33 Years in 40 Minutes

image1-6.JPGWritten Oct 18th:
It’s Sunday afternoon as I type this, and I’m on a 4 hour layover in Denver on my way back to Texas. I have spent the past 3 days in Portland for a conference on death and dying – where I stood up for the first time and did a presentation about my story with death and how creativity has helped me. What an experience it has been. Almost a year ago now, I was invited to speak at this conference by a woman who I’d shared my photography with. Small world, she turned out to be in charge of the arts & culture section of this brand new conference called DeathOK… she wrote to me and said I was the first person she thought of inviting to speak. I decided it was meant to be, and despite me total fear of public speaking, I agreed to come out.

This was a first. A big and scary one. I’ve never presented anything outside of a few less-than-mediocre speeches in college. That was over ten years ago. And I totally bombed my presentations most of the time because I was so nervous. Let’s just say, public speaking is NOT one of my strengths and is something I have completely avoided for the entirely of my adult life.

Until one day last year, this woman emails me, asking me to present… and I realize that I might just have something really important that I want to say for the first time. And that something… is my story. About losing both of my parents before the age of 26. About losing the man I was going to spend my life with, and this whole bullshit ride death has taken me on. Also about how creativity helped me time and time again through each of these losses. Suddenly, when presented with her request, I realized my desire to share this journey with others was finally greater than my fear of public speaking…

So after a crazy few weeks of writing and rewriting, rehearsing and editing, freaking out and crying and avoiding and trying again and basically a generalized feeling of not knowing what the fuck I was doing… I stood up yesterday afternoon in front of 30 or so people and I told my story. For forty minutes, I shared about my mom, my dad, my fiance, and all the ways that art and creativity has helped me to cope with all of it. I didn’t fall apart. I wasn’t overly nervous. I finished exactly on time. My ending was only slightly awkward and nothing was a disaster. Once done, I opened up for questions… really hoping I’d just at least get ONE. The very first comment was from a man who thanked me for sharing such a personal and inspiring story, and how much he loved my photos on grief. And then came questions about my creative process with some of my photos, and questions about different artforms, and insights on how some of my work speaks to many other painful traumas like the PTSD of veterans and the struggles of homeless children. We had such a beautiful and intimate exchange. At least half of the people there came up privately once we concluded to thank me and share something. We left with hugs and business cards exchanged. For all of myself that I have poured into this for the past few weeks – and for the lifelong journey that has been required to get me here – I was given so much back. It was overwhemingly beautiful.

I remembered something when I stood up there yesterday too. I forget this so often, but it was reiterated in the keynote address that morning and I thought about it all day. The ones going through the darkness now have a responsibility to put some lanterns out there in the wilderness to light the way for those who follow. And when it comes to death and dying… everyone, eventually, will follow. I have known death nearly all my life… but I often am selfish and feel everyone should have to learn for themselves. It’s an old bad habit of mine. Yesterday pulled me out of that in a major way.

We all have that obligation, whether or not we act on it or not. Each person who came to my presentation reminded me of that yesterday… and it is something that I hope I will not soon forget. It isn’t about whether I like doing presentations or not. It’s not about whether I’m an amazing speaker. It was never about that. It isn’t about having all the answers or being the most knowledgable person. It is about sharing whatever I have. Sharing what I’ve learned from the pain of loss with the hope that there will be at least one nugget in there that will be picked up and carried in the heart of someone else. After all, countless others have done the same for me. I have been following the faint light of their lanterns all along my own journey for years.

As I sit here halfway between Portland and home now, I feel so proud. I wanted to quit. I wanted to run away from it, to cancel my spot in the event. I seriously contemplated chickening out. And I didn’t. Instead I cried and cursed a lot and eventually got to work. And now I have followed through with confronting a huge fear of mine. Instead of giving up, I decided to try. I decided to believe that, even if I’m not the best public speaker, I can still do this and I still have something valuable to say. As much as I write and share, you’d be amazes at how easy it is to believe that what I have to share isn’t valuable. It happens to all of us… we get in our heads. This time, I didn’t let my head get to me.

I found myself in tears after I wrapped up and had some time by myself last night for a moment. It was an all-too familiar layer of grief… the one that wishes so badly for my parents to be alive for this moment. To imagine the pride in their voices as I called them to tell them. And at the same time, knowing that they brought me here. I would not have been standing in front of anyone yesterday if it wasn’t for my parents, for their death, and for Drew and his. And so they all three come with me, on this part of my new life and every other part ahead.

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To Choose Pain

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Written Oct 11:
It’s been a long week. Most of my stuff has sat in storage since Drew died three years ago. And before that, probably half those boxes hadn’t been opened in years. With the move to Ohio in just a few weeks, it’s time to finally tackle this.

I decided that I didn’t want to take any extra baggage (literally) with me on this new venture, and that means I’m opening up every last box. I’m pulling out a million different little pieces of myself from long ago… and deciding which pieces I want to keep and which I want to leave behind.

It’s been emotional. To dig through my past and remember who I used to be. A lot has happened to me that isn’t just the grief over my fiance. Death, alcoholism, family dystunction, abuse…I haven’t had the worst life by far, but it hasn’t been easy.

