When Grief Overwhelms

This past Monday marked the seven-year anniversary of what was probably the saddest day of my life.  On that day in 2011, my hometown was struck by a horrible tragedy, a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 6 innocent people and injured 14 others.  I watched the story unfold in horror, helplessly 3,000 miles away in NYC.  Horror, in part, because this was happening to my hometown, but also because it struck much closer than that.

These were my former colleagues. This was an event I used to staff.  My former boss, a public official who I idolized, was shot in the head.  She lived, but never fully recovered. Two other former coworkers were also shot and, thankfully, lived.  A third former coworker, a mentor and maybe the nicest person I’ve ever met, was shot and killed.

I learned the news in bits and pieces.  First, it was reported that my former boss had been killed.  Later, a correction revealed she was still alive.  I knew there were fatalities, but no names were released for hours.  I remember walking home from the subway after work, dumbfounded, vigorously searching the news on my Blackberry for more details.  I stumbled across Gabe’s number in my phone, and briefly thought about calling him to see if he was okay.  No, I concluded, he didn’t need to hear from a distant friend/former coworker right now.  I was sure he was busy, overwhelmed, grieving, with his family.

Back at my apartment for the evening, it came out over the TV that a staffer was among those killed.  Nauseated, I repeated to myself: “Please don’t be Gabe. Please don’t be Gabe.”  A few minutes later, they released the name.  It was Gabe.

I don’t know if I’ve ever cried harder in my life.  My husband–boyfriend at the time–hugged me tightly as I sobbed into his chest.  It hurt so bad.  When I came up for air, I started turning my apartment over, searching violently for a special pen Gabe had given me as a going away present when I left the job for law school.  I never found it.  I was devastated.

What I did find was a home made going away card where Gabe and the other office members had written nice messages for me.  I clung to it for dear life.

I tried going to work that Monday, but left halfway through the day after crying at my desk. I felt like such a drama queen. Was I allowed to be this sad? I knew this guy for a year and a half.  He wasn’t family.  I’m not even sure if he considered me his friend.  We just worked together, respected each other, and liked each other enough.

I flew home for his funeral.  It was healing to visit the memorials, to see old coworkers, to hug everyone in sight. To hear the eulogies and to learn things about Gabe that I never knew, things that made me like him even more.

Gabe’s brother got up and spoke at the funeral, and I felt like he was speaking directly to my wounded soul.  He said that maybe some of us were wondering, did we mean as much to Gabe as he meant to us?  And then his brother assured us that yes, we did mean as much to him.  “How do I know?” he asked meaningfully. “Because he told me.”  I needed to hear that more than anything.

I felt so much peace when I headed back to New York.  And I was still sad.  But the days, months, and years tumbled on.  I would be lying if I said that I thought about Gabe and the other victims of the shooting every day.  I don’t.  Not even close.

And Monday was the seven year anniversary, and though I remembered, I felt … irritated.  Irritated because I wanted to cry, to feel sad, to give the memory the respect it deserved.  But the tears just didn’t come.

Instead, I spent Monday evening talking with my father.  He was upset, confessing that he’d cried for the first time in years.  That he was inexplicably sad, suddenly grieving things that he had suppressed since childhood.  Grieving the loss of his mother for the first time, even though she died twenty years ago.

Grief is weird.  Grief is unpredictable.  Grief is frustrating.  Grief is inconvenient.  I can prepare for weeks, get myself all ready to cry on the anniversary of a tragic event, but no dice.  Instead, the tears come during a meeting at work.  Or when I finish a run on the treadmill at the gym.  Or when I see a can of Diet Dr. Pepper.

So maybe my grief isn’t the beautiful, reverent, tragic thing that I want it to be.  But it’s there.  I do care.  And I do remember.

I remember how Gabe used to drink Diet Dr. Pepper by the case.

I remember how he was the office problem solver.  How we directed difficult cases his way.  How he called back a constituent once after he overheard the constituent being rude to me on the phone.

I remember how I lied to him to get out of staffing an event.  How I told him I was going apple picking with my family.  And how he asked me about it the next day, and I continued to lie (badly) about all the apple picking we did.  He knew.  I could see it on his face.  But he let it slide.

I remember making fun of him for being super old, even though he was only five years older than me.

I remember running in to him at a fundraising event.  He was there with his dad, and he introduced him as his best friend.

