I am empty.

Until John, I had been running my own therapeutic yoga business for over a decade out of the custom studio John had built onto our home. I was able to have babies, care for them, and at times pop upstairs to teach a 90min class when he was home and could be on kid duty. It was an honor to be a yoga teacher. You see, yoga is a job about love. Private clients came into my space with all sorts of issues – knee/neck/back pain, unstable joints, headaches, anxiety, depression and more. I would tend to their bodies and souls through physical exercises, stretches, meditation, and massage, all with a large dose of compassion and tenderness. My regular clients would come back week after week, reaching out to share their journey with me. My yoga teacher often used to say “As yoga teachers, we make the world a more peaceful place, one student at a time.” This was true for me. I was making a difference in people’s lives. I was satisfying a deep need in my heart to care for and tend to others.

When John died 6.5 months ago in late May, I shut my yoga business down. I knew that I wouldn’t be very functional for a while, that my children would need all of my energy, and that I couldn’t in any way remain composed through a 90minute class. I set an intention to re-open my yoga business in the fall after the girls went back to school. I assumed that by then I would still have a lot of grieving to do but that I would be more functional and able to be composed long enough to teach a class. So in the middle of September, almost 4 months after John had passed, I decided to take back just 4 of my 10 private clients – the 4 I’d been seeing the longest and who had the most needs. It was only to be a 6hr a week commitment, which seemed gentle and manageable.

Once I began, the words that kept coming up were “I am empty”. I went through the motions, stretched my students out, counseled them, cared for them, and on the surface – did my job. However, I was phoning it in. I realized that the things that had made teaching yoga such a wonderful job in the past were what made it a very hard job to do right now. I used to enjoy drawing on past experiences to connect with the pain of my students, but right now it’s too painful to draw on my life. I loved walking into the studio, bright and full of light for my student, but now I have no light – I am a dark cloud. I realized – how can I be anyone’s spiritual guide when I am broken? Remaining composed for just 6 hours of teaching a week became an emotional drain.

So, I stopped teaching. I set an intention to open to some other sort of career. Perhaps a return to the tech field (I have a CS degree and used to work in software), perhaps something totally different. It doesn’t feel like I’m incapable of working. In fact, I have a lot of energy to put into the right sort of job. I want to be busy. I want to occupy my mind. The key issue with yoga is that it is a job about emotions and about opening the heart center. I realized that I need a job where I am allowed to be depressed and dark as I work, if that’s where I’m at that day. I need a job that isn’t about emotions, because I spend enough time in an emotional space right now. I need a change. I determined that my yoga teaching career was over.

I told my 4 remaining clients. They were disappointed (one of them I’ve literally been seeing every week for 10 yrs). I genuinely love them, so I agreed to see each of them 1x a month so that we could stay connected. Today, I saw 2 of my clients. This is the first time I have taught in over a month, since I made the decision end my teaching career. I thought these few classes would be easy and manageable, but in fact – they weren’t.

As I look back on the last few days, it’s obvious why it was so painful to teach today. Last night I went to a regular widows/widowers group therapy session that I attend. Everyone in the group lost their partner in the last year. The wounds are raw. Everyone is in a lot of pain and has a story that is very difficult to hear. These sessions are confidential and thus I can’t disclose the specifics of what was discussed, but in general we dive into some really dark stuff – regrets, pain over the holidays, judgmental people who have hurt us while grieving, feeling like one will never be happy again, pain over having no one to hold you when you sob, the difficulty of being present as a parent to your traumatized children while you yourself are traumatized, and more. Although it’s hard to go to the group, it’s productive and healthy. I have to process the feelings inside of me, or I won’t move forward. Although I’m sad when I hear the dark tales of others, I’m also comforted to be reminded that I’m not alone. I’m not failing. I’m struggling in the same ways that others are struggling. Although these group sessions are productive, that doesn’t stop me from coming home feeling very dark, quiet, and sad.

After therapy, I arrived home at 8:30pm. My MIL had been caring for the children and Isabella was still awake when I arrived. She was bright and hyper. She had just watched some “Guinness Book of World Records” youtube videos and wanted to chat about all the amazing things she had seen – the woman with the 15 inch waist, the man who had the record for eating a bowl of live worms the fastest, and more. She was bouncy, chatty, and needed attention. It overwhelmed me. All I wanted to do was go somewhere by myself and cry for my dead husband. I was in a deep place of feeling, and I couldn’t pop back up to the surface. I chatted with her for a bit and then (close to 9pm) told her it was time to go to her room. Isabella refused. She’s a normal 9yr old pre-teen – her favorite word is ‘no’. I asked her politely 5x to go upstairs. She resisted, and then I had to get firm and (with my voice quivering with pain) explain to her slowly that I had just been to my grief group, was processing a lot, and really couldn’t chat at that moment. In general, it takes a shocking amount of energy to stay calm and loving when one really wants to just fall on the floor sobbing. I stayed calm, but it took a lot out of me.

The group session had opened a door – a door to my sadness and pain. Often I keep my pain locked up in my tense and frozen body. I have hardened over the last several months as I have had to stay strong for everyone and everything around me – my children, my MIL, the death-related paperwork that is only now coming to a close, household duties, etc. It’s all on me. There is no one else who can be in charge – I’m the one in charge and I’m not allowed to fall apart. Sometimes when I am in the right environment with the right people, I can open up. I opened up in group last night. However, by the time I got Isabella to bed (after asking her over and over and having her flippantly say ‘no’), the door was closed. I was still sad and depressed, but in more of a defeated way, rather than in a useful “I’m feeling the things that I need to feel” way.

