Hair on the pillow

•February 27, 2011 • 1 Comment

It’s been cold here, so last night I put the flannel sheets on the bed. As I made up the bed, I noticed a dark thread on one of the tan pillowcases. I plucked it off and examined it: not a thread, a hair, dark brown, almost black. Definitely not one of mine. I wrapped it around my finger, remembering when we were first dating and finding one of your hairs on my pillow after you’d gone always made  me smile. A reminder that you had been here, that you were real, that I hadn’t just dreamed you. Maybe I needed that reminder again. Sometimes it feels like our six years together were nothing but a dream and all that is real is loneliness, depression and grief. I opened the little carved wooden box on my dresser that holds your wedding ring and the lock of your hair that the funeral director let me cut at the viewing, and I added this found hair to those treasures.

Speaking of pillows, I put yours back on the bed. During the months I was away, sleeping in borrowed beds, I just had my own pillow and always slept smack in the center of the bed. It felt better, less empty. But in our bed, I find I can only sleep on my usual side… and the pillow helps fill some of the extra space.


Owning My Grief

•February 23, 2011 • 12 Comments

After contemplating my last post, and the many responses to it, I want to clarify one point. When I said that you can’t know what the grief of a suicide survivor is like, even if you have lost a loved one to illness or accident, I did not intend to in any way diminish the grief that every widow suffers, that every parent suffers who has lost a child. I didn’t mean to suggest that my grief “trumps” yours. It’s simply not comparable. The suicide of a loved one creates an extra set of issues for those left behind, ask any mental health professional who works with suicide survivors. We struggle more with guilt and are more apt to blame ourselves for the death. We also may have intense abandonment issues because our loved one made a CHOICE to leave us. But that doesn’t mean that a widow who lost her/his spouse to cancer or in a car accident isn’t suffering grief nearly beyond imagining, nor that they can’t empathize with my pain. I sincerely apologize if it came across that way.

It’s been suggested that my blog is too self-focused, that I’m “forgetting” that Mike also left behind children, parents, and other family members and friends who loved him and who also grieve his loss. I’ve been careful about mentioning any of these other people in this blog, except briefly in relation to my own experiences, for a simple reason. Their grief is their own, to keep private or to share as they choose. I know some of what Mike’s parents have gone through, because we talk regularly and they have shared their feelings and experiences with me, but I know I can’t even begin to understand the special grief of a parent who has lost a child. Similarly, though I know my own grief over my father’s death, he was 82 when I lost him and had been in poor health for some time. I know that loss doesn’t even come close to the traumatic grief of a teenager who has lost her/his father to suicide. I would never presume to say that I understand. Each person’s experience of grief is unique and personal. Each of us deals with it in our own way, the best way we know how. It’s nobody else’s business.

My own grief is the only grief I have the authority to speak of here. I own my grief: it is mine. No one can carry it for me, or tell me how best to cope with it. I have to walk my own path and find my own way through this darkness. It is my story, to keep private or to share as I choose. Some things I choose to keep private. Much of it I share here, because it helps to be heard and because my words, my experiences may be of some small comfort to others who are traveling this hard and painful road.

Be Me for a Minute

•February 22, 2011 • 15 Comments

I’m astounded lately by the total lack of empathy, charity and basic human compassion some people exhibit toward those of us struggling with traumatic grief. I’ve been accused of trying to “own” the grief over Mike’s loss, as if by talking about my grief process I’m somehow depriving others of their own grief. In my suicide survivors support group, widows talk about their husband’s families blaming them or being told by impatient relatives to “get over it already” when it’s only been a few months. How can people have so little compassion? Because they’ve never stood in our shoes.

So, I challenge you… Be me for one minute. For just sixty seconds, try to imagine what it’s like to get a phone call from the sheriff’s office that changes your entire world in an instant… to rush to the ER and find the only man you ever loved comatose on a table, to hear the doctor say there’s nothing they can do, that it’s only a matter of time. Imagine going home and finding a pool of your husband’s blood on the floor, scraps of his clothing that the paramedics cut off him, the bullet casing from the self-inflicted gunshot wound that ended his life. Imagine the guilt you feel when the sheriff asks you, “Did you know he owned a gun?”

Or imagine being the woman who watched her husband take a dive off the balcony of their 22nd floor apartment, who saw his body smashed on the ground far below. Or one of several mothers in my group who found their children’s lifeless bodies.

Be us for just one minute.

Imagine living with this loss day after day. It’s the first thing you’re aware of when you wake up in the morning, the last thing on your mind when you finally fall asleep exhausted. It drags you down all day, threatens to pull you under in a whirlpool of grief and despair. We all deal with it differently. Some of us return to work within a few weeks, manage to get up every day no matter how bad we feel because there are bills to pay or children to care for. Some of us are still not sleeping, barely able to keep food down, unable to think clearly a few months after the suicide. Some of us can’t close our eyes, not once, without seeing the awful image of our loved ones as we last saw them, dead by their own hands.

