Not a car crash. An emotional crash. A swan dive off a cliff. A collision, head first, with an energetic brick wall. Rewind to last Saturday, 8 days ago – I had just come home from a very serene and grounding week at a wellness retreat when grief descended and knocked me on my ass – just like that. The kids were on play dates, my husband was still dead, and I walked into a completely empty house. Crash.
In fact, I had been feeling more ‘up’ than ‘down’ for about a month. My friends were excited and relieved to witness my ‘good’ streak. I could tell they were getting attached, and I feared how they might react when it ended. Just a week before my crash, I had been at dinner with a friend, speaking of some sadness. He said “But…. But you were doing so well! This is terrible! I thought you were doing better!” I said “I AM doing better, but even if I’m doing better, I’m still going to be sad sometimes!” I began to wonder if it would be easier to hide the low patches from friends, because if they saw me low, then they might think I’m no longer healing and would get stressed out. When my friends get stressed about my state of grief, I fill with their anxiety, and then I spiral farther downward.
I was not at all surprised to crash after a month of feeling better than I had felt since before John died. You see, it doesn’t matter how many lovely hikes I take, how many hugs I get, or how optimistic I am about my future path. John is still dead, my very sad children still don’t have a father, and the pieces of my life are far from put back together. I don’t want to never feel sad, because… because that would feel more wrong and scary than it feels to cry the tears that are the other side of true love. I spoke to a widower friend of mine recently who called it a “delicious kind of sad”. This is a statement that most of you won’t understand, but one that is not uncommon among widows(ers) who are at least a year or two out (there is nothing delicious about the sadness in the first year, let me tell you). You see, in the pain, there is beauty. In the open, raw, and vulnerable place one is in when one cries from the bottom of one’s soul, one finds new depth. When I cry, I am more connected to John and to the love that we shared, I am more real, and I am less paralyzed. Do I want to cry all the time? No way – I want to experience joy too! Do I want to keep crying, at times, for my sweet John and for the loss of my children’s innocence? Yes, I do – for the rest of my life, in fact.
Once I hit my brick wall, I did what I often do – I went up to my roof deck and sat in the Adirondack style wooden love seat that John and I often sat in together. This particular chair had been finished with linseed oil by John in his shop. He had stained about 8 chairs and love seats years ago, and this one is the only one left that isn’t broken or already at the local dump. I can see John’s mountain from the roof, and I stared it down as I paced clockwise circles around the 400 sqare foot geiko fleck surface. It’s become an unintended ritual – I land in my Dark Place, go to the roof, cross my arms, face the mountain, talk to John, cry, pace clockwise circles while my brain spins on various topics (the kids, future career paths, fears about dating), listen to music that makes me cry more, square off to the mountain again, etc. My aupair and my children know – when I go to the roof, I go there to be alone.
So there I was – on top of my roof, but also at the bottom of my well. I paired John’s portable Bluetooth Bose speaker with my phone and played my standard bottom-of-the-well playlist. Play these songs if you like, but just listen to them and feel the words in your own way, rather than watching the videos which present them in a specific way.
Broken Record by Shakira
I Will Follow You Into the Dark, by Death Cab for Cutie
Just Breathe by Pearl Jam
The End by Pearl Jam
Part of Me by Black Lab
I played these songs and I cried my fucking eyes out. I cried because I’m a single mom. I cried because, regardless of what I do, my daughters lives will never be what they could be if their amazing father was still here. I cried because it is excruciatingly painful to never be touched, and because there is no one to hold me and tell me that everything will be ok when I wake up with fear and anxiety at 3am. I cried because, simply put, I MISS HIM. Even if I get happily married again someday, I will still miss him!
It’s not that I didn’t have dark moments during my ‘good’ month. I was hit by grief many times and cried on average once a day. However, doing ‘better’ meant that when grief knocked me over, I usually bounced back in an hour (instead of 1-n days). When I cried, it usually wasn’t a whole body sob but rather was more of a quiet time to weep. When the dark cloud of sorrow descended this past Saturday, I hoped that would continue to be the case, that I would bounce back quickly as I had for the last 4 weeks, but instead I spiraled down for a full 8 days.
The next day, Sunday, I was still in my pit of despair. The girls and I had a whole day together. I tried to make it fun – I took them shopping for dresses for an upcoming wedding and out for jumbo pretzels and fancy crepes. Still, I cried on and off all day, because full weekend days when I’m alone with the girls trigger me. Weekends used to be a time for all day excursions with John, and now weekends remind me that we are 3 instead of 4.
