I first heard the song “The Night We Met” about six months after my husband Gary died. It came on the radio as I drove home from an errand. The lyrics are hauntingly beautiful and unbearably sad. They transported me to Gary’s and my early days of courtship and catapulted me into my present life without him.
I had all and then most of you, some and now none of you Take me back to the night we met I don’t know what I’m supposed to do Haunted by the ghost of you Take me back to the night we met
Tears clouded my vision, forced me to pull over to the side of the road, and weep.
Monday, May 30 was Memorial Day—fourteen and a half months since Gary died. All morning, that song looped through my brain and started to make me more than a little irritated. It had been weeks since I had a crying session. “I’m not in the mood,” I seethed at the hovering Grief Bitch. “Leave me alone!”
It was a beautiful day and the garden needed tending. I state this like I enjoy gardening, which I do not, but I occasionally feel compelled to tackle things my paid gardening crew ignores. I try to do this with a positive attitude, but that usually fades within an hour. There were stalks of grass among the lavender that needed to be pulled. This sounds like I have a fancy garden. “Let me don my straw hat, prance about the flowers and devote an hour to weed eradication.” My garden is quite basic with plenty of blights that I choose to deny.
My dog Lucy was thrilled we were having “outside time” and commenced to graze on grass stalks in between snapping at bees. The grazing later makes her barf on the carpet. I don’t want her killing precious bees and a sting could have serious consequences. I spent most of what was supposed to be our happy time scolding her to knock it off.
When I finally gave up and decided we would both be better off indoors, I noticed Lucy had not been chasing bees at all, but dragonflies. Dozens of them flitted about the garden. I rarely see a dragonfly, let alone so many in one place. I was spellbound, watching them dance through sunlight that transformed their luminescent color from red to auburn to nearly purple and back again.
After several minutes, Lucy and I went inside—me still haunted by that song and she frustrated with her failure to catch a flying insect. I reluctantly invited Grief Bitch to join us, sat in my crying chair at the kitchen table with a wad of tissues and told Alexa to play “The Night We Met.”
Later, I looked out the front window. The dragonflies were gone.
I did an internet search and discovered that red dragonflies are quite rare. If you see one, you are justified in feeling honored. Their symbolic significance can mean a number of things:
Self-realization Transformation Rebirth A deeper understanding of the meaning of life
Their presence in my garden was an unexpected gift that caused me to realize I’m beginning to feel these very things. This brought me joy. It brought me peace. Two feelings that have eluded me for a long time.
I’m so grateful for the appearance of those dragonflies. So grateful to be made aware of how this dreadful grief journey has led me to the place I am today. I’m not “cured” by any means, but am no longer ruled by anguish and am experiencing growing contentment.
If you are in the early stages of the intense pain that grief visits upon your very core, you can ignore this. I do not want to fast forward you through the process. A few months after Gary died, I frantically did internet searches in an attempt to find “solutions” to alleviate my pain. Each article I read sent me into a full-blown tantrum. How could anyone possibly claim that it took time to get better, that my anguish would eventually lessen and mostly go away?
Early on, someone offered the unsolicited platitude that I would be fine, that I would grow and change as a result of my grief, I would blossom, I would….
I wanted to punch them in the face!
I do not intend to take away your pain. It belongs to you. You can hold it for however long it takes to trudge through it. And the trudging is hard, so goddamned hard. There’s no specialty brand of shoes, no magic formula, no magic pill to make it easier.
For those of you in the early stages of this trek, know that I walk beside you and hold you in my heart through this dark, scary time.
There’s a great scene in the Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good as it Gets” where he barges into his psychiatrist’s office without an appointment. When the psychiatrist sends him away, he walks through a packed waiting room, pauses, turns to the patients and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Off camera, someone gasps. Everyone else just stares at him.
One year and one month after my husband of 46 years died and left me to redefine myself with a new label—Widow—I had an appointment with my therapist. I’d been off and on weepy for a couple of days, suspecting we were nearing the end of the journey she had guided me through. I was reluctant for our relationship to end. She’s someone I can sit across from and uncage all my emotions. To me, they’re terrifying gargoyles, yet she never once flinched when I sent the demons flying in her direction. However, over the past couple of months, they’ve calmed down and are increasingly content to snuggle, purring, at my feet.
We talked about how I was doing and reflected on the past 13 months.
Gary died on March 15th—the Ides of March, which was ironic given that his favorite Shakespeare play was Julius Caesar. If you’re unfamiliar with ancient history, Julius Caesar had named himself dictator in perpetuity of the Roman Republic. Soon after, members of the Roman Senate were, like, “Yeah, well we don’t like Caesar all that much, especially not enough to put up with him forever.” But according to law, they couldn’t vote him out.
A few conniving senators gathered and got all hopped up on whatever the Roman’s hopped-up beverage of choice was and decided to call a special senate session with two agenda items: (1) Bring a knife hidden under your fancy toga; and (2) Be prepared to use it.
