Monday, January 26, 2015

Rushing Toward the Light

These past few weeks, I have been in a rush toward healing. I have tried to dwell in the blessed memory of my husband, and to rejoice in his character. I have tried to begin to rebuild my life in a way that would honour his spirit. I have tried to reach, to grow, and to soften, as I know he would have wanted. 
I am doing all the right things. I am eating fairly healthy foods, and I am writing, reading, and reaching out to others. I begin most mornings with yoga and meditation. I walk outside, sometimes miles, on the weekends. I am immersed in my Buddhist sangha. I even started a Zumba class on Fridays.
I have set aside the depths of my grief to put one foot in front of the other. 
Meanwhile, sorrow lurks in the shadows. 
It waits for me to meet it with my presence.
It's going nowhere until I do this. 
All these healthy habits will not make this pain disappear. 

This week,  I returned to counselling after avoiding it over the holidays. "I don't need these sessions," I told myself, on my way to the appointment. "I am fine. I am coping. I have returned to work."

Then the counsellor made the mistake of asking me how things had been, for me, and the floodgates opened. I haven't shared the depths of my sadness with someone, at length, for a long time. For the first time in months, I was able to look another human in the eye, and have her be a witness to my pain, to help me hold it. I am so tired of holding it all, on my own. 

I share my sadness, but only in snippets, with friends. I tell them that some days are better than others, that this is still a difficult, exhausting, heartbreaking, roller coaster ride and that I don't know when it will ever settle. 

But it has been over seven months, now, and I worry that most people don't want to sit in the nitty gritty of this darkness, with me. I have had my share of attention, I think, and I don't want them to grow weary of my presence.

Instead, I let my writing speak for me. I write my weekly post on Widow's Voice. Perhaps that is why I am so anxious to find that people are responding to what I post, on this blog. Because I crave a human witness to this pain of mine. Because I want to share it and be heard.

But I am too afraid to do it in person. I'm afraid my friends will avert their eyes when they see me, if I share too much, that they will feel burdened by the depth of my grief, and turn away.

So I smile and say I'm well, considering the circumstances--and walk on, before they do.
This fear has nothing to do with the people around me. I am certain there are those who would be happy to sit with me awhile, and let me speak, if only I would ask. But I don't. I try to contain it, myself. And it is too big for one person to hold. 

It is customary, in our Western culture, to rush toward wholeness. We want to show the world that we are strong. We want to be an inspiration to others. We want to rise above, dwell in possibility, climb over obstacles in our paths, get well, move on, be happy, thrive. 

But grief does not work that way. There is no linear path for us to follow. The steps in grief do not uniformly lead upward to a sunny, radiant realm. Grief has us laughing one moment and crying the next. It sends us from the heights of hope to the depths of despair in an instant. There is no rhyme or reason to it. It is baffling and powerful. And there is no way to know when we will come up for air. 

We can pretend that we are better. We can smile and stretch and say all the right things. But our sorrow still lurks in the shadows. 

This week, I decided to sit inside my grief, instead of brushing past it with a backward glance. It felt important to allow it to arise, in me, and to speak to the voice that tells me I should feel better, look to the future, be grateful for what I have, move up, move on, get over it, already. 

I wrote this piece below in answer to that voice. 
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****

It is easy to sit on the sidelines of loss and to assume things--that there is dignity in this grief; that one can bear the scars of one's sorrow with elegance and grace, and thereby become an inspiration and an amusing companion for others. That one can rise beyond her pain, embracing the inevitable fact of death.

But today I find no dignity in grief--no elegance, no grace. There are no twinkling angel spirits around me, no chiming bells, no aromatic swirls of misty promise to accompany this loss. There are no rhythmic chants that can soften this sorrow.

There is only me, sitting here, streaming words onto a page. There is only me, eyes darkened with the shadow of his death, forehead twisted into furrows, arm muscles taut and aching for his body to embrace.

