Personal

Comparing and contrasting grief

People kindly keep asking me how I’m doing since Mom died. I always say some version of, “This is hard, but I’m okay.” Sometimes I add, “Losing my daughter at the end of last year was so wicked hard that losing my mom feels like a walk in the park.”

Rana the last time I saw her, Aug. 2021

Rana’s death was a deep shock that wouldn’t lift for a long time. Then I was furious with her for taking her own life. I was exhausted for weeks. At first I couldn’t sleep at night. But soon I slept hard every night, but still awoke tired. I’m not normally a napper, but sometime in the afternoon I’d just hit the wall and nothing but 20 or 30 minutes of sleep would get me past it. Then I was deeply sad, and I felt lost.

In time, my grief settled into an ongoing sadness, a dull ache. By mid-summer I was starting to enjoy life again, thanks in part to antidepressants and good grief counseling, and Rana wasn’t on my mind every day anymore.

All my life I expected that my mother’s death would tear me apart. I adored Mom and always felt very close to her. She was a source of safety for me as a child, and she did many lovely things for and with me that are lasting good memories.

Mom watching my brother run track, Spring 1985

After Dad died, my relationship with Mom became unsettled. Not only was she grieving, but also she was figuring out what she wanted and who she was without her husband. This altered some of our familiar patterns and occasionally left one or the other of us feeling a little alienated from the other. It was never serious, but we needed to have some conversations to make amends and find new patterns.

We were still working things out when the cancer came. The treatment wiped her out, as treatment does. Then, thanks to osteoporosis, her vertebrae started developing hairline fractures, one by one, with treatment and recovery each time. She wasn’t able to do very much. All she wanted was to be able to run her errands, see her friends, and work in her garden, but all of this was severely curtailed. She watched a lot of TV, and she lost a lot of weight, mostly muscle. “This sucks, Jimmy,” she said. “If this is the rest of my life, I don’t want it.”

I was relieved for her when she died. I was relieved for my brother and me, too, as we felt helpless while she suffered and declined. The devastation I feared never came. I’ve felt like a hundred pounds have been draped over my shoulders, and my mood is low. There have been a few very rough days. But this grief is young yet, and who knows how it will unfold. At least I’m functioning reasonably well.

Margaret with her parents, Jo Anne and Walt, at Mass in April, 2018

We lost my wife’s mom, Jo Anne, in the summer of 2019. I’d known Jo Anne, and Margaret’s dad, Walt, only since about 2014, as I came late to the family party. They were a dear couple, devoted to their faith and their family. Jo Anne was smarter than she usually let on, and she had a wonderful creative streak.

Her deathbed was in Margaret’s sister’s home. All of Margaret’s seven brothers and sisters, plus husbands and many of the 20+ grandchildren, gathered more than once to pray the rosary over her. She was conscious for many days as she slowly faded away, and was able to interact with her family on some level until nearly the end.

When she died, I was saddened, and I felt the loss. But I’m not sure I’d say I experienced full-on grief; I had known her only a handful of years, and we weren’t close. I mostly felt bad for Margaret, and tried as best I could to be there for her.

Jeff and Mariah just after they eloped in January, 2018

In April of 2018 we lost Mariah, Margaret’s son Jeff’s wife. It was an accidental death. Jeff struggled through his 20s to find his footing and build a stable adult life. He had some staggering setbacks. So did Mariah. Their difficult experiences lined up well enough that they understood each other. They were crazy about each other, and I think Mariah is the love of Jeff’s life. Her sudden death was traumatic for us all. Margaret and her daughter Lain were devastated, as they knew her well and loved her very much. I wasn’t as close to her, but even so her death felt like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. I staggered through my life for weeks, reeling. But when that passed, I was mostly okay again.

Dad with his new puppy, Shadow, in about 1991

I say mostly okay because I had lost my father in January that year. Dad and I had a challenging relationship; I wrote about it at length. He loved me to the best of his ability, and I think I loved him. I was attached to him for sure. But I often felt terrorized by him as a child. He was easily angered, and when angry, he was harsh and punitive. For example, when I was a boy he grew tired of me not putting my Big Wheel (a plastic tricycle) away when I was done with it, so one day he made me watch while he sliced it in half on his band saw. I worked hard to forgive his bad behavior toward me so I could be at peace.

