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Notes On Loss and Grief

5 Apr

Today marks the one year anniversary of the death of my partner and best friend, Wil Curry.

His death was sudden and unexpected. He was biking late at night to my apartment, and was hit by a car while crossing an intersection. I realized he was over an hour late, and my room mate informed me she had driven by a bad accident near his route. I called up his room mates and we had to go search for his body.

It sucked.
It really fucking sucked.

In the past 14 months, I have lost 5 people. My grandfather was first, followed by Wil, a close coworker named John, and two aunts. (And a pet snake, because at this point, why the hell not?) The grief induced by Wil’s death was a completely novel experience for me. And because I am a complete science dork, I began recording my observations of grief. In journals, notebooks, margins of textbooks, scraps of paper. Whenever a thought struck me, I had to write it down. As time progressed, I watched several of my friends go through losing close friends and family members, and continued taking notes.

So now, one year later, I give you a somewhat refined version of my notes on grief. This didn’t turn out as polished and cohesive as I wanted it to be, but it’s good enough for now.

1) There Are Only Two Appropriate Things To Say To A Grieving Person

(And an infinite amount of inappropriate things)

I cannot emphasize this enough.
People usually have no idea what to say to a grieving person, which often results in them saying a lot of inappropriate things. Before this experience, I was the same way. I had no idea what to say to a grieving person, because I had no idea what they were going through. After Wil’s death, I was on the other side of the scenario, and was truely appalled at how many inappropriate comments I received. Despite the fact they were all said with good  intentions, they were still incredibly hurtful.
The absolute worse one was when a lady told me:
He died because heaven needed more angels.”

I nearly punched her.
That’s something you say to a 5 year old after they accidentally stepped on their pet hamster, not a grown woman whose lost her partner. Knowing she meant well, I held my temper, immediately left, and screamed in my car the entire drive home.

There are only 2 appropriate things you can say to a grieving person:
1. I’m so sorry for your loss.
2. Let me know if there is anything I can do.
That’s it.
If you go any further, you run the risk of offending someone.
Say those two lines, hug them, and shut up.

2) Every Loss Is Different

So many people come up to me and say, “Oh, I know exactly what you’re going through. I lost my grandpa/uncle/aunt/distant cousin last year.”
I had lost my grandfather 3 months before I lost Wil. Losing a grandfather is completely different than losing a partner. Losing a partner is completely different than losing a child. Losing a child is completely different than losing a friend. Losing a friend is completely different than losing a parent.
Losing someone suddenly and unexpectedly is completely different than watching them struggle through a long and painful disease.
Every loss is different, and it is not fair to compare the two.
You simply can’t.
And for the love of god, don’t even try. If one of my friends lost their kid, I would never compare it Wil’s death, especially to their face. I wouldn’t even be able to fathom such a loss. Hell, even if my absolute closest friend lost her partner, I wouldn’t even try to compare it to Wil’s death, because every loss is different. I understand a lot of people say things like this because they’re trying to reach out and form a connection. And in a rational world, this would make sense. But grief isn’t rational.
And when grieving people are still in shock from losing someone, they honestly don’t give a damn about who you lost. They’re still in shock about their loss, and have yet to process it.

3) Everyone Grieves Differently. Don’t Judge.

Just like every loss is different, everyone has their own way of handling grief. Don’t judge. We often see in movies how some grieving character will isolate themselves from everyone else. Some people do this. But I was surprised to discover that I needed to be around people. I saw this over and over in people who lost someone close. I’m a fairly social person, but I do highly value my alone time. But it was completely different when I was grieving. It wasn’t that I wanted to be with people. I needed to be with people. I couldn’t handle being alone, not even for an hour, and actively sought out people to hang out with.

Grief also made me very, very reserved. I’m usually a very open and happy person, full of hugs and sarcasm. But I also hate crying in front of people, and as a result avoided all physical contact, like hugs, in order to keep from crying. As a result, I came across as very cold to a lot of people who didn’t know me. Some thought that my way of grieving was odd, or that I didn’t care about Wil all that much.
And in turn, I was confused as to why so many people posted on his facebook wall, telling him how much they missed him.
It’s simply not how I grieve, because I don’t see the point in talking to dead people as if they’re still alive. But it’s how others grieve, and to each their own. I don’t think less of them if that is how they have to express their grief.
Because when it comes to grief, everyone has their own way. Don’t judge someone simply because their way is different.

