Category Archives: grief

How to Handle the Unexpected

In 2000, when your Mom and I were in our late 20’s, we had a crisis of purpose. We had done our time in the working world and, desperate for something more authentic (and facing a demolished economy), we decided to pursue our passions. She applied to art school and I to film school.

We both got into our top MFA programs: Yale in Connecticut for Mom and University of Southern California (USC) for me. Both great schools. Bully for us! But our geography skills were clearly lacking during the application process.

We were about to be married. Living on opposite coasts just wasn’t an option. So after lots of counseling, I accepted that her need was more deeply embedded than mine and acquiesced to join her on the East Coast.

But I didn’t go lightly. I wallowed in self-pity as I imagined shoveling Connecticut snow instead of basking in LA sun with the top down. “It’s not fair!” I whined, albeit with what I believed was a more adult presentation.

I was a soon-to-be husband and hoped-to-be father. Not the time to be a petulant victim.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…

Life rarely goes as planned. From flight delays to deaths in the family, our coping skills are constantly tested. Sadly, most of our culture is distracted, superficially-focused and lacking the modeling and rituals to deal with surprise events. From the executive berating his waiter to the neighbor griping over your hedge being two inches too high, people complain, run away or seek others to solve the problem.

When I was young, I would also fall into magical thinking as a way to deal with change or hardship. I would imagine going back in time or trading all my savings to not fall down the stairs and hurt my back. That worked about as well building a swimming pool in my yard.

Your Mom and I were married two weeks before her grad program started. So two days after a whirlwind honeymoon where I almost lost my hearing (long story), I drove from San Francisco to New Haven, CT to meet your Mom, find a job and start a new life.

I arrived on the night of September 10, 2001.

Needless to say, the next day didn’t go according to plan. My train never made it to Manhattan. The country had suddenly looked a lot different.

Dealing with Surprise Changes

The challenge of unexpected changes is to see them objectively, not through the lens of emotion, which turns otherwise manageable events into Shakespearean dramas.

I read recently that life can often come down to a choice between anxiety (uncertainty) and depression (stasis). Always choose anxiety. Anxiety is growth and, despite the pain, how we feel alive.

That means not running away from situations, but dealing with the uncertainty and change directly, as hard as that may be.

Some tactics that have helped me:

  • Appreciate: Remain calm. We often look at unforeseen events with an emotionally-skewed, negative lens, but most events aren’t as big a deal as the Chicken Little character in our head makes them out to be.
  • Integrate: There will be plenty of emotions. Embrace them and let them flow through you; like a fast-moving highway, not a traffic jam of suppression.  
  • Meditate: Reconnect with the truth that all things are always in flux, and find a calm mental space that allows you to accept and live with that fact.  
  • Contemplate: Consider the situation fully, understanding all the implications, both positive and negative.
  • Congregate: Hang out with good people who understand these ideas and practice them. Find inspiration, peace and solidarity in others.
  • Advocate: Don’t sit idle but speak out and engage thoughtfully. Repeat the serenity prayer if that helps: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  • Don’t Wait: Stay busy. Like a tennis player who hits balls all day, busy-ness makes managing challenges second nature. Not having that skill ensures a lifetime of being tagged in the head and cowering.
  • Graduate: Find a way to accept and embrace the new and move on. And maybe reward yourself for working through it.

When you were asked last summer to characterize me in a short quote, you said, “This is it. We’re doing this!”

I could have died at that moment…in a good way, that is.

For all of my shortcomings (and the list is massive), if there’s one thing I want to impart on you and your sister in this brief life, it’s to do life fully. That means not retreating or being crippled by the unexpected, but facing it head on – the way you ran directly into the ocean waves as a little kid.

The week after 9/11, I finally was able to take the train into ash-filled New York to meet some friends from SF. Still shell-shocked from the events, we managed to talk about turning their little open source project, Jive, into a company together.

With no other options in this decimated world, I shook hands on a new opportunity.  

We got the company going in a small apartment in the city where I would sleep on the foldout couch after working all day. They would work late and sneak out while I slept. And I would take the train back to New Haven on the weekends.

It was a time of massive changes, some under my control and some not. I had to learn how to get past my own fears and selfish needs – to not be paralyzed, but to understand and accept the changes and move forward. To be an adult.

Nine months after starting, Mom and I got to finally live together….in Brooklyn, where you were born.

And over the next eight years, we turned Jive into a great company. It had the creativity I needed plus camaraderie and good values. It shaped me.

And while I didn’t ever do the film school thing, I was okay with that. I like my own story better.

 

Why I’ve been Quiet

I did not watch the Super Bowl this year.

While the rest of the country was fixated on Payton, Cam and Beyonce, I watched Doctor Who battle weeping angels and robots with my 12-year old daughter. It was her last weekend at home before going to a residential treatment center in Utah for a few years, and I wanted to squeeze in as much time as I could with her.

Agreeing to send my 12-year old girl to an RTC is the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent, maybe the hardest thing in life. It kicked off a month of grieving leading up to a final, explosively sad good-bye.

I won’t go into the details of her diagnosis or what got to this point. But trust me when I say we had tried everything to keep her here with us. Her needs had gone beyond local resources. This was the best and only option, but one we had faith would help her. We can give her a loving, safe home, but not the level of therapy, training and community she needs.

The night before she left I slept in her room with her, both to keep her safe and because I wanted to breathe in as much of her as I could. I only slept a couple hours, but I was with her. My last night with her as a child that I could protect.

tardis2

On her final day, we went for our last walk together, a daily practice we had gotten into over the last few months. We can either go in the direction of the park or downtown. Downtown meant seeing people I knew, so I opted for the park. I pushed her on the same swing I had pushed her on as a kindergartner. I only got a couple swings in before breaking down.

I had forgotten how physical grief was. I feel like I’ve aged seven years over this period. Nobody died – getting the help she needs is overall a positive thing – but I feel drained of life energy.

But throughout this painful process, something unexpected happened: by telling the story, I have had amazing connections with people.

Most of the time, we suffer through crappy life events alone. I’m a big believer of the phrase, “Everyone is fighting a battle you don’t understand.”

But when you crack the seal on what’s really going on, people often respond in kind. I was received with heaping gobs of support and people’s own stories of their childhood or struggles with their kids. I would watch people I barely knew shed the “everything is great, just check out my Facebook pictures” masks of daily life in a matter of seconds.

We have a big hole in our house now. A giant loss of energy that I try to fill in with reading her favorite books (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), writing long email notes to her and taking care of her snake, Neo (who got out shortly after she left, and I thankfully found him in a carpet fold after a few days).

But I am finding solace in our social fabric for the first time in awhile. People I had written off as superficial have transformed in front of my eyes. And I’m learning their backstories and why they are who they are in the world. It’s unfortunate that it takes these life events for it to happen, but I’ll take it.

I’m counting the days till we can visit her in April. In the meantime, you’ll find me on the Dr. Who fan sites.

And thanks for all the support.