There is so much about grief that can often feel beyond your control, especially when it is a fresh wound in those early days and weeks and months. After my husband passed away, I lost almost 20 pounds within a few weeks. I call this the Grief Diet. You have no desire to eat and food becomes about as appetizing as cardboard. The numbness somehow travels down to your stomach and emptiness fills your insides in a way that feels perversely satisfying in the throes of grief-induced pain. Other symptoms included difficulty remembering basic things, only sleeping 3-4 hours a night, and a perpetual feeling of tightness in my chest that made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. I also didn’t get my period for 6 months. I thought I was either pregnant or dying, either of which would have killed me. It’s a good thing it was just “this.” Just grief, as if.
They classify “this” as a temporary psychological disturbance. You won’t usually get diagnosed with depression because of it. Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her memoir A Widow’s Story about how she had her doctor prescribe meds to ease her pain. Maybe I should have done that, but I gave birth to three children without meds, including a 10 lb 3 ouncer. Of course I would choose to go through grief the natural way, even if it had me writhing on the floor in agony. I’m a glutton for punishment.
Over time, the experts were right. “This” began to ease up, and I didn’t feel depressed anymore. Slowly, like the first seedling to break through a frozen ground after a long winter, there were glimmers of life coming back. It would never be the same, but at least I was still alive.
When the initial fog from the trauma of loss begins to dissipate, that’s when you begin to suspect that grief is a selfish bastard.
It often isn’t just about the person who died. It becomes more about losing the life you had. As much as that sounds terrible and selfish, it’s true.
Of course I loved my husband. He wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t always like him. But I loved him. While we were married, there were many times when I asked myself if I really loved him. Two strong-willed, opinionated people, one person a Type A personality, and the other Type Do Whatever I Want, which inevitably led to numerous battles of the will. When Kenneth died, I felt riddled with guilt for ever questioning if I loved him. But I know now that I l truly did.
I know that I loved him because of how much his loss has impacted me.
I know how much I loved him through my commitment to our children and how they love him, even though they can’t remember him.
I know that I loved Kenneth because I had his writing tattooed on my arm, despite a needle-phobia, and not a single day has passed in almost two years when I don’t look at it with a feeling of tenderness, like I somehow cheated the system by keeping an extra part of him permanently etched onto my body.
When you lose a spouse, there’s a lot involved that I think people who have experienced other types of loss maybe don’t understand. I know you’re not supposed to compare grief. However, losing a dog doesn’t impact your annual income. When you lose your spouse, you lose your emotional support. I lost the rock in my life, the person who I thought would always be there for me. The person to tell me how beautiful I am. The person to zip up my dress for me and to be the one to take our paperwork to the CPA every year. I lost the person who believed in my abilities and potential. I lost the co-parent who could help strategize how we would get Ellie to the doctor for her 4PM appointment and Ethan to his Cub Scouts by 7:30, while somehow figuring out dinner and wrangling Peter Jack. When Kenneth was alive, our method was divide and conquer. I would have taken Ellie to the doctor. He would have taken the boys home and made dinner before Cub Scouts. Now, I have to do it alone. It is tedious and often soul-draining work. Nobody else has to care about any of it. Nobody is obligated to help. There is nobody I can count on with 100% certainty in dealing with matters related to my children; there is nothing comparable to their father.
I don’t have Kenneth to listen to my complaining. He would often respond with something annoying to say. God, I would take his stupid comments now in a heartbeat instead of “this.” After he died I found a note in his journal that basically said: When Teresa starts complaining, do not say anything. She just wants you to listen. KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.
(But he never really remembered to do it.)
There are so many things I would do differently. Maybe that’s the silver lining to all of this: I get to live an improved life because of everything I lost. I just hate that it had to come at his expense.
But this is all about MY feelings. A lot of my grief is about the way the loss has impacted my life.
I have to be the only single parent at a kid’s birthday party and that makes ME feel shame.
Kenneth isn’t here to talk to ME anymore.
I don’t have him to recommend Netflix movies or actually go to the movies with ME, and that makes ME feel lonely.
How could this happen to ME and not someone else?
I don’t have him making MY coffee and doing the dishes, and that inconveniences ME.
The kids don’t have a father. That makes ME sad.
It’s hard raising kids without their dad, and that’s unfair to ME.
I’m pretty annoyed that I have to care about MY personal appearance now that I am a single woman. It’s probably selfish to be depressed about having to shave my legs again when, you know, my husband is DEAD. But now you know that I am a self-absorbed brat.
I know that Kenneth was deprived of a long life and that he won’t even see his children graduate from kindergarten. It is brutally unfair. He didn’t deserve this fate.
And yet, somehow grief always makes it about me again. Grief should be about the person who is gone, but it isn’t.
At least not entirely.
Although we do think about how much it sucks for the dead person, that lasts about 1.5 seconds before we’re crying about how much it sucks for us.
Cemeteries are for the living. They allow us to go through rituals to process our grief. They give us a place to tend to our pain. But then, over time, we don’t hurt as much. We stop bringing flowers like we did in the beginning. The flowers eventually cease, or perhaps only happen on special occasions. Cemeteries are filled with flowerless graves and niches because it was never about the dead. It was always for the living.
A few days ago I had just pulled into the parking lot at work in the morning when I got notified that Ellie had a fever and I needed to pick her up. Ethan still had to be dropped off at school. I had stuff to do at work. I wanted to scream. I have a finite amount of sick days and way too much potential for a flu to come in and wipe them all out. Kenneth had a boatload of days saved; mine had been whittled away by childbirth. I felt like I was constantly putting out little fires that popped up like a game of whack-a-mole in our busy one-parent family.
I dropped Ethan off and picked up Eloise. I carried her to the car, feeling the heat emanating from her tiny body. She needed me. But I was always needed somewhere else at the same time and it is hard to not feel resentful. I even felt angry at times toward Kenneth for leaving me in this situation, even though he didn’t choose it either.
Back at home I realized it was cleaning day. That meant I couldn’t put my pajamas on because there were other people in the house. I couldn’t do my workout video. I had to tend to Eloise and try not to get in their way.
Whine, whine, whine, whine.
It’s so easy to get sucked into feeling sorry for yourself.
I had to tell myself to STFU. How could I be complaining? I should feel lucky. I had cleaning people at my house! I freaking HAVE a house. Everything could be so much worse and things could go south in the blink of an eye. Logically I knew this, yet I easily slipped into whining mode about what I didn’t have, and oh yeah, GRIEF. Grief had been an uninvited house guest that I just couldn’t evict.
Why did this happen to me?
I don’t think there is a good explanation about why it happens to anyone, other than the universe doesn’t give a damn about who you are. In life, shit just happens.
I think it’s important to respect how you feel. It’s all okay, especially when you have to deal with mind-bending, painful realities that death forces on you. But even the best reasons wear thin, and eventually you might realize that it is not productive to dwell in certain feelings. Nobody else cares, and you end up shooting yourself in the foot with your really great excuse. Only one person will get hurt in that scenario.
That’s when your logical side has to interject and tell yourself to STFU.
Just STFU, you selfish brat. You’re still alive. You have this nice house and three healthy, fun kids, and your life is filled with purpose. You just need to STFU. And find a new path.
I think as long as I am moving forward in some way, however small, that’s a good thing. Keep moving forward, and along the journey I will sometimes have to remind my selfish self to STFU with the tough love of a pragmatic ice queen.
And that’s how I deal with the cold truth of the selfishness of grief.