Living and Breathing After Loss

When someone dies, so does a part of you. They take it with them and then there you are, just a shell of what you were before. I wish they took only the bad parts. Like my cellulite or terrible cooking. Take those. But they take all the good things that were connected to them. Your plans and hopes and dreams. And all you have left are the memories and a crappy sign on your forehead that must say, “everyone pity me!”, because everyone does. This is about learning to breathe when you feel like your drowning and filling your life with good.

Ramble

I have a ri.dic.u.lous. amount of homework to do and I can’t focus on any of it. I just got home from attending an LDS Widows and Widowers Conference, put on by an unofficially affiliated organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Basically, a bunch of widowed Mormons get together to listen to keynote speakers, attend workshops, laugh, cry, and make morbid jokes. At the end of the two-day conference, everyone’s placed in an arranged marriage… Kidding. (Sort of).

 

Anyway, this is the third conference I’ve been to and they’ve all been really helpful in their own way. This time, I wasn’t that into the speakers and workshops, even though they really were great. Just not what I needed. But the people. That’s what I needed this time. I connected with other widowed people in a way that was healing for the soul. And those connections also made me realize I’m not through grief yet (nice try, self). I still have a long way to go. Maybe forever. Ugh.

 

But besides the connections, there were a few specific things that I learned, the most significant being that Heavenly Father prepares us for our trials. I guess I knew that already, but the reminder hit me hard this weekend. It was a common theme among the people that I talked to. Heavenly Father had given them insight and tools and tender mercies to prepare them for losing their spouse, ones that they didn’t recognize until after their spouse had passed. I got tons of those. Like really, how did I not see it coming?

 

Just in the 24 hours before Gregg died, there were numerous tender mercies and insights I had. The biggest one that I’ve been reminded of is that I got to let go and say goodbye. The night before Gregg died, I knew he was using but I was too wrapped up in 4th trimester hormones and lack of sleep to have a coherent conversation with him about it. Coherent conversations don’t happen in those dark times, they just don’t. Instead, in the midst of the intense pain and sorrow I felt from being confronted with what was surely going to be the beginning of another downward spiral, I blubbered through words that didn’t make a lot of sense. I could only get out a half-formed sentence that meant nothing to him.

 

See, when you love an addict, sometimes even when they’re there, they’re not there. When they are stuck in the fog of addiction, you only see their silhouette. Their body is filled with something else that suffocates their spirit. Their substance is gone and the person in front of you is just a fuzzy representation of the person you love. That night, I couldn’t tell Gregg that I was terrified of losing him for good, or of losing our family, or of him never coming back through the fog and back to us. All I could say was “you’re leaving… you’re leaving me…” over an over. In some type of weird crying chant. Naturally, he had no idea what I was sputtering about and looked at me like was the one on drugs. Or maybe he just played dumb to avoid a fight. But it doesn’t matter because those words weren’t for him, they were for me. It was goodbye. It was letting go. It was knowing that I couldn’t fix it and grieving what I had lost in that moment. And it had to be then, because it was too late for all of that when I went to wake him up the next day.

 

Also, on an unrelated note, this weekend I learned that women. Are. Strong. I mean, men are strong too and maybe someday I’ll write about that, but this was a weekend of female empowerment for me. Like damn, women can do hard things. You stayed by your husband’s side for days, weeks, or years while he battled cancer? That is strength. You gave birth to your baby after your husband was already gone? That is courage. You were breastfeeding while your husband was being lowered into the ground? That is love. You own the crap out of single parenthood? And you have a special needs child? That is grit. Amazing.

 

But most importantly, this weekend helped me to remember that I’m not alone. Because the loneliness has started to set in big time. Not because I’m not surrounded by people, but because none of them can replace Gregg. But I have a tribe of people who know what’s that like. And I still have Gregg, even though most of the time I can’t feel him. And I have my Heavenly Father.

 

 

 

 

 

Average Joe

Today it hit me how average I am. Not in like a low self-worth kind of way, just a realistic type of way. I’m average. Average intelligence, slightly funny, pretty weird, average looking, somewhat interesting, regular-person hobbies..just average. And I’m really ok with that, more than ok actually. I like to blend in with my surroundings and being average does not attract attention. I’m like one of those weird lizards that looks like the bark on a tree. Don’t know I’m there ’til I blink. Yeah, bark lizard. That’s what I strive to be.

