Learning to Live Again, Knowing the Fragility of Life
I can honestly say I NEVER THOUGHT I’d be selecting the box labeled “WIDOWED” on the hospital admittance form while in labor about to deliver my first baby. Through tears, I tried to focus and legibly write the required information but the quivers from labor pain and trembling from the raw fear of doing this by myself made that impossible. I was 29 years old, nine months and ten days pregnant and my husband had died suddenly five weeks ago. I was surrounded by my loving family yet deeply alone.
I cannot recall many details from this fuzzy time in my life. There was internal chaos and externally I was just trying to keep it all together. My new labels of “widow” and “single mom” felt like I was wearing stockings a size too small and a tightly tailored dress — incredibly uncomfortable and just not me. Everything I thought I knew about life, my life, was either shaken or had disappeared. I could not make sense of anything and the complexity of emotions was incredibly confusing. One moment I was very practical and clear-headed, the next in awe of the joyful gift of life my daughter’s birth brought and the next…well, in despair that my life partner and best friend died.
An excerpt from my journal a few weeks after his death and a few weeks prior to giving birth sheds light on the sporadic nature of grief and associated “swirly-ness.”
His shoes positioned by the back door – awkwardly angled just as he left them. The baby’s elbow swept gently across my belly protruding like an alien from inside my body, inevitably trying to find some comfort in the midst of my trembling body.
I feel alienated. I feel thrust from life to a place of numbness, confusion and raw pain. I am a stranger in this house.
My own home feels simultaneously cold, lifeless, creepy and comforting. I don’t know anything anymore.
His wedding band rests heavy on a thin chain between my swollen breasts; the flesh that once supported this symbol of eternal love now burned. I cannot believe that I am supposed to give birth alone – without Will.
How will I do it? I will just do it. Should I move his shoes? Should I sell the house? When is the mortgage payment due? Do I still have health insurance? What should I name our baby now?
I can’t remember what kind of food the chickens eat. I am going to have to learn how to hunt and fish for real if this is a boy. Who am I? Can he see me? Can he hear me? I don’t know anything anymore. Maybe I will leave his shoes like that for a while.
Many years later, I am living my new normal life. I recall a therapist telling me that my life would never return to normal despite my desperate attempts to make that happen. Instead, I would eventually find my new normal. With much gratitude, I can write that I have in fact found my new normal and I have learned a great deal about myself through this journey. Life is messy yet there are lessons of gold in this mess.
Some things are meant to never be understood. Making sense of my husband’s death consumed me. The questions, “Why doesn’t my daughter have her dad and why doesn’t Will get to experience her” occupied my mind like the stock ticker on the bottom of the TV screen. I could not figure out why his perfectly healthy heart failed his body despite hours of online research. I wondered if God was punishing me for something I didn’t even know I had done wrong. I begged for answers to my “why” question of the day. About three years into this tiresome journey, I vaguely recall a quiet voice saying, “Maybe you aren’t supposed to know why.” Trying to answer this question is a very cognitive attempt to understand an aspect of life that is not meant to be fully understood. Eventually, this quiet voice became fully heard and I realized its truth. Ultimately, it became clear that I had a choice: I could spend a lot of life energy trying to understand (and thus keep myself in the agony of grief) or I could choose to focus on accepting that I may never understand Will’s death. Freedom came with acceptance and I continue to learn that some things in life are not meant to be understood.
Underneath it all, is the real me; and I am just enough. Within all of the chaos, confusion, pain and disorientation — my essence, my soul was buried. I tried on every possible identity and layered on the outfits of image to try to find her — I ate too little, I ate too much, I turned over my wardrobe at least 4 times, spent too much money, drank too much wine, dated people that were not right for me and tried to revolt against the labels “single mom” and “widow.”
I have spent a lot of time and energy navigating this world from a place that is not purely me. I had these feelings of being at battle internally — the real me was down in there screaming to be heard and all the other versions of “me” were taking turns in the spotlight; taking turns making it seem like I had it all together and making my life seem perfect.
I didn’t know that I was thirsting for authenticity and that I was living from places other than the pure me. All I knew is that I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin and I was spending a lot of time worrying about what other people think. The practice of meditation and a commitment to live more mindfully helped me slowly start to see the power of my mind, the continual judging of myself and how I let familiar internal “story lines” dictate how I felt and how I reacted. Once I was able to see some of this, I was able to start disassociating with the thoughts, sink more into my body and trust myself and life again. I learned that it was okay to treat myself with more compassion. This in turn created an internal environment of warmth, understanding, acceptance and love as never before. Then, “she” – the real “me” felt safe to emerge and shine.
The best use of my life energy is to be present with what is here, right now…and to continually be grateful for the many gifts of life. I know that one cannot live each day under the pretense that at any moment one could die. Functioning at that level of intense awareness of death doesn’t allow for experiencing the fullness of life and cultivates more fear. My experience with losing a loved one suddenly has led to a heightened appreciation of our time on earth and shifted my perspective on what is truly important to me. At first, I was aware of each passing hour and how each hour that passed was time Will was not experiencing. This, coupled with the passage of time that corresponded with the development of a baby in my body was incredibly powerful. There were moments of intense guilt for not appreciating the time more and I would be upset with myself that I was wasting the gift of time by just waiting for the arrival of the baby. There were moments when I was consumed with gratitude for being alive. There were moments when it did not feel fair that I was alive.
Over time, this heightened awareness of the fragility of life and the passage of time has taken on different forms. Some days I would wake up and encourage myself to just get through the day – “bedtime is 12 hours away; you can do this Mandy.” There were days when I would wake up feeling filled with warmth and motivation to fully appreciate this day that I was given. Guilt fluctuated between these various levels of appreciation and sometimes I would think to myself, “At least I get to be here today; at least I am able to hear her cry – Will doesn’t get to experience any aspect of her life.” As I navigated these various and evolving emotions and perspectives on the fragility of life, the permanent impact is that I frequently remember the gift of life and feel grateful for my good health.
Today, I mentally frame my experience with Will’s death as a pearl in a strand of pearls that represents my life. I would never have wished for this particular big, black pearl but I have grown a great deal from the humbling experience of losing my husband and raising our daughter. As a result, I am committed to riding the waves of life with mindfulness, gratitude, courage and compassion toward myself and others — and to be here now.
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