Grief in waves

“Just Breathe” Eddie Vedder

Yes I understand
That every life must end
As we sit alone
I know someday we must go

Oh, I’m a lucky man
To count on both hands
The ones I love
Some folks just have one
Yeah, others they got none

Stay with me
Let’s just breathe

Practiced on our sins
Never gonna let me win
Under everything
Just another human being

Yeah, I don’t want to hurt
There’s so much in this world
To make me bleed

Stay with me
You’re all I see

Did I say that I need you?
Did I say that I want you?
What if I did and I’m a fool you see
No one knows this more than me
‘Cause I come clean

I wonder everyday
As I look upon your face
Everything you gave
And nothing you would take
Nothing you would take
Everything you gave

Did I say that I need you?
Oh, did I say that I want you?
What if I did and I’m a fool you see
No one knows this more than me
‘Cause I come clean

Nothing you would take
Everything you gave
Hold me ’til I die
Meet you on the other side

***

This has to be one of my favourite Pearl Jam songs. It’s beautiful. It actually reminds me of multiple people. The song’s message is so universal and true to the human spirit that I find I can apply it to different types of relationships I’ve had. The two on my mind right now are two that I’ve lost. The grief still hits me in waves. People say everything heals with time, but I disagree. Some pain stays sharp forever, you just somehow learn to live with it.

Jenn is on my mind in January, but to be honest she always is. It’s just that the pain is sharper during the month she was born and also died. I’ll miss her forever. When I was in her arms, I was at peace. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever really felt like that in my life. She told me she felt the same way. It’s like our souls had found a place to rest finally. She was home to me, and she’s gone. Even though the waves of grief are strong when they hit me, I’m still standing. She will always be in my heart. It feels like she is with me every day. There is comfort in knowing our bond never truly disappears. Love doesn’t die.

This song also makes me think of Michele, my dear friend who passed away less than a year ago. I’ve not quite reached the level of acceptance with her loss that I have with Jenn. After Michele died, I just shut down. I was overwhelmed not just by her loss, but by the tragedies that just seemed to pile up. She was such an amazing person, and so strong. I’ve written about her before, but there were things I couldn’t write. I felt that if I was honest about the fact that her friendship troubled me as much as it brought me joy, then perhaps I wasn’t honoring her memory. I see now that in order to heal, I need to look at the whole truth even if it is uncomfortable. I know that I respected and cared for her, so I know that I’m not dishonoring her memory by saying what I need to say.

Michele was a fighter and a survivor, and that’s what drew me to her. What also made me befriend her was the fact that I knew she needed someone. I’m a caretaker by nature, mostly because of what I’ve endured, and I’m unable to ignore someone in pain. When she told my support group her story, I knew she was lonely and needed someone. I could tell she was dying, and because of what I’ve been through, I couldn’t let her die alone.

She said that most of her friends abandoned her when they found out how sick she was, and that she couldn’t go out and have fun anymore. She said she just wanted someone to go for walks with. I told her I would do that, and we became friends quickly. I liked her dry sarcasm, her wit, and her determination to never give up. She was a single mom who provided well for her kids and loved them unconditionally. I admired her strength and perseverance. She was also really good at telling funny stories, and she often had me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. She really enjoyed making me laugh.

I also liked how real she was. People who are dying don’t have time for bullshit. She wanted to talk about life. She wanted to air out her anger and grief. She needed someone to listen to her trauma stories. She needed someone to sit with her as she was dying so that she didn’t feel so desperately alone. I needed a friend like her too. I was lonely and didn’t feel safe. I’d sit in her living room with her dog curled up on my lap, and we’d talk for hours. Sometimes I took her for outings but she was often sick, so we weren’t able to go out as much as she wanted. I soon learned that her pain was so bad that she wasn’t even able to go for walks. She grieved the loss of her mobility and was filled with sadness and despair.

One day, we drove her Jeep to a car show and got some ice cream. She ran into a former coworker and chatted for a while. As we were walking away, she said something odd to me. She said, “I think he thought we were a couple.” I said I don’t think so. The thought had never even crossed my mind, and I felt uncomfortable. I knew she had brought it up because it was somehow on her mind. I thought maybe she just wasn’t used to hanging out with a lesbian, so maybe she was more aware of it than I was. People tend to be unaware of the homophobia that lurks in their minds. But her son was gay, and she was very accepting and supportive of him. Over time, people started to say that they thought she had feelings for me. I didn’t believe them. I laughed and told them we were just friends. I was convinced that she loved me as I loved her, in a very platonic and non romantic way- the way that you would love a close friend.

