Sunday, November 1, 2009

Emotions are like being harnessed up to powerful horses

I was thinking this morning as I woke up that our emotions are kinds of like powerful horses that we are harnessed to. Sometimes we are in control of them; sometimes we are not.

Emotions are the real stuff of life. They are what makes it all worthwhile. Without love, joy, happiness, what would life be? Mechanical? Flat and boring?

We are forced to endure the other side of emotion, the sadness, pain and misery, the boredom and ennui, and the grief, because life cannot go on forever, because disasters happen, because those we care about sometimes hurt us, because illness and accidents take a toll. We have no choice but to experience them and feel them. That's when the horses get spooked an run away. We are not in control and it's frightening and miserable.

Because emotions cause chemical changes in the brain they aren't just something we can "decide" on and control completely. We are in some sense at the mercy of the runaway horses.

But we can fight to regain control. We can fight to bring our emotions back to something happier and more stable. We can sieze the reins and sometimes force our will upon them.

However that takes immense effort and a real desire to change one's feelings. One reason it is so hard is that the emotions are natural and we feel that. We feel justified in having them and giving in to them, and to some extent, it's necessary, but there comes a time when negative emotions can become like a bad habit, something we keep feeding and feeling because we don't know the way out . . . or even want to stay there because there is some other goal being met.

I've thought a lot about this in relation to grief. When we lose someone we love, it is not only their death for which we mourn, but the loss of a future together, the loss of our identity as their mother, father, brother, sister; the emptiness where they once filled our hearts. Grief is real and consuming.

But I think it could become a habit, and I think it's possible to want to hang onto it as proof of one's love. How can a good mother be happy ever again when her beloved child is dead? How can she ever get over that loss?

In one sense, she (me) never will. There will always be that sense of missing Leif, of life not being right or complete without him. But gradually, if she is healthy and willing to fight to regain happiness, it's possible to see that letting go of grief doesn't mean letting go of love, doesn't mean letting go of the bond of love and care for that child. Gradually, she will rein in the runaway horses and settle them down, make them trot along a path that leads to something better.

I really do think that it's hard to let go of grief without feeling like a bad mother. You have to come to terms with that, to decide (and yes, it is a decision) that spending the rest of your life making yourself unhappy over something you cannot change doesn't make you a better mother or even a good one; it just makes you unhappy, and that unhappiness spills over onto the others you love.

You can't rush this process. For some it takes a year. For some longer. Some will never get there. But in that initial period you have to let yourself grieve and feel it. You have to mourn, for it is a real loss, and the grieving is not just a mental thing, not even "just" emotional, but a chemical process in the brain.

At some point, though, and it's a point you have to recognize, you find that there are moments and hours when you are happy, when you feel "normal" again. At first they don't last long and you feel guilty when they happen, like somehow you shouldn't feel that way at all as the mother of a dead child. You might even talk yourself into a crying session to "make up" for the happy moments, to "prove" to yourself that you really are sad . . . and of course, you ARE sad, but you are beginning to find your way back out of the hole of misery. Now, when the sadness sets in, you find you can haul yourself up out of it like a tour-de-force. You can pull back on those reins and stop the runaway horses.

Before this point, the things you used to enjoy had lost their luster. Counting your blessings didn't help because you were still constantly reminded of what you lost. But at this point, if you are fortunate, you  begin to realize that life is still precious, that you have spent your time in mourning and it's time to emerge, groom those horses and set off down a better road, time to live the life you have.

That doesn't mean you won't have periods of sadness, times when remembering will bring some tears, or when some trigger you didn't expect will make you turn away to hide the emotions that start to run away again. But they will not be the fabric of your life, but a pattern within that fabric, and you will begin to weave a new way to live.

I sensed I had rounded some kind of corner about three weeks ago, roughly after Leif had been dead for 18 months. I no longer cried so much when I was scanning and working on photos to post on this blog. I could smile at them and feel love, more than sadness, but yes tinged with sadness. I could write posts without crying.

And I could feel enthusiasm for things I had enjoyed before, real enthusiasm, more than I have felt since his death.

Peter noticed this, too. He said the other day that it was the first time he remembers me being spontaneously happy since Leif's death. I think he is right.

Part of this is the healing of time. Part of it is Peter's love and support. Part of it is this blog. And the last piece is coming to the time when I can decide it is all right to be happy again. It is all right to feel less grief. It is all right to fight depression and sadness.

I think when we are at the point when we can tell ourselves this new story that we can slowly begin to change the chemical processes in our brains to something that allows happiness. It doesn't happen quickly and it isn't all or nothing. It's baby steps, but they are in the right direction.

We have to hold onto the reins. The horses are powerful, and they are also wonderful. Life without emotions would be empty and worthless. We need to treasure them, along with our memories, and then figure out how to guide them where we want to go.

I am fortunate that I am at this point. If I were someone like my father or Leif and suffered from severe, chronic depression, I would not be able to do this. Chronic deep depression is not something the sufferer can "decide" to get over, or more precisely, they might make that "decision" but they would not be able to change the chemical processes in the brain that cause that kind of depression. Grief could be said to be a short term "mental illness" because of it's symptoms, but it is a normal process. Clinical depression, however, is not a normal process and it doesn't clear up on it's own. It is the black hole of despair. I am sad that my father and my son went through such misery and found no way out.

I know I will have sad times when something hits me about Leif's death, but I think I am over the worst of the process of grieving. Now I look at these pictures and I smile with love and memories. It won't bring him back, but I am thankful I had him, thankful for those memories, thankful for the years we spent together.

Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? I think if you ask someone that, their answer will depend a lot upon how close they are to the loss. Even Leif, though, in his depression, answered yes. I will, too.

These two photos of Leif and me were taken by Peter W. in Heidelberg, Germany in August 1978. He was three-and-a-half years old.

In the second one he is sticking out his lower lip. When I was growing up and we kids did that, my mother called it by a Norwegian name. I don't know how to spell them properly in Norwegian, so I can only do it the way it sounds to me. For a boy it was, "struteper," and for a girl it was "struteguri." I used that with my boys, too, so in the lower photo, Leif is a "struteper." Maybe a Norwegian reader will comment and correct me.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your great post.

    I'm so sorry for your loss. May Leif rest in peace.