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The grief marathon

And in this corner... | Jan. 11, 2019

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I debated on whether or not to share this piece since I have covered the issue of grief before. This is a culmination of three years of meditation, and it took me months and months to put this together in a way that sounded coherent enough to share with others. Note: Running this piece this week is actually timed for the first anniversary of my friend Kevin’s passing. If you ask me how I’m really doing, and if I give you the most honest answer, this is what I would say:

Photos courtesy Blair Cohn
Lois Cohn dancing with her son, Blair

This piece comes around the anniversary of my mom’s passing. I always take some time to reflect on her, the loss, life, mortality and the need to seize the day while you can. I also recently lost my lifelong friend Kevin, so I’m attempting to put together something coherent from the mash-up of emotions while living and dealing with these losses.

When my mom got sick, I tried really hard to put on paper all the details of the situation and spell out my feelings to help comprehend what was happening. I had a manic energy– pacing around, lying on the floor, getting up off the floor and feeling a restless urgency to do something. When faced with the ultimate bad news and knowing there was no silver lining, I was like the guy who goes limp when being dragged away in protest. Or like a cartoon character who digs his heels in really hard to stop from going off the cliff. I desperately wanted to slow my mom’s decline and call time-out. It was the unimaginable, and I was in disbelief. I was looking for a way, any way, to change it.

At the time, I referred to all this energy as my own “rain dance.” Here’s my brief explanation:

I’m trying everything, anything, to change the news. Lois is going to die. I pace around their house trying to fix the situation. Change the news. Change the outcome. If I keep moving, then maybe the reality won’t catch up with me and actually become a reality. I have to do something to fix this. Clean the kitchen. Take out the trash. Send the gardener over to clean and trim the backyard. Stand at the kitchen sink and wash out their tiny coffee pot. That tiny coffee pot to me represents a symbol of the stability and security of my parents.

It’s like a rain dance.

We had the band Hedgehog Swing come to the house and play for Lois. She wanted them at her memorial, but why wait until then? I became more manic and made a list of weekly concerts we could do at the house.

Meanwhile, Lois began cleaning out her own closets and drawers. We brought food over. Cleaned again. Watched movies. Talked. Kept trying to keep moving. It was my rain dance to change the news.

It didn’t work.

Since her death, I have been trying hard to put into words what it’s like to live a normal day-to-day life once some time passes and after all the people who offered their support go on with their own lives. The new normal sets in about three days later, and shortly after that it gets to a point when most people don’t want to hear the same melancholy conversation on repeat. So, I mostly kept it to myself.

I have been meditating on this for three years, and I look at grief and loss a bit more metaphorically now. Nowadays, there’s no more rain dance, but it’s more of a slow and steady long-distance race. I can explain it more like this:

When I was young, I was a sprinter– and I was fast. As a winger on the soccer team, I could streak up the sidelines and score. I was faster than most. In junior high, I helped set a city record by running the fastest leg of the relay. And I was able to keep up the pace for long distances, too. I could outrun my opponents and felt good about it.

Kevin and Blair

My mom died, and it was like my legs buckled out from under me and they didn’t quite work the same anymore. I couldn’t get any speed. Kevin died, and I was no longer the fastest runner at the front of the pack. My pace became more like a crawl. When I got my bearings back, it dawned on me that I am running this thing alone. Or kind of alone.

Grief as my running mate drafts off my shoulder and never leaves. Grief is always a hair trigger away in a song, a memory, a stop at a red light. Usually, it’s some type of break long enough for me to stop running and think and focus on those missing. I feel it in my stomach. I feel it in my tear ducts. Some days, a trigger can stop me in my tracks with no pace at all.

Grief has not only changed my pace, but it has also heightened certain senses. Part of this race is becoming highly attuned to the quiet being even quieter, the stillness being even more still. I have a heightened awareness of little things, like the wind passing through the trees. I will actually stop running and take time just to experience it when I can. In fact, my favorite song these days is just the sound of the wind in the trees. I can hear my mom in it. The quiet brings back the focus of those now missing. I can feel everyone that has passed. I can feel their absence.

While I’m running alone and really in the zone, I also see a flashing slideshow of images and memories. The soundtrack is just the sound of my own breathing. These days, my heart is in a vice grip that actually constricts my endurance for long distances and long periods of time.

I can run my daily race of obligations– in fact, I keep a hectic pace up for weeks but can be tripped up at a moment’s notice with something that triggers it all and makes me start sprinting again.

But often I pick up the pace just so I can outrun The Messenger that will eventually deliver the next diagnosis or have the phone ring about someone with the big C, or someone’s heart attack, or Parkinson’s or dementia. Or maybe He will come for me if I stop running.

What keeps me running the fastest is the harsh knowledge that my mom sat in her favorite chair and stared off into the abyss after being handed her death sentence. Her time was being cut short, and she faced the decline into the darkness. And I also run the fastest to outpace the sadness of human suffering and the cruelty of terminal illness. I run fast to outrun the inevitable bad news.

