Count Me Out of the Countdown …

You know those annoying parents of newborns and toddlers and little kids, who count everything in months? You know the ones I’m talking about. It usually goes something like this:

Person: So how old is Dylan now?

Parent: Our little Dylan is 27 months and 2 days old! Can you believe it? His daddy and I are sooo proud of our little muffin man!

Can I believe it? No, I cannot believe that I am required to do math in order to figure out the age of your child, which, let’s be honest, I don’t really care about all that much to begin with. I was only asking to be polite. Now I’m over in the corner like a jackass mumbling to myself: “Okay, so 27 months, so that’s …. carry the 7 … divide by 3 … multiply by 3.14 pi … so … okay … muffin man is 2 years old, give or take a couple months. He is 2. So why the hell didn’t they just say that?”

Fast-forward to today. New Year’s Eve. December 31, 2012. It is exactly 17 months and 18 days since my husband’s sudden death. The old me found this “counting in months” thing to be obnoxious and weird. The new me, however, understands it perfectly. Parents talk in months for the same reason that widowed people do: Because every day counts. Every hour. Every minute. Every second. When a child is young and hasn’t lived a long time yet, you don’t want to say they are 2 years old unless they are actually 2 years old. If that child is 27 months old, that is 3 more months they have been on the planet, alive, and part of your world. You don’t want to shortchange yourself or them of that very valuable time. When a life is starting, every moment counts. When a life is over, every moment counts. For the widowed, Dealing with this hell of a life after such inconceivable loss, for 1 year, is a lot different than dealing with it for 16 months. That is four more months without them. You better believe we want that time acknowledged.

Widowed people count everything. We don’t even mean to – it just happens. It is what we live with, and it is inside of us. We count everything and we know every important day. Days that maybe were not so important when our loved one was here, become vital to us now. They become like air. We need them and we hold onto them just to breathe. Sometimes they act as a lifeline, a saving grace – other times they are simply raw and unbelievably painful to acknowledge, but we can’t help it. Sometimes our hearts and our bodies and our souls remind us that today is a certain day, whether we want to know it or not. Sometimes we wake up in the pain of the grief monster as it pokes at us and screams at us in that grating voice:

“Hey, asshole! Today is one year and 6 months since he died. I hope you weren’t planning on accomplishing anything today, because it’s not gonna happen. You are going to hurt all over, whether you like it or not! I’m gonna fuck you up so bad today, your eyelids are going to burn! There is no part on your physical body that will not feel the tremendous ache of me being here today! So get up, douchebag! The Grief Monster wants to play!”

This is why it is so exhausting to simply exist and get through the day. We are always counting. And if it’s a good day for us, it’s a horrible day for somebody else, another widowed person in the 9 billion online and real-life support groups we have become accustomed to hanging out in, so that someone our own age can possibly comprehend us and what we deal with. Always counting.

38 more days until the anniversary of the day that Don moved in with me. February 8th. And then just 6 days until my 2nd Valentine’s Day without him, and then, February 25th is, of course, the anniversary of the day that we first started talking to each other in that music chat room back in 1998.

The month of March is pretty quiet for me. Not a lot of counting or “sad-aversaries”, as widowed people call them. Old me used to hate the month of March, because it was so boring and pointless and there were no holidays or “fun” things for Don and I to celebrate. I used to tell him: “March is dumb. I don’t get any presents.” Now I love March, because I get to pause and breathe for 15 seconds before the countdown begins again.

April sucks because it reminds me of all the Easter weekends we spent with my family, and how much fun we had. And then somewhere around end of April and start of May, my heart starts reminding me of all the last time type of days – the things that I had no idea would be significant, because I had no idea that in just 2 short months, my husband would be dead.

May 7th. The last time he would sit in the audience and watch something that I had written being performed. (the Adelphi cabaret). It would also be the last time he would see my parents before he died. June 16th. The last time he would watch me do stand-up comedy onstage. The last time we would walk home together through NYC and he would say: “You were the best one, Boo.” July 4th. Our last one together. 9 days later, he would be gone. If I had only known that, I would have stayed home with him that night and relaxed like he wanted, instead of leaving him to go to Sarah’s BBQ. More counting.

 If I had known it would be their last conversation, I would have made sure that he and my Dad made it a quality one, when we called him to say Happy Birthday on July 11th. And if I knew that the next morning, I would be waking up to a new world in which my husband was already dead, maybe I could remember what the hell we even talked about or did on July 12th, before going to sleep. What we said. If I told him I loved him. I don’t know.

After July, the dates and the numbers and the counting get a little nutty. We go straight from his death-day right into my mom’s birthday a week later. Then my brother’s. And then my birthday. September 26, 2011, I turned 40, without my husband. And then 41. We go from that nightmare into the next – our wedding day. October 27th. Then his birthday on November 6th. Thanksgiving. December 18th, the day he proposed to me under that Rockefeller Center Tree. Christmas. And somewhere inside all of those days, are the ones that are only important to us. The ones that hurt like hell, but with nobody else noticing. The ones I count inside my head, like a raving lunatic, desperately searching for some small thread to hold onto.

 Like the day we first kissed. Or the day he told me “I love you” for the first time. The first time we were intimate. The day we adopted each of our individual kitties. The days that we lost our sweet Isabelle, and then Ginger. The night we talked about having a family. These are all days that I know in my heart. I know the date that they happened, and my body remembers it when it rolls around. These times and these moments are between a husband and a wife, between him and me. And he is no longer here to share them with, so I sit with these days in silence. I feel the pain in silence. Counting the memories in silence. Memories are brutal when the person you shared them with isn’t there to help you remember.