I woke up this morning continuing to feel defeated. I got the kids to school, and then came home to teach my 2 classes. Right before teaching, I happened to glance at a shelf where I have a folder of things relating to John’s memorial. There is a notebook there given to me by his boss… they had a service at work and people wrote various things about John in the book. I had not yet opened the book in the 6mo that I’ve had it, because I wasn’t ready. I don’t know why, but in that moment I was drawn to open it for the first time. On the front page was a note from a woman named Caitlin who worked for John. She wrote a list of 6 things she learned from him. Here are a couple of choice items from her list –

#4 – He created a culture on the team in which we would eat lunch together almost every day and swap stories. My favorites were about his mountaineering family summiting everything, his adventures as a bachelor in 90s grunge-era Seattle, and all of the crazy Burning Man projects he partook in. After nearly 6 yrs, I knew enough stories to request specific repeats when new people hadn’t hears them. I learned that I wanted to have great stories to tell, and to find adventure wherever I went. I must have heard the story of how he met Holly at least a half dozen times, and it still strikes me as one of the most romantic and genuine stories I’ve heard.

#6 – He taught me what it looks like to truly adore one’s spouse. Even as I looked to him as a mentor, he would tell me that Holly could teach me so much more. Every story I heard from him was about the latest thing that she did that was “totally bad ass”. I remember being very excited to introduce him to the man who later became my husband, because I had been looking for someone who I could brag about the way he did about Holly.

Yes, I shouldn’t have opened the notebook right before teaching. For some reason, I did, and then, when teaching, I was again forced to phone it in. I went through the motions, my students were pleased, but I was empty.

I am so lost. Sometimes it feels like I tread water in my ocean of grief, using every bit of my energy to fight against the dark undercurrents. Other times it feels like I’m sitting on a raft on this same ocean of sorrow – alone, cold, adrift, without direction, nothing to do but cry for my sweet John. I adored him. I have the best friends I could possibly ask for, but still – I float on this raft alone, allowing my tears to be taken by the waves, gazing off towards the horizon, wondering if I will ever reach the shore, not sure that I will.

Past trauma

I am in so much pain.

I remember my first experience with trauma. It was the day before Thanksgiving – Wednesday, Nov 24, 1993. I was 18 (a freshman in college) and was in my dorm room with my 2 roommates Eugenia and Amy, packing my bag to go home for the holiday. Over 20 years later, the image is as crystal clear as it ever was – I was reaching into my suitcase, on top of the chocolate brown vinyl couch, looking towards the window, and the phone rang (back then, it was a rotary). I answered it and my best friend from high school, Tanya, was on the other end. She informed me that Sean had hung himself, and that’s the moment when my entire perspective on the world changed.

Sean and I were in the same circle of about 8 close friends since we were 15. We were the misfits – hyper smart nerds, band geeks, social outcasts. The group of us found each other and were quite content to watch movies at each others houses, go out for french fries and ice cream, and in general avoid the popular-snobby scene. Sean and I became especially close friends over the years. He was a crazy smart fiery redhead who ran track and field, and it wasn’t a surprise when we started dating as Seniors. I remember how delighted his parents were when he took me to the winter “Holly Ball” formal. They took pictures, and then – when he forgot to give me the bouquet of white roses he had purchased, they drove to the school parking lot (during the dance) and put the flowers in his car so that he could give them to me afterwards. I was his first girlfriend, and after we began to date I discovered he’d had a crush on me for years.

We dated for several months, and then eventually I broke it off a few months before we graduated. I don’t remember anything terrible leading to our parting… it was more a matter of that we were teenagers, still finding our way, exploring, and about to go off to college. Sean was disappointed when things ended, but we remained close and continued to spend time together with our motley crew of misfits. We all went off to college – me to MIT to major in Computer Science, him to UMass Amherst to double major in Math and Physics. We kept in touch and had planned to get together Thanksgiving weekend, the first time we were all to be home after leaving for college. Apparently, Sean came home for the holiday a day early. His mom found him in their basement, hanging from his belt.

After that, it was hard to care about anything. There were only a few weeks left of the semester. I had finals to study for, papers to write. This was MIT – there was no extra time to grieve, only time to work. I would stare at my books and think “Who gives a shit? Sean is dead. These pages don’t matter.” I couldn’t move through all the work I had to do and was lucky that the merciful administrators agreed to give me incompletes in some of my classes so that I could finish up over the break. The next semester began in late January, and I slogged through, managing to do scrape by in everything except Differential Equations (I got a D), which I would have to repeat later. I didn’t really date, except briefly a sweet man named John Rusnak, who tried to comfort me, but I just couldn’t open to any sort of connection. I went for some free counseling at the Med Center, but when I wanted to continue therapy (not for free), I was told by a relative that I only thought I had problems, that really I didn’t have any real troubles, and that most doctors were quacks. My brother got irritated when I would talk about my pain and criticized me for “needing so much attention.”  I was truly alone.  The fight drained out of me and I didn’t pursue counseling.

By September of 1994, it had been 10 months, but I was still broken. I got all C’s in my classes that semester. My father told me that I would have to do better eventually, which I found offensive and hypocritical (he readily admits to mostly getting Cs when he was at MIT in the 60s). The pain softened but never really went away, and I proceeded to put white roses on Sean’s grave every Thanksgiving for years. Recently I found this poem that I wrote sometime in the year after Sean died. Forgive me. Poetry is not my forte.

