Making Meaning

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Every now and then, something comes along that fills you to the bones with gratitude for this totally messed up, chaotic, stressful, sometimes shitty and also amazing life.

Just moments ago, I finished up a live phone interview. I was invited to speak about grief and the healing power of creativity at DeathExpo – an annual online conference held by the End-of-Life University. It all started by going to another conference about death, in Virginia earlier this year, where I met the founder of the university. We chatted over a few drinks at the bar and after hearing about my story and my photo series on grief, she invited me to be a part of this wonderful expo. That was back in the summer, so I’ve been waiting a while for this event.

Now, I have to preface the rest of this with the fact that I am an introvert. I tend to like talking to one or two people at a time. I don’t like socializing in big groups, much less speaking in front of them. I’m also a writer. Normally, my words are carefully chosen and put to the page, with painstaking thoughtfulness, before they go out into the world. I don’t exactly enjoy anything that makes me have to speak off the cuff or string words together spontaneously in front of people. I also can’t multitask worth a damn, so trying to put together articulate sounding sentences WHILE speaking is sort of a subtle form of torture for me.

But when someone approaches you to share your story about grief and loss, and share what you’ve learned in hopes of helping others, you don’t say no to that. Partly because I’m superstitious. I’ve lost both parents and my fiance before the age of 30… at this rate, I try to listen when the universe presents things like this to me. I mean literally, I am afraid someone else in my life might be smited if I ignore God or the universe or whatever it is. It’s obvious I’m supposed to be doing work that is related to grief and death in some way – or I wouldn’t have so many dead people in my life. And so, despite my fear of public speaking and interviews and the spotlight and all of it… I’m just allowing the universe to drag me into all this uncomfortable shit.

And you know what?

This interview was awesome. I loved every moment of it. I don’t know why, but I’ve never felt particularly confident or assertive when it comes to sharing with others. Tonight though, for the first time ever, I felt like I knew what I was talking about. I felt like I had good, valuable lessons to share about grief and using creativity to heal. And for the first time I felt just a bit comfortable stepping into that spotlight. After all, if there are two things I know, it’s grief and art. It was a pleasant surprise, and felt really good to finally experience that kind of confidence.

It has taken a LOT of uncomfortable feelings to begin to get to this place… a lifetime of them really, but more recently, hours and days and weeks and months of working on presentations and interviews (and also hours and days and weeks of procrastinating because I’m so terrified of it). This is the first time in my life I’ve even been confident enough to just TRY to do things like this. The person I was before Drew died would have never even attempted this stuff. The person I was a year ago wouldn’t have even tried any of this.

It’s got me thinking about a lot of things. Like how trying to stretch ourselves and grow means we have to go through a lot of doubt and fear before we can begin to reap the rewards at the end. We have to be willing to feel pretty damn uncomfortable before we can begin to feel comfortable when tackling something new. I’m also thinking about how important it is to have others be part of our healing… because I got so much energy and strength back from doing this interview tonight. Energy I desperately have needed during these tough times of relocating from Texas to Ohio. Energy that helped me feel less alone and more connected to others again. Energy that I know is going to help me feel motivated to get to making some art soon.

Lastly, it made me think about the meaning of death and loss that can continue to be built over time. I cannot even express how much meaning was poured into my world tonight. It was a reminder that every shitty day, every tear cried, every moment I’ve missed Drew since he died, and every time I wanted to give up and I didn’t… they have ALL been worth it, because maybe something I shared tonight will help someone else on their own road through grief. This was also a reminder that as my life continues on, things like this will come into it and continue to give meaning to Drew’s life. He will continue to impact the lives of others in ways that he never imagined too, as a reach out to give a helping hand to others.

Ultimately, doing this interview reminded me that no matter how difficult this life gets, meaning does not stop being built into it. It continues to build over time… over our lifetimes, if we choose to give it a chance. Fifty years from now, should I be fortunate enough to still be around, there will be hundreds of new ways that Drew’s life will have impacted the lives of others. And even though he would not be in a single picture from June 2012 on… you would still be able to fill a dozen scrapbooks with the meaningful things that his spirit has gone on to do.

Note: For anyone who would like to hear the interview with Death Expo, you can listen and view the slides we discussed HERE.

