Throw a Parade

Over the last few weeks and months or so, I have been witnessing a lot of very deep hurt and pain, coming from my friends in the widowed community. A lot of my widowed friends have been collectively hurting lately, and it is sitting on my heart like a great big boulder. When people you care about are in pain, and all you can do is sit there and stare at it, it is a really awful and helpless feeling. It literally makes my heart hurt.

Of course, there is the everyday pain of losing the person you loved most in this world, but that pain is there every single day, every time you breathe. Some days, that pain sits in the backdrop of your life, mildly making itself known here and there, but generally allowing you to live. And other days, that pain does a 14-hour non-stop drum solo on top of your heart, pounding and pounding at you rudely, until the only release you have from it’s grip is the possibility of sleep. That is the pain caused by losing someone to death.

We all know about that pain. But what I am witnessing is different from that pain. This pain I have been seeing a lot of lately, mostly comes from the judgments of other people. It comes from having to listen over and over, for years and years after the loss of the life you had, to clueless people and their words of unhelpful, baseless opinions. It comes from the sheer exhaustion of having to constantly explain your choices, your emotions, and your heart. It comes from feeling like you have to apoligize or justify the love that you will always have for your person that died. It comes from living in a world where grief has an expiration date, and where you are made to feel shame for loving and honoring your person forever.

The pain also comes from another place.

It comes from us.

It comes from inside.

It comes from us putting judgments on ourselves.

It comes from the bruises and the wounds that we create, every time we beat ourselves up, yet again.

This type of pain is self-inflicted, repetitive, and it is the hardest kind of pain to stop.

The very second that you become widowed, everything inside of you changes. Everyone around you is living their life, and wanting you to join them in being part of the living, but every single cell inside of you is screaming and wincing and uncomfortable. These cells that live in your bloodstream are not the same cells you had only minutes ago, when your life partner’s heart was still beating. Somehow, in that same exact second that your spouse or partner’s life ended, the life you knew ended too, and all the pieces of you that were once there, came barreling out onto the floor, exploding instantly. You are now left with these new cells inside of you, and you don’t recognize any of them. You aren’t even sure how they got in there, but you certainly didn’t invite them. Nothing feels familiar at all, and you are on this darkened road with no way out.

The people who are living their life tell you to join them. They ask you to go forward with them. They beg you not to get “stuck” where you are. But as you look around, you realize that you no longer have the same eyes anymore to look with, and your mouth feels different too. Come to think of it, these are not the legs you had yesterday, and these are not the same fingers and toes and kneecaps either. None of this feels like who you were before, and the inhaling and exhaling of air feels foreign now too, and you’re not sure if you remember how to really breathe right at all. Even the thoughts inside your head don’t feel like your own, and you suddenly feel very easily confused. You feel like a prisoner inside your own body, and you just want to get out. You feel itchy and dry, and you want to crawl out of your own skin. But where would you go? Where could you possibly go, that it would ever stop hurting this much? Everywhere that you go, they are still dead. Everywhere that you go, you are still here, inside this thing called hell, where you are now alive and they are dead. You are floating inside of a black cloud, trapped, and you don’t know who you are or why you’re here. You don’t know anything that you knew just minutes ago. Not anymore.

So this black cloud of paralysis lasts as long as it lasts, and takes as long as it takes. And during this time of intense, overwhelming pain and grief, most of us do things or feel things or make choices that we are not proud of. We make these choices and have these feelings, because we are not ourselves. We are living inside this foreign version of ourselves, and so we no longer possess confidence, and we no longer know how to follow or trust our own intuition about things. We only want the pain to stop. So these choices and feelings and doings are all things that are born out of immense hurt and inconceivable loss. They are born out of making any and every attempt to somehow escape or fast-forward through this horrific grief inside of us. And these actions and thoughts and choices weigh on our souls. They step on us and try to hold us down underwater, when we are already drowning from the death of the person we love. They torture us in the night, in the day, and in our hearts. And they continue to torture us for months. Or years. Or forever. The only thing that can make them stop torturing us – is us. The only way to stop this pain, is for us to make the decision to forgive ourselves. It takes a lot of time and a lot of realizations and a lot of courage to forgive ourselves, but we cannot truly shift from existing to living, until we do.