First kisses are special
Do you remember ours?
We were in the pool, sitting on the steps, your arms around me.
I knew what you were going to do.
Don’t you remember?

We had just gone to a formal dance
You brought me white roses and held my hand on the dance floor
Don’t you remember?
Please tell me you remember.

It was our first date
I remember how nervous you were
Please, I beg you – can you remember?

I’m sorry, guess I’m not being fair
I know you can’t remember
I know you can’t even respond

Sometimes I wish I didn’t remember,
Because then it wouldn’t be so hard
Then I wouldn’t wonder
Why you can’t still be alive.


I wish I could say that Sean is my only ex-boyfriend to have killed himself.

Tom Brooks came into my life in my mid-20’s. Tom was from the ghetto in Sacramento. To say Tom was ‘rough around the edges’ was an understatement. Tom smoked too much, drank too much, stayed up too late, had a red hot temper, a brilliant mind, and a heart full of optimism and lust for life. Tom and I became the best of friends, 2 peas in a pod – dancing together, laughing together, staying up late discussing the meaning of life. The sexual chemistry between us was undeniable. We would talk about it at times, but every time Tom would tell me that he needed to be “free” and, while he loved being with me, he couldn’t settle down with any one in any way. He was adamant, militant even, on this point. Regardless, we couldn’t stop ourselves, and we became lovers. I knew it was dangerous, but still – I reached for the fire. After a couple of months, I admitted to myself that I was in love with him and that he and I were on a path that would only lead to an explosion. So I told him. We met at a B&O Espresso (our favorite coffee shop) and I said “Tom, I love you. I know that you need to be free. We have to end this because I want more and I know you don’t.” Tom got very angry with me. I remember clearly how his mouth turned into a hard little “O” and his eyes became squinty. His tongue literally shook inside of his mouth with his barely controlled rage. He said “How dare you put this on me. You knew what you were getting into.” I cried and told him that I was not asking for anything more, that I needed to end things _because_ I knew he didn’t want more.

Tom and I didn’t talk for a few months. Eventually we reclaimed our friendship, and then during the summer of 1999, because we just couldn’t help ourselves (the fire drew us in), we became lovers again. This time, I was different. I still felt deeply connected to Tom, but I couldn’t love him in the same way after he had expressed such anger in my moment of vulnerability. In September Tom went on a 10 day backpacking trip, during which time I went on a date with a new guy named Jerry. He came back from his trip and spent 4 hours making me a special dinner (my first experience with home made Mexican mole). He said “Holly, while I was out in the woods I laid in the grass, looked at the sky, and all I thought of was you. I want to be with you.” To which I responded “I’ve met someone else.”

Tom took it in stride and we stayed friends, best friends in fact. He continued to hold a bit of a torch for me, but gave me space to continue seeing Jerry and didn’t pressure me in any way. After over a year, Jerry and I broke up and I went travelling. Tom sent me off with this note –

To my dear, lovely, sweet, gorgeous, sensual, very sexy, very smart, and wonderful Holly –

Dignity and villainy, courage and terror,
We have these all in our bodies from the moment of our birth.
We don’t get better or worse until the moment of our death,
We stay the same, exactly as we were created…
Let yourself not worry about what’s right and what’s wrong,
Just be free from fears, vanity, greed, insecurity, jealousy, and evil.

Be happy! Live your life to the fullest!!!
Drink sweet wine, listen to beautiful music, kiss gorgeous and sensual women.
Be in love! In love with the “self”, a man, life!
Don’t think about tomorrow, be in the present.
Time flies so quickly, life is so short…

Thank you for the sweet evening that we had yesterday!
Have a great trip to Europe.

with love,
your Tom
March 2001

When I returned from my travels, I had a new boyfriend, Sean (apparently I have a thing for Sean’s). Tom was perhaps upset that he had missed my window of single-hood between Jerry and Sean. Even though I had a boyfriend, and even though Tom and I had not been together as lovers in 2 years, Tom showed up one day in September 2001 with a diamond ring. He said “Holly, I offer you all that I am and everything that I have for as long as I live. It is our destiny to marry and have 5 children. Marry me.”

The story unravels from there. I said no. Tom got mad and began to do too much speed. I began to fear for my safety. At one point, Tom basically threatened to rape me. He kept calling me, berating me, saying “I offered you all that I am and everything that I have, and you walked away. How could you do that to me?” I still cared about him and continued to try to get help for him.

Eventually, many of our close friends advised me that I was too close to the situation and that, because he was so angry with me, it was not in my path to be the one to help him. So I distanced myself. Tom lost his job, almost became homeless, and bounced in and out of rehab. Years later, he got sober. By then, I was married to John. I saw Tom in public from time-to-time, but John feared for my safety and didn’t want me to get too close. Then, a few years after that, Tom killed himself. Apparently he was having a bit of a breakdown and tried to check himself into Harborview for evaluation. They told him that he wasn’t sick enough to be given a bed and sent him away. He went home and asphyxiated himself.


