The Second Year Journey
In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. shares his journey of grief after the death of his wife. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” As I stood in a hospital beside Butch and watched him take his last breath, I felt terror. I thought it was pain, but that would come later. In that moment, surrounded by people who loved me, I was drowning in fear.
Becoming us without them will take a different path for each person. The twists and turns will unfold in a unique way and at just the right time. We may step off the path and set up camp along the way. Only the stories of those who have seen the way ahead give us the courage to break camp and keep moving.
Butch was someone that others would happily follow across the continent on a wagon train with full confidence that he could deliver everyone safely to the new frontier. The modern equivalent of that was our traveling miles across the country in old cars with the absolute confidence that he could fix anything that broke. His father taught him what he called “Oklahoma Engineering.” If you didn’t have the tool you needed, just make one. He inherited the tools handed down from his grandfather and his father. When he died, we found not only classic old tools, but many objects that were very clever, but definitely one of a kind. Even after he had the money to buy what he needed, he often crafted or modified what he needed, just for the challenge. Now that he is gone, when I don’t know how to do something immediately, I ask myself, “What would Butch do?” Miraculously, I discover that being married to MacGyver is somewhat contagious. I actually come up with ideas based on watching him for years and solve tricky problems on my own. In other cases, I thank God for YouTube, and the men that step up when I need them, to help me with what I can’t do myself.
I hadn’t fully understood how inherently afraid I was until he died. I didn’t know how much courage I borrowed from him. In the beginning of the grieving process, it made sense that I was so miserable. We had been together since we were 17, fought through three rounds of marriage counseling to be different than generations past, and had arrived at a place of comfort and intimacy by age 64 (Better late than never). We believed there were many good years ahead of us. Losing that was terrible.
Entering the third year in the grieving process, I noticed that much of what I was feeling seemed as strong or stronger than at the beginning. Being a trauma therapist, I began trying to figure that out. People reminded me that grief takes as long as it needs, and I was probably expecting too much of myself in terms of “getting over it.” It wasn’t that it felt bad that was the problem. It just felt “off.”
In a therapy session of my own, I realized, that as the daughter of an extremely insecure mother, I had absorbed her fear. It didn’t help that she was often verbally abusive, assuring me that my breach birth was an indication that I couldn’t even be born right. I tried very hard to be good enough to earn her love. This included the classis oldest child tactic of parenting my younger siblings in my role as the best little enabler you ever met. Overwhelmed by life, she often threatened to leave if “somebody didn’t do something.” We lived in a wind tunnel, always waiting for someone to flip the invisible switch that would send us all into the chaos of her outbursts. I came to understand that I lived with a sense of impending disaster my whole life. A part of me was relieved when bad things happened because the waiting was over…..briefly.
Another therapist and I were given the opportunity to do a workshop recently, on the topic of anxiety and grief. Looking at grief through the lens of trauma and what we now know about how the nervous system adapts to traumatic events helped me put the pieces of my own grief puzzle together. Reading about concepts like mindful grieving and radical acceptance flipped a switch, and the light dawned. There are certainly moments when the pain of missing Butch feels like a sudden stab with a burning poker. But most of the time, what I was feeling was fear, not pain.
The nervous system has a very clever way of forcing us to take care of ourselves. The pain of a sunburn keeps us from further damaging our injured skin until we heal. But it is clear that if we are still protecting our skin as if it was newly burned weeks after the burn, it is fear of pain, not actual pain that is the problem. The pain following a loss works in much the same way. Our entire world is turned upside down. Someone who was an important part of the rhythm of life is gone and we are in shock. The very nature of grief causes us to slow down, pull back, and protect ourselves from further damage until we heal enough to go back out into life and start again. If we grew up in a family that modeled safety and belonging and taught us to be resilient in tough times, we rebound from loss very differently than those who are not. The former grow from the loss and come out better and stronger. The later fortify their defenses to prevent the next loss from occurring. It feels like a matter of survival. Since loss is inevitable, the only hope is to avoid being hurt again by avoiding risk altogether. The natural urges to step back out into life must be thwarted. The nervous system responds to that survival terror and uses pain to force us to “take care of ourselves.”
