When do we become adults? When we turn 18? When we get married? When we have children? When we buy a home? Perhaps we become adults when we realize that someday our parents are going to die and we will have to take care of ourselves (or find someone else to do it <— not recommended).
So self-sufficiency is a must. Building your own family and support system is a must. But what if grief and the new responsibilities grief has imbued you with impede your ability to build this life for yourself?
I recently tried to have my second post-grief relationship. And it was going swimmingly. My heart was filled with hope. My head, with visions of a future that actually involved another person. I was smiling so widely at the airport before a flight to see my mother’s 90-year-old father that the TSA agent told me with a laugh to wipe that grin off my face or I’d be in trouble. I was a dopey lovesick idiot. I was…happy.
Then I flew to Minnesota to host the 90th birthday party for Grandpa Bud I’d been planning since February. I’d made invitations on Zazzle, invited the neighbors, even talked my father into going despite how verbally abusive my grandfather had been to him last August.
I pictured an informal get together, something to celebrate one of the few things there is to celebrate about very old age — that you get more life than other people. I knew two weeks before the trip that the party was too much for my grandfather. He had lost his ability to sleep and eat because he was so worried about whether people would show up, if the steaks would be good, if my father and I could be trusted to prep the house for 20 guests. “I can’t do nothing,” he’d lament, noting his legs had grown numb from the knees down and that his balance was so bad he couldn’t move around without a hand on every surface.
My father and I arrived in the middle of a May snowstorm to a man who was deeply depressed, impatiently barking at us to move objects that he couldn’t name. “Put the thing on the thing.” “What thing on what thing?” “THE THING ON THE THING!” he’d shout, frustrated. We hurried about to put up decorations, set up tables and chairs, trying to make everything perfect to calm my grandfather’s nerves. But nothing was enough.
The day of the party I woke up to learn my father and grandfather had already had a fight. My grandfather had barked at my father to do something and my dad said, “You need to be nicer to people.” My grandfather responded, “YOU NEED TO BE NICER TO PEOPLE!” Then my dad disappeared into the back bedroom for the rest of the day. And I was left with an ornery old man, telling me everything I did was wrong, trying to prep the party.
Guests arrived to a house filled with tension. My father slipped into the garage to cook the steaks with my mother’s cousin. When the food was done my grandfather took one bite of the steak and said, “It’s tough.” The partygoers disagreed. “No Bud, the steaks are great.” He shook his head and lowered his fork and knife. “I can’t chew it. I wouldn’t feed this to a dog.”
I went and fetched him another one. “Try this one, grandpa, maybe you got one that was overcooked.”
Grandpa took a bite. “I wouldn’t feed this to a dog,” he said again, loudly, this time making sure my father heard. My dad took his bags and left for Minneapolis with my mom’s cousin before the cake was served. I watched him go, knowing he’d never return to my mother’s hometown, that those were the last words my mother’s father would ever say to him.
I had two more days with my grandfather after my father left. (I had planned to leave after the party, but my grandfather begged me to extend my trip because he needed help.) One morning, I woke up at 8:30 and wandered into the kitchen to tell my grandfather I had placed a message with the social worker to see if he qualified for free services and he laid into me for sleeping all day. “I’ve been up since 6, done three loads of laundry already.” I reminded him that he had told me not to do the laundry the previous day because he liked to do it. At the time, I had not realized this was a passive-aggressive game, that no matter what I did, I could not avoid punishment or criticism. “Are you obtuse?” he asked me.
I remembered my mother flitting about my grandfather’s house like a nervous bird, startling each time he called her name.
I had become that nervous bird.
I texted the girl I was dating about the dysfunctions of my family and the burden of caring for my grandfather. I needed someone to be there for me, to get me back to that feeling of hope that the heaviness in my life was lifting. Her responses were sparse: “That’s awful.” “Come home.”
But I carried the darkness back with me. I arrived home a different person, beaten down, like I’d gone into war and lost a limb. And everything I had lost pulled on my face, my body, dragging my lips into a frown, my shoulders into a defeated hunch. I felt invisible, irrelevant because I had let this situation erase the part of me that had the power and energy to feed my own life. My grandfather’s depression had been contagious, and it all hung on me like a blackness that I no longer had the ability to hide, poisoning my relationship and my happiness.