At the appointed signal, they surrounded Caesar and stabbed him to death—on the Ides of March.
A few days before Gary’s death, he mentioned this play. As if foretold, he died from complications of diabetes exactly 2,065 years after Julius Caesar. Remarkably, Gary survived a nearly recording-breaking 65 years of living with juvenile diabetes. Despite the care he had taken to survive for so long, the devastating effects of his disease conspired to attack all at once— pneumonia, kidney failure, heart failure. Like Caesar, his death was an ambush.
Life is strange. Death, it seems, can be even stranger.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I’ve dealt with dozens of widows through my work as a financial advisor. I have a few close friends who were widowed years ago. I’d learned that the first year is awful, the second year nearly as bad, and the third year begins to offer some relief from the pit of dreadful emotions. Despite my enlightenment, my adult children worried about me. Even though I tried to shield them from the gruesome details of my sorrow, they saw through my guise, feared for my sanity and urged me to seek professional help.
I confessed I was a broken-down mess, but argued that this was normal. Eventually, in an effort to placate them, I asked a therapist friend for a referral and based upon her recommendation, contacted Carol.
She was full up until the end of June. Fine by me. I didn’t want to see her anyway.
When I went to my first appointment in early July, I wore snappy business clothes so Carol would recognize me as a woman of corporate steel, someone fully capable of dealing with whatever monkey dung life flung at me. Moments after I sat on her couch, she asked about my situation.
Tears and snot burst from me like an erupting volcano. I tossed the F-word around like beads at Mardi Gras. I spewed my anger at myself for feeling weak and overwhelmed, feeling tired all the time, being confused and forgetful, and hating people who said things to try to make me “better,” but only made me feel worse.
After a bit, I paused and said, “I’m sorry, but I say fuck a lot.”
She said, “I don’t fucking care.”
I knew she was the therapist for me.
Over the months after Gary died, my anger towards people consumed me and caused me to be filled with guilt. I’d been raised to allow others to express anger, but not me, oh no, not me. I’d grown up with the notion that I should react to people with love, not anger. In Carol’s office, I covered my weeping face with my hands and rocked back and forth. I was a horrible person for hating people when they said inane bullshit. I should look beyond their words and honor their attempts to soothe me.
And you know what Carol said? My wonderful, savior Carol? “During times like this, people say things to make themselves feel better. You were raised in an era when women had to bury their feelings in order to be socially acceptable and take care of others. You don’t have to do that anymore. Anger and hatred can sometimes be useful emotions to propel us forward, to help us take action.”
I’m forever grateful to her for this.
I never—well, let’s say very rarely—unleashed my anger onto others. Not because I’m a saint, but because I’ve learned enough in this life to know I’d have to later apologize. Quite frankly, I’m too lazy to expend that type of energy.
Over the following months, Carol guided me through exercises where I wrote scathing letters to those who had ignited my ire. After I read them to her, I was not to send them, but to shred them. This went a long way towards allowing me to maybe not actually like these people, but to not hate them as much.
In my last session with Carol, she praised my hard work. As much as I am tempted to avoid it, I sit with my grief—not all day, every day, but begrudgingly make a place for it whenever the bitch barges in uninvited. I allow myself to experience true anguish even when I fear it will kill me. I have a group of supportive friends who I interact with on a regular basis. I accept myself for being a mess because, fact is, I was a mess and sometimes still am.
When Carol asked if I wanted to continue seeing her, I pointed to a cupboard in her bookshelf and asked, “Do you have any ecstasy tablets in there?” She laughed and said no. “In that case, can I keep you on speed dial if I need you in the future?” She said yes.
For now, this is as good as it gets—long stretches before sadness sneaks up from behind and shoves me to the ground, feeling joy in moments that call for it, gratitude for family and friends and even towards those who said lousy things that once pissed me off—at least they cared enough to say something. I’m having fewer anxiety attacks, my mental capacity is improving, and I don’t fight as much against this process—a onetime formidable foe.
Without my guide Carol, I would not be here. I’d be lagging far behind on the grief path, lugging a heavy pack filled with sorrow, anger, hatred, self-judgement, shame and vulnerability. Over the months of our hiking together, she gave me permission to toss bits of these aside and lighten my load.
Don’t get me wrong, this hike is far from over. My load still feels heavy at times. Whenever I’m distracted, those pesky demons tend to slither back into my pack. But I’m stronger than I was a year ago and the burden is not as hard to carry.
What is life after the death of a significant loved one? Over the past year, I’ve asked myself this at least once a day.
Six months after the death of my husband Gary, our daughter Jenn came for a visit. The day after she returned home, I found she’d left the Bill Bryson book, “A Walk in the Woods” on the guestroom nightstand. I picked it up and read the back dust cover, intrigued by the author’s quest to hike the Appalachian Trail.
