Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Healing Hypothermia

(Frozen cairns at Madison, 2010)

Heading to a friend’s wedding recently, I almost didn’t go and turned around several times en route. Grieving for my dad, I have been in such a cold dark place that I was afraid that going to a joyful celebration of love would be the emotional equivalent of submerging frozen limbs in boiling water. The too quick, too extreme response to deep cold exposure can permanently damage the frostbitten. Things so warmed may never heal to a usable condition.
I do not want this for my heart.
I’ve studied hypothermia, and it seems as apt an analogy for grief as anything else. I’ve had frost bite, and know well how tender and vulnerable our damage-healed bodies remain, even after the surface heals.
Contrary to popular belief, hypothermia is not cured by stripping off the cold person’s clothes, popping them in a sleeping bag, and having a warm person hop in naked to share their body heat. Friction, in this scenario, is alleged to help. As nature abhors a vacuum, what happens in this situation is that the cold of one sucks out the heat of the other and you end up with two dangerously tepid people in a compromising and uncomfortably position, rather than two independently warm people who can then make their social arrangements from warm want, rather than icy need.
I’ve heard of some people becoming sex-crazed while grieving. There is undeniable solace in physical contact and I won’t judge another’s process, but I know that I would not find the warmth and comfort I seek in this equivalent of the naked hypothermia cure—one person needing more than the other can possibly give, and both ending up equally damaged.
How you do heal hypothermia predominantly demands that the heat of the cold person’s beating heart is the main heat source. Of course, this flickering warmth must be watched and tended with the same attentive effort as a lighthouse on stormy coast, a campfire in a snowy cabin, and other apt metaphors for dwindling flames in necessary wilderness.
But the warmth does and must come from within the cold person’s core.
However, the truly frozen cannot do this magical re-warming alone. Your only job, as the frozen, is to keep your heart beating. It falls to others to wrap you in layers and layers of blankets, to insulate you from the ground, from the elements, to place hot water bottles on your arteries, to feed you hot and sugary things to jump start your metabolism, to roughly rub your limbs to stimulate circulation, to help you walk on unfreezing feet as you start to thaw, to holding your hair back as your succumb to the screaming barfies (the most unpleasant nauseous sensation as warmed blood begins to circulate into colder-than-blood flesh.)
This sort of thawing is an enormous effort to ask of one’s companions. It is an evolving process, involving a total change of directions from whatever was planned. As I think on how so many people have both crawled out of the woodwork and stood in quiet readiness and responsive anticipation for whatever my thawing, grieving family needs—I am humbled with awe and gratitude. The wedding, which I did attend, was full of the consistent soft warmth and reassurance than only beloved community can provide.
Once you’ve been through anything hard, it is a duty to help others through. I think of this, of emotional hypothermia and comfort and love, as I make quilts for my friends’ babies.
I am coming to the point where it has been a long time to be sad. I even find myself being highly functional some days. I am at once impatient to fully thaw, and also only now awakening to how truly cold I have been with watching my flawed and wonderful father’s body cease to function. 
Doing grief yoga the other day, I was visualizing the areas—hips and heart—where grief is stored. I saw my chest, pelvis and legs as blocks of human-shaped ice, solid though and only covered with only the thinnest of skin.
I do not see how so much sadness could possibly be stored in me. And I am one of the lucky ones—an employed educated white American lady, who is only coping with the end of one loved one’s life. Refugees, child soldiers, adult soldiers, people who lost their loved ones en masse—these people are likely full of thicker ice than I, and do not have the luxury and leisure to bend and stretch and write and bloggingly chip away at the presumed wonder of their own being dealing with a common part of being human. 
With the time that has passed since Dad, I can see that things have gotten better. Which, on the rougher days, is hard to imagine. But it has been worse, and we have all survived it. So it can seem self-indulgent to wallow in this sadness, to speak of it now. Before, when it was at the worst, I couldn’t form the words, I think. 
Now, too, there is an impatient feeling of having been branded—very few things truly scare me at this point. 
What does scare me is the twin understanding of both how reliant I am on my community, and how fragile all our lives are. We are rich and loving and warm and there for each other, and we are each as delicate as an icicle. Our communities of support are woven of fragility.
I am also scared to let go of my grief. While doing the ice-chipping yoga—and I saw it as chipping with an ice pick, not a natural seasonal melting—and being advised to let go, I found myself wondering where released grief might go, and further, will I be hollow without my sadness? It seems to define the shape of my core more than my bones these days.
This grief is a connection to the last hours I will ever have with my dad, and, just as I try to square up the awful memories (he was no angel and would cringe to ever be thought so) with the best of him and everything in between—I do not want to let anything go because there will never be more. It feels disrespectful to his imprint on my being to let anything go, and it feels counter to his bold personality to hold onto grief.
I do not know how to go forward, and yet, every day, we all do.
A decade ago, I frostbit my nose—twice—in the space of a few months. It was fully frozen flesh with blisters and scabbing and a scar. The tip of my nose remains highly sensitive—sometimes white, sometimes red, sometimes purple and always running from November to April. My family—including my dad—responded to this freezing by giving me more scarves than I thought any one person would ever need.
And maybe that is something. The cure to the cold is our own beating heart, those who do the work of standing close to shelter the flame, and in our accepting the gift of their warmth and help.

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