Thursday, November 22, 2012

Grief: Thanksgiving and the Empty Chair (s)

The empty chair is the place that the people and or pets we love would be sitting if they were still alive. 

When Artie first died the empty chair was obvious.  Couple friends would ask me out to dinner and the three of us would be seated at a table for four.  There, next to me, was an empty chair.  It was the chair my husband sat in.  It always seemed very large to me, as if it took over the whole room.  I could, even then, enjoy some of my food (some days I couldn't eat) and enjoy the conversation.  I could laugh at a joke. But....where was my husband?  Why was he in a box at home instead of sitting next to me?

I am trying to learn to embrace the empty chair. I want my family and friends to embrace it with me. I have heard too often that people are afraid or discouraged from talking about someone that has died.  If you know me, you know Artie.  My electrician knows Artie.  The saleperson at the department store knows Artie.  When I sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with my family I will say I am thankful for Artie.  I tell my granddaughter about her Grandpa Artie.  He is dead on earth but alive in my heart. 

Some times I want to kick over that empty chair.  You promised you'd never leave me.  I know you couldn't help it but why am I here without you? Yes, I have your spirit with me always but I need you!   Some times I want to curl up in the empty chair and cry or be like stone so that the loneliness, the missing will stop.

The reason I know the chair is empty is because of love.  We continue to love and be loved whether 2 months or 25 years has gone by.  That is something to be thankful for.  My life is about finding ways every day to let Artie inspire me.  Lately, with the holidays and his birthday coming up I haven't been doing such a good job. That's why I'm writing this today instead of earlier. Of course, that's in my eyes. I have friends who say I am doing amazing things.The truth is probably somewhere in between.  Grief is a terribly human thing.  The important thing isn't the falling down - it's the getting up.

Today I am thankful for many things.  I am thankful for being with my daughter who is sober over 6 years and has turned into a good mother and a delightful person.  I am thankful for Gwendy blue eyes who is having her first Thanksgiving and loves going up and down the stairs. She has four teeth now.  As I write this I am also conscious of all of you who have children and grandchildren in your empty chairs.  That is why I don't want to enjoy every moment of my life.  When I am thankful and happy I never want to forget those who suffer and those who are alone. 

I am thankful that after three years I have found many new friends, and managed to keep some of the old ones.  I am thankful that the level of despair  I felt when Artie first died has gentled down.  I am thankful that I started writing this blog and that it is a source of comfort to some people.  It's what we do...find comfort in living a life in which comfort aometimes seems impossible. 

If you are reading this and you know someone with an empty chair ask them if they want to talk about their loved one.  If they say yes - do it.  It's so easy and yet people are so scared.  Why can't they say, "I wish Artie was here with us today." or "Tell me one of those Artie stories."  While we are laughing and eating and participating in life that doesn't stop us remembering our dead family and friends.  It doesn't stop us missing them.

I'm not living in the past.  I have been a widow (I hate that word) for over three years.  However, in my present the truth is I'm in love with a dead man.  I've accepted what that means in my life. I'm okay with not always being okay.

I have a lot to be thankful for today and I think everyone has if they stop, breathe, and take time to notice it. It might be something big - a new love - a new baby in the family.  It might be something less personal like a beautiful sky or the adventures of a baby elephant.  It might be a puppy tumbling in the grass.  It might be the simple miracle of a breath. Artie used to say that loving me was as part of him as breathing.  Living was easy, just keep breathing.  Then his breath stopped.  But that spirit, that mighty love and twinkling eye, that dazzling smile and and his ability to help others....that lives on in my heart and in the hearts of others who love and miss him.  Today I am thankful for each second I had with him and I will try to get there - to be thankful that I have an empty chair instead of no chair at all.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.  May you find - if  not the whole day - at least moments of thankfulness sprinkled with joy.  Turkey or tofurkey: may you have food to eat and someone to share it with.  If not this year, next year.  May you have the courage to laugh and love even while you grieve.  Happy Thanksgiving are far and near and one thing is certain - I love you.  xo

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Grief: Am I In Love With Grief?

That was a question someone asked me because of the way I continue to talk about my husband, and because of what I post on Facebook and write in my blog.  It was an interesting way to phrase the question and it made me stop to think.  Most people understand how I feel and what my choices are.  Usually the comments that make me feel misunderstood are, "You don't accept your husband's death." and "You should be more positive and enjoy yourself."  The idea that moving on means letting go and anything else is somehow unhealthy.  This was a different question.