In the weeks after, I was operating on fumes. My tank was empty. I had nothing left to give, not even to this woman who had made me so happy. But I faked it and then I gave some more. I raced all over town buying her presents and getting fresh ingredients from the Farmer’s Market to cook her birthday dinner. I drove to Hollywood in rush hour traffic to attend a concert with her. I tried to smile.
The weekend after my return, I prepared food for her birthday barbecue, defrosting burgers so she would stop placing frozen ones directly on the grill, skewering squash and veggies for guests. And then when I realized my affections were being rebuffed at the end of these long days, I started to feel resentful. My perfect girlfriend started to seem insensitive. Comments I had previously taken with a grain of salt grated like a knife. She started to say things like, “Maybe we rushed into this too fast.” I pretended not to hear them. I didn’t want to know she couldn’t handle this overwhelmed, stressed side of me.
One night in bed, she joked about us breaking up. I told her to stop. She’d found a button to press and kept pushing it. Don’t worry, after me you’ll find the love of your life, she ribbed. I burst into tears — and I am not the kind of girl who bursts into tears. Then it all poured out like a flood — how I’d lost three years to my mother’s death and was still trying to recover, how my career and life had been neglected because I was caretaking other people in my family, how my grandfather repeatedly asks me to move to Minnesota and take care of him because my life has no value in his eyes since I have no husband or kids.
She listened and told me I was not alone. She listened and told me the responsibility was too much for me. She listened and made a mental note that she no longer wanted to be with me. She stopped calling me on her drive home from work, asked me to stop texting her during the day, she asked for her key back for “a houseguest.” I had turned into that needy girl that I hated, and my depression was contagious — it was infecting her.
Her words kept saying she loved me but her actions mapped a steady withdrawal, a need to rid herself of this dark person. I lost my ability to eat breakfast, waking up with a knot of anxiety that propelled me through the day. My TV job started up again, and I felt shaky. She dropped by over the weekend when I was feeling down and said, “If you need a couple weeks or a month to stabilize, just let me know. I will still be here.” Her offer of support was to withdraw. I was with a person who wanted to distance herself from my troubles and I worried that no one I was ever in a relationship with would be willing to stand by me as I dealt with these unusual caregiving responsibilities I had inherited.
Two days later I took her up on her offer and asked for a two-week break. My appetite returned as soon as I hung up the phone. During our two-week sabbatical I realized I didn’t want to be with someone who couldn’t support me through the more challenging areas of my life. I needed someone with compassion, who wasn’t scared when I admitted managing these end of life scenarios — the kind that most people only had to confront once they were middle-aged — was hard for me at 35.
But her criticism of the way I handled these responsibilities still resonated. I needed to figure out a way to handle caring for other people so it wouldn’t overwhelm my next relationship and once again prevent me from building a life for myself. I made adjustments — replaced my daily calls to my grandfather with emails to distance myself, I returned to therapy to figure out how to manage how much I emotionally took on, I ordered cable TV to distract myself.
And what I learned in therapy transformed this painful experience into one of the most meaningful ones of my life for it helped me realize that when people don’t appreciate what you give and you respond by giving some more — hoping someday it will be enough — that it will never be enough. From some people, your giving will always be taken for granted and expected. And the neglect your life suffers in this attempt to be acknowledged and appreciated will be longstanding because someday these people will be gone and all you will be left with is your neglected life: The remnants of a career not fully pursued. An empty apartment rather than a house filled with love. A constant anxiety about money and the future because you spent so many years investing in someone else’s present…
I kept giving — to my grandfather, to this girl, to everyone after my mom died hoping it would be enough. I kept giving because her death left such a giant hole — in my heart, in my family. I kept giving to try to avoid punishment because that’s what I watched my mother do — until she was exhausted and resentful and aching for alone time. But I do not have to spend my life trying to fill the giant hole my mother left in hopes someone else will try to fill mine. I cannot give and give to my grandfather, trying to be my mother so he won’t feel his loss as deeply. Because now I know that when you try to be another person, you will never be enough — and most importantly, you will never be yourself. And though it’s hard to admit, it’s easier to face that aching hole each day and all that is missing than to frantically try to fill it.