Last year I entered my local library’s Adult Creative Writing contest in the category of “Children’s Fiction.” I was awarded an Honorable Mention and the award gave me the confidence to continue to write. At the beginning of January 2016, I set a goal to enter the contest again. However, as the deadline of January 31st loomed large and I did not have a work of children’s fiction complete enough to enter, I began to panic a bit. A lot. I can’t explain to you why but it felt to me that if I did not meet my goal to enter the contest, I would never meet another goal again. Totally.over.dramatic. With days left, I looked at the other categories I could enter and eliminating short story and poetry, I felt my best shot was the Informal Essay category. I decided to write about grief because it is something I am intimately familiar with and knew I could get something done. It didn’t have to be good, it just had to be done and in the mail, goal accomplished. Long story short, I won. Last week I had the honor of reading an edited version of my essay to the crowd at the awards reception. I say “edited” because I needed to fit my reading in to a five minute time limit. I think it is better than the original. I took out the snarky, whiney bits, and got to the heart of my point. I hope my words might provide insight or comfort to someone walking the journey that is grief.
One moment on July 10, 2012 I was a wife, married to the love of my life. The next moment, I stood beside his bed in ICU, he gasped out his very last breath, and I was no longer married. I was a widow. People surrounded me telling me what I needed to do, they wanted to talk about my husband and the man he was to them, while I sat in a surreal daze thinking, “How did this just happen?” I wanted to sit in the emptiness for a while but there were tasks I had to accomplish. I had to start planning the funeral. Did you know that planning a funeral is like planning a wedding, but I had only three days to plan the funeral unlike the nine months I had to plan our wedding? There were funeral home arrangements to make, a casket to choose, a cemetery plot, what flowers would I have, would there be a viewing or not (not), would we have the Rosary service at the funeral home or at the church, what Mass settings did I want, who will sing, for that matter what songs do I want or not want. No “Amazing Grace,” or any song written by Marty Haugen whose music Paul despised. Then there was meeting with the priest who would say the homily to choose which readings I wanted to use, and whether we would have a time for people to say some words about Paul. A few months after his death I came across a quote that really accurately summed up the conflict I was feeling in those first days, and what I believe most widows feel. Bishop Fulton Sheen said, “In true married love, it is not that two hearts walk side by side through life. Rather, the two hearts become one heart. That is why death is not separation of two hearts, but the tearing apart of one heart. It is this that makes the bitterness of grief.” I did feel like my heart stopped when his heart stopped, that my heart had been ripped in two, one half taken from my body and the other half left in shattered pieces. In the midst of this I was being asked to make decisions, to be present for others, to be understanding of others’ needs and their own grief, all of which led me to adopt the belief that it was wrong of me to feel the way I felt. I was alone in a room full of people, utterly alone. I didn’t feel I was allowed to fall apart, even though every fiber of my being wanted to crawl under the covers and never come out. Everyone wanted to fix my life for me.
We are a nation of fixers. Rarely will you share a problem you’re having and not receive multiple, unsolicited, comments on how you can fix the problem. Or how you are going about it all wrong. The advice is given under the assumption they know exactly what you are experiencing even if it is not possible for them to know your exact set of circumstances. We are a nation uncomfortable with others’ pain. We are uncomfortable with negative emotion. Sadness, while tolerated, is not something we are supposed to feel for very long. A few minutes maybe. Then we are supposed to pull ourselves up by the boot straps and move on. I blame our history of “rugged individualism” and “manifest destiny.” No one wants to know how I really feel. So when I met people in the parking lot, or church, at a school concert, or the supermarket and they said, “I’m so sorry for your loss. How are you doing?” Of course, I had to politely and bravely say, “Oh, I’m doing fine. I’m managing.” It’s what was expected. It was following the script pre-determined by society. Nobody really wants to hear the truth of how another feels because that way they can assure themselves they don’t have to feel guilty they haven’t been in closer contact or more helpful. I developed an aversion to going out in public. People say, “You are so brave, so strong, I could never raise four kids on my own like you are doing,” as though this was a choice I made on my own. I resent their words that make me feel like a fraud. I am not strong or brave. My head hurts and my heart aches and I lay awake at night worrying about everything and nothing. I am tired. What I really wanted back then was for those people to say to me, “What can I do to help?” and then come to my house and do the laundry for me because that is what I really need. I wanted them to come to my house and say they are going to clean my bathrooms because they know it needs to be done but they know I will never ask. I couldn’t ask because they saw me as strong and brave and I didn’t want to be a fraud. I wanted to rebel against the change, to run away, to shut my eyes and wish it away. People told me I have to get used to this new normal. I didn’t want to figure out my “new normal.” I just wanted my old normal back.
“New normal.” I hate that phrase. What is “normal?” What is “normal” about being widowed at 47 years of age, left to raise four kids all under the age of 12? There is nothing normal about it and it will never feel normal. How can you normalize something that is experienced so individually? No two person’s grief will be the same. Their journey won’t be the same. It is a journey which can only be experienced one moment at a time. It isn’t linear or even circular, it’s more like looking at your two-year old’s scribble lines on the paper. Nearly four years into widowhood, life has become lighter. The crushing weight of grief doesn’t sit on my chest every day. Instead of a song or a photo or a date on the calendar triggering a flood of tears, they bring smiles even laughter as I remember what made those memories so special. I am stronger too. I have learned to make intentional decisions about what I will do and what I will not do. I have learned how to say, “this is what is best for me (or my children), I am sorry if you do not agree.” It (grief) makes people uncomfortable. I have relationships because I have changed through grief and they don’t understand, I have learned which relationships it was time to move on from because they kept wanting to fix my grief, to shut it down, instead of just letting me live through it one moment at a time. Grief can’t be fixed because it is not a problem to be solved.