On Monday, I cried because I spent hours cooking with a friend, and it was only the 2nd time I’ve cooked with someone since John died. We made a Mexican mole, a dish that John used to love, a dish I happily made every month when he was alive, a dish I hadn’t made even once in the 1 yr and 2mo that he’s been dead.
On Tuesday, I tried to soothe myself by going on a hike to an alpine lake. I sat there alone on an exposed tree root, eating my packed lunch of beet salad and chicken, gazing at the water, remembering times I had been there with John. I cried because I will never again share the Pacific Northwest trails with him, I cried because I couldn’t text him cute pictures of our sweet pooch swimming around in the lake, and I cried because I am still struggling with my decision to leave my weighted pack behind. I had watched other hikers with heavy training packs branch off to a harder trail and felt jealous. They weren’t broken as I’m broken. They are getting stronger while I’m getting weaker. I’m not a Badass Mountain Girl anymore. The time on the trail did give me some moments of peace, but the lack of a heavy pack meant that I didn’t get the endorphin rush that will often negate some of my depression.
On Wednesday, I cried extra, because it was Melanie’s 7th birthday. I woke up feeling like I was going to vomit. Seven years ago, I labored for 30 hours without pain medication. Seven years ago, Melanie was born via emergency C-section after my uterus almost burst around my old C-section scar. Seven years ago, John was the most wonderful husband and was everything I needed him to be during my recovery. I finished wrapping her gifts in the early morning, crying as I signed them “love Mom” instead of “love Mom and Dad.” I took her to the bakery to pick out her cake and bought her a maple bacon bar, telling her it was a gift from her daddy in the sky, because nothing says John like a meat covered pastry. That afternoon we held her birthday at a friend’s pool and I did my best to hide my unhappiness, but still it was written all over my face. I couldn’t bring myself to fake a smile and sit next to her as she opened her gifts, so I let her grandparents sit with her while I watched from across the yard. I sat there, miserable, watching her joy in being in the moment, remembering just the night before how she had yet again clung to my neck and cried for her dead father, reminding me “Mama, I KNEW he shouldn’t climb that mountain. I told him not to go. If he had listened then he would still be here and I would still have a Daddy.” I have not yet met a widow or widower with young children who does not agree – kids birthdays are crushingly painful reminders of the enormity of what we have lost.
On Thursday, I cried as I packed up our bags to get on a flight to San Diego to spend time with family. I cried because I’m tired of family vacations with 3 and not 4, I cried because I we are traveling to the first wedding I had been to since John died, and I cried because traveling solo with 2 kids is a ton of work even in the best of times.
On Friday I was down but didn’t cry much, because apparently I was saving all the tears for the next day.
That brings us to yesterday, Saturday, the most horrific day, the day of my brother Greg’s wedding. On this day, I went to my lowest, darkest place. Everyone who is grieving or has grieved will tell you – grief comes in waves. I had hoped that the week-long wave was about to end, but instead it was to be followed by a full-on tsunami. There I was, at the first wedding I’ve been to since John died, the first wedding I’ve been to without him by my side in 12 years. Already in a fragile state, I interacted with my brother JR for the first time since before John died 14 months ago. JR didn’t come to the funeral, because he said it would be better if instead he brought a couple of his kids for a fun weekend later in the summer, to perk my girls up. We had a long planned sibling reunion (there are 6 of us) scheduled for a month after the funeral. JR canceled his and his kids attendance at the last minute, saying that “It won’t be fun given what has happened” and “It might be hard on my kids.” YOUR kids? The energy of death is hard on YOUR kids? What the fuck about my kids whose dad is DEAD? My children were in fact very disappointed that JRs kids weren’t coming, because that meant the reunion was all boring adults and no other kids. It would have been a bright spot for them, a healthy distraction, but JR took that away. As for the “fun weekend” he would fly to Seattle for later that summer – never happened. After the text I received, 13mo ago, telling me he wasn’t coming to the reunion, I received zero calls, zero emails, and zero texts. That brings us to yesterday. He arrived, smiled, and said “Hey Holly. How are you?” His kids said to my kids “We haven’t seen you in years!” At which point, I said nothing but my heart broke yet again. My inner voice said “How am I? How the fuck do you think I am? My husband is dead and in my darkest time you completely abandoned me. I needed you. You could have invited my girls over for holidays so that they could be distracted by your fun pack of kids. You could have visited. Death makes you uncomfortable, and you were a coward.”
