Memories and Grief Dug Up From the Past
While reading a manuscript about childhood loss, I was thrown back in time to the day my dad told us his mother was dying of lung cancer. It was the first and only time I saw my dad cry, and even now, just thinking about it unnerves me.
Yet as a child, I followed my parents’ lead when it came to emotional issues, not only because it was all I knew, but because I was often ridiculed for being overly sensitive. Though I was already 12 at the time, I’d had a few hard lessons about publicly expressing my emotions. I’d continue to experience humiliation from many directions until I learned to switch that part of me off (not the best solution, but all I had for a long time). The little I knew about losing someone I loved was enough to color my first experience with grieving.
So when I started reading about how a child’s grief is different from that of an adult, it threw me back to when my grandmother died. I realized I never grieved her passing. We visited her a few times before she passed, and I think I went to her funeral. But after that, she was just gone. We didn’t talk about her or think about her any more after that—until Dad took his life after being diagnosed with the same disease that killed his mother.
Emotions Buried, Memories Skewed
Even so, it’s taken me years of writing therapy, reading books about other peoples’ suicide experiences, and finally, a book about childhood loss to shake loose the feelings and emotions I buried so long ago.
The first thing I discovered was my faulty memory. In my mind I lost my grandmother when I was 10, but in reality (and after a Google search for her obituary) I discovered I was 12. Researching the date actually helps to put things in perspective as the year she died, 1968, was a pretty eventful one all the way around.
That was the year I was walking about 2 miles to attend a Junior High School that was out of my district. I’d leave the house early to make the 45 minute walk most days rather than having my mother drive me. I remember walking alone and enjoying the solitude. In those days, no one thought twice about a young girl walking alone on a city street. By the time my daughters were born, we were diligent about teaching our kids to travel in groups. Were the weirdos and creeps always there, or has life and disconnection made them more common?
I don’t remember what I thought about on those long walks to school. I don’t even remember having any friends, though I’m sure I interacted with someone during my school days. I do remember bottling up my emotions until they’d come out in a flood at inconvenient moments. It opened me up to the cruelty of Junior High School kids (the worst of all if you ask me) and likely caused me to recede further into myself.
The Festering Cesspool of Unexpressed Emotions
Mixed in with those emotions were probably the things I couldn’t express about losing my grandmother. My dad’s example wouldn’t allow it. After her death, I don’t remember any pictures of her around the house except in my parents’ wedding picture which I didn’t see until years later. Her name wasn’t spoken. We didn’t even go visit my grandfather. He visited us once with a cousin he’d married so he wouldn’t be alone. It wasn’t long after my grandmother’s death, and she asked us to call her “Grandma”. My sister and I ran up the stairs to our rooms in tears.
Again, my memory is unclear as a search revealed the marriage didn’t take place until 1971, 3 years after my grandmother’s death. Our grief was clearly lying dormant awaiting an opportunity to be expressed openly—an opportunity which never came.
Other memories of 1968 include horrific migraines (a legacy from my grandmother and father) which had me throwing up in trash cans while waiting for my mother to pick me up from school. But it wasn’t an entirely bad year. It was also the year we moved to Westlake Village after spending the better part of the year traveling back and forth so my dad could do the electrical in our new house himself. He’d made a deal with the builder to reduce the price and allow him to do what he wanted. We ended up with upgraded appliances and far more lighting than the typical tract house enjoyed in those days. We also ended up with avocado green and harvest gold EVERYTHING!
Opportunities to Start Anew
1968, the year I turned 13 brought a lot of changes into my life. I made new friends who shared my interests and didn’t want to beat me up (a major flaw in my previous neighborhood). We all had to ride the bus to school as there was only one Middle School in the district at the time and it was a freeway ride away. We had teachers who weren’t beaten down by an excessively large school district who actually made learning fun and interesting.