Please forgive yourself.

Please forgive yourself for maybe not being the best wife or husband that you knew how to be at that time. Or for not telling your person who died how much you love them, or what they mean to you, or how they changed your life. Please forgive yourself for not seeing the signs of an illness that you couldn’t possibly know or see at that time. Forgive yourself for being so shell-shocked by grief, that you still can’t remember the last few hours or days of your own husband’s life. Please forgive that you didn’t say good morning that day, or that you were fast asleep while your husband was collapsing at work on a cold floor, alone. Please forgive yourself for feeling pissed off at life, or at God, or at your beautiful person who died. Please forgive yourself for wanting, more times than you can count, to die, and to no longer have to exist in this pain anymore. Forgive yourself for the dark thoughts – the ones that you wish you could make go away, and the ones that you became friends with, and didn’t ever want to go away.

Forgive yourself for the thoughts you don’t like to think about. The thoughts you have had of pure jealousy toward others who have lost differently than you. Forgive yourself for feeling jealous of the couples who shared a lifetime, or 50 years together, or even 10, before one of them died. Forgive yourself for looking at old people and feeling rage because you won’t ever know a life of growing old together with your person. Forgive yourself for being jealous of your own wonderful brother, because he gets to keep his wife, and he gets to have the house and the family with two kids and the life that you were supposed to have too. Forgive yourself for hating your husband’s father because he was a shitty dad, and because he didn’t tell his own son he had a heart condition that has no symptoms or warnings. Forgive yourself for all the times you snapped at people who were just trying to help, or for the hundreds of times you cried in the car while on your way to work, or ran to the bathroom in the middle of work because you couldn’t stop the hurt. Forgive yourself for expecting too much from friends and family, or for being shocked and disappointed by the lack of empathy people have in general toward your loss.

Please forgive yourself for the choices you made in the months and years after your loss. The ones that you keep harboring over, and harming your soul over. Forgive yourself for not being a good parent or daughter or son or friend or sibling or whatever else – to the people in your life, when you lost your person to death. Forgive yourself for having no clue whatsoever, how impossibly hard this would be, and for not feeling like you have the strength or the care to do it at all. Forgive yourself for over-eating. Or drinking too much. Or using drugs or other things, in a veiled attempt to get out of the pain, or pretend it wasn’t there at all. Forgive yourself for not knowing or caring that none of those things would help you, for not realizing that the only way out is through. Forgive yourself for abusing your body – either intentionally or unintentionally – in the many ways that you may have done such a thing. Forgive yourself for the poor choices you may have made, in the throws of living with death inside your being. Forgive yourself for the relationships you entered into for all the wrong reasons, at all the wrong times. Forgive yourself for having too much sex, or no sex at all, in trying to find yet another way to numb that pain. Forgive the wrongdoings you may have done to others that you care about, while you weren’t living inside your actual self.

Forgive yourself for looking in strange or harmful places for what you thought might be new love. Forgive yourself for falling for something that wasn’t what you thought it was or might be. Forgive yourself for getting trapped in your own agony, and for spiraling out of control after losing the love of your life. Forgive yourself for not listening to yourself, and for following the mantras and the cliches of others who told you their opinions of how you should live your life. Forgive yourself for getting involved too quickly, or for any actions you took that made you feel like you were “dishonoring” the person who died. Forgive yourself for not doing things the way that they used to do them, or for feeling like maybe they should be alive and you should have died instead. Forgive yourself for not caring about living. Forgive yourself for questioning everything, and for abandoning the things that no longer serve you or that you no longer believe to be true. Forgive yourself for changing your feelings about what God is or isn’t, and know that life-altering deaths are the biggest reasons for these feelings to change.

Forgive yourself , forgive yourself, forgive yourself. For all of it.

Good.

Now you can begin to live.

