“I don’t know what they are called, the spaces between seconds– but I think of you always in those intervals.” ― Salvador Plascencia
Last year, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher lost her young husband suddenly in the middle of the school year. I tried to do what I could to help her navigate those early days, and we’ve become very friendly. In an email to me about a month ago she wrote, “I can’t believe my husband died. Gone forever. It’s almost five years for you, does it still seem like a bad dream to you sometimes?” I didn’t want to answer this important question with a simple yes or no because it’s complex and layered, as is the grieving process. Her question deserved time and required careful wording to tell the truth- for both our sakes. I also didn’t really know the answer and wanted to find out. So, I told her I’d give it some thought and get back to her. Feeling mostly wordless on the actual five year anniversary a few days ago, and with this question lingering in the back of my mind, I’ve decided to assign myself this as part writing exercise, and part commemoration of these past five years. Below is my answer.
Does it still seem like a bad dream to me sometimes after five years? Yes, yes it does. But only in moments. One simply cannot sustain living in the surreal world of shock and sorrow for too long. I believe it would kill a person. “How often,” asks C.S. Lewis in his “A Grief Observed,” “- will it be for always?- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss ’til this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again.” For me the astonishing realization has been quite often, and for a long time, but I don’t believe it is “for always.”
These moments usually aren’t the milestone moments, holidays and anniversaries. They are quiet, homely moments- leafing through paperwork and finding his handwriting on an old check. Or seeing your child give you the exact same facial expression as she practices the piano as he once did when he played. Or the silent recollection of a vacation you took together when you see an email promotion from that boutique hotel in Quebec in your inbox. You’ll remember how he loved that rabbit pate they served at breakfast, and how you thought the bathroom would be more luxurious. These glances back are unassuming but acute. You think, “Wow, this really happened. It really did.” The heart is incredulous, even after torrents of tears, five whole years, and I suspect many more.
In the subtleties of the grief vernacular it’s not about moving “on”, but moving forward. The new “normal,” is anything but normal. It is truly a strange existence. “I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief,” wrote Lewis. This was underlined in my copy of “A Grief Observed” so I know it resonated with me. But this subsides- this observation of your own grief- leaving just the actual grief to be dealt with. Also- there is this. One day you will realize you’ve slowly moved from thinking, “I can’t believe this happened to him,” to “I can’t believe this is now my life.” And eventually, that second statement occupies more of your attention than the first simply because it must be dealt with – your life.
In time, it’s that “before” life that begins to feel like a long dream rather than this “after” one feeling like a nightmare. Many of its memories are yours alone now. You will think about them sometimes and wonder if they really happened. “So many roads once; now so many culs de sac” writes Lewis of his own thought processes with his wife as their object. This is why I most want to ask people, “Remember Dan?” He was real right? This is a terrifying idea for the new mourner. Don’t be afraid. This, I’m convinced, also will pass.
And yes, I still look towards doorways sometimes at night, hoping to see him coming home: the door of her bedroom as I tuck her in, the door of our kitchen while I’m making dinner and have just heard the commuter train from the city leave. I think about what a relief it would be for my body and soul to see that door knob turning. But I know, deep in my being, that it won’t. He is a boyish 33. I am nearing 40. The way he speaks to our daughter in these fleeting daydreams is as you would to a 21 month old. She is now 6 and a half. This is the “healing” that time brings that they tell you about. A return to the “before” life is simply no longer possible.
Bear in mind, there is not only the nightmare, but also the waking up. I recall looking around at the material world with new eyes in the early days. It is as though a veil is pulled back. That you keep- that awakening- it would be sad to lose it when it’s been won at such a cost. That’s the awakening that allows you to connect with others with true empathy and compassion (“to suffer together” in Latin)- it’s what allowed me to reach out to you. It’s what allows you to cherish your child’s growing up more because there is always the shadow of one not getting to see it. It’s the awakening that forces you to deal with every issue you ever had and to become more of who you are meant to be. It’s the awakening that taught you the true meaning of those words you always close your notes to me with, “Faith, Hope, and Love.” That– you get to keep.
They call it integration, and eventually this inconceivable loss will sink into the sinew and cells of your body. His absence is no longer “like the sky” as Lewis describes his early grief. I tell the story to those who ask in a few sentences and a reply of “Oh, I’m sorry.” I still can’t believe it happened, but I know it did. You’ll still wonder how that ever became your story, and shake your head at what a crazy story it is. But you’ll also discover that story is not who you are- a wife of a dead man, a widow. You are a mother. You are a woman. And a new woman- a different woman than the one you put to rest alongside him. You will get to know her. You will wonder if he would’ve liked her if he came back right now and you met- she is that different. You will let him go. “You can’t tether them to earth anymore,” writes Anne Lamott, “because the thread has grown too fine. All you can do is say, ‘I get it: You are somewhere else now. But little flecks of you remain, like mica in a rock, which glint and say: It was all true.’ ”
We are oriented in time and space for now. Grief has made five years seem very fast and very slow just as when you’re raising a small child. Sometimes progress feels slow. Other times it sneaks up on you. You might suddenly find that you’ve thrown a beautiful party for your child’s first communion, supported another person through her loss, or put a house under contract- on your own. Yes D., you’ve done all of that.
