Did I hate him? Am I a callous, unfeeling, spiteful woman? Was I waiting for my chance to cut him loose?
I loved him. I was happy with him. I wanted to grow old with him. I had placed him on a pedestal as my perfect husband and he rarely disappointed me. His death was like a roadside bomb on our compatible, peaceful path -- a path that was supposed to trail off into our future. As Ken descended into illness, and then to death, that bomb obliterated my ability to feel the horror of his impending then permanent disappearance. And so, I laughed, because it was surreal, I laughed because it was absurd, I laughed because I couldn't believe it was happening to me. Mostly, I laughed because I wasn't yet ready to feel the pain that if experienced before it's time, without being meted out in little pieces, would take me down and leave me flat.
I found myself at his memorial service with 500 others, flanked by my six-year-old son and my ten-year-old daughter, saying a very public good-bye, one of the countless good-byes to come over the years ahead as we slowly come to terms with his death, as I came to understand that he was gone, he was dead, and our life together was over. We married with just 17 close family members around us; I had to say good-bye with hundreds in attendance. I couldn't feel it. I couldn't grieve so openly, so publicly. So I laughed. (Probably, I didn't laugh all that much, but any amount felt inappropriate and out of place.)
When you are closely related to the one who dies, you have the honor of sitting in the front row for the funeral, best seats in the house. But your front row seats don't allow you to see everyone else behind you in rows -- the bigger picture: the neighbors clustered together, the friends from out of town, work colleagues, old girlfriends, little kids, clients, friends from old neighborhoods and college days: an entire world of grief. You can't grasp the whole picture the way people in the back row can. All I could do was hold on to my kids, and hold on to every word spoken by the seven eulogists, as if by hearing their tributes to Ken, I could pretend that all that goodness they spoke of was still right there in front of me too. People said there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Well, they weren't looking at me. I just wasn't ready to lose it, and I certainly wasn't ready to say good-bye to him. I guess if there were ever a time I needed a good laugh, that was it.
The rest of the good-byes would be much more private: going through his clothes, cleaning out his office, spreading ashes, holidays without him, birthdays without him, our children's milestones with him, half a bed stacked with newspapers and books, lonely days and nights and hours and minutes of remembering and of holding on and letting go over and over again. It is easier to grasp on to my feelings in these more private moments, little bits at a time, at my own pace.
Some losses are just too big to feel. What I found though, was that I could write about my feelings more than I could actually "feel" them. I could purge some pain on paper without having to dump it onto anyone else. I could admit thoughts in ink that were too hard for me to float out in public. I could read my words and find out what was going on inside me. The numbness I felt on the outside had words that went along with it, and the words were filled with emotion. Sometimes I would cry while writing them down. Often, I discovered plenty of hope mixed in with the sadness, ribbons of strength swirling through my enormous sense of defeat. Perspective and humor were there even in truly dark times. I could tell that though my loss was enormous, all was not lost. I could tell, because that's what came out in writing.
So, this is a call to writing about how you feel as a regular activity: writing as an exercise in releasing, understanding, and coming to terms with emotion. As runners like to say: "all you need is a pair of shoes" and after a few minutes of running, you release endorphins which flow through your body and make you feel happy. I say: all you need to write is a pen and paper, or a computer, and after a few minutes of writing about how you feel, you can make real progress in understanding your own life so that you can move forward and grow.
I may have laughed at my husband's funeral, but when I wrote about how it felt to lose him, I found the words to transcend grief.