Seeking joy in Hanoi

November 23, 2104

I am here traveling solo in SE as part of an overall attempt to seek joy.

I remember finding so much joy during the solo international travels of my mid-20s. there was beauty in all of it – landing in a foreign place with no plan, beaches, rice paddies, museums, bamboo bungalows, food, temples, gardens, hammocks, mountains, smiling children, throngs of motorbikes… I loved all of it. I learned that different doesn’t mean better or worse. I learned that America is but a very small spot on our globe and that there is an enormous and colorful world out there with so much to teach me. I learned that many things that I thought were big problems were really small problems in the grand scheme of it all.

Here I am again, trying to find the new me, the me that is Holly, not Holly-and-John. I am floating, adrift, stumbling around in Hanoi, gazing upon sights that would have delighted me years ago, unable to find the joy and wonder that I once found, painfully aware that I am different now.

For the first several months after John died there was more hysteria, but also more moments of joy. By hysteria, I mean – uncontrollable sobbing, shock (“OH MY GOD, MY HUSBAND IS DEAD.”), hyperventilation when talking about the loss of him, entire days when I got nothing done because the tidal wave of grief flattened me. However, the numbness that accompanies significant loss gave me brief breaks from the hysteria. The body protects itself during this early stage by not allowing you to feel the pain all the time. So in between the bouts of hysteria, there were moments of laughter, silliness, joy.

Now, almost 6mo in, there is no hysteria and there is very little laughter. I find myself wrapped up in a deep, all encompassing sadness like nothing I have ever experienced before. I have many days when I truly cannot imagine ever being happy again. I continue to be told that I am “on schedule” and that I can expect things to get worse before they get better.

It is fascinating to observe how my brain and heart have different conversations. My brain knows that there is happiness to be found in this world. My brain tells me that it is possible I will love again some day. However, my heart sings a different song…. a song of true sorrow and heartbreak, with lyrics detailing the loss of the one man who looked to the depths of my soul, reached inside of me, and wrapped his love around my heart without conditions or caveats.

I am here in Vietnam because my brain told me to come here. The logical side of me insists that I continue to seek joy, even when my heart claims that joy is not possible. I am not yet finding joy, but every single day I set the intention to keep trying, to stay open, to not harden. Really, there is no other choice. I must continue to seek that which my heart says cannot be found.

The pain is so enormous

November 13, 2014

The pain is so enormous.

I had a dream the other day that someone had stolen my minivan and trashed it. John wasn’t a big part of the dream, but in it he wasn’t dead. I woke up and thought “Oh, it was a dream! My minivan isn’t trashed, woohoo!” but then I realized “Oh right… that means John’s dead.” I’d be happy to have a trashed minivan, if it meant that I could have my husband back.

I read this book a while ago called The Lovely Bones. In it a 14 yr old girl is brutally raped and murdered. For years her soul floats above the earth, looking down, watching how life unfolds for her family during their time of grief. There was a boy she loved before she died. He loved her too but they hadn’t connected yet. Eventually, years after her death, her soul came down and entered the body of a mutual friend so that she could have just one night to be with this man who had pined for her ever since she died.

I often fantasize that this could happen, fantasize that John could come down from the sky for just one day so that I could touch his beard, look into his eyes, and melt into him one last time. Heck, forget one full day – I’d give anything for just one moment with him. I ache for him every second of every day.

Last night I spent a bit of time sitting up on our roof. John and I used to go up there often after the kids were in bed. It always felt like a little sanctuary away from it all – up above all the other houses around. We would sit in a wooden loveseat, sometimes with a blanket, and chat. It was our special time 1:1 time. It was a ritual that we adored. Last night I sat there on one side of the loveseat, wishing he was with me. I set an intention to open to him, to welcome him, and then – after a few moments, his soul floated down and joined me. He looked at me with those soft, crinkly, adoring eyes and told me that he loves me and is proud of me. He told me how much it means to him that I have stood by him this whole time. It means so much to him that I continue to honor his path as a Mountain Man and that I don’t have a shred of anger towards him for pursuing his dreams, even though it is these dreams that ultimately led to his death. He told me that he’s so sorry for all of the burdens I must carry and that he doesn’t judge me for one second ever as I navigate my journey of grief, because he knows this path is SO hard and that I’m just trying to keep breathing. I wept and told him that I honor his path and will stand by him until the end of time. And then, just like that, he was gone, and his soul flew back to circle above Mt Rainier, which is where he resides most of the time with the rest of the mountain spirits.

