Bursting into Flower in Slow Motion

I recently came across Muriel Rukeyser’s brief poem in response to Sylvia Plath’s death, “The Power of Suicide”:

The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves :
Flower     flower     flower     flower
Today for the sake of all the dead      Burst into flower

I love the sentiment of living harder in honor of people who don’t live anymore. This is what I have been trying to do since my husband died 6 ½ months ago. My husband was known for living life to the fullest and when he passed away, I felt strongly that the most fitting way I could honor his memory would be to embrace life, have adventures, and bring joy to others. Although I have felt intense sadness, I’ve also felt intense happiness, sometimes at the same time.

Many times since my husband’s death, as I’ve navigated doing alone what I thought I’d have a partner along with me for, I’ve felt something like “bursting into flower,” although the phrases I’ve been thinking of are “blossoming,” “coming into myself,” and others that capture the slow, gradual nature of what seems to be happening.

Last week, I read an excerpt from Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, in which he observes, “If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly.” That reminded me that the time that Tom has been gone—6 ½ months—is just a flash in the grand scheme of time, and that this blossoming that seems to be happening slowly, is, relative to “the history of our planet,” bursting into flower. So this week, I’ve been thinking of myself as bursting into flower in slow motion.

What isn’t possible one day often feels possible the next. One day, even looking at his clothes didn’t feel possible; a few days later, looking at them felt possible; a few weeks after that, moving them out of the closet felt possible. They are in the garage now, and one day, it may feel possible to give them away. The day I collected his ashes from the mortuary I carried the very heavy box around with me for most of the day; being apart from them felt impossible. The very next day, it was possible to leave them on my nightstand. One day I moved the box into a drawer. Over time, I’ve been able to scatter some of the ashes.

I wrote earlier this month about moving the glass of juice Tom drank the night before he died from the front of the fridge to the back. Today, I took a deep breath, excavated the juice glass from the back of the fridge, and moved it to the sink. It was gut wrenching—saying good-bye to the glass of juice is just another good-bye to Tom. The good-byes seem to keep coming. Good-bye to this mug of his and that book. Good-bye to the piece of paper he wrote on, good-bye to his hats, good-bye to his toothbrush. I have said good-bye to hundreds if not thousands of Tom’s things in these 6 ½ months.

This week it was the juice glass and a jar of pickles he bought at a farm market Lily and I took him to a month before he died. There will be something else next week or the following week. Or maybe it will be a few weeks or months before I am able to part with something else of his. Twenty years from now, looking back at these months, it will probably seem as if I got rid of things quickly, packing up Tom’s 61 years of life in a flash. The deliberation over each item, the stopping to dwell on a memory, the gentle interventions of the dogs to comfort me will all be erased and all that will remain is a line of my personal history: I packed up Tom’s things.

Somewhere in my personal history, it will read “After her husband died, she traveled to Europe and South America and Antarctica.” It will appear that I burst into flower, going from afraid to travel alone with my impaired vision to traveling the world in a flash. All my minor mishaps last week in Portland, Oregon, my first solo trip since Tom’s death, will be invisible. I did not burst into flower in Portland—I tripped off a curb into oncoming traffic, I wandered onto a construction site and had to be escorted off, I needed the help of multiple strangers to find and buy a cleaning cloth for my glasses when I got caught without one in a rainstorm and couldn’t tell the difference between the sidewalk and street.

One day, maybe when I am scattering some of Tom’s ashes at the tip of South America, a place he dreamed of riding his motorcycle to, I will remember how in the days after Tom died, the idea of traveling without him felt fantastical. I wasn’t sure I could ever find my way around an unfamiliar city on my own, navigating so many obstacles with my impaired vision. The mishaps in Portland will likely be condensed or maybe even forgotten, and I may think, “Here I am, on a continent Tom never made it to. Look at me, bursting into flower for his sake.”

Six Months Out

Grieving is individualized, but I find it helpful as a grieving person to know when certain milestones occurred for others experiencing loss, so today I’m sharing what my grief is like at about six months out. December 19 will be exactly six months since my amazing husband Tom died. Half a year.

I wrote in November about being hit hard with grief. That wave seems to have crested and I’m feeling less of that raw, all-consuming grief. This week I have felt sad but my grief feels less like the open wound it felt like a week or so ago. I have survived Tom’s favorite holiday, Halloween, and my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, without him. Hanukah was relatively easy, as it’s a holiday we both enjoyed but honestly, for both of us, it’s always been mostly about the latkes.