Gregg saw me as a lot more. He put me on a pedestal, which was infuriating to me a lot of the time, but sometimes I miss his ridiculous praise. When I graduated from college, he hung my degree up on our living room wall. Right next to the TV, on a blank wall all by itself, sorely out of place. But he was so proud of me. When I took the GRE, he told everyone that I kicked its ass- really I only did “good enough” to get into the program I was applying for, but he saw it as such an accomplishment. He was always telling me what a catch I was and, to my horror, cat-calling me in public. He made me feel like the most beautiful woman on earth. Well, after Katy Perry, I always knew Katy was his #1. Whatever.

I normally don’t need validation from people, but after a semester of feeling like I was barely staying afloat, trudging through finals that I’m sure I bombed, and feeling the stark reality of the fact that I am an almost 30-year-old single Mom who is… unremarkable.. I could have used it from him today. And I wish that all the people I have around me who I know are cheering me on could fill that hole, but it’s just not the same. It’s kind of like Diet Coke. Like, yeah, it’s good, but is it ever really the same as the good stuff? No. It’s good for what it is, but it’s not the same. And sometimes it’s enough until you remember how good the real stuff is, and then it just feels like a watered-down version of what you’re really craving. Artificial.

And sometimes when people try to be my cheerleader, it’s just more painful. Oftentimes when someone celebrates with, I am immediately struck with the fact that Gregg is not celebrating with me. I’m sure it won’t always be that way. But that doesn’t sound appealing, either, because that would mean that I had forgotten when he would celebrate with me. *sigh*

One of my sweet widow friends from church asked me on Sunday how my husband was doing. I was confused at first. And then I didn’t know how to answer. I mean, I do think about how and what he’s doing, but she said it so matter-of-factly, like he had come down with a cold. It was refreshing. I know he’s busy. I know he’s sorry that he can’t be here, but not sorry that he is where he is. I know he’s still cheering me on, me and all my average-ness, wishing he could whistle at me from across the parking lot just to see me blush and give him a death glare.

Wilson

I’ve finally realized how lonely it is to be alone. I’m the type of person who treasures my time away from people, even the people I love. A girl needs space. It’s just how I recharge. I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I used to sneak breakfast food into my room at night so I could wake up early and read for hours without having to come out of my room for sustenance. Genius.

That’s not to say I’m a total loner, I just need enough alone-ness to balance out the people-ness. Gregg was the opposite. He needed people.

I only needed Gregg. No, not needed. Wanted. I wanted Gregg. During times when he was really struggling, it was like he was just gone. He was not my husband, my childhood friend, my confidante. He just wasn’t there. I used to tell him during those times that I felt alone on the island. That’s what this feels like.

I guess I thought that all those times I felt alone when Gregg was alive had prepared me to be really alone. And I’m sure they did, but not enough to last forever. I’ve started talking to Wilson and searching desperately for a way off this freaking rock.

And before you get any ideas, I’m not talking about finding a husband *eye roll*, although I am contemplating starting to think about maybe becoming more open to that idea someday. But I don’t need to find anyone, I have people all around me who would gladly share their fish or help me build a raft. But when you’ve gotten so used to being alone, how do you do anything else?

Sometimes I envy people who are divorced. At least if I was divorced, I could fight with Gregg all time. And while I called him a giant toddler and he told me I was a control freak who’s getting wrinkles, we would truly know each other.

Second Chances

It’s time. I feel like I’ve healed. Not completely, but I feel more like a whole person, a whole person who needs to say it. Not that I was hiding anything before, but I just hadn’t wrapped my head around it. I’ve always been open to talking about Gregg’s life, and death, to whomever asked, but I just don’t offer up the details. He was too special, and also it was too traumatic.

I spent months trying to figure out if this was a story of PTSD or of addiction. I still don’t know, but I don’t think it matters. The trauma, the TBI, the paranoia, the nightmares. The drug-seeking, the lying, the impulsivity, the chaos. There’s really no separating the two. They were the experiences of the same man and the manifestations of the same brain, both driven by the same spirit.

