Love and Mourning

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, I was slipping down the rabbit hole, consumed by grief again. I knew I would survive, I knew I’d be whole again, but I knew there was a lot of rocks on the road between then and now.

In the past year, I’ve gained a better perspective, I think, on what Dustin was and was not, what he was capable of giving, and what he was not. I was convinced he was my soulmate. I had just come from a devastatingly awful 3-year relationship, abusive in every sense of the word, and I was not removed from that experience enough to be able to objectively judge this new man who’d come into my life. But he was kind and sweet and caring and very protective of me, all of which were things I craved. I didn’t realize he was an addict at first, didn’t realize how troublesome his past was and how it would come back to haunt us, didn’t realize way too much until it was way too late.

I have a confession: I thought about leaving. All the time. I couldn’t abandon him–but I needed to. We were both drowning in his pain, and while I was sitting atop my fence, I went to bed one night with goals for a shared future, to get him the professional help he so desperately needed…and when I woke up the next morning, all those dreams and goals were ashes and dust. ‘Devastated’ doesn’t even come close to covering it. The guilt. Could I have tried harder? Did I give him enough? I rolled it around and finally let it slip through my fingers. What was done was done. Nothing would change that now.

So. Flash forward to August 2013 when the man who would teach me what it really meant to have and be a soulmate walked through the door of an anonymous barbecue joint. And from that moment on, it was pretty much all over.

And so. Now we’re planning a wedding. Yes, a wedding. Me, the woman who would never be a bride. Me, the erstwhile widow. Never saw that one coming.

The Newlydead Salt and Pepper shakes, and our future wedding cake toppers.

The Newlydead Salt and Pepper shakers, and our future wedding cake toppers.

I love this man with everything I’ve got, would do absolutely anything for him. He is also kind and sweet and caring and very protective, but he is also stable and mature and smart as hell. He is everything Dustin was and more, the happily-ever-after to the original Grimm’s fairy tale, the Disney instead of the Shakespeare.

It took meeting Adam to put my relationship with Dustin in proper perspective: a great, but ultimately flawed, love. It took meeting and loving someone like Dustin to make me fully open to loving Adam, because Dustin taught me how to love wholly: without fear, without reservation, and how to survive the consequences of loving that way. Dustin took my broken spirit and shattered it so thoroughly I had to rebuild from scratch, instead of patching holes and covering up cracks.

Now I’m in a bit of an odd position. I still love Dustin, of course. A part of me always will. Adam not only knows that, his own experiences with grief allowed him to anticipate and understand it. As he puts it, “How can you be jealous of a dead man?”

Adam was the man I was meant to be with, inasmuch as I believe in things like ‘meant to be,’ but I never would have been able to love or appreciate him the way I do if it hadn’t been for Dustin. So, in a way, I owe the success of this relationship to the spectacular loss of the previous one.

I told Adam early on that Dustin and I were a bit of a package deal. I could no longer separate who I am from that experience, because who I am now owes so much to it. In a way, it feels like I’m about to marry them both, which makes my head warp just a bit.

I don’t talk about this much…actually, not at all. I am expected to give up the old love in favor of the new. It doesn’t work that way. I have always believed that you carry a piece of everyone you ever loved with you, and they, a piece of you. In this case, more than a tiny piece.

Although I’ve accepted this as pretty much inevitable, I can’t help but feel ambivalent about it. Isn’t this a strange position to be in? I guess I’ll put it down to yet one more fucked up consequence of love and loss and grief, but I am really looking forward to not have this rolling around in my head and heart like a spilled bag full of broken marbles.

Cosmic Rewiring

A falling star fell from your heart and landed in my eyes
I screamed aloud as it tore through them, and now it’s left me blind

The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark
No dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart

And in the dark, I can hear your heartbeat
I tried to find the sound
But then it stopped, and I was in the darkness,
So darkness I became
~ “Cosmic Love” by Florence + The Machine, from “Lungs”

Darkness, like light, like love, has no end.