Revisiting the boxes reminded me of how I spent the first 25 years of my life in survival mode. There was never stability, or healthy relationships, or a feeling of safety in my world. There was never room to put down the armor and just relax into life. Not until I met Drew…

He helped to give me the kind of stability and healthy love that allowed me to just enjoy life for those few years we shared. For me, it was one of the biggest gifts… to understand what it can feel like to live life from a place of security instead of always being based in fear.

These years since Drew’s death, I have started to find that sense of security again. This time, it’s coming more from within me though. There is a solidness that wasn’t there before. And it comes from having survived such immense trauma that I know in a much deeper way that I can trust myself to handle things. I am rarely in survival mode anymore. It’s is probably one of the most important gifts that he could have given me – one that will affect the entire rest of my life in really important ways.

There is also a newfound sense of security in having Mike in my life too. And I believe 100% that Drew brought him here for a reason, at this very time in my life, to help me with the next chapter of moving forward. I will admit, Mike’s solidness has helped give me the courage to take some big steps – like this presentation I’m about to give in just another week on using creativity to greive. And moving across the country for the first time in my life. Despite all of these bold decisions as of late… one thing is never far from my mind: That Mike could be gone at any moment. In fact, its been on my mind a lot with the move approaching.

Drew and I were at a pinnacle in our life together when he was ripped away from me and gone suddenly. We were moving forward, looking towards marriage, his career as a pilot was just getting off the ground. Things were going our way. Then BAM, all of it gone, with one phonecall.

Now, I’m at the edge of a first big pinnacle with Mike. The closer this move gets, the more nervous I become that something will go horribly wrong. After all, it happened before… Now I know, I am not immune. None of us are.

It’s scary to let someone matter this much again. It’s scary to begin building a life with someone new. It really really is. It’s far scarier than most people in my life realize, because mostly, I am quiet about it. It takes a LOT of courage to step into love again after death. Now having lost Drew, I know just exactly what I am agreeing to. I know in a very real way that attaching my heart to anyone outside myself will inevitably, someday, end in pain. Mike is of course just as aware of this as I am, after losing Megan.

Some day, one of us will die, and there is no way of knowing when that will happen. All we can do is hope that we are lucky enough to dodge the accidents and the illnesses that could take us early. That’s all we’ve got: hope. Hope and the attitude that we aren’t going to let things like that stop us.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop having this thought though. It’s an awareness that’s ingrained in me now. Instead of letting it get to me though, I use it to my advantage. I allow it to be the thing that reminds me to be grateful of what’s here today. The thing that keeps me constantly aware of how beautiful every little moment is between Mike and I. That is also Drew’s gift to me. His way of still loving me and being in my life.

Drew will forever be there to remind me. Even if this wasn’t what I had planned before, to never take this life and this beautiful new love for granted, ever. To never let the fear of pain get in the way of pursuing happiness again. When we choose love, we also choose pain. He reminds me to take responsibility for that choice. To see pain as a part of the journey, not as something to avoid or let hinder me. He reminds me that pain should never stop me from taking hold of what joy I can in this life and riding it till the end. To choose the inevitability of pain – time and time again – for the privelage of love. Love others. Love ourselves. Love life.

Love, he has taught me, is the worthiest of reasons to hurt.

About A Girl

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Written Sept 27:
I’m back in Texas this week, after having visited Mike for two weeks. My last day there, we drove up to Niagara Falls to meet up with my sister and her family. It was her first time meeting him and his daughter Shelby, and it was wonderful to see how well he fit in. Again, just like with my friends, he fit into the picture eerily as well as Drew. Only it didn’t feel like he was replacing him at all, but more like honoring his space. My sister adored Shelby. Since she raised three boys, she’s pretty excited about the prospect of a new little girl in our world. It was all so seamless.

This was Shelby’s first time to see Niagara Falls, as Mike and Megan never made it up with her for a visit. It was so much fun to be a part of that experience, of one of her firsts. In such a short time, she has stolen my heart (which she seems to do with everyone) and I can literally sit around for hours and just watch her experiencing the world and being her goofy self. I am always seeing myself in her too. I am daily reminded of the little girl I was, who also lost her mom around the same age and had a similar spunk and charisma. With every joy and every sorrow she has, I see some bit of me. I also see a different girl, who is already living a very different version of this story than I did…

My mom died when I was nine – and Shelby’s died when she was seven. That’s about where the parallels end though. My dad never dated again, nor remarried, though I had other women in my life who served as mother figures (teachers, neighbors, etc). In some ways, that is what I wanted. I was overprotective, insecure, and scared of anyone getting between me and my dad. This made romantic relationships difficult for me as a young adult, and for a time I was lost in some very toxic and abusive situations. My parents also had a very volatile marriage, wheras Mike and Megan had a solid, loving one. Already Shelby is at an advantage, which is easy to see by how well adjusted and secure of a kid she is.

