I Know I’m Selfish, But It Is What It Isn’t

My last post seems to have ruffled a few feathers. That’s fair. It’s also fair that I temper my hurt feelings from the actions of some with an honest assessment of myself these last eleven months. I am well aware of my shortcomings, of which there are many.

I have been selfish. I have forgotten birthdays. I didn’t send Christmas cards this year. I have canceled lunch dates. I promised a friend a letter that I never sent. I owe another friend money and I can’t remember how much. I have cut my volunteer hours by almost 90%, declined to help with things I would have jumped at a year ago, and taken weeks or months to answer email with anything more than “I’m very busy right now.”

Don’t take it personal. I’ve also forgotten to pay some of my bills, to put appointments on my calendar, and to buy things we needed around the house. I accidentally bought a Redbox movie that I forgot to take back and, consequently, also forgot to watch. I have library fines. This May election, I forgot to vote even though the ballot was sitting on my desk in front of me for days. There have been days that I’ve forgotten to eat and moments that I’ve forgotten why I need to.

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced grief, but it is my first experience with this particular brand of it. To put this in a little context, during 2011, my family experienced 4 deaths in the space of 5 months. This came on the heels of a 17-page report on me from Oregon Health & Science University with multiple diagnoses of autoimmune diseases. 2012 isn’t looking much better.

4 deaths. I have grieved one of them. 17 pages of treatment recommendations. I’ve muddled my way through some of it. There are tests I’m supposed to have. Doctors I’m supposed to call. I say that it is the sheer magnitude of what we’ve been through this last year that makes it so difficult. I say that it is my condition that keeps me from dealing with the multitude of things that need doing. But it isn’t. Not really. It is about me losing Zack. It is about me knowing that Zack taught me everything I will ever need to know about joy and laughter and living in spite of it all–and not being able to act on that knowledge through my own selfish sense of Why me.

I shower in a mix of guilt and tears. My moods alternate between “Thank you, God, for giving us 11 years with our beautiful son” and “Fuck you and your Plan.”

I’ve never been a ‘pity me’ kind of person. I’m not asking for sympathy or empathy or even understanding. I’m offering a small glimpse into a world that has become very, very alien to me. Maybe it will help someone that is going through something similar to realize that they are far from alone. Maybe it will help someone that is trying to support someone else through grief to see that they also are far from alone. Maybe it’s just time to get it off my chest. I don’t know.

What I do know is that every person grieves a little differently and that most people grieve in a different way from day to day. When the experts talk about the stages of grief, they tell you that these stages can happen in any order. They don’t tell you that they can happen all at once or that one of the things you’ll be grieving is the life you knew before. There is no manual. There aren’t even guidelines. There’s just a weight in the center of your chest that keeps you tethered to the one truth no one can escape: Good people die and leave the rest of us behind.

As my life has snowballed out of control, I’ve periodically tried to get a handle on things. “Today I’ll deal with the ER physicians’ billing department that can’t seem to get insurance billed correctly.” This small goal explodes into a vision of the emergency room, an image of the doctor’s face when he told us that Zack was gone, and the sound of the hospital chaplain’s voice telling us to take our time.

“Today I’ll return Zack’s library book to the school.” Suddenly I’m sitting in the audience of the 5th grade school play trying to get a photo of Zack while other 5th graders dance around him on stage. I’m in an IEP meeting in the life skills classroom looking at pictures of him swimming or riding an adapted tricycle during PE.

Okay, something simpler. “Today I’ll get some cleaning done.” And as I work, I find his school notebook, his swimming diaper, a favorite toy, a favorite movie, or a stray package of feeding tubes. I don’t have the heart to get rid of these reminders. I also don’t have the heart to look at them.

Something creative. “Today I’ll take some photographs.” But all of my favorite photography locations are places I would have gone with Zachary and it doesn’t seem right to be there without him. “Today I’ll write a few pages of my novel.” I try. Believe me, I try. But creative space is emotional space and I’ve gotten good at avoiding it. People need me to be strong. My living children need me to be strong.

I hear stories of people who lost a child and then their jobs, their homes, and their marriages. I’ve talked to people that say it took them a year just to function. I’ve heard of more suicide attempts than I want to think about. And I get it. When Zack was born and was in Neonatal Intensive Care, I selfishly comforted myself by thinking of the parents who had it so much worse than I did. Now, I selfishly comfort myself by thinking of what hasn’t happened to us.

It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t make it easier. But it is what it isn’t.

2 thoughts on “I Know I’m Selfish, But It Is What It Isn’t

  1. I think people who deeply grieve, especially those who are walking through the death of a child, can seem to be very self-centered and selfish. They don’t mean to be; they simply can’t help it. Their hearts have been crushed, lives changed forever. Well said. Thank you.

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