Friday, January 17, 2014

4 Years

It's been four years today since Brian died.  Thankfully, the details of that horrible day have softened a little bit in my mind.  If I choose to go back and remember it, it's pretty sharp and still cuts me to the core, but time has helped me add some distance and I no longer have flashbacks, nightmares, or persistent thoughts about the horrors that unfolded before my eyes and upon my life that awful day.

In a way, it doesn't sound like a long time.  Four years really isn't that long in the scheme of things - not to a normal person with a normal, happy life.  When life is good, time goes quickly.  It is true that "time flies when you're having fun."  But when you're a grieving widow who's reeling with shock, hurting beyond belief, dreading upcoming holidays and occasions, and who is fearful and unsure about the near and far future, every day seems to drag on for an eternity.  While the past couple years have gone by relatively quickly, the first year felt closer to a decade in time than one year.  It's only lately that I've started to feel capable and ready to plan far in the future again.  I don't know that I've planned anything for more than six months in the future since Brian died -- and that one thing I did plan that far in advance was my wedding.  I'm still not the future-planner I once was.  I'm too leery of unexpected change, too timid to dare to presume that I (or anyone else) will still be alive and well that far ahead.

Yet so much has happened.  I moved, I changed jobs, I picked up another (!) cat, I moved again, I bought a condo, I went to Europe, I had a breakdown and went back to therapy, I bounced back, I struggled to fit in, I made amazing friends, I ran a couple more half-marathons, I irreparably injured my ankle on a Mexican waterside (thus insuring I won't be doing any more full 26.2-milers), I traveled to Mexico three times, I went to Bonnaroo twice, I have made mistakes, I met a few celebrities, I took up golfing, and my online diary of grief has been viewed over 100,000 times.  I literally could not have imagined any of this four years ago.  At that point, all I knew was I was lost, I was shocked, I was devastated, and I knew life would never be the same again.

Yet, on that day, I also knew that life would go on.  I remember distinctly thinking, "I'm still breathing. I'm going to keep breathing.  I'm going to wake up tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.  I don't know what to do with this, but I know my life is going on."  And from there, I just had to take it hour by hour, then day by day, and week by week, and finally - month by month.  I'm finally able to think ahead and to dare to dream about what will happen years from now, what life will look like when I'm middle-aged, when I'm old.  It's something a lot of people take for granted, this ability to dream and plan for a future.  It's the thing that has taken the longest to build back up in my life.  Some combination of fear and the cold reality of possibilities has kept me from daring to think long-term and to build toward an uncertain future.

Brian was quite a planner.  Not only did we always have a packed social calendar, but he was diligent about his professional and personal goals.  He had a target income he wanted to hit by 40, and a position within his company.  We started seeing a financial planner before I had even finished my schooling with the idea to set our long-term goals and take the steps needed to achieve them.  I was like that to a lesser extent, but loved the structure of this way of thinking and happily participated in these discussions and plans, and we started socking away money into our IRAs and 401(k)s.  Once he died, I was like a sailboat in a windless sea, drifting about deflated and without direction.  I literally wrote about how I moved to Austin because "that's where the wind took me."

Today, in Brian's honor, I resolve to get back to my forward-thinking, future-planning ways.  I know that life is uncertain.  I also know that the things I want in life aren't going to happen if I don't plan for them.  If I don't dare to dream it, I won't achieve it.  It's time to start dreaming, goal-setting, and forward-thinking again.  I've let the wind take me where I needed to be, and I'm ready to use this place in life as my new launching pad.  It's time to draw up a road map to the future I want.  It's time to dream big again.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again

It's been a while since I've walked the early days of fresh, sudden grief.  Well, it had been a while.  Over the holidays, I treaded that footpath again and remembered what a hard and fierce walk it is with Sheldon's family dealing with the sudden loss of his beloved Uncle Matt.  I have to admit, it was very hard to be in that place again, and this trip was very hard on me.

