grief and coping

Eighty Percent Me

On my way to trivia finals this morning, I was reminded of last October, two months after Rick died, when I was invited to play with this same team in a trivia finals event. After Rick was diagnosed in October 2016, we rarely went to our regular Monday league games anymore. At first, he was often sick with chemo side effects, including low white blood counts and the risks of infection from being around too many people. Then we spent several weeks in Florida (we did play – and win – one game there). When we got back home, in the final months of his life, we were too consumed with trying to get him well again, and we didn’t socialize much by then. We spent most of our time alone together.

So when I was invited to play last October, it had been a year since I had played. Rick and I had been on various teams for about ten years, and this was the first time I was going to play without him since he died.

At that early stage of mourning, I felt oddly disassociated from people and large groups. Looking back, I think it was difficult to socialize because I had nothing to say. All my mind kept repeating over and over was, “Rick’s dead. Rick is gone. I can’t stand this. I can’t go on. I miss him. How can I live without him? Do I even want to? I miss him so much that I feel my life is over.”

My obsessive thoughts were not a great topic for conversation when addressing old friends – or new acquaintances you just met playing trivia. I remember thinking I had to be brave and walk into the restaurant alone. I remember feeling like if anyone looked at me they’d immediately know something was amiss. They’d think I looked odd. They’d point and say, “She’s a widow. Her husband just died. She just went through trauma.”

I know in reality, no one was even focused on me, or could tell that I was filled with such emotional turmoil. It just felt that way. Like I didn’t fit anywhere any more. Like I was this alien person whose other half had been ripped away. I was the victim of some type of emotional amputation and I was having great difficulty coping with daily tasks. Socializing had become work, something I must do to continue living, and something I had to get used to doing while I still felt ripped in two.

I remember sitting in the waiting room outside my grief counselor’s office and looking at another woman and thinking, “I should probably try to talk to her,” and making a great effort to come up with some trivial, friendly comment, some inane conversation starter. I remembered that that’s what I was supposed to do in society – be polite and talk to others – but it was difficult to come out of myself; it was a great effort to break through the despondency. (And anyone who knows me, knows gabbing with a stranger was never a problem. Shutting me up would be a greater effort.)

Truthfully, at that stage of grieving, I was going out and doing things strictly to distract myself. I had no topic of interest besides my husband and my loss. Nothing gave me joy. There was no reason to leave my home, because I had no goals or direction. I simply wanted to look through old pictures, gather memorabilia, write about him, think about him, talk to his invisible presence, reminisce about him. Nothing else in life compared with the past I had enjoyed, and nothing would ever come close to holding interest to me, ever again.

After Rick’s death, the only reason I did leave the house was because staying home was even more unbearable. Because sometimes I just couldn’t be alone with my thoughts, anymore. Sometimes I just needed to talk to or see people. But when I did venture out, I also needed an easy escape. I rarely did anything that required me to stay more than a couple of hours. Because I knew I couldn’t make it much longer without breaking out in heaving sobs, which is a real party pooper.

So I went to weddings, and parties, and dinners, and movies. But it was very difficult having any interest in any of those things. In fact, I remember when I did forget about Rick for a little while, I’d be stunned! I just made it through two hours without thinking of him in any way! Wow. That was a record breaker! Because, generally, I thought about him maybe every 10 minutes – minimum. This is no exaggeration. When you’ve spent this long with someone, they’ve almost become a part of you; they’re in your thoughts all the time. And the fact that this person has been permanently severed from your life is also constantly on your mind, and painfully so.

Everything elicited a memory. Everything. Because, face it, I was still in the same life circumstances I had been when he was alive. I was still doing the same types of things we did together. I was still living in the same house. Sleeping in the bed we slept in. The chair he sat in nightly was still right next to me. His place was still there at the dining room table. His cooking utensils in the kitchen. His food. His plates. His favorite glass. His trinkets and toys. Everything in the house was ours – half his. And everything reminded me of him.

And today I realized, as I awoke and readied myself to drive to trivia finals, that I am different. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I have slowly slowly gone from being maybe 20% myself (and 80% Rick’s widow) to being 80% me, again. 80% of my life is me alone. 80% of my life is what I have created in my attempt to continue on without him. I’m nearly a whole person again. But 20% of my mind is still part of a couple, still an “us.”

