Before Drew died, I was not the softest person. Sure I was kind and loving and generous, but mainly just with him – the one person I trusted above all others. I honestly rarely gave anyone else my heartfelt genuine love – because I did not trust people. I always kept everyone but him at arms length, but did I good job of disuising myself as kind and giving from the outside. My whole life this has been something I've struggled with. Something I haven't liked about myself. And something I have not known how to move past.
After he died, somehow, miraculously, I did the opposite of this. I didn't close off from others. I didn't mistrust or question or hold back. Instead, I opened up to everyone completely and in a way I never had before. I exposed every fear, every tear, and every irrational, over-the-top outburst, to anyone who would listen. In conversations and phonecalls and blog posts and artwork and hugs and embarassing crying fits. I didn't think about it - it was survival. It is what I had to do. It still amazes me today that being this broken was the thing that broke down lifelong walls inside me that I had been yearning to get past for years. It was oddly the best and worst year of my life.
It was the worst for obvious reasons. But it was the best because it was the first time in my life that I truly opened myself – not just to one person – but to everyone. His death softened my heart. After a lifetime of trying to protect myself from the world – I finally put down my armor, looked around, and saw that I hadn't been keeping myself safe from harm at all. I had been keeping away love and laughter and connection and support...
I started to see how the love of others can heal us... and not just the love of people we know well and trust – but the love of strangers, aquaintances, old friends, new friends... anyone. I started to see how allowing myself to TRULY receive love from many other hearts gave me what I needed to be able to be genuinely and deeply giving in a way I had always longed to be able to. It is actually the most whole-hearted I have ever felt.
Being vulnerable always feels a bit dangerous. We fear that opening our hearts so fully will result in us being mocked or laughed at or judged. What that first year of living with death taught me is that this fear has been running rampant in my life for all these years without any proof to back it up. I have listened to it without ever questioning it. It took the death of my world for me to finally have the courage to throw off the armor and question these fears. In the midst of death is where I discovered the stories I have told myself all my life were wrong. Putting down my armor and letting the world in will not result in ridicule, but will instead result in connection and love. That is why I often refer to that year as the best and worst of my life. No one has ever given me a greater gift than this insight he gave me when he died.
Despite this lesson, I still fall back into those old fears. I can feel my heart hardening and closing off again lately. With every big change in my world since his death, every new phase, my subconscious seems to automatically grab for the armor. Before I am even aware of it, I am standing there with a sword and sheild in hand – ready to battle. Meanwhile, the reality is that I am standing in a field of wildflowers. There are no threats, no enemies, no dangers – yet there I stand, poised and ready to battle. It's a good quality to have – except when it becomes overly reactionary in your life.
I've been struggling with this over the past 6 months, since meeting Mike. This has undoubtably been the hugest change in my life since Drew died. And it's got me throwing on the armor at every turn. Fearful of dandelions. Suspecious of sunflowers. Convinced the hearts of others will somehow do me wrong.
Short of writing here, I have been VERY quiet about anything I have been struggling with these past months. So after working myself up emotionally into a total mess in the past month, I am finally flinging the armor off again and saying “wait a second, there is no battle here... people aren't here to hurt me. And this armor isn't working. Let's open up for real and see what happens."
And so I made lunch dates with a few friends this past week... not even particularly close friends – with the specific request that I am struggling lately and I really need some support. To even ask that up front was a HUGE step. I felt silly. I felt vulnerable. I felt in danger. But the difference now is that I know better. I know now what it feels like to put the armor down. And I know those fears are not speaking the truth. I have a comparison now, one that Drew gave me. And I get to choose which I want – the armor, or the wildflowers. I choose the latter – that effortless, undulating flow of love between open hearts. I choose not to believe I am in danger all the time anymore. The result? Love. Support. Connection. A sharing of ideas and emotions. Together with friends, some very legit fears have been pinpointed and some really simple solutions have been found. Ones that have now got me excited about the idea of moving and a whole new adventure.
This morning I am sitting calmly for the first time in probably a month. Because I took the chance to throw off the armor and remember the important lessons that death has taught me about life: Everything in life has the potential to be both scary and exciting... but I get to choose which of these I will live inside of. Fear... or love. I think the biggest danger as we heal and become stronger is becoming hardened against the world. Getting over-confident that we don't need people anymore. Wanting to NOT need people. Being strong and feeling powerful while remaining open-hearted can be such a tricky thing to balance. Remaining soft and allowing it to be seen as I heal has been probably the single biggest challenge for me this year – one I am working on every day. I am so grateful that this blog continually challenges me to do this. Thank you guys!
Photo © Sarah Treanor, from my self portrait series on grief. For more visit streanor.com