John – I love you forever. Thank you for always being there to comfort me, even in your death.

Rough trip to NYC

November 1, 2014

I just returned from a quick 3 day trip to NYC. My friend David, who is the CEO of Mylio (a startup working on an exciting photo-related product), was launching his product at PhotoPlus Expo and invited me to come for the big launch event.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been taking a lot of trips so that I can step away from my burdens and (hopefully) come back to them fresh and ready for the next push. Sometimes these trips are rejuvenating, sometimes they are very hard, sometimes both. This particular trip involved some fun moments but overall was draining and excruciatingly painful at times. You see, when I step away from my burdens, when I move to a place where I am not in charge of so much around me and I can surrender, then there is nothing to face but my grief. It is necessary for me to face my grief, even if it knocks me on my ass. The way out is through, meaning – I must move through my grief.

On the first evening of the trip, David invited me to a birthday celebration for his 35yr old son Theo. We went to the Manhattan home of some relatives. There were many older (in their 60’s) couples, and I immediately got triggered. Somehow couples my age don’t trigger me as much as older couples. I always thought John and I would grow old together. We often discussed fun trips we might take together and adventures we might have once the kids were in college. I see older couples, and I see my dashed dreams. I also sometimes find birthday celebrations to be hard, as I’m not excited about celebrating my own birthdays (and getting older) without John. I blinked back tears and tried to act normal for a while. Eventually Theo rescued me and took me to a bar in Brooklyn where there weren’t any older couples and it wasn’t anyone’s birthday.

The next evening was the launch event. The presentation kicking off the event involved speeches from various well established photographers. Over and over, the photographers talked about their huge photo archives, and how painful it is when you can’t find or permanently lose important photos. They all said that, when they have a paid photo-shoot, they get the photos to the client right away, but their own family photos were never well organized (until Mylio). Each of them went on and on about how there is nothing more important than family and then showed handfuls of happy photos of their family at various milestones in life.

Let me tell you, those presentations were horrifically painful. I stood there, tears silently streaming down my face, sometimes wiping them away, sometimes not bothering. It was literally almost more than I could bear and it took all of my strenth to not just leave and ditch the entire event. The presentations reminded of how hard it has been to look at photos of John and our family since he died. I force myself to do it, but it breaks my heart when I look at all of those happy moments with him and realize that no such happy memories will ever be created with him again. I looked at all the happy photos of the other families and was slapped in the face with the reminder that my family is broken. Yes, I need to find a path towards the girls and I becoming whole again, but we aren’t there yet and won’t be for a long time. It has been 5 months since John died but to be clear – that is but a brief moment in time. The wounds are still oozing and raw, and the pain is still increasing as I continue to wake up every day without him and become more and more aware of the reality in front of me – I am alone.

When I returned home, people asked me if it was a good trip. I told them that it wasn’t a good trip, but it was a productive trip. I must feel these feelings that are inside of me. I must swim around in my ocean of grief, as that’s all part of the journey. A common quote I come back to is – “Widows don’t move on, they move forward.”. I move forward through the pain instead of trying to embrace the numbness that continues to wear off.

Alongside the pain, I still have a surprising amount of gratitude. I feel such pain because I loved so deeply. I adored John and I told him so all the time. John was the most wonderful husband, lover, friend, and partner that I could have asked for. It didn’t take his death for me to realize that. I told him over and over, through the years, that I was so thrilled to be married to such a wonderful man and felt nothing but joy at the idea of being by his side as we grew old. I don’t have to sit here and regret that I didn’t cherish him when he was alive, because I did cherish him. I did support him in following his dreams. The Liberty Ridge climb that took his life was something he spent a year training for. He would light up when he would talk about details of the route, special gear he would need, and his increased workout regimen. He would thank me, over and over, for supporting him in this path, because the training involved many evenings away from home, and because we both knew that the route had non trivial risks. Still, I have no regrets. John died loved, he died following his dreams, and he died honored by his life partner in being who he truly was – a mountain man.

John – I love you forever.

