The Difference Between Bearable and Unbearable Grief

Returning to places I used to go to with my late husband is always a bit emotional. Being in the airport reminds me of how he made everything into a competition (I had TSA pre-check and he didn’t, so he had to go through the regular security line; he would repeatedly catch my eye from his line and signal that he was going to beat me through—he was jubilant the time my bag was selected for extra searching and he did actually beat me). Going to the local arts festival reminded me of how he would impulsively buy artwork. Shopping for produce reminds me of the time he somehow aroused the suspicion of a grocery store security guy and got followed throughout the entire store, prompting him to crouch down and navigate through the produce section like a ninja.

I have deliberately avoided going to some of the places we went to together because I suspect being there without him will be very emotional for me. One of our favorite restaurants is in our neighborhood, just a few blocks from the house. Before the pandemic, we went once or twice a month, often just sitting at the bar to eat oysters and have a glass of wine. It was our go-to place for small celebrations, like me getting a paper published or him scoring a victory at work. After his stroke, we weren’t able to go, because of both the pandemic and his mobility challenges, but we did get carryout twice. After he died, I had to work up the nerve to just walk past the place and many times I started to walk past it, felt emotion welling up in my chest, and changed my route.

Last week, my brother-in-law and his wife were in town and they suggested we all have dinner at that restaurant. I immediately agreed, with the caveat that I might in the moment not be up for it, which they understood. We decided to go on Monday night. One of my first thoughts that morning was, “I’m having dinner there.” The anticipation built up all day. I had no idea how it would hit me to actually be inside the space. I felt fragile all day—a little on edge, a little protective of myself.

There’s an Albert Gyorgy sculpture called “Melancholie” that portrays grief as a gaping hole where the heart, lungs, and other organs should be. This image of grief captures the enormity of both the loss I feel and the irony of still having a body that moves through the world. On Monday as I moved through my day, going to work and then walking the dogs, I might as well have had my organs torn out. I felt raw and vulnerable.

When my brother-in-law and his wife arrived, they asked me if I was still up for going to that restaurant and I said, “Let’s do it.” I was no more up for it than I had been a few months ago, but I was tired of carefully avoiding walking past the place. Stepping into the space, smelling the old familiar scents, seeing the dark wood that my late husband loved so much, having flashes of so many memories of celebrations at the bar, was overwhelming for a moment. The place was busy and we were surrounded by the buzz of other diners. The three of us took a long time going over the menu, with me telling stories about which dishes my late husband had particularly enjoyed. One of the benefits of a busy restaurant is that everyone else is too absorbed in their story to notice three people crying at the next table.

We toasted him repeatedly. I kept noticing the empty chair beside me, where Tom would have been. His absence was so tangible it felt like he was there, one of the many ironies of loss.

It was a delicious meal, full of love. I felt deeply connected to my brother-in-law and his wife. I think it would have made my late husband very happy to see the three of us there together, laughing and crying and toasting him. When I got home, I sobbed for a long time, lingering over the memories we had talked about at dinner, savoring each one and mourning that there will be no more.

I loved feeling so close to my brother-in-law and his wife and being flooded with memories of celebrations with my late husband. It didn’t lessen my grief one bit, but it allowed me to share my grief. It didn’t make my grief more bearable, but it made it differently bearable. If grief is a gaping hole where my organs should be, for the time I was in the restaurant, I knew I wasn’t the only one with that gaping hole. But the hole is still there, and it might be even bigger because I have a better understanding of the gravity of loss my brother-in-law and his wife feel.

The grief was exactly as hard and painful as I thought it would be. I had anticipated it to be unbearable, but I did bear it, so it turns out the grief was bearable. The only difference between what I felt and what I thought I would feel is the label. It turns out I can sit in a restaurant for 90 minutes feeling completely gutted. I had mislabeled that as unbearable, but now I know it is bearable.

There is no hack to make it more bearable.

Stop Shaming People Who Use Accommodations to Work Remotely

“Please make an effort.” “It would mean a lot to me if you were there in person.” “Make every effort to be there in person.” These are a few examples of the ablest and shaming rhetoric I’ve heard lately on campus about using accommodations to attend meetings remotely. My colleagues and I who have accommodations to attend meetings remotely are regularly asked to “make an effort” to attend face-to-face. The implication is clear: if you use your accommodation, you are not making an effort.

Campus leaders routinely engage in ableism, framing accommodations as attempts to not put in effort. I was recently in a meeting in which a colleague showed a video; as it began without subtitles, an attendee asked, “Can you turn the subtitles on?” The colleague said, “Can you just make an effort?”

Or using accommodations is framed as ruining everyone else’s fun, as in this example: A colleague described an icebreaker they had planned for a meeting that involved attendees doing some silly activities with a tight time limit. I asked, “What if some folks have accommodations for anxiety? Wouldn’t this ice breaker cause anxiety?” My colleague argued that the icebreaker was just for fun. For me, being humiliated by having an anxiety attack in from of my peers is not my idea of fun.

