An Evolution of Grief
Today I found myself shoveling an entire carton of chocolate peanut butter ice cream into my mouth. I followed that up with pizza.
Now, I’m not at all opposed to enjoying some good ice cream. Or pizza. The problem was I wasn’t enjoying it.
It was comfort food.
Or rather, to be more honest, avoidance food. Suppression food. “I don’t want to feel” food.
I’ve been eating more of that than I’d like to admit lately.
See, I started seeing a new therapist again recently after about 10 years without one. A year ago, I moved away from my amazingly supportive community and started a new job in a new state. I love my new state and I love my new job. I am slowly building a new community here. My new job, however, isn’t the easiest environment for me to be in. I work with pregnant and parenting mothers struggling with mental health and substance abuse challenges.
As a mother who has had all of her children die, this new work place tends to be an environment full of triggers and painful reminders. At least, once a week I ask myself what the hell I’m doing there. But, as hard as it is, I love it and I love working with these women.
It has also made me acutely aware of all the stuff I’ve been avoiding relating to the deaths of my fiancé and my two babies.
I’d forgot just how good I can be at avoiding my crap. I’m really good at shoving it away under the guise of “being professional” and being there for others. Until therapy started bringing it all up to the surface again and I am finding myself shoveling in spoonfuls of ice cream and slices of pizza.
Let me just say this: Grief fucking sucks no matter how many years have passed.
My therapist asked me today when I was going to be willing to mother myself as much as I mother the women I work with, my children, and the other people I care about. (I was less than pleased with her astute observations. Good therapists are great but they’re also rather annoying when they’re right.)
I don’t really hesitate to face the hard stuff if it means I’m supporting these women or people that I love. I’ll sacrifice my own peace of mind in a heartbeat to ensure that others feel supported through hard or painful situations. I really can’t say for sure if that’s a virtue or a character flaw or some combination of both.
I got to thinking about the women I work with and about how crucial it is for long-term recovery and sobriety to eventually choose to be sober for yourself. Most of the women I work with initially come into treatment for their children. They’re doing this work so that they can be mothers to their children and provide the care and support their kids need. Their children are their reasons for being sober and getting treatment. At some point, however, they’ll have to also choose to do it for themselves too.
I realized that grief “recovery” isn’t all that different. For the first 6-7 years after the deaths of my fiancé and our daughter, I was in basic survival mode. It wasn’t about living fully or embracing life, I was simply doing what I could to survive the grief. For the past 7-8 years, it’s been about living for my dead children, ensuring that they aren’t forgotten, and creating a legacy for them. These reasons are not unlike the initial reasons many of the mothers I work with have for entering into treatment.
Now, after more than 14 years of grief, I’m realizing I have to choose to live for me. It’s time to do more than survive or to live in the honor of my deceased family. I have to do life for me.
That is terrifying.
My life has long been about protecting those I love and putting up a strong front (or hiding behind my professional mask of counselor) to make sure everyone else is taken care of. If I can keep myself busy enough mothering everyone else, I don’t have to think about how much I still hurt or about what I need or want for myself in life.
I’m not sure I know really how to mother myself or how to love myself the way that I love my fiancé and my children. It means risking being vulnerable to and for myself, not just for others. It means letting people in and not always being the strong one.
It means embracing this new level of grief – allowing it to rise to the surface and to be open to the uncertainty of who I may become at the end of this part of my journey. It means accepting that many of my relationships will change and some people that I love may not be part of my life for whatever comes next – because like it or not, grief changes relationships. It means that I may have to open myself up to letting more people in and risk the chance of losing them too.
It may even mean opening up to the idea of having a family again someday – whatever that family may look like. Nothing scares me more than that.
The irony is that I apparently had a bit of foreshadowing of this new aspect of my journey last fall when I finished writing my upcoming book – a book that includes these two sentences on the cover:
Love yourself as much as you love your baby.
Fight for yourself as hard as you fought for your baby.
So, as scared and uncertain as I feel, I am choosing me this time. I’m doing this work of grieving and healing for me.
I will learn to love myself as much as I love my family.
I will learn to fight for myself as much as I fought for my family.
Yes, I will continue to do it for them, but it’s time to do it for me too.