Monday, October 28, 2013

The Big D's

No, this isn't a post about my breasts, although 2 out of 2 husbands would chest is blog-worthy.  If you're looking for boobie jokes, though, I recommend my friend Kristen's blog:  (You might notice her top blog post is, in fact, about having sizeable chest melons.)

Of course, my blog is less about dirty, witty humor and more about grief, struggle, and deep emotional issues.  You know, the kind of thing that really makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.  So the big D's referred to in this post's title are....drumroll, please....Death and Divorce.  Fun, right?  I'm sure you can't wait to dive right in!

When I was a new widow, I was desperate to find tools to help me cope with my loss and profound grief.  I devoured books about grief, I struggled through some intensely painful sessions with a grief counselor (which helped as much as or more than they hurt), I joined an online community for widows and widowers for virtual support, and I went to a handful of grief support group meetings.  At these meetings, I struggled to find people like me.  Of course, in some ways, the experience of losing a spouse is universal - the loneliness, the loss of a life plan, the questions over things like whether to wear a wedding ring and what to say when people ask about your spouse.  Yet, being so young, I was not the typical case.  I wanted to find others who would relate to me more closely, so shortly after moving to Austin, I posted a couple times on different websites looking to form a group of young people dealing with grief.  Only a couple people replied, not enough to form a group, so that idea fizzled out relatively quickly.  One of the responses, though, was from a young woman whose long-time partner had left her, and she was grieving the end of the relationship.  She wanted to join a support group to help her cope with this.  I don't honestly remember if I replied to her email or not, given the general lakc of interest I found, but I knew I wasn't interested in being in a support group with her.  I couldn't bring myself to compare our experiences, or to think that we were going through the same thing.  I mean, she was going through a break-up, and I was a widow.  She was dealing with life, and I was dealing with death.  I certainly felt bad for her, but also was almost offended that she reached out to me.  At that point, though, I was really looking for someone who had walked a mile in my shoes, and she hadn't.

A few months later, I became good friends with a woman named Heather, who started to read my blog as a way to cope with her sense of loss after going through a divorce.  Coincidentally, she moved to Austin to heal, just like I had.  She was very careful about choosing her words when she talked about how my blog had helped her, and made a point to say she knew that our experiences didn't really compare.  Still, in that first conversation with her, I realized that we were going through some of the same feelings and emotional aftermath as a result of our experiences, different as those might have been.

Since then, I've had several friends and family members who've gone through divorces.  At first, you'd think that death and divorce are very different experiences.  And they are -- especially if the divorce is mutually agreed upon, or if you're talking about the party who wanted the divorce.  But for those whose spouses made the unilateral decision that they wanted out of the marriage (or long-term relationship), our experiences are more similar than you'd think.  Sadly, I've had several friends in this boat in the last few years -- their worlds, their lives, their futures upended and taken away, sometimes suddenly and sometimes painstakingly over months or years.  None of us chose to have our spouses leave us.  None of us wanted to divert our life paths.  None of us wanted to be alone.  We all had to grieve the loss of our partner and mourn the fact that the future, the life, the plans we had will not happen.

That being said, it is NOT a good idea to say to a new widow or widower, "I know how you feel.  When I got divorced..."  This would not have sat well with me when I was in the depth of my grief, and is not very sensitive to that person who is in so much pain.  You'll just look like an asshole, because it's not the same.  Tread very carefully when saying you know how someone feels because you went through an entirely different situation (this applies to everything not just taking to widows and widowers).  I used to be quite offended when people who were divorced would compare our experiences.  I thought, "That's so different!  In a divorce, someone made the choice for that to happen.  Neither of us chose for Brian to die.  God made that happen to us, not either of us.  We were happy."   Still, in time I started to see some similarities, and this was in part because I was witness to several unwanted divorces.  In each case, it helped that my friends recognized that although we went through some of the same things, our experiences were different.  They were all very good at saying, "This is nothing like what you went through, but..."  And then I would say something along the lines of, "I know it is different, but I also know some of the feelings that result are the same."

In sharing our experiences as friends, we can acknowledge the similarities and differences in our experiences and the feelings we have.  I have come to realize that while both are very traumatic and painful, death and divorce present different challenges.

