The below creative nonfiction piece was recently published in Heartspace II: Real Life Stories on Loss and Renewal, an anthology collection edited by Cathy Brooks Edwards. This is second book in the Heartspace series and states that it is “an inspiring collection of stories about turning loss and grief into growth and healing. From the heartache of losing a loved one to the expanded grief of losing one’s entire childhood, culture, birthplace, birth mother, homeland, or homestead, the storytellers share their most devastating losses, the darkness that followed, and their transformative life lessons.”
The book is available on Amazon and all proceeds go to support the work of Heart2Heart, a nonprofit in Pittsboro, North Carolina, which is committed to helping people and communities navigate death and grief. I was honored to participate as a contributing writer for both Heartspace I and now Heartspace II. Below is my piece, The Six Senses of Grief, republished with permission. If you’d like to read other stories to remind you that you are not alone, please feel free to check out the Heartspace series.
As I have transformed myself incrementally throughout my grieving lifetime, I’ve noted the value of recognizing and honoring all six senses of this kind of pain. The senses are one of the surest ways that the body expresses the varied experiences of being alive. Allowing grief to be felt and acknowledged is not only part of being human, but for me it has proven to be the necessary pathway toward healing – that never-quite-ending road toward being at some-kind-of peace.
Pain is meant to be felt. At least that is what I thought until I learned that I could smell it in my food, see it in the mismatched hues smattered across my jawline, touch it within the harshest beats of my heart, taste it within the odd bitterness of a bad day. And that sixth sense…what is that one? The one where I just know…just know that something or someone is still very much there, whatever that even means. And it hurts in some sixth sense way, where the magical thinking is everywhere at all the right times and then – cruelly – it isn’t anymore. Is it instinct? An evolved peak behind the veil? Or something else altogether? Pain is beautiful, like a water color painting of a cascading white linen flowing over a prairie landscape on a summer day. And it is also desperately ugly. Like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is ugly, and to deny both sides of coin of grief is to refuse the entirety of you.
Transformation is a cumulative flow of your experiences, and it probably doesn’t end, at least as long as you are alive. Even as your body embraces the dying process, you are transforming. I admit that I do not know what is on the other side, and I think I am okay with that – that mystery, that curiosity, that cautious and even healthy fear. Transformation is slow and evolving, yet full of stutter steps and the rare leap forward. It is full of backward slides and tumbles, and devolution, unlearning – which is really just another form of learning, unshackling yourself from belief systems – only to then shackle yourself to others anew. Transformation is full of moments of quiet resolve and confusion and frustration and then new questions…and maybe, sometimes, some answers. But I do think that transformation is only possible with the pain in tow, its own kind of backpack either riding along your shoulders or in your hands or dragging behind you attached by a rope around your waist.
When I lost my husband to a cruel bout of terminal cancer, I was sure some sort of transformation would come of it, but I was not sure how it would occur or what it would look like. I knew I would turn inward and go quiet, at least for a time, and try to figure out what to do with myself now that my entire identity – all wrapped up in a husband and kids – were stripped away from me, leaving me bare and wounded and open to a predatory and nasty world all alone for the first time since I left home for college. I knew I would be alone for a bit and have the space to grieve. My girls were in college themselves, and other family members had moved away. Not all young(er/ish) widows like me have that double-edged sword of being all alone. Some have no time and space to grieve and transform because their children are still needing full time attention. I had my dogs – our dogs – and a big, empty, silent house, where I soon learned the only two rooms that I used were my bedroom and the kitchen. I don’t think I went upstairs for an entire month. And my children were kind of grown but also still needed me in some important ways. Not to mention that they had lost their dad during a key time in their young lives, and my fears of their own deep grief over his loss and how to help them, echoed within my own angst and pain. Moms never stop worrying about their children, but in my case, I had to carry the weight of my grief all alone while straddling theirs as well.
Like grief, transformation is unique to the individual. I accepted early on that I would feel my pain and own my transformation – and not apologize for it or deny where it took me. As a recovering people pleaser, I am used to apologizing for everything under the sun, even when I’ve done nothing wrong. I am used to being sorry for no real definable reason. And I am used to rarely, if ever, receiving any apologies from others, even when they have actually wronged or hurt me. Pain will highlight where you need to grow and improve and what parts of you need healing, and that was definitely one area for me. The grief muzzled the noise of the world for a while and hushed my inner critic. For me, grief is quiet – it is the sound of silence.
Whenever I was challenged by a choice I made or a decision I believed was in my best interest, I had to remind myself that I was not in this world to please others and their perceptions of who and what I was. I was done with that. It had done nothing but bring me angst and more pain anyway throughout my life, and that was the last thing I needed. At various points in my continual transformation, I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew what I wanted in my life. That touch of freedom is hard to ignore, especially when that feeling is generally fleeting as an adult carrying the world on your shoulders. It is difficult for me to disappoint those who care for me, but I have had to wrap my arms around the fact that my life is not theirs; it is my own. For the first time in many years, it really was my own. I had no husband to whom I was accountable – just his memory. I must live for myself first, and without that, I cannot be of help or service to others, let alone figure out what I wanted in a world that no longer included my husband. And it all started with being honest with myself about that. For me, grief is salty – it tastes like attitude.
