Tag Archives: death

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.

 

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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.

Life in Too Many Water Metaphors

I’m beginning to understand just how much work life is.

As I was inching along with the monotonous I-5 traffic the other day, I couldn’t help sinking into this devastating realization like quicksand. For the last six months–has it really been that long?–my life has been at its turbulent best. I’ve been frantically treading through the tumult of legal terms, the undertow of financial changes, the huge emotional whirlwinds… Are you getting tired of the imagery yet?

I used to think that we could choose to take on new stages of our life when we were ready. If you aren’t ready for college or grad school, you work a few years first. If you aren’t ready to buy a house, you don’t. If you don’t want to deal with a car, don’t get one of those either. If you don’t want kids just yet, you take all the necessary precautions, and barring some crazy accident, you don’t get pregnant. If you don’t want to figure out how to invest your money right now, you can just wait until you do. And by ‘ready,’ I don’t mean prepared. You may never be fully prepared for anything in life. But I guess I thought you would get a little more chance to choose when you embark on certain adventures.

But it seems I was a little delusional. I am sure that some of those things can indeed be postponed if you are lucky enough. But my particular circumstances have required a lot of abrupt change. I feel very much that an entire life I didn’t want has been handed to me. As I go through the daily motions now, all I can think about is how little I care about everything that is suddenly my responsibility. I care inherently because I know it has to be done, but that’s really poor motivation for getting through 90% of your life.

And the saddest part of that realization to me? That I am definitely not the only one that this happens to. Life throws us curve balls all the time, and as kids, it’s typically our parents who deal with whether or not we strike out.

Maybe it’s partly just me being a naive young twenty-something who has finally understood the truth about adulthood. The harsh reality is that no one wants to do their taxes. No one enjoys muddling through jargon they don’t understand (be it legal, medical, scientific, etc.). No one likes going to the dentist. No one likes paying the dentist, especially. But most of all, no one enjoys giving up pieces of their life because they have to take a second job, or because their spouse wants a divorce, or because their sibling is a drug-addict. No one wants to deal with custody battles. No one would choose to see a loved-one with a disability or a terminal illness. These are not easy things, not emotionally, not financially, and not intellectually. No one asks for a life like that.

These tsunamis wash away pieces of the life you always thought you’d build for yourself. Your beautiful, mythical palace gradually loses bricks and glitz, while you struggle to simply rebuild the retaining wall in the midst of the flood.

I always used to say these struggles were beautiful in their own way–that life was only so wonderful because it was so terrible, too. In my head, I can still see that perspective, but it’s a lot harder to feel it in your heart. Lately, when I look at what could be the light at the end of the tunnel, I can’t help the dread that it’s only a barred window of a jail cell. I realize now just how much your perspective has to matter to your happiness. But that doesn’t make it easy to stop hating the thing you feel chained to. In fact, sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t make it a little harder.

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?

Updates

Especially for those of you following who are my dad’s friends, you should know he isn’t doing well.

The last few days have been rough, and today is pretty scary. The hospice nurse yesterday told us that she thought he was ‘really close,’ and she qualified it as a month.

Now, I have learned in the last few months to take all timelines and close calls with a grain of salt. I’ve spent minimum of four nights thinking it was my dad’s last. But, each time it really could be, and I think it’s only fair to give everyone warning.

My mom is here right now, and that’s been immensely helpful. Last night we went out briefly and came back to find my dad had had trouble making it to the toilet and back, and there was evidence on the floor, his bed, and down his legs. We had him take a shower while we washed and changed the sheets and cleaned the floor. Afterwards, though, he was awake enough to talk to us a little, and he decided not to take the morphine continuously like the nurse had recommended.

Today, he says he isn’t in pain, but he is not capable of doing much of anything. He isn’t quite asleep, but he also isn’t able to talk or act awake. It’s unnerving, especially because we’ve reached the point where I don’t think there’s anything I can do for him at all. I can’t take away pain that isn’t there. I can suggest that he takes pills or eats or wears his oxygen, but the nurse yesterday pretty much told us that we should really only do what he wants to do. In theory, that would mean what makes him most comfortable. But It also can mean doing nothing. Which I find very odd.

I also think it’s interesting that nurses keep telling me that some things are more ‘for the families’ comfort’ than for the patients. Like feeding him and checking his oxygen, for instance. I guess it makes sense, and I know I’m not the only one who has a hard time letting go of these small things that I can do. But I think what scares me the most ight now is that my dad doesn’t know where he is in the process of dying. I’m afraid he’ll pass away and have thought til the very end that he had a lot more time. I’m afraid for him that there may have been things he wanted to do or say that he won’t get a chance to do.

What are Friends?

I think one of the hardest parts of being my age and being the primary caregiver for my terminally ill father is that most of my friends don’t really know how to be my friends through it.