Into the Woods

slide_352583_3820972_freeWRITTEN Dec 19:
Patience. I’m trying my hardest to have some lately… with myself, with change, with pain. It’s easier said than done. I am beginning to realize that it is going to take a lot longer to adjust to moving somewhere so far away than I’d imagined. Especially while carrying my grief on my back wherever I go. No matter how much good there is about this move, it still feels like another aftershock of Drew’s death. I can feel it causing new cracks in the earth of me to splinter off… new openings into the grief.

That’s one of the things I am learning about living on with his death in the 3+ year era. Not that I expected to magically not have new layers of grief. I’ve been dealing with death for 24 years already from losing my mom as a child… I know better than anyone, that grief stays with you forever. I guess somehow I just maybe was still holding out some sort of hope that I wouldn’t have to deal with it so acutely in this new chapter. And while it may not be like the first year, this internal earthquake has definitely shaken things up more than just about any major change has since he died. It should though. And I shouldn’t be surprised that it is, really.

This year I have begun a whole new direction in my life, one that would have never existed were he still alive. From here on out, whatever happens will be a complete split from the path he and I were on. I think that is the part I am struggling with most. It creates a lot of sadness, and even some resentment, despite the fact that I am quite happy with this new adventure I am on. There is no way around feeling sadness and pain it seems. It makes an already stressful holiday season even more stressful.

While I am going through some very deep and complex emotions about the direction of my life, Mike is often feeling bad for being the reason that I’ve moved so far from everything I’ve ever known. I remind him that this was my decision, and that I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t truly wanted to. But that doesn’t mean it will come without a cost… without some very complex emotions to navigate. And complex questions to try and explore. Who am I going to be in this new life? How do I go about creating that? How does my old life fit into it? How do I honor that life? What parts of myself do I want to change? What parts do I want to keep intact? What do I want to carry with me, and what can I leave behind? How do I begin to challenge myself and grow in ways that will help this new life feel rich and full of purpose?

I’m pretty much a different person every day since moving here. It feels like reverting back a year… the feelings of being uprooted and lost and prevailant. Insecurity and loneliness for friendships and many other things that are just going to take time to resolve. Bottom line, there are a lot of difficult factors that I just cannot change overnight. I have to take a kinder approach to adjusting myself to a new life… just like I did after her died.

I should know this. I’ve done it before. And it was only a few years ago that his death quaked into my life and I learned how to be kinder and more gentler to myself. His death taught me how to nurture and be compassionate with my heart. Amazingly, it was during those darkest and most painful times that I learned how to love myself the fullest. Once you start moving again, it’s so easy to lose sight of that ability. You get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life again, you start comparing yourself to others, you start doubting yourself, and before you know it… you’ve bullied yourself into a stress level that you do not deserve. I’ve been watching my stress rub off on Mike, too. I know, it is draining to be around someone who is stressing about EVERY SINGLE THING at a near-constant rate that I have for the past few weeks. Seeing it exhaust him, actually, is what is helping to make me aware that I need to stop pushing myself and start taking care of myself.

We’re on our way out to Mohican State Forest as I write to you. Mike is taking me on my first backpacking trip. It’s going to be in the 20’s, which is ridiculously cold for a Texan to be sleeping in the woods. But I decided I need to shake things up a bit. Firstly, getting out in nature is always a sure-fire way for me to remember to fall in love with life again, and stop stressing about umpteen little life problems – mostly revolving around my career and finances. Secondly, it might just be good to shove my self into the thick of a new experience just for a day or two to remind me I CAN do this. One week, one day, and one step at a time… remembering the lessons Drew’s death taught me about getting through life’s challenges with grace, tenacity, and spirit.

Metaphors for Grief in Nature

12316117_1176946098987591_6548427694565428408_n.jpgWritten Dec 12:
I’m always astounded at the things nature teaches me about life and grief. This week I went for a walk at a park near my new house. It’s a wilderness park, with one trail that makes a 2 mile circle surrounding a prairie. For years, this area was farmland, and the park system has now preserved it to allow the landscape to fully restore back to it’s original state. For miles all around, it is now an expansive prairie, flanked by thin fingers of woodland and bogland where the ground slopes low. Mike and I first found it a few weeks ago, and it has quickly become my favorite escape since moving to Ohio two months ago.

