Joy, Meet Sorrow. Sorrow, Joy

File Jun 09, 8 02 22 AMIn the past three weeks my life has been a whirlpool of change, sometimes spinning so fast I get dizzy. I am currently in the middle of buying a new home, selling my home, dealing with my insurance company over my car (which was totaled by my oldest son), and spending time in Portland, 250 miles from my current home, to support and say goodbye to a good friend with terminal cancer this week. To say I’ve had a lot going on is an understatement.

This week, it’s become apparent to me that I’m holding both joy and feelings of optimism and eager anticipation right alongside feelings of sorrow and grief. It’s something I’ve never experienced. I’ve realized that I can allow joy back in, I can reside inside that joy and allow it in my life, while still actively grieving all of the loss I’m also experiencing.

In that space, with both palms turned up, willing to receive whatever comes, I’ve also realized that joy and sorrow are not that far apart on my emotional scale. I’ve cried lots of tears in the past 9 months or so…lately some of those have been tears of Joy. I’m in a constant state of reaching out and grabbing hold of the new life I am creating for myself while I struggle to let go of what’s happened or come before. I’m buying the house of my dreams back “home” where my family and friends live and in order to have that, I have to let go of my house in Walla Walla and the friends who have been my family there.

On Monday night I “staged” my current house for the realtor’s open Tuesday morning and packed away every scrap of personalization that was in it. Every photo, every saved love note tacked on my bulletin board from John, every memento from my life over the past decade. It felt like I was packing away that life and it was exhausting and sad. I’ve lived in that house for 12 years. I bought it as a single mom and have done a huge amount of growing there in that time. My boys grew up in that house, and so did I in many ways. I met John and he moved in with me in that house. We made an incredible life together there, and it’s where he exited my life after the most difficult two and a half years I’ve ever experienced. So there is much joy there but also too much pain for me to stay.

It will be very hard to leave, to let go, but it’s necessary if I want to move forward and into my new life. It leaves me wanting to hold on while needing to let go, feeling joy in the midst of my continuing sorrow.

I’m in Vancouver this week. I’m here to say goodby to my friend Ann Hardt. She’s been a friend for 25 years. I sang in my first quartet with her and she’s the reason I’m singing with The Pride of Portland Sweet Adelines chorus now. She invited me back to Portland to sing in a new quartet and Pride was just sort of a natural part of that experience. It’s also been a lifesaver for me. Now I have to let her go. Losing someone I love to cancer so soon after losing the love of my life to it just four short months ago is brutal. Yesterday, I spent several hours with her and my pain was palpable when I left her home.

I’m staying with my friends Camille & Scott Lunt, who have pretty much made me a part of their family and are saving my life right now. Being with them is my happy place, and the one I came home to yesterday. I can’t help but smile and laugh when I’m here. Sorrow and pain occupied the same space in my day yesterday, as they have for the past few weeks.

They seem like odd bedfellows but I have a feeling they’ll be sleeping together for a long time. #livelikejohnny #lovetrumpscaner #joyandsorrow

Winds of Change, Moments of Joy

Costco-cartI have been absent from this blog for almost a month. It’s hard to believe that my grief hasn’t compelled me to come here and write, but things are changing quickly in my life and I’ve been very busy. I haven’t stopped grieving but things seem to be settling into an uneasy new “normal.”

I’m not mourning as much. I’ve learned that there’s grieving (which is how you feel about the loss on the inside) and mourning (which is how you express the pain of your loss outwardly). In the past few weeks I’ve noticed that my moments of mourning come less frequently and mostly in private now. I still have times when tears threaten (like today as I walked into The Home Depot alone) but I can generally talk myself down off the cliff. A month ago I couldn’t do that.

I’m finding more and more moments of joy. Sometimes I even have hours of joy. I feel more autonomous and am re-learning how to be “just me.” It’s a hard journey. I never wanted to be here again and had grown very accustomed to being half of a whole, even while John was sick and I was his sole caregiver and the main breadwinner. I got spoiled being in love with my best friend, always having someone there to cheer me on and bounce ideas off of. I’m almost having to learn to trust my own instincts and decisions again. But it’s happening, a little at a time.

