The Second Year Journey
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.
If you haven’t read Brene’ Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness, consider reading it soon. She is a researcher whose findings carried her unwillingly into the world of vulnerability and connection. This newest book is about her most recent research project where she discovered that having a sense of belonging is the most important thing for everyone. She is a great author and speaker so her books have always been helpful in the past. As a therapist, I was cheering as I read. As a trauma therapist attachment and belonging are the basis for everything I do. As a newly grieving widow, not so much. I think this idea of belonging is at the core of my grief.
Like Brene’ Brown, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. As a therapist, I completely understand why. When you have parents who are so broken that there is literally no one in there to attach to, your ability to attune to others and form strong alliances with others is non-existent. Sadly, the effects of this are apparent from the first day of school. The other kids seem to know some secret that you don’t. They understand the unspoken rules that enable social intelligence and the self confidence to take relational risks that pay off in strong, lasting friendships. I, despite being bright and physically attractive, always felt like an observer of this wonderful way of being a kid, but clueless as to how they got that way. I was more likely to adopt strays and fight for the underdog than to run with the popular kids. I was welcome among them, I just never quite knew how to relax and enjoy myself.
Then I met Butch. In his book, Mars and Venus on a Date, John Gray talks about finding your soul mate. He says that you can deeply love someone and yet have an intuitive understanding that they are just not the one. It eats away at the relationship. And when you find your soulmate, it feels like something you were born to do. No matter how bad things get, there is always this sense that you belong together. If you lose that, you will never be at peace with that loss. That must be why we chose to do three rounds of marriage counseling rather than give up on ourselves. I am sure our sons wish we had figured it out sooner so they could have had a stronger foundation to build from as they were watching us. What we taught them about relationship and connection in those early days was messy at best.
All of the bad times in the early days became hysterical stories to tell in the later years. When we did marriage classes at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, Butch loved to say, “We have been happily married for 25 years. And we will be celebrating our 35th anniversary in January.” It took them awhile to figure that one out. He would then tell them that we had experimented with all they ways you could wreck a marriage. He hoped we could give them some ideas to keep that from happening to them. I used to tell them that if they wanted the coolest, most romantic ideas ever, they should ask Butch for tips.
Right from the beginning, Butch made me feel like I finally belonged. He understood me much better than I will ever understand myself. They say that the greatest desire of all human beings is to be fully known and yet fully loved. We had that. He was always bigger than life to me. I thought he could fix anything I could break. I was surprised when he didn’t have answers to nearly everything. He was literally the wind beneath my wings, seeing far more of the good in me than I could ever see in myself. He chose to focus on what he loved about me rather than the annoying qualities I definitely have. For a few years, I spent a week at church camp as a counselor. I voluntarily signed up to live with 12 teenage girls for days and days. One year I packed up all my cool girl stuff, devotional materials, and art supplies and headed off, driving a friends van and six young people. We were about halfway there when I realized I completely forgot the fundamentals like a sleeping bag and pillow. I announced that we were stopping at WalMart to get what I needed when they all broke up into wild, hysterical laughter. They said that Butch packed everything I needed in the back of the van and swore them to secrecy. He said not to tell me unless I tried to stop and buy stuff. They couldn’t wait to tell all their friends!! He had been quietly watching my preparations and known I was as impractical and absent minded as ever. He knew I might just as likely have arrived at camp and unpacked all that without ever realizing I hadn’t packed it in the first place. He was quite proud of himself for having my back without nagging.
Becoming us without them consists of a very long and ominous to-do list. Anyone who has lost someone they loved and lived with can list all the painful parts. There is nothing we can add to that list that those ahead of us on the path have not already survived. When the fog of the first year lifts, we are shocked to find ourselves in a foreign land. Every relationship is changed. We don’t belong with the couples or other families the way we did. We are extra. We are a threat. We make them feel guilty for having what we have lost. In the beginning we don’t belong with the singles who have been at this single life for a while. They often have long-standing relationships that intensify our sense of being on the outside looking in. People who love us make a genuine effort to show us how much they care and to fill what parts of that hole they can. But they belong to each other and we are guests. Living alone wears you out. We must always return to that place that no longer feels like home. The one thing on the list that seems as if it can never be checked off or crossed out is to find the sense of belonging that we had when they were alive. Again it is our grieving mentors who assure us that it can be done. Like that pearl of great value that was created to soothe the irritation of a grain of sand, a life worth living slowly emerges from the what feels like cold and lifeless ashes. The pain of the loss becomes the foundation upon which we build something valuable that we can’t even imagine in the beginning.
It isn’t that I am not whole without him. I love my work, am arrogantly confident in my ability as a therapist and feel grateful every day for who I have become as a person and as a healer. Losing Butch has vastly increased my capacity as a Therapist. The thing I miss is looking into his eyes and seeing not only his love for me, but his knowing me to my core. The most painful part of losing him, is knowing that I will never look into another pair of eyes and see that again.