I realized that I was drowning in the fear of pain, not pain itself. Trying to find myself and the new person I was becoming felt like loosing Butch a little bit more with each step forward. Periods of enjoying my new resilience and confidence were followed by days of paralysis and procrastination. Like many trauma survivors, I was standing in a cage constructed by the fear of the next disaster, unable to see that there wasn’t even a lock on the door. It felt like leaving the cage would result in my running completely off the edge of the Earth. Strangely, just saying all that out loud while writing and delivering the information in the workshop helped me differentiate between actual pain and fear. I immediately realized that I couldn’t lose Butch, even if I tried. Strictly speaking, my nervous system has been formed by millions of interactions with him that aren’t going anywhere. I can add millions more interactions with life to my story and Butch will remain safely stored.
Somehow people equate “moving on” with entering a new relationship. But if that is all we do, then the new relationship is a patch, not a repair. If we do not fully discover and explore “us without them” we miss out on so much. Our grieving mentors and support people help us remind ourselves that doing nothing doesn’t prevent pain, it guarantees it. As we take small risks and survive, we can take larger ones. As we allow ourselves to grow into what we were created to be all along, we become resilient. At each new juncture, we fight the fear that calls itself pain. This allows us to have more compassion for ourselves when we feel the actual pain that will be with us for a lifetime.
Only when we are able to enter deeply and expectantly into relationship with ourselves are we fit to be in relationship with God and others.
Saturday, July 21, 2018 marked the end of an era in Sacramento. The 45th and final running of the Eppie’s Great was held along the American River Parkway. The oldest triathlon in California, it consisted of a 5.82 mile run, a 12.5 mile bicycle course, and a 6.1 mile paddle. There were teams of all types and an ironman division. Proceeds went to benefit therapeutic recreational services. It was always a great day for everyone involved. Butch participated in the ironman division for over 30 years.
The first year he heard about the race he was so excited. Despite having teased my brother about his chamois pants and expensive gadgets when he became a bicycle enthusiast, Butch had, himself, become a true believer and avid rider. He never enjoyed jogging and often proclaimed that the only time you should subject yourself to that abuse was if you were being chased by a predator. Nonetheless, he committed to training for the run along with the events he preferred. He purchased a used kayak that had served as a rental. His friend had recently opened an auto body shop and volunteered to paint the kayak as advertising. The kayak was beautiful, painted like the American flag. It so shiny and smooth that a 2-year-old nearby insisted in laying on top of it, placing his cheek on the cool, smooth surface and stroking the sides like a blankey. That kayak was eventually replaced by a beautiful hand-make model that he and his best friend built from scratch in their garage. Butch practiced faithfully, every week for two months before the race. He planned, strategized, packed, and repacked. He was up at dawn, staking out the perfect place in the park at the finish for everyone to meet and celebrate. He placed the kayak on the designated beach. He then went to the starting line and paced like a caged tiger waiting for the race to begin. I went to the run/bike transition, placed his bike in the ironman area and waited beside the trail for him to complete the run and ride off into the sunset. At the end of the ride, his best friend waited to pick up the bike while Butch jumped into the kayak. We all met back at the picnic site. He was hooked. He only missed one race over all those years. He was recuperating from back surgery, having been run over by a car while bicycling to work and was temporarily in a wheel chair. I’m surprised he didn’t figure out how to compete in the handicapped division and participate anyway. The last few years, his sisters and a friend participated as a team along with him. His mom and sisters assisted in transportation for practices when needed. Our sons even did a team one year. His mom and sisters faithfully posted up on the walking bridge above the finish line each year to watch the finish in the Sacramento heat. There would be a picnic at grandma’s house afterwards. I used that picnic to throw him a surprise 60th birthday party when he was 59½.
For many years, I would spend Saturday mornings doing group counseling at the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center in Sacramento. He would come by and trade cars with me, leaving the jeep with the bicycle in the back and the kayak on top. It was a great way to unwind as I drove in the open jeep to the run/bike transition and gave him his bike. Next, I drove to the bike/kayak transition and traded the bicycle for the kayak. From there, I drove to the finish and waited in the shady park for him to complete the paddle. After I went back to school, I would often do homework as I waited for him. Since he kayaked and bicycled regularly, he had to practice for the run the most. Sometimes I would ride my bike beside him on the trail as he practiced the run. I loved being able to support him in doing something he loved so much.
It seemed only natural that our sons and Butch’s bicycle buddy would participate in this final event in his memory. My youngest son organized everything. My family came to root them on. Butch would have loved having his granddaughters cheering him on like they were that day. After the race, we all met at a nearby park for one last Eppie’s picnic; on last time together to memorialize Butch.
