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Grief, Guest Posts, The Converse-Station

The Converse-Station: Megan Devine Interviews Author Jessica Handler

September 24, 2015

Welcome to The Converse-Station: A dialogue between writers. With the site getting so much traffic (my Facebook page is reaching over 18 million people) I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Enjoy. xo Jen Pastiloff

By Megan Devine

Jessica Handler and I have been following each other around. We belong to secret societies of writers together, and we quote each other to our respective students, me in my Writing Your Grief courses, and Jessica in her Writing the Tough Stuff workshops. Her book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, helps writers make the often-arduous shift from writing personal things to writing personal things that resonate with the larger world story. So it only made sense when the editors of The Manifest-Station asked whom I might interview for the Converse-Station: Jessica was my first and only choice. We share a fierce love not only for well-told stories of love and loss, but for the evolution of craft we see in our students. What follows is an excerpt of a much longer – and more heavily laden with expletives – video discussion we had earlier this year on what it takes to teach, and to write, with both skill and sensitivity.

 

Jessica Handler:  So you and I have been online friends now for a year probably.

Megan Devine:    I think so.

JH:                        Yeah. This is cool. Well, you are who I thought you would be. You look like who I thought you would be. You sound like the person I imagined.

MD:                     I think that’s good.

JH:                       Yeah, it is good. It’s nice when someone you’ve been reading turns out to be exactly who you think they are. So what are we doing together today?

MD:                     We’re talking about writing. Specifically, we’re talking about the practice and process of writing about grief and loss.

JH:                       Well cool, I’m a big fan of The Manifest-Station. I know about it because I’m a fan of Emily Rapp, and I think Emily has been involved a fair amount. That’s how I got introduced to TMS, and I follow it, so this is fabulous.

MD:                     Yeah, it’s pretty fantastic.

JH:                       And this interview is giving me a break from grading papers, so God bless you for calling.

MD:                     This is my break from reading, too. I just opened a new writing session, and it’s only day two, so this is my break from reading all of the new students. I take the first several days just to hear their voices, get to know their stories.

JH:                       You’re talking about your Writing Your Grief course, right? Man, I remember being part of that. It was amazing to watch, during the session I was in, to read all of their words. And you, you just hold this space for all of them. And that’s something that we should talk about in terms of teaching the material we teach. People have asked me about how we handle all that pain, when one teaches writing about grief or trauma, which we both do. I mean, we’re not doing counseling sessions here. How do you take care of yourself in the face of all that pain? We ask our students to write about places that hurt. How do we make that separation from drowning in other people’s very legitimate issues when we can’t live this way all the time – we can’t just keep our eyes on that pain constantly.

MD:                     Yeah. It’s a really tricky balance. I can’t spend 5 and 6 hours inside my students’ words the way I used to. I have to do it in smaller chunks.

JH:                       As teachers, and also as witness to other peoples’ pain through their writing, how do we parcel this out, break things into chunks? I work really hard to do that. I also make sure that students know that I’m not a therapist. It’s like – I understand how you feel, believe me, but I’m not here to be your therapist and to have you rant and rave about that time that you or so and so did that thing. We’re in an interesting quandary with this, I think. We want to allow students their own truth, and give them space for their voice, but I can’t let a writing course become group therapy. It can’t be a place where they just vent and process. I don’t know about you. I just make that distinction very, very clear in every class. How do you do this?

MD:                     It’s a little bit different for me, because I am a therapist. But when I’m teaching writing, I’m not primarily in there as a therapist, and the writing courses aren’t therapy. One of the things you and I do, in our respective courses and workshops, is make these really safe spaces. We make these containers to hold so much pain, so much grief, so much story. Even without it becoming group therapy, how do you care for yourself in that? How do you care for yourself, being the one who maintains the container for others?

I moved to a new state last year, and I’m meeting all these new people. These new people ask me what I do, and I tell them I write, teach, and counsel on out of order death – accidents and illnesses that shouldn’t happen. Their faces fall. They stammer for a moment, and then invariably say things like, “I couldn’t do that. How do you listen to that all day long?” That’s a legitimate question. What do you do as a holder of space?

