Category Archives: Dad

My dad’s battle with lung cancer.

What Young Grievers Want You To Know

The best tactic of any villain is to isolate you from those you care about–just ask any fictional protagonist’s best friend.

Grief is the ultimate villain. It knows exactly how to make you most vulnerable, inflicting a lethal combination of loneliness, irritability, and self-doubt. It touches everyone eventually, and we know it’s a part of the deal we make when we love someone, but somehow, we still underestimate it.

We don’t understand it. Society doesn’t really accept it. So, the grieving are often left in the clutches of the villain’s most powerful tool: shame.

I’m tired of allowing grief to be the unknown enemy. I am reaching out to you, fellow grievers, because I want to know what your life looks like after loss. I am most interested in hearing from the younger crowd, like myself, because I think we have a particular challenge that is rarely discussed outside of counseling offices and support groups.

Being young, we’re supposed to be in our prime, full of the energy and passion for life that gets us through the grueling early years of our career and helps us grow, explore, and fall in love. Our friends and peers are mostly doing that. Are we? Grief changed so much for me, and I don’t think I’m the only one who wishes they had a bit of that pre-loss optimism back. I’m probably not the only one who feels like the world expects from me a totally different story than the one I have to share.

I would like to feature guest bloggers on these themes. If you’ve lost someone close to you, and you have something you’d like to share, please reach out to me. What do you want people to know about your grief? Where did you find support, and where did you wish you had more? How has life changed for you? What do you know now that you didn’t before?

I’ll start with my own post on the topic, but I hope to have more perspectives to share. Everyone has a unique experience and process, and I want to hear about yours.

If you’re interested in sharing, please write to:
elenamcoe@gmail.com

My Next Adventure is…

Much more local. I had to put a lot of my dad’s stuff into storage a year and a half ago because I had no other place to put it all. I don’t own a house, and all my family lives more than 12 hours driving distance from me. Even then, most of them don’t have the space to store this stuff for me.

So now, I’m moving out of state, and I needed to feel a real fresh start. So, this stuff has to be figured out. A lot of my goal here is to sort and sell. Some of this stuff is being shipped to family members, some will be shipped ahead of me to my new apartment. But these videos will hopefully keep me sane while I figure that all out. Wish me luck!

New Languages

I didn’t expect words to fail me. As someone who consistently writes about my life, I have learned to expect my thoughts to come most clearly through English written form. In recent months, though, using words to express my thoughts has been harder than ever before. As much as I write about my dad’s passing or my own person reactions and feelings, I never reach that level of satisfaction that I used to get.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this, since virtually none of my previously trusted comforts proved helpful to me in this entirely foreign and world-shaking situation. My relationships with just about everything and everyone changed. You know you’re in trouble when even your guilty pleasures turn into neither guilt nor pleasure–just pointlessness.

So the question then becomes this: if your previous methods of processing and expression feel like trying to wring out a desert-dry paper towel, where do you go?

I somehow gravitated toward movement.

I don’t want to say that dancing has been my savior because it hasn’t. In the worst of times, I would force myself to go dancing and still not enjoy it. I think it had a lot to do with the social aspects of ‘social dancing.’ Sometimes, I wanted to dance without any conversation at all–something that just isn’t possible most of the time when you’re out in public. I wanted to relate to people on a different, non-verbal level, perhaps because I knew there was no verbal equivalent to how I was feeling. I can’t say I’ve gained many new meaningful connections through movement, and I may not even have truly processed that much. But somehow, getting lost in movement has been a comfort at times when I needed something–anything–to distract me.

There is something intrinsically real about movement that words don’t quite have. Movement is a concrete, physical, tangible, sensory experience. It communicates without any frills. I don’t have to say, “She was crying,” because if she’s crying right in front of you, you see it, hear it, sense it physically. If you’re dead tired from hiking up a mountain, you don’t really have to form words to explain that feeling. Tired just exudes from you. Your breath shows it. Your muscles ache with it.

Maybe my attraction to physicality right now has something to do with realizing that life is so impermanent. Maybe I enjoy movement because it forces me to live in the moment more than words do. Words can take you anywhere; that used to be what I loved most about them. Dancing, hiking, running, swimming, sign language, etc. all requires you to focus on right now. (And maybe a couple seconds into the future.) Isn’t it odd that I have ended up desiring to escape to the present moment?

Then there is the expression factor. Writing requires a certain distance from feeling, a type of intellectualizing, that doesn’t really work properly when I’m in complete distress. (Although, I have to wonder: if I gave up the need for coherency and reader comprehension could writing become a more useful self-expression tool? And, in fact, would that subsequently lead to better writing?) Physical movement doesn’t require translation from feeling to words to page. It just requires displaying feeling with your body. Since we already do that through body language pretty effectively, I think this comes more naturally. Plus, I think there’s a huge benefit in knowing that when I dance, I am not dancing for anyone else to watch and understand what I’m feeling. When I write, sometimes even the page is an audience to whom I feel compelled to prove myself.

