Its Your Birthday, My Heart and Back Know

Its amazing to me, how powerful grief can be. How it can take over. How it can make you feel things you havent felt in years. How it can bring you right back to that day, or those weeks, where you lived in darkness, and where you were just trying to comprehend that the person you married just 4 years ago, was really, actually, truly, dead.

Most days now, 6 years later, I am okay. I am more than okay. I am creating and building a life for myself that includes new passions, helping others through life-changing loss, and a new and beautiful love in my world. My life is filled with purpose and meaning and joy - and I have worked very hard through my grief and my traumas - to get to this place where I feel very good and very differently happy. Most days.

But then, out of the blue sometimes, at random, grief decides it wants to play. It comes out from the shadows and reveals itself, to show you once again who is boss. And you find yourself feeling like you are right back in those early days of darkness, hopelessness, trauma, guilt, and unbelievable sadness.

About a week ago, my back went out. For no reason. I was walking up a step in our split level home, and suddenly, this piercing pain shot up my left side. I looked on FB, and noticed one of those "on this day" messages. It said "on this day 8 years ago, you posted: 'Just got back from the ER. Was watching TV with Don and got up to pee, and my back went out. I couldnt move. Don had to take me to the ER in the middle of the night. Him and the doctor were laughing at me because my back literally went out from watching TV. Turns out its a slipped disc, but Don cant stop laughing at me. He keeps saying 'Only you could fuck up your back while watching TV. "

Back then, Don took me home, walked me in, and sat me down in his recliner chair, where I sat for the next 5 days, until I could walk again. He had to help me walk to the bathroom, help me do everything. I couldnt move. (A terrible reaction to Percacet that was scary as hell, turned me off to pain meds, so it took longer to heal).

So last week, my back went out. For the first time in 8 years. On the anniversary of the day, 8 years ago, that my back went out. Very strange, and I have no idea what the hell it means, if anything. Anyway, I found myself sitting in the same recliner chair - Don's "Archie Bunker " chair - that now sits in my room downstairs and that has moved with me 3 times now in the past 6 years - that I sat in 8 years ago when Don took care of me. The same kitties, our kitties, Sammy and Autumn, were jumping into my lap and on top of the chair, to comfort me. It all felt very familiar. The only thing missing, was Don.

My back got better, quicker this time. Then it went out again, two days ago, as I was bending down to feed our kitties. That piercing pain came back. And this time, for whatever reason, piercing pain came into my grieving heart as well. So there I was, 5am in the morning, sitting/clinging to Don's recliner chair, one of the few major things of his I have left, and sobbing. Suddenly, I felt like I was back in year one of this stupid grief tsunami. All the things I have already processed through, long ago, in years of grief counseling sessions, came rushing back, as if feeling them for the first time.

I started feeling like a failure somehow, for not staying in NY, for not being able to make it on my own, for not living our dreams, for not finishing this damn book much, much sooner. And now my back is out, which is yet another delay in writing and focusing, which seems to happen every single time I almost reach a self-imposed deadline. My mind went back to Don taking care of me in this chair. THIS chair. How much of a natural caregiver he was, and I thought about how I just KNEW when I married him that he would always take care of me, that he would always put me first, that I would always feel safe and protected and like he was on my side.

He was not a romantic person. He did not give flowers for no reason. But his form of flowers came in making sure I was okay. Always. Making my life easier, even when it meant his might be harder. His flowers came in the form of being at every show I did, reading everything I wrote, loving and being in awe of my talents, smiling and beaming and telling people "that's my wife up there. Isnt she the greatest?" His form of flowers came in filling the gas tank before I took the car, changing the oil, and taking two trains and a bus across NJ and onto Long Island to meet me at campus when the car broke down anyway. Getting up and going to Walmart at 4am because my syllabus was due, and I ran out of printer ink. He never complained. He did all these things while softly whistling. Smiling. He was so damn content and happy, just to be alive and live our simple life together.

