The Long Goodbye

I must move on with my life. I don’t know how to accept this. Not really. I’ve got the words, the concept, and even the feeling sometimes. But the level of true and complete acceptance of his loss continues to elude me.

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April 25, 2019

Today is the first anniversary of Michael’s death. I awakened earlier than I wanted, but I’ve become used to this in the past three years of his dying and death. I find a dense fog outside my window in this near dawn light and I wonder if it will rain, for I intend to do a ritual outside in his honor.

It was Michael’s birthday five days ago, and now it is his death day. I guess that it’s good that these events are coming so close together. I’ve taken most of the week off so that I can move into the deeper psychological and spiritual work of this time.

On his birthday, I got a small pastry, put a candle in it, picked some daffodils, pulled a tarot card, and sang Happy Birthday. I started crying in the middle of the song because it felt so empty to be singing to the remnants of what remains of his earthly life, to be singing into the hollowness of life without him.

As I was shuffling the deck of 78 tarot cards, I kept asking for one card, just one, that would tell me what I need to know about Michael. I was thinking that maybe The Star card would show up, for he has communicated with me and others through the stars. But the card that came was Death. I almost laughed when it turned over, and I almost cried. Of course! He is dead and my task is to accept this.

This made me realize that there’s a new level of acceptance that is attempting to come in, that needs to come in. And it’s all about letting go of the various ways in which I’ve tried to keep Michael alive. I need to finally accept that no amount of crying, or praying, or wishing, or remembering, or meditating, or fantasizing, or writing, in short — nothing, will bring Michael back to me. I need to understand this fully and unequivocally. For I believe that this is the level of acceptance that will begin to bring relief to this endless grief.

I have to confess that I’ve been playing Ghost with Michael for this past year. He would be smiling about my “playing ghost” with him for we had joked about it as he was dying, and he vowed he would play it with me.

You may remember the 1990 movie starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in which Patrick’s character is killed and then comes back as a ghost to protect his lover, Demi. The scene that stands out in my mind is the one in which Demi is creating a clay pot and Patrick’s ghostly form sits behind her, holding her, while she makes her art.

I’ve been doing my own version of this. I’ve been feeling Michael holding my hand for many months now. I ask for him to hold my hand, and I feel a very subtle sense of his hand on mine – warm and comforting. Sometimes I feel him holding my hand even when I haven’t asked. I feel him in my office too, the office I shared with him. And I often feel him when I meditate. I don’t know if it’s really him, but it doesn’t matter. It’s something that’s been happening and I have wanted it to happen.

At this one-year anniversary of his death, I’m realizing that at least for now, I need to let this go. I need to stop playing ghost with him. It keeps him too alive in my mind, and it keeps me from moving forward. And the point, the very necessary and painful point, is that he is dead and gone.

But it’s hard to let go of our loved ones, and the efforts toward communication with our dead feel important. It seems natural that we would strive to continue our connection to them. The bonds of love are so potent and profound, and they weave themselves into our  very Being in unknowable and inextricable ways.

So, there is something about fully accepting that Michael is gone and at the same time finding myself at a vibrational level that can occasionally and consciously commune with whatever remains of his spirit in this realm. But this communion needs to change in some indefinable way. I need to accept that no matter how potent the connection may be, I must move on with my life. It is too lonely and too empty to continue to reach back into our life together in this way. It is too sad to sing Happy Birthday to an empty chair. He is gone. And I remain.

And yet, I don’t know how to accept this. Not really. I’ve got the words, the concept, and even the feeling sometimes. But the level of true and complete acceptance of his loss continues to elude me.

Then I realize that I don’t have to know how to accept this, that in fact, I may not be able to know. Like so many things, I can’t figure this out. No amount of time in my head is going to make this clearer or easier. In fact, just the opposite. Once again, it comes down to trusting the very nature of life. To trusting that life will show me exactly what I need to learn. It comes down to being on my knees again, to asking for help and guidance, and to being humble enough to receive it. I have been on my knees so often in these past several years, and yet, here I am again. It seems to be the only place from which I can begin to know the deeper wisdom.

I go out to the garden where Michael’s ashes are buried, and I clear the space around them. The marker stones from last year have been moved by the harsh winter and I am on my knees as I place them once again in a circle. The giant hosta in the center is just beginning to show its spring growth of stalks and leaves. Among the stones are citrine, and hematite, and quartz, and tiger’s eye. There is aventurine and several pieces of lapis, for that is the stone of Medicine Buddha, and Michael had many of them. There is granite and a mysterious translucent green octahedron. There is obsidian and an unknown stone of orange and black. And there is his pocket Buddha. I know I will take these with me wherever I move for the rest of my life. And I will take the small urn of his remaining ashes.

It is so peaceful here today and I’m surprised to find that I am not crying. Instead I am washed in gratitude and love and the fullness of life.

Now I prepare a ritual by creating a sacred circle with the directions and the archangels and the powers they represent. I light a candle that will burn for 24 hours. It is a Yahrzeit candle from the Jewish tradition for remembering those who are gone, and it is lit on the one year anniversary of their passing. My intention is for the deepest honoring possible. And then, finally, it is about letting Michael go, or at least letting him go a little bit more.

For this is the long goodbye. This year of mourning is ending, and though I know my grief doesn’t end now, this is a signpost of some kind. I’ve made it through this terrible ordeal of Michael’s dying and death, and now it’s time to re-enter the flow of life, it’s time to begin to heal.

Even writing these words brings a fresh round of sorrow. But this is the task and I welcome its completion.