You may think you know what this grief is like, because you lost a grandparent or a parent or maybe even a spouse to illness or accident. I promise you, unless you are a survivor of suicide, you do not know. And I wouldn’t wish that knowledge on my worst enemy.

We know you don’t understand. We know you CAN’T. We get how awful this situation is for you to even contemplate, that the very thought of standing in our shoes can cause you to retreat from us in fear. We’re not expecting you to understand. All we ask is that you allow us to experience our grief in our own way, on our own timeline. All we ask is that you not make this any harder on us than it already is.

If you can walk beside us on this journey, hold our hands, pick us up when we stumble… You are our angels in human form and we love you.

Too much!

•February 17, 2011 • 7 Comments

It’s all too much right now. This week has been very hard. No matter how much sleep I get, six hours a night or eight, I stumble through the work day in a fog of exhaustion and depression. Smiling and pretending to be OK nine hours out of the day wears me the hell out. I broke down in my therapist’s office last night and cried so much that my eyelids were still puffy this morning.

One thing I realized is that I’ve been trying to DO too much. So many things that I’ve wanted to do were on hold until I got a job and a new apartment.  As soon as I landed the job and moved into the new place, I started trying to tackle all of them at once. I’ve got a shopping list as long as my arm, while I’m stressing about how much I’ll be able to pay on my debt. I hate the way my clothes fit (or, more to the point, the way they don’t fit) and I really need to buy some new pants, but if I could just lose that extra five pounds… So I’m counting calories and trying to push myself to exercise, and I’m making budgets, and I’m checking items off lengthy to-do lists…

And it’s all too much. I’m crying “uncle.” Something’s gotta give.

My therapist pointed out that what I’ve done in the last month – starting a new job, finding an apartment and moving – would be tiring even without the added burden of grief and a very painful anniversary coming up.

Her prescription: Go back to taking it one day at a time. Stop pushing myself so hard. From now until the end of March, only minimum payments and minimal effort on anything other than self care. Go ahead and spend a little extra money on things that nourish my body and/or my spirit.

So, tonight I’m not doing a damned thing… except eating Chinese food, watching TV and drinking wine. And I’m thinking about some nurturing things I can do for myself this weekend…


•February 15, 2011 • 2 Comments

Depression has been stalking me since Sunday, and it finally caught up with me tonight. I just feel so heavy, like a huge weight is sitting on my chest. It’s hard to draw more than a shallow breath.

I put on Miles Davis (Kind Of Blue) and am trying to read May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude again. I think it would be good for me to make peace with this solitary life instead of fighting it all the time. I used to crave solitude, desperately, like a brown and withered plant craves water. Now I drown in it after only a few hours and reach, gasping and sputtering, to the TV for company. It stops me from feeling so alone, but maybe it also stops me from feeling.

In the second entry of her journal, Sarton writes: “I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.” I’ve been feeling the need for routine lately. The job gives me some structure, forces me out of bed by 6:00 a.m. five days a week, no matter how weary I am. When I’m busy at work, the days go by fast and being productive gives me a lift. The last few days there hasn’t been as much to do, causing both the clock and my spirits to drag. I build my weeknight routine around two things: support group on Monday and therapy on Wednesday. I figure I should be able to handle being alone on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but some nights are easier than others.

Weekends are the hardest. I’m still trying to find the balance there. Too much open-ended time is an invitation to loneliness and depression, but last weekend I kept myself so busy that I felt I hardly had a chance to relax at all. One routine I’m thinking of adopting is turning Sunday into cooking day, making meals that I can freeze in individual servings to be reheated during the week. That’s a solitary occupation that allows me some creativity and room to let my thoughts cogitate. I hadn’t done much cooking in a long time – Mike was the cook in our household, whipping up amazing seafood dishes and unique Asian-inspired meals – but I’m finding myself drawn to it again and wanting to expand my culinary repertoire. Besides, I’m sick to death of frozen dinners.

At my therapist’s suggestion, I’m also putting a bedtime routine into place. One hour before I need to be going to sleep, I turn off all screens (TV and computer), dim the lights, and read in bed for the rest of the evening. The idea is to transition my brain from active mode to sleep mode. So far I can’t see any improvement in my sleep, but I do look forward to having that hour with a good book every night.

Four pages further on in the Sarton journal, I find this: “The value of solitude – one of its values – is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression… But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has to simply endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

Indeed.  But I’m thankful I’ve got therapy tomorrow.

