Saturday, April 18, 2015

Complex Joy

©Kelly Rae Roberts
I struggle tonight with what to write here. Not because I have no words for my pain... but because lately, I have been... happy. And I am struggling to write about that. Lately, my new life has become one I genuinely love. It may not be the life I had with him - but it is rich and full... and to be completely honest, it is actually far richer and more full than the life I had when he was part of it. I am a deeper, healthier, more open hearted person. I have deeper relationships with everyone I am close to now and have kicked the unworthy ones to the curb. My artistic career, although very challenging and still in the fledging stages, is meaningful and fulfilling for me. While I still have my bad days and occasional triggers and there are still certain aspects of my life that I am working to change... for the most part, I have a very full and fulfilling life.

I have mixed emotions about this. How can I possibly love my life again? And furthermore... how can I possibly love this life even MORE? How could I choose this life over my life with him if given the choice? (And I would actually). And how do I not really feel bad about that? That's some really complex shit right there.

I don't feel bad for feeling happy. I feel like it is only making Drew happier to see me finally wanting to embrace joy more fully again. And I do believe I deserve happiness. So why does it feel so damn difficult to write about happiness. Why do I fear that it will sound like I am bragging or that I will alienate readers who are in a different place on their journey through grief? It shouldn't be so hard to write about this. But it does seem like happiness becomes a taboo subject when we are grieving. Like it's not okay to admit that you may actually have some joy still left in you. Heck, maybe - eventually - you find you have even MORE joy left in you than you'd ever had before. I think this is how I feel now... that my heart is even bigger since he died - and has room for both more sorrow and more joy.

I'm just going to close this up by saying, I think that is a wonderful thing... the thought that maybe we can find just as much joy in new ways and in a new life someday as we had in our old lives. Maybe holding onto this idea can help us along when things are rough and there isn't much joy. And the grander thought that maybe - as our hearts expand from the pain of loving them - we will find that their death has created the space in us to experience even greater joy than we could have ever known had they not died. It's a complex idea, for sure, but in my heart I personally believe - this was his greatest and most lasting gift to me.

Until Death Do Us Part

Yesterday I was faced with another one of those big hurdles for us widowed folk – a wedding.  My dear friend married the man of her dreams and began her life as a Mrs. 

This wasn’t my ‘first’ wedding as a widow, my best friend got married three week’s after Dan’s death.  While I attended that event, wore my bridesmaid dress and managed to stick around until after the formalities before excusing myself and going home to cry, I was still in deep shock at that point and the whole experience seems surreal to me now. 

So I guess you could say that yesterday’s wedding was the first that I was really present for. 

Leading up to the event I was delighted for my friend.  She is a wonderful person, as is her new husband - the type of people that genuinely deserve to find happiness.  They have a kind and generous love and an incredible appreciation for each other that very much reminded me of my own relationship with Dan. 

I knew it would be challenging to see another couple sharing their special day – so full of hope and potential – but, like many things, the reality was more difficult that I was ready for.

The day was full of moments that made my heart ache.  The vows... the exchanging of rings... the speeches... the endless references to living happily ever after.  Even just watching all the other coupled-up guests enjoying each other's company, I was not only faced with the constant reminder that my own marriage was so unfairly short-lived, but I missed the person I most wanted to share that day (and every happy day) with. 

I watched couples exchanging sweet, intimate smiles as they found their own relevance and meaning in the beauty of the day. I sat as partners danced closely with their significant others. I felt the love in the room and couldn’t stop wishing with every part of my being that my husband was there with me, holding my hand.

I exhausted myself, trying to keep it together, but there were many tears. The friends I sat with knew it was difficult for me and tried to offer comfort but I didn't want people to know much I was hurting.

I especially didn’t want the bride to see my pain – I was mortified at the thought of taking anything away from her beautiful day even though I knew, of course, that she would understand.

It’s important to note that there were also a lot of good things about the wedding. I had moments of really enjoying myself, I laughed with my friends and was filled with love and happiness for the beautiful couple.  I just wish so much that Dan had of been there too. I think he would have had a nice time and made friends with the new partners who have come in to our group since he passed. 

