Get Along, Grief Shamers

Along about the second year, definitely going into the third and then the fourth…I just wanted to scream at people.

Not in anger, but in shredded grief and pain…

Why can’t you just let me be sad? Why does it feel like I must defend myself against you? Why does it then feel like I have to defend my grief even to myself? Why does it feel like I can’t just feel what I feel, be whatever I am? Why must I expend all this energy defending my right to feel all that this is? Why is it not okay with you that I can’t find my feet and I’m feeling so disoriented that my stomach continually wants to heave its’ contents? Why are you trying to make me feel like I’m doing something wrong?

Why can’t you just let me be fucking sad?

These are a mere sampling of the piercing reactions that took up so much space in my heart and soul and mind in the first years of grief, in reaction to all the well meaning mostly discussions that people would have with me. To me, really, because they weren’t seeking discussion with me as much as they were telling me where they thought I should be with this, or how they thought I should be with this.

Grief, I mean.

How I was grieving vs how they thought I should be grieving.

They didn’t realize this is what they were doing, of course. At least, I hope they didn’t realize this is what they were doing.

Whether that was their intention or not, shaming is how I heard every word.

And every word from them shattered me more, because I, and we, already judge ourselves so much, when we grieve.

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Pixel Memories

Something that Megan and I did every year or two was get family photos taken.  While we had thousands of “candid” pictures, taken from our phones or old point-and-shoot devices, we were never posed, and neither of us were exactly professional photographers.  We would make the appointment, pack up a few various pieces of clothing, and head to JCPenney for an hour or so of awkward positions and goofy smiles, followed by standing in a department store looking through each and every shot, choosing the six best, and deciding on a package.  The photos are done well, and I like them, but the experience of producing them was not exactly the most enjoyable memory. If we could have had them without all of the other hassle (and money), they would have been perfect.

We still have some of those photos hanging on our walls.  Shelby truly lives up to her “Peanut” nickname in most of them...being about 2 feet tall and 25 pounds at the largest.  (for the record, I too have added about 30 pounds since then, so the “growing together” has a literal meaning). The memory of her simply being that size is the most enjoyable to me.  

Megan has a beautiful smile in all of them.  She was, simply put, photogenic, and she knew how to apply a good “picture smile”.  For Shelby and I’s part, we did our best to smirk.

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I think we all feel “lost” in some way, and sometimes in all ways.

But, understand, feeling lost after the person you love dies doesn’t mean you have to lose yourself forever.

I know that outliving the person you love isn’t easy.  In truth, it’s easily the hardest thing I’ve ever been forced to do.

 

I remember many nights I stood in front of the stove and unconsciously rocked myself, in an effort to become ‘present’, as I half-heartedly cooked dinner for my kids -all the while hoping I wouldn’t die from the aching in my Soul.

The good news is that I didn’t die from Mike’s death.  However, from his death, I’ve learned that nothing in life is constant. When he died everything about my life changed - quite literally overnight.  I remember feeling completely and utterly disorientated.  The days following his death are a blur.  I remember feeling like I was having an out of body experience.  I stood for hours surveying the mess that was left of my life.  All our hopes and dreams were shattered into a million pieces - scattered all around me.  I wanted to “fix” my brokenness, but I didn’t know where to begin.  I had no clue how to move forward; but, instinctively I knew I couldn’t stay still forever... 

 

Death forces change

And, these changes are usually unexpected and always unwelcomed - at least initially.

For most of us, accepting change is hard at the best of times; and while grieving change is especially challenging

- albeit unavoidable.

 

 

 

In the early days, grief suspends you in a type of paralysis where your mind becomes frozen; and, all decisions, both big and small, feel overwhelming.  I think this happens because death shatters everything we believe about the assumptive world; and, it takes a significant amount of time for the mind to recover from this. 

However, I assure you, with time, and hard work you can and will steady yourself.  And, once you reestablish your bearings it is possible to slowly regain your sense of self; and, with that, your self confidence...

 

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The Challenge of Living At All

Sometimes I wonder, is life harder because I have been widowed or would have been just as hard in different ways if I had never been widowed? It’s a question I think on when I have long talks with friends who aren’t widowed, who are going through their own complex lives… complete with blended, divorced families and step kids or uncertainty in their current relationship, or loneliness and feeling unsure about their career or life purpose.

Our thirties and forties have taken us places I think none of us imagined. We used to all live across town from one another, and the most complicated stuff we really dealt with was the dating scene and fighting traffic across town to meet up together at our favorite bar every Tuesday night. We still look back at those days now with such nostalgia… it was a few good years where things were easy, good friends were plentiful, and there were no major catastrophes. For a short time we all were able to relax into the present moment of our lives.

Drew’s death changed everything. It was the beginning of life becoming far more complex… and it happened to occur when I was turning 30. I feel like it’s so easy sometimes to blame the grief. To feel like all the complexity and extra difficulty and all the changes that have been hard are the fault of grief and being widowed. But I don’t really think that’s true at all.