4) Keep Your Beliefs To Yourself

I’m not a particularly religious person. I’m joke that I’m a part-time Buddhist, somewhat like those Christians only go to church on Christmas and Easter. My spiritual beliefs are deeply private and I rarely talk about them, because they instruct me how to live my life, not how to run other people’s lives. At one point or another, all religions bring up the topic of death, which makes death painfully prone to awkward situations. Again, this goes back to rule #1: Unless you know, without any shadow of a doubt, 100%, that the person is of a praying faith, don’t say “I’m praying for you, You’re in my thoughts and prayers, The Lord works in mysterious ways, etc.
In fact, even if you know they’re religious, don’t even say it. Death can have a huge impact on a person’s spiritual beliefs. It may drive them to seek solace in their faith, or it may cause them to question it. Either way, it’s none of your business.
I repeat: Let them know you are sorry for their loss, and let them know you are there for them if they need it. This is all you need to say.
After a recent memorial service for a friend’s father, she and I got on the topic of of inappropriate things people say to those in grief. After he died, someone visited her family and walked into the back yard (which her father lovingly tended to for decades) and declared that she felt his presence there.
This is a huge fucking no-no.
Don’t do this.
Just don’t.

On the other end of the spectrum, if the person grieving talks about how they feel the deceased’s spirit in some way, and you don’t particularly believe in spirits, keep your mouth shut. Smile, nod, hug them if you want. Grief is no time for a theological debate. If the funeral is in a church or religious institution that teaches things that offend you or conflict with your own beliefs, get over it. Set aside your own beliefs and go to the funeral. Which brings us to our next rule:

5) Go To The Funeral/Memorial Service/Celebration of Life/Whatever

Seriously. Just go. Even if you didn’t know the deceased.
You see, funerals (and memorial services, wakes, celebrations of life, etc) aren’t actually for the deceased at all. They exist for the living. They are a way for people to come together, express their grief, and find solace in each other. And when a friend of yours is grieving, they need support. I hardly knew anyone at Wil’s funeral. There were a few people I knew through him, and a few of my family members, with whom I am not particularly close. None of my closest friends attended. Words cannot describe how devastating that was, because that was when I needed my friends the most.
Ever since, I’ve made it a point to attend funerals, even if I didn’t know the deceased. I’m not there to remember the deceased. I’m there to support my grieving friend. Always go, no matter what.
I guarantee they will appreciate it, because:

6) Grieving People Are Vulnerable.

 A few weeks after Wil died, I went to a friend’s house for a movie night. We were watching Doctor Who (because it’s awesome) and he insisted that we watch an episode titled “Father’s Day,” where one of the characters goes back in time and witnesses her father being hit and killed by a car (repeatedly). It was a very well-written and emotionally powerful episode. However, since weeks earlier Wil had been hit and killed by a car, it was also a really shitty episode for me to watch, and I ran out of the house in tears. Grieving people are emotionally and mentally vulnerable. And while that incident was just due to sheer thoughtlessness, there are plenty of bastards out there who will jump at the chance to take advantage of the grief-stricken.
Tim Minchin eloquently illumintated the issue: “By the way, why do we think it’s okay for people to pretend they can talk to the dead? Isn’t that totally fucked in the head? Lying to some poor woman whose child has died and telling her you’re in touch with the other side; I think that’s fundamentally sick.”
I noticed this in numerous ways, the worse of which was when I passed out on a couch and was sexually assaulted. Wil’s death was just as I was prepping to take my finals and start my clinical rotations. I threw myself into school, and within a month was exhausted in every way. Emotionally, mentally, physically. Adamantly against driving while tired, I crashed on a couch of a couple I used to live with, where I was later sexually assaulted by a mutual friend. It permanently destroy one friendship, and damaged several others.
And that was rock bottom. My entire world had been shattered with Wil’s death, immense grief, PTSD, the stress of finishing my finals, preparing for my clinicals, prepping for certification, and betrayal. As the dynamic of so many friendships changed, I gained new perspective on friendship, begrudgingly admitting to myself that yes, sometimes people are jerks who will try to take advantage of your vulnerable state. But for every jerk I came across, there were dozens and dozens of good and kind people in my life. It’s hard to be cynical when faced with those numbers.