I say these words out loud to Michael and to the Universe as I kneel in the garden. “I fully accept that you are dead and gone. I let go of our life together with immense love and gratitude. Thank you, my love. I ask for help in letting go and moving forward into life’s flow. Help me. Please help me to let go of you, as I ask you to let go of me. Goodbye, my love. I will miss you forever in this life.” Now I cry wholeheartedly, every bit of me is committed to this moment, and once again, I water his resting place with my tears. I close the circle in reverence and silence.

I’m hoping that something is shifting. Today, I am trusting the process, the larger Source. It feels a bit like falling, but I’m falling softly, falling gently into the great mystery. And really, it is so soft that it feels like being held. My heart is being held.

 

 

The Lovers

Today, I am no longer distant. There is no distance from the reality of this pain. He is truly gone and now I know it in every part of my being.

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April 11, 2019

I awakened at 11:11 on the night of the total eclipse in January just in time to go out into the fierce cold to see the Wolf Moon. She appeared bloodied by her movement through the earth’s shadow, bathed in a dusky red light, and floating silently in the bright and the icy night. As I watched her, I couldn’t help wondering what this energy might have in store for me, and in store for the world. Such magnificence and such awe-inspiring mystery. It felt like the end of a difficult cycle.

Then at 3:30 that night I awakened again with a strong sense of a Presence overseeing me, watching me, helping me. I know it was my High Self for a feeling of pervasive peace came over me letting me know that everything is completely perfect.

It hasn’t been feeling perfect though. I have literally been crying every single day for the past five months. Storms of grief pass through me with soft tears or utterly surprising  wracking sobs. I’m deeply grieving for Michael again. I’m not sure why this is happening now except that I’m working on the book about his dying and death, desperately wanting to finish it. It’s a special kind of agony to be revisiting all those feelings again as I write and rewrite the saga of our journey through his illness. It had gotten so difficult that I simply stopped writing for several months. I couldn’t face it any longer.

Maybe the grief started to arise again because of the approaching holidays, or maybe because it had been seven months since Michael died, and for some reason, seven months was yet another time for grief – a weird gestation for a sorrow gone awry. For it had gone awry. I was believing that I was moving on from my grief and that the worst of it was over. I was wrong. All I know now is that grief has its own rhythm and its own intelligence. I’m trying to let this be.

For several months I had tried to dodge my grief. It had been so intense for such a long time, and I am tired of its insistence and its pain. I had spent a few months in a fantasy that things were better, that I was better, that I was figuring out how to leave horrendous loss behind. And maybe I am figuring it out, but I’m realizing I can’t force it in any way. As much as I would like to, I can’t force myself to be done with grief.

When Michael died, I felt a horrible aching emptiness, but to some extent, the grief was still distant because his death was so unimaginable and so unreal. And mixed in with the grief there was a sense of relief – relief that his suffering had ended, relief that I was no longer locked in caregiving for a dying man, relief that I could begin to piece my shattered life back together.

Today, I am no longer distant. There is no distance from the reality of this pain. He is truly gone and now I know it in every part of my being.

I miss him. I miss loving him. I miss his humor. I miss his funny old body. I miss cuddling. I miss laughing with him. I miss crying with him. I miss talking with him. I miss dancing with him. I miss his intuitive brilliant mind. I miss his unshakable faith in spirit. I miss how he played with the dog. I miss his voice. I miss his face. I miss seeing his joy when I walk into a room. I miss being known.

I’m finding that grief is its own animal, its own beast, and its own blessing. It has its own rhythm and it comes and it goes capriciously and unpredictably. And to second-guess that rhythm feels stupid and dangerous.

Stupid, because grief is a completely natural response to loss and to the intricacies of continuing to live without a loved one. I have lost my soulmate and I am keening.

Dangerous, because not trusting the innate intelligence of my body, and my tears, would put me in a compromised position with myself. I would move into a place of distrusting myself and my instincts, and that is crazy-making. I refuse to do it.

And under this, grief is a blessing. For in my grief, I know how much I loved Michael and how much he loved me. And that is worth everything.

Many women have told me that grief takes two years to get through the worst of it, and I’m just now approaching the end of this first year without him. Two years feels like an eternity. But that’s just what people say, and that’s their experience. God only knows if it will be mine. I’m trying not to make predictions or set timelines on this process.

There was a new man in my life – not a lover, but a friend – though lover-ship seemed promised early on. But The Lovers, the card that showed up as the outcome in the tarot reading about our relationship, began to die a rapid and completely surprising death about a month into our relationship, and now we are friends.

I didn’t accept this at first. The lover energy was so strong and so welcome that I wasn’t ready to let it go that quickly. Instead, I found myself building reveries around an imagined life. Not that this was completely my own imagining, mind you. There were statements made early on that fanned the flames of greater union, and I believed them and I wanted them. I greeted this respite from sorrow with open arms, and open heart, only to find a fearful reluctance from my friend who is beset by difficult circumstances.

I had also drawn The Tower card in my tarot reading, The Tower in the position of the self, and I knew that some egoic dream would be shaken to its core. Gradually, I saw that my ego was invested in the idea of who this man and I could become, of what we could be together, of how we would support and love each other. I suppose that those potentialities were truly there, but not in any substantial way. They were a dream, a phantasm that I constructed in order to avoid the grief that underlies my days.

Any fool could have seen what I was doing. Any fool could have known that it was too soon. Any fool would have realized that I was not yet ready for another love. But I am worse than a fool sometimes, and I believed that if love was coming to find me, I should be open to it. For who knows or understands the mysteries of how love arises?

But in my foolishness, I truly wasn’t allowing myself to see who this man really is. Or to see myself. His fear, his issues, and god knows what else, were all in the way. As were mine. Both of us had substantial blockages to being in love.

