Acceptance: a year of letting go.
We have less than two months left in the year, and like most, for me, it’s been a doozy. 2019 began quietly, with little change on the horizon. Little did I know that two decisions I made last winter would start a war inside of me that I didn’t see coming, and have me feeling changed before the end.
When I was first forced into widowhood, I remember feeling as though I had some kind of destination I had to “get” to. I thought I had to figure it all out, and the faster, the better. I’d be a new person, with a new life, and in a year or two, I’d be okay. It was as if I thought widowhood was a bypass, leading me back to a major highway; a temporary side road. I thought I’d know it when I got “there,” and in the mean time, I’d keep pressing on, writing about it, figuring it all out, and leaving breadcrumbs.
Early this year, though, as the two year mark approached, I felt my struggle deepening. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be…any of it. I lived in this beautiful house, and I had all the things I could want, and yet…I felt totally suffocated. All the distractions I’d put into place for myself weren’t working anymore. It was around this time that two things happened:
1). I decided it was time to move back north.
2). I was presented with an opportunity to go on a trip.
The second sounds like it would be no big deal…you pack a bag, and you go on vacation, right? No..not for me…and not this trip…
In my youth, I’d longed to see the world. I daydreamed of exotic destinations, cities rich in culture and history, and landscapes I could only see in my imagination. By the time we were in our twenties, and had the disposable income to do it, my sweet late husband’s answer was always the same “later.” He worked long, and hard, and when he got a break, there’s nothing he loved more than a shady palapa, and a cold beer. I’m not complaining, we saw some beautiful resorts, and some of my favorite memories were those weeks we spent together, where he put down his blackberry, and let loose. I always assumed, as did he, that “later” would come eventually.
Of course, as we know, later would never come. Not for us, anyway. When he was on hospice, one of the only things that got me through was daydreaming…taking myself far away, if only for a few moments. I told myself that when it was all over, I really was going to go away. I’d never been so exhausted in all of my life…five years, by then, of caregiving to the point of self deprivation. It was a nice thought, but after he was gone, I found I couldn’t really do it, at least not yet. Not because of logistics, I could have gone plenty of places by now, but because going would be “it”- that final admission that he was never coming back. That I accepted his absence as permanent.
While I did a lot of “work” on my grief the last couple of years, I realize, now, that my trauma runs far deeper than a loss of two and a half years. I’m wading through hard, scary and devastating events that occurred the whole way down to that point. Moving back to NJ has essentially forced me to dive right in, versus the slow dribs and drabs of grief I dealt with living away from here. If it sounds like it a was miserable, that’s because it was. But it was also pivotal to being able to identify what was holding me back.
It all came to a head toward the end of the summer, when even applying for jobs and making career plans caused me emotional paralysis. I was completely depleted from the war I’d been waging all year, and I’d finally found myself at the corner of shame and exasperation; two parts of me, face to face, ready to duke it out. On the corner of exasperation was a part of me, so angry at myself, that I couldn’t break free of this neighborhood, the corner of shame was the version of me who was self loathing for even trying. The name of the neighborhood: guilt.
The definition of guilt is: the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime. Read that again…the FACT of having COMMITTED a specified or implied OFFENSE or CRIME. Guilt is meant to be an emotional guide to right or wrong, or, an actual fact of guilt versus innocence. When guilt enters grief, however, it morphs into a deceptive force. In fact, there should be an alternate word for it, as when guilt enters the world of the bereaved, it’s not factual at all. We feel bad for living: for laughing, eating, enjoying, loving, seeing, feeling, learning, changing. Survivor’s guilt is so complex, that we often don’t even realize we are sabotaging ourselves to assuage it. If we live just enough to get by, but not “too much,” we lessen the risk of somehow offending our lost person.
Guilt drove me to believe that any progress was offensive, but living without progress was driving me mad. The words in my head had to change…and they had to change fast. It began simply, with positive affirmations. I didn’t believe in them, if I’m being honest, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The beginning was simple: I am a good person. I am a good mother. I deserve love. I deserve joy.
Over time, my affirmations became a conversation with myself, instead of an argument. Every day, I’ve gently reminded myself that how I feel and what is true are two totally different things:
Emotion: My life is now over, because my role as Kenny’s wife and caregiver no longer exists.
Truth: I’m a widow, and I don’t like it.
Emotion: If he can’t live, I shouldn’t live either.
Truth: Not living won’t bring him back, nor will living make him “more dead.”
Emotion: If I stop making everything about Kenny and what I lost, somehow it’ll be a betrayal, and his memory will be lost.
Truth: Acceptance that he isn’t coming back, and changing my life as I see fit, will not dishonor the person I loved.
Emotion: I need to hold on, because I’m scared, and I don’t know what life looks like if I don’t.
Truth: I need to let go. For his peace, and mine.
That last one…some serious “ouch.” But it’s true. I’ve come close to canceling this trip at least a hundred times. I leave one week from today and my throat is closing just thinking about it. This process has taught me that there is a fine line between honoring my late husband, and staying married to my past. I need to let him be at peace, and I need to find some of my own. It's really, really scary…I don’t know what life looks like if I live it without him, but holding myself back, whether I am alive one more week, or sixty years, ensures I won’t live a single day.
I think back to those days, when I thought this was all a bypass, a small blurb of my life story. This is it, though…my life. My story is happening every day, and I don’t get to decide how long things will take. It’s time I stop looking to the highway we veered off of so long ago…that’s not my road anymore. I’m not on a bypass..I never was. There is one affirmation I still say daily, and it’s the most important one.