S02E18 - grief, loss, hope, love
My sessions on grief and loss started with helping me understand the role that sadness and pain play for people in recovery. Using the work of trauma and addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes, our group therapist explained how developing skills for coping with loss and pain are essential for a healthy life. She taught us all that sorrow always emerges and that many recovery paths can be hijacked when individuals avoid the process of looking at the pain that they may be consciously or unconsciously running from or avoiding.
She helped all of us understand that the grief and loss assignments in our rehab curriculum were designed to intentionally look at and be with our pain.
Grief & Loss Letter #1
After one of our group therapy sessions our grief and loss therapist approached me to discuss my first grief and loss writing assignment.
“James, I’ve had an idea of a topic for your first grief and loss letter. What do you think about writing a letter to your childhood dog?”
“Ummm… where in the world did that idea come from?”
“I’m not sure exactly, but I have a hunch that it may be helpful for you. Give it some thought today, and we can chat about it tomorrow.”
As she walked away something deep inside of me began to shift and started coming to the surface. She was right. Instead of thinking about the topic that night, I stayed up late and I wrote out a letter to my childhood dog Toby in my journal.
The next morning, after breakfast I saw the therapist in the hall and stopped her.
“How did you know that I needed to write that letter to Toby? Instead of thinking about the assignment I stayed up late last night and I wrote that letter. Your hunch was right, there was a lot of pain that I didn’t even realize that I was holding on to.”
“Like I said, it was just a hunch. I’m glad you found the exercise helpful. You can read your letter during group session this afternoon.”
Later that afternoon I was back in the hot seat sitting in the middle of room and was ready to read my letter to Toby to the group.
You were my best friend. You came into my life when I needed you most. I can remember how small you were and all your puppy smells when we would lay in the grass and play back when I was in grade six.
Life was changing for the worse for me, but you were always there for me. I had nobody that I could talk to, but you would always be waiting for me when I would come home from school. You would sleep with your head resting on the back of the sofa facing the front window of our home. When I would walk up the driveway you would spring to your feet and get super excited. You were the only reason I was glad to be home.
Over the years we would spend endless hours laying at the top of the stairs next to my bedroom where would you listen as I told you about my life and the many secrets that I needed to keep from the world. You never judged me, nothing ever changed between us, you gave me unconditional love.
As I got older and moved away to university I would love coming back home and seeing how excited you were to see me. Nothing ever changed with you, you always provided me with so much love.
As the years moved on and Mom & Dad moved homes nothing seemed to change. I would open the door, call your name, and would love hearing the familiar jingle of your collar as you would run down the hallway to greet me. You were moving a little bit slower, but I loved being able to spend time with you.
More years passed and I would come home less and less. I found a new crowd to spend time with and you started to fade from my life. I moved away for work and got “too busy” with so many other things and people and would find any excuse not to come home. Parts of me pretended that I didn’t need you anymore. The truth was I didn’t want to face the pain of being with my family. I just left you and tried to forget you as you aged.
One visit home years later I was surprised to see how old and sick you looked. There was no more jingle of your collar, and you didn’t even respond to my callout for treats. Mom told me that you were sick and couldn’t hear all that well anymore. Some of your teeth had fallen out, your tongue hung out of your mouth and parts of your little body were covered with growths. I didn’t know what to do or how to be with my best friend.
One day while busy at work, I got a call from home saying that you were about to have your last day. Mom and Dad wondered if I wanted to come by to say goodbye and spend some final time with you. Instead of coming to your side I got angry at their disruption and told them that I was far too busy to spend my time with such trivial things.
The next week Mom and Dad took you to the vet for your last breath. You passed away without your best friend being at your side.
You were there for so much of my life. You gave me so many glimmers of joy and provided me with your unconditional love but when you needed me to be there for you, I wasn’t. I was too busy.
I miss you so much Toby. I would give anything to have you over to my place now to spend that final time together. We would lay together on the couch for hours and just talk. You would help me with my loneliness and help me to know that everything is going to be okay.
I love you Toby.
I read my entire letter without looking up. But as I finished, I looked out at the other men in the room, and I could see the emotional written across their faces.
“Thank you for sharing that with us James. How was that for you?”
“Ummm, I guess it was okay. I have a mix of emotions right now. Part of me feels silly. Part of me is relieved. Part of me feels numb.”
“Yes, all those emotions are allowed. All those emotions are completely natural too. When you’re not used to talking about grief and loss you’re going to experience a number of new and uncomfortable feelings. Would it be okay if I asked you a question?”
“Since, Toby’s passing, what other pets or humans have you shared a similar bond or connection with?”
Her question punched me in the gut. I didn’t have an answer. There’s been no replacement or anything that has even come close to the type of bond that I had with Toby.
“I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t experienced that type of bond since.”
“What do you think holds you back from allowing yourself to be seen and loved like that now?”