About two months or so after my husband’s very sudden death, I was having lunch with my best childhood friend at a restaurant nearby to my apartment. She asked me how I was doing, or how I was really doing, and I said something to the effect of: “Not good, actually. Just going through the motions, but it’s so awful.” She looked at me with tears in her eyes, and she said with fierceness and confidence: “Well, I happen to think that a parade should be thrown in your honor, every single damn time you decide to roll your ass out of bed and take a shower.”

At the time, her comment made me chuckle, but now, four and a half years later, I know that she is absolutely 1000% right. She is right about all of us. Anyone who loses someone that they love to death – whether it be a spouse, partner, friend, sibling, parent, child, or anyone else that is a piece of your very heart. Now I know, because I am living it, that what my dear friend was saying, is that whatever you do or don’t do, following the loss of that person you loved, you are a goddamn hero.

Do you hear me? YOU ARE A HERO.

Living with the death of someone you love, is the most excruciating, horrific, unimaginable thing you will ever face.

And yet,

here you are.

You’re doing it.

Maybe today was the day you moved out of the home that you both shared. Or maybe you opened a box that you werent ready to open a week ago. Or maybe you were going to donate some of their clothing or precious things, but you couldnt go through with it, so you drank a glass of wine instead. Maybe you found the energy to shower this morning. Or you called out of work because your soul needed to hang out under the blankets of denial instead. Or maybe you made it through a grief-trigger or a moment of panic or anxiety. Maybe you cried nonstop for 5 hours before you were finally able to pick up his cremains from the funeral home. Maybe you decided to donate his organs today. Maybe you stood over your kitchen sink for 45 minutes, trying to decide whether or not it made sense to throw away that last can of soda that she opened but didn’t finish. Maybe you didn’t decide today. Maybe you need more time with that one. Maybe you started a new job or left an old one. Maybe you had to drive your other children to school today for the first time, knowing that your child who died would not be in that car. Maybe this was the first Wednesday that you attended a family function without your brother being there. Maybe you decided to try making the apple pie today – the one that your mom used to make for so many years, before she died. Maybe you listened to a song today that threw you into grief hell. Maybe you opened the door into their bedroom today, and were able to sit on the bed where they often sat. Maybe you changed something in that room, or maybe you thought it was best to keep leaving it the way it is. Maybe you brought flowers, or your beautiful self, to your wife’s grave today. Maybe you got a haircut today that your husband might not have liked, or you took a risk and did something new and different , that you maybe wouldnt have done in your other life. Maybe you washed their favorite pair of socks today by accident, and then you were horrified when they no longer smelled like him. Maybe you went to the store and bought the deodorant that they used to wear, and got in your car and sniffed it over and over again like a lunatic. Maybe you took a step forward today, only to be knocked backward again. Maybe you kissed someone else for the first time since your partner died. Maybe you ran away somewhere to get away from your pain. Maybe that worked for awhile. Maybe today you finally didnt feel guilty for throwing away their toothbrush. Maybe you watched your daughter or son get married today, while your own heart was breaking in half, because their father or mother isnt here to see it. Maybe you tried a support group today. Maybe you made a different choice. Maybe today was the day you decided, and KNEW, that living your fullest life, is the very best way to honor the one you had with them. Maybe you need more time.

But wherever you are in your loss, in your process – know this:

You are a hero. You are a rock-star. You are an amazing and wonderful thing.

Even when you screw up. Even when you make awful choices. Even when, even when ………

You are doing this.

You are living through this, and with this, and inside of this.

And even if the only thing you can make yourself do today is roll your ass out of bed and shower, you are my hero.

Don’t you forget it.

Forgive yourself. Rid your mind of all the shit that keeps you beating yourself up.

Live in color.

And then throw yourself a Parade.

I Will Never Move On

Last night, I was talking to a new widower friend of mine on the phone, when he suddenly shifted the topic of conversation and posed a huge challenge to me. Im not sure if he saw it as a challenge, but I did. He asked me to do him a favor. When I asked him what the favor was, he said, very matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest of things to accomplish: “I want you to change the world.” Oh, IS THAT ALL??? Should I do this right in between my morning coffee and my teaching job? Or perhaps I could fit it in right after cleaning out the kitties litter box and my second load of laundry. Maybe I can multi-task and get this done while I simultaneously file my taxes. Sure. Change the world. I will get right on that. (Can you sense my sarcastic tone?)