7) Don’t Fight The Grieving Process

I mentioned earlier how I would refuse hugs from people because I hated crying in front of people. You get lysozyme and IgA all over your face and it’s super gross. A stubborn part of me refused to do so because I believed that I had to be strong. And while I am by nature the kind of person who likes to get things done first and then emotionally process them later, it wasn’t until 11 months later did I realize I wasn’t being strong at all. All I was doing was trying to avoid my grief, and in the end such action only prolonged it.
I was also surprised to discover that many people think the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – happens in that order, one at a time. It doesn’t. Those steps can occur in any order, simultaneously, or a person may not even experience one of them.
I also learned that grief is so emotionally draining that you have to take breaks. A few days after the death of her mother, my professor and her sister went to an amusement park, just because they needed the break and distraction. It’s healthy to take a break and seek distraction. Just remember that grief is something that eventually you’ll have to work through and process. Grief will never fully go away; It’s something that you always live with. But over time, it fades and becomes bearable. But whether you like it or not, it is something you eventually have to process and work through.

Knitted Gnome Sodomy

1 Apr

This past week has been my birthday week, and full of awesome shenanigans as well as continuing packing and preparing for the move. My apartment is full of boxes, my tummy is full of microbrew and strawberry-rhubarb pie, and my brain is exploding with happiness.
But before I curl up in bed, I can’t resist sharing the wonderful presents I received tonight from my dear friend Margherita, who is a yarn genius and a connoisseur of cute.

Knowing that I am absolutely in love with blood, particularly red blood cells, she knit me a tiny RBC:

 I shall call him Eric the Erythrocyte!

She also made me 10 gnome minions!

I absolutely love gnomes!
They have beards, which I’ve always had a weakness for, and are kind of creepy, but in an cute way.
(Like me!)
When I was a teenager, while all the other girls dreamed of marriage and children, I dreamed of being a part of the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. (aka the Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin. The French are weird in an oddly lovable way, and fifteen-year-old me believed that stolen gnomes were essentially catnip for French people).

If you look closely, you’ll see that one of the gnomes (lower left) has a red beard.
Ginger gnome!
And another (lower right) is missing his shirt.
And one of the gnomes (on the very top) is completely nude.

Newton, The Nudist Gnome!
I plan to let him go skinny dipping in my sink.
Fortunately, his beard is long enough to allow for some modesty, though Margherita admitted that she was tempted to make him anatomically correct.

And two gnomes are engaging in what has to be the most adorable depiction of sodomy I’ve ever seen.
Gnome sex has never been so cute.
Which is really saying something, as tiny gnome sex is already pretty damn adorable.

Also, to top things off, she made me an itty bitty narwhal named Natalie:


Flower Child

25 Mar

There is a flower in my hair.
It looks delicious.
I bet it tastes like sunshine and chlorophyl.

Channelling My Inner Old Lady

23 Mar

Me: “I’m trying to get in touch with my inner grandma.”
Margherita: “Adorkable!”
Phil: “So we should call you Nona/Nana/Grammy now?”
Me: “Only if you want to to get slapped. When I have my old woman curlers in, I shall be addressed as Lady Grannypants, young man! Now get off my lawn.”

Job Hunt, Part II

22 Mar

A few days ago, I was contacted with a job offer.
It wasn’t the job I had originally applied and interviewed for, but a similar starting position in a different department.

I was very torn.
The job seemed almost too good to be true, at least for a new grad entering the field. The benefits, perks, and staff are amazing. The college is famous for it’s well-funded science programs. However, it’s in a city where I know few, if any, people. It gets dark and extremely cold during the winter (-40F or colder), and the contract is for 3 years, which is longer than I anticipated. I would literally be facing my biggest weakness in the lab (microbiology), my biggest medical fear (depression), as well as my biggest fear in life (loneliness).
This is simultaniously exciting and terrifying.

I received a lot of mixed messages from friends when I told them of the offer.
Many supported it.
Others told me to keep looking.
Some reminded me of my dreams of traveling and helping in developing countries. Some pointed out that I was really looking for a job that provided blood banking experience, while others countered that there are very few blood banking jobs in this state. (Most of the available jobs are in general chemistry.)