I’m still trying to write, and I’m still figuring all this ‘life’ stuff out. But I think I’m realizing one of the few beautiful things about tragedy and earth-shattering events is that it forces us to try new things. When the whole world we knew has collapsed beneath us, exploring the rubble can feel like the only way to find purpose again.

Permanent

When I was young, naive, and living in the suburbs, I swore I’d never get a tattoo.

I’m a rule-follower, don’t forget, and tattoos were against the rules for anyone under 18. I guess between that and my family’s adamant policy that tattoos were not classy, I figured there was really no good reason to ever get ink painfully and permanently scarred into my skin.

However, that started to change when I came to college in Seattle and, yes, saw everyone else doing it. It was really the first time I’d seen tattoos on people that were, at the risk of totally revealing my privilege and general lack of diverse background, ‘like me.’ I kid you not, none of my friends had tattoos. None of my friends even dreamed of having tattoos–until college. Then, everyone had one or wanted one or couldn’t stop with just one. So, all this made me comfortable with the idea of having a tattoo, but it didn’t really get me to want one. I figured the only reason I’d want something permanent on my body was if it was something incredibly meaningful and important to me. Up until last winter, I didn’t have anything like that.

But, as some (or all?) of the people reading this blog may know, I was handed the incredibly difficult journey taking care of my dad for the last 2 months of his life while he passed away from lung cancer. It taught me a lot about life, about death, about need, about ignorance. When I think about it, I can’t help feeling scarred by the whole experience. We can look at our painful experiences and call them ugly, or we can heal them, make them our own, and call them beautiful. To me, a tattoo is a perfect literal representation of that point of view. When you get a tattoo, you are scarring your own body in a way that you think is beautiful, meaningful, artistic, etc. So, with that in mind, it was my own tattoo time.

First of all, let me tell you this: taking pictures of your own tattoos is astonishingly hard. But, I promised my family pictures, so I did the best I could.

Part 1: The sailboat in front of the mountain

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Part 2: The Southern Cross constellation (Crux)

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For the record, you can’t see the last star on my back in that photo.

So, I don’t know if anyone is interested enough at this point to still be reading, but if you are, I’ll explain a little about what these tattoos mean to me and why I chose them.

Part 1: The design is really simple, but the most important elements are the boat and the mountain. This is the most related to my dad for a couple of reasons. For one, as long as I can remember, my dad talked about getting a boat. He had a boat when he was young, but he sold it before I was born. I think he dreamed that in retirement he’d be spending a lot of time on boats, maybe even owning one again. The fact that his retirement was nothing like he’d hoped weighs on me and reminds me how important it is to love life with every second you have. This tattoo is my way of giving my dad his boat… Taking him out on adventures with me, even when he couldn’t have them anymore himself. Of course, another element of this tattoo is the placement. My dad had a chest tube that drained fluid from his lung cavity. This was deemed my job, and although I am really bad with blood/needles/etc. I would drain a liter of my dad’s fluid twice a day. I wanted the boat on my left side, the same side as the drain, to remind me of what my dad went through and the importance of being a caregiver.

Finally, the boat is a symbol for overcoming the challenge of the ever-changing seas. To be a skilled sailor, you have to be observant, quick-thinking, and incredibly respectful of the power of the ocean and winds. The mountain poses another type of challenge to traverse, one of persistence and relying on the strength of your own two feet. I want to remember to hone those skills and to recognize when an obstacle is more like the sea or the mountain.

Part 2: The Southern Cross is a constellation very widely used for navigation in the southern hemisphere, but it can’t be seen in the sky from most of the northern hemisphere. It’s a very simple constellation, and the Greeks identified it before it dipped out of their sight (relatively) permanently. What I love about this constellation is that although I can’t see it in my view of the sky, I know it is just as present as the stars I can see. For me, this tattoo relates to my spirituality. I intentionally put one star on my back–where I will probably never actually see it, so that I could remember the very nature of faith–believing without seeing, trusting in something without knowing. That may not be ‘God’ as so many define it, but that’s okay. I believe in something, and that’s enough. So, when I feel particularly worn and weary, I hope I can think about these stars and remember that just because I can’t see how things will get better, they will.

Processing

With everything that has happened in the last year of my life, I’ve been thinking lately about processing. Most of the time, when I say that I need to process something, I mean that I need some time and space to work through my feelings and thoughts about it until I reach some kind of definitive answer or opinion. There is nothing more that I hate as an introvert than spewing off half-formulated ideas and opinions that may or may not even be what I actually think.