In all honesty though, after I got off the phone and stopped to think about it some more, the challenge did peak my interest in many ways, and I was somewhat flattered that anyone would think that little ole’ me could ever be capable of something as huge as world-changing. This friend of mine finds me inspiring, mostly due to the honest way in which I write about grief. What he doesn’t know (until right now, when he reads this) is that him giving me that challenge has inspired ME. He has inspired me to try and do better. The fact that he believes I am capable of such a thing, is providing me with the fuel to light the fire that sits inside. I would have never thought to make it a goal to change the world all on my own, but now that it’s been planted in my head and heart by someone else, I might as well give it a shot, right? I heard a quote somewhere recently, that really stuck with me. It said: “Change the world, by changing your mind.” Or “change your mind, and change the world.” I can’t remember the order that it was said in, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it pretty much means the same thing. It all comes down to perception. The way that people see or perceive something, has to first change, in order for everything around it to also change.

So, with that in mind, I am going to write about something that truly needs to be written about. I am going to put it all out there, and hope that the message gets passed around as much as it needs to be passed around. I am going to count on my widowed community to help me share this very important and vital message, by sharing this blog piece with any person who has ever told you or implied to you in any way, shape, or form, that you need to “move on.” I am going to write the truth, and then wait for that truth to become contagious. Just as this false idea that people who lose their spouse or partner need to “move on” has spread like wild fire, this new message needs to cause a fire ten billion times bigger. This fire needs to put that old one to shame. It is time to make a change.

Any widowed person will tell you that we have heard time and time again, the endless parade of well-intentioned, thoughtless comments that come our way, within minutes of losing our life partners and the life we knew. These comments include such classics as: Everything happens for a reason. // Time heals all wounds. // God never gives you more than you can handle. / It was God’s Plan. // God Needed Another Angel. // I know exactly how you feel. // You need to get over this. That is not the full list of whoppers – just a few of my favorites. But what all of these comments have in common is this: they make us feel worse, not better. They make us feel like our emotions aren’t real or don’t matter, because they are dismissive and they don’t validate what we are actually going through. The truth of the matter is, nobody could ever know what we are going through or what this IS, until they themselves have gone through it. Most people want to help. Unfortunately, most people are pretty clueless as to how their words can affect us, and most people don’t stop and think about just how insensitive these cliches can feel, when heard by someone who is in tremendous and very real pain. On top of all that, we, the ones who are in the tremendous pain, are told over and over again to just put up with these thoughtless comments. We are told that people are “only trying to help”, or that “they don’t know what to say”, and we should smile and nod and be grateful that they care. I’m sorry that people don’t know what to say. But I also feel like it’s time to change the conversation from “they don’t know what to say” to “let’s teach them what is not so good to say, so that we can stop using that as a convenient excuse to say hurtful and unhelpful things.” As the brilliantly smart and world-changing Maya Angelou famously said: “When you know better, you do better.” I think it’s time we do better.

So let us begin with the King of all Insensitive Comments: “You Need to Move On.” “It’s time you moved on.” Or any other of the many variations that include the phrase and the idea of “moving on.” Of all the many comments that are said to widowed people, this is by far the most common one, and also the most harmful. The reason it is so harmful is that this message is implanted into the widowed person’s heart and soul, over and over again, at EVERY stage of their grieving process, by many different people. We begin to hear this “move on” mentality on the very first day that our person dies. Just hours after my husband’s sudden death, I was informed that making the decision of whether or not to donate his organs would help me to “move on.” Then, at his funeral, I was told that the services and the wake would all help me to “find closure and move on.” A week later, when I was being held captive in the four walls that used to be our home, I was being told in condescending voices that it was “time to donate some of his clothing, so that you can start to move on.” Four and a half years later, and people are still beating me over the head with their chants of moving on. “Why aren’t you dating anyone yet? You need to move on.” “Why are you still going to that Widow Camp? Don’t you think it’s time to move on from that?” “Why are you still talking to his family? He is dead. You aren’t his wife anymore. So they aren’t your family anymore.” (Yes, someone actually said this to me. Really.)

