Writing and grieving have intermingled so fully, I can no longer disentangle them.
In these past weeks, I have felt as though I entered into stage 742 of grieving. Who knew – despite reading all about it – that this would be such an ongoing and many-sided experience? You read it and hear it – grief changes you … always. But to live it is to know something in a way you cannot know through others even as their words ease and confirm your own experience. In many ways, those words have been like a hand held out in the darkest time of my life. In other ways, I continue to learn grief in real time, in real emotion and body.
Three years down the road, grief is different from what it was in the first year. Sharp pain has become softer. Less intense. No longer crushing or shattering. Instead, in this time, there is heaviness, fatigue. I want to lie down and fall away into sleep only hours after waking. And again, by mid-afternoon. In this time, with the immediacy of death having faded, it is harder to connect the dots to the source of the dots. I don’t always see that what I’m struggling with may still be grief.
When I was in grad schools and had to write papers, it took repeated panics to begin to trust the times of fallow-ness. From the day an assignment was given, through the hours of mulling, through … there is nothing there, no idea, no response, I’ll fail this one, through to the slow emerging of a tiny thought – it often took days, sometimes close to a week. Days of fretting and feeling barren had to be lived through before my pen slowly touched the page, tentatively took up a seedling idea and followed it into form. It took trust, uncertainty, and indirection. One paper after another … after another had to be worked through, suffered through before it finally became clear that there was a time factor, a going down, an incubation, an empty place that had to be honored before it would begin to fill.
Grieving is similar. There’s the “time thing.” When was he last here? By my side? When did his laughter bubble up and fill the rooms of my home and my heart with glee? Decades ago. Minutes ago. There are days of not knowing, not knowing why I feel so bleak and uninspired. Not knowing why I am. And again, there is the need to trust that I will come through. This too shall pass. There is time spent in quiet. I listen to the clock tick as I stare out the window to the eastern horizon. The page in my journal is snow white. Lost in nowhere, I look up to see a perfect rainbow arching across a sky that’s been as grey as my mood for days. So self-absorbed, I chide myself, you nearly missed this magical moment.
Sometimes, I must stop; breathless with exertion and sobbing; I sit, dare to be still with the welter of emotions that rise. Braving, risking, finding the nerve to feel what is there … again.
My editor asks if soul-shattering is an accurate adjective for a sentence to go on the back cover of my soon-to-be-published memoir. Yes, it’s a good word. Soul-shattering evokes the breaking apart, the cracking open, the fractured splintering of a heart broken. And yes, that is accurate. Especially to describe the first months of life after death. Then, I scroll through my own cache of adjectives looking for words in my emotional reservoir. There are exhausted, shocked, traumatized, oppressed. I move from my inner thesaurus to the literal thesaurus and find crushing, devastating, overwhelming, paralyzing, bewildering, terrifying. Each adjective adds to and extends my capacity to feel my way into the territory of my soul, depicts the process of learning the multifaceted-ness of grief, of diving below coping. I write to learn who I am becoming, to understand what has happened and what continues to happen, to acknowledge irreversible change. The process is comparable to map-reading in a foreign language about a foreign territory. Am I up to the challenge? Do I have a choice?
I read. One memoir of grief after another. I see how others use word-craft to learn who they are, to allow and soothe pain, to retrieve submerged emotions. Coping and carrying on sink sorrow beneath the surface. With prompting from others who have braved expression, my dark dares to come out of hiding and is less oppressive in the light of affirmation and awareness. It takes courage to keep making a place for grief. It takes daring to enter into the pain of others and allow it to pry my heart open yet again. As a widow – a word that opens a world – I write to stay close to him … and to return to myself. As a reader, Philip reemerges through memories reignited. The joys and sorrows of others touch my joys and sorrows. Listening to memoirs of loss in audiobook form, the written word comes further alive through the voices of professional readers and actors.
I listen while walking through evenings of early spring, eyes blurred with tears, safely hidden behind dark glasses. I have to stop, always carry pen and pad, to write down yet another perfect sentence. Yeah, that’s how I feel. Yes, that’s what he was like. Uh huh, that says it perfectly. I walk fast, breathe hard into release. Tears fall. Face crumples. Sometimes, I must stop; breathless with exertion and sobbing; I sit, dare to be still with the welter of emotions that rise. Braving, risking, finding the nerve to feel what is there … again.
I read not only books, but my body. Ask for cues and clues. For most of these three years since his death, I have struggled with back and hip pain. What am I holding behind me, unwilling to see, hiding out of sight? And what about the emotional burden I carry, heavy as the backpack bulging with watermelon that I shouldered this afternoon. His job — when he was here; sadness strains both muscles and psyche. Pain bounces around my body, shifting from right hip to left, from knee to knee. Is this a resistance to move, to step forward? Exhaustion is a close and constant companion. I try befriending it. Lie down when this friend begs for care. Spring pollen evokes weeping and explosive sneezes. Is this repressed emotion dramatically bursting forth, demanding attention? Or, as a friend gently suggests, does it point to hesitance, unwillingness to allow new beginnings. Each symptom signifies, is a metaphor extending insight.
Thoughts and the feelings that accompany them bumble about in me over days. I am mostly inarticulate. The word depressed colors the world grey. And then, fragments emerge. Quick! Catch them on paper before they sink back into dark closets of unconsciousness. The shower is a crucible; I hold my face in the stream of water, ease my shoulders and back under warming rain; emotions rise, cohere into words. I wrap a towel ’round myself and drip across the room to fill pages of my notebook, stopping only when I realize I am wet and shivering.
The inner critic lambasts me for not getting the work done sooner, not sitting down at my desk. You are procrastinating. I know you are avoiding the work when you choose to vacuum, do the laundry, go to the store. But there can be no forcing. Impatience stifles and closes down possibility. The processes of writing and self-recovery require time, trust, and forgiveness. This evening, walking around the lake in City Park, I watch tight-rope walkers balancing on lines they string between trees — allowing, following, holding steady. They teach a willingness to fall and get up again.
When emotions have their time, slow cooking, stewing, simmering and softly bubbling, then the writing moments arise. Not one, but many moments over days, when the sea of emotions finally becomes articulate. Emotions find words. Words surface, materialize, cohere. And one morning, I stumble out of bed and over to my desk, even before washing my face. Sentences form paragraphs. Yet another of the endless steps in the endless healing process reveals itself through words written, ordered, rewritten again and yet again.
I look up to see the second rainbow in two days as it breaks through the grey. The sun has returned to light the first minutes of another Colorado day. I will live, struggle, and find glimmers of beauty in yet another day without him.