Thursday, November 27, 2014

Surviving Thanksgiving


The first Thanksgiving Mike and I spent together in 1999, we went out for Indian food. We thought it would be a lark to be totally untraditional, and we did that together for a few years until we moved to Hawaii. Once we got here we started hosting the holiday ourselves with various groups of family and friends over the years. I have a lot of fond memories of it all. But in truth, Mike and I together were never super big on any of the holiday kaboozle. We could take it or leave it…and some years, we did leave it, preferring instead to take it easy. Those were good years too.

Honestly I can’t believe another year has gone by. Today is my second Thanksgiving without him. If not for the hoo-hah surrounding the holiday season, on TV, in stores, I probably could just very well ignore the whole thing. Last year, I did. Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, as much as I could avoid it, I did not mark either Thanksgiving or Christmas really at all. I couldn’t bear any sort of special meal or event with that empty chair staring at me.

But here we are again. And things have changed during this past year. I can’t avoid the fact that relationships have shifted, new people are in my life, and I have new projects and responsibilities. So while I’m not planning anything big, I will be stopping by a couple of family and friends to mark the day…but more for them, not for me. I find myself wanting to be supportive of the relationships around me. So that’s my priority this year. And I’m going to hope there won’t be that empty chair staring at me.

Honestly, I’m just glad I survived this year. I can’t help but think, as I’m writing this, of the first Thanksgiving, as we are told the story. That group of Pilgrims who celebrated having enough crops to survive the coming winter of 1621, thanks to the help from the Native Americans. So many Pilgrims had died the year before without enough food. So that first year, they were essentially celebrating survival.

This year, I can say that maybe, a little, I find myself in a similar state of mind. I am grateful I have enough food, and a roof over my head. So many widows I know struggle with even these basic necessities after the loss of their spouses. I am also grateful for the friends and family, my therapist, and fellow widows and widowers who have stood by me during these 21 months without Mike - they taught me the resources and tools I needed to make it, much like that local tribe did so long ago. I am grateful…yes, I really am grateful, that I have survived. 

And that is really saying a lot, because in the beginning after he died I didn’t much care whether I did or not. 






Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Read Patiently. There is an Actual Point~

It's turned out, for me, to be all about the hair.  

I didn't intend it to play out like this; it just has.

Shortly after Chuck died, I cut my hair off to the scalp.  Short, short, short.  First scissors then a razor.  It was done in a violent manner, in a way that I hoped would allow me to release some of the devastating pain of his forever gone-ness.  It didn't matter to me what it looked like.  I had no interest in my appearance in any case and somewhere inside of me was the thought that maybe by the time it grew out long again, the grief would be less.

In the 19 months since I was left behind, my hair has grown out a bit.  I trimmed it at one point, not even an inch, and by now I'd guess it's probably below my ears.  I say probably because the proper length doesn't show since I had it dredded into what I call Lovelocs.   My hair is longer than it looks but it's a mess and I kind of look like Medusa unless I wear a scarf to hold it back.  Which I do for now and will until the dreds grow into what they're supposed to look like.   Again...and still...I don't really care what it looks like because there is an intent behind it.

I sat for 9 hours to get my dreds in and not all of my hair was long enough at the time so I'm still working on the bottom layers.   Dreds can take up to 4 months to even begin to look the way they're supposed to and they require quite a bit of upkeep.  Every couple days (more often if I feel inspired), stray hair must be woven into already established locs, and end pieces must be locked into place.  I use a small latchhook with an eye on it for weaving, and my fingertips go numb at times from the tearing and backcombing that forms the locs.   Sometimes my hair looks like I hope it's supposed to look like but mostly not, at the moment.  Which is also okay with me.

All of which is to say, my hair is reflective of my life.  My hair is wild and sticks up in places and is unraveled daily and must be woven into being again.  It must be pulled and torn and tightened and locked into place.  Doing all of this is tiring to my arms as I reach behind my head or hold them over top, doing what must be done to attain what it is I want to attain.   I work at it diligently for focused amounts of time then take a break and come back to it when I feel inspired once again.

I'm a mess emotionally.  I freely admit that.  I still struggle with the shock of the man I love being dead and me being without him.  I struggle with that knowledge during the day and always at night.  Life without him is exhausting and un-nerving and I'm completely uninspired to do anything other than survive.  I feel untethered and at odds with myself and those around me.  Working on my hair, whether harshly backcombing it and tearing it into separate pieces, or more calmly weaving stray hairs into the locs;  it describes me, and my life, fairly accurately as I stumble through this grief into a new, and undesired, world.