There are other traumas in my life that I won’t go on about in detail. There was the miscarriage (in between Isabella and Melanie) at 10 weeks. I bled out chunks of my dead baby for over 20 full days. There was the time when I was 20, wanted to meet the 30 yr old half-brother my father had always denied was his, and then was told “There is no statute of limitations on child support. If you validate this man, he may come at us for back child support and then you could be responsible for us losing our home. Do you want us to lose our home?”. I went ahead and met Greg anyway and was then called a “family traitor” for years. There is more, but it’s too tiring to go on.

Of course, this isn’t really about Sean, Tom, my miscarriage, Greg, or other traumas that I haven’t even mentioned. At the moment, everything comes back to John. Here’s the kicker – all of these traumatic events mushed together still don’t equal the trauma of losing John.

I am in so much pain. I ache for him. Every day I get sucked into a vortex of darkness and despair. The ache only grows as, day after day, John is STILL NOT HERE. My limbs have been ripped off, and 6 months later, I’m still bleeding. I could not have ever imagined a pain this enormous. I often feel so full of hurt that it’s as if I’m choking on it or as if I’m going to vomit it up. But – I can’t vomit it up. I cannot put the pain into a cabinet and close the door. There is no where to run to where this pain will not follow me. I loved John, truly and unconditionally. We had a family together. He completed me. John was my forever, and I wanted to grow old with him. I always thought it would be like that Death Cab for Cutie song – “I’ll Follow You into the Dark.” –

Love of mine
Someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark

No blinding light
Or tunnels, to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark

If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

Catholic school, as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black
I held my tongue as she told me, son
Fear is the heart of love, so I never went back

If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

You and me have seen everything to see
From Bangkok to Calgary
The soles of your shoes are all worn down
The time for sleep is now
It’s nothing to cry about
Cause we’ll hold each other soon
The blackest of rooms

If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

I’ll follow you into the dark

I’ll follow you into the dark, by Death Cab for Cutie (youtube)

As in the song, I used to like to dream that, someday, when John and I were old and led a full life, we would die peacefully together. It didn’t happen that way.

My only comfort is in my beautiful children and my incredible community. I can say, without a doubt, that my friends and family have saved me. I tread water in my ocean of grief and it is only because I reach for the beams of light of all of you that I do not drown. Thank you.


November 30, 2014

This morning, as I was sleeping on the flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Seoul, I dreamt. In my dream I had landed in Seattle and went directly to Mellington’s house for a movie night. A man was there – a friend of a friend, someone I have seen but not spent time with (I hardly know him). He was in a reclining chair and asked if I would like for him to hold me. There was nothing loaded about his offer and there were no sexual overtones. With relief, I said “Yes. Please. I need to be held so badly.”. I sat with him, leaned my head against his chest, almost relaxed and then sat up and said “Wait! I just got off the plane and haven’t showered! I stink! He smiled and said “I know. It’s fine.”. So I leaned back in, closed my eyes, and let go. I asked him “Do you know what that feels like when you take a deep breath and let all of your muscles go?”. He said “Yes, I do. Go ahead.”. I exhaled deeply and let my entire body relax, then I did it again, shedding layers of pain and stress, melting into his comforting and completely platonic embrace. I felt safe. For a few moments, I put down my burdens and it was the most wonderful feeling I have had in months. Then, my flight began to descend into Seoul and I was woken from the dream by the announcements the pilot was making. It was such a shame. It would have been so nice to be held just a little bit longer.

Headed Home

Saturday, November 29, Cat Ba, Vietnam.

It’s 415am and I’m sitting on the beach in the dark. I’ve been up since 130am, as sleep continues to elude me. Today I begin the long 2 day journey home – a bus, then a boat, then 2 more busses, then a cab from Hanoi to the airport, flight to Ho Chi Minh city, 3 hr layover, 5hr flight to Seoul, 11hr layover in Seoul, 12hr flight home.

While I had some pleasant moments on this trip, I can’t say that I found happiness or joy. I did, however, find some amount of peace. It has been healthy to step away, reflect on the last 6 months, and swim around in my ocean of grief. I am grateful for the space this trip has given me to gather my strength, set new intentions, and get ready for the next push. Every single trip I have taken since John died has been productive, even the excruciatingly painful ones. The next big trip that I have planned is an ice climbing clinic in Ouray in the end of January with a fellow widow who lost her partner with John. I’m not quite sure I can make it a full 2 months without some solo time away, so I may have to plan a short trip in between.

I am painfully aware that, when I return to Seattle, the holidays will be upon me. I cannot avoid Christmas as I have avoided Thanksgiving. When I think about picking presents for the girls, buying a Christmas tree, and cooking Christmas dinner – all without John, I feel like I’m going to throw up. I have no love for the upcoming school festivals, holiday parties, and Christmas cheer. There is no way out of this – only through. To be honest, I do not know what techniques to employ to cope with the month that is to come. All of the widows and professionals tell me the same thing – the holidays will be very hard. Frankly, if I didn’t think it would damage my kids, I would disappear again to some remote location, but the girls need Christmas with me and I know it.

What inspiring words can I offer? Frankly, I’m not sure. My husband has died, and along with him – many of my dreams. It takes time to find new dreams. There will always be a hole in my life. Eventually that hole will shrink a bit as my life fills with new experiences, dreams, and passions, but it will always be there. I remember times in the past when working with a yoga client in true trauma, I would say “What you are going through is truly terrible. I stand here and honor that fact. I do not trivialize it or pretend that an inspiring meditation will fix things. I can give you tools to work with the pain, while all the while honoring that your pain is huge and is not going away any time soon.”

