Saturday, February 28, 2015

“It Isn't Fair”

I recently overheard a widowed woman sharing about her experience and of being still in a very painful place with it all after 4 long years. Granted in widowhood, that isn't an extremely unusual circumstance. But I do think sometimes we err on the side of being so careful with those grieving that we do not say some more blunt perspectives that could also be helpful to individuals. I don't know that they would be, but I'm willing put it out there and find out I guess. I could be entirely wrong, you all may let me know.

So this woman was expressing that she is still in so much deep pain, and wishing she wasn't. She obviously felt as if she was “behind” in some way with her grieving. And then she went on to say that one phrase that really bugs me... “It isn't fair!”

Well no, DUH, it's not fair. It isn't fair that you lost someone you love earlier than your wanted to. It isn't fair that I did either. None of this is FAIR. I'm not even sure why this feels so harsh to say – we've been telling five year olds this for decades. But somehow it doesn't seem to sink in. And it's entirely true... life isn't about fairness. It never has been. It never will be. I didn't make the rule… and I don't like it anymore than the next person. But there it is. It's been this way since the dawn of time. I don't know when we all started thinking it was supposed to be fair - probably always. But why? Who ever said that to have a happy life meant a life without pain? That a peaceful or fulfilling life was a life without unfairness? That the horrible stuff will always just happen to someone else? It doesn't work like that.

I learned this lesson pretty early in life. When my mom died, I was nine years old. My dad was a handicapped alcoholic widower that had no clue what to do with a 9 year old girl. That certainly wasn't fair to anyone in the situation, me or him. He worked very hard to provide a roof over my head, food for me to eat, clothes, and kept me in a good private school. He started going to AA meetings and even stopped drinking for a good while, too. But he was also an emotional mess. And he bottled up everything. And he sat around his entire life saying to himself “it's not fair”. I watched this statement eat away at him over all the years of my life, until he died from complications of heart and lung disease when I was 26. He never remarried. He never dated. He never really even made new friends hardly. I watched the mental and emotional anguish that comes from sitting inside of those three words "it's not fair" for too long. From being the victim of your circumstance for too long. Perhaps that is why I feel so strongly about this phrase and about owning it instead of letting it own ME. Naturally, I don't want to end up like him. 

This, being widowed, is NOT fair. Absolutely it is not. I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy. And while there is a certain amount of time – which can only be decided by us – that we do need to sit and gravel in that unfairness... there also comes a time to own that statement. There comes a time when we must grab hold of it and not let it take us down. A time when we must stand up and say that phrase in a different sort of way. “Life owes me nothing” is how I changed it up for me. It's harsh, and not flowery, but it's absolutely what I need to remind me that happiness isn't just going to show up on my doorstep after a certain amount of time. I am going to have to WORK.

This phrase reminds me that it's up to me to decide everything that happens from here on. It's up to me to make something out of the aftermath of his death, and find a way for his memory and his life to live on. It's up to me to create meaning from all this pain. To drag myself through the mud screaming if that is what it takes to work through it. And to reach out my hand to someone else and help pull them through the mud when they get stuck there... because I think that is where the most meaning can be made – in seeing just how much we can give and receive from each other. It is also where I am finding balance to the unfairness.


No, my story is not fair. But losing this one incredible man has brought into my life a string of other hearts which I have influenced and who have influenced me in ways I never imagined. It takes work to open up to that. Really fucking hard work. I want to close off and shut down and let his death ruin my life sometimes. It takes work every day still - even two and a half years later. Some days I am still crawling through the mud. But I'm beginning to see now that this idea that a happy life is one without pain is totally false. I'm beginning to see just how beautiful this unfair life can be if I work for it and keep my heart open. I'm beginning to see that maybe there are reasons that so much pain has happened to me… because I am someone who can do something with it. Change it into something else. Help another because of my experience. And that is not just me, but also you. We all have that capacity. 

Life does not owe me happiness. That means that I have choices every single day to move towards something or sit in the unfairness. Some days, I say no, and I sit in the unfairness of it all. Hell, I did that most of the morning today. Sometimes I need to. But eventually, I remember that phrase "life owes me nothing". And soon enough I get up and go looking for my happiness, or my peace, or some meaning and purpose. For something that is positive. It is up to me to work for it, to find it, to make it when I can't find it, and to give it to someone else who needs it once I've got it. I suppose that is why I am writing this to begin with, after all. It was a bad morning, and I decided to make something out of it. Hopefully it finds its way to someone who needs it. 

The Eternal Challenge of the Suicide Widow



Last night, after a tough week, a friend and I treated ourselves to a night out at a local comedy festival to have a few laughs and blow off some steam. We had tickets to see an up-and-coming Australian comedian who has acted in a couple of popular local TV shows and I was really looking forward to seeing her live. 

It was great... until she started joking about suicide. My stomach dropped, my face started burning, my throat tightened and my eyes were pricked with tears.  I couldn't believe it.  There I was trying to forget about being a suicide widow for a night and the topic was being shoved in my face. 

I tried really hard not to spiral into the grief, to just breathe and push it aside, but I just couldn't loosen up and laugh properly again after that.  At the end of her suicide bit she may have noticed a few blank looks in the audience (there were a few laughs too though) and finished it with 'come on people, lighten up, I'm joking!'.  Making me feel not only sad and self-conscious, but also like I was some kind of uptight downer who couldn't take a joke.

Driving home, I kept thinking about it.  I know it's not uncommon for comedians to push the limits of social decency for the sake of a joke. But is suicide EVER funny?!  Even for those who haven't been touched by it?  

Dan's suicide has been weighing heavily in my thoughts this week.  I don't usually focus on it, but have found myself heavily distracted with questions around why and how it could have happened to him.  

A few days ago I was searching for something on my computer and found a link to his wedding speech.  I'm going to share it here for anyone who might be interested.  We were married a little over six weeks before he died.  So this man, standing up in front of a room full of people who care about him, brimming with happiness, love and gratitude, was 45 days away from taking his life.  I want to track down people who say 'suicide is a choice' and show them my husband's wedding speech.

It's probably been a year or so since I've watched it.  Seeing him standing there, talking about how meeting me was like finding his home, brought on a wave of disbelief that hit me like a tsunami.  I didn't see depression in him that night.  

