Loss-events are not disruptions of life–they are life

People use the term “get back to normal” all the time in relation to loss-events.* When my husband had his stroke, when he died, when the world went into lockdown because of the pandemic, when I had my recent brain surgery, people—myself included—said things like, “things will get back to normal” or “are things back to normal yet?”  This kind of thinking frames the loss-event as a disruption of whatever constitutes “normal” and makes the return to a pre-loss-event state the measure of success.

But I look around me and see that nearly everyone is dealing with loss of some sort, and I have to wonder, if so many people have experienced loss, isn’t loss normal? In other words, loss-events aren’t disruptions of life. They are life. These events may be disruptions of routines, of ways of thinking, of our understandings of how life is going to unfold, but they are not disruptions of life, unless we define life as only the predictable pleasant things that happen, which is a very narrow slice of what most of us experience.

In addition to recognizing loss-events as the real meat of life, I am pondering an idea from Michele Neff Hernandez’s book, Different after You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma: the distinction between the good that may come out of a loss-event and the loss-event being seen as good. This is something I have struggled with, going all the way back to my own stroke in 1997. Without exception, I have seen the changes in myself since my stroke as positive: I am kinder, feel more connected to others, and feel more inner peace. I have heard myself tell the story of my stroke and use the words “it was a good thing” or something similar, but I never quite felt like that was what I meant. Hernandez helped me understand that it wasn’t what I meant—that the positive changes in me that came about after the stroke were because I allowed the stroke to change me, not because the stroke was good.

I have similarly struggled with my husband’s stroke. After his stroke, he was so much more open toward me and we were able to be honest with each other about some things that we had held back before. That doesn’t make the stroke “a good thing” or any less traumatic or any less of a loss-event. We both lost plenty with his stroke, including independence, privacy, and identity. I have had a hard time talking about the ways our relationship improved without feeling like I’m saying I’m glad he had the stroke. There is nothing in me that is glad my husband had a stroke.

Hernandez says that when we notice positive impacts that have come out of our loss-events, we may conflate the event with the positive impacts, which I’ve certainly see myself do. She is clear: “Tragic events remain tragic no matter what good arises afterward.” My husband’s stroke at 60, which left him paralyzed, unable to work and engage in most of the activities that had brought him peace and joy, was tragic. Facing that tragedy allowed us to grow deeper in love and to know each other (and ourselves) better. Recognizing the difference between the event and the impacts of facing the event helps me reconcile that something good came out of something so painful and difficult.

After his stroke, my husband and I had incredible joy and happiness. We loved each other more deeply, more authentically, after his stroke than ever before. When I held him as he took his last breath, that was me living life as fully as possible, completely leaning into the pain and joy. I’ve thought many times that the most loving thing I ever did in my entire life was let my husband go. That is not a disruption of life. That is life. Life is all about letting things, people, dreams go.

That may sound dark. Someone who read my writing recently told me that it was too depressing, that nobody wants to think about death. While I understand this point of view, I also think of Oliver Burkemann’s point in 4000 Weeks that all the energy we put into avoiding thoughts about our own inevitable death could be put into actually doing the things we want to accomplish in our lives. Acknowledging that I have a finite amount of time (and no one knows exactly how finite—my husband did not imagine having only a little over 3000 weeks) helps me fight the urge to put off what’s important to me until my life is simpler or less busy.

*I am experimenting with this term to capture the death of a loved one but also other events that could result in traumatic loss—losing a job, a catastrophic health event, a bitter divorce, etc.

A Grief Spike at 16 Months

I have been told so many times since my husband died that my grief will fade with time. That may be true in terms of the general trajectory of my experience, but here I am, 16 months out from his death, and I have been just flattened by some of the hardest waves of grief I’ve had.

Sunday night, all day Monday, all day today. Halloween, which was my husband’s favorite holiday, is coming and last year it triggered some pretty tough grief, so I figured that could happen again this year. Expecting it doesn’t seem to mitigate it, though.

Grief makes my head hurt, my eyes dry, my belly feel unsettled, and my chest sore. I had to go to work on Monday and barely held it together. When I got home, I immediately fell apart, sobbing all evening. Tuesday I was able to work from home and experimented with what I’m calling “timed grieving”: I set a timer for a certain amount of time, usually 15 minutes, and give myself that time to sink into the grief, sobbing, howling, screaming, moaning. Sometimes I empty myself of the grief and drift into sleep until the alarm goes off.

