“Thought of You” Five Years Later

Five years ago my life ended.

In that same absent heartbeat, my new, alien life began.

No, I didn’t have a near-death experience, but without warning, Death got in my face, reached into my being, and ripped away my other half — my soulmate.

To say that it hurt … words don’t exist that convey the suffering of that severance. I didn’t think I could endure the agony.

I wouldn’t — couldn’t — consider ending my life to end the pain; I had three daughters who needed me. But there were times the idea was hard to squelch. More often, I daydreamed of going to sleep and never waking up.

Waking up — in that split-second flash of remembering he was dead — felt horrific, far worse than the sleepless tossing and turning that preceded it. Brief, eventual dips into nightly, exhaustion-induced, nightmare-ridden naps were never “restful.” Even within those nightmares I somehow knew that waking would bring a fresh slap in the face of the worst reality I’d ever faced: my husband was dead.

Life — as I knew it — was over. (The well-intended, misguided souls who “consoled” me that “life goes on” were wrong.)

It was

no

more.

Yet, relentlessly, without him, one unwanted sunrise after another, I “woke up and wished that I was dead, with an aching in my head . . . I thought of you and where you’d gone, and the world spins madly on.“*

I found myself drawn to communities of the widowed, and I connected more deeply with friends who’d lost children and other dear ones. In such company, the words which so frustratingly failed us when speaking with the non-bereaved weren’t necessary. Among fellow mourners, each grieving their own unique bereavement, all were fluent in the language of heart loss.

Back then, I struggled to get through a full day. The thought of enduring that degree of pain — at that intensity — for the rest of my lifetime . . . Ugh. (As I sit typing these words, even the memory of those awful months makes me shudder from shoulder to knee.)

I asked my fellow widows and widowers who seemed to have rebuilt their shattered lives, who seemed to know how to make it from one day to the next, “How long did it take? How long before you felt like yourself again? Before you felt you could cope again?”

Their responses gave me nibbles to ponder (I wasn’t yet up to food for thought), hope in future, and reasons to fight — for my own newly alien life. Their answers surprised, encouraged, and confounded me:

  • I’ll let you know if I ever feel like myself again.
  • The second year was harder than the first. I started getting my act together during the third.
  • I did what I had to do because there was no one else to do it, but I still don’t feel like myself.
  • It takes as long as it takes. Don’t listen to anybody who hasn’t walked in your shoes. There’s no set time for anything.
  • By five years I’d pulled my new self together. Give yourself time.

Five years? I thought. No way will it take me FIVE YEARS. No way I can last that long through this. No way.

From time to time since then, I’ve tried to take an objective look at where I am now compared to where I was before widowhood and where I was during the earliest months and years of widowhood. Along the way from Back Then to each new Right Now, at every self-evaluation I could see signs of progress — and of my own personal failure to thrive.

Overall, my progress has grown and my failures (for the most part) have shrunk from one stage to the next. But I always thought, It’s okay that I’m not “there” yet. I will be before five years. I am NOT gonna take that long to be okay again.

But now . . .

It has been five years.

And I am well. Not the same, but well enough. (At least, well enough for now.)

And, most of the time, I am happy again. (At least, happy enough for now.)

Among the widows and widowers I first met, someone (I wish I remember who, but too many memories from then are widow-fog obscured) shared the video clip, “Thought of You” by animator Ryan Woodward**, created the same year my husband died. The artist left the meaning open so viewers can relate their own circumstances to the story it tells. To me (and to many others who’ve lost loved ones) the animation, music, and lyrics together come close — very close — to conveying the feeling of new bereavement (which words alone can’t approach).

 

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*Lyrics by The Weepies in “World Spins Madly On,”
http://www.theweepies.com/
**Ryan Woodward’s incredible site:
http://ryanwoodwardart.com/

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(Happy angelversary in your better place, my dear.)

Remembering 9/11 can help you understand the bereaved

On September 11, 2001, life in the United States skidded to a stop when nearly 3,000 people perished because of terrorist attacks. If you were the age of a young school child or older, you remember the moment you heard the news.

Dismay.

Shock.

Denial.

Distress.

Panic.

Fury.

It was a few minutes after 9:00 a.m. when the phone rang. My friend’s voice was clipped. “Are you watching TV?”

My husband was sound asleep after his night shift. I’d taken our younger children to elementary school. Back at home I folded laundry while our oldest daughter painted on canvas. Soon we’d delve into the academic part of her seventh grade curriculum. My friend knew I homeschooled during the day, so it was odd she’d call, let alone assume the TV might be on during school hours. “No. Why?”

“Turn it on.”

“To what?”

“Anything. Any channel.”

Dismay. Shock. Denial. Distress. Panic. Fury.

I cried for those whose lives were lost. I cried harder for the loved ones who lost them.

It was a huge thing. A devastation.

A travesty. An assault.

A violation.

In the days that followed, the attacks were all anyone talked about — even when mentioning the heroics of the many, many selfless souls who stepped into the fray to help others.

None of us knew then the long-term impact of that day’s events. First responders from New York City’s police and fire departments, and others, continued losing life and health in the aftermath of the initial casualties.

(Casualties. What a calloused, indifferent word — as if any of those killed or maimed or bereaved came to that definition by casual, effortless chance.)