Looking back, I can see times throughout our relationship where he was a bit quieter than usual or seemed a bit withdrawn.  He never pulled away from me or held anything back between us, so I had made assumptions that it was his personality to sometimes be a bit detached from the hustle and bustle going on around him.  I had no way of knowing what he was battling.  Any silence or space in the months before he died was most likely filled by my own excitement about our wedding and starting our life together.  He was always fully there with me, never giving me reason for concern.  But what did I know?  I had no idea what to look for, I just didn't see it. 

In his speech my husband says: 'Our lives are just beginning and together there is nothing we can't do.  We can take on the world, it's me and you and nothing else matters.' 

These words have echoed around my mind and torn at my heart since I heard them again this week.  I want to feel angry.  I want to rage at the injustice of him dying like he did.  It's not supposed to happen like that.  How is this my story now?  What on earth happened?

It can be so easy for those of us left behind by suicide to get lost in that torment of what should have been. I have worked incredibly hard to find a place of acceptance in the way Dan died.  This is the only way I can move forward. There will never be answers to the questions that I deserve to ask.  No good can come from fixating on them, I have to let them go.  

This is my eternal challenge, because even though months can go past where I feel like I understand how depression took him and I'm at peace with it, they will never be resolved and I will always have to work at the 'letting go'.

It's so very difficult, this extra layer of grief that suicide hands us.  The stigma that it brings can cast a shadow on the memory of our loved ones that makes the burden slightly heavier to bear.  I never could have imagined that this might be part of my story, but it is.

I have to keep reminding myself that he died from a disease.  Looking at him standing there, in his beautiful wedding suit, the pride and happiness beaming from him, I can't see this disease.  This in itself is the problem.  It's invisible, tormenting and sneaky and would have caused him to doubt himself in the cruelest of ways.  I hate this disease. I am petrified of it and I hate it.  I think of it as the demon disease that fed lies to my wonderful husband until his brain was poisoned beyond his own recognition.

When I look back on photos from our time together I sometimes see a shadow here and there, a flatness in his eyes in some photos. And these break my heart.  But I'm glad I couldn't see it in him on our wedding day.

I hope he had some reprieve that day.  I believe he did.  And so I will carry these memories with me always, using them to bring comfort during the times that his depression attempts to torment me too.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

When Alone Becomes Your Normal

Three and a half years after the death of my beautiful husband Don, and I am still nowhere near ready to accept the concept of dating, relationships, or "someone else." Yes, the very idea terrifies me. Yes, I feel like I am still in love with my husband, who happens to be a dead guy, and I still don't know how to sort out those feelings. Yes, I still very much feel in my heart like a still-married person, even though I 100% realize on every level that I am not. And yes, I am scared beyond scared - not that I won't be able to fall in love again, but that I will fall in love again, and one of two things will happen:

A: The person I fall in love with will suddenly die, and I will have to go through this shit twice before I even reach the age of 45.

B: The person I fall in love with will not be in love with me.. I will put my heart out there again, and end up more hurt and vulnerable than ever.

All of these things are what have kept me from moving forward, even in thought, when it comes to the idea of a new relationship. But let's put all of those very frightening things aside for a minute, and talk about the other big reason (s) that I am hesitant on taking the risk my next great love ....

I'm overweight, and although I'm always attempting to get healthier, I just don't know if there will ever be a time when I'm not overweight on some level. 

I'm a writer, (and a professor, comedian, actor, director, speaker) which means there are some days I stay home for hours and hours, at my laptop, writing. There are times when I am involved in several writing projects at the same time. Right now, in addition to my teaching job, I write for this blog, I write for an entertainment blog, and I'm writing comedy sketches for 2 different local productions. All this while writing my first book, too. When I am in my writing mode, there are times when I might not leave my desk for days. I might get into a "zone" and not even get out of my pajamas, or skip a shower for a day. My breakfast may be cold lo-mein at my desk, and dinner might be some cheddar Sun-Chips and ginger-ale. There are other weeks where I have so many things going on at once that I will be out of my apartment from 7 am to midnight. My life is all over the place, and "routine" is not a word that enters into my world. 

I don't have nice clothes, or sexy shoes, or fancy underwear. Sometimes I wear sweatpants and a t-shirt and I don't really think about it much. I can't afford things. I live paycheck to paycheck. Some of my clothes are from Target or Kohl's. I am not a drinker, and I hate nightclubs and the bar scene. I would rather stay home with my cats alone, than have a night out where the entire purpose of going out is to "get wasted." I don't fit into the typical mold of a 43 year old "single" female, and I don't much care to. 

I fall asleep with the T.V. on in the background. I have two kitty cats and they mean the world to me. I have issues with intimacy because of a trauma I went through years ago. People tell me I snore loudly, although my husband never really mentioned it or seemed to mind. I don't exercise as much as I should, and I eat like crap.  I sleep with a stuffed animal named Bunny. The first thing I do when I get home from work is take off my bra and shoes. 

Before I met my husband, I lived on my own for years and years. I had my own apartment that he ended up moving into before we were engaged. Now that he is gone, I have become used to the way I do things again. After a long day out, I look forward to being home alone and shutting out the world. 

I don't want to be alone forever, but I am so damn scared that it's too late to get used to someone else's habits and energy again. The energy my husband and I had together was so good - we didn't ever have to think about it. I was me and he was him, and we were two very independent people, who loved spending time together. What if you only get that one time in life? What If I'm destined to be alone, grow old alone, die alone? What if it's simply too late to learn the rhythms of someone new? And what if I'm not sure I have the energy for it?

 And how does someone like me even go about finding someone anyway? I feel like the very few times I HAVE felt even a tiny connection with a human of the male species, (usually it was another widower that I would meet locally through support groups or at Camp Widow), I am automatically written off as the "funny friend' - immediately I end up in that "friend" zone with guys, because I am not skinny and hot and girly and all those other things that guys SAY they dont care about but actually, they do. These are all the same things I went through for YEARS before I finally met my husband. I hated dating back then, and I hate it now. I hate dating sites. I hate bars. I don't feel like my life fits into a simple box on a match.com profile page. I don't know how to do this. I am terrified that not only am I too set in my ways post-loss to be able to live with another human male again, but that no human male would ever want to live with me. A huge part of me feels like what my husband and I had was SO rare , and that he accepted every ounce of me in a way that doesn't seem plausible to happen again for one person. Maybe it seems over-dramatic or pessimistic. I am not trying to be that way. To be honest, I just feel very lost when it come to future love. I wish that my attitude about it could be in a better place, but every time I think about it, my heart gets really sad and I feel overwhelmed, panicky, and exhausted before I even begin. 

