The Second Year Journey
One of the hardest parts of becoming us without them is the slow motion approach of the death anniversary. Somehow it is as if we are reliving it again. The logical part of is knows it is in the past, but some other, illogical part of us begins to quietly dread it happening in the future. We can feel ourselves growing more anxious, or flakey, or some combination of the two as the time grows closer. Facebook nicely reminded me of this via a memory of a post from the first anniversary.
This is the week of the “last times” anniversaries. It is filled with the hope that the love we realize now was successfully conveyed last time, because it was, the very last time and there are no more chances.
On January 16, 2016, we celebrated what was to be our last family Christmas with the kids at Jeremy and Angela’s. It was our first Christmas with both or precious granddaughters. He played Santa Claus and seemed so healthy. January 17th was our last Sunday off together. Our work schedules were off synch and so full, that every other Sunday was our only concentrated time together. We spent the day mostly relaxing and getting ready for the family vacation at Tahoe that would begin on Thursday the 21st. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we both worked, which meant he was asleep when I left for work and I was asleep when he got home. We sometimes had brief conversations but one of us was mostly out of it and not very focused on the other. We talked by phone during the day, and I called him on my way home from my last appointment every night. If he was home early, he would be waiting on the front porch for me when I arrived, still talking to him on the phone.
So Wednesday, January 20th, would turn out to be the last time I would wake up and find him sleeping beside me. I was always grateful to wake up and find him there, but I can’t imagine that I expressed that clearly enough to feel sure he knew. Thursday he got up in the wee hours of the night to go duck hunting with his nephew, Bruce, and I left for Tahoe to meet the kids.
He worked Friday and rode up to Tahoe on Saturday with Jeremy, who had come home to coach soccer for the day. It was fairly late when they arrived. Sunday, January 24th, was my birthday, which means I am about to spend my first birthday without him since I was 17 years old. I will turn 65, feeling much older than I would have if he was here to celebrate with me. We spent the morning relaxing. My brothers and their families came over in the afternoon to celebrate my birthday. It was a very relaxing time, just enjoying the time together, laughing, and enjoying our last family meal together.
Monday was another day of simply relaxing and spending time with Jeremy, Angela, and Schuyler. Schuyler was always afraid of men and, while she flirted with him constantly, she had never allowed him to get very close. With days together, she had begun to warm up to him. He figured out that it was his size that was the problem, so he took to sitting on the floor so he seemed less intimidating. I caught a great picture that morning of her bringing him her favorite book and sitting on the floor next to him so they could read it together. I had not idea that would be the first and only picture I would have of them together like that. In the afternoon, he and I went on a drive around the lake. We enjoy a mellow evening watching TV with the kids.
January 26th, what would be his last day in our lives, I woke up very sick and he spent the morning tending to me. He and Jeremy planned to go snow shoeing in the afternoon and he was very excited about that. He had always wanted to share his outdoor world with his sons but they were always too busy to coordinate their schedules do to that. When it was time to go, he asked me If I wanted him to stay. I assured him that I was feeling much better. I told him he was the best husband in the world for offering. He had waited years to go play outside with his kids and I would never ask him to miss that. I have replayed that moment over and over, wishing so desperately that I had said, “Yes, please stay with me and don’t leave me.” There was no way to know that he had been overwhelmed by the duck hunting adventure and his heart was probably already stressed. The addition of the snow shoeing at 6500 ft. elevation would push him to the edge. Carrying one bin of groceries to the car, going down three flights of stairs and back up for the next triggered the heart attack. He dropped outside the door of the condo. Jeremy valiantly administered CPR of over 10 minutes while we waited for the fire department. And while Jeremy kept him alive so he had a chance to fight for his life, he had lost oxygen for too long and his brain was already gone.
Both my family and his surrounded us in the hospitals in Tahoe, Carson City, and Sacramento, every medical intervention possible was offered. His heart was beating on its own and although he was on a ventilator, he was breathing on his own. But in the end, on February 11th, we put him on comfort care and watched him leave us. He quietly stopped breathing at 6 pm on February 13th, taking half of my heart with him. On Valentines day, a day that he always celebrated with a flare, Jeremy put flowers and a card in my car so that day would not be such a black hole.
So now we are walking through the land mine of the anniversary of those days. So much has changed in this year. We are all learning to go on without him. My friends and family have been my life blood. I have a beautiful life, a wonderful new home around the corner from Jeremy, Angela and Schuyler, and meaningful work that gives my life purpose. But there will forever be a gaping black hole where there used to be an amazing partner and friend.
I would give a million dollars for one more minute with Butch to be sure I tell him how much I loved him and how awesome my life with him was. I just want to know that he knew that for sure. But my moments are gone forever and I’ll never get that one minute I want so badly.
Thanks to all of you whose prayers have carried us through this year and will most surely carry us through the next.
Butch was not a huggy-feely guy when I met him. His family was not physically demonstrative in that way. The first time I attempted to kiss him on the cheek in public when we were 17, he flinched like I was trying to bite him. His idea of holding hands was to hook pinkies. He very quickly moved beyond that. Like many of our peers in high school, we would meet before school and during lunch break to snuggle in the hallway. One of our instructors was well known for his mission of walking down the hall and loudly saying, “UNWRAP” as he passed an intertwined couple. He knew full well that we would all resume our original position after he was out of sight, but he gave it a valiant try.
