wanted in this field.  I blamed myself for not being strong enough or good enough to balance everything.  Looking at things from a different angle now, I see it wasn’t me at all.  It was the job.

I did my best.

Accepting a new position at a new agency isn’t just the start of a new job.  It is changing my life.

I’ll be working less hours with less stress.  I’ll have more time to focus on taking care of myself and my family.  I’ll also have more energy for honing my clinical skills as opposed to the constant fire fighting of chronic crisis work.

I’m already feeling a difference in the lightness of my spirit.  I’ve been more present with my family as my psychic space has opened up.

I have a couple more weeks before I start my new job.  They will not be particularly easy, as I say good bye to a lot of people for whom I really care.  But as I complete this circle in a loop of my journey, I will be able to accept people’s kind words about me and know they are true and deserved.

Panic and Lady Bits

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Trigger warning for TMI, PTSD symptoms, and talk about lady parts. 

It’s been a long winter.  A fucking, long, hard winter. 

Aside from the crappy weather, I’ve had super drama at work, and a near death experience. 

Last week, the weather started brightening, snow started melting, and the temperatures started rising, ever so slightly.  It was enchanting, and I started to feel a hope that with spring, my life would feel like it was getting back on track. 

As a symbolic gesture, I decided to shave.  My hair is rather fair, and I don’t have excessive amounts of it on my body, so it wasn’t a big deal.  But I decided to shave everything.  Every.  Thing.  I felt sleek and clean and lovely. 

Then–  and here comes the TMI part–  while using the toilet at work, I happened to notice a black dot on my privacy.  It was large enough to catch my eye, slightly raised.  It was something I’d never noticed before.  I’m pretty comfortable with my body.  I’ve had two kids.  If I had black dots on my lady bits, I think I would have noticed it before.  (Um, yeah, you’re real comfortable with your body, using words like lady bits and privacy to describe your labia…  whatever.) 

I freaked the fuck out.  I mean freaked. 

Convinced I was dying of cancer, I did the next best thing and googled, black spot on labia.  This freaked me out even more.  I shut my office door and called my PCP’s office in tears, left a message, and started to shake and pace.  I caught a co-worker walking down the hallway, someone I am really close to.  I dragged her into my office and in hysterics, told her about my discovery. 

She calmly advised me to call my doctor.  She talked me down.  We attempted to go back to work. 

I called my husband who offered to give me an inspection later.  I called him a creep, but it made me laugh a bit.  He had had a mole on his back that they removed, and he had a rational perspective on how my health care professionals would address my situation.  It didn’t help. 

My doctor finally called back and offered to see me the next day.  “Then we can decide if it is nothing, or if we need to send you to gynecology or dermatology, okay?”  She seemed nonplussed. 

“But do you think it’s cancer?” I shreiked. 

“Um, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t make any guesses about what it is or isn’t.  But you don’t need to freak out.” 

“It looks like a mole!”

“Then it is probably a mole.  But let’s take a look at it and we’ll go from there.” 

Her calm reassured me somewhat, but I can’t quite explain what happened next.  All of a sudden, I was back in my car, and there was snow crashing down on it.  I could hear the thundering.  I could see the glass of my windsheild shattering.  I was breathless, lightheaded, my heart raced, and I was quite certain I was going to die. 

I didn’t die.  I had a flashback and a panic attack.  It ended, and I was like, oh, well, guess maybe I wasn’t as “over” that stupid trauma as I thought I was.     

That little black mole, or whatever it is, was what we in the biz call a trigger.

It called into question my sense of mortality, my fear of death, my terror of losing my life and all that is in it.  This has been the residual fear and anxiety since being in that avalanche a couple weeks ago–  the fragility of life. 

Rationally, I know I am safe and okay.  But in the aftermath of trauma, the brain is not always rational.  Rationally, I know this because I am educated in trauma and treating trauma.  But going through it myself is another story.

Life and Death Experiences in the Overflow Lot

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Things could have gone differently.  

It’s the thought running through my brain.

Like, I could be on life-support.  Or in a full body cast.  Or paralyzed.  Or really badly bruised.

My morning had gone off without a hitch.  The kids were cooperative.  Lunches got packed just so.  I posted an ironic and witty Wordless Wednesday post, which I thought was an apt follow-up to the post I wrote last week about Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the winter pummeling we are getting in the North East this year.   I replied to a couple comments on my blog.

I even had extra time to fully dry and round-brush my hair.  In my cashmere sweater and ruby lip stain, I felt pretty and confident.

