“You are so beautiful to me. You’re everything I hope for. You’re everything I need. You are so beautiful to me.”
– Billy Preston & Bruce Fisher
In the shocking and incomprehensible first months following Philip’s too early death in March of 2015, I dragged and stumbled through emotional mudslides, quicksand, and desert inscapes. I found myself, as first-time grievers do, in totally unfamiliar territory.
But I’m a reader, a listener to audiobooks, and a journal keeper, so my instinct was to search for voices that might lead me through the wilderness. What relief I found, first, in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and then in Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story. Each book helped me, perhaps more than any of the caring people around me could. Didion and Oates held out the promise that they could live … had lived and survived what seemed impossible to live or survive: the death of a husband, a once in a lifetime’s companion, a lover, a best friend. Reading their books unblocked tears that were frozen with shock. Their willingness to reveal the complicated myriad of emotions that accompany the death of a loved one was surprisingly helpful. They showed me that two other women had asked similarly impossible-to-answer-questions; had articulated what I had yet to put into words but was experiencing as a constant and breath-taking constraint, weight, and ache in my chest. They had lived through the noble to ignoble range of emotions and thoughts; had charted that strange and unknown terrain that threatened to undo me; and in their vulnerability and honesty, pointed the way for me. So now, I would like to add my voice, to give support to others who must live through and with this god-awful, unspeakable pain that cries to be spoken.
Writing is the medium of expression I know best, so when I felt compelled to articulate the widely bewildering welter of emotions that besieged me (while not wanting to burden friends and family), I picked up my pen. At times, I feared drowning; reliving the sorrow was so intense. Friends suggested the wound might be too raw; treading back over our final months together so soon might be unwise.
“Maybe you should give it a bit more time,” some said.
“But if I wait, I may lose touch with the immediacy of the experience,” I feared.
While friends and therapists insisted it took great courage to place myself yet again and so soon in the middle of the mess, writing was medicine for me. It didn’t strike me as bravery; it was survival. It was a way to hold tight to the man I loved more than my own life at that time. Loving him felt like the reason for my life.
Once I began putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboard, however, I quickly came upon a greater threat; would stepping back to consider commas and sentence structure cause me to emotionally detach? Was it heartless or heart-numbing to search the thesaurus for adjectives, decide whether to start or finish a sentence with a dependent or independent clause? Was writing going to rob me of the immediacy of emotion I sought? Or would I find balance, establish emotional equilibrium in the interstices that have joined word-craft with humanity-in-pain over centuries of literary endeavor?
At times, I felt I was writing one more survivor’s guilty confession, following the predictable phases in the professionally outlined stages of grieving. In those first brutal months following his death, I – or, at least, a part of me (and somehow living with grief reveals just how many parts there are) – was unnerved by guilt and panic every time I realized I hadn’t thought of him, hadn’t cried in the last few hours, had even enjoyed time with a friend or on a solitary walk.
At other points, I wrote my way into a healing catharsis; writing as therapy. Later, first attempts to rise out of the ashes brought about bursts of hope and energy. I would be like the mythical phoenix Philip had loved as a child — that fabled bird that dies, resurrects out of flames, and is transformed while never forgetting its soul, its timeless being. And then, there was the need to bring the pain home, to find a place in body, psyche, and heart for that which is — from now on — an integral part of who I am. I heard someone say that grief becomes a part of our DNA, a permanent rearrangement of the cells and the soul. I am rearranged.
Married and deeply partnered for 37 years, I am still struggling my way from ‘we’ and ‘our’’ to ‘I’ and ‘my’. I catch myself, hear myself as my words for identity stumble and shift. During much of the past two years, I have hated this transforming that goes forward no matter what I want, a transforming I feared would take me further and further from a felt connection with Philip. However, as time has continued its inevitable, implacable march, as words have grown to paragraphs, chapters, and finally a completed book, I continue to find the writing-as-medicine metaphor healing. Yes, I am solo now. And, no, I do not cry every day anymore. Yes, life and I are transformed and transforming. But the connection has not faded; the love is secure and more deeply a part of who I am and whoever it is I am becoming. In this there is solace.