Home, Heart and Facing Fears

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Written Jan 2:
Last I wrote, I was really struggling with this move, and trying to learn some patience with it. I was on my way to my first backpacking trip with Mike. I’d have to say, I found so much peace in the woods. We’ve been hiking nearly every day we get a chance in the past month now… and it really is helping to settle me.

To fill you in, I was down in Texas visiting Drew’s family last week for Christmas. It is the first time I have ever “visited” Texas… the place that has always been my home. I had fears before leaving that it would dredge up so much emotion. That visiting the cemetery where Drew is buried would be so painful. That I would find myself missing Texas so much that leaving to come back to Ohio would be really painful. I feared all kinds of pain leading up to that trip. But, I am back now… and it wasn’t as bad as I’m anticipated. There were hard moments, but what I realized from those moments is that I have missed the experiences of my life with Drew in Texas, far more than the place itself.

I realized, I wasn’t sad just for western boots and plaid shirts. I wasn’t just sad for country bars and dance halls and the wide open Texas skies. I was sad for times I shared all those things with Drew. Going back there meant going back to all those things without him. Suddenly, they didn’t have the same meaning anymore. They felt empty. I also realized something else. Something that surprised me… I missed Ohio. In only a few months of moving, somewhere else is starting to feel like home. I can tell you, I never in a million years thought I’d be saying “I miss Ohio” haha. But it’s true.

I’ve had a new sense of appreciation for my new home state since coming back to Ohio last week. A feeling that I am more ready to embrace this life. A knowing inside that Drew is not down there in Texas… he is right here with me on every new adventure that Mike, Shelby and I go on. In this new life, with new memories, is where he will always live.

I want to end this post with a little side note. Like everyone, I’ve been reflecting on the past year. A year ago this week, I shared with you all about the debacle of my New Year’s Eve in this post. On that day, a man I’d been on a date or two with basically took advantage by messing around with me and then bailed on me. It was horrific, and one of the worst triggers I have had since Drew died… particularly because it was the first romantic encounter I’d had since his death. I still cannot even describe how traumatic that was.

This New Year’s Eve, I was sitting in the kitchen of my own house (my own HOUSE!), drinking beers and dancing around in the kitchen with Mike like a fool… to such old hits as the Fresh Prince theme song. There was laughter. So much laughter. And so much joy. And goofiness. And there were no triggers, and no sadness. Just life, and love, and joy. And everything felt good.

A year ago, if you had told me I would meet some guy in Ohio and end up moving my entire life 1400 miles away within a year in order to date him, I would have laughed in your face. Like really hard. Because I was never leaving Texas. And I do not make sudden moves in my life, ever. And I didn’t feel ready to be in a relationship at all. AT ALL. I believed 100% that my 2015 would be spent focusing on trying to get my career as an artist and writer going a step further in the right direction, and that’s it.

Then Mike shows up at Camp Widow, and turned all of my plans upside down… as men do. As life likes to do. (Does anyone else ever feel like life is just laughing at you when you start trying to make plans?) Before you know it, we’re flying to visit each other, meeting each other’s families and in-laws. And then bam, we’ve been dating for 8 months and I am flying up to look at a rent house in Ohio. Um, what? How did all this even happen?

Every step of this “after” life has been new, painful and terrifying – including this entire past year of beginning a new relationship for the first time since Drew died. I have walked through the fear that I could never love again, only to find that yes, I can… and that I am an even better partner now because of all I’ve been through. I have walked through the fear that I could never be a good role model or mother figure for a little girl because I lost my own mother so young… only to find that I am exactly the sort of woman this little girl needs in her life going forward, precisely because I lost my mother – as she has – young. I have walked thru the fear that I am fragile and cannot handle much since he died, only to find that I am handling more each day. Not always with the grace I would like to, but still, I am handling it.

Every step along the way has been scary and hard. But it’s taught me that it’s worth wading through the fears to see what else is out there for my life. To see what’s on the other side. It’s worth enduring some sadness and some scary new things now and again – even if I don’t know where they will take me. By enduring all the parts of life that are challenging, and stepping through them, I have almost always found joy, love, and fuller life on the other side. As always, I have Drew to thank for so much of this.

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.

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.

The Other Side: Dating a Widower

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One of the most surprising things to come out of Drew’s death for me has not only been to find someone new, but for that person to also be widowed. This isn’t something I ever expected to happen, and it’s given me the unique opportunity to be on the other end of widowhood in a way I honestly never imagined I would be.

For a long time after Drew died, I was terrified of the idea that I’d be too difficult to love. That my whole situation would be too complex and that I wouldn’t be able to find someone who could handle it all. That they would have a hard time understanding my love for him or allowing room for it. Being on the other end of this has given me a different set of eyes though…

Dating a widower has helped me to see just how easy it is to love someone – no matter how complex their circumstances. In a few weeks, Mike will have several big milestones. Celebrating Megan’s birthday and their wedding anniversary… for the first time without her living, and spreading her ashes. Despite this being something that I am entirely on the outside of, I have spent a lot of time thinking about it over the past few weeks.