The next big holiday on the horizon is Christmas. Christmas was special for Tom and me because of its proximity to the end of the year and all the attendant celebration connected to that. We both loved to celebrate, so we had several traditions related to celebrating in December: buying a case of prosecco at the beginning of December, hosting a party around the end of my semester, Tom going nuts lighting up the outside of the house, me decorating the inside of the house, and buying gifts for our loved ones. We often traveled on or around Christmas: one year we camped in Death Valley, another year we were in Las Vegas, and several times we rented a house on the coast of Oregon with Tom’s brother and his wife. One year when we flew on Christmas day, Tom bought a bunch of Starbucks gift cards to give to folks who were working at the airport to thank them for working the holiday.

This year, I am spending the week leading up to Christmas in Oregon, Tom’s favorite place in the world. His brother, sister-in-law, and I will spread some of his ashes in the Pacific Ocean and some at Freelandia, a wild little piece of land in Oregon that Tom’s brother owns. (Freelandia was the site of an epic Tom-on-stilts and his-brother-on-a-pogo-stick battle that both claim to have won.) I very deliberately made plans to fly on Christmas day so I can give out Starbucks gift cards to airport employees just like Tom did. It’s a small homage to him and his generosity that will help me feel connected to him. I’ll otherwise be alone that day, which is how I want it. I have always enjoyed solitude.

Other milestones:

  • I have given away some of his clothes, moved some out to the garage, and left some where they are. I have moved some of his more iconic clothing (like his Big Lebowski T-shirt, his favorite sweatshirt, and a dress shirt he looked particularly dashing in) into a basket that I’ll give to a seamstress friend to make into a quilt. A week or so after he died, I put some clothing items that smelled like him into a dresser drawer and even though they no longer smell like him, I’m not ready to give up the “smells like Tom” drawer.
  • I moved down to our bedroom six weeks after he died but left the bedroom on the main floor in place, untouched, until right after Thanksgiving. For four months, the makeshift bedroom remained and it hurt to see it everyday, but it hurt more to think about dismantling it. Right after Thanksgiving, it hurt more to see it and some friends helped me take the bed apart and haul it out to the garage. Now I have an open space that will go back to being a living room-type area at some point.
  • In early November, I went to a restaurant Tom and I went to together. I have carefully avoided doing this for a number of reasons. Tom loved good food and enjoyed everything about a good restaurant experience—perusing the menu, talking to the server, selecting a wine, observing fellow diners, tasting each other’s meals, noticing the décor. Doing all of that without him, and being committed to being in the space for an hour or more, has felt like too much. In early November, on a whim, I had brunch at a place we went to together—a restaurant that was particularly inviting when Tom was using a wheelchair and I wanted to give them some business. It was incredibly hard and I cried nearly the whole time. I was able to at least sit outside on the patio because of unseasonably warm weather, which made me feel a little less conspicuous in my crying, but it was a gut-wrenching experience that I am not ready to repeat yet.
  • The garage is still nearly completely untamed, but I did consolidate a few things and get rid of a few items. A few weeks ago, I moved the knife sharpening equipment that had been in the living room since he died out to the garage.
  • The remnants of his last glass of grapefruit juice are still in the fridge. Up until earlier this week, the glass was front and center, so I saw it every time I opened the fridge. A few days ago, I decided to move it to the back of the fridge, I did this because I will have a housesitter here soon and I don’t want them to accidentally get rid of the glass, but I wonder if not seeing it every time I open the fridge is also a transitional step toward eventually getting rid of it.

I like the graphic on the Speaking Grief website that shows a grief timeline, contrasting the expectation that grief will end with the reality that it goes on infinitely. I am still seeing my grief counselor weekly and still attending a monthly support group and I don’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon.

Related posts:

Grieving and Supporting Others Who Are Grieving during the Holidays

I’ve been trying to focus during the holidays on generosity toward myself and others. Grieving mindfully means generously giving myself the time and space to be sad. Accepting that I did the best for Tom when he was alive means generously remembering that I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight when I made decisions that I may second-guess now. Feeling connected to others right now means generously attributing positive motives to folks who don’t understand why I am still so sad.

One resource that has helped me feel generous recently is a book a fellow griever told me about, Narratives of Hope and Grief in Higher Education, edited by Stephanie Anne Shelton and Nicole Sieben. I immediately tracked it down (the Auraria Library has the eBook version) and read the chapters by folks who had lost a romantic partner (all women who lost men and all to cancer). I skimmed many of the other chapters, which covered the loss of parents, children, and other loved ones. Every single one was eloquent, beautiful, and touching. I highly recommend this book to anyone in higher education who wants to better understand grief—and I daresay even folks outside of academia will find plenty that resonates in this collection. Academics don’t grieve any differently from non-academics—we just sometimes use bigger words to talk about our grief.  