I’m leaning more heavily on others than I ever have in my life. I’ve learned the value of asking for help (and graciously accepting it even when I don’t). New friends have become close friends very quickly and my ex-husband, his wife, and his mother have embraced me into their family and taken care of me on more than one occasion when I needed family and none of mine were available. I am blessed by the people in my life and I realize that more and more every day. John trusted that I’d be taken care of by them and they are doing a great job.

I am making big changes quickly, which is something the experts say I’m not supposed to do. But they feel right for me. The thing is, I still feel like John’s helping me make these decisions, like we’re making them together in a way because we talked at length about what would be best for me once he was gone. He told me he wanted me to move back to the Pacific Northwest where I have good friends and most of my family close by. We had talked about moving back there together before his disease progressed to the point that we knew he was terminal. So I feel like I’m making this move for both of us. Getting the house of my dreams and then living in it alone won’t be easy, but I’ll fill it with friends and family and make new memories on my own.

It’s been just under four months since John passed away. Some days it feels like much longer than that and others it feels like yesterday. My sense of “us-ness” is fading a little each day and I’m grieving that fact in addition to losing him. We were so great together and I miss who I was when I was with him almost as much as I miss him. I’m also noticing, the further from his death I get, the more I seem to “hear” him. Last weekend, during my Sweet Adelines regional competition, I had a moment when I was dancing with friends and I felt him there with me and heard him whisper in my ear, “YES! This is what I want for you. Grab this joy! You’re doing great!” It was a bittersweet moment because it’s exactly what he would say to me if he were standing in front of me actually talking to me in that moment. It also felt very right.

I want to move on and hold on, all at the same time. The more “normal” my life gets without him, the further away from him I feel. That’s a relief in one moment and sad the next. Regardless, I’m still “leaning into” all of my emotions and allowing myself to feel whatever each moment brings. I don’t feel guilty for being happy anymore like I did a few months ago.

So, all in all, I think I’m making progress. I did so much grieving in the months before John died that maybe I got a head start. I know it allowed me to actually grieve with him, crying on his shoulder every night when we went to bed, asking him how I’d possibly live without him, and hearing him say how sorry he was that he didn’t have an answer for me. I know I still have a long way to go. I’m learning more about myself and this “new normal” every day and I’m changing into my “new self” a little more every week.

I know this is what John wanted for me. I know he’s proud of me. All he ever wanted when he was alive was for me to be happy. That hasn’t changed now that he’s gone. And I’m a little happier every day. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny

There Must Be An Error In This Formula

Headstone croppedThis morning I was looking at pictures of my happy past. When John was alive, it seemed like we were always on an adventure, always surrounded by fun. Most of the time it was just the two of us but I felt complete, whole.

It dawned on me that, since his death, it feels like I’m a small percentage of who I was with him. Not just half of me feels gone. Most of me feels gone.

How is that possible? The math doesn’t work. How can one person exiting my life feel this lonely. Nothing else has changed. I still have four kids and a loving, supportive family and great friends. But since his death, the pervading feeling in my life is loneliness. No matter who I’m with or what I’m doing, I feel lonely. And when I’m ACTUALLY alone (which is often), other emotions creep in. Despair and fear and anger.

But always loneliness.

Yesterday I went to visit John’s gravestone. He’s not there (literally or, in my opinion, figuratively). He was cremated and most of his remains are still in a box in my coat closet, waiting for warmer weather and the perfect time to scatter them over the Snake River. So it’s just a memorial marker placed in a family plot that he designed to mark his time here on earth. I stood there in that surreal place in that surreal moment and said to my friend, “I certainly never imagined I’d be here at this point in my life.”

Here being alone. After having found the perfect love of my life at the perfect time in my life. And then losing him too soon. It feels brutal and so painful it’s unimaginable. How could he have been so “in” my life one minute and then just gone the next?