Days later, I realized that in the hurry of the race, I hadn’t really had time to say goodbye to that part of our lives. The following weekend I walked back through it alone. The jeep and the kayak now live in another city with our son. With the sun roof open and the windows all down, I replicated the open-air experience in my ATV. I started at the old house like I would have when he was alive. I went to every transition point, parked in the same parking spaces, and walked the same trails as if it was a real practice. I sat at the picnic table at the run/bike transition where I would have waited to see him come dragging himself through that run and given him his bike and the gear for that leg. I stood on the trail where I would have been during the race, cheering as he jogged by. I followed the exact route I would have driven to the bike/kayak transition. I walked down onto the beach where his kayak would have been and where we would have launched our kayaks together on other days. I stood where I would have waited, having untied the kayak, staged all the gear for the paddle, watching him fly up the hill and hear about his ride as he got ready. I drove to the finish, found the meeting place in the park where we enjoyed friends and family after the race over the years. I stood at the edge of the river where he would have come out of the kayak, feet numb from the long paddle, and hobbled across the finish line. I remembered how proud he was each year when he made it across that line. I went to the place where his mom and sister waited on the bridge to watch the finish and walked across that bridge to where the jeep would have been waiting to take the kayak home. And once again, in yet another painful way, I said goodbye to my soulmate and our life together.
Becoming us without them occurs neither all at once, nor in a smooth, linear flow. It proceeds in jerks and starts. The life we built with them comes slowly apart. Each person will have a unique experience. For some, the initial blow is the worst. For others, in shock at the beginning, the most painful parts occur later. It is impossible to anticipate the path through the forest of mourning. We are as easily sent crashing back into the pain by a small thing as a momentous event. A trip to the store can cause as much pain as an anniversary. Our grieving mentors will understand this process when others wonder why we can’t just move on. They will remind us that there is no formula or time limit for our grieving.
To arrive in the light at the end of the tunnel, we must walk mindfully through the process for as long as it takes, without skipping any steps. We are assured by those ahead that there is a version of us without them that is worth what it will take to discover. There is a redemptive process by which the old us, integrating both the pain of the loss and the love that we shared, eventually emerges as an altogether new us. And that new person, has much to offer a world that is desperately waiting for the gifts we bring. Our job is to believe in the shiny new creature no matter what is happening right now.
For we were not created with a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.
One of Butch’s favorite stories to tell when someone mentioned children leaving home or empty nesters was about a couple who stood, arm in arm, as their last child drove away from home to live on their own. The wife wistfully turned to her husband and said, “Well, dear, you are all I have left.” The husband thoughtfully replied, “Well dear, I’m all you started with.”
I remember listening to a friend talking about her oldest child preparing to move out to launch their new life. At that time, our sons were 16 and 12. I told her that I could not imagine what it would be like to have one of your children leave home and not be part of the flow of your life. It seemed so sad. She assured me that God had a way of helping you with that project. She said there is no one more arrogant and all-knowing that a senior in high school. This way, by the time they graduate and head off, you can’t wait for them to leave. After a few attempts at launching and returning, by the time my kids both left home for their new lives, I was, indeed, looking forward to having an empty nest with Butch.
Having attended a soccer event at least monthly, if not weekly for 20 years, it was strange to be distant from that part of their lives. I was not sure there actually was life after soccer. There were now no children to blame for messes, dirty dishes, or undone chores. It was all us. The empty gas tank could not be the fault of a third party. We gradually found a nice flow where, most of the time, we each did the chores we enjoyed and negotiated the rest. He did the lawns, I did the flower beds. We did big yard projects together. I washed and dried the laundry as I dashed off to work or school and he folded and put it away as he watched TV. No hassle, no arguments, just cooperative partnership. It was never really balanced, though. I went back to school in 2006 and was often engaged in work or school 60 hours per week and doing homework the rest of the time. He maintained not only our home, but the clean and sober residence we owned and his mother’s house, after her husband died.