Shelby has never seemed to feel threatened by me. She has been crazy about me from the get go (to my huge relief and amazement!). I have always figured this to be partly because I lost Drew, but also my mom too. I feel an unspoken bond to her in having lost our moms young… and I told Mike this once: “For years I have been saying there was a reason that I lost my mom so young… I just didn’t know what it was. I always believed a day would come when I would know that reason. I think maybe Shelby is it.” I’m fairly sure we both cried, or at least I did, at that moment.

I cannot express what a gift it is to me to be able to watch her just being her. To watch her goofing off and experiencing new places and learning new things. Just watching her look at the falls and laughing with her whenever the spray from them would blow up and drench us. To tickle her and play games with her and be silly together. To bring her dad love and laughter and joy too, and for her to see that. A hundred times a day or more, I am aware her mother is not here to laugh with her.

That awareness never leaves me, and it never will. Because I know it better than anyone. I know how hard it is to grow up without your mother. It is still hard 24 years after her death, to not have my mom here. I will always have this sadness that haunts me… a sadness that wishes for Megan to be here to see it all instead of me. It should be her. Not me. But we don’t have that I guess… instead we have this other gift that is each other. By some grace I believe Megan brought us all together, and though I’ll always wish it were her instead, this is the very thing that gives me the deepest kind of gratitude for every moment I share with Shelby, and with Mike.

FullSizeRender-2.jpgThat is one of the beautiful things that death brings us, though. We are somehow inexplicably brought together with others who understand our story, pain, love, longing, anger and fears. We find the people who get just how deep this pain runs, and it is through this shared pain that we end up with relationships that are deeper than anything we’ve ever known. And together through that grief family, we all heal.

Many Families, One Tree

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Written Oct 4th:
Like with his parents, Drew’s aunt is someone I’ve gotten much closer to since he died. Yesterday was our first time visiting since I went up to Ohio last month. I went to help her move some furniture out of her uncle’s garage. The 2 hour drive out to his place was just what we needed to catch up on all that is changing in our lives with my move to Ohio. Not just my life… our lives. This move of mine is affecting all of us. His parents, who I have lived with since he died… who have become my own family in the process. My closest friends, who I will be very far away from for the first time since we all met 7 or 8 years ago. And everyone else close in my life in some way.

Sometimes life brings you odd reminders though of just how beautiful and seamless even the most complex situations can be. While with Drew’s aunt yesterday, over at her uncle’s house, we began looking at pictures up on the walls. In the hallway was a wall full of old photos, in particular a collage frame with 20-30 photos arranged all together. He stood and shared with us about all the pictures, who they were, who had died, etc. Brothers and sisters, aunt and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and moms and dads. On the surface, it looks like anyone’s family collage on the wall. But there was something very unique about this particular college that really stood out to me…

Within that single frame, it was not just one family tree shown. Nor was it two, of a husband and wife. This kind, old man has been widowed twice. Before me in this single frame was a beautiful blending of old pictures of his family, his first wife’s family, and his second wife’s family. Not only were they on the same wall together, they were in the same collage. He didn’t know my story. He had no idea how completely in awe I was of this simplistic, beautiful gesture of love.

It’s one of those things that people seem to try and make complicated, or think sometimes is complicated… but right there on this man’s wall it was clear as day – they were not different families. They were all one big family together. With shared love and shared losses and shared memories. It was so simple. He also had little trinkets around the house from both of his wives… more of them from his second wife of course, but still, it was clear that his first wife was very much a part of it all. She was not put away in a box, or hidden in drawers. His second wife obviously welcomed her within their home. It was so beautiful.

To make things even more meaningful, I was doing this with a part of Drew’s extended family…  further reminding me of how deep my bonds run with them and always will.

I knew I wanted to talk about this in a post as soon as it happened… because for me, it gave such a tangible visual of the kind of home and life I want to build with someone new after being widowed. At the end of the day, I called Mike and told him about this experience. I told him how, when we eventually move in together one day, I want to create a collage just like that of our great big family. The one that is made up of four families now. That’s how it should be. Losing pieces of our family may mean that it gets a little smaller. Sometimes we even lose more than just the one person when this happens, which is hard. But it also means that, one day, it gets even bigger as we join new and old parts of our families together.

The First Big Departure

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It’s official. Last night, I signed a lease agreement for the rental house. (As you can see, Mike’s daughter Shelby is just as excited as I am) So… as of the end of next month, I will be packing up everything I own and moving to Ohio. This whole thing is so surreal and honestly doesn’t feel real at all. The house is amazing… twice the size of anything I’ve ever had. It sits at the end of a beautifully wooded street on the outskirts of town, with small 5 acre farms and little ponds dotting all along the road. For a gal who’s only lived in 600 square foot city apartments her whole adult life, it sure is surreal to imagine waking up to a view of trees and gardens and ponds and flowers. In the winter, fields of fresh snow blankets will stretch out several acres from my front door. I can hardly even imagine this little slice of heaven practically jumped into my lap. I’ve been totally terrifified to move so far from home, but I really do feel like all of this would not be aligning if it wasn’t meant to happen. So despite my fears, I am trusting the universe, letting go of the fear, and leaning into it.