I don’t feel his energy around me. I didn’t feel it yesterday at his grave and I don’t feel it now. He must be having a grand time on the other side because he’s obviously too busy to make his presence known to me. Or maybe I’m just in too much pain to recognize him. When people ask me if I can feel him with me it’s like a knife in my heart. Because I can’t. Not when I’m awake. Not when I’m asleep. Not at all.

And his absence is the most lonely feeling I’ve ever experienced. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny

 

 

Looks Can Be Deceiving

ApplesOk folks. Time to get real…
 
Here’s the thing. I know I appear strong and I can make it seem like everything is okay in my new world without John. I’ve always been a strong person and in my day-to-day life, unless you look closely, I can present that face to the world now. It’s easy to convince yourself, if you’re my friend, that I’m “back to normal.” I even had someone ask me on Saturday if I was better now (since it’s been a whole two months since John died). I looked him dead in the eye and said, “No. I’m not better. At all.” Just because I’m not crying most of the day anymore doesn’t mean I’m not still in intense pain.
 
I think people want, NEED for me to be ok so they can feel fine about things getting back to “normal” in our friendship. So many close friends were there for me in the few months before John died, helping out, checking in almost daily, bringing food, and just holding me up. Then, within weeks of his death, they stopped calling and checking in. They ask how I am when we do chat or see each other, but I don’t think they really understand my answer and sometimes, it’s easier just to say “I’m hanging in there” and leave it at that. I sense their discomfort, the fact that they pray I don’t break down because they wouldn’t know what to say or do to help me.
 
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming them and I know from what I’ve been learning about grieving that it’s totally normal for this to happen. But here’s the thing that I need to say but have a hard time articulating. I am in severe, deep, intense pain. This is, without a doubt, the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through. My hospice counselor says that, unless you’ve been through the process of grieving someone whom you loved deeply, you can’t really understand what it’s like, the intensity of it, or how long it takes to move through it. If people did understand, I wouldn’t be alone.
 
I don’t expect anyone to “help” with that pain. There’s no way to do that. I just need to be around people who care about me. I am feeling isolated. I’m spending too much time alone and it’s not good for me. I need support but I don’t want to have to ask for it. Reaching out and saying, “Could you invite me to do something or just offer to come hang out with me or call me every day to check in?” feels uncomfortable and most often, even if I have the intention to reach out, it gets lost in the exhaustion of grief and I never do.
 
Before John died we had this conversation and I told him it wouldn’t be long after he was gone before everyone would go back to their lives, families, jobs, and problems and I’d be left with me. No one was intimately involved in my life except him and I wasn’t a part of the intimacy of my friends’ or even families’ lives. He knew it was true and he worried about it. Rightly so, it turns out. I know I have amazing friends who love me a lot. I’m just not “top of mind” for them now that a few months have passed. Life goes on for them.
 
Just not for me. #lovetrumpcancer #livelikejohnny

A Blanket Of Sadness

Julie-eli-hawaiiLast week I took my youngest son Eli to Hawaii for Spring Break. He’s a senior and will graduate from high school in June and move out on his own, so I thought this would be an awesome opportunity to spend some quality time with him while I still can. I also felt like some happy sunshine would be good for both of us (but especially me).

The last time I went to Hawaii was with John. We had a wonderful vacation in Maui the year before he was diagnosed. We loved being together and were “active” vacationers. We parasailed, paddle boarded, snorkeled, and took a sunset dinner cruise. We rented a car and drove all over the island. It was an amazing week spent with my best friend and soul mate.

Even though Eli and I were on a different island, it still felt a little too familiar. We spent a day touring museums and exhibits at Pearl Harbor and Ford Island, rented a car and drove to the North Shore, chilled on the beach, and had a great time.

Except there was a soft blanket of sadness over the week for me. Nothing dramatic, just around the edges of the days and nights. I’m still glad we went. It just didn’t feel a whole lot different from being anywhere else these days. Without John. Because no matter where I am, he’s not there. I kept thinking about how much he would have loved doing and seeing everything we were doing and seeing. And even though I had a great time with my kid, I still just missed my best friend and lover. I feel incomplete and lonely without him, no matter who I’m with.