My pain isn’t going away. There would be something wrong if it did, given the enormity of what has happened. Thank you to all of you who continue to hold me, and especially to those of you who have the strength to sit by me and spend time with me, even when I don’t smile, even when I obviously wish I could just run away.

6 Months

730am, Friday, November 28 – Cat Ba, Vietnam

Six Months

Today marks 6 months since my sweet John was taken in an avalanche. His entire climbing team of 6 was swept off Liberty Ridge 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier, marking the most significant climbing accident on Mt Rainier in 33 years, since 11 people were taken out by icefall on the Ingraham flats in 1981. Just like the Ingraham flats tragedy, no mistakes were made. No one slipped, no one failed to properly train (which can put an entire rope team at risk). The guides were solid (I’ve climbed with the lead guide, Matt Hegeman, myself), and proper precautions were taken. In both cases, the mountain crumbled in ways that cannot be predicted, except in that one can predict that glaciated peaks will always crumble – you just don’t know when, on which route, or how significant it will be.

John never trivialized the risks of mountain climbing. He was a huge fan of extensive training and insisted I take a proper 10 day course if I were to climb on glaciers. We spent countless hours in the evenings discussing the pros and cons of various gear and safety techniques. He would always train even harder than the guides told him he needed to train, as he wanted to have extra reserves should a storm hit, or in case another climber was injured and needed others to carry his or her load. John took mountaineering very, very seriously. Still, he respected the fact that, when on the mountain, he could never be in complete control. He spoke often of the Ingraham Flats tragedy. He said “Holly, you can do everything right and still the mountain is in charge. Icefall on the Ingraham flats took out 11 climbers in 1981, and that was on the ‘safe’, standard route that many inexperienced climbers take to the top without issue.” He would say “Sometimes the mountain makes a decision, and there is nothing you can do but respect and honor the raw power of nature.”

John never sheltered me from the risks. However, I never once thought about telling him not to climb. The man that I fell in love with was a mountain man. John lived to summit big snowy glaciated peaks. He was never more alive than when he returned from a trip – sunburnt, wind chapped, scabbed ankles, missing toenails, once with a cracked rib after a slide on Glacier Peak that slammed him into a tree (which was apparently a good thing, as it was that or go off the cliff). He would light up with joy and we would chat into the night about every detail, as we also did when I returned from one of my climbs, also often limping, bruised, with skin missing in various places. John and I never climbed anything risky together, as we had to make sure that, if the worst happened, our girls would not be orphans. Still, even though we usually climbed separately, climbing was a huge bond that we shared, and something we understood about each other. John and I both liked to do things that were really hard, reached for challenges that involved suffering that would have turned others away. That feeling of standing on a summit, looking down on the clouds, having pushed through pain, high winds, potential frostbite, while gasping for breath in an oxygen poor atmosphere, was a feeling that we both reached for in the same way. Frankly, there has been no day in my life when I have felt more accomplished than the day that I stood on top of Mount Rainier after navigating the crevasses on the Winthrop Glacier. After John died, someone told me that they had never seen him more proud than the day he received word (while I was on my way down) that I had had a successful summit.

Accordingly, I have no anger. I am not angry with John for embarking on this climb and I am not angry with Mt Rainier for making the decision it made that day. I’m not even angry with myself. I told John that I loved him in every possible way at every possible opportunity. I honored him as a mountain man and cheered him on as he followed his dreams. I have no regrets, no reason to be mad at myself for not appreciating or supporting him in every way.

Because there is no anger, I am left only with grief. While these last 6 months have been long, exhausting, and chock full of unending heartbreak, it still feels like just the beginning. The loss of one’s life partner and the father of one’s young children is enormous and all encompassing. I still weep multiple times daily. When I close my eyes and picture his sparkling eyes and full red beard, I literally feel like I’m going to vomit. In fact this nausea of the last 6mo, which hits me at least 2x a day, is more significant than all the nausea of my 2 pregnancies combined. I ache for him. I barricade both sides of my body with enormous pillows at night, so that the bed does not feel so big and empty. I play his favorite Pearl Jam songs voluntarily, knowing they will make me sob, wanting to hear them anyway so as to feel closer to him. When I cook dinner, I still stare at the front door, remembering how happy I was every time he walked through it after work, missing the way he squeezed me and kissed me hello, willing him to walk through that door just one more time. And then, after dinner, when I put my girls to bed, I ache even more. I ache for the loss of their innocence. I ache for all the future milestones of theirs that he will miss. I ache because John used to put them to bed, and thus this task is yet another reminder that I am alone.

Before I lost my John, I would have thought that 6 months was a very long time. It is true that I have made much progress in my healing path during this time, but still, I have come to understand that it is still just the beginning. My grief is truly an ocean. I tread water in this ocean, using all of my strength to resist the dark undercurrents that threaten to suck me under. I continue to feel enormous gratitude for the beams of sunshine of all of you who hold me. There is so much darkness, but there is also so much light. Thank you for sharing my journey.

Running away

4am, Friday November 28 – Cat Ba, Vietnam

There is this urge, when one is in so much pain, to run away. It is perhaps easy for others to trivialize this instinct and to say “Running away never solves anything.  You should stay where you are and face what you have to face.”.  However, given that running away is such a common desire when one is experiencing true trauma, it is an instinct well worth examining.

