Finding Toughness in the Raw

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In my experience with grief, the waves come before the big dates. For example, you might assume that I would be terribly upset on the birthday of my late husband, or on Christmas, and probably on the day of his death-a-versery. The sorrow actually happens about a month before the actual date. Somehow my body senses it before my brain clues in. It’s the way that my mind lingers on certain details. It’s how I feel slower, sadder, and more distracted than usual. The feeling of something looming over me. It’s an ache in my chest. Heaviness. A shadow that follows close by. Something I can never quite put my finger on; unresolveable.

That’s where I had been hovering, in the sadness of that period of time before a big date. In 34 days, it will be two years since my husband died.

But it hadn’t been so bad. I mean, comparatively speaking.

The first year was hard. Everything. Learning how to drop off the kids at three different locations every morning without the help of the other parent, and then picking them up from three different locations. It’s tedious work, single parenting.

In that first year, learning to accept my shame in being a single parent. I’m a planner. I planned my family, each child, down to the day. All of my planning wasn’t good enough. I’ve spent my entire life trying to do what I was supposed to do. I dotted my I’s and crossed my t’s and none of it was good enough. It’s difficult to reconcile. How does a person not take “this” personally? How do I stop feeling like somehow I deserved to get handed these crappy cards in life? How do I stop comparing myself to people who didn’t have to lose a husband? How do I stop walking around feeling like a socially stigmatized single mother and manage to hold my head up high? This was my challenge.

The first year had a fog of grief that was so thick I didn’t know if I could find my way out. Everyone else mourned my husband for a few days or weeks (maybe longer for people like his family), but for most people it just became another sad story they once heard, and he became a person they once knew. They moved on with their lives. For someone like me, we have to live with the sadness every single day and somehow we have to “move on.” There are also logistical and practical implications of losing a partner: paychecks, carpools, companionship, a person who did half the chores, someone to bounce ideas off of, tax filings, retirement, the person who helped you tuck in children at bedtime and get them dressed in the mornings– the father of your children. Dashed dreams. I can’t even begin to explain what this all means to a person who hasn’t experienced it. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

During that first year, going to events at the kids’ school as a single mother was extremely triggering. There were lots of tears involved.

The first round of holidays.

The first time I went to the accountant by myself.

The first time I had to take care of a car problem on my own.

Having to throw away his favorite pair of jeans.

Writing a check to the crematorium.

Watching my one-year-old stand on his tiptoes to blow a kiss to my husband’s plaque in the cemetery columbarium. A one-year-old who only knows his father through pictures and visits to the cemetery.

Having to deal with the recurring memories of the moment I found my husband dying on the floor. Calling 9-1-1 with hands that shook uncontrollably. Sitting in my pajamas, unable to move as I watched firefighters crowding around his lifeless body, our babies asleep in the nearby bedrooms. Our entire family irreparably broken in the moment he cocked his head back and exhaled one long dying breath with a finality that you feel in your gut. That defining moment when you watch the person you love slip away forever. How do you forget that?

The second year was easier. I thought about his death less often. We gradually started new traditions. Our brains got used to our new normal, which involved learning to live with a lingering sadness. I took pictures down. I redecorated. We started a new round of birthdays and holidays and they didn’t hurt as much as that first year. I got used to the things that once triggered me. (Except for going to Disneyland. I still haven’t been able to go back.)

School functions didn’t leave me in tears in the second year. The annual family camping trip, holidays, birthdays, even going to the accountant. I felt myself becoming more resilient. The first year had a lot of ups and downs. There was a lot of crying. I felt raw and left behind, and it was difficult having to keep it all together. But the second year made me think that I would probably survive this ridiculousness. I once had serious doubts that I would come out of this experience alive.

In the second year of grief you don’t stop feeling the pain, but the waves of grief are more gentle because you know they exist. I had a lot of wipeouts during the first year, because I was new to grief. You get better at spotting the waves in the second year, and they don’t clobber you over the head like they once did. You have time to put on your floaties. It still hurts, but the pain is duller and more familiar, you’re more skilled at riding the waves, and you know it will pass. It doesn’t feel like the hopeless pain of the early days when you wanted to die.

As I approached the second year, I felt more in control of my grief. I had already gotten past the shock stage. Feelings became more predictable.

And then I got an email from somebody in my son’s Cub Scout pack.

One line stuck out like a bright blinking Vegas sign: you need to also be willing to put in your effort.

You need to put in your effort.

You need to be willing.

As in, you are not putting in your effort.

You are not willing.

As in, you are lazy.

As in, you are not pulling your weight as the mother of a Cub Scout.

I internalized this as failure, failure, failure.

Not enough effort. Failing. Not willing. You’re not willing. Horrible, horrible mother. I am failing my son.

My sweet, innocent son who does not have a father and now I am failing him by being a shitty mother.

I tried to explain to Cub Scout Lady how this made me feel, and she responded that she didn’t know why I was so upset, because apparently widow and single mother was just a lazy excuse.

YOU DON’T KNOW WHY I’M UPSET?