Had Drew not died, I would have been married within a year likely… and moved out of Dallas anyway - as was our plan. I would have then followed his career as a pilot wherever it took us around the country… likely living somewhere new every few years or so. Had we adopted a child by now, which was our eventual plan, I would be going through the same fears and doubts and struggles with learning how to be a mother as I am with my new partner Mike’s child now. And I would have been doing it a bit more alone, while Drew was likely gone a lot for flying gigs that would have him on contracts for weeks or months.

Death or not, my life was going to change drastically. And many of the complex things that happened in my friends’ lives were not because of grief either. The complicated stuff they now deal with in their lives is just a part of growing up into our thirties and forties and beginning new phases of their lives. Phases none of us were especially prepared for, it seems...

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Sympathy Pains

I’m sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. About a week ago I started having stomach pain and strong exhaustion. I, uncharacteristically, do not have an appetite and I have lost 10 lbs in less than two weeks. At first I thought it was something I ate. A few days passed and I thought it was probably just a stomach bug. After a week it eased up and I had a few days of “normal” and the odd pain and discomfort has returned.

At any other point in life, I wouldn’t think too much about my digestion being off. That happens to everyone, right? However, the loss of Tin makes me unique compared to many other people. I just watched my partner’s health rapidly decline and he lost his life. What’s worse - To lose someone suddenly or to watch it slowly happen? You can argue both sides and both sides have their own traumatic effects in one’s mind creating a vessel full of emotions. Like a pot of boiling water, if you keep watching it never boils but as soon as you let your guard down and look away those tiny little bubbles join forces, take over the pot and spill your head and heart onto the fire.

For me, watching Tin fade and go through liver failure all in 8 short months has been difficult and this week I noticed a silent and deep wound, my new fear - Will I suffer the same fate? Why would I think this could happen and why be so afraid? Because I now have the knowledge of how this disease could slowly take me. Irrational? Yes. That doesn’t stop the wound because it is etched into my mind that Tin’s illness was unexpected and began with stomach discomfort and exhaustion.

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Shoutout to the Plants Growing Through Concrete

I heard the quote, “shoutout to the plants growing through concrete” and liked it. I thought of seeing a plant or two pushing its way through to continue growing towards the light. I thought of what I believe the quote intended, that a seemingly small, fragile plant can actually be stronger than what is thought to be powerful, forceful concrete. That a person, who is acted on by forces seemingly much stronger than themselves, can in fact break through and continue to grow despite whatever tried to bury them. I love that imagery. I always pictured it in a small scale though. Maybe one or two lonely but resilient plants.

Then I took this walk through what use to be untouched natural land. There was a paved path so people could walk through. I was so amazed by what I saw. Endless amounts of plants that had been paved over pushing through and distorting the pavement to continue growing. Not just growing through existing cracks but making way for themselves and creating the cracks for themselves after being fully covered with nowhere to go. Making cracks so big that it is difficult to walk on the pavement in this area. The plants have pushed the pavement out of the way. I was so excited by this. It isn’t just one, strong plant, it is so many, different types of plants growing together. It made me think of the many, many people who have obstacles thrown in their way and how so many of them choose to keep fighting and “grow through their pavement” whatever that may be. I thought of the widow community, my widowed friends, people I’ve met at Camp Widow, or even just in online groups, and about how many strong, resilient people I’ve had the privilege of witnessing and growing beside. I think of all the people that don’t just sit idle and let themselves be paved over. It really is inspiring.

This is now my favourite walk to take. I silently root for those little plants to keep growing through and hope for the ones that are still buried underneath to push through on their own or with the help of the other plants. Nature’s resilience is amazing. People’s resilience is too.

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Heart and Soul

When your heart and soul are just so tired, 5 years in.

Not for any particular reason, really.

Everything is pretty much the same as it’s always been.

Even when life is routine, my spirit is tired. And, yes, life on the road can be routine.

Tired from doing and being and all the stuff that comes from living a life that is so achingly and shockingly different from the life that was going to be.

Widowing.

How many of us just get out there and do what life requires? How many of us go beyond that requirement and strive to truly create a life for ourselves, alongside all the grief and devastation?

And we do, by god. But, Jesus, it’s exhausting.

To me, anyways.

Underlying all the doing and creating and self-care and just…everything….is the overriding knowing that I’ll never see him again, and I ache all over with that knowing.

Sort of like a continual flu.

And you just learn to live with it.

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Edited Memories

As Sarah, Shelby and I near the time to depart for our summer vacation, I am reminded of just how different things were, and I am finding some appreciation of the very fact that as a widower, those differences weren’t always convenient.  We’re traveling to my favorite place on earth, the Great Smoky Mountains, at the end of July.

