Grief and Spiral Staircases

Grief is an interesting beast. It comes to us like an animal who will take treats from people but is never tame. We can describe it, break it down, psychoanalyze it and study it. We think we understand it and in our understanding we think we have tamed it. We experience it and think we have mastered it.

Then it comes in the middle of the night. Sometimes it comes with soft breath to stir our dreams and leave us disoriented. Other times it comes with flashing claws to reopen the wounds in our hearts leaving us breathless and sleepless.

Grief is famously described in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ model as having 5 stages. Too many people think of these stages as a linear progression, even though she never presented it as such. There are many models in use now that describe grief but I find my own visualization of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model helpful in my own journey with grief of all types.

Personalizing models of behavior and cognition can make them more powerful tools for personal grown because all models have limitations and none are universal. Too often models are taken to be a literal, universal truth when in fact they are representations. Like labels, they are a place to start a conversation, not the end of it.

The most profound grief I have dealt with, and continue to deal with, is the death of my mother from a brain tumor in 2004. It is in this journey that I have learned the most about my relationship with grief.

The Kübler-Ross model: you will deny, be angry, bargain, feel depression and gain acceptance. I see it as a spiral staircase leading up and away into the future. Traveling on the staircase I can look at the event in the center, in this case the death of my mother. As I move through time the view changes and grows more distant. I see how as I travel the spiral, I seem to cover the same ground again and again, but I am always moving up and away from that first, crushing grief.

Different steps of the spiral staircase contain different stages. Today I am accepting, but tomorrow I may take a few steps higher, gaining distance in time from when my mother died, and find myself once again angry that my mother is gone. It is a different anger then when she first passed away, or the last time I was angry, but it is anger and I have to feel it, sit with it and let it pass through my heart so I can pass through it again.

The spiral staircase image reminds me I am moving, not stuck. I know with some grief journeys I’ll pass through stages many times. Knowing this means I am not surprised, scared or worried that something is wrong with me. I know the stages will come and with each turn of the spiral I gain more experience with my grief. I know I will come through that stage, I will not get stuck and eventually I will find my way back back to the relative peace I have in acceptance. I will find that space where my heart does not hurt.

On my journey with my mother’s death my denial has now been relegated to my dreams where my mother makes regular appearances. Awake, I am still angry sometimes, but it is a dull echo of the fiery anger I once had.

My mother’s choices regarding her illness and death derailed any bargaining I might have considered. When the subject of your potential bargain has accepted her own rapidly approaching death with grace and peace, it is hard to figure out what that bargain might be. Don’t mistake this for not wanting more time with her! But making deals with higher powers, the universe in general or the possibilities of experimental therapies felt disrespectful of her wishes about her own body and her life.

I certainly spent plenty of time in depression; both the grey fog and the deep darkness. Finally, from time to time, I do find acceptance. My acceptance is sometimes a sad place but it is peaceful and I can miss my mother without feeling my heart break.

When my mother passed away my oldest son was a little over three years old. We talked with the funeral director about kids and grief. One of the things he told us was to expect our son’s grief to come back around at different times as our son grew older. I had already thought about holidays but he said it is more than that.

He explained it might come up because of a conversation in school about family trees or a friend talking about a visiting grandparent. It might be years later and still be very fresh. Where I continue up my spiral staircase, he may find himself on new staircases as he gets older, starting at the bottom again, very close to the event. He may experience the loss of his grandmother as a fresh event because it is being seen with newly developed awareness as he grows older.

I’ve gone through this “reset” once already with him when he was in early elementary school. His younger brother had gotten old enough to ask about his grandmother and what happened to her. Discussing her illness and death in front of my older son re-started his grieving and there were tears and discussions of “why did this have to happen.”

You may find my personal image resonates with you, or it may make no sense at all. My hope is that in hearing about my journey with understanding grief, you will see how models can be personalized to make them more powerful. I feel strongly that models of behavior and cognition are representations of reality, not reality itself. We have to understand models in our own terms and use them to inform, not constrict, our personal growth. Models are tools to help us understand complex systems and should never be assumed to be comprehensive nor universal.

Next time: Grief = Death: When dying is the only language we have for grief

Coming Out Bi

In the Spring of 1990, I was a freshman in college. I had friends of all orientations but I had never questioned my own hetrosexuality. Late in Spring semester, I was asked to moderate a discussion on sex and sexuality sponsored by the campus LGBT organization. I agreed and it went well. We all enjoyed having a space to discuss our thoughts and feelings on sex and sexuality. For many of us, these were changing a lot in our first years away from home. We decided to start a weekly discussion group and it ended up attracting a wide variety of people, including non-students. Our discussions explored personal as well as social and political topics. We learned from our older members, shared new experiences we were having and we all became close. However, I still never questioned my own hetrosexuality.The next fall, a couple of months into my Sophomore year, I was having a very difficult time with a number of issues. One was I realized that although I could talk comfortably about sex and sexuality in general, I had a very unhealthy relationship with my own sexuality. I was thinking a lot about my past relationships and trying to figure out where I’d internalized a whole lot of negative ideas about sex. Among other things, I realized I’d never enjoyed sex the way I thought I should. In a leap of logic that still amazes me, I decided I was a lesbian but had been socialized to think I was straight.

