How Are You Coping?

By Judith

We attended our first bereavement group last Tuesday. The four widows and young woman who lost her mother all felt sorry for us. It dawned on me what an amazing gift it is to be going through this with a partner. The other grievers managed alone during more protracted and actually more horrible illnesses (impaired mental function from brain cancer, “loopy;” facial disfigurement from aggressive surgery).

It actually could be worse…

We asked these other mourners, some with over a year’s experience with grief, “How do you deal with it when people ask how you are?”

Boy did THAT resonate. Each of the five had comments, anecdotes, and advice (“I say: one step at a time.”)

As many of you know one of our responses to how-are-you is: “I’m an emotional wreck but thank you for asking” We started this while Kirby was still alive in preparation for the Temple Micah craft sale when I knew I’d see a lot of friends, family, Micah members. It has been very helpful to have a pat answer for the omnipresent salutation.

Since she died a new mantra is “I keep telling myself I will be ok.”

The reason this question is so hard is that it makes us cry. Not the best lubricant for social intercourse. And, as we disintegrate it makes it hard to proceed with anything else: conversation, other people’s lives, tasks at hand.

This is why I declared a moratorium on hugs. I was getting incredibly sympathetic, caring hugs from people I barely knew, Kirby’s nurses, the palliative care people, the hospice people. Those hugs telegraphed I’m-a-professional-in-this-area-and-it-is-looking-so-bad-I-know-you’re-going-to-need-a-LOT-of-sympathy-very-soon-and-here’s-a-down-payment. I got the message loud and clear and even while being touched by the caring and kindness those hugs drove another spike into my heart. The message changed after she died (this-is-truly-unbelieveably-awful-I-can’t-imagine-how-awful-but-I’m-grieving-with-you) and all that loving sympathy just abraded already raw wounds.

Before Kirby died, some of us were already availing ourselves of the anesthetic gifts of alcohol. Most nights going to bed was a matter of giving up for that day. The alcohol for me extends the time before the surrender.

(And thank you to everyone who has shared the anesthesia with us and to those who brought booze to us: G & Ts in the hospital even by Saint R. And really a lot of premium alcohol from our Saint and a number of others.)

Before Kirby died, one family member attempted to model control by cleaning/clearing the kitchen counters. At the end of just about every day and certainly by the time he was up an hour or two, the counters would be TOTALLY clear (with the possible exception of flowers) and CLEAN.
Even I, never a neat freak, have been attempting to create order in my environment as if that would create order in my emotional life. I actually installed a rubbery drawer liner material in a couple of drawers, scrubbing away two decades of gundge in the process.

Two of us are listening to recorded books more or less non-stop as an antidote to gerbil-brain.

I, with a lot of company in the over-60 crowd, wake a number of times in the night. I wake even more than previously. While Kirby was sick (little noises, “Is she vomiting? Do I need to go down to help?). Or just waking in terror. Or monkey brain repeating, “etoposide, cisplaten, emesis, carboplatin, pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, irenotecan, LESIONS, progress, survival.”

Since she died, sometimes I can’t get to sleep because of the regret and grief devils who are also there for night wakings.

The distracting help of a recorded book lets me get to sleep and go back to sleep.

We both cry. A lot… I do a lot of tears and snuffling and nose blowing…

I’ve been to the gym more often and regularly than ever before in my life. Currently probably because I have so little actually scheduled. Before she died because gym was one of only two activities: Kirby and gym.

Owen is at school, which is a full out marathon for him. Work, exhaustion, and party weekends may be enough distraction for him for now. He’ll be home at the end of this quarter to help us recreate our abbreviated family.

When the seven day candle began to burn very low, I felt a fresh sense of loss so we are now burning multi-day candles continuously.

And, of course, the support from friends/family/community continues…dinner at the drop of a hat. Pot luck Shabbat. Endless indulgence, good advice, help.

So we muddle along. With a lot of help from our friends. And grief.

Some others of Kirby’s friends and family have shared their coping strategies. Please feel free to add yours.

