Read the Room

Grief is funny in that it is never really the same from one moment to the next. It relies so heavily on context and timing that its meaning changes with every thought, every memory, every new experience. It might be a song that brings back a happy memory on a day when you are feeling stretched particularly thin. It might be watching a newlywed couple exchange vows and feeling both the joy of new beginnings and the sting of what you’ve lost. It might be hearing your child say something funny and thinking, “I have to remember to tell them about this.” And on any other day, the song and the wedding and the kid might spark completely different thoughts and feelings. And things that are innocuous one day may be lethal the next.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what to do when someone is grieving. We all want to do something. But honestly, there’s no one-size-fits-all for grief. Not even one-size-fits-one. Everyone is going to need something different at every point in time. Some people *points finger at self* don’t want to need anything or anyone, but they do. We all need someone.

Sometimes you need someone to pull it all out of you. Someone who can climb over the walls you’ve built, throw you over their shoulder, and carry you back over. Someone who is both gentle and persistent in their fight to conquer the fortress you’ve put up around your grief, hiding it away so that you don’t have to acknowledge it. And when they set you down on the other side, you feel exhausted just from being carried through the journey.

Sometimes you need someone who just doesn’t care about it. Who will acknowledge your pain, and then leave it to the side in order to just see you. Because as much as it feels like the grief and the pain is you, it isn’t. It may permeate every cell in your body, but it can just as easily seep out of every cell. It is not constant and it is not as intertwined with you as you think it is. There is plenty more to you than pain, and you need to be reminded of that.

Sometimes you need someone who tries to see it. Who really tries to look through your eyes and feel what you’re feeling. And maybe they do, for a moment. And when they have to turn back, they let you know that even though they can’t sit there, they’re close by. They’re cheering you on, even if they don’t know how to get to you. It’s their effort that you need. Knowing that someone cares enough to try even when they know they’re probably going to get it wrong. They might say or do the wrong thing, but they care enough to fail.

And sometimes you need someone who can sit calmly next to you while you’re in it. They’re there, but they’re not trying to see it through your eyes, they’re simply observing. They’re an immovable source of tranquility in a sea of chaos. They don’t feel the chaos because they don’t need to, but they’re in it with you. They know that you’re not going to drown and they serve as a reference point for when you need to find your way back to solid ground.

Grief, this universal human experience, is so unfamiliar to us as a society. We don’t think about it because it scares us. We don’t talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable. When we experience it, we’re forced to find a way through it, whatever that looks like to us. But when we’re on the outside, we feel paralyzed. Even going through it doesn’t give us a secret code to cracking it. Helping someone with it is about being in the moment and leaning into whatever unfolds. That surreal experience that happens when humans leave all of their agendas and expectations and shit at the door and really see and connect with one another. That is how we do when there’s nothing that can be done.

Yin and Yang

I realized that I rarely write about things that are going well. Lately it’s been mostly just pity parties and fume sessions, where I type angrily and mostly in all caps. And that’s okay, I have needed those. But this time will be something different, hopefully. I started writing these words weeks ago, but never wrapped them up. Reading them has reminded me of all the good in my life. I have needed that, too.


This week I had an emergency. It involved snakes. BIG ones. Huge. TWO of them. My neighbor (and bishop) who saved me from them called them “garter” snakes. They were at least two feet long. I straight up panicked. But then I immediately went through a list of people who I could call.

I’ve had lots of emergencies similar to this, though this is the first involving devil reptiles, thank goodness. Usually when I have an emergency, I hear this little voice in my head reminding me that I’m alone. That I’m the only one that’s responsible for dealing with this. That no one else in the world can help. That I’m alone on the island with two kids to take care of. And it makes me feel so hopeless and isolated.

But this time, I didn’t have any of that. This time, I just thought of who I did have instead of who I didn’t. I didn’t think about what Gregg would have done right away. I mean, later I thought about how he would have laughed at me for being so scared of those deadly snakes, picked them both up, kissed them to just gross me out more, and promptly walked them to the nearest field to set them free. Now if they had been spiders, it would not have gone down like that. The man hated spiders. His mom used to tell a story about he almost fainted once when he saw one. Anyway, I didn’t think about that right away, I just thought about what I was going to do. How I would deal with this emergency, this very serious emergency. And then I thought about all the people I’m surrounded by who love and support me and who own shovels.

Grief carries a lot of different things with it. Sometimes I feel this big empty hole of loneliness inside of me. It sits in the center of my chest, deep and gaping and throbbing. When I try to breathe, it just grows bigger. And it feels like it’s swallowing up everything inside of me. And I actually feel it. It’s the strangest sensation to have emotions manifest physically.

But then other times, I feel whole. I am filled up with gratitude and joy and love. When I breathe, those feelings swell and grow and I am both grounded and floating on air. And I feel that wholeness.

These conflicting emotions, these opposing perceptions of the world around me are one of the only perks about grief. Grief gives you the chance to feel, and feel strongly. There are times when I go numb because I can’t even handle how strong they are. And for as far I still have to go, they’ve helped me- forced me- to grow in ways that I would not have grown without feeling them.

In Your Head, In Your Head

I am losing. my. shit. This Corona-quake-alypse is going to kill me. You know when you feel, like, really overwhelmed and just sort of hope that you’ll get in a tiny car accident or break just a very minor bone in your body so you can have a little break? (I’m looking at you, parents of small children who you love and adore and can’t get away from.) Yeah, I joked about this being a nice break from life 10 days ago- now I’m at my breaking point. Because this is not a fractured phalanx, this is a pan-freaking-demic.