Maybe, by the time my Lovelocs develop fully, my life will feel more sane.  Maybe I'll feel more sane.  Meanwhile,  working on them has become a meditation for me.  Daily, loc by loc.  Working on one, then another.   It takes time, and patience, and repetition and determination and due diligence and it isn't easy.

Grief.  Sadness.  Missing-ness.  Creating a new life without him.  And...Lovelocs...



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Longer than...

 

First, thanks to Chris for filling in while I dealt with preparing for and sitting 3 finals in 4 days. 

Of course, while I was meant to be studying, I came to the realisation of something.

Come June 18th 2015, Ian will have been gone longer than we had known each other - three years and four days versus three years and three days.

I have no idea why this realisation hit.  I don't think I was doing anything to do with calendars or even thinking about next year. I think I was picking up wayward spaghetti strands from under John's chair. The realisation seemed to come out of nowhere.

And although a sad realisation, and that that much time has passed doesn't feel real, it was also positive.

It felt like a threshold.

I've been able to move some more of Ian's clothes out of the house, donating them to a shelter. 

I've been able to think about taking his clothes out of my walk-in closet and packing them away.

I feel like I'm now more likely to tell new acquaintances that I'm single, not a widow. I'm single because I'm a widow, but 'single' seems to be more forward in how I identify myself than 'widow'.   

I feel somewhat lighter.  I don't know if it's because I feel like a burden's lifted, or if it's because I'm now stronger and the weight is therefore not as difficult to carry as it was before.

I've still been having sad or anxious times, but they don't seem to last as long, they seem to don't go as deep. 

I've always been able to look ahead into the future in terms of what I'll do, how I'll survive, but they've been practical considerations.  Job and income, schooling for John and so forth. 

There's a more positive vibe in the air as I move to 2015. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Cost of Grief



my older brother, Dennis
I have been here in Indiana for over a week. My days have been quiet, but they are about to get much busier, with family and friends taking time off work in preparation for Thanksgiving. My social calendar, which, to this point, has been fairly empty, will soon be filled with scheduled meet ups and events.

I am not sure I'm ready. I find it difficult to spend time with people, even those who know me well. Regular conversation feels pointless. It is hard to make chit-chat. I can only pretend to be light and happy for so long before I need to retreat, somewhere, in search of a bit of space.

I have spent most of my time, here, with my brother and his two little dogs. These dogs were his constant companions when he was sick three years ago, on several litres of oxygen, and unable to walk beyond a few steps, having waited almost a year for a lung transplant.  

He received that transplant on his 60th birthday. Best present, ever, the gift of life.

My brother’s son died 10 years ago, at the age of 23, so he knows a bit about this thing called grief. Christopher was a sensitive young soul who lived life to the extreme. He didn’t get to find his way through his pain or to grow out of his risky behaviour. He died before he could grow up. Our family has weathered many tragedies, but Chris’ death was, by far, the worst.

People surrounded my brother and his children at the funeral and for a few weeks afterward. Then, before long, the rest of us went back to our daily lives. I felt sad, when I thought of him, but I didn’t reach out to my brother or my niece and nephew, often. I had my own son, who was experimenting with risk, himself, and I was so afraid that it could happen to him. I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything at all.  I left them on their own to deal with the emptiness and grief.

It is strange, this living with loss. Our world has shifted on its axle, throwing everything into question, but others return to their routines and move through their days as if nothing has changed. Fortunately I have people around me who are not afraid to speak my husband’s name. They miss him, too. They recognise that five months is nothing at all in this long journey, and they allow me the time and space to grieve.

Others, though, want to avoid the subject when we meet. They ask how I am but don’t wait for the answer. They seem uncomfortable with sorrow. They deliver aphorisms of positivity and hope. Their words imply that I should smile and move on from these messy waters. They want to feel better when they look at me. They want things tidied up.

Some avoid me altogether. People I once counted as my closest friends. Some family members, too, have neglected to send me even an email of condolence.

We become pariahs. We are the harbingers of the bad news that this could happen. They could lose their partners at a moment’s notice. Their children could die. They could be plugging along, with plans and dreams, when the whole earth shifts. They could watch their husbands collapse in front of them. They could get that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night.

Who wants to come face to face with that? It makes sense that we, and the reality we represent, would be avoided at all cost.