I attended a workshop once, where the speaker asked us to introduce ourselves without a reference to another person. Terms such wife, mother, neighbor, teacher, employee, etc. were off the table. We had to describe ourselves in terms of what we enjoyed or wanted to do or become, or our past accomplishments, etc. It was so hard for everyone to define themselves as just a self, not as a part of a relationship. A great discussion followed about how other people are so woven into the fabric of our lives that we forget that we are individuals with hopes and dreams of our own. It reminded us that there is a huge difference between unhealthy dependence and empowering interdependence. Shortly thereafter, I attended another workshop where the facilitator said, “Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about yourself.” I used the same introduction I had struggled to craft at the previous event. I said I had gone back to school recently and was excited about a second career as a therapist. I love soccer, the ocean and the mountains. I enjoy reading books about the brain and my hobby is beading. The facilitator stared at me like a deer in the headlights for a couple seconds, and then said, “Don’t you want to tell us anything personal? You know, like if you are married or your family or things like that?” No codependency here.
Becoming us without them forces us to examine ourselves as an individual, whether we want to or not. The first year is all about the blinding pain. There is so much to do. Putting one foot in front of the other is about all we can manage. We ask, “Where am I and how did I get here?”
The next year or so is about what has been taken. Whatever roles they played in our lives must be filled in another way. We have to figure out their half of everything. We are aware of the gaping holes in our hearts and lives. We are without. There is not one relationship that existed when we were a couple that remains unchanged. Some, sadly, end. New ones must be carved out of what seems like stone. We wonder, “Can I really live without them? Do I want to?”
We have hoped that we might begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel by the third year. The pain of the loss itself has softened in intensity and swamps us less often. We have fallen into most of the holes and found most of the minefields. The work of the third year seems most difficult of all. Becoming us without them now means precisely that, standing alone as us, just us, and only us. The more we defined ourselves as the sum total of our relationship with them, the harder this will be. We are left asking the question, “Do I matter alone? Can there be joy again?”
The degree to which we formed our own support network, our own interests, and our own internal sense of safety and belonging, will determine what happens next. If we have none of that in place when we hit this stage in the grief process it will be an arduous task to keep our heads above water. Even if we have all our resources lined up and waiting, this is hard work. Is the pain loneliness or invisibility? We woke up every day knowing that we mattered to them. Even if they were mad at us, we were on their mind. They wanted to be with us. No one had to make a note to include us in their plans. It was a given. Do we matter to anyone now? Does anyone wake up and wonder how we are doing and look forward to hearing our voice? Have we become only an obligation? An item on someone’s to-do list? Are we nothing more than that extra thing that people must remember?
At its core, becoming us without them means finding an answer to that one question. What makes us matter? Is the answer found only in the eyes of the people in our world or is it found deep inside of ourselves? Is it measured by our calendar or the number of connections on our social media page? What is its source? Who can help us navigate in the wilderness as we seek to find joy on our own?
When Butch participated in the Eppie’s Great Race all those years, it was on him to believe in his ability to complete the race. It was necessary for him to invest in himself. He had to practice every Saturday for weeks despite hating to run. He set aside resources for the proper equipment. He planned and strategized. He was proud of himself every year; not because he ever won, but because he overcame all the obstacles and got to the end. He would be the first to tell you that he could not have made it on his own. The support people along the way were invaluable. They gave him water as he ran by. They cheered. They kept his bike safe while he ran and as he completed the kayaking leg. They secured his kayak while he hobbled onto shore and across the finish line. They loved supporting the race as much as he loved participating.
The journey of grief is a marathon, not a sprint. One thing we know above all else. It is impossible to finish alone. We must reach out for those cool glasses of water as we run. We need to invite others to share our marathon, so they can cheer for us. Even the most gifted athletes ask for and accept the tangible help they need to compete successfully. So, must we.
In the end, we matter because we show up and run the race. We matter to ourselves and to those who are enriched by our having been in their lives. Best of all, we mattered to God before we were ever born, and we will matter to him for eternity.
Butch was an avid bicycle rider. Already retired, his best friend and bicycle buddy, Dick, traveled all over the world on his bicycle. Butch’s bucket list was headed up with retirement at age 66 followed by joining Dick on his travels.
Over the course of six years, he and Dick, accompanied by a changing crew of other riders, bicycled the distance between Canada and Mexico. The first year they hopped on their bicycles, rode out of our driveway nearly 100 miles to Chico, CA. They next day they completed what is now called the Chico Wildflower Century ride. In 10 days of wandering they covered around 600 miles. In subsequent years, they would bite off another big chunk of the California Coast and take the train to and from starting and ending places. They used a great book with information about campgrounds with bicycle camping, places to eat, and what the people would be like in various locals. The final year ended with their crossing into Mexico. They stopped in San Diego, rented a motel room, unhooked their BOB trailers from the bikes and cleaned up. The ride into Mexico would be short and celebratory. Butch, having grown accustomed to pulling the trailer and adjusting his braking to the extra weight, entered Mexico with a crash. Coming to an abrupt stop, he hit the brakes too hard for the bike without the trailer. Since his feet were clipped into his pedals, he and the bicycle flipped forward, landing him dramatically on his face. They giggled like little boys as they recounted the tale over the years.
