400 Moons

Year Three—Saying Goodbye to Grief

emily2 Comments

"Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things."
—Arthur Schopenhauer

Well, it's June 14th again. Three full years have moved passed now since Eric passed away. Plenty has changed and happened, and yet there are still moments where I wonder if I have moved forward at all. I have never really shared that he had a heart attack while going through alcohol withdrawals, unless its been in a face to face conversation. I mention it now only to note that he had been very sick at the end, and there was a lot of loss and heartache already engulfing my life. As well as others who loved him. His brothers, his family, his friends. So the time of loss is really blurred into closer to 4 or 5 it seems. Say what you will about alcoholism and what you believe it to be. I know it to be a beast of a disease. I shared my husband and best friend with this beast and lost every battle against it, and was left holding very little when it was said and done. You can fight, pray, beg, detach, yell, hug, walk out, or go on lock down to make it stop. But all of those efforts feel like throwing balloons at a brick wall. It is not an easy thing to surrender your life over to circumstances that you have very little say so in, but I see now that is not really what was happening. 

The reality is our fight with this was for a short period of time in comparison to what some people experience, and over the years I find myself being more grateful for that than I ever expected. I know now that I had wild, beautiful, talented, and loving Eric most. You just always think you are going to have more time. I think this is true no matter what the case is. Whether it is sudden, or there are months and years of illness. Will there really ever be a time where we feel we said all we wanted to? I think we believe we can lessen the blow of a loss by avoiding, preparing, or working through it. That if we work hard enough, or are good enough than we will never have to truly experience it. This is far from the truth. I have also learned that as painful, and confusing, and devastating as loss can be, it can also be a filled with lessons that transform. That bring you back to truth. And whether we want to embrace it—it is an inevitable reality. So I finally decided that trying to fight or hope to never walk through it was a wasted effort. The past few weeks I have been anticipating this year mark coming, and have been thinking back on the last three years. I have written plenty about grief since 2010 and have shared my days with it whether I wanted to or not. But this year it has felt less like a roommate, and more like that honest friend that stops in from time to time. So it feels like it might be time to believe I am past my grieving. There is a hesitation I have when I say that because I think it might imply that I am no longer affected by that loss or miss him or love him. This misunderstanding of what grief really is can be the reason we get stunted by loss, and allow it to become a hindrance in living rather than what it can ultimately be. Grieving is the time after a dramatic loss where we are sick and rebuilding ourselves back, not something that I believe we are meant to stay in forever. So this year, I felt strongly that I wanted to share my experience with what grief actually was to me. One, because I don't think we talk about it enough. And two, because I feel I can actually speak to it with clarity. I hope it might make someone else feel less alone in their experience. Because I am hear to say that the space of grief is one of the loneliest places to ever exist.

I have made a list of a few of the major steps that I experienced. Not like the 5 stages of grief that we all know. But a few more personal things that are relative to those stages that you might not necessarily find with a quick Google search. Things maybe I would like to have known walking into this darkness.

1. There is a fog that rolls in and engulfs you on the other side of losing someone. I can remember feeling it from the moment I got the call. This fog is a God-given protective cloud. It is slightly numbing and turns out, lasts for quite a while. It lifts ever so slightly with each passing month or year, giving you time to readjust to normalcy. I would look back and wonder how on Earth I did some of the things I actually did. But could barely remember taking part in it. I still thank God for that fog.

2. There was a fear that cleaning out closets, rearranging furniture, and repainting rooms would cause me to forget Eric, or erase him from my life. This is a real fear that our brains and hearts tell us is truth. What I need to say is I had to actively force myself to move forward. We do not naturally want to do this. I had a complete breakdown the night before my friend was going to come over and help me repaint, but on the other side of any guilt and fear was the beginning of healing. You can't see it, or even yet begin to feel the healing. It is simply having faith that it will be there. I also need to say that no amount of changed rooms, or bags of clothes given away, or graduating through phases of grief can ever come close to erasing a person from your life.

3. I don't remember eating for months. I am sure I did, but I am not sure what. It would be six months before I actually felt hungry again. This is a real, physical reaction to loss. I knew this, but what I didn't know was how hungry I would be. It was terrifying to realize my body had been starving, and I had been unaware for so long.

4. Another physical reaction is what felt like a huge rock in my throat that made it difficult to breathe. It was also literally painful. It took me a month or so to take notice that it was there and had yet to go away. I couldn't sigh deep enough to release it. It resembles that feeling you might get right before you need to cry. Only it never went away. It didn't go away for over a year.

5. I had an irrational fear that I would also be dying soon. I am not sure if this is common, but I believe it probably is. We just don't talk about it out loud. And this may not be with every death. For me, I had been married to Eric, so my day-to-day involved him. Sudden death was everywhere for me. I went through a couple of months where I was frantically trying to get his affairs in order, as they say, along with mine. So that when my time came I wouldn't have to leave anyone holding a burden. I told my parents what they should do with my things, I cleaned out the attic, and organized rooms and computers. I didn't want to die, I just expected I would. This is an ugly truth to say out loud, but it felt like truth at one point. One day it dawned on me that maybe I still had a life in front of me, so I settled down in this thought. From the outside, maybe it looked like I was trying to move forward quickly, but really I think his unexpected death unearthed a reality for me that took me a while to know how to process.