All day, despite trying so hard to fight it, I kept thinking: I can't believe we only got six weeks of our ‘happily every after’, it sucks so damn much.  I guess that will never NOT suck.  It will always be shit and unfair and painful as hell.  Hopefully just not as often.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Full Circle

About 2 years ago, during a long and emotional session with Caitlin, my grief-therapist, she looked at me very seriously and she said:
"There is going to be a day when you no longer need to come and see me anymore. It will be gradual. Maybe you'll only come every other week for awhile. Maybe skip some weeks. And then, finally, you just won't need to see me anymore. Maybe once in awhile you will call or we will have an emergency session when grief-triggers happen, but mostly - you'll be able to figure it out on your own."
When she said this to me, I cried HARD. I didn't understand. I couldn't even SEE a day where that would even be possible, and at that time, knowing I had somewhere to go every Monday to process and express my pain, was what got me through the week and into the next one. I saw it as her rejecting me and not wanting to see ME anymore. I constantly feared that she would decide she no longer wanted to hear my bullshit about Don and loss and death and pain. I decided in my head that she was bored with me, or that she thought I was a whiny annoying repetitive dolt that she no longer cared to see. I FELT repetitive, but I was in SO MUCH PAIN, and it wasn't getting better. The only thing I could do was keep showing up to therapy, keep talking about and writing about the pain, and hope like hell that one day, it would turn into something else.
I sobbed and sobbed and told her: "Please don't say that to me. That will never happen. I will need this forever. I can't have anything else END. I can't have this just disappear on me, like Don did. Like my marriage did. Like my life did. You can't just leave me. I have nightmares about it."
"I won't ever leave you. It won't be my decision. YOU will be the one who decides when it is time for what we are doing here to change. It will be 100% you who makes that call. And notice I didn't use the word END. Nothing will end between us. Just like I've always told you about Don - the goal was never to "let go" of him, but to change your relationship with him. Once you have done that, and really GET what that means, the relationship between us will also change. Maybe we will become friends or even colleagues, but trust me on this, you won't NEED to see me every week in this way, forever. "

Fast-forward to the past few months. Without even realizing it, the exact things that she said are now coming true, but in even bigger ways than either of us probably imagined. There have been many weeks where one of us had to cancel due to crazy schedules, snow, or her taking care of her elderly mother, who has been slowly dying for the past year. If there is a cancellation, she always offers to call me. Sometimes I say yes, other times I say; "No, it's okay. I can wait until next week. It's nothing pressing." Two years ago, I couldn't even breathe most days if I were to miss a session. Now - there are more days than not when it's "nothing pressing."
In addition to that, she is writing the Foreword in my book, and creating the Arc of the story with her words about our time together in grief-counseling. Plus, she is the one who suggested long ago and put it in my head , that perhaps I should look into becoming a grief-coach myself. Now, over time, although still technically my therapist, she has become my friend and mentor. She is letting me assist facilitate with some grief-groups that she runs, and one of her private clients is letting me sit in on a few of their sessions. She is training me and walking me through the logistical parts of the grief world. 

Last night, she sent me an email asking if we could do our session via phone again this week, because she will be getting back late from her mom's house on Long Island. She ended the email by saying: "I'm pretty stressed out - I might need to talk to YOU! You can practice on me . Ill help you with your stuff and you can help me with my stuff. That's what I do with my friends who are colleagues in the grief- world. We unofficially use each other to keep us emotionally sane, so that we can be at our best for our clients. Welcome to the club. "

I can't tell you how amazing it feels to have come full-circle in this way. 