The year they started in Canada, rode the ferry south on their bikes, and completed the north-most leg of the journey, it rained most of the time. That is no big surprise to anyone familiar with coastal Washington. It is lush and green for a very good reason. But knowing how rainy it is outside in Washington and experiencing how rainy it is in Washington when you are outside, traveling on a bicycle, are two entirely different things. Looking out the window at the rain with quick runs to and from the car is nuisance enough. But spending all day and/or night out in the rain takes it to a whole new level. They woke up each morning listening from inside their tents to see if it was raining already. They went to bed wondering if the water would rise around their tent or form a stream from above during the night. Finding a campground with some sort of covered area where they could sleep moved up on the value scale with winning the lottery. A truly epic campground included a covered area with a fire pit at its center where they could hang clothes out to dry near the fire and feel warm and sheltered. They would pack for the day completely differently than in sunny California. It takes lots of plastic bags or purchased “dry bags” to make life function at all. But every time you need to open one, the rain gets in. Food prep can be a big deal. Wet stuff is heavier than dry stuff, so the trailers are harder to pull. You find out if the advertisement for “rain proof” outerwear needs to be rewritten to “rain resistant”, leaking after hours in the rain. It was not unusual to find them in a laundromat (a sought-after hangout for warmth and dryness) at the end of a day’s ride, washing the clothes from that day, and drying everything they had so carefully packed in the morning. One day they stopped in a small town and asked the owner at the Mom and Pop store if there was a laundromat nearby. They were welcomed into the gym at the high school and allowed to use theirs. Butch loved a challenge and wrapped his mind around the problem, trying new ideas for packing, sleeping, etc. as the trip progressed. As he told the story once, he said, “That rain just wears you out. Every minute of every day is about the absence or presence of the rain.”
In the two years since Butch’s death, being alone has become like that rain in my life. In the same way that I never thought very seriously about rain before I heard the stories of that long week in Washington, I never thought very seriously about being alone until he died. I was often alone before. I was alone in my car. I woke up and left for work while Butch was still asleep. I went to bed alone more days than not since his work days started and ended much later than mine. We both attended social and holiday events alone because of our off-sync work schedules. I enjoyed the solitude afforded by his adventures with the guys, planning girl time and big projects while he was gone. He was rarely able to take time off for visits family in other states. All that aloneness was time-limited. And he was there at the beginning and waiting at the end every time. Shared days off were savored like the covered campground with the fire pit at the end of a long, soggy day.
A large part of becoming us without them means learning how to find joy in life despite being alone. Even if we have people around all the time, we don’t have the one person we long for the most. Living inside and watching rain through the window is completely different from living outside and wearing the rain all day. Alone time and being alone are, likewise, eons apart. From the first moment of awareness each day, to the last moment before falling asleep, the realization that we are alone is a constant companion. The majority of meals are eaten alone. We are alone in the car. We will pack everything differently now, whether it is the grocery bags, the laundry basket, or a suitcase. There are no “dry bags” that will prevent the seepage of aloneness into every nook and cranny of life. There is no laundromat where we can pop our lives into a dryer and find them good as new when the buzzer sounds. The connection and companionship that included retreats of alone time disappears. That is replaced by unrelenting aloneness with retreats of connection and companionship. Even the best social support, is time limited. We have to go home. The aloneness is waiting at the end every of every day and every adventure. The often painful and complicated relationships with others were once small, pesky tug boats in the sheltering harbor of the love and companionship we shared with our soul mate. They are now all that is left in the harbor. Hold tight to those unstable connections and we can feel torn in every direction. Cast off the lines and we are adrift at sea.
There is no fast forward button for this process. Each of us will eventually travel the distance from the old life to the new one. We can prolong the trip with denial and avoidance. We choose our own tour guides and traveling companions, some of whom may derail the whole train. It will most certainly include dramatic falls onto our face. It can be hard to believe that we will ever again find a campground with a covered place for shelter and a fire pit for warmth. Hold tightly to the hand of your grieving mentors. They know the way to all the good campgrounds.
I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to help you, not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future……….