So tonight is New Year’s Eve. I’m invited for an early dinner reservation at Sage Bistro, my best friend Sarah’s husband’s restaurant on Long Island. I will  go to that dinner, and then I will be home and sitting alone by 10pm. I do not want to celebrate the coming of a new year. I do not want to wear funny-looking glasses and sing songs and drink champagne. I have no desire to hear about New Year’s Resolutions or come up with my own, and I really do not feel like watching happy couples kissing and hugging one another at midnight. Last year was my first New Year’s Eve without my husband. I didnt know how much it would hurt, until it was suddenly happening. I was at a dinner-party with my parents, and a few minutes before the countdown to midnight, I felt sick to my stomach. I had to get out. I wanted to cry for hours and days and never stop. I told mom and dad that we needed to leave, and I sat in their car in the backseat. When they said their goodbyes and got in the car, I told my dad: “Please dont put the radio on. I cant hear the countdown. I just cant.” And so, 2011, the year that my husband died and left me with this new life, passed and turned into 2012. I did not celebrate it. I did not hear the countdown. It happened anyway. I ran into my parents bed that night, and cried myself to sleep. Eventually.

Do you know what I was thinking about? What was so upsetting to me? It was not the idea that other couples had one another, or that I had nobody to kiss at midnight, or that New Year’s Eve was something we celebrated together. It was none of those things. It was much bigger than that. It was the idea that my husband would never know another year. 2011 would be the last year that he would ever know. He would not see another President get elected, or another sunset over NYC. I would not get to take him to California on the trip we were planning to go back to the area he grew up in as a kid. He would never meet our niece, Jillian. He would not see our nephew Brian grow up. He would never be a dad, or play another guitar chord, or hear another song. No more seeing a great movie together, or watching the Yankees almost, not-quite make the World Series again this year. No more future. No more tomorrows.

That is why I cried right through midnight last year, and why I will once again turn off all electronics tonight, and just be alone, sitting with the pain in silence. It doesn’t really matter anyway. 2013 is coming. It will be here tomorrow, with or without my participation. With or without my fanfare or my confetti or my wacky noise-maker. And to be honest, I am exhausted. I am tired from all the counting. For the past 17 months and 18 days, I have done nothing but countdown to the next sad thing. And since my husband cannot ever countdown to a new year, ever again, I don’t want to either. It just all feels terribly wrong.

So please don’t wish me a Happy New Year. Really. It is nothing personal. I just don’t feel much like celebrating, and there is not much about it that seems “happy” to me right now. Maybe next year. Maybe later. Maybe never. I just don’t know.

I only know this:

 While the world watches the ball drop in Times Square with douchebag Ryan Seacrest – loudly and excitedly yelling and counting down from 10 all the way down to 1, I will sit in the silence of the cold, dark night; finding the only ten seconds of peace, where I can finally stop all the counting.

Pieces

My world hangs in mid-air. Things are scattered on the ceiling, on the floor. Nothing is where it used to be. I cannot find anything. Where is that thing that was once my life? Where did it go?

My old life and my new life melt together like chocolate in a bowl. They crash into one another and it makes no sense. Happy memories of a beautiful marriage smash my heart into bits. Stockings and presents on Christmas morning become ulcers and migraines and things I cannot let enter into my atmosphere. Everything I love is now pain. So much pain.

Why doesn’t anyone ever tell you how much this hurts? How much it continues to hurt? Why does the level of pain remain so high? Don’t you get rewarded for grieving properly and in a healthy way? Everyone keeps telling me I am “doing all the right things.” I never fight my emotions. I cry when I want to cry. I scream. I write. I live. I honor him. I dont drink, and I don’t take drugs. There is nothing wrong with taking medication to get through this, nothing at all wrong with that. I know some people need that and it is helpful or necessary for them. It is just not for me. I would rather feel and live inside the Hell. I prefer that a sharp knife stab me than for a dull one to numb me. But how many times must I be stabbed over and over and over and over again? Ten thousand? Twenty? Four million?

18 months. Almost 18 months of this intensity. Waking up to the stabbing. Living in the muddy waters. Swimming in the endless sea. No end. No shore. Reading the book again and again. Flipping the page, but the words are the same. Every page has the same sentences, and they all make me hurt. Didn’t I already read this chapter? I know I did. Why are all the chapters repeating? Can I get a different book? Soon it will be 20 months. Then 2 years. Three. Five. Seven. Ten. 14 years. Twenty-one. Will the hurt be less then? Will it even matter?

I tried to run from the holidays. Pretended Christmas didn’t exist. No gifts, no decorations, didnt go home to my family to do the wonderful things we all used to do together, with my husband. Cannot do it without my husband. But after hosting friends for brunch and then seeing Les Miserable at the movies and having a beautiful gourmet Christmas Eve dinner, I ended up at the same place I always do: Here. Aware.

Turns out it’s impossible to forget. Because when Christmas Eve came to an end, and I was lying in my bed alone, my heart was never more aware of what night it was. And when I woke up the next morning – still alone – the awareness got even stronger. More potent. The only thought on my mind: It is Christmas morning, and he is gone. He will always be gone.

I try to prepare for the grief. I stay clear of people and situations that I know will hurt like hell. But sometimes it doesn’t even matter. It hurts like hell anyway.