So I forgive them, and their human frailties. I was once one of those, who avoided death, who met the pain of someone’s grief with silence. It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s that I didn’t know. It’s that I was afraid.

The loss of my love has given me an empathy that I didn’t have before. From this day forward, I vow that:

*When I see someone who has experienced a loss, I will move toward her, rather than away from her.

*I will sit with him and let him cry. I will not offer a tissue, a pat on the back, or a hug, when he is in the midst of it. I will just let him grieve.


*I will share a memory of her loved one with her.

*I will encourage her to share her own.

*I will not wait for him to tell me what he needs. I will offer something practical instead—a lift, a cooked meal, a meet up for a coffee.

*I will respect her need for space and quiet, and not take it personal if she does not return my calls.

*I will check in, by phone or text, to let him know he is in my thoughts.

*I will not tell her to be grateful for what she had, or that her loved one is in a better place, or to be strong for others. That is the last thing she needs.

*I will remember his special dates—birthdays, anniversaries, date of the death, and make a point of acknowledging it.

I will use my presence to remind them they are not alone.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Still, Life

"Hope" ©Sarah Treanor

This week has been a whirlwind for me. I met a fellow artist who, upon seeing my photographic series on grief, asked to write this feature about it for a creative blog he writes for. That one blog post at this point has led to around 6 other blogs contacting me to share my story and the project… which has resulted in hundreds of people sharing the project via Facebook and Twitter. It has been certainly one of the most memorable and moving weeks of slogging through the past two years since my fiancĂ© died.

To catch you up, this is a year-long self portrait series I have been doing since February called "Still, Life". Each weekly image - which I share on my blog - explores and expresses the emotional and psychological journey of living on after the death of someone you love. It touches on aspects like desperation and isolation, hopelessness and hope, fear and trust. It has been a grueling and often frustrating project. I've wanted to quit MANY times. I've cursed enough over it to make a sailor blush. I've had total emotional breakdowns over it. But, I've needed it project to survive. It's given me something to put myself into each day… like being able to climb into a boat on this stormy sea of grief. Still in the storm, but with something to hold me and help give me some small bit of direction.

So here I am this week, reading kind words written by other people about this work I've poured myself into for the past nine months. A project that could have never come out of me had he not died. It is so bittersweet - but my God, it's beautiful. The first two years were deeply survival. But these first 5 months of the third year since he died, it feels like he lives on in every step forward I take. The bitter is beginning to fall away, and leaving more and more sweetness over time.

As I read the headline to one of the articles this week - "Photographer Takes Moving Self-Portraits To Cope With Her Fiance’s Death"- and the article itself, I realized for the first time that this project is actually about a lot more than I ever knew. The images themselves may speak of pain and loss, but the project as a whole speaks of other things. It is about healing by making something meaningful out of loss. It is about love, and how unbreakable love is. Even when death tries to take it, it cannot be taken from us. Not ever. Finally, it is about the most important lesson he taught me in our three short but beautiful years together; Never give up on your dreams.

He worked for years to achieve his dream of being a commercial helicopter pilot. The man loved flying more than I've seen anyone love anything. Like any big dream, there were plenty of big fears along the way. He feared he wasn't competent enough. He feared the responsibility of transporting others safely. He feared dying in a crash, of course - which is ultimately how he did die. They were some very real fears. But he never let it stop him. I was lucky enough to be by his side to watch it all unfold. To watch him pass every check ride and gain every certification and land his first commercial job. There was a deep joy in him that last year as his dreams came to fruition. A joy unlike any I've witnessed so closely before. Watching his journey was the fuel that led me to chase my own dreams to be an artist. His death is what ignited it.

I feel now that this whole project is far more about him than me. It is all the things he stood for and the things taught me in life. And all the things he is teaching me still, in death. How he is showing me that still, even after all of this, there is life. And love. And that it is my job to get up every day, live life, and be love. My job to look for beauty still wherever I can find it. My job to decide to make something out of this crazy, awful, shitty, unbelievable journey. And my job to create my own meaning out what life throws at me.

I am completely overwhelmed to even be a part of it all right now. In deep gratitude that he came into my life 5 years ago… just a friend, who turned into more, and who has changed the entire course of my life now in ways I could not have ever imagined. The fact the just one person can come into your life and have THAT much impact still amazes me. I cannot help but be grateful that he changed my life and is still changing it today.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Living With The Hole

Source
A young widow in my on-line support group, who lost her husband to depression very recently, said something this week that really got me thinking.  She had one of those moments that happen in the early days where you kind of forget your partner has gone - she picked up her phone to text him about something and then it hit her hard, she could never contact him and tell him her news again.  

