“First lesson of the day: People don't know that year 3 is often harder than year 1. You have to tell them. You have to ask for help. You have to get over yourself and let them help you.
---- I remind myself that before I was widowed I would have expected someone to be 'back to normal' by year 3. It is just so much more than losing a person (and that's huge). You lose the life you knew, the dreams you had, the stability...
Just like a new love can expand your heart but not fill the hole, having new adventures and dreams can create a great new life filled with love and happiness but you are still going to grieve the life you lost.”---Stacey, Canada
A year ago, 18 months ago, I would have been so upset by these words. What? I am still going to mourn and grieve when I am in my 3rd year. Not me. Maybe them, but not me. God, what a fucking nightmare, I am still going to be grieving in three years? How little I understood about the layer of life that is grief. I still thought I could be fixed. It would stop or I could make it go away. I didn't understand why widows still participated in widow groups three years, five years or more after their loss. Not me, man, no way. I am not going to be like that….
October again and the air is clear and dry and leaves are just starting to change. October. The month when our lives imploded. I do feel different now, this third October since diagnosis. The first October after Ron died I was still in shock from his death and still in shock from his diagnosis. It all happened so quickly. I hadn't yet learned about post-traumatic stress. I understood it as something survivors or war or violence suffered but didn't know it could be caused by other life events. I didn't know how to ground myself in the present. I remember reeling from the memory of what had happened this day last year, that day last year, when Ron was still alive. All of the first year, that is what I remembered: this time last year we were.., I was.., Ron was…. At the beginning, after he died, every Sunday night to Monday morning was hard as he died in the early hours of Monday morning (3:35 am, who am I kidding? Of course I know the exact time). I counted the weeks. I counted the months. I remembered every 28th of the month and felt kicked in the stomach as the date approached and then left.
The second year was hard because it marked a time to which Ron had no attachment. I still felt each anniversary, still recounted what happened on this day and that week, this season. I still did that --but not all the time. I felt the grip loosening. Going through the anniversaries and reaching milestones still hurt but not quite in the same way. At some point I realized that I didn't remember the 28th of every month. I stopped counting weeks and exact months. I started smiling more and talking more. My body let go of a little of its expression of grief and my heart stopped racing, my neck muscles unclenched and my appetite came back.
But it is October again. And even though I have made so much progress in learning to live with my grief (yes, live with my grief. I now know it doesn't go away and that as life continues I will incorporate it into the person I am now) I find myself knocked over by the advent of October. My senses remember. I remember what the air felt like and smelled like the week we came back to the states. I remember what the light was like as the leaves started to change. I also remember the panic and although I haven’t dwelt on these memories in a long time and haven’t felt the need to relive the month to month horror of Ron’s illness I am involuntarily flooded with memories. I am overwhelmed with memories. I realize that I can only process the horror in small doses. The processing is not complete and I might have to accept that it never will be. My body has surrendered and my back is knotted and I have burning pain in my wrists. The physical pain of grief bombards me. I didn't expect this. I thought this October would be different. I thought I was getting “good” at the anniversaries and that they didn't bother me as much. I am still amazed at the power of grief and that it really is its own entity that demands to be honored, to which space and time must be given. Grief will take what it needs. I seem to need to learn this lesson over and over like a warped “Ground Hog Day”. Why am I still surprised by my reactions?
Now in year three what outsiders don’t see is how much work it takes to stay in the present. They don’t see how intertwined the happy moments are with Ron’s absence. Even in the best of moments, his absence is felt. It is a lens through which my world will always be viewed --because he lived and then he died and our lives together happened and mattered. I do see beauty and I laugh and seek out laughter and joy and fun. I am no longer consumed by Ron’s loss in my every waking moment. I do feel it every single day but it does not dominate every day the way it used to. During the first year the numbness and shock protected me or cocooned me somehow. During the second year, learning about grief and beginning to understand what was happening to me as grief made its needs known, plus the small and large victories of making it through each milestone and anniversary kept me going. At some point, the fog lifted enough to let me be finally sad. Yes, finally sad. But now in year three, there is a feeling of weight, a feeling of: so is this it? I miss Ron. I miss being intimately connected to another person. I miss having someone truly have my back. I miss having a shared life. I miss having someone to love our girls every bit as much as I love them and someone who cares about every mundane detail of their lives. So this is it? I try to eek out as much happiness as I can. I try to approach the world with “stubborn gladness”. I try and I work at it and some days are more successful than others. But nothing takes away the missing and the longing. Nothing fills the hole.
