Sunday, August 18, 2019

Widowhood and Back-to-School: People Aren't Meant to do This Alone

A big part of me has always hated this time of year. I've written about it before - how nothing screams the passage of time as a single parent quite like back-to-school. All the pictures of two parents hugging children on social media, happy families going to open houses where excited kids run the halls looking for classrooms - all of it has always made me feel so very widowed.

But after 13 years, I thought I had it licked. Don't get me wrong - the first few years were horrible and I still tear up at any school awards ceremonies, wishing my husband could be there with me.  But I got used to it. I'd feel sad, but it wouldn't overwhelm me.

Not like this year.

As I write this, I'm sitting alone in a hotel room after dropping my daughter off at college. I'll fly home tomorrow, where I will hug my two younger kids and be grateful for my remaining time with them at home like I have never been before. Last night, I optimistically thought I'd have time on my own this afternoon to explore the city and do something fun.

At 11:00 this morning, I decided my time would be better spent resting and allowing myself to cry.

Millions of parents are going through what I'm going through this weekend - I know this because the Targets and Walmarts near my daughter's university are completely cleaned out. They look like war zones. The thing is that not all of them are going through it alone. And that has brought my grief all the way back to those first years of preschool and elementary school when I was a newly widowed parent, completely devastated that I was experiencing this all by myself.

It made me think of something that I wrote in my book about how, while others will offer help, no one is "in it" like your spouse is. No one is as invested in your children as they are. So, without that partner, you just don't have the same support.

I know that even with a partner, this time of year can be devastating (in a positive way - so weird). Last night at a moving ceremony, I thought the person behind me was laughing. I finally turned just a little to give them the stink-eye and realized she was sobbing. So, it's not like the hurt is reserved for the widowed.

Sitting next to my daughter today, just before we parted, I felt like I did bringing her to school for the first time. Her hand in mine was the size of an adult, but it still felt like she was in kindergarten to me. It was a surreal moment when I left her, like dropping her off for summer camp. I had a couple of years where all the kids went to camp for two weeks at the same time and, while it was nice to have time to myself, I had serious anxiety when I left them. Your family makes your home no matter where you are - I learned that when I said goodbye to them.

And today I left a little piece of my home in a dorm room with two other girls - but the pain feels even more acute.

As I got into my car this morning after the final ceremony, I thought about the other parents getting into there's. Were they crying together? Were they just talking about what to do with the rest of their day? Were they sitting in silence, wondering if their relationship would be better or worse now that the buffer of a child was gone?

I so desperately wanted Brad sitting next to me, sharing this experience as only the other parent could. For the first time in a long time, I didn't feel like I had this widow thing under control. I started sobbing as I pulled out of the parking garage and have kept up a steady stream since then - I wish he could be here so we could comfort each other, or even distract each other.

I've gotten very good at being alone and it's something that I crave in many cases. But what I'm experiencing right now should never be experienced alone. The growth and transition of a family should be experienced by a WHOLE family and I can't help but feel the sorrow of two parents right now, because one isn't here to go through it.

My daughter has been dry-eyed and excited this weekend and that has made all of this a little more bearable. I've been doing my best to shield her from my own grief. I'm sure there will be moments of homesickness for her, just like I'm homesick for her already. And I'm so grateful for her enthusiasm and her ability to jump into this next chapter with both feet. There's something I can learn from that.

For a process that's part of our evolution, this seems downright inhumane. I've had many moments when I've thought, "I can't do this." In fact, I almost wanted to leave her at some points and just walk out because this was all too much to bear (which makes no sense - I'm sad because I don't want to leave her, but my body wanted to run away? Explain that to me, therapist).

I have no idea what comes next because, like childbirth, you can't explain something like this to someone else - you just have to plow your way through it. Honestly, if we could accurately explain childbirth, no one would have babies. If I could truly put into words how painful sending a kid to college is, no one would get past high school. So, I guess this just has to be part of the parenting experience.

Will I feel better when I get home tomorrow? How long with this grief process last? Will my heart ever feel whole again?

I don't know.

So, now I'm going to completely clean this hotel room out of tissues and allow myself to sit still and just feel what I need to feel (which is not easy for me) and hope that our next version of the new normal isn't hard to find.