My past, present, and future collide. They stand together by force; like a bunch of acquaintances at an office party; awkwardly making conversation. It makes no sense. It is all scrambled in chaos. The things, the people, the life. All of it dancing with one another, stuffed inside of my heart.

I miss my future. The one that we dreamt of together. Moving out of our New Jersey apartment and finding a nice place for us and our kitties in New York. Me – finally succeeding in comedy, landing a TV role or sitcom or writing gig, and Don supporting me every step of the way, like always. Not struggling anymore. Maybe having a family of our own. Maybe adoption. Building a recording studio inside our home so Don could play his guitars as often and as loud as he wanted, and I could sing. Helping my parents out and spending more time with them and my brothers family, like we talked about. Growing old together and moving back to Florida one day, where he lived before I entered his soul and his life. Being old. Having our life, instead of just 5 years. Decades. What a beautiful word. Decades.

I miss my past. The one we had together. The early days of falling in love with each other, of feeling high as a kite during our engagement, like nothing could ever be bad. Like we could do anything forever, and we would always be that happy. Adopting kittens together and moving in together and buying furniture and exchanging deep and powerful marriage vows. Introducing him to my family and watching as they fell in love with him, just like I knew they would, just like I did. Dinners and vacations and anniversaries that didn’t have the word “death” before them. Living inside our ordinary, incredible, beautiful life. Feeling safe and secure and protected. Feeling loved and supported, knowing he had my back. Feeling ancious and excited about what was to come. Loving tomorrow.

I miss our present. I miss the now that we had as a couple. The tiny moments, the laughter, the silly songs, the thing that only he would understand and that I cannot explain in words to anyone else on the planet. Noises and sounds and secret phrases and patterns and codes. The language we spoke with each other. The language that now sits alone. Hangs in mid-air, nowhere for it to go. No longer anyone to share it with. The love. The secrets. That look I gave him. The nicknames and pet names we had for each other. Where does it go? Where does it all go now? What do I do with all these secrets and feelings and sighs and tiny, ginormous pieces that made up us?

Where does it go? It just hangs there. I cannot drop it. I will not forget. It sucks to hold on. There are so many pieces of that life that just hang there. Like rejects. Misfits. I want all of the pieces back again. I want them back. It was my life. It was ours. You can’t just yank someone’s life away and just leave them with nothing but hurt and pain and unfinished love. Give me back the pieces.

I wasn’t finished.

To the Families of the Victims at Sandy Hook Elementary …

There is a good chance that you may never read this. Or maybe you will read it sometime far away in the future. Weeks, months, or even years from now. I hope that somehow, someday, this finds you, and that you do read it eventually, because I can feel your hearts, and they are hurting. I hear your pain, and it is gut-wrenching. And I know that if you ever do read this, it will not be right now. Right now, as I type these words, and as the country argues over gun laws and school security and mental illness, you are sitting or standing or being interviewed on TV somewhere, and you are in deep shock. People keep saying you are so strong, as you aimlessly wander through endless funerals and speeches and burials, and you are stunned and you are numb and you are changed with each new second of horror that you face. You are living this new reality – this new world that you never asked for. You are just trying to breathe and make it through the next day, the next hour, the next minute. If you did happen to read this right now, you wouldn’t remember it anyway. You are living in the fog of grief. Welcome to your new life.

Happiest Day of my Life

 It is a life I am very familiar with. Last year, on July 13, 2011, 17 months and 5 days ago (because that is how I count things now), I woke up to this new life at 6:30am when my phone wouldn’t stop ringing, over and over and over again. “We have your husband”, the hospital said on the phone when I finally picked up. “You need to get down here right away.” Even though my husband Don was only 46 years old, in very good health, was not sick, and had absolutely NO symptoms of anything ever, I knew by their words in that moment that he was probably in a coma or dead. Why? Because I was married to an EMT, and one of the things he always told me was that hospitals are not allowed to inform you that your loved one has died over the phone. They have to tell you in person.

So I rushed myself into a car service and got myself to the E.R., the whole time saying out loud to myself over and over and over: “This isn’t happening, this isnt happening, this isnt happening.” I ran faster than I have ever run in my life into that waiting room. Nurses and doctors whispered and tried to calm me down. They brought me into a private room and made me sit down, at least 15 of them surrounding me, offering me things like water and tissues. One of the doctors sat down and said a whole bunch of words that ended with the only ones that were important: “He didn’t make it. We are so sorry.” The sound that came out of me was something that, at the time, terrified me. Since that day, I have made similar type sounds many times in the throws of grieving. Sounds that have become my everyday norm. That morning, the love of my life went into work, and never came home. He collapsed on the floor of a Petsmart while working his 2nd job stocking dog and cat food and helping with animal adoptions, a passion of his. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to tell him I love you. We didnt even say good morning. While I lay in our bed fast asleep, my husband lay on a cold ,hard floor, dying. Massive heart attack, they said. Cardiac arrest.

 

Since that awful morning that changed everything forever, I have become a different person. I am now the kind of person that writes letters like this to people I don’t even know, or will probably never meet. Because when something like this happens to you and shatters your world, you feel a connection and a bond and a secret understanding with anyone else whose life is torn apart in the blink of an eye. Or the stop of a heart. Or the shot of a gun. You want to embrace them. You want to tell them that things will never be the same, and that they will not ever get over it, but they will get through it. You want them to know, more than anything, that there is someone out there who feels a tiny piece of what they might be going through, but at the same time, has absolutely no idea what they are going through. You want to give them all of the tools and the maps and the directions on how to cope and how to make it through the next moment. You want to help.

