What I Want You to Know About Finding Space to Heal

Grief travels from one person to the next, one loss calling to mind another loss and perhaps all loss, until sadness and despair can seem to build and multiply, leaving little room for hope or joy. Yes, like a virus, grief is a thing that spreads.

But so too is healing.

In the months since your mom died, you have not always given me a lot of space. That was especially true when you were on summer break and then when your school was entirely on Zoom. You demand my attention and crave my company. You want me to play Legos and video games with you, to make comic books, to play games outside. You want me to lay down with you until you fall asleep at night. Hours later, you come into my bed, and I wake up each morning carefully perched on the outer reaches of the mattress as you are sprawled across it, feet pushing against my back. In the few moments when you are distracted – usually zoned out on an iPad – Ozzy comes padding up to me wanting me to play fetch or tug-of-war with one of his relentlessly squeaky toys. There is not a lot of uninterrupted time for me.

What time I do set aside is often spent on work or chores, although I also try to make time to talk to friends and family and attend online grief counseling to make sure I’m actually confronting the grief I’m experiencing. This past week, I had a group counseling session for the first time. Eight of us united by the tragedy of having lost a spouse within the last two years met by Zoom with a facilitator. I was one of only two with any children in the house, and also one of two under age fifty. One older woman who could not figure out the camera function on the Zoom call had been married to her partner for just short of fifty years. I was one of several who had lost their spouses to cancer; some of the partners had died in a matter of weeks, like your mom, while another had been actively battling the disease for years.

While the group shared their various stories, I was struck by how differently we all cope. Some people said they were completely unable to focus on work while others, like me, have found work to be a nice refuge, a place to get away from the pain for a few hours at a time even if we find ourselves less focused than we were before the loss. Some people talked about doing things to try to fill the void left in the absence of their beloved: learning to cook the delicious meals their spouse had made or going on hikes at places he or she had liked to visit. A few expressed how hard it has been to talk about their loss, even going so far as to keep it hidden from coworkers. I got the sense that, for a few of the grieving people on the screen, this was one of their few times of opening up with anyone about their loss.

Now, I had to agree to certain rules before the meeting, including that I needed to be alone during the session. So, before the Zoom started, I told you that you absolutely could not come into the room unless it was an emergency. I put on your favorite movie, Spider-Man 3 (featuring your current favorite actor, Tobey Maguire). I got you a snack and a drink. I asked if there was anything else you needed. You assured me you were fine. I reminded you not to interrupt me while the meeting was going unless it was an emergency. You said you understood.

You proceeded to come into the room three times during the 90 minute session. First, you entered because you bonked your head on something while doing Spider-Man tricks. It didn’t hurt, but you wanted to make sure it wasn’t bleeding, because that would make it an emergency. Next you came in because you managed to turn the volume of the TV up from level ten to level forty and when you tried to change it back you somehow managed to take it off the recording and onto Telemundo. The last time, you came in because you got tired of the movie and wanted me to turn on the iPad. I should have seen that last one coming.

I admit I was a little annoyed at the distractions when they occurred, and I was short with you as I reminded you that you were not supposed to come into the room. Later, though, as I thought about how lonely some of the group members had appeared, and how swallowed up by their grief they sounded, I started to realize how much these little distractions fill up my life with something good. People often ask if I have enough time for myself to process the grief I’m experiencing. Maybe not, but this first group session helped me to realize that that’s probably better than being alone all the time.

Grief is isolating. It is loss and the missing of that which has been lost. We all miss your mother, her presence and her personality. We miss our time with her. We miss the life we had before she was gone. You miss going into the pop-up tent you had set up in your room to watch YouTube videos with her before bedtime, or playing “Would you rather…” with her in your bed until she fell asleep. I miss watching Gonzaga games with someone else who cared about the team, mostly because I cared about them and she cared about me. You miss laughing with her about farts: hers and yours. I miss the way she would promise that she wasn’t tired and how she’d swear she would be able to watch the whole episode of a show, only to fall asleep 90 seconds after the theme song would play. You miss her playfulness. I miss her meals. You miss her hugs and kisses. I miss her hugs and kisses, too.

And we aren’t the only ones who miss her. Your aunt misses texting her throughout the day about random things, making each other laugh with their silly inside jokes. Your Grammy and Poppy miss hearing her voice as she talks about your latest interests and achievements. Her friends miss talking with her about reality TV and getting her regular texts and phone calls checking in on them. Her colleagues miss the positivity she brought to the office and her ability to keep everything organized.

Each of us feels the loss of a particular part of her and, with that, big parts of ourselves that were formed by our relationship with her and to her. That loss is not something we’ve ever felt before. It makes us feel sad and lonely.

But when we look around, we see we are not alone.

A few weeks after your mom died, my brother, who was only a few years older than you are now when our own dad died, told me the thing that helped him get through his grief at a young age was seeing the resilience of my mom. He wanted me to be sure to care for myself as a way of caring for you. I was grateful for the permission to practice self-care, and for his sage wisdom borne from experience, which has seemed to prove true for you as well. I know that you can tell that I have not fallen to pieces, and I sense that my steadiness gives you the stability necessary to recover from the trauma of your loss.

What I have come to realize since my brother told me this, however, is that it is, in fact, entirely reciprocal. I’m sure the resilience that my brother saw in my mom was formed, at least in part, by her seeing the resilience in him. Because when I pick you up from school and see you playing with your friends like a normal first-grader or I hear you laughing at a silly YouTube video from your bedroom, I discover the courage I need to continue in my own grieving process. I noticed something similar when your Grammy and Poppy came to visit us last November. They saw us carrying on in our daily routines, remembering your mom in significant ways but also forming our own habits and rituals, and I could tell that they were starting to believe in the possibility of recovery from this unimaginable tragedy, even if they knew the pain of the loss would never really go away. And you and I will look at them and be inspired by their strength to heal and to believe in healing. And so on and so on.

If I went off to a desert or a mountaintop somewhere for a few months to be alone with my thoughts, I’m sure that I could come up with a few insights that time does not afford me presently. I could explore every inch of my grief and come to know it well. I could emerge and give seminars on the topic. But would I heal? Maybe I would, but I’m sure it would be harder without community, and especially without you.

So go ahead and keep barging into the room when I am on important Zoom calls. Keep asking me if I want to play Roblox with you, even when I just want a few minutes to stretch out on the couch and do a crossword. Keep asking me to throw you in the air when my arms are tired and my back is sore. Keep telling me when you’re sad and when you miss your mommy (and I’ll do the same with you). Keep climbing into my bed at night, if that’s what brings you comfort. Keep stretching across the mattress, kicking out and bracing yourself against the steadiness of my body until I almost fall off the bed. Turns out, even without a lot of space to sleep, there’s plenty of room to heal.

One Comment on “What I Want You to Know About Finding Space to Heal

  1. Another beautiful piece, Caleb. Thanks for sharing your heart with us. ❤️

    Like

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