And what about all that extra time I thought I’d have on this “break”? It’s invisible, because kids. But still, they sleep sometimes, and I could be writing my thesis, or painting my gross 90’s oak cabinets, or finally learn how to play that guitar Gregg bought me for my 22nd birthday. A black-like-my-soul Fender CD-60, perfect for learning on. It has followed me around the country, sat in the corner of my bedroom, and been periodically picked up here and there before being put back on its stand again. But instead of tackling my list of things to do or pouring my energy into becoming a rock star, all this extra time is being eaten up by just trying to calm the f down. My reaction to what’s happening in the world is putting me in a panic. I know I’m not the only one in this boat, but I feel very alone in this boat. Alone without Gregg.     

AND, most of the ways that I cope when I’m particularly stressed/griefy/anxious/crazy are shut down, postponed, or otherwise not available, all in the name of social distancing. Fml. Going to the gym, going to concerts, getting frequent babysitters so that I don’t spend all my nights in a quiet, empty house after the kids are in bed. Going to new restaurants, travelling, getting out of my comfort zone and doing things like rock climbing and aerial yoga. Admittedly, all of these things involve some level of escape and avoidance, but it’s healthy avoidance. Everyone knows that distracting yourself from uncomfortable emotions is the best way to make them go away, fight me. And I’ve learned such effective ways to do this. Because you just can’t think about all the emotional turmoil within you when you’re trying to move a (moderately) heavy weight. All you can think about is moving that weight. When you’re swinging upside down from a piece of fabric that certainly doesn’t look like it can hold over 1,000 lbs., you can’t think about that how much you hurt, you can only think about how much you need to puke. But now, the only thing I can do is sit with the stress/grief/anxiety/crazy, and write about it.

In some ways, all the uncertainty in the world has brought me right back to when he died. It’s put me back in that place where the little things don’t matter anymore, which is actually soo freeing. Right now, it doesn’t matter if my laundry is folded or if I have split ends or if my kids are eating cereal for the third meal in a row. I give zero f’s about those things, and it’s liberating. It’s like watching a train go by that you missed, but that you didn’t ever want to be on in the first place. But now that the little things aren’t there taking up space, the big things are center stage. Big things like making sure that we have food (even if it’s only cheerios) and trying to keep us healthy and safe and alive. Those things feel like an unbearable weight, the same weight that I felt so intensely after Gregg died.    

And the loneliness in that big, empty boat… It’s not that I’m alone, because I have the most kick-ass support system a widow with my lack of survival skills could ask for. I’m just alone. I don’t have a partner to game plan with about what supplies we need, or what the best way to kill a zombie is, or to help me calm down when I’m being completely irrational. I have friends and family I can do this with, but not Gregg. And like all the other changes we’ve gone through, this is just another thing, a big thing, that I have to navigate alone, without him. I’ve been fine through those, and I’ll be fine through this, but I miss how… certain he was. He was so sure of him himself, so confident that he could rearrange the universe to fit his needs, which he often did. It was comforting to see, unless his needs put other people at risk. 

I have this romanticized version of what it would be like if he were still alive. First, he’d tease me about overreacting and then hold me until I felt safe. Then one of us would go get a reasonable, normal amount of groceries while the other one stayed home with the kids, because a grocery store with two kids under 6 is a shit show on a normal day. He’d take care of the kids when I was working from home and distract them before they made it to my “office” to spit on me during a Zoom meeting with colleagues in order to get my attention. Yeah, that happened today. Luke is losing his shit, too, and pulling out all his tricks in order to get attention when he wants it… Anyway,  then Gregg would check our home protection system for soft spots, clean the guns just for the fun of it, and fall asleep like it was just a normal day. He’d wake at any sound in the night (except a crying child, obviously). He’d problem solve with me when new challenges arose, reassure me when I was reaching my breaking point… That’s what I want to think would happen. There’s another version that’s just as likely, though. It goes something like this… He would scoff at me, roll his eyes, and tell me I was being irrational. Then he’d say we didn’t need to go to the store, we could just order in food for the next two weeks. So I’d go to the store, but I’d take the kids with me because he’d be high. When I’d be fighting my way through the aisles, my chest would tighten in panic not just because of the crowds, but because most of our grocery budget had already been spent on pills and I wouldn’t be able to buy more than the bare minimum to get us through the next week. Then I’d come home and if he was awake, he would load all the groceries into the house in one trip, and that would give me the small window I needed to see him, not the addict, through the fog. It would give me hope. Then I’d cook and he’d still order take out. When I worked, I would keep the kids corralled downstairs and work from the kitchen while he slept upstairs, and fume about it because I’d lose myself in the fog and turn into a crazy person… Neither of these hypothetical situations brings me comfort right now, but it is helpful to play out different possibilities. Because it reminds me why uncertainty is so uncomfortable, yet familiar. It’s the same feeling I had after Gregg died, but also the same feeling that I had for a long time while he was alive. I could count on Gregg, but I never knew what Gregg the addict was going to do. Not knowing what was going to happen from one day to the next, bracing myself for the worst, not knowing when things would level off. Constantly having to adapt to new challenges. Constant survival mode.     

Someone said to me once that you can’t count on addicts to show you that they love you the way non-addicts would. Usually, we can, and should, look at people’s behavior for clues about what’s really going on in their head. With addicts, it’s different. Even when they love you, they will lie to you and run right over you to get to what they feel like they can’t live without at that moment. But I’d like to think that if he were here right now, he would love us- and he’d show us. And he’d kill every freaking zombie that came near us.   

