If there is one thing I have learned as a student in this new life that was handed to me by force, it is this: I don’t know a damn thing. The Grief Monster is in charge here, and much like Charles In Charge, grief wants to rule “my days and my nights, my wrongs and my rights.” Except this isn’t a really bad TV sitcom starring Scott Baio and an awful laugh track – it is my very real life. Eventually, Charles In Charge was cancelled, because it sucked. This new life I have will never be cancelled, no matter how much it sucks. And it’s also the only show on television. It is on every single channel. I have a broken television that I can never ever turn off, and I simply have to learn to deal with it.
July 13th was the one-year Anniversary of Don’s death. Have I mentioned how much I loathe the phrase “anniversary” when talking about my husband’s death? It makes it sound as if it’s a great big party, or something to celebrate with balloons and cake and ice-cream, instead of the worst day of my entire life. (I’m guessing it wasn’t the best day for my husband either.) I chose to face that day by creating a holiday out of it, and calling it “Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day.” I asked friends and family and total strangers; pretty much everyone on earth; to do something kind that day for someone else, in honor of my husband’s generous nature and who he was as a person everyday. I also asked them to tell me the stories of what they did, so I could read them, and make “Pay it Forward for Don Day” an entire chapter in my book. My hope was that in creating this type of day, it would not only help others; but also remove the horror of having to sit with and deal with re-living the worst day of my life, one year later, and that I would instead have something hopeful to focus on. Did it work? Yes. And not at all. I still felt shaky and panicky all day on July 13th, and I woke up at 6:43am, the exact time that my phone kept ringing and ringing and eventually waking me up just one year before, informing me of my new, terrible life.
As we gathered later that night with my mom, my dad, my Aunt Debbie and Uncle Richard, and our friends Cheryl, Thelma and Ron; celebrating Don’s life by eating his favorite homemade chicken parmesan, garlic bread, salad, brownie sundaes, and root beer; I was able to somehow get through the evening. The constant barrage of emails, private messages, texts, and a few phone calls saying: “Thinking of you today”, or telling me an incredible Pay it Forward story, kept my emotional breakdown at bay. But it was still there, just waiting to pounce. The Grief Monster never goes away – he just waits until that one second where you finally start to think: “Maybe Im going to be okay today” – and then he attacks violently and with no warning. He makes your stomach churn and gives you intense headaches that start at the center of your eyeball and pound against your temple nonstop. He gives you the shakes, and that feeling like there’s a brick in your chest, and everything you do is so heavy. Every breath is so thick. You want to explain to people and to earth and to your job that, yes, you are aware it’s been an entire year since your husband died, and yes, you are still grieving. You want to scream to the world that “NO!!! I’M NOT OKAY YET!”, or order them politely to please stop rushing you into the next phase of your feelings. “I’m not ready!”, you want to tell them. But they aren’t listening. They are eating brownie sundaes and laughing in the next room, as you anticipate The Grief Monster’s next unpredictable move.
And, so, as it happened; my first breakdown this week came about two days later; on the morning of Sunday, July 15th, while still at my parents place. Why? No goddamn reason at all, except that Grief Monster wanted it that way. What happened that day to make me lose my mind and feel stuck on despair? Absolutely fucking nothing, that’s what. I woke up. And sometimes, waking up is more than enough to cause an emotional breakdown. In this case, the term “waking up” is being used rather loosely, since technically I had only slept about 40 minutes. Suddenly, I was sitting up in bed and staring blankly at the wall and the mirror in front of me, as tears slowly moved down my cheeks. I sat there for twenty minutes, or three hours. Silently crying, and not caring enough to do anything about it. I had to pee for a long time, but couldnt make myself get out of bed to do so. It just suddenly, at that stupid, nothing moment, hit me like a tornado. This thought is what floored me: My husband has been dead for one year. It has ONLY been one year. One year living without him. That was just ONE year in a series of MANY years that I will have to KEEP living without him. I have to live without my husband for many years, possibly decades. Forever. He will be dead forever.
