When my husband died in October 2019, I learned what it felt like to Grieve. It was exhausting.
I don’t think I realized just how much of grief involved feeling tired like all the time. I was newly a single mom to a 3 year old, so that accounted for some of the exhaustion, but there was a bone-deep weariness that comes back to me sometimes. I feel it and it’s like I’m transported back to that first year where grief would come in attacks and I sometimes wondered if I would ever rise from the ground again.
Even 3 years later I experience those moments, but far less frequently. My son is almost 7, I have a beautiful, blossoming partnership with a man I love. My nervous system has mostly rewired to account for Andy’s absence.
But the exhaustion was coming again and I couldn’t place it for a little bit. Was it the increase in my volunteer commitments? Was it the sunshine keeping me awake longer? Was it the persistent illness I had for April? Was it the tree sex happening all over the place aka pollen?
Then, last week, I realized what it was. It wasn’t my life being too full or an attack of spores, it was grief. I followed that thread and it did not end at my dead husband, which was surprising. It ended at…my parents.
My parents are not dead, just to be clear. They are both very much alive. They are two very chaotic humans who have an absolute mountain of trauma between them that they haven’t really dealt with, in part because they are part of a generation that just doesn’t do that. It has manifested into alcoholism, narcissism, and, depending upon which doctor or psychiatrist you ask, depression, PTSD, C-PTSD, bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder. These two people, who I love very much, are in deep pain. And normally that would endear me to someone. My well of grace and compassion would be bottomless as I held space and loved this hurt person while we figured out how to make the pain stop.
But recently, that normally bottomless reserve dried up. And it was jarring. Two of my core values are Love and Abundance. But I had reached the point where I didn’t have either for them anymore. It had been decades of chaos, of really deplorable behavior, name calling, abuse of most varieties, attempts to help, other attempts at support, maybe progress, backsliding, pain, pain, pain, and I was finally at an end.
What changed this go around was that my brother finally hit his limit, too. We had been trading off for years who would take point on our parents’ chaos; one of us tapping out just when the other had enough reserves to take over. In some ways it helped, the passing of the baton for the drama du jour, but it also meant the issues probably prolonged more than if we had both given up earlier.
The most recent acute drama brought us to this breaking point because of my brother’s new baby. She was less than 4 months old when an Incident occurred and I truly think it’s because of the low reserves that come with a new baby, the clarity of where your priorities have to go, that the patience ran out way sooner than before. It was months of talking, support, hard lines, repeated information, and attempts at direct intervention rather than years.
So we held a sibling conference, one that occurred formally after many informal chats, texts, check-ins with each other, and conversations with partners, long-standing friends, and therapists. This conference was about a unified approach to our parents. How could we move forward in a way that protected us, our partners, and our children knowing that after almost 30 years of evidence, we knew our parents just could not ever change?
It’s sobering to take two change-makers, people who are dedicated to better lives and a better world, and have them run smack into a wall that for years they had managed to convince themselves would never come. We held out hope that they would change and they just…didn’t. We saw glimpses of goodness and that kept us ensnared. “When it’s good, it’s so good,” we’d say to each other.
I now realize that this oft-repeated refrain of abused women is what we were saying about our parents. And that’s not how this is supposed to be.
After that conference, I knew I would be grieving the death of Hope for my parents. I had to grieve that people who had taken us to concerts and ball games and ski trips were just never going to resurface.
What I didn’t expect was that I would actually Grieve.
Clearly a part of me thought it would be an intellectual exercise and not the massive nervous system rewiring it actually is. This part thought I could be like “Oh, it’s so sad. Ok, what’s for dinner?” Which is how the exhaustion crept up on me. Also the brain fog, and body aches, and lack of appetite, and overstimulation, and inability to focus. All of these things I could not account for, but then it hit me that I was grieving. Less acutely and directly than I had with my actual dead husband, for whom the grief was like a glowing hot knife in my heart and gut. This was subtler, in the way a love for a parent is subtler. I didn’t notice it directly, but when I zoomed out and took in the totality of the feelings, there’s no mistaking what it is: Grief.
It’s weird to assign grief to living people. It’s weird to assign grief to anything besides a dead human, but the reality is we grieve almost constantly. We grieve people, definitely, pets, too, but also dreams, homes, objects, sensations, and experiences. That pang for a long-ago time? What is nostalgia if not a bit of grief?
See, the key thing that makes grief unique is that it is at it’s core LOVE. It’s a deep expression of love and that’s why it can’t just be reduced to a single dimension of sadness. It’s complicated, like relationships are. Like humans are.
I’m grieving again and I hate it just as much now as I did after Andy’s death. It feels so unfair and foreign in my body and brain. I shouldn’t have to experience this. My nervous system revolts and I feel phantom tingling and numbness. I get flashbacks both of beauty and difficulty: eating messy crab dinners, baseball games with my whole family, long road trips through strange landscapes, and all the corollaries of those tainted by alcohol, abuse, and hurt.
I know the acuteness will ebb. I know eventually I’ll have my mostly full faculties again and that for now I have to support my nervous system re-wiring. The only way out is through. But the through truly sucks and I’m ready to not be exhausted all the time again. For now, I’m doing my best to live the life with my son and partner I had hoped to share with my parents. I am living the life I always wanted to have, and that is truly a revolutionary act of healing.