The Slope

I wish that I could quantify loss. Recently, a friend asked me how the pain of losing my spouse compared to losing other people in my family (brother, mother-in-law, grandparents, uncle, cousin…). I had a difficult time answering. A spouse definitely impacts your sense of normalcy the most. They’re tied to your present and your future so closely that without them, it feels like your present and future are disappearing. And losing Gregg feels worse. But it’s not that any loss is necessarily worse than another. They’re just different.

But those nuances are hard to explain. How can you really put into words what loss feels like and then compare it to something else? How can you even begin to measure it? “Yup, that’s a 2 pounder, gonna be a bitch to get out of bed for at least 3 weeks,” or “Ding, ding, we have a winner at 3’7″ tall!” It just doesn’t work like that.

But wouldn’t it be nice? Like, to be able to have a measuring system that we could all understand? So that when you lose that dead-end job, you could remember that this is only an ounce of pain, not the 10-pound weight you felt last last year. An ounce is nothing. But really, an ounce isn’t nothing. An ounce of pain is still painful. Even if we could measure it, loss is loss. Pain is pain. Whatever people are feeling, they feel it deeply. I read a quote once, somewhere, by someone (I can’t remember those very important details, shocker) that said something about how you can drown in 7 feet of water or you can drown in 30- either way, you still drowned. Whatever we’re going through, it’s shitty all the way around. It’s not necessary or even useful to quantify it.

I have this really noble, righteous side of me that truly believes this. Once I went to a forum focused on the transgenerational trauma of people of color. The people who spoke used words like “grief” and “loss” and “pain.” I instantly felt connected to them, though their pain was different from mine. I couldn’t understand what it’s like to be a person of color because I’m not a person of color, but I could understand the feelings they were describing and I felt for them. And grief is such a huge part of the human experience. There have been many, many other times where it has been the thing that connects me to other humans, the thing that makes me feel alive. And that Christ-like side of me is brave in those moments and embraces that part of what binds us together as human beings, even when it hurts.

But then there’s this other, more cynical side of me that’s like, “Reeeallllly? IS loss, loss? IS pain, pain?” That’s also the whiny, resentful side of me. She’s kind of a bitch, to be honest. It’s the side of me that cringes when people say they know how I feel because their husband’s sister died 26 years ago. The side of me that can’t feel empathy for people whose hardest experience in life was their dog dying. The side of me that, when faced with a group of women talking about how it feels like their spouse died because he’s a different person after addiction, I can’t connect with them because all I want to do is throat punch someone. I don’t like this part of me, but sometimes it’s there. It’s cold, and closed-off, and angry, and lonely. And it is what it is. And maybe I need that side for some reason. It has less patience for superficial human interactions or relationships. And that I consider a good thing.     

If we could quantify loss- if we could find it’s deviation from the mean, calculate its mass, figure out its velocity- we would be able to predict outcomes. We’ve gotten so good at that. Humans can predict all kinds of outcomes, sometimes perfectly. If we could predict the outcomes of loss, we could find the peak points. We could adjust according to the impact. We could plan for the highs and the lows and the distance we have to go. And that’s why quantifying it is so appealing, because the uncertainty of grief is so. damn. scary. You can be doing fine one minute and start spiraling the next. The waves are uneven and unpredictable and it feels like a drunken toddler pirate is steering this ship. How do we know if we’ll ever be okay? If we just had a y=mx+b for our loss, we could plug everything in and see a neat little line. Straight, controlled, and predictable. Not zigzag, messy, and complicated-able. Not totally disappearing in some parts. Because that is what loss feels like. It’s all over the page, with no rules to follow to keep it on course. And sometimes the line is more predictable, and sometimes there’s less slope, but it’s never perfectly straight. Ever.

Dear Public Relations Department

It’s taken me a while to organize my thoughts enough to be able to form them into coherent words on paper. I recently was faced with what felt like a giant wall that just went up right in the middle of the path that I was already making slow progress on. Short version, there was some misinformation put out about how Gregg died, in a pretty public way, though not so large enough that everyone who knows him would have seen it. Someone said that Gregg died of a heart problem. A lie was told, either purposefully or out of ignorance, and I felt like the small semblance of peace that I had I been clinging to was being ripped from my fingers. That may sound dramatic, but when you find your husband dead of an overdose and then something challenges that truth, your truth, the truth that you have fought to embrace, that shit lights a fire in you. AANyway, I spent days feeling hurt, raw, and confused. Then angry and defensive. Then sad. Then determined. I would find where on this line of communication someone either twisted the truth or just made an honest mistake. I would get to the root of what was going on and figure out where things got tangled. I reached out for answers. I asked for an apology. I wasn’t rude or abrasive, but I did talk directly about why I was so hurt. What I wanted was for someone, anyone, to ease my pain and to help me be not angry anymore. Everyone was kind, they even apologized, but the trail fizzled out. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t know if it would make me feel better knowing.

