Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Grief: What Is A Grief Warrior?

Grief can take you down.  Way down.  My husband was 20 years older than I was.  When I first met him, he lied about his age.  When he admitted his real age my first thought was sickness and death.  People would ask - how can you be in love with someone so much older than you are?  Then I would show them his picture and they would know.  He was handsome and charming and until the end didn't look his age.  I didn't wake up one morning and decide to fall in love with an older man.  I woke up one morning and this older man walked into my bookstore and we knew that one way or another we would be together forever. 

While he was living I imagined his death.  The age difference meant that he would probably die before me.  I thought I would be very sad but also that I would have a certain freedom to live the way I wanted to.  Then Artie got very sick.  For six weeks he was misdiagnosed with diverticulitis by a very bad doctor who didn't listen to me and some how missed the fact that Artie had stage 4 cancer that had spread throughout his body.  He was dead six weeks after he was examined by a good doctor. Unfortunately the misdiagnosis took away his chance to fight.

I never understood when people said they were surprised when someone who was dying actually died.  I do now.  No matter how sick someone is, no matter how long they have been sick, you don't expect them to die that minute, that day. Artie had two friends visiting him in addition to his caregiver.  His hospital bed was in the living room of our house. We enjoyed holding hands and listening to music.  (Artie was lucky to have a good death - if there is such a thing - at home.)  I went out and bought CDs.  Jazz musicians he loved.  New artists I though he might like.  The bag of CDs stayed unopened by the front door for many days.  When I went out I thought we had time.  I came home and he was spiraling down.  If I had known he was going to die that night I would never have left his side. I didn't know he was going to die that night. If I had know that I wouldn't have gone  He died in July, I had thought August. I was lucky though.  Artie and I got to create lovely memories while he was dying.  I didn't have the traumatic experience of having him walk out the door and never come back.

I used to say "we died" instead of "he died".  Part of me still feels that way. I did a funny thing - I put my clothes on backwards.  I would look and see where the tags were and still have to turn them around three or four times to get them right.  I lost interest in everything.  We had this rule, nobody leaves.  He didn't leave because he wanted to; his body was too sick to stay.  His last words to me were, "I love you."  My last words to him were, "I love you too."  I couldn't understand why he didn't come back and get me.

Now over almost four years later I wake up every morning and my first thought is, "Artie's dead."  Then I have to figure out how to live my life again without him.  One day at a time.  I can't explain why some people don't react this way.  I want to be as accepting of their process as I want them to be of mine.  Secretly, maybe unfairly, I think the depth of grief is a measure of the depth of love.  I didn't grieve for my parents.   They weren't nice people, to me or to each other.  I grieve for friends, but not the way I do for my husband.  He is my soul mate.  We called each other "raison d'etre" - French for reason for being.  He leaves a place in my life that even if I were to fall madly in love again (could I?  would I?) that will never be filled.  I know many people who are happily remarried and still miss the spouse that has died. If you have 10 children and one dies you miss that child.  If you buy a new puppy you miss the dog that you love that is dead. I took my wedding ring and his wedding ring (he never wore one in any of his other marriages and he had other marriages) off for a while but I put them back on.  I like wearing them. 

So many words without answering the question.  I call us grief warriors because we do battle every day.  Some days we win, some days not so much.  I have heard from people who 10 or 20 years after a death say that the battle continues.  The battle isn't so much with grief as it is with the dark side of grief.  There is a side of grief that mimics depression.  It makes you want to die.  It makes you want to never do anything ever again because it all seems pointless.  That is not the only side of grief.  There is another side which I call being alive with grief.  That is the side of grief that lets me know how lucky I am to have that kind of love in my life.  It is the side of grief that inspires me to live life fully because I live for two.  My husband loved life and he would hate me wasting mine.  It is the side of grief that inspires me to create meaning in my life in honor of my husband.  It is the side of grief that says laugh with me, dance with me, let me motivate you to be fully alive while you live.  

Sometimes being a grief warrior means taking a shower.  I still some times think, why should I take a shower?  Who cares if I do?  Artie used to have a note that said, "Take a shower."  As a recovering alcoholic he knew that taking a shower was a sign that he was taking care of himself.   My husband is dead.  I am alive.  I take a shower.  I put on earrings.  The why bother? question keeps coming back.  I need to have as weapons good answers for it.  You need to have your own answers.  Create them.  If you have one - find one more.  If you have ten, find ten more.