Grief is an infinite experience; I think I’ve mentioned this before. I was just coming to terms with how much I loved Dustin, just getting a grip on what a soul-expanding experience being in love with him was, and still is. Then, over the course of a night and a detox gone wrong, I lost him and discovered that grief is every bit as soul expanding, and not nearly as nice about it.

The varied facets of pain and anger and all the other weltering emotions are limitless, and the initial planet-busting impact of loss and grief took my spirit and blasted it apart. The spirit that had barely begun to stretch enough to hold that love was forced, too fast, to expand enough to encompass the grief that was the flip side of that love, its cost. My conscious self began to unravel, too much for the mind to take. In a very profound way, I died that morning, too.

The sun came up each morning and poured down fire. It didn’t matter. It burned up the trees and the crops and the grass, too, and it didn’t matter. It dried up the lakes and the rivers, and it didn’t matter. My light had gone out, no sun rising in my eyes, no moon to light the nights in wonder and in joy. I had come undone.

Like any great explosion, each new rupture was preceded by an intense compression. Arms wrapped around the midsection, curled up small or on my knees on the floor, struggling to breathe, I’d struggle to keep my insides from quite literally tearing themselves apart. Muscles moving and locking into place, heart ramming into my ribs, lungs seizing, back spasming, fists knotted, nails digging into palms.

Breathe, dammit. Breathe!

Since the expression of the grief had no other outlet than tears, all that force was driven inward, the bulk of the damage done to consciousness and spirit.

On the surface, of course, I looked like a wounded animal in pain. Inside, I looked like a galaxy torn asunder. Pinpoints of light, love and trust and happiness and hope, scattered thin across a dark and airless sky. But the center had held, that deep mass of love and loss where we had been us.

And it hurt every bit as much as it sounds like it would. It still does.

But for all that, grief is still a valuable lesson and powerful tool for growth. How many of us spend our lives locked up inside our own minds and bodies, never knowing a world beyond our own noses? How many of us live small, and love small, because we’re afraid? Afraid of shame, of being seen as we truly are? Afraid of being left, being alone, of being lied to, of being hurt? How many of us spend our lives scuttling under the useless umbrella of self-protection?

How many of us never learn we are infinite, with endless capacity for love and trust? How many of us never learn how to be brave enough to open ourselves to it, to encompass it?

I am not talking about God and religion. Regular church-goers have been some of the smallest people I’ve ever known, in every sense of the word. Religion has been particularly insidious at instilling a deep sense of shame and fear, and humans have a lamentable tendency to cling to anything that makes them feel superior to someone else. I don’t particularly care how anyone chooses to walk their particular spiritual path, but no one has got it figured out, and no one can claim dominion.

It comes down to surrender, as most acts of great bravery tend to do. To see that endless expanse and to enter it willingly requires sacrifice of both the ego and control, and a distillation of self into something else, something both more concentrated and yet diffuse. It requires seeing yourself as you truly are: not only the good and noble parts, but the ugly parts, the anger and the fear and the pettiness. It requires seeing it, forgiving it, accepting it.

It requires letting yourself off your own hook.

Grief is a particularly violent way to make that transition, but in the stripping away of self and illusions to the bare bones of who I am and was, I found an elasticity of soul that I might not have had otherwise. Our love was and is something extraordinary, but the day-to-day struggles with his addictions and mental illness could very easily have clogged the gears and eroded that capacity for the infinite.

Love and bravery aren’t vows you make one day and that’s it. You have to make them again and again, at every crossroads, at every temptation, at every opportunity to give up.

We were facing a lot of very hard crossroads, but we loved each other and we were willing to work and to try. Until one night he tipped the balance a little too far. He lost his life but gained his rest, and I was left with a staggering emotional price to pay, and pay, and pay.

I guess one way or another I had signed onto a lifetime sentence: love paid for by struggle with mental illness and addiction; or love paid for by astronomical loss. It seems like a pretty raw deal when I put it that way, but I will say this and mean it with every fiber of a being that has stretched to fold stars within:

He was worth it.