So, how does this feel, to be leaving behind the state I have lived in all my life and all the places I built memories with Drew before he died? To be leaving behind my closest friends and some of my family? It felt really sad at first, I’ve cried a lot in the past few months over the prospect of moving far away. Until I got up here and realized… I’m not leaving any of that behind. We’ll still talk all the time, and I’ll still be sharing everything that happens on this new adventure with them. And in that way, teveryone back home is always with me. Similarly, Drew is always with me too.

It still feels very eerie… almost like I am in someone else’s life. I’ve been down in the pits of pain for so long, and suddenly it’s as though I got plucked out of it and set into a lovely bright field. Part of me I think is confused about that. How did I get out of the pit? How did I get here? How on earth did I go from waking up in tears every morning and hoping for a semi-truck to just run into my car and end it all… to waking up in love again? How on earth is that even possible?

I honestly do not know. But it is. Despite how unfathomable it STILL feels that I have all of this grief and all of this new joy living inside of me… it’s there. Despite how unimaginable it still seems to me to be able to love both Drew and Mike so completely… it’s there. I really did think that our hearts only had so much room. It’s not true. They stretch to accommodate whatever love grows within them. And so that is miraculaously what I have watched happen since meeting Mike. My heart at least twice the size it was, because the part of my heart that holds Drew didn’t shrink at all.

Last night, Mike and I settled into bed after an amazing and exciting day… and I burst into tears. It was simple. I just missed Drew. I missed him so badly. More than anything, I wanted to be able to call him and tell him about this exciting new part of my life… which seems odd. But he was my best friend, and so yes, that is what I wanted. Another part of those tears are because this big step of moving reminded me yet again of the life Drew and I will never get to have together. Signing that lease was deciding to take a different fork in the road. To officially say, I am letting go of that life and I am choosing this one. It’s so painful. It deserves tears.

There will always be this alternate path that could have happened, had he not died. And it will only ever exist in my heart. Every new place I live, every new experience that happens in it… there will always be that other life in my heart that I will think about, wonder about. I will always have a melancholy about that.

On the other side of it though, it IS because he died that I am where I am today. It is because of him that I met Mike. It’s because of him that I am moving to Ohio and going on all sorts of grand new adventures… so part of me does feel like he’s here. That’s his way of still being around. He affects every single thing that will happen going forward in my life. He is a huge part of the foundation that this entire new life is rooted in. And he always will be.

As I cried in bed last night, Mike held me tight, and I told him all of the above. It is wonderful to be able to have someone who understands like he does, even though I hate why. I should mention, not for a single moment did I not want the beautiful love that was right in front of me. Not for a moment did I wish Drew was there instead of Mike. It is never an either/or kind of thing. I love them the same. I honestly can’t believe that’s possible still, but boy do I. I suppose sometimes, like in those moments, I just want to be able to be in two places at once, and live both lives out – the one I have now with Mike, and the one I was going to have with Drew. I want to be able to see how both of those beautiful lives pan out.

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It will always be hard that I only get to see how one of these directions unfolds. But it is still beautiful and wonderful nonetheless, I cannot have both of those lives, but I do get to have one life that is influenced deeply by both of those people – and by many more people who are here because of both of these men. And I am excited to not know where any of it is going. Despite all I’ve been through, and all the catastrophies I can imagine happening now, I am still going to choose to be excited about this first big departure from the life I’d planned. I am not going to let death take the color out of my view of life. No, I’m going to make death give my life more color than ever before.

Turning A New Page

I’ve gotten behind on posting some of my blogs here recently, so this one is a catch-up. Written Sept 13….

I am sitting in my hotel room in Toronto writing… trying to find the best and most concise way to describe all that has happened in the past seven days of my life. I say “most concise” because I’ve got a bag to pack, and many wonderful widow friends to still say farewells to before leaving Camp Widow Toronto. In a nutshell, the past week has been an enormous roller coaster. My first day visiting Mike in Ohio, I met his parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew. Oh, I also viewed the house I am looking to rent… because yes, its a great idea to go looking at a house the very first day you have ever been to a state halfway across the country from where you lived with your fiance. Yeah.

On day two, I met Mike’s mother-in-law and father-in-law, Megan’s parents, and her brother. On the same day, I looked at a new car, which I would be driving around in this new state halfway across the country when I move. This is because my in-laws want to keep Drew’s truck, which they told me just days before leaving to Ohio. Since we weren’t married, that one isn’t my say. I’m grateful for their help financially to get a new vehicle, but the idea of leaving his truck has added a whole other layer of grief to the idea of this move.

During these first two days, Mike and his daughter Shelby also drove me around and showed me their city and the various interesting things about the area. Even this was overwhelming, because I wasn’t looking at it as a place to visit… but as a place I will soon live. A place I will soon live that is NOT any place I have ever been with Drew. It felt foreign, very foreign from Texas. I felt so tense, like a part of me was resenting every last thing in Ohio because Ohio is taking me away from my beautiful home state. Ultimately, taking me away from the world I knew with Drew, and with my parents. It is another layer of loss. Despite how wonderful it’s been to meet all of Mike and Megan’s family and to see this beautiful part of the country and to fall in love with this house I want to rent, my heart has been honestly pretty pissed off since arriving here… because I do NOT want to endure any more fucking loss. Like seriously, no more.

