So years ago, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross set up grief in a bunch of distinct stages. To keep things organized, I suppose, because death and mourning are so … whatever.
Caveat: this post isn’t for everyone. So if you know me and you had a totally delicious memory of your time with my mother, please skip this post. I also offer this: you weren’t her middle child and only daughter.
As a student of this Earth, I determined that Kubler-Ross must know more about it than I would. So I submitted, a long time ago that when The Day came for me to experience profound grief, that the order would be as she prescribed.
Upon the death of my mother, now 4 weeks in the distance, I can unequivocally say that Kubler-Ross was full of shit.
It’s not “anger.” And I know we all say (correctly so), “Everyone grieves differently and to differing degrees.” I’m sitting shotgun on that bus.
Anger to me is a reaction that I experience when say, someone drives into my car. Or when things don’t turn out the way I’d like. Or when someone is horribly rude to me.
It used to take a snap to make me angry. I’ve done a lot of therapy; I’m OK with things not turning out the way I’d like; all my counseling and recalling my resilience from the Eugene O’Neill -esque childhood I survived has fostered a kind of, “eff it” mentality. Fifteen years of yoga has helped too.
Until of course, my mother died.
I mentioned Mr. O’Neill. I’ve done it before on this blog. What I didn’t define is which play I feel most accurately resembled my life. That would be … >drumroll please…<
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” You can click on this LINK to read the wikipedia on it. I won’t take up precious word-count to regale you. The only difference is that the children (my brothers and I) are not alcoholics, nor addicts nor even too weird. To quote one of my favorite relatives, “We’re all a little crazy.”
So, once you have that perspective about the play, you might be better equipped to understand when I use the word “rage” to describe my “anger” phase.
It visited or, probably more likely, culminated last Friday. Ironically, it rode in on the waves of a tremendously gracious offer by one of my beloved relatives as received and planned by my husband: “Go out to a terrific restaurant on me, as a birthday gift to Molly. Get her out of the house. Give her a break. Show her some kindness.” It made perfect sense, for this relative had just returned from a glorious trip to Napa, California, to celebrate a birthday and wedding anniversary. A blissful and fulfilling time was had by all, so why not share the good feelings and the love and make a similar offer to Mol? Surely she would see the fantastic opportunity in the moment and let herself be treated.
It was a lovely gesture and I was thrilled to accept it. We made plans to go to one of my favorite restaurants, 1789, in Georgetown last Friday. I would
have get to shave my legs and blow dry my hair and everything. Five courses, sterling silver, a gorgeous bottle of wine, crumb sweeps, low lighting, fancy food, no crayons… history, a glorious night in the nation’s capital. I planned to bring along the Faceless Chicken for photo ops.
I was grateful and appreciative. Not even humbled. I understood the intention. It was meant for healing. So I was in.
Until that Friday. It set in around noon. My husband took the afternoon off, so we could go sight-seeing, and we returned from running some errands together and as we pulled into the driveway, all I could feel was NO NO NO NO NO NO DINNER. NO GIFT. NO 1789. NO. NO. NO.
Something snapped in me. An O’Neill-esque cloud of woe, loss, confusion, incongruence, unworthiness and despair and ultimately rage — full-on rage — the likes of which I’ve not experienced full-for-bear overtook my mind, body and soul and wracked it for seven, maybe eight hours.
My husband had to call my relative; cancel the reservations. It was terribly tenuous. I wasn’t able to keep a handle on the pace or the direction of what I was feeling, so I had to get away from my children, my husband, my dog. Even Murphy was rebuffed.
I holed up in my bedroom. I sat and then lied on the floor. That didn’t work. I went to bed and tried to sleep; I almost did it, but the rage grew. I wasn’t even sure of what I was feeling, it was so intense. I considered taking pen to paper but my hands were shaking and my thoughts racing and fleeting and unintelligible. I knew I was in grief, a new stage, a different one for me, but I didn’t understand its mission. For me, everything has a reason, a lesson, and I wanted desperately to know what I was to learn or … release.
I tried yoga, chanting, breathing… all of it. Nothing. I was urgently needing a message. Something.
The emotions came and went. It seems the body can only withstand so much. So I thought I was ready to join the human race again and I saw my son, whom I love deeply, and a blackness overcame me again. He put out his arms to embrace me and this was all I could do: I said to him, “Not now. I love you,” and I retreated to my bedroom.