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The Art of Drowning

You’ll bury your sorrow
Deep in the sea,
But sea tides aren’t tamed
That easily–
There will come a tomorrow
When you weep for me

The breaking of waves on a long shore,
In the grey morning the slow fall of rain,
Oh love remember, remember me.
~”Rachel’s Song” by Guy Gavriel Kay, from “The Summer Tree”

If the last few months have taught me anything, it’s the futility of dodging memory.

I had hoped that I was finally beginning to heal, that the wounds were stitching shut. That I had become, in a sudden burst of optimism, possibly capable of finding a way through to something new, of being open to new blossoming in my life. That I still had the courage that Dustin had inspired in me. That I could move on.

What a load of bullshit. There are no shortcuts. There are no easy ways out, no early parole.

The first anniversary of Dustin’s death is bearing down on me, coming next month on May 26. Already I can feel the tides of grief pulling at me, winding tendrils cutting like wire as they wrap around bone. It’s a water torture exorcism as I’m wracked by the ghosts of the past, the could haves and should haves, our lost future as suffocating as dense fog.

I need you like I need air to breathe.

I can’t breathe around it. My lungs are full of sand-again-the burning pressure has returned.

I’ve had offers of help. Tell me what you need. I don’t know!

I have no idea how to make this hurt less. I have no idea how to ask for help, because I don’t know what will help. All I have are gritted teeth and burning lungs and so very far to go. I can’t outrun it, I don’t even want to try. All I know how to do is to just be in it, to give myself up to it. To drown in the short term so there might be a chance that I’ll be whole in the long.

This is a very solitary process, heartbreakingly so. I can talk about it until my limited air runs out, but in the end, I’m the one left alone in the dark, staring down the void. Asking someone to keep me company in the dark…I don’t know how to deal with that. I’m afraid it would be a distraction. I know it would be, because it requires a witnessing, a physical presence. All other forms of communication require words, and there are no words for this.

Grief cannot be rationalized. I can’t think my way through this, or around it. Grief is an experience both visceral and emotional; it is not a thought process. Which means, of course, the only way over it is to experience it. To sit in it like a stone in the river. To dissolve into it, to flow.

To be like water.

“Be Like Water” From “A Pefect Dream” by Sarah Fimm

The Spectator’s Guide To Grieving

I just had a lively discussion with some people about grieving and some of the awful platitudes we’ve gotten. “Everything happens for a reason” and “It’ll be okay” being the two that seemed to trigger the most scarlet-eyed anger. And that got me thinking, when Dustin died, what did I need and want the most from those around me?

Here’s my list:

  • Say you’re sorry. If you don’t have experience of your own with traumatic loss, stop there.
  • Don’t try to explain it or put it into perspective. That will only come with time, and in the beginning, perspective is the last thing a grieving person is capable of seeing.
  • Don’t tell them their lost loved one is better off now. That is cold damn comfort when your heart’s just been ripped out. Let them come to that conclusion on their own.
  • If you offer help, mean it. Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep. If you say he or she can call anytime, be prepared for that to mean 3 a.m.
  • Don’t push them to get better faster-it doesn’t work that way.
  • Don’t offer religion unless you’re damn sure that person shares your views.
  • Don’t offer to listen if you’re going to get exhausted by it-certain grieving people need to talk a LOT, and will repeat themselves quite a bit. If that isn’t your thing, don’t offer.
  • Be prepared for the process to take a hell of a lot longer than you think it should.
  • When they get angry (and they will), don’t take it personally. If they need to throw things, hit up Goodwill for some old plates and let them break every damn one.
  • Educate yourself on the grieving process, and how it changes depending on the type of loss and the level of trauma associated with it.
  • Be prepared for the anniversaries (birthdays, date of death, date of burial, installation of the headstone, holidays, marriage/dating anniversaries) to be absolutely awful.
  • Be patient. Let me say that again: Be patient.

It will get better. Eventually. Grief happens on its own timeline, not anyone else’s. Keep in mind that in your zeal to help, you could be causing more harm than good, so try to keep the grief-stricken person first in your thoughts. Sometimes a person may need professional help and you may not know how to broach that subject; I would contact a local grief support group or center to get advice on how to proceed.