But to return to your original question- a nightmare is one-dimensional- all shadow. But as you go on living, because you have to, you will see other dimensions- joy, surprise, contentment, moments of peace or delight. It will not be like those early days when loss is all you feel and see. Loss will stay always in the background, but life will become a mixture of joy and pain again. You will think of him always- not every second, but in the “spaces between seconds” as Plascencia says. You will feel things deeply. You will be awake- not in a nightmare, but to the fullness of life – often unperceived by many. You will notice things that others don’t see, like all of the red cardinals that seem to follow you everywhere you go. The first time we met for coffee after you husband died, you shared about these red birds. And then, when you dropped me off at my house, immediately as you pulled away, a cardinal swooped over your car. It took my breath away.
Love is too beautiful to remain in a one dimensional nightmare. It is too multi-faceted. The light will glimmer from time to time soon for you. The ache will remain- do not worry about holding on to it yourself.
Poet Christian Wiman writes in one of my favorite books, My Bright Abyss,
“Somehow, even deep within extreme grief, the worst pain is knowing that your pain will pass, all the sharp particulars of life that one person’s presence made possible will fade into mere memory, and then not even that. Consequently, many people fight hard to keep their wound fresh, for in that wound, at least, is the loss, and in the loss, the life you shared. Or so it seems. In truth the life you shared, because it was shared, was marked by joy, by light. Cradled in loneliness, it becomes pure grief, pure shadow…”
I believe we decide whether it will continue to feel like a nightmare once we’ve moved out of deep grief. We choose our focus- life or death. “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle,” wrote Einstein. “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good,” wrote Elizabeth Edwards in her book “Resilience.” The story of what happened to my husband, how he died, will always seem like the stuff of nightmares. But that nightmarish quality doesn’t permeate my entire life anymore.
When I was newly widowed, a widower and pastor sent me theology professor Jerry Sittser’s “A Grace Disguised,” which told his very sad story of losing his wife, mother, and daughter in a car accident. Still, Sittser’s writing was comforting and hopeful to me. For the five year anniversary, I ordered myself his newest book, “A Grace Revealed.” After raising his remaining children as an only parent, he has remarried and uses story to talk about a word we don’t often use: redemption. “The story of redemption is like no other, for it promises to envelop and transform all other stories, however sensational or mundane, tragic or happy,” he writes. “God redeems our stories through his. If you dare to surrender yourself to God, he will take up the story of your life and integrate it into the great story of salvation, turning it into something so extraordinary that you will be tempted to think that it was all a beautiful dream.”
My own story hasn’t reached the point of Sittser’s, but I’m going to trust him on this one. As Anne Lamott often says, “Grace always bats last.” We will get there.
A beautiful young widow friend of mine wrote me an email on the five year anniversary a few days ago. She wrote important and encouraging words. But I most smiled, and even chuckled as I read her last paragraph following those inspiring and serious thoughts which began, “I hope this email is comforting and makes sense. I am on a bus.” (She was on her morning commute to work) We are all traveling as we go along and so, in the same vain, I hope this answer is comforting and makes sense. I’ve written over the course of a few mornings and nights and one afternoon with a little girl interrupting my train of thought about every thirty seconds. I’ve written while still very much on my own commute.
“What I do know, or sense, is that within the love that once opened up the world to you- from the birth of a child to meeting your mate- is a key that can let you back into the world when that love is gone,” writes Christian Wiman, and I agree. That same love- leads us back to the land of the living- out of the nightmare, to hope. Like grief, it’s not a linear path. There will still be those days- the ones where you think, “I can’t believe this happened.” You might cry or stay in bed for hours watching British comedies like I have. But it will pass. You’ll see a beautiful drawing your child did and know life is not a nightmare. You’ll make a nice meal for your family and feel fully awake. You’ll watch the family of cardinals in the backyard of your new home and feel something like hope, something like peace.
This year, on the morning of my husband’s 5th death anniversary, I tell Audrey to pick out her prettiest dress for the visit to the cemetery. She chooses her favorite polka dot dress. I wear a verdant green dress, the color of life. We shop for three beautiful bouquets of flowers to bring with us. “These are a really pretty combination! Did you help pick these out?” the cashier at Trader Joe’s asks my little girl. We bring white hydrangeas, green wildflowers, and roses- white with a pale gold center that tricks my eyes into thinking they are lit from within.