On the one hand, I would just like to say that I do have amazing people in my life. I have a large network of extremely talented and compassionate people around me, and I even have a handful of them who are close enough to me that I consider them long-haul friends (i.e. I plan to keep being friends with them for a long time, no matter where life takes us.). A large proportion of my ‘network’ of friends have offered their support in the general way–you know, the, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do!”–and left it at that. You may be surprised, but I actually appreciate those potentially empty gestures. I probably won’t call on them, and they probably know that, but the point is in the offer. It’s a brief acknowledgement of my difficult time, a reasonable understanding that if I were in a desperate situation I may need their help, and then a hands-off approach that gives me the space to deal with it on my own.

But then there are the people for whom, for better or for worse, I have greater expectations. These are the long-haul friends. These are the ones who supported me through college stress and life decisions and tearful break-ups. These are the ones who write letters to me and call me when I’m away. These are the ones who ‘get’ me. Right?

Well, unfortunately, this situation puts the most strain on these long-haul friends because for the first time, all the old methods of supporting me don’t quite fit. When I talk to my friends about medical terms and helping my father off the floor, I do so with the full understanding that they don’t ‘get’ it at all. So when they do those little things that used to be okay–offering advice, telling me it will all be okay in time, or relating an experience of theirs that has very little to do with mine–it grates on me much more than it should. I sit there and nod and try to keep my composure while I am bursting with angry thoughts. The traditional, “Don’t say you understand because you have no idea what this is like,” rages right alongside things like, “Stop telling me it’s going to be okay because right now it isn’t,” and “Don’t you think I’ve tried doing that,” and “The point in my telling you this isn’t to get answers; it’s so someone has some idea what it’s like, and I don’t feel so alone in this.”

And yet, I don’t say those things because I know that my long-haul friends mean well. In fact, they more than mean well. They love me, and they are trying to do the best they can in a situation they’ve never been in before. Much like what I’m doing with my dad, in fact. So I don’t blame them. I love them for trying.

But, that doesn’t erase the fact that each time we talk about my dad and my new life as a caregiver, I feel more and more distance spreading between us. I learn not to bring it up, not to talk about it, not to expect them to understand, and I try to let them just be the distractions from that part of my life. They are good at that role, and they seem much more comfortable being there.

What bothers me most is that such a huge part of my life has become foreign to 95% of the people I know. I guess that’s what support groups are for, but I don’t know how I’m going to get over the fact that my closest friends won’t be witness to this massive event in my life. If I can’t talk to them about this life-defining transition, I don’t know how they’ll really even know who I am anymore. It seems kind of melodramatic, but I guess I’m afraid of us growing apart. And I’m also afraid that I’ll be the only one who notices or cares.

Life Updates and Explanations

So, instead of posting directly on Facebook or texting everyone, I think this is the most fitting place to explain about the shift my life is about to take. I still feel a little odd talking so personally and directly about my family and my life online, but taking a page from St. Gertrude’s book (see my previous post), I figure that being open and honest can’t really hurt.

I’ve alluded to this throughout my blog so far, but here goes. My dad was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and his prognosis is approximately 6 months to 1-2 years (I mean, who knows, but that’s what statistics say). He just retired this summer and moved from Alaska down to the Seattle area, and that’s when his body finally caught up to him. He and my mom got divorced a couple years ago, and so he is living on his own in a rental house. The rest of his family lives in Texas and northern California.

I say all this to give background for my decision to leave the Monastery of St. Gertrude’s and move back to Seattle to live with and help my dad. I will probably be back near Seattle in early December, assuming I figure out a ride around that time.

It’s obviously a difficult situation. I love it here. I am going to miss the sisters a lot, and I feel pretty stinking guilty to be leaving the program before even the half-way mark. But, all the same, don’t go fretting that I’m making a huge sacrifice or something, please. I know perfectly well the reasons I’m going back, and I know they are good ones. It doesn’t make it easy, but I think it makes it worth it.

I haven’t really spent much time with my dad in the last four years–okay, maybe eight years–because I’ve been focused on school, friends, growing up, and all the stuff that normal teenage and young adults focus on. And I don’t regret that, but it’s become a fact that time is running out. if I want to have an adult relationship with my dad, it’s now or never. Literally.

it’s going to be very hard. I go back and forth between trying not to be a debbie-downer about it while also being realistic. Even now, I know it is definitely going to be the hardest thing I have ever done, and very possibly the hardest thing I ever will do. I’ll basically be helping my dad prepare for death, including sorting through all of his stuff, trying to make sure everything’s in order… (Okay, see, I don’t even know what has to happen! But I suppose it’s time to start learning.) And also hopefully making what time he has left as useful and comfortable as possible. But I just keep thinking of how some of the sisters here still have living parents, and I think about how this is just not supposed to be something you deal with when you’re twenty something. But, then, people do it, don’t they? And they come out stronger people on the other side.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on. So, when I suddenly text you to see if you’re free to hang out in December, maybe you won’t be as surprised.