Humility, grief and the magic of episodic television.
Humility comes to all of us, sometimes in weird ways. Mine came like a great cosmic wind, in the form of an iPad dropped with a thud from a sky full of grief.
Most people will glance briefly at our travel photos, but stories about how our loved ones died must be told only once, quickly, and with as few details as possible.
Talking about dying brings up weird, unmanageable emotions. For example, there are those ugly moments of hope turned to shame-filled hostility when we think someone finally wants to hear our story. Maybe at last we will be relieved of its twisty dark burden, but just as we form our first trembling word, the terrible Other charges desperately into the opening with an equally sad and heroic tale, and we discover that surges of rage are the new normal.
My dramatic entry into the secret club of “all my friends are dead” guaranteed me a place of permanent silence.
In December 2010, Dad fell and hit his head. He died. In April, Mom let herself stop eating. She died. In October, my sister’s pancreatic cancer took her and she died. A year later in November my sister in law’s lung cancer won and she stopped breathing. She died. A week later, a truck hit my young and vigorous therapist, on his bicycle. He died.
I do counseling for a living, and am a trained hospice volunteer. I know—really, I do—that we all share this totally upside down country where everything familiar disappears. Friends told me their only wish was to have time go backward even for one more day. Even with the pain, with someone they love wearing diapers, they would choose one more crappy non-conversation with a formerly intelligent loved one. So many of us have lost and lost again, with courage and grace.
I thought I was doing pretty well through death one and two.
After death three, I was officially struck dumb.
My family moved from deathwatch to deathwatch, and we coped, waiting to move along the continuum as written: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. People who love us continued to love us and made more casseroles. We continued to love them and tried not to talk too much. I pretty much stopped crying.
One of my beloved nieces figured out a ritual I did not recognize at the time. All through the weeks her mother was dying, she’d head off into the dark to wherever she went to watch T.V. and mumble, “off to NCIS.” I had no idea what that meant but was preoccupied with all the things we aren’t discussing right now. Little did I know that God had begun working in mysterious ways.
I knew I was not okay, seriously not okay, but I couldn’t find words, and, as I’d mentioned, my therapist was dead. I knew that people were basically trying to help. I understood, through a glass darkly, that my whole family was suffering too. I practiced loving kindness as best I could so I didn’t snap at those who meant well.
Pretty much no form of verbal reassurance helped at all. Particularly difficult were: “She/he is in a better place;” “If you try, you can still contact them;” and the last—onerous because it was so obvious and I knew it and only felt shame when they said it—“Everyone dies, it’s part of life.”
Sometimes I would find a word or two to describe my state. It usually had something to do with feeling that a hole was torn in the middle of the fabric of me. This was pretty esoteric and hard to follow, so people stopped asking how I was. The story I made up, the one I assumed others were thinking, centered around me taking too long to get over it and so the less I said, the better. Another truly horrible thing I learned about loss was that everyone else’s life went on. So my effective social conditioning kept me keeping on. And still, I didn’t cry.
By this time, I was going to bed at about seven every night. For a while, I read, but when it became clear I was actually going to read romance novels by the dozens, I embarrassed even myself.
I decided to try instant video on my ipad. Somewhere in the back of my head, I saw an image of my niece as she disappeared into the darkness and I heard the words “NCIS.” Here is the part about cosmic wind and God working through episodic television.
During the last 18 months, since the last of the Great Dying, I’ve watched all 12 seasons of NCIS, all six seasons of NCIS Los Angeles, and the new season of NCIS New Orleans. I can honestly say that a television show served as the loom to help weave back parts of me I thought were permanently lost to the void.
I started with Los Angeles, because Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J remain beautiful to watch. Don’t ever kid yourself—even 60-year-old women appreciate beauty. And then I got caught up in their stories: the man without a family and the one who had a good one; the two cops on their team who were friends falling in love; the funny, older wise woman who ran their outfit; her friendship with her mysterious boss, who seemed as shut down as I was.
Somewhere in that first year, I figured out something important about my seemingly weird and obsessive behavior. I had found a working family for me; a predictable group of people who were still in action, still fighting the good fights, and repaired when they messed up with each other. It took me a while to figure out the second part of my nightly ritual, which meant struggling through another set of feelings somewhere on the shame spectrum. There is a lot of adrenaline on the shows, which kicked up my own stress response in a predictable way. With all my deadened feelings, a little kick of hormone and danger felt good when so little else did.
Then I turned to watch the original NCIS. And there was Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the perfect character to hold all of my sadness and angst. He’d lost his wife and child to murder.
And here is what they do on NCIS that works as trauma therapy—he isn’t particularly getting better. The hole in him remains. He just keeps working to build a bigger life around it. His relationships with other women fail. He builds things in his basement, alone with a shot of whiskey. But he has created a different kind of family at work, people who matter. People who love him. With that one character, one working story, a deeper frozen layer began to heal.
As a trauma therapist I have knows the following, all along: the healing of trauma demands that we find a coherent narrative, a way to make sense of what has happened to us. Without knowing if we will survive, we must live through the intolerable intensity of “I cannot bear it.”
We have to build strong enough inner worlds to test if the absolutely unbearable might begin to express itself in the more familiar world of feelings (recognizing hurt, suffering, anger).
Finally, through some alchemical process that includes varying degrees of time, we have to find word—or for people that do visual art, pictures. Words and pictures bring our awareness up to the high brain, the place that makes coherent patterns. Patterns create the potential for sharing, for coming out of isolation, for healing. Then, maybe maybe maybe, we will be able to tell our story.
However, this movement from intolerable to hurting to language is not neat and tidy. It does not care what we think. It does not conform to our plans.
I was pretty much stuck holding “intolerable” down with all my might. I could not, would not feel what was there. I did not have words. If pushed to touch in there, I would go away. Gibbs and his “family” on NCIS served as out-picturing of secret, hidden inner me: broken people with their lights on. And I could watch them whenever I needed them.
Did I mention I took anti-anxiety medication? Something I never thought I would do?
At work, as I listened to the parents of teenagers and traumatized adults, I was highly aware of the cost of my peculiar-to-me but not unusual coping choices. We live in a seemingly urgent conversation about too much screen time, the overuse of drugs to handle anxiety and so many other halfway solutions to manage our response to terrible events and lost souls.
But with one-half Klonopin and three NCIS in a row, I could sleep.
It’s taken almost two years.
When I reached the end of the NCIS seasons available, I felt my anxiety increase. What would put the finger in the dike? Was I ready to be on my own?
It’s been about two months now. I don’t watch three anything in a row anymore. I have somewhat revived my succulent garden, which I basically killed during the Great Dying. I began a new, highly demanding art project that pushes me out of bed and back into the world. I take my grandkids to the movies, to family camp, to the beach. Kids can be great for grieving people because they really don’t notice—in a good way.
I did look up the start dates for the new seasons of NCIS. I have about a month to go before “my family” returns, my predictable family that is still fighting the good fight. Gibbs, who is living with a hole in the very center of the fabric of Self, still has found a way to love and keep on keeping on.
Here is all I have to say at this point: stories save lives. Art saves lives. Words and pictures can be a lifeline through the unbearable, but it doesn’t have to be us who is saying the words or making the art. Thank you NCIS for a life returned to itself.
Thank you NCIS, and the small screen, for bringing a lost soul back from the river of death, where it seemed she had been consigned to be the boatman, carrying those she loved over and rowing back alone, back and forth back and forth, forever.
This is the Best Response I’ve ever Heard about How to Process Grief.
Author: Deborah Allen
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Author’s Own
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