The dogs have learned how timed grieving works and come running when they see me moving toward the couch. They rest their heads heavily on my legs or my chest, just as they did for my husband when he was in pain after his stroke.

I’m back into that early feeling of disbelief that he’s gone. One day he was here, he was my husband, and the next day he was gone and I was a widow. It’s still unfathomable to me sometimes. I had a dream that his stroke wore off and he was his old self. Sometimes those dreams bring me joy, giving me an avenue into beautiful happy memories of the past. The last few days, though, they hurt, even though the pain is mixed with gratitude that I got to be with him in that last year and the amazing 11 years that came before it.

Before my husband died, we spoke every single day. My favorite part of every workday was being reunited with him when we both finished work. We had a lovely tradition of dropping everything when the last one got home to greet each other with a hug. In warm weather, we would then sit on the front porch with drinks; in cold weather, we snuggled on the couch with drinks. We’d spend a few minutes catching up with each other before I started making dinner.

When we weren’t together, we spoke on the phone in the evening. It was usually a very brief call—often just a couple minutes, focused on “I love you” and “I miss you.” Occasionally, when he was rafting or camping without me and didn’t have cell service, we’d go a few days without talking. It was hard. I would eagerly anticipate hearing his voice again

After his stroke, we were together 24/7. His quiet presence filled the house with love. Just knowing he was in the house, whether he was dozing in the bed I had moved into the living room for accessibility, sitting at the front window with his binoculars, watching neighbors and squirrels, sharpening knives (the hobby he picked up after his stroke), or watching videos on his phone, made me feel warm and loved. Sometimes he got studious and wheeled up to the dining room table where his books on Buddhism were piled. I loved hearing him moving around the house from my office, the sound of the wheelchair wheels making their rubbery squeak against the wood floors.

I’ve now gone 488 days without him. 488 days of no moving Buddhist books out of the way to clear space on the table for our dinner, no rubbery squeak of wheelchair wheels against wood, no “I love you.” Buddhism reminds me that everything is temporary, including this wave of grief. It will subside and dreams of my husband will again feel like a delicious gift.

Embracing My Vulnerability + Awkwardness as a Widow

I posted last week about working to come to terms with the fact that I am no longer the person I was before my husband died. As I was pondering that, an image popped up in my twitter feed of a pink satin heart broken open and imperfectly stitched back together. That image gave me a visual for the me that is becoming since my husband died.

I think when your heart is broken open the way it is when your partner dies, you can either batten down the hatches or go out into the world with your heart exposed and open. The before-I-was-a-widow me would have battened down the hatches. That’s what I did when my mother died. I hunkered down in my grief and withdrew from people. That was 1982, and attitudes toward grief then were even worse than they are now. I don’t recall any adults reaching out to me when my mother died besides the middle school guidance counselor, who seemed relieved and sent me back to class after I told her I didn’t want to talk (coming from a dysfunctional family, I had learned well that you don’t talk to others about what happens at home).

When my husband had his stroke and my fears about losing another loved one began knocking on my door again, I knew I had to do something different. Battening down the hatches had been a dismal failure, leaving me isolated and angry. That’s why I made my commitment to turn toward and relax into grief. Now I can’t seem to stop myself from being open and vulnerable. Exhibit A: this blog.

I talk about my late husband all the time and about death in general pretty often. I love spending time with others who are comfortable talking about death and its aftermath. I think that’s why being with other widows is so powerful. This past weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a good part of the day with family friends who lost a member to suicide a few years ago. Being able to talk openly and conversationally about our shared experience was wonderful. We remembered our loved ones who have died, shared happy memories of them, acknowledged how much it sucks that they are gone, and commiserated about how hard it is to find others who are comfortable talking about death.

Talking about death all the time can be awkward. The before-I-was-a-widow me was uncomfortable with my imperfections and many awkward traits. I’ve been fascinated since my husband’s stroke with the idea that the imperfections or perceived brokenness in something is actually a thing of beauty. Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem” that everything has a crack in it—“that’s how the light gets in,” reframing imperfection as beauty and opportunity for inspiration. There’s the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold, leaving the restored piece with deep gold veins that call attention to themselves. While reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I learned that “in bonsai you often plant the tree off-center in the pot to make space for the divine.”