I dropped my son off at school and proceeded to work.

It is creepy to think those could have been my last movements on this earth.

Our lot at work was full.  It is always full lately due to the excessive snow.  There is an overflow lot across the street next a big, old cathedral.  I pulled into the overflow lot and took the last space, in front of the building.

Since I am a creature of habit, I have a little ritual when I pull in to work.  Even when I am running late, I take a moment to collect myself before getting out of my car.  I take a breath.  Sometimes I look in the mirror and tell myself I am a sexy beast capable of anything.  I turn off the music streaming from my iPhone, and unplug it from my car.  I gather together my lunch, pocket book, and then check to see if there are any new alerts on my phone.  Today there were a couple Facebook notifications.

As I was completing my ritual by checking into Facebook.  Something happened.

There was a roar of thunder, a hiss, a pounding.

I saw a flame of white sparkles shower my car, followed by mounds of white.

The pounding continued.

My brain could not narrate this story for me as rapidly as it was happening.

I saw my windshield shatter.  I heard myself scream.

My first impulse was to start my car and back away, but my car would not start.  This was probably a blessing because, in my panicked state, I probably would have backed into the cars parked like sardines in the lot.  I grabbed my keys, lunch, and pocketbook and leapt from the car.  IMG_7262

Through screaming and hyperventilating, I realized that an orca-sized avalanche of snow had slid off of the cathedral and onto my car.

Through my screaming and hyperventilating, my brain worked to remind me I was experiencing trauma.  My body was flooding itself with fight or flight chemicals, my brain was working overtime to formulate words to accompany the storyline.

You’re shaking because of the adrenaline, my mind told me kindly, ever the social worker.  You’ll work it out.  Your breath is fast and your muscles are tense because you have been scared, and your body has responded in its most primal way.    

A woman approached and I asked her to get someone, anyone from work.  I instructed my fingers to dial 911.  The police station, which is less than a half mile away, took my call and let me know someone would be on their way. I heard sirens and my shrieks melted into sobs.

Some of my colleagues came out and held me and waited with me.  We waited.  And waited.  There were sirens all around but no one was coming.  Then we noticed the street was blocked off and there were flashing lights congregated at an intersection down the street.  There must have been an accident.

As we were standing there, another avalanche of snow came thundering down off of the roof.  The thudding rumble terrified me.  I started screaming again, then sobbing and shaking.

My boss instructed my coworkers to take me inside, so I let myself be led into the building through the back.  I did not want to run into any of my clients looking like I did, whatever that was.

I sat in an office with some of my work pals.  We waited. And waited.  I grew calm and then hysterical again.  I was hugged.  I was given water.  Our program’s psychiatrist came down and put a bag of frozen edamame on my neck as she rubbed my back.  On a primal level I was aware of how upset I was, but on another level I was deeply conscious of being loved, cared for, tended to.

I felt confused.

I could see people around me and they were talking.  My head hurt and I felt confused, like I was looking at them through an aquarium.

Briefly, I wondered if I would pass out or die.  But I didn’t.  I said,  maybe it was good I was with the car and knew that it happened, as opposed to coming out after dark at the end of my work day and having to deal with it all then?  My friends nodded and agreed sympathetically.

I called AAA.  I called my husband.  I called insurance. The police still had not come.  I called the police again.  “Yeah,” the dispatcher said.  “We were responding to an accident, and then another accident, and then there was a domestic dispute.  We’ll send a cruiser out when we can.”

My husband texted me and told me to make sure I took photos.  I texted him back and let him know it was not safe to get close enough to the car to take pictures.

It was at that point, I realized that if I had gotten out of my vehicle even seconds earlier, I would have been pulverized by that falling snow.

I imagined myself lying, bloody and broken in the parking lot, unconscious, unable to call for help.  And with all of the city’s resources being diverted to other accidents, I could have laid there for hours.

What would have become of me?

I can’t let my brain go there, really.  But it does.

My husband called me and asked me a bunch of questions.  I got pissy and ranted about how, geographically speaking, I was in Hitler’s asscrack, and this was the worst possible place something terrible could happen to a person because of the common crapulence.

After a while, I was calm.  But not a nice calm.  Shock calm.  The kind of calm where you are numb and a little off.

I peeked out a window and saw a cop car circling around the lot where my car was.  I gathered my stuff and ran out.  The cop took my report and waited with me for AAA to come.  We waited.  And waited.  As we were waiting, another avalanche of snow came off the roof.  I felt validated by the cop’s response of surprise and awe.

