(Photo credit: My SIL, since I never seem to have any photos of myself!)
When you are in the throes of a deep, gnarled grief that stabs and slices and shreds, a relentless grief that wants to disembowel, your life becomes consumed with the important job of trying to survive. Pain is your new toxic companion that wants to wrap its tentacles around your neck every single night in the silence of a dark, empty house filled with shadows and reminders of the dead. Grief pours into every corner of space inside of you, invading every cell of your body, stretching for endless, hopeless miles with no horizon in sight. You, alone, spend your days cowering on a rickety raft amidst the violent churning of a vast ocean. You are focused only on getting through another day, one at a time. Every morning you wake up and are surprised that you are still alive.
Over time, the intensity wanes. Your toxic companion isn’t always around, because even it has grown tired of your sad life. It prefers to come around when you are least expecting it, when its chances of knocking you to your feet are the greatest. You are relieved that you don’t have to live every day with it, so the coming and going is acceptable to you, at least at first. When it leaves, you can breathe again. Soon, you can start eating and sleeping again too. The rest of the world had always kept moving along, business as usual. You had to eventually jump back on that train if you were serious about living, which you must have been, since you kept waking up every morning.
I felt almost normal until just before the one year mark, when another burst of grief hit like a volcanic eruption inside of me. I saw it coming. I knew what to do. But none of that ever matters in these circumstances. Like a tidal wave, it is bigger and stronger than you, and your only hope is to ride it out like all of the other wipeouts you’ve experienced. You’ve come to rely on the predictability of pain.
It felt like 8 weeks of a stomach virus, commandeering my body, my thoughts, my entire being. It catapulted me into long, desolate stretches of hopelessness. One final sputter, like the burst of energy surging through your body right before you die, except in reverse. Or was I finally dying?
And then, like a virus, it was out of my system, and a few days later I felt like my new-normal self again.
What I didn’t anticipate was the feelings that would flood my mind after grief subsided.
A new companion took its place: restlessness.
You see, grief is a dark, vicious beast that you spend your time resisting, fighting, processing, understanding. It takes all of your energy to keep it from defeating you, and you mistakenly start to think that this is who you are: a suffering, pathetic, pain-fighter.
Once it’s gone, when you hold your katana over your head in defeat of the ugly beast of pain, you look around, realize you are alone, and you wonder: what’s next?
Restlessness: the inability to rest or relax as a result of anxiety or boredom.
You didn’t prepare yourself for this, just like you weren’t prepared for grief.
I went to my husband’s nephews’ college graduation last weekend. The twins, who were little boys when I first met them, had earned their college degrees. We had a good time with the family, and I thought: wow, I have good in-laws.
Except…I’m not married to their brother anymore.
It’s a sad realization, but not one that cuts through me like it would have in the newness of Kenneth’s death. It’s just a fact now. Facts are facts. I’m not one to argue with truth.
After the festivities, I thought about how much my husband would have enjoyed the weekend. He loved time with his family. Kenneth would have been so jealous, I thought. Everyone together sharing a joyous occasion, but he is nothing but ashes.
It takes time to process the brutality of truth. You have to take the time to digest “Kenneth is campfire ashes” before you reach the point where it doesn’t make you break down anymore.
I’ve gotten used to it, and Kenneth is a neutral topic for me now. I can look at his pictures and feel neutral. I can think of sad things like how he was missing his nephews’ college graduation and it is a passing thought that does not debilitate me anymore.
Kenneth would have liked this.
Kenneth would have liked that.
Wish Kenneth could see this.
I’ve had to work up to this point. I wear my indifference like a hard-earned battle scar across my chest. It is bittersweet: I haven’t gotten stuck in my pain, but Kenneth is a distant memory, floating further and further away from me.
Nobody wins in the end. We just survive the best we can.
Time softens feelings like a rock tumbler, smoothing the edges of the rough and jagged and ugly into something we can live with, maybe even something beautiful.
Having a dead husband, being a single mother, surviving grief–all of these parts of my identity are as normal to me now as being right-handed.
In the absence of my grief and pain, there is space. Breathing room. Time to think. A container to fill, but with what, I don’t know. My attachment to the pain is gone, and I am now attached to…what?
Not my husband.
Not my grief.
I’m having an identity crisis. Should I feel normal? Am I really happy? What should I be doing right now, exactly? Is there a correct answer to any of these questions swirling around in my mind?
I am stuck in the role of pioneer, forging my way into new and uncharted territory, but I’m never quite sure if I’m going in the right direction, and this is a role I never planned to have.
This space inside of me is the source of my boredom-but-not-quite-boredom, and it gives me anxiety. Everything is working too efficiently right now in my life, and I’ve gotten used to chaos. I don’t know what to do with this. I’m suspicious of “this.” I’ve conquered the things I once feared, like pumping my own gas, raising three kids alone, and learning how to deal with household crises without another adult. But in other areas, there are still big question marks, like will I live the rest of my life alone? What does my next chapter look like?
I am unsure, and I have a horrible tendency of wanting to control all parts of my life. I’m a planner. I plan food menus and daily activities and monthly goals and weekly goals and a 5 year plan and a 10 year plan and I make to do lists for my to do lists and I revise them a couple times a day.
But “this”, this is something I have not been able to put my finger on. “This” is an elusive thing that I am unable to define.
It’s a scratch I can’t seem to itch.
Something I can’t remember, lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, just below the surface, escaping my memory.
It’s a frustration that grows in my chest, an unidentifiable feeling that isn’t happy or unhappy.
It’s going to dinner with somebody and asking, “What do you want to eat?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to eat?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either.”
A broken record that keeps spinning, playing and replaying a song that doesn’t offend nor appeal.
Going to bed early on a Friday night, wanting to do something fun but never getting around to making it happen.
Saying yes to something you didn’t really want to do, and the remorseful feeling afterward.
A child stuck inside on a summer day, watching the neighbors play and wishing they were too.
A desire to run for miles and miles and miles but not being able to work up the energy to get up and go.
An inability to put a finger on what is missing, but having that nagging feeling.
My days are filled with lots of meaning and productivity and doing the things I think I want to do. I meet my daily writing quotas. I exercise and eat well. My house is clean. I’ve organized closets and bedrooms and obscure drawers. I’ve taken the kids to a zillion places and they are fulfilled and loving little people and I am so happy they are my children. I’ve gone to Europe and gotten new bedding and cute matching pillows and I’ve taken naps and gone on walks and fiddled around in my garden and played with the kids and cooked and juiced and had my hair done and a manicure and a pedicure and everything I can possibly think of to feel content and happy and yet I can’t escape this feeling of restlessness.
If that’s what you call it.
I just call it restlessness for lack of a proper word in English to explain this space inside of me.
I can only assume this is a new stage in my new normal.
Perhaps I’m mourning the loss of the identity thrust upon me last year: Grieving Widow.
Now I am Bored Widow. Restless Widow.
Is there such a thing as Normal Widow? It seems like an oxymoron.
When a baby deviates from their routine and drives you crazy with new naughty behaviors, it tends to be a sign that they are entering a new developmental stage.
I must be evolving, I think. Entering a new stage.
It has to be a good thing, I think.
But I’m not sure. I’m never sure. I just have to keep bumbling through it, and right when I think I have the hang of it, something will pull the rug out from beneath my feet and I will have to figure out a new puzzle in my life.
The silver lining is that I’m getting really good at winging it.