An uphill climb: allowing space for grief

“I’ve never seen anyone in a situation like this handle it as positively as you are.”

“Ask Naomi, she’s in charge.”

“How did you get all this done so quickly?”

My friends, even those with the most positive, look-for-the-silver-lining, don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff-type outlook have their not-so-good days.

At first, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss and looks of sympathy were exactly FOR.  We’re completely safe, we are financially comfortable, nobody was harmed. It’s only “stuff,” right?

Well, yes, but it’s 1) MOST of your stuff and it is mementos you really cared about, 2) your sense of home and safety taken away, 3) being displaced from your comfortable daily environment and routine, and 4) your neighborhood forever changed and its future unpredictable.  In our situation, it is also 1) SG’s school was destroyed enough to have to relocate for the year and 2) though this was the first time our street has ever flooded, we are not willing to fix and move back in knowing this is likely to happen again. We have learned from our neighbors who are dealing with this for the third time. So we’re looking at about an 18-month process here before we can settle into a “home” again.

I know that “home” is wherever you are with those you love.  I also know that “this too shall pass” and that I am strong.  However, I am human.  I long for my art room and my books, our little sun porch with the comfy egg chair, that lost pair of shoes and, darn it, I really liked our mattress.  Sweet Girl liked her shelf of legos, her cabinet of craft supplies, her awesome loft bed, and all her books neatly organized.  I realize that all of this is possible to have again and I know that none of it “really matters.”

As life settles down a little, my positivity is succumbing to anger and fatigue and sadness.  For the past 5 weeks, I’ve been living half a day at a time and dealing with many new emotions popping up.  I’m great at jumping into action and doing what needs to be done, but now that everything is finally done and the days are getting quieter and calmer, I am not sure what to do with these feelings.

I am trying to move forward and create a safe, warm home for my family, yet it seems like there is an obstacle around every corner just waiting to pop out and punch me in the face.  I am overwhelmed and preoccupied and still kind of in shock about what has happened. Everyone around me is tired and frustrated and patience is thin with none in reserve. I feel guilty even saying any of this because we have so much – food and shelter and safety and furniture and electricity and friends and school and cars and community and our pets… but still, the feelings are real.  People have been through much, much worse, but still, these feelings persist.  Bear with me while I vent…

Every little action feels like walking uphill against the wind.  I’m tired of thinking about some detail related to this life-changing event 24/7 or hearing other people talk about it.  Every passing day, I realize more of what I’ve lost.  There’s only so much of that uphill journey a person can take before she starts to slip backwards.

It feels like nothing is clean. We packed up our clothing and belongings with lightning speed to get them out of our mildewing house, but I still feel that I need to wash everything again.  Twice.  The apartment washing machine is ripping up our brand new sheets.  We still need to buy a vacuum and I miss the zen-like satisfaction of vacuuming the house.  The kitten is into EVERY. SINGLE. THING: cabinets, containers, trash cans, the tubes behind the washing machine, and she waits for the door to open so she can bolt outside.  The bathrooms and closets have the dimmest lighting I’ve ever seen. There is no space in the apartment to get a moment to myself.  I can’t find a safety pin or our iron and we don’t have a corkscrew.  I can’t stand the electric stove.  I need to restart my computer 2 or 3 times a day to get the internet to work.  The neighbor next door is noisy exactly when I’m trying to get SG to sleep.  There are tiny ants that must hang around every day waiting for a cat to drop a morsel of food.  I miss feeling settled and comfortable and knowing where everything is.

Dealing with the insurance company and FEMA is a bureaucracy of red tape and paperwork and waiting “10 business days” for every small action.  Our mail is somewhere in between our house and getting forwarded to the apartment.  It’s been 4 days of going to both mailboxes looking for it.  There are not many answers attainable via social media, as every person seems to have an individual situation regarding insurance payments and processing that doesn’t match the next person’s story.  I have stopped seeking answers there.

Loss of a “house” and the loss of a “home” are two completely different things.  Watching the very space where we made design decisions over a long period of time traumatically taken away in a matter of hours is very hard to wrap my mind around.  The helpless feeling of not being able to do anything to stop the water coming in from multiple sides was foreign to me.  I don’t know where any of my displaced friends are living right now.  There are “For Sale” signs popping up as older couples decide it’s not worth it for them to deal with this.  There’s a lot of discussion about what “should” be done about the city-wide drainage problems.  The neighborhood will possibly be changing its architectural guidelines since 90% of the homes were affected by this, but that is itself a process.