Where do I go from here?

Dancing Anyway

An evening out with friends to listen to my new guy’s band on the water’s edge here in Kona.

Drinks, laughing, dancing. I catch myself: what am I doing here? I can’t believe how much my life has changed. I gaze out to the stars hanging over the ocean waves and mentally reach out to Mike, as I so often do.  Are you out there, honey? Can you see me? I think how he would have gotten such a kick out of the lively and eccentric group of folks I find myself in the midst of. How he would be relieved I have found my smile again. How he would have loved swinging me around the dance floor. And how much he loved this place.

Yes. To me, our island will always be imprinted with his spirit. He will always be everywhere I turn - but I have to admit: it is a pretty amazing place. As crazy as it sounded to move here all those years ago now, I admit again: he did know what he was doing. If I ever doubted it along the way, wondering about spending my life way out here in this remote place, I sure know that now.

I saunter down to the restroom.

A handful of ladies about my age giggling together like kids. Waiting for a stall, one of them asks me, are you married?

I pause a beat. Decide simply to say: no.

Sometimes these days I just don’t want to go there.

But then, after another pause, something about her moves me to add…I’m widowed.

She looks at me and says: You are? I’m widowed too.

Three months. Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry, I say.

She says: and I have twelve children. 

Twelve?

She starts to cry. Her friends gather around and we all hug. They ask me about my loss; I tell them. I ask about hers: cancer. 

They are in Hawaii together to take their friend away for a break. 

Later, I see them again, on the dance floor, laughing and spinning and swaying to the music.

I gaze out once more over the ocean.

A favorite song begins to play and a friend pulls me onto the dance floor.


I have no other answers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Red Rock Love, and Grief~

My brain is in overdrive these days and all day today I've been contemplating what it is I'll write about for this week's blog.  I usually let my writing happen viscerally.  So here goes.

Last Sunday our oldest son got married against the backdrop of Sedona Arizona.  One of those milestones of life that will cause our grief to rise up in us, we're told.  But what is it when one of those milestones doesn't cause the grief to rise up because it's already there all the time anyways?  I think, perhaps, what happens is that I restrain my grief and then there's times when it just can't be restrained or constrained and out it comes.  That would be a more apt description of it.

We brought Chuck's presence into the ceremony by twisting his military ID tags into the buttoniere that our son wore on his suit jacket.  Touching and beautiful.

I was, and am, so very happy for our son.  My love for him and his new bride and her daughter and all of our family there over-flowed.  But what do you do when even the love doesn't begin to diminish the missing-ness?  What do you do with the emotions when all the attempts in the world to only allow happiness just don't work and your heart and soul just weep for his not being there too?

Afterwards we all went out to dinner and that's when the enormity of Chuck's absence reverberated through me.  I felt it start to happen in my gut as the server approached me to take my order and I barely got through it.  I was ordering for one.  And, yes, I'd done that before in different places but never has it hit me with such intensity.  He should be my my side.  We should be ordering together. In the midst of our kids, extended family, friends...I felt completely and utterly alone.  That feeling runs steadily through my blood.  Surrounded by people.  And alone.  I don't say that out of self-pity but more out of a sense of disbelief.  It feels un-natural to not have my husband in my world and I suspect it always will.  The enormity of it overwhelmed me and sent me into the ladies room to melt down.

Recently, I've read numerous articles by so-called experts who state, of course, that there is no timeline for grief.  Contradicted a few paragraphs later by the words if, after 6 months, you're still having more bad days than good days, you may be experiencing depression.   Are any of you as confused as I am?  Instinctively, and by training in bereavement, my intellect knows that I'm on a healthy grieving track, but, in many ways, as I approach the 2 year mark, there is a subtle but clearly recognizable message that perhaps I need to be getting on with it.

Mostly, as at our son's wedding, I allow whatever emotions I experience, to just be whatever they are. It's too exhausting to fight them off in any case, and I don't know what to do with them if I start faking it for the general public (enough of that goes on as it is).

We all judge ourselves so harshly in our grief, don't we?  And the outside world, with all of its' what I'm assuming good intentions, doesn't help.  Too much, too little, too late, too soon...it's all I can do to let this grief happen naturally.

Here's my bit of honesty for the week.  Our son's wedding?  It was filled with so much love for him, seeing him so happy, knowing that he has his own love story going on now with this wonderful woman.  And, watching it all happen, I was filled with agony, missing my husband and wanting him next to me to watch with joy as this son who has led such a tough life, came full circle.  I wanted to scream my devastation to the red rocks surrounding us.  This sucks in every way imaginable and no matter how I strive to transform it and only look at the love, it fucking sucks and I miss him and the ache in my body makes me feel centuries old.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Making Room

I've posted in the last couple of months about going through Ian's things and starting to move stuff onto new homes that can go to new homes, or tossing stuff that can't be moved on.

That's because there was one thing I couldn't discard after he died...

Our seven frozen embryos, left from our IVF cycles to have John.   As part of the IVF process, under local laws, we'd given each other rights to make all decisions regarding those embryos, which included rights to use them, in the event of the incapacity or death of the other.

The knowledge they were there kept me sane during Ian's illness and in the aftermath of his death. I also knew I had a couple of choices.  Discard them either immediately or when I was legally required to, which felt too much like tipping Ian down the drain.   Or attempt a pregnancy, knowing based on the technology used to freeze them was slightly older, and the odds of success therefore much lower. If I got a single confirmed pregnancy, I'd be damned lucky.  We'd already had plans to attempt using them later in the year he died.  Based on our pre-existing plans, the decision to attempt was easy for me, and was one I'd made even before Ian died. 

After the required counselling, getting my health on track, and my head in the right space, over the course of 2014 I had three attempts at achieving pregnancy with those seven embryos.