My grieving process is evolving and I’m “actively grieving.” I’m reading three different books on grieving and am in two different support groups. I’ve met with the social worker at our local hospice twice and each time have learned from what she’s told me. The most profound thing I’ve realized is that my relationship with John has continued beyond his death and into this new life I’m carving out. It will, in fact, never end. It’s just different now. I still love him more than I can even articulate, get frustrated when something comes up that he left unfinished that I have to deal with, reach for the phone to share with him every time something cool happens in my life.

He’s here with me, always present in my thoughts and through photographs all over my life, in the small touches and big things he did to make this home ours together. He’s also very silent. I know people tell me he’s always with me but I just don’t feel his presence (whatever that means). Everything holds a memory for me and sometimes, once in awhile, those memories make me smile. Too often, they just make me miss him for the millionth time that day.

The other big thing I’ve learned about grieving is that it’s a process I just have to be present to and move through. One of the books I’m reading compares it to a journey through a forest. Sometimes dark and scary and sometimes beautiful and inspiring. I know I’ll never stop grieving and that my job, especially right now, is to be as present as possible to what I’m feeling, allow myself to experience it in whatever way it manifests, and be gentle with myself through the process.

I’m not waiting for things to “go back to normal” or to feel “normal” again. I’ll never be the same person I was but am becoming someone different, creating a new normal, through this process. And at some point, or so I’m told, I’ll actually look at this journey I’m on and be grateful for what it’s taught me and the person I’ve become because of it. I can’t see the path to that eventuality right now, but I’m curious to see how it unfolds.

That curiosity is progress for me right now. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny

Missing Hallelujah

easter-1270523_1280Today is Easter. I grew up Episcopalian and during Lent, all of the celebration was deleted from the liturgy. In all the places where, during the rest of the year, we said “hallelujah,” the word was left out. I vividly remember my relief on Easter Sunday when the proclamation was back where it belonged in the familiar liturgy that I knew by heart, and I could joyfully and deliberately declare it once again. It meant that the dark weeks of Lent were over, the light and happiness flooded back in, and anything seemed possible.

I was thinking about that this morning and, as with most thoughts I think these days, how much of a parallel it held with my life now. How Lent was a time where life went on but with an overarching sadness and sacrifice that seemed to permeate everything. It’s why Easter was such a celebration, such a relief.

For me, now, it feels exactly the same way. It’s as if all of the “hallelujahs” have been removed from my life. I get up, show up, and walk through my day, sometimes with a face that defies what I’m feeling inside. I work out, put on makeup, work, cook, clean, and laugh at people’s jokes. But it’s all done without celebration. I’m constantly looking for the joy and most of the time I remember that it died (at least temporarily) when John died.

Sometimes I feel ok and little glimmers of hope seep in, but then another wave of unexpected sadness hits and I’m back at ground zero again. It’s a pretty exhausting process, all in all, and I’ll be glad when I’m past it. It’s better than it was a few weeks ago and I’m hoping each week will bring a little more light and a little less sad. Most of the time, I’d rather be anywhere than where I am now, without John.

The thing about Lent is that there’s a defined end to it. You know you can circle that Easter Sunday date on the calendar and look forward to the celebration. If you give something up for Lent, you know it’s temporary. You literally see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what’s missing for me now. It’s why grieving is so hard, because there’s no way of knowing when you’ll feel true joy again, when you’ll feel like you’re in control again. I’m plugging back in and walking through my life knowing it will happen, but the not knowing when is foreign and very difficult.

Luckily, Easter also comes as Mother Nature ushers in spring. More light, warm sunshine, and a world exploding with color and life will, hopefully, begin to add a few “hallelujah” moments back into my life as well. I’m counting on it and looking for them every day.
#livelikejohnny #lovetrumpscancer

 

 

 

I Used To Look Forward To Weekends

sunset-401541_1280Since John died weekends are long, lonely, and hard. It feels like everyone has a life and people who count on them except me. John and I talked about this very thing before he died. He knew that everyone else in his life, from his kids to his siblings, would have someone there for them, someone to come home to and to live their lives with.