I think what people don’t know is that when you see a grieving person laughing and seeming “normal” that they are actively working to make it happen. The laughter might be spontaneous but underneath there is work and effort required. We grievers have to fight to stay in a moment, stay with the pleasure, stay present. It is a fight and a struggle and it doesn’t show much on the outside but boy does it take its toll on the mind and body. Grief and love, partners in life, can’t have one without the other. If we love, we will, at some point, grieve. Hard work is taking place and it is exhausting. My skin continues to thicken. My living with grief muscles are stronger but I am still so easily shattered. I miss Ron. I miss Ron. I miss Ron. And I am lonely. I am lonely. I am lonely.
I do still find myself waiting to feel better. Feeling defeated when I recognize that life cannot and will not ever return to what it was because that is not and never will be, in any way, possible. I know from other widows who are leading lives they love that a new life is possible and that they feel loved and intimately connected to someone new and their lives feel filled with purpose instead of just slogging through, making it through another day. I feel flattened when something I thought would bring me joy gives me a small boost and then deposits me back into grief, to the pain and pressure in my chest of unshed tears and overwhelming loss. I know these widows live these lives that they love and that they live it with the loss of their persons. I know this is possible. I just haven‘t arrived there yet and fear that maybe I won’t arrive there. I can’t let that happen.
So is the 3rd year harder than the 1st? I don’t know. Learning from other widows that the third year is hard and maybe harder doesn't upset me now. The knowing makes me feel better. It makes me feel like I am not going batshit crazy. It helps to be reminded that non-grievers will not know this (hell, I didn't) and that I will have to tell them and ask for the help I need. Each year is different. He died not quite 2.5 years ago. The grief is still so new. In a life span so little time has passed. 2.5 years in the challenges and obstacles are different and the emotional intensity varies. What I do know is that it is hard. By this point, many would imagine that I am back to “normal”. I don’t know what “normal” is for me anymore. I wait for a new life, but I am living my new life, every day. Talk about futile waiting. This is my life. This is my life, as I sit here and write, this very minute. I do expect my life to continue to improve and evolve. That is the kernel of hope. Shadowing the hope is trepidation: what will l be able to create that will be different but will be good enough to sustain me in the life I live now? Maybe that is a 3rd year question. At least it is for me.
From the author, Elizabeth Gilbert: Those of you who follow this page have heard me use the term "stubborn gladness" before. I took it from my favorite poem, by the poet Jack Gilbert, where he says, "We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world."
I love the term "stubborn gladness". It is my mantra. I am seriously thinking of getting it tattooed somewhere on my arm, in small, block letters, so I can be reminded always of my ultimate goal in life.
Stubborn gladness is different from mere happiness. Happiness is easy — when it's there, that is. Happiness comes upon you, often out of nowhere. Happiness is airy, fresh, simple. Happiness comes and goes on its own schedule.
Stubborn gladness, on the other hand, is my daily work. It is my prayer. It is a decision. It is a choice. It belongs to me. It is in my hands. It is the most important work — the most important choice — of my life.
Because I am not always bubbling over with happiness, you see. Not every day is a terrific day for me. My mind is not always quiet. I am not always certain of my decisions. I am not always full of faith. I am not always super-proud of my behavior. I am not always super-psyched about the behavior of other people.
But I can tell you this: Every single blessed day of my life, I fight my way back toward the light with stubborn gladness.
Stubborn gladness just to be here.
Stubborn gladness just to have been given another chance at grace.
Every. Single. Blessed. Day.