But I don’t even know how to start. Some days I can make sense of it all, and some days it’s all muddled. But no matter which way you straighten out all the details and the symptoms and the signs, it always ends the same.

Gregg died of an overdose. He never had to use drugs off the street. His drugs of choice were ones that were created to help people. Humans like to fix things and it was easy for Gregg to find people, doctors and friends, who wanted to fix his inattention and his sleeping problems and his anxiety and his pain. But the drugs never really fixed anything. And when no one could fix it and he couldn’t let God take it away, he numbed it.

I think a lot of people have gotten the impression that Gregg committed suicide, which is understandable. And I’m not in denial when I say that’s not what happened. I was always really aware of where he was mentally, and that’s not where he was when he died. But at the same time, I think he did sort of lose his will to live. I recently read an article written by a woman who had overdosed numerous times. She said that if you get high enough, you’re either numb to the disappointment and the self-hatred and the chaos that you face everyday, or you don’t wake up and those things aren’t a problem anymore. Win-win. I think that’s where Gregg was.

But of course, that’s bullshit, which the woman in the article also talked about. If your brain tells you those are two best case scenarios, it is lying. Numbing isn’t the only way to deal with negative emotions. There’s always a way back.

And that’s all that I can put into words right now, I guess. I’ve always planned on sharing Gregg’s story in a way that would impact the world, the way he impacted the world while he was here. He was extraordinary, I can’t let his death be meaningless. But overdose is a hard topic. People don’t dress up and hold fancy dinners to raise funds for addiction research or run marathons to fight opiate abuse, yet. Society sees addiction as a shameful disease. It happens in a place people don’t want to visit, or even think about. Even me. I’ve been there with people I love, and I don’t like looking back at it.

People who die from cancer or in a car crash are victims of circumstance. Their death was an injustice. People who die from an overdose made the choices that led to their death. I feel like that’s a fair generalization of society’s views, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I believe that we’ve been given the power to choose to put in the work that will help us to be better. But if a cancer patient was in denial about their disease and never sought treatment, would they be a victim of circumstance or would they responsible for their body destroying itself? If someone trusts a green light and pulls into the intersection without looking both ways, have they died from their own choices or have they been failed by the system that was supposed to keep them safe? There’s no right answer, but have you ever thought about it? Do some people deserve to be saved?

I think that Gregg was saved from a lifetime of pain. And that is merciful. He is also missing out on a lifetime of joy, but not because he didn’t deserve it. He deserved every ounce of joy and happiness, and I know he’s going to be able to cash in on that. Because God is fair. Life is not, but God is. And Gregg is getting the chance to grow and learn just like us.

I’ll Be Seeing You

It’s been over a year and somehow I still sometimes forget that Gregg is gone. I’ll be thinking about something and be like, “oh, Gregg would like that,” and then BAM, it all floods back. And I’m swept up with the wave.

 

I’d say that I’m bouncing between shock and bargaining right now. Shock that he’s gone and trying to bargain with God to let me see him, or even bargaining with my mind to trick me into THINKING I see him. Like, why can’t I just see him? I know its a thing, why can’t it happen to me? Even seeing him in a dream, anything. I’ve only dreamt about him once, maaaybe twice since he died, and neither were tender reunion type dreams, which was worse than not dreaming about him at all.

 

I suppose that God knows that if I did see him, I would just keep chasing him. I would just keep wanting to see him and I would never be able to “move on,” whatever that means. But I’d be ok with that… I just. Want. To see him.

 

 

Survival

How did I handle December the 26th? As if it was meaningless. As if it was just any other day. I gave it the middle finger and then tried to ignore it. Kind of like when you put that basket of unfolded laundry in your closet where it’s out of sight. If you don’t acknowledge it, does it even exist? The answer is “no.”

For other important dates and anniversaries, I have made it a point to do something adventurous. Kayaking, rock climbing… this time I thought about going on a helicopter ride or going sky diving or doing some other un-leisurely pursuit involving a whole lotta nope. But when it came right down to it, I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge the significance of that day, because that meant acknowledging that things were different and that Gregg was gone. So, I didn’t. *shrug*

But to be honest, the day wasn’t all bad. We hid in an RV all week in the freezing desert of Moab, UT. We baked terrible cookies and played in the snow and took 30 second showers. I did buy a portable security device for the RV because sometimes I hear Gregg’s voice in my head telling me about all the bad people in the world. I took his hulking physique for granted when he was alive. I always knew that if we were ever in a bad situation, he would fight (and win) to keep use safe or charm his way out of it. Not having him here sometimes makes me feel vulnerable. Someday I’ll become a black belt, but until then, having a tiny alarm that’s the decibel of a canary makes me feel better.

