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.


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.


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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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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COVID-19, Personal

Weekend update

I was sad that more people didn’t come to Rana’s memorial service, which was last Saturday. I know she touched far more lives than those who attended. I was pleased that my brother came, and my old friend Michael and his wife. I was blown away that the woman who runs HR at my company came.

This is the most time I’ve spent in the same room with my ex-wife since she divorced me. On the one hand, that wasn’t comfortable, as we had a terrible marriage and ugly divorce. On the other, I think both of us were comforted by the other, as during our marriage we shared in the bulk of the time Rana/Ross was a child.

Rana’s mom had pre-arranged for a number of people to speak during the service, to share memories. I had declined to speak, but at the service she implored me to, so I did. I told a couple of stories of Rana, who was still Ross then, while I was married to his mom. They were stories I’d told before, and all I had to do was tell them again, so it wasn’t too hard to do. People seemed to like the stories.

I went to the service alone. That wasn’t the plan, but in the week before the service Margaret came down with COVID. We knew this was a possibility as she had cared for her son while he had it, after her other son’s girlfriend exposed us all the day after Christmas. Margaret and I have been isolating from each other since then to lower the risk that I’d get it. I bought a stack of in-home COVID tests and tested every couple days leading up to the memorial service. It came back negative every time, thank heavens. It would have killed me to miss the service. But I wore a surgical mask at the service anyway.

For months, Margaret and I had planned to spend last weekend together in Chicago. We had tickets to a play and reservations at a very nice hotel overlooking the Chicago River. The hotel was not refundable — I won’t ever book a room that way again just to save 30 bucks on a weekend. I would have rescheduled our weekend away for a time when we were well past our COVID experience.

Margaret urged me to go alone, to get out of my box and out of my head for a couple days. The room was paid for either way. It felt weird to go alone, but I did it, and it was overall a good thing. I went to the play, and I drank scotch at a bar I like, and I shot 3½ rolls of film just walking around the Loop and the adjacent River North areas. I’m sending all of that film to a lab for processing and scanning so it will be a few weeks before I can share photos.

State Street at night
Nikon F3HP, 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor, Kodak T-Max P3200, 2018

Chicago requires masking indoors in public places, and proof of vaccination to sit in a bar or restaurant. This is a sharp contrast to Indiana. There are no COVID restrictions here anymore. Authorities strongly suggest masking and physical distancing, but that’s all. These differences correlate to these two states’ differing politics: Illinois is blue and Indiana is firmly red.

I had brunch with a couple of colleagues on Sunday in Chicago. It was so good to catch up with them. It was soothing to know that everyone in that restaurant was fully vaccinated.

At the same time I couldn’t shake a feeling that Chicago’s measures were theater. After all, Margaret’s son was double vaxxed, and Margaret was triple vaxxed, and they got COVID anyway. Who knows how many people in that Chicago restaurant had been exposed and were busy unknowingly transmitting the virus?

I know, I know, the vaccines were never guaranteed to prevent transmission. It is thought that they slow transmission, and there is good evidence that they make COVID less severe if you do get it. Margaret and her son were both pretty miserable at the height of their illnesses, but neither required medical attention. Margaret described it as being a very bad cold, with heavy congestion and cough. Perhaps both of them avoided a more severe illness thanks to their vaccinations.

Anyway, it was otherwise very good to be out of my box and in a different head space for a few days. It wasn’t that cold for Chicago in January, with daytime temperatures in the 20s and low 30s (-6 to about 0 C) and, crucially, the wind was only slight. I spent most of my time either watching movies in the hotel, or walking and making photographs outside in the cold. I brought two cameras with me: a Minolta Maxxum 5 that a reader recently donated, and my trusty Olympus OM-2n. I rather enjoyed the Maxxum and ended up using it most.

I drove home Monday afternoon and on Tuesday I returned to work. I wasn’t entirely emotionally ready, but it also felt right somehow to plunge in anyway. Sometimes the way to become emotionally ready for something is to just dive in, do it, and build that readiness as you go. I have felt unusually irritable, and have had to choose my words carefully lest I say something that cuts. But otherwise it feels good to return to normal life — it is a fine distraction from my feelings.


Weekend update

I don’t have too many photographs of me with Rana. Maybe there are more in the family photos my ex has. At the time of our divorce she wouldn’t let me make scans of them, and I’ve never asked again. Then we divorced and I didn’t see Rana for a couple years. Then we rebuilt our relationship as adults, and frankly I’m terrible at thinking to make portraits or take selfies.

Us in 1994, Terre Haute, Indiana

Here’s one photo that’s a good memory. It’s of Rana’s, then Ross’s, ninth birthday. Ross’s mom had a party in her back yard in Terre Haute and invited all of Ross’s friends. Ross was a big fan of the shows on the Nickelodeon cable channel, and this was the “green slime” era on Nick. Ross’s mom made a green-slime birthday cake.

Rana’s memorial service is today. I’m glad my company gave me two weeks of bereavement leave as this time off has given me the head space to process my thoughts and feelings, rather than just have them and then rush to my next meeting.

The first week after Rana was found dead, I felt shock and sadness. The shock wore off after a few days but the sadness did not. This week I found myself sometimes feeling angry; once in tears I even said aloud to nobody, “How could she do this to us?”

I wish I had known she was suicidal. I’ve been suicidal. I know what it’s like. I know that in the depths of those feelings your mind is lying to you. It tells you that your death won’t matter and nobody will miss you.

That’s a load of horse crap. Your death by your own hand leaves a crater in the lives of those who love and care for you.

I wish I could have told her to just wait. I wrote about this once before: because I stuck it out, sooner or later things got better. Never all better. But things always stopped being screamingly, intolerably bad. Whatever I was feeling, whatever thoughts were looping through my head, they changed all on their own. Mind states are never permanent. And whatever difficulties I was facing, the circumstances changed all on their own. The world keeps going while you are stuck, delivering change into your world. Sometimes circumstances got better and sometimes they got worse, but when they changed I could usually see a path forward when I couldn’t before.

I know that whatever thoughts and feelings come through this are a normal part of grieving a loss like this. I’m not overwhelmed by them and I’m not frightened of them. I am angry that I have to have them.

I’ve given myself these two weeks to rest and just process feelings. On Tuesday (after the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday) I will return to work and regular life again. I know my grief will continue. But my life must go on as well.

I’m not sure when Recommended Reading will return. I haven’t had much appetite to read blogs. It’s why I haven’t been clicking Like or commenting on yours, if you have one. When that appetite returns, so will Recommended Reading. I trust you understand.