And then on Friday, Mike and I packed up the car and took a road trip up to Toronto, for Camp Widow. I really have to say that, yet again, I am leaving Camp completely transformed. I brought so much resentment and fear with me to camp. So much resistance to change. And I am leaving with none of it.

I am leaving instead with laughter and smiles. With a renewed lightness and trust about things working out. With an even deeper assurance that Mike is the person I want to uproot my life for. I’ve shared moments of tears and opening my heart to others who understand. Moments of being able to talk about how scary it is to be changing so much of my life all over again. I’ve shared about how much I really really REALLY hate that opening this new chapter in my life also means turning the page on some of the old chapters. But most of all, I am leaving Camp with HOPE.

There’s a feeling of excitement now about this big unknown future I am about to jump into (even the snow, which for a Texas girl, is a hard thing to say). Over the past few days, I’ve started to realize that just maybe there will be even more goodness to this change than I could possibly imagine. Just maybe there are so many more reasons for living in this new place than just being near Mike and Shelby. There will be a chance to deepen relationships with many other people who I have previously lived very far away from… widowed friends, artist friends, and even some family.

It is nearly official now… I will be signing a lease agreement in just a few days. I will be moving at the end of October. I’ve decided. And I am committing to this leap, no matter what. It’s still scary as shit, but now it is also exciting. Having my community of widowed people this weekend was EXACTLY what I needed during this time. And I cannot thank them all enough. You all remind me that I am safe, and loved, and strong, and I can do this. You remind me that we are all capable of doing big things. Michele’s keynote address reminded me that, even though I am starting a new volume of my life, I can always go back to the previous books. They are always there in me, just waiting for me to pick them up, sit down with them, and flip thru the pages. The volume of my life that is Drew will always be there… and his volume will go with me everywhere I go. Just as all the others will.

At the end of this whole crazy week, I am seeing that what’s waiting in the next chapter could still be some of the happiest years of my life… not the same happiest years I had with Drew, but different happiest years… with new love, new friendships, new laughter, new memories, and new life. Drew is going to be a part of this chapter too, just as he is going to be a part of every chapter ahead. And his volume in my life will come right along with me and my moving truck. And it will be okay. And life will still be beautiful.

Parallels & Pushing On

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 8.34.41 AMI am sitting upstairs in the bedroom… the morning light streaming through the window. Only today, I’m not upstairs in my own room, but at Mike’s place. He’s downstairs getting the morning started while I get my post done. I got in last night, and it’s the first morning here. The first time I have ever been here. I’m a little overwhelmed, I’ll admit.

It is immediately surreal to walk in the house as we came in. I halfway expected his wife Megan to be here. And in a way, she is. In every paint color on the walls and every picture and little embroidered wall hanging. In every small and sweet touch throughout their cozy home, she is here. And her love is here. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be here. Like in a strange way I wished it all back to how it used to be… for her to still be here with her daughter and her husband. For me to still be back in Texas with Drew. For a moment in time, I think it all felt so horribly wrong…

And then Shelby, his daughter, tells me excitedly to come up and see her room. We go up the stairs and she jokes that I should be faster at going up stairs (she knows I do Crossfit). I feel automatically old and laugh, telling her I would be if I wasn’t so tired. Her room is pink and of course… filled with stars. Stars on the ceiling, stars on the walls, the little glowing ones. And planets hanging from the ceiling, and a little solar system nightlight that projects onto the walls. Her walls are two shades of pink, which I like and tell her so. And she shares how that was her mom’s idea… that she couldn’t decide which pink she wanted and so Megan did this really great two-tone thing. Her room is cool, like half girly and half not, so much like my own room as a kid. My own room, which my mother also helped decorate for a short time until she was no longer here.

When she brought me back downstairs, she showed me the china cabinet with all her mom’s figurines. And we played with the dogs while Mike made plates of dinner delicious pork roast with sauerkraut. It feels so oddly comfortable and good. The house is filled with stars, every wall and around every corner. And this is not lost on me by any means… I was brought here very specifically. Drew’s (Andrew’s) initials and mine spelled STAR. And many of my business pages online are named after a memory of ours – Seven Shooting Stars. Mike’s wife, had seven star tattoos. Quite literally, the stars brought us together. Hell, I even saw a shooting star JUST as the plane was landing in Ohio last night. I’ve never seen that before. It was the blessing I needed. And I know, as I look around the house at all the many stars, I was brought here for a reason.

It is the most surreal experience. And this morning as I am soaking it in, I’m beginning to understand why. It is more than just walking into the house of a widowed man and feeling the presence of his wife all around. It is, in a way, like walking back in time into my own life, in some parallel universe. It is like seeing my nine year old self after losing my mom to breast cancer… only in this life, my dad chooses to date again instead of remaining single as he did. In this life, the little girl has a chance to see how love can keep on going, in a way that honors those we love who are gone. She gets to know how it feels to have another woman here in their house and for it to feel good and exciting and happy and safe. She gets to know a grown woman who has lost her own mother young. All things I never knew. I don’t even have words for how surreal it feels to suddenly be on the other end of things both the widowed experience and the motherless one. How can you not feel like you were brought here by some other force? By two souls scheming together from the other side no doubt.

