Intellectualizing Pain

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

3:45 a.m. seems like a good time to write. For the most part, those who are in PST zones are sound asleep. I used to romanticize about those wonderful folks who work at 7-11 during those hours some of us occasionally find ourselves awake. Do they have great stories? They are at the front line if you think of life as a battle. They are salt of the earth if you have the insight to be conscious of others’ economic realities. They are on the cutting edge of where life, in all its goriness and glory, happens.

These are the things I think about when I’m trying to not think about losing my son. Where before, the fetal position and great guttural sobs were my reality, I’ve progressed to the ability to intellectualize my pain for longer periods of time. Please don’t think I choose to not remember my son; that is impossible. What I can do now, however, is control my meltdowns, when, where, and how much time I’ll need to purge sufficiently.

Sometimes I think I sound so clinical about grief, but that is not my intention. The pain of losing someone increases exponentially in the beginning of the grief trip, and it is a trip. Who knew the endless places a mind could wander? I didn’t — until the greatest loss of my life brought me to stare squarely in the face of chance.

I’m doing the only thing I can do if I’m to have a life of quality, with rich relationships, wonder, awe, and personal growth. I had my heart ripped out and I recovered it and started to help it heal, but first, I hurt systemically, and I hurt at the level of the Soul.

Really, there is no word that adequately defines the kind of emotional pain the death of a loved one brings up. I had no idea the depths we must plumb to emerge a stronger, more insightful, more conscious, and a person more in love with life. Maybe he or she was always there, but for that damnable luck of the draw.

I know why and how my loved one died. I have played his life repeatedly in my mind.

It doesn’t help to know that you’re so far away […] ~Carol King~

And I’ve turned over the minutiae and the magnificent. How does one begin to adjust to the presence of permanence? This too shall pass is obviously a myth. There are some events or emotions whose effects are monumental and that will affect us for the rest of our lives.

I’m in a master’s program, at 58 years old. I have always wanted a Ph.D., and so, maybe when I’m close to 65, I’ll finally be finished with school. I have a voracious appetite for knowledge, and I’d forgotten this during the long trek back to the realm of those who live full lives.

I know some strong people who’ve lost someone extraordinarily close to them, traveled through the visceral and emerged on the other side victorious. I will never get over losing my son. I’ve learned to live with the constant readjustment to him not being here. I still want to pick up the phone and hear his voice, his living voice, with all its inflections and the deep booming sound that I could feel in my Soul. I have some videos and old phone messages he gifted me with. But I don’t watch or listen to them every day.

As a matter of fact, I can only watch or listen to them when I’m feeling very strong and maybe a bit weepy. I still have days when the most mundane thing can send me into sobs, but as of late I haven’t cried in weeks…and before that, it had been months. I was too much of a mess in those early days to get that the magnitude of pain would become less throbbing and intense – or that one day I would be living a life of purpose with flashes of joy.

I need to share with you all: the intensity lasted for three and a half years. For some it takes a shorter span of time, for some longer, and then there are some who never heal from their loss. I can speak of healing now. I can tell you how great I feel now. I can even tell you how I got here, but I can’t tell you how you will get to a place where grief no longer doubles you over in pain; nor can I tell you how long it will take you to get to that place. Grief is harsh, but it is we who must master it, and I am a firm believer in wrestling with the angel for a blessing.

There is a blessing despite our soul-wrenching experience, and later we’ll see, there is a blessing because of our soul-wrenching experience. Healing doesn’t just happen; it takes an enormous amount of work and a willingness to run that gauntlet of the many excruciatingly painful emotions and thoughts that run through our hearts and minds after a loss.

Grief buffets us from all sides with hurtful thoughts and varying emotions and in varying degrees of intensity. We must let go of those hurtful thoughts and that pain that inhibits us from growing and developing into that person who is full of passion for life again.

Garnering the courage to release the hold grief can have on us is necessary in my estimation to stay on the path toward healing. Somehow life goes on – and even in our grief we must go on too. I told a 7-11 clerk one time about my loss and he was palpably empathetic and then he gave me a cup of blueberry coffee — such a huge surge in my Soul for such a small token. Or maybe we do get to choose our perceptions of phenomena as they arise, how we will respond, react, or rebuff.

Ah, but there I go again: thinking is far less painful than feeling.

When Light Enters Despair

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet floods every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and the morals of despair.

Every Grain of Sand, Bob Dylan

Oh, that Bob Dylan, to nail so perfectly how despair can apprehend our joy and hold us captive in an all-consuming way. During the beginning of Lent at a church I used to attend I was asked to give a talk about Jesus walking alone in the desert. I remember the dear sweet pastor saying that we are never alone.

I disagree. There are times when no one can hear your quiet screams of anguish, and so no one can help you. I watch those who struggle with addiction, like my dear son who died after a long fight with it, and I wonder where they go in their darkest, lucid moments. I have struggled with bipolar depression for my entire life and when I’m in a slump, I go to a dark place. I’ve learned to find the tiniest pinprick of light, but sometimes even that infinitesimal bit of light hurts my eyes and I must wait for my heart and my eyes to adjust to find my way out. Sometimes I just sit in the darkness and ask all they whys about my current state of emotions. I ask if things are as bad as they feel or if it is the bipolar chemicals centrifuging me to the bottom of my emotional test tube, heavy and coagulated.