The first two attempts in the first few months of the year were unsuccessful, and resulted in the loss of four embryos in the thaw process, and two unsuccessful transfer attempts.

I sat on that final embryo for 8 months, convincing myself that with such a poor track record with the other six, it was most likely to be just John and I.  And I'd come to peace with that prospect.  Towards the end of the year, knowing that single embryo was there had become a burden, no longer the positive thing to hold onto. So I geared up for the final attempt, timed so I'd know if it hadn't worked by New Years, and I knew where I stood going into 2015.

Well, wouldn't you know it.

I got a successful thaw - they nearly had to pick me up off the floor of the clinic with that bit of news.

And a pregnancy.  That's stuck. 

My Facebook announcement - complete with uncooperative 4 year old.
Ian and I's second child is due in August, a little over three years after he passed away.

I'm still a little gobsmacked.  And now need the space where much of Ian's stuff was, to fit a baby and all the paraphernalia that goes with them.

John, in typical 4 year old fashion, just wants pizza.

I appreciate that this will be confronting news to some, if not many in our community.  Some will disagree with bringing a child into the world so long after their father's death.  Others will wish they had the opportunity.  Others wishing they had, or will have, the same success. 

Because of the pregnancy and the fact I know it will raise grief responses I'll need space to process, I'm making room here, too.   From next week, I'll be writing on alternate Tuesdays, sharing with a recent widower, Mike Welker. 

As a pre-curser to his first post next week, Mike would like to introduced himself:

Three months after my discharge from the Marine Corps at 22 years old, I met my wife, Megan, on December 10th, 2002.  The very next day, I was drawn like a moth to a flame into dealing with a long term, terminal illness.  Megan had Cystic Fibrosis, and after 8 years of declining health, she received a double lung transplant, and a new lease on life.  Our daughter Shelby was born in 2007.
In early 2014, those recycled lungs, which had brought our little family three years of uncomplicated health and happiness, finally began to give out.  She died from chronic organ transplant rejection on November 19th, 2014 while I held her hand and let her go.
I'm a single father and widower at 34 years old, and no one has published a manual for it.  I don't fit the mold, because there is no mold.  I "deal with it" through morbid humor, inappropriateness, anger, and the general vulgarity of the 22 year old me, as if I never grew up, but temper it with focus on raising a tenacious, smart, and strong woman in Shelby.  I try to live as if Megan is still here with us, giving me that sarcastic stare because yet again, I don't know what the hell I'm doing.
 

 
 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Living Perpetually In Fear



 I have built my entire life around the fear of loss.

 I’ve had a string of losses, in my adult life, perhaps more than most. Each loss dug deeper wounds into my heart. Each loss wove more fear into the sorrow I felt. Each loss added layers of protection to my spirit.

 I came to England in a flight from grief, after the loss of my sister and my mother, within a year of each other. Twelve months and two weeks after my mom died, we lost my sister-in-law. All the women in my family. Gone.

I lived a lonely life, here, in England, in the beginning, visiting places and travelling largely on my own, protected from the pain of relationships, isolated in a city of millions, but safe. Cocooned.

Then I met the man who would change my world.

And from the moment I fell in love with Stan, I lived in fear of losing him.

Realising I loved him filled me with excitement and joy, but that joy was tinged with an underpinning of fear. It felt like I was jumping off a great cliff.  

I worried about his health. He did not have the healthiest of habits, though he was working to change his lifestyle. I used to lay my head upon his chest, when we were in bed, and listen to his heart, secretly counting the beats, checking to see if they were irregular, or too slow or too fast. If I came upon him sleeping, I would creep up next to him, and listen for his breathing.

Sometimes, he’d hold his breath, and wait until I got real close, then jump up and holler. He thought it was hilarious.  “Don’t be so ridiculous, BooBoo, I’m not going anywhere,” he'd say.

When we went to see him at the morgue, I looked at his cold, still body on the table, and I hoped that perhaps he was just holding his breath. I hoped he’d jump up and holler, like he used to, and tell me it had all been a joke. There was no logic in these thoughts. But there is no logic in the face of such great loss.

In the aftermath, consumed with guilt over the things I had done wrong, or not done well, I thought that perhaps my constant worry, propelled into the universe, was a factor in causing his death. There are those new age gurus, out there, after all, who preach about how our thoughts create our reality, and even the Buddha said that our thoughts make the world. I wondered if it was true. I wondered if my neurosis killed him. It was not logical thinking. But logic does not figure into the shock and trauma of early grief.

I have a dear friend named Barbara, who lives in Seattle. She and I, and her sister, Nancy, were travelling buddies in our 20s, crisscrossing the country, more than once. Barb and I attended the same college, for a while, and embraced sobriety, a few months apart. The three of us remained close friends, through the years, sharing our lives in snippets, short visits, and phone calls, while living on opposite coasts. Our lives seemed to echo each other’s—they lost siblings, and their mother, too. Barbara met and fell in love with someone, and married him, two months before I married Stan.

Barb’s husband became ill around November of 2013, and they rode the roller coaster ride of his sickness, with ever increasing hospital visits, and brief promises of recovery, followed by further deterioration of his condition. On the 9th of April, 2014, Barbara’s beloved husband died.

I grieved for her. I had never met Chris, but I knew their love was strong. I couldn’t imagine the pain she must be feeling. I cried for days, thinking of her loss. It made me worry, also, about losing Stan. Life felt so tenuous and unfair. I couldn’t let go of it. My fear was exacerbated, later in April, by Stan’s stay in hospital for five days, with a bout of diverticulitis.

He tried to ease my fears. He told me not to worry, that he was going to be all right. He assured me that our situation was not the same as that of my friend and her husband. He held my head to his chest, and stroked my hair, as he always did, when I was afraid.

Two months later to the day, on the 9th of June, Stan was dead.

All the time I wasted, steeped in fear and worry. All the time he spent, calming my fears, convincing me that he would be okay. Precious, fleeting time. All the effort and energy expended, trying to wrestle some kind of control over life, instead of just living it—instead of just loving him.