In my 40s, I finally realized that the only way I was going to have a relationship with him was on his terms. I was deeply disappointed, as I hoped for greater openness and closeness. I was never happy about it, but in time I came to accept it. He loved to argue, and I learned the hard way to refuse to be baited. He was always interested in my career, so we mostly talked about work.

Dad learned he had lung cancer in 2007. His cancer metastasized in 2017, and he died the day after his birthday in January, 2018. I wasn’t very sad and I didn’t miss him. I still don’t miss him. But the first year or so after his death I was anguished and angry over the terrible lost opportunity, a lifetime of next to never having the close, warm relationship I always wanted with him.

Gracie and me
Me and Gracie in about 2009

On Thanksgiving day in 2013, my dog Gracie died. My first wife picked her up as a stray and it was clear she had been abused. She never fully recovered from it and was always a difficult dog.

I got our two dogs in the divorce. Sugar, our Rottweiler, died within a year. She was the best dog I ever had, and I missed her, but I didn’t grieve for long. I guess we just weren’t that close after all. Gracie, on the other hand, was the dog I never wanted. But after Sugar died, she bonded hard to me — and in time, I to her.

Gracie lived to be very old, at least 18. In her later years, she slowed down considerably and became deaf. This only drew us closer as I took greater care of her and even worked out hand signals to communicate with her.

She died on my parents’ kitchen floor. I felt my heart breaking as she lay there dying. I was torn up that she drew her last breath while I was on the phone with the emergency vet.

But she was just a dog, right? I went right back to work as if nothing had happened. But I missed Gracie terribly. I cried a lot for weeks, and it hurt for a year. I still miss Gracie, nine years later. I’ll never understand our bond, but it was deep and strong. I moved out of the house we shared in 2017, four years after Gracie died, but I never stopped expecting to see her lying in the nook created where my desks intersected in my office. It was her perch; she could see and hear much of the house from there. I never stopped being disappointed she wasn’t there. I seldom remember my dreams, but when I do, Gracie is often in them.

From all of this I conclude that the experience of grief varies widely, and depends on the relationship you shared with the person (or dog), as well as timing, namely what else has happened in your life, especially lately.

But I’m tired of grieving. I’m ready to move past it. Unfortunately, Margaret’s dad has been in painfully slow decline for a year now, and is under 24-hour medical care. He can’t do anything for himself anymore, and spends his days sitting. It’s no kind of life. We all hope he dies in his sleep, tonight if possible, so he can be released. But that’s one more grief to suffer.

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Personal

御縁

Rana was fluent in Japanese.

Her high school had a good Japanese language program, and Rana joined it enthusiastically. She discovered that she had a natural and strong ability to learn foreign languages.

I think that the Japanese program was the highlight of her high-school experience. So much so, that Rana invited the instructor to her graduation dinner, and the instructor came.

Rana made some friends in Japan through chat groups on the Internet. Rana was also extremely frugal, and she’d saved a lot of money. It was enough that, upon her graduation in 2004, she bought plane tickets and flew to Japan. She stayed several weeks, alternating between surfing her friends’ couches and staying in inexpensive hotels, including the famous Japanese capsule hotels. She emailed me a few photos while she was on the trip. I’m disappointed that I can’t find those messages in my Gmail. I know I didn’t delete them.

When she returned, she gave me a five-yen coin as a souvenir of her trip. She told me it was a good-luck charm. The Japanese for “five yen” is go en (五円), which is a homophone with go-en (御縁), which translates to “luck” or “fortune,” but also roughly to “good relationship,” especially one formed after a serendipitous encounter. That neatly describes how Rana and I came to be and stay in relationship, when I appeared in her mom’s life when she was seven. What a touching little gift.

This coin famously has a hole in the middle, so I stuck it on my key ring. There it’s stayed. When I bought my Volkswagen four years ago and swapped keys on my ring, I photographed the ring with the coin prominently displayed and texted the photo to her. She was pleased that I’d kept it on my ring all these years.

Rana would have been 37 today.

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Personal

Six months on

Today it’s been six months since we lost Rana.

My therapist urged me to do something today to honor the day and honor Rana. I decided to write about her, about her funeral, and about how I’m doing. But first, this photograph.

Rana (then Ross), me, Damion, and Garrett, Christmas 2003.