In the introduction to the collection, Shelton and Sieben describe higher ed’s engagement with grief as “detached,” and when it does exist, focused more on students than on faculty and staff. They mention that the rare acknowledgments of grief that do occur “typically either consider the ways that supporting students’ trauma affects faculty (Kafka, 2019) or focus on the aftermaths of tragedy for a campus, such as an academic’s suicide (Pettit, 2019). Much as we discovered in our own experiences, higher education regularly fails to offer sufficient support to grieving students, and it is utterly unprepared and uncertain of how to support faculty and staff members’ pain.” These observations are consistent with my experience, and were echoed in a recent tweet by Ula Klein:

While Klein isn’t talking specifically about grief, her tweet reflects the typical attitude of institutions toward the employees who work regularly with traumatized people: suck it up and focus on the client/student/customer.

There are three essays in the collection that focus on a widowed faculty member and each one offered insights and reflections that resonated deeply with me:

  • Deanna Day talks about the alienation that comes with being the only widowed person in a group of colleagues and how it can be easier to talk with students about grieving than with other academics. I have found this to be true, as well. My students have been so kind about reaching out to me to express sympathy and thanking me for sharing with them that I am grieving. A student who walked with me from class to my office earlier this week asked when we got to my office, “Do you want to keep talking or would you rather be alone?” I was touched by the acknowledgment that interacting socially with others can be taxing for grieving folks. This is a level of awareness and sensitivity I have not found in most of my colleagues.

I don’t fault my colleagues for being unsure of how to deal with me. We’ve been socialized to see grieving at work as unprofessional. Perhaps my students haven’t yet been socialized into that idea or maybe this generation of students’ rejection of many of the traditional ideas about employment includes dismissing the idea that emotion can be left at the door when you clock in.

  • Angela Kinder Mains expresses how her late husband’s fight with lymphoma motivated her “to be the best version of [her]self . . .  during [his] final months.” During that time, she—like I—found surprising strength, patience, and fortitude in herself, and she describes herself as “grateful and proud of that.” A few months after her husband’s death, however, she says “the honeymoon stage of grief was over, and [she] entered into the more difficult part of the work. I recognized that I did not actually know who, or what, I was supposed to be without Jer.” Boy, oh boy, do I connect with that. As I have shared on this blog, I was surprised by the intensity of grief I began experiencing around Halloween.
  • The final piece in the collection dealing with the loss of a partner is by Nancy Rankie Shelton. She writes about how folks were supportive and sympathetic in her first year of grieving but lost patience when her grieving continued beyond that. I may revisit this essay if/when I get to the point where others around me seem less willing to tolerate my grieving.

The entire collection highlights how out of touch both academics and the general public are with grief, and reminded me that until Tom died, I, too, was a bit out of touch with grief. This prompted me to think about how confusing it must be for people who are not currently in the grips of grief to figure out how to navigate conversations during the holidays with those of us who are. On the one hand, the holidays are—supposedly, at least—about jolliness and celebration. On the other hand, the holidays can be particularly trying and isolating for grieving people, who may come across during this season as withdrawn, exhausted, and/or bitter. How is a person who wants to celebrate and spread cheer to know how to approach the person who wants nothing more than to be left alone and assumes their grief vibes communicate this?

As the person in this scenario who wants nothing more than to be left alone, I am generously thanking everyone who invites me to a holiday soiree for thinking of me and assuring them that I would prefer to be alone at this time. I don’t apologize for turning down the invitation, I just express how much I appreciate the thought and give a firm no. This strategy has worked well for me so far.

If you are the person in the scenario getting your invitation rejected, please don’t argue. Don’t ask, “Are you sure?” Don’t tell the grieving person how much fun they are going to miss. Don’t respond to their no with, “Well, why don’t you think about it and get back to me?” Don’t get in touch a few days later to see if they changed their mind. All you have to say is, “I understand and you’ll be in my thoughts. Please feel free to come if you change your mind.” (I’ve written on the subject of folks assertively trying to spread cheer before.)

Finally, in the spirit of generosity, if you are looking for gift ideas for someone who is experiencing difficult circumstances during the holidays, here are some lists I found particularly helpful:

25+ Cozy Gifts for Someone Who’s Bedridden or on Bed Rest

12 Christmas Memorial Gift Ideas to Remember a Loved One

P.S. There’s one more essay in the Shelton and Sieben collection that I want to call attention to: “Misdiagnosing Generational Trauma and Grief: I Am Not Angry; I Am Triggered and Grief Stricken” by Nneka Greene. Greene articulates the experience of a woman of color who has “encountered grief that is not from the loss of a loved one. The experiences include assaults on [her] existence as a Black woman navigating a majority White academy, a Black woman living in a country that finds her skin dangerous, a Black woman working alongside law enforcement that continues to kill her unarmed kinsmen, a Black woman in conflict with a faith that supports the separation and denial of migrant families from safety and better lives.”

Secondary Losses

I recently discovered the Speaking Grief website, which captured my attention with its big “Let’s get better at grief” banner. If you or a loved one are struggling with grief, I highly recommend that you check out the website, which takes a humane and compassionate approach to grief and includes a link to the organization’s documentary on grief.