Several months ago when he said that his aging and his debilitation make it impossible for him to commit to falling in love again, I wrote to him, “Age and decline are not the barriers you make them out to be. In fact, they are the very reason to find the core of life more fervently.”

I believe this. I believe that finding the core of life, finding the heart of love, is the only quest worth pursuing. No matter how old we become, no matter how our bodies deteriorate, love in all of its forms, is the only thing worth doing, or worth being.

But I was still fighting for our love at that time, still hoping that my words might change a situation that really couldn’t change, or wouldn’t change. And mostly, I was fighting to avoid a grief that is so profound that all I want to do is escape its empty silence, an emptiness so deep that its claws sometimes pull me under on the long nights without Michael.

I’m realizing that my friend is not alone in his fear and weariness over committing to another love. Many of us become frightened by its cost. For the cost is the highest possible. It is our very heart and soul that is at stake, and the more we love, the more we suffer. But it is in the suffering itself where the meaning of life is revealed. It is where our integrity, our truth, and our purity of heart are honed, and there is literally nothing more important than this.

As I look back on this now, I am grateful that the forces of life conspired to show me to myself in this way. And I am grateful to my friend for whatever odd body-wisdom asserted itself and kept us from a relationship that would have ended in flames and further disappointment for both of us.

So, on the night of the eclipse in January, when I awakened at 3:30 in the morning to a gentle sense of all-encompassing peace, it was about both of these men – my dear partner of 35 years, and my new friend who had seemed to promise so much more.

I lay in this peace for hours, feeling its love for me and for my sorrow, and I allowed all of the fantasies to fall away. I allowed the grief for Michael to be the grief that it is, in whatever time and form it takes. I allowed my new friendship to be just that, a friendship with a good man.

Today, months later, there is finally a softness around all of this. I don’t know how else to express it. I feel soft and open and accepting of whatever comes. For today I realize that The Lovers card in my tarot reading wasn’t speaking about my fantasy relationship. It was telling me about my own integration, about the Masculine and the Feminine energies coming together in me in a new and deeper way, about fully loving myself.

So, now I am allowing life to move through me more gently. I honor its vast and mysterious movements knowing that I am learning to trust its vital flow, learning to trust that it will show me exactly how to be, learning that this terrible grief is part of love. And finally, even in this seemingly endless anguish, the cost is truly worth it. For this grief, this enormous weight of sorrow, is exactly the price of love.

 

God Is Not A Masochist

I’m realizing how small a thing is Michael’s death. For more than 2 years, his living and dying has been so central to my world that it’s sometimes hard to remember that others aren’t in the same place.

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August 20, 2018

Three days ago, I didn’t cry for the first time in almost two years. I didn’t know this until the end of the day when I was reading in bed and suddenly became aware that there had been no tears that day. Then I obsessively counted the days, for I remembered being dry-eyed on the 18th day after Michael’s diagnosis. So, it’s been 728 days since I haven’t cried. It made me wonder if I’m moving into a different phase of grief, and perhaps I am.

I’m realizing how small a thing is Michael’s death. For more than 2 years, his living and dying has been so central to my world that it’s sometimes hard to remember that others aren’t in the same place.

Of course, I know that they are not, and I’ve known that all along. There are only a few of us who are deeply affected by any death, and of those few, I am the one most affected by Michael’s death. It’s the way it is and it’s the way it should be. But I’m realizing how small his death really is.

In the past few days I have heard from a neighbor about the imminent death of her granddaughter’s mother. I’ve heard about a woman whose husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died only two weeks later. I know a woman whose father, father-in-law, and dog all died within a few months of each other. Death is all around us, all the time.

And the death of a single person, while terribly sad for me, is just the death of a 68-year old man who loved and was loved by his wife, his family, and a few close friends. And isn’t this what all of us get if we’re lucky? Isn’t this just how it is?

As much as all of this is true, it doesn’t change the sometimes desperate loneliness that engulfs me. I am more alone than I have ever been, and there’s a strong bend toward isolation and numbing out. Fortunately, my worst addiction at this point seems to be too much time with mediocre television and old movies, and I figure as isolation and numbing go, it’s not so bad. And to some degree, my isolation is by choice.

Thankfully, there are beautiful, kind people who offer their company. Sometimes I take them up on it, and sometimes, I do not. I’m so grateful for their reaching out, so grateful that many make the attempt to keep me connected to life. But this latest phase of grief seems to be about finding the healthy mixture of solitude and company. For often I end up feeling lonely when I’m with others, and then I make a concerted effort to stay engaged, to be truly touched and touchable, and for the most part, I’m successful. Of course, the person I’m really missing just isn’t here, and there’s simply no replacement for him.

One thing I know now is why widows and widowers often die soon after their spouse is gone. They are literally lost, literally unable to function, literally anchorless. I don’t feel quite this intensity of lost-ness myself, but I can feel the pull of it, and I understand.

Similarly, a woman I know said to me this week that she’s aware she’s been spending her whole life waiting to be rescued! This really hit me, for I have had the same feeling. It’s ancient and unreasonable and a complete fantasy, but it’s there – I’m waiting for rescue. I discover it lurking beneath my tears these days, and once I discover it, I’m usually able to let it be, and fortunately, I don’t act on it. But still, it’s a strong feeling, a deep and usually unconscious desire.

As little girls, many of us were raised on fairy tales. In these tales, there was always a beautiful princess who is rescued by a handsome prince. I don’t know if little boys bought into the handsome prince story, but I completely bought the princess scenario.

