Monday, March 20, 2017

Grief and Anger

“Joseph, the best thing that ever happened to you was ripped away from you after a cruelly short time. You of all people have a right to feel anger.”

I felt like I’d been sucker-punched. The bluntness of the statement, both in its frankness and stark truth, took my breath away. For a moment, it felt like I couldn’t breathe. No one had ever expressed to me in such powerfully direct and naked terms what had happened to me when my Mark – truly, truly, truly, the best thing that had ever happened to me – was taken from me.

It was Saturday night. I was at my friend Allen’s house for a potluck dinner. He was one of the first friends I had made after coming out. When my ex-wife and I separated, I rented a room from him. I was living there when I met Mark. Allen was there when I came home all starry-eyed from my first date, and he watched as our romance bloomed and as I eventually moved out to live with Mark.

On Saturday night, I had been telling Allen about my shoulder and back pain. It started last October in my shoulder, a dull ache that would not go away. It was disheartening. I had been working hard for a year at my weight training, building strength and muscle (which is easier said than done at my age). Now, I had this injury, the cause of which I couldn’t ascertain, that seemed to only get worse as the weeks went by. I had to cut back on my weight training. I wondered whether I was going to have to have rotator cuff surgery. It was utterly depressing. I felt old.

Then, things got worse. On New Year’s Eve, I had a searing spasm in my lower back, the first one I could remember having in years and years. I had to cut back even more on training and exercise. Then, just when I thought I had gotten over it, it happened again one day at the gym. I was devastated. 

It gradually got better, but the tension in my back only seemed to increase all over. I felt like there were pincers all over my back, squeezing and pinching muscles. I went for massages. I started going to yoga again. Meanwhile, I had started using a roller bar even more faithfully as well as digging into my shoulders, back and hips with a lacrosse ball. Still the pain persisted and then I had another back spasm, this time underneath my left shoulder blade.

Allen listened to my story, then told me about a time some years ago when he thought he was going to have to have rotator cuff surgery because of shoulder and back pain. Then someone had given him a book by Dr. John Sarno, the basic premise of which is that back pain is often caused by repressed emotion, often anger. Allen explained that after he had acknowledged and let out his own repressed anger, his pain had gone away.

That’s when Allen said, “It’s hardly surprising you’re experiencing this pain, Joseph.” He then continued with the opening statement to this post. As I’ve said, I felt a tremendous emotional impact as a result of what he had said. For just a moment, it was as if everything around me stood still, as if someone had issued a mannequin challenge. I knew instinctively that something deep inside me had shifted – or been awakened.

I’ve thought of little else since. It’s been on my mind constantly. I saw Allen and his husband the following day. I thanked him, again, and commented, “You know, it never occurred to me to be angry about Mark.” He looked at me in surprise and replied, “How can you not be angry? It makes me angry.”

Indeed. How could I not have been angry? The thing is, however, is that circumstances and my natural inclination prevented me from being angry. When Mark was diagnosed, we had been together only a year and a half. He was given three to five years to live. I could have been angry at Mark for not having his PSA tested more often given the fact that he was at very high risk of developing prostate cancer (since both his father and grandfather had it). His cancer could have been caught earlier, before it metastasized. But how could I be angry at him? He was the one with cancer. He was the one who was going to die. (And I was the one who was going to be left alone.)

As I thought about this, I’ve thought back on other circumstances in my life. I thought about being physically abused by my mother for years as a child, but how as a child I could never express anger toward her – to do so would have only resulted in more abuse. Nor did I express anger toward my father who abandoned me to the abuse and pretended he didn’t know about it and who abandoned me yet once again when he moved away after my parents’ divorce, leaving me, a teenager, to take care of my mother and younger sister.

As I grew into adulthood, I excused my mother’s behavior toward me because I knew that she herself had come from an abusive background. I was in my mid-30’s before I finally realized that her background may have explained her abusive behavior but it did not condone it. Meanwhile, I had started experiencing debilitating migraine headaches when I was eleven years old that continued for 30 years – headaches that I only later realized were likely caused by repressed anger.

Getting back to Mark’s situation, I couldn’t be angry at him. Nor did I allow myself to be angry at the situation, in part because Mark refused to express anger about it. How could I be angry if he wasn’t? Again, he was the one who was going to die. I also felt I couldn’t express anger simply because I thought it wasn’t productive. I tried to follow Mark’s example and simply be grateful for the time that we had together. I thought that this was the “enlightened” approach. I wanted to be “enlightened,” and so I refused to be angry – both before and after Mark’s death.

