Monday, April 27, 2015

Count on This

I have outlasted all desire,
My dreams and I have grown apart;
My grief alone is left entire,
The gleamings of an empty heart.

From Grief Alone Is Left Entire, by Alexander Pushkin

The poem from which the excerpt, above, was taken, could be considered rather bleak. The writer speaks of his grief being the only thing he can count on in this world. It is the one thing he can cling to, he says, and he waits, in desolation, for the end to come.

I can't say that my inner life echoes the sad words of this writer, these days. There are bright periods with slivers of hope. But always, underpinning them, is the experience of this loss, and the grief that surrounds it.

Last week, I attended a pension planning seminar at work. I don’t know what I thought I was doing there. The presenter spoke of setting money aside, from our monthly paycheques, so that we could receive a lump sum, tax free, at our legal retirement age, which, for me, now, is 66. Men and women in their 30s and 40s raised their hands and eagerly participated in the session, calculating their future riches, counting up their pounds and pence.

I looked at them, so certain of their years on this planet. So trusting. So naïve.

I don’t count on anything, anymore. I assume nothing. I know that I could be cut right down, like my husband was. I could be out in the world, on a sunny, summer, day, enjoying the birdsong and the flowers blooming, and my heart could say, ‘enough’. I could be surrounded by family, (like he was), in the midst of grief, and I could walk outside, into the sunlight, and I could crumble to the ground.

I put some pounds and pence aside, when I can. But I am not going to squirrel part of my paycheque away, each month, in the hope that I will be here in eight years to enjoy it. I am not going to work and work, and wile away my precious time on this earth, dreaming of some future pleasure, my arms filled with tax-free cash. I have seen too many people put their lives on hold until retirement, and never make it there.

My sister-in-law died one month after she received her first Social Security payment. One month.

I do make some plans for the future. I hope to someday hike the Appalachian Trail. I am working on some short stories. I have plans for this weekend, and next month and next year. Retreats. Hikes. Visits with family. Phone calls.

But I know that those plans are not real. They may never happen. If nothing else, my loss has taught me this: everything changes, in this world, everything. Everyday. 

Even my grief. 

My grief is no longer frozen. It is a landscape of hills and valleys, rivers and streams, still lakes and turbulent waters. On days like today, when the sun shines, and the air is warm and breezy, I awaken with a sense of calm and hope. I stand at the top of the hill, looking out. I go about my routine, and try to remain aware, and mindful, and I may even feel happy, for awhile, until something hits. A remembered image of him, on the ground. A walk past the shop where we bought our wedding cake. A lingering look through the window of our coffee shop, on the High Street. Remembering our last time there, together. Such minute moments in time can send me tumbling, face first, into the valley of my grief.

The grief is always there. It might shift and change in shape and breadth and width, but the depth of it remains. It is dark, and sits in the pit of my stomach. Some days I can move around it, or mould it, like clay. Other days it is hard, and unrelenting. Like coal. Like rock.

I can count on this grief. I know it will never leave me, entirely. My love was deep. My grief is real. 

It is the one true thing I have left.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Carrying the Grief Ahead

I've had little time to think in the past few days. I came down for the weekend to the beach a few hours south of where I live, with a bunch of friends. Like everything in this After Life, even the most ordinary stuff - like a beach trip - has significance and can feel heavy.

I woke this morning early to write this - all my friends still dozing away from a late night of fun. As I brew up a pot of coffee in the morning quiet, I am able to finally think things over.

It's been a great trip, but I have found myself having to really try hard to put on a smile. I am just having a diffiult time getting excited about things...

This morning, it hits me: All these friends who came down for the weekend... They are new friends. Friends I have met in the past year. Friends who never knew Drew. Even after almost 3 years, that can still be hard. It can still be hard to not wish he were here, and remember what it felt like when my partner was there on these kinds of trips with me... Where we could enjoy being that beautiful extension of one another in the company of others.

This was compounded by the fact that the new guy I am dating was not able to be here, and I was simultaneously wishing to share that with him too. And then finally, further compounded by the fact that we are staying at my in-laws' beach condo. The place where Drew and I had so many memories. And the forever strange reminder that his family is not only still in my life, but IS my family now too... Only he isn't here to get to enjoy that. 