Many times, over the last 6 months, I have had the urge to run away.  This is not to say that I do not love my children.  In fact, my children are the greatest gift that John has given me.  Without them, I would be truly lost on a way that is too painful to even contemplate.  Still, at times I have this urge to run away.  If I didn’t have children then I am quite sure that, after John died, I would have disappeared into the mountains for a while, growing a metaphorical beard, laying in the dirt, and crying for hours upon hours for my lost love.  This is not an option for me, and again – my children, who hold me back from this brink, are a blessing.

If running away is such a common instinct, then why do we judge it?  Why does one smugly sit there and assume that the person in pain is doing something “unhealthy” or something that “won’t bear fruit”?  How could you really know what path someone’s journey of grief will take?  As I have said before, when one experiences true loss, falling apart is part of the process.  There are things one might do that could seem obviously unhealthy, but in fact these things might be 1. much healthier than various truly terrible alternatives and 2. unfortunately necessary in order to emerge on the other side.

I am reminded of the movie “Silver Linings Playbook”.  The lead character, Tiffany, loses her husband in a car crash.  She begins to sleep with any man or woman she finds, desperate for any sort of comfort.  To be clear, this is not something I’m doing, and in fact my pain over not having been touched in any way in a very long time is another topic entirely.  Even though her path is not my path, I can still relate to her methods.  When you are in SO MUCH pain, you search for precious moments of escape.  Stop yourself before you form the thought that escape isn’t healthy.  There are truly crushing levels of pain that can render one non functional, and sometimes the only way you make it through is by giving yourself moments of escape.  Even if your methods are “unhealthy”, they might in fact be saving you from something worse, such as suicide.  To be clear again, I have never for a moment contemplated harming myself.  I’m speaking generally here.

Like Tiffany, I yearn for escape.  I long to disappear somewhere in the world, to walk the earth – half of the time wanting to walk while sobbing and wearing my pain like a cross, the other half of the time wanting to wear the mask of a “normal person” and pretend (with strangers I meet) that I have no trauma and am still the vivacious/intelligent/interesting person I once was.  It doesn’t matter that, at the end of the day, all of the pain is still there and I have not truly escaped anything.  Running away from the pain is part of the process.

I ask you, dear reader, to try not to over analyze the path of those you know who have experienced true loss.  Unless someone is shooting up heroin or contemplating the murder of someone who has wronged them, perhaps you shouldn’t try to tell them they are “doing it wrong”.  Of course, this doesn’t mean you ignore them.  There is so much you can do without making the mistake of trying to dictate their path.  You can hold them, visit them, praise EVERY SINGLE attempt they make to move forward, and remind them that you walk with them, whatever their path may be.  You can give them thoughtful books, bring them meals, offer to drive them to therapy, while being ready to let it go if they aren’t ready.  Most of all, you can decide not to judge, you can let go of your ego, and you can stop yourself from criticizing any missteps along the way.  What would your path look like if you lost your life partner and the father of your children in one go?  I don’t know, and neither do you.

Thanksgiving day in Vietnam

3am Thursday, November 27, Thanksgiving day – Island of Cat Ba, Vietnam

It is not a coincidence that I decided to travel to a place where there would be no Thanksgiving.  That is not to say that I feel I have nothing to be grateful for.  In fact, I have much to be grateful for – 2 beautiful children, family and friends who hold me so close and honor my journey of grief without judgment, a healthy body, a warm home, and 10 beautiful years with an amazing man who gave me everything that I could ever want – years that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I am here because the memories of past Thanksgivings are too raw, the wounds are too exposed and vulnerable for the moment.

I remember the first Thanksgiving after John and I were married.  I was 8.5mo pregnant (due Dec 11) and much too fatigued and encumbered to cook a big meal for guests.  Certainly, we weren’t going out of town so close to my due date, so John easily and happily said “Lets invite family here.  I will cook everything and you can rest.”.   And so, that beautiful husband of mine did just that.  He roasted the turkey, stuffed the stuffing, mashed the potatoes, crusted the whipped yams with pecans and walnuts, sauteed the green beans, tossed the salad, warmed the rolls, simmered the fresh cranberry sauce, poured the wine, and most impressive of all – baked the pumpkin pies with his own home made crust and a filling made from fresh pumpkin he had broken down himself.

Johns mother, father, step mother, uncle, grandmother, and grandfather were all in attendance.  Everyone was very impressed.  Secretly he grinned and told me how much it meant to him to cook for Granny, who had been the one to cook most of the big holiday meals over the years.  Afterwards, he said “That went so well, perhaps it should become a Thanksgiving tradition – I cook everything and you relax.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but John followed through.  Every single year (except one, when we went to Aunt Betsy’s), John cooked the whole meal.  I would offer to prep a few dishes, but he would always smile and decline, reminding me that Thanksgiving was a time for me to relax.  This went beyond the kitchen.  When guests got too drunk, or discussions turned too political, he would wink at me in a special way.  The unspoken message was that I was free to go read in our room for a while, or run an errand, or in general check out for a bit while he entertained.  He made it a luxurious and soothing time for me, 10yrs in a row.

This year I decided early on that it was not in my path to continue to host John’s extended family for Thanksgiving.  The idea of doing all the work myself and not having John as a buffer was too much of a slap-in-the-face reminder of what I have lost and that I am alone.  I emailed everyone, politely saying that I wouldn’t be hosting because it was just too painful to do it without John.  John’s uncle, who had told us in the past that Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at our house were the two best meals he ate every year, replied and simply said “Total BS.”.  John would have shielded me from that, but John is not here.  Apparently, this uncle thinks Mary and I should be “over it”.  Forgive me if I have no compassion for his loss of a good meal while I am in my time of grief.

