The Second Year Journey
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……….
Why does it take me nagging the home warranty company and three plumbers to figure out that when the bathtub is draining slowly you have to snake the main (whatever that is), not just the tub? And why does the third plumber act like I should have known that? Why does the salesperson who charged me $18,000 for a new heat and air “system” act like I am cheating him when I insist that new grates over the vents in each room are part of the “system” and should have been included in the work? Had someone else not pointed out the grates I would not have known they existed much less advocated for them in time to avoid buying them myself later.
My dad knew how to do almost everything around the house. When I was a girl, he spent Saturdays working in the garage and around the house. He helped build our home in Albuquerque. He made some of the furniture. He knew how to work on cars, but I never saw him do that since he could afford mechanics by the time I was paying attention. He learned all that by being around men who did those things or the sons of men who taught their sons how to do things. Unfortunately, he was not a dad who taught his sons how to do things. Despite all the mentoring he received as a boy, he did not seem to understand that it was his responsibility to mentor his children into adulthood. He expected us to know what he knew, but never took the time to teach us what he knew. While my brothers acquired great skills over the years, they were left to figure things out on their own.
Butch’s dad was very much the same. He seemed to know how to fix anything, including some amazing improvisation. Butch inherited a collection of homemade tools and contraptions that are fascinating. His father never engaged with him as a child, but Butch has memories of working on car projects with him. Butch had a car early and worked on it all the time, so he was a great mechanic. Nothing frustrated him more than taking computer based cars to the shop and paying exorbitant prices for inadequate work he could have done better himself before computers made that impossible. The best way to describe his father’s disengagement in household repairs is to relate a story he told about his parents. His father had taken up paint-by-number as a spare-time hobby. He worked tons of hours, often out of town, and usually came home at night to the TV, a six-pack, and an early bedtime. Weekends he worked on the cars if necessary, but wasn’t known to jump in there and work on the house until it was completely unavoidable. Frustrated by his oblivion to her multiple request for him to paint the interior of the house, Butch’s mom painted large numbers all over the walls of the living room and declared that if he was so excited about paint-by-number, maybe that would inspire him to her project.
Much of our time in the first round of marriage counseling was spent resolving the disconnect between my expectation that Butch would know and do everything my father had, and Butch’s shame and procrastination related to not knowing how to do any of it. Between the dyslexia and the ADHD, he was the living personification of the phrase “measure twice, cut once”. He struggled with cutting things backwards and misreading the directions (on those desperate occasions when he read the directions). Over the years, I watched him battle through one project after another, figuring things out on his own, that others had learned from their dads. He felt so ashamed of not knowing what no one ever taught him, that he found it almost impossible to ask for help. He just kept plugging away. He was progressively given opportunities to work beside a contractor on a remodel, his best friend on the build-from-scratch of a beautiful kayak, and an eventual project sharing relationship with my brother, John, that enabled him to feel confident whenever something needed his attention at home. Too bad YouTube wasn’t around back in those days.
The most prevalent thing I felt after his death was fear. He was the wind beneath my wings in every sense of the word. He fixed everything and kept the cars in working order. More importantly, he plugged the holes in my heart. His belief in me enabled me to move forward when I was more likely destined to run in circles or fall backwards based on my background. Even things that were more my area of expertise made more sense when I had him to listen as I figured things out. I can’t tell you how many times since his death I have reached for the phone to share something with him or ask him for ideas only to remember that he isn’t there anymore. I thanked him all the time for being amazing and for loving me like that. That is one of the things I wish I could tell him one more time to be sure he knew.
Those years of accumulated wisdom died with him. Houses are always in need of repairs. Cars always break down. I know less at about all of this at 65 than he did at 20. I understand that no one expects me to know all this stuff. Even if I did, no one would begrudge me playing the “old lady” card and getting help. Those logical pieces of information mean nothing when something happens. Any childhood issues left unresolved are invited to the forefront immediately.
Every time I have to do something simply because Butch is gone, it reopens the wound. If it is something I know how to do or can easily figure out, its just sad. I don’t like asking for help. I would prefer to be omnipotent and all powerful, thank you very much. I don’t like admitting how lazily I was able to saunter through life, sheltered in his care. So, when I need help, shame, regret, and fear mix with the sadness. I have progressed over time so that the initial volley into his world goes much better now. The biggest problem with asking for help is that people seem to assume you know stuff and only need clarification. I don’t know enough to ask the right questions, so there is inevitably a black hole waiting around the corner. Thus, the help is often not that helpful. When I then learn enough to realize things have gone badly and attempt to hold people accountable for not doing what they said they would do, or not giving me enough information to make the correct decision in the first place, I can’t keep acting like a grownup to the end of the project. While I don’t descend to the level of screeching like a banshee, I can fully imagine how gratifying it might be. I use all those communication skills I teach people in my office every day and assertively forge on, negotiating to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, however, I am usually crying uncontrollably at the same time. Needless to say, this shifts the dynamic, leaves me feeling even worse than I did going in, and behaving like a babbling nincompoop.
