5 Ways The Grieving Process Turns Us Selfish
On Dec. 21, 2014, my dad suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage while working in Taiwan. Due to a shitty combination of time (busy holiday season) and space (opposite side of the Earth), it took my mom, my sister, and I nearly three full days of traveling to get to him. At various times during those three days, I wanted to believe our journey could have been made into an epic nine-hour movie trilogy, minus the orcs.
Seriously, dad, we had to fly off the map to get to you.
I ended up staying in Taiwan until the middle of January, and since that time, I've realized how selfishly we sometimes act when dealing with the illness of a loved one ...
We Want The Chance To Say Goodbye
By a giant stroke of luck (pun maybe intended), my dad was in his office when he collapsed. His colleagues found him right away and got him to the emergency room, where doctors had to saw open a section of his skull to drain the blood now literally squeezing his brain to death. He was in a coma, but at least he was alive -- which he would not have been had they found him even a few minutes later.
My dad's scalp, doing its best impression of a baseball.
He was in bad shape when we finally got to him, but we did have one huge consolation. You see, my dad is a famous physician in his specialty. I've always thought of him as sort of a rock star among doctors -- he would travel all over the world to work or teach at any medical organization that invited him. This included the very hospital he'd been taken to. And that's why we knew he would be well cared for. After all, you don't let the Mick Jagger of your field die on your watch.
The Mick Jagger comparison is 1,000 times better than calling my father
the Madonna of Physical Medicine.
Still, the doctors were baffled. Unlike a stroke, which is caused by a blood clot, bleeding in the brain usually occurs only after a blow to the head. Well, my dad's skull showed no signs of blunt trauma, so the cause of the hemorrhage was -- and still is -- a total mystery. And, due to its severity, we had to face the prospect that he might never wake up.
On our second night in Taiwan, our pessimism hit its peak. Suddenly, my sister and I were sure he wasn't going to pull out of his coma, and we started lamenting that we never got a chance to say goodbye. At this point, he'd been unconscious for five days, and all we wanted was to say a few last words to him.
And that's when I realized how self-centered we were being. His sudden collapse gave us no closure, no ability to make peace with what had happened. But at the same time, he wasn't suffering. Getting the chance to say goodbye would only have meant more pain for my dad. It would have meant that he knew he was dying. Ultimately, we accepted that if we had to lose him, this was the best way it could have happened.
Sometime later, I realized there's no such thing as closure, anyway. When we face any kind of tragedy, we instinctively seek out a reason for it happening, and barring that, we want an endpoint -- a moment where we can say, "OK, I'm ready to move on now." But the reality is, that endpoint doesn't exist. The best we can hope for is enough time to get over our grief.
We Seek Out Options That Make Us Feel Better About Ourselves
Miraculously, my dad started showing signs of waking by around the sixth day. Now, the key word here is "started," because that's when I learned that Hollywood's portrayal of comas is ... well, just a tad simplistic.
It's slightly more complicated than waking up from a vacation nap.
You see, a person in a coma doesn't just decide, "OK, enough with the napping. I'm awake now," and snap out of it one day. The process of waking from a coma is slow ... and excruciating ... and entails a seemingly endless cycle of forward progress and backward regression. The first day my dad woke up, his eyes opened for about 30 seconds, and they stared off into the distance with no indication that he was aware of any of his surroundings. The next morning, he opened his eyes again, and this time, his gaze shifted around the room and clearly landed on each of us. And we laughed ecstatically and started crying with joy.
And then he feel back to sleep and didn't open his eyes again for the next two days ...
This was the cycle that we went through for weeks. And so, we had to start figuring out our long-term plan, because by this time, we knew he wasn't going to be leaving the hospital anytime soon. The doctors estimated maybe six months at that point.
When he finally "graduated" out of the intensive care unit, we decided to place him in one of the nicest rooms at the hospital. American insurance doesn't exactly pay for Taiwanese medical expenses, though, so many of my dad's colleagues offered to pitch in for the room. Nothing but the best for Mick Jagger, right? Seriously, this room could have been a hotel suite -- if hotel suites came with IV units and respiratory devices built into the wall.