This photo is from the last Christmas before Rana’s mom and I split up. Rana (still Ross then) a was a senior in high school. We were gathering for a family photo and someone pressed the button to grab this candid shot. I just love seeing this interaction between Rana and me. Just look at our faces. Those are two people who love each other and are happy to be together. I’m going to cling to this image today.

I don’t think about Rana every day anymore. But often enough something will remind me of Rana or our time together as a family, and I’ll be sad and irritable the rest of the day.

I’m still seeing a grief counselor, and will for some time to come yet. Yesterday we talked about Rana’s funeral, really plumbed the depths of that day. It helped me finally unpack and process it. It was difficult, of course, as the funeral for any loss like this will be. But that day I was the ex-husband in a room full of people primarily from Rana’s mom’s world, and I was very anxious about it. The end of that marriage was 100% my fault and 100% her fault; we both did very destructive things. What did everyone know? Was anyone judging me harshly?

I saw Rana’s biological father for the first time in 20 years, and a great deal of his family. I knew many of them a long time ago, because they were surprisingly open and welcoming to me. A couple times I even visited their farm in rural Illinois when we dropped off or picked up Rana/Ross for a long visit there. They treated me like family.

I also met some of my ex-wife’s new family for the first time. I wasn’t prepared for that, even though I knew it was going to happen. It was awkward for me.

I was extremely disappointed for my ex-wife that none of her family came. She has two sisters, and her father is still living. They live in distant states, but apparently none of them could figure out how to fly in for the funeral. As much as I worried about how I might be judged in that room, I judged her family very harshly for their failure to support my ex in this time of extreme loss and pain.

But the most surprising thing about the funeral was how much time my ex-wife spent with me. She sat with her husband during the service, which lasted all of 20 minutes or so. 75 percent of the rest of the time, she was either with me or within five feet of me. I had not spent that much time with her, or spoken with her that much, since 2004.

There’s no denying that we will always share an important and deep connection because of our children. Even though I didn’t enter the picture until Rana/Ross was 7, I was present and active during the majority of Rana/Ross’s childhood. I was far more involved than Rana/Ross’s bio dad was. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that my ex wanted to spend time with me. Because of that connection, I also was comforted to be with her.

But it was also challenging to be with her, because she was cruel and abusive toward me, especially in the last few years before we split. Appropriately, I’ve since maintained a strict separation of our lives and strong boundaries around our interactions — boundaries that on that day came tumbling down, if only for those couple of hours.

The last time I wrote about Rana I said that I was about to try an antidepressant. The first one we tried improved my mood considerably, but gave me strong anxiety at bedtime and made sleep harder to come by. The doctor added a second antidepressant that he said for most people reduces or eliminates those side effects. The combination is working well for me. I’m happier, I feel hope and optimism, and I’m brighter and more cheerful in the world. It’s the first time I’ve ever had SSRIs/SNRIs not lead to frightening, serious side effects, let alone work. These two meds absolutely make life a lot easier while I continue to grieve.

It’s ironic, I suppose, that this anniversary of Rana’s death falls on the last day of Pride Month. I wonder how she would have participated. I’d like to be able to ask her.

Rana lives on in my heart and mind, but isn’t there anymore to visit, call, or text. This is the most challenging thing for me day to day, knowing it’s not possible to reach out anymore.

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The fog lifts

I was in a fog for almost two months after Rana died. I just didn’t know it until it lifted.

Foggy trees
Nikon N8008, 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 AF Nikkor, Kodak Tri-X 400, 2017

Actually, I thought my fog had lifted after the first two weeks. It turns out that was abject shock. Once that cleared away, the fog set in.

Thank heavens my job didn’t demand too much of me when I returned to it. My new boss was busy setting the stage for some changes he wanted to make, and asked me only to manage the team managers and make sure the in-flight project delivered at the end of the quarter as scheduled. The teams were handling their work well. It took only a light hand on the tiller to keep things on track.

That was a relief, because I was so tired all the time. Because I worked from home most days, I could get away with taking a 30-minute afternoon nap. I wasn’t able to function after a certain time of day without it.