I was at loose ends with the new reality widowhood had dealt me—unanchored with no discernible path forward. Clutching the book to my heart, I had a revelation—I could gear up and hike the Appalachian Trail! This would be the key to purging my sadness over Gary’s death and spark the journey to recovering my power.
I envisioned myself striding through the forest, staff held high, wearing sturdy boots that encouraged long Amazon-woman strides, breathing in a new life along with the heady mountain air. A smile graced my lips, my gaze drifted heavenward as the light of a thousand angels washed over me and filled me with joy.
Okay, okay, I admit I was not in my right mind.
Over the course of my career as a financial advisor, I’ve encountered dozens of widows. I believed I was empathetic to their plight. Each was confused and sad most of the time, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Until Gary died, I had no idea—I repeat, no idea—what that actually meant in practice.
Now I do.
For nearly half a day, I remained infatuated with the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail. It felt empowering to imagine stepping out of my comfort zone, putting myself into the middle of nature—which is not one of my favorite places—and having no choice but to commune with it.
Never mind that I’m surrounded by a loving family and a community of friends who are supporting me emotionally through this time. The fact is I was stuck in a tarpit. I didn’t want to depend upon others to help pull me out.
I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. With Gary gone, I needed to set goals to move forward and become fully functioning once again. And that had to happen ASAP! But I didn’t have the faintest idea how to begin. I was incapable of designing a blueprint for what that life should look like.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail might be the key.
I was excited!
My usual counsel to new widows is to avoid making any major decisions for the first year or two. I’ve seen dreadful mistakes, like finding a substitute mate who eventually steals money and goes on the lam, or moving closer to adult children who don’t want them nearby.
Yet here I was after six months of widowhood believing that hiking the Appalachian Trail was a good idea. Why should I sit here amidst the muck of despair and deep sadness when I could break out, have an adventure and learn a thing or two about myself along the way?
As I read Bryson’s book, I quickly realized this hike was far from my romantic notions, far from allowing me to have moments of life changing experiences which were not also life threatening. I had to admit that I truly hate camping, having never once had a pleasurable experience.
And backpacking? Gary and I went on our first and last backpacking trip with friends early in our marriage—to a mountain above Palm Springs. We were dedicated cigarette smokers at the time and woefully out of shape. After we struggled up endless, winding trails to finally throw our packs off at the summit, the only thing that allowed us to continue breathing were the generous shots of whiskey poured by our friends.
Over the past year, I’ve resentfully learned that as painful and awful this grief process is, sitting with it has turned into an unexpected adventure, one that is slowly allowing me to discover myself. It is not fun by any means. It’s as uncomfortable as I imagine being drafted into hell. Several pages into Bryson’s book, I realized that backpacking through the Appalachian Trail would be worse—lugging a heavy pack, disgusting bugs, blood-sucking mosquitos and ticks, terrifying bears, hazardous terrain, trying not to barf while eating Top Ramen every night.
Throughout each of my days since Gary died, I’ve been able to live in a comfortable home with running water, central heat, electricity, homecooked meals, flushable toilets and toilet paper. Every night, I’m able to put on pajamas, curl up in my luxurious Flo-Bed and snuggle under a pile of blankets. My sadness is regularly put on hold by family and friends who keep me distracted and entertained.
I was disappointed to come to the conclusion that hiking the Appalachian Trail will not help me. It would probably kill me. I don’t wish to die in such a fashion, not to mention my kids aren’t ready to be orphans.
If you haven’t suffered the loss of a significant loved one, I envy you. If you have a relative or friend who is going through this kind of grief and you think they’re crazy, trust me—they are. I humbly ask you to be there for them without judgement. Those of us who are grieving judge ourselves harshly. We think we should be better, but we’re not. Be there for them—regularly reaching out with a phone call, text, a meal, a walk or an invitation to coffee or lunch. Such things will go a long way to help them heal from deep wounds.
Try to be there for the long haul. It takes more than a year to heal from this type of pain. Take comfort in knowing that when you have this same experience—and you will—these people, people like me, will be there for you in ways others cannot.
On March 26, 2021, nearly two weeks after my husband died and two days after trying to celebrate my first birthday in 46 years without him, I made a conscious decision to spend the day in gratitude. I’d spent so many days frazzled and crying, starting when Gary entered the hospital on February 10th to struggle for three and a half weeks to survive against numerous odds. When all hope to save him had been extinguished, he returned home to spend nine days before he died. Each of those days was overlayed with sadness which hollowed me out, left me defeated and tired, so dreadfully tired.
I needed a break, if only for one day.
I expressed gratitude for the amazing family we built together, that Gary was no longer suffering, and I didn’t have to watch him suffer, for our excellent health insurance, that it was a bright, warm sunny day. . . and on and on and on.
A friend who lives in Mendocino invited me for a walk. I added “grateful for friends” to my list. On the way to meet her, I stopped at the Dollar Store. Easter loomed, and daughter Jenn and I had promised Gary we would decorate his urn—a vintage Folger’s coffee can—for each holiday. I quickly found two items—a headband with bunny ears and a bunny head.