If you get divorced, you lack the finality of death.  In my case, Brian's body stopped working when he died.  Science dictated that he was physically gone.  No one and nothing could change that.  From that moment on, the grief began, and then the healing.  In a divorce, things aren't so cut and dried.  A lot of people end up second-guessing themselves, and sometimes a couple will give things another try, even in the midst of or after the divorce proceedings.  There is no metaphysical barrier preventing you from working on the relationship, even if it seems dead.  This can delay the realization that a relationship, a life as one knew it, is over.  It can keep a person focused on rekindling the relationship and prevent them from mourning its demise.  With a living ex-partner, there is also much more room for anger.  Of course, it is normal for a grieving widow or widower to have anger -- not just at God, but also at their departed spouse for leaving them (not all emotions are rational, after all) -- but the fact is that for divorcees, this anger is more rooted in reality and can easily be fed by nasty divorce proceedings and ongoing issues between the parties, particularly if they have children together.  Simply put, death is more of a clean break than divorce.  The bandage gets ripped off, and then you start to heal.  With divorce, the bandage is slo-o-wly removed, maybe put back on after you peek at the wound, maybe replaced, before it is eventually taken off.  Only then can the recovery begin.

Finality of loss is a double-edged sword, however.  One of the hardest things to accept in coping with death is knowing that you will never EVER hear that person's voice or laugh again, that they are truly gone from your life on this earth.  That is a hard realization, and one that you never have to embrace if you're mourning the loss of a relationship and not the loss of your spouse's life.  It is hard to wrap your mind around the idea that this person you loved and spent your life with does not exist anymore and is gone from this world.  

Related to that is the fact that death will almost invariably cause you to examine your spiritual beliefs.  When someone you love is gone, you wonder where they are, if they are with you, whether they are in a better place, etc.  You might question everything you've ever been taught, you might be sick with anxiety over the soul of the departed, you might find faith anew in signs from beyond.  Whatever your experience, death takes you down this journey whether you intended to think about such things or not.  You can remain blissfully ignorant or choose to not worry about such things if you're divorced, because you don't have that feeling of responsibility for or a vested interest in the soul of someone who has left the physical world.

Another difference is in the way death and divorce are treated by the rest of the world.  Divorce carries a stigma and shame, while being a widow or widower causes people to bestow a strange mixture of pity and admiration on you.  I was praised so much for being so "brave" and "strong," yet I don't see how I've done anything praise-worthy.  Bravery is choosing to face daunting odds -- running into a burning house to save the children inside, rescuing a dog whose fallen through the ice into freezing cold water, etc.  I just lived the life I was given; I'm no hero.  I simply did what I had to do.  What else could I do?  On the other hand, the rules about how to move on are clearer for divorced folks.  It's assumed that you'll date again and go on with life.  You probably won't cry on your new partner's shoulder when an ex-husband's birthday rolls around, but you very well might do that on your late spouse's birthday.  By the same token, only one of those is socially acceptable, so at least a widow can continue to grieve and heal while forging a new relationship.  It might be that dating divorcees feel more pressure to keep their residual pain and emotional hang-ups hidden from new partners.

I could go on and on about these losses, how they are similar and how they are different.  I will say that there are many similarities in how someone who chooses neither reacts when life hands them one of these anyway.  I have had conversations with other widows and with divorcees about our feelings of loss, about how to cope with being suddenly alone, about having to grieve the futures we thought we were going to have, about how to re-enter the dating world as adults who never thought we'd be there again, etc.  I think my experience has given me an insight on what my friends were going through, no matter the reason they were there.  Although our experiences were different, some of our feelings were the same.  We are all trying to walk the path of recovery, healing, and finding happiness again.  In doing so, we have strengthened our resolve, our friendships, our emotional intelligence and our ability to support each other in hard times.  What hasn't killed us has made us stronger.  

It's easy to get caught up in our differences, but sometimes it turns out that our similarities are stronger than they appear.  Rather than worry about who has had it worse or whose pain was greater (How does one quantify that anyway?  And why would you want to?), I have come to see that the path I've walked has made me a more empathic, compassionate person and I can relate to people a lot more than I could before.  Having walked with pain and grief, I know what it is like and I know that, regardless of the source of one's woes, you can come out stronger and better for it.

How have you dismissed someone's pain and hurt because you think you had it worse?  Is it possible your experiences are more similar than you care to admit?  If you focus on how people are feeling rather than the outward cause of their pain, you'll come to find that heartache and loss are the same for everyone.  Sharing feelings doesn't have to be a competitive game of who has it the worst; instead, it should be about drawing on your own experiences to help you be compassionate and understand toward others who are hurting.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Contrary to Popular Opinion

I've been struggling with some thoughts or experiences I've been having lately, and I think this is part of the reason I haven't been blogging as much (that, and planning a wedding takes a lot of time!).  The reality is that I'm no longer struggling with how to manage my grief, but how to life my life and move forward.  It's a different phase of widowhood, and in some ways, it's hard to acknowledge these experiences and feelings.

