Denial and distraction, and barking dogs

I’m not an expert on grief and grieving. I’m not really sure I need to be to be able to offer some insights. As uncharted as this territory was for me as I went through it, as unique and specific as my loss felt to me, I think that there are aspects of grieving that everyone shares, the flavor of which the familiar labels of denial, anger, depression etc. just don’t capture. Part of what I want to do here is share what I experienced as unique to me, but with the hope that there is a spark of recognition for you, and that you’ll tell me about it.

Here I posit that grieving is full of irreconcilable conceptual and experiential contradictions. I think these contradictions stem from the unfathomable nature of the loss, of death—mortality and immortality. Questions you and even science can’t answer. What comes after death? What came before life? What’s the meaning of it all?! OK — Neil deGrasse Tyson can explain how the universe began, but to you really GET it? And do you really want to delve into such a complicated matter when you’ve just had a hole ripped out of your life?

No. Graciously, there are distractions and “important” decisions to make. The mortuary gave me a handy list of things that “needed” to be done: picking out an urn or casket (which I still haven’t done); calling friends and family; planning a memorial; writing thank you notes; dealing with lawyers, bankers, social security, the IRS.

Then there’s the cleaning out of the house. This particular distraction kept me busy for two years. Since Mom’s house was paid for, I didn’t need to rush to empty and sell it. I don’t know if this was a blessing or curse… but it’s how I did it. Decisions had to  be made about every single item in the house. What do I do with the five sets of hot rollers, dozens of empty bic lighters, sacks and sacks of super glue? These are actual things I found stashed in cabinets and drawers in Mom’s house. I knew what to do with those things, but was troubled by their mere existence. So, in addition to the many tasks I had to keep me busy, I had these emotionally laden mysteries about my mom to solve.

Distractions keep you busy, but you feel like a zombie, like you’re sleepwalking. And these all little chores seem to require more energy than they used to, than you think they should.

I think that’s because underneath the busy-ness, your unconscious mind is working double-time to keep its contents unconscious. Fear of the unknown. An inability to grasp what just happened, what is happening. The contradiction is that simultaneous numbness and busy-ness don’t feel like “grieving.”

I thought maybe I wasn’t grieving, which was distressing.

I latched onto Benny’s barking as the obvious reason. I obsessed over it. It, more than anything else, defined the texture of those days. Coming home numb and wanting quiet, instead I was physically assaulted with the sound of his barking.

In reality, though, I was grieving. That obsession was grieving for me. Benny’s barking wasn’t just another distraction — a loud, insistent and persistent distraction. My reaction to his barking was, I think, an indicator that there was actually a lot work going on underground. That work eventually became acceptance.

I think it happens that way. You don’t consciously, logically, reasonably figure out death. You don’t sit down and rationalize all the things that make the new normal new. But someday, you are just ok with things. Even Benny’s barking.


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