Only one checkout stand was open and the waiting line long. Then again, most lines seemed longer at that time given the Covid restrictions of respecting a six-foot social distance. As I took my place at the back, a reinforcement checker was summoned. She appeared to be mid-fifties, early sixties—who knows? All I know is she didn’t look happy. She looked like she’d been pulled prematurely from a cigarette break and, as a result, plotted a capital crime of revenge, like arson or murder. I recognized that look, having a time or two entertained such thoughts myself.
I noted another gratitude item—I don’t have to work at the Dollar Store.
I followed the elderly gentleman in front of me to her checkout stand. With a pinched face and cold competence, she completed his transaction. She asked, in a threatening manner, “Do you want a bag?” As if he would take the bag only to later casually toss it into the garbage, adding to the earth’s already overflowing landfills.
He barked, “Yes, damnit, I want a bag!”
I felt a tingle of anticipation. This had the potential to develop into something interesting, to spice up the monotony of standing in line. I was disappointed when he left without incident.
The clerk looked at my two items on the conveyor belt and snapped, “Two dollars and eighteen cents.” She hadn’t even scanned them, yet knew the price. Of course, she did. She works at the Dollar Store where everything’s a dollar. It probably isn’t that difficult to memorize the tax due on a simple purchase. Still, I was impressed. I handed her a twenty-dollar bill.
“Do you have anything smaller?”
“Pardon?” Between the mask and the plexiglass separating us, I hadn’t heard her.
“I SAID, DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING SMALLER?”
I certainly heard that. “I’m sorry, I don’t,” I said with an appropriate measure of shame.
This seemed enough to completely ruin what I suspected had started out for her as a terrible day, perhaps even a miserable life. Did her husband recently die and she didn’t have the luxury of spending time to properly mourn him before going back to work at this shithole?
“Do you at least have eighteen cents?” She scowled.
I did not. I only had two twenty-dollar bills in my wallet.
The woman behind me piped up, “I have twenty cents.”
I pointed to the woman. “She has twenty cents.” Behind my mask, I smiled at the benevolent stranger, grateful that we had a potential solution to the clerk’s dilemma, tail wagging like a puppy eager to please its grumpy master. I sincerely wanted to make the clerk happy, someone who is forced to work at the Dollar Store while I am not.
“Forget it,” the clerk growled. “I hate having to give up the change in my drawer.” I imagined this was the first and only time a Dollar Store employee had uttered this sentence.
As if everyone in the store needed an explanation as to why I didn’t have a measly eighteen cents, I said to the woman behind me, “After coins build up in my wallet, I put them in a cup to roll later and deposit in my savings account at the bank.” The woman cheerfully said, “I do, too. We either have a bunch of change or we don’t have any.”
“Exactly!” I was thrilled to have found an ally and looked at the clerk for a flicker of understanding. She glared as she ripped bills and coins from her till.
As she reached to offer my change, I opened my wallet and held it out her. I was not in my right mind—had not been for several weeks. The only explanation I have for this behavior is I was trying to prove that I didn’t have any change, that I hadn’t deliberately intended to make her day worse.
She looked at me as if I was addle-brained and let out a heavy sigh to indicate I was to stop this nonsense, take the change, and get out of the goddamned store.
On another day, I might have been offended by her behavior. On this day, I walked out, got into my car, closed my eyes, tilted my face upwards while taking a deep breath, determined to continue with my day of gratitude.
I started the car and the Cat Stevens song, “Trouble,” came on the radio.
Oh trouble set me free
I have seen your face
And it’s too much too much for me
Oh trouble can’t you see
You’re eating my heart away
And there’s nothing much left of me
I bawled all the way on the 15-minute drive to Mendocino.
It was two days after my granddaughter Lilla’s first birthday. I returned home from the Bay Area yesterday afternoon after spending time with her and her family to celebrate this momentous occasion. I went to bed feeling grateful for all my healthy, happy kids and grandkids.
About three in the morning, I woke with my heart racing and stomach upset. I feared I was having a heart attack. Couldn’t be, I decided—for no other reason than I didn’t want to be having a heart attack. Probably just gas from the burrito I ate for dinner. I tried shifting into different positions, hoping that would alleviate the discomfort. After an hour with no relief, it occurred to me that this was a severe panic attack.
I’ve had mild anxiety attacks over the course of my life, but only one other severe one—on my birthday in March 2021, nine days after my husband Gary died. My son and daughter were with me and friends were bringing lunch to celebrate my achievement of surviving another year.
About an hour before they arrived, my heart started racing. I was nauseated and lightheaded. I tried to banish the feelings with deep breathing. I felt I was going to faint. I’d once read that if you feel faint, you should sit and put your head between your knees. I gave it a try. Staring at the floor, I noticed it could use a good vacuuming. I refocused on my dire circumstances and diagnosed myself with a panic attack. I staggered to a kitchen cabinet, took out my prescription of lorazepam and ate one.