******

Owen wrote:

22 February 2012

It comes and goes in waves, this week and last has been sorrow, deep painful sorrow. i have been working more or less 20 hour days, but still am feeling haunted, whenever i sleep for more than a few hours i have dreams about her sickness, or death.

two weeks ago it was numbness, empty void-like numbness. i think i was numb when i talked to you on the phone.

I am trying to basically not drink, and when i do only with friends, and never to drunkenness. it seems like a bad road to go down, although an easy one.

i feel ok when i am planning for the future. i have been emailing with sam about projects, txting with devin, and talking to scott (who is gonna be working for william mcdonough) or fully engaged in the present (sometimes that doesn’t work). i went skiing and was ok as long as i was going down the hill but the ride back up was back to thinking about kirb.

i struggle to do anything that is not fun/something i really want to do. It’s hard to see the point of writing my English essays and such.

i am going on a lot of “bro-dates” to plays, the symphony etc. i tried asking a woman out, but it turns out she has a boyfriend, and really i just wanted company. my friends are better, they go to places with me that i would otherwise take a woman, but it becomes just about enjoying the event.

i bought basically every book that Billy Collins has written, it seems to help to read a poem. i am popping poems the way others pop pills.

i am eating too much, although the lack of sleep has so far kept my weight constant so far.

i gave away my last cigar, and hope to be done with smoking.

i am growing increasingly fond of the sleep-deprived haze that i am living in. it makes it easier to just focus on one thing here and now.

my studio project makes me happy…. i think it is going to have some nice parts.

i look forward to being in dc, with you guys, and sam and devin and carson.

Love

aaw

owen

(“aaw” is from AFS days: it was shorthand for “alive and well:” the mimimum communication to home.)

 

****

Erin wrote:

I have been thinking about you all so much these last weeks and have meant to email you anyway though. It is absolutely mind boggling to me that Kirby is gone.

There are moments during my day when I am reminded of her- sometimes I don’t even know what has led my mind to the subject, but suddenly she is in my thoughts. Maybe because in many ways, it is so difficult to make the transition in my thinking from my friend, who for all I knew was always going to be a part of my life, to my friend who died of cancer at 28. She is not a memory yet; my heart is so wanting for her not to be a memory that I think of her as though she might still be here. And then, I am reminded; my brain engages and wins out over my heart at the knowledge, at the fact that I helped to bury her, that she is not here anymore.

I think of her when I look at the string of cranes hanging in the corner of my living room, when I gaze at the paintings I bought in Italy that she brought back to the States, when I open my closet, which has bracelet of beautiful beads from Ghana hanging on the knob. I think of her when I talk to Lana, when I am in the shower, and when I think of spring coming.

And most of all, when I am in bed with the lights out and have said good night to Leo, I think of her.

Sometimes I just cry so so much.

 

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Becca
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 13:41:08

    It was oddly nice to see another “Kirbystrong” posting this morning (and yes, I know I’m biased with that comment) :-). I think to me these postings are a testament that Kirby still lives in all of us.

    At first I was thinking of responding to just you and Robert and Owen, but I felt that with all of you (and Erin) sharing your words, I should do the same. Besides, its ‘nice’ to know that others are going through similar motions- just getting by: moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day.

    I hate Mondays. The first 2-3 after were really hard. Today am feeling a little better (at this moment). Thinking of the milestones. Bad ones. Missed future ones. I feel I’m going through all my Kirby memories in my head, holding onto dear life with them, so I don’t forget (I should start writing all of them down!). Went through my photos and emails and wished I had more. But in reality, I do have a good amount…I guess its just wanting “more” since I know there won’t be any more future photos or emails, or there are lost memories or stories that I’d like to have rediscovered.