My fantasy life was filled with the Prince. As a child, I would ride in the backseat of the car on the endless trips to our grandmother’s house in Waverly, Iowa, and dream of the Prince, coming the other way on the highway in his car, somehow traveling through rural Iowa. At some point, I would always lean up against the car window so that I would be more visible. I knew that one day, quite suddenly, he would drive by and happen to glance into our car as he passed, and of course, he would see me! Immediately, he would know that I was to be his Princess. He would stop us, take me into his car, and rescue me forever from my wretched life. It was all quite dramatic and totally unbelievable, but it held my attention for years. I think I can even say that my first marriage was my slightly-matured version of this fairytale.

My “mature” version is that somehow Michael isn’t really dead, or that his Spirit is so strong that it comes through to guide me, or even that some other Prince is driving down the highway looking for me now.

It’s all ridiculous, and I know it, but it’s part of the subtle experience of Michael’s loss that I am currently working with. It’s the Child Self’s sad realization that there is no “rescue,” that this is real life, and that this is exactly what I signed up for. It’s a blessing to know this for it allows me to observe these feelings rather than to believe them. And like all feelings, they pass, and the Higher Self is left to watch them passing, and to be at least a little bemused by their intensity.

Clearly, part of the lesson is learning to live with loneliness without being taken under by it, and part of it is finally loving myself enough to grow up.

I just returned from a week-long meditation retreat in which the teacher stated that as far as he knows, “there’s no upper limit” in terms of consciousness and how high we can go. I feel that now. Growing up is never complete, for consciousness is infinite and alive, and as much as we grow, it is always outgrowing us.

I feel that at a spiritual level I have asked for this crash course in independence, and I’m getting it. But it is a “crash” course, and it is sometimes startling, terrifying and bruising. Regardless, it’s important for all of us to be as awake as we can be when death arrives at our door. I’ve signed up to be challenged to go more deeply into my spiritual center, to ride these waves of grief with as much consciousness as I can summon, and to delineate this journey with whatever truth and clarity I can embody.

My friend Fran always says that “God is not a masochist.” Think about that for a moment because it gets deeper as you do. From the highest level, the first implication is that God is Good and that we can have utter faith in that goodness. The second implication is that God never does anything that hurts God, meaning that any death, all deaths, are part of a greater plan. The One thing is always evolving, and even if we don’t understand Its movements, It is always growing toward the higher Good. Finally, it is a statement of absolute trust in the unknowable evolution of consciousness.

I cling to this idea at times when I’m overcome with sorrow, and I meditate on it in times of peace. God is not a masochist. And finally I understand, neither am I.

Widow

Weight of Grief

The Weight of Grief by Celeste Roberge

8-4-18

I am living with “fully alive, heart-centered, resignation” toward widowhood. These are the words my friend, Fran, says to me. As she speaks, I remember several months ago not wanting to identify myself as a widow, wanting desperately to distance myself from the reality of this word, this state of being. But that is exactly what I am now, or at least part of what I am, and her words remind me that I am in the process of resigning myself to a fully alive, heart-centered widowhood. What a difficult task!

The word “widow” still feels sorrowful and disconnected. It conjures images of sad, old women dressed in black, and the “w” sound seems inherently mournful, or at least wistfully poetic. And then there’s that silent “w” at the end. Oh, the silence.

One of the things I’m realizing in this widowhood is the silence. There’s a goodness in it, a stillness. But there is also a terrible loneliness that nothing and no one can fill but Michael. And part of me, very weirdly, continues to feel that he might be there to fill that hole, to fill the looming emptiness that awaits me at the end of each day. It’s completely irrational, but I can’t help thinking that he might be on a long, weird vacation. I’m not sure when or if that feeling will disappear, but it’s with me daily, that sense of him not really being gone.

Of course, he’s not “gone.” But that gets into all the things we imagine about our dead, about where they are, about how it is in the land of the dead, and about what our relationship with the dead really is. For instance, I often feel that Michael is watching me, hearing me, even helping me. I think many of us feel this way. Most of us end up talking to our dead, telling them what we’re feeling, how we miss them, giving them magical qualities that allow them to help us from “the other side.” Or at least, I do. But there’s not much comfort in this.

I really don’t have a clue whether any of these thoughts are true. I used to think I knew something about the other side, but I realize now that my thoughts were probably wishful thinking, or hubris, or some combination of ideas from various sources. Because the truth is, even if they are helping us, hearing us, seeing us, we really don’t know. I want it to be true, but all I really know is that Michael is in Spirit now. Whether there is any form or memory left over from the life he had with me is up for grabs. I imagine Michael is “there” but I’m still alone and lonely on this earthly plane, and this leaves a terrible sense of emptiness hanging in the space around me.

I realize that these thoughts have put me in a new phase of widowhood. In some ways, it’s a harder phase. All the excitement, which isn’t quite the right word, is over – the dying, the death, the memorial, the cards and flowers, the focused attention – all of that is over. And now it’s just the living with it. The daily grind of getting through it, of finding a life that begins to fill in the emptiness, of making a conscious effort to stay connected. Thankfully, on most days I am washed in my connections with beautiful others.

But there is still a large amount of time alone. I’m finding this alone time to be quite a challenge for it actually involves forming a new identity, and this is slow-going indeed. I hear myself referring to “our” house, “our” garden, “our” business. There’s 35 years of “us” to contend with, and that’s not going to go away.

I’m also noticing a strong need to talk about Michael. It’s some kind of struggle to keep him alive inside of me, and I realize I’m not ready to let go yet, that my separate identity hasn’t formed yet. And maybe one is never really ready to let go of those they have loved. All I know is that I miss him fiercely. It’s inevitable and there’s no way around it. There are just too many ways in which we are intertwined and entangled, too many ways in which his energy is part of me forever.

