A community of peers created by the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation
For those of us who have lost someone, our grief cannot become all that we are. I am not saying, "Do not grieve." Nor am I saying that it is wrong to let grief consume us for a time. But just as our loved one's life was about more than the illness that claimed them, our lives need to be about more than their deaths and our grief. - (Unknown)
On a day in April some years ago, as I was riding a bus home from a VA facility where I had been in treatment, I thought about some of the counseling and other ministrations which had taken place in the previous 30 days. I had been given information and tools which could help me avoid falling back into that bottle. A lot of the information was of the common sense type and fairly simple to implement, note, I say simple, not easy; the tools were mental exercises with some basic tenets of a program designed to assist in avoiding a return to a life of helplessness and desperation...I would use both fairly effectively over the coming days, months and years to maintain a safe distance between myself and a return to that life in a bottle. I was embarking on an attempt at a different life.
There is nothing particularly special about the situation I had put myself in, other than it just happened to be me, bright boy Fred whom had come to this critical point in his life. There were no excuses to be made, no great catastrophe to blame things on, simply a matter of choices; I won't even say ''poor choices'', but they had been reckless. Thirty days previous, I had been semi estranged from DJ, away on another one of my drinking and working excursions; they allowed me stay on the various sites, and work and drink at my leisure and to be away from home, wallowing in booze and self pity. After a serious confrontation with my myself and my life, almost ending in my departure from this earthly realm, I somehow I managed to arrive at the desk of an intake clerk at the VA facility seeking admission. The nice young lady there had dutifully taken my information, smiling at me patronizingly as she appeared not to notice niether my haggard appearance, disheveled clothing or the shaking hands I displayed as I attempted to place my signature on various documents, I was in quite a state to say the least. After all of these formalities, she announced that a bed would be available...on Tuesday and I would be able to start treatment then...this was a Friday...I knew I'd never survive on the outside till then, not in the condition I was in, I had not put any cash in my pockets when I headed out, this was going to be a one way trip no matter how it played out. Now, I'm sure that intake clerk must have reveled in the story she related to those around her dinner table that evening; amusing them no doubt, as she spoke of that poor soul who had leapt from the chair he had been sitting in across from her, wailing and shouting, among other things, ''...NO! NO! NO!, YOU CANNOT SEND ME BACK OUT THERE!!...I'LL DIE!!!...'' how, sobbing, shouting and babbling he had fallen to the floor, clutching at her ankles and the edges of her uniform, and while thrashing about, demanded, pleaded and implored that someplace be found for him to offer some hope of relief. These were not mere theatrics on my part, I had been most serious, I understood my life was on the line and whatever was necessary to effect saving that life, had to be done. Later that day as I was laying on fresh sheets in a VA bed, I wondered what was ahead of me, just what would life be like now; this was the starting point of a different life for me and for our family at that time. I left there those thirty days later, having one task in the forefront of my mind, a simple one, but not a necessarily easy one; don't drink.
In relating that episode of my life here, I am attempting to describe, understand, and place in some perspective this notion of a different life as it relates to our grief. We who grieve hear much talk of it and come to truly experience it on the most basic of levels, from making the morning coffee, to tasting certain foods, to catching a whiff of particular scents; to many of us, after having enjoyed the fruits of a rich and close personal relationship with someone, it is a foreign idea, a notion so strange, a different life; we have difficulty adjusting to and accepting the concept, at least I am finding that to be true. A byproduct of the grief, it can seem an impossibility. In a way I have been fortunate in this respect, for when I first heard of it mentioned in the context of grief I could at least understand what the phrase implied. Just how much of a change, how deep that change will be is still being just understood by me, and tho the required adjustments to this different life are more involved, still, accepting change is at it's foundation. When DJ and I talked about this time, this time after her death, it was usually with her telling me some of her wishes for me, how she wanted it to be for me. Often I just listened, nodding, occasionally adding a word or two here and there; in my mind, I would be thinking about just how long after she departed, would I be making my own exit; I had already made up my mind that I did not want to live on without her, but saying that, putting it out there like that would only have added the the stresses she was already bearing, so I would listen and nod. She may have suspected this as sometimes she would remind me that our kids would need me, and that the grand children needed to have at least one grandparent...alive. Of course these things were of little concern to selfish Fred...here, I was only thinking of me...but, treatment had taken, I had not tasted alcohol for a long time by then, but I know that deep down in my mental depths, the basic self of Fredness is still here, dormant tho it may be; it was a reminder to me that I am not cured, only given a daily reprieve from myself, and that now, that self was being awakened by the impending death of DJ. I should point out here that from the day we were told of the diagnosis to the day she died, a period of almost four full years, taking a drink never entered my mind. The reasons may be complex, but the simple explanation is that I did not originally stop because of DJ...or the kids...or a job...my reason was completely selfish; to ease my own damn pain. Not wanting that specific brand of pain again, with or without DJ, keeps me and that activity apart at a safe distance. Thus the power of deep seated pain is once again revealed for me.