I can work, plan, travel, be a dad, be a husband, be a son and brother. I can organize, socialize and exercise. I can be told, “It’s all OK,” and have my back patted. My daily race of meetings, emails, events, diaper changes and bath time make for noise clutter. For excellent distraction. For passage of time. For good running companions.

It’s when people around me stop talking about my mom that I hear grief’s footsteps drafting off of me the loudest. When my friends keep their emotions all to themselves and don’t talk about Kevin that much anymore, I can feel the grief right there again drafting off my shoulder.

Time may take me farther away from the date of their passing, but it doesn’t put any distance from the grief, no matter how fast or steady I run.

I understand the truth in the phrase: “The loneliness of the long-distance runner.”

I keep running the grief marathon.

I have made a conscious decision: I won’t completely surrender to the grief. Maybe I will slow my pace down on purpose just a little from time to time so I don’t lose the sense of loss. If I can keep the sting real enough, I can keep the last images and last experiences still fresh. I won’t have to let go.

So, each day, I lace up my shoes and keep running, listening for the wind in the trees.


3 Responses to “The grief marathon”

  1. Laurie Angel on January 11th, 2019 1:04 pm

    Oh Blair, you need a giant hug.

    So much of life is our attitude toward it. Quite a while ago I studied Bhuddism at the temple on Redondo and Ocean Blvd until their ideas of creation clashed with my ability to accept them. But what I did take with me is learning to let go. No attachments. In some ways it is a personal survival mantra, but it is powerful…. it is also the power to accept that we can not change.

    After the deaths of my mother, my dad 2 years later and his wife 3 years after that (which I personally attended to all) I felt as though I was in quicksand. There was a void, a lack of context and meaning to everyday activities – no purpose, no connection. BUT, for me, in my heart I know we are all a part of the firmament – alive, and those that have passed. We are one. We are all here together. We are not alone, we just take a different form. We have a quite, exisential relationship, but it does exist.

    You are such a wonderful human being. I appreciate your honesty and I feel your loss at this moment. You are not alone, Blair. You are not alone. We are all here with you. Sit, rest, relax. Feel the wind and the warmth of the sun on your face and the rustle of leaves in the trees. Take it all in and appreciate everything around you – the soft, sweet calm of the moment and revisit often.

    with love – Laurie

  2. Debbie Vardi on January 11th, 2019 1:33 pm

    Thank you for speaking for me. I find myself dragging myself on that marathon today, quite shockingly and expectedly. Had to put our little 2 year old furry companion down last night. No choice, will spare you the details. Just want to crawl into bed and hope for the rhythm of rain drops. Slowing down, becoming more insulated as unspeakable hurts pile up with age. In this moment, recovery, revitalized energy seems impossible. I hope that changes but not sure about anything anymore.

  3. Dennis Weber on January 12th, 2019 4:26 pm

    Blair, as I read this, I felt myself go through some emotions that were personal to my life, and how I have coped with death. I really loved how you communicated your feelings, and the experiences of loss, and what you do with all of that IN YOU. You keep running and validating the great meanings that defined those dear loved ones that you lost. Reading this article allows this freedom to grow for you, and perhaps, also for others who relate to these terms. I am upon the same challenge as I realize that my Mom will likely not live to see next Christmas. I have already lost my Dad, and a brother. And, my Mom’s brother, my uncle. There has been a lot of loss (more than I mentioned) in my 49 years. There are many ways that people cope with grief and loss; typically specific and individualized to each person’s identification to that reality. Some choose to simply not allow grief in and refuse to allow it to take their life into a new direction. How well that works or doesn’t work doesn’t matter. What matters is that each of us is inspired in their own way to choose how to cope that best fits them.

    Your sharing, is a gift and a lovely counterpart to being a spirit of love, who is easily able to give and receive love. Your heart has been giving all of your life, even before this physical life was created as your human vessel. Blair, your soul is identified and finds harmony with similar souls, and those spirits are never withholding… never. Your life beat is the vibration of those many enchanting inspirations and influences, especially those most brilliant in that entire spectrum.

    When you carry over to the next life, you will, again, be a representation of a deep and loving soul, seeking and finding similar souls and spiritual lives available to aid where necessary.

    Your dear Mother Lois, and your dear Friend, Kevin, are reaching forward into their acquired awakenings in another life. They are bound eternally to their life loves. As you acknowledge them, their presence of beauty in the present is, also, felt in their present, as well. You are NEVER alone.

    Even when you’re not running, grieving, growing and being that beautiful Blair that you have always been, these parallel dimensions are active in constant creation, awareness and affirmation with you, and all who are bonded. You see, they see… they see and you see, the kindred souls remain in communication. There’s nothing to loose, you share an eternal spiritual bond, that is full of life and love. Continue being the joy, the love, the compassionate, the passionate person that you have always been. Nobody left, they’re right there, for eternal life ‘real time’.

    Friend, I am here, if you ever need to just talk, or need someone to listen. Thank you for sharing your feelings, your struggles, your pain, along with all the other authentic and honest beautiful things you share with all of us. YOU ARE VERY LOVED, now and forever, by so many, including me. #Dennis

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The grief marathon