JH:                       I’ve asked my therapist this too, about her job, and her life, when you listen to people all day long, some of whom make you crazy and some of whom really resonate with you – how do you go home and not take it out on your partner, your dog, your cat, yourself? Honestly, I forgot what she told me. I don’t know. How do I do it? I make very sure in workshop that people understand that we’re here to talk about the craft of writing: to work with the sentences, the metaphors. I have to repeat that a lot, depending on the people in the workshop. Sometimes I find that the thing that really hits the hardest is when we do a free write, or we do something where they dig really deep. They come up from that writing and they’re a little shaken. That’s fine. That’s what I want. If people cry or if they go oh my God I didn’t realize that this was about that, that’s good. I use time for people to step out, to take breaks once they’ve found something deep. I’ve found that everybody who’s in these writing workshops is very helpful and comforting to each other, but they respect the limits of the space.

In most cases people come to me wanting to write, but I have had some people who seem to come to me needing an ear. And you and I have some different roles, but that’s not what I’m really there for. It’s not a place for processing grief itself. I’ve been in one situation where I’ve asked someone to leave. In a polite way I had to say, “I don’t think you’re ready for this right now.” Just because we’re writing about grief doesn’t mean this is the place for all of your grief. We’re talking about writing. I teach writing.

I think if I keep pushing that, and making those parameters really clear, that helps me and it helps them. Particularly if I’ve got ten people and nine of them want to write, but one just needs to cry or process. They are very appreciative of my holding that space, keeping it well-boundaried and focused on the craft. It helps me too because… well, just recently I was reading again from Invisible Sisters. I’ve gotten used to reading from it, but because my mom just died a year and a half ago, the section where I talk about what would happen when my parents age suddenly became newly difficult. Here my mother is gone, she’s already aged, and died. That passage in Invisible Sisters became hard to read. My work still affects me. So to do it, to read it without falling into my own actual sadness, I create a hologram of myself in my head. Does that make sense?

MD:                     Absolutely.

JH:                       It’s the person, it’s a performative me as opposed to the me, me.

MD:                     Yeah, there’s a hybrid there where what you’re speaking is true and it’s your truth. You view it from a practiced distance so you can use your voice. In a sense, you have to step out of the story so you can tell the story. Continue Reading…

Dear Life., death, Grief, Guest Posts

Dear Life: How Do I Feel Alive Again After Losing Someone I Love?

May 31, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-blackWelcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author Megan Devine (check out Megan’s earlier gorgeous essay on The Manifest-Station.) Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us! Here is the link to submit your question.

Dear Life,

So I’m less than two years from losing my boyfriend in a motorcycle crash (we had a real life planned and I miss thoughts of that life) and I feel like I should get a pass for the first year because I was a zombie.

Now, however, I’m “alive” again and I’m struggling to find my motivation. Is that normal? How do I start caring again? I just can’t get there, about anything.

Things I’m unaware of hit me at the strangest, most unexpected times and I constantly feel apologetic for it. I’m now a crier, and before this I’d been through so much that made me cry that I’d become immune to tears. But here I am, near tears when I don’t know they’re there and I find myself angry at myself for that. Help?!

 ~Motorcycle Widow

Image courtesy of Simplereminders.com

Image courtesy of Simplereminders.com

Dear One –

Two years is so early. It’s just a blink, isn’t it. Somehow it’s both an eternity since you last saw him, and just a moment ago that he was here. Of course you had “a real life planned.” Just because you weren’t married doesn’t mean your life together wasn’t real or serious. But we do that, don’t we – justify and defend, because so much is taken from us: the world doesn’t always see a boyfriend or a partner the same way it sees a husband or wife. Be assured, please, my love, that your relationship was real, is real, and it makes perfect sense that you miss that life, and that tears are now commonplace.