Eventually the tow truck came and got my car out of the pile of snow.

I’m okay.

I made it home to hug my family and that is all that matters.

But something about the whole experience today just feels. . .  deep.  That’s not even the word.  I don’t really have a word.

A couple days prior, the psychiatrist (who put the edamame on my neck) and I were talking about how sometimes we fear we might go crazy from the relentless stress of working with people who are at high risk for going crazy.  I’m ashamed to write these words, but I said to her, “Sometimes I fantasize about getting in a minor car accident on my way to work so I can go be in a hospital for the day instead of at work.”

Is there fate?  Is there karma?  Did this happen to me to prove to me that those sort of thoughts and statements are totally bogus and that you should never wish for anything so awful?  Gosh, I don’t know.  But it gives me pause.  And I’m terribly thankful.

This is the kind of crap we are dealing with in the North East this winter.  We are dealing with seasonal depression, property damage, accidents, slip and falls, loss of revenue, and cabin fever.

We are also dealing with orca-sized tons of snow that fall off roofs 200 feet up and crush our vehicles with us in them, which I can honestly tell you is something that had never even crossed my mind.

Be careful out there.

Hug your people.

Send out positive energy and rainbow-colored light for goodness.  (Note I did NOT say “white” light.)

And take a moment to pause and notice where you are and what you are doing.  Imagine, if I had not had my little pre-work ritual before getting out of my car.   That little moment I keep for mindfulness before going into work may have saved my skin.

I wonder what my trauma response will soften for me, and what the chemical reflexes will brand into my brain.

It is all still so fresh, so I don’t know.

Thankfully, I have been granted the time to wait and see.

The Newtown Tragedy and My Shattered Suspension of Disbelief

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Is there a parent in the world who sent their child off to school this morning without taking pause?

As Jack walked out the door with his dad this morning, to go to kindergarten, I felt my entire body tense, tasted the salty iron of fear in my mouth.

Monday is my day off.  I spend the morning and early afternoon with Emily, and then we go to pick up Jack from school.  Tuesday through Friday, I work long days as a clinical social worker.  During these days, my children are cared for by others.  Just the other day, before our nation was traumatized by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was saying to a colleague how great my kids are doing at school and daycare.  I said to her that I was so confident with my child care situation, and that it allowed me to almost forget about my kids while I needed to be at work.  A sort of suspension of disbelief.

A hearty sense of denial allows us to get up and leave home each day.  We believe that it will all be okay, that the world will be benevolent and kind to us and our loved ones until we are together again.

I’m currently having an impossible time accessing this denial, and this shattered suspension of disbelief is leaving me in a pretty uncomfortable place.

Although I was baptized and raised Episcopalian, I am not a believer.  This is not to say that I do not have faith or religion of my own.  I have faith in all sorts of things– in love, in family, in myself, in gravity and nature.  I believe in positive energy, prayerful meditation, and mindfulness.  I am comfortable and confident with my belief system.

However, when something like the Sandy Hook massacre happens, I do not have a rosy tale of angels and heaven to give me solace.  I can’t and won’t accept that “God needed more angels,” or that things like this happen for a reason, or “they are in a better place.”  If those things make you feel better and help you to move on, then I am happy for you.  But please do not say such things to me.

I think about those twenty innocent, perfect, and beautiful children dying in more terror and confusion that they could have ever known existed, and I cannot accept that there is a greater reason for such devastation.

In forcing myself to look at the pictures of the precious children, it is really hard for me to see the life sparkling in their young eyes.  I see my own children in their faces.  The world outside my door suddenly seems far more shadowy and scary.

Next week, my son will be on his holiday vacation.  I thought of taking him to the science museum in Boston for the day.  This thought was quickly followed by a flood of anxiety.  How am I supposed to get past that?  Will I ever feel safe again in this world?

I don’t have any answers.  At least not today, I don’t.

All I know is that my son went off to school today, and tomorrow I will go off to work and have to trust that my children are okay.  Statistically, they are no more at risk than they were a week ago, but I wonder if  such logic has any place in this terrible crisis.

I also know that I will try to spread love and peace as I leap back into those scary shadows.  Although the tragedy in Newtown was completely unnecessary and senseless, without rhyme or reason, I believe that we can give meaning to those 26 lives by not giving in to hate and anger, by being kind to one another, by realizing that our lives are incredibly charmed when we are with those we love.