Do I accept my husband's death?  I know he's dead.  When sometimes I say, "Come back."  I always say, "I know you can't, but I want you to anyway."  It's my little protest against a very big reality.  I was with Artie when he died, at home, in a hospital bed in our living room.  The last thing he said to me was, "I love you."  I paused for a minute because I wanted to take the tears out of my voice and then I said, "I love you, too."  After that he fell into a twilight sleep which had been helped by a hospice nurse.  His death rattle went on for quite a long time.  Eventually he rolled over on his back and exhaled - a big sigh - what some people say is the soul leaving the body.  A friend of his who had been sitting with me - he on one side, me on the other - called Artie's name out loudly and felt for a pulse.  He even tried to listen for a breath.  I didn't need to do that.  I knew that he was no longer in his body.  I cleaned him up with the help of an aide, like they did in the old days.  Because I have a strange sense of humor I dressed him in a t-shirt that said, "I do all my own stunts."  While I waited for the Neptune Society, the cremation folks, to pick him up - I held him and talked to him.  I nestled my head in all the places that we called my nooks and crannies.  He was dead.  His body was starting to decay and I wanted to say "I love you" to his body too.  Soon I wouldn't be able to hold his hand or put my head on his shoulder.  He's definitely dead.  I have the ashes to prove it.

However, what is the definition of death?  Artie's life is over as Artie.  Is our relationship over?  Is our journey together over?  It doesn't feel like it.  Is believing that there is some kind of consciousness after death, one you can communicate with a delusion?  I don't know and it doesn't matter to me.  No living person knows the secret of what happens after death.  Whether you belief in a continuation in some form or that there is nothing - both are only opinions.  I am a skeptic but I have more evidence on the side of something lingering.  When I was moving from our house not long after Artie died I went to the UPS store to pick up some boxes.  A man who worked in the store, who knew us only as customers, insisted on walking with me to my car.  He said, "Artie appeared to me and told me that I must give you the message that he loves you very much."  I laughed and said, "That must have been a heck of a dream."  The man said, "It wasn't a dream, it was an apparition.  You must understand how much he loves you."  Why would a  stranger have that experience?  Other people have reported seeing or hearing Artie.  I have had  people who I have just met in a class or other situation say they see him or feel him around me.  I don't ask - they just tell me.  A friend who communicates with people who have died (I'm skeptical about that too) for me and for anyone else who has called her ( gives very specific information that she has no way of knowing. I accept that Artie is dead but I don't accept that our journey together is over.

Am I in love with grief?  No, thank you very much.  I'm in love with my husband.  That love doesn't end with his death.  I would rather have him back - even on our worst fighting day - than have him be dead.  I don't feel that I choose grief, merely that I acknowledge that it is there and I refuse to be quiet about it.  If I wrote all the things I miss about him, this blog would go on forever.  Right now I am having difficulties moving into a new apartment.  He would have handled things better that I am.  When I am stressed he would be holding me.  I think I would be rather foolish not to miss all the comfort, love, support, secret jokes, laughter, understanding, and so much more he gave to me.  Since his death I understand the depth of the bond we had even better than I did when he was alive.  It's too easy when someone's alive to get caught up in your own stuff and not notice or take time with them the way you would if you could go back and recapture the wasted moments.

I'm not in love with grief but my grief, to me, is an ever moving river of my love.  That's okay with me.  I had very difficult parents.  I didn't grieve for them.  In my heart Artie's spirit is very alive and always be.  That's why I don't stop writing the blog.  Each year brings new challenges.  My goal, my work is to let grief inspire me instead of paralyze me.  Sometimes that doesn't work very well.  Sometimes I just collapse with the weight of it all.  More and more, though, the grief expresses itself in happy memories, in being inspired to achieve more, in being inspired to love life the way my husband did.  I don't think I need to let go to heal, to move on.  When Artie was alive he was my biggest champion.  Why shouldn't his spirit and my grief continue to teach me, guide me, support me?

And if some days I am sad, why not?  And if some days I am angry, why not?  It's all part of being human.  I watch my granddaughter who is already going to be a year old on December 20th learn and try new things.  Sometimes she falls down and hurts herself.  She cries.  She gets up and tries again.  That's what life is after Artie's death.  Me learning how to do it all again.  Without the falling down there isn't any getting up.  Without the crying the laughing isn't real.