These awful ideas are repeated into our souls, as if stamped onto our foreheads by people who have no idea of what they speak, and this becomes harmful. Because we start to believe it. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us for NOT wanting to forget about our person. We start to think that maybe we are doing this all wrong, and maybe we are weak and stupid and not well, because we still love them and we don’t want to place them on a shelf in our past, to collect dust forever. We start to very slowly lose pieces of ourselves, and unwillingly lean into what society is telling us instead. All of this is extremely harmful to our souls. Why?

Because none of it is real.

Because it doesn’t exist.

Let me say this as simply as possible:

There is NO SUCH THING as moving on.

It’s a lie.

It’s a fairy-tale concept, invented by those who don’t know what to say.

It is invented out of ignorance and fear.

They want you to move on, so that they can feel more comfortable with your presence.

If we can all just pretend that this scary death thing never actually happened, then it would all simply go away.

Except it doesn’t ever go away. Not for you. Not for the person living inside of it. It becomes you, and you become it, and you become wrapped up in each other. Death and life become one, and everything is different forever. The death of a spouse or partner is different than other losses, in the sense that it literally changes every single thing in your world going forward. When your spouse dies, the way you eat changes. The way you watch TV changes. Your friend circle changes (or disappears entirely.) Your family dynamic/life changes (or disappears entirely). Your financial status changes. Your job situation changes. It effects your self-worth. Your self-esteem. Your confidence. Your rhythms. The way you breathe. Your mentality. Your brain function. (Ever heard the term ‘widow brain?’ If you don’t know what that is, count yourself as very lucky.) Your physical body. Your hobbies and interests. Your sense of security. Your sense of humor. Your sense of womanhood or manhood. EVERY. SINGLE. THING. CHANGES. You are handed a new life that you never asked for and that you don’t particularly want. It is the hardest, most gut-wrenching, horrific, life-altering of things to live with.

To top it all off, people who still have their partners beside them, treat you differently. People like to think that they suddenly know what is best for you. People treat you like you are a child who cannot make decisions. They want to treat it as if it were maybe a divorce instead of a death. They want you to put that person in your past, like some “ex” lover or some regretful mistake. These insinuations are beyond hurtful to the widowed person, who is still and always will be very much in love with their person who died. And so, what ends up happening, most times, is that the widowed person feels more and more alone as the months and years go by, until eventually, they just stop talking to their friends about their loss altogether. Their friends and family then wrongly assume that because they don’t talk about it anymore, they must be “over it”, and therefore, everything is fine. Meanwhile, the widowed person continues to suffer in silence and mounting isolation. For us, it is a very scary place to be. And this is how the cycle of unhealthy perceptions of grief and death continues.

In the past four and a half years since my husband died, I have become friends, both online and in-person, with a lot of widowed people. We help each other. We call each other family. We are the family that you gain, when the family you knew is gone. We talk to one another about the pain and the heartbreak, and the changes and the shifts, and the complexities of life after death. A huge part of the reason I am writing this blog today, is that I have seen countless upon countless posts in the closed and private widowed groups, where a widowed person has been forced to hear from some family member, friend, or acquaintance, some form of “you need to move on.”

The way they say it comes in many forms. One widow parent who I know, was judged and lectured by her family, because she dared to share memories with her own children about her husband /their father. The family told her that she shouldn’t do that because she wasn’t helping her children to “move on from him. ” They told her it was not healthy for them to be “sad” over his death. Another friend was offered money by a relative, for every picture he took down from his nightstand, of his deceased wife. Another friend was pushed into a new relationship before she was ready, because her buddies thought she should “get out there again and start dating.” Another friend was judged because she still goes to the cemetery often, to visit with her husband. On and on the judgments come, each one breaking my heart more than the one before it. And while I cannot stop these people from giving their clueless and harmful advice, I can hope that maybe some of them are reading this somehow, and I can ask them to do me a favor.