Back when I was in pain 24/7, I NEVER would have been able to see this coming. But I kept trying anyway. I just kept showing up to talk to her and process, even when it felt like it wasn't helping. And she kept trying too, even on the days when SHE felt truly powerless, and felt like maybe she couldn't help me. We both stuck with it, and we didn't give up on each other, or on ourselves, or on the process of hard, hard grief-work.
You HAVE to sit inside the pain and work through it and with it, if you ever want it to become something else. You have to understand where its coming from and what it wants and how to process the emotions you are having. That is what I did every single week for almost 3 years with Caitlin. We worked HARD at moving through my pain, and now that pain is evolving. FINALLY.
This is why I get angry whenever people say stuff like "Just decide to be happy. Happiness is a choice", and all that nonsense. When you have been through a trauma or huge life-changing loss in life, happiness is NOT a choice. Not for a long, long time. You are simply not capable of feeling joy - until you work through all the hurt and grief and pain that sits underneath it, buried. It is very hard work, which is why most people choose not to do it. They don't WANT to feel that kind of pain. So they deny it or suppress it or drink it or push it away or keep busy enough to ignore it completely or feed it with any number of unhealthy addictions or distractions.
But guess what? If you are willing to go there, and to ignore all the people who don't get it telling you to "move on' and "stop being sad" and you just keep working on YOU, what lies on the other side of that is joy. And purpose. And life. But you have to work for it. I have worked my ass off for every ounce of joy I now feel, in this post-loss life. But that's okay with me, because joy that you worked for is so much sweeter than regular joy. Joy that was earned feels so much more intense, and you feel it with every cell inside you. 
In my post-loss life, when I look at a sunset, I don't JUST see a sunset. I see beauty and death and loss and colors and brightness and love and meaning and nature and miracles and peace and wonder - and always, the soul of my husband. Every piece of joy I feel now carries his death, and carries his life in it. Everything is more intense now. Everything is turned all the way up.
Pain eventually evolves into something else entirely. If you mold it enough and sit inside it enough and shape it enough. It might take you 2 years or 3 years or 5 years or more, but it can happen. It happened to me. And the feeling is blissful.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Grim Reaper Repercussions

This past week or so I have been feeling very melancholy. 

This grief thing is a very difficult business. Will we ever get the hang of it? Will it forever be a process we can never escape? Will we always be struggling to slog our way through? The ever-changing game of it all is simply, some days, exhausting. I often feel as if death will be ever lurking; a grim reaper constantly whispering some dark, unintelligible secrets just out of my line of sight like the droning of a wily, invisible mosquito circling my head.

Even my new guy expressed concern over my ebbing melancholia. I think this most recent wave started when my uncle died a couple of weeks ago. He was 90 and had a good life, but it still seemed to represent the end of an era, on that side of the family - and the news of the failing health of a few others there left me feeling sad. Then a few days later my new guy’s aunt died. She was 94 - but the women on that side of his family share some kind of longevity gene (he knew his great-grandmother, who lived to be 99), and when I met her last summer in Wales, I was tickled by the firecracker of a personality she was, still, and I was really hoping to chat with her again this year. But she was unexpectedly taken by pneumonia. 

I know I’d only met her once and my new guy and I were really still very new, but for whatever reason that news sent me reeling on top of everything else. I guess the dominoes just came tumbling down after that, and I’ve had a hard time picking myself up because too many friends and family are facing scary health issues these days. Is this just another sucky part about getting older?

I’ve talked to quite a few widowed friends this week about how our husbands’ deaths have made us so much more aware of death’s cold hand - and how that sensitivity may never go away. How our own aging and the fragility of life is such an intimate knowledge now - one we never asked for, but will forever be stuck in our psyche. The grim reaper repercussions, as a widowed friend of mine, Deb, put it so well.

Is there any way to shine a light on this bleak landscape? 

Another friend of mine who has cancer is battling hard. She is a real git’erdone kinda gal and the complications in her case have been really frustrating - and terrifying.  But she told me recently she finally realized that maybe she was just rushing it. That maybe, she had something to learn from what she was going through. That maybe, the experience of walking through the pain was part of her own personal transformation, and that realization was freeing her to seek out new avenues of healing and deeper investigation of her own self.