You ask about finding motivation, and whether it’s normal to struggle at this point in your grief, in your life.

It is. It’s entirely normal. When sudden death erupts into your life, your whole way of understanding the world is rocked. Knowing that it can all disappear at any moment tends to change a person’s interest in things. Previous interests – even things you loved – can seem futile.

You aren’t the person you were before. This experience of love that you’re living has knocked you off course. When you gain your footing again – and that takes the time it takes – you’re going to be facing a different direction. You’ll have to find out how you fit here now, who you are in this new place.

Another thing to remember is that grief is intense: it’s physical and emotional and spiritual and all sorts of other things. It takes a lot of energy to grieve. The first year, as you say, is a zombie year. For many people, year two is worse: your systems begin to come back online, your gaze is just slightly lifted from your feet. The world has changed. You have changed. You are still changing. The world hasn’t righted itself, and you are just aware enough to know it.

You’re aware enough to know you aren’t where you want to be, and still broken-hearted enough to not be able to do anything about it.

That you want something different for yourself, even as you have no energy to find something different – that is the beautiful place. That’s the place to lean on.

If there is any glimmer of interest, any spark of light or fascination, capture it. Lean into it. Lean towards it. Hurl yourself to face in that direction, even if that’s the only motion you can make. Face what is good. Face what is love. Want that for yourself.

Get greedy for those moments when you drop into your core, when you feel – not “right,” but righted. Darling, if anything draws you – follow it.

It doesn’t matter what you might “do” with any of those fleeting sparks of interest. You don’t need to find your direction, your path, through the rest of this life. You only need to take notice of what draws you, right now, and follow it. As best you can. One tiny little glimmer at a time.

 

And sometimes, there are no sparks. The world is empty and boring and full of things that make you cry.

You want it to be different. It isn’t different. That’s annoying.

You can’t fake interest. You can’t just tell yourself to buck up and get on with it, throwing yourself into things that are empty and dry. It won’t work.

At the same time, you don’t want to be this way.

You don’t want to cry. You don’t want tears leaking out at every possible moment, making you splotchy and weepy and red.

At the same time, there’s not a damn thing you can do about that.

Being angry at your own broken-heart is such a tricky thing.

It turns into this giant, escalating storm: tears. Then angry at tears. Then angry at yourself for being angry, for being unable to come to yourself with love. Angry that this is what you’ve got now: a reason to have tears, and anger about tears, instead of the life you were living. You had a good life. Now you don’t. More tears. More angry at self for having tears. And on and on and on and on it goes.

Can you just notice it? I mean – catch yourself? A thousand times a minute if you have to?

Can you recognize when you are heaping on the judgment and anger and frustration at who you are and what this is?

What this is is a broken heart inside a deeply changed human, still alive in a world that doesn’t make any sense.

The path here is to honor that, somehow. To allow it, to let it be okay that everything sucks and there is no point. To somehow stop apologizing for having a sensitized heart.

It isn’t easy. None of this is easy.

And you are here, still, now.

You deserve a life that is honest and true, even – or especially – when what is true is pain. When what is true is the blank space: the places that haven’t filled in.

The road here, the ‘what do to’ here, is to want love for yourself, even when you have no idea what that looks like. Even when you have no energy to explore it, even if you knew what it was.

I don’t know if it’s possible; I don’t know if it will help.

But heave yourself in that direction. Turn yourself back towards love.

Moment by broken-hearted, weepy, disinterested moment.

As often as you can.

Let love carry you.

Love, Megan.

 

Megan Devine is writer, grief advocate, and clinical counselor. Her partner drowned on a beautiful, ordinary, fine summer day, and she’s stayed alive after that.

Megan is the author of the audio program When Everything is Not Okay: Practical Tools to Help You Stay in Your Heart & Not Lose Your Mind. Roughly every six weeks or so, she hosts a 30-day online community of writers and grievers in the Writing Your Grief e-course. If you want to talk about your grief, you can even pick a time on her calendar for a free 30 minute phone call. You can find all of this, plus weekly posts, resources, and the weekly letter, on her website, www.refugeingrief.com.