To deal with the endless time alone, I start cruising on the Match.com site. I’m embarrassed to say this, but it’s true, and as I said before, if writing isn’t about the truth, then it’s worthless. I’m just looking so far, but I’ve got to say, it’s pretty grim in Match world. Lots of men on motorcycles, lots of Hawk fans, lots of lonely hearts with whom I have little in common.

I haven’t put my whole self into this search. I just can’t. I’m looking around and it’s probably too soon anyway. But I’m not looking for marriage or a lifelong partner. I’d just like to go out for coffee, or for dinner and a movie. Mostly, I’d like to find a new friend. But as we all know, making real friends takes time.

So, a new identity needs to be formed. A new way of being in the world as an “independent woman.” I notice that I have to put this in quotation marks. This independence doesn’t feel quite real to me yet, and I can see myself floating on ego as a way of coping. “I love my work. I own a business. I’m a good partner. I’m alive and alert to life. I still look pretty good, etc.” This ego patter goes on until a new wave of grief washes over me and I realize it’s all just nonsense. Finally, I cry and my heart bursts open once again.

Then, I know that identity requires an ego upon which it can ride, but it’s the higher self that I wish to embody and become, the higher Being that is the only real truth, and ego has no ability to encompass this. It’s damned hard to build this new higher identity when I’m consumed in grief and loneliness. For it looks to me like there are two obvious paths here – one in which I move on into a new life, and one in which I cling to the old life and never truly let go.

Any loss, in fact, every loss, must ultimately force us into redefining who we are. From the smaller losses of things such as money to the larger losses of friends and loved ones, we are forced to re-forge who we are without that thing or that person in our lives, forced to re-grow ourselves around the empty space.

I know that it is grief and pain that allow the higher self to emerge. For it is suffering that either crushes us or entreats us to expand. I know I am in the process of choosing growth. But so much of what must be new growth feels like it is going on underground. I can dimly sense this growth in the liminal spaces vacated by Michael, in ways that I can barely imagine, in the fleeting winds of freedom that blow through me. But often the newness feels shaky, or false, or forced. So, I back off, retreat into my house, my dog, my writing, my books, until the next time life breathes me out into the world again. And thank God, it does. Over and over, I am flung back into the sacred flow of life.

I tell my friend, Fran, that I’m tired of being sad, that I’ve been sad for too long, that I want to be done with grief. She says, “What you really want is for grief to be done with you!” She’s right, of course, and I find my resistance to widowhood softening a bit, I find my identity shifting.

At the highest level we are always dealing with elemental forces – love, grief, fear, forgiveness, grace, and more. We can learn to see these as primal human experiences that are not under our control, and ultimately, we don’t move through them. In fact, our tiny ego selves literally can’t move through them. The forces move through us! And when we know this, rather than being captured by them, we witness them with curiosity and bated breath. For there isn’t any act of will that allows grief to end. It is Grace that moves us. Or it is Grace’s other name, Love. All of it, all movement, whether we recognize it or not, is in our surrender to this beauty we call Grace.

Telling the Truth

Finally, in a moment of clarity and pain, I tell him that I can’t do “this” for another seven years, that I will always take care of him, but I might find another house to live in, another place to stay. I know this hurts him which engenders even more guilt, but I feel I will collapse into a lesser self if I don’t say it, if I don’t tell this level of truth.

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July 13, 2018

I was walking the dog this evening when I woman I barely know stops me to express her condolences. But it rapidly becomes clear that what she really wants to say is that her husband has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I say, “I know what kind of a strain that can be.”

“Tell me,” she says, “tell me what it’s really like.”

I am a bit taken aback since no one has asked me this in exactly this way, and I know she is asking from a place of real need, a place of real questioning.

As I continue my walk home I realize that I haven’t yet told the truth, or at least, not the whole truth as I now know it, of my own experience. For truth, like everything in life, has many layers and many permutations. It changes and grows as life reveals itself. I’ve been waiting for the right time, and now it appears. For more than two years I’ve been telling a partial truth but it is only now that I can begin to tell more of it. I promised Michael that I wouldn’t say much of this until after he was dead and I have honored that promise. But I have to tell the truth, for what good is any writing if the truth isn’t told?

For the past thirty-five years, I have been Michael’s partner in relative health and then, over two years ago, I became his partner in mortal illness. And for more than two years, I am his caregiver. Endless trips to the doctor, endless chemotherapy treatments, endless time in his hospital room, endless worry and stress, and endless pain of different sorts for both of us.

His body degenerates markedly. System after system begins to fail, and then fails even more. It’s hard for him to eat, to walk, to move, to sleep. He has horrible breath, his skin and muscles and teeth are breaking down, and perhaps worst of all, he’s impotent. So, we leave our lovership behind, and become more of what we’ve always been. We are best friends, living together while one of us is dying.

After more than a year of no progress with his illness, my thoughts grow darker. One of the horrors is that I find myself wishing for his death. Several friends say he is hanging on to life for me. I’m not sure if this is true, but now there are times when I close my door, sob uncontrollably, and tell his spirit it’s ok to let go. I tell his higher self that I’ll be fine, that I can make it without him, that he doesn’t need to worry about me. And maybe he’s hanging on for me, or maybe it’s for something else, something unnameable. He continues to search for a life purpose and even though he doesn’t find one, he hangs on.

The truth of caregiving, and the truth of a long dying, is that those who are closest get angry and scared and worried and burned out. The truth is that as a caregiver, I feel guilty that I can’t live up to the very real burden of caring that is placed upon me. The truth of a long dying is that I am carrying a level of burden that only those others who have endured it can understand.