I made a plan to send my kids to Boston for the holiday.  My parents and two younger sisters lovingly offered to care for them while I did my own thing.  In fact, the girls were very excited for the adventure.  Juliet told them there would be candy, movies, and time at the rock gym.  Grandma Ann said she would heat up the indoor pool and that they could swim every day.  Rose planned a day off work to indulge them in projects and TG dinner prep.  A friend, who wanted to visit  family in the Boston area, offered to chaperone them on the cross country flights.  And so, I with non trivial amounts of Rose’s trip planning help, I booked a trip to Vietnam, where there is no Thanksgiving, where I do not need to sit at a holiday dinner table and look at the spot where John would have sat.

Perhaps you wonder how it is that I can leave my children for 10 days, over a holiday, during a time of grief.

It seems obvious (after much introspection, many books on trauma, and hours of group/individual therapy), that one is going to break in some way when faced with such enormous loss.  A friend told me of a man she knew who, after losing his wife to cancer, shut himself in his home for 2 years, eating only delivered food, allowing (literally) hundreds of pizza boxes to pile up and fester.  When friends eventually came to clean out his house, they removed multiple van loads of garbage and filth.  Another friend told me of her trauma, and how, when she could no longer cope, she (without warning or any plan) said “I’m leaving.”, left her kids with whoever was around, got in the car, and didn’t return for weeks.  By the way, she is now a doting and responsible mother/grandma, someone whom I would trust with my children in an instant.

In the past, I would have observed these breakdowns in others and, while I would have felt compassion, I would not have been able to relate.  Now, when I meet someone who has experienced true loss, I am amazed when they _aren’t_ falling apart.  This is a topic for more in depth writings, but – falling apart is part of the process.  I came to realize that I could break in uncontrolled ways, or I could make space for myself to beak in safer ways.  Either way, breaking was in the cards.  So, I forgave myself for not having it in me to face the holiday, did everything I could to make sure that my children would be tended to while I was away, and I left.

This is not the first time I have had to leave my children in order to have space to process my grief, nor will it be the last.  There are those of you who have judged me.  I have my moments of anger over this fact, but mostly I feel compassion for those who cannot see the forest for the trees.  The tree of this holiday is insignificant compared to the forest of survival.  I will  survive, and I will honor that this path through the evergreens is dark, messy, and not always something that is easy for others to watch.  Those of you who walk with me and allow me to find my own way (knowing that I and only I can find the path) give me the greatest gift that I could receive.  For that, on this Thanksgiving day, I am grateful.  Thank you.

Another visit from John

Nov 26, 730am, Cat Ba, Vietnam

John came to me again last night.  I sat on the beach in the dark, by myself.  I felt him wanting to connect, but I resisted at first.  I only want to connect with him when I have time, space, and emotional energy to be fully present.  So I gave myself a few moments to breathe deeply, closed my eyes, and dove in.  Immediately he put his forehead against mine.  I slid my hands along the sides of his face, along his scalp, and into his hair.  He began to weep, and then we talked for a bit.

“I want to come back.  I miss you and the girls so much.  I can’t stand it.  I want to come back.”

“John, you can’t come back.”

“This hurts too much.  I can’t stand seeing you in such pain.  I can’t stand not big able to hold you and comfort you.”

And then I felt the heavens trying to yank him away.  He began to be sucked upwards and we reached our hands out to each other, trying to hold on.

“John, surrender.  I don’t know why, but this is your destiny.  You must let go of your attachment to this earth and shed the burden of your fear for me and the girls.  We will find a path.  These burdens are mine to carry.”

I felt John give in.  He stopped fighting, and then, because he let go of his resistance, the sky stopped yanking him away and I was able to hold him.  For perhaps the first time since his death, I was able to truly feel his pain rather than being consumed by my own.  I filled with compassion for this sweet, tender man who will never see his children have babies, who will never climb the many peaks that he dreamed of, who will never grow old with his wife.  I held him and let him sob for a while.  I let myself comfort him.  I allowed myself to be completely present and honor his great loss.  Then, just like that, he was gone again, until the next time I’m lucky enough for one of these brief moments of connection.  I cherish these moments and never take them for granted.

John – I love you forever and beyond.


5am, November 26, Cat Ba, Vietnam

I find myself crippled by fear in ways that I have never experienced before.  I am not someone who has historically been afraid of risk or injury.  After I had children, I took certain precautions, such as that I wouldn’t climb on glaciers without first taking a course in crevasse rescue and without a professional guide by my side, but still, I didn’t carry much fear.  I did my best to mitigate the risks and took comfort in the fact that, should I injure myself (or worse), John would be there to tend to me and the children.

Of course, now there is no John.  I stumble around in this world full of fear that something will happen to me.  I am not afraid of the pain of an injury, not afraid of my own suffering, but I am consumed by the awareness – there is no other parent to care for my children.  In Hanoi, I couldn’t relax.  In order to cross the street one must dodge between zippy motorbikes.  I’m told never to run across the street, only to walk, because then my path is more predictable and the motorbikes can better flow around me.  There was no break from this anxiety, as the sidewalks are impassable die to rows of parked motorbikes, so even when not crossing, one walks on the edge of the street and tries to ignore the motorbikes and cars that literally brush you as they fly by.  I couldn’t stop wondering – what happens if a bike hits me and I break an arm or a leg?  Who would take care of the children?  How would they get around if I couldn’t drive?  True, I could hire more help, but that is little comfort right now.  At the end of the day, I’m alone, and there is no escaping the reality that my children are fatherless and my burdens are heavy.

