Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Second Death

I think, perhaps, death would be much easier to endure if we only had to suffer it once.

Losing Craig was beyond painful. Suffocatingly so. To have someone there and then just... gone. No goodbyes, no farewells, no chance to fight. Movies have lured us into a false sense of what is real. We think that when death comes, we will get the chance to fight it off. That if we persevere, are good, remain true, somehow we just might be able to thrust it backwards. In movies, love conquers all, endures forever, and even cruel fate can be usurped.

The truth is much less elegant.

Death is ugly. It is mean, it is cruel. It doesn't just steal towards you in the dark of night. It comes on days that are bright and sunny, when you are smiling and laughing, utterly unprepared. It just comes and takes. You don't always get to fight. In fact, you rarely know it has come until after it has gone.

The emptiness death leaves behind is the worst kind of pain. There is no remedy, no cure, no solace. Time does not heal all wounds. It just puts distance between you and that wound. But the injury never loses its sting. You just grow more accustomed to hurting.

The first death, the physical one, is when our loved one is taken from us.

The injustice of it... we weep, we scream, we beg. But it is so permanent. So terrifyingly permanent. There are no trades for more time, no bartering that is possible. Rather than the depth of our love saving us as we think it should, it merely makes the loss that much more apparent.

We learn to get by with nothing, desperately trying to fill that ache with tasks that need to be finished, photos we clutch at night, clothes that carry the smell of the one we love. But still, really, we have nothing.

The empty spaces fill with fear.

Fear that we will never see our loved one again, fear that there is nothing beyond our life here, that they have disappeared from existence entirely. That we will too. Fear that fate is fickle, that nothing is sacred, that we will never be safe again.

Most importantly we fear forgetting.

That the person we once loved so desperately, so fully, will fade from our memory, that we will have moments of laughter without guilt, that life will go on without them.

This is the second death.

The first, raw, quick, over before we have a chance to comprehend. It rips and tears and is gone, leaving pain. So much pain.

The second death takes its time. It is years. Slow, long years.

Days go by and we get older while our loved one does not. Not just hours but days, even weeks, go by without us shedding a tear. We carry around photos but don't look at them as often. Clothes are given away. Things that collect dust are eventually thrown out. What was once the most important item in the world, even if just a lowly cufflink, now becomes one more reminder that no longer seems to remind.

Then one day we realize we no longer hear our loved one's voice in our head, knocking our thoughts about at all hours of the day.

We can't remember quite what that crease by their left eye looked like when they smiled.

We pick at our memories now, fewer and fewer of them, worn thin by overuse.

Eventually we cannot recall their voice exactly. Photos seem two-dimensional.

We ache over what we felt. Only we can't remember it all quite so well now.

It is terrifying.

This new kind of death is just as permanent as the first. How can you remember something that is now gone? How can you feel the touch of someone's skin when it is no longer there? How can you hear someone call your name so sweetly when they have been silent for years?

So you mourn.

You mourn all over again.

This second loss stripping you of the poor shadow of a person you so carefully clutched. The world you built up, trinkets and photos and notes to remind you, collecting dust and not bringing forth memories with quite the potency they once did.

It is like losing someone twice.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

3 Years

Normally on each anniversary I pen a letter to Craig here on my blog, filling him on on what he has missed, what I want to tell him. Somehow I imagine these letters floating about in cyberspace, making their way to him by osmosis. I talk to Craig every day, but I like the ritual of summarizing my year for him on such an important date.

I've been crafting this year's letter in my head for a few weeks now.

Sadly, I didn't quite get to positing it yesterday. Not because I didn't have time or because I didn't want to. For some reason, this year above any other, I was sucker-punched by the anniversary. I spent most of the day trying to distract myself, trying to hold it together, trying to forget who I was, what had happened. Sometimes the anticipation of these big days can build and build, weighted with expectation, dragging you further into grief.

This year I felt especially isolated, particularly alone.

I had expectations about being three years out, I think. Ridiculous ones.

That, by this point, I would be fine, I would be ok, I would be better. As if "better" somehow has any meaning.

Except... I'm not fine, I'm not ok, I'm not really better.

By that I mean, I still feel every inch a widow. I still walk around, carrying it with me every day. I still feel that grief and that loss all the time. I still miss him, I still talk to him, I still wish he was here.

It still catches in my throat and breaks my heart.

I still feel that pinch in my chest and have to look away to swallow back tears.

I still feel the taint of death on my life.

I was asked yesterday if I had any peace over what happened. My answer?