Babies

October 27, 2014

Several weeks ago, out of the blue, Melanie said –

M: “Mama, why don’t you have another baby?”
Iz: “Oh yes that’s a great idea!”
H: (completely taken off gaurd) “Er…um… but… I don’t have a husband.”
Iz: “You don’t need a husband to have a baby. A baby would be so much fun! Maybe it could be a baby brother!”
M: “Yes a baby brother!”
H: (triggered, almost crying) “While you are technically correct that I could have a baby without a husband, I really don’t want to have a baby without a partner to help me.”
Iz: “We could help you!”
H: “I don’t want to talk about this any more.”

I don’t know what possessed them to want to have this conversation with me. I haven’t brought it up since. Then an hour ago, unprompted –

Iz: “Mama, I really do want another sibling. You should have another baby!”
H: “I don’t have anyone to have a baby with, Isabella.”
Iz: “You could do it the way so-and-so did it! You don’t need a husband!” (referencing a friend who had in-vitro
H: (triggered, weeping) “I don’t have a husband. I’m not having a baby without a husband.”
Iz: “Mom, seriously! I can help you! I can change diapers and carry the baby around!”
H: (changes subject, tries to distract Iz from the whole idea)

These conversations are really not helping me right now. As if life isn’t hard enough without my kids pressuring me to get impregnated and have a baby BY MYSELF. Ugh.

Isabella

October 16, 2014

Apparently Isabella and I aren’t grieving so differently.

Yesterday, she was home sick from school with a bad stomach ache. I let her lay in bed and read all day, which is what she wanted to do. Then in the evening (while I was at a kindergarten parent meeting and the kids were with Ash) she lashed out at Melanie when Mel was playing some music. She didn’t want Mel to play the music, Mel wouldn’t stop, Iz threatened to rip up some of Melanie’s pictures and also wrote a nasty note telling Mel that she hates her and wishes they weren’t sisters, etc. Ash did her best to resolve things, but frankly Iz seemed hell bent on being mad.

When I got home that night and found out what had transpired, I was very upset and frustrated. I scolded Isabella for treating Melanie that way. Then, after the scolding, I got in bed and cuddled with her. A lightbulb went on. I asked her if she had been extra sad about John that day. She somberly said that she had been crying about him all day. I told her that, on my end, I was pretty numb for a few months and that as the numbness wears off, the greif gets bigger. I told her how my pain is only growing, not shrinking. She said that’s true for her too. We bonded and cuddled for a while.

This morning she said she was still sick. I let her stay home. After dropping Melanie off for school I thought to myself “If she is grieving similarly to me, then maybe I should offer her some of the soothing remedies that have helped me.” You can’t take away the grief, but I’ve found, for me, that having a bit of fun and indulging in simple pleasures helps me to have breif breaks from the grief, helps to bring in a little bit of lightness to counter the ocean of darkness that isn’t going away any time soon.

So, even though she was “home sick”, and even though I have a policy that you don’t get to go out and do fun things if you are skipping school, I decided that I was going to indulge her. I cancelled all of my yoga classes for the day, took her shopping for new shoes, took her to Gamma Ray Games to buy new Magic The Gathering cards, and took her out to lunch at her favorite resteraunt (Octo Sushi). Then, we made a pact to not tell Melanie so that she wouldn’t get jealous.

By the afternoon, she was all smiles. I asked her if she was going to be well enough to go to school tomorrow, and she said yes!

Isabella – I’m not perfect, but I love you and I am always there for you

5 months

October 22, 2014

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I must say, almost 5 months in, the ache is still absolutely excruciating.

In many ways, day-to-day life is getting easier. It used to be that I didn’t even have the energy for the most basic tasks and that I got emotionally triggered at the drop of a hat. Now I am much more functional and am able to keep my self from getting constantly triggered. For example, for a long time I cried every single morning on the drive to school, because John used to drive the kids to school. A week and a half ago (5 wks into the school year) I had my very first morning when I didn’t cry as I drove. Of course, the next morning I cried while I drove, but still – this is progress.

At the same time as I become more able to manage the details of life/kids/household, my ocean of grief continues to grow. I am told this is common. Day after day I’m reminded – he really isn’t coming home. I still stare at the front door while I’m cooking dinner, willing him to walk through it after work. Reality continues to set in as the numbness wears off. Professional counselors and other widows all tell me that I can expect the pain to increase until about the 1yr mark. They say that the loneliness and the awareness of the stark and painful reality of his death will continue to grow. I almost can’t even breathe when I contemplate that this excruciating pain will only continue to get bigger. Every fiber of my being aches for him and it takes all of my strength to not get sucked away by the darkness of true, all encompassing sorrow.