Are you kidding me? Every freaking day is a struggle for me. I wake up each morning on the verge of a panic attack trying to get three small humans dressed, their lunches and breakfast prepared, trying to make myself look a little bit presentable in the two minutes that I have to dress myself, and then manage to get all of us out the door before the sun even rises. I work all day, and then I round the kids up and take them to their activities and make them dinner and bathe them and do homework and read and floss their teeth and tuck them into bed before I collapse in exhaustion. I’ve been doing this solo for almost two years, and my kids are 8, almost 5, and 3. You do the math.

IT’S FLAMING SCORCHING HELL.

I try to get enough sleep and exercise. I try to engage my children in learning. I try to read daily. I prepare healthy meals and sweep and do dishes and laundry and pick up the dog poop and fill the gas tank and change diapers and pay bills and remember what groceries to buy and deal with my own grief–remember the images of my husband gasping on the floor that keep popping into my head–and YOU WANT ME TO MAKE MORE OF AN EFFORT?

Cub Scout Lady, I AM EMPTY. Empty. There is no effort left in a single bone in my body. I have nothing more to give. I’m sorry if that constitutes a failure to you.

She threw at me how much her and so-and-so had to do to cover my responsibilities when I couldn’t attend a January luncheon because MY KID HAD STREP THROAT. One month of strep throat in my household. Who in the hell do they think is going to take care of my sick kids? And me? I literally had nobody around that week. Perhaps I should drop off the children at the cemetery where my dutiful husband will keep an eye on them? I mean, come on.

I’m tired, Cub Scout Lady. I’m so, so, so, so tired.

You start to feel paranoid. Like, maybe they want my last drop of blood. Maybe they want me to die. And then what happens to my children? Nobody would care. Nobody would care because I’ve seen firsthand how somebody dies and the rest of the world moves on and it just becomes a story they once heard.

It didn’t matter how much I tried to explain how patently unfair their rules were for forcing any parent, let alone a SINGLE WIDOWED MOTHER, to do so much work that involved festival shifts and selling crap and attending every other week meetings and keeping track of a zillion emails that flood my inbox and attend regular events and finish activities in the handbooks and participate in the almost monthly luncheons by way of bringing food and working shifts and oh yeah, I have two little ones in addition to my Cub Scout. Apparently I’m supposed to pay for babysitting. Or magically make it work. Pretend that it isn’t crushing me.

After many emails, she offered me an earlier shift.

She still didn’t get it, and I didn’t respond, because I realized right then and there that she wasn’t interested in figuring this out. She just wanted to stick to her protocol. Gee, I wish my life were as simple as following the rules. Sticking to protocol. It must be nice to exist in a bubble where following the rules doesn’t get you the pile of shit that I got in my life. Must make a person super proud to enforce rules that don’t consider the real human beings involved. Efficiency over empathy.

I don’t measure up to their standards. That’s the bottom line. My family doesn’t fit in. The family I used to have would have fit in nicely. But this new family that I have doesn’t. We’re different. I’m different.

I spent a solid 24 hours crying off and on. Ugly crying.

To the layperson, I’m overreacting. To someone who hasn’t walked in my shoes, you may think this is all very simple. Work your shift. Figure it out. Move on.

My husband worked a shift for this very festival TWO WEEKS BEFORE HE DIED while I stayed home with the babies. It was the last event he did with our son. Those were the days when working festival shifts were doable in a two-parent home.

But now he’s dead.

And I’m alone with these children.

I’m tired. I’m barely holding it together. I’m always a few stitches away from unraveling. Just because I’m generally a punctual person and I smile and look like I have it together–that doesn’t mean crap. It means I’m keeping it together (today) and I’m really good at pretending everything is fine. If you ask me how I am, I’ll tell you I’m fine. But you should know that I work my ass off to keep everything together. Cub Scout Lady’s demoralizing email ripped apart my last couple of frayed stitches that had been holding everything together.

How dare anyone tell me to put forth more effort.

She pressed a button. My insecure button.

I’ve had many of these buttons. You can read about my insecure dating button.

These buttons remind me of my rawness. These buttons are gateways to my pain. Find the right one to press and you will see my ugliness.

My husband died and left me a single mother. We meticulously planned our family. We had plans for a fourth child that would never happen. We had future projections for traveling and college and retirement. We still had unfulfilled hopes and dreams and vision for our life together.

This woman pressed my button and I was reminded that I am the only person who cares about the life I got robbed of.

She pressed my button and unleashed the floodgates of my grief. Nasty, vile grief. I snapped at my children for a few days. I cried myself to sleep. I didn’t have interest in anything. I felt every part of my body become heavy, like I was dragging myself around.

This was the person I knew from the first year of grief. I thought I had left her behind in the past. As it turned out, she was always lurking just beneath the surface.

I felt determined to get the situation under control before grief wrapped its tentacles around my neck.

I went for a run several times. Running is great for mental clarity. Running does not always fit in with my busy schedule, so I’m constantly having to be creative. And that stresses me out.

I noticed that it felt easier getting through the 2.5 mile run since I had been regularly running again. I fell off the wagon during the holidays and had to ease myself back into the routine, both mentally and physically.