Wow. What a powerful and strong way to view it. And it really flowed into my own personal demons I seem to be facing. Can I use the nearness of sickness and death to absorb any wisdom? Could being widowed somehow lead to a deeper experience of myself and appreciation of this world while I’m here? Can I turn my scars into stars?   

Can we ever really let go of the things that are weighing us down? Or - can we transform them? My widowed friend Karin recently expressed my same frustration at the question - yes but how do we actually let go?? She then said she learned one practice, which was to write the things down and then rip up the paper. Yes - I’d heard something similar, to write things down and then burn it as a symbol of letting go. It’s a helpful practice, but perhaps not a magic bullet, we decided. 

Maybe this kind of transformation does have to come from within. Or maybe, from a deeper Source, if you happen to believe in that stuff at all: when we first had our school here in Kona all those years ago, Mike set up a “God Can”, where we wrote down things we asked the Universe to take care of for us so we could be freed from the stress and worry. An act of faith, so to speak, the idea being that God can do all things. I even still have that same can, with everyone’s little requests still inside. Mike used to like to say, Let Go, Let God. It seemed so easy then, with him around.


It’s something I’m going to try and be conscious of. Because as another widowed friend commented wryly a few days ago: yup, better let ‘em go, because otherwise they’re just gonna get ripped out of our freakin’ hands.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Believing....or Not~

I'm not in denial.  I know Chuck is dead.  I feel it...have felt every part of my body since 2 years ago, April 21.  He's gone.  Gone, gone, gone.

And yet, I swear that there is still a part of me that doesn't believe it.  That can't believe it.  How can he be gone when he and I were so connected?  How can it be that I'm walking on this earth, just Alison, without his name said in the same breath?  We were Chuck and Alison.  That couple who, after 24 years, were still in love with one another, who still kissed and hugged and whose faces lit up when the other entered the room.  How can that be over?

2 years.

I didn't think I could live 2 months without him and I don't know that I'm actually living but I'm still alive these 2 years later, as insane a thought as that is to me.

I don't necessarily believe in an afterlife.  Heaven.  Hell.  In between.  Other dimensions.  I'm open to the possibility but even if there is something, it isn't good enough for me because it won't be (I can't imagine that it would) what he and I had here on this earth.   Our spirits may never connect after I die.   So I don't have a belief that brings me any comfort.

In some part of my brain I think that there is that grain of a thought that he's somewhere here still. We're just apart for now and I'll find him again and we'll continue on as before.  In our years together we'd spend time apart, whether it was when he was in the military, deploying somewhere, or when I visited family or friends, knowing that we'd be back with one another in a timely manner.  I guess my heart still needs to believe that so that the reality of his death doesn't crash down on me and into me and flood my system with such agony that I can't continue standing.

He was my husband, my lover, my everything.  And I just don't understand how it will ever be okay that he is missing from me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Setting a Standard

Shelby needs to have an example of what a caring, devoted man, father, and husband should be.  She is a mere 8 years old, but I believe most readers here will understand when I state that, well, I might not be here by the time she's 18.  It's a cold, hard truth that should never be swept under the rug or glossed over, and I can unfortunately speak from experience.

She needs standards, before she even sniffs at being interested in boys.  I can only hope that I've been, and will continue to be an example to her.

She needed to see that a man can allow and encourage her to be independent, but to always support her in a time of need.

She needed to see that a man will sacrifice his own happiness, not in love, obviously, but in general for his wife's well-being.

She needed to see that a man will hold his wife's hair for 1.5 hours, every morning for a decade, as she has her routine coughing fits, and that it is never seen as normal to him.

She needed to see that a man will be calm and collected and able to make informed, quick decisions when faced with his wife coughing up pints of blood.

She needed to see that a man will carry his wife to bed when she can't walk up the stairs, and that it is always effortless.

She needed to see that a man will bathe his 33 year old wife as she cries, because she can no longer do it herself.

She needed to see that no amount of sickness, frustration, or trauma will ever make a man walk away from a woman he truly loves.

She needed to see that 12 years is not nearly enough time for a man to give all of his love to his wife.