Outside of bonsai, circumstances may push you off center, like my husband’s stroke did. The most remarkable thing my husband did after his stroke was accept that he needed me to be his 24/7 caregiver. The most remarkable thing I did was accept that I needed to be his 24/7 caregiver. That embracing by both of us of our dramatically changed roles and circumstances made it possible for us to bypass resentment and guilt and grow closer and more in love. Our last year together provided plenty of space for the divine.

All of these concepts allow me to see the stitched together heart not as something that was broken and mended but as a beautiful creation on its own. I can see my grieving self as not broken by grief but changed by grief into something new and beautiful. All my weird awkwardness is a way to make space for the divine.

I am not going to go back to being who I was before my husband died

I’ve been reading Different after You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma by Michele Neff Hernandez, the woman behind Camp Widow, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. I think the book is geared more toward someone who experienced a sudden loss rather than those of us who saw their loved one die slowly over time, but even given that I’m likely not her ideal imagined audience, I found quite a bit of value in it.

She focuses on the idea that you can’t be the same person after a traumatic loss as you were before the loss, addressing the common idea that a marker of having healed after loss is that you are “back to being yourself.” Hernandez says there is no going back. She says that version of yourself died with your loved one and suggests that instead of trying to return to who you used to be, it is better to focus on who you are becoming as a result of the loss.

It’s a tough idea for me to swallow, in part because I really liked who I was before my husband died—and particularly, who I was before his stroke. I like myself now, too, but I do want to be that carefree adventurous person who hosted big dinners that I was before his stroke. That person who rafted and motorcycled on weekends and showed up to work on Monday with hilarious stories about an unexpected swim in a rapid or a trip detour that provided an unofficial opportunity to test some new gear. Who I am now in comparison is pretty dull.

This shifting in identity is considered a secondary loss. Last December, I posted about the secondary losses I was noticing at the time: my identity as a wife and caregiver, hopes and dreams, energy, and confidence about going new places. Today when I think about secondary losses, I most notice the activities that I loved before my husband’s stroke that are not part of my life anymore. This includes rafting, hosting dinner parties, local travel (within Colorado but outside Denver), and camping.

A lot of what I did before his stroke just isn’t possible for me to do now because of my impaired vision. I had to stop driving in 2019 because of my vision. I have depended on public transportation since then to get to and from work and to run errands. My husband did all the driving when we camped, took road trips, or needed more groceries than I could carry by myself. When his stroke made it impossible for him to drive, our world became a lot smaller. His stroke was just a couple months into the pandemic, when a lot of people’s worlds got smaller, but now that most pandemic restrictions are gone, the smallness of my world is more noticeable.

I have been slowly creeping up on the idea that I may not ever go back to being who I was before my husband died. For example, I had noticed that the idea of hosting a big dinner no longer even sounds appealing to me. I used to love setting up a long table that spanned my dining and living rooms that could seat 20+ people; my husband even made me a table extension specifically for that purpose. I enjoyed planning a meal and cooking for a crowd. Now none of that appeals to me. I seem to have become much more introverted, for one thing. When I imagine having a house full of people, I think of all the noise and how draining it would be to have to talk to everyone and make them feel welcomed. I think, too, about how complicated it would be to get groceries for such a big meal without being able to drive. It’s doable, of course—I’m sure a friend would be willing to drive me—but the effort to arrange a ride and then have to be social on the ride feels like more than I can handle right now.

Hernandez talks about how she stopped riding her bike after her husband died. At first, she felt uncomfortable telling people she no longer rode the bike, as if it reflected poorly on her love for him. Over time, she became more confident owning the decision. I think this is what’s happening for me with hosting dinners. Folks do ask me from time to time if I think I’ll host another dinner. Most recently when someone asked me that, I said, “I think those dinners are a thing of the past,” and it felt good to acknowledge that. Once I said it to someone else, it became more possible for me to think of my life in the future not involving giant dinner parties. Before I said it, hosting big dinner parties again felt like a worthy goal to work toward. The pressure to host another dinner party was coming from my expectation that healing would mean going back to being who I was before. Releasing myself from that expectation is a relief.

Coming to terms with losing those parts of me that are gone, at least for now, is painful, even when it is also a relief. The dinner parties of the past were wonderful and I had no sense when I hosted the last one that it would be the last one. I probably had already started anticipating the next one before the last one was over. I see in this sentiment that I am grieving the life I lost when my husband had his stroke. I miss that life tremendously, even while I’m enjoying the life I’m building now.