I can ask them to ask themselves what kind of message do they think they are sending to their widowed friend or family member, with this type of “move on” mentality? Really. If you are reading this now, I would like for you to think about that for a minute. By telling a widowed mom or parent that they shouldn’t share stories with their children about their dad, isn’t that sending a message that their dad’s life meant nothing? Isn’t that sending a message that they should simply forget he was and IS their father – just pretend he never existed? And what about the widow or widower who goes to their spouse’s grave-site – whether its on special anniversary days, or a couple times per week? What message does it send to tell them to stop going there? Isn’t that like telling them their love didn’t matter? Isnt that like implying that erasing them from their hearts is better than honoring and remembering them with love? Why on earth are we shaming people for loving others eternally? Why are we making them feel as if that is not normal, when in fact, it is not only normal, but probably the most beautiful thing in the world. When a celebrity dies, we gather on social media and we share their pictures, their art, their music, their talents. We celebrate them and remember them, and we say “Hey, remember when he did that one film? That was a classic that will last until the end of time.” Yet, when the person who was the center of our universe dies, and we dare post a picture of them or speak of them a few months or years after their death, we are looked at with judging eyes. We are given pity and lectures about how “stuck” we are, and we are made to feel as if it is very, very bad what we are doing. This is so wrong, and so backwards. We should not have to shamefully love our people. The entire message of the move-on mentality, seems to be this: forget about them. Its in the past. Pretend it never happened.

But here’s the thing. That is not possible. You cannot forget love. You cannot pretend it away. The death of the person you love, only ends a life. It does NOT end a relationship. The truth is, LOVE is the only thing that we get to keep forever. Love is the only thing that we can take with us. Love is the only thing that never, ever dies. To take that away from someone, is not only unhealthy – it is cruel.

I will never move on from my husband. I will never NOT love my husband who died. I will never leave him in my past, like some forgotten old shoe I never threw away. This applies forever. Even if I should fall in love again. Even if I should marry again. Even if I should live every dream that I have ever dreamed possible. Even when I am old and gray and ancient, should I have the honor of being allowed to live that long. Even then. I will NEVER not be connected to my husband. He lives within me now. Whatever I do, wherever I go, I carry him with me. He is a piece of my very soul. There is no moving on.

Here is what I WILL do:

I will live the biggest and brightest and most colorful life that I can, because my husband does not have that choice. I will cling to every new joy that I feel in this life, because I am still alive to feel it. I will honor the life and the love that my husband and I shared, by being the person that he fell in love with. I will always find ways to keep remembering him and sharing his story with the world, because that is my duty and my HONOR to do as his wife, and his widow; and because sharing their story is how we keep them alive and relevant. I will continue to grow and to learn and to hurt and to feel and to fear and to fly. I will scream when I need to, cry when I have to, and laugh as much as my body can handle. I will tell all the people that I love, that I truly love them, and I will make sure they know this as often as possible. I will leave behind something of importance in this life, something of value, that someone , someday, can read or look at or see or feel, and it will make them think in a different way. I will love harder than I have ever loved before, and I wont feel guilty for loving again, because I will know in my heart that my husband’s love is inside every love I have going forward. I will choose to believe that he is somehow still here with me, and I wont question or doubt all the many times that I feel him. I will embrace his energy inside the music, and I will dance to the rhythms of our forever connected hearts. I will speak his name whenever I want to, and I will do this proudly, because that is what he deserves. That is what we ALL deserve – to not be forgotten, and to be spoken of with laughter and joy and remembrance, by those that will always love us. I will move INTO my future, step into my life, and I will carry him with me at every turn. I will take risks, and be afraid to fail, but go for it anyway, because I know that in the end, none of us get out alive. I will know that life is terrifying and chaotic and unfair and filled with sorrow and pain, but also exhilarating and wonderful and surprising and incredible, and a beautiful gift that keeps unwrapping, each and every time I make the decision to get out of bed. I will promise to do all of these things and more, and if I’m very lucky, maybe I can even change the world.

And I will never, ever move on.