    Feeling really antisocial. But am trying to reach out to others…even thats an effort at times. I find myself wanting to 1) be alone and clean/do homework or 2) be and talk with those who also knew Kirby or who have been “in the know” with whats been happening. Who I don’t have to be fake with when they ask, “how are you?” 3) Been getting drinks more when I go out with friends- always a toast to Kirby and to life ahead. I consciously make an effort not to have alcohol at home. Like Owen said, such an easy path to take. Instead I use ice cream (Ben and Jerry’s FroYo half baked). Not sure thats much better, but…

    I’m SO glad this is my last semester of graduate school. I think it would have been really worse if it wasn’t. I’m finding it both harder and a good distraction with whats happened. Like Owen, I sometimes feel like “whats the point of writing this paper?” And my thoughts wander back to back to Kirby when certain countries are mentioned: England/Scotland, Italy, Ghana…

    Its gotten a bit better in the past few days, but I also find my patience to be really low. Really low when customers at work complain about items in which I want to say, “look, one of my best friends just died of a rare cancer, so unless you have the same story, don’t complain/be rude to me.” Of course I don’t say that- but it’s what I’d like to say in a consequence-free world. Which is why I’m oddly enjoying the truck shift more in the past few weeks. The focused fast paced cutting and slashing of boxes, being with other people-but not talking seems to be a good thing for me to do ;-).

    I could go on and on with this forever. Just found out my morning class was cancelled. So happy. Now I can do my own thing before work today.

    We are all in this together.

    Lots of love,

    Becca

    Reply

  2. Kim Franklin
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 14:37:45

    As I was dressing for work this morning and said to myself that I should drop you an email to see how you are doing. I think of Kirby everyday and have even dedicated my Lenten offering to her…I am giving up my beloved brownies, cookies, cupcakes and chocolate in her memory. I have never had much luck with sticking to a discipline for 40 days but I feel I have the strength to be a success this year with Kirby as my guiding light!

    When you are ready, John, Izzy and I would love to have you come over for dinner. And you know the offer of our river house in Bluffton is yours for the asking.

    We are here for you,

    Kim

    Reply

  3. Cara
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 14:46:39

    The best thing that helps me cope with Kirby passing has been to think of what she would want me to do. The first couple of weeks I barely left my apartment, and some days involved massive emotional breakdowns (usually triggered by taking out the recycling or walking past one of the places we used to frequent), but lately I have been trying to focus on being thankful for the time I was able to spend with Kirby and the things I learned from our friendship.

    One thing I always admired is her logical, practical way of thinking about and dealing with tough situations. I know she would want her family and friends to try to celebrate her life and embrace the things she used to love rather than be sad when they encounter them. At first I thought, how am I ever going to eat fried pickles at heartland brewery or plan a get-together with coworkers or have a dinner party at my apartment again without being sad? Almost every single social and professional thing I did involved Kirby since moving to NYC almost four years ago. Someone asked me yesterday if I know a good Ethiopian restaurant and I almost started crying, but then I thought Kirby would want me to tell people about Awash and show them a really cool place for dinner. She hates seeing her friends cry.

    Some days are very sad, of course, and everything around me reminds me of Kirby. That is not going to change. I am sitting at my desk right now next to the plants she left for me to take care of, yesterday I walked by the nail place we used to go to every week and the felafel place we liked to eat lunch at…I could go on. As more time goes by, I am more able to take a step back and be thankful I was able to share so many happy experiences with Kirby, rather than focus on the horrible things she went through or that she isn’t coming back. I believe that’s what she would want.

    For Judith, Robert, and Owen, I know you are hurting the most. I don’t know if my way of coping will help you, but I wanted to respond to your post. I appreciate your updates. We are all thinking of you.

    Big Hugs,
    Cara

    Reply

  4. Yael
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 16:26:11

    Like Cara, what helps me the most is thinking about what (I think that) Kirby would want. Sometimes that means taking the extra effort to go back to another room and turn off the light I accidentally left on, or trying to reach out to people I don’t know very well or don’t see very often, making connections and deepening friendships. Other times, it’s a very stern voice in my head saying, “Do you think Kirby would be happy if she knew that you were crying right now?”

    Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Often it’s little things that catch me off guard, like the beautiful Meyer lemons that have popped up in all of the local grocery stores over the last couple of weeks that remind me of the last weekend we spent with her (and that delicious cake). Or standing outside of the big post office in NY, the one across from Penn Station, and remembering sitting there with Ro waiting for her train after a wonderful sleepover with Kirby. Or bigger things: having such a strong desire to tell her about something or ask her about something and realizing with such crushing disappointment that I can’t.

    I also find, like Becca, that I feel best when I’m with other friends of Kirby’s, and the Boston Smith Hillel contingent has been spending a fair bit of time together playing games, eating delicious snacks, learning to knit. . .

    And, of course, this blog and the Remembering Kirby facebook group, though incredibly bittersweet, help so much. Sometimes, I read the jokes, and sometimes it’s the other sweet comments–knowing how many people love Kirby (I won’t use the past tense there, I know we all *still* love Kirby) and love you all helps so much. In the first couple of weeks, I read and reread the poem that Asmaa posted; it helped more than anything else. (Thank you for posting it, Asmaa!) And like Becca, I also found it “oddly nice” (what a perfect way to put it, Becca) to see a post this morning. It’s a reminder that we are all remembering Kirby and coping together.

    I too don’t know if any of this is helpful to you, Judith, or to Robert or Owen or anyone else who is reading. But I do know that the sense of community that comes from all the posts and comments is so helpful to me and so I hope that at the very least I can help by being another voice.

    So much love,

    Yael

    Reply

  5. Olya
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 19:16:29

    My heart goes out to you. It’s impossible for me to imagine how you feel.

    Like so many of Kirby’s friends, I’m coping by knowing she would want us to be happy. And I’m trying my darndest to keep that in mind. But even in the happy times I have these moments where I’m like, wait, why am I so sad? What is this sadness? And then I think about Kirby and remember she wouldn’t want that, and so it goes.

    I’ve been dreaming about her at least once a week. I feel more than ever convinced that the spirit lives on, that she’s with us, not in some random metaphorical way, but really with us….and rooting for us and supporting us.

    love

    Olya

    Reply

  6. Rosalie
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 21:32:53

    As everyone has said, WWKW (what would Kirby want) is a good mantra. Turning off the light, buying local, hosting parties and trying new recipes, attempting to stretch and grow at work, all of those feel like ways to take the sadness and use it as a gentle prod to lead a better, more Kirby-esque life. The crying, when it comes, is a time of rededication to that plan.

    P.S. Owen, I’m excited to hear that you are happy about where your studio project is headed. Will the materials be online when you finish?

    Reply

  7. erin*joy
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 01:49:56

    Mostly I have been playing my flute. And praying. Writing poems about the strange juxtaposition of grief and beauty. Yes, too, turning off the lights in Kirby’s honor, making crafts, talking with people I trust. Diving deep into my heart and connecting with each one of you, feeling us holding each other through this time. That is what I have been doing. I thank each of you for sharing, it is balm to receive your words here.

    Reply

  8. Regina
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 03:06:03

    It was the day after funeral that it all felt more “official” to me and made me more sad. I think channeling energy towards other projects and efforts have been good distractions. I often think of Kirby in the small things we did like watch tv shows and we watched a lot of tv so there a lot of shows that remind me of her. There are also moments when I wish I could call her or text her about something that happened because I would value her reaction to whatever just happened 🙂 The saddest part is knowing you can’t make new memories so having to hold on to old ones and writing them down is helpful. I am writing the story/context on the back of all the photographs I have of Kirby. Happy to give that to you guys (Robert and Judith) or share it at some point in the future. I am doing a quiet time every day during Lent and so you guys are in my prayers.

    Reply

  9. Mike and Janice
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 04:34:35

    After Kirby’s funeral, Mike and I find ourselves looking at each other at the table and starting to cry. Mike has a greater capacity than I to sit in silence with his grief. I convert mine to words.
    Kirby gave me the gift of mindfulness.
    We love you, Judith and Robert. We’ve known you ten years, since our wedding, March 17, 2002, at Temple Micah. I remember watching Robert pouring ice and punch in the bowl and serving guests at our reception, catered by the Micah Cooks. So we became Micah Cooks, to join these people we scarcely knew, who prepared food and served it at our wedding reception, celebrated with us, strangers, new to the Temple.