I heard the story about how Sheldon's uncle died in the middle of the night, about what his fiancé went through calling first responders and doing chest compressions, how helpless she felt, how this experience was so utterly traumatizing.  I heard family members talk about getting the phone call, about  being told the news by the doctors, about what it was like to see someone you just talked to -- someone who was just walking around, breathing, living, and doing so on a grand scale -- now lifeless on a table in a small room where family and friends take turns paying their respects, saying private good-byes, and being forced to reckon with a cold reality that is undeniable once you have touched a cooling body and realize there's no breath coming back.  I wasn't there when his uncle passed, but I can see it as clearly in my mind as if I was.  It was eerie how similar the stories from everyone in Ohio were to my own experience four years ago in Iowa.

I knew the family had to tell their stories, difficult they may have been for them to articulate and for me to hear.  I remember reading in some grief book or literature how important it is for survivors to tell the story of the death, to say the word "dead" even, to help reality sink in.  It was after reading this that I had started to tell my own story and even wrote about it on this blog, to help me accept reality.  I knew that this was about acceptance and processing, so I listened.  I offered comfort. I felt the familiar heave of heavy sobs of shock, confusion, helplessness and pain when Matt's fiancé cried into my arms.  We talked about where the spirit goes, about signs that our departed leave for us to let us know they are okay.

We put together a photo collage for the funeral on the long, oval-shaped, oak dining table.  As we told the stories behind the pictures amidst a blend of tears and laughter, I was pulled back in time to the preparations for Brian's funeral.  I remember someone at that time making a remark about how this task serves to not only honor the life of the deceased, but it gives the survivors something concrete to do, a chore to keep hands busy and to keep the hours passing in those first few, most difficult days.

When we went through Matt's clothes, there were many tears shed.  Still, we managed some chuckles when the words were said, "Matt had terrible taste."  (He always looked nice, but he did have quite a few mock turtlenecks and Cosby sweaters that made the comment completely fair.)  A box of tee-shirts was put aside for the making of a memory quilt, just like I did with Brian's Bears attire.  Sheldon's mom is keeping a suitcase full of ugly sweaters so we can wear them around the holidays to keep Matt's presence with us in future years.  I thought about how, desperate to be practical and knowing I was downsizing in my move, I got rid of a few shirts of Brian's that I wish I had back.  On the other hand, I also know I'm okay without them and that no one will ever get the disposition of things just right.  Life does go on, with or without the things.

Still, it has taken time, a lot of effort, and a life full of love and support for me to come full circle, to get to where I feel mostly happy thinking about Brian.  It took time for me to really understand how his presence and spirit live on, and how they don't (and I'm still sorting some of that out).  There is no magic pill.  Grief is not short-lived, nor is it simple.  Most of all, it is not easy.  I had to dig deep to think about what advice or insight was most relevant now, at this time when the loss is so fresh and when we haven't all really absorbed his death as fact quite yet.

I kept coming back to one thing:  One day at a time.  Sometimes, one hour or one minute at a time.

This mantra got me through the worst times.  The other thing I would say to someone who is freshly grieving is to embrace the grief.  That's not to say you should seek to enjoy it -- because no one will.  It will completely suck.  But, like a root canal, it is necessary and you just need to suck it up and deal with it, or the problem and pain will remain festering under the surface.  When you feel the pain, lean in.  When you want to cry, cry.  When you want to tell a story about the loved one, go ahead and do it.  Ignoring his life and memory won't help anyone.

I think that living with grief is ultimately about how you are able to cope with what has happened.  While a death happened, a life happened too.  Remember that, celebrate it.  Mourn the loss, both of what you had and what you will not have.  You have to acknowledge those feelings, and feel them.  But also celebrate the good times.  Be honest about the persons flaws and laugh about them if you can -- such as the ugly sweaters or Hawaiian shirts (Brian was guilty of the latter).

Eventually, the pain will be less.  Eventually, the smiles will be more.  It just takes time.  And work.  And love.