Still, I managed to attract the bullies who did their best to embarrass me at every opportunity. Hard as I tried, my overly sensitive nature and all the emotions I wasn’t allowed to express at home refused to stay bottled up and controlled. I had yet to replace tears with anger, though I practiced at home. My mother and I were already pushing each others’ buttons on a regular basis.
I also got to indulge in a pleasure I still find today with my writing. I had an extraordinary English teacher who gave me many opportunities to flex my creative muscles and introduced me to collaboration.
Learning to Grieve, but Only in Private
The year my grandmother died was filled with a lot of highs and lows. I learned more about keeping to myself and not letting anyone see the shy, frightened child inside. But I never learned to grieve. Not for my grandmother, not for my other grandparents when their time came, and not for my parents. The only ones I’ve been able to openly and unashamedly grieve for are all the cats I’ve loved and lost over the years.
Each time, I grieve alone, in the safety of my home, spilling tears on the comforting backs of the ones who are still here letting me love them unreservedly. And maybe that’s how I’ve learned to grieve. It’s a whole lot better than holding things in and allowing them to fester.
Today I have friends who are more than willing to help me get over the rough spots, whether it’s grieving or anything else. They talk unashamedly about expressing their emotions (both the men and the women) and aren’t afraid to turn to each other when their own strength needs shoring up.
Though I’m always there for them, and especially sensitive to someone else’s needs, I still find it hard to be honest and open about my own feelings—my own struggles. Old habits die hard but I’m trying to stop saying I’m fine when I’m not. Even that is a huge step for a girl who comes from a family who discouraged expressing your feelings. For a girl who was beaten up, picked on, and humiliated by peers who took pleasure in seeing her cry.
Accepting Ourselves Fully and Completely
It’s a legacy I inadvertently passed on to my daughters. One struggled with the same issues I did, the other became hard and cold. It’s a legacy which has to stop, if not with me, with the daughter who’s as overly sensitive as me. She needs to know it’s OK to openly grieve, whether it’s a friend, a grandparent, or a beloved pet. She and her own children need to know it’s OK to be human.
As humans, anger is the easiest emotion to express. Too often, we use it indiscriminately to mask softer emotions like grief, worry, and insecurity. Unfortunately, being angry all the time as a mechanism for protecting our softer selves tends to make us appear hard and cold. If carried on too long, we start to become the persona we’ve assumed.
We need to accept and own our emotions fearlessly. They are as much a part of us as fear, and deserve to be expressed. Those who try to use them against us are simply not our people. It might take awhile to find those who accept our whole package, emotions and all, allowing us to express those emotions in a healthy manner. We may stumble a few times, and get hurt many more.
Finding those who do accept our complete selves are the rainbow we find at the end of a long storm that seems to thrive on our misery and discomfort. But when we find them, when we’re finally allowed to be and express our true selves, both happy and sad, the trip through that storm ceases to matter. Only the end of the journey will remain in our hearts and memories. And I finally found my soft place to land.
Gratitude Heals Our Wounds
My gratitudes today are:
- I’m grateful for friends who accept me as I am, and instead of running away when I’m barely holding on, offer me lifelines.
- I’m grateful for for the many cats who’ve traveled through this lifetime who’ve allowed me to be who I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
- I’m grateful for storms because there are rainbows at the end.
- I’m grateful for the many layers I’ve uncovered as I travel the roads this lifelong journey leads me on.
- I’m grateful for abundance: love, friendship, joy and sorrow, storms and rainbows, all the cats I’ve loved, and those I’ve yet to meet and love, dancing, peace, health, harmony, philanthropy, and prosperity.
Love and Light
About the Author
Sheri Conaway is a writer, blogger, ghostwriter, and advocate for cats. Sheri believes in the Laws , of Attraction, but only if you are a participant rather than just an observer. Her mission is to Make Vulnerable Beautiful and help entrepreneurs touch the souls of their readers and clients so they can increase their impact and their income. If you’d like to have her write for you, please visit her Hire Me page for more information. You can also find her on Facebook Sheri Levenstein-Conaway Author or in her new group, Putting Your Whole Heart Forward