Grief and boundaries

Fridays are becoming free-for-alls for me here on the blog. Of course, it sort of fits with my no-theme theme and methodology of blogging. Today is inspired by both by current events in my life and things I have crossed paths with while wandering around and reading random stuff.

My friend J has been quite ill for the last month. Seems like he is rallying and turning the corner toward his eventual full recovery. I say that because he is back to making morbid jokes that alternately make me laugh, want to cry from the visions it creates, or want to slug him for scaring me by getting so very sick.

Mostly I choose laughter, and I recognize it is tinged with relief that my friend is still here and able to make me laugh.

Over the course of this week and the one prior has been a lot of thought about loss, grief, mourning, sadness. I know what all that feels like, having been through it with those I love and unfortunately more than once. It’s almost a selfish thing, to mourn. This is not to be confused with the current connotation that being selfish is a terrible personality trait. Personally, I am starting to truly believe that too much of anything, including selflessness, becomes something twisted and negative.

When B died at age 12, her youth was a component of the sadness surrounding her passing. She was too young to even know what a bucket list is, much less have one to complete. When my friend Jamie died last year, he was older, in faltering health, and had lived a long and productive life. His bucket list had been retired or mostly retired by the time he died.

I use these examples from my own life because they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. I am still sad when I think about them. But it’s a selfish sort of sadness. Jamie was such a guiding force in my life that helped me unpack and sort through my stuff and grow up in work so I could be more effective managing marriage, motherhood, work, life. I miss our conversations, just sitting around talking about everything and nothing in particular. He was a source of joy and laughter and happiness for me, and from that perspective, how could I not be a little sad to have lost it? How could I not miss it?

With my daughter, it is different yet the same. When her siblings married this year, I was saddened by the shadow of her I saw in these happy events. Just like every holiday, every family gathering no matter how trivial in the last 20 years I have at least a few seconds pass through my mind that someone is missing from our table, that there is an empty chair. Anymore it’s a brief span of time that now makes me smile wistfully with my sad. If only. She was loved so much in her short life and still missed 20 years after leaving this life.

My sadness has nothing to do with unfinished business or wishing to change something about these relationships. It’s just the selfish desire of a mother and a friend left behind. I’m glad I still think of them, glad I have good memories to enjoy, and just a tinge of wistful that we are not creating new memories or they are not an active presence in whatever is going on in my life in the moment.

These are examples of what I consider grief and it does not play for me as it is portrayed in mainstream media. I cried buckets of tears and felt my heart break with both these losses. At the same time, I am a practical soul who understands my own heart and (mostly) mind. I knew the sadness would pass and made no apologies for being happy. There was never a time when my life so dark and so dreary all the joy and color was completely sucked out of it. In my experience there seems to be an unspoken expectation that we all grieve and mourn in the same way, or at least we should express our sorrows in a similar way, as if there is a standard to which we may be measured in how feeling or unfeeling we are in our periods of sadness. That I tend to be on the less expressive side of that equation tends to wig people out. My mother was an excellent example. A few weeks after B died, she told me I never loved my daughter, that she raised her, that she loved her more. I had to walk away from that. There are no winners in contests of who hurts more when suffering a tragic loss.

And I suppose this extreme disconnect between my parents and me explains why I rarely think about them, feel as if a stranger had died and left me with a house full of crap that had to be dealt with. Understand this is not me wishing them to be dead or gone from my life; for the most part, I had as little contact as possible with my parents during my adult life. I am glad my kids had opportunity to know their grandparents, and for them, there are fond memories of my dad (he died when they were in grade school) and a more mixed bag of memories for my mom (she died 3 years ago). Depression, learned helplessness, active dependence are not traits I shared with my mom, and I instilled in both my kids a sense of independence and desire to take care of themselves that she never completely understood. It made her final years, particularly the last 6 months, hard on all of us.

I do not mourn their loss or grieve their absence from my life. They would have had to have played a more active role in my life to warrant such feelings of affection and loss, and both were emotionally absent while being present in my growing up years or even my adult years. Sadly, there is nothing unique about our dysfunctional relationship. Alcoholism and depression at work. Intellectually understanding what who they were as people and what ailments they suffered from does nothing to soften my indifference toward them as an adult. Perhaps I am selfish and entitled for feeling as if I deserved a little better parenting than what I received.

Thinking about my folks brings me to the boundaries part of today’s think-fest.

Growing up in an alcoholic home, I developed all the ticks and twists of your average codependent. I have great capacity to be a major-league control freak and exhibit extraordinary controlling behavior. In addition to that, I was victimized sexually by a really twisted man. Mental and emotional assistance for my issues did not arrive until adulthood, and even then, it was a push-pull, 1 step forward, 2 steps back process. So believe me, I know a bit about boundaries – establishing them and enforcing them.

