Once in a Lifetime

Growing up, I told my grandmother that I wish she had been my mother instead of my actual biological mother. I said this to my grandmother because she gave me everything my bio mother did not: unconditional acceptance, a safe space to cry, and a celebration of my more femme qualities. When I said this to my grandmother, she would give me a look of fake sternness before laughing and smiling with me about it.

When my grandmother died in 2017, I felt sad though also prepared. She had Parkinson’s disease so I watched her decline over time. It sucked to see her lose her ability to walk and then to talk, and at the same time I appreciated knowing in advance that she would die in the near future. She passed away in her sleep, peacefully, surrounded by people who loved her. I don’t think I cried about my grandmother’s death until a year afterward; I remember at some point in 2018 listening to Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry” in my car and pulling over and sobbing over my steering wheel.

This most recent visit to my old therapist L a few weeks ago, I finally understood that L had been to me the father I never had. I remember at one point I talked with my actual biological dad on a cruise vacation about my mom. I asked him, why didn’t you ever stop her from yelling at me and my brother? Though my dad had always been stoic growing up, he got flustered in that moment sitting across from me at the restaurant table. He said, why didn’t your grandparents do anything to stop her, or anyone else? I remember feeling hurt by his answer, his lack of accountability, and not wanting to eat for a while.

With L, I felt safe to express my anger and frustration, with my upbringing, with myself, and with him. When I saw him a few weeks ago I asked what he thought of how I often questioned his care for me. He told me he wanted to give me the space that my mother never did – and in my mind, the space my father never did – to feel the full range of my feelings. When I look back on my journals from that time with L, I now see so many moments when he showed me genuine care: telling me in one of my fits of transference-fueled rage that he would have acted and stopped my mother if he had been in my father’s position, reassuring though not over-reassuring me of my worthiness and of my growth, and eating with me in session, meals that always felt so much more bonding than the ones I had with my father.

I miss the little details about my therapeutic time with L too. I’m aware that I should avoid idealizing him. He was by no means the perfect therapist, and I’m sure there are things that I don’t know about him that I wouldn’t like. As a white man, he definitely had many privileges my father didn’t. At the same time, L deeply enjoyed books and literature and had an intimate connection to the study of English, which helped us bond given that I double majored in Psychology and English in undergrad. He had a snarky and sarcastic way of phrasing certain things, like when he referred to Ariana Grande as “Ariana what’s her name” after I spent several sessions fanboying her, which made me roll my eyes and smile. And, I’ll miss his intelligence. At one point toward the end of our time together in 2017, I questioned whether he would miss me, and he said something closely along the lines of “of course I’ll miss you. I suspect, though, that my sadness of you leaving will be tempered by my pride in how far you’ve come.” Like, who else could express warmth and compassion in that way without sounding extremely pretentious?? I’m crying??

While writing about L on this blog, I’ve thought to myself, is this too much? Then I remind myself though that grief has no expiration date, and it’s not “too much” to mourn people who meant a lot to me. Just like with my grandmother, I loved L and cared about him, and he showed that back to me. Even though the psychological pain has gotten a little better over the past few weeks, I still get choked up by my grief about once a day or every other day, in moments when I don’t even expect it. I suspect I will always feel sad about losing people who cared for me. With L, unlike with my grandmother, the grief feels more sudden. I didn’t realize how much seeing him again after several years would affect me, how much it would make me fully appreciate what he gave me and mourn the relationship ending. I have no shame about continuing to write about this grief while interspersing it with blog posts about being [REDACTED] by queer men of color, anyway I’m wholesome.

I remind myself though that even if I had had biological parents who gave me what my grandmother and L gave to me, they would have died at some point too. So, I feel so lucky to have received such beautiful love and support from these people. A talented writer-friend who went to the same high school as me recently wrote a poignant and powerful piece about her cat passing away, and the way she ended her essay put into words exactly how I feel in my grief: even though I know I will find and cultivate many more loving relationships in my life, I’ll never, ever have the exact same relationship I did with L or my grandmother. In many ways, these people raised me. It literally takes my breath away to think about what would’ve happened or who I would’ve become if I hadn’t met them, if somehow I had had a different grandmother or if I had gone to a different undergraduate college and not met L. The compassion these people gave me, the specific contours of their care when I had been at my youngest and most vulnerable – these types of bonds happen only once in a lifetime.

