Death is so bizarre 

So here’s the thing. Grief doesn’t “stop”. There is no point in your life that you are completely “over” the death of a spouse or loved one. It changes, it evolves, it hides, it comes in to town to visit sometimes when you are not expecting it – the pain never completely goes away. Why would it? Why would we expect it to? A person, a human being, that you loved, shared your life with, created thousands of memories with, often created other humans with, has simply disappeared off the face of the earth. There is no chance, no possibility, of ever seeing them again. It is really bizarre actually. Your brain is full of nothing but images of them alive, images of them living and breathing and loving. It takes some time for your brain to intellectually process the loss, the disappearance, let alone your heart.
Those first weeks and months after Steve died were so painful and ugly. Really ugly. I can’t quite explain it but that is how the long days felt to me – cold and ugly. Everything felt wrong. Obviously it felt like something was missing, but there were so many other feelings. I just couldn’t get warm, couldn’t feel good. It didn’t help that he died in November in Seattle so the weather was lousy – rainy and chilly. I was sad, I was anxious. I kept expecting him to walk in the front door. I remember not wanting to leave my house at first, definitely not being comfortable with sleeping anywhere but home. My 2 daughters slept with me for the first few months and we clung onto each other for love, support, touch. I cherish those times cuddled in bed with them. We needed to be as close together as possible.

I tried desperately to fill our evenings and weekends with dinners with friends and family, shopping, events around town. As much as I didn’t like being away from home, I so needed the distraction. All of us at home together with hours between school getting out and bedtime left way to many minutes to think about the house being a little more empty and quiet than it should be, too many minutes to think about the impossibility of ever seeing him again, way too long to look at his empty chair at his desk and all the sympathy cards on the fireplace hearth. Usually late in the evening, after the girls were asleep, I would watch TV for a little while and then turn it off – and cry. That was the pattern. I would think and cry and sob. Heaving and crying in a way I had never cried before. Guttural sobs that left me exhausted and spent. Then I would sleep if I could and I would hope and ask God for dreams of him, dreams that took months to come.

In the first few days after he died, his boss called to tell me he was going to come by to see how we were doing – and to get Steve’s business phone and computer from me. Believe it or not, that was a crazy painful experience. Steve was so attached to those things and they were such a big part of who he was. His work was in sales and he lived it every day. He was always on the phone, and often on his computer at midnight, reworking bids and contracts and planning the next deal. I can still see him on the phone, always pacing the floors quickly as he spoke, almost always smiling and infusing his larger than life personality into the conversation. When your person dies, you are desperately trying to hold on. Hold on to them, hold on to what was their essence, hold on to all that was important to them, hold on to reality. He left us so quickly that it felt like slipping down a hill of gravel, trying so hard to get a grip but whatever I held on to, fell apart in my grasp. When they came to take the computer and the phone, it was another piece of him gone. And even though I knew he was dead, those things in life that were dear to him were so precious at the time. The thought of giving away his phone that he held every day and his computer that brought him so much happiness (and frustration) was really brutal. It felt like I was giving away a piece of him – another piece of him that we were losing. There was no holding back the flood of tears and emotion when it was time to hand them over. Actually, I was unable to do it – I think I almost passed out. Thank God my brother was there at the time and he did it. It was devastating. I felt badly for Steve’s boss – he was just doing his job and he did it in the kindest way he knew how, but I was angry at him. And of course, I wasn’t angry at HIM. I was angry at the situation, I was angry that my husband was dead.

The sadness and devastation that take hold of your life can’t be explained. The depth and range of emotion is so powerful that you almost get lost in it. And the weird thing is, you kind of want to. You kind of want to get lost in the grief and the sadness. Because that’s all you have left of them. That is your last experience that is intertwined with them so profoundly. Your grief and emotion is all connected so strongly to their death that it feels like it’s a part of them, part of your relationship with them. Although it doesn’t come for some time, it is scary when you start to feel less terrified and a bit less sad. You feel guilty for feeling “better”. You feel guilty for moving forward at all because you are moving forward without them and leaving some of that grief and emotion behind.

It takes time. As much as you need and it is different for everyone, but it takes TIME. Time to start to feel “ok”. Time to start to feel like getting out of bed in the morning isn’t like moving a 50 pound bag of concrete. Time for any energy to return. Time for your sleep and appetite to be normal again. Time to not cry all day long. Time to not lie in bed at night sobbing, begging for them to come back. Some of these things, and other parts of this traumatic recovery, take months and months and years and years. And you are never the same. How could you be the same after experiencing this ridiculous insanity called death? I wouldn’t want to be the same.

