Grief knows no bounds. It can be triggered when you least expect it, although most triggers are obvious and predictable. After Rick’s death, I knew going into a diner, Home Depot, or Costo would be painful. I knew vacationing without him for the first time would be awful. Smelling his aftershave or seeing a large bald man would sometimes be a catalyst for tears. Those were all obvious triggers, and sometimes still are, although not as intense as they once were.
But sometimes, the reason for grieving was a little more elusive… like simply a change in season. Who would expect that to bring on the tears? I do now. There were times when I was feeling a little down, but there was no obvious reason. But the sadness wouldn’t let up, and I finally realized it was a seasonal thing. Every spring, I’d get sad because I’d remember us working in the yard together. Every fall, I’d picture him in his hoodie raking leaves. Just sensing either of those seasons by a shift in the air or waft of a scent could make me depressed.
I’m prepared now for those seasonal mood swings. I’m also ready for the bittersweet sense of loss or sadness brought on by each holiday and by his birthday. But I’m still caught off guard by the unexpected. Hearing a Paul Simon song once elicited memories of Rick sitting in his office belting out “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” while he drummed away with his hands on his thighs. That tiny memory came out of nowhere, although we all know that songs are the biggest grief triggers of all.
And lately, each new step I’m taking in the dating world reminds me of something we shared. Each first date reminds me of our courtship so long ago. Each first kiss reminds me of the chilly night in March 1996 when Rick first kissed me. And it seems nearly every date, the man across the table will mention something that reminds me of Rick. Simple things – like the man who said he likes loose hamburgers at the Coney. Rick loved those. Of course, I don’t mention that tidbit. It’s not good form to fondly bring up one’s late husband too often when meeting a new man. I shove the thoughts aside quickly. Life has gone on. He’s not here. Deal with it.
I’ve been debating whether or not to write about what occurred a few weeks ago. It’s pretty personal, but I’ve always been known to divulge TMI. My life is an open book, so I decided to bare my soul on this one, because I’m so sure other widows will relate.
I’ve become pretty involved with a man. I’m crazy about him, but I’m not crazy about the fact that he keeps going out of town, so it’s become a long-distance relationship. Where this relationship is going is up in the air. We’ve spent a couple weekends together at his place and the last time I was there, something occurred that really shook me. It was the grief episode to end all grief episodes. If there is such a thing.
How do I describe this? We were lying next to each other, and I was in that stage halfway between wakefulness and sleep. We had just been chatting, but now it was quiet and he was starting to doze off. I reached over and began to stroke his arm. It was really an effortless gesture of affection – I don’t think I even realized I was doing it. He was softly snoring. I was peaceful, content, happy, and altogether comfortable in a place I never thought I would be again in my life after Rick.
In the midst of my serenity, my fickle brain decided to betray me with a powerful image triggered by another scene where I performed that exact gesture.
I suddenly pictured the day Rick died. I was sitting next to his hospital bed for hours and hours leaning over and stroking his arm as I watched him slowly die. I wanted to keep physical contact with him as I tried to come to terms with the fact that I would never touch him again. And now, lying next to this other man, I instantly recalled every awful emotion of that day I lost Rick. I remembered this exact gesture… how I stroked his left arm over and over. I remembered the gut-wrenching pain. How I just wanted to keep touching him and never stop as I hoped and prayed that he wouldn’t die.
And now, here in this bed where I had just moments ago felt contentment and happiness, I was paralyzed with sadness… not just because I could so vividly remember Rick dying, but because of the timing of the memory. I’m starting to live again. I’m feeling things for someone else. In the four years since Rick’s death, I have never spent the night with a man before, and it’s a very intimate thing to do. I’m not talking about sex; of course that’s intimate. I’m talking about the intimacy that results from sleeping in a man’s bed, in his arms.
I didn’t want to focus on that awful, sad horrifying day that ended my life with Rick. I wanted to focus on how alive I feel again. How much I’m enjoying my life and a new relationship. But, as I said, grief knows no bounds.
The memory was so overwhelming that I had no choice but to surrender to the thoughts. I took about five minutes, no longer – I couldn’t have withstood more than that. I pictured Rick’s huge large hand, the muscular forearms, the solidness of him. I pictured my hand stroking his arm, and how it felt to touch his skin, knowing it would be the last time I’d touch him before he was gone forever. I gave into the grief, and I cried softly to myself.
Then I forced myself to stop. I told myself I need to enjoy where I am right now. I’ve relived that scene enough times in the past four years. I can’t change the past, and I won’t let it intrude in these peaceful moments I’m relishing now. So I decided to do something I once read about concerning panic attacks. I searched for a tangible way to bring myself back out of the pain my mind was causing. I opened my eyes and focused on the moment. I really looked around my current surroundings. I was not in a hospital room. I was in a bedroom. It was not the day of Rick’s death. It was the present, and I have survived the pain of losing him. I have made a new life for myself from the ashes. I’m alive. I’m okay. I’m happy.
Then I looked at the man next to me blissfully unaware of all the complicated thoughts that were swirling around in my head. I brought myself back to where I was and who he was. And after a few tough moments, I was in the present again, relaxed and content once more – although a little shaken by how unexpectedly my peace can be stolen from me. Then I snuggled up to the living, breathing man next to me and went to sleep.
Thank you for posting this. I lost my husband of 33 years to lung cancer in March. He was 67. Ours was nine weeks from diagnosis to death. At the end, my daughters and I cared for him at home. After he died, I remember running my right hand over his entire body. Down each arm and back. Down each leg and back. I know you understand that.
Your post tells me I will be living these memories for a long time.
I’m glad to know you are dating. I can’t imagine that at this point.
Thank you again for your post.
Hello Amy, I’m sorry, I just saw this comment while posting this month’s blog. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. I can’t imagine only having nine weeks. And, yes, I definitely understand and know we both shared that overwhelming grief and pain at the knowledge of it being the last time we’d touch our husbands.
Yes, you’ll have the memories for quite some time. But, I definitely couldn’t have imagined the life I have today – in the midst of that time of lingering sorrow. I wish I could give you a big hug right now. Just know that – as difficult as it is to believe – you will survive the grief and it will get better. – Katherine xo