The sickening feeling persisted for another fifteen minutes. I reclined on the sofa, seriously concerned I might die. I was afraid of the effect this would have on the kids. This had the potential to become one of those salacious stories told to future generations who would shake their heads in astonishment—what a horrible legacy to leave where one parent dies and a week and a half later, the other drops dead.
At four this morning, I got up and wobbled down the stairs on shaking legs to the kitchen and ate a lorazepam. I made a nest on the sofa and tried to go back to sleep. If I was indeed having a heart attack, it would be easier for the paramedics to cart me out of the house from the living room and not have to navigate the stairway from my bedroom. It would also be easier for the mortuary removal people in the event the EMT’s weren’t able to get here before death nabbed me.
I don’t know how long before my symptoms lessened and I was able to sleep. When I woke at seven, my heart no longer raced, but I still suffered what Southerners call the vapors—lightheaded and weak. I brewed coffee, hoping caffeine—that miracle drug—would make everything okay. It did not. I started drinking water, thinking maybe I hadn’t hydrated enough while traveling the day before. It took me the entire morning and several glasses of water to start feeling a bit normal.
At noon I ate lunch and cleaned up the kitchen. I must confess, I’m not a big fan of kitchen maintenance. I’m perfectly content to let pots and dishes pile up for a day or so before thinking, yeah, maybe I should do something about the situation. While cleaning, I listened to Frank Sinatra’s, “The Way You Look Tonight.” I love that song and listen to it at least twice a week. It makes me nostalgic for Gary, but not sad. Today, it surprised me by bringing tears that fell into the soapy suds of a pot I was cleaning. I had to stop scrubbing, sit in my crying chair at the kitchen table, put my hands over my face and weep.
What was going on? I hadn’t had a solid weeping session in weeks. I was fully prepared to report to my therapist that I’d turned a corner and was cured from this grief nonsense after a mere 11 months. Wow, look at me, ever the overachiever. From here on out I would waltz through sunny meadows, frolicking with butterflies and chirping birds.
As I wept, I realized that my archenemy grief had been waiting for me since February 10th, the one-year anniversary of Gary entering the hospital to begin his five-week journey towards death. Every moment of his 24 days in the hospital, I worried about him being alone. It was Covid Time with no family allowed. Every moment, I worried I would get a call to say there was nothing more to be done, to come pick him up, bring him home and figure it out by myself. Every moment, I was terrified, absolutely terrified.
A few days after Gary entered the hospital, our beautiful granddaughter Lilla was born. When I got the news, I cried so hard with a combination of happiness and sadness that Gary wasn’t with me to relish the news that I thought I’d have an aneurysm. I wanted us to celebrate this new, precious life together, share our joy in person, smile with sheer delight into a Face Time call. but we could not—and there was nothing I could do to make it so.
The following weeks were a whirligig ride with an evil carnie on an extended cigarette break, unwilling to pull the stop lever. I was blessed to have family take time out of their busy schedules to be with me as we trudged through one frightening day after the other.
Three weeks after Lilla’s birth, she was loaded into a car with her two-year-old brother Parker and my brave son and daughter-in-law made their way from the Bay Area to Fort Bragg. It was Covid Time. I could not touch or hold my newborn granddaughter, but I could at least see her from a distance and marvel at her beauty.
By this time, Gary had been transported by ambulance to come home to die. His sister was also with us as well as daughter Laine, her fiancé Julian, daughter Jenn and granddaughter Nora. Son Garth and granddaughter Lyra spent a few days. It was chaos—a beautiful chaos that Gary thoroughly enjoyed until his last two days when the toxins of kidney failure took his brain hostage and rendered him unconscious.
I am grateful to have been with sweet Lilla to celebrate her first year of life. Yet lurking in the shadows was Gary’s absence. Also lurking was grief, that hideous monster I try so hard to avoid, yet revels in reminding me of that terrible time a year ago. I try, I really try to focus on the current good things, but during this one-year anniversary period most are overlayed with heartbreaking memories.
When I shared my panic attack experience with my therapist, she explained that what I’m feeling occurs at a cellular level. My mind can compartmentalize the events of a year ago and put them into perspective. But my body holds the trauma and gives the anniversary of Gary’s hospitalization and death the power to take me down, to transport me back to that time as if it is currently happening.
A year ago, I was in hyper-overdrive. My husband of 46 years, the father of my children, was dying. I didn’t have the luxury to feel the full weight of that trauma. A year later, my body reminds me. My body tells me it’s time. Time to fear I’m having a heart attack. Time to sit down and cover my face for the one-thousandth time and weep. It’s time to acknowledge that this was the worst, most horrendous period of Gary’s life, of my life, of my family’s life.
