Monday, February 18, 2013

Rope Ladder


I've struggled to explain how it feels to be a widow of 19 months. Describing it tests my verbal abilities. I imagine anyone who hasn't experienced it must wonder what it's like.

It was never simple to put to words, but now it seems even harder. To an outsider I go about my business, I'm sure, in a way that wouldn't alert anyone to the pain inside. I smile without reservation (most days), carry on conversations, eat, sleep, laugh, work, and play. My inner landscape, though, is much more complex and harder to explain, especially because it's not out there for everyone to see.

I have always loved analogies for explaining difficult concepts and while driving home the other night, I thought of an analogy that could help describe my current existence.

The analogy starts with water, like so many of my thoughts and dreams do.

My life now feels like I'm treading water in the ocean. Death by drowning or hypothermia or shark munching is not a pressing concern. I'm holding my own while I'm treading, but I'm SO DAMN TIRED because I've been treading for a long time now. Ages.

I'm very aware that no one is going to come by and scoop me out of the water, wrap me up in a warm blanket and speed boat me back to the shore.

I do, however have a rope ladder dangling in front of me. I can climb out of the water, one rung at a time, but I'm already tired and weak. On the other hand, climbing the ladder seems marginally better than treading water, so I try.

Each rung I grasp is something worth living for. My loving friends, my choir, animals, Camp Widow, hope, travel, learning, meeting new people, lessons learned that have made me stronger, smarter, better, my cats, the promise of good things to come.

As I grab onto one and puuuuuullll myself up, I feel a momentary jolt of victory. "I'm going to be okay!" I think. But then my arm muscles turn to mush and I run out of power. My legs weigh a thousand pounds and I slip down a notch or two.

The heaviness pulling me back toward the water is the pain...the idea of Dave in the hospital room without me as he died, the guilt that I get to live and he doesn't, the horror of the sound of the doctor saying "We did all we could...", the unbelievable force of missing him, the impossibility of his "gone-ness", the end of a life we'd planned on, the sight and sound of an ambulance shrieking by, the idea of possibly losing like this again one day.

Sometimes I get up pretty high and I look down and think that I'm pretty bad-ass. I feel lighter and I dry out in the sun just a little. I just start to warm up and then the weight overtakes me again, and I slip down a few notches. Sometimes I slip down far enough that I have to tread water once again.

Sometimes I'm just clinging in between, straining to maintain the height I've earned, but not yet able to relax and feel light again. Even when I'm up high I can still see the water below and I know that I'll be back down there again, treading, at some point.  The exhaustion never fully goes away because even when I'm resting I'm still clinging to that ladder.

None of that sounds especially reassuring, but there is good news. I swear there's good news!

The times spent treading are fewer and shorter. I'm developing stronger climbing muscles so the climb back out again isn't as laborious and those hard-earned muscles make me proud. I'm so much more empathetic to anyone else who might also be climbing up out of the sea, now that I know how it feels. Those rungs keep appearing, too, as long as I keep looking for them. I can much more easily focus on the rungs now, so I spend less time staring at the dark and treacherous waters below. Because I've been down there, I appreciate NOT being down there so much more. I take advantage of every moment I spend up in the air and sun.

Yes, I'd love to be done climbing. I'd love to let go of that rope ladder, and be able to fully relax, but that is not my fate now. Maybe one day. Maybe one day I'll be so strong that I'll be able to climb right back out of the waves without a second thought and I'll climb so high no one will be able to keep up. I'll be a goddamn gold metal rope-ladder-climbing champion. Maybe then I'll be able to really, really rest. 

Right now, though, this is what it feels like to be me.


  1. Love this Cassie, so well are absolutely heading towards being a goddamn gold metal rope-ladder-climbing champion. I hope I get to put that gold medal around your neck!

  2. Cassie,
    I am at 19 months too. That is exactly how I feel. Let's keep climbing because the sun feels good.

  3. I so understand your climb and struggle to keep your head above water. I view it a bit differently, I would rather live in that underwater world if I could, so calm and peaceful, just floating with the sea creatures. Unfortunately, I've got to breathe, so can't be there indefinitely.

    Funny how we appear (to others) to be normal many days, and blend in as best we can. If they only knew the turmoil inside of us they would look at us differently, I'm sure. Keep on climbing, Cassie, one rung at a time.

    1. You know, that underwater world is always a temptation for me, too. Sometimes more so than others. I'm so driven to not end up like my dad after he lost my mom. I don't want to slowly kill myself. Plus, there's so much I want to experience out of the water, I just wish I could experience it without clinging to that ladder. My focus is always at least a little bit on how hard I have to cling.

  4. Cassie, such a perfect analogy! I am approaching 36 months but still feel exhausted at times. I have to remind myself of my almost three year struggle to climb the rope. I think we all agree that grieving is physically and emotionally demanding and others around us just don't have a clue!!!!!

    Thank you and keep climbing! You have the courage to keep there (wherever that is!).

  5. That is a perfect analogy for a grieving mom like myself too. Some days it's so hard to choose getting up on that ladder again. But I'm so tired of being in the water too!