So, today, Newtown families, just days after your entire world has been stolen from you, when everyone else is busy arguing and debating about why this happened – I want to deliver a different message. I want to talk with you about a Monster that attacks everybody at some point in their lives. We all know it’s coming, but we don’t know when or why. It doesn’t matter anyway, because when it comes for you, it takes over your entire being, and you are drowning in the ocean and choking on salt water just to stay alive. I am talking, of course, about the monster called GRIEF.

They matter.

Every single day, I am learning, still learning, how to handle this evil monster. Although I don’t yet have all the answers, and probably never will, I would like to share with you some of the things that I have figured out so far, in the hopes that it might help you to get through that next cup of coffee, that next Christmas, or that next death anniversary. I am not sure if I would call what I am about to write here “advice”, suggestions, or just words. Maybe they are just words, but sometimes, words can resonate, and they can move you. And by putting words out there, you never know who might read them.

 1. People often ask me different versions of the question: “Are you doing better? Are you getting better? Do you feel better?” No. Please know that there is no such thing as things getting better. This is not a scratch on your elbow or your knee that heals. It is not the flu. Your child, or your brother or sister, your mom, your grandchild, your cousin or aunt … is gone. It does not get better. That reality is never, ever okay. It gets different. It gets easier, very slowly, because you pick up coping skills along the way. Skills that help you fight the monster. Skills that help you sit with the monster in silence, and realize that he isn’t leaving. Ever. Skills that show you how to get along with the monster, and ask him if he wants a cup of tea. You don’t accept. You adjust. You don’t move on. You move forward. You try and live, because they no longer can.

2. Cling to anything that works. Anything that helps you. (Let me clarify. If drinking, drugs, or other things that will harm you or others are the things that help you, please don’t cling to those things. That would not be good, and in the end, you are only prolonging and postponing the monster. He will come back with a vengeance.) Family. Religion. Music. Hobbies. Reading. Exercise. Volenteering. Cooking. Sailing. Whatever it is. Something I wrote awhile back which I think is the extreme truth is this: Everything hurts, but some things help while they hurt. For me, writing slightly helps. Connecting to others who “get it” slightly helps. Being creative helps. Humor helps. Helping other people, and finding ways to honor my husband’s kindness helps. Please know that sometimes, many times, absolutely nothing helps. Sometimes, you will just scream or sob or lose your freakin mind because you miss them so powerfully that you actually cannot breathe. In those moments of complete hopelessness and sorrow, what I try to remind myself of is this: Everything is temporary. These intense emotions will not last forever. I will feel differently soon, and then they will change and shift again, and again. It hurts, but it also helps to know that any emotion or feeling I have, is fleeting. Joy. Anger. Hope. Fear. They all go away and return, just like the moon and sun. Try to embrace that. It helps.

 3. People are clueless. They say stupid and thoughtless things, and then other people will tell you that the reason for this is that they just dont know what to say. Hmmm … well, for people who don’t know what to say, they sure do have a lot to say! There are an endless number of insensitive comments you will receive from mostly well-intentioned people, but here are a few of my all-time favorites: God Needed Another Angel. / It was God’s Plan or Will. / He/she is in a better place. / God Never Gives you More than you can handle. / It’s a good thing you have other children. (or in my case – at least you didnt have children.) / You are young – you will get over this. / Be positive. / Time heals All Wounds. / I know how you feel. / Its time to put this behind you. / Be strong. / (to surviving sibling) Now you are the man (or woman) of the house. When you encounter these types of comments, try to remember that these people have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. They do not live inside this, and they just don’t know. Sometimes, remembering this helps me from wanting to smack them into the next time zone. But only sometimes.

4. Do not expect any of this to make sense. Because it doesn’t. The grieving, the feelings, the emotions, the why did this happen? Why us? Why him/her? The endless questions you will keep taunting yourself with: Were they scared? Did they know what was happening? Did they wonder why I wasnt there to help them? WHY DID THIS HAPPEN??? These are all things that will plague you on a constant loop in your mind, and you will drive yourself nuts with it. There really are no answers, and only time will make you feel a bit less awful about it. If religion helps you with some of these types of questions, then lean on that to comfort yourself. If it doesn’t, then try not to take outside opinions on the subject to heart. Feel whatever you feel, and never apoligize for it. With grief, the only way out is through. If you go into this knowing upfront that it won’t make any sense and that everything you are feeling, no matter how dark or foreign, is normal, then you will be a small step ahead. I wish someone had told me this in the beginning, in those first 5 or 6 months after his death, where I felt like I was literally losing my mind.

Benjamin Wheeler

Expect the unexpected. Emotions will change and shift like the wind. In one hour, you can go from joy to bitter, anger to fear, hopeless to elation. Things that you never thought would affect you, will affect you greatly, and other things might not. The first round of holidays without him, I worried and worried about Christmas Day, because it used to be my favorite day of the year. That day passed without much crying, but then New Years Eve sent me into a tailspin that I never in a million years expected. We didnt even celebrate New Year’s Eve! But I was at a party with my parents that night, and just minutes before midnight, I said to my mom: “I HAVE to get out of here. I feel like I cant breathe.” We got in our car and left. “Turn the radio off”, I said. I could not hear the countdown to midnight. I just couldnt do it. The one thought inside my head was this: My husband will never see another year change. He will never countdown to a new year. He has no more years. 2011 is the last year he will ever know. That thought filled me with pain, and I sat in my bed until 2am, crying for him and all the things he would never get to do or see. You never know what will hit you, or why. You cant prepare for what you will feel, but you can prepare by knowing it’s all a big, fat clusterfuck.