I always complained to my husband that it seemed as if I always gave so much of myself to others in my life. But when I was in need, even an undefined need or not quite understood need, I rarely received the same response. Throughout my life, I always felt like no one considered how their actions would affect me and what I would have wanted in a situation – it was just assumed that I would stand so everyone else could sit. I would eat last. I would drive. I would handle whatever it was that needed handling. So, I just accepted that, that role I played, that role so many moms and fellow people pleasers play each day. More than once, my husband told me that I had a martyr complex, and he was right. Sacrifice to everyone else because that is what women, wives, and moms do. I sure did that. Career goals and paths altered, ambitions that I had worked tirelessly toward had to be given up very young, graduate school started much too late, and it was all for him and them – not me – although it could be argued it was for me, too. To hide. To make excuses. Once I was left with only being another invisible woman in this world…because I was no longer a wife, and my babies were mostly out of my nest…I realized that I had bought into the lie so many women throughout history had bought into. Perhaps the only thing I succeeded at in being a young mother who gave up all her own ambition for her family’s needs was showing my own daughters that they do not have to do that to themselves. That Box of Mom Lessons was checked. I did not fail them, at least on that one. For me, grief smells bad enough to simply stop smelling it, and instead, walk over to where the rose bush blooms and breath that.
Since my husband died, I’ve developed an odd affliction to the tips of my fingers. I’ve gone to see specialists and my primary doctor, and no one seems to know why this is happening to me. Maybe it is an allergy or vitamin deficiency, but as of now, it is mostly unknown. The fingers I use the most are often extremely dry, cracked, and at times bleeding with small cuts. Putting creams and sanitizer on them stings. It is terribly embarrassing, too. Who wants to eat something I cook when I have cracked fingers? As much typing as I do, sometimes I have to wear finger cots just to tolerate my work. If they ever improve, or if this mystery is ever solved, I know that my fingertips represent everything about transformation – what pain has done to my heart and mind and soul. Whatever was inside of me for so many years was brought out by so much pent up and exasperating grief all at once and manifested itself into fingers that had loved so much, so hard…fingers that now hurt to touch or when touched, that crack and bleed without warning. For me, grief is coarse – hardening us in ways that scab over, making us a bit more intolerant to things we once put up with, but ultimately stronger.
I have now lived four years longer than my husband got to live. I am the same age that my own father was when he died. I remember once that my husband joked to me that he didn’t want to be married to an old lady. Sadly, he got his wish on that one. Growing older is a strange reward, if you can call it that. If you are “lucky” or a “winner,” you have been through enough of real life to garner profound wisdom and some level of inner peace. Only, it is not respected, appreciated, or even wanted by those who could surely use it. You still want to be seen, heard, understood, and respected – as much as you ever did in your youth – but part of growing older is accepting that no one who needs to really wants to see, hear, understand, or respect anything you have to say or anything that you know or have learned. I once heard that the most invisible people in this culture are “old” women. I believe that. And the second most invisible are probably their slightly younger counterparts – the women of middle age. As frustrating as it is, you know you have grown older when you understand that someday, when they get older, they will probably feel the same way as you do now. And then they will see, hear, understand, and respect you and your experiences and wisdom – but you will likely be long gone to know its impact. For me, grief is what I see on my body – the wrinkles around my eyes, little creeping wispy gray hairs popping out among the black, the swollen feet in the morning, a stomach pooch that does not go away no matter how many exercises I do – as badges of honor.
I am not clairvoyant or anything special beyond this world, but I do have some level of sixth sense. Throughout my life, I have randomly thought of an acquaintance or someone I’ve briefly met (or not met but knew of), only to learn days later that the person randomly died. I have solved problems in my sleep, awakening to a resolution as if it came from someone on the other side who talked me through it. I suppose that isn’t too unique, but I love when it happens. Since my husband left me here, I have been largely in tune with my magical thinking, resulting in a healthy running list of ways in which he has reached out to me. None was more pronounced and real than two nights after he died. I truly believe that he came to me as I was asleep just to tell me that he would always be with me. Was that my brain tricking me? My heart trying to hold onto him? Maybe, but I really don’t think so.
Since then, I have sought out traditional methods of contending with grief, such as meeting with a counselor and attending a support group. I have met other women like me and forged bonds over our losses. I have attended a grief recovery retreat, where I was able to do hard internal work – some of which had nothing to do with the loss of my husband. I have also done more nontraditional coping and searching, like writing and publishing a novel that honored my husband and family’s life together. I participated in art and writing therapies and traveled great distances alone. I sold my home and moved into a city. I visited a medium and understood why so many people find comfort and answers in such experiences. The sixth sense of grief is the one where you are open to meeting your loved one – or even just your memory of him – in how and wherever he speaks to you. And then learning that all that searching in places and books and in other people…ultimately leads you back to yourself. Funny how I never really had to look so far at all.
For me, grief is acceptance that all of life is a wonderfully messy paradox coined throughout human history in trite – but true – clichés. What I cling to, I must release to truly have. What I find was never really lost in the first place. What I learn, I always knew within me anyway. What I love outside of myself sustains me wholly – my body, mind, and spirit. To see light, I must dwell in darkness. And to have control…to live freely…is to surrender myself to the illusion of having control in any of this.
What I know for sure is that I really do not know much at all and being okay with that, being at peace with that. And that is the essence of transforming grief into living, of tending to the six senses of grief.