For one of the heaviest burdens is supporting a person who may not be ready to look at their dying, their approaching death, and the enormous toll on those who love them. And the truth of my caregiving, the one I feel the most guilt about, is that there are times when I think about walking away. Michael continues to stubbornly project a future that lasts for five to seven more years of what we are enduring. And because I always have, I believe in his force of will, his ability to manifest, and seven more years of living together in this half-life, feels unsustainable to me, feels literally, like a living death.

Finally, in a moment of clarity and pain, I tell him that I can’t do “this” for another seven years, that I will always take care of him, but I might find another house to live in, another place to stay. I know this hurts him which engenders even more guilt, but I feel I will collapse into a lesser self if I don’t say it, if I don’t tell this level of truth. But in spite of this, I don’t leave. I can’t leave. As much as I would sometimes like to leave, I must be here for my friend. Still, it is almost unbearable.

The two years begin to feel endless. He tries not to drag me down, though I am dragged down nonetheless. He is sick and his body is literally falling apart. But in spite of this, I admire him. For the most part, he suffers well. He keeps going, keeps believing, keeps trying to do everything he can to get better. At some point last December, we are so close that I have dropped any thought of leaving him and I tell him this. I am fully committed to being with him to the end, whenever that is. There is a new level of trust and intimacy between us, and I’m ready to endure whatever life may bring.

Regardless, his treatment isn’t working and he’s not improving. At our January hospital appointment, a “salvage transplant” is offered. After several worried days, Michael decides not to pursue it. He says there is no data to support it. I am so relieved! I realize I haven’t been breathing, dreading all that another transplant would mean. Finally, I can take a breath.

We leave for Florida for a month and begin to make plans for his death. It is an excruciating time between us. And it is a time for deep healing – a time when everything is said, when all the love and pain and fear are told and known. In some ways, we are the closest we’ve ever been. We come home with my belief that we are now on the road to Michael’s long degenerative death.

Then, at our next medical appointment in March, the doctor dangles a second stem cell transplant in front of him again. The doctor tells Michael it may “improve his quality of life.” These seem to be the magic words and when the doctor leaves the room for a moment, Michael literally whirls his head toward me with the most intense look I’ve ever seen. He wants this transplant! Even though he said he didn’t want it two months ago, now he wants it.

The doctor re-enters the room and I ask the pointed questions that Michael isn’t asking, the questions about the potential effects of the second transplant.

“Will the swelling in his tongue go away so that he can eat more easily?” “No.”

“Will the swelling in his legs improve?” “No.”

“Will his skin improve?” “No.”

“Will the deposits in his heart dissolve?” “No.”

“Will the deposits in other parts of his body go away?” “No.”

“Will his impotence disappear?” “No.”

“So, what will get better?” “It is likely that he will have more energy.”

I am appalled. I think to myself that this isn’t worth risking what life he has left. But Michael wants this, and as I sit in numbed and shocked awareness, he agrees to another transplant.

Another transplant, after I thought we’d spent the past month coming to peace with his dying. Another transplant, meaning weeks in the hospital while he clings to a slim thread of hope and life. Another transplant, which may literally kill him but which offers the possibility of “more energy.” Another transplant. It feels foolish and stupid and wrong, and then I am angry. I want to scream at him, “Can’t you see you are dying? Can’t we just get on with it?”

But I don’t. He can’t see it. Not yet. It’s too much to believe, too much to take in. So, I agree to help him. I agree to back him up as completely as I can.

So, this caregiver becomes a cheerleader, a false witness to a process that is so obviously flawed, and so obviously painful, that the truth, the whole truth, can’t be said clearly enough. For when does one support the quest for a cure, and when does one say it is foolish? When is it honest to say what one sees and feels? And when is it simply cruel? And, really, what can anyone say about another’s desire to keep trying to live?

Relationships, real relationships, are far more nuanced than any story can tell. Real relationships involve compromises and choices and changes, some of which literally lead to life-denying patterns and pain.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. He dies 32 days after the transplant and he is gone. Does our change in relationship mean I don’t grieve deeply and truly, that I don’t suffer in my heart and soul? For surely, I do. I have lost my best friend and I miss him with an intensity that surprises, scares, and humbles me.

A few weeks ago, I found a letter that Michael never sent to me. It was roughly written in one of his many notebooks while he was still in the hospital, and it was dated two weeks before he died. He’d had a particularly awful day and in it, he said he realized that he was dying and he had accepted it. He felt he still had a fair amount of time to live but he was philosophically open. He was in and out of deep and frequent meditations at that point and he knew he was going to a place without a body, a place without the pain of earthly existence.

He apologized for putting me through all that he had put me through, and he wished for me to find my freedom and my peace. The letter ends with this: “Wherever I am, whatever I am, know that I hold you close in my love and consciousness for all eternity. (Imagine the hubris of that statement!). But if it can be stated in truth, I’m saying it with all my being.” These are the last words he ever wrote and they always make me cry.

We came together as soul mates, and he died as my soul’s companion. My mind flashes on our last moments together every single day. He died with our last words being words of love, words gasped out in the final terrifying minutes of his life. I’m so glad for this, so filled by it. I believe he had a beautiful death.

Clearly, our souls were meant to be together, to accomplish certain things together, to love and learn together. But our mission is over now. Knowing the depth of Michael’s soul, the depth of his spiritual practice, I can only assume that he accomplished what he was meant to accomplish. I can only assume that he was done with this life.

So now I can tell the truth. The truth of his illness and his impotence and how it confined our relationship, the truth of my reluctance to fully commit to seven more years of our half-life together, the truth of his fears and his final acceptance of death. And ultimately, the truth that love takes many forms. For we loved each other, through all the missteps and sorrows and joys, and in the end, it is all that matters.