*I do not expect this is the end of the list. This was a spur-of-the-moment post, so I will be adding to it as I’ve had time to consider the issue.

Bête Noire

I don’t remember how the road to sleep
became dangerous. Potholed. Treacherous
Afraid to sleep, afraid of what was waiting
He would be coming home drunk and any minute now
Terror
Best to stay awake
But that was then

Now the road to sleep is lined, like a dark parade
attended by the hosts of the dead
waving flags of doubts and could-have-beens
I should have gone to get you, why didn’t I?
Questions unanswered

Tension simmers
Hard to walk the parade when my knees
are drawn to my chest and I
I am relearning how to breathe
Did we have what I thought we had?
Fighting in the street

So much broken glass to get through
I’ll line my feet with pills until I don’t feel a thing
Numbness, the patron saint of the perpetually bleeding
We were going to eat lobster in Maine, we were going to be old together, you promised
I’ll get drunk on ashen wine

I’ll just try his number
there’s no one to call
But I need to know
there’s no one to explain
But I need to hold him
He is gone
I need to see him
Too late
But I need
Doesn’t matter
But I want
What you can’t have

I scrabble and I fight
but the pills do their business
I feel sleep sliding warm up the back of my neck
Ignoring my struggles in the dirt
Pulled under sighing, giving up
Oh love, oh my very dear

Interlude #6

Dustin-

My birthday is next week. I am not looking forward to it. I haven’t for years. My birthdays always manage to disappoint.

I know you remember what happened last year. How whatever you were wrapped up in came between us on that day, of all days. I know you felt terrible about it and always meant to make it up to me. But you didn’t, and that still hurts.

There always seemed to be something you were hoping to make up for.

But what you don’t know-what I kept from you-was how devastating it was for me. How I cried. Neal was always determined to make me understand my place by blowing off my birthday. Funny. It was always so obvious to everyone that he needed me, and how badly. I never knew who he thought he was fooling. But it hurt, all the same. So I had a lot of hopes riding on that day with you. I’d even taken the time off work….

I know how strong I am. Neal wasn’t the first road bump I’d hit in my life, or even the most devastating. He left scars in vulnerable places, true, but as far as true mindscrewing goes, he had nothing on my old roommate – the one that turned out to have Borderline Personality Disorder. Even now, everyone I meet has to pass a kind of sanity litmus test. But it made me strong. I’ve always been so damn strong. Too strong, maybe.

But you understood what I really wanted, what I really needed. Someone I could trust completely. Someone I could depend on to have my back. Someone who didn’t need me to be strong all the time, someone who would know what to do when I needed to come apart. Someone who could be strong enough to be strong for me, because it’s exhausting always being the only person you can really depend on. But I wound up having to be strong for us both, and I paid a high price for that.

I knew you could be my rock, my shelter, but so much kept getting in the way. The drugs, the emotional issues, your baggage. Mine. I was so strong for you, as much as I could be, and fell apart where you couldn’t see. I knew you were already dealing with so much, trying so hard. How could I do less? I was working for a future where we could be everything we needed to be to each other – I always knew that this first part would be the hardest. If we could just get past the bottleneck, we could make it…

Oh, Dustin. We didn’t make it. And I never got the payoff I’d been working so hard for. Neither did you. You got to go on, and I was left with a mouth full of ashes, watching our dreams burn.

I don’t know if you ever fully realized how much I’ve always wanted to feel special to someone. To feel like I mattered. I know I mattered to you – I was everything to you, and I tried to support you as much as I was able. But my own emotional needs always got pushed aside in the interests of dealing with whatever crisis you had brewing. 

You didn’t ask me to do that. You recognized it was happening, and I kept telling you I could handle it, that getting you through in one piece was the only thing that mattered. I was in full-blown survival mode, and when the emotional bill came due, it was staggering. Coupled with your death, it was crippling.

Oh, how I’ve paid. And I know wherever you are, it is listed among your greatest regrets.