There is no light in this grey room, on this grey day, only the soft flame of fire, curling around a piece of wood, in the stove, as it slowly cools into white, dead ash--like his body, that rests inside its cardboard tube upon my dresser. Gone too soon. Finished. Snuffed out.

There is only me, back curved with the weight of this sadness, legs buckled at the knees, crawling up the stairs to step into that dark night, to our bed, without him.

There is no dignity in this death. I will not stand tall, this night, to shape a life as beautiful as the one I had with him. I will surrender to the ugliness of my sorrow.  I will sit with the darkness, and honour it. 

I will not rush ahead toward the light. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Living with "After" Shock

Something I feel many people don't understand about losing your partner is that there are many, many subsequent losses. It's something all of you understand, or will come to. Like aftershock from an earthquake, they continue to shake our foundation for YEARS after the initial tragedy. It can be the smallest things, like the first time you have to take out the trash or eat alone. Or the really big things like first holidays without them or moving from the place you called home together. But it's also the joyful things, like landing a new job or winning an award, making new friends or dating someone new. Every single event or change in your life from the moment they die is another loss - another layer of having to come to terms with the fact that they aren't here and aren't coming back. Another small step of letting go in order to move forward. Not letting go of them, but letting go of what would have been to make room for what is and will be.

I've had several such tremors recently. One of which was attending a professional development workshop for artists. This workshop was kind of a big deal. I had to submit a portfolio of my artwork along with an artist statement to even be considered. They only chose 22 people to be part of the workshop. And I was chosen. So last weekend, I hauled myself the hour and a half to Austin - not knowing what to expect. I was nervous, but excited. The workshop was great. It was lead by two very well established business women from NYC - one who works with artists and creative companies of all sizes on strategic and business planning, and the other a successful artist who now helps other artists all over the country through this workshop series. As I sat there, I felt full of excitement. And promise. And possibility. It was just the opportunity for helping me take the next steps of building this new career and life in my "after" life.

As the day unfolded, I began to see more clearly for the first time that this path will require me to grow into a person I am not yet. To learn how to approach galleries, curators, museums, magazines, etc. To learn how to speak professionally about my work and how that must differ depending on the setting and person. And if I ever hope to do speaking engagements about art and grief - I will need to develop my almost non-existent public speaking skills too. 

What I didn't expect though, is the aftershock.

So there before me, in this class, lay the outline of just how much change and growth will potentially happen if I step fully into this path ahead. Suddenly, I began feeling this backward pull - this resistance. Of course resistance to anything new is natural, but this was more than just the typical fears of being out of my comfort zone. It was the fear of stepping more fully OUT OF the life he and I shared together and the person I was when I was with him. It means stepping into becoming a woman he did not yet know me to be. 

I felt backed up against a wall… not wanting to make those steps, not feeling ready to walk away yet from the remnants of our life together. And at the same time, wanting what that future could be with a deep burn inside me… knowing that this path will be the best way I can honor myself and him.

Such a mix of emotions. Wanting to go full speed ahead, but not wanting to let go. Even though I still feel just as connected to him as I have, I still fear that letting go more will somehow mean I will lose him more. Nothing has proven this logic - yet still, it's quite a real fear. Will I always have this fear? Every step forward - will it test my ability to trust that he will remain with me just as strongly no matter where I go and what I do? Perhaps. Or maybe it will get easier to trust over time. For now, I'm just taking it all in, paying attention, trying to learn what I can from it… and trying to be as brave as I am able to be. And also, as gentle as possible with myself. I don't have to rush, or push too far ahead too fast. I can take things on as I feel strong enough, bit by bit. Or as my fiancĂ© used to say… "how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time". It always made me smile. Remembering today to be okay with where I am at, and to trust that he will be with me fully as I move more fully into a new life.

Wanting to Live Again

When you're a widow, the passing of time often feels like the only constant.  When your world has fallen apart and you've been made acutely aware of just how little control you have over your life; the counting of the days, months and years can give us a point of focus and something to hold on to.