Is joy only at the top or can it be found in despair too. There is an old episode of Cheers where Carla loses someone close to her and she puts on a black shroud to honor her grief. Sam gives her sage advice and tells her that when she least expects it, something will happen that will bring her back. Cliff stops by to visit her and when he bends down, his pants rip, unbeknownst to him, and after he leaves, Carla can hardly contain herself with laughter.

I have had similar moments, maybe not always with laughter, but sometimes with an exhalation. I think sometimes we hold our breath to stop our pain. When the cool breeze of temporary release comes, we can let go a bit and catch up with consensus reality. The kind of reality that grounds us and takes us out of our despair, e.g. the sun is shining, I’m making toast, the children are playing, it is not the end of the world, I can do this today.

I don’t know how I pick myself up from my bootstraps. I don’t know if it’s volitional or an act of Providence. I just know that through some of the darkest periods of my life, during sobs and moans too deep for words, I catch my breath, and I’m okay – until the next despairing moment.

I believe that despair is a universal experience. I believe we each find ourselves in its clutches from time to time. I know depression, from my personal experience, is real and not everyone is challenged by it, but I believe that we each are touched by despair from time to time. This is a tough place to be and we each have our own experiences that have shaped us and prepared us or not prepared us for how best to navigate our despair.

I have wished for death a half a dozen times throughout my life, most recently when my son lost his battle with addiction. He was my only child. He was everything to me and the knowledge that I would now live out my life without him brought me to a place of complete and utter despair. I would cry until I gasped for air, or – I was completely numb and listless. No one could reach me. There were no words that could be said to assuage my despair. How did I make it through to the other side where joy could be rediscovered?

Time.

Time doesn’t make things better because, bottom line, there are situations in our lives we simply must learn to live with, e.g. the death of a loved one, a terminal disease, poverty, addiction, and those things are part and parcel of life.  What time does do is distance us from our pain, the further out we get from the intensity of it, the better able we are to heal ourselves.

I had a pretty shitty childhood, about as bad as most people choose to not want to discuss. I have also had some traumatizing experiences as an adult, watching my son plummet to his death, for example. Others have had equal or more traumatizing experiences than I have had. Some of us find ways to find solid ground again, from where we can see hope off in the distance beckoning us toward transformation. Some of us don’t. I’m not going to make judgment calls about suicide. All I can say is that if that’s where you find yourself, please reach out to the National Suicide Hotline*, a trusted friend or family member, and if there is no one else around, tell a stranger on the street. TELL SOMEONE.

My personal blend of faith compels me to believe that the God of my Understanding (the GOMU) knows how difficult it is to be here, cruelty, poverty, addiction, rape, child abuse and/or neglect, domestic violence, ad nauseam, and because of this we have a one-way ticket to “heaven”. That is my personal belief. I’m not ready to go there just yet. As much as I miss my son, I still have work to do, work on myself and work on behalf of others.

Today is my son’s birthday. He would have been 37. I ache because this day is a reminder of both his life and of his death. I mourn, accompanied by the grief that never leaves me. Four years and eight months have passed rather quickly. The days when I sat on the couch and stared into the empty cavern of my broken heart seem distant.

Despair seems infinite, but it rarely is. There is a homeless man who lives in my town. He is filthy, toothless, and we do have winters here, so weather can be unkind to our homeless population. Snow doesn’t last but a few days and we’re in the desert, so temperatures can also really soar. He holds up political signs or counter-arguments to the evangelical man who has signs damning people to hell. Even in his destitute life, perhaps in his own darkest moments, he strategizes how to remain afloat in his despair.

We take lessons from where we can when we can. Butterflies and rainbows aren’t for everyone; I prefer a good Leonard Cohen song in a dark room, and sometimes, I even turn on the light.

1-800-263-8255 Suicide Prevention Hotline

Making Peace with Tragedy

By Sherrie Cassel

You can run and run and run, but you will never outrun grief; it’s like a second layer of skin that never sloughs off. I know because after four and a half years since my son died, I still feel the deep sorrow and it howls begging for my attention as I live my life fully and passionately. I know it’s there. I know it’s there every second of the day.

Keeping busy is an excellent way to reclaim your life. Once you have gone through the shittiest part of early grief, once you’ve cried ‘til your nose bled, once you’ve doubled over in what feels like physical pain, once you’ve collapsed on the floor a weeping mess, keeping busy is an effective coping mechanism.

My husband and I have had our soon-to-be 11-year-old grandson with us since March.  COVID put the kibosh on outdoor activities, so we found ways, to our utter exhaustion, to keep him busy. I was hopping to keep up with him. I was taking Zoom classes. I was reading everything I could get my hands on, and not solely books on grief. I read Buzz Aldrin’s most recent book about going to the moon. I read about theology, psychology, traumatology, religion, ad infinitum. Filling my mind with knowledge helps me to think about other things besides my utter despair from knowing my son is gone from this world.

