I’m no stranger to major loss. As a teenager, I lost my beloved family home and other ties to childhood in the wake of huge financial losses for my parents.
Then came the death of my father after a five-year struggle with lymphoma. Later came the excruciatingly slow passing of my mother-in-law to Alzheimer’s, and my own mother’s declining memory.
Then, the nearly unbearable abyss of divorce. A few years later, I’d only just started to approach feeling whole when a tiny tick transmitted the lyme that knocked me to my knees—and even further down.
The holidays, a touchstone to the past, intensify the grief. I feel it in every cell of my being.
Recently I said to my therapist, who is helping me get through the many stresses of chronic lyme, “A year ago, I thought I had a handle on the losses lyme has sent my way. And I sure thought I had processed all that grief from childhood, and all that terrible pain from the breakup of my family. Why am I so overwhelmed all over again?”
And she said, “Because grief is like a rubber-band ball.”
She had one there in her office, and she handed it to me to examine. I peered at the interwoven rubber bands, some thin, some wide. Like the losses causing me pain, only a small portion of many were visible on the surface.
I could see how each one represented a loss, some bigger, some smaller, all interwoven with others and each touching on another. My own emotional rubber band ball has many layers, the oldest buried under the newer hurts, but all contained in that sphere.
I could also see how it would not be possible to take the ball apart without disturbing or touching every single rubber band in it. And that’s what I was experiencing as I worked through my grief over lyme disease.
My lyme losses are most visible there in the top layer, with hurts earlier in my life below the surface. There are the things I am starting to regain, though many aren’t at 100 percent yet : walking, going up stairs, dressing, showering, cooking, grocery shopping, driving myself places, enjoying company, reading, writing.
There are the things that I hope I get back: hiking; kayaking; cycling; walking my dog Mo; the satisfaction of working; financial security; entertaining friends; volunteering in my community, traveling with my son and daughter and with friends.
Last on the list, those that are gone forever: The chance to tour colleges with my son, or be the supportive, fully engaged, dinner-cooking mom I wanted to be for his last year at home. The chance to go to my daughter’s last Parents Week-end of her undergrad career—or just visit her more often to go to our favorite coffee place in her college town and gab.
Then there’s spending time with my aging mother, who I saw only twice last year because of lyme, though she only lives four-and-a-half hours away. Traveling with my kids to see my sister in Colorado or my brothers in New York City and Italy. Countless exciting professional opportunities at work, all missed.
The question I’ve struggled with is, how do I move past the pain of all this loss?
The hurt and anger make me want to smash something. One day, I threw all the bottles in my recycling bin and shattered them—satisfying, but impractical.
Now I’ve found a better release when I feel all the losses hitting me at once, without having to sweep up thousands of shards of colored glass.
I imagine taking that rubber band ball in my hand. I feel the weight of it, I acknowledge its heft—and then in my mind I bounce it hard on the floor and watch it zing away from me like the Superballs I played with as a kid.
By the time it returns to Earth, I feel lighter. I’ve shed the grief for the moment. It will always be with me, but my new understanding makes it a lot more tolerable: Grief is a rubber-band ball. So bounce it.