On Grief

Updated: Jan 9

I've avoided this topic with myself for a long time. Because on the surface I tell myself "I've got nothing to grieve, no one has died." But in my inner life, there's a lot to grieve.

I would not doubt if you, the reader, might be able to identify with this complex sensation.

I have wrestled with trying to figure out how to write about this. I write to share, to process, to decompress. And if I'm writing here, on this blog, I'm writing to be useful.

I want to write it in the simplest and clearest way. And grief is not simple, is not clear.

Still shot of Olivia Munn in the move Violet, going through inner-turmoil.

On Christmas Eve, I watched the movie Violet.

It's about a woman who realizes the voices in her head that guide her are lying to her, and she has to choose the uncomfortable different / opposite thing, to start to realize what her heart is asking of her and guiding her towards. I felt so compelled to watch it, it seemed like someone had made a movie about my inner life. (Also, Olivia Munn is half-Asian, so, representation!)

The film highlights in a very stark way how the voice in Violet's mind, what she thinks of as "the committee", can be a voice that we unintentionally adopt as our own. While Violet calls it "the committee", for me, I actually more often experience it disguised as my own voice, and not the ominous tones of Justin Theroux, though that was a fun film choice.

The film also uses sounds and color to represent the overwhelmed feelings she gets when in a conversation that's triggering that dark voice. The screen will fade to red and a low hum / buzzing sound will start to take her over before she snaps in anger, or stifle her feelings while smiling at someone hurting her. I could relate - not always so directly with the characters exact experience, but with those sensations.

We see in the movie via short flashback scenes that Violet was raised by an emotionally / verbally abusive mother with a cast of unsupportive / shaming family members, intoning the implantation of the voice in her psyche.

It made me think of this concept that I think of ALL THE TIME as a parent, that the voice you use with your children when they are young will become their inner voice as an adult. I'm hyper conscious of it as I parent, and as I reflect on my upbringing, I have a mix. I was praised and told I could do anything. I was punished and told I was arrogant, selfish, and that I was loved, but not liked. It felt chaotic. I was also resilient. I was involved in sports and school actitivies, I did well in school, I had friends, parties, sleepovers.

I want to say here, too, I know my parents did their best. They love me, deeply. I love them. I was loved, fed, clothed, and provided for. We had vacations. My Mom tried her best to shield us from the daggers of my Dad's words and energy when he was angry or upset. I didn't see how much my Mom was hurting. I didn't see how sad my Dad was.

My Dad did made a conscious choice not to beat us the way he was beaten. But he did not know how to reign in the emotional punishment when he himself felt slighted. He tried hard, he loved us, and he was not well-equipped.

My parents' lacked resources for support, partly culturally, partly because of stigma, and partly because it was the 80's and 90's and it was different to parent then. In short, my parents, affected by their own challenging and very different early life experiences / traumas, parented us through these wounds. It was hard. And we had good times. It was a lot of things. It was complicated. I was a headstrong teenager who thought she knew everything, there's no clean "this" or "that".

Edit - 1/9/22:

When I look holistically, and even since I originally wrote this, I've realized that it's the last 10 years have been the hardest. To not be able to get my mom psychological help or support during what was likely a psychotic break 10 years ago. To watch her completely out of character destroy her paintings. To not know how to help her after I learned you could not force someone to seek mental help.

And at the time of this edit so much has shifted. Things are changing. When you read this, more will have unfolded, I might have to write about it's shifts elsewhere another time. It's very strange to have this original post be a key that unlocked a different pathway that is really hard to tell the story of. I'll have to write again sometime.

For now, I'll allow the blog to pick up where I wrote it back in late Dec., 2021, in case a part of this telling is helpful for you, to see if there's a possible mirror here for something you've experienced:

This brings me to the dark horse.

Let me explain that briefly.

The other night I read with another reader. What I mean when I say "read" what I mean is that I traded an intuitive reading with them. He does what I do, he's also an intuitive reader.

He read for me a picture about this horse. I say "picture" to indicate the thing in his minds' eye while he was reading my energy.

Anyway, in the reading, he saw me as the "person who breaks wild horses".

Which made me laugh. What? Me? Trying to control and manage and "break" the unmanageable? Never... ;)

And in the picture he was seeing I was very good at my job, people would bring their wild horses to me to "break" and train. But this one horse had arrived and none of my skills, tools, or learnings could "break" it. It was as he said, as if the rules of the game had changed. I would go back to the manual, which was like a "foundations" guide and while my skills far exceeded it, I was totally stuck.

A piece of the reading that he was challenged by was how similar the energy of the horse was to me. In a reading, often, something like this horse would be representative of an energy in your space that isn't yours, and then you'll go explore to see what it's connected to so you can have more understanding (and possibly clear it if that's the next step). He also noted that this horse is not a recent arrival. It was old, and it's been around for awhile. It's like I was saving this horse for after I was "expert" at breaking horses, but none of the things I know work. It's a completely different game.

For my friend, this dark horse wasn't me, exactly, but it was matching to me, making it really challenging to tease it apart. He tried to clear it and move it, but it wouldn't go. And then suddenly, it hit him and he said to me, "This is grief, this is utter and profound grief. You don't know what to do with it."

Ah, yes.

And I knew what he meant. Because I can always feel it circling. And I really do use ALL MY TOOLS all the time to try to manage these big feelings and sensations. I am, as I've shared before, an emotional sponge. If I'm not clearing stuff out of my space nearly everyday, I am burdened, heavy. I feel grief that isn't mine, a lot.

