Navigating the 3rd Christmas

Yesterday, I found myself wishing I was a kid again. I remember Christmas being so magical and so exciting. Watching out the car window looking at all the Christmas lights. Decorating our live tree. Watching all the Christmas specials (including my favorite “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas”). My dad’s I.B.E.W Christmas party every year. The anticipation of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning almost more than I could stand.

I had really bad nightmares this morning. Really bad and very disturbing and I can’t get them out of my head. Here’s the thing. I have been thinking that I really have my act together this year. The past two Christmases I couldn’t even really make an effort. Loved ones supported my children throughout the past two Christmases. But this one–I had it. I started at the beginning of the month. Christmas lists in hand. Grand surprises planned. A very nice person spent two days putting Christmas lights up outside my house (which we’ve never had–and my kids are always sad about that) so that when I pulled up to the house-the kids would gasp in wonder and excitement at the beautiful wonderland he had created (I even pulled over to video tape their reactions but it didn’t quite go down the way I had imagined). I bought our first live tree and colored lights that reminded me of my childhood trees. I white knuckled a weekend trip over the pass in a giant snowstorm so my kids could experience a ton of snow and play in it and go sledding. The kids and I even ran out of the house one morning at 6:30am so we could buy teacher and staff presents and they could all wear festive hats on the last day before the break. The one thing I didn’t get to was Christmas cards–and I was okay with that. I was way ahead of the game and we would be visiting Santa long before Christmas Eve morning.

It’s Christmas Eve morning. I couldn’t even bring my kids to see Santa. My parents had to do it for me. Yesterday, I crashed. My kids were staying with my parents and I was going to watch Christmas movies and wrap presents and get up early this morning to go see Santa. But, when I got back last night, I crashed hard. My brain kept going to a very bad place. This one survival mode of my brain trying to think of ways to escape the pain. The other reasonable part of my brain reminding me that I can get through this. Just get through the next minute. Then the next minute. Fortunately, a good friend showed up at my doorstep right in the middle of it all, and although her visit was short, it was all I needed to come out of that dark place. I begrudgingly wrapped the rest of the presents, ate a salad and watched “Shameless”. Not a whole lot of Christmas spirit-but I was moving along. Then this morning I woke up from the nightmares. My parents were texting me about getting the kids out early to see Santa. I tried. I told myself “Come on! This is one day-one day out of the year when you really need to fake it and get the kids to see Santa. You can do this. You NEED to do this”. But I was stuck. Stuck in my nightmares. Just stuck.

I’ve been thinking about the holiday season a lot since yesterday. There is this idea of magic, joy, singing, happiness and family. But there are so many people out there-for whom the holidays are painful, agonizing, and heartbreaking. I try really hard not to give in to those feelings. I think about others and try to keep things in perspective. I really tried this year. But I crashed. Hard. I don’t want to celebrate. I don’t feel like celebrating. I have to, because I have kids. But I would say-this is not just about my pain this year. It’s actually fully recognizing the state of the world, and all the people–so many people–who are suffering in one way or another, and feeling so sad about THEIR pain, THEIR suffering, THEIR losses, THEIR hunger and THEIR heartbreak. I think I’m so overwhelmed with how painful the holidays are for so many people and I can donate to charities until I run out of money, but that doesn’t really make a difference in this world. So, I’m sad for all of the people who are suffering. I wish I could invite them all to my house for a sleepover and feed them and clothe them and let them know–its okay. It’s okay that the holidays suck for you and you don’t have to pretend.

I’m very lucky that I have memories of magical Christmases. Even as an adult. I’ll end with a Jake story.  One Christmas, we went out to buy a tree.  I think it was the last Christmas we had a live tree (maybe 10-11 years ago).  The place where we bought the tree didn’t have any twine or anything to secure the tree to the top of the car!  They encouraged us to go into the store and buy some rope.  Jake and I were frustrated.  So, Jake threw the tree on top of the car, opened his window, and drove home with one hand on the steering wheel and one arm hanging out the window, holding onto to the tree on top of the car. Simple story–one of those “you had to be there” events.  But, I’m so grateful that Jake was Jake and we were fortunate enough to call him family.  I really miss him.

 

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PTSD and the Pretending

Jake used to make me laugh so hard.  I mean, gasping in pain, clutching my stomach and pleading for him to stop, kind of laughing.  Most of those times, he wasn’t even trying to be funny.  I smile just thinking about it.  He would sit and look at me like I was crazy.  I am very thankful for those times.