I now see, however, that I had refused to allow myself to be human. Regardless of whether or not repressed anger is the primary cause of my back and shoulder pain, I now realize I have deprived myself of a necessary and healthy step in grieving the loss of the best thing that ever happened to me. And I want to take some time now to express that anger.

Please allow me to review: My childhood, in a lot of ways, was shit. I didn’t even realize it at the time, because it was my normal. Then my parents split just as I was approaching puberty and went through an extremely messy and bitter divorce (involving, for example, threats of suicide, waking us kids up in the middle of the night and threatening to leave town, etc.). Then I discovered I was gay. Then I was handed responsibility for caring for a mentally unbalanced mother and younger sister while my dad moved away to build his business. 

College was a fun time for me, and I’m grateful for those years. But within a few years, I had joined the Mormon Church, then entered a marriage that was deeply unhappy but to which I was committed and which I believed was my lot in life. As I once wrote, both my ex-wife and I sacrificed ourselves to an ideal, and at the end of the day we discovered that … we had sacrificed ourselves.

Finally, in my early 50’s, I came out. Ten months later, I met Mark and we fell deeply in love with each other. Finally, finally, finally, I felt that all the unhappiness I had experienced in my life had brought me to something wonderful, to someone with whom I could happily spend the rest of my life. I was out, I was living my life authentically, I had finally discovered what love really felt like.

Then, a death sentence was pronounced, and less than three years later, it was all over.

So, for therapeutic purposes, let me just say that I am f*&cking LIVID with rage that Mark was taken away from me, that we had such a short time together. Yes, I am grateful for that time and for the love that we shared; but it doesn’t change the fact that it lasted for only 54 months compared to the almost 53 years of varying degrees of unhappiness I had experienced prior to meeting him.

I’m also angry that I spent 40 years in the closet, cropping my life, repressing my life, denying who I am, hating who I am, burying who I am – burying so deeply that coming out felt like an archeological dig. When I finally came out, there were times when I wish things had been different for me, that I had been able to come out when I was young; but then I would realize that things couldn’t have been different, that I couldn’t change things, that I had gained so much in my children, etc. I called that the “regret cycle” because no matter how many times I felt regrets about my life, the cycle always came back to the same point of beginning: that’s the way things were and the way things are and there’s nothing I could do about it now except move forward.

Then when I met Mark, I thought, “it was all worth it. Events in our lives brought each of us to this point where we met and fell in love.” Mark and I often discussed it, how no matter how difficult our respective paths had been in various ways, those paths had brought us to each other.

Then he got cancer and died. 

Mark’s life culminated in sweet fulfillment, for which I’m deeply grateful. But I was left holding a bitter cup.

So now, I feel anger all over again. Rage for all I missed as a young man. Of course I can’t change it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t allow myself to be angry about it.

I feel rage at the fact that not only was Mark taken from me, but my life WITH HIM was also snuffed out. My daily dose of love from him was taken away. The way I perceived myself because of him came to an end. My expectations of a long and happy life with him were dashed. I was alone.

A few weeks ago, my second-eldest daughter posted something to her Instagram account. She’s in school to become a licensed clinical social worker, and she had just gone a class about grief. It was around the time of the one-year anniversary of Mark’s death. “I’ve always been someone to intellectualize my feelings,” she wrote. “I can talk about them, write about them, but I rarely actually feel them.” I could relate.

But what Hannah wrote next took my breath away: “How many of us walk around every day holding in our grief, our anger, and the hardest to admit, our love? I don’t want to hold it in. I don’t want to hold my breath and swallow back the life, the truth that is in me.”

It is truly a humbling moment when one’s child teaches the parent, but also a moment of profound gratitude. 

I can’t hold in my anger any longer. I don’t want to. I refuse to be “a victim,” but I also refuse to direct my rage inward any longer so that it can eat away at me. I don’t want to hold my breath and swallow back the life that is in me. Not any more.

End of rant. I feel better. (Time will tell whether my back and shoulder will.)


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  2. Powerful rant!!! Your thread reminds us that every moment we breath, we create new opportunities to live again - fully and in the moment. The work of E.Kubler Ross and her development of the stages of grief is an essential process and healing model that validates our experiences of loss. Amazing how pain becomes the perfect teacher if only we as the student - listen! Thank-you for sharing your journey through a profound and painful loss. I wish you wellness and peace... and as a gentle reminder, you are not alone.

    1. Thank you, Richard, for your thoughts and your support. Both are appreciated!