In July, it was five years since my wife, Leslie, died from breast cancer. I wrote quite a lot about it here, at the time. I stopped writing about it after a year but, of course, the process of grief continues. It seems strange to think of all that’s happened without her presence since that time. I’ve learned a lot about myself through this process. I can’t always tell if I’m processing or indulging but I’m sometimes moved to paint something that arises out of the experience of loss and attachment.
My life is good. I’ve met a wonderful woman to share it with. I think of what I’ve lost and try to balance it with what I’ve gained.
I’ve written a series of posts here about my wife, Leslie’s, death and how I’ve coped with her loss. I feel like I should conclude this somehow but am not sure how. July 3 marked the one year anniversary of her death. I marked it with family and friends over a few days then went off to Italy for a month. As I look back, it appears that I made a kind of project out of it in that, for the year following Les’ death, I did my best to experience that loss and everything that came along with it as deeply and in as many ways as I could. I did several types of therapy, personal growth seminars, healing ceremonies … whatever I could think of. I said yes to most things that came my way and tried to stay open to whatever came at me. I fell in and out of love and learned that relationships don’t have to have the boundaries I usually contain them with.
The second part of the project was to start having new experiences as a person who is in the world alone. Alone in that, although I have friends and family, my life is no longer shared. The month in Italy was the first step in that.
The year of grieving, as I wrote in earlier posts, was tumultuous and both painful and expansive. I grew and unconcealed parts of me that were buried inside for a long time. I think, in many ways, I realized that I’m the person Les always saw in me and have become better able to see that in myself.
Learning to be myself for myself is something I still grapple with and have been keeping in mind the question, can I be enough for myself? Can I find everything I need to be happy inside me? I get disappointed in my self when I feel a longing for something outside. I can usually let go of it and return to the present but longing for something, something I can’t quite describe, revisits me often. The solitude I hated earlier, I’ve learned to love at the same time that I crave connection with others.
I didn’t used to think I was much of a people person but I know that’s not true now. The reason I’m still alive is the people I love. My fondest memories of this past year and my time in Italy are of the beautiful and interesting people who’ve entered or passed through my life.
I’m now nine months into grieving the loss of my wife and in some ways, it’s gotten lighter. I’m generally hard on myself but I will give myself credit for working hard to try and grow from this experience. As I’ve said before, Leslie died without a second of self pity and that made it impossible for me to slip into that mud, even though it seemed likely, given my inclinations.
I’ve also written before about the courage Leslie showed in facing her death. She accepted it and walked toward it willingly and proudly, knowing she’d lived a wonderful life. She even joked on the way to death’s door. Although the experience was profound, it wasn’t heavy. We shared a lot of laughter during her last days. She showed no fear and, although we cried at our becoming separated, she approached it with dignity and grace. There was nothing sad about her death. It was magnificent and miraculous. It is her absence that causes me pain.
I’m often confused about my feelings and suffer very strong emotional waves. Sometimes it feels like I really can’t endure another wave but they keep coming. I never know when or where they’ll hit. I’ve learned to strap on my seat belt and observe my thoughts as they surge through me. Sometimes the longing to feel loved and connected to someone overwhelms me and I reach out to some unsuspecting friend with a heartfelt outpouring of gratitude and love. I worry that I sometimes overwhelm people with my urgent need for connection. Then, of course, I suffer over that.
In recent weeks, Ive felt myself start to turn away from my reverie over death and try to find something in life that I can engage myself in. I’ve felt some moments of acceptance and even feel satisfied for brief moments. As I turn back toward life, I realize that I have an opportunity to remake my life in any way I want to. Currently I feel consumed with the idea of having my life be used for something worthwhile. I’m aware that I’ve been through these periods before and they’re fragile and shatter easily. I’m doing my best to stay as grounded as I can while still believing in the possibility that I can be useful, maybe even inspiring. .
I want to share this poem by the great John O’Donahue, who my friend Eithna Joyce introduced me to.
For Grief ~ John O’Donahue
There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.
It’s coming up on six months now since I lost my wife. For some reason I thought I’d be through the worst of the grief by this time but I realize now that I’m just getting started. I wouldn’t say that there is any progression in what I’m going through. Some days I feel pretty much OK but most days I feel lost. Everyone says that the holidays are particularly hard to grieve through. I wouldn’t say that I feel noticeably worse now because of the time of year. It’s different all the time. Sometimes I’m feeling the loss of being in a relationship and living in the context of someone else. Other times I miss Leslie personally, her physical presence and personality. Sometimes it’s just hard to be alone.
I think the bottom line for me at the moment is feeling without bearings. My Buddhist readings indicate that this may be the natural state of life. Bearings are invented. In truth there is no up or down. Those are decisions we make. I try to embrace not having bearings and let that experience flow over me while it lasts. I expect that eventually I’ll choose an ‘up’ but I hope I can still keep a part of this experience in mind.
This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I can not control it. It pushes me around and takes me to places without my consent and without warning. There are other people in my life who are suffering and I feel that I’m letting them down for not providing more comfort to them. I titled this post ‘staggering’ because I’m afraid that sometimes I may have crashed into loved ones who were trying to help or who needed help and I regret that. I worry about it and roll it over in my mind but always come back to that I’m doing the best I can.
I have had some experiences of Leslie, sometimes in dreams and occasionally in daydreams. I read recently, from an internet psychic, that sometimes the departed communicate with loved ones by ringing in their ears. I’ve had tinnitus since Les died and, although I don’t put much stock in internet psychics, it feels good to let that be true for me. When I notice the ringing, it takes me away with her a bit and I like that.
I don’t want to paint an overly bleak picture of my life. I am very fortunate to have close friends and family and two beautiful daughters I adore. I’m grateful for all the extremely happy holidays I shared with Les and for the many comforts I enjoy. Although I’m sad a lot of the time, I’m also happy in many ways. I have the luxury of being able to cherish my memories of Les and to share them with my daughters and others who love her.
I wish everyone Happy Holidays and hope the memories you create now will sustain you when hard times come.