When you live in Minnesota, you spend a lot of time looking at, thinking about, and slipping on ice. It's just a fact of life that helps define our famously cold winters: Last year, the polar vortex created such bitter low temperatures that we even beat Mars! Some of us wear this as a badge of honor, while others get angry at their families for settling in this numbing place.
But whether you're someone who loves or hates winter, it's undeniable that ice is a force commanding respect. It's strong enough at four inches to hold an adult male, and at eight inches, a small car. If you want to break it or check depth without an electric auger or drill, metal chisels will demand almost all of your upper body strength. And watch out for those shiny icicles, as they fall from roofs and wound (sometimes fatally) hundreds of people every year.
Working through grief, of any nature, holds many similarities to our frozen lakes and rivers. Once warm and happily entertaining children with beach balls or a young couple romancing in a canoe, the waters now require boots with ice picks for traction and many layers of clothing to prevent hypothermia upon long-term exposure. Grief necessitates new tools as well if one is to survive the isolation, depression, and anger that prevent many from moving forward. It's unfortunately easy to stay stuck in the chilling realities of loss, even though no one wants to, because our brains and hearts are attached to the familiarity of our relationships. Loving another person means a chemical change occurs, and if we lose that person, our neural pathways get easily and deeply wired to repeat associated traumatic thoughts and imagery.
One of my grief counselors often referred to this phenomenon as "the paper jam." Sitting in her office, I'd rarely finish recounting my problems focusing or ignoring insensitive comments that made me boil with anger before she'd stop me and say: "Michelle - hold on. Come back to the present. Feel the couch you're sitting on. Notice the birds outside the window. Run your fingers over that blanket." I did not appreciate being interrupted, as this was my time! I wanted to be heard, to express my anger at the world, and to free the thoughts that brought me nightmares. I thought that puking it all out in my counseling session was the way to accomplish those goals, but it turns out, I was just reinforcing cyclic behaviors. I was not in the present. I was stuffing more of the same paper in my personal shredder, worsening the paper jam. I was pouring gallons of water on already icy steps, lamenting how many times I fell.
This is NOT to say that grief or post-traumatic stress triggers are a controllable choice, or only as severe as one lets them be. It is never helpful to tell someone that "It's been long enough" or "Don't think about it so much." To this day, I cannot see a motorcycle or reckless driver without automatically picturing my husband in all his safety gear that wasn't enough or feeling my heart resist its next breath while I internally scream: "Why are you risking someone's life?"
Depending on the time and circumstances, I may need to say the latter out loud to the person I'm riding with, as I've learned that can diffuse the power of an emotion. Contrary to popular opinion, time doesn't heal. Time allows us to deal with our hardships in more helpful, graceful, and knowledgeable ways. Time can begin to melt the ice that keeps our hearts stagnant, but it does not do all the work.
The choice I was able to make in my journey was to do the work. It was not time or luck or anti-depressants.
Sometimes the work was sitting in my rocking chair for half an hour, listening to my breath and counting to three before I inhaled and exhaled. Other times at work, it was finding a quiet, dark space to bring a large container of cinnamon sticks to smell, as the powerful scent forcibly disrupted my thought patterns. When darkness returned, I found the most artistically engaging craft I could - Ukrainian egg making - because it took all of my mental focus to draw straight lines. When I felt broken from anger or fear or just utter sadness because I couldn't reflect on a nice memory with breaking down, I smashed tiles or old plates and then arranged the fragments into new patterns (mosaics).
The work that made me want to melt the ice was mentoring kids in my classes as a new high school teacher. Hearing their stories of loss and anxiety, knowing they trusted me only because I had also gone through hell, and realizing how I could keep James alive by sharing his story became a sustainable fire inside of me. Ice couldn't live there and keep me in homeostasis. In fact, when it naturally broke apart and started flowing downstream, so did a sizable chunk of indignation, bitterness and fear about the future. It led me to choose being open to love again, as I didn't want to live in the past for the rest of my life. It led me to write and publish the kind of young widow narrative I needed - one that reveals a fuller picture of recovery (six years) and answers "How does this ever change?" by comparing initial and changed perspectives side by side. And it led me to acceptance about the seatbelt-less roller coaster of life.