I’ve wondered what this will be like for Mike… to spend this first birthday without his wife. To wake up on the day he married such a beautiful, courageous woman ten years ago, without her here. I’ve wondered what these next weeks will be like for Shelby, his daughter. I also have another unique vantage point in that I lost my mother at roughly the same age that she has lost hers. The significance of this never escapes me. I am always wondering what her experience of losing her mom will be like. How it will shape the person she will grow up to be.

I wonder all of these things, because I cannot ever know. And that is where our commonality of losses ends. We are different people with different experiences. There is no way for me to step into their inner world. And no way for them to step into mine.

In this way, my being widowed does not give me any advantage in loving a widowed person. I cannot ever understand Mike’s exact experience – or Shelby’s. All I can do is watch with a thoughtful, loving heart as they go through the journey of living on with someone very integral missing. This fact would be no different if I was single or divorced instead of widowed.

Somehow, this feels hopeful to me. I suppose it is like an affirmation. We don’t have to understand each other’s journeys. We don’t have to be understood in ours. The important part is that our journey is accepted and we are loved, and that we accept and love the other person – including the people in their life, living and dead.

To love someone who has endured great loss is no different than loving anyone else – it is about accepting who they are fully. It’s about knowing them as well as the person they lost. It’s about wanting both of those people in your life – the one living and the one not. And I think when you’re a healthy person who really loves someone… it becomes easy to do. It becomes effortless and automatic to love the one they lost. It is merely an extension of your love for them.

From the other side of this equation – spending the past five months exploring what it means to love a widowed person myself – this is some of what I have learned. And I believe this to have far less to do with my being widowed and far more to do with my ability to love whole-heartedly – the way that Mike deserves to be loved. I don’t think someone has to be widowed or understand the widow experience to be able to give that to a widowed person. I think more people out there than we even realize have the capacity to give such love.

Signs of Flight

Since Drew was a helicopter pilot, helicopters and anything to do with flying are always the biggest signs I get from him. I even found a tiny toy helicopter in this shack on the island of Barbados last spring while vacationing there with his family. It had washed up on the beach and the guy collected it to sell in his shop. No joke!

And just a few months after he died, in the fall of 2012, I stumbled upon this artist’s creative business e-workshop that was called “Flying Lessons”. Drew was also a flight instructor, so it was all too obvious that he was telling me something. I signed up immediately. The Facebook group for the course truly carried me through those early months. Because of the theme of the class, all the women in the group would write cheesy encouragements to each other like “keep flying!” or “I’ll see you up in the clouds!”. It always made me smile, and confirmed he lead me there for a reason.

All things flight definitely seem to follow me around now, but it’s been a while since I’ve had any signs that made me stop in my tracks. Until yesterday…

I was tinkering away on a new sculpture at a local clay studio I just started working with. It was midday and pretty cold, so the place was empty. After about an hour, I took a break to take some process photos of my work, and as I framed the picture, I noticed something written on the worktable just a foot above where I was working. As I read it, I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped to the floor…

I was speechless.For those who aren’t aware, Drew died in a helicopter crash. Of all the places for this message to be… on the work table in a clay studio??? In front of the exact woman who’s love had died flying??? And it wasn’t even the spot I usually work at. Because it was so cold out, the owner told me to work in that corner because it was the warmest spot in the studio. So I took his suggestion and moved there. For about 20 minutes after reading it, I just sat there totally stunned. I kept looking around the room – my mind saying a bit humorously, “Are you SURE you’re dead?!?”. When I first read it, of course my interpretation was something like “flying is pointless unless you die doing it”. Well, what a totally demented and Drew-like thing to say, lol. Of course as I sat with it longer, I realized it was really talking about living life. If you don’t die really living life, then what’s the point of living? Damn. That’s SO HIM to say. And SO how he lived his life.

I realize someone else’s hand wrote that message – but somehow, that message found its way to me… in the far corner of a art studio an hour from where I live, out on a 20 acre ranch that I’d have never even known about if it wasn’t for Drew’s mom having taken classes there and introducing me to the owners.

For me, it is a sign to keep doing the things that make me feel alive. To keep taking big chances and doing things that maybe totally scare me, just to see where they take me. It is definitely the sort of advice he would always give me. And what’s also crazy, is that I had that exact talk with my counselor a few weeks ago. I’ve been in a real slump since my job ended a month ago, and he recommended I focus on things that make me feel alive – not happy – but ALIVE… which is somehow way easier to focus on in the midst of grief than the idea of “happy”. There isn’t much that makes me feel truly happy since he died, but there are lots of things that make me feel alive. That I can do… in fact,  that was the reason for going to the clay studio to begin with. Man, you can’t make this stuff up!

And then of course today I am promptly slapped in the face with an opportunity to leap into the air and try to test this message out: A job opening to teach art lessons to a young boy. I have no experience teaching AT ALL and am completely terrified of stepping this far out of my comfort zone. Despite that, I cannot stop thinking about how much I want to share art – my deepest passion – with other people. So, I guess I’m gonna listen to the writing on the table… here’s hoping I fly.