If you would have asked me about grief before my husband died, I would have guessed it looked like gut wrenching sadness. An endless supply of tissues and a deep sense of longing. Buckets of tears. Gallons of wine. Wearing all black. Spending long days in bed, hiding under the covers, ignoring the outside world. Looking through old pictures and memories. Losing whatever faith you may have had. Asking why. Begging for it not to be true. Missing him. And much like a breakup, this would go on until eventually you picked yourself up, dusted yourself off and moved on.
I never imagined grief could be so complicated. That it would feel like panic and rage. Guilt and shame. Anxiety, insecurity, fear and isolation. I wouldn't have expected to feel physical pain. Muscle tension. Stiff neck. Hair loss. Digestive issues. Acid reflux. Aura migraines. Food sensitivities. Hypervigilance. Exhaustion. Agitation. Depression. Nervousness. Constantly asking myself what the fuck is wrong with me. Wondering why I can't just be sad and miss him like a normal widow would.
I had no idea that grief could last so long. I still catch myself aiming for the finish line. That each passing year will be the one that marks the end. But each day and each phase is just different from the rest. There are many days when I am just getting through. Just passing the time until the end of the day when I can cross things off my list and say that I made it. The days when my anxiety is with me, reminding me of how hard it all is. Telling me it's too much. And then there are good days where it feels like the sky has opened up and I can hear the birds. On those days, I want to hurry up and do all the things. All the things I can't bring myself to do on the other days.
Before my husband died, he decided to leave me. He told me in a calm, matter of fact voice that he was moving out. He wasn't angry. He didn't want a divorce. He just wanted to go. He wasn't sure he wanted to be married anymore. He thought some separation would do us good. It felt like the wind was knocked out of me. My vision became blurry. I couldn't think straight. I couldn't even look him in the eye. It felt as though my ally had now become the enemy. I no longer knew which team I was on. I felt like I had entered some alternate universe where everything had gone horribly wrong. It was out of my control. There was nothing I could do. And three weeks later he was gone.
Something inside me came undone. I was in utter disbelief. This man who didn't know any of his own passwords or how to break down a rotisserie chicken was going to go out on his own. I had done everything for him and now he didn't need me anymore. I wasn't sure whether to be offended or concerned. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't think straight. All I kept thinking was there would be no one there to protect me. To keep me safe. Or to lift all the heavy things. It was as though all of the unresolved issues I had packed away so neatly started bubbling up to surface. I felt like a terrified child. I felt confused and unsure. I felt abandoned. The one person in the world I was supposed to be able to trust had left me behind. Or maybe I was confusing him for someone else.
After my parents split up, my mother disappeared for a while, leaving my brother and me with my dad. Eventually she resurfaced and took us away from him. It went downhill from there. It was slurred speech and unpredictability. It was seeing her too sick to get out of bed. It was having too much responsibility and never feeling safe. It was changing diapers at 4 years old. It was cutting my hand open and not getting stitches. It was being hit with a belt, a hairbrush, a wooden spoon. It was watching joints being rolled and coke being cut and wondering who would take care of me. It was smoking cigarettes and not even getting noticed. It was being insulted, laughed at and made fun of and always feeling scared. It was uncertainty. I was positive not one single one of my friends at school had a life like mine. It was total bullshit.
When I was 11, my brother and I were told to go see a movie. While we were gone, my mother called my dad at work. Slurring her words, she said if you want your fucking kids they're at the movie theater. She hung up the phone. She left us there to be picked up. Or not. My dad left his job and drove about an hour to come and save us. This was never part of his plan. He lived alone and had a quiet life. But he had no choice. He stepped up and from then on we lived with him. Although this felt like yet another change, another new school, another upheaval, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It was consistency. It was routine. It was security. It was love and comfort and safety. It was home.
About nine months after my husband moved out, he ended his life. Nothing felt real. Everything felt like a lie. Pandora's box had been opened. I felt angry and hurt and terrified. I felt the weight of the world on me. I wasn't prepared for any of it. I was buried by emotions I didn't expect. I was confused. My anxiety turned to panic. My anger to rage. My confusion to overwhelm. The shock protected me for as long as it could. And then reality set in. I knew I couldn't sit around and wait for time to make it all better. I needed to do something.
I started therapy right away. I sat on that couch and told the same story over and over and over again, my brain trying to process and work out the details. I was trying to solve the mystery of my husband's death. I hired a life coach and learned that my thoughts cause my feelings and that my feeling can't hurt me. They are just vibrations in my body. This is something I will need to relearn continuously. I enlisted a chiropractor, a nutritionist, more therapists and a tapping coach. I started a yoga practice, the treadmill and aqua aerobics. I've joined support groups. I've done blood work and screenings. I've learned to meditate. I'm still secretly looking for that one thing that will be the cure to all of this trauma in my body.
So here I am unpacking my past, one box at a time. This work isn't pretty. It mostly leaves me feeling drained. And I can't help but think, why am I doing this? I've spent years packing these feelings away. People tell me I'm strong. That I'm so together for all that I've been through. What they don't realize is that denial isn't strength. It's a way to survive. I haven't let myself feel anything because I couldn't. It was too terrifying. But this pain can't live here anymore. I can't allow it to eat away at me. It doesn't belong here. I didn't ask for it and it isn't mine to carry. I am good. I deserve goodness. Believe me there are days where I want to stop doing the work. I want to go back to packing all my shit away and hiding from my emotions. There are many days where I want to just say fuck it. But something is telling me I'm on the right track. To trust in the process. To keep going. And that all I have to do now is tell the truth.