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?
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.
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.
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.