Anyway, occasionally during my attempt at escaping civilization we ventured further out to hike or explore the town. Some of my favorite family members came to join us in hiding. It was the best place to be and we had the most fun that we could have had during such a terrible time.

I don’t think that Thomas remembers the day Gregg died. After the paramedics came to tell me that Gregg was gone, I sat there in shock, silently ugly crying I think. Thomas put his chubby hand on my leg and in his best concerned toddler voice said, “you sad mom?… you sad?” He kept saying that and patting my leg. He didn’t even cry when I put him in my parent’s car and told him he was going to stay the night with grandma and grandpa. My cautious, shy child whom I had to hold the entire first year of his life because he was so attached to me was brave. Children are aware of and capable of a lot more than we give them credit for.

Anyway, the suck that has been November and December and early January is starting to lift. Man, I need to move somewhere that skips Winter.

 

 

Bah Humbug

I’ve had a bit of writers block lately, and by that I mean I have been avoiding writing for weeks, because emotions. It’s easier to isolate myself emotionally and wall up those pesky feelings than it is to share them. And anything that I write that is not 100% authentic ends up being utter bullshit. So, for the sake of authenticity, let me just start by saying that Christmas can suck it. And by “Christmas” I mean the Hallmark holiday, not the celebration of Christ’s birth… I’m not a monster. But seriously, the first Christmas tree of the season that I saw I wanted to set on fire. I was on my way to a morning class and as I turned a corner, there it was- all sparkly and festive and plastic. A caricature of the Christmas spirit. It was hideous. But after seeing it 17 times per week until finals were over, it became less menacing. And after hearing the first Christmas song, singing Christmas hymns in church didn’t bother me. And walking through the doors of the first Christmas party so that my kids could see Santa was like pulling teeth, but then Santa wasn’t so bad the next time we saw him. And after buying the first of the few gifts that I did buy, the spirit of giving overtook me and I stopped being so Grinch-y. Still, Hallmark Christmas and I are not friends, and if I could go hide in some area of the Earth that didn’t celebrate Christmas and stay there from early November through late January, I would. And I feel sort of guilty about that. During a time where I should be feeling thankful for the things I have, I’m feeling bitter. When I should be wanting to spend time with the people I love, I want to isolate myself. When I should be wanting to put up a Christmas tree with Thomas and Luke, I want to torch all the Christmas decorations I see. Like straight up mow them down with fire. And it just sucks. Last year for Christmas, Gregg, Thomas, and newborn Luke and I decorated a gingerbread house. That was a tradition that Gregg and I started the first Christmas we spent together. Our houses always turned out terribly ugly, and what’s worse, they don’t even taste particularly good when you get them out of a box. But it was our thing and it was fun. I had bought four presents each for Thomas and Luke, because I hate “stuff”. I don’t even remember what I got Gregg. How is that possible? He got me a diaper bag, which sounds lame, but it’s totally not. A couple of weeks before Christmas, I had complained about my neck and shoulder hurting after trying to carry Luke in the ergo while balancing a diaper bag on my shoulder. He got me Petunia Pickle Bottom backpack style bag. He called it the “Rolls Royce” of diaper bags, which it is. He even called his sister to help him pick it out. He was a really great gift giver. I’ll be sad when I no longer have to lug it around with me. Anyway, then the four of us went up to Snowflake. I packed the stockings that I had sewn for us and loaded up the (unwrapped) presents. And then we wrapped, and laughed, and cried, and decorated the tree, and opened presents, and cooked, and then Gregg was gone. So yeah, Christmas sucks now. And maybe it won’t always be that way, but this year it’s that way. And it’s ok that things suck. I really believe that experiencing the crappy parts of mortality is important. It’s how we grow. And while I’m usually all for highlighting the positive, sometimes that’s worse. Sometimes looking on the bright side feels like looking into the sun, painful and stupid. Best to just look at the ground until you can see more than two feet in front of you. And that’s ok, eventually you can look up again.