A couple of weeks ago, something very bad and very sad happened. Some people will read what I’m about to write and roll their eyes at me. That’s okay–because all I’m saying is what happened and how I felt (and continue to feel) about it. I had two of my kids in the car. I had just picked up one from his friend’s house and tried to take my daughter to soccer practice, but there happened to be a torrential downpour at that time, so I spoke with her coach for a bit and left. I was headed out to pick up my youngest. I was on a side street. I thought I had left my phone at home so I wasn’t distracted by my phone (have to throw that in because I’m sure people will think I was texting and driving or something). All I caught was a black blur out of the corner of my eye. Then I felt it. It was big. I had just run over something big. In the seconds before I knew, I remember thinking coyote or raccoon. I stopped my car and jumped out-but couldn’t make sense of the scene around me. There was an awful, horrible wailing sound and a man lying in the street. As I ran over, I realized this awful, horrible wailing sound was coming from the man who was lying on top of his dog in the street. The dog, the black lab, that I had just run over and killed. Everything that happened after that is kind of a blur. I remember kneeling in the street beside this man and his dog. I remember sobbing and saying “I’m so sorry” over and over again. But what stands out the most in my mind was all the blood. There was so much blood. How could I have done such a thing? I killed someone’s beloved pet. He was a black lab and was wearing a collar with all his requisite tags. I’m sure he was – in case he got lost. His eyes were open-but lifeless. And he was lying in a very large pool of blood. The poor owner had presumably seen the entire thing-given that he was lying over the dog before I could even get out of my car. A few neighbors came out to help and when they helped picked up the dog to move him out of the street, I remember noticing how limp and boneless he seemed. That’s what happens when your life ends. Your eyes are open, but unseeing. Your body goes limp and grows heavy. There was so much blood. I was in and out of my car, frantic and inconsolable. I didn’t even have my phone to call someone for help. At some point, the pet owner came over and hugged me and we cried and cried. I kept saying “I’m so sorry” and he kept saying “It’s not your fault”. It was very important for him to tell me that it wasn’t my fault. I remember he had black dog hair in his mouth and on his face. He apologized to me for not being able to talk at that moment and that was the last time I saw him. I was shaking and crying. What had I done? Then the “if only”s started. I am very familiar with the “if only”s–they have formed quite a rut in my brain where the chemicals have fired over and over again throughout the past two years. If only I had chatted with my daughter’s soccer coach for 30 seconds more. Or 30 seconds less. If only I had decided to tell my friend some story I thought was funny or ask more about what was going on in her life when I picked up my son. There I was, desperately wishing for my DeLorean and flux capacitor again. There was absolutely nothing I could do. How was I going to live with myself? How could I make it up to this poor man who had just seen his dog get run over and killed by a car driven by me?

Obviously I can’t. I can’t go back in time. I will never be able to heal this pet owner, now traumatized forever, I’m sure. I’ve learned this lesson. Every weekday, at least four times a day, I have to drive past that spot, when I drop off and pick up my kids from school. That street, and that house–a house I had never even noticed before–are changed for me. Supercharged with the energy and memories of this very bad and very sad event.

I have been picturing that we are all born with a certain capacity for trauma.  I imagine it like a balloon.  Some trauma is smaller than others but it all gets stuffed into this balloon-with some taking up more space and some taking up less.  I imagine this accident like a bulge out the side of the already full balloon.  The balloon is stretching so tightly that the color is gone and you can see what’s inside.  It’s about to burst.

There are no support groups for “people who run over and kill other people’s pets with their cars”.

I realized recently that I am always pretending.  99.9% of my life is spent pretending.  Pretending to be okay.  Pretending to be strong.  Pretending I want to talk to people who I don’t want to talk to.  Pretending to be engaged.  Pretending to be interested.  One night I laid on my bed and started crying because I am so tired of pretending.  I want to be my real self.  I don’t even I think I know who that is–because I’ve been pretending for so long.  I don’t think I knew who I was before Jake died and the past two years have heaped layers and layers on top of my true self so I think I’m even pretending to myself most of the time.  I want to peel off all the layers and discover who I actually am and for those people who don’t like it, they can go away.  But what if I don’t like what I discover?  Then what’s left? I like to tell myself and others that this blog is raw and emotional and true.  But then  I wonder, is it really?  Do I really put it all out there?  Or are my words part of my pretending?