I don't think that peace is possible. Peace implies some sort of acceptance. A sense of calm or ease with how things are.

Rather, I think I have, like the countless widows before me, found a way to live with the grief. It is my constant companion. I carry it with me because I never stop being aware of that loss. I function, I go to work, I live my life. I even have joy. But I still have the grief with me.

This is not a matter of choice.

Grief and loss shapes us. We can't help but have that nagging feeling something is missing. Imagine you are piling your family into the car before a long road trip but you left little Johnny at the kitchen table - instently you can feel that disorientation because someone is missing, that you are forgetting something very important.

That is how it has felt, every day, for 3 years.

So, because of this, my 3 year letter will be a little shorter than others:

Dear Craig,

I still love you. I still miss you. I'm still waiting.

Your Emily

Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Grief is Bigger Than Your Grief

This week I had a rather miserable experience with someone supposedly in the bereavement industry. I say supposedly because she seemed a bit of a fraud (ok, not a bit) and broke the cardinal rule of grieving: comparing one person's grief to someone else's.

Now I'm not going to say I'm innocent of this infraction. In the early days of my grief journey, I found myself doing this quite a bit. A great deal of that came from a place of confusion and heartache and, frankly, a deep desire to actually find someone I could relate to, who was going through exactly what I was going through.

Of course I never did find that person because, as I learned, you can't. No two grief journeys are the same. No two losses are the same. No two loved ones are the same. What we do have, are shared themes. The feelings of hopelessness, despair, anger. Asking ourselves over and over what happened and why. Wondering where that person is now. You get the idea. These are the things that bond us in our loss.

Now I'm not about to declare that all grief is the same either. I've lost grandparents, pets, friends, and a husband. Losing my husband was definitely the hardest for me. Emphasis on the for me. As I said, every person is different. Some people may experience what has been dubbed, "complicated grief". This often occurs when the death is violent, sudden/unexpected, or occurs at a very young age. It can be so shocking to the bereaved, they experience a traumatic type of grief, impacting every area of their life for prolonged periods.

After working with memebers of the widowed community for the last couple years, I have heard, time and time again, the debate rage over which is worse: a sudden death or one after a long illness. In fact, I heard a fellow widow say it just the other day - that their loss was much harder because they had to see their spouse suffer for so long. Not only is this statement offensive because it minimizes the grief of those who have had sudden losses, but it is factually incorrect. Numerous studies have been done to evaluate which type of loss is more difficult to overcome. When I say numerous, I mean dozens and dozens. The conclusion? Every single study declared their results inconclusive. With a long drawn out illness you must watch your spouse suffer in pain, losing their dignity, their health, their happiness. With a sudden loss, you may be utterly unprepared, never even getting to say goodbye. You see where I am going with this? They both suck. Period.

In getting back to my little incident this week, the "professional" told me that losing my husband didn't even compare to losing a child. That losing a child is ten times worse. She even said, "You can always go out and get another spouse." Silly me, I must have passed that aisle in the grocery store: Replacement Husbands. Complete with handy tool belt, socks to leave lying around, and on sale now!

I asked her if she'd ever lost either a husband or a child. No, she hadn't. When I asked her how she could possibly know which was worse, she told me that as a mother, she knew. Which, to me, would sort of be like saying that as a wife, I knew losing a husband was worse. It was ridiculous.

Her comments were so hostile and antagonistic (not to mention completely ignorant), it took pretty much everything in me not to upend her coffee table and scream, "HULK SMASH!" She proceeded to tear me a new one for a good 20 minutes while my blood pressure shot through the roof and I mentally slipped away to my happy place (lalalala la la la la la la laaaaa). I tried to calmly and rationally explain that while I had never lost a grown child, I had lost a baby, and they both sucked. That grief was grief and you can never possibly imagine the pain of losing a spouse, until you go through it yourself (something I recognize about losing a child and the primary reason I wouldn't argue that one is worse). It was all for naught, however. I ended up leaving, tears streaming down my face, storming back to my car (Sidenote: Sorry to the poor man I was walking behind who kept looking over his shoulder at me looking more and more terrified).

It was amazing that after all these years, someone's ignorance like that could still get to me. And so much! I was distraught the rest of the day and ranted about it to anyone who would listen for the rest of the week. The lack of empathy and total lack of professionalism where shocking.

So what makes people fly off the handle and enter into these silly competitions of comparing their grief? (Or in her case, comparing the grief of other people, not even her own)?

