Scattering Ashes, Forgetting He’s Dead, and Intense Anxiety at 18 Months Out

I have been traveling for the past month. One stop in my travels was to Ushuaia, Argentina, where I scattered some of my late husband’s ashes. Ushuaia is the southern-most point of the Pan-American Highway. My husband loved riding motorcycles and read a lot of online forum postings by people who had ridden the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Ushuaia. He wanted to do the ride when he retired. He didn’t get to retire or do the ride, so for me, scattering some of his ashes in Ushuaia was a way to symbolically honor those wishes of his.

The night before scattering his ashes, my anxiety kicked in hard. I’ve been able to manage it pretty well for several months, but I wondered if it would show up on my trip. The first part of the trip went smoothly, but as the ash-scattering day got closer and closer, I could feel the restlessness building up inside me, especially at night when I went to bed. I started dreaming about my husband being unhappy with where I scattered the ashes or not being able to find a suitable spot.

I wasn’t too worried about the anxiety because I have a good list on my phone of strategies to use to help me when it gets bad. I figured if it got very intense, I would just methodically work my way through the list until I found a strategy that helped.

The night it really hit me, my first go-to strategy, walking or working out, wasn’t available to me because of where I was in my travels, so I moved on to my second strategy: tapping. Tapping uses the same principles as acupuncture to channel energy to the body’s meridian points. I think it also helps by bringing my awareness out of my mind and into my body. Unfortunately, that night, tapping didn’t seem to have any effect. No problem, I thought, I’ll listen to some meditations on Insight Timer.

That night I was in a remote part of the world and didn’t have internet access. I had planned ahead for that possibility by downloading several of my favorite Insight Timer meditations within the app, but when I tried to find them, they weren’t there. That’s when my anxiety really started to escalate. My hands were shaking as I tried to navigate my phone. I checked and rechecked the app. I closed the app and re-opened it. I turned my phone off and back on. None of it helped. The downloads weren’t there. I could only listen to meditations if I had an internet connection and that wasn’t possible. My mind went blank and I could no longer even find my list of strategies.

I finally took a Lorazepam, which is kind of my last resort option. It felt like admitting defeat, which made my anxiety even more intense. By then, my hands were shaking so much that I spilled the pills all over my bed, leading to the kind of low-contrast situation in which I’m pretty much functionally blind: white pills on white sheets. I had to use my shaky hands to find all the little pills strewn about in the sheets. Even after I swallowed a pill, there was no relief. By that time, I had gotten too worked up for it to have a noticeable effect.

At that point, I went to a strategy I’m surprised I remembered without my list: reminding myself that everything is temporary. That the anxiety will eventually pass. That I will eventually fall asleep. That the world will carry on. And I did eventually fall asleep for a couple of hours.

I ended up finding an excellent place to scatter the ashes: at the base of a gorgeous and regal tree in the forest off the Pan-American Highway. The tree had lichens on it that only grow in places where the air is exceptionally pure.

My anxiety continued through my husband’s birthday, a few days later. but after a few days I at least had Internet access again and re-downloaded my meditations. Until then, I took a Lorazepam each night when I went to bed (it seems to work best when I take it before my anxiety kicks in, which becomes a mind-bending prediction game in itself). Once I was able to listen to my meditations again, the anxiety became much easier to deal with, although it still lingered for a few more nights.

My lack of sleep probably contributed to a mind blip while in Chile. I saw a sculptural door made out of old metal farm implements and said to my friend, “I need to take a picture of that for Tom.” It’s the first time in a year that I forgot he was dead. Somehow, for a moment my brain thought he wasn’t with me in Chile because he was back home, waiting for me. For that moment, I wasn’t a widow. For that moment, I was excited to share stories and pictures from my epic trip with him. I could see the look of wonder and appreciation he would have on his face, feel his hand on the small of my back, hear him saying, “That’s amazing, Babe.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I had the crushing memory that he was dead. It felt like all the heartbreak I’ve experienced since he died was compressed into a single massive wave that flattened me. Luckily, I was with a dear friend who knew to immediately pull me into a hug and didn’t mind that I got snot all over her shoulder.

It was a tough time, and it was temporary.

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