That last sentence was like a loop inside my heart, playing over and over again. He will be dead forever. Here, everyone was acting like the one-year mark was some big revolution; like things would suddenly brighten and the skies would open up for me, and I would start to maybe feel a bit less hopeless. Yet, that is not what was happening at all. The one thing going through my mind sitting in that bed on that morning, was that the real hell was only just beginning. No longer in “shock mode”, and no more grief fog protecting me from myself; these feelings have never felt so harsh, so painful, so hurtful. My mom came into the room and tried to be a mom and help me. I should have let her. Instead, I looked right through her, because I couldn’t see. Her pain and my pain and her pain about my pain, and all the pain inside that room was just too much for me to look at. Everything was paralyzed. I couldn’t even cry anymore, at least not volentarily. The tears kept coming, but they were slow and accidental, like a leaky faucet in the middle of the night, just dripping out now and then off my face. I felt like I couldn’t move or didnt want to move. Why should I have to ever move off of this bed? What if I don’t like what’s waiting for me? A life without my husband? Always feeling alone in a room full of people? Dreading each and every holiday and special day on every calendar year? Watching 17 episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in a row, in some crazy, Food Network haze so I don’t have to feel anything real and awful? Drowning my intense pain with mashed potatoes, or stuffing it down with chocolate cake? This is the life I have waiting for me? No thanks. Maybe I will just stay sitting in this bed until it’s time for me to die. Or until my mom informs me that I have to get out of the bed so I can go and babysit my niece and nephew at my brother’s house. Oh. Okay. In that case, I suppose I will keep living. Just for today though. Tomorrow – it’s back to sulking.
Today is Tuesday, July 17th. I woke up feeling physically ill, and that damn headache was back again. I woke up crying. I didn’t want to, or mean to. It was involentary. Stretched, yawned, and cried. Why am I feeling so lost this morning? I put on the news. 96 degrees today, with heat index of 110. Why does that sound like an echo to me? There is a certain smell in the air. It’s the smell of humidity. It’s the smell of something familiar and awful. It’s the same smell that was in the air just one year ago today; the day of my husband’s funeral.
Grief is a fucked-up thing. Everytime you think you are moving forward, it stops you cold. In the days and weeks leading up to the one-year mark of his death; my mind went reeling back to last year at this time. Not only did I re-live the actual day that he died and the horrors I went through on that day; but I also re-lived and questioned all the surrounding days and weeks around that day. When you lose your spouse in a sudden and tragic way; and it happens in a flash; you want to give significance to things that had no significance at the time. You didn’t know he was going to die, so how were you to know that every single thing you did would be the last time you would be doing it? Over the past few weeks, my heart and brain have been on overload, trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle that made up his last few weeks and days on earth. When was our last kiss? When was the last meal we ate together? The last time we were intimate? The last time we hung out with friends? When did we laugh together? When was the last time he strummed his guitar for me? What was our last conversation about? What was the last thing I said to my husband? I honestly have no idea. The night before he died is like a vague cloud of nothingness. It was a typical evening in an ordinary married day. We were both exhausted. He was sitting at this very desk where I type this up now, and he was online and texting to a friend. I was talking to him. Smalltalk. I was watching something on TV. I dont recall what. We talked some more. Or didnt. I dont remember. And then, just like that, it was over. The memory fades. Either I fell asleep or he did or we both did. There was no goodnight kiss that night. There was no goodnight anything. The night just sort of came to an end, and he had to be up at 4:30am the next morning for work. He knew how much trouble I had sleeping, so when he left that early, he would never wake me. And so he left. And he went to work. And while I lay there asleep, he lay collapsed on a Petsmart floor. And then when I finally woke up, his life had already ended.
People ask me all the time how I got through the funeral, or how I wrote and delivered a Eulogy for my husband. Easy answer. I got through it, because I wasn’t really ever there. Physically, I was there. But I was in deep, deep shock at that point; just 4 days after he died. I stood in that room, with my husband in a casket behind me, and I pretended that none of it was happening. I was not able to comprehend the sheer horror of what had transpired, or what was to come. There was a cloud over my head during that funeral, and in the weeks and months afterward. Now – one year later – the cloud has lifted, and I am left with a very frightening reality. It hurts like hell now, and knowing that there is nothing I can do but just “walk through the fire”, as my grief counselor so perfectly put it, makes that pain even more unbearable. There is no running away. No escaping it. The only way out is through. The only way out is through.
So in my state of panic and terror and sadness, I made an emergency call to my grief counselor today. And we talked. And, like she always has a way of doing for me, she gave me a bit of hope. She doesn’t say anything magical , or even “fix” things for me. Because there is no such thing as fixing this. It cannot be fixed. But she tells me the truth, and she does it in a really smart and compassionate way, and that is so much more than a lot of other people do. I told her how for months, I couldn’t remember anything at all about the funeral. It was like a big blank space in my memory. It was the same for my first birthday without him, his birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, all of it. A big, gigantic mass of vague. That is how I got through all of those days – I was protected by the cloud. I told her that grieving feels a lot like being a patient who is recovering from Amnesia; and all of the painful details of important days and events in our life, like his services, are coming back to me now; in flashes. It doesn’t even feel like I am re-living the funeral. It feels as if I am there for the first time. If you asked me 6 months ago to tell you the details of Don’s services, I would have stared at you with fog in my eyes. Now? There are so many things that I clearly remember about the funeral. Things that I wish would go away, things I will never forget, things that a 39 year old woman at the beginning of her wonderful marriage should not have to think about. But here they are, stuck inside of me forever ….