So, after her death, I faced the prospect of a different life again, this time understanding that there was no recourse thru bottles or other artificial means. This was reality, more, this was actuality, with masking remedies offering only false results for me and leaving the core issue still to be dealt with. Having some experience, I understood that for any real meaningful future, I would have to have a dedicated and honest approach to the challenges that this different life would offer. Of course it is only now that I can speak of these things in a studied, reflective tone, now some months later. In those early times, the days and weeks soon after DJ's death, this tone vied with selfish Fred for control of just what the future would be, if at all, (that open window was calling me)...well, as far as any control any of us might have over that future goes. Seeking understanding through grief counseling, and online solutions I have come to better understand this process of grief, but by no means having mastered it, I don't think anyone can, it is not something which can be dealt with in that way. But that we will have a different life is the result of the fact that our loved ones are no longer part of the worldly environs. All those familiar and well known gestures, and physical highlights we knew so well, are no longer here...but the feelings remain. Now, after those first instances of panic attacks, and powerful strikes of shock and disbelief, as we attempt to make some sense out of it all, as we try to understand how to move forward, I am attempting to honestly view and accept what is before me. As the last two lines of the quote at the beginning of this missive offers, as our loved one's lives are more than the sickness that took them, our living on, continuing in a different life should be more than having to be locked into the grief associated with their deaths. For me this means using the tools offered by counseling, such as dealing with the memories of our life together, all of them, and with the facts surrounding the death of DJ. It means trying to stay focused on ahead as the pain of sorrow and the weighty facts of realization set in and try to crowd out all reasonableness...trying to do all of this with the support of peers found by happenstance, but so valued all the same. There was no flailing on the floor of any lobby this time for all this to occur, I came quietly, limping, lost, almost unnoticed among the many who seek solace here; I am grateful for that and for this place.
Having dealt with the realities of a different life once before, still, only barely prepares me for this task; the circumstances are far more different tho the core values at stake are quite similar, as things such as the quality of my life and such are on the line. The mental work necessary can be taxing, but it is necessary, there is no way around it. Sorting memories, reviewing past behavior and events, reliving last moments, are all part of this life now; for me, having safe places for this is essential. But I am finding that these things can be done, and that some peace can be attained, altho how much of this is actually the results of my efforts, or are merely a function of time is still in question, it really doesn't matter; the fact is, it is happening. I know DJ would not want me to make this life all about her dying, it is more likely she would appreciate that I want to integrate the entire experience of our life into what has become my different life, now. Recently, my oldest daughter asked me ''...Dad, how are you really doing...'', she fusses over me a bit, and I love her dearly, knowing I can only barely, really explain my feelings to her, I answered that I had just about come to terms with the background sadness, and the absence of DJ's presence, that the days of sheer panic and disbelief which caused so much pain early on were coming further apart but were just as intense when they did strike. Thoughts of the many what if's have been processed and for the most part have been put to rest. There was no point in attempting to describe the hollowness which the loneliness causes me to feel at times, it is such a personal and deep seated feeling that I don't think any attempt would do it justice; I know peers understand exactly what I would say, but not others I fear. Tho struggling with her own attempts to come to terms with what has happened, she takes the time to ask, often; I am seeing her and the other two children in a different light also. We all are different now.
Altho similar to my first experience with a different life scenario, this one is set in an entirely other context, in that it was not sought, but forced upon me. But the point of the exercise is about the same, to continue life with a new design for living; through the trials, past the setbacks, and above the pain and the sorrow, and especially, with the memories, to continue to live, not so much as a testament to our deceased loved ones, or even to ourselves, but to the idea of life and our responsibility to live it to it's fullest, despite all obstacles to the contrary. This is not to imply that this is an easy task, it may well not be, but again, it is a simple one. Live. It is said that we are what we dare to risk in living, and I am coming to believe that.
So we try to move forward, day by day, one step at a time in the different life, not forgetting our past memories, but weaving them into the fabric that is becoming our garment to wear now. We try to accept the things we cannot change and find new meanings for the old ideas; we make the herculean effort to integrate memories and to believe there is some rhyme and reason to all of this on a landscape as barren as any moon, in any galaxy, anywhere, which is presented to us when we lose that special person; for me, that has come to mean, live the different life, but with no less enthusiasm than that shared with DJ. The one thing I have come to believe is that I cannot live this different life for DJ; I can attempt to live it with her memory right along with me, but this life has to lived for me. The things required to be done will do nothing for her, she has been taken care of; I am finding that changes in routines, different approaches to the various situations of life, now requires me to think and make decisions based on what is actually needed for me to survive. This is not something we so much wanted, but it is what we have. The sun still rises and the rain continues to fall on the just and unjust alike...
It is my hope that we all can approach the different life with the notion that life is for living, without so much pain, without so much looking over our shoulders, and for sure, without so much fear of what is to come. For me, the challenge is to keep the memory of DJ right along side of me as I attempt to move forward, finding those safe places for past events which allows me to understand that my life tho different, is not over...not quite yet and I have to live it. Again, a seemingly simple task, to live it, but not necessarily an easy one.