He dances in the stars…
Our rhythms match.
Each moment of life contains both birth and death, actively engaged in a continuous cycle these two rites of passage are intricately woven. Barely recognizable in ordinary activities, one moment dies as the next is born. If one could freeze the frame and look at this process through a zoom lens, the minuscule pause between the two could be seen – the bridge filling the nanosecond where life and death interface, one seamlessly giving way to the other. And then, the moment of truth, that choice before each ordinary human becomes clear, to let go of this moment and embrace the next – to cross over the bridge from this familiar reality into the unknown.
Today as I walked my neighborhood, a clump of river birch caught my eye. Rust-tinged silvery bark, cracked and peeling back exposed raw orange-pink flesh. Last year’s stout and rigid protective layer giving way to soft, new tissue – the vulnerable places where life happens now revealed. I saw my own reflection in this river birch; what once protected and held me securely is now gone and my raw flesh feels the reality of this vulnerable place. Birthing myself as widow is a Rite of Passage - a life-altering journey every bit as profound as the journey each pregnant couple takes to birth themselves as parents.
Eleven months ago my beloved husband and partner died very suddenly of lung cancer. I barely had time to catch my breath between the shocking diagnosis and his last day on earth. I staggered through the first three months, weaving through the twisting turns of this new-to-me labyrinth. I heard my own voice as I mentor expectant parents in my classes, encouraging them to listen within and move forward, trusting that they will find their way by simply putting one foot in front of the other.
In the beginning of the fourth month I felt myself shift toward surrender, opening to the presence of grief. I chose not to run and hide, not to distract myself; but to honor my walk in the valley where his death overshadowed everything. Uncoupled abruptly, I did not feel ready to be a widow and yet I was. The threads that held us together were snipped and I had to let them go, save the one that holds our hearts together beyond all time. Renowned grief therapist, Alan Wolfelt, writes, “Death is the end of a life, not the end of a relationship.” I began to live with the paradox – he is not gone, but he is not here. I journaled; painted; wept; sobbed; stared at the wall; slept in his t-shirts; told him how much I missed him; said “I’m sorry” for things said/not said, done/not done, ways I caused him pain as we danced our lives together; sang to him; planted flowers in his hiking boots and buried some of his cremains beneath the rose bushes he planted in our garden.
As the six-month mark neared, the emotions of grief ebbed and flowed. Sometimes I felt an enormous weight crushing down on me – sluggish, slow-breathing and heavy-footed plodding; asking myself, “What just happened?” It felt like being insulated, fully wrapped in multiple layers of R-43 pink fiberglass insulation. I didn’t feel engaged in life. It somehow felt wrong to feel alive. Part of me had died, the part that was so deeply connected to him. Like an amputation, I was cut off from the source of warmth, love, joy, purpose, support, encouragement, companionship, angst and frustration. I felt bereft of the desire to continue facing each day without him in it. I ached to see him, hug him, walk with him, hold hands, laugh, cry, yell, fight and make up; to have him here again in the flesh rather than the empty rooms that echoed with silence in his absence.
Sometime near winter’s end I began to feel an occasional lightness. I spent less time preoccupied with thoughts of him and our life together. I breathed a little easier and began to let go of identifying myself in relationship to him…heard a call to be present in today for what Life offers here and now for me. Some days I felt like Spock on Star Trek – emotionless, the landscape flattened. I coped by watching Netflix movies and old TV programs – engaging in emotional relationships with others, one dimension removed, not in the flesh but on the screen.
With early spring came sad, a deep sad that I did not want to embrace. Beneath the sad I found a much younger me who felt special to no one. I called her ‘She Who Does Not Want To Be Alone.’ The silver-haired wonder, with whom I shared 25 years of partnership, adored me, doted on me, spoiled me, indulged me, frequently let me know how special I was in his eyes. I wanted/needed someone to talk to in the evenings when the house was so quiet and I felt so lonely. A visceral sensation of uneasiness invaded my skin and I thought it would be relieved by some human companionship…or a bag of Wavy Lays. I longed for both. I tried to stay with the sad, asking this part of me, “What do you need?” She remained silent and sad as I embraced the reality of my aloneness, telling myself I had best be about developing skills to cope and navigate in this new water…this deep end I’d been thrown into by his death. Sink or swim? I felt like sinking because it would take so much energy to learn how to swim. Perhaps I could just float in the vast ocean of not knowing for awhile. I wanted to be OK with this state of drifting.
Nine months - the same amount of time it takes to gestate a human baby. He had been gone from this Earth that long. I missed him, felt so broken – all my parts come from together and I couldn’t get them to come right. That in-between place of great loss was so uncomfortable…raw and powerful in its sadness. I wanted to run away from myself, to distract myself from the intensity, to somehow quell the tightness in my chest and the irritated sensation of being in my skin. Instead, there I was – in it – in the thick of Life after death. I thought there should be volumes written about this aspect of sad – life after death for the ones left behind, then realized three such books sat there on my table. But none of them did justice to what the experience is really like…shallow, touching only the surface. Who would read such books if they truly told the story of loss in stark relief? So I read my books, allowing their hinting around to trigger the release of tears, hoping it would suffice.
Today I feel called to grow beyond what I already know, and to be a light for others in their dark places of not knowing.
Strangely, I feel no charge at the word “grief.” Perhaps all the days, weeks and months of active mourning are paying off in having created a space of openness to whatever arises – acceptance! Yes, in this moment, I feel acceptance. I sit in it this day. Remembering what we had because it was so real and so hard and allowed us both to expand beyond the smallness of being just one person to experience life as a couple. I felt the richness of his humanity in my being, shared with him as fully as I was capable of while he was here. Now there is such a void – vast and empty hole where he walked and talked, laughed and cried, ate and slept, worked and played. I miss all of it. Yes, even if you lose in the end it is worth it to have loved. And I want to love some more! My loving cannot stop because he is gone. For now I can try loving myself, be gentle with this newly born widow, give her a hand to hold.