When a snort is not a snort

Today one of my kids walked into my office for speech. I was in the middle of talking with a co-worker when he walked in, and I said a quick hi to him and then finished what I was saying.

He made an animal snorting noise in response.

(He’s 12, and while he can trend towards immature, he has never been a kid for whom making animal noises is common).

I glanced at him, telling him, “Try again, please.”

He snorted again.

In a moment of annoyance (which I really, truly can say happens very infrequently), because I was trying to finish my conversation and wrap up one of a zillion things that were going on, I told him,

“You will have an automatic detention if you do that again.”

I finished what I was saying to my co-worker, she left, and I turned back to him.

“It’s because I am tired,” he said, out of the blue, as an unsolicited explanation for why he snorted.

“If you’re tired, that’s okay, but you can’t make animal noises like that.” I told him.

His face changed, and he said, “I’m tired because my grandfather died.”

My heart stopped.


I had totally messed up. He was trying to tell me something.

Look, am I not the one who preaches that behavior equals communication? Am I not the one who always says, look at what the behavior is trying to tell us? Am I not the one who suggests that we talk to our kids and meet them halfway, to understand what’s going on rather than punish it?

Yeah, he could’ve come in and said “I’m sad” or “Something happened” or “I need to tell you something.” But he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he snorted because he didn’t know what else to do. Maybe he snorted because he had planned on talking to me but I was talking to my co-worker and it altered his plan. Who knows, and it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that for him, this behavior wasn’t typical. I certainly have kids who make animal noises and they aren’t communicating anything other than trying to be funny. For them, it should be approached in a whole different way.

But when a kid does something that they don’t usually do – when it’s atypical or something seems off, trust your gut.

I am sharing this because I am human. I’m sharing this because sometimes we all get annoyed, or snap. And that’s okay. It just matters that we rectify the situation as soon as possible. Which I did – on his own terms, we talked about it briefly (all he wanted to share was that sometimes he feels happy that his grandpa lived for 80 years and that his dad felt sad and he already talked to his counselor about it and felt [thumbs up] right now and didn’t need to check in more), a peer in the group shared that he had also lost his grandpa years ago, and then we moved on.

He moved on feeling heard, understood, and cared about.

I figured it out – even though it was a minute or two later than I would’ve liked.

That’s what matters.

A year of grief

One year ago today, my mom called to tell me that my grandpa passed away. The month before that had been spent with grenades and bombs and tsunamis as the information had come in – my healthy grandpa was sick, my healthy grandpa had a mass, my healthy grandpa had cancer, my healthy grandpa was going to die within the year, my healthy grandpa was going to die in a few weeks.

We went down to Florida during that month, for one day, to say goodbye, when the call had come in: “If you want to see him one last time, you need to go. Now.” And we did – and I put on a smile the entire day. Trying to enjoy my time with him. Trying to be strong for my Gram. Trying not to fall apart when he looked me in the eye and said, “This is a bad way to go out, kid.” Trying to not die inside when he told us he wished he could be at our wedding. Trying.

And I never processed it. Because two days later was Thanksgiving. And I spent the day putting on a smile. Yes, it was so great to see him. Yes, we’re so happy we went. Yes, it was so meaningful. 

A week later he died. Four days later was the funeral. And six days later was my baby cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. Where, yes, I spent the day putting on a smile. How lovely it is that we can celebrate such a happy occasion. Thank goodness for the happy times. 

Do we sense a theme?

For those next few months, I certainly grieved. But not for myself. My tears, my anxieties, my depressions, my worries, were spent on my grandma and my mom. I cried for my mom, who lost her dad. I sobbed for my gram, who lost her husband. I worried about my gram being alone. I had a pit in my stomach every time I imagined her waking up alone, eating breakfast alone, going to bed alone.

And I didn’t really speak about it. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to say it. So it was buried.

And then I was about to get married. And there were seven zillion things to do each day, and I was focused in on that. And I got married, and it was beautiful, and magical, and incredible, and the honeymoon was a fairy tale.

But then things quieted down, a month or two passed, and life calmed down.