I recently rediscovered religion and a relationship with God after years of anger and disillusionment. I speak only for myself when I say that I need an anchor, and I have rekindled my relationship with the God of my understanding (GOMU). I have found peace and contentment; they have replaced contempt for my perception that God abandoned me in my darkest hour. I have found solace in the GOMU, having been distanced from the most painful day of my life for several years.

We find what comforts us in whatever speaks to us in our deepest need. Pain cannot be the primary emotion for perpetuity; it can’t be. There is so much that is lovely and satisfying in life despite our sorrow and our grief. Some find that peace in nature or through self-expression or through religion. What have you found that has saved you from falling so deeply into the abyss that you were irretrievable?

There is no shortage of social issues in our world right now. COVID, BLM, the ineptitude of the current leadership in our country, disparity of income, poverty, hunger, addiction, ad nauseam. I am taking a most gratifying class through MCCSD on the book White Fragility: Why it’s so difficult for white people to talk about racism. See, continuing discourse with our world, finding something we believe in enough to fight for, something to be passionate about, getting involved in something that lets you peek through that layer of grief, that part of who you are now, is a good way to reenter the world that never missed a beat while you were in despair from your loss.

I think death, for me, temporarily ended my hope for a continued relationship with my son. I knew I needed to find a new way to be in relationship with my son while my heart adjusted to his physical absence, but I didn’t know how. I thought it was hokey when people told me things like “love’s energy never ends; it goes on forever”, “he’s in heaven smiling down on you”. And as a person who can humbly admit I don’t know everything, maybe those things are true, and sometimes I allow myself to meet my Soul where love and logic intersect.

I talk to my son every day. I kiss his picture.  I address him as well as God in my daily and nightly prayers. I feel him; I do. I can’t explain it, but my heart, that symbol of all that is holy in loving relationships, finds my son in my yearning.

As I maintain the momentum of my healing and grief processes, I tone my heart and my Soul cries in delight for allowing it to grow. I can’t tell you how long your process will take to find yourself again, but I will say this, grief can act upon you in a way which makes you passive to a process over which you relinquish control, or grief can be a process in which you actively and wholly participate. You are in control of your healing.

One day I woke up and said, “This can’t be all there is? Pain, misery, and despair?” I didn’t want to live that way despite my demolitioned life. My son loved life. We celebrated all the time. Our house was the party house in our neighborhood. I mean we celebrated everything. I celebrate the 32 years I had with my son, how he laughed, thought, worked things out in life. I celebrate all the lessons we learned together and the ones we learned individually. I celebrate me and all the hard work I’ve done to get to this place, through the guts on to glory.

There’s a lot to get behind in our current global and national situation. If there’s a dream you’ve had marinating for a long time, but one thing or another prevented you from getting to it, do it. Make it happen. I had to finally relinquish the hope that my son would rise like Lazarus and come back to me in this lifetime. He won’t.

So, what do I do now?

As the 12-steppers say, “Take next indicated step.” One foot in front of the other. Looking ahead. Stretching, recoiling, stretching again, strengthening, growing into the person the GOYU created you to be. I know it sounds platitudinous, but truly, you have a case study right here. For those of you who have followed this blog or my writing in other places, you’ve seen me vacillate from sorrow to joy and back again through many revolutions.

See, life doesn’t provide us with consistency; smooth sailing is not a norm in our lives. We take life each wave at a time; sometimes we get crushed on the rocks and sometimes we glide gracefully on to a welcoming shore. I learned through my life with my son that life is absolutely unpredictable. Knowing this has been a tough pill to swallow.

But at the end of the day, when I look into the eyes of someone I’ve been able to love through something, when I’ve participated in something that makes the world a better place, when I learn new things, when my husband holds me closely to his chest, when I have swordfights with our grandson, and when I sit in the silence and listen to my breath and re-center myself, how can I be anything but grateful?

Mother’s Day and Macadamia Nuts

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

The day has ended, and the night is cradling me like a new mother with her first born. I think about my own first born, my only child, and how I cradled him as I rocked back and forth in my rocking chair, singing softly, “Goodnight my Someone”, from the Music Man. I sang the song to him up through his fifth birthday. I stopped only because he would become overcome with emotion when I sang it to him. He was such a beautiful boy, my beautiful boy.

Tonight is Mother’s Day Eve, and I have done my level best to keep focused on the living. I’m fortunate to still have my mother – and celebrating with her is a gift to both of us. Mother’s Day still leaves me raw and exposed. I ask for no cards, no flowers, no dinners, just a quick, “How are you?” is enough; anything else would be too much, like a knife to the heart.

This year is a bit different. I am feeling like celebrating the son who made me a mother, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, deeply and forever embedded in my heart. I am a mother. I have a child; he has transitioned from this life to the next. I believe with all my being he is in heaven. I believe we all get there eventually – and I believe we’ll be reunited one day. I need to believe this. I cannot fathom a future without him. This may not make sense to those who have not lost a child – and you may ask, “What do you mean you can’t fathom a future without him? Haven’t you been living without him?” Well, yes, but there is hope in an eternity with my son that brings with it sanity and comfort. If I thought I’d never see him again, I’d slump into a depression unto my own death – even as I live.