My diet also went to crap. Unrelated to Rana’s death, I started counting calories and exercising more to try to lose the 15 pounds I gained during the pandemic. It’s been working, slowly; I’m down five pounds since January. But I’m eating a lot of junky frozen meals to do it, and when I’m out for a meal I reach right for pizza and cheeseburgers.

I’m reading a book on grief called Life After Loss, and it tells me that the naps and bad diet are incredibly common among grievers.

I got a grief counselor right away. I have the Director of HR at my company to thank for that. I had been trying unsuccessfully to find a counselor — it’s crazy how booked up they are these days — when the Director of HR reached out to see how I was doing. When I told her I was having trouble lining up a counselor, she swung into action and somehow got me an appointment with a grief counselor for that Thursday. She even had the company prepay my first ten visits.

Talking it out with the counselor has been helpful, but I have plenty of people to talk it out with. What has made counseling valuable is the questions the counselor has asked. They’ve been innocent little curiosity questions that have caused me to explore my thoughts and feelings, often for hours or days after the appointment.

She also had me write a letter to Rana. I was surprised how much anger came out in it. I started it with, “How dare you do this to all of us?” Writing the letter was enough for me to process a great deal of those challenging feelings and let them go.

It was after I wrote that letter that my fog lifted and my feelings started to settle. Rana is no longer on my mind all the time. I feel some energy returning. Not all of my energy, and still not most of my willingness to deal with the everyday challenges life throws my way. The little things that go wrong irritate me disproportionately.

My whole life I’ve lived with some level of general anxiety. I’ve worked it over with any number of therapists and I’ve improved that all I’m likely ever to. I will always feel on guard against some threat. Thanks to the work I’ve done on myself, it doesn’t cause me distress and I’m able to do the things I want to do. But last autumn, intense pressure at work pushed me to burnout and my anxiety kept spiking. Sometimes it caused me to freeze up and not be able to act. That was new.

So I visited my doctor, who tried a medication called BuSpar. It’s supposed to be a wonder drug for anxiety, but it gave me up-all-night insomnia. She discontinued it, prescribed me some Klonopin to use when anxiety was strong (with no refills, because that stuff is habit forming), and referred me to a psychiatrist.

Twenty years ago as my first marriage was falling apart I was deeply, dangerously depressed. Under a psychiatrist’s care I tried antidepressants for the first time. Every last one I tried had crazy, ugly side effects. The first day I took Zoloft, for example, I straight up passed out, just fell over unconscious, and was out for something like eight hours. I tried and abandoned eight or nine different drugs in rapid succession, each with some new and frightening side effect. It was a horror show.

The doctor finally tried lithium, which is normally prescribed for bipolar disorder. It gave me no side effects, and put a floor under my depression so I could function. It didn’t make me happy, but at least it made me not want to drive my car into a bridge abutment anymore. I took it for several years, until the worst of that time in my life was over.

When this new psychiatrist started talking about the various antidepressants that also have good effect on anxiety, I interrupted him right there and told him about my history. He said, “Ah, you’re treatment resistant then.” He described a number of options that didn’t exist 20 years ago. One is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain and alleviate depression and anxiety. Another is ketamine, which is primarily used as an anesthetic and also illegally as a party drug. Administered in small doses as a nasal spray, it is said to have incredible positive effect alleviating depression and anxiety. The third option is genetic testing to determine which traditional psychiatric medications do and don’t play well with your genetic makeup, and with the enzymes that are and are not present in your system.

The first two options were very expensive and time-consuming, so I tried the genetic testing. The results made me laugh — every last antidepressant I tried 20 years ago was not recommended for me based on my genetic profile. I lack a couple of key enzymes that would let me metabolize most of those drugs. So the doctor steered me toward a medication that my test results said should interact well with my body.

I hope this medication works. I am depressed since Rana died. Between low mood and anxiety, I really don’t want to do very much. I get through the things I absolutely must do, but not much more. I’m grateful that my new boss at work has recut my job responsibilities — I was carrying far too much before, and now my job is do-able by one human being. The things I’m responsible for now, I am good at and enjoy.

You might be wondering how I keep publishing here six days a week. Some of that is sheer stubbornness — I’ve kept this schedule all these years and I don’t want to stop now. But most of it is that I know from experience that to keep depression from getting worse, I must keep doing the things I enjoy. I make myself do them. So I’m still getting out there with my cameras, still writing about the things that come to mind, still working on my next book. I don’t feel terribly creative right now, and so far this year I haven’t produced anything (words or photographs) that feel like great work to me. But I know that keeping at it is part of keeping myself together, and that I’ll start producing satisfying work again in due time.