For many, Meyerland has been a community of morning and evening walks, knowing and seeing our neighbors regularly and counting on them for Neighborhood Night Out barbecues, Halloween treats, and Girl Scout cookie purchases.  It’s an area of town where you are more likely to see mezuzahs on the doorposts than Christmas lights, yet the diversity of cultures, religions, and generations was a large asset.  Children rode bikes with each other in the streets.  This time, 1900 out of 2300 Meyerland homes flooded (and those other 400 had already been elevated or completely rebuilt higher up).  I hope it continues to be all the wonderful things many love about it, but that is somewhat uncertain.

It’s all a long process of waiting.  Waiting to hear back from the insurance company.  Waiting for furniture to be delivered.  Waiting for school to finally begin. Waiting for the maintenance guy to come unclog the sink and re-attach shelves that fell from the wall in the closet. Waiting for the survey company to get some numbers to the architect.  Waiting on the backlogged permit office.  Waiting for our 6-month lease to end so we can move somewhere else. Waiting to see what property values will be in 3 years.  Waiting just to see if we change our minds about what we want.

I am so sick of seeing my belongings sitting curbside waiting to be collected by a large truck and workers in florescent vests, seeing appliances and mattresses and bikes sitting in front of every house in the immediate area, and sometimes not being able to drive down my own street because of all the workers.  People are getting sick from all the mold and mildew sitting and rotting.  We are surprised we haven’t gotten flat tires yet due to all the debris in the street.

I remember well the feeling of invasiveness and lack of respect for our home by laborers when we put in the pool and garage. I know we will soon fence the perimeter of our lot and all our beautiful landscaping will again be trampled.  It’s a very real frustration and loss of control.  It’s going to be a long road of construction and decision-making, all to try to create a new feeling of home and belonging.

I admit that I have been appreciating the outpouring of support and help from around the world while simultaneously knowing it couldn’t last very long.  There is only so much others can do before they move on to something else.  Gift cards poured into Houston from all over the world.  I have contributed to individual GoFundMe collections as well as given generously to our daughter’s elementary school and to multiple teachers and staff.  Amazingly, it seems like every state in the country sent supplies, money, or letters/songs/artwork for the school hallways. I admit that any support that comes for our small school surprises me because I don’t know if I’d care that much about a random school somewhere far away. Every day I expect it to cease.

It has become necessary for me to take some deep breaths and strengthen internally before checking Facebook.  Sometimes it’s yet another political snafu, sometimes it’s someone asking about navigating the frustrating process of FEMA appeals, and sometimes it’s a mass shooting in yet another U.S. city.  It’s rarely something good worth celebrating, which is why I wish I would stop looking at it!

A mother always fiercely guards her young, and SG has dealt with an abundance of change in a very short time.  Moving around from garage apartment to friends to grandparents to other friends to a temporary apartment and finally to this apartment where we will be for I-don’t-know-how-long, I would imagine she likes being in one place no matter where we are.  She has always needed to be close to us, so this smaller layout must feel comforting to her, as much as it frustrates her parents.  She is very unsettled by not having all her belongings and not getting to decide what was chosen to be here with her and what was sent to storage.

Having school resume is a blessing for our sense of normalcy and she is enjoying it, but she is having some adjustment issues.  Let’s just leave it at that.  Anytime she is not well or happy, I am not able to fully let down my guard.  Sometimes just the thought of what is happening with her and my inability to fix the entire thing just breaks my heart.

Separately, I’ve undertaken a parenting shift in that I am being firm with my limits and protecting my own space and time.  That involves some internal work, reading some parenting books, and meeting regularly with a parenting coach.  No small project by itself, let alone with everything else on my mind.

It can be hard to talk about anything else but the storm and its aftermath, and yet when people do, I don’t have any interest.  It’s gotten to be challenging to keep the smile on my face even when grocery shopping.  The political landscape disgusts and embarrasses me more and more every day.  There is so much hurt in the world today, tension and divisions and destruction of property and life and natural landscapes… from pure fear.  I have always struggled not to internalize it, not to take on the problems as my own, and not to draw conclusions when I see that truly good people are defeated more times than they win.

