grief

What Do You Do When You Reach the End of Your Rope?

Finding NemoBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Some of you might have noticed that two weeks ago I had a week where I disappeared from the online world. I posted on Monday morning, but didn’t reply to comments. No Wednesday writing post. I didn’t tweet, and popped on Facebook only once or twice, briefly, mostly in groups where I felt safe.

I had one of those weeks. You know the kind. Where if it can go wrong, it will.

I came down with a serious sinus infection the Friday before. Puffy face, teeth that felt like I had a mouth full of cavities, and pain bad enough I suffered through four sleepless nights. On Monday, we had to say goodbye to our seven-year-old Siamese cat after three days of rapid decline because there was nothing more the vet could do for her. (My pets are part of my family.) The rest of the week became death by a thousand paper cuts.

By the weekend, I ended up curled in a ball in our recliner sobbing over the death of a character in a TV show. I knew the death was coming. I was prepared for it. And I’m not the kind of person who cries over TV shows or movies. But my anger over the death of that character proved to be more than I could take.

When we have days, weeks, or months like this, it’s normal to want to pull the covers back over our heads and allow depression to swallow us up. We feel like giving up because nothing we do is going to turn out right anyway.

We actually need to do the opposite.

Almost everyone has seen the movie Finding Nemo, but in it, clownfish Marlin lost his wife and all his eggs but one in a barracuda attack. When his only surviving son, Nemo, is captured by a diver, Marlin sets out to find him and bring him home. Dory, a regal tang with short-term memory loss, soon joins in his search.

Marlin and Dory find the diver’s mask with his address on it. They need to find a fish who can read, but in the process of escaping from a shark, surviving a mine field explosion, and barely missing being crushed by a sinking ship, the mask falls into a deep, dark crevice.

Marlin thinks the crevice is too deep and too dark to find the mask again. All seems lost. He doesn’t want to go on anymore, because everything just ends in disaster. He’s given up hope.

Dory pushes her face close to Nemo’s and makes pouty fish lips. “Hey, Mister Grumpy Gills, when life gets you down, you know what you got to do?”

“I don’t want to know what you gotta do,” Marlin says.

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”

Later in the movie, when they have Nemo back and are headed home, Dory gets caught with a bunch of other fish in a fisherman’s net. Nemo swims in to help her encourage all the fish to swim down together and tear the net from the boat.

The other fish are panicking and start to give up when it doesn’t work immediately. It seems like Marlin will lose the only two fish who matter to him. Then he remembers what Dory said.

“Just keep swimming,” he yells at them.

The principle is simple but profound. When everything is going wrong, the best thing to do is to keep moving. Keep trying something. Just don’t give up.

Because if you just keep swimming, eventually things have to change for the better.

What do you do to get through the tough times?

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How Do You Deal With Grief?

Sad Doggie by Amber WestBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

She dried her tears and they did smile
To see her cheeks’ returning glow
How little dreaming all the while
That full heart throbbed to overflow.

With that sweet look and lively tone
And bright eye shining all the day
They could not guess at midnight lone
How she would weep the time away.

–Emily Bronte

Very few of us know how to deal with grief in a healthy way.

In “Extreme Risk,” an episode in the fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager, Chief Engineer B’Elanna Torres is running dangerous holodeck programs with the safety protocols turned off. To hide what she’s doing, she treats her injuries—some of them very serious—herself.

When she goes to the holodeck to test out an experimental new shuttlecraft they’re building, she turns off the safety protocols and is knocked unconscious. The ship is moments away from exploding and killing her. Voyager’s commander finds her just in time.

As the commander and doctor investigate, they find out what B’Elanna’s been doing. The commander confronts her, and B’Elanna admits she’s been trying to feel something.

A few months earlier, she’d received a message from home that all her friends were dead—killed in an attack. B’Elanna doesn’t know how to deal with her grief so she buries it under adrenaline rushes.

Grief can’t be tricked, and it can’t be ignored. Ignoring it puts our health—both emotional and physical—in danger. Ignoring it can also cause us, like B’Elanna, to act in inappropriate or dangerous ways because, even though we don’t want to admit it, grief is rampaging around inside of us, smashing things, until we let it out.

I’m not a counselor, but in my own experiences with grief, I’ve finally figured out three important things.

Allow yourself to grieve around someone you trust. Because B’Elanna tried to hide her grief, her friends couldn’t help her. In a way, I understand why she did it. She felt like she needed to maintain her appearance as someone who was strong and independent.

I’m a shower crier (a person who cries in the shower so no one else knows they’re doing it). It started when my best friend died in university. I was rooming with another friend who fell into a deep depression because of our loss. She talked about wanting to die, and I was afraid that if I showed her my own grief, she wouldn’t be able to handle the added burden. I chose to be the strong one, and somewhere along the way, I forgot how to let other people help me with my grief. It’s not healthy. It means sometimes I’ll break down over something stupid and little because I try to hold too much inside. And it’s a difficult pattern to break.

Don’t force yourself to recover before you’re ready, but don’t wallow in it either. In “Extreme Risk,” B’Elanna tries to artificially cheer herself up by eating banana pancakes, a favorite from her childhood. They don’t taste the way she remembers, and she leaves them after a couple of bites.

A lot of times, we feel like we have to “get over it” because some cultural norm says the appropriate period for mourning has passed. That’s not true. Everyone mourns on their own timeline, and when we try to rush our grief, we never properly deal with it. It’ll come back on us later when we’re least prepared to deal with it.

On the opposite side though, we shouldn’t feel like we need to wallow in our grief. After my best friend died, I felt like I couldn’t smile or laugh, even if I wanted to. I was worried that if I did, people would think I didn’t miss her or that I never really cared about her. Those moments where happiness tried to return made me feel disloyal to her memory. It took me a while to figure out that those flashes were normal and healthy. They didn’t say anything about my relationship with Amanda.

Don’t expect your grief to look like anyone else’s. Grieve in your own way. Part of B’Elanna’s problem was she felt like she was abnormal because she felt numb after learning about the loss of her friends. She kept taking crazy risks because she wanted to feel something, anything.

My husband and I have discovered we deal with grief very differently. I need to work. The only thing I know to do is to keep my mind occupied. My husband, on the other hand, can’t work. He can’t focus. He needs time to himself.

Neither way is wrong, and the faster we figure out how we need to grieve, the faster we’ll be able to deal with our grief.

Do you have any other tips for dealing with grief?

Image Credit: Amber West from WANA Commons on Flickr

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