So I think of all this and start sobbing harder. Why doesnt someone like THAT get more time? Why cant he still live? He didnt ask for much in life. Just me, a good Yankee game on the TV, his kitties in his lap, and strumming some guitars. Instead, he got death. And now, the sobbing is harder and this back pain somehow feels lonely.

Later that night, Nick and I watched a movie. We had no idea what it was about, other than a friend of his recommended it. Turns out a large part of the plot is that the main character is a widower. He finds out his wife died from complications of mental illness, after being in a facility, and he and his children are living off the grid, in nature. There were several scenes that were hard to watch. Him looking through paperwork/her Will. Scenes involving caskets and cremations and other disturbing things, for me, that I dont like to think about because they are too real and my heart goes back to the funeral, and to being forced to see my husband in a casket. Then being forced to cremate him after the funeral, and being forced to make all these many decisions based on nothing except what I thought might be the right thing. 6 years later, I still dont know if what I did was right. Most days, Im okay and I dont think about these things. But when a movie comes on and shows them to you, and you are already raw with emotion, it all comes flooding back. It haunts me. Its something Im never fully at peace with. How could I be? My husband is no longer my husband, and he is ashes . That is a horrific thing to know, and to be aware of, and to live with.

One scene in the movie really did me in, to the point of where I was frozen. Just frozen. I sat there watching, but couldnt react or move really. It was almost like a silent panic attack or PTSD episode was happening inside me, and nothing would register on the outside. In the scene, the man and his family are in a store. The man, the widower, is getting something off the shelf, when he falls down collapsed and into a heart attack. Its awful. He is vibrating and seizing and whatever else, and it seems to happen in slow motion. We soon find out that he is faking it, so his children can steal some items from the store and get away during the distraction. It doesnt matter. To anyone else, the scene is comedic. To me, its a nightmare.

Don collapsed in the aisle of a store. Petsmart. He was working his second job, helping with dogs and cats, on his day off from EMS. They said it looked like he was stocking dog food when it happened. They found him on the floor. The manager tried to do CPR. They called the ambulance. They brought him to the ER. They "got him back" once , they later told me. But then he coded. He was gone. The entire time this was all happening, I was home. Asleep. Sleeping, as my husband, who saved me every single day, was collapsing and dying. They didnt know who to call. His emergency info card was in his tennis bag from the day before, when he was perfectly healthy and outside playing tennis. By the time they called me, he was already dead. I had to get a cab to the hospital, to go and be told that my husband, who had left for work just 2 hours before, was dead.

All the stuff I had worked through in counseling, it all came back just as powerful. What if he was wondering where I was? How long was he alone? Did he know he was going to die? He was in the medical profession. Did he feel different that morning? He was literally never sick. Did he feel sick that day? Was he conscious in the ambulance? Awake? Scared? I cry again as I write this. I cry every time I think about it. So many thoughts sat in my head. And I couldnt verbalize them. I couldnt speak. I just wanted to cry. But couldnt.

The next day, yesterday, I cried a lot. I cried so much that I couldnt stop. I cried on my way to work. I sat in the chair and cried some more. I cried and I cried and I cried.

Whats my point? Im happy. Ive worked hard for my happy. My joy is a hard earned one, that I fight demons for, daily. Its not easy. Anyone who thinks its easy to just "be happy", hasnt been through real trauma or death or the losing of the very life you knew, piece by tormenting piece. This shit isnt easy. My grief counselor once said to me: "This is hard work. Grieving in a healthy way and processing through it is the hardest thing youll ever do, and it sucks so much, which is why most people dont do it."

Im happy. A different kind of happy. A more profound kind. But grief is there. Its always there. If I wasnt in a healthy place with it, my reaction to the past few days probably would have been different. I might have zoned out with alcohol, or numbed it with food, or isolated to the point of scary alone. Instead, I process it. I let the emotions happen. I sit there and I fuckin' cry. I talk to my new love. I write it in here, because maybe it will help someone else to know they are normal, and they are okay. IT will never be okay with me that my husband died, but I will be okay.

I will be okay.