Partly I think it is a lack of awareness. Sometimes this is just a natural part of the early grieving process - we only see our pain because it is so big, it blocks out anything else (or anyone else). For some, I think it is a way of making themselves feel better. If my grief is worse than anyone else's, it explains why I haven't gotten out of bed in four days and my hair still smells like Cheetos. For others, perhaps like the woman I spoke to, they want to be the expert. They want to sound authoritative and more knowledgeable than anyone else. Or maybe they are just uncaring asshats. Who knows.

Because, you see, the My-Grief-Is-Bigger-Than-Your-Grief Competition only has losers. No winners.

Because grief sucks.


All grief.

Whether you lost a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, it doesn't matter. There are so many factors that can impact grief: where you are at in your life, your relationship with who you lost, unresolved issues or feelings, watching them suffer, losing them suddenly, not getting to say goodbye, and so on and so forth. Every loss is so unique that "measuring" the grief is impossible.

Not to mention you can alienate and hurt the people around you, quite badly.

So if you ever find yourself accidentally letting slip a My-Grief-Is-Bigger-Than-Your-Grief, I urge you to take a moment, consider the person in front of you, and put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine their pain, feel their grief.


You see?

It's awful too.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


This week was "momento night" at the grief group I'm co-facilitating.

The idea is, each of the widow(er)s brings in an item to share with the group from their late spouse. The item can be anything: a piece of clothing, jewellery, a photo, something their spouse made, their favourite book, etc. It then gives the griever an opportunity to share in depth about their husband/wife. Perhaps tell a story, share a memory, or talk about something that has helped them in their journey.

It's always a very emotional night for everyone and can bring up many, many tears.

Part of my job as a co-facilitator is to bring in an item of my own to help get the ball rolling.

I knew this was coming before I ever signed up (because I remember it from my own group), but still I procrastinated picking something out. It's not that I don't want to share about Craig. Rather, I carry so many momentos with me all the time, I knew it would be tough to find one that really captured his essence, the spirit of who he was, and exactly how much he means to me.

Basically a couple hours before I had to go I finally decided I could put it off no more.

I pulled out my "boxes" and began what I thought would be a quick glance through to find something I liked.

The very first box had Craig's license plate, bent and mangled, right on top. Underneath that was the stack of photos from the accident that were in the newspaper and on tv. Under that, card after card, letter after letter, from the funeral. Yes, I kept every single one.

The next box was all the photos from the funeral and the one after that had Craig's journals, diaries, and love letters.

There weren't a ton of boxes, but it sure felt like it.

Just lifing the lid from that very first box, seeing the broken glass and dirt still streaked on everything I pulled from the car, was like a sucker punch to the gut.

I ended up sitting on the floor, crying my eyes out, pouring over each item one at a time. Two hours later I realized I was going to be late and frantically rushed to wipe the snot and mascara off my face, dashing out the door.

It made me realize something very important.

I was telling someone that it upset me because I rarely looked at that stuff anymore. In fact, it's probably been about a year since I pulled out the boxes and went through them like that.


Because I don't want to remember the sad stuff anymore.

I keep Craig's picture (a couple of them actually) in my office. When I sit down to write, there he is, grinning back at me.

I have a photo of him I keep in my wallet where he tragically wrote, "hopefully you won't need this picture of me to remember my face in 20 years" across the back.

I have 2 letters from him (my favourite out of the 100+ I've kept) in my purse. In it he tells me that I am smarter than I think, that I am brave, that I can do anything. I don't need to read them anymore. I know the words off by heart.

On my right hand is my ring - the one I designed that is made from both sets of our wedding bands.

In my car I keep the jade bear talisman he bought for me on our first trip to Radium. I feel safer when I drive just knowing it is hanging from my rearview mirror.

These are the things that make me smile. They make me feel better.

At some point along the way, a shift happened.

I began to remember my husband as my friend, my lover, the guy who could always make me smile. Instead of reliving scenes of the accident, I relived the scenes from our life. Instead of agonizing over his final moments, I laughed about the way he'd dance with me in the kitchen. Instead of pain and suffering, I started to feel joy and happiness that I got to have him, for what little time I did.

It's not that I don't care about the accident. It's that the accident was preceded by one hell of a decade. And that decade is the one that I want to look back on.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the momento I brought was a card he gave me on my birthday. Inside it he wrote:

"I would have hoped that being older in body and mind that you would have blossomed into a mature young woman.
However, I can see you plan on staying young forever.
Please stay young forever, I don't want to be left behind.
At times in our life our own spark goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another.
You are my spark."

Like I said, these are the things worth remembering.