Stargazer

There is kindness, and thoughtfulness, and remembrance. And there is the love that continuously streams into this world, everywhere I look, from every direction, the love that animates all of life.

flowers

June 30, 2018

Michael has been gone for 66 days now — 66 long, lonely days. Some of them pretty good, some of them really hard. I notice that I’m still counting the days but now I can count two months as well, and oddly, this feels like some sort of milestone. His death is now months ago instead of days. I’m amazed that it’s been this long a time, and I’m amazed that it’s been this short. The death of a loved one is truly timeless. But somehow, I’ve lived through it and somehow, things are becoming slightly easier, slightly better. When people ask I say, “I am in deep grief, and I’m also just fine. And both are true.”

Lately I’ve been noticing a subtle shift in the energy of many of those around me. I’m betting that everyone who is in grief comes to this realization at some point. I’m noticing that some people, even ones I’ve known for years, no longer ask me how I’m doing with my grief. Or if they do, they want to hear the happy version, the strong version, the version that doesn’t scare them.

I can tell right away which people don’t want to hear the depths, and really, it’s probably most people, and really, it’s fine. They want to hear that I’m having a good day, that life is getting back to normal, that things are moving along. It’s been over two months and I guess that for most of the world, it’s better if I’m moving on.

I don’t blame them! God knows it’s hard to hear each other’s pain, and it can be frightening. We really don’t know what to do with pain — our own or each other’s — we get scared of it and we don’t know what to say. I mean, who wants to know that I’m still suffering the loss of my beloved companion? Who actually wants to hear about death and grief? Who wants to encompass the truth that it goes on and on?

For that matter, I wish I didn’t have to hear about it inside of myself. I wish I didn’t have to feel it. I wish I could just move on to the happy, strong version of myself all of the time instead of just part of the time. But that’s not real and there is no escape for me in this kind of happy talk.

Maybe others are uncomfortable because they have a sense of needing to fix the problem of my grief, to cheer me up, to distract me.  But I don’t need distracting. I’m learning to do that on my own. And I don’t need cheering, for I am learning to live in the moment more consciously, and there’s great joy to be found here. And finally, there is no cure for grief. It can’t be fixed because the horrible truth is, there’s no cure for life itself! Grief is inevitable in every life, and honestly, it doesn’t need fixing. It simply needs acknowledgment.

We want to believe that we have control over things, and that life won’t overwhelm us. We want to believe that we’ve developed our mental and emotional strategies so well that we are protected from the hard events. We want to believe that we know how to cope. We want to put death behind us, far away from the life we are living.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’m one of those people who wants to know the depths, who wants to plunge into life’s mysteries, tragedies, and subtleties. I’m one of those people who wants to know and tell the truth. Thankfully, people who are close to me still ask, and these precious ones listen and hear my honest feelings. Others do not. And as I said, I truly don’t blame them. But grief isn’t like this. It doesn’t just come to a neat and final end.

In some ways, I have moved on. I’m making plans for a yoga retreat, a meditation retreat, a trip to meet my new grandson. This is good and necessary and part of healing. But it also has a kind of hollowness to it. It rings empty inside of me, a bell with no one to hear it.

Michael always heard my bell. He always responded to my heart’s songs. And whether he understood them or not, he tried to vibrate to their frequency just as I vibrated to his. And it strikes me that for 35 years I wasn’t ever really lonely. What a blessing! I’m learning it’s a remarkable thing to be able to say — I wasn’t ever seriously lonely.

Four days ago, I lived through our first wedding anniversary without Michael. I had been doing pretty well. I’m back at work and enjoying it. Maybe being a therapist is easier now because other events have paled in comparison to my husband’s dying and death. Maybe it is because I am ready for a shift into another level of my work, and maybe it is because I am able to witness my own process with greater detachment and depth. Regardless, work has been good.

At any rate, I see clients on our anniversary and I am doing fine. I haven’t cried and I idly wonder if I might be going to make it through the day in far better shape than I had predicted. And then, I go for a walk. As I am walking, I realize that I am walking alone, and that I may walk alone now for the rest of my life. I realize that it is my anniversary and there’s no one to share it with, no one to honor it with me, no one to send me flowers. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed with loneliness and sorrow.

Where do these thoughts come from? I want to dismiss them, let them go, leave them alone, but oh, I am sad. I start to weep, just a few tears, and I start to miss my soul’s companion with such fierce yearning, such wracking pain.

I come home and really break down. As I’m crying, I think that it is good. I’m getting these feelings out. They need to be expressed and I’m glad that I can cry like this on our anniversary. Now I am sobbing, keening, raw with emotion, love, and longing. Once again, I am plunged back into realizing that Michael is really dead and that I will never see him again. It’s almost unbearable.

But then … the most beautiful bouquet of flowers arrives at my door – a huge vase of Stargazer lilies. The card says, “Thinking of you today. It’s still a day to celebrate in these difficult times. Love from the Santangelo family.”

The flowers are from Michael’s dear son and his family. Somehow, they have remembered our day, have sent me flowers. And to put a finer point on it, they are “stargazers,” for that is what Michael’s spirit left behind him when he died. He left stars behind, stars that I watch on my hard nights alone. And these flowers, these precious flowers, have made the unbearable, bearable. I am crying again, but now I am crying because there is such love in this world. There is kindness, and thoughtfulness, and remembrance. And there is the love that continuously streams into this world, everywhere I look, from every direction, the love that animates all of life.

Today I gaze at these star flowers with a bit of melancholy, a little sadness, a touch of “tristesse” as the French say. It’s a word I’ve always loved. It’s the sorrows of life, the ones we can all expect, the wry and wistful knowing that this is just how it is. It’s not bad or wrong, and it doesn’t need to be fixed. Not in any way.

