(My lame attempt at drawing.)
When you experience the tumultuous waves of grief that crest over your head and wipe you out over and over again, you learn to either sink or swim. Eventually, when your survival no longer feels like a daily struggle, you will find yourself with enough time and space to pause for a second and wonder to yourself: what have I been most upset about? What was the worst part of it?
Do I miss him?
Was it the end of the marriage? ‘Til death do we part.
Being a single mom?
Perhaps it’s the loneliness.
Or going to work without him, having to hear somebody new’s voice through the drywall that separated our classrooms.
It could have been the difficulty of managing our busy household on my own, unpacking lunch boxes and preparing dinner and helping with homework and giving showers and dressing kids for bed and making sure they all floss and read before lights out and then-collapse in exhaustion. Every night. By myself. It is all one can do to not succumb to the monotony, intensity, and tediousness of this role.
Maybe I’m most upset about having to figure out the finances where he left off, or becoming the person in the house who has to put out the trash cans on Sunday nights, or how I have to kill my own spiders now.
I am upset about not having that one person who was supposed to be in my corner 24/7.
And then there’s the part about not having a father for my children. He was the only other person who loved our children the way I do.
But in reality, it’s probably all of the above. Some more than others. The intensity ebbs and flows depending on the day.
Here’s the thing: there is something else causing the pain besides being lonely and having to do the carpool rounds on my own. It’s also the reason why grief eventually subsides.
When I analyze my feelings, it was fear that fueled the other emotions.
Three kids on my own. I don’t think I need to explain the fear in that scenario. There was also financial fears. Logistical fears. Emotional fears. Responsibility fears. If I mess this up–it’s all on me.
Marriage can be a cushion for our fears. Being an adult involves taking on a lot of responsibilities that are scary at times. But, with a partner, we can at least share those fears, and that will lessen our anxiety. We can figure out which person is better at handling what the other partner doesn’t like, and in that way the division of labor is done in a way that helps to assuage our fears and worries, even in the smallest ways. There is something about being on a team that feels reassuring–to know that you are not alone and have somebody to share the burden and experience with.
In widowhood and single motherhood, there is no safety net. There is nobody to double check the numbers or remind you to schedule an appointment or to comfort you in the moments of your despair. There is nobody to help put the kids to sleep or sit next to you during the parent-teacher conference while the teacher complains about your child and you feel like the biggest failure. There is nobody to hold your hand through scary medical situations, or to handle emergencies that might feel overwhelming. There is nobody to bounce ideas off of. There is nobody to run the errands you don’t want to do, or make the phone calls you want to avoid. There is nobody to take over parental duties when you lose your shit because the youngest child dumped his food all over the floor that you just cleaned and you feel like you’re on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s always just you.
I learned about fear in the worst way the moment I found Kenneth on the living room floor and dialed 9-1-1 with my trembling hands.
I felt the fear paralyze me in the ER as I stood over his dead body and a hospital worker entered the room and gently handed me a list of options.
As in, the options for body disposal.
I remember thinking: are you kidding?
I wasn’t prepared for that moment. Why wasn’t I prepared? We had conversations about cremation and buying a niche in the same cemetery where his parents were inurned. We talked about death more than most couples I know. But we never visualized that moment when one of us might be in the ER standing over the other person’s body while our babies slept at home, and how one of us would have to take that list of crematory options and pick one, and then go home and figure out how to host a funeral and remember to pump breast milk for the baby and keep breathing amidst the ruination of our family as we knew it. We never talked about the possibility of one of us raising our young family completely on their own.
I am doing it, somehow. But what stands out the most from that early period of grief was the bone-crushing fear that continuously hung over my head like a dark cloud. What if I chose wrong? What if I screwed everything up? What if, what if, what if?
Fear is not an emotion specific to big tragic events. We learn it early, and in appropriate doses our fears are perfectly normal and healthy.
Fear the hot pan.
Fear walking out into the street.
Fear not doing your homework and failing a class.
Fear cheating on your spouse.
There is a place for fear.
I have a recurring nightmare. I’ve had it throughout my adult life. It usually begins with me waking up at my parents’ house and realizing that although I am a grown woman, for whatever financial reason, I have to live with my parents. Sometimes the dreams involve my children. Sometimes the dreams have my husband living with my parents too. But the scariest part of the dream is the feeling of hopelessness that I have–this belief that there is no way out. I am stuck there, under their roof, with no means of leaving.
No offense to my parents, but my independence is what I treasure the most in this world. I fear not having it. My subconscious apparently worries about it too with these crazy dreams.
When I was a teenager and a young adult, my fears were not making friends. Not being the right size. Not having cool enough clothes. Not being smart enough. I worried about getting my period in a class where the teacher didn’t allow hall passes. I feared getting raped. Not going to the college of my choice. Not being pretty. Not graduating. Not moving out. Not getting married. Never having children.