I can tell myself I’m okay.  I can tell myself I’m strong.  I can convince myself that I’ve come to terms with one thing or another.  Then, out of the blue, two months later, 4 days later, an hour later…whatever…WHAM–something hits me so hard that I’m shaken to the core.  Wait!  I thought I had that one covered!  I was done with that!

November 8th was my 13th year wedding anniversary.  After we were married, every year on our anniversary, I would make Jake sit and watch our wedding video with me.  The video is cringeworthy. The editing, the music, the special effects….so hard to watch.  It is a very cheesy video.  I know Jake hated watching it–sometimes he would even leave the room at the really, really cheesy parts.  But he always came back.  He swallowed his pride and manhood and everything he believed in 😉 once a year to watch this video with me.  I also thought the video was awful.  But as I was watching the edited version, in my head–I was back there on November 8, 2003.  Replaying memories of that day that you can’t see on the video.  Like how I was feeling at any given time during the day.  I am smiling throughout the video, but I can see through that smile and remember my feelings. I know that in that one day I probably felt a mixture of 372 emotions, not all of them “happiness”, yet I smiled through them all.  I was even pretending then.  I guess to some extent maybe we all pretend at different times.

So, in the process of trying to “not pretend”, I’m going to say some things that may not be popular.  People may not like these words.  They might stop reading.  But I can promise you-there is no pretense in the words I am about to write.  This is me-feeling what I feel and actually telling you.

Probably before Jake died, I might have been the person to recite the mantras “Create your own happiness!”, “Choose happy!”, “Everything happens for a reason”, and “What goes around, comes around”.  The last two phrases make me want to throw up.  If anybody ever says any of those things to my face, I may just land in jail for assault.  But the stuff about “creating our own happiness” and “the happiness principle”–I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this concept.  I’ve decided that these platitudes are not only stupid, but harmful as well.  The stupidity lies in the notion that we actually control our emotions.  Happiness is a fucking emotion, just like sadness, anger, irritation, fear.  Nobody chooses to feel any of those feelings.  They just happen.  YOU FEEL WHAT YOU FEEL.  No emotion is wrong.  No feeling is wrong.  Because they are just there.  They make us human.  We have zero control over our emotions so why would the assumption be made that we can choose to be happy?  (Sidenote: I do believe that there are many times we can control our own behavior/reactions to the emotion.  But I also believe that there are times in everybody’s life when we just aren’t strong enough-for whatever reason-to respond to our feelings in the manner that we’d like to.)

Recently, I had parent-teacher conferences.  Not a single one went the way I expected it to.  I try to schedule them one after another.  That way I have fewer appointments to forget. As I proceeded from one to the next and the next, I went from pleasantly surprised to numb.   The numbness wore off within a day and very unpleasant feelings hit me really hard.  It turns out one of my kids is having a particularly difficult time-socially and emotionally.  I had no clue.  Apparently, he’s been leaving class in tears and spending time with the principal, but not because he’s in trouble.  He was with me during the conferences (which is a concept I totally don’t get-the teachers see the kids everyday.  Why do they need to talk to them some more?) and he cried during the conferences.  It was then that I understood that I have no grasp on the depth and intensity of this child’s pain.  My emotions were a tangled knot of sadness, guilt, compassion, self-loathing, and anger.  Asking myself–“what have I done to this poor kid?”, then “what can I do to fix it?”, then “this is too hard–I can’t figure this out all on my own”, then….fury at my husband “How the fuck did you choose to do this to your kids? How did you do this?  How could you do this to them?” I was actually in the car alone, screaming at Jake, pounding the steering wheel, heart racing, gasping for breath…like you see an actor do on television or in the movies.

It took a few days before I came back to compassion.  Although it seems to the rest of us that Jake made a choice–he didn’t.  That’s the whole point.  He didn’t see any other option.  In his brain, this was the only way.  I need to remind myself of this often and really try to process it.  If his brain thought there were other options, he wouldn’t have done what he did.  So hard to imagine.  But, we can’t choose our feelings.  We don’t choose to be happy or sad–because why would anyone choose this?  If he thought he had a choice, he would still be here.  He would have known he had a choice if the Chantix hadn’t made his brain so sick.  There are actually people behind this drug.  People who have no clue or just don’t care what they did to my 4 young children, and to the thousands of others whose loved ones’ sick brains told them “You have no other choice”.  Chantix is just a thing.  It doesn’t think or choose or love.  The people behind Chantix, the people who create it, market it, and approve it with the knowledge of what it does to people’s brains, those people killed my husband.