I was a biology student and I did have evidence to support my hypothesis. As a kid I’d been fascinated by back issues of Playboy I had found stashed in the restroom at my mom’s office. I thought about my cousin introducing me to the idea of guy watching when I was a junior in high school. She had been amazed I’d never really looked at guys before. I felt I was a very suggestible person who was too rooted in what was expected of me, including the influential science fiction by Robert A. Heinlein I’d devoured as a teenager. I had enjoyed kissing a girl over the summer. Obviously, I had learned to feel and act straight because that was what was expected of me. I must really be a lesbian!

Being a lesbian lasted two weeks. It ended when I realized I was attracted to the guy who sat next to me in French class. I felt silly about my over reaction to figuring out I was attracted to women. I had friends who were bisexual, I knew I didn’t have to pick between being attracted to boys or girls. I’d just spent the last 6 months having weekly discussions about sex and sexuality that included plenty of information on all different orientations! Luckily, I hadn’t come out to very many people in those two weeks so I didn’t have to correct too many misunderstandings.

I did burn one bridge during that time. A past boyfriend who I hadn’t spoken to in months had the misfortune to call me during those two weeks. I told him I was a lesbian. He had been the first guy I ever had sex with and he took my revelation very personally. We didn’t talk again for many years.

That little detour does give me a good story to tell when talking with people about bi-phobia. “I come out as lesbian for two weeks, but I got over that,” never fails to get a laugh. How often have we been told our bisexuality is a phase or something we have to “get over?” The irony is delicious.

I had some panicky moments as I got used to the idea of dating women. Late one night one of my closest friends, and the first person I ever came out to, had to reassure me that even if I ended up finding a woman to spend the rest of my life with, I could still have kids, a dog and the house with a white picket fence that I wanted. It was a new idea for me but he was right. Twenty years later the fence is brown but my house has dogs, kids and a wife.

Even back then, people claimed bisexuality was just a fashionable thing for young women at co-ed liberal arts colleges. We would get over it. I was left speechless one day when an otherwise liberal-minded friend confided in me that he wasn’t worried about his girlfriend’s attraction to other women. He said as soon as she graduated, she’d stick to guys.

However, I knew I really was attracted to women, not just responding to my environment. Although my powers of deduction had proven faulty, I had a reason for believing this. I had realized I had a huge crush on one of my best friends from high school. I had had it for a long time and just never realized it for what it was. She was at a different college but we’d stayed in touch after high school, so I called her. I told her I had had a realization about myself that was really important and that had to do with her, too. I didn’t think she’d take it badly, but you never know with these things. I’d heard plenty of bad coming out stories from friends. I confessed my crush and my newly discovered bisexuality with butterflies in my stomach.

She replied, “I know, I’ve had a crush on you for years. I’ve just been waiting for you to realize how you felt.” Damn her, she’d beaten me to it! So we giggled and talked and agreed if we were ever living in the same city and unattached that we would try dating.

That Spring we both attended a conference and had a chance to tell our story while sitting together in a room full of other LGBT college students. What an empowering experience! Everyone clapped and the session leader asked if we had had a chance to try dating yet. At that point I was sure we would. I had transferred to the university in our hometown and I knew she was coming home for the summer. We were both single, what could possibly not work?

As it turned out, we never did get a chance to date. Her very strict Catholic parents found out how we felt about each other by reading a letter she had left in her desk. They threatened to kick her out of the house, not support her education and never let her see her sisters if she ever talked to me again. She managed one quick phone call to tell me why she couldn’t talk to me again and we had one awkward day when friends conspired to have us both join a road trip to an amusement park a couple of hours away.

That day my heart broke for both of us. Until then I’d thought we might have a chance when she went back to college, but she’d changed. I hated seeing how fear had crushed her spirit. That day at the amusement park she told me she was seeing someone. The night her parents told her never to talk to me again, she went and cried on a friend’s shoulder. This was a  friend she’d previously sworn she had no interest in being romantically involved with. One thing led to another, as these things do. I felt like she’d taken refuge with him rather than chosen him because she loved him. I later heard they married.

I lost track of her soon after that road trip. She went back to college and her parents moved out of town. Even after she was back at school I guess she wouldn’t risk contacting me. Every once in awhile I Google her maiden name to see if anything comes up. I have never known her married name. My hope is that somewhere out there she’s made a good life for herself and fulfilled the potential of the wonderful girl who realized how she felt about me and was smart enough to wait patiently while I caught up.