Barbara and I speak often, to each other, now, and share this, another facet of our echoed lives. We provide a foundation of support for one another, though we live 5000 miles apart. We have lost so much of our family. We have lost our husbands. But we want to be freed from the slavery of fear, to learn to live fully these lives that are beyond our control. 

We'll continue to lean on one another. We’ll help each other stay soft.

Barbara and Me, circa 2000

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Losing My "Widginity"

Ok. So. A LOT of things have happened in the past week for me. And just days ago, one of the biggest new firsts happened. One I have wondered about and feared and dreaded for two and a half years. I can't even believe I'm going to share this... like, PUBLICLY, but it's part of the journey. So here goes.

I spent this past week up in the Alaskan wilderness with Drew's mom, grandma, and aunt. His grandma is 91 years old and had never seen the northern lights, so we decided to take her. The trip was wonderful. We stayed at a remote lodge an hour and a half north of Fairbanks... and by remote I mean there is NOTHING out there but this lodge, some moose, and pure wilderness. No cell service. No internet. All their power is geothermal from the hot springs that run through the area. I had no idea of all this until we arrived, but I welcomed unplugging from the world for a while. So rarely do I get a chance to.

We went out Tuesday night for a viewing up on one of the nearby hills for the lights – and they were out all night long. For 4 whole hours, we enjoyed an incredible show. His grandma got to achieve one of her lifelong dreams. I captured pictures of the entire expereince for her and all of us to look back on. We also did a short sunset flight, a dogsled ride (yes, a 91 year old woman on a dogsled! And she wanted the ride to be even longer!) and got to drink appletinis out of glasses carved from ice. Spending this trip with two generations of my fiance's family was so incredibly special to me. To be there to watch his grandma enjoy a lifelong dream for him – my heart overflowed. To see the lights myself, to watch them dance thru the sky, brought me to tears. Because he brought me there. And he keeps bringing me to amazing places in this “after” life.

But something else happened on this trip. And its crazy and weird as shit to actually write this in conjunction with all I just wrote above... but... a VERY big personal milestone happened.... involving several beers and a VERY handsome young man who worked as a waiter at the lodge restaurant. Yeah, you know where I'm going with this. Everyone... after two and a half years, I officially lost my “widginity” as I am calling it - or widow virginity. 

And yeah that's an entirely appropriate way to say it I think, because the first time after the death of your loved one really is JUST as big of a deal as the real first time. Every first thing is. The first time someone holds you. The first time you kiss someone.  Hold hands. And definitely the first time you have sex. Everyone does this differently. Some folks jump right into it, others have to wait years. I have never been an impulsive person nor have I ever had casual sex before, so, I have ended up in the latter category. Sometimes unwillingly. I cannot express to you how many times I just want to be able to go ho it up. Don't judge, you know if you aren't ho'ing it up, you probably harbor this same secret wish... or you will at some point.

So as it goes down, I'm on the last night of my trip, at the lodge bar having a few drinks with the staff as they wind up for the night. Before long, an especially delicious looking waiter ends up joining me for drinks after his shift. I mean this guy could be a model. There is not an ounce of fat on him and muscles galore. Seriously not someone I would ever attempt to approach... then again, the new me lately seems to be full of surprises.

We chat a good while and get to know each other. When we leave the bar, we run into each other out on the trail back to our rooms. We chat a moment there in the cold, snowy wilderness, and I just think to myself “it's my last night, it's now or never, fuck it!”. I grab this gorgeous man and give him a kiss. Which leads to some heavy making out. Which leads to my asking to go back to his cabin.

Yeeeep. That's where it all happens... right there on the mattress... which is on the floor. Yes, the floor. It was like a Dirty Dancing sequel y'all. All we were missing was that "Hungry Eyes" song (which I so should have played since I have the soundtrack on my phone - damn the delayed realization!) This story is made even better by the fact that he had no bathroom... so I am forced to run the 30 or so feet to his outhouse in the cold (NINE degrees) in nothing but a blanket and my snow boots. Yes. You are welcome for the visual. Ah where life takes you when you live in the present moment - lol. 

All joking aside, the amazing thing is, it was nothing like I feared it would be. It wasn't traumatic. It didn't trigger me drastically. It didn't feel shallow or empty or like I was pushed into anything. We laid in bed, drank chocolate milk, watched comedy specials, laughed together, shared stories, and took our time with all the rest. I told him back at the bar about losing Drew, so that was out there already. Before anything happened, I was also very up front that this is the first time for me since he died. I wanted him to know that beforehand, because I was pretty sure I'd get upset at some point, and he needed to know why. I also said it so he could know this was a very deliberate and conscious decision which he needed to handle carefully and respectfully. 

Sure enough, shortly after we began to make love, I got overwhelmed. We stopped, and he just held me, and I cried in his arms for a few minutes while he reassured me that it was okay. I didn't have to say a word. In that moment, even though he barely knew me, all this man cared about was making certain I felt safe and cared for. And even though I barely knew him, and he was not Drew, I allowed myself to be cared for by him. I allowed myself to be cared for. That is HUGE. It was strangely beautiful to think - while in the arms of another man - how much it would make Drew happy to see me being cared for so lovingly. I swear I could feel broken pieces of my heart melding back together. 

We made love on and off for a few hours that night before he finally walked me back to my room. I say “made love” because it felt surprisingly like that, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. We weren't two broken people trying to use sex as a band-aid, we were two healthy people who made a conscious choice to share something beautiful together for a night. I've never had casual sex before this, so I honestly had no idea there could be love between near strangers that way. I was left so surprised by this - and even more surprised that I did it. I mean, who is this chick?! Ho'ing it up now whenever she damn well pleases, on her own terms,  and not beating herself up one bit about it? Whoever she is, I think I like her. My god I am full of surprises in this damned "after" life. 

