Life is made up of a series of moments. Many pass by without a second thought; a few are special enough to give us pause. But the rare ones are the ones that change us. They steal our breath away and alter the very core of our beings.
You read about these moments in novels and watch them play out in movies. How the impact of one event can create ripples in the lives that are affected. You watch in anticipation of whether the main character will use every ounce of strength they possess to change for the better or if they will slowly start to unravel. The suspense builds to a choice. Which will it be?
I never thought I’d find myself in that position. It never occurred to me that my life wouldn’t go exactly as I had planned. I assumed that my reckless optimism would help me forge my way through the muck and madness that comes with growing up. Adults never tell you that the world will do its best to beat the positivity out of you. They don’t tell you that no matter how hard you work there will be times that looking on the bright side won’t help. I’m sure they just want to protect us. To keep us safe from everything that will try to tear us down. But they can’t protect us from everything.
After my niece passed away, I knew nothing would be the same again. It was the first time in my 27 years that I knew what people meant when they said that life isn’t fair. My unwavering positivity flickered and I struggled with keeping it turned on. I became really good at boxing up my feelings and erecting a false face. I felt this overwhelming pressure to be ok. Like people expected me to be bounce back after a specific amount of time. What I am learning is that there is no bouncing back; no way to go back to a world before this tragedy. And I wouldn’t want that. I wouldn’t want to live in a place where this perfect, beautiful little girl was never loved. If the pain we feel for her loss is any indication, that little girl is one of the most loved in the world. That kind of love and loss is something you can never just get over.
I spent the next year clawing my way towards a sense of normalcy that I wasn’t sure even existed any longer. As the anniversary of her birth and the day of her death approached, I found myself becoming more and more closed off. There was this constant pressure in my chest. I wasn’t sleeping. I didn’t want to hang out with anyone, but when I was left alone, it felt as if I was suffocating. Tears flowed regularly and the walls I had so painstakingly built to house the grief crumbled. It took me a full year before I could visit her grave. And when I did, I cried just as much I did on the day I kissed her goodbye. So much for finding ‘normal.’
I’m not sure how, but I survived that week. I survived the tears, and the heartache; the sleepless nights and the anger towards the universe. I made it through and I felt like I could finally start to heal. But life or karma or whoever decides our fates, wasn’t done yet.
I never could have predicted what October 2016 would hold. Most days I still try to convince myself that it didn’t happen. But it did happen. And I feel like I’ve been living in a nightmare ever since. I spent 23 hours over the course of 3 days in a car travelling to and from Florida to say goodbye to my grandpa. It was the first time in 4 years that I was able to see him and sometimes the guilt I feel over that fact threatens to swallow me whole. This was the man who watched over me as I grew up, taught me how to play cards, and danced with me around bonfires. He showed me how to shoot pool and bait my own hook. He instilled in me an intense love of cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies that I don’t even understand sometimes. And now I had to say goodbye.
I will be forever grateful for those few hours that I got to spend with him. Our conversation didn’t make much sense and it didn’t last very long, but I was able to laugh with him and tell him I love him. I got to hold his hand and kiss his forehead. As hard as it was to walk out of that hospice room for the last time, I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything.
My grandpa passed away the Wednesday after we arrived back home. I had just finished getting ready for work and was sitting down to eat my breakfast when I pulled out my phone to check Facebook. The first thing I saw in my newsfeed was a picture of him with some words written beneath it. To be honest, I don’t even think I read beyond the point where it said he was gone. I can remember how quiet it became in my apartment and how it felt like everything had just stopped. It took everything I had to not fall apart. I thought if I could just bulldoze my way through work I could go home and unravel in the safe space of my husband. I’d be ok. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t get that chance.
When I got home, the shaky ground I had been standing on collapsed. The nightmare I thought I was living in became almost too much to bear. I will never forget the look on my husband’s face when he found out that one of his friends had committed suicide. It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to watch the one person you love most in the world, get his heart broken and knowing that there isn’t anything you can do to make it better for him.
When he left the apartment that night, it was as if he took all the oxygen with him. I couldn’t breathe and could barely stand up on my own. I wrapped my arms around myself afraid that if I let go there wouldn’t be anything left holding me together. This couldn’t be happening. There is no way the world could be this unfair.