And I noticed that I started crying more. And I noticed that my chest constricted and my stomach convulsed each time I called my Gram because I knew I would feel her pain and feel her loss and I was so worried about her and sad for her and I just couldn’t bear it.

I noticed that I felt like I had been punched in the stomach each time I looked at our wedding photos and Grandpa wasn’t in them.

I noticed that in walking around my apartment, I averted my eyes from Grandpa’s paintings on the walls.

I noticed that my voice became flat. That I lost my appetite. That I just cried, a lot.

And by early September, when Rosh Hashanah was around the corner, when in every year past I had felt elated and excited at the thought of Gram and Grandpa coming to celebrate our New Year – I felt dread. Despair. I couldn’t bear the thought that she was coming alone.

What is wrong with you, I chided myself. People lose people all the time. They cope and they deal. It’s been more than six months and you should be coping a lot better now. I then helpfully added, He was only your grandpa. My mom and her sisters lost their father. Gram lost her husband. I have no right to be as upset as I am. And to clinch it, I oh-so-kindly reminded myself, I have friends who have lost their moms or dads this year. They have a right to be upset, but I don’t. Just stop it.

And so, for more reasons and a more complicated back story than is necessary to get into here, I decided it was time to do something about it.

I spent each week crying, sobbing, as we processed the traumatic memories. Florida. Thanksgiving. Rosh Hashanah.

I sobbed, as I told her, “I spent the last year either pushing it down, or grieving for my mom and my aunts and my Gram. But I never grieved for myself, and I’m just so sad, so devastated, so heartbroken that I lost my grandpa. I just miss him, and I am so sad that he’s gone.”

And it got a little easier. I got to a point where I could talk about him, think about him, think about Gram, talk to Gram, without falling apart. But time is funny, and so just a few short weeks later, here we are. We had Thanksgiving without him. And today is the one year anniversary of his passing.

And so now I’m crying more often, sobbing a bit harder. And a year later, it hasn’t really gotten any easier. But I’ve learned:

This is grief. There is no rule book. There is no hierarchy. I have every right to feel however I feel. If I have days where I cry, that’s okay. If I have days where I’m just down, that’s okay. If I have days where I feel fine, that’s okay, too. I don’t have to justify my grief, or the form it takes. It might get easier, it might get harder. And I need to ride that wave – and be where I am. Without judgement, and instead, with kindness, acceptance, and compassion.

Paris and Plants (guest post)

This morning I woke up to a message from an old friend, asking if she could send me something she wrote, something that she didn’t feel ready to publish with any identifying information, but something that she would love to have “held” for her, in this space. I told her to send it along, meaning it completely when I said that I would be happy to read anything she wrote. I will let her words speak for themselves, but I just need to tell you how much my heart warmed when I read her reflections. Because, despite themes of sadness and grief, it was just so real and relatable, and that’s the goal, right? To say the things that are hard to say, because we are not the only ones who feel them.

Paris and Plants (by Andie Kates)

I’ve been spinning my wheels this week. I’ve been trying to hold in one hand current events and the necessity of being an informed citizen—while in the other hand clinging tenaciously to the personal need to keep myself grounded. Interestingly, a main source of hope this month has been my much-adored spider plant. I haven’t been able to put this sentiment into words, though, especially against the backdrop of recent global politics. I want to try and translate the connection that only seems clear in my head. Not sure how this will work, but figure I may as well try.


I was buried in work on Friday, November 13th; when I first heard people talking about the attacks in Paris that evening, I had no idea what had happened. In all honesty, I felt no shock with the news. I felt no outrage. I felt a tired sense of, “Oh, again. Oh, this again.” It didn’t sound like cynicism inside, but a desensitized self-protection. Oh, this again—in Paris, so we notice more than when this happens in Beirut. Oh, this again—a sense of safety shattered in a second.