Gifts of the heart

•February 14, 2011 • 6 Comments

I had coffee with a friend on Saturday.  We’ve known each other for almost ten years, and she’s one of the few people here in L.A. who knew me well before I met Mike.  In the course of our conversation, she brought up some of the positive changes she saw in me over the years I was with Mike.  I’ve found my voice, both in writing and just in life — I’m not afraid to speak up for myself anymore.  I’m more authentic, less apologetic.  She used to call me Tinkerbell, because I was sort-of waifish and fairylike, but she says I’ve become more “solid” over the years… and she was quick to emphasize that this was a positive thing and not a comment on my weight. “I’m less afraid to take up space,” I said, and she nodded. I’m also far more comfortable in my own skin, more secure with my body and my sexuality, than I ever was before.

When Mike entrusted me with his heart, he also gave me the gift of unconditional acceptance.  Before Mike fell in love with me, my self-esteem was pretty shaky. I felt like a freak (hello, I was still a virgin in my mid-thirties!) and doubted that any man would ever truly understand me, much less love me unconditionally. The enduring gift that Mike gave me comes down to this:  He showed me my own worth.

Saturday I received another gift, a housewarming present from Mike’s parents.

The photo is one of our engagement portraits (we used a black & white version on the wedding invitations). I love the beautiful frame and matting, and the words went straight to my heart. I particularly appreciate that it says “once in a while,” rather than “once in a lifetime.” 

While I know I won’t ever love anyone else quite the way I loved (and still love) Mike, I also know that he didn’t give me the gift of unconditional love only to take it away from me when he died. It was a gift meant for me to keep always and to share with others. I can honor his memory not by cutting myself off from the possibility of loving again, but by keeping my heart open.

Livin’ on the Edge

•February 7, 2011 • 4 Comments

I was telling my therapist last week that it must be frustrating for my brother to be around me because he can’t understand why I’m smiling and happy one minute, overwhelmed to the point of tears and temper tantrums the next. My therapist smiled. “Because I’m livin’ on the edge, man!” she said. “There’s no middle ground right now.”

It’s true. There isn’t. Right now, in the weeks leading up to the one-year anniversary of Mike’s suicide, I’m living in one extreme or the other. It’s either really good or really, really bad… and I can’t predict which it will be from one hour to the next. But I know a lot of people don’t get this. It isn’t just my brother. I can see it in the puzzled glances of my friends, feel it in the absence of certain people from my life.

Moving into a new place, trying to make a new home without Mike, is emotionally wrenching. Anyone who gets exasperated because I don’t have patience with the process, because I’m easily moved to frustration and tears, should try being me for one goddamned minute.

I just read something the other night about the Holmes-Rahe Scale, which ranks stressful life events by level of trauma. Guess what’s at the top of the list? Death of a spouse. And, surely, the death of a spouse by suicide magnifies the stress factor considerably. This wasn’t news to me, but it was rather validating. It told me that I have a right to still be falling apart nearly a year later, because THIS SHIT IS HARD. It’s the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do, and some days I don’t feel up to the task.

Just because I seem to be coping well, because I have good days and smile and laugh, does NOT mean that I’m back to “normal.” It doesn’t mean that the pain of losing Mike isn’t with me every single minute of every single day. It doesn’t mean you can expect me to behave as someone who isn’t still working her way through the most traumatic grief she will ever experience.

I learned not long ago that someone I’d considered one of my closest friends for years dumped me because she tried to reach out to me in the first weeks after Mike’s death and didn’t like the way I responded. I’m told she felt hurt and that she thought I was being selfish. Well, excuse me for not making you feel like an important enough player in this drama. News flash: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. The more I think about it, the angrier I get.

I’m dealing with this the best way I can. I’m drawing boundaries to protect myself, learning to ask for help and support when I need it, and being open and honest about where I am in my process. Anyone who can’t respect that doesn’t need to be a part of my life. As my friend Brad, who grew up in Georgia, so succinctly puts it, “Fuck y’all. All y’all.”

That’s one edge I’m on right now, hurt and angry and frustrated that people close to me don’t get it.  But of course they don’t. They’re the lucky ones who have never experienced anything even close to this kind of loss.

Then I slide over to the other end… and I feel such deep gratitude for all the people in my life who continue to show up for me. In my suicide survivors support group tonight, two recent widows shared about feeling cut off from their family and friends, feeling judged, completely lacking support. For all my frustration, it’s a relatively few people whose lack of empathy has hurt me. I’m surrounded by people who let me know they care, who listen when I need to talk, hold me when I need to cry, give up their Sunday afternoons to help me. This would be so much worse if I didn’t have all of you. I love y’all. All y’all.