But a thing like this grief, that is mine, that doesn't just "clear"? I mean, I've known about it, but why is it showing up like this, now?

Well, my body or my spirit, or something, clearly, needs to learn something about this horse and whatever I'm doing isn't working.

As I write in this moment I'm thinking of where I am when grief typically hits me. It's most often in Asian markets and restaurants. (That book Crying at H Mart really nailed it.) It's also lying in bed at night, when my thinking on this opens up without kids, work, or daily life to get in the way.

At some level, I'm always grieving the loss of home, the sense of a place to go home too. My safest places as a child were at my grandma's house, my uncle and auntie's houses. Where my mom and her family laughed and teased each other. Where I tore around the house with my cousins. Where the laughter was, that never lived easily in my own home.

I'm really tired of being overwhelmed by these feelings in these places. I mean, can I not just get a hot pot and enjoy it without crying tears into my soup and making people uncomfortable? Can I please stop torturing my husband with this anguish that he can't possibly solve or fix as I sob into his shirt when we're supposed to be asleep?

Then I start to feel stupid, "Ellen," the voice kicks in while I'm starting to blubber over the package of curry sauce I'm looking at that reminds me of the food my mom would make for us after school. "Ellen, your mom isn't dead. What are you sad about? You're just being sensitive and overly dramatic for attention. Stop it. You're so self-centered. If you care about your mom, you'll help her more." (You see the voice here? It works it's way in quickly. But it makes me stop crying, so I can buy a few packages of roasted seaweed for kimbap without losing it at the cashier and I leave to go home and eat my feelings.)

Which brings us back to the movie I watched the other night, Violet.

There's a scene where her brother is calling her, and the voice is trying to get her to stay small, make people happy, accept accusations and blame, and "smooth things over". The whole time her brother is being abusive to her on the phone. And throughout this, is a handwritten script that shows up across the screen, her heart writing out her real thoughts, things like:

"I feel like I have no family. Am I really all alone? Will no one see me? I want to be close. I want to have family." This is also what my heart is saying in these moments of mine.

And in the movie Violet changes to the rules to her game. She starts to make the opposite choices of what the voice tells her to do and she starts to break into a sense of freedom. She tells her brother never to call her again.

I feel like I saw this movie at the right time, on the heels of receiving that reading, and after yesterday, Christmas, where I was present for my husband and kids, but also sitting in my guilt for not having the family I'm supposed to have with my parents because my inner voice tells me, somehow, still, that it's my fault and I'm not a good daughter.

So, I'm trying this. I don't think cutting my family out is the answer. I watched my Dad leave his family of origin. I watched my brother leave ours. But I don't see "leaving" as the answer. I'm already 1,000s of miles from my parents. I don't think anyone gets resolution. I think it's just holding the wound open. Or at least, if I left but cutting ties, that's what it would be like for me. I think.

So for now, instead of leaving and ignoring, I'm doing the opposite of what I usually do with this grief, this guilt, which I suppose I've been tucking away for a later day when I will have the perfect tool to "solve" it.

I'm not tucking it away. I don't know how to solve it. But I want my own wound to close up. I come from this imperfection. I love my parents. I feel guilty for not being able to help my mom. I am hurt by not being close. I love my parents. I know they did their best and they love me.

If my heart speaks truth, I have wanted to talk about the situation with my parents and family out loud in a way that wasn't a laundry list of pain and blame for a really long time. Pain and blame are exhausting, and that's not what this is anymore. I'm not resentful. But I'm angry and I'm sad. Sometimes I get depressed. I'm grieving what I didn't get.

And it's complicated, because in a way it's the strange gift they've given me, forcing me to reckon with my darkest self, my deepest thoughts. Finding ways to handle directly what energy is mine and isn't. Looking for ways out of the pain and learning that the pain and punishment is not mine to have, I can clear it. I can have me. I can be. I can have. I can ebb and flow between feeling anchored, and feeling unmoored.

I'm going to guess that seeing this "horse" clearly now, is kind of my next step, something about looking at my grief, out loud. To get clearer about it.

Because, this whole time, my misaligned inner voice has said "don't drag your parents through the mud publicly", "don't share family secrets", "don't talk about things that aren't yours to share" , "people will think less of you if you share these things." "People will think you're arrogant, self-centered, and a bad daughter if you share."

So, today, like Violet in the movie, I'm doing the opposite.

And now I've shared something I've needed to share for a long time.

I recognize after I press publish that I will feel squeamish and uncomfortable and that I will want to go back and take this post down or come back to edit it a million times to make it "perfect" over and over. It's not perfect. It doesn't say everything just right. There's more but it's still messy. It will unfold in different ways days and weeks after I've written it, and the story will shift.

Edit: 1/9/22 - yes, this has started to shift, and the depth and complexity of it is still revealing itself to me, but this post, or just the writing of this, pushed movement, and I'm having something new. I'll be able to share more when I have the space for it's sharing.

Back to December's writing and close out:

I know holding this grief alone in the woods with a wild horse isn't working for me. Until I figure it out, I'm trying out wider pastures and a little more space. Bigger than my own container. I need to change the rules of this game. We'll see where it goes. It might make the most sense in dreams. I'll know it's changing when something changes, I guess?

I'll note that as I wrap, the sun has come out. So I'll take that as a positive sign.

Thanks for reading.

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