This past week I visited New York City to spend time with one of my best friends. We gallivanted around Manhattan and Brooklyn eating tons of food and exploring parks and waterfronts. I also visited one of my closest previous academic mentors who now works in the Bronx. I had been happysad throughout the trip, thinking about L while also cherishing the time with my friend. At one point in my trip, my friend and I found this beautiful Brooklyn waterfront with a rocky shore where we could see both Manhattan and New Jersey. With the wind blowing all around us, I thought about the love and care I feel toward my best friend, toward my mentor, and toward my other close friends and students and clients. I thought about L and my grandmother, and I thanked them for the genuine kindness they gave to me that I now do my best to return to others. In this way, I still see them in everything I do, everyone I love, and everywhere I go.

Omg I finished a draft of this blog post a little over a week ago and writing it up just now literally made me so teary-eyed and choked up. Well, you know what that means – time to go on a walk and listen to “Feel Special,” lol. Anyway, thank you to my 1.53 readers for your patience with this post, trying to find housing (fingers crossed I procure a place soon otherwise I’ll just sing “Lovesick Girls” at the bottom of the Charles River) and staying on top though I’m rarely a top of research, clinical work, and life in general has been a process. How have you navigated losing people you’ve cared about? What purpose does writing or other forms of artistic expression serve in your life? Why is it that acai bowls bring me more fulfillment than the majority of men I’ve interacted with, obviously excluding L? Until next post!

9 Comments

Filed under Personal

9 responses to “Once in a Lifetime

  1. priya

    such a beautiful post, thomas! grief not having an expiration date is so true — we can mourn for however long and whenever the grief comes up. good luck finding housing!!

  2. It’s fine to mourn and care for as long as we need to but you know that. I miss my therapist, she is so intelligent and from a few things she said to me near the end of our time together I know she had some similar experiences in life to me. She only lives a mile or so away but I’ve weirdly never run into her!

    I was grieving for my friend who was killed last summer; I spoke online to a bereavement counsellor and it really helped to make a picture of a lit candle and write something underneath it and post it on International Women’s Day. Doing that helped a lot.

    • Okay yes love this validation of my grieving process thank you! I’m glad you had a great experience with your therapist and appreciate your sharing about it. That’s awful that your friend was killed and it’s wonderful to hear that you sought help and practiced adaptive coping and found actions to take that felt helpful. (: Thank you for reading and commenting as always!

  3. Gosh what an amazing insight you are sharing here (including the strikethrough about being rarely a top). Uhm… now what was I gonna say?

    Oh right – I didn’t see the comparison about L being a father subsitute coming. But you explained it well (almost like you were defending your thesis). I really admire your grandmother and am happy you have such supportive and loving friends.

    As for losing loved ones, I only remember seeing my dad cry twice. Once at his mother’s funeral and the last one when my mom decided not to seek anymore treatment for her cancer. When both my parents passed, I didn’t cry although I was grieving in other ways. I’m sure that will come to haunt me eventually.

    I’m hoping by now you’ve found a place to stay, one with decent rent, location and amenities. Thanks for sharing another wonderful entry. Have a great weekend (or week) depending on when you read this.

    🙂

    • Thank you for this kind comment Matt! Haha at the comparison to defending my thesis, I guess I am a researcher after all. (: Yes I’m so grateful to my grandmother and for my amazing friends too!

      I hope that you are able to process your grief, present and future, as healthfully as you are able to and in a way that feels aligned with where you’re currently at. The housing search continues though I think it’s coming to an end soon! Looking forward to reading your future blog posts and comments.

      • Thank you – I know I have to somehow process the grief eventually. I do go to the cemetery from time to time. Sometimes I write about them. If you have suggestions, I would be very interested of course. I grew up in an environment where men don’t show emotions.

        p.s. congrats on landing an apt!

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