Firstly, not many people go there, so it’s easy to feel almost entirely isolated in nature while you’re there, which I love. Secondly, with the time of year, all the plants have begun to die off or go dormant, with their seed pods yawning wide into the brisk winds and tossing their seeds into the breath of autumn. From the moment I first laid eyes on this place, I was completely drawn to it. With dozens of varieties of flora, even dead plants create a kaleidescope of textures and shades – from browns to tawny yellows to silvery blues. For weeks I’ve been feeling a pull to go back here… to feed my eyes with all the richness of seeds and grains, cattails and milkweed pods, dried leaves and rustling grasses. To be surrounded by a place where death is beautiful…

I’ve always had a love of things dead and forgotten… dead plants, skulls and bones, old discarded furniture left to rot on the curb. I have forever been a rescuer of the forgotten. It’s taken me years to realize that this is directly tied to all the death in my life. It’s as if, even at a young age, honoring old bones and dead leaves and forgotten places was a way to honor those I love who have died. Giving a new life to an old chair or desk someone threw away was a way to symbolize my own ability to give new life to the souls of those loved ones. This week, the prairie rekindled that love of honoring.

Thanks to El Nino, this has been an unseasonably warm winter in Ohio… you could be inclined to call it autumn still, based on the temperatures. Which is what got me out hiking. As I walked through the prairie last week, I ended up at a trail that went into the center of the park. And at the center there was a small pond. I hiked around to the far side of the pond, followed a deer trail that went up into the three-foot-high foliage, and sat down in a grassy spot. There, surrounded completely by nature, and the end of life-cycles, I began to think.

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Just like the prairie – I have been going through a long autumn in my own life… for probably the entire past 3 ½ years since he died, my seasons have slowed almost to a standstill. I was dormant for so long… and this past year or so I have been spreading seeds and waiting for what will grow come spring. Now, it feels, that spring – the spring of a new life, a different but equally beautiful life – is finally on the horizon. I couldn’t help but feel completely at home there in the prairie grasses… as if we were both on the same sort of journey. Am I anticipating what grows in my own spring, and also excited to see this sepia-toned prairieland in its full, bright, springtime glory.

It amazes me how many lessons nature has to give. I’ve always felt connected to nature this way, and particularly so right after Drew died. It’s been presenting me with lessons, incredible metaphors for my own pain and the seasons of a life with grief since those first months after his death. One of the most memorable was when I visited the Grand Canyon, three months after his death. Back then, I wrote about the metaphor of the canyon and the rift in my heart…

Much like the canyon itself, in times when I have the courage walk up to the edge of this unspeakably large hole in the very earth of me… the strength to open my eyes to it with an un-judging heart and fully see it… I find beauty. I find that the winds of every soul in my world have blown through and softened the walls of this pain, and they continue to do so, little by little. I find a landscape in me that has been slowly painted with passion, creativity, and dreaming – rendering it vibrant with color. Also, deep within, I find the river still rushing through – the losing of you – still creating rapids and cutting into me with strong currents. And it is here on the edge looking out that I know… this journey, canyon of my heart, will last my lifetime. It will not fade, I will not forget, it is now a part of my landscape for all time.”

11222575_10153662886925306_7272631406032413798_n.jpgThis experience has been a reminder to allow the wound of losing him to remain. A reminder not to try and dam of the river of grief, or try to fill in the void to cover it up, but instead to honor it, protect it, and know that even this trauamtic part of me is a beautiful piece of the landscape of who I am. This idea has stayed with me through all these years working hard to rebuild myself. Something tells me I will be finding some powerful lessons about life here in the new landscapes of Ohio, too. As I made my way back to my car, I collected as many different specimens as I could from the prairie to bring home as a reminder of this place that may seem dead and forgotten to so many others, but still holds a magic and a beauty all its own.

 

The Trades We Make to Live On

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Written Dec 6:
I was reading an article today about grief, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. One of the things that really stuck in this article was about the platitudes people throw at you when you are grieving… mainly, “It happened for a reason”. They make the assumption that, if you became a deeper, more compassionate, better person after the loss, that this loss was somehow necessary for your evolution. Like the author, I don’t agree with this either. I want to share a small excerpt from his article, as it really resonated with me and got my gears turning:

“…But loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in some ways it’s hardened me. While loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it’s also made me more inclined to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature and a greater impatience with people who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people…

…To say that my losses somehow had to happen in order for my gifts to grow would be to trample on the memories of all those I lost too young.