Her questions were brutal and felt like an attack. But they were also the powerful questions that I needed to hear.
“I don’t really know. I guess I never thought of it that way.”
“It’s okay not to know. Take a deep breath and give yourself I moment to take that question inside now.”
I sat in that chair and felt completely exposed. I wanted to run out of the room, but I knew that this was the work that I’d been running from for years. I owed it to myself to hear my own answer.
“I guess I’m scared. I’m scared to let anyone else see how scared and alone I really feel inside. I’m scared that if I showed anyone who I really am that they would push me away and tell me how broken and messed up that I am.”
“That’s courageous to admit James. I can see how you might feel that way after what you’ve lived through. You had to grow up really fast and didn’t necessarily have the supports and attachments that others may have had. Connections like Toby are vital for healthy development. Have you considered getting a dog at this stage of your life?”
“I’d love to have another dog but that wouldn’t be practical for me.”
“What wouldn’t be practical?”
“I’d love a dog but I’m far too busy for that type of commitment.”
“You’re too busy for that type of love and connection?”
Another zinger that pierced my heart. I’d never thought of it that way, but she was right. So much of who I’d been over the past 15 years had screamed ‘I’m too busy for love and connection’. I guess parts of me actually believed that too.
“Thanks again James for sharing your first grief and loss letter. I have an idea for your second assignment. “
What? She wants me to do more of this work? I thought I was done with this part of the curriculum!
“Would you consider writing a letter to your lost childhood?”
I was exhausted and didn’t have much left in me to even question the assignment, so I simply accepted with hope that I’d be invited to leave the hot seat.
“Sure, I’ll give that some thought.”
Commitment & Healing?
Later that week while working alone in my spot at the main dining table the assistant clinical director approach me and asked if I was open to chat for a couple of minutes.
My instant gut reaction was to go into panic mode. I felt my heart start to speed up inside my chest and I braced for some sort of impact. I took a deep breath and with my most friendly, casual, and calm voice I replied
“Sure, what’s up?”
He took a seat next to me and I could see that he had a book with him.
“I wanted to check in to see how your time is going and if there is anything that I can do to make your time here more comfortable?”
I tried to let out some of my anxiety by making a joke about the food and asking if we could possibly get pizza and wings for dinner one night.
“Sure, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll note that down and see if we can make that happen next week.”
With the casual banter out of the way he handed me the book that he was holding onto.
As I looked down at the title and as my stomach churned, I was hit with an odd knowing that this book would have a profound impact on my life.
‘Commitment and healing – gay men and the need for romantic love’ by Richard A Isay M.D.
I looked up and the only words that I could find were a muffled,
“I could be wrong, but I think this book might mean something to you and remind you of something you already know.”
As I held onto the book and tried not to awkwardly squirm or pick at my nails he continued speaking.
A new challenge
“I also have a challenge for you. I noticed how well you present yourself here every day. You shower, shave, get dressed in a new outfit, do your hair, and put on cologne. I’m going to challenge you to let go of some of that for your remaining time with us.”
I scrunched up my face and said,
“You want me to be dirty?”
“No, I’m not asking you to be dirty, I’m asking you to try to be more comfortable just being you. There’s no one to impress here, no outsiders, and we hope that there’s no pressure to perform. I’m curious what it might look like for you to get a little more comfortable just being in your body. You could think of these next couple of weeks as an experiment.”
And with that, he smiled, reminded me that he was always available if I wanted to chat, and he was gone.
Later that evening I started reading the book and as I read the prologue, I knew this book held truths that I needed to be reminded of.
“This book is about the importance of romantic love for gay men and the difficulty many have in finding or sustaining it. A loving relationship over time can transform anyone’s life. The sustained devotion of one person is especially important to gay men who have been rejected or misunderstood by either or both parents in childhood and then by their peers during adolescence. As adults, they usually discover that their capacity to experience or express need is inhibited and their ability to accept another’s love becomes more difficult with every passing year.
Many of these men—mistrusting, fearful, or even unaware of their need for love—have sought happiness without intimacy or intimacy without commitment until midlife. Then a sense of emptiness or aloneness usually convinces them that an intimate and committed relationship combining sexual passion and deep friendship over many years stands the best chance of providing the happiness that has thus far eluded them. By this time, however, most have grown used to the readily available pleasure that they have found can obviate their need for the love of one other person: random sex or brief affairs combined with friendships, work, tasteful surroundings, and sometimes alcohol or other recreational drugs. Others never see the value of love and will not put forth the effort to initiate a relationship or maintain the vulnerability and dependence that sustain intimacy and keep it interesting and exciting.
Those who read this book looking for easy solutions to their difficulties with romantic love will, I fear, be disappointed. Like every human endeavor of value, love requires effort and perseverance to acquire and maintain. The sooner a person learns to value love, the sooner he will work to nourish and sustain it and the more practiced he will become in the art of loving. I hope that through this book, readers will begin to discover that they are worth the effort that love demands—and that love is worth the effort it demands.”