Sometimes I wonder if my strength was a mistake. Maybe if I’d just gone to pieces, you would have risen to the occasion. Maybe you would have left off your grand schemes. Maybe you would have come to me before it was too late. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybemaybemaybe….

Enough. I won’t do this to myself anymore. I did what I could. Whether it was as much as I could have done, I’ll never know. And I am letting you off the hook, too. I forgive you. 

Be at peace, baby. You’ve earned it.

I love you. Always.

Kuan Yin, Chinese Goddess of Mercy and Compassion.May She bless you and keep you.

Kuan Yin, Chinese Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. May She bless you and keep you, honey. 

The Lullaby of Loneliness

I’m alone with what’s left of my life
while the moon cuts the night like a knife
I am starved as the sigh of the stars
You’re the pulse in the rhythm of the hours
turned to years but the night never ends
You heal me you open the wounds again
and any promise of dawn of day
is so far so far away
The lullaby of loneliness
The lullaby of loneliness
~”The Lullaby of Loneliness” Aaron English

There are nights, and then there are nights. The cold is coming on, the days are dying, and the dark is rising, rising.

Fall and Winter were never my seasons, despite my birthday being buried in the depths of December. I take a chill easily, and the grey days and the long, cold nights make me sad and sleepy and lonely. And that’s during good years. This will not be a good year.

These two seasons were Dustin’s time, the time he was the most comfortable and alive. Ironically enough, his birthday was in July. But he was water, and there was something about the chill and the quiet that appealed to the deep, still places in him.

Spring and Summer are my time: the heat, the light, the fire. Life is everywhere; not slumbering, but running rampant, clinging and climbing and growing and being with an intensity that makes me feel alive. The warmth, reaching deep inside, wrapping my bones and pulling me inside out, a quickening.

But summer this year wasn’t any of those things. It was a drawn-out death, a drought. All that promise, all that potential, all that life: dead, gone, ruined, destroyed. Dustin….

So now I am girding for a fall and winter that promises to be among my most brutal-and I have already survived more than one brutal winter. Mostly, I am doing what I always do: I am getting nesty, withdrawing into my spaces, both internal and external. This is when I clean and organize and personalize my living space, and curl up in it with hot tea and soft afghans and Netflix marathons and good books. I cook and bake more and go out less and less.

I have been alone before. I’ve been lonely, both within and outside relationships. But this…this will be different.

When I left my abusive ex-boyfriend in the fall of 2010, I spent the winter afterwards in ruins. I was rebuilding my sense of self, my self-esteem and confidence. I had been wounded but I would not, could not, let him win. My intermittent sleeping problems became chronic, I had nightmares, but I knew all I had to do was slog through it and I would be whole and happy again. I knew whatever he had tried to do, whatever poison he spread, I could beat it and be better than I was before.

Dustin knew all of this, of course. I could not hide the jittery remnants of abuse from someone who was even more intimately familiar with violence than I was. He was always careful to touch me with gentleness, even in passion. He was giving and genuine and supportive in every single way that the other had not been. He could heal with a look, a touch, a kiss. And he did.

So now, as I withdraw into my hobbit hole for the season, I am more acutely aware than ever of Dustin’s absence. He should be here with me, we should be cooking together, snuggling, sharing hot tea and silly movies and popcorn. His heat should be warming my bed, like his presence warmed my soul. Beyond a physical chemistry that could set stone afire, we found an intelligence and depth we’d never known in another before. We fascinated each other, and now it’s gone.

I don’t feel the optimism I felt the winter of 2010. This loneliness cuts like nothing else. The sun goes down and I am colder than the temperature warrants, and nothing I do seems to warm me. I am cold in my core, in my soul. I vacillate between wanting someone, anyone, to talk to, and wanting to be alone.  But I don’t want to be a burden on someone else. This is exhausting enough to go through; dragging someone else through it with me seems unfair. So I struggle on and try not to wear out the ones I can talk to. But I don’t know that I’ve ever felt this lonely before, and I don’t know how to fix it.

I have no earthly idea what I’m going to do.