My son’s been gone now four years and five months. I have raced through Mother’s Day weekend for the past four years. I used to hate driving by all the street corners with people selling flowers for last minute shoppers, sons trying to remember what their mother’s favorite color is.  “Is it roses or rununculus? Orange or red? What’s her favorite perfume? Oh shit, what time is it?”

To be honest, my son and I never really made a big deal about the day. Oh sure, when he was a little tyke, he’d make little gifts for me in school. Once he made a necklace made completely out of giant macadamia nuts. I was heading to an appointment, and there’s this adorable little boy with the biggest brown eyes chasing me out the door with the necklace saying, “Mommy, you forgot your necklace!” I put it on and proudly wore it to my appointment where others said, “Do you know you’re wearing macadamia nuts around your neck?” Years later I would tell my son that story and he’d say, “No shit”, and he’d laugh and laugh. Speaking of nuts, Mother’s Day for the grieving mother certainly is a bag of mixed ones.

I don’t need anyone treading lightly with me on Mother’s Day. I just want to be recognized as a mother – always and forever. I carried my son in my body for nine months. I was a single mother and so my son slept with me until he was six. I raised him by myself; he is mine. We had victories and defeats, but we always had each other’s back. We loved each other fiercely. I love him still. I’m a mother. I’m a mom. I am Rikki’s momma. He called me momma on the last day of his life. I have cards and notes and text messages and emails in which he called me momma. I consider the moniker a term of endearment, a sweet boy’s expression of love, and a medal of honor. I was blessed to be his momma; indeed, I am still.

Mother’s Day isn’t just about sweet and well-intentioned trinkets, handprints in cement, or even macadamia nut necklaces. Mother’s Day is about women all over the world celebrating our children and the blessing they were and continue to be to us. My heart aches because I can’t hear him say, “Happy Mother’s Day, Momma”, but I can hear it in that part of me that always knew when he needed something, and I feel it in my heart.

No, I don’t get a big bear hug from him on our special day, but I have the sweetest memories of all the hugs he gave me while he was alive and well, happy and whole, however briefly he touched my life. Memories are all I have along with things that were important to him, art he collected, art he created, pieces of paper with his handwriting or doodles on them – voice messages – his little stuffed dog he named, Squishy, and a love that is boundless and eternal. I celebrate him this Mother’s Day.

Gratitude in the deepest part of my soul is what I give to the memory of my son and in so doing, I find snippets of joy In the knowledge that he was mine for a short time, and then I gave him back to the God of my understanding, for safekeeping until we can be together again.

Mother’s Day can be painful when your children are living — and when your children have died.  However, you navigate the day is okay. Right this minute I am feeling strong and hopeful for a day of celebration, for my own mother, and for the mother I am too.

I will always be Rikki’s momma – and not even death can change that.

My heart is with all you mommas on Mother’s Day. May you be blessed with more joyful memories than you thought possible.

Blessings

Learning Curve

On June 25th in 2009 we lost the actress Farrah Fawcett to cancer. The world scarcely had time to begin dealing with her death when Michael Jackson died later on the same day. Farrah’s death was overshadowed by the controversial music king’s death. Death makes you focus on what’s truly important in life. Sometimes — even deep grief gets overshadowed by world and other life events, much like the news about Farrah’s death was quickly forgotten because of Michael’s death.

COVID-19, with all of its many preventative measures, has kept my grief a bit subdued as I try to keep up with the changing routines. The added responsibilities and activities of having our 10-year-old grandson living with us have made my ability to actively grieve virtually impossible. Certainly, our grief is lifelong, but there are times when there must be a buffer between it and what is happening around us, e.g. events and issues that demand our attention.

Yesterday I had such an event. Our bodies have ways of making us aware that changes need to be made in our lives. I haven’t felt stressed, but apparently my brain sent out a warning signal. I thought I was having a heart attack yesterday, but it turns out it was stress. Grief can stress your body and mind, especially unexpressed grief. I sat in the hospital emergency room for several hours thinking about how I’ve neglected to take care of myself. My health had taken a back seat to grief, grief that can be overwhelming and unpredictable.

I’m okay with grief being shelved from time to time, so I can take time to live a life of purpose while I try to stay in joy as often as I can; however, one can busy herself to exhaustion and poor health rather than allow the time we are sitting it out to practice good grief hygiene, including taking care of ourselves.

We live in one of the most beautiful areas in the San Bernardino high-desert where ancient geological records abound. There is beauty all around us – and if you have an artist’s eye, there is beauty even in places where others don’t see it. My son was such an artist who saw beauty everywhere. I miss him so much I sometimes forget the lessons he left behind for me, and I forget to emulate the characteristics about him that I most loved. I know I must carry on those wonderful attributes that made him so special to me and to others, to not do so does not honor his brief life.

