Archive for the 'grief' Category

Crossing the Sound

Saturday I went to the post office to pick up my held mail from while I was in Alaska. I flashed my ID for the postal clerk, who squinted at it and said, “Wait, who is Jeri Merrell?”

I stuttered, tried and failed to explain, and he shrugged and handed over my stack o’ mail. I made my pensive way back out to the car.

Jeri Merrell is someone I was for twelve years, someone I used to be. I’m not quite sure when I shed that skin so completely that it doesn’t even occur to me to answer to that name, although I still get her mail from time to time. (And, to be honest, although I answer to Jeri Sisco now, I’m not quite sure who she is either.)

It has been 19 months and 19 days since my life was turned upside down, since, waiting for the ferry on a Tuesday morning, Bryan collapsed and was gone in an instant. We have worked hard at rebuilding, at standing on our own, while still honoring Bryan’s contribution to our lives.

Bryan on Ferry

I’ve taken my maiden name back. I’ve bought a townhouse in West Seattle while the boys got their own apartment near college. I’ve discovered the amazing blessing of friendship & family. I’ve worked idiotic, insane hours, but I’ve also rediscovered interests and avocations that make me happy, like swimming, quilting, gaming and hiking.

On the whole, the boys and I are happy. We’re thriving. Still, though, grief is a sneaky thing and the littlest triggers let it come flooding back into my life.

Right now, we’re cleaning up our old house to sell. The place is cold and empty, the carpets peeled up and the garage filled with junk. Five and a half years ago I walked into the same empty house as we moved south to Washington. Then it was warm with promises, hopes and plans for decorating; now it’s cold and echoes with emptiness and grief.


One of the reasons I moved to Seattle – well, besides the smaller easy-care townhouse and the short commute to work and airport – is because I found the ferry ride tough, especially walking daily past the bench at the bottom of the boarding ramp where EMTs treated and couldn’t revive Bryan. Objectively, the ferry ride is beautiful and is one of the parts of Puget Sound culture I enjoy, but the meaning for me is intrinsically symbolic of my loss.

Today I found myself meditating on ferry rides past in the MINI, with Bryan… a quiet ride to work with newspapers & coffee on the occasional morning, to social events on weekends, to visit family. There were many crossings like today, where we wrapped up in the car quilt Mom made us so we could stay in the car for a cold weather crossing.

My last memory of Bryan was pretty horrible; it was at the funeral home, before sending him off to be cremated. I am not a big supporter of the formal viewing, but in this case, losing Bryan and not seeing him again, I needed the closure. We all did! Still, the sight, feel and scent of him, cold, stiff, bloated, waxy, awkwardly made up, seeping pink embalming fluid as he lay on the funeral home gurney in his Seahawks jersey, is intensely etched in my mind and has eclipsed happier pictures of the man I loved.

We scattered Bryan’s ashes in the Sound after we lost him, the water was such a central part of our lives. When I take the ferry, when I drive around, when I’m on a boat or wander a beach, he is there. Some tiny fragment of his physical matter still remains, and some part of his spirit as well.

Ashes in Sound

In some sense it’s comforting to have grief flood through my mind in response to simpler, happier memories of our life, rather than the eidetic minutiae of his death – the empty house, the car blanket we once shared, the music playing on his iPod.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by my sneaky old friend grief crossing the Sound with me. Memory, love, honor and grief are inextricably intertwined. As long as I remember Bryan, as we strive to honor his integrity and gifts with our actions, he lives on.

Posted on Monday, November 8th, 2010 by Jeri
Under: grief, home | 7 Comments »

Navel Gazing

Experts say that our personality type, your temperament, is ours for life. It doesn’t really change significantly after we are 5-7 years old. We may evolve, grow more focused or more caring, but we remain basically the same person.

Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle was harshly self-critical and critically depressed for much of his adult life when, in his late 20s, he did actually experience what he calls a complete dissolution and reintegration of his personality. He was transformed from a bitterly unhappy engineering student to a blissfully serene mystic and seeker.

This begs the question of cultural definition of sanity – abandoning a successful, if unrewarding, professional path for a life as a vagrant and ecstatic mystic has been defined by his critics as a mental breakdown and subsequent mental health disorder. I would disagree – who are we to define another’s reality?

But I digress…

I believe that major life events can transform our personality and temperament, at least in part: disaster, loss, addiction & recovery, childbirth, surviving life-threatening illness, even spiritual experiences like religious conversions or epiphanies. It’s happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to others, for good or for ill. (And I am not including mental illness or medication-induced changes in this discussion.)

I have always been a fairly intense type A, a driver. My Meyers Briggs personality inventory results were “ENTJ”, the Field Marshal. I have usually been pretty good at achievements and results, but not so much so with people skills, nurturing, relaxing, having fun.