On October 26, 2021, I waited in line at the Mendocino Coast Clinic’s mobile vaccination clinic to get my Covid booster shot. When it was my turn, I handed my card through the car window to a young woman who filled out the date and dose and returned it. I tossed it on the passenger seat and moved forward to get my shot. From there, I drove to the designated parking area to wait the required 15 minutes. As I put the card in my wallet, I noticed the date of my first vaccine—February 23rd.
That couldn’t be.
That. Could. Not. Be.
In the early days of the Covid vaccination clinics, none were offered on the Mendocino Coast. People urged me to go inland—to Willits (an hour away) or Ukiah (an hour and a half away), even Santa Rosa (two and a half hours away). One person suggested getting “aggressive” in my quest to get myself and my husband vaccinated. What they didn’t realize, what I didn’t share, is how increasingly disabled Gary had become over the past year. There was no way he would be able to tolerate what I termed a cattle call, traveling such distances only to wait in line with dozens of people. I didn’t have the luxury to be “aggressive.”
Eventually, a friend learned of a vaccination event at Mendocino High School on February 23rd—only a 15-minute drive—and signed me up. My appointment was at 1:00. I arrived at 12:45. Because the school’s parking lot is quite small, I parked on the street at the bottom of the hill. It was a cold day, made colder by the biting wind. I’d put on a sweater, wool suit jacket and scarf. I was going to bring a heavier jacket, but decided against it, figuring the time from leaving my car to entering the gym would only be a matter of minutes.
Near the base of the hill, I was stopped by the end of a line, which by my calculations was a good 10 miles from my destination. I wanted to scream, “What’s going on here? I have an appointment for God’s sake! Don’t tell me these people were all booked for the same time!” I settled myself with the reminder that I’m not the only person in the world, that these people suffered my same predicament and maybe the line would move swiftly.
I pulled out my phone and began playing crossword puzzles—the equivalent of sucking my thumb whenever I have to wait. As the line moved slowly—as in snail pace slowly—the air grew colder and the wind more insistent. For the first time ever, I was able to relate to the valiant hikers who struggle against the elements to crest Mount Everest.
If you’ve never been to Mendocino High School—and I assume most of you haven’t—it sits atop one of the most pristine pieces of real estate along the California coastline with a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. Such a shame to waste it in on snarky teenagers who by that time in life hate their small town and can’t wait to escape. If Jeff Bezos ever sees this school, he’ll figure out a way to capture it, tear it down, and turn it into either a rocket launching pad or one of his many luxury retreats.
During the two grueling hours it took me and my fellow hikers to get into the gym, my fingers grew numb from the cold and could no longer navigate the crossword puzzles. I silently cursed those who “organized” this event. They deserved to be punched in the face or at the very least publicly humiliated.
I realize this was early on in the vaccination effort and people were doing the best they could amid the chaos. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have unpleasant feelings about enduring the hardship of freezing for two hours without snacks or a porta-potty.
When I finally entered the warm gym lobby, I wanted to drop to my knees and weep with gratitude, but feared any tears would freeze to my frostbitten face. A young man asked my name. When he checked his iPad, his brow furrowed. “You’re not in the system.”
I nearly shattered into a million pieces.
I was cursed with two names—Kathleen is my given one, Kate is my nickname. I had said Kathleen. After I said Kate, he looked again and found me. I nearly leaped over his table, grabbed him by the shoulders and kissed him on the mouth.
Inside the gym, an acquaintance who was a volunteer beckoned me to her table where she filled out and gave me my vaccination card. I wallowed in euphoria for the few moments it took her to hand me a slip of paper and say, “You’ll have to check this website in a couple of weeks to register for your follow-up shot.”
Every person I knew had their second shot scheduled when they received their first. What sins was I atoning for that forced me to suffer this horrendous ordeal? I took a deep breath, thanked her without meaning it and moved forward to the designated waiting area.
After about five minutes, a nurse called me to her station. She started to chit chat. My jaw was still thawing from the cold and I could neither chit nor chat. She said she’d heard my name before. I’ve been told I’m practically a local celebrity, but wasn’t in the mood to sign autographs. She wouldn’t stop asking me if I knew this person or that in hopes of finding a mutual connection. I wanted to scream, “There’s a thousand people out there freezing to death. Give me the blasted shot and get on to the next one.”
I sat the in 15-minute waiting area and didn’t faint or die. As I walked down the hill past the poor, blue-lipped, shivering peons, a woman about my age appeared at my side. “Well, that was a f-ing shit show,” she said. Ah…a kindred spirit. We walked together, volleying the F-word back and forth. At the bottom of the hill, we parted and she said, “I’m going home to smoke a big, fat doobie.” I flashed her two-thumbs up.
My memory is that I went home to rant and rave with Gary about Covid, about how it was ruining our lives, about how the government was bumbling the vaccination rollout—maybe even about what the hell we were going to eat for dinner. We eventually soothed our rage by watching “Judge Judy” which routinely allowed us to criticize stupid-ass people and going a long way towards boosting our self-esteem.