The most wonderful part of this entire experience though was something even bigger. Seeing how it fit together with my love for Drew. It didn't make his space in my heart smaller. It didn't move him farther away from me or erase him or make my love for him any less. He was there in my heart, just the same, even through this experience. And when it was all over, and this sweet man walked me back to my room, kissed me one last time with a coy smile, and we said our goodbyes... I knew in a brand new way, that no one will ever be able to move Drew from my heart. No one will take his place. No one will erase him or take up more room than him in my heart. I learned in a brand new way that my heart will only get bigger to accommodate others, but that it will only begin to grow when it is healed enough and ready to. I think because I have not rushed this, and because I have waited until I truly felt ready, it has allowed it to be a positive experience. In the past few days following all this, it has only more deeply solidified the understanding in me that Drew isn't ever going anywhere. And I never have to be afraid - because I will not ever lose him twice. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

An Invisible Audience

I'm feeling very flat tonight.  It's been a long day.  My office was closed due to bad weather and while, at first, I was excited at the thought of spending a day at home with no agenda, it has dragged and the quiet stillness has started to seep in under my skin.

It's a strange feeling to go to bed at night realising you haven't spoken a single word all day.  It happens to me often.  I've had a few text messages from friends and family checking in but there's been no human contact, no physical energy in the room to stir with mine and remind me that I'm not alone.

The quiet generally doesn't bother me.  I'm an introvert and a homebody, comfortable in my own company.  I usually not only relish time on my own, I need it to recharge.  But today, the quietness felt heavy.  And I've sat down at my laptop tonight to write this entry for Widow's Voice thinking, as I do often, what on earth do I have to say today that anyone will find interesting.  Let alone helpful. It's an incredible honour to write for this website and not a responsibility that I take lightly, however sometimes that sense of duty can feel almost intimidating.

Am I being honest and raw enough?  On the days that I'm feeling positive and upbeat, will I alienate the readers who find my outlook irritating or unrealistic?  If I tell a personal anecdote am I comfortable sharing a part of my life that is very private, or will I feel ok if someone in my real life stumbles upon it and possibly reads something that upsets them?  Incase you haven't worked it out by now, I can be an over-thinker and quite hard on myself!

However this week I received an email from someone I met at Camp Widow in Tampa who also lost her husband to depression, only a few months ago.  Her kind words meant more than she could know.

She wrote, among other things, that she had spent a lot of time over the weekend reading my blog posts and Facebook fee, soaking up some of my stories about Dan and everything I had experienced since he died. She told me that it had been helpful for her to hear from other widows and said, "I appreciate your example and your grace and your honesty."

It is messages like this that make the scariness of sharing your personal thoughts with the internet worth it.  Every time, over the post 19 months, that I've posted a sad, grief-related post on my Facebook, talking about how much I miss Dan or describing the extreme agony in my heart, I've instantly felt that fear and vulnerability that comes with opening yourself up to judgement.  

Our culture is such that people aren't comfortable talking about death.  They're sure as hell not comfortable talking about suicide.  And this is precisely why I've felt the need, since Dan died, to talk about it.  As soon as the police told me how he'd died I thought 'oh no, he's going to be judged.  I'm going to be judged.  People are going to  make assumptions about our relationship or his character...' and then I realised how unfair and WRONG that was.  

I mean, of course I knew that Dan's death was caused by a disease - not a character flaw or because of any unhappiness he felt with his life.  So I was determined to help others understand that too. 

The same goes for grief.  Before Dan died the only widow I knew was my then-90-year-old grandmother (who lost her husband at 49).  I had seen friends mourn parents who had been taking too soon by cancer but I didn't have any understanding of how that actually felt.  Let alone, the loss of a spouse.  So I spoke about my feelings.  I wanted people to grasp what was happening to me.  

Maybe, so they'd be a bit gentle and avoid any unrealistic expectations about this being a 'phase' that I would go through.  Maybe because I wanted them to appreciate their own partners and their own good health.  Most likely, it was a form of therapy for me.  I needed to purge the pain and get it out of my head.  

Writing has helped me cope with, and process, my loss.  But I share it with others because I hope to help someone else the way the Widow's Voice writers coaxed me through each day of my own pain, when I become a widow.  

On the days that I post and there are no comments, it's easy to wonder if I'm missing the mark.  If I'm writing such nonsense that no one was able to relate.  Then, there are days where someone tells me that I've made a difference to them.  And that one message makes it all worth while.  So thank you to those of you who reach back.  It really does keep us going.




Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Chill

It is 4 degrees tonight in NYC. Four. There is a wind chill factor of negative "what the f**#k???", and I can feel the missing of my husband inside every aching joint and bone. The missing of him sits in my veins tonight like ice - making my eyelids and my teeth and my fingertips hurt. Really.

There are sometimes days or weeks that will go by nonchalantly, where nobody in my universe ever mentions his name. Nobody says his name or talks about him or acknowledges his life or relevance. Of course, my husband's life and very soul sit within me every second of every day, but it can get rather lonely and crazy feeling when you are the only one who is carrying around that very heavy missing of him. It sits there, in the background of everything that I do, and nobody else can feel it.

I feel it. I feel it with each labored breath, when I run through the cold night air to my car, my arms frozen and my knuckles throbbing from freezing wind. I get into the car in the university theater parking lot, where I just finished a full day of teaching college courses, followed by running auditions for the show I am directing this spring. Watching the auditions of about 50 or so Acting students, singing and doing monologues in the hopes of getting cast in our show. I reach the car and slam the door before the cold slides into my sleeves and paralyzes my arms and elbows. I turn on the engine and bask in the glory of the building heat and warmth. My fingers shake and I can't seem to get rid of the chill that has entered my heart. I sit in the car with the cold and the knowledge that nobody ever brings up my husband's name anymore. They are not trying to be cruel. They just do not feel the need to talk about him. But I do, and I always will, and the weight of that and the truth of that and the brutal reality of that slams into me like the bone-chilling cold air - and suddenly, of course, I am crying. I lean forward on the steering wheel and just pour out the tears from my eyes because they won't stop now. The missing of him is so cold that some of the tears end halfway at my cheek, and freeze in time. The missing of him has stayed inside of me and hidden for hours - all day long - through classes, through lunch-time, through conversations with students and colleagues, through loads of auditions. I carried the missing of him all by myself, all day long, because nobody else made mention of it.

What if I don't talk about him anymore? What if I get too busy, and his presence gets lost in the wind or the cold air? What if I have too many things to do, and then the second I sit still, the silence and the pain overtake me, and I'm sobbing because I have hurt him in my neglecting of him? What if his soul gets twisted up with the wind chill, and he spins around in a huge storm cloud, landing somewhere unfamiliar? Will he know it's still me if I haven't said his name in awhile? If Im living my life and missing him inside but not saying it outside? The missing of him is constant, but repetitive. How many times can a person express to people that don't want to know: I miss him. I miss him. I miss him. 