I remember when Dan first died, I held on to the hope that if I could just survive the coming months, the pain would surely have to ease. I learned to accept that it would never go away, but the widowed people I met who were further along the path gave me hope that I'd adapt to live with the grief and life wouldn't always be agonising.

Today marks 18 months since I lost my husband to depression.  The pain, while easier to carry, is still so very deep. On the 24th of every month I find myself wondering at how surreal it is that he's been gone so long, yet this life without him can still feel so new.

I mean, 18 months is not a particularly long period of time.  As far as jail sentences go, it's considered a bit of a slap on the wrist (though I'm the sure the inmate would feel every single day of it). An 18-month old child is really still in infant, so very brand new in the world.  However, in so may ways, 18 months can feel like a lifetime.  I know this because 18 months, give or take, is really only how long I had with Dan.  And in this time he changed my entire world.

We met in November 2011 after he contacted me through an online dating website.  We'd both been single for awhile and, between us, had a LOT of interesting and pretty average online dating experiences.  So we had both nearly given up hope... until our paths crossed.

We spent the next four weeks getting to know each other, before he had to head away on a pre-planned, month-long Christmas holiday.  By the time he got back in early January 2012, we were both pretty sure that this was going to be something special.  Things stated to get more serious and I introduced him to my friends a few weeks later, with absolutely no idea that in 18 months time he would be dead and I'd be a widow at 33.

Those 18 months with Dan were magical.  We were fairly conservative people and not inclined to jump into things or give up our independence easily, however we quickly became inseparable and felt like we'd finally found a love that had been worth waiting for.  A kind, generous, patient and eternal love that taught us more about ourselves and the world that we could ever have imagined.

He bought an engagement ring six months later, in July, proposed in September and we set a date to be married the following June, in 2013. Almost 18-months after we met.   In 18 months I went from being very single to a blissfully happy newlywed.  And then six weeks later, a young widow.

So because of this, I know exactly how much can happen in 18 months.  Which makes this past 18 months of my life so very bleak in comparison.  While I can list the things I've done since Dan died: travelled overseas, enjoyed time with friends and family, met some wonderful new people and been present at special occasions and holidays, I really just feel like I've been treading water.  It pales in comparison to how alive Dan made me feel.

My career has taken a significant step back, I haven't been as present and giving in the lives of the people around me and every day has been tinged with the weight and the sadness of living in a world without him in it.

I guess it's the difference between surviving and living.  My life has been on pause, I've been waiting for  the pain to get more bearable, for me to grow stronger.  Waiting to heal so that I can take myself off pause and take a step forward. And those who know me well can testify that I'm not known for my patience.

It is so frustrating, this feeling of not quite living. I don't want to wait.  I want to be doing all the things that my friends are doing, having babies and making plans and sharing their lives with the person who loves them more than anything else in the world.

I'm now at that point where the restlessness to 'live' is getting stronger than the sense of needing to wait.  It's just so hard to know what to do about it.  How do I live again while such a big part of me is dead?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Six Degrees

Tonight, I just wanted to be me.

Sometimes, I just want to be me.

But, not this version of me. Old me. The me that existed before July 13, 2011. The me that had a sick but random and giddy sense of humor. The me that laughed with abandon, and laughed often. The me that was easygoing and fun and carefree, sarcastic and crazy and youthful. The me that had only been through the deaths of my grandparents, uncles, and a few family friends and acquaintances, which , although very hard, isn't even on the same playing field as husband. The me that knew what it was like to go to a funeral, and then go home - affected by the death for a few hours or days or weeks, but able to live my life much in the same way as I did before. That me.

Tonight, I was joking around on Facebook with some friends, giggling pretty hard about the silliest of things; a press conference by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, about the "deflated footballs" controversy going on right now from their last playoff game. During the press conference, Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick both used the word "balls" over and over again, and many comedy websites and comedy shows took the liberty of editing their words together to create hilarious videos that are now going viral.