This experience changes you in many ways, and that is scary but ok too. It is a transformation to be sure. And when you are in those first weeks and months, you cannot fathom how you are going to survive it. But you do, I will affirm that for you. You do. You don’t have to know how you will do it, you just have to have faith that you will. You do what you can, you change your priorities, you take care of yourself, you put on your own mask first, and you just keep getting up in the morning and taking it one minute at a time.

You have to feel it all

I love Facebook. I really love it. It allows me to keep in touch with friends that I otherwise wouldn’t, allows my mom to see pictures of her grandkids without me having to actually have prints made and send them to her, allows me to laugh everyday by following funny and inappropriate pages, allows me to keep up with current events, and it allows me to kind of track my life. If I scroll through my posts and photos from the last 8 years, it’s a really great record – especially since I am completely worthless when it comes to journaling (see the 5 empty journals on my bedside table). Every day, you are shown pictures and posts that you shared on this same date in previous years. It is often fun – remembering events you may have forgotten and seeing pictures that make you smile.
For some people, these pictures and posts can be huge grief triggers. I am lucky (!) in that my husband died well before I joined Facebook so I am not constantly getting barraged with images of us together and him doing all sorts of things with our family. I do have pictures of Steve on my Facebook page and I will often share them on his birthday or the “Feast of Steven” as we call it, his death anniversary. But since I posted them after he passed, they don’t typically have a sad effect on me. But we as a family have suffered a lot of other major losses since then – more than seems “normal”.

Since my husband’s death we have lost his dad, which was an unfathomable loss, along with several dads in our friend group. I have 2 friends that live within 100 yards of me that both lost their husbands to brain cancer in the past few years. It’s crazy. Another huge loss was in the form of a grandfather-type figure to my girls – a brilliant, loving man taken way too early by Alzheimer’s. And then just recently, we lost Steve’s cousin, Matt, that had recently visited and rekindled his relationship with me, my girls and our extended family – suddenly stricken with cancer and gone in less than a year. There have been other deaths as well, all that hit hard. Too many in just a short span of time. Other types of loss take their toll too. Relatives and friends that moved far away and relationships that simply disintegrated over time. All these memories pop up – every day. In Facebook and in our minds.

Loss is so hard. Life is so hard. If you feel like you have not experienced significant loss in your life, pay attention because you probably have and you just have just not internalized it and processed it. And that is ok – we all do what we need to in order to survive. But everyone you know has struggled with hurt and loss. We need to talk about it more as a community, as a society. Share it with each other instead of just hoping the topic doesn’t come up. The scars it leaves are deep and those scars affect your relationships for the rest of your life. They affect the way we interact with others, they affect our trust, they affect our being open to all the good that is in this world.

The pain of loss does not go away in a week or a month. It never really goes away completely. It gets softer and easier to manage. It morphs into memories and it works its way into your soul, making you more empathetic and compassionate. It can make you hard but it doesn’t have to. Talking about it is the best way to move thru the pain and to process it. I have found that to be true with every loss and hurt in my life. Acknowledging it, looking it straight in the eye and feeling every damn inch of it. It seems to me that you have to. If you avoid it, it comes back around to bite you in the butt when you are least expecting it. You have to feel it all – there are no shortcuts. Allowing someone the space to talk about their hurt is one of the greatest gifts you can give to them. If someone you know is grieving the death of a loved one, your saying their name, sharing a memory, holding space for them to talk about their person is so powerful and healing – even years after the loss. I cannot fully express how grateful I am to those that have walked with me and have always allowed me to talk thru what I needed to.

My girls and I talk so often about their dad and all the people they have lost. I want them to fully know the people that were so present in their lives, that loved them so deeply. We take so many pictures as a family. When pictures come up in our lives as we are going through photo boxes – or on Facebook – we look at them, I give them all the details I can remember of the picture and we sit with those memories and breathe them in. I want these memories to build up in their minds so they have a fuller picture of those that are gone, and by way of that, a fuller picture of themselves. We have had so much love, compassion and generosity and God has put so much good into our lives. Being grateful for all that good, even in the face of loss and hurt, is truly where the growth comes from. Looking forward with the strength of your tribe, both past and present, behind you to hold you up – we all need that. Truly feeling that strength and love is so powerful for happiness and greatness in life.