…I’m certainly not going to pretend that I’ve made it simply because I was strong enough, that I became “successful“ because I ”took responsibility.“ I think people tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand….” 

I feel the same about how the losses of Drew and my parents have changed me. This life has hardened me. I’ve spent most of my life with death and grief as visitors, and despite the ways it has made me a better person… it is not the loss itself that did so. It was not some magical strength or ability that people like to pretend we have once we’ve endured loss, either.

Yes, I am a very resilient person. Yes, I’ve survived a lot of heartache and I am still here, determined and working daily to rebuild a life of meaning and beauty. But all of that came from the trades made, the agreements accepted over time about continuing to live on. Not some innate inner strength or courage, but from what life itself has taught me about being alive.

We’ve traded a lot, in the aftermath of loss, to keep on living a life that has meaning and eventually, joy in it. We trade innocence for resilience. We give up naivety and unknowingness and instead accept a deep understanding of the fragility and pain inherent in walking this earth. It’s a haunting knowing, but one that allows us certain advantages. We trade the sugary taste of denial and the ease of ignorance for the healthier and more useful perspective of reality. It allows us to be less shocked about the pains of life, and thus, more resilient when pain does happen. And more open to letting the feelings of pain run through us. This trade, though, means to give up the illusion of safety that denial and innocence creates.

Not a day goes by that I am unaware of the possibility of death. With every positive thing that comes into my world, there is at least one moment of considering when the pain will come. When I will lose this thing. It’s not a worry, or something I get overwhelmed by, so much as a knowingness. A quiet understanding. A silent agreement that I have made in deciding to live a life. I know, at some point, that all things will be lost. It is the price of getting to be here, the price of this also beautiful, incredible, stunning world that is full of as much love as it is pain.

I wonder sometimes if other cultures, or our own American culture long ago, had a better understanding of this. We had funeral services in our homes, and took care of our dying ourselves. Many other cultures still do this, as well as other customs around death and dying that seem to make it much more a normal, accepted part of life. It seems as though we have removed death and loss from our overall culture to such a degree now, though, that we have collectively come to think of it as this shocking, unfathomable thing that shouldn’t happen. But when you really think about it… living on this earth, with all its perils, and somehow living a long and relatively painless life seems honestly, against all odds.

I personally feel like it would be a miracle to live to be 80 and for my partner to make it that far too. Not a rule, but a serious exception of having dodged illness and disease and sudden freak accidents for decades. When I look at it that way, it seems so odd for me to have had the naive belief that I would get to be with Drew for all of my days. I could only have that view after making some trades, though. Accepting some awful truths about life. I used to assume I would have Drew for all time. That I deserved loss-free life after losing my parents.

Loss can be very humbling though. Now, with Mike, I find myself thinking often, and sometimes saying to him “I hope I get to have you for a very long time”. I know now, that I don’t have any privilege when it comes to death. None of us do. I know now, to hold in my heart a humble gratitude that life has given me this person for even one more day. It doesn’t take away the haunting knowing that death will one day come. I don’t like that I am more cynical, harder, and that my thoughts do so frequently lean towards death and loss. Trading innocence for understanding has made it easier to live with though. And holding an acceptance of loss close by has made me more able to embrace the beauty of what it is here before it’s gone.

Source: Read “Not Everything Happens for a Reason”, by Tim Lawrence, the full article I quoted above.

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.

The Distance Between Us: Missing One, and then Two

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You know what I’m learning lately? New happiness can be a strangely lonely and difficult journey. When I was deeply in my grief, I experienced the other kind of loneliness… the one where no one REALLY wants to know how you are doing. Where they don’t see YOU anymore and all they see is the grief. Where you are a constant reminder to others of the loss they will one day experience. Where they just want to believe you are holding it together and are too scared to actually know the reality of your day to day existence. It is a horrible loneliness to endure.

