I was 30 and just-married when my husband passed away inexplicably.
Two weeks after he passed, the U.S. celebrated a major holiday, and a few weeks after that came another, and then another. I was home with my parents, and still so raw and in shock, when all the extended family began pouring in with food and decorations and gifts and booze and cheer. I recall sitting in a corner and unwrapping the stand mixer we had asked for as a wedding present, given later for the holiday since we hadn’t received it at the reception. I recall sitting next to my husband’s empty chair at the dinners, looking out at my family as though stuck on the other side of the looking glass, in Wonderland. They were there, chattering and laughing and eating on the normal side of the glass, the children merrily playing and shouting, and on the other side of an invisible barrier was me, with the Jabberwocky, in a land where nothing made any sense at all. Their holidays were occurring in the familiar winter wonderland, while mine was in the wonderland of a parallel universe, of wilderness, bramble, and odyssey.
It isn’t that my family members were being particularly insensitive, it was merely that life goes on, no matter what, and no one could understand how I was feeling, since their experience of his death was (naturally) different than mine. As time has passed, my point of reference has grown along the path of the odyssey, and theirs has grown along a route that’s somewhat more normal, and there is a noticeable split in our realities; a split that is difficult to describe. I think of the secrets Persephone could not share with Demeter….
The next year, when the holidays came around again, there was no way I was willing to grit my teeth through them again. I was no longer in shock and, in many ways, this round of holidays were even harder to bear. My family seemed hurt that I didn’t want to spend the time with them going through all the old motions, but I was still unable to eloquently express to them how going through the traditional routines with my husband missing from them, felt like being crushed under a mountain of bricks.
Years have passed since then, my life has moved forward in many beautiful ways for which I’m so, so grateful, and amazed. I have a million blessings to count, and yet… it’s incredible how a single heart can be so full and so broken at the same time. I still have trouble with the holidays. And this year for some reason, at the same time that I feel excited to welcome the holidays for the first time in practically a decade, the anger has finally and suddenly surfaced, and I’m struggling again, every minute of every day.
That’s one thing about grief: people who aren’t going through it will be eager for you to “get over it.” And because time has passed, they may not be willing to accept that you are still in the midst of the storm. They may not even believe it. But you and I know that grief is not a round trip; it’s as though a color has been spilled onto the canvas of your life. That color now hues every experience. It doesn’t take a break, and it certainly doesn’t go away. How can we expect our loved ones to understand this, when we ourselves didn’t know it until we were forced to go through it? But that doesn’t mean we must make allowances for our family or friends, simply because they can’t grasp it. After all, we are the ones who are already compromised and suffering, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to endure stabs of guilt for doing what it takes to survive.
This year, grant yourself permission to give yourself what you need, in order to catch a breath. What if you got in the car, and just drove? What if you booked a little bed and breakfast somewhere and turned off your phone? Or just sat in a bath with the sound of your breathing? Or went hiking, or sight-seeing, or whatever seems to call you. Would the world end? You might feel a small sense of relief. I think it’s difficult to remember that we should try to meet our own needs too, in addition to the demands of the world. Those of us who have children and financial burdens – who can’t just run away – can still call a carpet picnic, and forego the hoopla and chaos of dragging everybody cross-country and holding our breath through the pleasure and pain. What if you spent one year without the insanity? Take the children to volunteer at a soup kitchen, if staying in doesn’t feel right. Sometimes, in order to make that quantum leap to the new place in our grieving process, we need to break the old patterns. After all, as Einstein famously said, repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. In fact, I recommend making one small change at a time, to gradually get yourself unstuck. Maybe the next holiday will be a liberating place to start. Good luck, peace, and wonder to you.