This morning I was cooking oatmeal and saw a tiny black ant move towards the red-hot eye of the stove. Curious, I watched him ramble closer and closer. Surely he would not be so dumb as to venture too near and burn himself to a crisp? Then he hit it, the brick wall of heat. Stopping dead in his little tracks, he turned and ran, or scurried; whatever ants do to get away, he did that in record time.
I do that with grief. Not on the outside, where others see, but on the inside. I don’t want it, I don’t need it. Grief, scorches me with loss and scared sadness. “Stay the hell away and I mean it!” I yell. Then I run as far from it as I can.
But October 8, 2010, some judge clacked his gavel down, putting an end to confusion and struggle and 25 years of marriage. Just like that, we didn’t have to squabble anymore about who was going to walk the dog, take out the trash or who left the gas tank empty, and we didn’t have anyone to come home to, or snuggle with watching movies on Friday night, or give big hugs to after a long days either. It was so strange. I thumped down the long white marble steps of the courthouse in slow motion, step, step, step and when the last step came, I had entered the most intense time of grief in my life, alone, with no running away.
Looking to the future I saw nothing, just a big vacant lot. “Life’s a blank slate,” I’d say, “Just a bunch of question marks.” I had lost more of my identity than I can say. My job was tied to my husband’s job, so when I lost him, I lost my job too. Most of my community was connected to the job and to him, so friend’s awkwardly disappeared. Then, in a couple of years, my last kid went off to college. So see? No job, fading friends, no kids at home, no marriage, no together family. There was so, so much of Nothing.
I might have been terrified at this but I wasn’t feeling much back then. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t feeling anything at all. The numbness added to the terror I knew must be in there, somewhere. I do remember feeling one thing though. I felt like I almost didn’t exist. “That can’t be right.” I tried to imagine Me, to picture who I was, hoping to get a grasp on the situation. I was an empty field of wheat waving in the wind, vulnerable to all storms. I was a shoreless, turbulent ocean without even a tiny boat to give me perspective. I was a massive canvas of white.
That vision made me feel fear. Big fear. Damn, grief feels so much like fear. They say that many people after divorce never reach their prior level of satisfaction and contentment. Would that be me? I might not get over this! Maybe if I grieved it all out, felt just as bad as I needed to for as long as I needed to, maybe after that, I could move on. But I didn’t have time to do all that fearing, or grieving or to really not-exist. I had mouths to feed and bills to pay. So I shut it all down again and became the emotional un-dead, zombie like for two whole years to keep it all going, doing what I had to do to make it for everyone, visiting food banks, taking in roommates and holding it all together. Meanwhile, my soul packed itself down, compressing into a tight black hole, nothing got in, nothing came out. This condition was not sustainable, I knew it, and the bomb ticked away in the back of my head. But what to do? A million people told me what I should do. A million well-meaning friends said things like, “This isn’t the end of the world,” “You are a lot better off,” and after awhile they’d say, “You should be over it by now.” As you might imagine, I found all of these things just so helpful. No. I wasn’t going to stay like this, I wasn’t. So, I made a plan, worked two jobs and saved. I scrounged resources, talked my plan out with my family, and when my last kid went off to college, I left too. I flew to Asia. “I’ll be gone a year,” I said. “I’m going alone,” but no one knew I had grief packed away in my suitcase to be taken out as soon as possible, as soon as I was away from the eyes that cared, and I could be as big of a mess as I wanted and no one would know if I were odd or just mental. Grief and I would have it out because I was sick and tired of it dogging me.
I wasn’t gone one year, but two. It took longer than I thought because I didn’t realized how very good I was at being resourceful and protecting my heart from hurt and surviving. I tried to help grief crack in, really I did. I figured if I put myself into extreme and challenging circumstances, I’d shock myself out of the black hole and into the light. So in Cambodia I lived alone in a hut during the relentless down-pouring of the monsoon. I swear, I’ve never seen anything like those thick waterfall rains dumping from heaven day after mucky day. The rain holed me up, isolated, for weeks. I’d write my heart out on moist, humidity-plumped paper, cook fish and vegetables on a propane burner and watch James Bond movies for desperate distraction. It didn’t work. Then I lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, in another hut, with more storms and soupy red mud to my ankles. Monsoon season is a bitch, I tell you. I slopped around in black rubber boots, sweltering polyester pants and toting a small blue umbrella to swat at swarms of mosquitos carrying malaria and the dreaded dengue fever, the disease that causes you to bleed from your eyes and mouth, and bleed to death if you’re really unlucky. This time I had nowhere to bathe and went for ten whole days without a shower. When I found a mouse in my bed I thought, “This is it! Grief will come now,” and I came close to crying. “Please, please let me cry.” But no, not yet. Where the hell was Grief when I needed it? It went like this, for six months. Six long months.
Then one day, in India, I got a letter from an old friend. “Who are you?” He said. “Your pictures don’t sparkle like they used to. You seem empty.”
Silence. My soul appeared, and it was silent.
Then, I deflated and when that happened, I felt sadness and cried. Finally. Finally. I cried and wept and mourned and cried, for days. I was shocked. And undone. Everything came loose like a car engine flying over huge speed bumps with bolts flying off, springs unraveling, belts popping, years of compression exploding all over the place. It was a great big wonderful, terrible mess; nothing ran the way it should and I remained this unsorted jumble of weeping parts for a long, long time. Some people thought me odd, some people thought me mental, but I wasn’t blank, the canvas wasn’t white, and on the turbulent ocean appeared one small boat.
It’s weird: unless grief cracks you wide open and leaves it’s mark and changes you, it’s never done. Maybe it’s never done anyway, but at least it stops feeling like it’s killing you. Oddly, grief and I kinda became friends when I was finally able to see the deep dark void with more light. It became less ominous and more like a wide open space that can be filled with good things or bad things, as I choose. I was determined to fill the void with things good, true and lovely. So I held the spaces open like a hollow jar yawing in wait. “Fill me, fill me.” I waited, sometimes lonely, dry and trembling. Sometimes a sorry friend, bad job or cruel partner seemed better than none at all, but when I saw what I had done, I poured it out and settled in again.
Gradually, gradually, amazing beauty seeped in. My heart and life match, I do what I love and my friends are ok with messy me and love me enough. The goodness is so very good I could not have imagined. Grief is still around but it’s not so bad, sometimes even beautiful and sometimes even holy. When I feel lonely or sad there is something else underneath too, it’s Hope. Hope for better things.
At this moment, I have a bit of an arrangement with grief, since we know each other and care. Psychologists tell us we prevent losing something much more than we pursue gaining something, even if what we are losing is bad, and what we are gaining is great. That’s really interesting. Why is letting go so hard? In light of this, I’m now practicing separation on purpose, shedding things intentionally, saying “no” to what isn’t best for me. Instead of running away from the heat on little ant legs, I cast myself right on the griddle then stand in the space and save it for the good that will show up. I’m finding this so totally worth it. I’ve learned that in the middle of all that purging, every single shitty time, I come just so close to bailing, calling it quits and going back. But, if I can remember what I’m doing and hold onto the vision with tight white knuckles, I’ll get through. That’s what I know. Those lessons have changed my life.
Do you know what? Before, when I looked back on my marriage, the brokenness of relationship and family and community, it cut me to pieces. Now I can sometimes welcome the good memories with fondness. My ex and I are actually friends, if you can believe it, and I feel connected to so many of you who have been there. I can see the good. That’s how I know I’m doing well, oh so well.