The missing of him is so automatic, so instilled, so natural  - it sits and it stirs and it lives inside the cold, nasty wind. Say my name - it whistles. I am here. 

And I miss him with every breath tonight, as the wind fills my lungs with his death.

Dear Mike,

Dear Mike,

Part of me cannot believe it has really been two years since you left us. The other part of me looks back at all the changes in my life since then…and knows. Yes. Two years. It is real.

For a long time I could not bear to think about life without you. I cried more than I ever thought I could. I staggered and stumbled through a dark, horrible place, struggling even to do the most basic of tasks. Keeping the bills paid and food in my own stomach was torture. Grocery shopping without you to cook for was awful. Looking at the dying garden without you to grow for was miserable. Seeing the sad faces of our dogs, who probably still expect you could walk in the door at any time, was heart-wrenching. Seeing your archery target wilt away in the rain…and that path you wore in the grass walking back and forth to get your arrows, grow back…it broke my heart.

Your exit tore a hole in our hearts. So many of us down here miss you every single day and we will for the rest of our lives. We still talk about you all the time..remembering your quirky ways, the power you embodied, the spirit that captivated us all. All the stories. We miss you telling them…but, we try to remember, and tell them to others when we can. You led such a unique and adventuresome life. I am glad of that. And I am forever grateful I got to be a part of it.

For a long time I could not even set foot in your room without a heavy drag on my own spirit. But a few months ago, as a new opportunity came my way, I decided to recreate it for myself. I use it now as my home office, and happily so, knowing how much time you spent in here, even where I type this now. And I have kept some of your things around me. Some pictures, statues…hats, toys and trinkets. At first, it was so difficult to look at the things you left behind - many of them now belong to your daughters, who also treasure them - but I kept some too. Now, they brings me peace. Often even, a smile, remembering how you would continue to play with your toys your entire life, like a little kid. We should all have that childlike spirit about us. It kept you excited about life, till your very last day.

Maybe you know…I am doing ok now. Not every day, not every minute, but mostly, I am healing. I am finding new pathways to walk. I am meeting new people and developing relationships. I still, and always will, treasure your daughters, the daughters of my own heart, and their families. I can never thank you enough for leaving behind so much love and support in my life.

Now, even as I miss you with my whole heart, I can honestly say that most days, I look forward to life. I wake up with things to do, places to go, and people to meet. I am continuing to forge ahead this new reality and though I would give anything to have you back, I know this cannot happen. So until we meet again, I will try to do good, try to love others, try to honor you with my faith and happy memories of our life together.

Thank you for teaching so much while you were here. I will never forget.

Yours forever and always,

Stephanie






Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Camping, Traveling, and Wandering Thoughts~

This week I'm all over the place, both geographically and emotionally.  It took me a week plus a few days to get from Camp Widow in Tampa, back here to Arizona.  In that time, I hit highs and lows, some of them to be so expected that it is given a name "Camp crash".

Additionally, tomorrow would be my and my husband's 25th wedding anniversary.  We used to calculate, as we drove the country in our last 4 years together, how many anniversaries we could realistically celebrate, given our ages when we married.  It was a second marriage for both of us and believe me, we celebrated our alone time once the kids (4 between us) grew up and went out on their own.  No empty nest for us!  Sex whenever and wherever in the house we wanted; who has time for empty nest?

So, all of this occupied my mind as I drove west.

Camp Widow.  It was a series of organized workshops, and lots of social time, which was, believe me, just as valuable, if not more so, than the workshops.  The speakers were inspirational and shared their widowed perspective with all of us.  First-timers (that would be me), returnees sharing their experience, strength and hope, staff and volunteers;  it was a monumental undertaking and a beautiful success.

My highlights of that weekend?

Tom Zuba, who had a story that both emotionally exhausted and uplifted me at the same time.  His words, his new perspective on grief, made so much sense.  Grieving will last forever.  Mourning will not.  Simple and powerful words.  Now if I can just get through this mourning period with my sanity intact.  I'm at the point where it feels like it anyways, people in general are looking at me and wondering why I'm still talking about Chuck, or still feeling such sadness at his missing from my life and why I'm not fully embracing this new life I'm creating and, I don't know, jumping for joy yet.  Oh well...

Kelley Lynn, a widow and stand-up comedian, who loudly and in a very New York way, with lots of swearing and so much honesty, spoke of her husband not being a rainbow and made me almost pee my pants with laughter. Do yourself a favor; find her on youtube.

The flash-mob that I wrote about last week.

What was totally and completely freeing?  The word fuck used so freely.  Yes, I know there is a contingent of people who think it a crude word and unimaginative and why don't you find another word in the English language to use there are so many others.  You know what?  Sometimes, and, certainly in my case and the case of many others in this boat, the word fuck is the most descriptive, sharp, 4 letters that can be used.  It was oh so liberating, hearing it used so well.

Widowhood is, in many ways, a strange, weird, world.  There is a sense of vulnerability that goes along with it, and a sense of alone-ness that is different from any other death I've experienced.  Its been suggested to me that I join a dating site and find another lonely soul with whom to connect.  It isn't the suggestion by itself that I find slightly offensive; it's more the mindset (which I think is way too common), that if I get involved with another man, I won't think so much about Chuck.  That he can be replaced maybe? Odd thought, that.  No matter if I fall in love again (and I would like to because I love being in love and I'm good at it), I will always be Chuck's widow.  Factually and emotionally.  That's not a bad thing.  It just is.

I know I can say it here freely.  I miss my husband.  I miss him every day, every minute.  And I hate that tomorrow is our second anniversary apart, the second of many.  I miss his hugs and his warmth and his protection and our love together and his masculine energy to my feminine energy and our teasing and our wild sex and our laughter and spooning as we slept.  I miss everything about us.

And, with all of that, I'm still creating a life for myself.  It all goes together really, the old and the new.  He, and our marriage, is my history and will always be part of my story.