I have resistance to follow the news these days. My desire to be an active, compassionate citizen is no match for the heaviness of loss that seems too familiar. I hear the echoes from last year when Michael Brown was murdered and Ferguson, Missouri erupted in pain. The calls for justice and change spiraled across the country, aftershocks of outrage and solidarity permeating conversation and consciousness. Black lives matter. Syrian refugee lives matter. All tragedy seems connected in emotional memory. Another example: while the Western world holds Paris in its heart this week, I find myself back at the Boston Marathon. That afternoon, we used Facebook to tell our loved ones we were safe and alive because reception for phone calls was impossible in the immediate aftermath of the explosions.

And Paris also brings me back to years prior— when the phone call came on a sunny Saturday morning in January saying a close friend was dead. And I laughed because I had just talked to him yesterday, and seriously, this isn’t a funny joke. And it wasn’t. An icy blue morning, a phone call, and then nothing seemed clear despite the sky.

Unexpected loss and a struggle to understand the why –it may be November 2015, yet I circle back to that May afternoon. That May afternoon I came home and found his body on my bedroom floor. A logical part of me knew immediately he was dead; my body went into shock. Other parts of me could not comprehend the split second in which life divided into a before and after. It has taken the better part of eighteen months to understand that his death wasn’t my fault.  

This week, too, a teenager drowned in the local river and a family friend died from complications of alcoholism.

I want to say to France, and to the world—these are moments when feeling connected hurts too much to stay with it for too long. These are days when every moment, every loss, seems connected and I find myself unable to let another tragedy into my heart. Paris—I know you’re hurting, the whole world is hurting. Our human capacity for cruelty is too real. And in raw honesty, I’m trying to stay grounded this week. That’s pretty much it. I’m also trying to figure out what my role is as a white woman laden with privilege in a world where it’s only too easy to ignore others’ pain. How do we reconcile privilege and responsibility with raw humanity? –and know it is a privilege to step back and say I can’t feel another tragedy today.

In my dreams this past week, I had the opportunity to say goodbye to him. In this dream I was not too late; though I still couldn’t save him, I could hold him as he died and he was not alone. It was the first non-nightmare I’ve had of him since that May afternoon. Twelve hours later I’m riding the train with a coworker when the real memories come without warning. His body—lifeless, still as stone. That intestinal fear and urge to flee.

Paris, to be honest, feels far away and impersonal.

Paris, is it arrogant and selfish to say that I am not a stranger to our quotidian human pain? I find myself unable to be present for yours. I avoid the news with compunction. I find myself unwilling to talk about it with coworkers and friends. Despite the reality of Syrian refugees, I find myself unable to separate loss from loss, memory from memory.

I hate acknowledging this. I know it is selfish and arrogant, albeit self-protective. I do not enjoy recognizing that I cannot disentangle myself this week. I know that on other days, other weeks, it feels easier, and I can more strongly turn outwards to embrace the rest of the world. I do not enjoy admitting that I feel too scared to do that today. Or, that I do not want to try.

In the same breath, gigantic loss can begin to heal in the smallest of moments.

My spider plant has had an offshoot for months. In the past week, small root buds have started to poke their heads out of the baby. In my morning plant-watering autopilot, I almost walked past it without pause. But I did a double take on Thursday, turned around, and cradled the tiny green leaves in my hand. This is life. This is life growing in my living room. Can you believe how incredible it is? In the face of destruction, exhaustion, and fear, this little spider plant is ready to take root and grow. It’s thriving.

I don’t consider myself a gardener, and while I love the outdoors I wouldn’t say I have a green thumb. The animals and plants I’ve loved have so often died suddenly, unexpectedly. I don’t always trust myself to care for others.  But this morning, a few days after spying the roots, I went to the hardware store. I bought more potting soil, came home, repotted the larger plant, snipped the baby from its offshoot, and buried its rootbuds in new soil. I put both pots near the window and am now watching the sun shine down on them. I’m waiting for growth, eager as a child. I also notice a fearful part of me hiding in the back of my heart waiting for it to just shrivel and die.