That kind of stuff is more of a Keith Richards need, anyway.
My dad spent the next week in this Ritz-Carlton of a hospital room, asleep most of the time and, even when awake, drifting in and out of consciousness. It took us about a week to realize that he could not possibly give less of a shit how swanky the room was. The fact that we were ponying up only made us feel like we were taking better care of him.
But you know what? There was nothing wrong with that. Studies have shown that generosity and altruism not only make us feel better about ourselves but can actually improve our mental health. And, at that point, we needed any kind of boost to our morale. It was clear that it helped his colleagues who were pitching in feel better too.
Still, once we realized how expensive this would quickly get, we decided to transfer him to a nearby nursing facility -- fittingly, the exact place he was working when he collapsed. It didn't have all the fancy amenities of the hospital suite, but the level of care he'd receive would be just as good. And ultimately, we knew this was where he'd be the happiest, since this place was like a second home to him.
And, yes, he's kind of a celebrity there too.
We Expect Sympathy From Others
In the midst of all this, I started posting updates to Facebook, to let my friends know how my dad was doing. At first, I had exactly zero interest in live-blogging my own family emergency. I wrote every night, but kept everything saved on my laptop. As most people would probably understand, the writing helped me process everything that had happened. It also helped distract me from going out and getting shitfaced drunk every night (as many people would also probably understand).
Taiwanese people can be notorious drinkers. I'm no exception.
After about a week, though, I figured I should at least tell my friends where I was. At that point, the total number of people I had told about my dad could be counted on a pirate's hand -- the one with the hook on it. Besides, I left for Taiwan on Dec. 23, so I missed the holiday celebrations and would definitely miss the New Year's celebrations. I wanted to believe there were at least a few people who were wondering what happened to me.
My friends that entire first week, according to my imagination.
And so I wrote up a single blog post explaining where I had disappeared to, and I shared it on Facebook. As soon as the post went up, the well wishes came pouring in. Aside from the one time I posted a photo of me putting my sister in a headlock on her wedding day, I don't think anything I've ever put on Facebook has garnered as much sympathy.
Yeah, it was superficial and attention-mongering. But my weary little soul sponged up every message I received. Of course, this only inspired me to start posting everything I had written over the past week. In the back of my mind (and not the dank, dark corner of my subconscious, either -- this was a well-lit area), I knew what I was doing. But I kept justifying to myself that writing was a way for me to process the stressful period my family was going through.
To use the most hackneyed -- and yet, totally appropriate -- metaphor: Blogging about my dad quickly became a drug. I knew my friends would offer me sympathy, so I wanted to give them all the more reason to continue doing so. I started chasing those warm, fuzzy feels that my first post gave me. And much like a drug, the high didn't last ...
After about three weeks of regular updates, the supportive comments dwindled, as would be expected. I certainly don't fault my friends for not commenting on every single thing I put on the Internet. And yet I found myself getting annoyed. I wanted the nice words to keep coming, because dammit, I was going through some traumatic shit.
"Lavish me with love, Internet!"
Months later, I stumbled across this study that questions the validity of venting after emotional trauma. It explains how talking about a traumatic event right after it happens can actually lead to more long-term distress.
Well, shit. There goes my excuse for social media oversharing.
We Self-Justify How We Help
After nearly a month in Taiwan, we agreed that it was time for me to come home (my sister had already left by then too). My mom's plan was to stay there indefinitely, and I would help by taking over my parents' financial responsibilities back in the States.
I was thrilled to be home, but home felt like anything but over the next few months. All I wanted was to be back in Taiwan, to help out ... somehow. I didn't even know what I could do. I just felt like I needed to be there, like I was a selfish son for getting on with my life in the States while my mom was still in Taiwan taking care of my dad.
And so, I did return to Taiwan in May. And this time, my fiancee, Melissa, joined me. It was a miserable trip.
