Every year I think the anniversary of Jon’s death isn’t going to affect me anymore. Every year I am wrong. I don’t usually notice it at first. It starts off with a little extra heat on my stress level. I’m in the final weeks of this semester. I’m taking 5 classes, which is more than I ever took when I was getting my Associate’s degree 15 years ago. My heavy courseload gave my emotions a place to hide. There is no shortage of tasks to occupy my thoughts and emotions.
It wasn’t until a few days ago that grief made itself undeniable. I dreamt that Neil died and I was telling my children. The three of us all wailing together in a heap was so real that I had to reach over and touch Neil in order to center myself back to the waking world. Oh right, I thought to myself, it’s almost the 18th.
After 7 years here are some truths I have come to know.
1. Grief doesn’t go away…
While time moves on and healing spreads gently through the soul, grief never leaves. It’s always there sitting quietly in a corner, waiting. Then a scene on a tv show, a song playing in the grocery store, a dream, a memory, an anniversary comes along and suddenly I notice its presence has never left. It fills my body with heaviness and an ache grows in my heart as it recalls the places that had been torn. Like running your thumb over a scar that stands as a reminder that flesh may heal but will never be the same.
I watch the clock today. Fifteen minutes from the moment I write this sentence is when I sent the texts that Jon never received. I thought perhaps he had decided to play an extra game of basketball. In fact, at 9:10 that morning, his car was already idling in the yard across from the stop sign where his heart gave out. This is why Neil always shares his location with me on his phone. When we first got married, I would have to keep myself from panicking if he was late and not answering his phone. Trauma rewires the brain and grief lingers on.
2. But the pain subsides
Less than an hour after those missed texts my heart, my brain, and my world blackened. Like a horror scene when a victim tries to flee an angry swarm of insects, every inch of me was covered and screaming with the pain of grief and despair, except there was no death to release me from it. I didn’t see a way out. I couldn’t imagine a world where every step wasn’t agony. The psychological torment felt like it would never end. But that was not the truth.
Slowly I began to notice moments of reprieve. I would take a deep breath of the salty ocean air and find myself enjoying the warmth of the sun on my skin. Those moments turned into hours which turned into days which turned into months. In that time, my experience of grief changed as well. It no longer felt like Prometheus’s eagle was ripping my heart out every day. Eventually, grief showed up without the pain attached. No longer is it sharp and chaotic, now it is heavy but gentle.
3. Healing is your responsibility…
My trauma was not my fault, but no one else could heal me. Only I had that power. It was my choice and my work alone. I have seen examples of widows wallowing in their grief. They use their loss to excuse awful behavior and demand everyone make accommodations for them. I had to leave all the Facebook widow groups that I was in because I saw too much excusing bad choices and enabling people to remain in a stunted state.
Working on healing when your life is shattered and you are a pregnant solo parent feels like an impossible task. People these days hate anything that looks like personal responsibility. As much as I wish it was otherwise, unfortunately, no one can do the healing work for you. It is a choice and alas recovery is not instantaneous. Healing is a slow process and the work is not always obvious from the outside or even to yourself. Healing from trauma is like watching a tree grow. There doesn’t seem like any difference from day to day, but when you look back at where it started the change is undeniable.
4. But you cannot heal without help.
While healing is ultimately up to the individual, it is impossible to heal in isolation. We are social creatures. We NEED one another. If you have a physical injury or illness you need a doctor and help from friends and family. The same is true for mental health. You need a mental health professional and a support network to help you through it.
I needed therapy, antidepressants, and Jesus. If I had tried to heal without those things it would not have happened. I was pissed at God, but I decided to give Him an 8-month ministry school to try and convince me that He wasn’t a cosmic jerk. But here’s the thing, even after my Jim Carry “Smite me mighty smiter” state found its way to peace with God, I still needed more help.
Therapy helped show me that my mental health was a dumpster fire even before Jon died. I had a lot of unhealthy thought patterns and some childhood parentification that I needed to work out. Even then, that was not enough. With evidence of anxiety and depression reaching back as far as panic attacks at 11 years old, my brain had created military levels of hypervigilance and low accessibility to happiness or joy. I’ve been on antidepressants since 2020 and I should have started years and years ago. The only reason I didn’t was shame and the belief that I could figure it out alone.
5. Rebuilding does not mean forgetting…
When navigating life after loss there is almost always a sense of guilt. My life would be unrecognizable to Jon. I’m in a new state, in a new house, with new cars. I have a new husband and I’m pursuing a new career. None of the people I see on a regular basis knew Jon. I have worked hard to make a new life, but that does not mean Jon has been erased from it. His photos are on our dining room picture wall and his presence remains on my bookshelf in our living room. I bring him up to my kids and talk about him with Neil. He has not been erased from my life or memory.
My daughter has started dance and in a few weeks will be doing a tap routine to Uptown Girl. When she told me, I shared a memory of how my family used to have a karaoke game when I was dating Jon and he used to sing that song a lot. I’m sad that Jon won’t get to be there for her performance, but Jocelyn and I will carry him in our hearts in a special way.
6. However, your lost loved one cannot remain the center of your life.
I recently read an AITA Reddit post. A widowed man was forbidding his new wife from having a relationship with his teenage daughters who lost their mother when they were toddlers. From the sound of it, over a decade later his life was still so preoccupied with his late wife that any move from his new wife to fulfill a similar role was taken as a threat. My husband was the one who brought this story to my attention and wanted to know what I thought about it. My first thought was, that man is preventing his daughters from ever having a memory of what a mother is like. My second thought was, this is why you cannot build a life around a loss.
You never forget your loss, but you can’t live at their grave either. Jon would have wanted his children to have a father. It would not have been right of me to deny my children a dad because I was so wrapped up in the fact that Neil is not Jon. It’s true. Neil isn’t Jon. He parents in a way that I’m sure is very different. But the reality is, through no fault of his own, Jon can’t be here for his children and Neil has stepped up to the plate. Jon cannot and should not take center stage in their lives. Will there come a time when knowing who Jon was will become more important to them? Certainly yes. But even then, that won’t take away from their living relationship with Neil any more than my memories of Jon do.
7. We can do hard things.
If there is one thing that I have learned in the last 7 years is that we are resilient creatures. While I would never wish my experience on anyone, I can recognize in myself the strengths that have come from working through it. I now possess an indestructible hope, an inner steel that has been strengthened by the fire and pounding of adversity. No matter how dark it seems, I know beyond doubt that there is still light and I will see it again. Trauma didn’t make me strong, I had to become strong to face it.
I remember being asked by a new acquaintance, “So 2020 has been the worst year ever, huh?” I actually chuckled a bit. Was it stressful, yes, was it the worst? Not even close. Knowing it could never be worse than 2016 gave me the hope and endurance I needed to get through. For others, 2020 was their 2016. They were experiencing the fire for the first time and didn’t know when or if it would ever end. Now, 3 years later I hope they have come to the same conclusions I have. Even though the fire is agony, it will not last forever. The ashes, no matter how desolate, will become the soil from which a new garden grows.
“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.” Romans 5:3-5