Turning Toward + Relaxing into Grief

It’s been about 19 weeks since my husband Tom died and I’ve been surprised to find that after a month of fairly quiet grieving, my grieving in the last two weeks has been more dramatic and noticeable. I’ve been crying at work more than I have since my first week back in September. I’ve been crying at home in the evenings, especially after dinner, when the house and dogs are quiet and there is nothing left to distract me. I am still feeling peaceful about his actual death, but I am missing him intensely. I’ve had a few moments in the house where I was sure as I turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of him, or even worse, I turned a corner expecting to see him, and he wasn’t there. Both experiences cause a sudden welling of emotion and I find myself going from totally fine to being a puddle on the floor in an instant.

I suspect that the times I’ve cried at work are related to me feeling more connected to the routines of work rather than just going through the motions, as I was for the first six weeks I was back. I’ll be walking back to my office from class and think of a funny thing that happened in class that I can’t wait to tell Tom about it and then, BAM, there’s the remembering that he’s gone. For the first six weeks or so, “Tom is dead” played like a soundtrack at very low volume in my head during every moment. Now that the soundtrack has faded, I have moments of dramatically remembering that he’s gone.

I also am spending less time absorbed in the bureaucratic aspects of his death—settling his estate, paying bills and arguing about insurance matters related to his last hospital stay, notifying people and organizations of his death, planning celebration of life events, and the like. This frees up my brain to do more grieving.

I knew from the widow support groups I’m in on Facebook that this could happen. Lots of people in those groups post about spikes in grief that come up unexpectedly or around birthdays, holidays, and other special days. With Halloween being Tom’s favorite holiday, I wondered if the end of October would trigger more dramatic grief in me. Now I have my answer. I also know from years of therapy that I can’t hurry my process or avoid it, so I’m just letting it unfold and documenting it for you. Thanks for being my audience.

Instead of pushing my grief aside, being frustrated with it showing up inconveniently, or being embarrassed about its unexpected appearances, I’ve been trying to practice what Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft calls “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace. Tom and I discovered Doug Kraft after Tom’s stroke, when we spent a lot of time together listening to audiobooks and Buddhist lectures and meditations on forgiveness. (I’ll blog at some point in the future about the profound role forgiveness played in Tom’s last year for both of us.) Kraft has a very open, colloquial approach to Buddhist concepts, which Tom appreciated.

To turn toward and relax into something, Kraft says we need to let go of the “preverbal, precognitive, instinctual tightening” that happens inside us when we perceive something threatening. He gives this example:

When we are about to step off the sidewalk and notice a car coming our way, the body tightens. We don’t think about it, contemplate it, or decide to stiffen. It just happens.

https://www.easingawake.com/?p=ThreeEssential

Kraft explains that the tightening itself isn’t suffering, but it’s the tightening that keeps us from turning toward and relaxing into our suffering. He says that to really experience peace, we need to turn toward and relax into our suffering. I know from my 20+ years of Buddhist practicing that this is classic Buddhist thought, and I also know that I’ve never been able to do it. Now that I am working on doing it, I realize that I’ve never actually tried to do it but rather dismissed it as an unrealistic goal. Maybe because I’m older now or maybe because I’m experiencing much more intense tightening than I have in the past, what used to appear to be an unrealistic goal now appears to be the promised land and I want to get there.

As I work consciously to turn toward and relax into my grief, I notice that one of my default strategies to avoid turning toward and relaxing into my grief is working. I find myself thinking, “I don’t have time for grief, I need to be prepping for class or revising an article draft.” In reflecting on my past, I can see this as an ongoing theme from the time my mother died when I was 12. At that time, I turned toward schoolwork and reading. Whenever I experienced a loss, I dove into schoolwork and then later, work. I received praise for my diligence around schoolwork and work, so it felt like I was doing something right. Now I see that the affirmation around schoolwork and work was misleading.

Doing well at school and at work results in tangible deliverables and rewards: good grades, a publication, a line on a resume or CV, accolades from colleagues and/or students. There are defined milestones—the end of the semester or the submitting of a manuscript. With grieving, the milestones are ambiguous. There is no external recognition of doing a good job. When someone asks me what I’ve been doing lately, it’s a lot more socially acceptable to say, “I’ve been working hard” than “I’ve been immobile on the couch crying.”

For me, turning toward involves loosening my attachment to milestones and goals. The recent resurgence of my not-quiet grieving is a reminder that milestones and goals related to grief are unrealistic and that grieving is not a linear process.

I also want to note, as I often do, how privileged I am to be in a position where I can relax my focus on job-related goals without fear of losing my job. I’m tenured, I’ve been promoted to full professor; I don’t have to worry about being judged for not publishing as much for a while or not putting 100% into my teaching this semester. I will certainly be judged, but it won’t have any consequential effect on my career. What if I were at an earlier, more precarious point in my career? I was not able to give myself the room to even think about turning toward and relaxing into grief when my grandfather died and I was working as a food server. When I experienced turmoil in my life when I was working as an adjunct or when I was pre-tenure, attending to my mental health in this way could have had catastrophic effects on my career trajectory.

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