You might be asking, “is this really that big of a deal?” And it’s okay if you are. I’ve asked myself that very question countless times in the last few weeks. “Am I overreacting?” Maybe. “Am I being dramatic and emotional?” Definitely a possibility. But guess what? I don’t care. I reserve the right to lose my chill when I feel threatened by someone or something that tries to steal my peace. And I thoroughly examined why I felt threatened. I thought about how I would feel if Gregg had actually died in a car accident and they said he died of a heart problem. How would I feel then? Probably annoyed, but not so triggered. What if he had died of a heart problem, but they had said he died of an overdose? Probably frantic. And that’s the problem. It was the shame that surrounds addiction (which is the very thing that keeps addiction growing) that made me have such a strong emotional reaction to this little mistake. My shame, other people’s shame, Gregg’s shame, society’s shame… It’s something that I have tried so hard to not leave space for and this mistake was telling me that I should be feeling it. And in my mind, it sent a lot of people harmful messages.

To get at the real heart of how I was feeling, here’s a section of an email I wrote, one that hasn’t been replied to. I know, not much context to go off, but you’ll get the gist.

“This little piece of misinformation may not seem like a big deal. It’s just one tiny detail. The point of the tribute was to honor veterans, not go into the knitty gritty details of the sacrifices they make. However, we can’t truly honor veterans- individually and as a whole- when we don’t fully acknowledge that sacrifice. When veterans sacrifice their physical and mental well-being, the costs can be great. My husband survived war, but self-medicated through the lasting emotional pain until it killed him, and his story is not unique. The segment glazed over this very real and very serious part of what thousands of American veterans struggle with every day. Those that saw the tribute and don’t know Gregg’s story may not have been harmed by it. But his community, his brothers in arms, his friends, his family, and especially his two children and I were sent hurtful messages. That we should be ashamed of how he fought his pain. That the courageous sacrifice he made will not stand up against his short-comings. That his presumed moral weakness should outshine the strong, kind, caring man that became a shell of himself when he was touched by war. That we should hide his struggles as well as our own because those around us would not accept them. That addiction is not a problem that we should be fighting against. That we should be ashamed of how Gregg died and that we should carry that shame with us.

I have found power in speaking the truth about Gregg’s death in a world where people don’t want to face the truth of addiction. This may not make a lot of sense to people who have not had to fight against the shame that our culture puts on individuals and families who have been touched by addiction, but believe me when I say that just acknowledging the truth is the best weapon there is in fighting that misplaced shame. There could have been a lot of power in stating the truth about how Gregg died during the veteran’s tribute. It would have been a more authentic way to honor veterans. It would have been an opportunity to bring some awareness to a piece of what veterans struggle with, a piece that doesn’t get a lot of attention. I know that mental health awareness was not the goal of the segment and I recognize that the misinformation given was most likely an honest mistake. But I also feel like my power has been taken from me and that a lie was presented, one that viewers would be more comfortable with.”

Yeah dude. The fire, I was in it. I was piiissed. And I was begging for someone to help me not be angry. I feel a lot calmer about it now, but still, NOT cool…

Society has a hard time separating people from behavior. If you do something bad, you are bad. If you do something good, you are good. If you struggle with addiction, you are an addict and not much else. But if we take a step back and look at people holistically, are we more than our behaviors? Is what people see on the outside the whole story? Does our history, our intentions, and our environment count for anything? What about all the good in us? Loving people (yes, more than one) who struggle with an addiction has taught me that, yes, we are more than our behaviors. We are all hott messes of neurons and cells, all capable of making brilliant choices and all capable of screwing up royally. People who struggle with addiction are just broken in different ways than people who don’t. But the shame still exists.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’ve probably never seen people stumble frantically through what to say when you tell them your husband died of an overdose, or witnessed the relief that spreads across their face when you give them reasons like “combat veteran” and “PTSD” to justify the outcome that they don’t know what to do with. You’ve probably never heard people tell you that their loved one died of health problems, when the truth is that they overdosed. Probably no one has ever told you that dying of an overdose is not a tragedy, it’s just what happens when people do drugs. You’ve probably never loved an addict.

Irish Spring

Do you ever hear people talk about how they can always feel their loved one on the other side? How they’re always with them, guiding them and protecting them? Or maybe this has been you. Maybe you have felt close to, or even seen, someone close to you who has passed away. Maybe they’re always there when you feel lonely or broken or lost. Maybe you had a dream about them and woke up confused that they were gone again because it seemed. so. damn. real.

For nearly the past three years, I have heard people tell me these things. I’ve heard stories about how comforting and healing it was to feel their loved ones, see their faces, and hear what they had to say. And I’ve been suuuper annoyed, because this has never been my experience. Even worse is when other people have felt him when I can’t! Like- WHY?!?!?! I’ve always felt cut off from Gregg, like he just disappeared into thin air. This was especially unsettling for me because I do believe that there’s life after death and I would like to believe that the veil between here and there is thin enough that we can feel near to them. I mean, I’ve heard numerous stories of people having experiences that the more spiritual side of me believes, and the more cynical side of me calls bullshit on. I mean, I’ve never seen those things, they must not exist. But that’s also the naive and prideful side of me. And I clung to the idea that I could have those experiences. I prayed and prayed for something, anything. To be able to see him and hear his voice, or even just to feel his presence. To get one of those little reminders that he’s there, like his picture falling off the wall or finding his deodorant (which I’ve kept since he died, which is very un-creepy and 100% normal) on my bathroom counter. So yes, I was basically asking, begging, for my dead husband to haunt me.

And still- nothing. Well, almost nothing. I can remember two times distinctly where I have thought maybe that’s nothing, but maybe it’s something. Once when I was talking to Thomas, who was still two at the time, and out of nowhere he started looking off in the distance and then relayed to me something daddy had just told him that ended in him saying goodbye. That one felt pretty real at the time, but the rational side of me also thinks, “uh, yeah, that’s a two-year-old trying to make sense of the fact that this very important person in his life who he saw everyday just up and disappeared, not a visit from a dead person.”