There are also very few microbiology jobs. Clinical microbiology relies heavily on logical thinking, which I love. But also requires you to maintain a sizable amount of knowledge, which I suck at. That is why I both love it and fear it. It can be overwhelming. It’s much harder to start in the main lab and move to microbiology; If you don’t use that information every day, you quickly lose it.

It is also true that I do have aspirations of working abroad.
It’s one of the main reasons I went into this field. But in order to do the kind of work I want to do, you need either power, money, or experience. I have none.
I can’t do Peace Corps right away, as they don’t offer lab positions, (but would be an excellent choice if and when I decide to move into public health).
Doctors Without Borders takes people in my field, but only with experience.
Global Volunteer Network would take me, but it’s a trip I can’t currently afford.

Some reminded me of the risk.
Depression is a very serious condition that runs in my family. I am fortunate that I am not as prone to depression as others in my family. While some members of my family struggle with it every day, mine is very rare, typically mild, and always situational. However, the constant winter darkness does affect me, a condition known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

But the simple truth is that, no matter where I go, there will be risks.
Physical, emotional, and psychological risks.
If I take this job, I risk depression, extreme cold, and loneliness. If I were to take of tomorrow to work in Sudan, I risk malaria, sleeping sickness, and witnessing genocide. If I go to Arizona, I risk controversial politics, sunburn, and skin cancer, which I am incredibly predisposed to.
(Seriously. My skin is basically a big game of “Find The Cancerous Freckle.”)

Ships are safe in harbors, my friends, but we all know that’s not what ships are for.

So I accepted the job.

Life is full of risk, and to spend your entire life trying to play it safe isn’t wise, nor really all that possible. The key is to identify the risks, and weigh them against the benefits. When I weigh the risks of this opportunity against it’s benefits, I realize that I have a lot to gain, and relatively little to lose.
To start my career in microbiology is an incredible opportunity that I hadn’t dared dream about. That’s why I stuck to searching for general chemistry and blood banking jobs. The fact that I could have most of my extensive student loans paid off in 3 years is another possibility I hadn’t dared dream about. That would provide me with financial freedom to pursue other interests, such as travel, grad school, or volunteering abroad.
With a microbiology background, I would also have a better chance of going being accepted in a public health program, which I would love.

SAD lamps, exercise, medication, and working in a lab with freaking windows (I still can’t get over that) can help me manage through the winter blues. Honestly, working in a positive environment doing what I love goes a long way in contributing towards my happiness.

And here’s a confession: These past few months have been some of the worse in my life. I have never been more depressed then these past few months while I was unemployed. I love working in a lab so much that not being in a lab was literally devastating. The process of searching for jobs, filling out applications, getting your hopes up, going to interviews, is emotionally and psychologically exhausting. On top of everything, there is the knowledge that despite the improving job market in the United States, unemployment rates for my generation are over 16%, and those who do get jobs are often underpaid. Many experts agree that my generation was one of the hardest groups hit by the global recession. There were days I physically could not get out of bed. I felt overwhelmed and helpless. While I’ve seen friends go through that level of depression, I myself had never experienced it before.

And as soon as I received this offer, my situation completely reversed. I was waking up, happily, at 7:30 every morning. I was getting dressed. I was eating balanced meals. I was smiling again, even when I was by myself. Just the idea of working in a lab again lifted my spirits.

For me, such a drastic improvement is well worth the risks.

Job Hunt, Part I

21 Mar

Yesterday I woke up, settled in with a delicious cup of pressed Ethiopian yirgacheffe (my absolute favorite coffee),  and knocked out three job applications before noon (like a boss!). Literally five seconds after submitting my third application, I received a phone call from the hospital I interviewed at last week. They said that I didn’t get the job  I had applied and interviewed for, but they did want to offer me another job:
Day shift in the microbiology department.

I was completely stunned. I was completely speechless as the cheerful human resources lady rattled off the benefits of the job, which were far greater than I had ever hoped for in a first job. Of course,  there were a few downsides. I told her I would need a couple of days to consider the offer before deciding.