In exploring the website, I came across an explanation of “secondary loss.” As the website explains, “the death of a loved one is considered the primary loss” and “experiences that flow from that death are called secondary losses.” The website lists categories in which secondary losses typically occur as support systems, home, dreams, identity, hopes, financial stability, faith, health, relationships, sense of belonging, and self worth. Another website I’ve mentioned before, Cake, describes secondary losses as “unanticipated changes in your life created by the primary loss.

At just about six months since Tom’s death, I am feeling several secondary losses:  

  • My identity as a wife and caregiver. Although “widow” has always seemed like a scary word to me, dripping with negative and even evil connotations (probably because of pop culture references to widows and a family member’s romantic relationship with a widow who was later convicted of having murdered at least one of her late husbands—you can’t make this stuff up), I find it feels like a better fit than “single person.” What it means to be a widow, to move through the world as a widow, is still unclear to me. A lot of what I do everyday is different as a widow than as a wife and caregiver. Whereas many hours of my day were taken up with being a wife and caregiver, I now have more time to myself and no one to be accountable to for it. That sounds lovely on the surface, but I am learning that it can feel rather depressing to realize that no one cares how I spend my time. Everything is disorienting—I am doing many of the things I’ve always done, but doing them as a widow makes it feel like a new, unfamiliar place. Cooking dinner for one person isn’t at all the same as cooking dinner for yourself and another. Eating dinner alone is certainly different from eating with a partner.
  • Hopes and dreams: Tom and I had many shared hopes and dreams. Many of our shared dreams were quiet ones: for example, he had started coming with me in his motorized wheelchair when I walked the dogs in the morning and we were looking forward to that continuing. We were hoping that once COVID restrictions were lifted, he could visit the rehab facility he “graduated” from to see his favorite therapists and show them how far he had come. Some of our dreams were more grandiose: we were going to buy him a trackchair so he could enjoy being outside (and he wanted to get the snow plow attachment so he could be a neighborhood hero all winter long). We were going to find a way to get him out on the river again and to travel. I was researching wheelchair-friendly cities. I had learned that the public beaches in Oregon, Tom’s favorite place, have beach wheelchairs available. Now all of those plans are irrelevant.
  • Energy: I am emotionally exhausted all the time. Grieving is hard emotional work that does not respect boundaries. In response to the exhaustion, I find myself napping more that I used to and unable to concentrate on intellectual tasks. I notice that I often walk so slowly I sometimes wonder mid-stride, “Am I going to tip over?” (This thought doesn’t speed me up at all—it simply adds to the suspense.) I have not tipped over yet, but every walk is a new adventure.
  • Confidence about going to new places: With my vision impairment, going to unfamiliar places is always a little nerve-wracking to me. Tom had gotten really good at anticipating things that would (often literally) trip me up, like badly marked steps, uneven sidewalks and potholes, signs that lack contrast, and the like. Navigating new places on my own is possible and I am sure I’ll get better it, but at this point, it is creating a lot of anxiety for me.

I have been lucky (so far) to not suffer two of the more common secondary losses, health and finances, but because they are so often experienced, I want to touch on them. Many people experience health impacts after the death of a loved one, and the New York Times actually reported recently on a study that found that parents who lost children have a higher incidence of heart attacks over time. Regarding finances, I’m quite lucky that my job is secure and pays well enough that I am not in danger of losing my house, which is a serious concern for many widows. I have been arguing with our health insurance over their denial of a very hefty bill from June 2020, but I am confident they will end up covering that.

I also want to mention that as heartbreaking and tumultuous as it is to survive Tom’s death, I have experienced some secondary gains:

  • Sense of compassion and connection to others. I have been touched by how many people have reached out to me to express sympathy and compassion for my loss. Often these conversations turn to losses they have experienced, and I am learning that nearly everyone on this planet has suffered a profound loss. This makes me feel connected to people I would not automatically feel connected to and helps me understand the context around negative behavior I sometimes see in others.
  • Identity as a writer. Although I have taught writing practice and theory for 28 years now and published scholarly work, I have never identified as a “writer.” With my blogging, CaringBridge posts, and longer-than-usual Facebook posts remembering Tom, I found not only that I enjoy memoir-type writing but that folks enjoy reading what I write. This has opened up for me the possibility of writing a book length memoir and shorter essay-length memoir pieces.
  • Confidence in my strength. Surviving the worst event I could imagine makes me feel a little bit fearless.
  • Deepened family relationships: My relationships with Tom’s immediate and extended family have grown stronger as we’ve shared memories of Tom and supported each other in grieving.
  • Much appreciation for my luck and privilege. As always, I recognize that as a white middle-class woman with tenure, the impacts of my grief are not made more challenging by racism.