  6. I'm only 6 months out and I thought was was climbing right along, but I have fallen back into the deep water. I'm thinking maybe I need some help. I look like I'm doing ok on the outside, but I'm a mess inside. I'm not sure what to do. I guessing it's normal? I don't know and I want to be on the top rung of that stinking ladder, right now, I'm not climbing very well. We were married 32 years, I have grown kids and grandkids that are around a lot... so it confuses me why I can't just get to the top of that ladder. I'm so confused and disappointed in myself.

    1. Suzi,
      I just passed 24 months without my beloved Martin; we were married (almost) 32 years too. I have been going to grief counseling all this time. I couldn't live without it. I need a guide to help me through this mess. I can't get to the top of the ladder because it takes what seems like a million months to get through the depth of my loss of being with someone I loved for 32 years. That is a way long time. And the depth of that loss cannot be short cut around - the only way is through it, over and over and over. I encourage you to go easy on yourself and have no expectations of you - at least for the first year; let your grief lead, since it's a beast that will have it's own way anyway. This is an exercise I did as part of my grief - perhaps it will help you

      This sadness I feel is a badge of honor. I wear the brokeness of my life at this moment with pride. These expressions of my grief testify to the importance of my sweet, sweet Martin, the love of my life. I am willing to feel the full impact of my grief as a final act of tribute and love. I will make my way through this experience and will not run from it. mjk
      (Life After Loss)

    2. Amen and amen. Beautifully written. Love words that describe what I"m feeling. Thank you.

    3. Suzi... you and I are in about the same place. It's been 4.5 months since my husband died. I function, I go to work, I play with my grandchildren, and everyone thinks I am doing so well. however while I do those things, I'm screaming on the inside. No one but me hears those screams. I'm so sick of hearing "you're stong... you will get through this". I can't even see the ladder right now. I do all the things I'm supposed to ( take my meds, attend Grief Share) and if it's helping, I would hate to see me without it. What keeps me going is that if we had not had a wonderful marriage, if we had not had the love for each other that we did, I would not be feeling this way. So as Mjay said, I will wear my grief as a badge of honor.

    4. Debbie and Mjay.. thank you.. new perspectives.... I didn't think of it being a badge of honor, but I think you two have me thinking now and I thank you.

    5. Debbie, it'll get better. You'll see the ladder. It just takes SO MUCH TIME. Which I know I personally hated hearing. When someone would say "time heals all wounds" I'd want to punch them in the face. While this isn't a "wound" and it will never heal like an actual wound does, I think what time does is it allows us to hold both the sadness and the joy at the same time. The loss, the'll always be there. But so will joy and peace. I believe they will eventually coexist.

  7. Yes - i am on the slipping rope part at the moment. 27 months and I feel so lonely and I am having trouble shaking it.
    i have friends, family nearby, someone who loves me . . . I know I am lucky BUT I can't shake the loneliness, I can't shake the feeling that everything is on the surface. I have no safe harbour - he was it. Now I am out in the water on my own.
    People think I am doing well. Most days I am.
    Not tonight.
    Tonight I am so lonely but nothing will fix it - because I am lonely for one person and he won't ever be back and I know that and I accept it but it changes nothing.

    And this is one of those nights when life seems too long.

  8. I want to stand up and applaud this analogy! Amazing! I have never read anything that so completely described it. And when you talk about how you look to the outside world I can so identify. Some days I am so aware of how normal I make things look on the outside when I know on the inside I am nothing but a hot mess. I often complain (to my journal) how no one seems to come check on me or to help. Never really did. I have begun to realize that it's because I struggle so hard to look like I've got it covered. I used to tell my first husband "Yeah you've got it covered like the cat in the litter box it's still there and it still stinks but it's covered." I have it covered but it does really still stink!

  9. What a PERFECT analogy. This sums up my feelings as well. Thanks so much for finding a way to help put these feelings we have in words.

  10. Thank you so much for this entry -- I have good close friends who want to understand but I haven't expressed to them very well where I am. I'm sharing this entry with them in the hopes that your words stand in for the ones I don't have.

  11. I battled to read your "story" it was so close to home. The love of my life has been gone for 3 months now, I seemed to cope with the first 3 months. we lived and worked together. EVeryone has been looking to me for strength. I managed through Christmas and NY... We are in hospitality. We pulled through. Earned everyone's respect. but what now. I am totally lost and scared and lonely and I can't let anyone know. I am so in love with my. Husband but I feel like if peoPle see my grief they will see it as weakness. Every night I pretend to to run my hand over his chest. I loved his chest hair. I miss him so much.

  12. I'm so sorry for your pain. It is wrenching.
    I know what you mean about equating a show of grief with weakness. I find myself putting on my public face often. Interesting, though, how if someone were crying or showing their grief in some way, I wouldn't be thinking "Wow, what a weakling!", I'd most likely be thinking, "God, she must be in so much pain and she's brave to let others see". And yet somehow my standards for myself are different.
    Anyway, hold on. Let us have hope for you if you don't yet.

  13. Wow, just wow. I have never hear it explained so perfectly. I'm saving this on my computer so that I don't lose it. Its been 4 years and I'm still climbing that damn ladder. Sometimes I get so high up and start thinking that I'm in the clear and then bam! right back down to the bottom. My 25th birthday is coming up soon, hopefully I will be high enough up the ladder to truly enjoy time with friends.