Since I started writing this blog I have learned that there are a lot of people who pretend to be fine.  Their grief is secret.  That is okay.  It can be exhausting trying to explain to others what you are feeling when even if they love you, maybe because they love you, they don't want to hear about it.  However because I keep talking about it people tell me things they don't tell anyone else.  I had a TSA agent stop me and tell me that her husband died 11 years ago and her grief never stops.  She had just gone to a wedding and it brought it all back.  Going through customs in London, the customs agent told my about her father dying.  A woman in a grocery store check out line (in my dear NYC where we aren't very chatty with strangers) told me her husband had died.  I told her everything she was feeling was normal.  This anecdotal evidence proves that there is a wide range of normalcy in grief.  It also proves that grief isn't about stages and recovery.  It is about riding a wild bull; accepting the dark while learning and using techniques that allow you to spend as much time as you can in the alive part. When you get thrown off yet again, you will be able to get up more quickly and stay on longer.

In a poetry workshop a woman wrote, "My mother always dies in March."  If you ignore the darker side of grief your body will tell you it's there.  You will lose things.  You will get sick.  You will find that you are exhausted.  Find someone to tell the truth to - even if it is the pages of a journal.  I have a friend I e-mail almost every day.  I can tell her I wish I was dead, that life is impossible without Artie and she understands.  I'm giving voice to the dark side.  Then I can go on and have happy moments.

That is where the showing up comes in.  Putting yourself over and over in places where life is.  Doing things that you have lost interest in - or trying new things.  Thinking about how many times you laughed today.  Looking around for something beautiful and sharing it with yourself.  Waiting, maybe, for the day you will be reunited with the people and animals you love - but making the best you can of the time you have left here on earth.

If you are reading this you are a grief warrior.  Every breath you take is being a grief warrior.  You build from there.  I'm breathing.  Now what.  I'm so sad.  What else?  I have a rule I'm only allowed to stay in my house one day in a row.  Sometimes I set the alarm for 10 minutes and turn over in bed and do nothing but miss my husband.  Sometimes I set the alarm for another 10 minutes.  Then I get up and try to do something that I feel would make Artie proud. I want to look back on my day and feel that I have done at least one good thing - no matter how simple.  Sometimes I don't make it.  Sometimes I do.  In some ways time going by makes it more difficult. Almost 4 years of missing my darling husband.  When I was in England I saw the gravestone of the Queeen Mother.  She waited 50 years to be reunited with her husband.  She appeared to be full of life.  Like Betty White.  Like so many other people.  How do they do it?  I would say I don't know - but I do.

They do it by stringing together as many happy moments as they can.  They acknowledge those moments as well as the sad ones.  Usually they do something to help other people.   I saw on television a man who had been a child during the Cambodian genocide.  He plays the flute.  He said -
"It hurts.  I can't ever bring back my little sister and brother."  Then he talked about how there is a whole generation of Cambodians missing.  He uses his music to feel better himself, but he also teaches others.  He teaches them to create beautiful music, but he also teaches them to be teachers.  He is alive with grief. 

Don't compare yourself with others.  Don't make the mistake of thinking big things are more important than small things.

That is what I wish for you, and for me.  I wish that the darker moments of grief take up less space in your day.  I wish that the inspiring parts of grief allow you live your life in ways that feel increasingly full (without guilt).  If you had a happy moment today - notice it.  Water it.  Nurture it.  If you didn't - look for one tomorrow.  Sometimes happy moments are all around us but grief becomes a blindfold and we can't see them.  If we see them we can't feel them.  Let happy moments fill you up the way the sadness does.  There is room for both.  What you are is enough.  What you do is enough.  My granddaughter hurt her leg going down a slide and she stopped walking for a while.  She was scared to put her foot down. Even when it didn't hurt as much as it did the very idea of having her foot on the ground set her shrieking.  A horrible wounded sound.  Then she tried it.  Then she held someone's hand and took a step.  Now she's walking again.  Being a grief warrior is like that.  Shrieking may be part of it - but so is learning to walk again.  Learning to skip and jump and run.  With love.  xo

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