I recently heard an interview with Pema Chodron, a well-known Buddhist nun and author of the book When Things Fall Apart. This woman is chock-full of wisdom. And she got my mind turning about something this morning. In the interview, she talks about a graduation speech she gave recently, telling those brave young folks about to embark into the world, that the most important thing is to learn how to stumble well. To pay closer attention to our pain when we are stumbling through it, and allow ourselves to be fully in our losses and our pains so that we can learn what lessons they hold.
As I’m thinking about this idea, of stumbling well, I realize that the walk with grief is really one of stumbling greatly. Because, after all, losing your partner leaves you in a treacherous landscape, am right? Imagine for a moment what your grief landscape looks like. To me, it’s a mountain range. A vast place of ups and downs, with jagged edges and surprises at every turn. For you it may be a desert, or a barren, underwater world. These images of the landscape of grief can hold a lot of value for us.
Grief is not a minor thing in life. It’s not just tripping you up. It’s not just potholes and speed bumps along the road. Losing your partner is not stumbling and hitting the ground in front of you. It’s stumbling and suddenly there IS no ground to fall on anymore. It is falling off a cliff in slow motion… into a whole other landscape that you were not prepared to travel...
Suddenly, everything feels dangerous to you.
Mike left around 3am Saturday morning, headed out to West Virginia. It's his first major solo backpacking trip since we've been together. Three nights out in the mountains alone, with no cell service. Our only form of contact has been a satellite device that lets him send me preset “all is well” messages with his location every few hours (this is proving to be a complete Godsend for quieting my mind, which is trying like crazy to create horrific stories of him breaking a leg or being mauled by a bear while I’m sitting on the couch watching TV).
I don’t have to tell any of you the sort of feeling this trip brings up. Especially if your person died from a sudden loss, while they were away on a trip. This specific trigger is one I have known I would have to face, some day.
The old me would not bat an eye over this sort of event. I am not a needy person, nor have I ever been. I can spend hours and days alone, and enjoy myself so completely in the space of solitude. For me, it is grounding. Drew was often on trips for work, long weekends or week long trips, sometimes out of service for most of the day. So I was used to this sort of thing before. Well, the old me was.
There were two really meaningful things about Thanksgiving for me this year. Firstly, I was at my sister’s house in upstate New York. For the first time in our adult lives, we now live close enough to each other that we can do the holidays together. This is an enormous deal for me… one that makes me wish our mom was alive to be a part of it all. God, she would be so happy to see it all.
In a few weeks, Mike will be going on his first major backpacking trip since I have moved here. This is a big deal for me. Drew died while he was away on a trip. Mike is going to be alone in the woods, in potentially dangerous cold temperatures, with zero cell service, for several days. One of the reasons that he hasn’t been on any solo backpacking trips since I moved here in fact is because of his fear of triggering me. Of knowing what it will mean for me in that moment when he leaves for the trip and we are saying our goodbyes. It may just be a few days, not a few weeks, as Drew’s trip was supposed to be… but there is no way that the thoughts will not still cross my mind: What if you don’t come back.
I had those thoughts when Drew left too. His job was dangerous, and we always knew there was a chance he wouldn’t come home, or that the next time he stepped into a helicopter could be his last. But back then, I didn’t REALLY think about it. Because I hadn’t lived through it. Back then, it was more of a vague fear that didn’t really have a huge amount of weight to it. I believed he was coming back. I had faith. Until two weeks into his trip when that faith was destroyed. When his body was delivered back to us from the crash in Washington state, without his beautiful soul inside it. I cannot erase any of that. I cannot unknow what I now know, which is that death is always possible. Every single day.Read more
I have always loved Halloween. Drew and I both did. We were always sure to find the biggest and best haunted houses to go to each year. We spent weeks on our costumes, making everything by hand. We’d go out to parties in character and win costume contests, and enjoy the whole experience of it all. Since his death, each year, I think I have come to love and appreciate this holiday even more deeply.
The very first Halloween came just 4 months after his death. I was a wreck. Still in shock. Could barely function at all. And though there was no costume-making that year, I was determined not to miss one thing: haunted houses. So I planned to go with a girlfriend of mine, to a new one, near the town I had moved to after he died. Doing this somewhere new was extremely helpful. I don’t think I could have gone back to one of the haunted houses he and I had visited. So changing this up was crucial to carrying the tradition on.
When my friend and I entered through that dark and unknown first door… something really incredible happened. For the 20 minutes or so we were inside, I was not a widow. I was just a person running scared and laughing through a haunted house. That’s right, laughing! With my good friend by my side, and scares at every turn, I found myself laughing deep and full. I found myself feeling… alive. As we came bolting out the exit, we were both so full of electric energy, that euphoric adrenaline that all the sights and sounds and crazy lights and monsters gives you.
This week, I went to the art museum by myself. This was a really big deal, or at least, I am deciding it is. Since moving to Ohio, I’ve been reluctant to get out on my own. I have only a handful of places I can even drive to without having to use a map to get me there. The shopping center by the house, the post office, the fancy grocery store 10 minutes north, and the shopping center 20 minutes south where I worked for a few months. That’s really it. It’s endlessly frustrating.