So a bunch of us were cracking up at this, posting funny comments back and forth, and just generally having a good time with this lighthearted and fun thing - this thing that had absolutely nothing at all to do with the fact that my husband died. Except that it did. It does. Because everything does. Try as I might to keep "old me" from "new me", or put situations and emotions into cute little segregated boxes and keep them in their designated place - none of that actually works. That isn't life. That isn't real. What's real is that, whether I like it or not, everything that I do from now on, is always six degrees of seperation away from my husband being dead. And believe it or not, that game is nowhere near as fun as the one where everything comes back to actor Kevin Bacon. In this world - my world - old me and new me have to somehow exist together, often punching and kicking one another like confused step-siblings that don't understand why the other is there. But the truth is, neither one of them is going away. Ever.

Old me is definitely not the same person as she used to be. That is for sure. It would take me too many pages and too many hours to list all the many ways that old me has forever changed because of the death of my husband. But, there are still some pieces of old me that will always be there, and that will always be a part of me. They won't change much. They might hide for awhile or come out a bit differently, but they remain. My love for baseball and the Yankees. My passion for music. Finding humor in the darkest of places. My love for family and friendship. So many things. And sometimes, old me just wants to come out and play. Alone. Without new me ruining all the fun with her damn knowledge about life and death and how fragile it all is,  and her PTSD and anxiety and panic attacks at the most unfortunate times, and her fierce loyalty and intensity and courage that she didn't even know she possessed. Sometimes old me sees new me coming and thinks: "Oh man. Her again? What a buzz-kill. " 

Because new me is always there, lurking, even when I think she isn't. When I'm simply enjoying a good joke, like I was tonight, there was new me sitting inside my thoughts, with the inner-monologue running through my brain in the background: "My husband would have cracked up at this stupid 'deflate-gate' thing, and this press conference. A lot of these people who are commenting on this post I put up about the press conference - I didn't even know them when Don was alive. If he was alive, is this what I'd be doing tonight? What would we be doing? Where would we live? Surely not in this apartment that I live in now. Would we have a house? A child? Would we still be in our New Jersey apartment? God I hope not. That's depressing. Wait - what was the joke I was just laughing at again? Oh yeah - football. " 

That is pretty much how my life is now - this life. Everyone and all of our moods and emotions and issues, all have to get into the sandbox and play together, and that's just how it's going to be  Everything has layers in this version of life. If I'm laughing, there's always a small part of me that is crying inside. When I'm feeling joy, I am very aware of how lovely and beautiful and fleeting that is, and so I cling to it and marinate in it and feel every bit of it until the moment passes. Often, my heart and brain cannot remember or make sense of all the pieces of my life and who fits where and when and how. The other day, my friend (and founder of Soaring Spirits and Camp Widow) Michele Hernandez was in NYC, so me and some other widowed friends were able to meet her for dinner and drinks. We had a great time. I will also be seeing her, along with many of my other "new" friends in 2 weeks exactly, at Camp Widow in Tampa, Florida.

 My brain must have been thinking about this, because I had a dream last night that Don was still dead, but he was here "visiting me", and we were talking all about my life now. I was sharing with him all about my life now, and telling him about all the incredible and inspirational people I have met in this widowed life. Widowed people, who have taken their pain, and with it, created empires through books and art and communities. People like Michele Hernandez and Christina Rasmussen and Tom Zuba and Sarah Treanor and Tanya Tepper and Carolyn Caple Moor and Catherine Tidd, and on and on and on. I was also telling him about my grief counselor and how much I admire her and love her, and how helpful she is. And we were joking about my "girl-crushes" that I have had since he died, specifically on people like my therapist Caitlin, and my friend Michele. "Yeah, that's a little weird", he said to me in my dream. "But you've always been a little weird, so it doesn't surprise me." In my dream when I was talking to my husband, who was still dead but yet alive somehow, the giant mess of my past and present and future universes all sort of melted together and made sense, in a crazy and chaotic kind of way. I was telling Don about how much he would love my friends that I have made because he died, and he was responding by saying: "They sound great, Boo" and "She sounds so familiar to me." It was like he didn't know them, but yet he did.