I guess I didn’t expect new happiness to also be a very lonely journey, but at times it is. The complexity of it isolates you from many people who don’t get it. It brings up new layers of grief that must be worked through – during a time when most people are just taking a huge sigh of relief thinking that your grief is “over” now that someone new is there. They think its all butterflies and rainbows and that “poof!” your pain is over and love has saved the day. It isn’t any easier when your new love is 1400 miles away…

I’ll be the first to joke, as I often do, that at least Mike is not as far away as Drew. But in all seriousness, the distance does wear on me at times. It feels strangely similar to carrying my grief around with me. Here is this very significant part of my life, a deep and beautiful relationship, but it rarely exists within the space of my physical life. Although he is always with me via texts and calls and skype, no one else around me is really quite aware. Nor are they aware just how hard that is. How hard it is to want him to be able to be a part of everything. How hard it is to watch everyone else going about their life with no idea of how – for me – someone is always missing. More than one someone now. It feels all too familiar.

I am remembering what I told Mike the very weekend we met at Camp Widow… how I would never have a long distance relationship after being widowed because it seemed like all you would do is trigger your grief over and over again. Having to leave each other after short visits. Having to live your life still without that person while loving them from afar. But I guess we don’t get to choose who we fall for… he tells me that all the time. And I would not trade Mike for the world. I could no more seperate my heart from him than seperate the stars from the sky. To my surprise, there is already a love there that is as deep as my love for Drew. I am completely convinced that Drew chose him, and that Megan chose me, and that they brought us together for a reason. But it is still HARD work.

It feels shitty to talk about how difficult a long distance relationship has been for me… in this particular setting. At least I can call him. At least he is alive. At least I get to see him about once a month. At least I have a new person whom makes me feel important and loved and honors my dead person. I come up with every one of those justifications daily to try and not let myself acknowledge how much the distance wears on me at times. I don’t even feel like I have a right to be upset over it. But I need to stop fighting it. It does wear on me… and that’s okay. It would wear on anyone, particularly anyone widowed, and I’ve got to give myself permission to feel that.

Even if Mike did live here, there would still be previously unknown layers of grief to navigate (on both sides, his and mine) along with the usual work of building a solid foundation for the relationship to grow on. So many people think that finding someone new will just “fix” everything… they don’t realize that entering into new love is like signing up for your next course in grief work – a place to study new chapters of it, a place where new lessons will be taught and new tests given. The greiving are never really done – we are students of death forever.

This journey is hard. And it will be hard all of our lives, through all the milestones and steps ahead. It will also be beautiful, and worthwhile, and incredible. But also hard. Right now… I miss Mike. And I miss Drew. I may miss Drew in a different way now, more as my best friend, but not any less. I still cry for him – and want him here to see everything good in my life now. Having Mike in my world does not change that and never will.

I still hate that Drew isn’t here physically. I hate that I get the chance to begin again and he does not. I hate that he will never physically be able to be part of my life moving forward… even though he touches and influences each and every part of it. Some days… that just isn’t enough. Just like some days, having Mike only a phonecall away, isn’t enough. Sometimes I just want both of them to hug me… maybe even at the same time, in some big, bizarre group bear hug of protection. I want them both here. And Mike’s wife Megan too. And in some crazy, irrational, dream-world in my mind… I just want all of us still living and smiling and laughing – and still knowing each other. I want the four of us together, surrounding Mike and Megan’s daughter Shelby with love and laughter – instead of only two of us. I want every one of us in this widowed community to magically know each other without having to have gone through all of this to get here. It doesn’t mean my life is not good, and beautiful, and happy, and full of meaning and laughter and light… but I will always want for this, for the rest of my life. It is the quiet melancholy that will always sit somewhere within the depths of my heart.

Bringing New Love Home: Next Chapters of Widowhood

Another post that’s been pending for a few weeks… the big, awesome, scary, sad, beautiful journey of new love coming home:

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Mike and I on the far right, with my friends at Drewfest.

I have gone through a myriad of emotions the past few days. Mike is down this weekend visiting me from Ohio… it is the first time he is meeting my family and a lot of my closest friends. It’s one of those big and bittersweet and totally surreal steps forward. Even more so because he is coming for a special event – an annual camping trip that my friends and I have each year in honor of my late-fiance, Drew. It’s so surreal to be inviting a new man to this particular event… and to be camping for the first time with someone new too.

For those who don’t know, this is my first relationship since my fiance Drew died 3 years ago. Mike and I have been dating long-distance now for several months after meeting at Camp Widow – both of us widowed. We’ve had a few trips together, one in which my mother-in-law was able to meet and spend a day with him, but this is the first time one of us is entering the other’s home turf. IT. IS. STRANGE. And beautiful. And heartbreaking. And surreal. All in the same breath.