The story I hear in the back of my heart is that those I care for and love most deeply all die. Such is life—it does tend to end in death. Younger, hurting parts, however, believe that those friends and loved ones died because of me. I was the poisonous common denominator, the notorious cause of death. The trepidation I feel watching the plants this morning is real—but Adult Me knows that as elegant –and negligible—as my own existence may be, I’m just not omnipotent. And certainly not responsible for the entire universe, or capable of innocuously causing such destruction. Our loved ones die no matter what we pray; tragedy happens sometimes and we don’t know why. Today I know that my spider plant—my spider plants—are green and strong, watered and soiled, soaking in the November sun. This single moment feels like a miracle and the rest is not mine to know.

I wish there were a clear cut way to close out this reflection. It’s safe to say that I can find no resolution, no summary, no epilogue. Life goes on. Spider plants give me hope when humanity doesn’t. I have a newborn plant growing in the living room: small solace to global grief, but simultaneously hopeful. Will the plants thrive? I have no idea. Maybe they’ll shrivel up in the next week and I’ll be left with pots of dirt and regret. Maybe the spider plants will continue to propagate and I’ll give them away as Valentine’s Day gifts because our apartment simply can’t hold that many babies. I have no way of knowing.

What I do know: the sun continues to rise each day. The temperature continues to drop. The leaves are all but gone and December arrives in nine days. There’s no backing up or starting over—there’s just here and now. I can, and do, ride waves of helplessness at times and on heavier days, nihilism. I alone can do nothing to heal Paris, the world—not one person alone can do this work. Yet I also know that on a sunny morning in November, I can dig my hands into potting soil, water the plants, watch the sun, and see what comes next.

Andie Kates is 25 and currently living in Boston. She is grateful to Jen for the opportunity to share her writing!


Acknowledging it

You know how some days you feel down and blah, and sometimes you’re okay with that, but sometimes it makes you panic, Ohmygod what if this feeling doesn’t pass, what if I never feel happy again, what if this is my new normal, I don’t know why I feel this way, the walls are closing in, I’m drowning, I’m regressing, all my hard work is undone…..and you go from 0 to 100 in about three milliseconds? (Or maybe you don’t know….but humor me).

Anyway, in processing that idea the other day, I was saying how cognitively I KNOW it always passes, I know that even months of a hard time don’t last forever, and therefore one day of feeling down doesn’t automatically equal a lifetime of it, but that it’s hard to remember in the moment. So one thing I said (half jokingly but also half totally serious) is that maybe I need a note on my phone that’s called “When I feel Crappy or Low”. Under that super creative title (…..) would be a few to-do items.

First is acknowledge what is contributing. Because as humans we can feel blah and we can feel down and we can feel upset for no reason, but as I am learning, there’s almost always one contributing factor. So first up is to figure out what the factors are. For me, there’s a list of “high-flyers” – events, people, thought patterns, or memories, that, more often than others, contribute. So first would be a checklist of those items (which would be more specific than this): Is it the weather? Is it a family member? Is it that grief? Is it that memory? Is it that anticipation of a change that’s coming?

I’ve found that almost always acknowledging it makes a difference. It instantly helps me feel back in control. It’s the flipped switch from Ohmygod I’m drowning, I’m out of control, everything is pressing on me, I’m infused with tidal waves of chaos to Oh. I’m in control. It’s just x, y, and z, and it’s not everything, and it’s not an internal malfunction, it’s an external rainshower that’s getting me a little wet but I’m fine, we’re fine, I’m fine.

Do you know that feeling I’m talking about? Kind of like in grad school when there was a huge paper to write or test to study for – it initially feels so big and so impossible to ever figure out. But as soon as a to-do list is made and it’s broken down, it’s manageable and you return to I can do this, this is doable.

The next thing to do, after acknowledging to myself what it is, is to focus on it more. This is so damn counter-intuitive. When something is upsetting, we want to ignore it, want to push it away, we don’t want to spend extra time and energy thinking about and talking about it. But – it works.

With the disclaimer that it often initially feels worse.

