Four and a half years ago, I lost my husband. It was sudden and unexpected. I didn’t want to cook that night so he went out to pick up the pizza. It seems like such a small thing… such a normal every day kind of thing. But that night it was not normal or every day, instead it became his last day. I had to go through the process of forgiving myself for that night. Why didn’t I just cook the goddamn dinner that night?
But that’s not how it works. It is not my fault that he never came home again. How could I have ever known that he wouldn’t come home?
Losing him tore down my world and shattered my heart. The pain of losing him ripped a hole in my chest and left me suffocating and gasping for air for so long that on many days I woke up wondering how I was still alive. It seemed impossible to me that my body and my heart could be in so much pain, and yet in the mirror was just another person. My heart had been maimed and I was bleeding out. Dying. Yet my body was intact.
When I allow my mind to wander into the memories and feelings of the night he died and my pain in the aftermath, there is a specific image – a scene – that takes over my mind. It is the image of how I pictured my world just a day or two after he died when I was still trying to wrap my head around what had just happened to my life. If I were a great artist I would simply paint it for you, but even my stick figures are mediocre at best so I will spare us both that pain. My art is best painted with words, not paintbrushes. And maybe it is better that way because maybe my words can help your mind paint its own picture that helps you to make sense of that sharp pang in your chest that hurts so much that sometimes you forget to breathe. Or maybe it’s that you don’t want to breathe. Sometimes it can be hard to tell.
The scene overlooks a devastated city that looks as though it had been freshly demolished by bombs and guns and unspeakable violence. A city in flames, lifeless, abandoned. The image I see is entirely red with the orange and yellow highlights of fire marbled into every crevasse of the cityscape. Everything is still burning. Remnants of sky scrapers, houses, and other buildings broken down and burning in the background. The streets are filled with abandoned cars, a whole city destroyed, beaten, torn down, and set on fire. And in the lower left hand side of this image that plays in my head (like a 12 second slow motion clip from a movie) stands one side of a now demolished bridge. Underneath the bridge, among the ashes and embers, sits a girl all alone with her knees pressed up against her chest, unflinching as the tears fall from her cheeks like a soft rain. She is nearly motionless, in shock. She is lost and afraid. She sits among the burning wreckage of the city and she does not move, she is adamant that she will not move. There is no where else for her to go. This is her home. And her home is on fire.
Sometimes I think that the girl in this image would have burned down with the city if only it would have let her. Sometimes when I think about that girl, there seems to be a morbid and sadistic cruelty in the fact that this fire swallowed up everything around her but would not take her, too. Other times, it feels as though it is nothing more than a random set of circumstances that swallowed up the whole world and left her behind.
The truth is, both of things are true, and neither are true. What happened, happened. And the only thing that I (or the girl among the ashes) can do is decide where to go from here.
This image that I have done my best to paint for you is what happened to my heart when it shattered the night my husband died. Now, the good news for the broken girl in my shattered heart is that she eventually, in her own time, walked away from the wreckage. She carried two old worn out suitcases of heavy baggage and started walking. That city was her home, but it is gone now, so she started walking into the unknown looking for her new home. She moved forward, in time, but she did not leave it behind. She took pieces of her old life with her. Some of those pieces she carried in her pocket, others she carried in her heart.
Part of the complexity of healing within grief is learning to love a once tangible thing intangibly. I can’t see my husband anymore. I can’t hear his voice or hold his hand, or kiss him goodnight. I can’t love him in the tangible ways I once did. I had to learn to love my husband intangibly. Only in my heart.
Those outward expressions around anniversaries and other milestones, those rituals we create after a loved one dies – those are things we do to comfort ourselves, to help us cope with our loss. It is how we heal, but it is not how we love. We have to learn how to hold and love a person only in our hearts when we want so badly to hold them in our arms.
Those physical rituals and expressions of love do, however, help us to stay connected and bonded in non-physical ways. Loving someone who has died is complicated and difficult and so painful, especially in the beginning. I can still feel the remnants of what it felt like that night. And it is still indescribable. How do you describe the physical pain of an emotion?
My ability to heal after losing my husband was facilitated by many things, but none more powerful than gratitude. I was left with two options: I could be bitter about his death and how unfair it was that this happened to him, happened to me; or I could be grateful. I could choose to make his life more important than his death. I could decide to see the beauty in the fact that I had him at all, no matter how short our time together was. How lucky was I to have had him at all? And when I think about him, I would do it all over again. Time and time again. The pain of losing him will never be greater than the gratitude I feel for having had him. And his life will always, always be bigger, more important, and more impactful than his death. In life, he loved me enough to carry me through his death. I am forever thankful for him and this weird, complicated, broken road that I have been traveling down since the day I met him.