She needed to see that a man can be strong most of the time, but it's OK for them to cry when their goddamn wife dies.

She needs to see that a man will fulfill his vows, in sickness and in health, until death does him part from his wife.

She needed to see what true love is, and she needs to see it again.

She needs to see that though a new woman may be now part of his life, a man can and will still love his wife, and the mother of his beautiful daughter just as much.

She needs to see that a man in this situation will make smart decisions about bringing a new woman into his daughter's life.  Decisions not based on loneliness.

She needs to see that a child is always the priority for a man, but he is able to balance that with someone new that he truly loves.

She needs to see what it's like for two smart, experienced adults to meet and fall for each other in a healthy way.

She needs to see that a man can only expand his heart with love for another person, rather than replace space that someone else previously held.

She needs to see that a man should have his own drive and determination, but that the women in his life will always factor into that.

She needs to see that a man can lose his wife, but still have the confidence to move forward and keep living life without fear.

She needs to see that a man will always honor, cherish, and respect a woman's past, and know that it is what makes her who she is.

She needs to see that a man will always tell his worst truth, rather than his best lie.

She needs to see that lightning can indeed strike twice.

Shelby needed to see me love and take care of Megan for those years. As much as it pains me to say this, Megan becoming sicker and dying was another learning experience for her.  She learned that although her dad bent over backwards, he didn't break, and would walk to the end of the earth for the woman he loves.  He didn't shut down or stop taking care of his one remaining piece of his wife.  She deserves to be honored, respected, loved, and taken care of by a man just as much as I honored, respected, and loved Megan.

As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that Megan also set a standard for Shelby, upon which she can judge all women.  She has briefly met this new woman, just through a video call, and she has fully approved.  She has even made the statement that she is "magnificent", and she can't wait to do things with her.  To have Shelby not only approve, but to encourage me to love the new woman means the world to me, because Shelby is the closest I will ever come to having Megan's approval.

Shelby knows I deserve a woman that loves me just as much as her mother did.  She knows that whatever woman comes into my life will need to be strong, driven, smart, and ultimately, will need to accept that Megan is and always will be a part of our lives.  She knows that no woman could ever replace Megan, and that a new one should only compliment her.

She knows that this new woman fills out all of those check-boxes.

No matter what anyone else's opinion is on new love, there is only one person's that matters to me, and that is Shelby's.

I need to ensure that as I move forward with this new woman that the example I set with Megan continues on.  Megan is no longer here to advise Shelby on these matters, so all I can do is lead by example.

I am setting the standard by which Shelby will judge all men.

Monday, April 13, 2015

To Everything, There is a Season

my sister, Debra, shortly before her death, meeting her newborn niece

Spring has sprung in Northern England, and everywhere life is blooming. Magnolia trees burst with pink and white flowers, their sweet scent wafting along with the evening winds. Baby lambs, their legs still wobbly, hover near their mothers' stomachs, with tender young faces that seem to be smiling. Birdsong fills the air, the cacophony so loud at first light that, often, it startles me awake. The sun warms dark black dirt in the allotments nearby, as gardeners turn the earth with their shovels and hoes to prepare it for planting. Our spirits are uplifted, our hearts filled with hope that, perhaps, the long winter is behind us.

My husband loved this transition from winter into spring. As much as he cautioned me to accept and rejoice in the weather, whatever it bestowed upon us, the sun's bright rays and the increasing hours of daylight brought a lightness to his step. He'd open the curtains in the mornings, and do his little dance, as the sun shone through our bedroom window. He'd take us for long drives among the hills, pointing out and naming the flowers along the roadside. He'd take me lilac hunting through the village, showing me all the gardens that held the bushes of my favourite flowers in bloom. We'd drive to Miller's Dale, where there was a flat trail that was easy for him to navigate, pausing our walk to stand by the pond and watch the ducks and the Canada geese as they paddled through its waters.

Life unfolds all around me, but I live, also, in the shadow of death.