When you choose to focus in on it, whether it’s to write about it or talk about it or draw about it, or whatever it is for you, you might feel that tightness in your chest get tighter. The tears that you’ve held back might come. You might end up gasping for air, or you might feel the pain even stronger. Hold on. Because if you continue talking, continue writing, continue letting it out – you will then feel the release. You’ll feel your chest relax, you’ll notice the tears stop, you’ll notice you feel lighter, you’ll notice you feel better.

In the moment? So hard to do.

But maybe that’s what the reminder is for, that’s what the list is for.

Because it’s worked before. It’s been true before.

It applies now.

Inside a hard time

[Editor’s note: I feel compelled to preface this by telling you how vulnerable I feel in posting this. I realize that vulnerability comes from fear of being met with shame. Being shut down, being quieted, being negatively talked about. But, I will write it anyway. Because I channel that feeling that I have when I read a blog post that deeply resonates with me, that makes me think, “Wow, someone else really gets it. Someone else was brave enough to write about it.” And I hope that maybe I can evoke that feeling in just one person. And should that be the case – should one person feel grateful, relief, companionship, then the vulnerability was worth it.

I have written and re-written this post many times, ever since my wonderful dad suggested that I write. During many versions, I added in something at the end to the effect of, “But I am okay! Don’t worry about me! I’m fine!” Which speaks to my fear of worrying others, of wanting to do everything I can to keep those in my life calm and happy. But I am gently putting those fears aside. And writing what’s real.]

Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Not if they are wounds that were never processed. Events from a month ago, a year ago, two decades ago, can and will still affect you.

Events and memories that you had buried deep within you, taped up, and topped with a sparkly pink bow, will not be fooled, and will still find their way to the surface, claw their way out, and demand to be acknowledged and processed. Gates will be broken down, dams will be breached, and it will rush at you, over you, through you, just as a flood does. Five weeks later, you will still be waiting for the waters to abate.

Old habits and behaviors will rear their heads. You will initially welcome them back without a second thought. You will initially forget to question them.

You will initially try to fight it. You’ll think things like, I shouldn’t be feeling this way or What is wrong with me? and I’ve been fine for so long, I should still be fine.

Your chest will constantly feel constricted. So will your head and stomach, but it’s in your chest where you’ll notice it at all times.

You will sleep, a lot. You will have little energy. You will throw your energy into work, and collapse after. Weekends will be hard.

You will inwardly laugh when one of your students says, “You are just so happy! Are you ever NOT happy?” and you will respond honestly but simply, and say, “Sometimes I am happy, but sometimes I am mad or sad, too.”

You will remind yourself to eat, despite a lack of appetite.

You will go to new types of appointments and cry. You will cry a lot. You will realize your voice is flat. You will talk about events and memories. When she asks you if you want to process x, y, or z, you will laugh, and tell her, “No. So I guess we should.” You will realize that these appointments, this new methodology, might be the key to your lock.

You will start to have a few minutes, an hour, maybe even part of a day here and there when the tight compression in your chest lifts. When you notice that you can breathe. When you haven’t cried. When your voice is a little more sing-songy. When you can think about people and places and memories without waves of nausea and dread.

And then those moments will end.

You will feel a true acceptance of where you are, of what’s happening. You will understand that it was kind of inevitable. You’ll get that while it might not have happened this year, it would’ve happened eventually. You will trust that it can’t last forever. Eventually the waters will subside. Eventually the floods will stop.

And so you will just keep going, minute by minute, day by day.

Because there’s no other option.

And you remind yourself of your beloved poem that you post every solstice, and you take to heart the words:

So do not lose heart
when vision dims.
Journey forth
as best you can-
bloom when you are able,
rest when you must,
keep faith,
keep always
towards the light

Untitled. Because how do I possibly know what to call this?

I am grieving.

I hate that word, “grieving.”

My grief is acute. It’s the pain when you first break your leg. The sharp pain that makes you gasp and you can’t breathe because it hurts so much and consumes you. Maybe if the situation had been different I would have more chronic grief. The dull, constant ache that comes later, after you’ve worn the cast on your leg but the pain doesn’t fully go away.

I know I need to write, I know I want to write. But there is absolutely, not a chance in the world, that I can write anything coherent. So I will just….write.

