Mostly these days, I’m doing badly. I’m not sharing this fact to elicit pity. In fact, it’s one of the things I least desire. Nor am I seeking advice on how to make it “through” this moment, nor how to fix/heal/find closure. It’s simply how I am.
For some months this fall, I felt a lot of tension and anxiety about how to navigate my relationship with the outside world following Rafael’s death. I’d say that some of my feeling badly now is still related to this: wondering how to reengage with the world, return to work, be with other people. But something has changed, settled down a little. Maybe I’m aware that other people aren’t thinking so much about how I am or feeling as uncomfortable around me because nearly five months have passed. (Note: I recognize that many ideas I have about other people and the external world-at-large are fantasies and projections that most likely exist only in my head.)
I’ve been reflecting on what might be the cause of this torrent of sadness, frustration, anxiety and a general sense of unease. My reflections have led me back to one of the first phenomenon that I noticed when I came home from the hospital after giving birth to Rafa’s lifeless body. I call it “the pendulums.” I noticed the first pendulum during those early days of acute grief; it swings between doing, doing, and more doing and being completely passive and unmotivated. Here’s a bit from the first journal entry I wrote after giving birth:
This morning I felt his great absence again – a huge hole on the outside and a mocking emptiness on the inside. It’s all a blur of grief and gratitude this past week: tears and laughter and candles and insomnia. The pendulum swings back and forth between overdoing and doing nothing, between mania and depression. And me, swinging back and forth on that pendulum.
With each of these pendulums, I aspire to remain conscious of where I am on the spectrum and to be aware if I’ve become stuck at one extreme or the other. I try not to judge myself, no matter where I am, just to notice and name. It’s so important to remember that as long as there is movement, there is life. Even though it often feels crazy-making, I can actually feel that the back-and-forth vacillation is part of what is keeping me going.
I have referred to some of the other pendulums in prior posts. One is the swing between wanting to be extrovertedly out in the world, engaging with people and, and needing to be home, still, solitary and inwardly focused. Both are necessary for healing: being social and “normal” can lift my mood and energy; being reflective and introverted offers new insights and ways of expressing myself.
There is always the pendulum of time: I frequently notice myself getting lost in the memories of the past (as I mentioned in this last post) or feeling anxious about an always uncertain future. Occasionally, when I remember to breathe consciously, I find the time pendulum gently wavering in the precious present. This is where the deepest learning lies, always: in the here and now
The other pendulum I ride is a bit harder for me to talk about. I know that on one side is a kind of magnanimity: being able to see the bigger picture and appreciate the learnings of this experience. It comes with a sense of peace and wholeness. Maybe it is simply acceptance. On the other extreme is… what is it? I suppose I might call it desperation or defeat. It’s a sense of collapsing in on myself, fully immersed in pain and grief. I feel lost in a sea of difficult emotions, thoughts and discomforts.
I read about this idea the other day but with the terms “expansion” and “contraction” in Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss and the Heartbreaking Pain of Grief by Joanne Cacciatore, bereaved mother and founder of the MISS Foundation:
A contraction of grief occurs when our attention and energy are pulled inward, our surroundings made smaller perhaps because we, in this particular moment, we feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed, we conserve our energy and attention, focusing intently on grief – and on self. In a moment of contraction, it feels as if our very survival may be in question. We may feel unsteady, unsafe, unheld; we may feel tenuous, desperate, fearful, and vulnerable…
Expansion may come with the deep in-and-out breath, in a period of small, even miniscule, growth post-contraction. Allowing contraction to just be, in time we see it naturally ebbs, and the tightness loosens, we grow larger, and we become more willing to venture out and explore, to take risks, to open and unfold. And we find ourselves in a moment of trust, safety, curiosity, willingness, connectedness and belonging…
It’s helpful to hear someone else talk about this using a different metaphor because I have been challenged in my attempts to put words to this experience. With this pendulum, I struggle with self-judgment. Somehow, I’ve come to believe that the expansion end of the spectrum is “good” and useful, and that the contraction is egotistical, self-absorbed and “bad.” In my heart of hearts, I know this isn’t true. In fact, I think that my judgment arises because I am uncomfortable listening to my feelings and staying present with difficult emotions. That is where the learning really lies for me. It is not in the woo-woo “everything happens for a reason” space, where I have, until now, felt quite comfortable.
So what does all this have to do with the sadness I’ve been feeling lately? When I sit with myself and my feelings in the contraction/defeat/desperation place, from time to time I’m able to actually get clear on what is so saddening and difficult for me. This week I realized that it isn’t really missing Rafa (as it was in the first weeks) and it’s not even the heartbreak of his dying. The source of my inner turmoil has to do with my life not being as I expected it would. It is the suffering that comes from unfulfilled hopes and expectations; a kind of deadening disappointment.
I believed that being a mother would change so much about my day-to-day life. And it has. But not in the ways I thought it would. What I am missing is the opportunity to care for and a raise my child. Not being able to have that experience is devastating. That’s what hurts. If I’m honest, having to go back to work is pretty infuriating, Most tasks feel dumb and insignificant. I just plain don’t care a lot of the time. So when I say that I feel lost or that I don’t understand what I’m doing on this planet anymore, I’m basically hanging out on the desperation side of the pendulum. A lot of things don’t make sense to me because I am not living the life that I thought I would be six months ago. The chasm between expectation and reality breaks me, day-by-day.
For sure the pendulum will swing into motion again, as it is its nature to do so. In the meantime, I’ll stick with a mantra that’s never failed me: “This too shall pass.”
Featured image from Kim Krans and The Wild Unknown Tarot deck. “Two Flowers” © Akiyoshi.Kitaoka.