But lately–and when I say lately, I mean since January–I don’t think I’ve been processing properly. It’s as if there is literally too much to process. I desperately crash through all the thoughts and feelings without ever reaching any kind of solid ground, and before too long, my brain completely shuts down in an “Elvis has left the building” style, exhausted from all the fruitless effort.

Evidence of my lack of processing is what weighs on me at the end of the day when I think about all the weird things I said or did that I don’t feel like I wanted to do or say. It’s the feeling of, “That’s not me. Why did I do that?” Gradually, when this continues to happen, the question becomes, “Is that me? Do I do that? What if I don’t like that I do that? Why am I still doing that?”

Having narrowed down the primary cause of this mini-identity crisis, I am realizing that somehow, I need to find a better way to sift through my feelings and emotions to process more effectively. But… how?

I decided that since I’m a word person, and since I really like etymology, it might be useful (or at the very least, interesting) to look up what it really means to ‘process’ something.

Some of the definitions of ‘process’ as a verb:
a: to perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on (something) in order to change or preserve it.
b:  to subject to or handle through an established usually routine set of procedures
c:  to integrate sensory information received so that an action or response is generated
d: to subject to examination or analysis

Interesting!

But even more interesting is that when process was first used as a verb around 1530, it was primarily referring to the legal process (think prosecutor). Talk about having rules and order.

Somehow, when I think of processing emotional experiences, I don’t think about doing it in a mechanical or procedural way. But, maybe that’s noteworthy. Maybe processing huge emotional or intellectual ideas could be streamlined into a more task-oriented format. After all, when you write in a journal or talk through something, you have to sort at least some of your thoughts before you do so. Conversations don’t function well if you bounce all over the place and keep changing your mind. We already employ some systematic efforts in any form of communication, so it seems reasonable that if you have more to talk about, more organization may be helpful.

Another fascinating thing about these definitions is that they refer to a change occurring in the ‘process’ of ‘processing.’ While we all know that big life events can change us, I still think it’s a pretty scary concept to explore. I do, obviously, want to process everything that has happened so that I can feel lighter, more sure of myself, more aware, more open again. But, there’s definitely some fear associated with coming out on the other side and not being able to recognize yourself.

The third definition is most interesting to me because it says when we process things we generate an action or response. It makes me wonder: What action or response can I expect once I have ‘processed’ the last six months? I think this is also the challenge of processing because we have to admit to having an end goal, even when we know we may never reach it. It’s sort of like wanting to be happy or healthy or some other equally ambiguous and individually defined adjective–if you don’t define it for yourself, you’ll never reach it, but if you do define it, you feel limited. What if I reach my definition of happy, but I’m still not as happy as I could be? Similarly, what if I lay out goals for processing, but when I reach them, I still have more processing to do? Do we feel discouraged by that? Inspired? Disheartened? Motivated?

I still feel the gargantuan weight of all the things that I need to do, and it’s been easy to shove aside this whole processing business. But I know I can’t do that forever. So, I guess I will have to gradually steel myself up for the emotional, unpredictable, and turbulent process. But this time, maybe I will be armed with charts and lists and schedules.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

Things My Dad Gave Me

I grew up essentially a daddy’s girl. I didn’t always love fishing, but I found myself wandering half asleep through a tackle shop at 4 AM more than once because it was something I was doing with my dad. I didn’t ever really get into science fiction, but I read through a lot of the Xanth series because my dad loved them. My dad was the one who sang me Eidelweiss when he tucked me in and taught me the German ‘mein hoot’ song that I loved. My dad was the one who usually made my lunches and drove me to school. My dad was the one who taught me how to keep track of units when I was doing pre-pre algebra in fifth grade. My dad was the one who took me camping and read stories around campfires while I acted them out. My dad was the one who bought me candy bars when he went to get gas–Crunch bar or Hershey’s Cookies N Cream, please. My dad was the one who took me out to see movies on Saturday afternoons. My dad was the one who knew what the weather was doing and whether we needed to go into the basement during tornado warnings. My dad was the one who read me The Hobbit and The OZ series. He was the person responsible for my understanding the difference between kinds of fish and different ways to catch them. He was the reason I was proud to be smart and careful with my money. He is also the reason I can take off in a car and never be afraid of being too far away from the familiar. My dad was smart, capable, thorough, and in my young mind, never wrong.

From my dad, I learned how to be logical, responsible, practical, and prepared. My dad grilled more guilt into me than any Catholic institution I’ve ever been a part of could have. Integrity. Honesty. My dad was the one I remember scolding me when I was three and had drawn on the couch in green marker and lied about it. If there was one thing I knew about my dad, it was that he never lied.