You can find more of Megan’s words on Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and Open to Hope.

Follow Megan Devine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/refugeingrief

 

Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.

 

Megan Devine.

Megan Devine.

Jen is available for public speaking engagements or workshops via info@jenniferpastiloff.com. Submit to the site by clicking the Submissions tab up top. You can also submit your Dear Life question there or via the email address above. All of Jen’s events listed here. Next up:  Vancouver.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it's magical.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it’s magical.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above.

Book Feb 14th, 2015 in London with Jen Pastiloff.

Book Feb 14th, 2015 in London with Jen Pastiloff.

beauty, Grief, Guest Posts, healing, loss, love

The Weekly Countdown.

January 10, 2014

By Megan Devine.

I relive our last week again and again.

Every single week is a count-down. Every Monday is that Monday, the day you came home from Colorado. The day I left work to pick you up at the airport, even though you insisted you would be fine to walk, with your orange backpack and new Tevas, happy to be walking. Every Monday is your first Monday back, going to dinner. You are so excited to see me. We sit together on the wooden bench, you showing me photos on your phone: here is the place where we stopped to look out at the mountains below. Here is a shot of the cabin where I stayed. Here is the old truck they used to drive around the ranch. And look, babe: I knew you’d appreciate this one – look, it’s a mummified antelope. It’s been dead in the desert so long. I knew you’d want to see the bones.

Every Monday, I live it again, sitting there in the pizza place, wondering why I am distant and tired. Wondering if it is just food, just needing to eat. And I look at you, feel your body close to mine, and I know it’s just the food and the long day, and the clients, and all of everything. Because you, you here next to me, hearing the joy in your voice, the affection in your touch, this is where I want to be.

I live it again every Tuesday, as we both return to work. As I call you from the awful discount store on my lunch break, wondering if I should pick up plastic glasses, since you keep breaking the heavy glass ones on the hard tile floor. “No,” you say, “No. We’ll be purging stuff and packing soon anyway, no sense getting anything new.” We’ll be moving soon.

On Wednesday, each Wednesday, I forget what that Wednesday held. We talked, we worked, we had our life. I relive living that, even when I don’t remember what we did.

Every Thursday, that Thursday, you are here on the couch, your work day still not done, our computers propped open on our laps as you ask me to help you format your new invoices. The cat climbs up in your lap, shoving the computer aside. On Thursday, each Thursday, I relive our closeness on the couch, how much easier it is now to help you with computer things, your old tech-defensiveness gone. Just a by-product of goodness, I think then, and I think again. We are so happy now, so comfortable. Things are going well. So many good things coming.

On Friday, you are working late, you’ve said you’re working late. But you call just as I am going to the grocery store, and you decide to come along. We buy mint chip ice cream, laundry detergent. Dog biscuits, greens, ribs. We buy a roasted chicken, because it’s late, and we haven’t eaten yet.

At home, I start dinner – leftovers, fajitas – while you climb in the shower. I cook peppers and sing. You come out, that last Friday, our Friday, warm from the shower, in your light blue long sleeved shirt that shows your muscles, your indigo sarong around your waist. You wonder why I waited to chop the onions – “they would be done by now,” you say. And I stop. Smile at you. Say, as we’ve been working on: “you are always particular about your onions. I guess I figure it’s easier on me to delay dinner, to have you irritated with my not making a decision, than it is to hear your disappointment. To have you wish I’d done it differently.” You smile. Lift an eyebrow. You say, “yeah, you’re right. I do do that.”

And then we stand, at the counter, your back to the window, and you fold me in your arms, still warm and damp, my head on your shoulder, in just that right spot. And we breathe. Our bellies matching. The firmness of your abs against me, your arms tight around my back. We stand. That Friday. That Friday I re-live. That place I want to be.