In the last year and a half, since losing Bryan, I haven’t been really sure who I am or what I want. I have been sad, foggy, melancholy, adventurous, reflective and oblivious, sometimes all at once, and have certainly felt some small part of that sense of personality dissolution that Tolle describes. I’m no longer a wife. Not a project manager. No longer a mom (at least with children at home.) I surely don’t self-identify as a widow; I choose not to define myself by loss or lack. So who am I now?

One thing that has been absolutely clear to me throughout is that no one is guaranteed tomorrow, and we need to love those in our lives to our fullest capacity today.

This has driven some changes in the way I see my world, the way I interact with those around me, the priorities in my life, and yes, my temperament.

  • My family and friends are my number one priority

  • My own health & sanity is number two
  • My work is third. A distant third.
  • Giving back in some way is fourth.

Ironically, this shift comes at a point in my life where work has been more intensely demanding than ever before, and my kids are appropriately flying the nest.

I’ve noticed that while I’m just as intense, I’m more gregarious, expressive, affectionate, and attuned to the people around me, and I’ve become less assertive and results-oriented. I’m more interested now in adventure, in experiencing life, and care a whole less about what people think and whether I’m functioning as a high achiever.

This is even reflected by changes in personality test results. My people styles personality test (which we use at work) has shifted from driver to expressive. My Meyers-Briggs has shifted from ENTJ (Field Marshal) to ENFJ (Mentor).

Personality Type
People Styles Quadrants

Meyers Briggs Wheel
Meyers-Briggs Wheel

Has anyone else had this happen, either to themselves or those around them? Or do you believe that once we are formed, our personalities are set for life?

Posted on Sunday, October 31st, 2010 by Jeri
Under: grief, inspiration | 4 Comments »

The Nature of Grief

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.
          ~Kenji Miyazawa

This week my Alaskan friends and colleagues mourn the passing of lives lost in last week’s terrible company plane crash. There will be memorial services, celebrations of life, small gatherings, tears, stories and many, many hugs.

I’m not there, instead, I’m back home in Seattle. While I’m deeply saddened at so many amazing lives cut short, I’m also reflecting on the nature of grief. This post is more personal than obituary in nature.

For me, and for so many of my friends, the past couple of years have been amazingly difficult. We’ve lost parents, siblings, homes, jobs and I – I’ve lost my husband. Grief has touched us all, a nightmare time of trying to find our way in the dark.

There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.
          ~Leon Bloy

Everyone’s grieving is different. Some collapse in tears, some curl up in a ball, some get angry, some march on stoically and some try to take care of everyone else. (In case anyone could possibly be confused on this point, I’m one of the latter.) There’s no one right way to express loss, to be sad, to ‘do’ grief – there’s only the way each of us figures it out as we go, groping in the dark.

And yet, being a caretaker type doesn’t mean that my loss doesn’t hurt. Intensely. It just means I’m more concerned with taking care of everyone else’s potential pain and discomfort than I am with expressing or dealing with any sorrow or grief of my own. My role, as I see it, is to keep my life, my family, and the various enterprises I manage moving forward smoothly and agreeably. Sure, we can briefly acknowledge human frailty and work/life balance, but in the long run, we keep going because that’s all I know how to do.

And keeping on keeping on becomes a habit. It’s not dishonest, you know, when I say with a self-deprecating smile, “It’s ok, it’s been a while, it doesn’t really bother me to bring it up.” Just talking about Bryan in casual conversation isn’t all that difficult, although it’s been a whole hell of a lot harder journey than I typically acknowledge.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.
          ~William Shakespeare

So yeah – I will admit that I understate it. A lot. Grief is supremely sneaky and overwhelmingly hard, and there are times when the sorrow and the anguish and the loss punch me in the gut so painfully I forget how to breathe. There are dark nights when I wake up in in a cold, lonely bed and bargain, dry-eyed, with a distant and unresponsive god for it to have been just a nightmare. (He/she doesn’t answer.)

Thanks to my beloved friends and family members who have been there at any time, day or night, when the unbearable details of grief have overwhelmed me. You’ve helped me preserve what little tatters are left of my sanity and I am forever grateful. You are my evidence that it was not, actually, a nightmare after all.

Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.
         ~Marcus Tullus Cicero

And for those that mourn the passing of Dana Tindall, Corey Tindall, William Phillips and Senator Ted Stevens, I wish you the same kind of love, friendship, family and caring I’ve had to carry me through my loss. Nothing on earth can make this tough time any easier, but the support of loved ones can make it more bearable.

Posted on Monday, August 16th, 2010 by Jeri
Under: grief | 1 Comment »

Adulthood is Overrated

What does being an adult mean to you? And does the word have positive or negative connotations?