Becoming us without them is so much more complicated than just getting over the pain. That illusive “them” turns out to be so much more than we understand when the loss occurs. Even if there has been a lingering health issue that affords time for preparation and some handing-off of information, it is impossible to anticipate everything. Simple projects are “merely” reminders of their absence. Complicated projects are reminders of the ways in which they were woven into the fabric of our lives over the years. It can literally feel as if we are unraveling as each of those fibers is torn from us one by one. The gaping holes in “us” can feel like a black hole, drawing us into the abyss. Our grieving mentors teach us that it is critical that we weave in new strands of support, both practical and emotional, at the first possible opportunity and never stop seeking them. Those mentors are the brightest and most enduring strands in the tapestry we are creating. Their support prevents us from coming unraveled. Nothing can make it go faster or hurt less. But those ahead of us on the path hold the light of their lives to guide us along. One day the sun will rise, and we will discover that a beautiful new design has been woven into our lives. The “us” we have become will include the treasured parts of “them” reinforced by the new fibers we have been slowly weaving without them. Then we will become those mentors guiding the way for those who follow.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
When Butch and I started dating in November of 1969, he was not exactly what you would describe as “huggy-feely”. In fact, coming from a family that did not touch one another much at all in those days, it took him awhile to enjoy spontaneous hugging. His idea of holding hands was initially hooking little fingers as we walked. The first time I attempted to give him a quick kiss when we parted in the hall at school, he was startled. He adapted quickly. A regular part of our ritual before school was to meet near his locker and snuggle as we waited for a particular instructor to walk by and ceremoniously drone, “unwrap people.” It wasn’t morning without him.
One of the advantages of his being stationed at Fort Hood, TX was its proximity to my very large family spread across Texas and Louisiana. The first time we traveled with my cousin, Carolyn, to visit our Grandmama, we were greeted by all the aunts, uncles, and cousins who were in the vicinity. I was sure that by the time the last of them gave him a big southern hug he was near the point at which he would blow up and fly around the room backwards. He learned to welcome those hugs over the years, but I was never sure he was really comfortable.
With me, however, he became down right huggy-feely. We held hands wherever we went. I was often doing homework in the car or working on a beading project. But whenever I was idle, we either held hands or I was in contact with him somehow. On the nights when we were both home and went to bed together, we would lay facing each other to talk. I greatly preferred petting him to the cat. He would put his hand on my pillow and I would lay my cheek on his hand. I often fell asleep like that, relaxed by the sensation of his warm hand on my cheek. If he turned to his other side, I would spoon behind him, putting my hand in the pocket of his pajamas. When facing in opposite directions, I would lay with my back against his, like a giant heating pad. If I woke up in the night and could not go back to sleep, spooning was a sure bet for settling down and dozing off. We watched TV in a double recliner where one of us always had a foot on the other person’s side for light contact. When we ate in a restaurant we frequently held hands across the table as we talked and waited for our meal to be served. He loved to sit in the backyard swing in the cool of the evening where I would have a hand on his leg as we unwound from our busy days and gently rocked away the weight of the world.
He found all kinds of excuses for a hug or a nuzzle. He would regularly come and find me during commercials, no matter what I doing. He would say, “Is there anything I can nibble for you?” This was followed by a short interruption of my project as he nibbled my neck just long enough to become a pest and then return to his television viewing. If I passed him in a doorway, the hall, or a narrow part of the room, he would often say, “There is a toll here” and then give me a big hug. When he came in from work, his dog would happily greet him. He would give her a pat and say, “Mom first” and then give me a kiss and hug. I could always count on that same greeting if he was home when I arrived. If both of us were awake in the morning, we always exchanged a goodbye kiss.
The day he died, I came home and retrieved the wrap-around body pillow he relegated to the closet because it “screwed up the snuggling.” It was a decoy at best, but I continue to sleep with it now. I could feel it there, all around me in my sleep. In the first horrible moments of waking up in the bed alone it gave my body a moment to imagine him there before reality hit and took my breath away. I avoided sitting in the double recliner, watching TV, and anything else that was a reminder that those precious touches were forever gone. It’s even hard now to work on projects, anticipating his interruptions that will never actually come. The sleep inducing comfort of his touch has been replaced by the sound of an audio book, droning away on his pillow. It took a long time to sit in the backyard swing without reaching out for the empty place beside me. Despite the warnings not to move too soon after the death of a spouse, I was greatly relieved to move after 10 months to escape things like the empty doorways and unobstructed hallway where the absence of his “tolls” was like landmines everywhere.
Becoming us without them will most definitely include grieving the loss of their touch. Far more than sex, it is affection that finds its way into the stories of loss after a death. Research indicates that meaningful touch is life sustaining from the cradle to the grave. Witness Cuddle Connection, a growing nationwide chain that offers non-sexual cuddle sessions for the touch deprived. Or a research project that included a grandmotherly librarian whose line is always twice as long because she offers patrons a hug with each interaction. Like many parts of them that were not truly appreciated until after they were gone, the absence of their touch will loom large on the horizon. Those touches, snuggles and nuzzles can result in your body producing feel good neurochemicals that are relaxing and provide a sense of comfort and belonging. In the absence of those touches, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other emotional and physical ailments abound. Many who have remarried after the loss of a spouse say that what motivated them to seek a new partner had its roots in touch. “I got tired of sleeping alone.” “I just wanted someone to hold me in their arms again.” “I missed being hugged.” Those whose subsequent marriages have faltered often realize they sought that touch so desperately that they neglected to notice warning signs of incompatibility.
Finding ways to fill our lives with healthy and sustaining touch will be one of the most important parts of our journey. What we know we need can seem far outside our reach for a long time. Becoming us without then will be far worse if it means us without loving touch. A great blessing of doing addiction counseling at the Salvation Army is that it is a very “huggy-feely” culture where hugs are freely exchanged. Taking care of ourselves means reaching out for hugs from friends and family members when available, discovering that others enjoy them as much as we do. Widowed people act as baby holders in ICU at a local hospitals or volunteer at nursing homes where hugs are welcomed with open arms.
The biggest obstacle will be that what we really want is the only thing we can never have while remaining open to the many blessings yet to come.