I awakened early this morning and opened all the windows and doors in our home. I sat and had my coffee in the silence. I thought about my son. I considered how I’m not ready to leave just yet; I have so much to contribute to our world. We all do. I allowed my grief to overshadow making time to take care of myself. I think it happens more often than not for grievers. We busy ourselves so we don’t have to think about our ever-present pain – although it never truly leaves us. We just learn to make it more manageable.

I believe we can grieve efficiently in a way that honors our loved ones and that honors ourselves. Grievers forget about themselves and oftentimes need to be reminded in small — or monumental ways — to take care of ourselves. What’s important is, certainly the phenomena borne of grief, but also our emotional and physical health – and if you’re a spiritual person, absolutely we must nurture this side of ourselves too.

There is a verse in the Hebrew scriptures that encourages us to “Be still and know that [He] is God.” Psalm 46:10 – and however you define God or whatever kind of relationship you have with the Divine, we must find a way to sit with it and breathe through our challenging times, including grief – and maybe even especially grief.

Grief can make us feel like we are being flayed; it can be brutal and systemic. There were times in early grief when I felt like one big ball of exposed nerve endings – all the way to my Soul. I allowed myself to feel it and sometimes I tried to ignore it, but ignoring it is not always the best practice, and it certainly is not always beneficial to our emotional, physical or spiritual health. I haven’t had a professional massage since Rikki died. I haven’t been to the ocean – a very healing place for me – since Rikki died. I haven’t meditated since Rikki died. If this is your M.O., might I suggest that before your own hospital ER visit you find ways to be kind to yourself. I will make it a priority now to devote a significant part of my day to meditate on what brings me peace and I will pray to the God of my understanding for discipline to do this every day – because making time for ourselves is more important than our need for despair. One can grieve without despairing. I must remember this too.

We have rosebushes that are in full bloom and just beautiful. As trite as it may sound, I need to stop the busyness that keeps me from fully participating in life and I must sit in gratitude to the God of my understanding and admire their beauty and absorb their fragrance. I can grieve without abandoning self-care. I must make sure that grief does not overshadow all the things that are awesome in my life.

What are you doing to take care of yourselves? How do you chill? If you have things that work for you, please share them with others, and with me. We are teachers to others as well as students of others. We have contributions we can make – once we’ve sat in gratitude and lapped up the peace that “surpasses all understanding.” Philippians 4:7

Breathing through moments that put stress on our bodies is underrated; it’s important to find the time during those challenging moments; and it’s important to breathe our way to a comfortable homeostasis. We must find balance – even during the most intense moments of grief. I’m learning. I thought I was doing well, but apparently, I haven’t been and it took a trip to ER to open my eyes to see that stifling my grief by keeping myself so busy I was forgetting to breathe through those moments of intensity is not in the best interest of my health. I’m awake now.

Grief brings with it powerful emotions, some can wipe us out, but as I tell our grandson when he is angry, that we can blame everything and everyone else for our anger, or we can take responsibility for it and choose to find another way to work through it. We must find ways to grieve and take care of ourselves, to relax and heal in the silence that we must create, especially for moments of healing our broken hearts and our troubled minds — and as it turns out, our tired bodies.

When life events overshadow our grief, it’s okay; it really is. We have the responsibility to nurture ourselves through our intermittent and spontaneous pain. To not do so is harmful to our bodies, minds and Souls, and if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will? If we allow ourselves to run until we collapse, we won’t be able to grieve efficiently. Certainly, cry when you need to, talk about your loss to safe people who can handle your grief, but also, and most importantly take some time for yourself to catch your breath and then take those slow, deep breaths that heal your bodies and calm your Souls.

Grief is dynamic, but it is we who choose its intensity and duration.

Here’s to good health and taking time away from that intensity and allowing ourselves the wonder of life to take precedence from time to time.

Blessings.

Going Viral

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

I used to fancy myself a poet. I found out, however, that it is not my gift. There was a gentleman, and I use that moniker loosely, I knew virtually some time ago who told me my prose was better than my poetry. He was a schmuck to be sure, but as I’ve worked at my craft for many years, it appears he was right. I am far too literal and driven to precision to be a poet, although every so often I have constructed a winner, but by and large, it is my prose which most speaks to people. I had hoped to be published in The New Yorker as a pinnacle achievement, win a Pushcart Award, and find my way into the poetry illuminati, but that has not been the case. I have been published far more for my prose than I ever was for my poetry.

My point, which I eventually get to, is that there are dreams we have, pipe dreams, perhaps, which we must let go. I’m watching the world be plagued by a fatal virus. I wonder, even for myself, if I will make it out alive. One never knows. Linda Ronstadt said of her Parkinson’s diagnosis, “Something’s gonna getch ya.” And Stephen King in his Green Mile said, “We all owe a debt to death.” Positive thinking, right?

The world has changed in a matter of weeks. Never in my wildest dreams could I have constructed such a scenario for my world. COVID-19 is a term even my 10-year-old has added to his lexicon. My husband just had a scare and fortunately tested negative for the deadly virus. My heart is saddened over the deaths and current diagnoses as people fight for their lives toward recovery.