I've worried about how or whether to share everything.  I think about what other people will say or think - especially Brian's friends and relatives.  Still, I started writing as a way to not only process my emotions and experiences, but also to share my journey with others who are in my shoes, to let them know that what they are feeling is normal.  I feel like I'd be disingenuous if I didn't share some of these things that have been rolling around my head, things I've been afraid to write about for fear of being seen as a bad person or a less-than-admirable widow.  I've wrestled with these fears and with the thought that I want to be sensitive to others who grieve Brian's death, but I've decided that it's time to share more about my journey now, in the interest of full disclosure.  I know there are other widows and widowers who read this blog and who, like myself, are years out from their loss and who are navigating life and love in a different way than they were when the loss was fresh.  I have to keep reporting from the field for them as well as for myself, so here goes....

Sometimes I will go an entire day, or more, without thinking about Brian.  He is forever embedded in my soul and in that way, he is with me every moment of every day.  That being said, I don't necessarily miss him or talk to him every single day.  People tend to say things like, "Not a day goes by that I don't miss him and think about him."  That's not the case for me, and I'm sure there are a lot of people in my shoes who would agree.  Don't get me wrong -- I think about him a lot, and talk about him freely and frequently.  But it's more in the manner of telling stories about an old friend and recalling memories than it is me mourning his death or longing to see him again.  There is no joy or purpose in doing that, but telling stories keeps his memory alive and makes him a part of my life on an ongoing basis.  In my mind, that is a better way to treat his memory and a healthier thing for me to do.  It's also what he would have wanted.  When he died, I had to mourn the loss of what would not come to be, and one part of that was crying over the fact that we wouldn't grow old with his friends (Hart in particular), telling the same stories of our silly youthful antics that we had already told and re-told a hundred times.  I thought we'd all be old fogies together, telling those same tales.  I realize now that the stories will live on, but now it will be Hart and I telling them to Sheldon.

Another thing that I never thought would happen is that my memories of Brian are fading somewhat.  There have been a few times when I think about a memory of my past and I can't remember if it happened with Brian or with Sheldon, or whether Brian was still alive when a certain thing happened or if it was after he died.  For a long time, everything was starkly divided into two segments of my life:  before Brian died, and after.  Now, the line isn't as sharp.  The other day, Sheldon asked me if Brian had liked a particular food as we cooked dinner together.  I honestly wasn't sure.  I no longer have every preference, every memory, every quirk of his embedded into the surface of my brain and at the top of my mind.

It's weird to admit these things or acknowledge them, but they are part of the inevitable process of time moving forward, my brain getting more crowded, and the significance of the little details fading as the rest of my life unfolds.  I don't remember if he liked bell peppers because it really isn't that important.  I know I'll remember and cherish the most important things, but I'm finally able to see what is and isn't important.  I think when someone dies, you put them on a pedastal for a while and everything connected to them takes on more importance, more than it even did when they were alive -- that's why I struggled to throw away his pomade and toothbrush, when they were things that would have made their way to the trash can without a second thought when he was alive and they were all used up.  Now that the dust has settled a bit, things have fallen back into their natural order a bit more.

Whether I think of Brian consciously or not, whether I remember the small details or not, he is always in my heart and has irreversibly guided the course of my life, from the city I chose to live in to my selection of a new life partner.  I don't have to pretend to conform to certain expectations or ideals of what widowhood is to honor him, and I'm not going to anymore.  Brian valued truth, and it's time for me to share some of the less romantic realities of what my life is now.  This is part of my rebuilding.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Young, Widowed & Remarried

It's official - Sheldon and I are married!  Okay, it's actually been official for over three months now, but I had to take some time to reflect on everything and decide what to share.

We had a pretty short engagement -- about six months.  We wanted to get married as soon as we could because we saw no reason to wait -- we are in our thirties, we've been living together for a couple years, and we knew we were ready.

One thing that made me so sure about Sheldon - although anyone who would meet him would understand why I love him - was the fact that I had been in love and married before.  I knew what work went into running a household and into tending a marriage, and I knew we could do that well together.  

It felt a little weird to be planning a second wedding (though it was his first) -- I felt a little bashful or ashamed of the attention that is showered on brides-to-be.  I didn't want an engagement party or bridal shower, although I did acquiesce when some friends wanted to throw us an engagement party (and I am glad I did).  We did have bachelor and bachelorette parties, but nothing too crazy.  Sheldon and some of his buds went to the beach for a weekend of fishing and golfing.  I had a girls' weekend in at the house, making wedding decorations Friday night and wine-tasting on Saturday with my friends in Texas and our mothers.  Sheldon drove the van we rented for the occasion.  I had a lot of fun planning the wedding, particularly with the encouragement of my good friend Gabby, who was an enthusiastic personal attendant/co-planner, with a hot glue gun burn on her arm to show for it (oddly enough, it matches one I got the same night as we made centerpieces around my kitchen table together).  Still, I have to admit that I felt a little weird inviting people to my second wedding in a decade's time -- I was afraid to infringe on the lives of my family and friends by asking them to commit to another weekend of wedding activities on my behalf.  I was ambivalent about having a gift registry, but in the end realized people would bring gifts anyway and we picked out a few things we could use or that needed to be replaced.  We also picked a couple charities for people to donate to in lieu of gifts, one of them being the animal shelter where Brian had volunteered.