I wasn’t supposed to lose my grandpa.

There is no hierarchy of grief, no rule book. Grief varies situation to situation. My grief in this situation is different than that of someone who lost a loved one after a year-long illness, and that’s different than that of someone who lost someone immediately in an accident or stroke or heart attack. This is my own, personal grief. I don’t have to justify it or defend it. I get to just feel it.

Four weeks ago, my grandpa was healthy. In my head, I knew he would live many, many more years. He laughed and talked and walked and drove. He was healthy. Four weeks ago, he had some trouble breathing. He went into the hospital. Three weeks ago, they found a mass. Two weeks ago, he came home and hospice moved in. Yesterday, cancer killed him.

It wasn’t supposed to happen.

People say things. People try to say words to make a situation better. A situation that really, has no words. People mean well. But some of the things people say, don’t help. That doesn’t mean I’m selfish and don’t appreciate their intent. It only means just that: that it doesn’t help. That’s okay. The thing is, I don’t believe there’s a “better place” that he’s in. Because truly, he wasn’t in pain, he wasn’t suffering. It doesn’t give me comfort. It doesn’t give me comfort that he had a long, healthy life. Because that doesn’t change the fact that now, he’s gone. And that shouldn’t have happened. The fact that he had a long, healthy life does not, in any way, make this easier.

I am not selfish or ungrateful. I appreciate every single person trying to provide comfort. But I have to be allowed to feel how I feel.

I call my Gram. “Jeremy and I are coming,” I tell her. “I know,” she replies. “I know it’s a non-option for you. I am so glad you’re coming. Grandpa and I will be so happy to see you.”

Jeremy and I drive to their house, from the airport, upon landing in Florida. This is the last time I’ll land in Florida knowing Grandpa is waiting for me. This is the last time I’ll drive on this road knowing Grandpa is there. This is the last time I’ll drive into their complex, knowing they are both there. Each thought makes me cry again, but I have to keep saying it to myself. I have to focus on the reality of it.

We are down in Florida. Jeremy and I manage to get Gram outside for ten minutes to walk. She hasn’t left his side. We go for a walk and run into Gram and Grandpa’s friends. They start tearing up immediately, seeing Gram. The gentleman looks at me, and shakes his head, bewildered. “He was fine,” he says to me. “We just went out to dinner with your grandparents a few weeks ago. He was joking and talking. He was fine.”

I had hoped for maybe a few minutes with Grandpa. But he wanted us around him the whole time. Each time we tiptoed out of the room when he started dozing off, he asked us to come sit near him. He asked us questions, when he had enough energy to talk. He wanted to hear about things. About our apartment, about work, movies we had seen. He joked with us, the hilarious sense of humor he always had, still there with him.

Grandpa didn’t treat me like I was too fragile to be real with. He was real with me and so I could be real right back. He looked at me and said, with a defeated sigh, “Man, this is a terrible way to go out.” And yeah. That ripped my heart into a million pieces. But it also gave me permission to feel it and cry and agree. I really appreciated that. No sugarcoating.

Gram was so lovey with him. In a way I don’t think I have ever seen. Kissing him, holding his hand, rubbing his back. “People keep asking what I need,” she told us. “But what I need is for my husband to be well. And that isn’t going to happen.” Heart ripped open again. But oh, how I preferred that. Preferred to feel it and live it in the moment for what it was, other than pretending we were all okay with it.

Gram is now alone. And that’s the piece that unbearably pains my heart.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I wasn’t supposed to lose him. She wasn’t supposed to lose him.

This was not supposed to happen. And I’m allowed to say that.

There are moments when I am factual. Okay. This is happening. This happened. I am living this and going through this. Grandpa is gone. Gram lost her husband. My mom lost her father. Grandpa will not be at my wedding. He will not meet my children some day. Okay. And then there are other moments where the pain of it all hits me so hard and raw that I can’t breathe and I forget how to inhale without gasping.

So I take it moment by moment. Because what else can I do?

And that’s all I can say for now.

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