Still, it bothered me. She seemed jealous when I dated. Once she asked me what the age range of the women I talked to was. I didn’t think much of it at the time because she was interested in online dating. She told me she hated being so lonely and wanted to meet someone. She was torn because she knew no one would date someone who was dying. My heart hurt for her, I so badly wanted her to find someone to love her, but I knew she was right. Michele was 50, and I told her I was dating people aged 35-45. She seemed embarrassed and disappointed when I said that. I didn’t realize at the time why she was asking. My brain just doesn’t work like that. I didn’t realize I’d upset her until later. However, that was the easiest way I could’ve let her down in hindsight. After that, she would often make comments about age and now she needed to find someone in her age group. The truth is, once I realized that she felt rejected, I felt awful.

I never had any romantic feelings for her. She was so important to me, but I never saw her in that way. I felt like an asshole for telling her I didn’t date older women, and I felt like an asshole for disappointing someone who didn’t have much time left. It was true that I was devoted to her, but it was like how you would be devoted to a family member who was sick and dying. Some of the women I dated seemed jealous of her because they could see I cared for her, but that just angered me because nobody seemed to understand what my role in her life was. I was there to be a friend to someone who needed one. Why was that so hard for everyone to get? Maybe it’s because I’m not neurotypical, but to me it was straightforward. I’m extremely loyal and don’t play games. She was my friend, and I knew she needed me. I tried to see her at least once a week. When she was in the hospital, I’d visit her or call her. She needed someone there all the time, but I set boundaries because I knew I couldn’t do that. She felt like she needed more than a friend, and I was clear that wasn’t possible. To me, that should’ve been enough for people to understand, including her. If people couldn’t share me with a dying friend, then their insecurities ran too deep for me to want to date them anyway.

Still, I’m extremely sensitive to someone’s pain, and I felt bad that I couldn’t be what she needed. She would often lament to me about dying alone. She told me she just wanted someone to hold her. I would always keep my distance. I told her it was because I get a lot of colds from my daughter, and I knew that a cold would give her pneumonia and put her in the hospital for a month. I also kept my distance because that’s just how I am; I’m not the hugging type unless I’m in a relationship with someone. Admittedly, the biggest reason I kept my distance was because I was starting to realize that people were right; she was in love with me. After I realized that, I felt a little bit angry. I was mad that people were constantly trying to blur the boundaries of friendship with me. I cared for her, but I felt like I deserved better from a friend. It didn’t help that others in my life were also pushing my boundaries at the same time. I felt overwhelmed. It was hard to be clear with her that I was just her friend and still care for her. It was confusing to navigate.

One evening we were at a restaurant, and a drunk guy started following us out of the bar when we left. He was trying to get Michele to talk to him. I was wary because he was slurring, but I let him clumsily try to hit on her. I’d had a couple beers, so I was trying to just relax. Soon I realized she wasn’t interested because she gave him a fake name and lied about where she lived. He was following us down a dark alley to the parking lot behind the building. My DID will be more obvious in these situations. Without awareness, I switched to a male protective part. Michele said all of a sudden my face changed, and I stepped in between them and stared him down. I then asked him to leave. He immediately backed down and walked away. Afterwards, I was shocked when she told me how it happened. I apologized to her profusely, saying I’m sorry if I interrupted them. She laughed and said no, she wasn’t interested in him. He was too young and drunk. She said it was flattering because she often felt so unwanted. I felt bad because I sent someone away who helped her ego, and I was worried I sent her the wrong signals. I told her that I’d do that for any friend, and that I had no control over it because that part of me felt like we were in a dangerous situation. She said she understood.

Still, I felt like I wanted to say again that I’d do that for any friend, and that I didn’t have feelings for her. I wanted to say I felt threatened, not jealous. Another part said no, don’t say that to her. That might hurt her feelings. It bothered me because I felt that I wanted to be clear that it didn’t mean I was interested in her, especially because she was so amused and happy that I had stepped in like that. It made me uncomfortable because I never know how someone is interpreting a situation- my brain is different from other people. She used to joke about how it looked like that guy was going to piss himself out of fear when my face changed and I stared him down. I guess it’s good if it made her laugh, but I still felt like she was reading too much into it. It’s moments like these that made it awkward for me, and that’s when we had to have a discussion about my DID. I think in the end, she knew that I wasn’t interested in her romantically, and it made her sad. I never wanted to make her sad, and it was difficult for both of us.

