Be careful asking me how I’m doing these days.
I might just answer you.
Several of my co-workers have fallen victim since my return to work. They approach with genuine concern to inquire about my mental health. I tell myself I don’t want to talk about it as the words come gushing forth. Given the opportunity, I talk. And talk. And talk. I listen to myself as if hearing a stranger, unable to follow my own reckless train of thought. It’s not that easy to close the floodgates. I talk until I’m exhausted, still unsure how to cure the confusion and pain.
Over the past several days I have collided with feelings of grief, comfort, confusion, and…get this…guilt. Yep. Guilt. While I’ve moved on with work and family life, back in Florida there are people struggling mightily with the loss of my sister. My brother-in-law is without his wife and best friend. My two nieces, not yet out of their 20’s, have lost their mom. In the last six years, my own mother has said a painful good-bye to her husband and now her only daughter. Yet here I am, back to my routine. It seems I’m supposed to do more than just “move on”.
There’s also my own brief tussle with cancer to consider. For me, dealing with prostate cancer was not much worse than getting over a cold. I had surgery one day and I was cancer free the next. Meanwhile, both my sister and father suffered as cancer marched through bone and organ. The debilitating side effects of treatment might have been worse, especially when you consider that none of it saved them. It’s as if I cheated cancer while they paid the price. That’s enormously unfair, and I haven’t yet come to terms with that.
There haven’t been as many tears as I expected following my sister’s final breath. For awhile, it was as if God guarded my heart and put me in “duty” mode. I was distracted from the grief by a self-prescribed responsibility to comfort others. I accompanied my brother-in-law to the funeral home. I went on walks to try and counsel my nieces. I stayed busy. I was numb. When the tears arrived, and the arrived on a couple of occasions, they came by the gallons. Twice during Nancy’s memorial service, I dropped from my robotic state into a blubbering mess. I refused to let it last. Big brother had to hold it together for the sake of the family.
Friends keep telling me to “take care” of myself. I understand, but I have no idea how to do that. I’m not bad at comforting others, but I have absolutely no clue how to care for myself. Several co-workers have suggested I haven’t given myself enough time to deal with the loss. They’re probably right, but I fear another day away from work would result in a day to sit around and mope. I try to stay busy. I try to focus. Much of what I do is entirely out of focus, but it is getting better. I’m easing back into the routine.
But routine brings guilt, and that leads to depression, then confusion.
Good grief. As if there was anything good about it.
When I feel upbeat, I wonder why. When I feel depressed, I wonder when it will end. Mostly I flounder around somewhere between dazed and lost, and rare are the moments when my mind isn’t meandering toward thoughts of my poor sister and her final months of suffering.
I know grief is complicated. I’ve been through it before. After losing my father to cancer I was shot into an emotional pinball game. There were moments of anger that I haven’t experienced this time around. You would think by now I would know how to handle grief. I’m older, wiser, more experienced.
This is so different.
I know I need to focus on Nancy’s courageous legacy and the memories that always give me a lift. It seems each day brings a new email or Facebook message from someone impacted by my sister’s upbeat spirit. One woman tells me how she was struggling on a college campus where she felt she didn’t belong until she met Nancy’s infectious laugh. And my sister’s memory could possibly save lives. Dozens of people have donated, in Nancy’s name, to Bulldogs Battling Breast Cancer, a group that has helped buy two digital mammography machines and free screenings for women in need.
We couldn’t save Nancy, but she can still save others.
That’s just like her. Still bringing hope and joy to other people in ways I never dreamed.
It occasionally, when I let it, brings a smile to the face of despair.
So, if you ask, “how are you”, and I don’t mention Nancy’s amazing legacy, please remind me.
And set aside 20-minutes or more if you ask. I’m in a talkative mood. A complicated, fragile, talkative mood.
You’ve been warned.