6. There is what is referred to as the year of firsts. I was fortunate to have my therapist inform me of this early on. First holidays, birthdays, anniversaries. Each one is a milestone, and can be difficult. Because I was armed with this information, I was able to actively counteract the flood of sadness that would be part of those days, down to more of a river. They were still hard, but I found that I was able to understand the irrational feelings a bit more. I have learned to make those days important still. Whether I take a day from work and do something I enjoy. Something we might have done together. Or whether I get together with someone else who loved him too. The point being, I found that spending those days in a positive way makes me remember why I wouldn't change a second of my life that involved him.  

7. There were moments where I had such clarity about it all. At the risk of sounding a little crazy, I describe them as feeling like pinholes of peace from the other side. These moments would almost always be followed by an extreme low. This would even out over time, and after a while I figured out how to hang on to some of the clarity about it all during the low moments. This, for me, essentially came down to having faith in God, and belief that there is in fact a bigger purpose to all of this. These "pinhole" moments would end up being one of the biggest things carrying me over the lows.

I essentially went through the majority of my grieving alone. There really wasn't anyone my age that I knew personally who had lost a husband. The truth was, I was mad about that for a long time. Mad I was so alone in it, mad I couldn't just be 30 like everyone else around me. I missed a lot of the lighter things that one might be doing during this time—whether it was dating, getting married, having families, or traveling. But there was clearly another path that God had for me, so after three long years I am 100% on board with what my life is, and has been. In the meantime, I had my loving parents and sister, and family, and a whole crowd of friends to lean on. And as beyond blessed as I am with amazing people who propped me up along the way, very few could ever completely relate and tell me what to expect. I am thankful for this fact; I would never want this for my loved ones. But this is partly why I am sharing all of this, because I am able to. Here is what I want to tell others, and maybe what I wish I could have told myself in the beginning: 

—You won't move past this quickly. You may feel the expectation is to be strong and get back to life. You even think it will be within 6 months, a year. It won't be. By about six months or so, the majority of people around no longer seem to have that on their mind when they think of you. This is completely natural, but it is okay that it is still all you think of. Our culture does not like to sit long in sadness or grief, so I think we force ourselves further along then we need to be. It took me about six months to finally rebel against any expectations—most I set on myself—and to allow my days to be consumed by the loss. I finally didn't care that a normal 30 year old would be doing this or that. I just couldn't. I needed to stay deep inside the sadness, because I was.

—Don't go on a food cleanse when you are in the depths of a snowy winter and in the middle of dark sadness. I say this sort of jokingly, but I did it. Stuck inside a house alone, in the middle of a season I am not fond of already, and limiting myself in things like food and caffeine was a rookie mistake. The point is, don't make extreme decisions like that when you are not 100%. It was this moment when I finally gave into the fact that I was not actually doing okay. I was not 100%, I was probably not even 50%, and so I let go of wanting to be further along. And decided to stop and take care of myself. Even it that meant eating unhealthy comfort foods, or drinking lots and lots of coffee because I was tired all of the time, or if it meant leaving my to do list undone.

—Guilt is an ugly thing. It is almost always rooted in untruth and is unproductive. Find a way to pull yourself out of the guilt and not take it on as truth. It is technically one of the stages of grief, but in my experience it showed up in many places. Guilt from things left unsaid, guilt that I was changing the house too quickly, guilt that I was experiencing things that he never would. It was there when I had to get a new car. It was there when I found myself having a good time at a party. Some days it took me down, other days I quickly handed it over God and chose to believe what I knew was true. 

—Some moments the reality of what has happened will hit you like a freight train. Out of nowhere. And it can literally take your breath away. In the beginning it will feel like too much, but the blows lessen over time. 3 years later they still hit me from time to time, so I can’t speak to if it ever stops. Just know that it is possible to breathe through those moments and let them pass over you. I have found that when this happens I immediately send him love. It helps.       

—Don't be so hard yourself. Take time off early on. I was, and am, terrible with this. I wish I could have told myself that I was going to completely lose it just right after the first year. Complete melt down! And still, even then, it didn't occur to me that I needed to step back a bit and just take some time. I really thought that by the end of the first year I should have been further along. However, I skipped the anger and depression, and every time it came up, I pushed it back off. Thinking a week or so would cover it. Well, it rolled in dark and heavy, just right about the time my grandmother passed away. And a new year started. It had taken me a year and a half to finally lose enough to be ready to let it all go. The best thing I can say about that time is that it was a catalyst for throwing my hands completely in the air and giving up any ounce of control I thought I had. To finally just hand it back over to my maker. The transformation that resulted was one of the biggest reasons I am where I am today.

I don't say all of this on a day like today as a means to remember Eric's death negatively. I say it because I can stand where I am on this anniversary of his death and remember vividly so many of these moments, and know they are not where I am anymore. I want to share it to say that it is possible to still miss and love a person, and have them continue to be a part of your being, but also move forward. I would often think about what he might say to me on those days I wanted to give up. Wanted to stay stuck in the darkness. It was one thing for him to sit alone in sadness, but quite another for anyone he loved to do it. I could hear him say "Little, keep going. Live. Be Bold." As a believer in God and Heaven and Souls, I have always believed that our loved ones are still with us when they pass. I can confidently say I know this is truth now. I believe in God's bigger plan for all of this, and am grateful for every stitch of it. And as much as faith and support and time pushed me forward, I feel strong in saying that there were so many moments that I know Eric nudged me forward too. He reminded me of our truth, not what had been touched by him being sick. He showed up in moments that became pivotal points for my healing. Of all of the love and laughter and lessons I learned while we had our time together on Earth, it is the nudge out of darkness and back to living that I believe he played a role in, for which I will forever be indebted to him.

"here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows higher than the soul can hope
or mind can hide"
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)"

—e.e. cummings