There’s more… it’s going to be a hell of a day. I meet his parents later this afternoon, which I’m really excited for. And in a few hours, we will be driving to this rental house I am looking to get – which I’ve been pretty quiet about except for with my close friends and family. A house. In a place I have only seen in the dark so far. What? This is seriously rushed and crazy impulsive for me. Eight months ago I didn’t even know this man, and now I am about to uproot my entire life to be near him and try this thing. That isn’t me. I don’t do things like that. I am not romantic in that sense, but practical. I am a calculated decision maker. I take my time even approaching the idea of major life changes. But I also listen to my gut and trust it heavily. And so even if logic says this is not something I would normally do, I can’t ignore my intuition… telling me that it is time for change.

I have been feeling the push again… the same push I felt when Drew died and I left Dallas. It’s the feeling that Drew wants me to go. Like he is telling me – even though I don’t feel ready and it seems fast – that it’s time. And somehow I can trust that. I can trust that even though I have no clue if this will all work out, I must go and see. There’s a knowingness in my soul about it. I’d by lying if I didn’t say it’s still excrutiating though at times… that I am not still having many moments of tears and ache in my heart for how much I miss Drew. But that knowingness is there, and coming right from him… that I need to find out about this unknown. That no matter how hard and scary and emotional the idea of moving far away is, I can feel, deep down, it is time to push again. It’s time to brush up against uncertainty and fear and chaos once more. It’s time to be unsettled and unsure and time to adapt to a new world again – but this time, without death as the agonizing springboard. This time, instead, it is life.

The Warrior and the Wildflowers

Portrait_Week30

Before Drew died, I was not the softest person. Sure I was kind and loving and generous, but mainly just with him – the one person I trusted above all others. I honestly rarely gave anyone else my heartfelt genuine love – because I did not trust people. I always kept everyone but him at arms length, but did I good job of disuising myself as kind and giving from the outside. My whole life this has been something I’ve struggled with. Something I haven’t liked about myself. And something I have not known how to move past.

After he died, somehow, miraculously, I did the opposite of this. I didn’t close off from others. I didn’t mistrust or question or hold back. Instead, I opened up to everyone completely and in a way I never had before. I exposed every fear, every tear, and every irrational, over-the-top outburst, to anyone who would listen. In conversations and phonecalls and blog posts and artwork and hugs and embarassing crying fits. I didn’t think about it – it was survival. It is what I had to do. It still amazes me today that being this broken was the thing that broke down lifelong walls inside me that I had been yearning to get past for years. It was oddly the best and worst year of my life.

It was the worst for obvious reasons. But it was the best because it was the first time in my life that I truly opened myself – not just to one person – but to everyone. His death softened my heart. After a lifetime of trying to protect myself from the world – I finally put down my armor, looked around, and saw that I hadn’t been keeping myself safe from harm at all. I had been keeping away love and laughter and connection and support…

I started to see how the love of others can heal us… and not just the love of people we know well and trust – but the love of strangers, aquaintances, old friends, new friends… anyone. I started to see how allowing myself to TRULY receive love from many other hearts gave me what I needed to be able to be genuinely and deeply giving in a way I had always longed to be able to. It is actually the most whole-hearted I have ever felt.

Being vulnerable always feels a bit dangerous. We fear that opening our hearts so fully will result in us being mocked or laughed at or judged. What that first year of living with death taught me is that this fear has been running rampant in my life for all these years without any proof to back it up. I have listened to it without ever questioning it. It took the death of my world for me to finally have the courage to throw off the armor and question these fears. In the midst of death is where I discovered the stories I have told myself all my life were wrong. Putting down my armor and letting the world in will not result in ridicule, but will instead result in connection and love. That is why I often refer to that year as the best and worst of my life. No one has ever given me a greater gift than this insight he gave me when he died.

Despite this lesson, I still fall back into those old fears. I can feel my heart hardening and closing off again lately. With every big change in my world since his death, every new phase, my subconscious seems to automatically grab for the armor. Before I am even aware of it, I am standing there with a sword and sheild in hand – ready to battle. Meanwhile, the reality is that I am standing in a field of wildflowers. There are no threats, no enemies, no dangers – yet there I stand, poised and ready to battle. It’s a good quality to have – except when it becomes overly reactionary in your life.

I’ve been struggling with this over the past 6 months, since meeting Mike. This has undoubtably been the hugest change in my life since Drew died. And it’s got me throwing on the armor at every turn. Fearful of dandelions. Suspecious of sunflowers. Convinced the hearts of others will somehow do me wrong.

Short of writing here, I have been VERY quiet about anything I have been struggling with these past months. So after working myself up emotionally into a total mess in the past month, I am finally flinging the armor off again and saying “wait a second, there is no battle here… people aren’t here to hurt me. And this armor isn’t working. Let’s open up for real and see what happens.”