Anytime there is a coming together of my new and old world like this - it stirs up the grief. He wanted so badly for us to be married and share a life together... And we just didn't get there, and while I may someday go on to have that with someone else... I will always be sad that it was a funeral - not a wedding - that united his life and mine forever. 

Grief: it's like a pack I've been carrying these years. At first it was too heavy to even walk with - for a long, long time. At first I could not fathom how I would ever be strong enough to carry it onto any forward path. And while I did become stronger, I'm discovering a lot of the forward movement has had more to do with lightening the load I carry.

I have been opening up this pack, day by day, taking things out of it - pieces of my grief. I've turned them over in my hands and heart. I've cried for them, held them, felt them, and then.... Finally, kneeled down to leave them on the ground as I walk ahead. 

The good news is that, after a few years of pairing things down, my pack IS getting lighter. And I AM stronger than when I started out. Even with a lighter load and a stronger back though, carrying the grief on the new legs of this journey is still exhausting. Sometimes the inclines get too steep and I have to slow down, or the storms of life cause me to have to hunker down a while. I am okay with that most of the time. He was worth it, IS worth it. But some of the time, I wish I could just leave the whole pack behind... Only I know there are vital tools for navigating in there that I must take with me.

Last night I ended up staying in while all my friends went out to the bar. I hesitated, almost forced myself to go out when I wasn't up for it. At the last minute though, I bailed and let them go out while I went to bed. Today I am already feeling a bit better overall.

I am reminding myself this morning that this journey is still challenging and there will be times when I need to take my pack off and rest a while. It may even happen in the middle of a social gathering or another inconvenient time... But the most important thing is to put that pack - and myself - first. To make room in my life to stop and open up my grief, and also to stop and look back over all the distance I've traveled so far... and be proud.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dating in the After

For some reason, I seemed to have developed the assumption that dating would be easier this time around.  God knows why.  I think, maybe, I decided that after being through something so horrific, that by the time I got to the stage where I felt ready to open my heart again I would have accumulated some kind of positive ‘love karma’ and earned myself another nice, respectable man. 

I imaged that I would make some kind of grand statement (like uploading a profile on a dating website) and eligible suitors would form an orderly queue.  I’d go on a couple of dates before finding someone whom I sparked with, and we’d be off. 

Silly, silly widow!  Why or why was I so naive?  How could I not have remembered the shallow pool of contenders I encountered last time around – let alone imagined the minefield of idiots that would be waiting for me this time.  To attempt to take advantage of a perceived vulnerability, or freak out and react uncomfortably at the first mention of death.  Or just to basically be disappointing overall.

So far, dating ‘after Dan’ is very different to dating ‘before Dan’.

I don’t have the energy I did before. I don’t have the stamina or resilience for the game playing (is he going to call?  Should I call?).  I’m much more fragile this time around and now that I know the stakes and what I could potentially gain – and then lose again – I’m more cautious and reserved. 

Furthermore, Dan set the bar REALLY high. As in, I'm really holding out for someone incredible. Someone who makes me light up. Now that I know what the real deal, no-holds-barred, 100% true love feels like, nothing less than will ever be tolerated. Not that it should ever have been tolerated before, or by anyone in any circumstances.  But before Dan I didn’t know exactly how incredible love could and should be.  

This next man will need to have a bit of class about him but be humble at the same time. A gentleman, honorable, funny, loyal and basically an all-round stand-up guy. Because, as I now know without a doubt, this is what I deserve.

Which, is another big difference to dating this time around, I have a better understanding of my own worth. Before Dan, I put up with more than my fair share of nonsense from guys who really should have treated me better. I'd been taken for granted and this had subconsciously impacted on what I perceived that I was worth. I didn't realize it at the time, but until I met Dan I think I'd started believing that love just wasn't meant for me. 

And then along came the most wonderful man. He meant it when he said I was beautiful, kind, funny and smart.  He taught me what love felt like and proved that I'm the type of woman who really does deserve the best. Furthermore, I'm not ashamed to admit it. I'm freaking awesome! The next guy who wins my heart is going to have to be pretty special, because he'll be getting have a very incredible woman. 