As I put my October 26th updated vaccination card in my wallet, I realized I couldn’t have come home to Gary on February 23rd.
He entered the hospital on February 10th where he spent the following three and a half weeks. He and his doctors struggled to find ways to allow him to survive before finally surrendering and he made the noble decision to come home to die. It was Covid Time. He was in Adventist Hospital Saint Helena, three hours away. I wasn’t allowed to be there, but was in telephone contact with him and the staff several times a day. It was a deeply traumatic experience—for him, for me, for our family.
Looking back, I realize the trauma of Gary’s last weeks sent my mind into another dimension with little sense of space and time. I believed I handled everything in my usual take charge manner, but now know I was living a surreal existence.
How on earth could I remember Gary being here on February 23rd when he’d been in the hospital for 13 days?
I suppose it was because for 46 years, Gary had always been with me. He was my sounding board. I didn’t always agree with his feedback—especially when he told me to calm the hell down—but I valued my ability to ask for it. How was it possible he wasn’t here when I returned nearly hypothermic from standing so long in the cold, after being told I’d have to check a website in a few weeks to schedule my second shot? How was he not here to agree that we live in such a terrible time, that Covid has completely screwed up everything, and we couldn’t take it anymore?
I know for certain I would not have called Gary to complain while he was fighting for his life in the hospital. So, who did I rant to? I honestly cannot remember. Probably to my poor daughter and son-in-law who were with me during this time. Probably over the phone to my sister who was always available to listen to my tearful rages.
Fear for my mental health sent me to the internet to do a bit of research. I was relieved to discover that my experience isn’t unusual for someone who has experienced trauma. It’s called false memory.
According to the website “healthline,” (www.healthline.com/health/false-memory#overview), “[False memories] range from small and trivial, like where you swear you put your keys last night, to significant, like how an accident happened or what you saw during a crime.”
As time goes by, I’m sure I’ll uncover more false memories from this time. As for this particular one—and as strange as this might sound—it comforts me that even though Gary wasn’t here to commiserate with after I got home from the Mendocino debacle, I was able to spend several months believing he was.
In March 2021, my husband of 46 years died and a 13-year-old girl took demonic possession of my emotions. I call her Tammy. I try to placate her with soothing tones, carrying scones and mocha lattes to her bedroom door. She opens the door (she’s a sucker for sweets), wearing her You’re Not the Boss of Me t-shirt, her fiery red mass of unruly curls swirling about her head. She snatches the food like the feral child she is, flips me off, and slams the door in my face.
Tammy horrifies me. I was raised to be a good girl and avoid burdening people with my anger or negative feelings. Better to keep such unpleasantness under wraps. Tammy isn’t burdened by such nonsense.
In the months since Gary died, I am astonished by the outpouring of love and support I’ve received. I am grateful, oh so grateful. It shocks me how angry Tammy becomes when people make comments that, while intended to provide comfort, do just the opposite. This consumes her with a rage that embarrasses me, one that I wrestle to control. But she will not be tamed. It’s true that one of the steps in the grief process is anger, but another is acceptance, which makes me feel I need to embrace Tammy. Maybe I can hug her so tightly that I squeeze the very life out of her.
Whenever Tammy encounters someone who says an absurd thing, she snarls, “Don’t pity her.” When people stop pitying me, she whines, “Why aren’t you pitying her?” When they try again, she snaps, “Don’t pity her.”
Pity her. Don’t pity her. Pity her. Don’t pity her. On and on it goes. It’s debilitating.
Recently, Tammy duct taped me to a chair and forced me to compile the following list of things to never say to a grieving person. I balked, not wanting to offend or hurt anyone. She got into my face and screamed “You’re a widow! You can do whatever the hell you want for at least the first year!”
#1 At least he’s no longer suffering
“Oh really?” Tammy spits. “At least?” She wonders why people try to throw this measly life preserver when I’m drowning in my darkest moments. This comment does nothing to ease my pain and causes Tammy to shriek as she stomps up the stairs to her bedroom and slams the door. She opens it to shout, “Screw you!” before slamming it again and again. It’s exhausting and humiliating. I want tie her up, throw her into the back of a white-paneled van and ship her off to a school for troubled teens in Utah.
#2 He had a long, good life
Tammy wonders if people honestly think this offers comfort. She’s drawn her switchblade. (Before joining me, she belonged to a gang.)
Gary did have a long life, mostly good, but deeply affected by the devastating effects of 65 years of living with juvenile diabetes, effects most people know nothing about. His last 10 years were spent dealing with diminished eyesight, mobility and kidneys. He valiantly struggled through each day and remained grateful for what he did have. He was still grateful when he made the difficult decision to come home from the hospital to die. If he’d had a choice, he wouldn’t have chosen death.
Tammy wants people to stop assuming any life was either long or good. It was a life. And it’s over. Grieving people don’t care how long a life was, they want more.