Lions and Tigers and Bears

Something happens when you experience trauma. There’s a shift in your reality and you see everything differently. You’re not able to make meaning of anything because you’re too busy fighting imaginary tigers. Or fleeing from them. Or trying to pretend they’re not there when you can feel their breath on the back of your neck. Tigers, tigers everywhere. Driving through an intersection: tiger. Seeing a green prescription bottle: tiger. Putting my kids to bed at night: big effing tiger.
And everyone’s tigers are different. Everyone’s trauma is different. My trauma made me afraid. Afraid of losing the people I love. And of them losing me. It made me obsess while at the same time not caring. It made me cranky and exhausted. Sometimes I couldn’t connect to the things I was doing or saying. I felt like a robot. A really dumb, tired robot.
Anyway, there are much less tigers around these days. Well, maybe not less, but the tigers themselves are pretty wimpy. Like, I could fight one, no big deal (usually). But now there’s this other thing: grief. Full-blown, front and center grief. It’s becoming more and more apparent that I can’t always just put it in a box and come back to it later. I still do that whenever I can, but like, it’s getting smarter and weaseling its way out. Like one of Skinner’s pigeons, it’s learning how to flip the latch. And having pigeons flying around my head at inconvenient times, while not as threatening as tigers, is really frigging annoying.

Which brings me to my next point: crying in public. Crying in public has got to be one of my least favorite things, probably in the top 5. If I’m going to cry, I want it to be in my own space where I can go full-blown ugly duckling, not somewhere with an audience where I have to try to hide it. And really, there is no hiding it. The slightest change in emotion sends my face into a splotchy fit of rage, the effects of which linger for at least an hour. Gregg used to tell me that I was so pretty when I cried, that it made my eyes look so clear and bright. Yeah, pretty sure that was just him buttering me up after he made me cry. Also pretty sure it worked the first time. After that, it just made me want to punch him the face. 

He could complement his way out of a lot of things, but not usually with me. I became immune to his sweet talk. Little old ladies at the doctor’s office didn’t stand a chance. One second they’re rolling their eyes, saying you’ll have to make an appointment for next month, the next they’re blushing and giggling like school girls and saying that they can fit you into the schedule this afternoon. Once when we were dating and I was visiting him in NC, he talked his way around Delta’s reservation policy and got me on a later flight home with no extra charges so we could spend a few more hours together. I bet that lady hung up the phone and was just like, “what the eff just happened and why am I fanning myself right now?” He was a sweet talker, the best.
But back to the crying. I’m thinking that that’s going to be more of a regular thing, just crying and feeling gross emotions in general. I don’t like it, but it’s probably a good thing. It feels like I’m on the precipice of something else, something more authentic. Like I can feel what my brain has not wanted to feel, what it really couldn’t feel. Does that make sense? I’ve been running and dodging and also needing to deal with more pressing things than grief. Now it feels like all of a sudden my mind’s just like, “oh look, free space, let’s fill ‘er up before she can fill the space with like, I don’t know, Kegan’s theory of human development or the difference between a one-way ANOVA and a factorial ANOVA and crap like that.” Great timing, mind, I have lots of time and space to deal with all of these uncomfortable things in stronger doses. Awesome.
But I don’t want to just complain, I want to end this on a high note. Today I was asked to look for the miracles. At first I scoffed; my cynical side wasn’t having it. But I can’t deny that they’re there. It’s a miracle Gregg was here for 27 years. It’s a miracle there wasn’t more damage when he left. The biggest miracle? My children. Out of all of this, it is a miracle they are here with me. There are lots of other miracle that keep happening. And even with the trauma and the grief, it’s a miracle that there is a way through it. 

Emotional Regurgitation

I took off my wedding ring several weeks ago. I had been thinking about it for a while. When it first occurred to me that I could take it off, I thought I never would. Then later on I thought, “well, I guess some day if I decide to start dating I should probably take it off… Yeah, probably.” But I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to not wear it. It would feel so naked. And uncomfortable. And like betrayal.

