Grief is an incurable disease
It has been over a week since I sent out my last Sick Note. I have sent out apology posts before, when my migraines have been so bad that I can’t work, and many people have been very nice about them. I think other people found them sort of baffling, and wonder why they’re getting an email apologizing for not sending an email. I get it, believe me; the whole exercise is humiliating. This is not really an apology post, although I am actually very sorry about it, particularly if you are a paid subscriber and are wondering what you were paying for. What this is, I’m afraid, is an example of Posting Through It, because I don’t really know what else to do.
My mum died in April; you know this if you read the newsletter. You might be one of the people who signed up when I wrote about her death. It is truly impossible to communicate how important she was to me, and I to her. Maybe better writers could, but it’s above my skill to convey what I’ve lost. I felt the same way about our relationship that people do about great art; disbelief that something so great could exist, a melting of cynicism, a surrender to the possibility of goodness in the world. When I saw her body I let out a howl, and since then my experience of being alive has fundamentally changed. I felt a new loneliness that I don’t know will ever really go away. Part of me is gone, and more importantly, all of her.
Shortly after Mum died, a good friend who has experienced a lot of terrible grief told me that it would be like a spiral, not a linear path: Sometimes I would hit the same problems and bad feelings that I had already gone through again, and it would feel like I wasn’t making progress, but that’s not the case, because I was still going up the spiral. I experienced that on a micro-level each grueling new day in those first couple weeks. I felt myself going through the same convulsions of remembering her and that she was dead, or being unable to tear myself away from thinking about the awful last few weeks of her life and the things I did wrong. Then—I am speculating here, due to my lack of medical degrees—it really felt as if my brain would release some sort of chemical to shut the pain off, because it was too much and it’s simply not sustainable to feel the actual weight of the grief all the time. It wasn’t just that I had cried it out, though I was crying a lot. It felt like my brain put the bad bits on mute, after a while, to let me get up or make a meal or whatever else I needed to do to survive.
Now, I am going through one of the bad parts of the spiral, and it feels pretty similar though not identical to how I did months ago, which is both tiresome (been there, done that!) and very hard to deal with. I thought I knew what my friend meant, back then, but it’s only now that I really get it. There’s a lot of that, with grief. Of course I could always understand why people wanted to believe they would see their dead relatives when they died, or pined for some form of other world where they would be reunited. I understood it as an intellectual proposition. Now, I understand how it feels to feel that desire, and to simultaneously know that it is never happening, and I will never see her again. It is the worst thing I have ever felt, incontrovertible and devastating.
Unfortunately, understanding what I’m going through doesn’t seem to help much with going through it. This is also why I haven’t read any of the books that people kindly suggested to me when she died: Unless they’re called How To Resurrect Your Dead Mum (Without Pledging Your Soul To Satan!), I just can’t imagine how they could contain any information that will help me. I know what the deal is, now and for the rest of my life. She’s dead and I have to figure out how to live with that. (I know this probably sounds very stupid, like maybe just try the book in case it does say something helpful, especially if you’re a person who has gone through it yourself. I never promised I was smart.) When I first got back to the US after she died, I started writing in a journal every night before bed, because I couldn’t get to sleep without turning over all the things I did wrong before she died, or feeling myself reaching out for her hand in my head, in case I felt some spark of connection to the other side. It was helpful. I don’t feel like I have anything to say to the journal anymore. Day 157, Mum still dead, still sad about that; ate pizza.
Probably a lot of what I’m describing here is “depression.” I’m already on medication and seeing a therapist (miraculously in-network, too). I don’t want to increase the medication because of its side effects; I don’t want to try other medication because of the awful transition period, and the lack of certainty that the change will be better. I already get exercise. I started a second SSRI earlier in the summer, which worked well for a bit. I don’t think it’s ‘not working’ now; I just think I have hit a little bit of a roadblock. I think perhaps I was doing quite well, perhaps too well, at Coping, getting on with things, doing other stuff. I am only able to function when I’m not thinking about her, so I mostly didn’t, and when I did, I kept the feeling at a distance.
Well, it’s no longer at a distance, and it’s pretty fucking inconvenient. It was her birthday last week, which might have been the trigger for all this, though I don’t think I felt okay before that either. Whatever it was, something has changed, and I currently don’t feel able to cope. I feel like a great mountain has fallen in the way of my path, and though many braver people would find a way to climb that mountain, I have tried a couple scrambles and failed, so I’m setting up camp in its shadow and letting it darken my life. I fear seeing people and doing things, feel overwhelmed by work and tasks, and want to sit and stare a lot. I dream about her being alive, on the edge of death but maybe able to be saved, and have to remember that she is dead and beyond help when I wake up. I have Phoebe Bridgers songs stuck in my head all the time, which is so emo but still a bad sign. I hate to admit that I don’t feel any energy around healthcare or this newsletter, which is terrible and new—not because there’s any less urgency around the moral disgrace of American healthcare, but just because my brain isn’t working right. It’s not letting me get mad or even develop opinions on things that previously would have made me extremely angry, and that is objectively terrible. I just don’t feel much connection to the world.
I’m hoping that writing all this—not in my pretty little journal, but in public and on the record—will kickstart something and get me back on track. After all, I must be doing better in the first place to be able to write this post that I’ve been meaning to write for days. I promise you that I know how humiliating it is for some privileged journalist to take a break from her newsletter about the utterly depraved oppression of the American healthcare system and write a post about her sad feelings, again; but I did it anyway, because it’s my newsletter and I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, so I had no one to tell me it was a bad idea. Another flaw of the Substack model.
I know I will be back soon, telling other people’s much more important stories. For now, though, I am camping in the shadow of the great mountain. It sucks here; hopefully, I’ll realize that, put my pack on my shoulders, and trudge on.
Libby, honestly I subscribe to Sick Note just to read your writing. You could write about grass growing & I would read it. These posts about your mum & how you are navigating life now are some of the most achingly beautiful examples of writing I've ever come across. I am certain that this is as important for some to read about as it is for you to be able to write about it.
I don't remember very much from the period immediately after my dad died, which probably speaks for itself. You need time and space to let your brain resolve all of this stuff and not taking the time will just mean you need the same time later. Maybe more importantly, you need to follow the good and bad moments and not try to control them, and know it's okay to feel good sometimes and then bad again; it's all part of it, either shutting it all down or pressing on isn't the answer. I'm a control freak and dummy so this is still very hard for me, but probably the best advice, I have that you didn't ask for, but you won't read the dang books lol!
As a subscriber, I was very satisfied by this post :) I for one am here for your ups AND your downs.