And so I made lunch dates with a few friends this past week… not even particularly close friends – with the specific request that I am struggling lately and I really need some support. To even ask that up front was a HUGE step. I felt silly. I felt vulnerable. I felt in danger. But the difference now is that I know better. I know now what it feels like to put the armor down. And I know those fears are not speaking the truth. I have a comparison now, one that Drew gave me. And I get to choose which I want – the armor, or the wildflowers. I choose the latter – that effortless, undulating flow of love between open hearts. I choose not to believe I am in danger all the time anymore. The result? Love. Support. Connection. A sharing of ideas and emotions. Together with friends, some very legit fears have been pinpointed and some really simple solutions have been found. Ones that have now got me excited about the idea of moving and a whole new adventure.

This morning I am sitting calmly for the first time in probably a month. Because I took the chance to throw off the armor and remember the important lessons that death has taught me about life: Everything in life has the potential to be both scary and exciting… but I get to choose which of these I will live inside of. Fear… or love. I think the biggest danger as we heal and become stronger is becoming hardened against the world. Getting over-confident that we don’t need people anymore. Wanting to NOT need people. Being strong and feeling powerful while remaining open-hearted can be such a tricky thing to balance. Remaining soft and allowing it to be seen as I heal has been probably the single biggest challenge for me this year – one I am working on every day. I am so grateful that this blog continually challenges me to do this. Thank you guys!

Photo © Sarah Treanor, from my self portrait series on grief. For more visit streanor.com

A Big Little First

image1.PNGThis weekend has been amazing. Challenging, scary, exhausting, sweet, beautiful, silly, and bursting at the seams with love. Mike and Shelby have been here now for 3 days and this afternoon they head home back to Ohio. I can scarcely even put into words how amazing and terrifying all this has been. After countless hours of Skype calls – to meet her in person for the first time. And for it to be so effortless between us… I don’t know how else to say it except that I have the same feeling about her that I did when I met Mike at Camp Widow: it is as if we have known each other our whole lives and much much longer even. It makes it hard to believe anything else except that the people we love and lost somehow put us together and know exactly what they are doing.

Here we are – an eight year old girl who lost her mother last year, a 32 year old woman who lost her own mother at about the same age, a 34 year old dad going through the same thing my own dad went through with me… Inexplicably connected by loss from 1400 miles apart on a chance meeting. Perhaps it is more than his wife and my fiance, but also my mom who put us together…

Last week I wrote very overwhelmed about all of this. And it isn’t to say I am not still overwhelmed – I am having my moments. I’ve never been around kids a whole lot, much less been in a relationship with someone who has a child. This is all VERY new to me. After 3 days I can begin to see just how tired you are by the end of every day when you have kids. I’ve never known that feeling before. But, as I was telling Mike last night, it is a really beautiful kind of tired – satisfying in a way that no other kind of tired ever has felt to me. Like every single thing you did that day, even just laughing and goofing off, was important work. Important work in bringing beautiful memories that she will carry with her always. The fact that I grew up without my mom makes me even more acutely aware of how meaningful the happy times are for children post-loss. There wasn’t a lot of laughter in the years after my mom died.

To watch Shelby playing so fearlessly… to see her enjoying life, embracing me into her world and loving being around me… it heals my heart in enormous ways. It heals age-old wounds in me about how painful my own childhood became after my mom died. To see Mike doing such a good job raising her, far better than my own father was able to do with me. To see Shelby so happy and well-adjusted and secure… it is a beautiful thing. She’s had to deal with some complex things at a young age, and she will always have grief to deal with throughout her life, but she is still able to be a kid. Far more than I was. Really nothing makes me happier than to see that for her.

I am convinced now that there is far more to meeting Mike than I ever could have realized. There are ways that our stories interconnect that is just beyond chance meeting. Yes, all of this is terrifying. And yes… it IS hard to let go of my old life… of my life with Drew and with my grief and my pain too. It is hard to lean into this new world that is so full of LIFE and love and laughter. It’s hard because I’ve been in the other world with my grief for so long that it’s become comfortable and safe. It’s also hard to do this without Drew – or at least without him physically here. But after this weekend, I think it is getting a little bit easier. I will never let go of Drew, but I do have to let go of the idea of the life we were going to have together to move ahead with a new life. That isn’t going to be easy, but the comments and support from everyone last week were truly helpful and so encouraging. I want to thank you all for that.

After holding my breath and just jumping in to some big first steps… I can whole-heartedly say that I am so very glad I have taken a chance on the things that have scared me. I was not ready for dating this year. I was not ready for meeting a spunky, hilarious, sarcastic little girl this weekend. I am not ready to stop holding on to the life I was going to have with Drew. But I don’t think “ready” actually exists. I think some things will always be terrifying and that we will never actually be “ready” for some of the hardest parts of grief and moving forward. All I know is that every time I am scared and I jump anyway, it always ends up being worth the leap.