On Saturday, each Saturday, this always only Saturday, I am up first. As I wait, I watch the two of you, still sleeping, the long galley view from where I sit: me in the kitchen, the dog in the living room, you in our bed, all of us in a row. When you’re up, we make breakfast. We discuss the books we’ve each just read. Your mother calls. We all do the happy dance about your son turning 18 in three days. “We’re almost there!” your mother says. “I have three days to go,” you say, “don’t jinx me yet.”

And Sunday comes. Sunday keeps on coming. It arrives every week. Every week I live it all again. The previous days, the eternal warm-up, the countdown, that last time, the last.

On Sunday, you say, “bring or wear water shoes, we’ll go to the river with Bo.” We have breakfast at our usual place: fried green tomato BLT, pancakes, hash. You hold my hands across the table. You say, “I’m sorry I’ve had to work so much. I promise, after this week, we’ll have a normal life again. I’ll take weekends off. I’m sorry I’ve been away from you.” As we leave the diner, you trip on the flopping, separating edge of your new shoes. Hands on your hips, forehead creased, long deep irritated sigh. “We’ll take them back, babe. It will be alright,” I tell you. I tell you about your broken shoes which may or may not have gotten stuck on some reeds, holding you down in the hours to come.

This Sunday, every Sunday, we go back and pick up Bo. Bo who dances and squeals and paces waiting for the door to open, waiting for us to bound into the car, waiting for the river to open up in front of him. Waiting for us to play. We drive to the river, windows open, your arm out the driver’s side, Boris’ head wedged between your shoulder and the door. That Sunday, right now, you ask me how most dogs die, having never had one of your own before. We talk. We’re us. I tell you some dogs know it is their time, and they wander off into the woods. You smile. Scratch his head. You say, “that’s how you’ll get to go buddy, just walk off when you know.”

I live this every week. Every week the countdown. Every time we touch. Every time we talk. Every day, the last day. Not knowing anything except us and love and sunshine, and our plans, and what we expect to come.

Every Sunday, right now, you carry our chairs through the woods. Every Sunday, right now, we wade through the high water that has covered the forest floor. Every Sunday, this Sunday, right now, we play, up to our waists in pine-needle-filled dark water, throwing the ball for the dog. Every Sunday, I worry. I look for Boris when he disappears. And every Sunday. Every Sunday, right now, you call to me from the water’s edge, saying, “don’t worry about him here babe, he’s in heaven.”

Now, you turn away from me again. Now, that Sunday, every Sunday, now, you turn away from me again. Right now, Boris has come back, and he and I are playing in the woods. Now, right now, sitting on the couch watching the numbers tick on by, now, right now, you come up for air and cough. On Sunday, and Sunday, every Sunday, I wonder if you need some help. On Sunday, I turn away, refusing to think that thought. And now, right now, this Sunday, that Sunday, here I am, looking back as you call out. Looking back. Here I am. And now, right now, there you are, holding on to the top of a tree, trying hard to keep your grip. And now, right now, here I am, running in to the water after you.

And now, right now, here I am, running in to the water after you.

My name is Megan Devine. I’m a licensed psychotherapist, writer, and teacher. I’ve spent my life learning and sharing what I’ve learned. None of that mattered when I suddenly became a widow at the age of 38: normal life at breakfast, whole new world by lunch. What I do now is different than what it was before that day. Or maybe, it’s the same thing in a whole different form: I listen. I hear what you’re carrying. I help you find ways to carry it that are most true to you. I help ease the loneliness inherent in this path by walking with you: not changing your reality, but helping you to bear it. Honor it. With a combination of validation and practical tools, I help you live the life that’s asked of you – with as much peace, grace, and integrity as you can.

Megan Devine is a writer, licensed psychotherapist, and grief advocate. She’s the author of the audio program “When Everything is Not Okay: Practices to Help You Stay in Your Heart & Not Lose Your Mind,” available on her website, www.refugeingrief.com. She writes for the Huffington Post, and the grief support site Open to Hope. You can talk with Megan directly ~ just click on the toolbox page on her website to find out how.

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