If you have a different way to do it - I think that's wonderful.  Not everyone grieves in the same way.  However, I find because I am open about it people share that as much as 25 years after someone has died they still grieve for them, still miss them.  These are successful, happy, accompished, well adjusted people.  Some are people who are happily remarried and still feel sad about their husband who has died.  Some are people that have many children or siblings or new pets and nothing fills the space of the one that is dead.  Are we all in love with grief?  I don't think so.  Just being real.  Having the courage to feel our loss instead of pretending it isn't there..

Find those ways to have grief be your friend instead of your enemy.  It takes courage but it can be done.  I know that because I am writing this.  xo

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Grief: Veteran's Day Isn't Always Easy

For me Veteran's Day isn't about your views on war and peace.  It is about the sacrifice that people are willing to make for their country.  There is a misconception that every person who goes to war does so because they are tricked in some way.  There is a misconception that every person who comes back from war is incapacitated in some way.  We, unfortunately live in a world where evil exists and sometimes - not always - war is necessary.  If the prime minister of England, Neville Chamberlin, hadn't been a pacifist who negotiated with Hitler, 50 million lives might have been saved.  Even if you disagree with war it is important to care for the warrior. 

It is important that veterans with physical and psychological trauma get the help they need.  A veteran who commits suicide is a casualty of war as much as if he or she had died on the battlefield. However, it is also important to realize that many veterans are also competent, loving, skilled people.  It is important because employers need to know that they can hire a veteran without fear of them being unreliable.  War veterans handle their experiences differently, just as all grieving people handle their experiences differently.

Today it is important for me not only to honor the people who risk their bodies, minds, and hearts so that we can live our comfortable lives but also to honor their families and friends.  I cannot imagine anything more difficult that having someone I love in a combat zone.  What courage it takes to live day by day with uncertainty.  Then, when someone does come home psychologically or physically wounded it is their family and friends that they need to support and care for them.  That is not always easy.  Even worse, when someone dies in a far away place there are all the emotions that I keep talking about in this blog.

Veteran's day is a day of celebration - we call it a holiday.  We have picnics and parades.  It is important that grief does not get overlooked.  What I hear most often from people - mothers on Mother's Day, fathers on Father's day, widows and widowers on Valentine's Day and I have certainly left out a lot of people - is that they don't want to be forgotten.  They want people to remember that in the middle of celebration a heart may be breaking.  All it takes is someone to recognize your pain and allow you to have it.  Then your laughter and the twinkle in your eye is not a game you play but a real feeling.

I keep explaining the same thing but some people haven't heard it yet and other's don't want to hear it.  Grieving is real and it has no time limit.  People who are grieving can have a full and happy life.  That is my goal.  However, there are moments when it all dissolves into a blur of loss.  No one should be blamed for those moments or feel that they are not normal.  They just are.  There was a quote on Facebook - grief is the price we pay for loving. 

On this Veteran's Day I want to honor the courage and love it takes to fight in a war and the courage and love it takes to come home again - for both the veterans and those who love them.  Those who come home in spirit but not in body - it is right we should remember them and speak their names. 

I speak about Artie all the time.  Do not be afraid, if you know someone who has had a loved one die, to speak the name of their dead.  Ask them to tell you a story.  So many people are afraid that if you talk about someone who is dead people will walk away. Some will.  They are the ones who lose.  I've said it before and I'll say it over and over again.  The only thing that triumphs over death is love.  One way that love shows itself is through memory.  Keep telling the stories.  Keep listening to the stories.

I will never be able to understand the dreadful sights and smells and sounds of wars.  I will never know what it is like to see my friends killed by my side.  All I can offer up is my attempt to understand and my true gratitude for the sacrifices made. 

Today is not a day for politics and judgement.  Today is a day for remembrance.  xo

Friday, November 2, 2012

Grief: I Don't Want To Enjoy Every Moment of My Life

This is a short post.  Someone commented that I should enjoy every moment of my life.

I appreciate all comments.

For me, enjoying every moment of my life would be hollow.  I want to be sad about the sad things and happy about the happy things.  I don't mind being angry when I am angry.  I don't think we have positive and negative emotions - I think we have a full spectrum of emotions and we are less than human when we block some of them out.

There are things I can do to increase my happiness - to change my focus so that I am happy more often.  That is the work I have done my whole life - to become a more complete and more satisfied human being.

However, my goal is not to enjoy every moment.  To me that would make me insensitive to the pain and cruelty that exist along with the beauty and wonder.

