Still Standing

Boxing Day and Compartmentalization

I call the year after my son, Zachary, died in my arms at birth my “Year of Distraction.” In that time, I could not confront the grief and pain that gnawed at me like a persistent cold. It never went away, however, I found that I could side-step it through activity. I did this intentionally: I worked long hours. Took my living toddler to as many playgroups as I could. Every moment of the day was spoken for by something so that there was not even a second left for grief. It was avoidance at its finest and it was the only way I could cope at that time. (I would not recommend following my example, by the way.)

I broke out of my year of distraction when I learned that I was pregnant again. That was the breaking point. The point that snapped me out of my fear of grief to realize I needed to endure the pain, otherwise I’d carry it in a destructive way for the rest of my life. At that time, instead of intentionally distracting myself, I chose sorrow. I chose to face my loss head-on, to hunt down my lost identity and confront my new distrust of motherhood and the shattered notion of certainty. I stepped back from work. Chose a slower pace. It was through this intentionality – and my use of art in healing – that I did survive the rawness of early grief, and learned to thrive again. (I write about this journey in my memoir, called Expecting Sunshine.)

For many years afterward, I regretted that “Year of Distraction.” It seemed like wasted time. Like a failure of bravery. Instead, I had retreated into compartmentalization like an ostrich with my head in the ground, choosing to pretend there was nothing more going on above the surface. Now, though, I reflect on that season of my life and I give it more grace than I ever have.

On Boxing Day, all the salvageable wrapping paper and gift bags are packed up, saved for next year. We sort through gifts, put away clothes, tidy up the playroom. We pack up all the Christmas decorations and store them away until next December 1st. In this, I observe that compartmentalization is a normal part of life. It’s a healthy, actually.

Imagine we did NOT clean up the decorations after the holidays. Imagine the Christmas tree was still in the living room when we write cards for Valentines Day. The stacks of cards to and from family and friends would grow on the kitchen counter into unstable towers. Then, in the spring, children would dig through the remnants of wilting red poinsettias, stale gingerbread houses, and heart-shaped paraphernalia to find their Easter eggs. Does this image stress you out like it does for me?

You see, packing up and storing for later helps us keep a clean house – and an unburdened heart.

I am not advocating that we all bury our grief and forget where the hole is. On the other hand, what I am suggesting is that compartmentalization is not necessarily a bad thing – for a time only. I must acknowledge that it helped me cope after Zachary died; I may have gone crazy with sadness without that “Year of Distraction.”

If your loss is eating you up and monopolizing all your waking thoughts, maybe you need a short break. Maybe you need a pretty little compartment. You can write on it: “For later. Remembered but not forgotten.” You can shelf your grief for a day, a week, or a year if you’re extreme like me. You will still feel your loss intimately, but you can give yourself permission to take the weight of its grief off your shoulders, however briefly. Addressing the nagging feelings of our pain is completely necessary, though not necessarily does it have to be NOW or all at once.

The idea of compartmentalization can be a wonderful tool to help us function and thrive in life after trauma. Pack up your heartache for a day and do something kind for yourself.

If we let all our past hurts sit out in our house, in our hearts, like dated holiday decorations, there will be no room on the mantle for peace and no floor space for joy or room on the mattress for rest. Just because Christmas is over, doesn’t mean we stop giving. Maybe it is time you give yourself a needed break. Grief is a lifelong journey, which changes with time. Knowing this, we can choose to be graceful with ourselves, today on Boxing Day, and in the new year ahead.

With love,

From Alexis Marie Chute