We took my dad out to lunch the first day, and it was awful seeing him attempt to eat with the single trembling hand that he could control. Over the next week, I realized it hadn't become any easier for my mom, either, as she often resorted to just feeding him when he simply could not get his spoon up to his mouth.
To help him rebuild his cognitive skills, we picked up a memory game -- the one where you place cards face down and take turns trying to flip over matching pairs. As we sat there, playing a kindergartner's game, I waited for the brilliant brain I knew my dad had to pull a Rain Man on us.
Instead, he struggled and struggled. He just didn't have the short-term memory to keep track of all the cards.
The current bane of my dad's existence.
And that's when I realized how much I hated being there. Of course, I was happy to see my dad, but seeing him also filled me with frustration. Every time I saw him struggle at some mundane task, I thought, "Come on, dad. You can do this. Put some effort into it."
But he couldn't. He couldn't move his legs. He couldn't sit. He couldn't move himself in his wheelchair. He couldn't even eat on his own. As for me, I couldn't resolve the growing dissonance in my brain between my desire to help and the reality that I was miserable there.
So Melissa and I ended up doing our own stuff, to try to salvage a pseudo-vacation out of the trip. We checked out street markets, went sightseeing, hit up restaurants and bars, and did just about everything except hang out with my dad. Ultimately, we saw him for only three of the eight days we were there.
Somehow, though, that felt like enough. Just being in the same country alleviated that sense of obligation I kept feeling. I convinced myself that I was close enough to be there for him, and I was allowed to have fun while I was in Taiwan.
Pictured: Moral support.
I knew I was self-justifying. But hey, it made me feel better about myself. And you know what? Science says that's OK too.
Related: 15 Dark Secrets of Self-Help Gurus
We Just Want Things Back The Way They Were
And now we're into August. Physically, my dad still can barely move himself, but mentally, he does seem to be improving. The biggest victory he's scored so far is that he's actually seeing patients again. Three times a week, they dress him up, wheel him down to his office, and with the help of an assistant who physically examines the patients and a second assistant who takes notes on the computer, my dad sits there, propped up in his wheelchair, and doles out treatments. And the patients still line up to see him. I guess that's a testament to how well-respected he is as a physician.
So maybe this is a more appropriate celebrity comparison.
The vast majority of the time, though, he lies in bed and watches TV or sleeps. But here's the biggest irony of all: He seems way happier now than he's ever been his entire life.
My dad was a workaholic. For as long as I can remember, he would sleep maybe four hours a night, and when he was awake, he always had work to do. Between his travels, his research, and the medical books he wrote, my dad barely ever relaxed.
My dad, champion of the 20-hour workday.
Before his hemorrhage, all we ever wanted him to do was chill out. Now, he's forced to do exactly that. And, shockingly, he seems quite at ease with it.
As for my mom, living in Taiwan has definitely taken a toll on her. When I was there, I could tell that she was worried and tired. And yet, I caught brief moments of contentment in her daily routine: how she teased my dad and pretended he was a baby when she had to feed him, the mock kung fu sounds she made when smacking his legs to keep the blood flowing in his paralyzed muscles. It's as though caring for him has given her a newfound sense of purpose, and she's finding happiness through that.
In her own way, my mom seems to be coping by finding humor in her everyday interactions. As for my dad, he is happy. There's no doubt about that. For the first time in his life, he's finally able to slow down and enjoy the simple life. It's a breath of ...
I can't do it. Fuck the cliches.
I want my dad the way he was. I want life to rewind itself back to Dec. 20, 2014, and I want him to pick an alternate timeline that doesn't have "massive cerebral hemorrhage" on its agenda.
I just want him to be his old self again, workaholic and anxious and everything. Maybe it's selfish, but I still prefer "former dad" to "happy dad."
Losing a loved one is never easy. For Felix Clay's take on dealing with death read 5 Things No One Tells You About Dealing With Death and check out 5 Facts Everyone Gets Wrong About Depression because even though someone may seem fine, they actually could be very depressed.
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