My mother is nearing 80 and she has a rare respiratory infection whose treatment regimen is high dosages of antibiotics for one year. I haven’t seen her in two months. I haven’t hugged her in two months. I can’t visit her because my husband has had a cold – and because if I touch something that someone infected with COVID-19 has touched, I could transmit it to my dear, sweet mother. I love her too much to take the risk – even for a hug.

The human touch is so important for our emotional well-being, but it now poses a threat to our very existence, individually and collectively. I’m fortunate that I have my husband and our grandson to keep each other company. My mother is all alone as are many of our elderly and others. The internet is helpful, but it is no substitute for human contact, physical human contact.

When I was a child, my brothers, sister, myself and other neighborhood kids would play the game Keep Away, where one person would be shunned by the others, a real self-esteem crushing activity. In retrospect and in light of current events, I now see the game had the latent benefit of teaching one how to be alone in the universe, or at least in the neighborhood. I still take it personally when someone doesn’t allow me to play in “any reindeer games;” I’m a very social animal. But I digress. Keeping our distance from others is a gift to them and a survival skill for us.

Going to the grocery store has been an interesting event. I saw a couple fully garbed in protective gear actually running through the grocery store trying to keep to the six-foot social distancing rule. I smiled and tried to say hello, but I could tell by their terrified eyes that pleasantries were unwelcome. Alternately, there are people who have no protective gear and smile and exchange salutations while still maintaining the recommended distance from one another. I’m torn as an extrovert who is now having to go undercover so as not to scare people – and yes, probably to protect my own health – and the loved ones in my home.

People can be incredibly kind in crises. I’ve had people offer to pick up groceries for me when they go to the market. I’ve offered to let people go ahead of me in line when they have fewer items than I do or if they look like they’re struggling. I offered a woman in the parking lot of Vons a few rolls of toilet paper because she was in search of the golden ticket Cottonelle. I’ve even read about health care workers coming out of retirement to assist the medical community with patient care during this global pandemic. I try to keep my sense of humor during challenging situations, but there is nothing funny, save maybe the toilet paper shortage, which illustrates to me the return to basic needs during crises.

When will it end? How will it end? The answers to those questions are anyone’s guess. As a currently wounded Pollyanna, I work hard to remain positive and hopeful that the world will not end in fire, ice, or viral obliteration, but I can’t be certain. Grisly video and photographs of refrigerated trucks as makeshift morgues have yanked me into a realism I have not been this keenly aware of since I lost my beautiful son to addiction. This pandemic is as real as my grief; it is as real as our eventual deaths.

I live in a very small town in the Joshua Tree region. We have had two active cases of COVID-19, and only God knows with how many people these two were in contact. When my son was dying, I had a therapist, and I use that term loosely as well, who told me I was catastrophizing my son’s illness. I question whether or not I’m catastrophizing the ultimate outcome of the COVID-19 saga. I hope for the best and prepare myself, my heart, my mind, and my physical body for the worst. With six degrees of separation, who will I be forced to say goodbye to? Does that sound fatalistic? I think it does and so I am going to have to face the loss of my optimism and/or perhaps my very life.

Pardon my common vernacular, but this is some serious shit. I pray and I do so for those who are on the frontline of this pandemic. I pray for those whose immune systems are under attack by this virus. I pray for those I adore, and that like the people of Israel during Passover, my loved ones will not be touched. I pray for our epidemiologist and virologists from the WHO, the NIH and the CDC who are tirelessly working toward a treatment regimen and a vaccine to save those most vulnerable first – and the rest of us as supplies are being replenished.

This is a scary time for our world, whether one is optimistic, pessimistic or nihilistic. In 1994, Laurie Garrett wrote The Coming Plague in which she discussed different plagues our world has endured and from which it has recovered, e.g. hanta and Ebola. Dr. Anthony Fauci has an honest response he has shared with the human race about the bleak possibility that things will worsen before they get better. Is it pessimism or a knowledgeable epidemiologist’s realistic prognosis?

I suppose the answer to the question is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve never been one to live my life in fear. I’ve always held out for hope, even when things looked hopeless. Optimism has not always served me well – and I’ve been knocked on my ass more than a few times by reality; this is one of those times, I presume.

Robert Frost wrote “Fire and Ice” with only two options for our demise; the world was smaller then. We used to fear a nuclear end to all life on earth. War has devastated our world time and time again. Viruses have wiped out peoples. And hatred and ignorance have done their damage to the human race too. How will this end?

I wish I could shake my optimism as I wait for the other shoe to drop, but I can’t – and I won’t. Faith is an entity that requires the fanning of its flame, and I still have plenty of kindling to keep it going.

Samaritans in the time of COVID-19

The Good Samaritan

These are difficult times, not just for my country, America, but the entire world. Stay-at-home orders, shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, face masks, not to forget our doctors and other healthcare workers putting their lives on the line even as they are unimaginably exhausted. If there was ever a time to come together as a people, it is now.