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Recommended reading / Weekend update

💻 I’m still living in Zoom meeting purgatory after almost two years. I’ve written before about how it’s more fatiguing by far than meeting in person. Rands, a well-known tech blogger, explains how virtual meetings fail to touch all of our senses — and how that makes virtual collaboration less effective. Read What We Lost

Police line
Minolta Maxxum 5, 35-70mm f/4 Maxxum AF Zoom, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200, 2022

💻 Lawrence Yeo has an interesting perspective for writers stuck on what to write about: think about things you care about, and write the advice you would give someone about that subject. Read Write to Give Yourself Advice

📷 In a story that’s like a romance that went bad but turned out all right in the end, Lucy Lumen tells the story of her Nikon L35AF point-and-shoot 35mm camera. Read A love letter to the Nikon L35AF

📷 Mike Connealy put a roll of film through his Kodak Brownie Flash Six-20, a compact, all-metal box camera. Read Heavy Metal Brownie


My therapist said that after a major death, the shock phase lasts six to eight weeks. That’s about five to seven weeks longer than I thought! The shock I felt in the first week was apparently just the deepest part of the shock, which only began to wear off starting in week two.

It’s been seven weeks since Rana died. Most days now I feel terrible, like I’m in pain, except I can’t pinpoint where the pain is. It’s not in my shoulder, not in my foot, not in my hip — but my body feels pinched, as if it hurts somewhere. Or everywhere.

Logging on at work is a blessing, usually. For nine hours I can focus my mind on the work I need to do, and push aside my pain for a while. Except that some days, I can’t manage it very well. Monday was one such day, and so was Thursday.

I’m being transparent at work that I’m having good days and bad days through this grief, and that on the bad days, I’m not very useful. I feel like I’m taking an enormous risk in saying so, but I feel like it’s better to be honest than to have my boss find out I got nothing done on Thursday without knowing that I have been struggling. I am doing the very best I can every day at work. It’s just that some days, my very best isn’t very good. I feel some comfort that key people in my company have given me feedback that they believe in me and want me there for the long haul.

I feel angry with Rana for putting me into this state. Then I feel selfish for feeling that way. I know that these conflicting feelings are normal and I just have to sit with them and let them pass.

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Blogosphere

Recommended reading

Happy Saturday! I’m going to keep writing personal updates in this space while I grieve the loss of my daughter, but I’m moving them to the bottom.

💻 Have you ever opened a diet soda and found it to taste …wrong, somehow? It’s because the aspartame broke down. James Cooper explains the science. Read Why does my diet soda taste “off”?

St. Paul's
Agfa Isolette III, 85mm f/4.5 Agfa Apotar, Kodak T-Max 400

💻 Did you know that only about a quarter million houses are for sale in the US right now? It’s an all-time low. Ben Carlson explains why it’s not going to get better anytime soon. Read Why It Could Be Years Until We See A Normal Housing Market

📷 Mike Eckman writes a review of the Seagull 203, a 1964 near-copy of the Agfa Super Isolette, a folding camera for 120 film. Read Seagull 203 (1964)

📷 Johnny Martyr doesn’t post often, but when he does, it’s always compelling reading. This week he discusses techniques for nailing focus with a rangefinder camera, especially if you’re used to shooting SLRs. Read Seven Recommended Rangefinder Focusing Techniques


I’m depressed. I’m not surprised in the slightest by that. But it sure is inconvenient — there’s so much to do at work, and it’s hard to stay motivated to do it. I’m Director of Engineering in a software company, which is a big job. There are 40 people in my organization, and because it’s hard to hire Engineering Managers these days, most of them report directly to me. It’s a lot to carry. Everyone at work is well aware of my situation and is doing the best they can to support me. I decided to just go with full-on transparency, and to my good fortune it appears to be serving me well. My company even connected me with a grief counselor and is paying for ten sessions, which is incredibly generous.

I don’t think about Rana or her death all the time anymore. There are days I don’t think about it at all. But the low mood persists. This is not a complaint, just an observation. I know this grief will take a long time to work its way through.


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