The following weeks were full of lessons. I learned that my husband is one of the strongest people I know. I watched as he became the rock for this group of people who couldn’t make sense of what was happening. He did everything he possibly could to help in an unimaginable situation. I learned that there is no measure of time long enough to prepare yourself to hear your husband speak at his friend’s funeral or to watch him carry his casket. I learned that even when you cry every day for weeks, your body still manages to find a reserve stock of tears. The hardest part of saying goodbye is having to do it over every single day.
One of the things I have loved most about myself is my ability to see the bright side of everything. How no matter what was going on, I could put a genuine smile on my face and find some way to make it better. I was naïve in thinking that the world could never knock out my sunshine. That I could go through my life radiating constant positivity. I’ve learned that this is an unrealistic expectation that I have had for myself.
The last 6 months I have been trying everything I can to stay out of my own head. The quiet moments are always the hardest; when the world is still and there is nothing left to distract my mind. I become very aware of my breathing and my mind starts to wander. Without realizing it, my subconscious will start showing me things that I’d rather not see and then I start to wonder what is wrong with me. I tried closing my eyes tight to drown out the onslaught of these thoughts but when I shut them, there is a steady stream of memories playing on a constant loop. There is no escaping it, even in sleep. In all of my life I have never had such vivid dreams as these ones. I find myself waking up with immense anxiety sitting in my chest after these dreams. Some days it’s so overwhelming that it’s hard to breathe. It takes me hours, if not days, to shake that feeling.
Working helps. It’s a scheduled routine where people expect me to be a specific place for a specific amount of time. They expect me to accomplish specific tasks and it forces me squash as much of the anxiety as I can. Outside of work is where I’ve been having issues. I have been struggling with balancing time spent by myself and time spent with other people. I want to be able to just go somewhere on a whim or meet up with friends spontaneously, but I’ve been finding it difficult to do anything that isn’t planned. Even hearing someone suggesting a different game plan instantly makes my heart race and my chest tighten. It’s not that I don’t want to go, because I do. I want to see people and go on adventures. I want to catch up with old friends and leave the house without a game plan. I want so badly to find that carefree, happy, and optimistic person I used to be. I’m trying, I promise. But some days I just can’t. I ask that you be patient while I am searching for her.
I write this not to gain sympathy, but merely as a tool to help myself process some of the most difficult emotions I have ever had to deal with. It’s hard to know where to start when you’ve never experienced anything like this before. I’ve been carrying around a tremendous amount of weight and writing helps to lighten that load; almost as if I am plucking the thoughts right out of my head and containing them in this document. Sounds silly, I know, but it seems to be helping.
It’s been six months since the ground fell out from underneath my feet and I am learning how to keep moving forward through this grief. Some days are good. I find myself laughing and smiling without having to force it and I know that means I’m healing. The bad days are still really rough. They tend to sneak up on me in a song lyric that takes my breath away or a dream that tricks me into thinking it is reality; forcing me to relive moments over and over again. I know this is all part of the process. Things will get better.
I’m ready for the part in all the books and movies where the main character starts to rebound. Where they regain their footing and start to build who they are after the moment that changed their lives. You know that they can never be the same person they were before their world changed, but the tone in the story leads you to believe that the new version of who they are will be just fine. They will start laughing without feeling guilty and making new memories. And one day, they will be able to look back and remember what happened and it won’t cripple them. It will sting and it will be sad, but it won’t take the wind out of their sails as it once did.
These moments that alter the core of our being are what shape us into the people we are. Falling in love. Having children. Completing a bucket list item. Chasing your dreams. These are all things that become part of us. But people don’t talk much about death as being one of those moments. Death is sad and tragic. It’s hard and oftentimes unfair. It forces us to cope with tough emotions and teaches us how to keep putting one foot in front of another. It is a jarring reminder that we don’t know how long we have with the people we love. Death changes the living.
If you are reading this, know that somehow, some way, you have changed my life. And I thank you for that. Know that you are loved and wanted; and that no matter how long it’s been since we’ve spoken, or what happened the last time we had contact, you can always reach out to me. Thank you for being a part of my life and thank you for continuing to be patient with me as I figure out who I am after these losses. You are important. Remember that.