In motherhood, I fear that I am messing up my children. I worry about raising wild kids whose creativity and penchant for marching to the beat of their own drums will not lead them to viable careers. I worry they will get sick. I worry that I could have done more for them. I worry about all the stupid small decisions in parenthood, like should they do after school tutoring or are they eating too much sugar? I worry that I will fail them because I am a single mother and their father is dead.
As a woman, I’ve worried about my dress size. I worry that my midsection is too big and my thighs too wide. I’ve worried about my unruly hair and the creases appearing on my face. I worry about skin cancer and other types of cancer and whether or not my heart will explode like my husband’s. I fear for this country. I fear for the environment. I fear for all of the jobs my children will have to hold in their lifetimes just to survive. I worry that I will never fall in love again. I worry about getting older and less desirable as a woman. I still fear getting raped. I fear running out of money. I fear the next thing that will break and I will have to figure it out. I fear not being taken seriously as a woman. I fear being sexualized in society. I fear for my daughter and other people’s daughters.
What I’ve learned about fear is that it can consume us, driving us into a state of paralysis that consumes our thoughts in an unhealthy way. Inaction is exactly the conditions fear needs to grow bigger and stronger in our minds. Fear can only continue to exist when you do nothing about it.
In the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that fear will eventually subside in widowhood. That’s because over time, you are forced to take action, and each bit of action is an empowering process that will help you conquer those initial fears.
Pick a crematory.
Arrangements with the mortuary.
Clear out his closet.
Make financial decisions.
Pay bills with one income.
Take care of children on your own.
Show up to Donuts with Dad with no dad.
Be there for your children even when you feel weak.
Survive awkward and painful social encounters as you get used to this new version of yourself.
Learn to advocate for yourself.
Be awkward some more.
Change all of the diapers.
Take care of the washer, dryer, and stove that all break in one year.
Get through the first holidays and birthdays without him.
Rinse, and repeat.
Slowly, your fears will erode, because as long as you are moving forward and taking action–no matter how big or small–fear can not continue to grow inside of you. Each bit of action makes the fear shrink, until one day you realize it is no longer there.
Dale Carnegie said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it.”
One thing that has helped me deal with my fears is to figure out what the next small step needs to be. Nothing big. Just the next little thing I can do toward progress. I have the tendency to overwhelm myself with everything I think I have to do right in that moment. The truth is, you almost never have to do EVERYTHING in one moment. Slow and steady wins the day.
When you are feeling paralyzed by fear, ask yourself: what is the next best thing I need to do?
What can you do?
What can’t you do?
You need to be clear about each of these questions in order to know what the next step is.
One of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama is the following: If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
It helps to know if there is something you can do about a problem. If there is, then do it.
Another observation I have made about fear is that it is often the anticipation of something that hurts us the most, not the actual thing. First, we need to remember that this anticipation will pass. You will give the speech you dreaded, and then you will feel better. You will have that dreaded meeting, and then you will feel better. Being mindful of the fact that feelings don’t last forever is huge. We get bogged down in all the terrible scenarios that might happen instead of focusing on what we can do to prevent those situations from occurring. Another way to conquer our anticipation anxiety is to do the hard work to prevent a terrible situation.
Scared about giving a speech? Practice.
Scared about taking a test? Study.
Scared about failing a class? Do the work. Communicate with your teacher.
Scared that your writing sucks? Put it out there anyway. Maybe it sucks. Keep writing.
Scared that your husband will leave you? Do everything you can, and then accept that you can’t control other people and plan your next steps accordingly.
Scared of raising kids on your own? Constantly look for ways to be more organized and efficient. There is always something else to try (I am constantly working on this).
Part of dealing with fear is letting go of the desire to control the outcome. Instead of focusing your attention on what might happen, you instead shift your energy to focus on what you can do right now, and you actually do it. The “doing it” part is essential. You must take action, even in the scariest moments that make you want to pee your pants. Do not sit in your soiled pants! Take action. Take action. Take action.
There are a variety of things that I do to help myself figure out what step I need to take. I journal a lot. Make lists. Write out plans. Sketch out ideas. I write family goals and individual goals. I review the goals. I brainstorm ideas. Over and over and over again. I chart habits. I read a lot. I try to learn new things as much as I can. My goal is to constantly find ways that I can live better. I run–I get some of my best ideas from running. Listen to podcasts. Have conversations with interesting people. Go to bed early and try again in the morning. These have all worked.
But guess what? We are human. So fear will pop up again. And then you just have to squash it back down with the mighty hammer of you taking action.
One day you will realize that these small steps were your journey, not your destruction.