When I say “my family” I really mean Drew’s. With my own parents both gone and my siblings far away, I came to live with his family when he died so we could go through this together. They are as much my family as my own and have always known and been open to the idea that I will move forward with love again… but of course this is the first time we are all having to face it for real. As close as we are, my dating again is very much something they have to also go through. Its difficult knowing that my choice to move forward will be hard for others in my life too, not only me. And that in order to move forward in love and in life – I have to put them through a difficult situation. I don’t like this, but I know there is no way around it. If we want to all be in each other’s lives, it just has to get a little messy.

So lets break this down… I live with my in-laws, in my dead fiance’s old bedroom. And the other night I pick up this new man from the airport and bring him HERE. To their home. To sleep in their son’s room with me. It sounds like a cross between a lifetime movie and a bad joke setup. I know a lot of you out there are wondering if there is hope for something to work out in your future with someone new. If you will ever find someone else, or ever be ready or want someone else. I get it. I have had all those same fears for the past three years. And many more.

I am telling you… if THIS can work, anything can. I was in no way ready to date, and I had all those fears about whether I could even love someone new. I worried my love for Drew would hold me back. I worried the entire situation of my life would be too complicated for anyone new… that no one would want to “deal” with me. I worried I might lose Drew’s family in the process of all of this. But I guess sometimes you just gotta jump in and see where it all takes you.

To my amazement none of my fears have come true thus far. In fact the opposite. I have felt myself able to love even deeper because of losing Drew. The other day Mike told me that I am easy to love. Easy to love? After all I have been through? I nearly cried, because I don’t feel easy to love and that was one of my biggest fears. I feel messy and complicated and all over the place. But I guess that’s all in my head.

Last night, we all went out to dinner – Drew’s parents, his younger sister, me and Mike. And I am just watching as Drew’s dad and Mike chat and get to know each other. Watching how they hit it off and how well they get along. I grin when Drew’s mom tells Mike to show us all a picture of his daughter Shelby. I cannot help but be completely beside myself to watch all of this going on in front of me and actually working. I swear I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop… for something to go wrong. And still it hasn’t. Today all my friends have just arrived for the camping trip, and as I have been writing this Mike and all of my friends have been getting things ready… all together. It’s as if somehow he was just always part of everything. So surreal. So beautiful.

The beauty of it all doesn’t take away the pain of course. I want my best friend to be able to be here to see all of this. Oddly, I want the man I was going to marry to be able to see me this happy with someone else. It’s heartbreaking that I can’t share it with him. I’ve cried each day Mike’s been here… so many emotions of joy and of sadness. Neither of us would have met if our persons had not died. We would not be getting to experience this new and different and equally beautiful love either. We would not be bringing these different families together from worlds apart. It has made me so sad because neither Drew nor Megan get this chance that we get. We are still here and get the chance to experience all of the many ups and downs of living life… and they do not. There is no way around it – sometimes this is stuff just plain sucks – even when it’s great.

I’m so grateful to be still be alive and to have someone to share the next chapter of adventures with. Someone who isn’t bothered by my missing Drew… who will hold me in those moments when it all becomes just a little too much.

The Walk of Grief: What we take into it, and what we bring out.

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A few weeks ago while I was in Virginia, I got to do something I’ve been wanting to do ever since Drew died. There is a spiritual center in Virginia Beach called A.R.E. – full of studies and books about spirituality and just about every topic imaginable related to death and afterlife. They also have a labyrinth on the grounds outside. Which is what I was most excited about.

It’s not the sort made of hedges or stone walls. It’s not a maze you have to figure out. This is a flat path with only one way in and out. The intention is that winding your way into the center slowly brings your focus to the center of yourself. You walk inward, bringing with you all the distractions, insecurities, fears, etc of the outside world… slowly letting them all fall away as you make your way toward the center. Once you reach the center, you may sit there a while to be with the deepest part of yourself – without the distractions of everything else. And then you begin your return journey outward, back to the world, and bring with you the calm and any lessons you found at the center so that you may carry them back into your life.