What I can learn is not to hold on to the pain and suffering.  I can welcome them, feel them, honor them, and then as I become more skilled move on to being present with things that bring me joy.

I don't ever want to think it's all good.  That is disrespectful to those who suffer.  i want to remember and acknowledge their suffering.  It is never my job to judge someone's feelings - only their actions - if they are unkind to themselves or to others.

I'm enjoying part of this moment.  My allergies are bothering me and I am not enjoying my nose being all itchy.

I am enjoying kissing my granddaughter good night.  I am not enjoying going to bed with the teddy bear my husband gave me instead of my husband.

You know what - I am enjoying every moment of my life.  Because...I'm enjoying not enjoying! There's a riddle to go to sleep on.  xo

Grief: Hurricanes and Holidays

I hate that they cancelled the New York City Marathon.  When my husband died I hated that life went on anyway.  I had to learn that life went on anyway, including mine.  The marathon goes past my window.  I wake up feeling sorry for myself and I look out the window and I see folks in wheelchairs whizzing by.  How much courage they must have.  I shake my head at my own weakness and promise to do better.  Some days I do.  Some days I don't.  Then, as it gets dark, I look out the window and see the men and women who are determined to finish long after everyone has gone home.  Tired, worn out, nobody cheering them on but still they keep going.

When Artie was alive I loved sharing storms with him.  The louder the wind, the heavier the rain, the more scary it was - the better it was.  I had his arms to curl up in.  I could pretend to be afraid and he would be my big strong man protecting his little wife. (He really believed that I needed his protection.  I didn't.  I do now.)  I was lucky that I was one of the ones in NYC who didn't lose power.  I was unlucky in that as I curled up in bed alone watching my DVDs I thought of all the people who were sharing the experience with someone.  I was supposed to get to my daughter's house for my granddaughter's first Halloween.  I became more and more desperate to get out of the city.  Selfishly desperate.  Wanting to be with my family.  All the while thinking of people who no longer had children or grandchildren.  I made it.  Someone drove me up.  I am with my family.  But not the Artie part of my family.  Very happy.  Still a little sad.

Hurricane Sandy has added to the ranks of grief warriors.  All tragedies do.  Some we pay attention too, some we ignore.  All the sadness and anger and hurt.  All the people who listen and all the people who don't listen.  The ones who understand know that there is life and hope but no comfort for the place that hurts.  Not for me.  My daughter understands now that her best friend died of cancer.  All I have to say is, "No matter how many best friends you have, you will always miss Jon."  That's the place that gives us delight in our memories and hurt in our missing.  The happiest, funniest times I have always have a little edge.  The edge is that it means less because I can't share it with Artie.  That's the part I would like people to understand.

The holidays are coming up and for many of us they are emotional hurricanes.  How can we be present for our family and friends when we are so conscious of the empty chair?  For me, it helps to make time for my bent over ball of loneliness and self pity.  Hello sad me.  Welcome.  I'm going to spend time with you and then I will spend time back in the world.

I always seem to be a little too sad, a little too angry, a little too raw.  It's been over three years.  It helps to know that people feel this way five years, ten years, as many years as they are alive.  We aren't alone. Okay.  Balance.  I reread that and it's not true unless I say I also feel happy, and content, and proud.

Holidays and hurricanes.  They rip us apart and bring us together.  We can hold it both.  One of Artie's daughters is pregnant.  How can that be?  I want him to be here when his grandbaby is born to see the smile in his eyes.  His spirit is here but I want that face.  I want my back rubbed.  I want the simple things and the complicated things.  Artie dying blew my house to bits as surely as any wind and rain blew someone's actual house to bits.

Rebuilding takes a lifetime. It is worth doing and worth doing well.  It is easier if we rebuild together.  Then we know that we are normal.  Whatever we feel, someone else is feeling it too.  That's why it's important to keep talking about it - so we don't have to lock it away.  A woman remarries and on the anniversary of her dead husband's death she cries.  She loves her new husband.  It doesn't fill that space.  I might never remarry.  When I play with my granddaughter I am lost in her blue eyes.  It doesn't fill the Artie space.

My message is always the same.  Hurricanes and holidays.  They exist together.  We can hold both.  We can increase the moments we have of inspiration and peace.  We can increase the time we laugh and feel warm and loved.  And all the time we can still cry out from the depth of our souls for the impossible, "Come back."  Here's to those who are rebuilding and here's to the memories that make us who we are.  xo