Grief and Stress

Tonight, as Ted and I sat watching a TV show (something that is a pretty rare event for us), I worried. We hadn’t seen one of our cats since the day before, and this cat never spends more than a couple of hours away from the house. He is a home body. Earlier, I had called the Animal Control line and listened to the descriptions of the cats that were being held. I felt guilty for sitting and watching TV, thought about Pepper out somewhere, hurt or dead, thought about telling my kids, felt agonized.

After the second episode, we started getting ready to close up for the night, talking about our difficult feelings about our cat. I went out the back door and called for him, and was entirely astounded to hear his meow. I looked over the stairs to the path between our house and our neighbor’s house, and there he was. I called again, and he slunk under their gate and came, slowly, around to our stairs. Normally if he’s been out a bit longer than he wants, he bounds up the stairs, shoots up them like a four-footed bullet.

I let him into the house, came into the kitchen, and started to cry.

My dad died in December. It was a shock. Though he had major health challenges for decades, he’d been relatively stable for a long time, and was not in an obvious health crisis at the time of his death. I headed back home immediately. The day after I got back I had rehearsals, since there were multiple concerts coming up. The second rehearsal included a Corelli piece I know he would have loved, and I felt a passionate wish he could be there to hear it. In the break I stood up to thank the orchestra for its caliber, its feeling. And, talking, I cried. I felt stabs of grief for the loss of my dad.

Mostly, since then, I have not been able to access that grief. This year has been so incredibly stressful in various ways, and though it has also been a lot of other things, I am learning another lesson in how stress can inhibit the experience of other emotions: it can undercut joy, certainly, but it can also block grief. It commands one’s system, demands attention, demands appeasement. And when it goes on for long enough, it frays nerves, depletes resources. And yet, as it does so it refuses to give way to anything else.

But sometimes things can slip in anyway. One grief can be a conduit for another. We were just in my hometown last week, and seeing my kids play in the house where I grew up does bring into focus my dad’s absence. He loved to read to his grandchildren. He loved to see them, to talk with them. I can see the smile on his face now. The house has been changed quite a bit since his death, due to my siblings and I rearranging it for my mom, who was hospitalized in January (and who is doing much better now). The changes in the house bring my dad to mind, thinking about how he would feel about them. I felt his absence acutely that first morning we were there. And then, one thing I did while I was in town was to go pick up my dad’s things from his university, a place he taught for decades. I had a wonderful conversation with a couple members of the administration, and with a former colleague of my dad’s. Talking about his professional life, about his love for his subject and his colleagues brought him back to me freshly.

So it was up and present when, tonight, I feared that this week we’d be grieving the loss of our cat and attempting to help our kids process it. And when Pepper came into the kitchen, I felt undone, that I can’t take any more.

Lately I’ve felt the impulse to beg the universe for a break, because I’d love to have a few months free of major challenging events. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. I feel like all it’s possible to really ask for is support, help, love. And there is a lot of love.

For me, stress is often about worrying about things which feel out of my control. I fear negative results or events, and so I worry about them. Stress can sometimes be an attempt to handle that which we cannot control, which is to say, life. It is often about the future, and an indeterminate future at that. It can be about worrying about what other people think or feel, about what may happen or may not happen. It can involve projections, incomplete information. It can be a habituated response to the circumstance of not knowing what is going to happen. It’s very noisy, internally. And, as noted above, it takes up a lot of my resources.

So, today I have received another lesson in the necessity of practicing staying in the moment, accepting my feelings whatever they are, and trusting myself and the universe that whatever happens I will respond to it. Not that I will handle it, not that I will be able to control it. But I will respond, and I will do the best I can.

If I can remember that, I can dial back the stress. And then it’s easier to feel. And it’s easier to act.

So, I miss my dad. I miss his intelligence and thoughtfulness. I miss his love and delight in his subject, and in the art of teaching. I miss his love and joy in his grandchildren. I wish I could see him again. And, somehow, I do not believe that he doesn’t exist any more. But I cannot frame that in a rational/logical/mind sort of way. It is a feeling.

And tomorrow, instead of making signs with which to plaster the neighborhood, Ted will dig out the tracking collars we’ve previously used for the cats. And I will teach, and then I will take Hazel to her piano lesson, and then I will practice, and then I will go see a movie. And I will, when it feels right, have a dialogue with my dad about what I’m doing in my life. And I’ll look forward to playing music on the sound system he and I picked out together many years ago, and I will remember him.

And I will try to make time in my days for remembrance, for reflection, and to give my heart a time and place to feel what it does, in the present moment, without the incredible racket of stress. I don’t know whether it’s time to say goodbye or hello or what, but I don’t need to know or understand that, either.


One-on-one time, in a family of five

Today we set it up so that all three kids got some one-on-one time with one of us. Given that there are three kids, and that the younger two are twins, this is something that virtually never happens. I remember taking Joanna to a medical appointment a couple of years ago and realizing that it was possibly the first time in her life I’d ever spent more than five minutes with her, just the two of us. It’s something that we’ve wanted to do, but has felt challenging to actually accomplish. Today we did it. Hazel got time with her daddy, and Emily and Joanna each got time with me.

It was so wonderful, both in the moment and later. The twins were both more affectionate with me throughout the day, and I felt that our connection was reinforced and refreshed, updated and newly prioritized by the time together, even though it was short, only an hour and a half in each case.

This week Hazel has been home from school for spring break, and it has been a difficult week in some regards. I really have a hard time with lots of simultaneous input from multiple sources, and having three kids around instead of two pushes my limits at times. And I also fell into the trap of having expectations about how the time was going to go, and even more unproductively, how I was going to feel about it. And then the week got fairly complicated in other ways, and my attention was split, and I started to feel guilty about not having the sort of week I had expected to have, and then it got harder to handle, and well, if you have children you likely know that cycle.

Nonetheless, there have been many positives as well as difficulties. Among other things, both the positives and the negatives provide opportunities to learn. And I appreciated today’s opportunities to revel in the simplicity of one child, one conversation, the sweetness of a pair, and the wonderful individuality of my children.

Favorite moments include: Emily snuggled up with me inside my bathrobe; Joanna asking me to repeat the sound effect I made as she ran her hand along a chain-link fence; the fort built in the living room by Ted and Hazel, and all of them sitting under it as he read a book to them; and Ted and I doing a good job both of setting expectations about bedtime (we’re trying to get back on track) and also flexing together where necessary when realizing that insisting on absolute adherence was going to get us nowhere good.

I am so grateful for my family.