Then two summers ago when I took the boys camping. Alone. It was so fun during the day, and so freaking terrifying at night. If we weren’t eaten by bears, I was sure we were going to be skinned alive by the man camping next to us. And what would I do? The boys were too young to run fast, but too big for me to carry and move faster than… well, than a in shape-ish woman trying to carry 70 pounds of toddler. And what could I do to defend us? Probably just piss off our attacker, maybe slow him down, a little. That night, as I sat petrified in fear, I felt Gregg. Like he was there protecting us, like he did when he was alive. It was as if because we were obviously in actual danger, he was suddenly able to tear away from whatever cool stuff he’s doing over there that’s more important than just, you know, hanging out with us. Now we needed him. And like some weird Twilight-y thing, I could feel closer to him because I was risking our lives… Camping is intense.

And that was it. No dreams (at least not good ones), no messages from the other side, nothing.

Until a couple weeks ago. I don’t even know how to describe it, but Gregg’s been here. It’s a hard feeling to explain and I don’t think we can truly understand it unless we’ve felt it. It’s not like I could turn around and see him right there. It’s like if I close my eyes, I just know that he’s there. If I close my eyes, the image of my surroundings imprinted on my brain has him in it. With every move I make, I’ll never touch him, but he’ll be moving along with me, matching my pace and staying right by my side without ever interfering. And I can’t even pinpoint anything that happened that would have changed things. Just one day, I felt him sitting next to me in the car. And he’s been next to me ever since. Maybe I’m finally not as emotionally walled-up as I have been and more open to getting these feelings. Maybe he was too busy jumping out of Heaven airplanes and lifting Heaven weights. Maybe he had some serious work to do and he’s just now getting to the point where he has more free time. Or maybe he had some serious work to do and can just now understand where he is and what’s happening.

There was one other time when I felt Gregg. When I really needed to feel him and know what I should do. And the only feeling I got was confusion. Like being lost in the dark and not knowing which way was up. That doesn’t sound like a Heaven I believe in, but it does sound like how Gregg felt before he died. Maybe we don’t all of a sudden get this sense of understanding everything, maybe we don’t see it in neat little rows from start to finish. Maybe we are who we are and we still have to grow.

Whatever the reason that I can all of a sudden feel him, even if it’s just me in my own head, creating something outside of myself that will bring me comfort, I’ll take it.

The End

I’m not going to lie, the past couple of months have been… rough. Grief is a tricky thing. As soon as you think you’re past it, it sneaks up behind you. Sometimes something happens that triggers it, and sometimes it comes out of nowhere for no reason at all. Sometimes it’s short-lived, sometimes it makes itself comfortable and stays a while. This particular grief wave was persistent. It’s passed now, but I was held under by it for the better part of two months, which sounds absolutely insane to me because that has never happened before.

In the last two years and seven months, I can’t remember a grief wave as bad as that one. Maybe I’ve just forgotten how bad it was in the beginning. Maybe the numbness lasted so long that I’m only now able to really feel the intensity of the waves. Maybe my grief just isn’t living up to the expectations I have for it. I expect it to lessen with each passing year. I expect that each holiday and anniversary will get easier. I expect time to do its work and to heal the wounds. I’ve told myself that if I could just make it to the next second, to the next week, to the next year, it would get better. And overall, it has. But this grief wave made me feel as if Gregg had just died, except that I didn’t have any of the initial numbness you get when something so shocking happens. I just felt all the pain of it.

As sucky as it was, I needed this wave. It was… grounding. It let me process things that were preventing me from moving forward and being fully present in the here and now. I had spent so much time chasing a reality that didn’t exist, I wasn’t even sure what was reality anymore. And I’m not even talking about since Gregg died. The last few years of his life, I chased a reality that didn’t exist. I so badly wanted him to be the man I married and for our family to be whole, but that wasn’t the reality then, either. That was just a dream. An alternate universe without war and trauma and drugs.

Since Gregg died, the logical part of my brain has been able to see that that dream was gone. I prefer to live by that part of my brain, where everything is organized and rational and I can make sense of it. Relying on that part of my brain helped me navigate my new world. I could see clearly why this had happened and continue to move forward with an intensity of focus that rarely waned. I knew exactly what to do. That intensity was comfortable. That chase of what was up ahead kept me sane. Putting it all behind me made me feel so… safe. But what I didn’t realize was that I was still chasing a future with Gregg. With my logical brain in overdrive doing all the planning and reasoning, my emotional brain sat in silence. When it did speak up loud enough to get my attention, I would rationalize with it and make it see reason until it was silent again. But that’s not sustainable. Even for someone like me who lives primarily in logic land, even when I didn’t have a dead husband. You still have to address those pesky emotions. Eventually, my emotional brain took over. And let me tell you, it was all over the place, constantly trying to find a way back to where it all started and unable to accept the fact that the road up ahead was much different than we had planned.

It’s like I was watching a movie, one where a woman drives and drives and drives, enduring the bumps in the road, the sharp curves that came so unexpectedly. Eventually, she would get to her destination, because that’s what happens in movies. Obviously, there would be a happy ending. He would be there, waiting by the side of road, so happy that she kept going, even when the road was treacherous. I’ve only just realized that I’m not watching a movie. That I am actually the one driving, and that as much as I chase it, that reality of finding Gregg up ahead died with him. No matter how fast I drive or what shortcuts I make, that road will never lead to the happy ending that I wanted. And while my logical brain could see that clearly, my emotional brain is only just catching up. And it’s terrified of the road ahead now that it fully understands that Gregg is not there waiting. It’s devastated. It’s sad. During this grief wave, it was also exceptionally angry- at everyone. At Gregg for abandoning us. At everyone who enabled Gregg, including myself. At people who I love for trying to love me. At myself for not being able to save him.