Megan and I always took our “big” road trips around this time.  In between her birthday and our anniversary, occuring about 10 days later.  It was convenient, because of large annual festivals going on around home, it got us away from the tourists invading our space, and allowed us to be tourists ourselves.  We always did quite a bit of shopping and “touristy” type things, but my eyes were constantly transfixed on those mountains, standing like 6500-foot ramparts on the edge of the tiny town of Gatlinburg.  

I knew, given Megan’s illness, that the majority of the time spent in the trees, creeks, and cool air would be supplanted by more pedestrian endeavors in gift shops and restaurants.  I would see far more people than birds. Kitschy “mountain man” shops, selling red plaid, black teddy bears, and pine scented soap would be chock full of persons wearing fanny packs and crocs, scoffing at the idea of walking any further than a few feet from their car to see a real black bear or smell a stately stand of pines on a mountaintop.  

I hated the very thought of Gatlinburg, but I still loved going there.  I still do.

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Beginnings

It goes without saying that I miss Mike.  He was my life companion.  My best friend.  My lover.  My Soul's mate.  He was my person.  The one who championed me.  He was the man who loved me to the depths of my Soul - from the depth of his own. 

But, now he is dead.  And, I am here missing all that he was.

To say that I miss his love is an understatement.  When he was alive, Mike introduced me a love that was big, bold, and beautiful.  I long to have our love back.  And, a piece of me will always desire his love because it is impossible to have been shown a love of this power and immensity and not want more of it - to want it to last forever.  Suffice to say, Mike made me a life long fan of love.  And, today, like every day, I continue to crave his physical presence in my life. 

Simply 'sensing' his presence is not the same for me.  Continuing to love someone in separation -across dimensions- is possible, but it is different from loving each other in the physical world.

I don't know much, but I know that Mike still loves me from afar, from wherever he is.  But, now, his love is no longer tangible to me.  I know that his love has grown deeper since he died; but, now, his love is not something I can experience with all my senses.  I struggle because I want his love to still be enough to sustain me - for the rest of my life - but it is not enough.  I wish it was.  But, it just isn't.  As a human being I need more; and, it is crushing to admit this to myself.

I was 43 years old when Mike took his last breath.  I was young.  I am still young.  And, age aside, I can not imagine living the rest of my life alone.  And, this isn't because I am afraid of being alone.  I'm divorced - I've chosen to be alone before.  And, again, as a widow, I will chose to remain alone unless true love comes for me.  But, for reasons I can't explain, I know that love will find me again one day - in some capacity.        

Since Mike died, I've accepted that I need a palpable love.  I know and respect that some widowed people are content to remain alone.  They are satisfied with their choice and I am envious of them in some ways.  I often question why I am not completely happy without being in love.  I don't know the answer to this.  But, after 602 days, I accept that I need a type of love that the man I love can not give me anymore.   I need a love I can taste with my lips.  A love I can see with my eyes.  A love I can hear with my ears.  A love I can touch with my hands.  I want to be drunk on a love like this - again-  before my life is over.

 

 

I know...

Mike wants me to be happy.

Mike wants me to live.

Mike wants me to love and be loved again.

I want these things too.

But, this is not easy stuff.

Or, is it?

 

Outliving your spouse is many things, and simple isn't one of them. 

It is complicated.  All sorts of complicated. 

But, at the same time, it is actually very straightforward too.

 

 

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Listen to their Hearts

I think I’ve always been interested in the ways that people celebrate or carry on the memory of a loved one throughout their lives. Something last time got me thinking again about this topic.

Around this time last year, my new partner Mike took me to see Tom Petty on what ended up being his final tour. It’s not as though I knew this musician personally, but his music has always been a huge part of my life. Almost a year after his death, I am still grieving as if I lost a friend. I suppose a lot of folks are.

It was after Drew’s death that I found an especially close connection to his music. For a year, I photographed portraits of myself to explore my own grief and to tell my story in a visual way. Music was almost always playing in the background… very specific music that helped me to get into the heart of my emotions. Tom Petty became a regular in the background, and the more I listened to his words as I created my own stories, the more deeply those words became woven into what I created. Songs like Learning to Fly, Angel Dream, I Won’t Back Down, and more all felt like they were telling some piece of my story. I guess that’s what he was so good at though… he was telling all of our stories.

Last week, we went to a tribute concert here in town… a whole bunch of local bands were up there on stage taking turns singing Petty’s songs. And at the end, they all came up together - some two dozen people - and sang a few final songs. What an incredible energy it was.

It’s times like that when I think, “This is the way you do it. This is how you keep living on when someone dies. These people get it”. You celebrate them, and you keep on celebrating them. Granted Tom Petty isn’t just any random person, and it becomes easy to celebrate someone who made great, iconic music… but it’s more about the mindset of this idea that I think is a great takeaway for everyday life after loss. Why can’t we all celebrate our dead people and the gifts they left with us so openly? Why can’t we all have a concert or a celebration once a year or whenever the hell we feel like it just to celebrate them? What stops us? Or maybe the better question is, how can we infuse this kind of celebration into our daily lives and continue to keep our loved ones a part of the story for many years to come?

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