Some people say that if my husband were alive today, right now, and could somehow run into me or meet me for the first time, that he wouldn't even recognize me anymore, because I am now a different person than I was when he was alive. I don't believe that. I understand what they are saying, but I don't think so. My husband would know me anywhere, and even though I'm a lot different inside, I don't look that much different outside. Some days I have more sadness than maybe he ever saw, and other days I have a new glow that he never saw.

But it doesn't matter, because I truly believe that the changes in me are mostly positive ones, and they are all things that my husband already saw in me anyway. He saw them in me. He saw things that I couldn't see about myself. Where I saw insecurity, he saw beauty. Where I saw failure, he saw bravery. He always believed in me more than anyone else I have ever known. So I tend to think that not only would he recognize me today, he would also be extremely happy and proud of the universe I have started to create ,out of the ruins of his death. He would not only know exactly who I am, but he would still be in love with who I am, even more so, because I am the me that he already loved. So that when I take his hand in my next dream and show him the world that I live in, the one I am always building, he looks at me and he says: "I know, Boo. I've been here before with you, and I already know."


No matter what else is happening on any given day or who I am with, Mike is never gone from my mind. I realize now, after 23 months, that he never will be. One never “gets over” the death of a beloved spouse. I think we just learn how to live with it. One way or another, we slog or float through our days, even though sometimes we don’t want to. And we are changed - some space deep within myself feels altered, warped perhaps, as a result of living through this experience and landing on the other side of the unimaginable. I will never be the same person again.

Before he died I never thought about death very much. I didn’t think about my own mortality - I didn’t think about the fact that my own days are numbered. I didn’t ponder life without Mike. It just never entered my brain. I truly, honestly did not think he was going to die…at least, not so soon. Forever seemed endless. But forever is gone now.

Now, I think about these things every day - every day, all day. I am conscious that I have a an end date; I am hyperaware of the decisions I make, and how I want to live each day. I am making plans and starting new ventures and friendships with this specifically in mind. Not that any of it is easy. It is challenging, unexpected, and strange. Even when I am laughing with friends - something I thought I’d never do again for a long time, mind you - I am still sensitive to the empty space beside me. I think I always will be.

The vision of him lying there that morning when I found him will always be there. It used to come with a feeling of sheer horror, and a trembling; a horrible ache and disbelief. Now, the image brings sadness of a different level - perhaps a more grim, resigned sadness that I will not share any more days with him. Sadness that he will not share any more days on this earth in this life he loved so much with me, his daughters, his grandchildren. Most of the shock and horror has worn off. Sometimes I feel guilty about that - but I’m also grateful. Grim is dusty and shadowy, but horror is just that…horrible.

I find I use the constant reminder he is gone that I must do something with the life I have left. I mourn the loss of the presence of the man I loved so deeply and grew so conformable with; the man who knew me so well, the man who adored me so much, the man with whom I shared so many irreplaceable moments, memories, beliefs, conversations, adventures…but I’m not done yet.

I know this now. It has taken this time, and will take much longer too. In fact I know I will always be a work in progress, as we all are. But I never thought about life that way before. When I look back to the days with Mike, I remember a feeling of eternity…as if time had stopped and I was simply where I wanted to be. Now, I find movement and change are stiffly potent motivators. I know nothing will be fixed anymore. Like surfing a wave - a monstrous, swirling thunderous and continuous wave that I must struggle to balance atop of, lest I get swallowed up.

I’m getting better at it. I have good days now. I have good friends and family and plans and I’m grateful for all of it…grateful in a way I might not have been before. But one thing for sure -forever is gone forever.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

An Odyssey Towards Camp Widow~

There is no getting around the silence.  It's tangible and fraught with emotions.  We can dress it up however we wish, but the silence that consumes every corner after our beloveds die is, almost, as palpable as their presence once was.