Maybe the emotional part of me took so long catching up because losing Gregg was such a shock and logic was the easier way through it. Him dying wasn’t a surprise, because logically, that’s what happens when you do drugs. While they have their claws sunk into you, they will drag you down as deep as they can take you, and sometimes your rock bottom kills you. But, if you take logic and reason out of it, it should never have happened. There are a million different scenarios that could have unfolded that would have been so much better than this one. But we all just played our parts so well. Gregg, the dysfunctional veteran who was slowly turning into a shadow of himself. Me, the committed wife who did everything she could in all the wrong ways to pull him back up. The people who cared about him, who weren’t able to help him because they didn’t really know. His doctors, who were fooled by his act almost every. single. time. Random people who didn’t do anything to stop the scene from unfolding, like the guy at the corner store who sold Gregg so much booze or the teachers and employers who saw him spiraling. And the Oscar goes too… Gregg, for being able to put on such a strong face when he was battling so many demons inside. A face that fooled even me sometimes.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had chosen to take a different role. Maybe he would be alive, or maybe the last years of his life would have just been lonelier. Maybe he would have lived longer, but done more damage to the people around him, and to himself. Maybe he would have eventually hit a wall and been forced to make a change. I’d like to think that what happened was the best case scenario. But part me is still holding onto this alternate universe where everything did turn out in the end. Where he is free from the demons that plagued him, where our family is whole. Where our kids will love him and be able to know him. Where and our grandchildren will climb up on his knee after dinner and laugh at his funny faces. Where we grow old together and can look back on the life we created and smile because we overcame so much and made it our destination in the end.




I’ll never understand why humans have to sleep. It’s the biggest waste of time. I could accomplish so. much. during those inconsistent 5-8 hours a night where I’m slowly beaten to death by tiny feet and elbows that always seem to find their way from their bed into mine. 7ish hours a night times 365 days a year… that’s like, a crap ton of hours. Did you know that people spend, on average, 1/3 of their life sleeping? That means that by the time I’m 75, I will have slept for 25 years! I could be so ridiculously productive during those hours instead of just laying there completely useless. Waste. of. time.

Also, turns out, sleep is really anxiety provoking for me. See, when the sun goes down and I have to lay down to go to sleep, I have to stop balancing everything. I have to carefully set down all the plates I’m spinning and hope that they don’t shatter into a million pieces while I’m not attending to them. I have to stop cleaning, and studying, and nursing owies, and throwing baseballs, and fulfilling church callings, and paying bills, and cooking… I have to stop, carefully place each fragile piece of china in its proper place, and leave it be until the next day. And that is almost more difficult than trying to keep all the plates spinning.

As parent in general, but especially as a lone parent, there’s never enough hours in the day. There’s never enough time spent reading their favorite books. Never enough games of catch. Never enough consistency. And I’m only speaking for me- I’m sure there are lone parents out there who are kiiiillling it. I see you and I am cheering you on, friends. But right now, I’m not killin’ it. I’m just sort of half-heartedly hitting it over the head with a hammer, the rubber kind my two-year-old kid likes to hit people with. Not super effective, just annoying. And even mustering the effort to do that is wearing me thin.

Sometimes that sense of wearing thin is a sign that I need to do small things like stop and take 5 minutes for self-care, or say “no” to the thing that would put me over the edge, or revaluate my priorities for the week. Simple, easy things I can do to help keep me going. But sometimes that feeling is an indication that I’m neglecting some aspect of my health- physical, emotional, spiritual- and need to focus on nurturing it.

If my body can’t keep up physically, this is where I start. Running low on energy probably means I need to get better sleep *insert eye roll*, eat healthier, drink more water, change my workout routine- easy, textbook stuff. I know how to do this, and have gotten preeettty good at doing the physical self-care thing (except the sleep part, obviously, which turns out is really important). But I can always improve, so I look for ways I can be better and more consistent. Not like a crazy person, but like a regular person who wants to live just until I’m at least like 100 so my kids can have a parent here on Earth for as long as possible. But like a spry 100, because I need to still be able to serve some purpose… It’s 2019, don’t tell me that this isn’t a completely attainable goal.

If it’s my emotional health that’s making me a crazy person, I usually need to address whatever’s in “the box.” I call it the grief box, designed mostly for stuff about Gregg, but I can fit all kinds of shit in there. Feelings of anger, shame, regret, fear, betrayal… put all that in a box and then slam the lid shut. Done and done. Except no, it’s not done at all, I eventually have to go back to the box when I’m ready to deal with the stuff. I’ve been more intentional about working on this one lately. It’s not easy to look in that box, but I refuse to let it sit there and take up space, silently mocking me as it wins the battle and takes control, slowly wearing me down.

