riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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Your Only Job Right Now… Keep Breathing

(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.