So here is the good, the okay, and the bad:

The Good:

  • A lab with windows!!!! This is rare for hospital labs, especially in this state.
  •  $20,000 loan forgiveness, paid in $6,000 increments over 3 years. The money actually doesn’t have to go towards student loans. They don’t require a receipt, so it’s actually more of a bonus. It will be going towards my loans though.
  •  Full health benefits from a very reputable company
  • Paid time off, of which I can accumulate 23 days in a year, and use up to 20 of those days at a time.
  • $26/hour
  • The microbiology department manager seems incredibly intelligent and kind, and would make a good mentor. This is something I really, really want, more than anything else, in a first job. I don’t want to be stuck in a lab where everyone does their job and goes home. I want a lab where the coworkers aren’t afraid to teach, challenge, and nurture me. This may sound needy, but this is a field where there are only 2 people entering the field for every 6 retiring out of it, and has a huge generation gap (workers are either over 50, or under 30. There are very few in between). I believe that it is imperative that mentorships be formed, so that the knowledge of those 40+ years of experience can be passed on to the upcoming generation, who lacks such experience.  I seemed to impress the microbiology manager when I mentioned  Richard Lenski’s experiment with E.coli evolution, which caused one strain to utilize citrate.
  • The city is home to a university with a very impressive science program, so I can expand my education.

The Okay:

  • The shift is a day shift, which would make taking the university’s science classes rather difficult, unless I could eventually  a few weekdays off. There are very few evening science classes at this university. I may take a few evening art classes first, so I can meet people, and then after a semester or two, ask for a few days off to take daytime classes.
  • Microbiology department: I have a love-hate relationship with clinical microbiology. I absolutely love microbiology. The day-to-day of clinical microbiology can be frustrating at times. I am very inexperienced with it, and don’t catch on with it as quickly as I did bloodbanking. The perk is that it would allow me to specialize at the very beginning of my career. The risk is that I may struggle in the beginning. Also, as one microbiologist pointed out, it is much easier to transition out of micro into the general lab, than transition into micro from the general lab. There is an overwhelming amount of information you have to know at all times in the micro department, which is easily forgotten if you’re in the general lab and not using it. It’s easier to start in microbiology than trying to move into it after years of not doing it. This opportunity in microbiology, though challenging, would also make me a better candidate for Doctors Without Borders, who prefer medical laboratory scientists with a microbiology background.

The Bad:

  •  This is a 3 year contract.
  •  The city has extremely cold winters (-50F)
  • Even worse than the cold, is the darkness.  I am already prone to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and depression runs in the family. However, a few of my friends who have lived there assure me the darkness isn’t that much longer than the winter darkness of my current location.
  • I wouldn’t be in blood banking, which is one of my biggest passions. (I do have a passion for microbiology as well)
  • I will be in a city where I know nobody, and loneliness is my biggest fear. I sometimes have trouble making friends, as I can be shy at times (unless I’ve consumed enough coffee). Also, many people initially don’t know what to think about a woman who thinks E.coli and blood cells are cute. Apparently it’s not a common sentiment.

I’ve asked friends their opinion of my offer. The feedback has been enormous, and mixed. Most people in  my current location loathe the city where the job is located, because of its severe winters. Many are encouraging me to go. Others are jealous of the benefits, as well as a new grad getting a day shift (rather unusual in my field).  Some think that I should focus more on my life-long dreams of working abroad. Some think I should pursue blood banking, though others are quick to point out that blood banking jobs in my state are currently rather rare. So are micro jobs, and for me to have one like this is incredible. Some pointed out that having 3 years of experience on a resume will be impressive, especially in microbiology. They’re right. If I stick with this for at least three years, it will open up a lot of doors, especially if I want to pursue a masters degree in epidemiology.

St. Patrick’s Day Conversation

18 Mar

Me: “I’m deliberately not wearing green today. That way cute men and women will pinch me. If they’re not cute, then this red shirt I am wearing is actually green, and they are clearly colorblind.”
Phil: “If you happen to see people that look like Kirk, Bones, and Spock, avoid being around them at all costs. You know why. Those guys are awesome too, but clearly not worth the cost given your attire.”
Me: “If Kirk, Bones, or Spock were nearby, my shirt would be quickly removed, regardless of its color.”
Phil: “..well that solves that problem.”