It’s harder to explain what it feels like when my spiritual health is suffering, but I’ll usually know because I will feel empty. I’ll feel like I’m failing everything and everyone and like I can never be good enough. I may already be doing the basics, like going to church and praying and reading my scriptures, but in the same way that a robot would do those things. This is when I have to stop and be more intentional about turning to Christ, because he makes up the difference and fills the holes that I can’t. When what I can give today is only 5% of what I think I should be capable of, he holds me and then makes up the other 95% through the people around me who love me and my children. When my kids want a mommy who’s there all the time, but all I can give them is bowl of cold cereal and a kiss before I head out the door, he comforts me and gives me the energy to be more present with them when I get home after a long day. When I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders and like I am the only one there to bear the burden, he lifts me. When I want to do the right thing, but choose to do the other, he weeps with me. When I have nothing left to give, he gives for me.

In a perfect world, I’d have time for all the things. Every morning, I’d make my children a nutritious, organic breakfast before kissing the tops of their heads and sending them to fetch the box of play-dough, slime, and glitter so that they could make a giant mess with it. I’d smile and clean up while they proudly held out their creations, then ran off to play in our perfectly landscaped backyard. We’d run errands, and their clothes would be free of dirt or snot, their hair combed into place. I’d spend the rest of the day reading to them and taking them on hikes and teaching them how to be decent human beings, all while simultaneously running a fortune-500 company that would allow us to go on trips around the world, as well as a non-profit that would end world hunger and all childhood diseases. Perfect.


Let it Go

As per usual when I write, I should be working. I’m not avoiding work. I just have too much on my mind to focus and I won’t be able to make any sense of anything until I get it written down.

Today I was late getting to school. I’d like to be able to blame it on traffic or some important meeting that kept me. But no, I just plain spaced on going to school. Sometimes widow/mom/grad student brain is a bitch. Anyway, parking on campus is a nightmare at any time of the day, but it’s the freaking Hunger Games during midday. So when I arrived on campus, already late, I rushed through my normal parking lot, knowing that the parking Gods were definitely not going to smile upon me this time. I was right, they didn’t. So I rushed to the neighboring lot, barreled down the first row of cars, screeched around the corner, and then- there it was. A parking spot just for me. The universe had heard my pleas and aligned the stars in order to give me this. one. spot. Just for me. It may as well have had my name on it. Like, engraved into the asphalt. That’s a thing, right? Yeah.

I was almost crying tears of joy at the thought of pulling into that sweet space, turning off my engine, and walking my merry little self to class. Then the unthinkable happened. A black sedan, which I can only imagine was being driven by the devil himself, pulled into the opposite side of the parking lot. Before I knew what was happening, that car had maneuvered itself smoothly between those two lines like the words of a love letter. Thoughtfully and poetically woven on crisp, college-lined paper, but horrendously repulsive. Love letters and people who steal parking spots freaking suck.

I was so. angry. Like I’m a bit embarrassed at how upset I was, but not that embarrassed because let’s be honest, THAT GUY is the asshole. I swore. I shook my steering wheel a little bit. I probably would have gotten out of my car and like, I don’t know, challenged him to a duel or something, but who has time to fight a duel these days, amiright? And I was already running late.

Instead I turned down the next row of cars, submitting to my circumstances and accepting the fact that, nay, it was not meant to be. I geared myself up for the drive to the parking lot on the other end of campus and the longer walk that would accompany it. I was almost to the exit when, suddenly, there IT was. MY parking spot. Not the one that I had wanted, not the one that I had set my heart on. Not the one that I thought was intended for me. But the one that was for me. And you know what? It was amazing. And even though I had to go through a mini existential crisis to get to it, it was worth it.

Sometimes things are taken from us. Sometimes our plans don’t go as planned. Sometimes when we think we know what Heavenly Father intends for us, our worlds are turned upside down. Sometimes we miss an opportunity. Sometimes that thing that we really, really wanted, the one that was perfect and meant for us, slips right through our fingers.

So what do we do? We can cry. We can scream. We can curse and beat our fists. We can, ya know, challenge random strangers to a fight to the death. But does that change anything? Does that restore what we lost? Does it make the pain less intense? Well actually, I’d say yes to that, throwing a temper tantrum does make the pain less intense sometimes. Anger is a great coping mechanism. But not a healthy one, especially when we’re using it long-term. It keeps us stuck. Stuck in a place where we can’t see what’s around us, where we can’t see the blessings that we’re missing out on. Where we can’t see what Heavenly Father is preparing for us.

There is so much good that can come from letting go. It’s painful and it’s hard and it straight up sucks a lot of the time. But there’s so much more. There’s so much more that’s being prepared for us that we will miss out on if we fight to hold on to what we can’t have.

There’s a Light on this Tree that won’t Light on One Side

It’s 11 pm on December 25th and I still haven’t found my Christmas spirit. But I have stopped wanting to torch every Christmas tree that I see, so I guess that’s something. The tinsel, the trimmings, the trappings are all less aversive to me than they were last year. So I’d say I’ve come a long way. Although, going from feeling like you want to commit arson when you drive by a house lit with blinking lights to just feeling… nothing… may not actually be that much progress. But it does feel better. It stings less. But It just feels empty.

If it were up to me, I would have buried myself under a rock from November 1st until December 27th this year. But alas, the universe would not allow it. My family whom I live with were ready to deck the halls this year. They made sure I was ready, too, because they’re amazing like that. I lied and said I was. Also, I was in charge of overseeing the stage decorations for our ward (my church congregation, basically) Christmas party, which included a talent show and a visit from Santa on said stage, so the stage had to be decked. It was a mistake putting me in charge for sooo many reasons. I would rather have taken a doorknob to the eye (that happened to me once… when I was a child and much shorter, obviously) than decorate a damn Christmas tree. Also, I’m mainly just terrible when it comes to decorating anything for anything. My lack of attention to detail these days does not serve me well in making things look pretty. Like my first idea was to just get a Charlie Brown tree, nothing else, and just hope that everyone would think it was funny. But instead I borrowed some brightly-colored decorations from a wonderful woman in my ward, had lots of help from my friends, and we totally Grinched an already-decorated Christmas tree from the foyer of the church building. Merry Christmas.

