Last October, the calendar said I graduated. No cap and gown necessary. Completing a year of ‘firsts’ after my husband died was the only requisite for graduation. A friend who reached that mark herself not long before, warned me that the ‘second year’ can feel even worse than the first. Good talk. Seriously, this year wasn’t bad enough? How hard could the second year be?
Let’s just say I hate when people are right, don’t you?
Last year I put all my energies into ‘doing’, not being. And all the distractions worked fairly well to push me through those hellish 12 months. Gradually though, all the ‘first’ holidays, birthdays, big and small family events were put away, like that bulky down coat when spring finally settles in. And then you wake up with a thud in the real’ zone, loudly reminded that the one you love is Not. Ever. Coming. Back. I realize that’s not exactly breaking news but in the first year you shoved that little fact up on the shelf until you can handle it better. Spoiler alert: When the smoke finally clears, it’s still there — grief 2.0.
You found out the hard way, that there’s no short cut, or quick path through grief. Yet, you pushed through, cuts, scrapes and thorny brush because when you’re in the real zone you have no other choice and no GPS to help you navigate. Richard Branson quipped that “If you find yourself stuck in the middle, there’s only one way to go – forward.” Good plan.
Things will never be what they were – neither will you. That’s what the ‘real zone’ is all about. Once the last shreds of the smokescreen are stripped away, the reality of the missing is exposed. The emotional and physical connection we had with the one no longer here is starkly visible.
“‘Cause there may be times when you think you lost your mind
And the steps you’re takin’ leave you three, four steps behind
And the road you’re walkin’ might be long sometimes
But just keep on steppin’, and you’ll be just fine.”
I don’t know about the ‘fine’ part but one thing is sure – like it or not, ready or not, you are ‘Easin’ on Down the Road’. The second year is about inventory. Every day another memory of our husband, wife, child or mother pops in our minds. Whether it’s something our cherished person did for us or we for them, it’s another inventory zinger. A phrase only they said, food they craved or an idiosyncrasy that doesn’t seem nearly as crazy now they are gone are all part of the groundhog day realization of that fact.
Inventory is when even little things, like my husband’s crazy sense of humor that often elicited an eye roll, now bring unbearable sweetness. Hindsight starkly defines conversations, thoughtful gestures, and loving moments that make us wonder if we appreciated or acknowledge each as we should have. When my neck consistently complained last week about long ago whiplashes, I yearned for my guy’s magic fingers even as I hoped he knew how grateful I was for those neck rubs. All the little things in life, now like broken Lego pieces, can be painful underfoot yet each are reminders what made that life worthwhile.
Our inventories catalog all the places our loved ones are not and won’t be in the future. I fell into one of those exact places when my beautiful, only granddaughter recently got engaged. (And me, such a young chick!) As I watched her happiness bubble over, I cried for her and her sweetheart’s innocent happiness. I cried for the grandpa who never got to see this moment. And I cried for all the moments to come for the little girl he taught to drive, encouraged to develop her beautiful voice and listened to so patiently — that he will never share.
Taking inventory sucks.
Yet, even in these bittersweet moments, I believe that grandpa of hers knows exactly where she is in her life right now. And he knows where I am as well. That’s why, even in the blue tones of this second year, something else emerges that seems very much like life in living color. Maybe not my favorite color (teal, by the way) but definitely not grey. A sudden memory can rip your heart open, and then you realize that your heart never closed. As you ease on into the third, fifth or ninth year, you discover you are more defined, more compassionate, understanding. You might take things slower, think more, love more. You are more attuned to others’ pain, more open to others’ joy and more aware of ‘the moment’.
As Joan Rivers said “I wish I could tell you it gets better. It doesn’t – YOU do.”
Like the caterpillar who thought its life was over, we sometimes find we have actually grown wings. We may have no desire to fly or, if you’re like me, not even know where you want to go. But even that might make an excellent homework assignment in the years to come.
Now smack in the middle of my second year, I hardly have all the answers. To say I’m doing just great would be a serious exaggeration. To be totally honest, living in this strange land without my husband (or ruby slippers) is no rainbow Oz. Yet, I believe the dingy yellow brick road leads somewhere even if I have no idea where yet. Like you, I’ve faced more challenges, confronted more fear and been broken more than I ever imagined. While we certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore, we are still forging ahead. Yea, us! Some moments can been damn painful but I have to believe, like Glinda told Dorothy “You have always had the power, my dear.”
Begone, flying monkeys! I’ve got this.
What have you learned along YOUR yellow brick road?
Thanks so much for your eloquent words. July 1st was the one year anniversary of my husband’s unexpected death and I also was warned about the second year. It does suck when people are right but you put into words a lot of the confusing feelings that l’m having. I’m also an artist, I was a graphic designer and now I teach art to children and adults. If I didn’t have that I d truly be lost.
Thank you for your sharing, Michelle. I know this month is a very difficult one for you and my thoughts are with you in abundance. Like you, as a creative it seems good to try to remember the thought about making art of the broken pieces and hopefully, we can both do that going forward. Sudden loss carries so much grief in itself and I will keep your second year in my heart.