And then my thoughts about it changed. Wearing it no longer became just a symbol of my marital status, but a symbol of my identity. It stopped being a sign of whether I wanted to date or not. It became more of a symbol of how I had no control over becoming a widow. Couldn’t stop it, can’t change it. And now this wedding ring was a symbol of all that I lost. A constant reminder. 

I know. It’s just a ring. Made by an ordinary jeweler. Not by Sauron or elves or whatever. It doesn’t have mystical powers. It’s just a ring. But symbolism is powerful and it had stopped symbolizing love and marriage and commitment. Now it symbolized loss and grief and pain.
One night it became unbearable. I took it off in a fluster, as if it was somehow constructing my airway. I felt an immediate sense of panic, but also a sense of peace. That’s the best way I can describe it. I felt opposing emotions that were ripping me in half. I was conflicted and afraid and relieved and calm.

But taking it off felt like taking control of my life. It also felt like letting Gregg down. But, it’s just an effing ring. And the next morning, guess what? It felt normal. I felt normal. Like I had taken ownership of my place in the world, but it wasn’t as just a poor little widow. I didn’t have the weight of it anymore.

I spent the next few weeks avoiding thinking about Gregg for too long. I’ve realized that sometimes, I need a break. I need to go numb to it. I even pretended that I saw him. I was on a plane, exhausted and foggy from jet lag, and I saw a man out of the corner of my eye. He was tall, with broad shoulders and feet twice the size of mine. He wore a black shirt with long sleeves, black gym shorts, and black running shoes. I could see him. The areas that weren’t clear were filled in by my brain. Blonde hair. Eyes that squinted when he laughed. A cow lick on the back of his head, the same one Thomas has. Muscles on top of muscles. Headphones playing music that would drown out all the noise.

It was him. Standing right there. I couldn’t bring myself to actually look at him because I knew he’d disappear. It would just be some guy who looked nothing like him. He walked away and Gregg was gone.

Now, I think my brain is ready to feel the loss again. This week was my first week of my graduate program. As I was frantically searching for a piece of jewelry- because adult professionals wear that, right? And it will divert attention from my mom accessories (food, snot, spit up, etc.)- I saw my wedding band sitting in my jewelry box. Without even thinking, I reached in and slipped it on my finger. It was almost instinctive. Wearing it felt like home. Comfortable and sad at the same time. This is where I need to be now. And I’m still wearing it.

My brain is not protecting me anymore. Tonight when I was putting Thomas down for bed, I told him a story about Gregg. Which is nothing new, I’ve told him and Luke a story about daddy every night since the day after Christmas. But it had become a rushed version of watered down memories. Sincere, but generic. Tonight I told Thomas a story about what Gregg looked like and told him all the features he had that came from daddy, which is like, all of them. When I got to his nose, I told him about Gregg’s scar. I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It wasn’t noticeable unless you knew to look for it, and tonight I could see it clear as day in my memory. A little crooked line from the middle of his top lip to his nose, and around to the left. It divided that part of his face in half. He had busted it open as a kid when he ran into a volleyball pole. When it was almost healed, a game of Squishy Face, Stretchy Face opened it back up. Somehow, a family practitioner managed to sew him up perfectly, twice. And it didn’t ruin his beautiful face (Gregg’s words, and mine). 

Seeing that scar so clearly broke me. I don’t know why it was that and not something else, but if I’ve learned anything in the past 8 1/2 months, it’s that grief is a roller coaster and that emotions ride along the ups and downs and the spirals with no regard for the rational thoughts you might be trying to have on the ground. Round and round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows. And they’re gonna just puke everywhere sometimes, and it’s not pretty. Sometimes it’s after they’ve eaten three churros and a chili dog and you just have to roll with it. Sometimes you can’t dodge it and you have to just live with it until you can get it cleaned off, which you don’t know how long will take, sometimes minutes, sometimes weeks. You don’t know this theme park well and you can’t always take control of what is happening to you.

So I’m gearing up for gross feelings, I guess. And when it gets to the point when I can’t handle the smell anymore, which it will, I’ll just hide in the photo booth. The one where you get to dress up as someone completely different from yourself, like a pirate wench, and pretend that none of this ever happened. And then I’ll realize that figurative pirate wenchness does not suite me and I want my own life back. And after a nice break of smiling and wearing an eye patch, I’ll be more prepared to deal with what’s outside.