(This post is dedicated to the reader who recently lost her husband and left me a comment a few days ago.)
Not long after Kaz died, a friend sent me a message quoting Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” It made me want to scream.
At the time, cards, flowers and food were arriving every day. People sent me Facebook messages, called me, texted me, came over to visit or took me out to eat. It felt really good to have so much support. It felt less good to keep hearing certain phrases. Phrases like: “He’s in a better place” “He’ll always be with you” “Remember the good times” “Time will make it better” and “At least you’ve experienced love.”
No, no, no, no, no, NO, NO.
In those days, I was walking around feeling like someone had literally reached into my chest and yanked out my still-beating heart (Aztec style), leaving a gaping, bloody hole. If someone reached into your chest and yanked YOUR heart out, would “Remember the good times” make you feel better? No, it would not. You’d be like “fuck you, I want my heart back.”
On my first day back at work – three weeks after Kaz died – people practically lined up outside my cubicle to give their condolences and hugs. I nodded and thanked them and fake-smiled, but by the end of the day I was hiding in the bathroom. I didn’t want sympathy. I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t want to be seen.
I would have much preferred to just been dropped off on an island somewhere with some food and water, and a writing pad, and left alone for a year. I didn’t know how to respond or what to say or how to function. Nothing was okay. Nothing was going to be okay. Everything was totally and utterly fucked. And the more people tried to make me feel better, the more I wanted to run for the hills.
That was in the beginning.
In the beginning, when loss is still fresh, the pain is so acute that it’s actually real physical pain. Often, it’s also mixed with feelings of guilt, which manifests in a swirling cycle of moments, decisions, expressions, thoughts, actions and words – like a looping reel of nightmares that plays constantly every moment of the day and night. Everything “bad” is dissected, reviewed, analyzed, and re-lived. Any “good” memory is kicked aside by the nightmarish swirl, like a tornado flings cars and trees like matchsticks. The result is intense mental flagellation… the “shoulda, woulda, coulda” routine, over and over.
In the beginning, the pain is also often mixed with anger.
I was PISSED… at myself, the universe, the doctors, even a little bit at Kaz. People who encouraged me to accept and “make peace” with the situation seemed alien to me. I couldn’t accept or make peace with it. There was absolutely no justice in the world if Kaz was the one to get sick and die, and I was the one to survive. I remember thinking, “How dare I still be alive and breathe air and still walk through this world when he can not, and more over, when he suffered so?”
All of the phrases and Hallmark cards and well-meaning gestures of support made me feel less alone, but did little to ease the actual agony… pain so intense that, I admit, there were moments when I considered leaving this world (and hopefully joining Kaz).
There were three things that saved me.
The first was Kaz. His memory, his spirit, however you want to interpret it. I felt his presence in those first few months as strongly as a physical touch.
At night, when I was racked with sobs, feeling as if I might actually die of tears and heartache – or asphyxiation because crying that hard feels like choking – I would feel his body pressed against mine in the bed, his right arm under my pillow, his face in my hair, his left arm around my stomach, and his belly against my back. I could feel his warmth and hear his voice and I knew it was him. Every time I was at the precipice looking down into the abyss and contemplating its infinite depth and comforting blackness, I would feel his presence and his desire for me to live.
The second thing that saved me was writing.
I wrote every day… mostly letters to Kaz, but also memories. I was so scared of forgetting things that I was literally in a panic to document everything I could remember about him and us as soon as possible, even bad memories. I typed while sobbing, but somehow the typing always calmed me down. It was almost like going back in time… I would hear his voice, remember his expression, remember where we were… and re-live the moment.
The third thing that that saved me was something that a friend who had experienced loss told me. He said, “Just keep breathing. That’s your only job right now.”
It was so simple, yet so true. And I knew Kaz would have told me the same.
So, that’s what I did. I focused on breathing… another minute, another hour, another day. Kaz had been so incredibly brave and had persevered even when he felt like giving up. I owed it to him to do the same. To not give up. To keep breathing. To do the things that he could no longer do. To live for both of us.
Later… much later, I did think of the good times, time did make it easier, and I was able to feel gratitude more than anything else. I did experience a great love, the greatest love of my life, and it forever changed me, and I will always feel lucky to have known, loved and been loved by this man.
But in the beginning, it was all I could do to just keep breathing.
I hope you keep breathing, too.
November 11, 2015 at 4:51 am
Reading this took me right back. Everything you say is so true. Those first months are so hard, and made so much worse by well-meaning friends who just don’t get it. Excellent post.
November 11, 2015 at 4:58 am
Thank you, Paula. That phrase was the best advice I ever received. Hope you’re doing well. xo
November 11, 2015 at 6:13 am
Wow. Just wow. So glad to have found your blog — thank you for finding me and leading me back here.
November 11, 2015 at 7:12 am
A close family member lost her 18 year old son, her only child, last week. She was his caretaker in the end stages of brain cancer and the loss for her is magnified by so many things. There are no words, no actions, no prayers that can make it okay. For my cousin it never will be. And it won’t be okay for her son’s girlfriend, her other kids or her husband, or any of her sons friends. It will shape their lives in ways they never thought possible. I am going to share this with her and I hope it helps more than anything else I have done. Thank you.
November 11, 2015 at 7:20 am
Ah, my heart goes out to her in every way possible. You’re right, there are no words. Wishing her strength…
November 11, 2015 at 1:25 pm
Thank you thank you thank you. I feel Trav all around me all the time, and I too have been writing like a madman for fear of forgetting him. Your words are a glimpse into my own soul. I am so sorry that you know so well how I feel, but I am thankful for the comfort that your candor offers. Peace be with you.
November 12, 2015 at 8:30 am
I’m so glad you feel him around you, and that you’re writing. It helps. Peace be with you as well…
November 12, 2015 at 8:04 am
You want a time machine, or a magic button, or something that will put things right, which means that the person you love did not die. And all of you knows better except for your heart. Your heart, with the doors blown off, wants this not to have happened. And all the notions, in that moment, that it will be all right, the suggestion that time will heal, the aphorisms and other words uttered because we have no idea what else to say, sound like lies to your heart. Lies no sane person should utter. Not only do words fail. Everything fails.
November 15, 2015 at 3:19 pm
It’s been months since I’ve been able to visit (phew that campaign lasted a long time!) and now that I’m here, I see that you are still a support to those who have had recent loss. Sadly, your experience and compassion make you good at it.
November 16, 2015 at 12:32 pm
Thanks for stopping by LB. I’m way behind in catching up on other people’s blogs too. Will have to click over to yours to see what campaign you worked on! Hope all is well. Still some warm days for riding! 🙂