Today is my dead husband's birthday. And the greatest gift I can give him, is to do my very best, to always stay alive. Through the grief. Through the pain. Through the trauma. There is life. Chaotic, beautiful, unpredictable, precious life. And every year that my husband was robbed of, Im going to live even harder. I love you, Boo. And I will live fully, because you dont have that option.

Happy Birthday, to the man who saved me, loved me, and taught me to save and love myself. I still learn from you every single day.

Thank you.

Showing 6 reactions

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  • commented 2018-03-16 08:48:57 -0700
    INDIE – I am sorry you haven’t found that door yet, the one that will make you feel as if you aren’t just simply existing – but actually living again. I can only tell you it took me 6 years to find that feeling, and still now, its very hard some days. I fight for my joy everyday. Its never easy. I hope you wont give up on yourself. When youre exhausted, take breaks. Take emotional breaks to zone out, think about something else, see a funny movie. Then come back to it when you can handle it more. You can reach out to me anytime also. Here. On Facebook, or at my email For real. Please don’t give up.
  • commented 2018-03-16 08:45:58 -0700
    APRIL – thank you so very much for your words. It makes me feel good thatmy words have offered you some lessons or some things to think about. And yes, we will miss them always, and always long for them to be here again physically. But it is SO MUCH more of a good life, when you can start to really FEEL that they are still here with us, in a different way, but still and always part of our life fabric.
  • commented 2018-03-16 08:43:50 -0700
    Sorry it has taken me so long to reply. Busy week. Denise, it always feels good when you find someone whose story is so close to your own. Im glad I can provide that for you! I do believe your husband was letting you know that you are not alone, and I hope your back is better !!!
  • commented 2018-03-09 19:41:44 -0800
    Thank you for sharing this. So much in it resonated for me. (If I highlighted all that paralleled our life, the page would be more yellow than white.) And just an hour ago I was on the living room floor, having pulled something in my back, while I sorted paperwork (which should have been done weeks ago, and I now have 4 days left to complete). As I laid there on the floor wondering when I’d be able to get up, I thought about the last time it happened, and my husband was here to take care of me. I believe this was his way of letting me know I wasn’t, and am not, alone.
  • commented 2018-03-02 12:38:10 -0800 · Flag
    Kelley, This post is so amazing to me. Add to that list of what you are now is teacher. A teacher of grief. I learned so many things in this article about HOW to grieve. Thank you. For one, I don’t feel my feelings enough, or try to process them through writing, enough. I want to trade my low-, or not so low-grade depression, and numbness, and faking it, for more feeling, processing, writing. I also love your use of the word horrific. That helps me name a feeling I have had for 16 months now, but did not want to name; it did not help me to not name it. Last but not least, thank you for helping me get out a great cry. For the husband that saved me, and without whom I feel like I am drowning and cannot save myself. But like you said, I do want to, for him, and for me. He did teach me how to save myself somehow, through 13 years of presence, commitment, love, and daily words of encouragement. And because of that I will and can keep learning from him, everyday. I know the first three things are still there in the same, but unseen, form, I just have to learn to live without the last one, at least in the way I knew before. Which I am so grateful for, it’s just easier said than done.
  • commented 2018-03-02 12:21:09 -0800
    Your stronger than me Kelley Lynn. The painful words I read are the painful ones i am still living after five plus years. I cant do this much longer. I spent most of Nov, Dec, Jan reliving what you described…… I was back at day one. After all this time I was ploughed under. And while I read your words I cried again. Because I knew exactly what you were feeling.

    I have built this new life (not with a new person because that wont be for me) but for all outward appearances I seem to function and much better than I did, but I cant get a hold of any kind of thought that allows me to be"okay". I’m functioning but I don’t see any ok……..Its just not happening for me and I have tried. Without revealing too much I have tried more than most people who aren’t carrying grief around as their constant companion.

    I admire your ability to strive and thrive. I know what you are feeling when you talk about your grief and how the back getting thrown out on the same day 8 years ago sent you visiting the past while trying to live in the present. I admire your strength in your quest to give Don the “gift”. I just cant seem to find the key to that door and I’m just getting too tired and too old to keep pushing to make it happen….but I am glad to hear you can…….and thank you for speaking your truth.