This post is off-topic, sort of, but as a blogger with a social conscience, I feel it necessary to comment on the events of the day. I haven’t been to the grocery store in days. I took a drive through our tiny Joshua Tree area yesterday and our little town was pretty much a ghost town. I am praying, sending good juju, holding people up to the Highest Good, and trying to stay calm in all this madness.

After about three days of mandatory stay-at-home orders, I was already going a bit stir crazy, and I whined about the boredom and about not being among others, but I have calmed my ass down in light of the incidents of transmission of COVID-19 and the thousands of deaths from it.

I heard an epidemiologist intimate that to stay home is an act of heroism. Imagine that. We can be heroes in others lives by staying put in our homes and following the social distance rules. I’m fortunate because I have shelves and shelves of books. I have my husband and our grandson with me. I have board games, video games, and our grandson is being homeschooled by my husband who is a retired teacher. There is plenty to do because laundry still needs to be done, housework doesn’t stop because the world has come to a standstill.

If you’re an artist and your medium is available to you without having to go out and buy it, paint, sing, write, express your fear and frustration, your hope, your dreams, your love of our precious earth and its constituents. We can still help from our homes.

My hat’s off and I extend the sincerest gratitude to our health care workers and those still going to work each day. I pray for their safety and well-being. I seriously have never seen anything like this in my 57 years, well, not since 9/11.

In the New Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, Jesus said that we must love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and that we must love others as we love ourselves. Life is precious. We are each precious. If we ignore the Golden Rule, we will be far worse off than we are now.

I grieve for the day before the shit hit the fan with COVID-19. The Surgeon General said this week is going to be “really bad.” My hope is not dashed; I still believe in our epidemiologists with WHO, the NIH, and the CDC. I believe in our virologists who are working tirelessly to find a cure, a treatment, a vaccination. You know they are working quadruple time.

My husband and I watched the news last night and the coverage was from all over the world. There are makeshift hospitals being constructed to get ahead of the crisis before us. There has been no mention to my knowledge of morgue capacity, but in several states across our country, the death toll from heroin/fentanyl overdoses was creating shortages of space in the morgues; lack of space is certainly not out of the realm of possibilities.

I don’t know what your faith tradition is but hold everyone and yourself up to the Highest Good. I will pray to my God and try to be as heroic as the rest of the world that is staying put –. Pray for the orphans and the widow(ers), the homeless, the hungry, the shut-ins, the lonely, the poor, those who must work, and always, always our healthcare workers.

Solutions do “take a village” – and the cure/vaccine/eradication of COVID-19 is/are going to take the cooperation of all of us. Please be safe out there. Be mindful of others besides yourself. Read. Hug your family members often. Pay attention to what’s happening all around us and keep the faith.

We’ve been through worse. My husband was just reading the types of health crises we’ve had throughout history, and the number of deaths wrought by the different diseases (yes, because he and our grandson are weird and wanted to know). We’ve been through worse and survived. I’m hopeful. I still believe in a God who loves us and wants the best for us.

Hang in there.

Peace.

Don’t be afraid of the dark

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

I never really know how I’m going to feel on any given day; triggers can still slay me.  I work hard to stay in the present moment and navigate my process consciously. I mean, I’m a sentient being. Sentient means we are self-aware and able to feel things. When I’m in a period of dizzying swirling grief – emotions flood my person and I become overwhelmed with feelings and my brain gets ignored. We’re able to stay in the overwhelm until we can’t take it anymore and then we catch our breath and remember we have logic, resolve, and the desire to be happy – even though they may be buried underneath the totality of your grief.

I forget sometimes too. I’ve learned in the last four years and one month that I must keep the constant ache tolerable. I know experts tell us we need to sit with our darkness, but how long is too long? I would say if your eyes get too adjusted to the dark and you’re blinded by even a pinprick of light, it’s time to step out of the darkness. I was in a dark place for a very long time after my son died. I ached so badly from the unfulfilled longing to have my son back that I wasn’t sure I’d ever escape the pain.

I’ve made friends with the darkness of my grief process and I sit with it for a while because it’s necessary to be awake in it so as not to shut down in it. I was afraid of the darkness in my life, but we have dark emotions for a reason. I think, for me, I need a break from the busyness that takes place in the light from time to time. The dark place can be a cool space to recover from the work it takes to go on after a significant loss. I can go there now at will and I don’t have to be at the mercy of my darkness. I control the depth, the intensity, and the frequency of my darkness.

Trust me when I say we all have moments of darkness – and I’ve learned it’s nothing to be afraid of.  Where do I go when I’m there? I go to a place of peace and acceptance, peace as respite from the sadness, and acceptance because there is nothing else I can do if I want to move toward wholeness; and I so desperately want to be whole.

When I was a teen-ager, I loved Poe and Alice Cooper – a nice blend of death and darkness, for sure. Freud said we each have a death instinct, from which comes aggression toward others or toward self. We are all working toward our own deaths, however it plays out. Never did I think I would be so comfortable with my own death instinct, but losing my beautiful son has given me a comfort about where I will be once I transition from life to death. My faith tradition and my deepest hope is that I will be in a heaven with my son. How could I be anything but comforted with a hope as deep and as wide?