He was a really special guy.  He deserves to be remembered.  And maybe I don’t always cry on the anniversary of his death, but I do remember.

 

Until next time,

Vee

The Kindness of Strangers: A Christmas Story

‘Tis the season of sugar highs, long lines, and–miraculously–somehow also the kindness of strangers.

Allow me to set the scene.  It was Christmas Eve Eve Eve (yes, that’s a thing).  The second of four days in a row that Hubby would be working leading up to Christmas Day.  And I had dragged the kids out in a nasty wintry mix so we could do some last minute shopping for Hubby at Barnes and Noble.

If you don’t know, Barnes and Noble is a fairly kid-friendly bookstore, with lots of toys for sale, and usually some kind of train table in the kid section for open play.  So I let the munchkins play with the train table for a while before picking up my gift for Hubby.

At one point, K-Man started to do the potty dance, and said he needed to pee.  So I picked up Ell-Bell, the diaper bag, all of our jackets, and marched him over to the bathroom on the other side of the store.  And when we got there, that little stinker refused to pee, said he didn’t need to go.  Ugh! So, we walked over to the toy section — again, with me juggling all the things — and played around for a bit.  K-Man could not move two feet without knocking a cascade of things off of the shelves.

I was starting to get kind of flustered, so I picked up Hubby’s present and started to wrangle the kids and our things so we could go check out.  Before we got very far, though, K-Man again announced that he had to pee.  Well duh!  Back to the bathroom we went.  After much coaxing, little man did his business and we went up front to pay for our things.

As it was Christmas Eve Eve Eve, there was a long-assed line.  And the line was littered with towers of things for sale, teetering precariously at every turn.  So stressful.  K-Man insisted on playing with a pile of Beanie Babies, dragging them all over the dirty floor despite my tired pleas.  Ell-Bell started losing her mind and didn’t want to be held anymore.  As I was trying to adjust her and the diaper bag and the jackets and the things I was buying, I managed to knock a few items off a display table.  Ugh.  “Gee, thanks for all your help,” I thought grumpily to myself, feeling the stares from other people in line as I picked up my mess.

Finally, finally, it was my turn to check out, so I dragged my brood of people and things up to the counter and started to exchange pleasantries with the clerk.  The lady behind me in line huffily rushed up next to me and waved one of the Beanie Babies in the air.  “Seriously?” I mumbled, thinking she was going to complain about how K-Man was playing with it.

And then the lady said, “Excuse me, I would like to buy this toy for her.”  And she gestured towards me.

Oops. I’m a terrible person.  I profusely thanked her, and she commented that she had five kids (wow), that she knows that some days are better than others, that it is the season of giving, etc.  And then she explained to the clerk that she was covering my whole purchase.  I tried to protest, because you guys, it was a $50 bill! A complete and total stranger wanted to buy me $50 worth of things because it’s Christmas and I was having a hard day!

I eventually let her go through with it, but I felt a little awkward and couldn’t thank her enough.  I was even moved to a few tears, which was super embarrassing.  (To be fair, I was pretty close to tears before the nice gesture…)

I was so overwhelmed with emotion, in fact, that I failed to realize that the clerk had rung up one of my items twice, thereby charging this kind lady an extra $15.  Oof, I really wish I had noticed that at the time!

As I drove home, I reflected on the kindness of a stranger, and how it had turned around my day.  This season is so beautiful to me.  I know I talk a lot about shopping and presents, but I really do love the less tangible facets of Christmas.  Kindness.  Giving.  Love.  Cheer.  I love how Christmas brings these emotions forward.

Christmas is picking up someone’s bill to brighten their day.

Christmas is humming carols out loud at the grocery store, smiling as you pass someone doing the same.

Christmas is my heart exploding as I watch my kids bathe together before bedtime, both silently sucking on their toothbrushes in unison.  Dorks.

Christmas is Hubby’s attending sending him home 4 hours early today so he could spend Christmas Eve with his children.

I know this time of year isn’t easy for everyone.  For some, Christmas is about longing for what they don’t yet have, or missing what they don’t have anymore.  For me, sometimes the holiday just highlights the loss I still feel so keenly for my own nuclear family, the one that crumbled when my parents divorced 7 years ago.

So if you’re not feeling all warm and cuddly and spirity this Christmas Eve, please accept my virtual hug.  And know that if I was behind you in line at Barnes and Noble, I would totally pick up your bill.

Merry Christmas to all.  Until next time,

Vee