When Butch was stationed at Fort Hood, in Texas, right after we married, we were close enough for visits with my very large family in Louisiana and Texas. The first time we visited my Grandmama, we left after work and arrived fairly late at night. Despite the hour, there were at least 15-20 aunts, uncles, and cousins there to greet us. As each of my very huggy-feely family members introduced themselves and gave him a big hug, I fully expected him to blow up and fly around the room backwards. By the time of his death, he was a big time snuggler. I miss those snuggles almost more than anything.
We moved to Louisiana for a short time. He loved being part of a big, close family. He was amazed by the size of the family net when he applied for a truck driving job about 100 miles away and found himself being interviewed by one of my cousins. It was disappointing that wages for truck drivers were so low and usually meant driving jobs that required him to be on the road most of the time. We eventually returned to California.
My cousin’s love did not protect anyone from the traditional “city cousin” hazing. Leaving for town to buy groceries, I warned Butch not to go outside with or trust any of my cousins until I returned. Of course, he thought that was ridiculous. Returning home, I was horrified to learn that he had gone with two of my more sadistic cousins to fish in the pond behind Grandmama’s house. Bolting out the back door I ran as fast as I could toward the pond. My worst fears were realized as I saw him innocently fishing in the pond as my cousins stood on the opposite side, throwing rocks in a semi-circle toward him. They would have told him they would “shoo” the fish toward him with the rocks. He had his back to me. My goal was to get there in time to yell “RUN” before it was too late. But I had to get close enough for him to hear me clearly and actually run, rather than just turn his head toward me and stop looking at the pond. I was too late. Just before I got close enough to warn him, he seemed to lift straight up off the ground, turn mid-air, and fly away from the water moccasin, escaping from the rocks, heading straight toward Butch. If he hadn’t already dreaded the sight of snakes, that would have synched it. Another time, they handed him a 12-gauge shotgun, knowing he had no experience with guns, and told him it was a 22-gauge rifle that had no kick at all. Needless to say, he learned a lot about guns and my cousins as he lay there on his back wondering what happened. I’m sure they were disappointed that he was too old to fool with the snipe hunt. He grew to love all of them, giving as much as he got among my rowdy cousins, and even enjoying the hugs.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were the ways in which my family has been there for us over the years. When we married, Butch was in the Army. His pay was very low. Three weeks after we arrived in Texas from California, we had three days left before his next paycheck and no food. We had one dime and a few coke bottles we could recycle. Out of the blue, my cousin and her husband from a nearby air force base, showed up for a surprise visit. Discovering our plight, they bought us enough food for three days and gas for our car. I found a job right away so we had enough to go around the next month. But we would have been in dire straights without them. We frequently headed to a nearby town for pizza on Friday nights but diverted to visit that cousin instead. I don’t think we ever made it to the pizza place. My sister, her husband, and I drove with our children to a family reunion when we were all young and broke. Sadly, we blew an engine somewhere in Texas. Cousins pitched in for expenses. Despite the distance from Grandmama’s, there were cousins nearby to house us, get us on the train home, and help the stragglers repair the van. When Butch died, my aunts and a cousin made the trek from Louisiana to California for the memorial. It was wonderful to be wrapped in their love. The whole family stays in touch via social media. They have celebrated my accomplishments in Butch’s absence, reminding me I’m loved and supported.
I decided I needed a big dose of those hugs this Thanksgiving. In an uncharacteristic move, I shifted things around, so I could leave for five days and stock up on huggy-feely. In addition to a steady banquet of Southern delicacies, I enjoyed a parade of hugging relatives. I was reminded, again, that despite Butch being gone, I am far from alone in the world. He is with me here, in the memories and the stories.
Becoming us without them provides us with an advanced degree in iceberg science. The initial shock of losing a loved one is different for everyone. In the early days it is much like being encased in ice, cold and numb. There is so much to deal with but so little interest in doing any of it. The pain is intense. We feel brittle and easily shattered. Those who have never sustained a major loss see only the tip of the iceberg. That looks manageable enough to them. They assure us with a litany of platitudes. As our grieving goes on, they wonder why we seem to be taking so long. Our grieving mentors, on the other hand, are fully aware of the enormity of the iceberg we actually face.
As time goes by and the initial busyness ends, the thawing uncovers new layers of pain. We may have hoped that “time heals all wounds” could actually be true. That is a hopeful fantasy. The second year is often worse than the first. With time, the numbness melts. The thawing layers expose us to chilling blasts from awakening to yet another long day in a world without them. The best memories remind us of the deepest losses. But layer by layer, we begin to feel alive again. Much to our surprise, we find them living in the deepest part of our being. The memories more frequently wash over us like a warm ocean wave rather than a stabbing shard of ice. We experience their tender presence more often than the ache of their absence. We come to understand the enormity of the iceberg in a more peaceful way. Those unpredictable moments of stabbing pain become familiar landmarks on the journey of grief that we now accept as our future. There awakens a version of us without them that we can embrace and even begin to enjoy. Hope glimmers in the distance.
Isolation is our worst enemy, leaving us trapped in frozen waters and prolonging the painful thawing process unnecessarily. Our support network draws the iceberg into warmer water where the healing occurs. There can’t be too many hugs, smiles, or words of encouragement. We can ask for them and accept them whenever they are offered. We can search endlessly for loving people to hang out with and keep going back.
Accept no excuses from that person who stares back at you in the mirror. They can’t be trusted. Ask, seek, knock.
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.