When we go through loss, we are often confronted with the period of time where we are acutely aware that we are just existing. Not living, but just simply surviving. There is a period of time where it is all we can do to just survive and exist, but when the partial fog clears and you are faced with the realization that all life has stopped in your little world, and you are clueless on how, just how, do you become a part of the living again – and if you even want to.
We are often just going day to day after a huge loss. Existing in this realm of disbelief that our loved one isn’t here anymore, and how and when we will see them again. My years of magical thinking kept me close to Wes, because the alternative to admitting that he wasn’t here, that he wasn’t coming back, and that I may, or may not ever see him again in a different life was keeping me absolutely unhinged. Some things are just too hard to grasp, and not seeing Wes ever again – was more than I could handle. Seeing him again weighs on me heavily, because I haven’t really been that nice to God for the last four years. But I reason that out by saying – well, He wasn’t very nice to me either – or more importantly, to Wes. You didn’t help him God, you just didn’t, and I struggle with that everyday. Still. So fueled with acrimonious thoughts about the big guy upstairs, I’m not sure where I will be headed when my time comes. I know where Wes is – that is for certain – he made it all the way up, but he was genuine and pure. Me, I know my weaknesses, and I am no Wes Neff, no matter how hard I try. But I will continue to live in the spirit of Wesley, because he was the best example of a true Christian, that I have ever had the privilege of witnessing.
But to wrestle with all these conflicting emotions is enough to put you under. It is a constant juggling act on how you are feeling in this exact minute in time. It changes easily and without even time to catch your breath and mostly without the ability to assimilate the flood and confluence of these profound and often times debilitating emotions.
When I look back on the transitions I’ve made through these last 4 years, I think that some of the smartest choices I have made since Wes died have been in simply saying “yes.” But the truth is that saying yes to any offer, or just to some, was excruciatingly complicated and emotional. It was never easy, and I mean never. Each acceptance was laced with the myriad of issues I had to deal with, and in addition, what I anticipated having to deal with. So many times I felt trapped and I knew that if I couldn’t hold my act together, I could lose it all in a second, in front of everyone. I always needed an escape route. I always needed to be able to bolt, if needed – and bolt fast. Is that redundant? But I remember early on, that I was invited to walk with a group of friends at the Manassas Battlefield one morning. I didn’t want to go. I just didn’t. I didn’t want to be trapped, but I also knew that I needed to get out and exercise. At the time, it wasn’t so much about being healthy as it was for the sheer mental well-being. So I said yes. That walk turned into something I would never have been able to anticipate. It wasn’t easy, but as I found out on that particular day, it was actually harder to just get there than it was to actually stay there. I think that I have said yes to outings and invitations maybe 75% of the time. It takes a lot of energy to just show up. It takes a lot. Trust me on this. In the grief stricken mindset, every day, every step and every decision is like walking through peanut butter. There is no decision left to chance, no flying by the seat of your pants, no winging it. It just doesn’t happen. Every event in our lives becomes an emotional obstacle course of navigating each decision and how it is going to impact us for the immediate. It is like powering through every minutia of your day pushing 1000 pounds. But we aren’t necessarily looking down the road, we’re just trying to get through the day or hour. Even today, it is still a complicated pursuit and endeavor, to just accept an invitation to anything or anywhere. It is always wrought with emotion and escape routes and anxiety, but I still try. Well, most times I try. Sometimes I don’t, because I just can’t, or I just need to close in and close off to regroup. But I truly believe that accepting those simple invitations has been a lifeline for me, and a godsend. To say yes seems simple enough, to be sure, but it is excruciating to actually do. Just do it Sharon, just try. Just go for a walk. And so I did.
Every step in the grief process is a transition. Even when we are standing still we are transitioning. Our minds never stop during these dark times and even as the light starts to shine in, it is always on overload and in a constant mode of assimilating emotions and experiences and what it all means for us. But going through the majority of these changes is hell. It never stops. Ever. The sensory overload is monumental and unrelenting as we grasp to make sense of this new life and new changes that have been foisted upon us without our permission. So what do you do with it all and where do you go and how do you move past the just existing part or phase of this new life and start engaging again? In my experience, there is power in the yes. I am not a proponent of jamming your schedule chock full of activities just as a sheer distraction from the pain and discontent. We actually do need to stop and absorb the pain in order to come out on the other side, at least in some semblance of our former selves. That is, before grief came and swiped our inner soul right out from under us. Grief is a thief of time, of hearts, of minds, of goals, of our treasures, our dreams, of love and life – at least for the time being, it is. But even so, I am all about the ability to step outside the enormous pain mode and get sidetracked a little bit as we learn to engage bit by bit and learn to move past the just existing part, and segue into the life of the living.
As advice comes your way – all appreciated in my camp, by the way, it is still hard to decipher it all, but little by little the words penetrate and make a difference. As Wes used to tell me when he was sick that nobody understands what it is like to have cancer, except another cancer patient. That help from other friends or acquaintances was immeasurable for him, as is the connection I personally have with other widows. Good God, could there be a worse name for that? It is an absolutely horrid word, now that it applies to me, that is.
As the pain lifted in degrees, I felt the desire to do something. I had always wanted to take voice lessons and they happened to have a non-credited program at George Mason University, so I signed up. I tiptoed in, of course I did, looking for all the doors and exits if needed, but as it turned out, I stayed, and I stayed for a couple of years. Voice was the start of a turning point for me. It gave me something to think about other than myself. In truth, grief is a very self-absorbed activity. I must add, it is of no fault of our own. It’s just a fact. But changing the course of my day to day with simply saying yes and then engaging in something I always yearned to do, actually gave me snippets of joy. Joy – that I thought was lost to me forever, but it is not. I began to look forward to my classes each week, and began singing again wherever I was – in the house, in the car, on my bike – it freed me somehow of some of the constraints that wound around me tighter than I had the ability to loosen. But little by little healing was happening.
The ability to look outside of our grief and navigate a path that is productive actually eludes us in the throes of grief. We are directionless, rudderless and too exhausted and depleted to even care on some levels – well, on a lot of levels, actually. And as we contemplate being a burden on others that try to help us, through including us, invitations and phone calls, we may often, too often in fact, have a tendency to shut ourselves off because we don’t want to impose. Truly though, that fear becomes a burden on us, as we worry about being a burden on others. Not an easy cycle to navigate, I can tell you that right now. But as I reflect on some of the specifics of my personal journey through grief and loss, I realize that somehow, someway, I was sound enough to accept the hands that were always available to me by the most wonderful, compassionate, insightful people, family, friends and acquaintances, as they guided me through the most painful of times. Along the way, friendships became deeper, acquaintances became friends and I am proud of myself for allowing that to happen. I allowed myself to accept the help. I allowed myself to say yes.
Through all of my own personal uncertainty, what I am certain of is this: that the power of yes, may very well, have saved my soul.