Families were shattered by death, disability, and despair. Businesses and livelihoods were lost along with the lives they’d once supported.

For those of us living far away, not personally knowing victims or their families, and not having our everyday routines disrupted beyond that first day’s screeching halt, we felt for them and we cried with them and we sacrificed and contributed for them. But our everyday life, for the most part, went on.

The impact of 9/11 changed us all, some more than others. Global news coverage and the scale of the tragedy made it difficult to ignore, and visible memorials and annual commemorations ensure we will never forget.

For those whose loved ones were lost, the personal impact of 9/11 is impossible to forget. Visual reminders of their absent loved ones are everywhere they look. Annual commemorations extend beyond Patriot Day on September 11 to include every holiday, birthday, anniversary, and seasonal tradition.

A decade and a half later, mourning survivors I’ve met since have “moved forward” with their lives. I won’t diminish their losses by claiming they “resumed” life in the same manner as those of us who were not personally impacted. Life, as it was Before, ended that day. Life, as they eventually learned how to live again, evolved slowly in the After.

Of course, other people died that day, too. People all around the world. One was Karl, a sweet, elderly man in my congregation at church. His death received no national fanfare. No acclaim. His kindly widow’s loss was overshadowed by the quantity of publicized loss, but Ruth’s private grief was just as real.

At the time I felt badly for her. I admired her courage and strength as she tearfully expressed her beautiful belief that her husband was needed in heaven to help soothe and greet the many souls who’d been taken from mortality that day. I prayed for her, and I told her I was praying for her, and I sent notes once in a while.

But I was clueless. I had no idea of what her loss meant to her. How could I? That was a decade before I shared the designation of widow. A decade before new bereavement taught me the private manifestations of receiving the news that another loved one was dead.

Dismay. Shock. Denial. Distress. Panic. Fury.

In the months that followed my husband’s death, coping with that was all I could think about, even though there were many selfless souls who reached out to me in compassionate gestures. But their everyday lives went on.

Now, whenever our nation pauses for a moment of silence to honor the victims and heroes of 9/11, my understanding of what they experienced remains fractional, but I am more aware than I was. I will never be able to fully understand what any of them endured. But I do know how I felt in my own dismay-shock-denial-distress-panic-fury grieving. And my empathy for them has grown.

(Ruth, I don’t know where you live now, but please know I think of you and Karl today, as I think of the thousands of others for whom September 11 has such significance.)

I remember.

Getting Lost in Grief

Navigating life while dealing with death can be like finding your way to an urgent appointment — in a new country …

Where you don’t understand the culture — or the language …

While operating a vehicle you’ve never driven, flown, or sailed before — and while responsible for a dozen kids, their gear, and their pets …

All yelling, “Are we there yet? How much longer?”*

And you were supposed to be there yesterday.

You could pull over to ask for directions — if you could find a passerby with whom you can communicate.

You could call someone who has been there before — if you hadn’t just unknowingly crossed a border not included in your phone plan. If you had any service bars available. If you had your charger with you.

Getting lost in grief

Getting lost in grief, photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

“The grief journey” is one description for the process of learning to live again after a loss. It’s not like vacationing to experience new scenery or to reconnect with family origins. It’s more like traveling through J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mordor, but without a noble quest. There’s no loyal Samwise Gamgee for unwavering companionship — those on the journey are there because a beloved one has been forever left behind.

Travelers on the grief journey constantly ask themselves, “Where am I? What am I doing here?”

Have you ever forgotten where you were going (while halfway there)? Ever been so lost you had to approach a stranger for directions,  or call a friend to talk you through your route, or pull out a map — even while using GPS?

There was no map to show me the way from life with my husband to life without him.

I’ve always been prone to “creative” navigation from Point A to Point B via unintended alternative routes. My husband and kids found it amusing, though sometimes annoying, that I could find my way through any area — once I’d already been lost there.

After he died, when the shock of grief was new and raw, I couldn’t locate familiar, close-by places; less familiar, more distant destinations were all but impossible.

The interstate was easy to reach, just two turns from my street. But I can’t begin to count how many times I found my widowed self turning too many blocks before I got there. Or half a mile past it. Or not remembering where I’d meant to go. (In hindsight, that was a good thing. I had no business driving at highway speeds when I couldn’t even figure out how to reach it.)

Physically, I was lost all the time. Emotionally, I was just as lost.

In the early months, I was so lost I even blurted my grief whenever I approached strangers. (Most of my widowed friends have said they did the same.) It was as if telling the grocery store clerk, the librarian, and the receptionist “My husband died” was a compulsory password to activate my grief processing symptoms — my distressing, personal GPS.

In time I learned to call on others who’d been there; they’d also lost their spouses. They talked me through how they survived the upending of all they’d known.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, I began drafting my own mourning map.

It took more time than I would have expected to be able to find my way again. It took more time than many of my friends expected, too.**

Be patient with your grieving friends as they relearn how to navigate their altered lives … and offer them rides whenever possible.

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*See my earlier post called Are We There Yet? (How Long Does Grieving Take?)

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**Speaking of my friends … I’d like to thank Bettie Wailes, Doug Grossman, Nylda Dieppa, and Liz Collard for their feedback — and patience.