We ended up having a fantastic wedding - and I have to say, I think part of that was also because I'd planned one before.  It's funny - brides expect or feel pressured to create a "perfect day" on their first attempt at pulling off such an event!  At least this time around, I knew what was important and what wasn't.  I had consciously vowed to be more calm and to not worry so much about the details.  I knew from having gone through it before that it doesn't matter if there are personalized napkins, or if the white of the cake doesn't match the shade of the dress, etc.  It's about love, celebration, and the union of two lives into one family. 

That doesn't mean I didn't pay attention to the details though...we put in a new mantle and repainted the fireplace in anticipation for the reception, and Sheldon was very detail-oriented in getting the yard to look perfect.  We hung white string and globe lights in the backyard, I acquired tablecloths and runners on Craigslist, I oversaw the making of centerpieces (painted bottle vases), yard lanterns and hanging lanterns, and the list goes on.  Instead of a guest book, my mom made a fingerprint tree -- she drew a tree and guests put green "leaves" on with an inkpad and their fingers or thumbs and signed next to those.  We did the flowers and food ourselves, with me making up the gin lemonade the morning of the event.  We had a port-a-potty brought in for outside, and the two bathrooms inside had flowers and baskets of toiletries and the like.  We cleared out two rooms of our house to turn them into the buffet room and the coffee lounge.  There was a dance floor and a photo booth.  We had a bartender who served beer, wine, gin lemonade, old fashioneds, manhattans, and a fine selection of whiskeys and mixers, with cigars to go along.  Oh, boy, were there details....

I struggled, too, with how to behave as a widow planning a wedding.  Should I pay some tribute to Brian, such as a mention of him in the ceremony or flowers at the altar in his memory?  I was afraid of insulting his memory if I ignored him, but afraid of drawing attention away from Sheldon and my union if I did.  I worried about what people would think either way -- if I did honor him, or if I didn't.  In the end, I decided that rather than a formal tribute or token mention of him in a few written or spoken words, I'd let his influence shape the day organically.  Some of the musical selections were songs or artists he had liked, or that he had introduced to me.  There was a photo from our wedding in the DVD slideshow of our lives that Sheldon and I played at the reception.  Several members of his family were there, and many more friends who came into my life through him.   My one big way of honoring him was more private - I found an antique locket for my "something old" and inserted photos of Brian and me on our wedding day in 2004; the locket was tied to my bouquet.  In the end, I didn't feel the need to draw attention to him, but I also didn't feel the need to exclude him.  I do feel that he was there with us.
Aside from the fine line I walked trying to plan a wedding celebration appropriately as a widow, there were the inside thoughts and feelings about what a marriage is, what it really meant to be traveling this road.  Again, but with a new partner.  I thought about what the vows mean, what a marriage is.  I know Sheldon will be there in good times and in bad, because he has been a rock through some of the worst times of my life.  I thought about how much more I understood the gravity of the promises we were making now as opposed to the first time, when I was so much younger and didn't really know what we were getting into.  I thought about the fact that I can't just call Brian "my husband" anymore, because that title belongs to Sheldon now.  I cried about that and struggled to figure out new terminology.  (I alternate between "my late husband," "my first husband," and "Brian" depending on the context.)  I wondered how Brian felt about all this, and sought some guidance to explore and handle these thoughts.  I wondered how Brian's young nieces were interpreting all these events, and how I might be perceived by others.  

Worse, I thought about the fact that the unthinkable could happen again, and I had a nightmare about it just the other night.  But I realized that not getting married wouldn't change that risk -- just by loving him and sharing my life with him, I risk the pain of losing him, but I have chosen to be with him anyway because I couldn't go through life afraid to life to avoid pain.  I chose to go out on a limb and love again.  I thought of the Garth Brooks song "The Dance," which was played on the DVD tribute to Brian at his funeral.  The chorus is:

Now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end,
The way it all would go.
Our lives are better left to chance.
I could have missed the pain,
But I'd have had to miss the dance.

I knew that I had to keep dancing.  So we rented a dance floor.