My unwillingness to talk about my past nearly cost me my present marriage. While I had been seeing a therapist off and on for most of our relationship, I generally refused to talk about our sessions and discussions. Dealing with my crap impacted our marriage, although M brought his own suitcase full of insecurity and stuff as well. Dealing with our own crap separately while trying to be married was a traditional recipe for unhappiness. By the time we got to the boiling point, I was so angry and so unhappy I was ready to file for divorce. We separated. We went into individual and couples therapy to work on our own stuff and our couples stuff and came out so much better on the other side.

Boundaries were a big part of that work.

M is like a dog with a bone when he wants information about something he senses is important somehow. I am very disinclined to volunteer information under threat or in the midst of being interrogated. A boundary we pounded out in therapy is that if I am not willing or able to talk about something, he backs off. No badgering. No bullying. No emotional blackmail. For me, if he asks me something I cannot or will not talk about, I have to state that I am unwilling or unable to talk about it at that time. If necessary, we will go back to therapy to pound it out. It has been years since we even approached that point. But in the early days, it was good to have a get out of jail free card when things got hard. If I was resistant to sharing something or if he was badgering me, we could each drag the other my ass back to therapy to figure out a way out of this.

It made me stop threatening him with divorce every time he pushed too far. Once I got calmed down enough to trust him to not push that way, he got assurances that I was not a flight risk and it greatly reduced his anxiety and desperation. We needed help working at establishing and enforcing healthy boundaries, and we are now involved in a happy marriage.

But my reason for thinking about boundaries today is conversations with friends and recent roamings around blogville.

I don’t know how people do these things, when there has been betrayal and egregious breaches of trust. For me, I am a compartmentalizer. I tend to put emotions of various stripes into boxes until I can cope with them. When it comes to thoughts, I do my best to sort them out, stay rational, triage and stay focused on what seems like highest priorities.

Still, I feel as if I have lived a mostly charmed life. As a parent, my kids were normal, easy-to-raise kids. They are both adults now, and we have close relationships. It’s something I value and protect. Work and career track has not been supremely exciting and fast-tracked stellar, but it has been a steady climb and allowed me to provide for my kids as a single parent even before M came into our lives. I am a good and responsible friend, also relationships I value. Unfortunately not all friends reciprocate affection and trust in the same ways. It’s a balance that does not always work.

Boundaries with friends have been an ongoing challenge with me. In the last year, long friendships have become strained, challenged, ended. Or they have grown closer, deeper, more connected. The common denominator, the catalyst for change, has been a friendship dynamic adjustment where I am no longer completely satisfied with “because it’s always been this way.” As I have grown and changed and faced and overcome challenges, enjoyed successes in other aspects of my life, the trickle down has been to some of the longest relationships of my life.

My friend J, the younger brother I never had (and quite possibly never, ever wanted) has always been a close friend, but in the last 18 months, 2 years he’s grown exponentially more important to me and my nearest and dearest. At first it was partly his alarm at my paying money to work with a gym trainer – he became guard dog protective and suspicious about everything trainer J was trying to teach me at first – and now it’s another activity and understanding we have in common. I have learned so much and am continuing to learn with trainer J, from friend J, and on my own in the gym on my own practice.

Other old friends cheer for me, share my successes, commiserate with me on my shortfalls. It’s been more than a year. I no longer get terribly upset and frustrated about my lack of mainstream and traditionally measured progress. I can do my List of the day today and again tomorrow. I can do a pilates class on Sunday. I am trying (and mostly succeeding) in doing more yoga, just to try and get some flex into my body. And I am working on an interim fuck moderation methodology with my eating.

These are good things.

Unfortunately, as I and others on similar journeys have experienced, not everyone in our lives is as supportive and kind about our quest to change our habits and our lives. As I have grown stronger in my ability to kindly and firmly set and enforce acceptable behavior towards me, conflicts have arisen. Mostly they are handled in positive ways. Some, not so much. Disappointing.

But while I have some sadness and some grief associated with those losses, sometimes even friendships run their course and have an expiration date. At the same time, I am the better, stronger version of myself. I can let them go without rancor or even real distress. I can let them go with my thanks for many years and happy memories, but I can also feel that putting my needs and my desires and enforcing my own boundaries to protect myself and my objectives in life is not just important but critical to thriving. Once upon a time I would have judged myself harshly, felt selfish and self-centered for taking care of me. That time is long past.

Maybe greater maturity is knowing when to hold em, when to fold em, when to walk away, when to run. Or maybe I am just in the better, healthier place.

And that, dear friends, is a Very Good Thing for me.

 

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