Noah Pozner

5. Get help. In any way that you can. By as many people as you can. When community or friends or family offer to help, take them up on it. Let them. A lot of people will offer to help you in the beginning, and sometimes, you just want everybody to leave you alone. Here is something you will soon learn: one day, you will look around and realize that you got your wish, and everyone has left you alone. In the end, people move on with their own lives, and they will help you when they can. Or not. But you are the ones that have to live inside this grief. You are the ones who won’t be taking your little girl to school tomorrow, or watching your little boy open his Christmas gifts. You are the ones who go to bed every night, knowing and remembering what you will wake up to tomorrow. Forever. It can be extremely isolating, even with all this media attention. One day you may be in a big room somewhere, surrounded by hundreds of people, and you will think to yourself: I have never felt more alone. Take the help that is offered. Talk to people. Create a support group with the other families of this horrific loss. They will be the only other people in the world who truly understand. You will find a complicated love and bond with one another – one that can only be created through mutual pain. Seek grief counseling. The support groups I have joined and my private counseling sessions have been two lifesavers for me. It is impossible to go through this alone. Your soul needs help. It is broken. Please don’t be ashamed or embarassed to ask for help. It took me awhile to figure this one out, because I don’t like to burden people. Now, whenever I ask for help, my friends come running.

 

Rachel D’Avino

6. Trauma creates trauma. You have been through and will continue to go through a traumatic event. When someone dies suddenly, with zero warning, that is a trauma that creates all kinds of fun issues for those of us who are left behind. Physical, mental, psyhological issues. Things like anxiety, panic attacks, migraines, muscle aches, heartburn, ulcers, vertigo (that is my latest one, most likely brought on by severe stress), dietary changes, lack of sleep, depression (which is very different than grief), joint pain … the list goes on and on. Add to the trauma of sudden death the extremely violent nature in which their lives were taken, and you have a recipe for years of P.T.S.D. (post traumatic stress disorder.)

Just to warn you, there will be many triggers, and they will be different for each of you. In some of you, they may show up right away – maybe when bringing your other children to school, or when hearing a gunshot of any kind. For others, the trauma can lie there, dormant inside of you, and show up at some random and unexpected time. For me, because my husband died of a sudden heart-attack and I was told his only symptom at work that morning was that he had a mild stomach-ache and used the bathroom a couple times, I convinced myself one ordinary Tuesday morning, that I, too, was dying of a heart-attack, because I had a stomach-ache. What was actually happening to me was my very first ever panic-attack. I started to get similar feelings whenever driving by the hospital where he died and where I sat in that cold, tiny room with him as he lie there, no longer alive. Since he was an E.M.T., anytime I see or pass by ambulances, I get a nauseous feeling everywhere inside me. I still can’t go into the Petsmart where he collapsed, and when I see anyone in a paramedic, cop, or firefighter uniform, I want to run up to them and hug them, because their uniforms ALL remind me of my husband’s.

Olivia Engel

It doesn’t have to be a horrible memory that creates a terrible physical sensation inside you. No. Sometimes the happy ones are even harder. Like Christmas. I can’t stop thinking about how this awful, evil thing happened to all of you so close to the holidays, and so now the holidays will forever be sprinkled with heartache. My husband proposed to me underneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in December of 2005, because that is how much I loved Christmas. Now? All the things that I once loved bring me intense pain. I can’t even go near that tree. I tried. A couple weeks ago, I found myself walking to our tree, where I sat down and sobbed into my hands for almost an hour. I wasn’t ready, and I will never try and rush through my grief again, because it feels awful.

Trauma creates trauma. Month or years after this day that changed your world, something else will happen in the world that will bring it all back again. Some other type of traumatic event or something similar enough in your heart, that it screams out to you and stabs at your soul. This school shooting did that for me. It brought me right back to the morning when my world collapsed, and it affected me and continues to affect me on a very intense level. To be honest, I am not entirely sure why. My husband died just 3 months shy of our 5 year wedding anniversary, so we hadn’t yet started our family together. I am not a parent. I am, however, a college professor, so it hit me on that level, from a teacher’s perspective and just trying to imagine the horror of something like that happening.

 Would I act as bravely as these incredible women did? Would I be like Victoria Soto, or Principal Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Rachel D’Avino, Mary Sherlack, or Lauren Rousseau? I can only hope so, but I just don’t know. This event also hit me as the widow of an E.M.T., Air Force veteran, and animal lover / activist. My husband wanted to rescue everybody, especially children and animals. I remember asking him one time how he copes with seeing people, patients in pain and sick and dying. He said: “I do it for that moment where I can save them and make them better and help them. That moment when we save one person is worth everything.” His heart would break whenever he couldn’t save a child, and it would soar when he could. And so; when I think about the unthinkable that happened just a few days ago, I think about my husband, and how he would have given his life to protect or save those kids. I think about all the heroes that emerged that day, and how he was a hero to me. I think about all of the kids and teachers, and how just looking at their pictures and hearing their stories touches me to my core. How I feel an intense desire to read about and listen to their stories, because they were here and they lived and they existed, and I want to honor that. It’s so important to always honor that, because people forget too easily. People move on when the next big media story comes along. They take their cameras and their reporters and their phony, anxious concern – and they sprint away to the next thing. But because of what I have been through and what I have lost and who I have become, I will never ever forget. Nor do I want to. They have all touched me in some way, and their lives matter. They matter.