I remember being in the backseat of my parent’s car while they drove us from Massachusetts to New Jersey, and texting back and forth with Opie. He sent me a private message that said: “You’re strong, and you’ll get through today. Lean on your family and friends.” I remember him sending out a tweet to all the fans of their radioshow on Twitter, that simply said: “Our friend Kelley Lynn is attending her husband’s funeral today. Please reach out to her if you can. She will need it.”
I remember shopping with my mom for an outfit to wear to my husband’s funeral, and how strange and terrible and weird that sounded to say out loud. The sales woman asked me: “Anything I can help you with todayyyy?”, in a way too bubbly voice, and I remember wanting to answer, in that same phony way: “Why YES! What goes better with my husband’s casket – red or blue?” I will never forget trying on that cranberry sleeveless blouse, liking it, and immediately thinking: “Don would love this on me.” Then realizing, of course, that Don would never love anything on me again.
I remember how disgustingly hot it was that day. High 90’s, just like today. It was sticky and humid and disastrous. I remember getting there early, and the funeral director asking me if I wanted Don’s wedding ring. He informed me that when my husband is cremated, “that ring isn’t going with him. It belongs with you.” He handed it to me and I kept touching it all day long, rolling it back and forth in the palm of my hand, as if doing so would make all of this go away. I remember the smell of death flowers and awkwardness and pain as I walked into the big main room where he lay there in his casket. The American Flag was draped over half of it, and my husband didn’t look like my husband. His face was puffy. His eyes looked weird. They were not his eyes. They looked swollen shut. His arms were thicker than normal. His hands were placed in an unnatural position that he would have never put them in. He seemed uncomfortable. He had this creepy look on his face. It was a combination of stillness and fear. I remember talking with friends in front of, to the side of, and all around that casket, never once acknowledging it. If I ignored it, then it wasn’t really happening. If I kept telling myself “that is not my husband”, then maybe it really wouldn’t be. I remember bits and pieces of conversations with people, as songs from Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic and the Beatles Abbey Road played in the background. They told me that during the “viewing” portion of the afternoon, I could have whatever music I wanted playing. And that is what Don wanted. Aerosmith.
I remember talking with one of Don’s EMS brothers, Matt, and how shaken up he was and crying. I kept thinking “Why am I comforting HIM? Im the wife and Im not even crying. What the hell is wrong with me?” I recall that when I mentioned how Don looked nothing at all like himself because the Organ Donation people “took so much – he isnt even recognizable”, he corrected me by saying: “Don’t word it that way. They didn’t take anything. Don gave.” Right. He gave. I gave. I gave away my husband, and now he looked like Frankenstein instead of my Sweet BooBear.
I remember everyone sweating, and constantly wiping their foreheads and fanning themselves with anything they could find. My dad asking the funeral director to please turn up the air-conditioning, and them telling us over and over: “It IS up!” I remember being in the bathroom with Don’s good friend Meg before the service, and telling her that I just got “friend” (my period), and how Don would be laughing at me, because he always said that it showed up on the most important days for me. And there it was. Right on time.
I remember so clearly, such small and unimportant details. My dad asking the pastor for directions to the nearest Dunkin Donuts so he could go and get his morning coffee, and how he tried to make me eat a muffin and I just couldn’t. The funeral director asking me which pictures I would like placed on the back of my husband’s casket. The guest book and fancy pen by the door that reminded me of weddings; people signing their names as if this was some happy occasion to remember down the road. The funeral cards we had made up days earlier; me, my mom, and Don’s EMS bosses and managers. We did one that was serious, and one that was silly and funny and that Don would have cracked up at. It said: “Hi. I’m Don. I was here. Now I’m gone.” We only gave that one out to special friends with a sick and twisted sense of humor. In that room, that ended up being a lot of people.
