I'm not praying, I'm having a tea party. (some thoughts on grief group and poker faces)
Every Monday night, I get in my car and I drive to this ginormous mega-church a few minutes from my house for a grief group that my therapist suggested I try. Sometimes I sit there for the whole 2 hours and mostly just think about how much I resent having to be there. Sometimes we have brownies and sometimes we manage to find things to laugh about and we cry a lot less now than we did in the beginning, I suppose. Most of the others there have a good 30-40 years on me, so I’m the baby; they’ve lost spouses or parents or sisters, but we’re mostly in the same boat: sad, wondering why, left without answers to things. Sometimes I leave feeling even more sad or in search of even more answers, but I go every week, and sit there for two hours, and I talk, and I listen, and it helps.
And then every single Tuesday, I sit on a couch across from my therapist for an hour. Sometimes it’s the only time in the week when I don’t feel like I’m holding my breath, so all my feelings actually have a chance to catch up with me. It’s not that I run from them intentionally, it just feels better if I stay busy. But every Tuesday I go and sometimes I sob my little heart out for the entire hour, but I go, and I talk, and I listen, and it helps.
They tell us in grief group that we only ever need to focus on the next right thing. Getting out of bed, and then going to work, and then coming home and binge-watch Dancing With the Stars have been my “next right things” this past week. When I tell that to my therapist, she says that’s okay, and asks if I agree, and also says that when you’ve suffered a major loss, sometimes all you really have the strength to do is watch Dancing With the Stars. That helps. She says that it’s not unusual that I’m still exhausted four months out, that it’s not unusual that everyday things take a lot more energy than they used to.
I’m discovering, also, that things require a whole lot more grace. And a whole lot more humility. I don’t necessarily love that, if I’m being honest.
My friend Kathrine moved into her new apartment downtown last week, and when she invited our other friend Stephanie and I over, I immediately volunteered to make dinner for us all and bring it over. Nevermind the fact that I was slated to be at school at 7am to proctor the SAT for 5 hours earlier in the day, haven’t been to the grocery store in a while and have been surviving for a miraculous amount of time without milk, knew I wouldn’t really have the emotional stamina to deal with the Publix parking lot on a Saturday (much less the actual inside part), not to mention take out my trash or vacuum or clean my waffle iron or do any of the other things that have been hanging over my head in my mental “why aren’t you getting these really easy things done?” list.
Really, I count it a success right now when I look presentable for work (am so endlessly thankful that top knots are a trendy hairstyle) and make it to the gym once a week and eat more things that are not Oreos than are actual Oreos in a day. The bar is a little lower right now. And that’s okay.
Anyway, since Kathrine knows me and my tendency to emulate the Energizer bunny, she told me that we could just order takeout or go out so I wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of lugging oven baked chicken breasts and green bean casserole across town. Am absolutely not Energizer bunny. Am extremely thankful for people who call me out on this.
I am thankful for top knots and friends who know me, and I am thankful that the world still turns without my portable dinner parties. Maybe one day I will be back to curling my hair every day and having people over for dinner once a week. But not yet. And that’s okay.
Because the truth underneath all the busy is that I still haven’t recovered completely from losing Maggie. How could I, in 4 months? Where did I come up with the idea that I would have by now?
We have a workbook in grief group that asks us to rate how we’re doing on 4 scales: emotionally, physically, spiritually and relationally. My physical and emotional health were so down the tubes after Maggie died that I’ve ended up devoting most of my energy over the past months to keeping those two in check. As a result, my spiritual and relational sides have suffered. Therapist disagrees with me on the spiritual part, but I counter that my relationship with God certainly feels a lot different. Things are quieter. I’ve got some tough questions for Him that I’m sitting with, and sometimes the sitting and not knowing results in getting angry instead of feeling a peace. I don’t like that, so lately I tend to talk less and listen less just to keep things neat and tidy. This is not my normal, messy spirituality. Normally all the crap is on the table, but right now I am having a tea party with God and saying “I’m fine, and you?” and am sipping my tea daintily and I don’t want to chip any of the fine china or mess up the white tablecloth.
In other words, I’m tired and I’m in denial and I’m stifling emotions and I’m clamming up and not being honest when I pray. What I’ve discovered is that I’m not actually even praying; I’m having a freaking tea party.
And it’s not really just with God. As for people, I’m incredibly thankful for my support system, but we’ve all had to go back to our lives, and I understand that. I had to go to work and so did everyone else; the world had to keep going after Maggie died (which to this day feels incredibly unfair and inhumane). The thing about this is that I’ve got my poker face on. Things are great at work, I go to grief group, I go to therapy, I’m doing all of these things. As far as anyone knows, I’m doing just fine. Because poker face. Because nothing about my public appearance suggests anything different, except maybe all the top knots lately. I usually don’t let it show when I’m not doing just fine because I don’t want to bother anyone. So how are people supposed to know that I’m having a hard time if I’m keeping my head down and staying busy? How are people supposed to know we need them, that we’re struggling, if we’re just saying “I’m fine, and you?” when we don’t really mean that first part at all?
It’s taken a lot of grace and humility for me to grapple with this, which is surprising considering that “let somebody else know when you’re struggling” is probably the number one piece of advice I ever give to anyone. Helping people advocate for themselves and encouraging them to bring in other people for support when they’re having a hard time with something is actually about 90% of what I do at work with my students. I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of them talk about failing Pre-Cal and then responded with, “You know what? Definitely don’t ask your teacher for help, even though it’s her job to help you and she wants you to do well. Keep your head down and don’t let anyone know you don't really know what you're doing right now, and if anything, wait on the teacher to check on you, and if they ask, just say everything’s actually fine.”
I’d get a lot of parent phone calls about that one.
Sometimes I feel like I’m going backwards, getting sadder, more fixated on Maggie’s absence. I need people to help counterbalance the sadness narrative going on in my head. According to my friend Kaitlin, we’ve all got a little bit of a sadness narrative going on in our heads that we need other people to weigh in on and against. But we’re not going to get that unless we ask. None of us. None of us are going to get what we need from other people unless we have the humility to ask for it, because other people a) are unfortunately not mind-readers, and b) yes, have their own lives, but also have other ones that they’re invested in for very good reasons, and those reasons usually have to do with things like love and care and concern. This should not be as shocking to me as it is; that people care.
I need people to remind me that God is good and trustworthy and loving and and present with me in my grief. Because right now, I’m having a tea party when I need to be weeping and getting my mascara all over the white tablecloth and lamenting and asking those impossible questions about why we had to lose Maggie that I maybe won’t get answers to, but might at least find rest in knowing that he hears me. Screw the white tablecloth. Forget the whole tea party thing, personally.
That’s my new goal. That’s my next right thing. Invite people back in, ask them in and for help and to listen when they have the time. My greatest fear is that I am a burden, but really I’m just a human, and I’m going through hard things, and I have a lot of friends who are humans too and are going through different hard things.
It pretty much really is that simple. No burdens, and no tea parties. Time for honesty, even if it’s messy, and even if it means wearing a top knot every day and ordering takeout in lieu of dinner parties for a while longer.