I don’t know what to think of it all or how to take the long view on any of this, but I definitely feel connected to it all.  I take it personally when I see someone toss garbage out of their car window, just as I would if they’d tossed it onto my front lawn.  I take it personally when a pathological egoist with racist tendencies garners any votes for president of what is supposed to be an enlightened country, let alone winning the entire popularity contest.  And I definitely take it personally every single time I have waited in a slow-moving line of cars only for one asshole to pass us all by and pop in at the head of the line as if he wasn’t aware of common human decency because, didn’t you know, wherever he is going is much more important than where I was going.  In fact, he must be more important all around.  Isn’t that how God made us?

Just like there is a wave of righteous anger every time there is senseless violence, many are seething because the City of Houston has known about the history and tendency of flooding for many, many years and done little.  I don’t exactly know why it’s ok to have some people live on top of toxic waste heaps, some be required to go to underfunded, poor-quality schools, or, in this case, to allow industry and commerce to take precedence over caring for our natural environment, thus putting citizens at risk.  There are always going to be consequences down the line.

The loss of our home because of a completely random, meaningless natural disaster (and it’s a separate discussion about whether warm oceans bring hurricanes) and the savageness of it just baffles me.  Our Sun is going to explode in some billion number of years, ending life on Earth then, if not long before from some other asteroid collision or from greenhouse gasses or who knows what, but that seems abstract and even like fantasy fiction.  These current circumstances, along with the recent swath of other natural disasters like fires and earthquakes, seem apocalyptic for no real reason.

We will not be doing this a second time. What does that mean? We either have to sell, elevate, or demo and rebuild.  Personally, I think the 1960’s ranch homes that have been elevated look completely ridiculous.  And we don’t love our house enough to keep it exactly as it was anyway.  We have looked into cost and options for all three, and we will most likely be designing and building a new home, which will be a long process. I am trying to keep the perspective that it will be worth it.

It will be fun and exciting and frustrating all at the same time, and yet I am still focused on the loss of our home.  That seems to be a really big deal and I am having trouble letting go.  I don’t think I will be present on demo day! Someone told me in college that the time it takes to get over a heartbreak is equivalent to about half the duration of the relationship. So living in this home for 6 years… 3 years to move on? I was hoping for 3 months. Many of the items that were damaged were some childhood photos, a doll a great aunt made for me when I was small, many journals from a large span of years, much of my own artwork.  Those can’t be replaced.

I appreciate the hugs and comfort that friends have been giving very much.  Without it, I would have a significantly more challenging time continuing forward, I’m sure.  The texts and hugs and homemade meals mean more than anything else.  I also have realized who our true friends are and who couldn’t care less, a very valuable lesson in itself.  I know that we are safe and have everything we need.  This is largely an emotional reaction and I am trying to take these feelings less seriously while, at the same time, allowing myself the grief.

Thank you for reading.  I hope these ramblings help someone else trying to make sense of similar situations.

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6 Responses to An uphill climb: allowing space for grief

  1. So glad to see you are using your great writing talent to help you heal your grief. For those who have never experienced this kind of loss, it can be easy to write it off as ingratitude, I guess. You ARE safe, and you have the financial wherewithal to rebuild. Not everyone does. But that misses the point. Your life has been turned on it’s head and that’s no small thing. My thoughts are with you as you struggle to put things back together, and I grieve with you for all that you’ve lost, both physically and emotionally. Love you, friend.

  2. Patti says:

    You are in my prayers everyday.

  3. I’m so sorry. It’s so painful and undeserved.

  4. Lisa Painter says:

    Wow, so much on your shoulders. You’re a talented writer…thinking about you guys

  5. Aunt Val says:

    You are well-read enough to know that there are 7 stages of grief. Let yourself go through as many as you need to for as long as you need to. You will come out of it more whole. I’m hugging you. You are on my mind and grandma and grandpa’s minds every single day.
    We adore you and Mr. B and SG with all our hearts.
    Love,
    Aunt Val

  6. Naomi, I have read every word of these storm posts and re-read some of them. It’s hard to take it all in even from my spot in my not-flooded house. I couldn’t even leave a comment at first; I had to let it sink in. Of course, you’re still struggling with it. And good for you in carving out time for yourself. I don’t know what it is about manicures, but they always help me feel in control too. And what about a massage for your over-worked body? And yes, write, write, write. And maybe get a notebook with a divider for each room in your house–where you can collect memories and photos and maybe make some drawings. Your daughter could make one for herself too. It’s all so overwhelming. But how far ahead of me you are in processing our attachments to things. You are doing great. Cut yourself every break. And keep writing. Thinking of you. xo
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