My husband, Ramsy, died about a year ago. This is the first time I have lost someone close to me, and like many people do, I had developed some expectations of how I would feel and act if he died. I thought I would feel sad all the time, that I would have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, and that all the emotional work of grieving would be comprised of missing him and dealing with my kids missing him.
My experience has turned out to be very different than what I had envisioned. Yes, I have feelings of sadness and times of inertia; yes, I miss him; yes, it is hard work figuring out how to best help my children; but it seems that grief has dozens of facets to it rather than just one big one, and these different facets take turns showing themselves. I found myself shocked by this, and sometimes fretted over the difference between my expectations and my reality.
Since I am a reader, I went looking for books and articles about grieving. What I found most easily was information on “getting on with your life”, like how to travel as a single woman or how to fully embrace my new dreams. What? I was right in the middle of realizing that all of my dreams for my future had disappeared with the one who was going to live them out with me. Where were the books about just making it through the first year, about living through the period of disorientation, about feeling all the things I was feeling?
I kept trying new books and articles and discovered something: the pieces that helped me were the ones where the authors simply described what it was like for them when they lost their spouse. Something about hearing their stories, even though they were not identical to mine, helped me recognize what I was going through myself and see that there was nothing wrong with me.
I’d like to share with you, then, some of the ways that I’ve described this crazy journey to myself. Maybe you will see something that you recognize and know: you are not the only one. So what is it like to be grieving my husband?
It's like being in labour. As the onset of contractions is unpredictable, and the length and intensity of them, so is the onset of a wave of sadness. Sometimes it's a quick stab of pain, and sometimes it's a long, deep searing that requires me to actually stand still and hold on to the doorpost and clench my teeth and breathe. It's an actual physical sensation. And then it's gone, and who knows when or how the next one will wave through?
It's like having a headache. I don't know if everybody is like this, but I sometimes have a headache for a couple of hours before I realize it, and then I know what has been bothering me all that time. A lot of days I will be going about my business but feeling in the back of my mind that something is wrong, that I am uncomfortable and maybe in some pain, and finally I become aware that the thing that is wrong is that Ramsy is not here. Ah.
It's like being restless. Sometimes I have trouble concentrating, or finding anything to settle down to. I feel like there's something nagging at the back of my mind that I've forgotten, or like I'm looking for something. Then all of a sudden it clicks that I'm actually looking for Ramsy. A few days ago I caught myself wanting the kids to get off the computer so I could see if he'd sent me an email. Another case of "I didn't forget he's dead, my mind just entered a time warp."
It's like being at the other end of a tunnel from everything else, maybe like being on Demerol. I am sometimes dizzy, as I get when I have been up far too long- squinting at things, taking a long time to register incoming information, concentrating to formulate a response and send it back down the tunnel to whoever is on the other end.
It’s like being a toddler, staggering from place to place, flopping over, getting up again. Sometimes I run smoothly for a few steps and then hit another snag. I fall and want to quit, I go back to crawling again or just creep along the furniture where it’s safe and familiar until I have the courage to try a few steps again. I need someone to reach out and beckon to me, encourage me to give it a shot. I need something to reach toward.
It’s like entering cold water. When I sense the sadness hovering but don’t have the time or energy or courage to take it on, it feels like those sharp shocks of wading into a chilly lake slowly with starts and stops. When I meet the sadness and discomfort by choice, head-on, it somehow doesn’t hurt so sharply after the first minute, it just feels like where I need to be at the moment.
It's like a long-distance relationship. For most of the time that Ramsy and I were dating, we lived 2 1/2 hours apart and saw each other once or maybe twice a month during the school year, and much less often when he was touring with school groups. There was no texting, no email, not even any decent long-distance phone plans, for Pete's sake, and he was kind of a crappy letter-writer. (That is, the letters he wrote were wonderful, it's just that there weren't that many of them over the year and a half.) So, as my journals from those days remind me, I missed him all the time. He was constantly on my mind; everything reminded me of something he/we had done or said, or made me wish I could share it with him or tell him; nothing I did felt in any way interesting or exciting or engaging or meaningful; basically, I was suspended in a permanent state of waiting to see him or talk to him again. Well, guess what? I’m right back there again.
It's like looking at the Grand Canyon. In 2009 I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. I thought I would be immediately overwhelmed by, well, the grandeur of the place. As it turned out in reality, my eyes and mind were kind of boggled by the scope of it, which prevented me from taking in the grandeur. The Grand Canyon, seen in person, looks at first like a painted movie backdrop of itself. It was extremely difficult to get a grasp on the size and distances because my eyes are simply not used to processing anything that big. I had to look for something smaller, something that I commonly see, like a person or a tree or a car, which I could use as a standard for comparison. Same with this loss: it's just too monumental to be absorbed at first, and my mind has to keep finding small experiences to measure it against, and so...
...it is like learning the longest, hardest lesson ever. Maybe I'll go through a good day or two, just be minding my own business and then- whap! I didn't know that losing him meant that particular thing! Like: I see the breakfast sausages in Sobeys and there he is standing at our stove cooking them up; there the five of us are at our table, eating the sausages as part of the Sunday morning tradition he started. And then I have to learn that him dying means him not being here to cook breakfast ever again, him never coming up with one of his many, many ideas for ritual or fun or adventure. It means that I never get to bring him a treat from Starbucks again when I have spent the day in Winnipeg. It means him not putting his feet in my lap while we watch a Miss Marple movie on the couch. It means me never being irritated again by him telling me it was time to get up (hey, you're not the boss of me, was always my super-mature inner response), and realizing that being irritated occasionally is one of the privileges of living together intimately. His death means literally thousands of big and small things, and I have to learn them one by one.
I guess the underlying theme that I have discovered is: expect the unexpected. I can’t lead my feelings around and tell them what I want them to do; I can’t jump off the path if it has taken a twist I don’t like. The only thing to do is just to keep walking, and to stick close to the people who love me. May you find the courage to do your walking, and companions to walk with you.
Writing by: Shannon Unruh