Grief Fatigue and The Thirds

So, we’ve started on the “Thirds”. The third “first day of school” without Jake. Coming up-the third Halloween, our kids’ birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. I realized that these are actually “firsts” as well. They are our “First thirds”. They will always be “first” somethings because I haven’t experienced them before. No matter what I think or expect, I really don’t know anything about what to think or expect. The second year mark was much harder than the first for me. As I mentioned in a previous post, I feel like I’m coming out of this fog-this fog that has been protecting me. I have improved clarity and connectedness, but as a result, the anguish, pain and sadness are felt much more keenly. I really want to go back into the fog. I didn’t realize it was actually going to get worse. I didn’t think it could. I cry more these days than I have in a long time. But people closest to me would never know. Because I don’t want to wear them down with the grief fatigue.

I googled “grief fatigue” and most of what popped up involved information on grieving and the overwhelming fatigue a person may experience “while grieving”. (Insert sarcastic snort here). When a person loses someone they love (or a beloved pet–because I believe people love their pets just as deeply and sometimes more than they love people), the grieving never ends. It lasts a lifetime. It may or may not change shape or look “different” to others, but I don’t believe we ever stop grieving for our lost loved ones. So, I want to say fuck those websites (as well-intentioned as they may be). Who the hell wants to feel overwhelming fatigue for their entire lives? So, maybe the websites go into feeling fatigue during certain “stages” of the grieving “process”. (Insert another sarcastic snort). Everybody who reads my posts knows how I feel about the so-called stages. The implications that grief is something to get through and graduate from. I wish I could educate people about grief. My teachings would be so simple. Grief is whatever it is for the person experiencing loss. It “looks like” whatever the griever looks like. It feels like whatever the griever feels. A person grieving shouldn’t put any expectations on themselves to “move forward” or “move on to the next stage”. Blech. Makes me want to hurl. Poor people are going through enough shit physically and emotionally that they don’t need to plop somebody else’s expectations on themselves on top of everything else. But, I digress.

When I think of “grief fatigue”, I think about the people who have been there, who have been our supports and our rocks-the people we hold onto for dear life because they love us and save us from ourselves. In the beginning, they make sure we get out of bed and at least try to eat something. They do our laundry and stock our pantries in case we forget to feed our kids. They visit frequently and make sure we get out of the house. They call/email/text to let us know they are thinking about us. They politely suggest that we shower because we may have forgotten about all aspects of self-care. As time goes on, the number of people who offer the constant support starts to dwindle. There are fewer check-ins and visits. There are the people who are still there, doing these things, but they are fewer. People have their own lives and their own problems. I have no doubt that the people who start to go away still wish us nothing but healing and comfort and love us and think of us often. However, there is definitely an expectation that we will put on our grown up clothes and “move forward” and need less support.  That’s fine.  It’s the people who stay-the people we rely on and confide in and cry to-those are the people I worry about.  I worry about giving them “grief fatigue” (as I see it).  I know these people love me, support me, and want to do everything in their power to be there for me and to help me.  But I realize that it must be very tiring to be around someone who is actively needing you, relying on you and confiding in you.  Someone whose life pretty much revolves around the loss(es) they’ve experienced.

*To my non-running friends who roll their eyes and sigh when I talk about running–I love you–but you might want to skip this paragraph!* If you have read my other posts, you likely know I love trail running.  I have a growing group of friends that I go running with-and when we run, I think I feel closer to these people than at any other times.  I’m not sure why because it’s not like we have deep conversations or anything while we run.  Some of the time, we are so focused on continuing to breathe and not tripping over rocks or sliding in the mud-that we may not talk at all.  But there is still a closeness there.  Anyway, a friend took us on a new trail run this past week.  It is very exciting to try a new trail, see new surroundings, etc.  During the run, we came to a place that immediately gave me the chills and I had to stop.  I had been there before-with Jake and the kids.  I knew that straight up over a hill in front of me there was a giant rock.  I knew the rock was so big that my whole family could fit on it.  I knew this, because I have pictures of Jake and I and the kids on that rock.  I have video of Jake and my kids running down the hill from that rock.  Jake took us there on a hike once, in the winter before the spring before the summer that he died.  I had the weirdest urge to actually go up and hug that rock and lay on that rock and not leave it for a very long time.  Fucked up-I know.  Which is why I didn’t do it and I didn’t say anything.  I was trying to protect my friends from grief fatigue.