People. There were endless amounts of people. The heartbreak in my friend John’s eyes, the crack in Kevin’s voice, the knowing look from my boss and friend Laura; who had lost her own brother and father only 4 months apart, just 5 years ago. The comedian friends that showed up and made sick jokes and made me laugh inappropriately. Standing in the hallway with Jessica Kirson, Danny Cohen, and Jonathan Fursh; saying that one of us should get up there and “do a comedy set.” The woman who walked up to me and said: “You dont know me, but I know you from the comedy circuit and Facebook. I just had to come here today and honor the love that you and Don had, and the life you had together.” She was, at the time, a complete stranger to me. We hugged, and have been friends ever since. Watching Don’s sister Karen and her husband George walk into the room, after their long drive from Ohio, and thinking to myself: “Don, your sister is here! Come on out here and talk to your sister!” The faraway look in her eyes as she tried to convince me, and herself, that his death was quick and therefore, more peaceful. Seeing Don’s best friend in the world Rob, and his wife Mindy, after driving from Florida to attend the service. Watching as Rob came out in his EMS uniform to honor Don. Watching as all of his EMS brothers and sisters slowly filled up the room, all in uniform. In the back, a whole bunch of doctors and nurses, all coming directly from their shifts and in their scrubs. An entire group of employees and friends from his part-time job at Petsmart, where he collapsed just 4 days earlier. Watching as EMS and Air Force lined the walls and held flags up throughout the service. Feeling my face turn hot as the soldiers and Air Force members kept saluting me, acknowledging me, looking me directly in the eyes as they performed their procedural ceremonies.
I will always remember the beautiful and heartfelt words that were spoken about Don by so many people. His boss Joe, who offered Don a management position multiple times, only for Don to shrug his shoulders and say: “No thanks.” He didn’t want the stress. He wanted to come home to his wife each night and not think about work anymore. Our friend Kevin, whose words were touching and funny, and spoke of the true love Don had for me and my family. Mary, who runs the adoption for kitties center at the Petsmart where Don volenteered his time, telling endless stories of Don’s love for animals. Meg and Don became close friends when they were EMS partners on the ambulance, and her speech spoke of how amazing Don was as a paramedic, and how he made everyone else feel safer. Rob told some great stories about his days on the ambulance with Don, and how they would banter and purposely try to annoy the other. So many words of love spoken. Mine was last, of course, and I barely recall delivering it. The highlight was when one of the Air Force members took a spill and passed out right in the middle of my speech. Does anyone know if there’s an EMT in the house?
I will never forget sitting in that front row, and feeling outside of myself as the Air Force members folded up the American flag, played TAPS, and delivered their touching speech that before then, I had only seen in the movies. A young African-American pretty lady handed me the folded up flag, and she said: “On behalf of the President of the United States of America, we thank you for your service.” I remember my brother sitting next to me, and when I cried, he started rubbing my back. And then there was a line. A long, endless line of loved ones, friends, family, colleagues … all there to say we love you, and his life mattered. The line seemed to never end, and the people kept coming and coming. “We’re sorry for your loss”, as they bent down to my chair and hugged me, then Don’s sister and George, then my brother and Jen, my mom, and my dad. The words continued from many. “So sorry for your loss.” My cousins and their families; my Aunt Ginny; Nicky and his wife Julie; all coming from far away to support me. The faces I went to college with at Adelphi over 20 years ago, all back together in one, horrific place. Holly, Meghan, Kim, Debra, Matt, Vinnie, Rodney, Jay, Andrew … it was so surreal. I remember each time I turned around, there was a new person to hug, another face to look at, a different soul to hear.
Once everyone had cleared out, they left us alone with Don. I will never forget my mom saying to him: “Thank you for being such a wonderful husband. We love you.” I remember what she said, and have no idea what I said. What do you say to someone that you know you will never see again, who doesn’t even look like themself and is lying there not breathing? There’s not much to say. As I walked out though, my only thought was: “How can we just leave him here all alone?” That simple thought crushed my insides. When we left the funeral home, I was escorted out and led through men and women in uniform forming a canopy above me with their swords. A long line of Hackensack Medical Center ambulances led the way and formed the most beautiful processional I have ever seen. They took us down NJ streets which were closed off for Don, and we were brought to the nearby Vanguard Healthcare, where Don worked and where we all gathered for after-death refreshments.
At the food gathering, I recall talking to people and mingling as if it were a normal event. As if my husband would join us any minute at his place of work and make some comment about idiot New Jersey drivers making him late. As Sarah and Julio served up gourmet food from his restaurant, and people talked and laughed and drank coffee and soda and ate cookies around me, I really wasn’t getting this. It wasn’t sinking in. I was there. But I was not there. I understood, but I couldn’t possibly understand. I cried tears, but I didn’t feel raw pain. Not yet. And not for awhile. That happened last month, and last week, and today.
Today – I attended my husband’s funeral for the first time, and finally looked at what was inside that casket. Today, I didn’t turn away. In some ways, today was the worst day of my life, because even though it happened a year ago; this time; I was there.