I had forgotten that feeling.  After 16 months without Dan, I've pretty much adjusted to being on my own again.  Sans-partner.  Table for one.  Lone wolf.  I don't like it - God no, it's bloody awful and lonely and it freaking sucks.  I miss him like my left arm, but I don't forget that he's gone anymore.  

That realisation that I've adjusted in this new life still takes me by surprise.  When Dan first died, the hole he left was so vast, I couldn't imagine how I would go on living and navigate my way around it.  But now I see, looking back, that I have.  I've slowly, step-by-step, started to rebuild my life around the hole. 

It is still there but I don't fall in as often anymore. I've gotten used to it. Then I've felt terrible for getting 'used to it' and confused by what that meant.  It's a long and difficult path but I have been walking it. I still don't really know how.  

Every time I've taken a step forward it's come with the complications of guilt and confusion along with constant self-analysis and judgement.  How can I be moving forward into a life where he's not here beside me?  So. Many. Things to feel bad about.  So much information and emotion to process and comprehend.  No wonder I'm exhausted all the time, with so much going on in my head.

I raised this with my grief counsellor and we spoke about the importance of trying not to assess my progress or determine my status in this process.  While it's wonderful to realise that I've made some kind of progress or grown in this after-life, I still get nervous when I'm having a good day, or disheartened when I have a bad day - because of my inherent need to 'assess' what it all means.  

Am I going backwards?  Have I turned some kind of corner?  Is this a milestone?  Ugh - so much pressure!  I am working really hard at letting go of the expectations I put on myself.  

She pointed out that people have good days and bad days - even when they're not carrying the extra complication of bereavement.  Before Dan died, I wouldn't sit and think 'But WHY am I happy today?  What does that mean!?  Will I ever feel sad or angry again or is that behind me now?!'.  

So I am trying not to question.  Not to assess.  And gee, it feels nice to stop worrying and just 'be'.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Crazy Cat Lady

My husband was a huge animal lover, and even more cool, animals absolutely loved him. They flocked to him. We would go over to other people's houses or just walk to a nearby park, and other people's pets would run up to him and want to play. If we went to anyone's home who had a dog, he was instantly playing with the dog. He always wanted a dog of his own, but because we lived in an apartment that didn't allow dogs, he used to say: "Someday, Boo. When we move to a bigger place or maybe buy a house or condo, I can have my husky/shepherd mix." Well, that never happened.



What did happen was that Don Shepherd packed up his entire life into a moving van in February of 2005, and, with his cat Isabelle in his lap the whole time, drove from Florida to New Jersey non-stop, to start a life with me. His cat Izzy was 13 at that time, and two years later, she got old and sick and we had to let her go. Don wanted to adopt another cat or kitten from the local rescue shelter, so we went there together and found two sisters that were only about 7 weeks old. They told us the sisters were a package deal, and so Don convinced me that we should take them. I was very hesitant about having two cats. I kept saying: "But I don't wanna be the crazy cat lady." He would say: "You'd need at least 3 cats to qualify as crazy cat lady, and crazy cat ladies usually don't have husbands. They just have cats."

Cue the part of the story where my husband randomly drops dead.

But before that happened, we took the 2 kitties home and named them Ginger and Autumn. They were so damn cute, running around and chasing each other, and fighting playfully and lying down at night behind our heads. Ginger was so in love with Don, she literally would hang on him like he was a tree. She would sit on his shoulder or wrap herself around his neck and just hang out wagging her little tail. One day, when they were about 3 years old, Ginger and Autumn were playing and chasing each other like usual. It was the middle of the night, like 2 am. Suddenly, Ginger whimpered loudly and limped under the bed, hiding and whimpering. "Come here, sweetie. We have to see what's wrong honey. It's okay, my sweet girl. We're gonna get you some help." My paramedic husband went into action while I panicked. "Get the kitty cage, Boo. Look up where the closest vet ER is. Something's very wrong. " We drove Ginger to the nearest vet ER, which was a good 40 minutes away, and she moaned the whole time as I tried to calm her while Don drove and talked to her the whole time. When we got there, they took her and we waited. Then a guy in a white coat came back out and took us into a small private room, closing the door. He pulled out an x-ray and showed it to us, and Don burst into tears. "Look, Boo" he explained to me, since I had no clue what was happening. "Her poor little lungs can't breathe because her heart is too big. Her lungs are being crushed. Oh, my poor sweet girl." The doctor explained that Ginger had been born with an enlarged heart, and that she threw a blood clot, causing her to spasm and stop walking on her back legs. He said it would happen again and again, and that she was not destined to live a long life. We had to let her go, and Don and I held each other and cried in that private room for a good half hour before Ginger came back in so we could be with her when we let her go.




