Two Too Far
As some of you know, last May my grandmother, Mawmaw, passed away. This wasn’t the first time I lost someone, and unfortunately it won’t be the last. However, this has been one of the harder losses to wrap my head around.
Everyone has a way of coping with loss. I typically become emotional at the initial news, and then I compartmentalize it- I pack it up in a nice little box and I put it away- and I begin to make myself busy. If it’s during the school year, I go to all my classes, study after and keep my routine busy. I find more tasks to do in my extracurricular positions so that the days pass on and I can’t notice the person’s absence. If it’s not during the school year, I take on more responsibility at work via working more hours, accumulating more projects and/or spending time with coworkers outside of work.
On the record: I’m not saying this is a healthy way to cope. It’s just how I’ve done it in the past. And it worked really well. Until it didn’t.
So, when my coping methods started failing, I felt like I was failing. It’s hard to feel a different way when something that you’ve been good at your whole life, you no longer are. And I’m sure we all know how easy it can be to spiral from “I’m failing at one thing in my life” to “I’m failing at everything, I’ll never be successful and I’m going to die alone.” As kids say these days, “0 to 100 REAL quick.” It usually results in me eating ice cream out of the tub while looking up inspirational and/or motivational quotes on Pinterest until I fall asleep.
Naturally being the curious person I am, I dove into researching grief. I was starting to question if I had ever truly grieved before or healthily coped with the loss of someone. It falls into the category of soul searching and it can be excruciatingly painful sometimes.
The most common definition I read about grief is the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Due to my compartmentalizing trick, I experience all of these things in a couple hours, give or take depending on my relationship with the person, and then I’m done. I pack all the ugliness away; I’ve accepted my loss and I begin planning the future. I’m fine. Those of you who knew Mawmaw are probably laughing at the ‘I’m fine’ trick because that was always her response when you asked her how she was doing.
I went through the denial. I got mad at the promise she made to be there at my pharmacy graduation. I bargained to be a better person if she could come back. I got overwhelmingly sad (I won’t say depressed here because it didn’t last more than a few hours).
Then I built the box in my brain, packed everything in it and drove home. I accepted it. I just wanted to sit on the couch alone and watch Netflix with my dog. It’s almost like I packed the box up, brushed my hands together and said, “All done with that. What’s next?”
But here I am 10 months later with a brick on my chest devastated. Why didn’t my box work? It’s always worked. Am I having mental decline that’s ruining my ability to compartmentalize? Considering I’m only 23, that’s probably not it…
Of all places, I was on Facebook when I stumbled across a comment that talked about a helpful metaphor for grief found on Twitter. The metaphor described grief as such: when someone dies they get a box in your head/heart. Inside the box is a pain button and a ball. The magic of this ball is that it can grow or shrink in size. At first, the ball is so large that it constantly hits the pain button. Over time it will shrink and only a trigger can cause the ball to move and hit the pain button. The key point to understand is that at any time during your life the pain button can be hit. It’s never going to go away.
Not only is this a helpful analogy because it flips the script of my I’m a failure narrative because 1. The loss will always be allowed, and accepted, to be painful 2. It gives me a way to communicate my grief in a way that someone else can understand. If I tell someone this analogy, then I can go back to them and say the ball shrunk this week (yay!) or the ball is so large today and I’m struggling (oof), and they get it. I don’t need to say anything else to them because they have a box for a loved one too.
Over the last couple of months, I’d say the ball has been small, and I only felt the pain every now and then. But then all of a sudden something changed. The ball started growing again. It seemed like a lump had constantly been in my throat and sleep was becoming more of a stranger. So, what the heck happened?
It came time to spread Mawmaw’s ashes. She loved the ocean and asked us to spread her there, which required going at least three miles out in a boat to say goodbye to her. Since this was something I had never done before, I didn’t know if this would help me grieve or not (disclaimer: I know some people don’t like to do spread ashes or visit grave sites because it doesn’t help them and it’s neither right or wrong).
There were a lot of reasons (maybe excuses) why I didn’t want to.
One: My family wanted to spread them the same weekend as the National Shag Dance Championships, which is an event I look forward to every year. It’s a happy time, a celebratory time, an inspirational weekend. It’s not the weekend you want to spread your grandmother’s ashes.
Two: I’m terrified of sharks who live in said ocean. I did not want to be closer than I needed to be to them.
Three: I get motion sick really easily. Just imagine, I’m on the boat with my family, and we’re all saying how much we love Mawmaw and ope- I’m leaning over the edge watching my breakfast enter the ocean. Nope. Nope. Nope. Not ideal!
Four: Every time I thought about spreading the ashes the ball got bigger. And I couldn’t study, do chores, socialize, etc. if the ball got bigger.
After consulting some family and friends I decided I needed to suck it up and go because I’d regret not being there for my family later on.
I met my family at our beach house, so we could carpool to the marina where we met our family friend, Josh, who took us out that day on his boat. On the way over, just thinking about the ocean was making me a little nauseous. The smell of the salt water was not helping my sea sick stomach one bit when we arrived. On the back waters, I was doing okay while gripping the pole on the boat so tight my fingers were pale white, but then we hit the open water...
My mom kept checking on me to see how I was doing but in the moment I didn’t know how to explain that the more I had my mouth open while talking the higher the chance that food was going to come out of it, so I was trying to nod my head or get away with one-word answers- which I know all parents just love.
I believe I possibly even told her, “If you keep telling me to hold on you might need to hold on because I’m going to throw you off this boat.” Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry!! I really wasn’t going to throw you off the boat! I was so consumed by my fear of being on a boat in the middle of the ocean, which I never knew I had until I was on said boat in the middle of the ocean, that I was acting from a place of shear panic.
Someone mentioned to me or maybe I told myself, “just close your eyes and think of something that calms you down.” So, there I was, holding on to a boat for dear life in the middle of the ocean, trying my best to think about ice cream. Ice cream? I know it doesn’t make sense. I don’t think it really helped much in the moment but it did make me ravenous for some ice cream.
I felt the boat stop and was brave enough to open my eyes for the first time since we left the back waters. Josh asked me, “Is it worse when we’re moving or stopped?” I shook my head and replied, “No.” In hindsight I realize how unhelpful I was with that response. My bad!
He then explained, “Well y’all we’re only two miles out right now and we need to be at least three, so we’ve got to go a little more.” I was so terrified I blurted out, “Nuh-uh we’re already two too far. Do what you gotta do but don’t update me please.” I wanted to call a helicopter to come rescue me and get me back to dry land ASAP.
We got to where we needed to be; I refused to listen how far out we were because I thought my heart was going to explode as it was. My mom and aunt spread Mawmaw’s ashes together while my cousin, stepdad and I watched.
Once they finished they asked me what I was thinking so I told them what I was honestly thinking…
If any of them want this done for them I’m going to hire someone to stand in my place and FaceTime me in from the sand because there is no way I’m doing this again. I’ll make sure my hired actress cries and says something sweet, but I cannot do it. I love them all, but I might not survive the next boat trip. Either I’m falling off the boat or having a heart attack.
Lex Be Real… I was not meant to be on a boat in the ocean unless it’s a cruise ship taking me somewhere tropical.