When people do use their accommodations, the culture of shaming can show up in disgruntled whispers of colleagues who ask incredulously, “What’s their disability?!” or comment, “I wish I didn’t have to attend in person!” or “It’s inconvenient for me, too, but I manage it.” These whispers are encouraged when the leader begins the meeting by saying, “That you all for making the effort to be here,” implying that folks who aren’t there didn’t make an effort.

I’ve written before about the challenges of getting documentation of a disability so I can get accommodations  and about why I don’t always ask for accommodations I am entitled to. The entire process of justifying accommodations is disempowering, humiliating, and time-consuming. Then, once a person goes through that process, they are shamed for using the accommodations.

On my campus, leaders regularly shame people who use their accommodations to attend meetings remotely instead of in person. Here are some examples of the shaming language I have heard lately:

What leaders say: “people are tired of remote meetings” or “staring at a screen is exhausting”

Translation: it’s your fault that people still have to attend remote meetings and be exhausted

But here’s the truth: many people dislike meetings whether they are remote or in person.

Here’s another truth: many people prefer remote meetings and are better able to engage when they can be home with their pets and/or children or in an environment they can control.

What leaders say: “I expect you to be there in person”

Translation: If you are not there in person, you are not meeting expectations. This echoes the language of evaluation in which people who are evaluated as doing their jobs poorly are rated “does not meet expectations.” Not meeting expectations is bad and shameful.

The truth: The expectations of leaders are often unreasonable and not grounded in the reality of workloads, bandwidths, and structural inequities.

What leaders say: “This is a reasonable expectation”

Translation: I have not done any research into this, but I strongly prefer in-person meetings and this is how we did things in the before-times and everyone was fine with it.

The truth: No, everyone was not actually fine with it. You didn’t ask or you weren’t listening or people didn’t feel empowered to speak up. Parents and other caregivers, people with disabilities and/or unreasonable workloads were not fine with it. I have never been fine with most in-person meetings, which are typically run badly and take me away from doing the meaningful work of teaching and research.

What leaders say: “The benefit of face-to-face meetings outweigh the convenience of attending from home via Zoom”

Translation: attending via Zoom is a mere convenience for people who are lazy, unmotivated, disengaged, and/or not prioritizing the important work that will happen at this meeting.

The truth: Accommodations are not about convenience, laziness, motivation, engagement, or priorities. Accommodations acknowledge differences in bodies and neurology. My glasses are technically an accommodation, not something I use because they are convenient or I am lazy. Glasses are commonplace enough that we don’t typically recognize them as an accommodation. Surely, a supervisor wouldn’t ban people from wearing glasses to a meeting. But if I ask for special lighting, I am likely to be told that there are others who will be bothered by that lighting. Why not let me attend remotely, then, so that I can control the lighting in my workspace without impacting others?

An anti-ableist alternative to all of these examples is to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all mode for meetings. We might even begin by evaluating whether a meeting we are planning is necessary. Once the specific purposes of the meeting are identified, a reasonable judgment can be made about whether the purposes will be undermined by remote attendance.

Any time a leader questions the legitimacy of an accommodation, they create a culture of ableism in which disability is seen as evidence that someone is “broken.”

Savoring Peace in Grief: I am Happy (and Crying)

It’s been just about 14 months now since my husband died. The shock of him being dead is mostly gone, the bureaucratic aspects of his dying are mostly complete, and I have mostly established new routines and rhythms that feel good. And yet, I still miss him and the life we had intensely.

There is a lot of contradiction in my life right now. It’s hard to explain that I’m not at all lonely or depressed, but I cry every day, sometimes off and on for most of the day. I still keep boxes of tissues in every room of the house and always have some with me when I leave home.

Someone watching me cry off and on all day might say, “But your crying is getting in the way of you writing more or cleaning your house more or blah blah blah.” Real talk: noting is getting in the way of me cleaning my house more except for my dislike of cleaning. I could write more, I suppose, but I’m actually satisfied with the amount of writing I’m getting done right now. My crying isn’t keeping me from doing anything I want to do. Odd as it sounds, I sometimes prefer crying to doing something “fun.”

The platitudes about keeping busy, making new friends, and reinventing myself as a widowed person aren’t helpful. I am busy, I have made new friends, I am reinventing myself as a widowed person.

My life is full of love and laughter—and crying and missing my late husband. I don’t want for love or joy or laughter, I want for that love, that joy, that laughter that he and I shared. There are things I miss that he and I did together that I could do with others or by myself. For example, I haven’t been camping since he and I went in May 2020, right before his stroke. I have a number of friends who would take me camping if I asked, but I don’t want to go camping—I want to go camping with him. I want to snuggle into our big red double sleeping bag and joke with him about the dogs snoring. I want to wake up in the morning to him making cowboy coffee. I want to read in camp while he goes for a motorcycle ride and then listen to his stories about what an epic ride it was.

