Chasing Inspiration

Monday, October 17, 2016

When Grief is Messy

Nude Woman and Grief

Warning: if you are family, you may want to stop reading. I love you all, but I needed a place to process, and maybe my process will help others. 

In July we visited family in Victoria, British Columbia. Which is one of the most gorgeous spots in all of Canada. I admit I'm biased because I am Canadian, even if I'm living in the USA. The trip was not for pleasure, though there was much to enjoy. No, this trip was because of the death of my last living grandparent. My grandmother. My mother's mother. A woman who is part of my earliest memories. Memories that I now know were the foundation for some of my neuroses.

I want to say I had a good relationship with her, but honestly, we never connected. She was critical and wanted different things from me than I wanted from myself. She was verbally abusive. She had done a number on my mother. How do I know this? My mom would become this pale shadow of herself whenever Grandma was around. I think I hated the woman because of all the times she reduced my mother to tears. I think the child in me lost some respect for my mother for all the times she wasn't strong.

The adult me knows that trauma untreated will not heal true.  When a broken bone isn't set, it doesn't heal properly. Even if set properly, the healed bone will always be different than if it had never been through the trauma of a break. We are like that. If we are emotionally battered down until we stop seeing ourselves and see only the thing our abuser wants us to see, we are like that broken bone. Even if we get out from under the situation, unless we go through the work to release ourselves from the trauma, we will never be reset. We will live as though the trauma is happening to us right now.

I'm writing this at 3:30 in the morning, otherwise I would take the time to find references for the above paragraph. Please let it be enough to know that I was a therapist for a time, and continue to keep updated with the latest in psychology. And trauma is an area I am very familiar with.

My grandmother had good points. She had a dry sense of humor. She took family seriously. She took on the task of taking care of my grandfather, who she loved fiercely. I don't have a memory where Grandpa wasn't in need of some form of care or pain management. She did that because she loved him. She was the primary caregiver for her mother when Alzheimers stole her independence along with her mind. She worked hard.

But that wasn't enough to erase her cruel side. The side that told a four year old me that I was never going to be good enough. The side that made sure that when my brother and I spoke of our dreams for a future, she would shoot them down, telling us we had champagne taste on a beer budget. Translation: we were over reaching our status. We were from working class people and we would always be working class people. Which is partially true. Dad was a blue collar worker. But who tells children to dream small because life is small?

When I was fifteen or sixteen, I spent two weeks with Grandma and Grandpa. I took the bus to Victoria, rode the ferry from Vancouver on my own. It was a fabulous trip! I loved the adventure. And I tried to be a good guest. I kept my room clean. I helped with meals and dishes. I tried to be small enough that Grandma's cruel side wouldn't notice me. It worked until the day I wore shorts. Then I got the lecture on how by the act of wearing shorts I was sending a message to all males that I want to be raped. I shook my head, it was just Grandma, after all. But something in me started to feel ashamed of my body. Scared that maybe I was responsible for what others think and feel about my presence. Add this to the script of "You're not good enough" and we have a recipe for confusion and years of not believing I was worth anything good that came into my life. All good things were suspect.

It was after this that there was an outward change. In all the pictures taken after that visit I am not smiling, knowing the world is one huge adventure waiting to explore. Instead, I'm withdrawn, even frowning. I didn't want to be near Grandma. Deep down I knew she was toxic for me. But I didn't have the vocabulary to explain this to any one. And therapy wasn't on my radar until college.

I cut the ties after my high school graduation. I wore this beautiful dress that my mom's friend made for me. It was strapless and amazing. I felt like a heroine from a novel when I put it on. I never wanted to take it off. When I stepped into our living room to show my grandparents my dress, she sneered and told me I looked like a slut. What should have been an amazing day became one of the most horrible days in my life. And I told Grandma that other than visits with mom and dad I was done. I was eighteen.

These examples aren't meant to vilify. They are only to illustrate my relationship with Grandma. I eventually started therapy. Got my MS in Psychology. Worked with trauma survivors. Had more therapy. I needed to take out the thorns that were festering in my soul and my psyche, then I had to do the hard work of healing. I'm not all the way there yet. Trauma changes a person. Abuse leaves it's mark. Our experiences become a part of our DNA. They leave us changed from who we might have been.

I left Victoria and my family with mixed feelings. Relief. Sadness. Anger. I was relieved that her suffering was over and her spirit had moved on to somewhere that could heal the trauma and pain she could not, or would not, heal in life. Relieved because maybe in death the stranglehold she had on her daughters would end, so they could breathe and live and heal. Sad because all around my family were the fingerprints of her - the good and the bad. Angry because she never extended to me the type of relationship she extended to younger cousins. She never showed that side of herself to me. Even two years ago when I saw her last, she didn't talk to me without the side of her personality that was critical and cruel.

Maybe some of that is on me. I cut her out of my life because I couldn't grow as a person with her still in it. I hated the pieces of her that were sharp and quick to cut. I loved the parts of her that were wry and loyal. I was sad for the parts of her that were damaged and bleeding.

Maybe it hurt so much when her china went to a younger cousin because I was the oldest and she had told me she would pass it down to the oldest. But I had walked away and my cousin had not.

Maybe it hurt so much when at her funeral I was introduced to this caring, tender woman, a woman I didn't recognize because whatever tenderness she may have shown me was buried under the tsunami of judgement.

Maybe being the oldest grandchild is a lot like being the oldest child, and Grandma made her mistakes with me so she could be a better grandmother to others.

Maybe I reminded her too much of the self she lost along the way. Or maybe not.

It's messy, saying goodbye to someone who has hurt you. It's tricky walking the line between utter relief and compassion for those who are grieving more deeply than myself. My grief is less the loss of a person who's love and light embraced me, and more an ability to finally take a breath. How do you explain that to family? I don't know. If you have the answer, please let me know.

  1. The wisdom living brings. 
  2. My husband, who walks with me, even when I drag him through the messiness of life.
  3. The stillness of night. 

Photo by x1klima

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