And he knew that I wouldn’t. It hurt him because there was nothing he could do about it. He told me more than once that I had the harder job of the two of us, that if he could trade places with me he would. He said he had no idea how he’d survive if I died. I don’t mind being alone but when it’s for days at a time, it makes me miss him even more. I managed to distract myself with work and solo activities all weekend, but I felt like I was really just marking time to get through the day.

Everyone’s lives go on and the further away you get from the memorial service, the less space your pain and loss takes up in their minds. The calls are less frequent and people stop checking in to make sure you’re all right. We knew this would happen and talked about it as well, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I feel like the world has moved on but I’m stuck.

If you have a significant other count yourself blessed. It means there’s someone there in the middle of the night to soothe you if you have a nightmare. It means you have someone to share everything with, from meals to walks in the park. It means you always have a date on Friday night. It means there’s someone in the world who’s always thinking about you, sometimes worrying about you, and who always has your back. Someone to make plans with and whose needs you consider before you make decisions about your life.

I see couples out and about, on Facebook, or on T.V. and I just want to scream because they have what I had and they have no idea how fragile it is. Don’t ever take your partner for granted. That connection is priceless and the world can be a really lonely place without it. ‪#‎lovetrumpscancer‬‪#‎imissmyhusband‬ ‪#‎livelikejohnny‬

If A Smile Is My Umbrella, I Seem To Have Lost It

rainy-weather-1194781_1280I wanted to take a walk yesterday but it poured down rain all day so I never got a chance. I woke up to overcast skies but drying pavement this morning and was feeling optimistic so Lucy and I set off. Within minutes it started sprinkling, but just a little. I was hoping to walk 3 miles and about a mile in, the wind kicked up and it started to rain. Just a little at first but then really hard. It was raining sidewise, the wind blowing big, hard raindrops against my face and skin. I was over a mile away from home and there was nothing to it but to finish my walk.
 
I was miserable. Cold, wet, and feeling helpless with only a few choices. I could try to find a tree or awning to wait out the squall (who knows how long that would take) or just put my head down and walk as fast as possible toward home.
 
It struck me as a metaphor for my life at present. Things seem ok and then the wind kicks up and the deluge of grief starts pummeling me. I am helpless to stop it and there’s nowhere to run. The only choice is to walk as fast as I can through the downpour until I reach shelter and can find a bit of my dry center again.
 
Once I got home I peeled out of my soaking wet clothes, got into a nice hot shower, and sobbed. Because I’m so lonely. Because I miss him so much. Because I have no idea where to run or what to do to feel better. Because it feels like all of my memories are with him and I can’t stop them from flooding in every minute of every day. Because right now those memories bring more pain than joy. Because my happy place was him and I have no idea where to look for it now that he’s gone.
 
I want a timeline. I want to circle a date on the calendar and know that I’ll only feel this completely horrible until then and after that, getting out of bed will be easy again. I want to feel true happiness for even one minute again, to somehow find a way to climb out from under this overwhelming blanket of sadness and dance in the rain instead of just miserably getting through it.
 
I know there is no timeline and that eventually a little joy will start to seep back in, a drop at a time. Intellectually I know that. But my heart does not understand. Not at all. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny

My Grief Is A Love Story

SnubaI blogged throughout John’s entire cancer journey, right up until the day he died. I shared the facts and the ups and downs of living with a terminal illness. I shared my own thoughts and feelings and the changes I was experiencing because of our journey. And because of the power of our love, the blog became a love story that people resonated with.

I loved our life. I loved that every day felt like a new adventure with him. I loved the way he made me look forward to every day. I loved road trips and driving and being on the water in our boat. I loved time with our family and friends. I loved laughing pretty much every single day until the day he died with him. I loved him, so much.

Yesterday I met with a grief counselor at hospice and was telling her about the Love Trumps Cancer blog and what that meant to us, that as long as we focused on love cancer couldn’t win. And she said something that really made sense but that I haven’t thought of before. She said she believes that the grieving process is a love story in and of itself, that the more deeply you love someone, the more profoundly you feel their loss when you lose them. The love I felt for John informs the sometimes all-consuming grief I’m feeling now. I couldn’t have one without the other.