For me, this is what 14 months out looks like and I’m not concerned about it. My continuing grief is only a problem if I identify it as one—and I don’t. I am at home in my grief and also in my new life. I have plenty of meaningful work, hobbies, and relationships.

I think I am simply continuing to turn toward and relax into grief. When I originally blogged about that, I noted that Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft identifies “three essential moves” of grappling with difficult emotions: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace.  (Technically, Kraft says these are three essential moves of Buddhism, but because Buddhism focuses on letting go of suffering, I think it’s a fair paraphrase to to say the three essential moves can be applied to difficult emotions.) I began turning toward and relaxing into my grief last fall. I think what I am experiencing now—the feeling of being at home in my grief—is “savoring peace.” When I first read about “savoring peace,” I had no idea what it really meant, but now I do very much feel at peace and there is an element of savoring, of really enjoying and appreciating the depth of my grief experience, free from any sense that I should be feeling or doing something differently.

Disability = Normal. Disability ≠ Brokenness.

I’ve been very public with my vision issues and my recent experiences with anxiety. I do this to normalize disability. Living with disability is totally normal for me and for lots of other people. The most recent statistic I saw is that one in four adults in the U.S. has a disability at any given moment. The longer you live, the more likely it is that you will acquire a disability. My late husband is a great example: he lived without disability for decades and then when he was 60, he had a massive stroke that left him with multiple disabilities. He went from completely able-bodied to disabled in a split second.

Despite the fact that so many people are or will be disabled, we have a hard time as a culture understanding disability without judgment. The assumption that everyone is or should be able-bodied is called ableism and it is everywhere. I wrote about the challenges my late husband and I faced trying to get around downtown Denver when he was using a wheelchair last year. The restaurant that required wheelchair users to send a companion in to ask for help, wait for the right employee to materialize, get escorted around the building, and then traverse a large space in front of an audience had designed its entrance with the assumption that all patrons would be able-bodied.

I recently listened to a fantastic podcast on ableism. Glennon Doyle featured Carson Tueller on the July 27 episode of her podcast We Can Do Hard Things. The episode was titled “How to Love Your Body Now,” which is an idea that can apply to anyone, able-bodied or disabled. Carson Tueller, who was paralyzed from the chest down in an accident in 2013, told the story of how he came to accept, love, and feel at home in his body, recognizing it as “complete and enough.”

Tueller explains ableism as “the idea that there is such a thing as a good body and a disabled body is a broken version of a good body.” I like this explanation because of its use of the word “broken.” Something that is broken is damaged or ruined. We throw out things that are broken. When we understand some bodies as broken, we bring with us into that understanding the connotations of “broken”—that the body is ruined, it should be thrown out. The person living in the disabled body is seen as disposable. Unlovable. Unworthy.

Tueller shares that after his accident, he found a new way of thinking about his body. Instead of thinking of his body as broken, he thought, “My body now works differently.” That may seem like a small shift, but as Tueller explains, there is “no drama, no brokenness there” and that thinking of the accident as something that changed his life rather than as “a disaster that ruined my life” made it possible for him to see his body in its current state as complete rather than broken.

Notice that it’s not the injury or disability itself that causes the feelings of disposability or unworthiness—it’s the ableism that assumes a disabled body is broken. As Tueller says, “I can survive being paralyzed. I can’t survive feeling unlovable.” Tueller has found that living in a disabled body is quite wonderful (and I was thrilled to hear him disrupt the notion that disabled bodies aren’t sexy or that disabled people are asexual—he is having great sex).

When we assume that disability needs fixing, we convey that disability is a de facto problem, that something is wrong with people who have disabilities. There is nothing wrong with my eyes. My eyes can’t be wrong. Yes, my eyes function differently from lots of other eyes. But my frustrations with my vision are usually connected to something outside of me that could be fixed. For example, one of my most common challenges is not being able to read signs. Why is the assumption that my eyes are the problem rather than the poorly designed signs? I meet people all the time who can’t read street name signs, street numbers on buildings, and the like. Why not just make bigger signs or use a different font and make everything easier for everyone?

This idea that the problem is located in the person with the disability is ableism and it sneaks into our lives in insidious ways. In “Unlearning the Ableism of Cookbooks and Kitchen Wisdom,” Gabrielle Drolet brings attention to what she calls small-scale disability—”the little things that add up to make a life. Things like tying your shoelaces or braiding your hair or lighting a candle. Like turning on the faucets to wash your hands. Texting your friends. Cooking with ease.” The type of ableism Drolet identifies in cookbooks is less about brokenness and more about laziness. The cook who buys pre-ground pepper or uses paper plates is assumed to be lazy or wasteful. I was called wasteful when I bought two identical cutting boards, one in white and one in green, but with low vision, I can’t see the onion I’m cutting on a white board or the basil I’m cutting on a green board. The person who called me wasteful didn’t ask why I wanted two boards—they jumped straight to calling me wasteful.