In high school, I naturally grew apart from my parents, as most teenagers do. But there was something else going on. I knew my parents were unhappy, but they never talked about it. Instead, they isolated themselves from one another, and I chose to isolate myself from them. After all, if your parents are avoiding their feelings, why would you expect your feelings to be validated? Things got even more distant when I went to school and learned that my dad had been drinking consistently for my whole life without my knowledge. I couldn’t believe it. I was incredibly upset to know that something so big had been kept a secret from me for so long. I was even more upset at the damage this new information did to my image of my dad. Since my family was still pretty much not talking about it, I kept to my old game plan: avoid dealing with parents at all costs. Two years later, my parents divorced, and I was thankful to be far away from the whole thing. But of course, the result: I had become pretty distant from them both.

That being said, I feel like I never really got to have an adult relationship with my dad. I never got a chance to have ‘real’ conversations with him the way I imagine fathers and their grown daughters do. While I was taking care of him, the stress and unresolved feelings made those conversations near impossible for me to initiate, and he certainly didn’t bring them up either.

Compound this strange, abrupt end of a relationship with the challenge of suddenly having to sort through and get rid of a life-time supply of photos, books, clothes, and all sorts of stuff my dad had accumulated, and suddenly I’m confronting the fact that I didn’t really know my father that well at all.

In finding old marriage and divorce decrees, aged brochures from vacations, a couple old college essays and awards, family heirlooms, and millions of pictures, I have been given a look into my dad’s past that I never had before. I have been reminded of the things I sort of knew about my dad’s life, but didn’t take seriously because I was just a kid. The idea that my dad lost his parents when he was about my age, and that we never once really talked about it, is one of those heavy, darkly ironic truths that haunts me.

I’m lucky to get to know my dad through relics, but I’ll always be sad that he can’t tell me himself how all those experiences made him feel. I’m disappointed I never asked. Never really paid attention. Never really got the chance to.

I think sometimes we forget that life isn’t like the movies. If our only concept of what happens when people die is what we see in film, we might expect that great life-altering deathbed conversation that seems so integral to literature and movie plots. Well, I’m here to tell you that this beautiful moment doesn’t always happen. I don’t know that I can speak to its regularity in general, but I can say for sure that it is not a given.

So, I guess if I have any advice to you, it’s to start listening. Start paying more attention, start asking more questions. Because the future is incredibly uncertain, and if you want to know someone–and I mean really know them–now is the time, while they are here to tell you.

So Why Haven’t you Started Packing Yet?

It’s questions like the one titling this entry that have been driving me to frustration lately. Sometimes well-meant, sometimes just plain thoughtless, people occasionally ask me questions about my current life that demonstrate to me just how little they understand what I’m doing.

This particular question came from my property manager who was showing my house for the fourth or fifth unexpected time. Little did he know about the three or four loads of stuff I had already taken to my new house. Little did he care that the furniture and belongings of a 3-person house were suddenly all in my lone possession to be distributed, shipped, stored, donated, trashed, depending on each individual item.

There are some interesting balances I’m trying to keep lately–explaining my situation without sounding like a maniac, taking care of the very important duties I’ve been given while still trying to demonstrate interest and compassion for other people’s lives, giving myself space to feel what I feel without alienating myself from others, doing what I can by myself but asking for help when people can actually be helpful (which is rare, mind you).

A part of me wants to scream at the people who don’t ‘get it.’ And then a part of me is upset that I’m still angry that people don’t get it. Shouldn’t I be able to cut everyone a little slack? Shouldn’t I understand that just because people don’t understand, it doesn’t mean they don’t care? Shouldn’t I get off my high horse and accept that maybe they do understand, but there just isn’t anything for them to do about it? Maybe, even, they understand and would have dealt with all this much better than I am.

And in all my frustration and anger and extreme highs and lows, I get nervous because I can see things changing in front of me. I’ve been moving into a new house with 9 new roommates, and every time I talk to them, I am a complete mess of stress and nerves. All I can think about is how this isn’t me, and this isn’t how I want to be seen. With my friends, I have the same sort of problem. Either I’m talking non-stop, no-filter about my life or 95% shut down. And it is in fact the ultimate irony that the less people truly listen, the more you feel compelled to talk, making them listen (and care) even less.

So I can’t help but wonder: just how long is it permissible to be a frazzled, disorganized, frantic complainer? Where do you draw the line between accepting and controlling your feelings? How long can you hide away from the world before everything moves on and forgets about you?

And perhaps most importantly, how long can you ‘not be yourself’ before you become someone else?