I did my best to be there for her during the last year of her life. I took her out to dinner, I took her shopping, and I sat with her. I truly enjoyed her company. She listened to me too, it’s not like I was being selfless. She was a wonderful listener. She was compassionate and didn’t judge me. She accepted that I had DID and didn’t make me feel ashamed about it. She was a wonderful human being, and I’m grateful for our time together. We understood each other’s souls, and we both needed someone like that in our lives. We had a truly deep connection. She was one of those people you meet and instantly feel like you’ve known them forever. It wasn’t difficult to be around her. Usually I struggle with social anxiety, but with her I could just be myself.

It hurt when she lamented about the men who treated her badly or abused her, and the therapist who crossed boundaries by telling her she loved her. Unfortunately I knew that therapist because I’d seen her for two sessions and never went back after she asked me an inappropriate question. I wanted to find her and tell her what a piece of shit human being she was for doing that to my friend. Crossing boundaries with any patient is unforgivable, but doing that to someone who has a terminal illness is despicable. I told Michele that she could report her, but she couldn’t do it. This was triggering for me because one of my first therapists was inappropriate with me in that way, and I was only 18 when it happened. It brought back a lot of anger and pain, but I stuffed it down and still haven’t had the courage to deal with it.

Michele also told me story after story about her parents treating her badly and controlling her. I told her that she had options, and I tried to get her support so that she wasn’t as reliant on them. I also tried to get her an ethical therapist, but she was hesitant to go. I don’t blame her. That shitty therapist had hurt her so much that she was scared of therapy when she needed it the most. She was dying, and all she had was me. It was a heavy burden to bear. I feel guilty writing that. Months before she died, I felt the weight of her neediness like an anchor around my neck.

I tried so many ways to get her professional help, but nothing worked. She was content to use me as her therapist. I told her I’m not your therapist, I’m your friend, and you need a professional to talk to. You deserve that. I also asked her to please stop telling me stories about her parents because it was triggering me. I said if she wanted to take action she could, because they were abusing a disabled person. I gave her options and lists of supports, but she was afraid to damage the already shaky relationship with them because she was dying. I understood, but I had to set limits on her abuse stories because I couldn’t soak up all that pain and do nothing. She told me that she respected me because I was strong enough to set boundaries and stay firm with them. She said she liked me because I had a way of telling her the honest truth without bullshitting her, but I did it in a compassionate way. I tried.

Her pain, neediness, and anger was definitely taking its toll on me. She got more and more depressed as her health got worse. She constantly told me she just wanted someone to hold her at night. I told my friend about it. I said, maybe I should just be that person for her, even if I don’t want to be. I knew she didn’t have long to live. He said no, that wouldn’t be fair to you or her. I knew he was right. Being exploited as a child made me an easy target for people because I’d give in to their advances too easily. I needed to learn that I was a person with rights, and I deserved to say no. I didn’t have to give in to someone who wanted something from me if I felt uncomfortable. It still made me feel like shit because I felt like I denied a dying woman the connection she needed. I hope that she knew I loved her dearly, even if it wasn’t romantic love. I hope that I helped her in some way.

When the pandemic started, she died suddenly. I got a text from her daughter that she was almost gone, and she couldn’t speak to me on the phone. The hospital wouldn’t have allowed me to visit. I was sad that I wasn’t there for her at the end, but I’m glad they let her kids be by her side. The grief of losing another close connection was too much for me. Since she’s been gone, I’ve shut down and become more isolated. I don’t want to try and make new friends. I know it’s because it feels safer to protect myself from more loss. I know one day I will try again. I think I need to work through my grief first. Writing this was a huge step. I feel like I’ve unburdened myself a little. Some of those things were hard to admit. It’s hard to give so much to someone and still have it not be enough. And it’s hard when you’re powerless to save someone. It’s also difficult to develop such a close connection and then lose them suddenly.

It feels like my life has been filled with so much loss that it is almost unbearable. I know that she is still with me though. She is in my heart forever. I don’t really believe in heaven, but hopefully one day I’ll see the ones I have lost again, somehow. For now I will put one foot in front of the other and wake up every morning with determination. I will try to hold onto hope as Michele used to, even if it felt like there was no reason to hope. I will be grateful for knowing the people who have changed me and helped my soul to learn. I will even try to have hope for a new connection. One day I will find people who won’t leave so soon.

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