Just 3 days later, when it was just us and Autumn, who seemed quite depressed at the loss of her sister which she didnt understand, Don wanted to take some pictures of Ginger back to the rescue shelter where we got her, and where her foster mom worked. He wanted to tell them what had happened. I agreed, although I really wasnt much in the mood to go back there, but we did. We walked inside, and began telling them what had happened, when suddenly, this full grown adult orange male cat, lept out of his cage and ran across the large room, galloping like a horse. He sped through the 12 or so other people in the room, and ran right up to Don. He looked into my husband's eyes, then climbed his 6 foot 4 body, all the way up to his shoulders, just like Ginger used to do. Then he sat there, staring at Don and wagging his tail. Don turned to me with tears in his eyes and said: "You realize we are taking him home, right?"

So there we were, coming home with this 9 year old boy-cat, whose name on his papers was simply "Shawn." We both couldn't stop laughing at that stupid name. "Shawn? Who names a cat Shawn?, Don said on the drive home. "That sounds like the name of some Irish dude from Boston that you'd go and meet for a beer. It's silly. No. He will be Sampson. Sammy." And so it was. Sammy came home, and he healed Don's grieving heart from the loss of Ginger. He followed Don around everywhere. He slept ON his head, almost every night. Sammy could not get close enough to Don. It was like he wanted to sleep inside of his face. That was in 2010. And then, in July of 2011, I found myself running into an E.R. at morph speed one early morning, as I saw a gaggle of nurses and doctors walk toward me. And it was me who went into that small, private room where they closed the door and told me that my husband had a massive heart-attack and didn't make it. It was me who went home alone that night, and forever.



And so now I'm the crazy cat lady. Even though I only have 2 cats, I still say I qualify for the role. I certainly feel crazy most days. I have no idea what I'm doing, Don was the better pet-parent by miles and miles, and they miss him in very specific and obvious ways. Too much to get into here, as it would take pages to explain the many ways in which they grieve for their Papa. But here we are - me and Autumn and Sammy. We have moved twice together, in the 3 years since Don's death. It was very difficult, both times, to find living situations that would accept not one, but two cats along with myself. I kept hearing Don's voice in my head, from when he and I were thinking about moving years ago: "I'd live underneath a bridge somewhere before I'd ever let anyone take my kitties away from me." So where I go, they go. I do my best, and I love them like mad. They are the only living piece of Don that I have. We never got to have our family - we never got to have kids together - so this is it. When it's time to say goodbye to them, I don't know how I'm going to do it. Sammy is already almost 14 now, and showing signs of slow cause for concern. I just pet him and love on him and say "I love you, buddy. I love you so much. Papa loves you too." Autumn sits in the hallway and meows and howls at the ceiling, sometimes for an hour straight. She did the same thing after Ginger died. Don used to say to her: "Are you talking to your sister, honey? Tell her Papa loves her." So now I say: "Are you talking to Boo? Tell him I love him so much." I don't know if I actually even believe anything I'm saying in those moments that I'm saying them. I don't know that I believe Don can hear me or that he knows what we are doing or any of that. I don't know. But it's all I've got, and so I do it.



On a typical night in my bedroom, Autumn sleeps by my side or by my feet, and Sammy sleeps right in the crook of my arm or right up against me, like a person. He is the most lovable cat I have ever known, and just like I was convinced that Ginger was sent to us to help heal Don's broken heart after losing Isabelle - and Sammy was sent to us for more healing after Ginger died - I think that having Sammy here is sort of like Don's last gift to me. It sure feels that way. Anytime I am sad and crying, Sammy helps. He cuddles me and he purrs and he sits with me and says: "I know. I miss him too." Or at least, that is what he seems to be saying, in my crazy, cat-lady mind. But maybe he is just saying: "You're doing okay. Papa would be proud."

Pictured: Don sitting in his "Archie Bunker" chair with his Isabelle. Ginger climbing Papa. Autumn and Ginger hanging out by Don's guitars in their new Jersey home. Sammy sleeping on Don's head. Me and my Sammy-Sam.