Dylan Hockley

Daniel Bardun mattered. He was 7 years old and he took after his musician dad, by forming a band with his brother and sister. He played the drums. Rachel D’Avino mattered. She was 29 years old, loved animals and photography, and her best friend was planning a surprise marriage proposal to her on Christmas Eve. Charlotte Bacon was only 6, and she was an outgoing, energetic girl who loved pretty dresses, and school.

Oliva Engel, 6, sounds like someone I would have loved to spend time with. She loved theatre and dance, and she was very bright and grateful, leading Grace at the dinner table nightly. Dawn Huchsprung was a mom, a wife, and the principal at Sandy Hook. She pushed her body toward the killer’s in the hopes of stopping him and protecting her schoolkids. I can’t stop thinking about her husband, and how he is now widowed, like me. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that Dylan Hockley, a 6 year old who loved trampolines and video games, was in the wrong place at the wrong time after his family relocated from England to smalltown Newtown, Connecticutt. Josephine Gay mattered too. She had just turned 7, and she loved riding her bike and selling lemonade in the summertime.

Catherine Hubbard

I never knew Emilie Parker, 6, but I will never forget her name or presence. Her grandmother, Betty, was just widowed 11 weeks ago and is part of an online support group I belong to called “Hope for Widows.” When it was posted on Facebook by the group leader that little Emilie was Betty’s granddaughter, my heart sunk instantly and I cried for her. Emilie’s father described her as having an “infectious laugh”, and said “the world is a better place, because she was in it.” A born leader and avid reader at only 6 years old, Madeleine Hsu was so loved by her family. Chase Kowalski, 7, also mattered. He loved baseball, Cub Scouts, and completed his first triathalon at the young age of 6. Catherine Hubbard, the beautiful little red-head, was a girl after my own heart. Just like my husband, she loved animals more than anything, and she dreamt of growing up one day to open her very own animal shelter. Catherine was just 6 years old, and her family asks that those who wish to honor her, to please do so by donating to the Newtown Animal Center.

Dawn Hochsprung

Jesse Lewis was 6 years old and his life mattered. He loved riding horses, and was excited to make gingerbread houses at school that Friday. Ana Marquez-Greene, 6, took after her jazz-musician father, and loved to sing. She was beautiful and vibrant, and loved her little brother. Anne Marie Murphy was a 52 year old mom, and a hero. She was found by first-responders with her body covering young children, as she attempted to shield them from the gunfire. Grace McDonnell, 7, was one of those young children. She wanted to be a painter, and she wanted world peace. James Mattioli was 6 and 3/4 old, as he loved to tell people. He looked up to his big sister, loved to eat, and enjoyed swimming and diving. Jack Pinto was 6 years old, and he loved wrestling, basketball, and football, especially Giants star receiver Victor Cruz, who paid tribute to the boy by penning “Jack Pinto: My Hero” on his cleats before the last big game, and by meeting with his family.

Caroline Previti was 6 years old, and although I was unable to find any information on her, her life mattered greatly. Messages on her Facebook Memorial Page call her a sweet little Angel. Noah Pozner was a 6 year old boy who “lit up a room” with his mischievious smile, said his family. Jessica Rekos had a passion for horses, and was often referred to as “our little CEO” by her family, due to her intelligence and wit. Avielle Richman, 6, also loved horses, and recently had her first loose tooth, which she excitedly wiggled for her family. All these children matter, and their lives and stories need to live on. Lauren Rosseau, 30, wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a little girl, and was hired as a permanant substitute teacher at Sandy Hook. Mary Sherlach was the school psychologist, and she was with Hochsprung when they heard popping noises. She was shot to death while going out into the hallway to see what was happening. Mary was 56, married, and was the proud mom of two daughters in their 20’s. Victoria Soto, 27, was another hero. Moving her students away from the classroom door, where gunfire was erupting, she protected them from harm’s way, before the shooter burst into the room and shot her without saying a word.

Benjamin Wheeler, 6, loved lighthouses, the # 7 train to Sunnyside, Queens, and The Beatles. (The Beatles? Seriously? How cool does this kid sound?) Allison Wyatt, also 6, loved to draw and wanted to be an artist. She once gave her snack to a complete stranger on an airplane. Nancy Lanza, mom of two boys and seperated from her husband, would become the first victim of her son’s killing spree. Ironically, it would be the guns that she bought for protection, that would be used to murder her, and 26 others.

27 people. Here one second, gone the next. Their entire lives in front of them. Dreams unrealized. Futures stolen. And you. Their family. You are left behind to put together the pieces, to figure this out, to live a life. There will be some days when you don’t want to, or when you don’t think you can. There will be times when you just want to leave this world, and go be with them, somehow. In those times; try and focus on the love. Try and think about their light. Their joy. Try and capture what made them so special, and then find ways to honor it. Honor them. Sometimes it is the only reason to keep breathing, to honor them and to make sure that others know how incredible they were.

Tell their story. Be their heart. And please, be gentle on yourself. Grieving is the hardest thing you will ever do. Just get through today, and then eventually, you will find that you are getting through tomorrow. It takes time. And it will hurt. But if you aren’t afraid to live inside of it, you will come out the other side. You will make it. You will use their strength to guide you, and on their wings, you will soar.

 

For a list of where and how to donate to families of Newtown, go here:

http://www.wptv.com/dpp/news/world/sandy-hook-donation-information-where-and-how-to-donate-to-newtown-connecticut-victims

 

Living Inside Uncomfortable

There seems to be an annoying assumption lately, amongst the general public – directed at those of us who have the unfortunate reality of being widowed too soon in life. The assumption is this: Happiness is a destination. Happiness is a Choice. You Hold the Power to be Happy.

