Friday, December 2, 2011

Mixed thoughts - Death of a Grandma, Empathy and Visual Memory

Today was a day of mixed thoughts and emotions in the Krejcha household.

This morning John received an email from his uncle letting him know that his paternal Grandma had passed away in her sleep the night before. Shortly thereafter John had the chance to speak with his Dad on the phone and interact with other family via Facebook.  John hasn't decided yet whether he will be flying back for the funeral but I will be there for him with love even if I struggle to find the words I want to express prior to that time.

John's Grandma Peg was the matriarch of a rather large Krejcha family and from the stories and anecdotes I've heard, she will certainly be missed by many. I only had the opportunity to meet her once but she appeared to be a spunky and well-loved woman. Here is a picture of our trip to Wisconsin back in 2009.


4 Generations of Krejchas - Front: Our son Justin and Grandma Margaret Krejcha Lyscio
Back: John, our son Ryan and John's Dad, Larry

When we drove back from Washington to Wisconsin a couple years ago, the trip initially started out being a desire to attend our first Autism Society of America conference in Lake Charles, IL.  Ryan and Justin had been diagnosed with autism and Asperger's Syndrome the year before. At that point I had yet to be diagnosed with Asperger's but it was during that trip that I came to the realization and acceptance that I too was a traveler on the autism spectrum. 

Since the conference was not too far away from Wisconsin and John hadn't seen many of his family members in years, we decided to drive from Washington to Wisconsin first and spend a few days there including our 17th wedding anniversary.  During that time we had the opportunity to see a large group of relatives on John's maternal and paternal side, many of whom the kids and I were meeting for the first time. It was an intense but positive experience.

Hearing about John's Grandma passing and then viewing the picture above brings back vivid visual memories of that trip. Tons of details.  You see, when I look at pictures that I have taken or were taken at an event I attended, I can recall sights, smells, emotions and probably more details of specific conversations than anyone around me would find it socially acceptable to recite. Since I have learned over the years that this is not common, it can be quite overwhelming and difficult for others to wrap their heads around so usually I don't even try to explain and just chalk it up to one of my charming quirks.

If you've seen the TV show now on air, "Unforgettable", you might wonder if it is a little like hyperthymesia.  My memory is strong but it's not like that although there are some similarities.  The short movies that go on in my head are more like full-blown sensory events. They look, feel, smell and taste as real as if I were participating in the original event. 

The inability to box and lock many of these intense visual recall experiences are part of the reason I still have occasional issues with PTSD and depression about past events from my youth and early adulthood. If I choose to do so and often even if I try to choose NOT to do so, I can go back in time to a memory and replay it on the movie screen going on in my head and physically feel like I am there... tastes, smells, textures... etc.  If it's a fond memory, awesome.  If it is horrific... well, not so good...

So when something significant and unexpected happens, unless I can refocus my mind on something else, my mind gets stuck in memory recall, association and replay mode.  Even though I only met John's grandma on one trip to Wisconsin, many memories associated with that trip have been replaying in my mind over and over today. 

The reason I am writing this here is because I want to be able to go to John later this evening or when he is ready and be fully present for him and not caught up in my own thoughts and feelings. I taught myself a long time ago that if I am struggling to refocus because old bad memories are coming back, I just write out what I am thinking and pretend that it is part of a script of a movie, watch the movie and then move on until I'm ready to revisit that film again. By temporarily fictionalizing what I visualize I can let it go and relieve some of the emotional intensity. Does anyone reading this blog do that too or know someone who does? If so, please let me know!

I didn't mean to go off on a tangent about myself or my visual thought processes but since I did, thanks for sticking through it with me.

I want to be there for my husband while he processes his thoughts and feelings about the loss of his grandma but the truth is right now, I'm feeling more sympathetic than empathetic because I haven't quite yet got a read on what he is feeling.  If I can relate to his feelings, empathy will follow.  If I can't, then I will still be as compassionate and true to myself as I can and will listen to his needs and respond from there. Having lost his other grandmother just a little over a year ago, I know that today he is thinking about them both and also thinking about family relationships.

As I crave soulful conversation and can be quite emotionally intense (only a very special man like John would be able to put up with me 24/7), I have a desire to go to him and say something of substance. The truth is that I cannot say anything that will change the circumstances of what happened.  The logical "Temperance Brennan-esque" (Bones) side of me is afraid I'm going to blurt out something well-meaning but somehow inappropriate. Oh my, do I have Temperance Brennan tendencies!!! Perhaps that's partially why many women don't get me.

Earlier I just hugged John and told him I'd be there for him when he needed me.  John's thought processes are quite different than mine and I often joke that we live on different planes of existence. I've memorized enough social scripting throughout my life that I know the "expected" things to say to show empathy but they never feel real to me. "My condolences" and "I'm sorry for your loss", although well-intended and accurate still don't seem genuine to what I feel inside or want to express. They don't seem like ENOUGH. Can't we just do a mind meld so you know what I'm thinking?

There are many out there that say people on the autism spectrum lack empathy and feeling.  I have always taken issue with that. Naturally I can't speak for others but for as for me, I have very INTENSE feelings and am constantly trying to rein them in so as to not overpower others in conversation coming across like a bull in a china shop. Writing this, there is no back and forth and unspoken social curriculum to follow so I can just let thoughts flow and hopefully not feel compelled to edit them 29 times later.

Empathy is the ability to recognize and share the feelings that are experienced by another human being.  I get the cognitive component most of the time but it's my reaction to that which sometimes is called to question.  For example, growing up I had a tendency to laugh inappropriately at non-humorous situations and my sons are like this too.  Embarrassingly enough, I STILL sometimes do this and my husband will sometimes feign injury just to see if I'll laugh.  Nice, huh?  

If it's sadness, anger, joy, excitement, passion, I can get that. I think I do pretty well sensing the correct emotions in men but I'm still terrible at accurately assessing other women's feelings, opinions and reactions in conversation. As a result, I struggle developing meaningful relationships with women and I still ask myself, what did I do or say wrong?  I thought that person liked me or the very least was neutral but.... ?????  

For example, I can usually pick up on if someone doesn't relate to me nor me to them and the conversation we're having doesn't go beyond chit chat, however sensing emotional jealousy or participating in "gossip" with many women is something that I struggle to pick up on or process correctly. I'd just prefer not to be a part of it. I have read about it and understand it conceptually but when facing a situation where I have later heard that someone was jealous about something I had accomplished, I just couldn't get why nor did I want to be the "cause" of someone's feelings of sadness, anger or insecurity for just being myself. 

Yikes... I just looked at the clock and it's time to put the kids to bed.  What was going to be a short blog as a tribute to my husband's grandma and Ryan & Justin's great-grandma turned more into revelations about me.  Ugh... that sure feels selfish.  It certainly wasn't my intent but I'll leave my writing up in case someone out there might be able to relate to it.  I was hoping to be able to work through some thoughts and feelings in writing and end with something meaningful that would express what I feel for my husband and his family but have not yet found the appropriate words to express.

God bless you, Grandma Margaret (Peg) Krejcha Lyscio.  You meant so much to so many in my husband's extended family. May you be at peace in heaven free of pain and filled with joy. May your family here on earth take comfort in the special memories they shared with you.  May your death remind them of joyous days filled with passionate living and loving. May they remember your spunk and still feel your spirit.

** Added 12/3 - For family members who may have linked in through a search engine, I found a link to Peg's obituary below. The funeral service will be Monday, December 5th.


Blessings and love,
Karen