#3 There’s hope for a brighter future
Tammy hates this more than anything. Even more than kale.
If anyone has experienced the intense grief of losing a loved one, one of the last things Tammy wants them to say is that their journey was like a flower that slowly blossomed and left them feeling more radiant than before. This perspective comes years after their loss. Tammy doesn’t want them trying to fast forward me through this process by giving me an end result. They think they’re helping, but they’re not. I cannot fathom such a future and right now these comments only make me sadder because my flower is wilted and rotting. And Tammy wants to kick them in the stomach.
Instead, tell me that at first you were buried up to your neck in raw, stinking sewage. As the pipes unclogged and the sewage began to recede, you could at least move, but it was nearly impossible to trudge forward with it up to your chest, then waist, then knees. Finally, after many months—perhaps years—the muck was at ankle level. By then the struggle had gotten you into Navy Seal training shape and you were able to strut out, hose yourself down, hold your fists high and claim victory. But only partial victory because the mild odor of grief will cling to you forever.
#4 Focus on the good things in your life
Tammy narrows her black eyes and seethes, “If you happen to see any sustainable good things in her life, I’ll let YOU focus on them. Right now I want to punch you in the face.”
Just when I’m able to rise a bit out of the muck and periscope my head from side to side to spy one tiny good thing here and another there, a tragedy strikes. My brother-in-law died suddenly at the end of August. In mid-September, on the morning of my daughter’s wedding, my 91-year-old mother had a major stroke and lingers in a state of limbo. A dear friend died in late September, and another at the end of October. Another close family member died in mid-December. On New Year’s Day, the infant daughter of a young, dear friend was found dead in her crib.
Each of these events belly flopped me back into the cesspool of gloom and made Tammy go wild! She burst out of the house and ran cursing and screaming down the street.
#5 I feel so bad for you living in that big old house all by yourself
I swear, if another person says this to me, I’ll let Tammy have at them with her brass knuckles. Tammy wonders if they understand when they say this that they put me in the position of defending my choice to stay in our family home. A home where we raised our children. A home that comforts and nurtures me daily.
Tammy’s interpretation is that they want me to make them feel better by closing off rooms, confining myself to the living room with a hot plate, chamber pot, a garden hose run through an open window, and a cot. Tammy wonders if it would it make them feel better if I left this big, old house and moved to a smaller place, possibly an alley house where nobody has to worry about me rattling around. Or am I being selfish by staying here and hogging more than my fair share of square footage on this earth? Should I relinquish it to others—perhaps a nice, young couple with two kids, a dog, a couple of cats, and a ferret?
Tammy wants people to know that wherever I live, I’ll be by myself. It’s not like I’m a hermit. I have an active social life. Right now, figuring out how to live alone is an integral part of my grief process. I’m much better off navigating this from a home I love, a place I shared with my family for 30 years.
Tammy wants these people to shut the hell up. Remember, she has duct tape and is not afraid to use it.
#6 Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you
I’m grateful for these generous offers, but they make Tammy clench her fists. She says, “She doesn’t know what she wants from moment to moment. Even though you’ve left the door open to respond to whatever she needs, she’s not capable of reaching out to ask for anything.”
My therapist suggests being specific when offering to help someone. “I’m going to the store today and wonder if there’s anything I can pick up for you.” If the answer is nothing, say, “I’ll bring you a meal from the deli. Does a salad or something you can warm up sound better to you?” Or, “Let’s take a walk this weekend. Would you prefer Saturday or Sunday? What time would you like, one or two o’clock?”
A friend once told me that she contacts people who are suffering and asks, “What do you need right now? What do you need today?” Sometimes they say nothing, but most of the time the responses are magic: “I need a latte.” “I need someone to bring me dinner.” “I need a walk.” She continues to reach out, not often, but maybe every month or so in an effort to not overwhelm them.
Tammy pulls her wild hair back, ties it with a scrunchy and nods approval. She knows that every smartphone has a calendar where this type of outreach can be scheduled on a recurring basis. If you truly want to help someone, do these things.
I pretty much hate Tammy. She’s a deep source of my shame. But I also love the way she steps up to fiercely defend me during this fragile emotional time. Someday I may be able to send her to finishing school where she’ll cut her hair, become more polished and learn to control herself. In the meantime, she’s a fitting vessel for my anger.
I just locked Tammy in a closet while I confess that I understand that people extend their hearts to provide comfort and help ease my suffering. People don’t intend their words to cause Tammy to burst into flames. Before I experienced Gary’s death, I’m certain I said many things that sent grieving people to the internet to shop for voodoo dolls.
Tammy is yelling at me through the closet door. “You need to tell them! Tell them now!”
Throughout this journey, I once got her calmed down enough to help me compile a list of what we consider the only things that need to be said:
I don’t know what to say.
I’m holding you in my heart.
This sucks so bad.
Give a warm hug and say, “I love you.”
Say nothing, bow your head in reverence, and listen . . .simply listen.