So, it has become a conscious decision to try to not give my people the “grief fatigue”.  For the past two years, friends/strangers, etc. ask the very common question, “how are you?” (in its various forms).  At the beginning, I looked at these people blankly because I had no idea what to say.  Sometimes I blurted out the truth about how I was feeling to complete strangers.  My responses morphed into things like “I don’t really know how to answer that”, “So-so”, “Overwhelmed”, etc.  These days, I consciously fake a smile and say “Good! How are you?”.  This response makes the person asking feel better.  That’s actually important to me.  I want people to feel comfortable, happy, energized, and have fun when they are around me.  I do not want the people I love to feel fatigued from my grief.  I imagine I’m not the only one who feels this way and worries about this-and that’s why I bring it up.  I want other people to know they are not alone.  For those of us who are suffering through profound loss (and the person who has lost is the only one who knows and feels how profound it is-nobody else can decide that for you)-whether it be a child, spouse, parent, sibling, friend, acquaintance, neighbor, pet, historic tragedy, sudden or anticipated-responding to “how are you?” with a fake smile (that will hopefully be genuine at some points) and a “Good! How are you?”, the “good” may be relative to how we felt two years ago, two weeks ago, or two minutes ago.  Or maybe we aren’t feeling “good” at all and just don’t want to give our loved ones the “grief fatigue”.  In my mind (fucked up as it may be), that’s okay.  It’s okay to not want to wear people down because it means we love them and care about them right back.  It’s actually good to be in a place where I can actively consider how my words/actions make other people feel.

But this is my blog, and I began writing it for me.  Because it helps me.  Then I started to understand that it sometimes helps other people as well.  Speaking my raw, unfiltered feelings-and exposing these vulnerabilities helps others know that they are not alone.  That has become really important to me.  Speaking for myself, I am a sad, sad girl.  What has happened to my family is just so very sad.  You feel what you feel.  Not what people expect you should be feeling.  Changed for life, changed at a cellular level.  A different Kristen than the one I was in the “before”, and I wish that I could go back and shake that “before” Kristen.  Of course if I could go back, I would re-write the story as well.  I will never make “peace” with this-this event-this loss.  But if letting people know what I’m going through helps someone else know that they are not alone-that’s something.  That’s worth it.

Two Years Later

I say a lot of shit on this blog. Occasionally, I realize that I don’t practice what I preach. I didn’t expect this second year mark to be quite so hard as the first one. In fact, in a lot of ways it has been harder. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure this summer was happier. I knew better! Yes-I make choices throughout my daily life. I choose to focus more on some things and not others. But, as much as I’ve said this since I started writing, GRIEF IS NOT LINEAR. So, why should I think that the further away we get through the event, the happier I will be?

I believe I went through all the “firsts” in a fog and a continued state of shock. That fog was like a layer of protection for me. (I was also drinking a lot more so there was that…). As the second year mark has approached, I have been choosing to get certain parts of my life back in order. I’ve let myself slide by, not really caring about anything. I don’t mean people–I mean stuff-like finances, nutrition, health, and organization. However, as a result of this less “foggy” state of being, I am also feeling things so much more acutely than I had been. In my efforts to be less overwhelmed, I am, in fact, more overwhelmed. I need to do these things. But, I’m so fucking tired. I push myself towards physical exhaustion every day, hoping that I might sleep through the night sometime soon.

I’d like to share a Jake story that someone shared with me recently. I am so grateful to this person, for telling me this story because it’s so classic “Jake”. I am going to quote her exact words, otherwise, I would not do it justice.