You know what? Happiness can suck my ass.

I have heard a lot of comments recently; some said to me specifically; and some said to other widowed friends who then shared their frustrations with me and others. Some of these comments have even been said by other widowed people, which makes me very sad, because if we can’t turn to one another without judgement during this new reality, then who can we turn to? Comments such as: “At some point, you make a decision to be happy. Happiness is a choice.” Or “You need to start living your life again.” Or “you need to be open to the idea that you can be happy.” For me, these type of comments began a few months ago, right around or after the one-year “anniversary” of Don’s death. That seems to be the universally understood expiration date for how long I’m allowed to have feelings. After that point, I suppose I am expected to just discard my husband away in an imaginary file somewhere, forget he ever existed, and just BE HAPPY! Why do I assume this? Because whenever I bring up his name in conversation, most times, people give me these pathetic, pitiful eyes that say: Poor, sad widow. Is she really talking about her dead husband again?

Are we there yet?

So; to the many people who have implied or directly suggested that I “start living my life again” – what does that even mean? What exactly should I be doing that would make you people satisfied? I don’t even understand this comment. Do they mean that I should be dating people? Should I be out there having casual sex with random people? Would that make these people feel better? It wouldn’t do a damn thing for me, and would most likely screw me up even further emotionally, but hey, as long as the outside world is okay with how I’m processing my grief – that is all that matters. Live my life again? I am living my life. Every single damn day, I get up and attempt life. Over and over and over again. My heart physically aches and I am in massive pain, but I choose to get up and try again. I don’t have to. I have no children to take care of or get up for, and most days, it is difficult for me to figure out the point in doing much of anything if I can’t have my husband here to share it with me. But I do it anyway. I get up anyway, because I don’t want to put my family in the same horrific pain that I am in now. The pain of losing someone you love. So, not only do I get up out of my bed each day; I also sometimes get shit done. There have been many accomplishments on my end in the past 16 months. Would you like to hear about them? Good. Thanks for asking.

Performing at Comedy Benefit for my husband …

I wrote a Eulogy to honor my husband. Then I delivered it at his service. I wrote a One-Act Play. Then I performed it in a festival and made the Semi-Finals. I raised $2000 for Organ and Tissue Donation, and walked a 5K in honor of my husband. I moved out of the place we called home together for 7 years, and into a brand new place. I did Stand-Up Comedy as part of a Benefit to honor Don’s life, and continue to perform whenever given the opportunity. I go to work everyday. I teach. I go on auditions. I write my book. I see friends, go to parties, and generally do most things that other human beings do. I live my life. I also grieve. I conquered my very real fears and hesitations about seeing a therapist, and have been seeing an amazing grief counselor for almost a year now. I have attended 3 different Widow Support Groups; with varying levels of success. I feel very real and very raw feelings and emotions about his death. I write about them. I talk about them. I am not fearful to do so. I will not hide away in some grief-closet and pretend like everything is okay, because that is what makes the world around me comfortable. Everything is definitely not okay. But I am trying. What the hell else do you want from me?

To the people who have told me that I need to decide to be happy, that I have the power, that happiness is a choice, I say this: Is it? Was it a choice on that July morning when I woke up, and my husband was already gone? Was it a choice that in one instant at age 39, the entire course of my life changed and I became a widow? Is the PTSD I suffer from every single day a choice? The migraines? The heart-palpatations? The constant anxiety? How about my very first panic-attack, about a month after he died, when I was alone in our apartment and convinced myself that I was going to have a heart-attack like he did? Was that a choice? The fact that I haven’t had one full night’s sleep in 16 months. The very real physical symptoms of grief; the exhaustion, the knee and joint pain, the shakes, the sobbing out of nowhere, the anger, the ache in every muscle, everywhere. The nightmares. The horrible nightmares when I wake up screaming or crying in the night, and I reach for a person who is no longer there. The health-insurance that I lost when he died. The loss of that safe feeling you have as a female, when your husband is there to protect you. The loss of our future. Our life. Our dreams.

None of these things were a choice, and I don’t appreciate constantly feeling like some sort of Widow-Fail, because I am not getting “over this” (no such thing) or “through this” quickly enough for the world at large. I do realize that most people just don’t know what to say and are only trying to help. Okay. But it is equally important that we begin to get rid of this very wrong idea that grief has a finish line, and that you should be well on your way to it after a year or two. We live in a world that is terrified of emotion. I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink alcohol. I express my feelings. I feel them, with no filter. I tell the truth. In this blog, and in my life. That frightens a lot of people, and confuses others. Honestly, I feel like if I were “coping” with my grief by downing bottles of vodka and medicating myself on endless pills, most people would be way more comfortable with that, then they are with someone who actually feels their feelings and puts them out there for everyone to see. That is sad, and it still shocks me on some level. People are so uncomfortable just sitting within themselves. I am not uncomfortable with myself, and I have learned that in order to really grieve, you have to be able to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Grieving sucks, and it’s a process. Ebb and flow. No beginning, no end. It shifts. It changes. Stops and starts. Sits in neutral. But you can’t speed it along. You can’t rush it. You can’t turn to the last page of the book, because the book has no ending. Grief changes you. Forever. This is the new me. Darker. more aware. Open-minded. Sometimes hopeful. Sometimes fearful. Feels joy, but lives inside sad. Always. It’s just there. Like breathing. It’s there.