So, let us celebrate even this, even death and loss. For it is this that absolutely requires our attention and our celebration. It is this that gives our lives meaning. “C’est la vie,” say the French. It is just life.

 

Riding the Waves

The thing is, the very singular thing is, that this kind of loneliness can only be filled by Michael, and he’s not ever going to be here to fill it again. There is literally an unfillable hole in my life, and that is the truth of grief.

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-17 at 4.55.42 PM

June 16, 2018

It’s 52 days since Michael’s death and I’ve been alone the whole day. I haven’t spoken to a single person, not one, except of course, Michael. But he doesn’t answer. For the first time since he died, and for a whole day, I haven’t cried. Though of course I’m crying now as I think about him. I’m so lonely and I miss him so much.

I talk to the dog. She doesn’t answer either, but she does wag her tail and lick my hands, so that’s something. The thing is, the very singular thing is, that this kind of loneliness can only be filled by Michael, and he’s not ever going to be here to fill it again. There is literally an unfillable hole in my life, and that is the truth of grief.

Sometimes I wish I had the mind of my dog. She is utterly present-centered. When Michael was alive and lying in a hospital bed in our living room, she loved him. She licked him and cuddled him and wanted to be near him. After he died I held her up to his body and she had no interest at all. None. He was simply gone and she knew it. And, weirdly, if he walked in the door right now, and how I wish he could, she’d be delirious with joy. There’s no gap for her. There’s no missing. He’s just not here.

A new friend reminded me of something Ram Dass said about the loss of a loved one. He said that not only is one dealing with the loss of that person, one is also dealing with the loss of the part of one’s self that was known by that person. And now that is gone. This makes me cry even harder. For no one else will ever know me in the very particular, subtle, and conscious way that Michael did. That level of being known, that rich particularity, is lost forever in this life.

In spite of my best efforts, the house is filled with Michael, even as I clear out so many of his things, his books, his clothes — he is everywhere! There’s the art we bought in Green Bay, and the fossil we found at the gorge. There’s the large vertebrae of some huge mammal we stumbled on in the mountains, and the garden ornament I bought for him because of a dream he had. The list goes on and on. Every room of this house, every thought in my head, has a tendril that leads back to Michael. There are times when it is extremely painful and times when it is comforting, but always, it is a little too empty now, and much too sad. And part of me just desperately wants to escape, wants to run away, wants to find another lover, another house, another life.

I find myself cruising the Zillow site looking at houses for sale, and I even find one I think would be right for me. I text my realtor, who also lost a true love, and she talks me down from the edge, thank god. I won’t be buying a new house today. But the impulse is still there and I have to wrestle with it. I plan a trip to California to meet my first grandchild in September and I realize I am pinning so many hopes on this new life that is being born, so many hopes for this hole in me to be filled, all the while knowing that it won’t. I look ahead to birthdays and anniversaries and holidays with something approaching dread, and I pray I’m in a better place inside of myself when they occur.

A friend eloquently writes: “I think about you being alone in a house still animated with scents and wispy trails of Michael’s presence, thicker in some places and thinner and more spread out in others, as if one moment you step into liminal spaces where the veil between worlds thins and the next you find yourself solidly in this physical world of ours.”

This is exactly right. I’m in the liminal space most of the time when I’m alone – between the worlds. I talk to Michael then, and there’s still enough memory of his voice that I can hear him say, “It’s ok, Babe. You’re doing fine.” I imagine it’s actually him speaking to me then, his spirit reaching out across the void to comfort me. And maybe it is.

I have a session with our psychic, the one who correctly predicted Michael’s death, to ask her about my life now that he is gone. She tells me that I’m still in shock from his death but this is lightening, and when it does, Michael will come through to me more easily. She also tells me that finding another love is not my primary mission. Rather, I am to “feel safe in earth” in order to experience profound relaxation while on my own. This level of relaxation is based in utter faith in the Divine as it unfolds. She says this is the key to deeper enlightenment.

She also says that the hardest part of enlightenment isn’t the leap into it, it is the integration of its many lessons and this takes time. I will know that I am making progress  when I am filled with fearlessness. She reminds me of other readings I’ve had in which I am told how important it is, how actually crucial it is, for me to find joy within myself and my own life. She sees another love coming for me but not for awhile, for it is my task to learn to live alone, to root deeply into my own center.

I know she is right. I’ve never really lived alone until now. I’ve lived with girlfriends and boyfriends, and husbands, and children. But I’ve never lived alone.

Many years ago an astrologer told me about my North node. The North node points to what your soul came into this life to learn, and mine is in the first house, the house of independence.  The numerology of my birth date has a similar message, for my life path adds up to the number “one.” This signifies that I am a leader and independence is my greatest strength.

But it doesn’t feel like this to me. I don’t feel like a leader. I feel done in, at sea, overwhelmed. So much of me wants to fall back into what is easy, to meld into another relationship, to give myself over to a new lover or a new house. Yet I can hear the truth in the psychic’s words. She gives me the same information I’ve heard from all of these other esoteric sources. I must find joy in my life without losing myself, without giving myself away to the life of another. Then, and only then, can true love come again. This finding of myself could not happen without Michael’s death, and now I realize this truth at another level. His death was an absolutely necessary part of our soul contract, a necessary sacrifice.

As I write these words, another tidal wave of grief comes rushing in. It tosses me into the deep water and as it does, I know this is sacred space. All of it. This grief is teaching me to learn to love my life without Michael. It is teaching me to swim in this vast ocean without drowning, and it is teaching me to find my way to shore once again. I know that the hardest thing is for me to sit exactly here on this shore, as steadily as I can. Sit exactly here and allow wave after wave to wash through me, leaving me clearer and calmer with each undulation of this endless sea.