I tried to avoid splitting my life into “before” the crash and “after” the crash. It seemed facile and dramatic. But it’s also accurate: My life changed irrevocably on March 22, 2021, and even the things I can get back I will never get back in the same way. I am a different person now, and I still don’t know exactly who that person is.
Some things I have discovered in the four and a half months since:
I can’t grieve in the abstract.
And I tried.
I spent my first two and a half months at home with a care person constantly present. During daylight hours, I usually had more than one person here, between the 24-hour attendant care, nurses and therapists, and the family members and friends who were dropping by to help or to “help.” I couldn’t go anywhere unattended, and even if I could have, I didn’t have the physical or mental health or stamina to do much of anything.
So for the first two and a half months, I had to grieve alone in my office-turned-hospital-room in between constant interruptions.
It’s not that I didn’t grieve during that time. I did, pretty much constantly. But as I got more mobile, I discovered that lying in bed crying and being in the world crying are two entirely different things.
At first, the smallest things would make me sob. I cried for an hour once over the fact that the toilet paper was hung overhand. Jason and I used to flip it around to mess with each other, and the fact that it was overhand meant he’d been the last one to touch it. I had a sobbing breakdown over seeing his work boots in the garage, despite having passed by several pairs of his shoes without incident. I fretted for weeks about being unable to find his hairbrush.
Grief is weird.
The more I emerge from my patient cave, however, the more I’ve come to accept that the only way to return my life to anything that makes sense is to experience all the places and people and things we experienced together – now without him. I have to re-contextualize everything.
It’s hard. It’s really tempting to shut myself in our (now my) bedroom and cry until I can’t anymore. But it doesn’t work. The work boots are still sitting in the garage; the only way I managed to stop crying over them was to sit with them until I understood them as having a place in a world Without Him.
My former order of priorities baffles me now.
A few months ago, I tweeted about how baffling I found “how to increase your productivity!” articles post-crash. My “productivity” at that point was almost entirely focused on growing enough new bone to start walking again.
Productivity articles were the first weird “priority from a past life” I encountered, but they certainly weren’t the last. At some point in July, I decided to reorganize my goals boards, and it was like looking at someone else’s goals.
In Booklife, Jeff Vandermeer recommends setting goals as a writer. He points out that we writers tend to be good at tasks but bad at goals; we can putter all day long but at the end be no closer to “success” than we were at the beginning. To counter this, he recommends keeping documents that track your five-year, one-year, monthly and weekly goals.
Mine are on a white board above my desk, because I have the ADHD thing where if I can’t see things, they don’t exist. So I knew at once that a Google or Word doc wouldn’t work for me – the moment I closed it, I’d forget it.
I cried while resetting the goals board not because I felt deprived of the opportunity to reach those goals, but because I did not understand why most of them were goals in the first place. Why was a SFWA membership so important to me? Did I really need to put out a novel a year from now until 2026? What did I think would happen to me if I didn’t?
Meanwhile, I had spent the previous three months trying to figure out what actually did matter to me. What I found were a lot of things sitting on back burners that needed to be front and center in my life. Chief among those was my willingness to listen for the still small voice within.*
I don’t need to torment myself for credentials. I need the people I love to know I love them while we’re still on this Earth together.
Everyone will tell you who they are.
The culture in which I live is bad at dealing with grief. I figured that out pretty quickly. The vast majority of people – even, sometimes especially, people whose explicit profession is to do otherwise – respond to grief from their own understanding of it, not from a place of listening for others’ needs.
I don’t know how many times I heard people decide the best way to “comfort” me was to spill their grief story. Or their sibling’s story, or their roommate’s story, or their hairdresser’s accountant’s third cousin’s story. None of this storytelling had anything to do with me or my needs, not really; usually these were people who hadn’t even bothered to check if story time would benefit me. Rather, they told me these stories because they needed a way to manage the discomfort that comes with encountering another human being in my situation.
Meanwhile, I did not have time for emotions like annoyance; it took absolutely everything I had to survive those first few months with the grief I already carried. So once it occurred to me that others were talking about themselves and not me, I started approaching people from precisely that point of view. Rather than expecting people to focus on me or address me, I began to let people tell me who they were, because that was what everybody was already doing all the time anyway.
Turns out that when I listen to people tell me who they are, people have a much harder time lying to me or manipulating me. Patterns become much easier to spot.
At the same time, my impatience with others has decreased. I won’t say my patience increased, because that implies I got more of some resource that makes annoyance bearable, and I didn’t. What I got was less annoyance. If I’m here to listen to someone else tell me about themselves, then I don’t have to get frustrated when they don’t give me advice I can actually use, or they make assumptions that don’t apply to me, or they tell me about the time their childhood goldfish got depression. We weren’t here for that anyway.
“Holding space for others” and “having boundaries” are not only not contradictory, they’re essential complements.
Everyone notices, on some level, when they’re talking to someone who is really listening to them – who has realized they’re talking about themselves, even if the speaker hasn’t, and is here for it.
Some people embrace it. Some people respond by reciprocating. Some feel more comfortable revealing even more about themselves. Some decide to take advantage of it.
I got myself into some corners with regard to being taken advantage of. Nothing irreversible, but a combination of really listening and being on medications that turned me into the world’s most agreeable pod version of myself meant I had a lot of conversations wherein I (apparently) agreed to things I might have pushed back on were it not for the combination of meds, relying on others for my survival, and listening.
There’s a weird idea floating around, especially in a lot of mental/emotional health conversations and in some spiritual ones, that the ideal state of a person is to be totally open all the time to others’ experiences and needs. Like we’ll all achieve sainthood if we’re just totally Present for Others all the time, sharing everything, holding nothing back.
That’s not sainthood. That’s a good way to get dead.
My college Ethics teacher once informed us that nobody in the history of humanity has ever been 100% altruistic. “Not even Jesus,” he said. That upset a few theological apple carts in the room.
He went on to explain that pure altruism would mean doing nothing for oneself, ever – which is incompatible with continuing to exist in a physical human body. Even Jesus had to eat food and bathe and sleep, so that his human body could keep on doing its thing. Because those simple survival actions put energy and resources into Jesus rather than being resources he spent on others, they were by definition not altruistic acts.
I have thought about that a lot in the past few months.
Boundaries are necessary so that one can keep giving. There are some accounts you can’t overdraw and live.
I have no neat little conclusion.
In Solutions and Other Problems, Allie Brosh writes/draws about awaiting a cancer diagnosis while also going through a divorce and then dealing with her sister’s death. At the end of the story, she includes a line I have been thinking about for weeks:
“Sometimes all you can really do is keep going and hope you end up somewhere that makes sense.”
Since March 22, “keep going and hope you end up somewhere that makes sense” has been my life, which is why I’ve found it so hard to write about. Writing is supposed to make sense of things! That’s what we do! We take piles of information and we make it make sense! This is why they pay me!
I’m still not anywhere that makes sense. But I am starting to find tools that I think – I hope, anyway – can help me build a somewhere that makes sense to me.
* Different faith traditions call this different things: God, the Holy Spirit, the Divine, the Will, the inner light, and so on. I like “the still small voice” because it simultaneously appears in 1 Kings and yet is instantly recognizable across traditions.
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