After an interesting twitter discussion, hot chick Janiece wrote about her take on the mythical adult; here’s mine.

I have always felt *old*. Controlled. Humdrum. Intense. Stressed. A bit melancholy. I’ve never been particularly good at relaxing, playing, letting go. Since I have been very young, I’ve tried to be the caretaker and the adult to those around me. The whole adult thing comes very easily to me, it’s acknowledging that life can be enjoyed that is a little tougher.

Certainly there are moments where I suddenly feel disoriented and think, whoa, wait — I’m just a kid playing house, how did I end up with my own grown kids?

Still, my life has mostly been a string of sobering moments that have made me painfully aware of my adulthood, my level of responsibility.

  • At 15, I vividly recall helping my drunk father to bed, driving my migraine-stricken mother to the emergency room, and waiting up for my sister to return home from a school dance.

  • At 25 I gave birth to my first son. My husband at the time slept through my labor and delivery and I realized how alone I’d be. Thank god for my sister and mom who were with me.
  • At 27 my eventually-to-be-ex screwed up our money yet again, leaving us thousands of dollars in the hole, and me pregnant and destitute in a foreign country.
  • At 30 I finally divorced the man, which cost me my faith, and moved halfway across the country with my job. My dad not-so-diplomatically informed me I needed to stop leaning on them emotionally, I was on my own there too, and I cried for hours.
  • At 33 my youngest, at 5, had his worst asthma attack ever and ended up in pediatric ICU. Seeing him walk down the hospital hallway pulling an oxygen canister drove home my responsibility like nothing else.
  • At 35, when he was 70, my father died. My mom, sister and I held each other up as we put his memorial together, and I closed down his consulting business.
  • At 38, when he was 13, I held my eldest son through his first tonic/clonic epileptic seizure, then stood by as paramedics thought he wasn’t going to come back from it. He nearly died, and was not there for a very long time. It terrified me.
  • At 40, when he was 15, I lived through several months of that same son’s violent, bipolar, psychotic break. (Related to previous? Probably.) Supporting a child through mental illness that I could not help and could not cure is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, including the next…
  • At 44, when he was 45, I lost my beloved husband to a sudden and unexpected heart attack. Saying goodbye to his cold, still shell and going on alone to support my family and continue my profession and my life was both a challenge and a comfort.

After those painful, transformative life changes I’m consciously trying to enjoy life more, to value family, friends, community and my own health and sanity. I’ve been an adult for everyone for a very long time, and now I choose to work less, to be less obligated, to be less well-behaved. I’ve kicked my kids out to a college apartment. I’m buying a condo and going to Europe.

I plan to grab onto life with both hands, travel, laugh, love and enjoy the ride.

Posted on Thursday, August 12th, 2010 by Jeri
Under: downshifting, family, grief, inspiration | 4 Comments »

Time Keeps Flowing Like a River

“Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”
         ~Henry Van Dyke

Rose on the Sound

One of the strangest facets of loss is how it changes time.

You’d think time is a fairly straightforward measure. There are 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year. Those numbers can’t adequately measure the experience of the human heart flowing through time.

I have lived 45 years. Raised children for 21 years. Loved Bryan for 12 years. And have been on my own, without him, for one year. That 12 years with Bryan, one-fourth of my life, still defines me – my values, my home, my heart, my plans.

How can it be that the one year since losing him can feel like it was equally as long?

I remember, in the initial days, even month, following the initial shock of his passing, time behaved especially strangely. I had the strangest sensation of being frozen, like a fly in amber, like a pebble in a stream, as life rushed on around me.

The night hours stretched out like an eternity — every night was at least a week long. In the daylight hours when I’d try to rejoin life, I couldn’t keep up. I’d notice something, consider reaching for it in the current, and it’d be swept far past me by the time I moved.

There were times when I slowed my life down to match time’s flow. Sailing, flying under the sun at whatever speed the wind chose to take us, allowed time to catch up and life shifted into focus. Hiking on a beach or in the woods, time became my friend; the birds ignored the passing of the hours and the only rhythm was that of the sunrise and sunset.

But always, I had to return to real life, the fierce onrush of work, deadlines, errands, housework, bills, and I then I couldn’t stay synchronized, couldn’t keep up with the flow anymore.

Maybe this year my own personal time flow will speed up a little and match the world I must live in. Or, more sanely, maybe I can find a way to slow my world down to mesh with my life.

Goodbye my love, maybe for forever
Goodbye my love, the tide waits for me
Who knows when we shall meet again, if ever
But time keeps flowing like a river (on and on)
To the sea, to the sea
Till it’s gone forever
         ~Alan Parsons Project, “Time”

Posted on Saturday, March 20th, 2010 by Jeri
Under: grief, health | 5 Comments »