I'm on the road again, headed to Camp Widow in Tampa, driving PinkMagic.  My intention is to stay primarily at military family camps for overnights along the way.  I feel more secure on base, and I feel closer to Chuck.  Today was my first day of travel, with a late start from Phoenix after running into difficulty with the lights on my trailer.  I didn't get far;  I'm at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. Quite frankly, everything is so emotional, and Chuck and I had always wanted to come here, so I decided to call an early day.

The stars tonight are quite beautiful, clear-lit and visible way up there in what seems like forever.  For a little while, I sat outside on the picnic table with a blanket around me for the chill, just....gazing.  Thinking. Wondering about this Odyssey, which is no longer only about honoring Chuck's final request of scattering his cremains at our favorite places, but about creating a new life without him.  Part of that creating means attending Camp Widow.  It means registering for the flashmob and the Widows Dash.  Neither of which I am in any shape to do, physically or emotionally, but that is precisely the reason I need to do them, to push myself.

Dancing with the flashmob will most particularly push every comfort zone.  Since Chuck's death I haven't danced, I haven't hooped, I've struggled with yoga and the heart-opening poses.  Before he died, any of those activities would have been done joyously by me.  And it isn't that I won't allow myself to feel joy in doing them now.  Its' that I don't feel joy enough to do them.  It just isn't in me.
I expect there will be torrents of soul-wrenching tears when I join the flashmob;  I expect it will call up every bit of emotion in me.

What do I expect of this Camp Widow?  I don't know.  An easing of this devastating grief, perhaps.  I can't imagine such a thing but I'm open to it.  At the least I'll connect with hundreds of other widow/ers and there is incalculable value in that.  I'll make new friends, I'm sure.  I'll be able to talk about Chuck.

This widowed grief.  Never could I have imagined the down-to-my-toes filling every cell in my body crushing sense of loss and emptiness it would bring me.  You can't dress this up as anything other than what it is and I'm not going to lie about it.  It's horrifying and devastating every second of every day.

So, I look up at the stars and I wonder and I think about Chuck and this new life without him that I have to create and how unbearable his absence is to me and the long road ahead to Florida, to, I don't know....forever.

And then I stop thinking and I just look up at this starlit sky.  My heart can bear nothing more than this moment.

And tomorrow I'll turn the key in the ignition and continue on.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Profile Picture

This week someone said that it was time to change my Facebook profile picture.  My profile picture is the one above of Ian and I from our wedding, the banner picture is our 2011 Christmas Card photo.

Changing my profile picture is not something I did that often anyway.  I'm a bit 'set and forget' that way, but I was taken aback at the blunt statement of it.


Even in the early days, I was able to adapt to my "after" life pretty quickly - mostly because I put blinkers on and just kept pushing on through.   I intellectually  acknowledged my loss, but I didn't deal with the emotional fall out for quite a while.   Which worked and didn't work in equal measure for me. 

I've been able to incorporate new directions into my life, like my studies.  Similarly to Sarah, I was able to give up finding a new "safe" job to try something that speaks to my soul more (although there's quite a chasm between 'artist' and 'accountant'!).  I took a risk of nominating for, and being elected to, a board position. Without my primary cheerleader and support person.

I was able to do a lot of what outside observers would term 'moving on', but what was really adapting and accommodating to a seriously unwanted change in circumstances so I didn't turn into a hermit and disappear.  An option, but not one I wanted to take up.   I've been doing an awful lot of 'fake it until you make it'. 

I don't get overly emotional, can be quite clinical,  and I'm not a big crier at all. I've always been able to compartmentalise phases of my life and deal with the next/current phase for what it is at that point in time. 

But for all of these personality traits that have shown up loud and clear in my loss and grief journey, and you'd think make taking some of these steps easier,  there are things I can't do.

At least just yet.

Like change those Facebook photos or my marital status and it's link to Ian's profile.

I have thought about it and the closest I get is considering adapting my banner picture into a collage that has the original and a number of recent photos in it.

But I'm not ready to change the profile pic. To me, that action and removing the photos around the house feels more like removing Ian completely that taking my rings off and moving possessions out of the home.