I did not desire a confrontation, especially in such a public and joyous (for everyone else) setting. I said none of the above inner-voice words out loud and instead excused myself to go to the bathroom. I stood there, by the bathroom, pretending to stare at a mural, crying behind my sunglasses, and my hands began to literally shake uncontrollably. I tried to calm myself down so that I could return to the pre-ceremony gathering, but I could not, so I just stood there, for 25 minutes, continuing to cry silently. Just as the ceremony was about to start, I went back and slid into a seat. I wept through the procession and vows, and then made my way to the reception where I was to sit at a table with all of my siblings including JR. It was my intention to remain calm, composed, and to create no conflict. I sat there for 15 minutes but could not hold it together and went to the bathroom to cry in a stall. When I couldn’t stop crying in the bathroom, I went down to the waterfront by myself. I sat there, alone, and cried some more. These tears were not quiet tears, they were not sweet delicious tears of beautiful depth, they were horrific exhausting whole body wailing sobs. I cried because my brother, who I had idolized growing up, abandoned me in my darkest hour. I cried because I love JR and miss him. I cried because I was there all alone. I cried because my husband is dead. I cried because when John was alive, he would have protected me and taken care of me, but instead there was no one to wrap his arms around me and tell me that everything will be ok.
I accepted that the tears were not going away and texted my loving sister Juliet. She said she and her sweet husband Michael would keep an eye on my kids. Isabella and Melanie were having fun with all of their cousins, who will filing them full of candy. I wanted that joy for them. Even given all my sadness over JR, I was happy that my kids were enjoying his kids. The fact is – JR isn’t a bad person and had no intentions to hurt me, he’s a human being with his own demons – his own long standing discomfort with death, his own burdens and challenges that come with all the energy it takes to raise 6 kids that were born in just an 8 year spread. So, I let things be as they were. My kids were happy, I was at the bottom of my pit, and it wasn’t going to help anyone if I spread that darkness around the party. I sat there, sobbing, for over 2 hours, and missed the entire reception. Juliet was kind enough to bring me my dinner on a plate and there was a bar accessible outside, so I got tipsy and kept crying. Eventually someone I didn’t know walked around the grounds calling my name, and told me that Jean, the bride, was asking for me because she hadn’t seen me the entire evening. I wiped my face off, walked into the party, and cried in Jean’s arms. Then I grabbed my kids and left.
Today, Sunday, I’m still crying. I cried into my Pho, remembering how John always said that Pho is the best hangover cure. I cried into my frozen yogurt as my kids happily told me how much fun they had had with JRs kids at the wedding while I had been (unbeknownst to them) crying down by the beach. Once again I find myself shivering, alone, on a raft in my dark and stormy ocean of grief.
The good news about the waves of grief is that waves, and even tsunamis, are eventually followed by lulls. It’s been a terrible 8 days, but still – I have hope. Still, in the big picture, I’m getting better. I no longer want to die. I believe I will find love again someday, whereas for the first year I could not envision the possibility. In fact, these days I am happy quite a bit of the time, just not this last week! I am deeply comforted by the concept of impermanence. This too shall pass. Every day is a new day. Of course the first wedding I went to alone was going to be hard. Of course my first interaction with JR after not hearing from him in so long was going to be painful. I don’t have to go through those particular firsts again. I surfed the wave. I cried the tears I needed to cry and allowed others to care for my children when I could not. I woke up the next day still glad to be on this planet.
Is this particular wave of grief over? Don’t know yet. What I do know, is that I have fun and exciting things planned. Next week, I’m going on a 6 day campervan road trip with my college buddy Jared to a wedding in Montana. It won’t be the first wedding after John’s passing, and I won’t be alone. I already know that I’m going to have a ton of fun and laugh my ass off with college friends I haven’t seen in years. I’m going to swim in a reservoir, hike the local trails, soak at a hot spring, tour Yellowstone, and dance in the barn at the reception – Montana style. Will I cry? Sure, I cry almost every day, but I already know – there will be much more joy than sadness. I reach for that joy, I reach for my future, while honoring that, though the tears will become less frequent, they will always be there. That’s ok – it’s all worth it. I have no regrets.