In my wedding speech, I said to Dan (among many other things) ‘You’re such an amazing man.  You always know just what to say and you save me every day.’ When I sat this week and pondered what being in love with Dan had taught me, I realised that he had taught me how to save myself.  Never again will I find myself in an unfulfilling relationship or question my worth. He gave me that. 

I’m still impatient though, I am wanting to take a step forward.  I’m wanting to test the waters.  I’m wanting to feel a stirring in my heart again but just can’t find the right person to make it stir.  I’m scared as all get out, but I’m ready to try. 

I know, I know – all good things come to those who wait.  You can’t hurry love.   You’ll find someone when you aren’t looking.  Bla bla bla, I know.  I’ve been around this block before, I know how it works.  It’s just so bloody annoying that I’m going through it all again. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

After Shine

I am so grateful for this Widow’s Voice. And it’s not just about having the opportunity to share, but to know that each day I can check in and “hear” another widow’s voice; that I can follow and learn about the multitude of paths, thoughts and feelings that are experienced. Even if I ever stop writing here, I know I will read it every single day, as long as it is here. I will never stop being a widow, even as my life will, and indeed has, taken different turns since Mike’s death.

I think a lot about how different the grieving process is for each individual. How many factors there are that determine our reactions and decisions since our losses. How we view the world, and our lives, through such a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors and patterns.

How death - the finality and reality of death - will now always be intimate. This is something I’ve been thinking and writing about the past few weeks. But on the heels of that horror I’ve also been made aware of how the development of my own self has taken an unalterable fork in the road. We will never be the same again - but I am beginning to give myself permission to realize the positive side of that fact.

I have talked at length with several of my other widowed friends about how in many ways we would not be the people we are today had our husbands not died. That we find ourselves again alone in the world, again seeking and searching, and this can lead us to our own brand of greatness and fulfillment that we may not have had opportunity to find otherwise. That the person I am becoming now can still shine brightly, even despite the grief of missing him.

Sometimes these thoughts are as big and scary as the grim reaper ones. I no longer have the life partner I thought I would have in this phase of my life; I no longer have that special person to rely or lean on, or seek advice or comfort from. I must take this detour on my own.

Mike and I were really joined at the hip. Our relationship was all-encompassing and I know I did lose myself in it. And I happily allowed that to happen. He taught me more than anyone on this planet aside from my own parents. But maybe I was ready to fly out on my own; at the time of his death I could not imagine this was true or even possible. I can’t help but see what a different person is walking around out there now - one with lots of different parts: the person she was before she met Mike, the one who spent nearly 14 years by his side, the one who walked through death’s cold shadow, and the one who now finds herself the sum of it all, plus the new extra bits that are gathered in these after days. After Mike; after my marriage; just…after. My after me.

My new relationship is not a replacement for my marriage to Mike. There is no replacing anyone. But I am so grateful for it in so many ways, some of which I am only just now coming to understand. My new guy is teaching me things too. He is a very different sort of man, perhaps just the kind of man I needed right now. His fierce independence and practicality has solidified the idea that I must be my own woman now. His own brand of support and encouragement has, in a way, forced me to view my own potential from a very different perspective. The fragile fledgling I was when Mike died has been developing her wings and is now taking test flights out from the nest.

I still wobble from time to time; I still find I must occasionally come to rest on a branch and gather my bearings for the next swoop around. But I am finding I can find joy in this life still. I will miss Mike every day for the rest of my life - but I must also admit that some days, the feeling of independent flight can be awfully exhilarating. And instead of feeling guilty about that, I now focus on how deeply proud Mike would be that I’m striving to use what I’ve learned and shine it back out into the world.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

This day. Today.

Today is 2 years since my beloved husband Chuck died.

I've always used the word died since he...died.  Don't care at all for the other, gentler words.  Not at all.  I need the harsh words to remind me that he is indeed dead because there is a part of me, somewhere inside of me, a part I can't identify, that just doesn't believe that he's dead or that this isn't some huge cosmic joke being perpetrated upon me and someday he'll come walking in the door and we'll both be totally disbelieving and we'll hug and hug and hug some more and then we'll have wild and crazy sex and then, well, get back to our lives.

