Thursday, November 5, 2009

On cynicism, new widows, and being old

Alicia's comment about being touched through her cynicism on occasion by the plight of a new widow's pain struck a chord for me. I feel that cynicism, and frustration, too. Part of it is being a widow further out. Part of it is being a woman further out in life. Part of the problem I have with some of those folks is that they were obviously a mess BEFORE widowhood; the disaster area has only broadened with the introduction of widowhood, which is a nightmare even for people who are pretty together in their lives when it happens to them.

I was a pretty together person, in my own estimation, prior to widowhood. But when A died, I was leveled to crumbly bits. I had never felt so weak, so lost, so unsure of everything, in my life, including that miserable stretch known as puberty. My intellect of which I have always been so proud was useless to me, and I had no idea where the strong woman I thought I was had gone.

As time wore on and I healed slowly, I came to realize that I WAS still strong; if I hadn't been, I probably wouldn't have made it. And all the things that had contributed to my pre-widowhood strength were still in play; it's just that the task I was applying them to was so monumentally huge, it didn't seem that way. It was true that my coping ability wasn't equal to the task of grieving, but it wasn't the lack of ability that was the problem as much as it was the staggering power of the grief. It's hard, if not impossible, at this point to voluntarily conjure up that pain fully again, even in memory, and I suppose that's to the good, but I do remember that it was bigger and worse than anything I've ever known, and I had no idea what to do or where to begin.

But where I was lucky, if it can be called lucky, is that I'd done a lot of personal development over the years that put me in a place where, eventually, I could put most of my energies into dealing with the grief. Not everyone has that place to start from, and it's no wonder they have what appears, to me, to be an even tougher time.

I read posts where people have no sense of boundaries, either in protecting their own or not encroaching on others'. I see low self-esteem that causes folks to habitually accept behavior they shouldn't tolerate, and low self-control that causes people to habitually engage in behavior that is counterproductive at best and self-destructive at worst. I see people seemingly trapped by conventions and various matrices of external control, with no idea that they have the ability and the right to overthrow them to their own greater good and that of everyone who deals with them. And this whole mess is swimming in a sea of grief, which only makes things a million times worse for the aggrieved, as it must.

But I read those posts and it is often clear that grief is only a fraction of their problem of the moment. But they can't parse that, because they haven't ever bothered to parse their emotions and behaviors in the past to see what was what, and whether it was serving them. All they know is that they hurt, and hurt bad. So the elder widow who desires to be helpful has a couple of options, neither very good: to parse it for them, give them a little tough love, and come off as unsympathetic, or to give them a hug, telling them it'll get better, knowing that, for this one, it very well might not. I suppose erring on the side of comfort is probably best, but then you wonder if it would be a greater kindness to help them see how some of this pain is self-inflicted and unnecessary. Kind of like, "give a man a hug, comfort them for a day; give a man a different perspective, maybe comfort them for a lifetime." We can't avoid all pain, but there'll be plenty of that no matter what, so I tend to think it's a good idea to avoid the pain we can, and help others do the same. But maybe where I'm wrong is in thinking that's my job, or even if it is, that I've been doing the job right.

Am I judging? Sure. But what I'm judging more than the people I observe is my own adequacy to the task of doing my little bit to help them, and lately, I find it wanting. It isn't that I don't believe their pain is real and deeply felt. It isn't that I don't feel for them, and with them. It's that I look at what I have to offer them, and lately, I come up with nothing. I do think part of that is self-protective. When I'm vulnerable in my own grief and my own life competency, as I have been recently, I cannot wade into the rising waters of someone else's flood. Sometimes I'm only treading water myself. If I reach out to someone who is thrashing about wildly in fear and panic, we're both likely to drown.

Sometimes it's just the impatience of the experienced with those who don't know thinking they know better. This is part of my personality, increasing the older I get and the more I learn, and I know that. I fight this a lot, not just when it comes to other widows, but in my life in general; it's easy for me to swap compassion for curmudgeonliness when dealing with people who lack self-knowledge and perspective, and (and this is the crux of it, really) seem entirely unwilling to do what's necessary to gain either. I have to be vigilant against arrogance, because it's a little too easy for me to go there, and I really don't want to be an ass. But I'm often overcome with a feeling of "You can't tell these kids nothin'" when I've read at the board. When I was a new widow, people told me it would get better, and while in my deepest, darkest heart (or what was left of it), I feared that they might be wrong, I HAD to believe they were right. I HAD to recognize my own cluelessness in the face of this catastrophe, and my weakness and the very real temporary insanity that goes hand-in-hand with grief, and put my heart and my hopes in the hands and words of those who had regained their strength, their sanity, and had seen the future that I could only fear in my pain and understandable ignorance. I HAD to do it to survive, because the despair of the alternative was frightening. It's one thing to say, "I don't know how I'll ever feel better; it seems impossible," and quite another to assert that "I will never feel better; it's impossible" anytime anyone dared to tell me otherwise. And when I run up against that anywhere, I just withdraw. Damn kids'll figure it out eventually, same as the rest of us, I reckon. I only care to talk when people are actually listening; when it becomes clear that that isn't happening, I tend to just shut my mouth. I hate to waste my breath. And when I've gotten into that mindset, my offering "words of wisdom" to anyone is ill-advised; they'll be sharp and likely to do more damage instead of mitigating any. I've lost count of the times I've started responding to a thread, stopped to reread what I've written, and thought, "Well, that's not going to make anyone feel better!" and closed the window entirely, lest I be tempted to go ahead and shoot from the hip.

I really don't know. I guess the pertinent question is, what is our responsibility to our fellow humans? Are we obligated to do what we can, even when it's not enough, quite possibly futile, and we know that going in, because every little bit helps? Philosophically, I would agree with that. And yet, is there a point where you can safely say you've done your part, knowing that every day, you're going to run across another wounded soul? I love to talk about boundaries, but am having trouble finding this one. It's a moving target, if it exists at all.

These are existential and self-evaluative questions more than grief questions, I realize. It's just that they've come up again and again in the drama-filled crucible that is the widow board, and I'm still mulling them, despite withdrawing there. I feel like I'm going to have to figure out an answer for myself if I hope to have any peace. And I guess that's where I am now in this grief journey. A's death is no longer an "event" I am directly responding to; that part is largely done. However, it is an omnipresent influence that informs everything I do and think and try in my life. Maybe I'm in the lesson-learning portion of this course, where I'm in a position to start taking what I've learned and synthesizing it with everything else I've ever learned and applying it to my life looking backward and going forward. Every time we have an epiphany that changes our perspective and our understanding, we tend to review everything that has passed so far through that new lens, and reimagine what is yet to come through same. So the existentialism and the grief are inextricably tied together now for me. I suppose that's what happens when you have to face mortality as reality instead of theory. Does it happen to all of us?

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