When someone who you love dies, especially when that person was an integral part of your day-to-day life, something about the world shifts in ways beyond the actual loss. Sure, you miss the person. Sometimes you miss them so fiercely that the loss feels impossibly crushing and the future hopelessly long and empty without them. There are logistical things that you might miss too. A warm body next to you. Someone to do the dishes and pick-up the kids from school. Your Netflix buddy. I think those are all of the things you would expect to miss and feel.
But that’s not the shift I am talking about.
Grief moves something bigger inside of you. It carves into your soul. It changes your thinking and feelings and every fiber of your being. This movement permanently alters the way you live in this world.
Time feels like it passes faster than ever for me. The moments stitched together to make the tapestry of my days and weeks and years have become more precious than I would have expected in my previous life. I am hyper-aware that tomorrow might not happen. Sometimes I am terrified by this fact. Nostalgia oozes out of me. An understanding of an impermanent world makes me cling to the things I overlooked in my previous life. A simple trip to the grocery store might trigger my emotions, because you know, what an amazing opportunity that I can be at that grocery store, touching food that I am about to buy to share with my family, and what if this opportunity doesn’t exist tomorrow?
New feelings emerge in this Great Shift. I can feel simultaneously sad and also immense joy and appreciation all in the same moment. In my previous life these two feelings would have never coexisted, but this is my new reality. There is no one without the other. Things are always good and bad. I guess you can say everything is bittersweet. Bittersweet is better than terrible. I don’t question it; I take bittersweet and all of its contradictions because if tomorrow is not a promise, then I want to collect whatever opportunities present themselves. I have become a hoarder of life’s mundane and exciting and everything-in-between moments.
Change is hard for a grieving person. Change and the passage of time come hand-in-hand. Nothing stays the same. Change is evidence of a world that is different from the one you shared with your lost loved one. Change is everyone and everything moving on without your person. A new season. Bittersweet. You welcome it and cry about it. There’s nothing else you can do. You certainly can’t stop it.
I used to partake in the usual “Uuuughh I don’t want to go back to school,” grumbling with my husband (we were both teachers). We did our fair share of summer countdowns. And winter break countdowns. And “Is it Friday yet?” whining.
This doesn’t happen after the Great Shift. Another weekend is one more weekend that places me further away from the moment when my husband died. The passage of time makes my life with him feel less real and more of a distant memory. The reality we shared together seems like a fading dream that maybe never happened. Was it real? I don’t know. Your brain plays tricks on you. Another summer means I am getting further and further away from that old reality. This year was our third summer without him. The numbers stack up. One day, if I am lucky to live a long life, I will wake up and it will have been 20 or 30 or 40 summers ago, and will I even remember him at that point? The idea of a person is very different than an actual person. Things change. Memories fade. Time has a way of distorting facts and altering our consciousness. These numbers are a reminder of the growing distance that stretch and expand and isolate us in the most numbing ways. Numbers hurt. Who am I without that previous reality?
The Great Shift gives you no choice but to view the world differently. Changing seasons can’t be dreaded. We have to welcome the opportunity to live in a new season. It’s now or never. We have to enjoy right now, precisely because we don’t know what our tomorrows will look like. In the end, the only thing we are guaranteed is what we have in the moment. When you truly internalize this truth, you can’t help but become a different person.
The kids and I had a great summer, jam-packed with the things that we love to do. Traveling. Lots of traveling. We pet kangaroos in Australia and swam in the Mediterranean in Israel. We went horseback riding in Northern California and I caught up with domestic tasks like re-doing my filing system and getting some beautifying projects done around the house in the few weeks that we were actually home. Our summer cup of living was full. Overflowing, even.
I am happy that I strategically traveled a lot in my pre-kids, pre-marriage days. I am equally happy and proud that we managed to do a few trips as an intact family with my late husband, and that I have continued to travel as a widow and single mother. I often go back and forth with myself about budget priorities, wondering if I should ease off the traveling schedule and maybe travel less and save more. I often conclude that both are important. Maybe I’m foolish, but I think my traveling is a little more of a priority. There are certain things in my life that I have felt an urgency to pursue with a strong feeling that I am running out of time. Traveling is one of them. Even more so after Kenneth died. My gut feeling tells me that I need to do it while I can. I watched my husband take his last breath, and with that final exhale all of the lost opportunities dissipating into a world that would eventually forget him. I know what I am doing. I have to trust what I feel.
The end of this summer did not make me feel sad. School is back in session, and we are gradually easing into our new-old routines of schedules and lunch-packing and bedtimes and commutes and what we typically refer to as the “daily grind.” Yes, it can be tiring. Tedious. But I like the changing seasons. The new challenges and even the growing pains–all of which make me feel alive. It helps me appreciate my vacation time. When I am at work all day, the opportunity to eat dinner with my children in the evening is sacred. I want to savor their childhoods. I want to cling to the details of what we are going through each day. Our time together is limited and precious. That’s what changing seasons and life are really about: scarcity. We don’t have an infinite number of days and weeks and months. Could this be my last school year? My last winter? My last summer? Maybe I’ll have many more. Maybe I will have more than I ever need. But I will never be able to re-do this year with a third grader and a kindergartner and a chubby preschooler. I have one shot at it. I’m running out of time with the things that I have right now. This is what matters.
That’s where I am at right now. Busy running a large household and working and living. Happy to do it. Sometimes cursing the late husband for leaving me in this situation, but on most days always hovering somewhere between sadness and joy, and acutely aware that everything can be much worse in a split second, so I hold my breath and try to be grateful.
Before I know it, we’ll be on an airplane going to our next summer destination. Sometimes it literally feels like a blink of an eye and the season has changed. But for right now, I work on my fall and winter bucket lists and goals. Halloween costumes. Christmas plans. Family movie nights on Fridays. Making pancakes for the kids before temple on Sundays. Little bodies pressed against me at night in my giant bed, wondering when they’ll start sleeping in their own rooms, but knowing that their desire to be with me will wane. Taking big, deep breaths when the world feels too difficult. This won’t last forever, and that realization is so brutally bittersweet.