So, 2 years ago.  The grief is still very present but I imagine to most of the world I seem okay and ordinary on the outside.  On the inside the grief has lodged itself into the marrow of my bones and become my heartbeat and the rush of my blood but nobody can see that so yes, I look incredibly normal whatever that means to the outside world.

I took my normal appearing self to Sedona today to remember and honor him.  Our oldest son went with me, along with his almost 2 year old daughter, who was born 2 months after Chuck's death. Our destination was the Stupa at the Buddhist Peace Park.  Chuck practiced Buddhist philosophy and that was part of what sustained him through an ugly cancer.  Alexander, my son, scattered some of his dad's cremains around the base of the Stupa and we walked around it 3 times, as is the custom, each of us quietly praying a mantra.

Before going to the Stupa, we went to Bell Rock, the site of our last family hike and where we went last year to remember Chuck.  Bell Rock holds a strong place in all of our hearts and my grand-daughter danced with me on the first level.  She's also an FWG, though, of course, she has a long way to go before attaining the true rank and file.  At her age, she's a future warrior goddess, and proved it when she good-naturedly hiked the trail with us and did some climbing with our assistance.

I don't know that my heart will ever not be broken and I'm not concerned one way or another.  What I know is that there aren't many who are gifted with the love of a man the way I was, in my life.  How miraculous that on this huge earth he and I found each other and fell in love and stayed in love.  And how impossibly devastating it is to know that he is gone from my life.

And how beautiful it is that today, our son, and the grand-daughter Chuck never met, went with me to remember him and remember the love, and that this little girl danced with her Granna to celebrate this man who left such a legacy of love behind him.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015



This week in Australia and New Zealand we are leading up to the centenary of our initial engagement in the First World War at Gallipoli in Turkey, an engagement that for Australia is often considered the birth of the nation.

Most of the documentaries, news reports and commemorations surrounding the anniversary are focused on the men who went away and what they faced on the front lines.

But there seems to be very little on those left on the home front so far from the theatres of that war.

Little on those widowed by the war.

I think about my experience - I knew what was happening. I'd reached a point where I knew Ian was going to die.  It was simply a matter of when and to be prepared for either being there, or the phone call if he died while I wasn't at the hospital.  And I'd knew I'd get word pretty quickly.

I can't imagine the uncertainty those left home would have felt.  Maybe getting delayed news reports of the slaughter that was Gallipoli and surrounding campaigns, and having no idea if their husband, fiancé or child had survived or not.

The constant underlying stress of waiting to see if the telegram or army representative came to your home to deliver the dreaded news that yes, they were on the casualty list.

Knowing their last resting place is on foreign shores.  That you'll probably never get to say goodbye, lay flowers at their grave.

Just being so far removed from the fighting that apart from the absence of one, or many, men from your life, it doesn't seem real.

Of not knowing what social supports would be in place, how you'd raise your family, run the farm, simply survive if you were a war widow.  Prior you might have had to head out and marry the first bloke that came along to simply survive - but they're all at war.

We see the collective effect of grief when we join together at Camp Widow or our local support groups, but I can't imagine how that would feel on the sheer scale that occurred during the wars.

To grieve at a time where grief wasn't as understood as it is today.  Where quite possibly the pressures to 'get over it' was far more overt and wide-spread than we experience today. 

"Sorry your husband died, but the country can't afford for you to grieve, there's a war on".

Repeated again, and again, and again.

It's important to remember those who served and didn't come home.

But I'll also remember those at home who also sacrificed the life they thought they'd have.

Those that ARE at home, who have sacrificed the life they'd thought they'd have.

Monday, April 20, 2015


The shrine at the Buddhist Centre, at Stan's memorial service

In this week of sunshine and gentle breezes and flowers blooming, I have felt a subtle shift in my grief. The warm weather and sprouting leaves have helped me to approach my days with hope. I have cried less often and smiled more. I have begun to consider how I might live this new life without him. I have had hours and days of calm and gratitude. I have had fewer days crouched in sadness. Some days I think that perhaps I will be alright.