Rick, his memory – and his very tangible absence from my life – used to be in the very front of my mind as I attempted to go about my business throughout the day – that 80% of my existence. It’s no wonder I stumbled through life: my focus was solely on him, his death, and my sadness. I couldn’t see what was in front of me, because my vision was filled with my grief and my loss.

But today, I realized that there has been a great shift in my focus. It’s happened so slowly that I didn’t notice. Rick – and the overwhelming pain of his loss – has shifted to the back of my mind – the 20% of my thoughts. And as healthy as that probably is, that progress signals something very significant – and scary – to me.

I think I have come to realize that I have been fearing this day. I think, deep down, that I was afraid of the day when Rick wouldn’t be ever-present in my mind. I feared that I – the woman who promised to love him the rest of my life – would someday survive his death, make a new life for myself, and go on without him. And I feel like I’m deserting him by moving on. I’m no longer part of our marriage. I’m moving away from our life together. I’m leaving him behind.

Twenty-two years ago, I pledged “’til death do us part,” and I’ve heard it said that vow was completed upon his death. But, no, I didn’t just vow to love him until his death; I fully intended – intend – to love him until my death, as well.

I survived another birthday without Rick two days ago, and it was somehow symbolic in my mind. It was the last “last thing.” His birthday was ten days after the first anniversary of his death. I have survived an entire painful year without him, and his birthday was also the first anniversary of the night we celebrated his life. I wrote a poem in honor of him and his birthday, and when I finished, I felt a sense of something akin to relief: it’s over. The first awful year of “firsts” is over.

When I woke up this morning and dressed and left for trivia finals, I was focused on the day ahead: my present, not my past. I walked into a social event without batting an eye, and I joked and talked to people with no effort – just like the old me. For the past few days, I’ve been making a decision about which car to lease next week. Which car do I want for me? Not for us…not based on what Rick liked (well, maybe I did think about that a little), but I’m choosing what car, and what amount of mileage, is right for me to drive in the coming two years. And for the first time since Rick died, it’s okay to be making one of those major life decisions I was warned against, because it has now officially been more than a year since his death. At that significant one-year point after my husband’s death, I’m supposedly in a more competent state of mind.

And this morning on the way to trivia, it hit me that I am. I think I’m going to make it. I’m 80% me again. The grief still surfaces the other 20% of the time, but it’s not ever-present and it’s no longer all-consuming. And it’s definitely more of a painful shock when it’s triggered by some memory or thought in the midst of my “return to the land of the living.” But the pain also doesn’t last quite as long, and I recover more quickly.

And, as usual, with anything grief-related, the awareness of this shift in my psyche is bittersweet. I’m relieved and hopeful that I have and will survive Rick’s death – that I even feel interested in pursuing a life without him by my side. But I’m saddened by the knowledge that life moves on without him, because it doesn’t seem like it should.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on Amazon.com.

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at www.TheWritingWidow.com.

Comments

  1. This was so perfectly written, I understand how your feeling and what is happening. And trust me in saying, soon the memories will still make you sad but you will smile they will bring you joy. Love you

  2. Katherine, reading your post here is so much how I feel. We did not have any children together. Kyle never had any kids, I do have a son who is 34. Kyle died June 5 this year, after finding he had stage 4 lung cancer on May 1 by accident. So i can identify with all the ladies, but i don’t have small children, I don’t have a career. I have vascular dementia, my husband was blind from retinitis pigmentosa. We were both disabled. Kyle died 23 days shy of our 15th anniversary. I ordered our tombstone on our anniversary, just worked out that way. I met him when I was 40, I never thought I was going to find a love, especially not the kind we had. He was fun, he was loving and sweet and wickedly ornery. Right now I do not understand how I will ever get over losing him. I cry all the time. The things you wrote in this post, this is me, it is my experiences my thoughts my despair. A few weeks ago, I thought I was getting better. I went to get the car oil changed, the sun was shining through dark clouds and I felt good and I said, good morning, Kyle. Within a few hours, the tears were flowing again. Everything reminds me he is gone. How can i possibly live without him? His niece told me about Hope for Widows, her sister-in-law was widowed a year ago. I’m willing to try this. Thank you, Katherine. It has helped just reading your stuff.

  3. Very inspiring, thanks for sharing. I lost my husband 6 months ago due to heart failure. No warning that it will be our last hello, goodbye, I love you. I am struggling to move forward and still in disbelief. I don’t know if I can survive with this grief. After reading your sharing, you gave me a chance that I will be able to regain myself again even just half of mayself…someday not too soon but one day it will come… God bless you.

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