As I walked, I couldn’t help but think of just how perfectly this walk mirrored my walk through grief these past three years…

There is only one way to get to a different place with grief – and that is to walk through it. The first year for me was about walking inward… walking through all the pain and fear and agony and triggers that lie deep within myself. Walking deeper and deeper until I could find that center of calm within me. And doing this over and over and over again. It was never easy to strap on my boots and do that inner walk. Some days, the only way it happened was to cry endless tears until I exhausted myself into a heap of half-asleep calm. Or to scream at the top of my lungs until there was barely a breath left in me. As I look back, I am realizing, all of these were forms of walking within. All of them were ways of walking through the emotions to get to the calm at the center of my heart.

The second year it seems the focus shifted, and I was spending much more time at the center of myself – in that calm, mindful space. A lot of the initial shock of his death had worn off by then, and I had done a lot of very deep grieving for a year already, and so coming to the center began to be easier I think.

This year feels different still. It feels like I am walking back out again… and bringing with me all the wisdom and gifts of new perspective that the inward journey has given me. All the things I have learned about coping and healing and feeling through the grief. Lessons I know that I’m supposed to take out into the world with me as I begin to re-enter it.

In the end, I think this is the most important lesson these three long and painful and terrifying years have taught me: My reason for having to endure the death of my fiance is so that I can better understand the pain of others, and so that I can bring whatever tools I have acquired to help them. I think that may just be the point of all this – for us to learn how to help each other better. It doesn’t take away the pain or the empty space in my heart for him, but it does give me something I can DO with it that matters and honors him daily… which, in a way, keeps him always alive.

Colors of Love: Celebrating Anniversaries in Widowhood

Another in a series of backlogged posts I’ve been meaning to share!
Written on June 6th, the night before what would have been our 6th anniversary of when we started dating…

unnamed.jpgI’m writing this the night before celebrating my third anniversary without Drew. By the time you read it, I will likely be somewhere in the middle of the day itself. I don’t have to tell any of you how surreal it feels to be here – celebrating our three years together after three years without him. It has a different kind of sadness to it, which is hard to put into words. Less sharp around the edges, easier to hold in my heart, but still sadness nonetheless.

Since he died, I have tried to do several things on our anniversary to make it a good day still: Do something to make myself feel special, Do something to make myself and him proud. If I can make this day about either of those things… I can usually still find the joy.

The first year, I signed myself up for a weekend art workshop to learn a new art medium I’d never tried before. It turned out to be the best possible thing I could have done. Not only was it a fun and active distraction that fed my passion, but it turned out to be even more. All the other attendees ended up canceling for various reasons and I was left as the solo student for the class. I felt very special to have this one-on-one instruction, and even ended up sharing our love story and all about him and my journey with my instructor. If I had to celebrate without him, it was the best way to have gotten to do so. I felt special to have a class just for me. And I felt proud that I had the guts to even get out of bed that day, much less find something that would feed my soul.

Last year, the second time around, I ended up going to a weekend conference with my mother-in-law all about death, spirituality, and the afterlife. It was a beautiful place to be, but being in an ocean of people at a conference made the specialness of our day feel very overshadowed. By the end of the day I was so depleted and overwhelmed, I ended up in tears on the phone to my best friend from the hotel lobby… blathering on and on for some hours. I suppose in the end, it was a different kind of beautiful…between her and I. His death has indeed added a depth to our friendship we never had before. I felt proud of myself for reaching out and leaning on her. Maybe when the day doesn’t go so well, I think there’s still ways we can be proud of ourselves.

This year, it is very different and new. It happens that returning back to this conference again put me close enough to Mike – the new guy – for him to come for a visit. With us being 1400 miles apart, even a day together is special. It is so surreal that another man will be arriving here Sunday morning to pick me up. That this will also be the first day my mother-in-law will be meeting him in person – before she heads back to Texas. I’m finding it surprising that it feels so right to be spending the anniversary of Drew and I with Mike. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all. I think the way I am able to see it now, is that love is such a fluid thing. Drew’s love comes to me through many people. And this year, it is coming to me through Mike. He finds different ways all the time to make certain I feel special and loved. And the fact that Mike wants nothing more than to celebrate Drew and I with me on this day certainly does just that.

Losing Drew keeps teaching me new things about love all the time. The love of strangers – like my art instructor – to listen and open their hearts to us. The love of friends – like my best friend – who will be there for us at our worst moments to remind us, celebrate with us, cry with us and laugh with us. And this year… the love of a man – of this new man – and how it will never ever mean that I have to put my love for Drew aside in order to move forward in loving and being loved.