We are taught that to everything, there is a season. There are poems and bible verses and dharma teachings and even songs written about it. But most of us choose to ignore what looms so closely. We want to revel in the spring. We carry on as if the autumn will never reach us. We don't want to acknowledge the season of death.

 It is different for those of us who have faced great loss. We know it is ever present. We know that  there is a thin, delicate veil between life and death. We have seen it. We have watched life slip from our loved ones, and death overtake them. It has happened before our very eyes. We can't turn back, dancing only in the joy of spring. We have seen and felt the dark days of death's winter.

The photo above was taken at Thanksgiving, 2007, three weeks before my sister passed. She was too weak to go anywhere, so the family gathered around her,  at my house, where she slept, most of the day, in the hospital bed I had set up for her. Our niece, Alberta, had just given birth to her first child, and her husband brought the baby close to my sister, so she could take in the smell of newborn life.

The photo is such a poignant reminder for me, of the juxtaposition of life and death--my sister Debra, leaving this world, just as my great-niece, Lily, enters it.

Last year, at this time, I, too, stood in the juxtaposition between life and death, and somehow, a part of me must have known it. My good friend, Barbara, had just said goodbye to her husband, who died of liver failure, too sick to benefit from the donor one they had procured for him. I learned how she had to tell her husband that there was no hope, then had to witness his deterioration, and, finally, to turn off his life support.

Though I did not know Chris, Barb and I had been friends for over 30 years, and her loss was devastating to me. I couldn't imagine how she summoned the strength and the courage to weather this tragedy. I grieved for her, and I began to obsess about the possibility of losing Stan. The trajectory of life had often been similar for my friend and me. I was frightened that maybe this was an omen.

My friends, and Stan, himself, tried to allay my worries. They soothed me with kind words and told me that it was only my fear of loss that was at play.  They assured me that such a terrible event could not happen twice.

Last April, our mild winter easily gave way to the new life of spring, and the warmth in the air was palpable. Stan had just begun a new position at the Buddhist Centre, and he was excited about its prospects. But he was feeling tired and worn out, and his stomach was bothering him, with sometimes excruciating pains. After a sleepless night of increasing discomfort, I drove him to the GP, and he ended up in hospital. Diverticulitis, they said, with a large abscess that had spread infection through his body. He was placed on IV antibiotics for 5 days, and sent home with another 5 day round of them.

He was slowly recovering, by the 1st of May, so I carried on with my plans to go to New York to visit my son. I saw my friend Barbara, there, and sat with her in her grief. Still, I worried about losing Stan. But others assured me he was on the mend. I had to remind myself that this tragedy of my friend's was not about me.

When I returned to England, Stan was distant. He said he was not feeling himself. There was nothing particular that he could point to, to describe it. He said he just felt tired. We figured it was part of the long path of recovery from his recent illness. Then his son was found dead, and our focus turned toward making funeral plans while swimming through our shock and grief.

Two weeks later, Stan was gone. That thin veil between life and death was lifted, once again.

After we drove to my home, having left his body at the hospital, I stood at the stone fence overlooking my beloved hills. It was summer, and the heat cast a swirl of haze over the village. I rested my body against the cool stone, and phoned my son and his girlfriend. They are not usually so easily available by phone, and had just emerged from a 7 day, silent retreat, but they answered. And they were on the next plane from New York to meet me in my sorrow.

As the first anniversary of my husband's death draws near, I replay this sequence of events in my head, and on the page, over and over. It feels important to me to remember it. I write to put into words all the confusion and clutter that lives inside me, to untangle the twisted and knotted threads of this complicated grief.

I have been visited by the spectre of death. It is a visitor that refuses to leave me. My intimate connection with this unwanted guest has changed me forever. I hope that, somewhere, beyond the immediacy of this grief, my understanding of the thin veil between life and death has made me kinder. I hope it has made me more patient. I hope it has helped me to recognise what truly matters, in this short life, and to put aside the petty irritations and quarrels that cause so much suffering.

I will live, always, with the shadow of death. I hope it helps me to savour the sunlight.