Because right now I feel more than a little lost.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Moment Collector

Whew. These last few days have kicked my ass.

School starts this week, which has actually never been an easy time for me. I don't know if other widows experience this, but back-to-school has always signified the passing of time like almost nothing else does. It's another year of firsts, another year he's missing.

This year's back-to-school is compounded by the fact that my oldest is leaving for college across the country later this week. And while I spent the beginning of last school year crying, I quickly got a hold of myself, determined not to let my grief over her leaving spoil the time I had left with her.

And now the time has come.

I hope I'm not delusional in thinking that in a couple of weeks, I think I'll be okay. It's just the anticipation of this goodbye that's got me thinking I need to increase my anxiety meds for the short-term. Truthfully, as most parents of teenagers will probably agree with, I don't see her much now - and she's still living in my house.

So, in many ways, I think our day-to-day won't be that different from how we've experienced this summer. There have been moments when I've had to stop and ask myself, "Is she even home?"

But I will miss her. As I type this, I have a ball of nausea pinging around my stomach.

I've been trying to find some coping tools to help me get through this week (one of which has been binging on Downton Abbey - it's been on nonstop). I was going through my bookshelf and I found a book I bought long ago called 1,001 Ways to Live in the Moment. And I opened it up to #1.

Precious Moments

The miser who hoards his wealth but neglects the more important values of life is a figure rightly disdained in folklore and literature. Trying to hold on to the moment is similarly desperate. Instead, appreciate the unfolding wealth of life as it presents itself to your experience. The moment passes; beauty fades; life follows its eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Let precious moments pass in to memory, without regret. And don't spend your life in the memory-vault fondling the accumulated riches you've stored there - search out and welcome fresh moments instead of reliving stale ones.

This really struck me because for the first time I realized that I am not just a memory collector - I'm a memory hoarder. While some people fill their homes with stuff to the point where they can barely move, I try to fill my life with moments to the point where I can barely move forward.

When I was a young adult, I went through a time when I had to have as much time with my parents as I could. It was like I was starved for it. Any vacation time I had from work was spent going to see them. And I know you're thinking that that makes me a model daughter, but the truth is that I was almost trying to absorb every bit of them that I could. And it would never be enough.

I don't think I've ever been especially good at "searching out and welcoming fresh moments" because I'm so intent on making moments that are mine, that I can keep and store and submerge myself in.

All this goes back to, again, not living in the present. It's not enough that I'm having a moment with friends or family - I have to do it so intensely and make it the most memorable and fulfilling moment I possibly can.

And in the end, I put so much pressure on these moments, I don't think it's possible to truly enjoy them. I put so much weight on each moment, it's kind of a wonder I don't have an ulcer or that I'm not on stronger meds than I am.

It's true that this is a huge time of transition and I'm allowing the tears to come as much as I possibly can. I just don't want to put so much pressure on each moment I have left with my family under the same roof that I end up not enjoying any of it.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

I Lost Him Before You Did

My husband died on July 18, 2007. But that's not the day I lost him.

He was in an accident on his way to work on July 16th. Later that day he had a stroke. The next day the doctors determined his brain was swelling. And he died on the 18th.

When I saw my husband in the hospital on the 16th, I thought he would be coming home. Later that day, I thought he would come home, but paralyzed from a stroke. But when I sat with him on the 16th, before the stroke happened, we talked, we joked, I brought my bag from my car with a People magazine. Things had changed but we were together.

Later that day, he wouldn't wake up. His last words sounded like a toddler's because, unbeknownst to us, he'd already had a stroke.

I lost my husband that day.

His body followed a few days later.

For years, I mourned the 16th while others remembered the 18th. Thinking back I think I held it sacred because I felt like that was our last day together. I think there was a part of me that wanted his passing - the passing of who he was - to be mine.

As I write this, I'm thinking about others who have lost spouses and partners who know exactly what I'm talking about. You know the moment you lost them before anyone else did. It's a moment you will never forget that almost overshadows the moment they were physically gone. It could have been months before, or moments before.

But it's your moment to hold.