Day 3

I’ll never forget the moment I snapped at one of my clients after Andy’s death. They were talking about a struggle at work, as all my clients do because that’s what I want to know. They were going on and on and onandonandonandon about it. I finally broke in and said

“It could be worse. Your husband could die of secret cancer.”

I hadn’t planned on using Andy’s death as a source of perspective. People had already been downplaying my capability, not allowing me to stand in my truth by saying things like ,“I don’t want to complain to you. My problems are so trivial compared to yours.” Um, yes, they are, but also you don’t get to decide for me what I can and can’t handle. And if you’re self-conscious about your complaining, go work that out with you and your therapist. I was trying to get people to include me. Weaponizing his death was not in the plan.

I had deliberately kept myself away from others and eased back into work so I wouldn’t compare the death of my husband to someone’s workplace issue.

Because they aren’t comparable and it’s not fair to either of us to compare it.

But I couldn’t take it. Some people I just want to shake and shock them into some perspective.

So I said it. And they stopped and redirected to actual problem solving. To not just stewing in their juices, but to actually getting out of the juice, or seasoning the juice. They shifted.

“Those who cling to the world, endeavor to free them…”

That’s what I had always sought to do; made it my life’s work to free people from burden–real or self-imposed.  But with Andy’s death, it became more vital to give people perspective. I would look at my clients and think, I know it feels hard. I got into this work because I wanted things to feel less hard for others. But in comparison to this, it’s just not that bad. Have gratitude that your worst problem is an overlong email chain and not an overlong life ahead of you without your soul mate.

I only had to say it once. I only had to shock someone once and I never used Andy’s death that way again. I never told someone to feel less because I was feeling more. People have told themselves to feel less while I feel more, and for their self-awareness I am grateful.

I’m told that my grief doesn’t have to be a lesson, that I don’t have to learn something or teach something out of it.

But I am a learner and I am a teacher, so I will do both.

Don’t tell me it’s the rainforest when I know it’s the desert. Don’t tell me not to share my desert. Don’t presume to know my desert. My desert has a lush oasis that I go to when the solitude and sun are too much. And sometimes I leave the oasis when the beauty and comfort is incongruent with my pain. So I climb a dune and look around and help a pilgrim on their journey through the desert. I am allowed to help and I am allowed to walk away. And I’m allowed tacky umbrella drinks if that’s what fits in my oasis.

Day 2

Grief is unknowable.

We lack the right words to describe this feeling. We try with “sad” or “overwhelming” or all sorts of metaphors,  but this feeling, of love lost and yet still alive, is so beyond the realm of words. I bet there’s a good word for it in German or Swedish. It’s something like liebeschmerzen. Which literally means love-pain. I know a tiny bit of German because my husband was enamored with his German ancestry.

I am incomplete. Maybe that describes it.

I don’t forget Andy is gone, but the feeling fades and then reemerges.

The idea of recovery, of moving on, is a farce. And even if it were possible, I don’t know if I would want to move on, to recover from the greatest love of my life. Do you see how absurd that is? The idea of recovering from love? It’s just not possible, nor is it wanted. I don’t want to “recover” from Andy like one would a cold or an addiction. I want him to be fully embedded in me. I want to never forget him.

I want him back is what I want.

We’re experiencing an unprecedented time right now. Our city, the city I grew to love because of him, is being told to stay home, keep your distance. Our love grew from our work in theatre, which is an industry that requires a lot of people and a lot of close proximity. I don’t know how to exist in this city when I’m being told to stay away. It’s painful. It’s a new kind of grief to not experience his hometown, which served as a cocoon for me,  while everything is so scary.  I have to keep me and my son isolated from all the things we love that remind us of Papa.

Well, not everything. I’m breaking some rules by still having limited contact with a few people: His sister and her family, who I helped move earlier this week, friends I met because the husband and Andy were co-workers and are now among my favorite people on the planet, my son’s godparents who were chosen because of their level of love for our son and the similarities between them and me and Andy. I’m still seeing all of these people who remind me of him. Because everything in this city I get because of him. Everything I love, my son, my house, my job, it’s all because of him.