Somehow, all of this has come out of Drew’s death. All of these experiences of love are ones I would have never otherwise had. And while I still wish he were here, and I will always wish I could celebrate this day with him… I am so grateful for the other versions of love he has brought me. Each one, a color all its own… filling my heart up and adding new hues to my world along the way. Helping me see that there is still brilliant color in the world at a time in my life when it is not always easy to see it.

Into a Different Darkness

I’ve been so behind on posting here – all for good reasons though I am happy to share.  I’ve got a few backlogged pieces to post this week to catch you up to things… this one dates back to May 23, to a very big beginning:

Well, here I am in the caves region of Kentucky. With someone new. It is the first time seeing each other in person since we met a few months ago. As I write this, we’re a few days into our trip. He is lying next to me now, munching away on donuts while I write. I’m finally ready to share a bit more about this person with you all…

Crazy enough… we met at Camp Widow – an amazing conference for widowed people – back in February. I sat down beside this guy at the meet & greet on Thursday night, and for the entire rest of the weekend we were inseparable. We shared our whole stories with one another and laughed more than either of us had in ages. Something certainly clicked… although I had no clue then that it would end up meaning I would fall for someone new and be sitting here states away on some whole other adventure…

I’ve been saying for three years now that Drew would give me a really obvious sign about someone new coming into my life. And Mike and I have had many, many obvious signs. One of my favorites was just a few days ago, within hours of arriving in Cincinnati for our trip. He surprised me with a short ferry ride across the Ohio river, and on the other side was a little restaurant he took me to… called Drew’s. Imagine the delight on my face, and the love in my heart. Those are the moments I know that Drew will always be a part of us – just as his wife Megan will be. And speaking of Megan…

We walk inside and sit down by the window. It’s dead in there, no one but us, as it’s around 2pm in the afternoon. I said jokingly “Just watch… our waitress’s name will be Megan”. And sure enough, this very friendly waitress walks up and introduces herself as… you guess it… MEGAN. We both look right at each other in total disbelief. At the end of our lunch, we told her the whole story of us, including their names, and she was as amazed as we were. We chatted a while and there even ended up being other unreal similarities… so we had to get a picture with her for that first crazy memory of this new adventure.

Yesterday we made our way to Mammoth Cave National Park – the main reason for our trip here. We picked this place because it is something we could not have done with our loves that died. Drew was claustrophobic in small spaces, and Megan was unable to due to her medical condition and the bacteria in the air in caves. It’s a hard pill to swallow… but the truth is there. We WILL do things with someone new… Things we never could have experienced had our loves not died. Maybe that’s one of the gifts they leave us… the chance to discover new adventures in a way we couldn’t have done with them. With new eyes and new hearts. I like to think it is.

We did a few tours yesterday of Mammoth Cave, the first cave either of us have explored in years. As we gazed out into the darkness of the tunnels underground, that feeling of wonder and childlike excitement about the unknown filled us both. As we hiked around some 300 feet below the surface of the earth, I couldn’t help but think of the expansive metaphor before us.

Two people who have gone through unspeakable darknesses on our own in life, now walking willfully and quite literally into the darkness together – knowing full well that to love again will inevitably mean to endure pain again. Yet we are doing so with a sense of wonder, not dread. It’s not easy to do. There have been moments on this trip when I have broken down crying because of how new love is reminding me of the love I lost, and also of the fears of losing someone else. But even with all of that, with all we have both endured, how amazing it is that each of us is still able to see wonder in the darkness. To see excitement in the unknown ahead.

I have thought this weekend about enduring the journey through my own darkness for the past three years. I’ve thought about all the pain and fear I have encountered in the dark, and also all the amazement and wonder I have found there. Treasures that cannot be found above ground, but only in the most hidden depths of ourselves. Perhaps that is what the darkness of grief can bring us… a different appreciation for the dark and the light.

One thing is for sure, today I am very grateful. After traversing the dark alone, it is beautiful to have someone to journey into the darkness with me. Someone with their own darkness who is not afraid of mine. I suppose that is the best kind of person to find – one with a galaxy much like our own inside their heart. One who looks into the dark with wonder.