Instead of being more proactive about finding my way around a new city, I’ll admit I’ve avoided it. I have felt too vulnerable adjusting to a new place and lifestyle. I have felt a need to protect myself and not venture out. And that’s natural, I suppose.
As of this past week though, I officially added several new places to that list. I’ve taken Shelby to school enough times now that I finally didn’t use my phone to get me there this week. I’ve gone up to Mike’s work to take him lunch twice now, and drove the second time home without a map. After driving to my art class on Thursday nights for 4 weeks in a row, I made it there this past week on my own. And on Thursday afternoon, I went to the art museum for the first time, and thus downtown for the first time, and I drove the way back without a map.
It seems like such a small victory… but it’s definitely not. It means I’m starting to feel confident enough again to venture out. It means I’m beginning to adjust to this new life halfway across the country from where I grew up.Read more
I’ve had a couple of really beautiful, full-circle moments recently. The sort that have reminded me in such sweet ways how totally interconnected my old life and my life now still and always are.
This past week, we finally got my couch moved into Mike’s house from the garage. And by my couch, I really mean Drew’s. I have been dragging this thing around ever since he died… an enormous olive green couch. It is really the only piece of furniture of his I have. Since we didn’t live together, much of his bigger stuff ended up being given away or taken to Goodwill when he died, as there was no place to put it. But this couch, I was not letting go of it. It sat in a storage unit for 3 years after he died, before finally making the journey north with me from Texas to Ohio last fall.
So we finally get this thing moved into Mike’s basement, where we have made a cozy den next to my art studio area. Over the course of a few days, I watched as something really heartwarming took place.
Hey readers! I’m filling in for Mike today, as he had something come up and was unable to write. He’ll be back with us next Tuesday, so until then, I’m here to wander through some of my own thoughts of late and see what bubbles up...
Mike and I have spent the past few months moving all my things to his place, as many of you know. After a decade of living alone, finally, I’ve taken the plunge into this next level of partnership. A level in fact that I never even made it to with Drew, my late-fiance, because he died before we were able to get there.
We would have moved in together that same year he died, and married the next. But neither of those things happened. Instead, I gained new fears which have come with me into my relationship with Mike. Although there is no serious talk of it yet, we do have plans and hopes to get married one day. As this commitment begins to enter my mind more, new fears arise. Fears about being on the cusp of a new beginning and having it all taken away. Fears of moving in together and marrying because “what if he dies before we ever get there. Or the day after. Or three months into marriage...” What if, what if, what if. As I face these phases of my life for the first time since Drew and I were in a similar place, I find the fears quite loud.Read more
Yesterday was one of the most beautiful and hope-filled days I have been a part of since I began this entire widowed journey. We were in the woods, standing tall in the trees, three widowed people and a little girl who lost her mother. The setting itself was magic, and made even more-so when we heard of the significance of that place. For our friend, who lost her husband 5 years ago, was marrying her husband’s best friend in the place they used to go walking after he died… in those early raw months, they stood side by side, taking one step at a time down a path that he no longer could. Together, side by side, they began a walk into the future, not even knowing that it would lead to a different kind of side-by-side one day.
It was personally significant to me in a few ways that no one else knew until I mentioned it… but this is the first wedding I have been to in 4 years. I’ve been invited to many weddings, and refused to go to any of them until I felt able. And this one, finally, I felt not only able but excited for. Excited. What? How is that even possible? In fact, I didn’t have an ounce of fear in me about the triggers it would bring up. To my total surprise, I found myself completely lost in the moment.Read more
(Above) A traditional cemetery celebration on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
This time of year reminds me of just how important magic is. While life holds it's own magic, death certainly holds an even more inexplicable magic all it's own. Not in the sense of tricks and jokes, but in the sense of wonder and possibility. Now, I know not everyone cares as much about Halloween as I do, but it has always held a special place in my heart. It’s a time of year when society accepts both kids and adults acting like children: decorating our houses with creepy spider webs and skeletons, dressing up in silly costumes, carving pumpkins with fun or scary faces. It helps all of us, should we partake, to be invigorated with a sense of wonder and magic... something we so easily forget in our day to day lives. And I find it no coincidence that the holiday that does this the most for so many, is so heavily focused on death.
It’s also a time of year when I feel closest to my mother and my other loved ones that have died. She loved the fall. That first cold front that came in each year invigorated her, and though I can’t remember much from the 9 years I had her, I do remember the essence of that feeling. I remember the feeling of her excitement. I remember a feeling of magic and warmth and creativity and possibility.
My mother’s death day happens to be the day before Halloween. And my dad, who is also passed, has his birthday the 29th, the day before that. And the third, Drew, loved Halloween as much as I. So there have always been personal losses that connect this time to death for me in a big way. In an odd way, it is wonderful, because it feels like so many others are celebrating their own loved ones around this time with their own customs such as All Soul’s Day and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), and it has given me new ways to celebrate my dead.Read more