One thing that did help me get through the holiday season was that I planned an escape to California this week. Thomas has been begging to go to the beach since like September and I figured it would be just what we all needed. We spent all afternoon today at the beach, building sand castles and standing near the water, waiting for the waves to crash over our feet. Then Thomas got too confident in the strength of his lower body, let go of my hand to walk closer to the water, and got taken out by a wave. He informed me tonight while I was putting him to bed that he did not want to go back the beach. It’s too dirty and the waves have “too big of muscles.” *insert giant eye roll. That’s exactly why Gregg didn’t like the beach. Well, not the muscles part, but the dirty part for sure. He hated the feeling of sand and insisted that since he had to spend 12 months surrounded by nothing but dirt in Afghanistan, he was allowed to hate the beach. Whatever.

I wish that I had more vivid memories of our Christmases together. There was the first, in 2009, which we weren’t actually together for because he was deployed. He managed to surprise me with a diamond necklace, which his sister gave to me on Christmas eve. I thought for sure he was getting me a guitar. I don’t actually like expensive jewelry. He didn’t know me very well then, but I did love, and still treasure, that necklace.

Then there was our second Christmas, in 2010, which we flew back home for. His sister bought us matching sweatbands and sports-themed underwear, because like, why would she not. The picture of us posing in those is one of my favorites.

Then 2011, the year we drove from North Carolina to Arizona, in the middle of moving to New York. Literally, when we flew home after Christmas, we flew into JFK and took a cab to our new home. We hadn’t even planned on going to Arizona, but we decided to make the trek sort of last minute. We drove straight through. 36 hours. Taking turns driving. Stopping only for gas and to pee. For 36 hours. I don’t know how we survived. Really, I don’t know how I survived. I mean this in the most loving way possible, but Gregg was the absolute WORST on road trips. Like, driving 10 hours to California with Thomas and Luke was easier than driving to Target with him. For some weird reason, he never liked to talk on road trips. He had to listen to his music, but ON HIS IPOD WITH HEADPHONES. He complained non-stop about the traffic, or the people going too slow, or the sun in his eyes, or the people going too fast, or the seat being uncomfortable… The man turned into a giant baby. And I can say that because I would say it to his face if he were alive. Giant. Baby.

Then in 2012 Gregg’s sister and her family spent Christmas with us in New York. It felt weird because my brother had just died a few months before and I didn’t really recognize that I was spinning out of control yet. So I just assumed that everything was actually fine but also felt like I was actually going crazy. It was a weird year.

You would think I would remember 2013, the year I was pregnant with Thomas, and the couple of years after. I don’t, so I’ll just skip ahead. Those were dark years, man.

In 2016, six weeks after Gregg’s mom died, the adults in the family were trying to fake it for the kids, watching the toddlers decorate the Christmas tree because no one else had the heart to. Frankly, those toddlers did a better job than I would have. We all felt keenly the fact that Gregg’s mom wasn’t there to make last minute runs to the store for stocking stuffers or to let you forage through her well-stocked makeup drawer. And that hole that she left is what we were all trying to ignore when we had Christmas Round Two on the 26th, a sort of second chance at feeling something that felt like Christmas spirit. We had spent hours making funeral potatoes, which I later threw up. I was in the middle of eating, juggling Luke and trying get Thomas to eat, when I decided enough was enough, Gregg should wake up and come and eat with the rest of us.

Side bar: if you don’t know what funeral potatoes are, they’re basically like if potatoes and cheese had a baby and that baby was mixed with various other dairy products and crack and then baked to a golden-brown perfection. I think it’s technically a casserole, but it’s also one of the top five most delicious dishes on Earth according to Paula Deen. I made that up.

Anyway, I think the thing that helped me get over wanting to burn down the North Pole this year was my inability to avoid Christmas. Like, I could not escape it. Every morning I woke up, walked up the stairs, and was greeted by a Christmas tree. I had to go to not one but TWO Christmas parties. My kids are old enough to know that they want to see Santa and, while I am not a perfect parent and let my children do things like watch other kids open toys on YouTube, I will endure any amount of pain to see their eyes light up with joy. So I stood in line while they waited to see Santa and then took several pictures of them, all of which were terrible. But really, the exposure to it all just made it less aversive. Seeing and smelling and hearing Christmas taught my brain that it wouldn’t actually kill me and made me less anxious about it. Which would have made sense in my behaviorist mind if someone had told me that’s what I needed to do, but it also would have made sense in my mind to punch that person in the throat for telling me that’s what I needed to do… so yeah, I’m glad that no one tried to give me advice about how to move forward.

But even though it feels less like I’m being attacked by a tiger that I need to kill with fire this year, Christmas still feels empty. I’m sad to say that to say that I haven’t even been able to feel the true meaning of Christmas. That is one thing that has been hard. I would genuinely be fine without the presents or the lights or the food… but I love my Savior and I want to celebrate his birth. But feeling that means feeling everything, and I guess I just can’t right now. There are times when I do, but I can’t feel it all right now. Cheers to Christmas being over and to the coming new year.