I continue to find that the healthiest thing I can do is take solo trips. When I am here in town, my burdens are crushing. I have to stay very strong and put-together for the kids, my MIL, and for the continued administration around John’s death (the paperwork continues plus I have moved through 4 drafts of a will). I have so much on my shoulders, there is very little space to surrender fully into my grief. I do have chunks of time every single day when I let go and cry, but am not able to do some of the deep soul searching I need to do while caring for everyone else. So, I take trips. Every single trip I have taken has been fruitful, either in that it simply refreshes me for the next push or in that I am able to meditate deeply, connect with John’s soul, cry a TON, and process some of my feelings. I plan to continue to take a lot of trips for at least the next couple of years. I have a sense of that I won’t make it through this ordeal unless I frequently step away from my burdens. I simply won’t make it if I just stay here and drown. You hear stories of people really losing it – single moms feeling like there is no way out and then totally falling apart. I never before truly understood how someone could let themselves fall apart, especially when they have children, but I understand now. I will not fall apart, because I will continue to make time for self-care. There are a couple of people out there who have shown that they will judge me for taking time to soothe myself during a time of such darkness. I do not welcome any judgment into my life.

The other thing I have come to understand is that I need to make life different. There are some things that need to stay the same, both for my sake and the sake of my kids. For now we need to stay in the same house, the kids need to go to the same school, and it is important that their loving Grandma stay downstairs, at close reach. These things help us to stay grounded. Other than that, change wherever possible is good. The life that I have now is a life that I built with John. I realized that it felt like I was leading the same life, but with a big hole in it. I need to find a new life that is a Holly-and-the-kids life, not a Holly-and-John life that has no John. So, I’ve done little things – buy new furniture, reorganize the house, taken trips with the kids that are more me-trips than John-trips. I’ve come to recognize that I need even bigger changes. I’m closing down my yoga business for good and will look for some other totally different sort of part time job after the new year. There are other big changes I have in mind. It is time to create my future, while still giving myself space to continue to grieve. This isn’t about forgetting John. We will never forget John. It’s about setting an intention to continue to grieve, to continue to keep his memory alive, while also continuing to LIVE and embrace the life in front of us.

As for the kids – Isabella’s experience is similar to mine in that her grief continues to grow. She has gotten especially sad in the last couple of weeks, at times is resistant to going to school, and I’m holding her closely. She goes to group grief counseling (with other kids her age that lost parents). I continue to gently offer her the option of 1:1 counseling and she continues to reject the idea. Our family grief counselor advises me to offer the option but not push. She has to be ready. Melanie continues to be clingier and need more affection than before John died. She is confused, doesn’t know what to do with her sadness, and turns it into asking me to marry someone else because “Mama, I _really_ need a dad again.” It is heartbreaking.

John – I miss you.

Amazingly Resilient Children

October 8, 2104

It is amazing how resilient children are.

I took the kids to Portland this past weekend for a bouldering competition that Isabella was participating in. They were delighted by the simple fact that we were staying in a hotel and were especially excited that the hotel had a pool (it was a tiny little boring indoor pool, but still they were THRILLED). I realized that most of our vacations have been camping vacations and a hotel is a rare treat. We enjoyed the competition (Iz did great) and then toured Powells, the Saturday Market, and Voodoo Doughnuts. They loved all of it! Before we even left Portland they were asking when we could come back and could we please stay in the same hotel again because that hotel was “so amazing”.

While we were walking around town, Iz caught a mountain view and we chatted about it a bit –

“What mountain is that?”
“I’m not sure, but I think it’s Mt Hood.”
“Do you want to climb it someday, Mama?”
“I’ve always wanted to climb it, but it has glaciers and since your dad died I’ve agreed not to climb on glaciers any more.”
“Yeah, because if you died then we would be orphans.”
“Well I’m not going to die, because I know I need to be extra careful now that your dad is gone, and my number one job is to take care of you and Melanie. I am not going to die until I’m old.”