On other days, though, a simple slight can open the dam, tapping into the grief that is stored in the deep recesses of my heart, sending it like an electrical surge through my body. 

Last Monday, I made my usual trek to the Buddhist Centre, after work, to share a meal with my sangha friends before our evening teaching and ceremonies. It is a familiar, welcoming place of wood and brick, set in the middle what is known as the Northern Quarter. I feel Stan's spirit, there, when I visit, and his influence lives on in the people who knew him and in the lives he impacted. 

Each time I entered, I would glance at the photo of him on the bulletin board, promoting the bursary fund that was set up, using the donations people made, in his memory, to help those with less money to attend Buddhist retreats. The bursary fund was something he had proposed and was passionate about, before he died. He wanted the dharma to be available to all people, not only those with enough money to afford expensive retreats. He would have been so happy to see it flourish.

It was a comfort to me, to see his photo and the poster, there, on the board. I would smile at him, pat his picture, and say hello. 

I didn't notice it, at first. I was immersed in conversation, and appreciating my food, when I glanced at the board. And his poster was gone. Just gone. The board had been rearranged, and other announcements had taken its place.

 I panicked, as a mother would do when she realises her toddler is missing. I raced to the board, to get a closer look. I ran to the reception desk, to see if it was there. I asked people what happened to it. No one seemed to know. My voice got louder. I began to cry. Then I began to sob. 

Friends came to help me. No one could really figure out what could have happened that would cause me such great upset. A good friend from my study group stood with me as I explained it. She rubbed my shoulders and tried to help me gain composure. 

Some folks looked at me as if I had truly "lost the plot", as they say in the UK. And I suppose I had. Some did not understand why it mattered. It was just a poster. It was a large one, and other events were coming up at the centre, and the board needed to be rearranged.  Simple. Logical. It was just a poster. 

But, to me, he had disappeared. He had been discarded. Someone had decided that he no longer mattered. His legacy had been tossed out. 

Another good friend helped me to find a quiet place where we could talk, so that I could sort through all these surging feelings, and make sense of the enormous grief and loss that had erupted, seemingly, out of nowhere. 

It was just a poster. But it symbolised so much. It meant that he still had a presence there, and that his contribution to the place was still appreciated. It meant that new sangha members who came along, and did not know him, would at least know a little about him. It meant that I could come there, and see him, every time I entered. It meant that he was not forgotten. 

I work so hard to make sure that he is not forgotten. I would prefer that the shrine be decorated, always, the way it was on the day of his funeral. Or that his photo be enlarged, and framed in gold, with an eternally glowing light directed at it. Or that one of our talented artists create a life-size bronze statue of him, and place it in the reception area, next to the Buddha. 

 I want to preserve him, just the way he was. 

But the truth is that, with time, his memory will fade. Not from me, and those who were closest to him. But, for others, the sweetness of his spirit, his kindness, his strength, his funny stories, all those things will drift away. People will come to the centre, as the years pass, who never knew him. Friends who knew him a little bit will no longer talk about him. Time passes. Memories fade. 

My husband is gone. He is not coming back. He has disappeared.

This constant effort to preserve his memory takes so much energy. And, in the end, it is futile. Those who loved him dearly will carry his memory in their own way, and those who barely knew him will not think about him anymore. I can't control it. It is the way of the world. 

Yet, there are some things I can do. I have decided to hike to the top of Mount Snowdon, one of the highest peaks in the UK, on the weekend before the anniversary of his death, to raise money for the bursary fund. Others have agreed to hike it with me, in his memory. Perhaps we can make it an annual event--a tangible reminder of the kind and compassionate person he was. 

My husband will live, always, inside me, and in those who knew him well. Those who did not know him missed a lot. He was a great man. He was the kindest person I ever knew. He never met a stranger, because he turned them into friends. 

I can't preserve my husband. But I can hike up the mountain, raise money for those who need it, and honour his spirit. I am touched that my friends and the people who loved him want to join me in this effort. 

On to Mount Snowdon, June 6, 2015! 

The first Memorial Walk for the Stan Kukalowicz Bursary Fund!