I spoke at John’s memorial and the last thing I said was if, on that first day I fell in love with him almost 7 years ago, he’d told me that we’d only get 6 1/2 years, I would have jumped in head first with just as much enthusiasm and abandon as I did without that knowledge. If I hadn’t loved him so much, I wouldn’t be such a mess right now. There’s something about that realization, about thinking of this process as a continuation of our love story, that helps so much. #lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny

My New Job

DSC_3923 CopyingToday is the one month anniversary of John’s death. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been walking through the world without him for an entire month. It’s been a month of difficult firsts, lots of gut-wrenching tears, and getting to know a new version of myself whom I’d never met before. I’ve been sick for half of the time, so that’s colored my experience as well. I’m still not sure if the fatigue I’m feeling is because I’ve been sick or because I’ve been grieving. Probably a little bit of both.

Last week I traveled by air for the first time since John died. I traveled a lot, mostly for work, during the first 4 years of our relationship before he got sick (and some after he was diagnosed as well). When I was traveling, he was my anchor, someone who tracked my progress and with whom I checked in before each takeoff and landing. He was the one I called at the end of the day, sharing all of my adventures and hearing about the mundane, ordinary things that happened at home when I wasn’t there. We never went to bed without saying I love you, even when I was sleeping in a different time zone.

I don’t just miss being with him, I miss knowing who I was in the world even when I wasn’t with him. I picked up the phone to call or text him at least a dozen times last week. He wasn’t just my love and my husband, he was also my best friend and the first one I always wanted to share everything with. So I felt a bit lost last week. And sad.

The thing is, everyone keeps telling me that he’s still with me, that he’s walking beside me every minute. I want to believe that more than anything in the world but it’s not easy. There’s no evidence that he’s there, no signs recognized or overwhelming feelings of his presence. No feathers raining down from heaven or random birds or butterflies making an odd appearance in my day. Not a single sign since the dream I had the weekend after he passed where he told me there was nothing but love where he was, enough love for 10 husbands.

I’ve had other dreams of him, but they aren’t comforting or pleasant. They’re scary and distressing. I can never reach him in these dreams and he’s usually in peril or, worse, dead. We are always disconnected and there’s a weird overlay of reality and what’s actually happening in the dream. Like, he has a body in the dream but then my conscious mind says, “Um, no he doesn’t…he was cremated.” I’ll be glad when these dreams stop.

A life coach at the event I was at last week told me that my job right now is to be sad. Getting a vision for my future or setting any sort of goals beyond the basics of survival is not realistic. I have to just be okay with being sad, with crying at the most unexpected moments and waking up feeling hopeless some days. I’ve never been a sad person. I’ve never had a lot of patience for sad people. I’ve always powered through and, as my mom would say, “pulled myself up by my bootstraps” and carried on. I’ve gotten over it and focused on what’s next. If there’s one thing that’s become clear to me in the past month, it’s that I’m not going to be getting over this anytime soon. So I better just relax and be okay with being sad.

I’m heading back to Walla Walla tomorrow and am determined to create a routine and schedule for myself. I’m getting back to work with my personal trainer 3 days a week and getting up and walking my dog on the days I’m not working out. I’m getting back to work with two launches in the next two months and a new business venture. I’m making plans with friends and going to yoga once a week. I have a long “to do” list for getting my house ready to rent this summer so I can move back to the Portland area once Eli graduates in June and moves out. I’ll be driving 500 miles round trip every week to sing with my Sweet Adelines chorus in Portland.

I’m hoping my life will feel a bit normal again, but I know I’ll be doing all of these things while embracing my new, temporary job of being sad. That may mean I don’t feel like working out or going to lunch or creating a landing page that day, and I have to be okay with that. Old me, meet new (temporary) me.

The hardest part about this new job will be giving myself permission to do it. To feel sad so I can feel better. I’ve always been an overachiever, so I’m hoping that kicks in and allows me to really, REALLY embrace the sad, move through it, and get to the other side healthy and different.

Because I know I’ll never be the same.

#lovetrumpscancer #livelikejohnny