I finished that book over two nights, and I cried liked I have never cried before. The words of Dr. Isay helped me see how I had long ago divorced sex and love in my mind. I had told myself that both could not exist for me or in my world. Commitment and Healing relit a flame that I had long ago extinguished that a committed, romantic relationship was possible for me.
As I wept through the pages of Commitment and Healing, I started to see how I had long ago internalized many of the toxic lies that I had been taught over the years. I started to see how I had unconsciously excluded myself from the possibility of being deeply seen, known, and loved by another man. I started to see that I had been excluding myself from something that I deeply desired and fundamentality needed.
As these new insights crept from my unconscious into my conscious brain it brought more pain and anger to the surface. I used these uncomfortable emotions to fuel me forward with what I hoped would be my final grief and loss letter to my lost childhood.
A letter to my lost childhood
“This is the letter that I’ve been running from for almost my entire life. I’ve been afraid of feeling this loss because, quite frankly, it is so expansive that I don’t know what to do with it and I don’t know who I would be without this loss. In many ways, my loss has almost become my identity.
Instead of addressing this loss I learned how to put a smile on my face and repeat the words “I’m fine” and “everything’s great”. When that didn’t work, I switched to plan B where I attempted to prove to everyone, including myself, how good I was. Good marks, top schools, great jobs, savings, investments, homes, cars, vacations, partners.. you get the picture. These were many of the ways that I showed the world that “I’m fine, I’m not broken”.
But behind my smile a monster was raging. My fierce self-reliance, my sarcasm, and much of my drive was a cover for an internal war of confusion, shame, and self-blame.
After years of trying to pray the gay away and enduring messages of living a Godly life only through celibacy I internalized your hate. Parts of me actually believed that I was not allowed to love.
By not receiving the unconditional love and protection that I needed, part of me did break. In the space where love should be, it has been replaced with a constant state of fear. I’m in a perpetual mode of fight or flight where I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I suspiciously approach every situation and relationship looking for the fine print which will condemn me and send me into exile.
This is a horrible way to exist, and I’m exhausted from hustling for everyone’s approval, including my own.
By not protecting me you stole my innocence, my ability to authentically connect with myself, with others, and with God. Living in this place of fear I could never risk being vulnerable, to know, feel, or show my actual feelings, to trust myself, or to even relax.
I lost who I was, lost my self-esteem and my self-worth. I was a newly planted flower who was placed in a dark closet and was expected to grow and thrive.
By not being protected my childhood was stolen. I couldn’t laugh, experience joy, dream, or simply play. I was too busy trying to hide or trying to pretend that I was perfect.
By not being protected I was robbed of my family. I couldn’t form loving bonds with my parents or be a big brother to my sister or brother. Instead, I was an angry child who always felt angry, anxious, and alone. The worst part is that I blamed myself for this. I thought it was me who was the problem. Being taught that I was a born sinner and an abomination in the eyes of God I believed that I was the problem.
By not being protected I didn’t form many of the authentic bonds with friends. I was too scared to show others who I really was. I lost the opportunity to fall in love, to date, and to be guided through my teens by my parents.
To compensate for this loss, I dove into the first job available and let that propel me forward. I lost the opportunity to explore a career that really meant something to me.
But my biggest loss is my ability to love or be loved. Instead of love, I settled for physical and sexual gratification, that is all I thought I deserved. I’ve almost given up hope that love is even possible for me.
I wanted to be a full part of my life, my family, my church, and my community but my second-class status forced me off that bus and stole so much from me.
At 42 I’m facing the reality of not having my own family. I have some faith that someday I might meet a partner where I can be authentically me, but I think I’ve lost the chance to be a father and a grandfather. My legacy won’t be carried forward through blood. That’s been stolen.
I’ve lost all of these things because I was taught a lie about what love is and who gets to experience the love that we are all created to experience.
The loss of my childhood is abuse. Abuse at the hands of the church who continues to proudly teach and share that humans like me are somehow subhuman and don’t deserve to love.
All I ever wanted was to feel loved and accepted for exactly who God made me to be. Isn’t this what every human deserves?”
When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I thought the main thrust of my experience would be focused on eliminating unwanted behaviours. What I’m learning and discovering is that recovery is not a binary process. Yes, part of recovery is about stopping behaviours and actions that no longer serve me, but recovery is also about remembering and starting behaviours that will bring me back to life.
Worthy of love
I don’t know how the therapists planned and coordinated this ‘love attack’ on me. But they were awaking parts of me that have laid dormant inside of me for a lifetime. Learning to push away the lies of a manmade religion and starting to remember the truth of who I am created to be is a new part of my recovery.
I am lovable. I am worthy of being loved. I have a deep and innate desire to connect deeply with others and to share my love with the rest of the world.