Ableism is so deeply baked into our culture that during Disability Pride Month (July), someone asked me why anyone would take pride in being disabled. This was a person I know to be kind and generous. The question was a genuine one and grew out of the idea that being disabled equals being broken. Why take pride in being broken? To grasp taking pride in being disabled, you have to reject the idea that disability equals brokenness.

I am not broken. I do not need fixing. I love myself, my eyes, and even my anxiety. My low vision and anxiety are natural and normal. I refuse to be ashamed of them.

In Praise of Crying + How to Trigger It

Crying releases endorphins, hormones that help relieve stress and make us feel more at peace. It’s also actually good for our eyes. It’s possible that crying can even help us sleep better, although the research to date has focused on babies rather than adults. Here are a few short articles on the benefits of crying:

Since my husband died last year, I have cried a lot, often every day for weeks or months in a row, so I was surprised earlier this summer when I felt like I wanted to cry but I couldn’t seem to summon up any tears. It was frustrating because I felt the build up inside of me that tells me I need to cry . . . but with no crying, there was no release of that build up. I felt it in my chest, a tightness first and then a weight that grew and grew. It got to where I felt like I couldn’t even take a deep breath.

I knew that once I could get myself to cry, that pressure would be relieved and those endorphins would flood me with feelings of peace.

I’ve had conversations with two people recently who are grieving but feel like they can’t cry. Like I felt a few weeks ago, they want to cry but they can’t seem to do it. This made me realize I’m not the only one who experiences this.

I’ve started a list on my phone of “crying triggers” that I can turn to when I want to cry but can’t seem to. None of these things works all the time, which is why I need a long list. I can work my way down the list or just randomly try something from it until I find the thing that will do the trick that particular day. Here is my list:

  • Listening to music. Music is a powerful trigger for me. I have a playlist called “Life after Tom” that is music he loved or music that reminds me of a particular experience we shared. He loved Carsie Blanton, so there are a few of her songs. We went to Old Crow Medicine Show and David Bromberg shows together, so there are songs by them. He never started a motorcycle ride without cranking up the Gourds version of “Gin and Juice,” so that’s there. Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan” reminds me of our trip to Cuba.
  • Listening to recordings of my late husband’s voice. Had I known he was going to die so young, I would have saved every voice message he left me, but I only have a few random ones from the last couple of years. Even though most of them are just him saying something like, “Hey, wanted to let you know I’m stopping for a drink after work,” just hearing his voice and remembering what normal life with him was like can bring tears.
  • Watching videos of him. I am lucky to have a lot of videos of him, partly because he did a lot of ridiculous things that demanded recording, like challenging his brother to a pogo-stick versus stilts fight. I also have videos of him playing with the dogs, working hard in PT after his stroke, and zipping around in the street in his motorized wheelchair (I love that video because there’s my voice in the background yelling, “Wait, slow down, I can’t keep up!” and “Look to your left!”). These videos often make me laugh while I’m crying, which is often even better than just crying.
  • Looking at photos of him. Two photos in particular get me: one of him with his son from maybe 12 years ago on a trip to Aspen and a more recent one of him with my daughter on a camping trip. I think these two photos get me because they remind me of the loss our kids have experienced and of how proud he was to be a father to both of them.
  • Opening the drawer I call the “smells like Tom drawer.” This is a drawer in the closet full of T-shirts, towels, and other things that smelled like Tom at one point. He’s been dead long enough that nothing in the drawer actually smells like him anymore, but psychologically, these items feel like relics of his. I open the drawer, hold different items, and snuggle them up to my face as though they do still smell like him. I can remember his smell when I do that.
  • Going to a place where I have memories with him. This can be a place in the house, like the bathroom that he meticulously tiled every inch of, or a seemingly random location, like the alley by our house where I was walking one of our dogs one day, heard something, and turned around to find Tom had followed us in his motorized wheelchair. The Denver Art Museum is a solid trigger for me because we had an amazing outing there after his stroke that is full of tender memories for me.
  • Working out, especially if it’s a cardio-only workout where I can kind of zone out. My elliptical is good for this, and running works, too. There’s some research that indicates that during exercise, our emotions may get processed through our bodies.
  • Getting bodywork, such as acupuncture or massage, done. I think this trigger works similarly to working out, tapping into the mind-body connections.

These triggers have worked so well for me the last few weeks that I’m back to crying every day, enjoying the endorphin fix.