I would not have used the word “hopeful” to describe any part of me in those early days after Sam’s death. Not optimistic or positive either. “Determined” might have been the closest to hope I would have dared. I employed quite a few of Uncle Jose’s colorful words, “hope” being a four-letter word not among them.
One of my girlfriends gave me a stone with this inscription on it: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord… to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). I was not even remotely comforted. I was so overwhelmed by my dismal present that I could not see beyond it. I promptly tucked the stone in the back of a drawer because I was afraid that one of the boys would smash it or use it to break something else, rock-breaking constituting one of their frequently employed outlets for grief. To be fair, the sight of it made me so angry that I wanted to hurl it through a window myself.
Sometimes the closest thing to faith I could muster was my incredulity that somebody else had hope for me and what Life still had in store. Turns out that’s enough. Sometimes the best I could do was to mask how annoying I found their optimism. Often I couldn’t. Turns out that‘s okay too.
There is a lot I don’t remember from those early days of grief. I remember an extraordinary number of questions and very few answers. I didn’t sleep much. I hardly ate. I held my breath.
I lost my partner, my best friend and my compass. I lost my appetite and 25 pounds between Halloween and New Year’s Eve. I lost interest in my favorite hobbies: cooking, photography, reading, writing. I lost my ability to focus. I couldn’t hear people talking; I often I wandered out of the room while they still were. The nights were dark and very long.
I cannot imagine what this process looked like to the outside observer, but judging from the caring, stricken faces of my family and friends, the train wreck wasn’t easy to watch.
Recently, a friend asked me how I managed through those initial days and weeks. When everything was gone, I had to bring myself back to basics: eat, sleep, breathe. The holy trinity of healing.
My mantra was, “Inhale. Exhale. Repeat as necessary.” I silently and audibly repeated it so often that one girlfriend gave me a silver bracelet with one word inscripted: Breathe. I have worn it nearly every day since she gave it to me, and even now in times of stress you might notice that I reach for it with the opposite hand and inhale.
As it turns out, letting people help can be instrumental in the healing process. I do not believe that line that Life only dishes out what you can handle. Life routinely piles on more than one person can manage alone; but Life also hands us each other. I tried to focus on eating, sleeping and breathing, and I let my girlfriends do pretty much everything else.
They picked me up and dusted me off. They cooked and carpooled. They wrote cards and emails. They took me to lunch and brought me books. They drove me to therapy and to Trader Joe’s. They sat with me, they ran with me, they cried with me. They argued with each other over who would do my laundry. Seriously. When your world goes black and you have friends who – with tears in their eyes – are fighting over your whites and colors on your front lawn, you are a lucky girl.
Through it all, they rallied to my side. When they asked, “What can I do for you?” they honestly wanted to know the answer. Much of the time I was too brain-damaged to I know what I needed. This did not deter them. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other and breathe my way through the day, fueled by the occasional snack. Ultimately there is no fix, but there is great power in presence. And dark chocolate.
My parents moved in with me. My house doesn’t have a guest room, but it didn’t matter. The boys and I slept like puppies in a queen bed for months. With the actual dog, of course. Not that I slept much, but I took great comfort in hearing the boys breathing. And the dog snoring.
What impresses me most as I look back is that my friends – through the lens of their own talents — noticed what I was missing and willingly filled in the gaps. I already told you about the closet. Another of my friends noticed that I was chronically late bringing the boys to school. According to her own self-assessment she has “no social skills”; she’s an engineer. For months, she showed up on my doorstep precisely at 7:45 – with her own children in tow – and got us ready, collecting lunches, socks, shoes, backpacks. Then she marched us up to school, prepared and on time. Do you know ANY moms who can be anywhere at the exact same time five days a week, with or without their children? This is her gift. I didn’t need a dozen moms on my doorstep. I just needed the one. And she was there.
One of my friends whose skills include organization and discretion came over once a week to sort my mail and remind me to pay the bills. I guess I needed a lot of hand-holding. Also a little Xanax.
One of my girlfriends – emotionally close but geographically distant – sent me an email every morning and every night for the entire first year after Sam died, even when her kids were sick or she was travelling. Usually just a few sentences. Sometimes a funny quote from the kids. Occasionally irreverent. Incredibly kind. For once, the time difference played in our favor. She gave me something to look forward to. Every morning. Every night. She was a life-line, and I depended on her.
I told more than one friend that I was not on speaking terms with God. I didn’t have anything nice to say to Her. Or about Him. I took God’s name in vain. Sam’s too. I refused to pray. But … many friends and friends of friends, as well as people I did not even know, prayed on my behalf. I’m pretty sure that most of them did not use Uncle Jose’s colorful words in their prayers. I know for a fact that some of them did.
These amazing, lovely friends found ways to be present with me in my pain. Theirs were the hands cupped around the flickering flame of my hope, keeping it aglow in the midst of the winds of change.
A girlfriend from college, an amateur photographer, created a blog for me, where she posted her work. She entitled this photograph “After the Rain.”
Something about it resonated with me, resembling my now family of three. It actually hadn’t occurred to me that there might be an “after.” There was simply so much rain. But she did think about my “after,” so when I later heard this quote in my favorite yoga class, I knew it belonged together with the photo: “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” (by Anais Nin) Sometimes I just stared at this photo, still tight in the bud myself, wanting to believe that the day would come. My friend had faith in me, trusting that after the rainstorm that was my husband’s death, the three of us – my little boys and me – would bloom again.
She was right, of course, but first I wore a lot of black. The boys wore out their shoes. I swore. We spent a lot of time breaking big rocks into little rocks in those dark and lonely days. We remained tight in the bud – each in his own time – tucked safely in the darkness until we were ready to turn toward the sunshine.
Someone is praying for light and strength to filter into your world. Let them.