I knew, after John died, that I could no longer climb on glaciers – not because I resent the types of mountains that took my husbands life, but for the sake of my children.  I still love these mountains and yearn to climb them.  The secondary loss of this passion (after the primary loss of my husband) is non trivial and will be the subject of many other writings.  Regardless, I have discovered that, even if I stop climbing big mountains, even if I always wear my seat belt, there is so much fear and awareness of the delicate balance of life.  Anything could happen, and if something does happen to me, the cost is immeasurable.  I carry these burdens as I carry my 60lb training pack.  Unlike the pack, I cannot choose to lighten my load when I am tired.  These weights of fear and responsibility are mine to carry alone.  This awareness ages me and contributes to my struggle to find any joy in life.

More wanderings in Hanoi

November 24 – Hanoi, Vietnam

I woke up at 1am this morning and was reminded that sleep continues to elude me. This goes beyond jetlag. I’ve had sleep issues for years, but they got much worse after John died. Now, I can only sleep 3-4 hours a night. The exhaustion manifests as new wrinkles, dark under-eye circles, and a cranky disposition. And yes, I have seen a doctor about this, many times in fact.

I had a joyless day in Hanoi yesterday, as I have already written. I wanted to be drawn in by the beauty of SE Asia – smells of incense and shrimp paste, honest smiling people who genuinely want to help you, cheap massage on every corner, incredible food, beautiful temples, and more. I wanted to feel things that I have felt on past trips, but for yesterday, it wasn’t meant to be. In fact, I was so downtrodden that I genuinely considered staying in the hotel spa all day. I gave myself permission to hide, should that be my path.

Eventually, in the wee hours of the morning, my mind went to something the Dali Lama said, something that I come to often. He said that sometimes the act of putting a smile on your face will make you happier, even if you put it on your face solely for that reason, even if your mind knows that you are tricking yourself. Now, while I can’t say that I was smiling, I did put on my brave face and made myself explore the city yet again. I first made my way to the Vietnamese Museum of the History of the Revolution. This museum detailed the struggle of the Vietnamese against the French Colonialists and the eventual path to independence. There were many aspects of this resistance that reminded me of the movement in India against the British colonialists (something I happened to read a bunch about just last week). In both cases (and at many other times in history all over the world), many were slaughtered horrifically and mercilessly, and many became widows. Widowhood is something that I understand. Again, the Dali Lamas words came to me – he often wrote that, in order to find more peace with your own suffering, it is helpful to put yourself in the shoes of those who have suffered more. So I closed my eyes and let myself touch the pain of many who have come before me. I filled with sadness and compassion and allowed myself to remember that, while I have lost so much, I still have so much, and I never want to take all of the gifts in my life for granted.

Next, I made my way to the Vietnamese Women’s History museum.  The visit began with an exhibit on marriage – rituals, customs, etc.  I walked in and was immediately hit with this quote, in large letters, on the wall at the entrance –

“Wife and husband are as inseparable as a pair of chopsticks.”

The old me might have felt the need to debate this statement, might have over analyzed the words and argued that, while one chopstick is useless by itself, I am not useless by myself.  The me of this moment, however, felt no need to analyze or debate.  I just allowed myself to feel.  In that moment, the quote rang true.  John and I were a pair, a team.  We were two puzzle pieces – in no way identical, but in every way complimentary.  I have always been a strong and independent person, but that fact does not in any way diminish the pain of my loss.  My other half is gone.  It is as if an arm has been cut off – eventually with time and therapy the hemorrhaging will stop, the wound will scab up, and I will learn to use the other parts of my body to compensate, but there will always be scars, and my body will never be the same.

Later on, in the museum, there was an exhibit about street vendors in Hanoi.  Apparently, most of the roaming vendors are women who come in from small villages in order to supplement income.  I watched videos of women talking about how they have family land on which to cultivate crops, but the land only produces enough rice to feed their family for 3mo out of the year, and so, while their husbands labor in the fields, they leave their children with others and travel to Hanoi to sell food and other goods on the street.  One woman talked of how her husband had died (he broke his neck in an accident while laboring) and so now, in order to provide for her children, she leaves them to work in Hanoi for weeks at a time, staying in a room in a guesthouse that she shares with other street vendors – one room, 10 women.  I saw and felt the pinched pain of widowhood on her face.

After I left, I was approached by a roaming vendor hawking baked treats out of a basket.  In Hanoi one is approached by perhaps 10 -20 vendors a day, so mostly I ignored them, but this time I paused.  She wanted to sell me some tiny treats for $2.50, which I’m pretty darn sure was at least 5x what they should have cost.  In that moment, I peacefully let her milk the westerner and gave her the money.  It was only $2.50 to me, but so much more to her.  I had learned that these women make about $20 a week, working six 12+hr days.  Who knows, maybe she was a widow too.  Perhaps I should have given her even more than I did.

My grief is an ocean that constantly threatens to suck me down into a dark vortex of sorrow and loss.  However, the grief also deepens me.  It gives new meaning to things I might not have noticed before, new ability to understand the pain of others, and new compassion for every single human being around me.  All of us feel pain, all of us seek joy.  We are all the same.