Friday, May 25, 2007

Pockets of Grief

Often, when someone is in the middle of a trauma, be it illness or otherwise, there is not enough time, energy or perspective to process the relative emotions. For the sake of survival and sanity, they are pushed down, at least to some degree, and not addressed. Where do those emotions go? I think most people assume they simply dissipate, like smoke into the air. In fact, emotions are energy and, as the first law of thermodynamics tells us, energy can not be created or destroyed. So what happens when we are unable to feel our feelings? In my experience, they wait until we have an opportunity to do so to pop up, often at very unexpected moments.

Experience 1:

A year after my second transplant, I was taking a class that a friend was teaching. It was a group of spiritually minded individuals who met once a week to learn about different spiritual principles and practices. One evening, my friend started talking about the Buddhist practice of Ton Glen. This was a meditation I used on nearly a daily basis when I was at my most ill and in a great amount of discomfort or pain. She told the class that it was a meditation to increase compassion for other people and gave the details on how to practice it. In time, my Ton Glen meditation had transformed a little from the way I had been taught to a more customized version. I raised my hand and began to tell the group about the way I visualized and used this practice. (As a side-note, I have put the meditation at the bottom of this chapter.)

When I began speaking, I was not filled with emotion other than the fact that I was excited to tell the group about my experience. A few sentences into my explanation, however, it was as though I had been hit by a bolt of emotional lightening. Suddenly, I was there, in all of the moments of suffering in which I used Ton Glen. I was in all of the moments simultaneously and the emotion was overwhelming. I began to cry and was aware that my tears would seem out of place with what I was saying. I felt self-conscious and willed for the tears to stop. They did no such thing. The emotion continued to build until I was sobbing and unable to catch my breath. I was confused by my own feelings and apologized for the mysterious outburst. No matter how hard I tried, I could not hold back this flood. I eventually had to stop telling my story altogether and continued to weep for another few hours. It was the next day before I was able to understand what had happened. I had stumbled into a pocket of unexpressed grief.

Experience 2:

In 2007, I was invited to my class’ 10 year college reunion. It was a weekend consisting of many events. The first was a Q and A with the current students in which my class of 30 answered to what they have been doing since graduation. Following that were events in which we mingled with the faculty in various venues and over different themed buffets. The culmination was a big party at one of the graduate’s homes in which everyone and anyone was invited to attend.

While it was wonderful to see old friends, I spent the weekend feeling as though I was on the verge of tears. In everything I did, I was riding a wave of subtle sadness that I couldn’t shake. As I sat and watched those around me, I felt such envy. As I talked with old professors I felt a sense of unworthiness and shame. I had not graduated from this school. I had to leave in my third year because my health was too poor to continue. I was placed on the lung transplant list the summer after my second year and never returned to finish my degree. I envied those framed diplomas on the wall in the homes of those around me. I felt embarrassed to be the student in the room who only finished two years. I wondered if the teachers even remembered who I was.

At the final party, I fell into a pocket of grief. All the memories and all the nostalgia swarmed around me. It was intoxicating and reminded me of how passionate I was about school back then. It reminded me of the girl who wanted nothing more than to finish this acting conservatory and live the dream of being a working actor. I was hit with the sorrow that came with having to drop out and leave this dream behind. I felt such sadness for the girl who, once again, had to give up something she loved because of her illness.

I cried for that girl all the way home.

The Verdict:

Pockets of Grief may appear when you least expect it. Often, it takes time to understand what is going on and where the emotion is coming from. Because it is emotion from the past, it can feel disjointed and unspecific. The ambiguity of this kind of emotion can make it especially confusing.

I have cried for the girl that did Ton Glen every day. I have cried for the girl that had to walk away from her passions and her dreams. I have cried for her today because I can. I now have the breath and the strength to sob for her losses. I can do today what she was unable to do so long ago. The energy of these emotions have lived within me for all of these years and now, through my tears, the grief may be transformed.

My Version of Ton Glen:

Close your eyes and get as comfortable as you can.
Take 3 slow breaths.
With each breath, relax more and more.
Look within yourself and discover the place where you feel the most pain.
Picture yourself standing next to your pain. The pain may be a specific object or a blob of energy.
Pick up your pain and hold it in your hands.
Now imagine walking to a bank. Enter the bank and go up to a teller.
Hand the pain to the teller and inform him/her that you would like to make a deposit into the account where pain is kept.
Let the teller take the pain out of your hands.
Say to her and yourself; "I offer this pain to all who are suffering with the same kind of pain, now or anytime in the future. May they suffer less because I suffered consciously today."
Now picture a person, it's probably not a person you know, suffering with the same kind of pain you are experiencing.
Picture them coming to that bank and making a withdrawal from that account.
Picture them being soothed and their pain lessening.
They suffered less because you suffered consciously today.
Repeat: "I offer this pain to all who are suffering with the same kind of pain, now or anytime in the future. May they suffer less because I suffered consciously today."

This meditation was helpful to me on two levels. First, it allowed me to feel like I was contributing to the world even at a time when I was unable to get off of the couch. Second, every time I did this meditation, my physical symptoms were lessened. I found great comfort in this exercise.


JJBrake said...

As a fellow classmate from that very school you had to walk away from, I too feel the same mourning. Granted, I'm not ill, however, I realized only then that I walked away from my dreams (and my friends, you being one of them).
And now, 10 years later, I too am mourning. Damn, if it didn't take me by surprise. I need to look into that bank and make a deposit because darn tootin' those new grads are going to go through the same mourning someday. We all do, some sooner or sicker than later.

Femail doc said...

Two comments:

One: This is a very moving post, particularly because I was overwhelmed with a pocket of grief this week as my son graduated from high school while my aging mother lost ground to multiple strokes. Now I better understand what all those waves of tears were from (wish they hadn't flowed, however, at the grocery store).

Two: I vote for this format for your book, i.e. experiences followed by verdict. Your style is very clear and very helpful with this approach.

Thank you for sharing all you go through with us.