The men and women who gathered together at Camp Widow gathered me close and we formed a network of understanding and acceptance and the freedom to be exactly who we are, where we are. And I thank all of you who were there.

And to my dearest husband, Chuck...I will always love you.  I will always be your girl.  And I will always remember you and your love for me and I will always miss you next to me.  Thank you, most of all, for showing me love, and accepting my love for you~


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Forgotten Card

Ian and I never particularly did Valentines day.  Although I *like* getting the gifts and stuff, I never felt it a necessity.  It's a more than a bit over-commercialised to me, which is thankfully quite a protective view-point in my after.

But the day still holds memories. Some good. Some that trigger a sense of guilt.

John was born in the late evening on a Friday.  On the Monday, Ian came into my hospital room with a flower arrangement.  'Oh sweetheart, thanks for the Valentine's flowers' I say.

Dejected look on his face.    'Oh.  They were for having John'.

The poor dear.  He didn't get to the shops over the weekend.  He hadn't noticed all the Valentine's paraphernalia in the florists at all.  Hadn't even realised the date.  Didn't make the connection when he couldn't get roses, so just like when he proposed, resorted to succulents (I grow a lot of them now... they're about the only thing that actually survives my lack of memory to water).  

No matter what they were for, they were lovely.

The next year,  we'd agreed not to bother with Valentine's at all.  But on a whim, I bought a card for him because the text made me laugh in the store, and it was the first Valentine's since we married.  Plus I'd been a right royal cranky pants and it was a way of apologising.

I've been going through some more boxes and stumbled across it again yesterday.

The Front:
 
Dear Husband, I knew the moment I saw you, I knew we'd fall desperately in love, get married, have kids...
 
Inside, it reads: 
 
And drive each other crazy for the rest of our lives.


Little did I know, that for Ian, that would only be another four months.

I knew in the back of my mind I'd kept it, but had forgotten it's existence.  On finding it, once again I feel guilty, like it was a prophesy or something.  It doesn't matter that it was highly appropriate to our relationship, it still triggers that negative feeling.

The same as when I first packed it away. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

There Are Places I Remember

Whitby, on the North Coast of England


The poem says that April is the cruellest month, but I think it might be February. In England, February is filled with grey days and clouds. We search in vain for spots of sun on the horizon. We witness the lengthening moments of daylight and cling desperately to the vague promise of spring.  

For widows, February brings Valentines Day, a holiday designed for couples. It slaps us in the face with the reminder that we are on our own. We try to ignore the messages and hearts all around us. We get through the day however we can. My grief group has decided to celebrate together, albeit virtually, by holding a Grief Cafe online. We'll check in with each other and remember the loves that we lost. We'll post pictures, have a laugh, and wish each other well. We'll linger in that safe place where we are understood. 

The first weekend in February, four years ago, I met Stan for the first time, when I took the train from London to Manchester to visit him. I was filled with anxiety in the days before our visit, trying to shop for clothes and a coat that would add a touch of femininity to my usually androgynous appearance. I remember the excitement I felt when I stepped onto the platform and saw him waiting for me at the gate. I remember being warmed by the kindness that radiated from his spirit. It is hard to believe it was only four years ago, that I met him. I feel like I have known him all my life.

I am writing this on Saturday, and tomorrow, Sunday, is Parinirvana Day at our Centre, where we commemorate the death of the Buddha. It is a time for us to contemplate the fact of impermanence, and the preciousness of life, and to mourn those we have lost throughout the year. We will have readings and chants, and place photos of our loved ones upon the shrine. We will leave offerings of candles and incense. We will speak their names. We will remember them. 

February brings all these dates that trigger memories of what I have lost--the first weekend we spent together, Valentines Day, Parinirvana Day--but everyday is a trigger for me, it seems. Each morning, I awaken with him on my heart, and each night, I ask him to come to me in my dreams, as I drift off to sleep.

In this land that belonged to him, each place in this vast landscape is also a reminder. When he first died, I could not even venture onto the High Street without being triggered by a flurry of memoriesthe cake shop where we chose our wedding cake, the pub where we held our reception, the jewellery shop where we bought our rings, the corner cafĂ© where we ate our English breakfasts on a Sunday morning. 

I can visit the shops, now, and walk through the market, without the crushing sadness and dread that I felt in those early days and weeks. I can walk into the Buddhist Centre, where a picture of him hangs on the bulletin board, and I can shake off the pain of his absence from this place he loved so much. 

But I avoid most other places that he shared with me--the historic villages that wind through these hills, ancient names and places--Castleton, Bakewell, Eyam, Buxton. Century old pubs, with wooden beams and low ceilings, a log fire crackling in the middle of the room, perhaps a sheepdog or two resting in front of it, the smell of home brewed ale, the aroma of stews and soups bubbling on the stove--we'd travel miles to take in a Sunday dinner, in one of these spots. 

Oh, the places he showed me! Anglesey, a beautiful village off the coast of Wales, with its tiny rutted roads, like bicycle tracks, reaching toward the sky.  Bodnant Gardens, in Northern Wales, where we'd visit in April, when the rhododendrons were in bloom. Oban, in Scotland, and the isles of Staffa and Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, where we spent a glorious, sunny week, one summer, with more sun than the locals had seen in years. 

There are so many more. He seemed to have an intimate connection with every inch of this land. He knew the interesting places to visit. He showed me the most stunning vistas. 

And since he died, I have not been able to visit any of them. Since he died, I have been tethered to my home.

Sometimes, I feel imprisoned here, afraid to venture to the far away places he loved best. I know I need to face my pain, and the poignant memories of our life together, in order to expand my shrunken world.

This summer, I want to make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to some of our sacred spots. 

I'll head to Whitby, first, this gorgeous village on the Northeastern Coast of England, where a shell of an abbey stands, the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula's castle, where rocky paths line the coastal waters, and angry waves collide with the rugged shoreline. 

I'm going to hike a short distance, 25 miles, from Whitby, past Robin Hood's Bay, to Scarborough, set my feet onto the trail, my heart soothed by the ocean's rhythm. I'll camp in the grasses, among the stars. I'll pay homage to this place, where he hoped to one day retire, this place that he hoped to call home.  

And I will remember him, standing at the top of the cliff, his warm eyes smiling at me, as we faced the wind, together.