I know your heart is aching for you to come to this page and read about grief, especially when there are so many other things you could be reading. I hope my thoughts about my own process are helpful to others. I want to normalize my grief so I can heal and for the purpose of being an example to others whose hearts are broken by the deaths of their loved ones.

I honestly thought the intensity would just follow me for the rest of my life. I wanted so desperately to feel better. The opposite of feeling better is feeling really bad with no hope of escape. For those of you who are further along in your process, it’s important for you to share what gives you hope, what keeps you going, and what heals you – in fits and starts. The fast track to healing is by helping someone else. I started After the Storm as a way to talk to others who had lost a child to addiction, a very specific kind of death, and because I was not getting any better and because I had no one I could talk with about the events leading to his death, which were heartbreaking and hopeless. I had tried therapy, but I was finding the therapists were not well-versed in grief. I decided it was time to reach out to others whose losses were the same, and I hope I have helped the members as much as they have helped me. I was losing myself in the pain of early grief, and I was desperate to find something to comfort me that didn’t require numbing out chemically or emotionally. I just wanted to feel better. I just wanted to come out of the darkness I wore like a full-bodied shroud, announcing to everyone that I was in grief. My shroud kept people away from me, and maybe, in retrospect, I just needed to be alone with my grief until I could face others without a puffy face and smeared makeup. Some of us either don’t know how to or don’t want to breakdown in front of others. I’m the former. I don’t recommend it.

We’re social animals. We thrive in the company of likeminded people. I’m an introvert who’s learned to come out of my shell from time to time and mingle with others. I recharge in the silence and yes, even in the darkness when I choose to go there. I can’t stress this enough – if your darkness is too dark and you’re finding it difficult to emerge into the light, get professional or clerical help. Spirituality or freeing yourself for greater and more rapid self-actualization has proven to me to be my greatest springboard from which to catapult myself, headfirst, into healing light.

I guess our emotions are bipolar – at least mine are – but with a merciful middle ground where I can find balance and return to homeostasis. Accept mercy when you can find the strength. I know it’s difficult in the early days of grief to drag your poor tired mind and body to seek comfort. I’ve learned that my friends inasmuch as they wanted to be there for me, simply could not. They helped with practical things and I am forever grateful for them. The truth is, however, there are some places we must travel on our own.

I’m healing as I know many of you are because you reach out to learn about grief, about healing, and about finding wholeness. Trust me, that’s progress, even through the emotional exhaustion. I think we forget that we are working our process sometimes because it hurts so bad to be without our loved ones. But, progress is being made, either it’s eked out or flooded through our hearts and distilled through our brains until it is clear enough to proceed to the next level of healing.

I’m not an opera person. It never really spoke to me. I was a Bad Company, Led Zeppelin and Violent Femmes kind of gal. But one day when the pain had me down for a few days in the early days of my process, a friend sent me a YouTube video of Renee Fleming singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for a September 11th concert for the families of those who were killed. Her performance was riveting and came at the perfect time for my heart. Her emotions rode the coattails of her notes hanging on for dear life during a devastating loss for Americans, and truly for the whole world that was watching.

I encourage you to listen to it when you can. I know because of this site and because of After the Storm I am not alone except when I choose to be. No harm, no foul — if that’s where you are right now. But when you can…reach out for people who understand your loss. If there is no one, start a group or a blog or a Facebook page and surround yourself with those who are walking a similar path as you.

And as Ms. Fleming says, “Don’t be afraid of the dark.” Healing takes place there too.

Doodling

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

I’ve been staring at his handwriting for an hour now. He had a book of lists, you know, to do lists.

I found some of his journals in storage, and I pore through them every so often. I take my finger and trace the shape of his letters, caress the loops, linger tenderly on his punctuation, and stare deeply into the intent of his doodles.

My precious boy.

If I were a medium I would say that his Spirit was in the room, that he was trying to communicate with me from the “other side.”

I would try to comfort the grieving Momma through the mercies of little white lies…

And maybe that’s what I’m doing for myself right now, comforting my grieving heart with little white lies.

But I cannot shake my sense of him in this book of lists, this book in which he made plans for the day, for the week…

I’m a realist generally, with an overarching need to believe, but I won’t seek out proof. It’s enough to “feel” his Presence…in that part of me that can suspend my disbelief, and transcend a world that believes only in things that can be measured.

As you all know, when you lose a child, your entire worldview is shattered. Nothing makes sense anymore, and you wonder if it ever will again.

There is a benefit to being lost though; there are then infinitely many paths to being found. It will be 28 months next Tuesday for me and my boy. And the road is wide open before me. Reluctantly I go.

As I hugged his journal to my chest, I thought of the Akashic Records, and I let Rikki be my guide to possibilities, and he said, “Momma, what kind of relationship do YOU want to have with me now, one of pain, or one of peace?”

I will sleep on this tonight with his journal under my pillow. Perhaps he’ll come to me in a dream, or whisper “I love you” while I sleep.

Previously published in GRIEF DIGEST, 2017.