While running, I had a thought. Running always stirs my best thoughts. It’s seriously magical. I thought about the pain of exercise, and in this case, the discomfort of running. Having to find the time to make it happen when there were a thousand other things I needed to do. Not wanting to feel pain. Making excuses to not run. Then feeling guilty. Feeling out of breath. Body aches. It’s too hot. Too cold. Knees and muscles and feet. Whatever it might be.

But when you run over and over again, it gets easier. Habits develop. Practice makes the pain decrease, and eventually it doesn’t hurt. You get faster and stronger. Your routine gets more efficient. You may in fact actually start to enjoy and crave the feelings you experience from running.

That’s what it was like during my first year of grief. Going to school events over and over again until I wasn’t self-conscious about being a single parent.

Waking up day after day without him next to me preparing lunches. Painful. But doing it every single day turned the pain into a new normal. Now I listen to podcasts instead of talking to him.

Starting a new school year without him, with a different person in his classroom. Painful. Hearing the sound of the new teacher was triggering, but not it doesn’t seem like it was ever Kenneth’s classroom. Those days seem like they were a million years ago.

Being alone, night after night. Painful. The deafening silence after the kids go to bed. Emptiness. But confronting that silence every single day slowly turned it into new space. My time.

Seeing his food in the freezer. Painful. Looking at his Japanese nato every time I opened the freezer door, day after day, until one day I picked it up and chucked it into the trash and moved on with my day.

Spending his birthday without him. Painful. The second one: not my first experience with the pain. More on the nostalgic side of the spectrum.

The repetition of experiencing the pain helps me forge my new normal.

Life reconfigures itself. Nothing stays the same. There is a constant ebb and flow of rawness and toughness.

Your rawness is how you build toughness.

It’s what I imagine a person on the streets has to do before they earn the reputation of being feared: numerous fights. Lots of getting the shit beaten out of them. Too many black eyes to count. Lots of bruises. Broken bones. Brushes with death. Desensitization.

Over and over again.

Until you get good.

You get tough by being raw.

Cub Scout Lady doesn’t have to have empathy for me. She doesn’t have to ever understand the complete and utter hell of being a young widow with young children. I’m glad she gets to live in a world where my horrific reality is not even a blip on her radar.

I can’t change her or anyone else’s perceptions about who I am or what my life is like.

I’m working hard to not let other people’s opinions affect me. But it’s hard. It’s so freaking hard because besides having to learn to live without my husband, I’ve had to mourn the mother I used to be. The mother who had more time. More patience. More help. I have a serious and deeply rooted fear that I will somehow fail my fatherless children. It’s easy for people to tell me that I’m doing a great job. Thanks, but nothing I do will ever erase the fact that my children do not have a father. There are money concerns. There are emotional concerns. There are sanity concerns—mine, that is. The world is scary, and I’ve lost my co-pilot. It’s incredibly draining living day in and day out in the captain’s seat. It’s not what I signed up for. I am living a life that I did not sign up for.

And I’m learning to reconcile a life that has not gone as planned and the blistering disappointment.

At first I was going to write about how I needed people to not press my “I’m a bad mother” button.

But then I thought otherwise after thinking about it while running. Maybe I need people to press my buttons. I need them to press my buttons so I can work through my rawness.

So I can prove them wrong.

So I can select better people to surround myself with in my life.

So I can work on my boundaries.

So I can work on my pain.

So I can work on my perceptions.

Just like my running, I need to take it two miles at a time. I need to get up and try again. And again. And again. This is how we get stronger.

I’m in it for the long haul. It’s going to take more blood, sweat, and tears. The only things I feel certain about in my life are: moving forward with my head up (with a grace period of 24 hours to mope around), and working as hard as I can without sacrificing my health or family. I need to stay focused. I need to get stronger.

I need to embrace my rawness, and part of that is not being afraid to let people know that I am still working becoming tougher. Maybe by knowing these stories we become more empathetic toward each other, and more resilient in our own lives.

6 comments

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  1. Diane

    Oh my goodness Teresa…. this post really hits home for me. Thank you for writing so beautifully and poignantly. I lost my husband a little over a year ago. I was doing better and moving through the grief. Until last month when I lost my mother unexpectedly and traumatically. Another round of grief times 10. It has triggered everything all over again. I’m seeing a grief counselor to work through all this sadness. But I have to say you’re writing helps me as well. So thank you for sharing your raw emotions.

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  2. justbetsyj

    I want to tell you that I read every word of this, and I really heard you. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. But I want you to know something…you are Enough. Even at what you think is your worst you’re enough. You’re also one of my newest heroes. Funny how quickly that can happen.

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  3. betweenthewords

    I also lost my husband in April of 2016, which I think is what attracted me to your blog. I am also a teacher and a writer. The difference is that I was married for almost 34 years and got to raise my three daughters with my husband. My heart aches for you having to manage this alone because I share so many of the feelings you described in your 2nd year. I am hopeful that you have some support to help you and your children. I know there are so many people who just do not understand the waves of grief coupled with the relearning of daily life. I do understand.

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