    In respose to Judith’s post asking for responses to grief:

    I brought a string of paper cranes
    home from a church
    and hung them on a glass door.

    At night the cranes cast shadows
    On the floor.

    When the sun shines
    The cranes light up
    Glow orange, gold, silver, red
    I see through them
    To the other side.
    .

    Reply

  10. Peggy
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 15:02:35

    Judith and Robert,
    I love you. I love Kirby. This is very difficult. I have found in my own grieving for my mother that Judaism is brilliant – the seven days of shiva were just right: I didn’t know what realm I was in but I needed that time to just grieve; the 30 days of shiloshim were just right: I had one foot in this realm and one foot in another realm; now, it’s hard to know what to say when people ask – they mean well – but it is like rubbing a raw spot and I’m still raw and words are limited.
    I love you both,
    Peg

    Reply

  11. colleenteresa
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 16:06:19

    Dear Judith & Robert,
    Death is a monster and a mystery. Grief is also a monster and a mystery, if my own experiences are anything to go by. As a Catholic you won’t be surprised I love candles — for prayer, for remembrance. (A cruel twist of fate has made candlelight one of my migraine triggers, so for me the memory has to suffice.) But the grief never totally leaves us alone, nor does it ever totally leave. Years later it can come back to bite me on the behind. But for me the terror of grief was that I might forget. Trust me, I never have; you never will. That’s our victory over grief. Also buy stock in Kleenex: God knows you’re keeping them in business. And balance: whatever helps you get closer to it is all good. We’re never totally there, but we get closer from time to time. And remember you are surrounded by love; as you have loved, you are loved in return — a thousandfold.

    Reply

  12. June
    Mar 01, 2012 @ 04:12:08

    I had two dreams with Kirby in it in the past few weeks, and I guess as a consequence, I have also been dreaming about other loved ones that I have lost in the past. I had a dream about my dog last night and my grandfather, a week ago or so. I lost them both last year. These dreams are so vivid that I remember them distinctly even now, and I wake up with mixed emotions- happiness because I saw them vividly again, but sadness because I cannot control my dreams.

    I shoot things with my Nerf gun. Recently, I drew a target on my wall with a sharpie and just fire rounds at it when I am frustrated. It is extremely liberating. I don’t know why they advertise it as a “boy toy.” In fact, I shoot my boyfriend with it sometimes when he makes me angry. My Nerf gun allows me to let go of frustrations and anger without causing any damage, and it always makes us laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.

    I hate how I can’t tell Kirby anything anymore. We talked about job search last May, and she sent me links on salary expectations for different fields, and I can’t tell her any updates anymore, or ask her for her opinions. A few nights ago, I installed “Spybot Search & Destroy” on my relatively new laptop because of Kirby’s influence. When Kirby and I were working together in our first year at Smith on our design project (ToyTECH), we got talking when we were sitting in someone’s room one time and I made the mistake of telling her that I didn’t have the proper virus protection on my laptop at the moment because I didn’t have the time. She said “sweetie” and told me the importance of spyware protection and installed it for me while I was busy working on some kind of problem set so that my computer would be protected from spyware and malicious attacks. Now I have it installed on all the computers at my parents house, on my own laptop, and I continue recommend it to other people.

    Judith and Robert, you are such positive role models. Through these posts, and through my interactions with you in person during my two visits in the past months, you inspire me to maintain perspective while being in difficult situations, to keep carrying on, and to take responsibility for my own happiness. It is also from you that I learned the importance of having a strong support network. I agree with Cara that Kirby had a logical, practical way of thinking to deal with tough situations, and it’s so clear to me where she got it from. You are such kind, caring people, and I think of you often. Thank you for everything you have taught me, and thank you so much for Kirby.

    With much love and respect,
    June

    Reply

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