All month I have been especially weighted down by the anticipation of May 28. All of the books, therapists, and fellow widows say the same thing – the 1 year mark is emotional, heavy, excruciating.
Why? Why is it so hard?
Today is hard because it has been a year and I’m still broken.
It’s been a year and my ache for him only deepens and widens. I miss him. I miss his full red beard. I miss that soft spot on the top of his right cheek that I always used to kiss, because that spot was never scratchy with stubble. I miss his tattered and beloved collection of ~15 different Pearl Jam t-shirts. I miss the way he used to squeeze my behind at every opportunity, and the smile he gave me when I squeezed his. I miss how he sauntered around a pool table in tight blue jeans. I miss the big slabs of juicy meat that he used to cook and the soft moans of happiness that he made when consuming said delicacies. I miss his quiet confidence, the way he would put me in my place when I was being too uptight, the way he would get me to laugh at myself. I miss the way he used to look at me when he walked in the door after work – so happy to see me, still adoring me, still wanting me after 10 years. I miss how his strong torso looked when he chopped wood and how his rippled legs looked when he marched ahead of me on the trail. I miss coming into our bedroom after an early morning run to find him and one of our darling girls in our bed – asleep and cuddling. I miss our playful and abundant sex life. I miss the huge campfires he used to build, how hot he looked when he was on a ladder swinging a hammer, the way ‘babe’ rolled off his tongue when he spoke to me – “What’s for dinner, babe?”, “How was your hike, babe?”, “I love you, babe.”. I miss how cute he found me in leg warmers and pig tails. I miss him in every possible way. I even miss the stuff I didn’t like, because all of it was part of John and Us, and because he loved the Holly-package right back – all of the good along with all the faults and imperfections.
I continue to have bizarre (or not bizarre, if you understand grief) conversations with myself in my head. What would I trade for one more day with him? Would I trade 10 years off the end of my life? Yes, I would. Growing old without John is unappealing anyway, so a 10-yr shorter life in exchange for one day to touch his face and nuzzle into his beard seems more than fair. Other times I find myself dreaming of what it would be like to be with him – both of our spirits soaring free above Mount Rainier. Will he wait for me? Yes, he will. Earlier this week I sat on top of Mount Si, and 2 birds flew by – one in front, the other 15 feet behind, close but not too close. They were connected but yet a bit apart. I thought – that is us! He’s just a little farther ahead of me in life. Someday, when it is my natural time to pass, I will be a bird too and will follow him into the sky. It filled me with joy in that moment, to watch the birds and to allow myself to believe that he and I will eventually roam the skies as a couple again, above the mountains that we adore. I will never, ever stop wanting to be with him.
Today is hard, because all of the numbness has worn off. The numbness of true grief can last months, if not almost a year. Why? Because, should you fully feel the enormity of your pain right away, you might literally die from the hurt. In fact, I still often feel my organs will shut down because of all of the horrific darkness inside of me. Other widows tell me – “I can’t even remember the first 4 months, because I was so numb.” or “The whole first year was a fog” or “For six months I just kept telling myself that he would come home tomorrow and I would wake up from this nightmare.”. In “The Year of Magical Thinking” Joan Dideon wrote about how, after her husband died, she kept all of his shoes for months (even after getting rid of his clothes and cremating him) because “He was going to come home and would need his shoes.”
The first year is filled with much numbness, but also much hysteria and a simple focus on day-to-day survival. I bounced between a numb “everything will be ok” kind of place and “OH MY GOD my husband is dead, my children will never have a father, and I am completely alone.” Some days I would wake up so broken, so literally nauseated from the horrific awareness of my loss, that all I could do was set the intention to keep breathing. Believe it or not, sometimes “just breathing” took all of my energy, because it often felt (and still feels) like I’m choking on the grief, like the grief is so big inside of me that there is no room for oxygen. I’ll never forget how, every day for months, I cried as I drove the girls to school, because John used to drive them to school. It was all I could do to get through each day.
By the one year mark, I have figured out how to survive. I have found a “new normal” with the girls. I have hired an aupair and assisted my Mother In Law in retiring, so that I have help with the girls. I have learned to drive without crying (most of the time). I have gotten through the 6 months of 2+ hours a day of death related paperwork and administration – an exhausting and horrific process given the lack of a will, the lack of a body (no death certificate), and the ridiculous bureaucracy that goes along with insurance companies and the Social Security Administration. I still cry multiple times a day, but – I am surviving.
Now what? It’s been a year. What do I do with the fact that I only feel more sad and despondent over time? Therapists and other widows tell me – year 2 is harder than year 1. You get through the numbness and hysteria, you get your day-to-day survival mechanisms in place, and then – you have to face the rest of your life. Now what? Day to day life still ebbs and flows, but John isn’t here. I have all the help I need with my kids, but that doesn’t fix the fact that at night my 6 year old Melanie clings to my neck, crying, begging me to marry someone else so that she can have a dad again. I look ahead to the rest of my life, and it looks empty. JOHN IS STILL NOT HERE. My hurt, my ache, my sadness – they only continue to grow, they are not yet shrinking.
In fact, over time I have become less hopeful. In the first few months after John died, while I was numb, I often thought to myself “I will love again some day. I will marry again. I have so much capacity to love, I can keep loving John and some day love someone else.” Now, I’m much less optimistic. I believe I will love again, but find myself detaching from the idea that I will ever again enter into a life-partnership. It’s easy to love, much harder to make a life with someone, much harder to find a true partner whose puzzle pieces will fit together with yours over years and decades. John and I were partners, accepted each other fully, and were committed through anything. I had my happy ending and that happy ending – ended. I no longer believe I could have that kind of true beauty and comfort again. Don’t try to talk me out of that feeling. Part of my brain knows that happiness is possible, but my heart doesn’t agree and those feelings (be they irrational or not) are my reality. I sit with my feelings, as dark and pessimistic as they are at times. In “When Things Fall Apart” Pema Chodron says:
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what’s its texture, color, and shape? We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears.”
I feel like a piece of shit. I don’t run from the stink. I don’t shut my eyes to the mess. I lean into my grief because there is no other way. I will feel all of my feelings, as horrific as they are. Running from the pain would mean running from myself, and it would mean running from joy. Joy and suffering are 2 sides of the same coin.
Still, there is beauty in all of the horror. I could not possibly be more grateful to have experienced True Love. I have no regrets. I would not trade my 10 years with John for 50 years with anyone else. My relationship with my daughters has only grown deeper and more resilient. Through my pain, I feel more connected to every other human being on the planet. Sometimes I wonder if anyone has ever been this lonely and I realize – yes, they have, and maybe even more so. I am alone but not alone. I feel empathy for others in ways I never have before. I am becoming a more beautiful person as I walk my path and live my truth.
When John died, a friend set up a Facebook support group so that I could ask for what I needed and members could pitch in. 238 people joined the group within weeks. Two-hundred-and-thirty-eight-people. Some of them I had never met before, but they heard of my struggle and wanted to help. Not only that, but a core set of friends went above and beyond had have been there for me every single day – from day one to day 365. Nika, Bev, Julie, Danielle, Juliet, Rose, Mary, Mellington, Darryl, and Cynthia – not once have you judged me, not once have you tried to dictate my path, not once did you turn from me when I needed you. When I called for you, you asked me how high I needed you to jump, and then when I was crying too hard to answer, you jumped anyway. The world is a beautiful place.
I still feel lucky in life, and in my broken state – I am only more beautiful. John – I love you forever and beyond.