It’s been 6 months now since I first sat down next to this guy at the Camp Widow meet and greet – the last place on earth I imagined to meet a MAN… much less a new best friend. It feels surreal. He and his daughter have already transformed my life so deeply that it feels like they have been here for years. And just as I cannot imagine my life without Drew, I can no longer imagine it without these two either. A year ago I could have never imagined such a thing coming into my life. Three years ago, when Drew was still alive, I could have never fathomed how my life would unfold. I’d never have believed you if you told me all of this would happen and I would end up here… falling in love with someone new, and with his daughter too.

All this dating and new love stuff IS hard and scary. And I forget sometimes that yes, it is supposed to be. The things that can bring us the most happiness are usually the scariest. I hope sharing about this journey encourages someone else out there. Not to go looking for love, but to grab onto life and to do something that scares you. If it scares you, then it means something to you. Jump in with both feet. No regrets. Jump in and LIVE.

Grieving the Grief Years

Screen_Shot_2015-08-02_at_10.10.06_AMI had an all-out breakdown a few days ago. The kind I haven’t had in at least a year. I am chocking it up partly to hormones and the damned full moon, but also to everything else going on.

Nothing is settled in my life. Most of the time I am used to this, and I ride the waves well. But sometimes it piles up. My career as an artist is sort of like hanging off a cliff on one finger right now. Every now and then I get a better grip, a few more fingers on the ledge, but yeah… this whole entreprenuer thing feels trecherous. All the time. I constantly have no clue what I am doing. And just keep trying my hardest to hold onto the ledge of blind faith sometimes faith is all I’ve got

Next week, Mike and I will have known each other for 6 months. He and his daughter Shelby will be coming down to visit for a long weekend in just a few more days. We’ve spent countless hours on Skype, but this is the first time I will be meeting her in person. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous about that. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t begin to trigger all kinds of future thoughts.

Suddenly here I am, in the midst of so much change I barely know what happened. This time, it’s good change, but that doesn’t mean grief isn’t still part of it or that it isn’t still scary and hard…

Their visit next week has triggered the big question in a more real way: Will I move to Ohio to be with them if things keep going well? I was prepared to move anywhere with Drew for his work, but that was a different time and place and we had 3 years together already by then. Mike and I don’t have that luxury, the distance means looking at these things earlier. I’ve never even lived outside of Texas, or more than 8 hours from my home town. I would be 1000 miles from my best friend. 1400 miles from Drew’s gravesite and from his family. 1600 miles from my parents’ gravesite. This is all upsetting. Of course, I can’t stop myself from thinking about it all… and overthinking it.

Last week, I ended up in a complete emotional breakdown over all of the above. Life. Love. Work. Future. I have felt so tired and so worn down from trying to keep at it with my art that I’ve really wanted to quit. I’ve wanted to give it all up and go back to a regular job. So tired of not knowing where it’s all going. So tired of wondering how I will ever make any decent money doing what I love. And while that was going on, I worked myself up into a frenzy over far-away future ideas about moving… about having to leave certain things behind in order to bring other things into my life.

I am realizing all this potential change is about so much more than I had ever realized walking into it. It’s about more than keeping up with work or opening to new love and new adventures. It’s about the fact that I am beginning the process of greiving this life… this shitty, traumatic, painful, chaotic, terrifying, overwhelming three years of clawing my way through the pain and agony and anger and sadness. Somehow, as I stand now, I realize – yes – I will actually miss these years. Truly, deeply, miss them – on a soul level. Because there has been something incredibly sacred here. It has been painful, but it has also been the most pivotal time of change and growth in my entire life. I have spent these years trying to answer the questions about life, death, and my place in it all. I have dug deeper into knowing myself and my own fears than I ever thought possible. I have opened my heart more fully than I ever knew I could. I have done things I never imagined I could or would do. And I have always been acutely aware that this precious period of solitude would one day pass… as all things do.

And so with the introduction of one new person, suddenly I am beginning to see for the first time the way that one of the most pivotal chapters of my life beginning to close. Looking back at what these year have meant to me, there is no wonder as to why it’s been so upsetting as of late. It isn’t about moving. It isn’t about leaving my home state. It isn’t about being further away from my friends. It isn’t even about leaving Drew behind – because I know now, that he’ll go with me into every new chapter of my life. It’s about starting to say goodbye to one of the most special times in my life. It’s about knowing in my bones that it’s time to do so… even if I hadn’t met Mike – I was time for change to come.

How strange… to be looking at the worst years of my life as a thing I will MISS. But you know, I will. In much the same way I miss the years I had with Drew. There have not been the happiest years – since he died – but they have been some of the most important. And I will have to go through greiving these years in order to make room to move ahead into new and beautiful things. Into new chapters. Holding the joy and the sorrow – closely beside each other. It’s going to be rough, but I’m trying to remember that whatever those next chapters are… they will be just as important and sacred, in their own beautiful ways. They will hold new joy and pain all their own. And I will one day be looking back on whatever those future days are and missing them, too. Onward… yet again, into the grief – and life – I go.

Photo “Let Go” © Sarah Treanor, from my “Still, Life” self portrait series on grief. For more images of the series, visit streanor.com