All sorts of thoughts: that I wasn’t worthy of the dinner or any gift because it was incongruous: how could a child who was constantly cast aside and ignored by her mother possibly be worthy of anyone’s love or generosity? How? I see kids every day who have matted hair like I did, and are dirty like I was and I love them. They speak to me. I see them in their oversized coats and tattered dresses and sad faces when I drop off my son at school every morning and I pray for them. I see their eyes, cast downward to the cement sidewalk, cheeks a little too pink for so early in the morning and dewy eyelashes. I feel them. I know how it is, I whisper inside: I know you. You will survive.
Then darker thoughts. Darker even. Ephemeral thoughts of self-harm, but I knew that was nuts. I started to mock myself for my thoughts: “C’mon. Bootstrap. Rally. This is bullshit, Molly. She’s dead and you’re pissed because someone wanted to treat you to dinner?? What the fuck’s the matter with you?”
Physically, I was depleted but the emotions rolled on and up and down and around and good God, it was torture. This lasted for about four hours. And then an image of my mother, that gorgeous black and white shot of her in total peace, looking out at the sea, popped into my head and I then felt seething rage, deeper still and then this:
“You. You @$%)(@ $@)(%# )@#( **$&@_ _) !@$)# ()*#$% @$)%#) ##@%&. You made my life a @$(%@ )@$(%& !_%*@#&( _%(*#_!_ &%@)(! and a %#@_)! _%*#@@. I could never possibly ($%)#!* %)(@#* or even &T%)($ with friends. I never felt #%*%&@ 0(#$_!#% because of your *@#($#%#( )%#$. It was always about you and _#*$@ $ -)%#*$# @_ %&#($ my life was )(@$*@ and _#*@# stalled because %#)($@*@# )%(#@ $ ($* #%)($&@_ ! I lost @$(*#@ you. I totally @#(*@#! you.”
and then this: “I don’t miss you at all.” As quiet as a sunrise.
And it was like ice had cracked and the sun was cresting the treetops in my mind. The noise in my head silenced and I could feel my breath again. I could see things in my room as they were, the blackness was gone. There was no guilt. I didn’t feel a need to “bargain” as Kubler-Ross states. Maybe I did early on, but that was sort of more in the beginning stages, but I’ve made peace with that. If Mom were here right now, it’d be the same thing: she’d talk about what interests her and I’d listen and try to relate and beg internally for her to get where I’m coming from, for ONCE, hear me.
Someone asked me the other day if I were able to accept that my mother was narcissistic. I get it in concept and on paper and when I think back, on certain things, yes: I accept it. But I also have a nag that says, “Not so fast, not so broad a stroke, here: I survived; I made it. My kids are thriving so she must’ve done something right… RIGHT?”
I don’t know. I mean, clearly, I am here. Clearly I have valuable relationships and her death has taught me to dispose of the ones that hurt, the toxic behaviors and toxic people because life is simply TOO SHORT. But yeah, for me, she was all about Mimi. It’s folly to suggest otherwise.
So I go back … again and again and again to two quotes:
Forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past. –Buddy Wakefield
Still, it made me sad. You always think that a bolt of lightning is going to strike and your parents will magically change into the people you wish they were or into the people they used to be. But they’re never going to. And even though you know they’re never going to, you still hope they will. –Nora Ephron
And I realized today while in svasana at yoga that my release of that hope isn’t just taking the pressure off them (or other people) to change, it’s taking the pressure off me to wait for it. I don’t have to wait anymore. I don’t have to wonder or be disappointed. My mother’s death confirmed for me that it’s never going to happen; her potential for change or true remorse or intention for a better relationship with me is GONE. It was gone decades ago, but her death sealed it. It also sealed for me the reality that waiting for other people to change into what they can be is something I’m not going to do anymore.
Will it come back? Will I feel “angerage” again? I’m not a bottle-upper. I’m more of a distiller. I process stuff. So, yeah: for sure. But I don’t think it will be over a lovely innocent gesture like offering a gift. I also see where living my O’Neill-esque life was
good beneficial: I am resilient, courageous, tenacious, hearty, wise, real, loyal, a fighter for the underdog, an advocate, a “troubadour of truth” as a cousin called me. I see the benefits.
I’m worthy. I get it. I am. She was the vessel; God is the creator. And she was worthy in her own way too. The rage softened me; it smoothed the edges a bit and allowed me to see her more clearly with less attachment. It reminded me of the work we did on the retreat with the Kundalini yoga to express rage, frustration, anger, repression and fear. We worked physically and strenuously with tremendous intensity and focus, several times a day. When it was all done, we were sweating, searing muscles, tired faces. “Now try to get angry,” our teacher said and I laughed a little. Getting angry was impossible.
So I get to let go. I got to express my rage and it was incredibly liberating. Not going to dinner that night was the best thing that could’ve happened.