So there will never be recovery, moving on, feeling better. There is only moments of not feeling terrible. Don’t ask me how I’m doing. The answer is rote, unfeeling, and untrue. I’ll always tell you I’m “hanging in there” because that’s the only option right now. But it’s a form answer. Almost as form as “Fine,” but with more details so you leave me alone.

I’d rather answer “How has it been lately?” or the real question you want to ask “How on earth could I survive what you are dealing with? Can you give me a hint that it’s survivable? Could I do what you’re doing? Could I do it and not collapse in on myself? You haven’t collapsed, is that a sign that you can live without your person?”

I am not living without my person. I am not surviving. What I am doing is making anew. Which sounds romantic and poetic and really it’s just the fucking truth. I have the beautiful human, my son, my tiny Andy, who needs my care and love every day. I can’t collapse in on myself because he would be left alone. And the grief of that, that is on par with the grief of losing Andy.

I do what I do for him. For Ronan. I haven’t yet started doing it for me. For now I sleep and eat and work and go to therapy so I can be a loving mother to my beautiful son who did nothing to deserve this and will never know his Papa the way I did. Maybe this will shift. I hope it does so life doesn’t feel so fucking meaningless sometimes.

No guarantees you’ll survive this. It remains to be seen if even I’m surviving this. For now I am building anew and I don’t have a plan beyond “stay alive so you can raise this tiny human to be beautiful.”

Day 1

I used to be selfish.

I used to be broken to the point that everything I did or everyone I interacted with had to circle back to me. I’m a psychologist now, but I don’t need my fancy credentials to tell me that this need existed because of how I grew up, how I was raised, how I was loved. I was not loved in the way I now know children should be loved–unconditionally, fully.

So I had to make everything about me so I could get love, attention, affection, help.

Then Andy got sick. Stage IV hit us like a slap across the face. And suddenly, I had a reason for my selfishness. I could lean into the victimhood of cancer and show off my caregiving. Which makes it sound like I used caregiving as a means to an end, but really, caregiving was what I would have done anyway. Because Andy was worth it. Andy was worthy. Andy was the only person on the planet–besides my son–who was worth my tireless focus and energy. Not tireless. Entire. Because I was tired. And I talked about that because that was part of the victimhood.

As we got deeper into cancer, I could lean even more into that selfishness, the need to be at the center, to be praised in excess, to be loved without limits, to be shown unconditional support. It evolved. It went from a need to fill in the broken bits like those Japanese pots that get molten gold poured into the cracks, to actually becoming…healthy.

I could see that no matter how hard it got, how much I was me that people weren’t going to leave. That, if anything, I held the power in this relationship. I could choose to stay or go.

I used to be desperately afraid of being seen as selfish. My dad was selfish. Everything that was good was turned into a way to abuse you. So if I showed even the slightest hint of need, of want, of–again–what I now know is totally normal kid things, it could be weaponized. So the only way to get attention that couldn’t be used against you was to get it by being a victim. Who was the most in pain? Could it be bigger than Dad’s? Can you make your pain bigger than that of an alcoholic narcissist’s?

Turns out you can’t, but you sure can try.

So, after getting all my cracks filled with molten gold, I slowly became mostly whole. I started to see the support not as pity for me and my family, but genuine love and concern. People would donate money and time and food and bandwidth to keep us company because we were worthy of love and attention. We were loved. I was loved.

When Andy died, I got an onslaught of love and attention. And, for the first time, it was too much. I didn’t have the chronic need to fill up anymore, so I could safely say that people could keep their distance. I was no longer filling a pit that had no bottom.

Andy was the first person to help me find the bottom of that pit. His cancer helped to fill it. His death showed me that it is pretty much always full now.  The pit became a lot that became a park for play and respite. (That’s a small nod to Parks and Rec.)

I used to be selfish. Turns out I still am. But I’m not selfish because I need love. I’m selfish because I’m human. I already have an abundance of love.