Happiness is not that simple, and it’s not a place you get to, like driving in a car somewhere. It comes and goes. Like A.M. Radio. It’s there. It exists, but the signal is weak. It lives inside a fog. It’s like the wind. Sometimes it’s there. Sometimes it’s gone. I have felt happiness. I have had joy. But like everything else since his death, they are emotions, and they are fleeting. They come. They go. They return. They leave. They are unexpected and weird and shift and change out of nowhere. Today, for example, I felt pure joy and intense sorrow in the same 30 second period. An old friend of mine from college, Nicole, got married last year. Her wedding happened to be the same week as Don’s funeral. She came to the services, which was incredibly sweet of her.

Me with my friend Nicole. Long ago. Happy.

Today, she gave birth to her very first child. She posted a beautiful picture of her new daughter on Facebook. As I looked at the picture of the new life, I felt such joy for her and her husband. I smiled. And then I read the comments underneath the photo. “Welcome to motherhood – the most important thing you will ever do in life.” “This will be the happiest time for you and your new family.” “There is nothing as wonderful as being a parent.” Suddenly, my face turned hot, I was nauseous, and I began sobbing uncontrollably. Ran to my bed and cried for almost an hour, when seconds before, I was happy. Reading those comments underneath that picture was like 37 stabs to the heart, and there I was – bleeding. I would never experience a family with my husband. We would never hold a baby together, or look at a sonogram together, or name our child together. He would never get to be a dad, and I would never be a mom. And just like that, the happiness was gone. Fleeting.

People often say that grief is like being on a roller-coaster. I think it’s a bit more like a board game. A really bad, lame, torturous board game, that you are forced to play over and over again. Alone. There are no other players, you are stuck inside this game, and you just have to keep going around and around the board. Forever. Each time you think you are moving forward, you are pushed back by something unexpected or painful. Each roll of the dice is riddled with the unknown. You have no idea what will happen next – you just know that this is your new existance now, and there is nothing you can do to change it. Just play.

START. Wake up. Ringing phone. You are now a widow.

Roll Dice. Advance Token to Hospital to View Dead Husband in small, private room. Go back 3 spaces due to extreme shock.

Friends gather in your tiny apartment, armed with fruit and bagels. Escape to bathroom for your first real cry.

Planning of husband’s funeral creates Stress. Go to bed. Go directly to bed. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.

Move in with mom and dad for 2 weeks. Feel like you are 12 again. Return to apartment you shared with husband – alone. Wish you were 12 again.

First day back at work. Students whisper about you in the hallways. Advance to your car in between classes. Sob like a baby. 

Collect one-time Social Security payment of $250 after annoying phone-call with Town Clerk office. This will act as your only form of financial help from authorities/government. Ever.

Death certificate arrives in mail. Husband’s name in print, next to the word “Deceased.” Go back 2 spaces.

Community Chest Card: Friends offer to take you to lunch. Dinner. They want to stop by. All the time. You appreciate it, but you need time to process and wish everyone would just leave you alone.

Roll Doubles. You now have double the bills! Double the rent! But you are alone. Must pay these bills alone. One paycheck.

GET OUT OF WORK FREE Card. This card entitles you to not go to work, so that you may pick up your husband’s Ashes and then collapse into your own emotional pile of dust.

Chance Card: Months pass. Your friends stop calling and asking how you are. You get your wish to be left alone. Everyone leaves you alone.

Advance token to the nearest Wedding! A dear friend is getting married. Move up 7 spaces for getting through the day. Lie in bed for 3 days afterward, shutting yourself off from the world. Go back 4 spaces.

Congratulations! You wrote a One-Act Play and made the Semi-Finals of major Festival! Move up 20 spaces.

Performing play about Grief forces you to re-live actual grief and first days surrounding his death. Start Game Over.

You get the idea. Of course, I could go on, because this is just a tiny sample of my life, and I’m sure many of my readers are already uncomfortable reading it. It’s okay. I’m uncomfortable too. I’ve just learned how to live inside of uncomfortable. Everyday, I am learning how to cope with the very real pain that sits in my heart. Lingering. Loitering. Hanging around, unwanted.

I get up. Everyday. Some days are fine. Some days are hell. Happiness comes. Shadowed by sorrow. Joy is present. Wrapped inside hurt. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I scream. Wail. Yell. Sit. Breathe. Fight.

In certain moments, there are things that help. Friends. Family. Writing. Being me. Acting silly.

In other moments, nothing helps. Sometimes there is nothing at all you can do, except feel the pain, sit inside of it, marinate in the hurt, feel the discomfort, don’t run away, get up again and try tomorrow.

Facing the grief. Living life. Telling the truth. Moving forward when your heart is gone. Walking through shattered glass. Taking off the mask and the phony timeline behind grief, and revealing the sickening reality that lies underneath. Living in that world every second, terrified as you may be.

That is a choice. That is my choice, and I won’t apoligize for it.

Happiness is not a destination or a goal that you try and achieve. It’s a feeling, and like all feelings, it is not permanent. Ask me if I am happy right now. No. Ask me again in 2 hours. Could be yes. It is temporary. Life is temporary. Most things are. The strange part is – once you realize this and come to accept it – there is something very oddly comforting inside of that knowledge. Terrifying, and comforting.

Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve always preferred the truth over unicorns, the sarcastic joke over the inspirational message, the reality over the fantasy.

Happiness will be there. And then it won’t. But for now, it can suck my ass.