Isabella then squeezed my hand. Not with fear, but with confidence, security, and frankly – gratitude. I could feel that she knows she can count on me. She seems to understand the gravity of it all. I would and will do anything for my girls.

On my end, the weekend was more draining than fun. It’s hard to go on vacation solo with your kids. If I wake up early in the morning and they are sleeping, I can’t even go to the fitness room for 45min. There is no option for a break or an escape. Also, John used to do all the driving. I absolutely hate driving, and the 7 hrs of driving I did over the weekend was an unwelcome reminder that I have to do everything now. I found myself looking into a future of vacations with the kids by myself. I feel tired at the idea and it sounds like more work than fun.

However, I will do it. I will give my children wonderful vacations. I will continue to do everything in my power to give them confidence that their one remaining parent will always be there. I will continue to take joy in seeing them feel confident and safe with me. They are so young – they deserve all of the fun and security I can give them. And when I get really tired and worn out, I will continue to lean on my incredible community so that I can get away for the solo time that I need. I am immersed in a true ocean of grief (it only seems to grow as I miss him more), but even through the grief, even when I feel completely and utterly alone, I remind myself – I am indeed not alone.

Every day is a new day

September 26, 2014

Yesterday was a pretty rough day. I watched myself (almost as if I was out of my body) getting sucked into a vortex of darkness and despair. I couldn’t even bring myself to pick my kids up from school (it would have been excruciating, in that state, to face the hallway of happy moms and dads), so I called on others to bring them home. I wept on and off for hours, and when I took my kids to swim class in the evening, all I could do was stare off into space.

Here’s the thing – today is a new day. With every sunrise, I have the chance to start all over – to reach for friends who love me, to hold my children, to meditate on all of the ways that I’m still so fortunate in life, and to celebrate the incredible love that John and I shared for over 10 years before he passed.

Today, I’m having a good day. I continue to celebrate my incredible community that holds me so close. I need you, I cherish you, I lean into you.

A tough week

September 9, 2014

What a difficult week I had last week! I was horribly sick, it was the first day of school for Iz (so many happy moms and dads, but no John), death certificates arrived, beer making supplies arrived for John (things he backordered before he died), hours of paperwork, the call that the urn was ready, having to go to a Kindergarten picnic plus 2 kids Drs appointments right after hearing about the urn, and more. Plus, I miss him. A very, very hard week.

This week has been somewhat better. I hiked into and around the Pratt Lake basin with Eva Luna (12mi, 45lbs). Hiking always helps me. Gurgling brooks, stomping boots, Ellie’s paws galloping, the wind in the trees, and the sweet love of a good friend…. it all soothes me. I continue to become more aware that this will be a very long process. I guessed, in the beginning, that it would take a year to find a rhythm with the girls, to not be so completely wrecked and heart-sick, to not feel like I’m barely treading water in my ocean of grief. The professionals I have seen have said – “More. More than a year.”

I am incredibly lucky to have my beautiful children. Isabella had her first practice with the Seattle Climbing Team yesterday (the competitive team at SBP). She was SO excited and was alive with joy afterwards. Then later that night, I asked her for a hug while I was crying. Without missing a beat she said “Mama, have some chocolate. You will feel better.” Earlier this evening I was laying down in my bed, feeling very sad. Melanie ran in, full of light, jumped on the bed, and said “Yay! Lets cuddle! I love you so much!”. Just like that, I was reminded that my life is full of so much joy alongside the sadness.

The grief is so big, I don’t know where to put it all. I truly adored him. Every fiber of my being aches for him every moment of every day. My children and my community keep me going. Thank you.

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Ashes

September 6, 2014

John came home to me yesterday, over 3 months after he passed.  His body was eventually spotted when a helicopter flew over the Carbon Glacier.  It was too dangerous for them to get on the ground (constant rock and ice fall), so they borrowed a device (from another air force base) that allowed them to extract his (and 2 other) bodies off the glacier.  The remains of 3 of the climbers from the 6 person team are still missing.

Eventually his ashes will be scattered and distributed in various ways, but for now he is here. Last night, while I held the box, his soul floated in and sat with me. I comforted him and reminded him that he doesn’t need to worry, because all of you are holding us Mullally girls so lovingly. I told him that he truly may rest in peace. John – I love you forever and beyond. I set you free. Rest In Peace.

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