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“Going through old photos I found this one…my absolute favorite memory with Jake. Of course the Daryls were over and beers were definitely involved, but it ended with Jake, with no hesitation whatsoever, taking on a dare of running around the front yard in his boxers with the Christmas tree skirt as his cape. The really funny part is that across the street was the “Christmas House” where people came from all over to tour every night. Needless to say, Jake became the top entertainment that night and I don’t know if I ever laughed so hard! ❤️

I read her story and look at this picture daily-usually more than once.  Look at his socks!  He stripped down to his boxers but kept on his white socks pulled halfway up his skinny calves! Classically Jake.  I love this story-it makes me laugh.  Then, I get confused.  Because this Jake, this classic Jake, the one we all knew and loved…he is not the same person who did what he did. My brain can’t reconcile that this is the same person.  Probably because he’s not.  The Chantix altered his brain so significantly over the course of 6 weeks-that he wasn’t even Jake anymore.  Just like my life turned into “BEFORE” and “AFTER”, I can tell you the exact date that the “Pre-Chantix Jake” became the “Post-Chantix Jake”.  Fucking Pfizer.  I don’t believe in heaven and hell.  I don’t believe in fate or karma.  But I really want to when it comes to the Pfizer people who fight to keep Chantix on the market.  Greedy mother fuckers.  Not a care in the world about actual people.  Grrrr.

With the second year mark fast approaching, I realize I am trying to dig my heels in–slow things down because I’m just not ready?  I ask myself “Ready for what?” It doesn’t make sense.  I know that the dread of that day is worse than the day itself is going to be.  August 27 will never be “just another date” again. For weeks, I have been stuck in that spot. Rewinding and replaying the events. Maybe that’s why I’m digging my heels in–if I can slow it down, maybe I can prevent it from happening.  Rewrite the story.

My brother suggested I listen to a song. I have probably listened to it ten times since yesterday.  I feel like the song was written for me-but I also know that anyone who has lost someone they love, will relate to the lyrics. There are no words to describe the depth of pain and sadness that a person feels when they lose someone they love.  The lyrics in this song are gorgeous.  I’ll post them along with the video.

You’re smiling at me
From your picture frame
And I miss you
My life keeps on changing
But you stay the same
I miss you
So many moments
That we should have shared
I miss you

And the days turn to years
And it hasn’t stopped yet
The memories we shared
I will never forget
No I will never forget

There’s a hole in my heart
That will never be filled
I miss you
This all should get easier
But it never will
I miss you
I float through the days
And the long lonely nights
I miss you

And I hear your footsteps
You’re coming down the stairs
Lost in your laughter
The sun in your hair

A brief recollection
The light in your eyes
I see the reflection
But it passes by
It passes me by

You’re smiling at me
From your picture frame
And I miss you
Every morning I wake up
And I whisper your name
I miss you
You’re in faces of people
I see on the street
You’re everywhere
You’re everywhere
You’re everywhere

This week, I am going to do the things that Jake loved to do. I am going to hike, run, climb, swim and enjoy the beauty that surrounds us in the pacific northwest.  Maybe I’ll even run around in boxer shorts, white socks, and a Christmas tree skirt as my cape:-)

The Second Summer (mishmash)

This one may be hard to follow.  It is a mishmash of what my brain has been doing so far this summer.  Get ready with your coffee, beer, wine, whiskey, weed…whatever…and have a seat.

Summers are so fucking hard. They used to be the best! I loved summers. Now summers are full of birthdays and “anniversaries” (I should come up with a new word because “anniversary” implies something good….something lasting and special. People don’t say “Sad Anniversary”. Have you ever heard that? I’ve only heard “Happy anniversary” or “Congratulations on your anniversary”. None of these really apply, do they? For the purposes of this blog–I’m going to create a new word…hmm…suckyversary? Badiversary? Sadversary? Fuckedupversary? Oh–I like that one. Fuckedupversary. New word. Created by Kristen.)

Okay-back to business. First and foremost, I want all my readers to know that I never, ever think “poor me”. Do I get sad? Yes. Do I get angry? Yes. Have I thought “Oh sweet Pete, I will never escape this for the rest of my life?” Yes. But I refuse to have a “poor me” attitude. I do not want my kids to think that either. I do think “Poor Jake” (pretty much always). But no matter what I say in my blogs, I never think “Poor me”. I try to keep in mind–number one–things could always be worse…much worse. Number two–Shit happens in life. I can choose to wallow in whatever comes my way, or I can choose to get out of bed every day and keep living–with a positive outlook. I can’t control everything the universe might throw at us. But as long as I have hope…I have enough. I do have hope. I have dreams, I have goals. I want my children to grow up and learn from watching me…..learn that bad things can happen, and some people have more than others, but this is it. We power through and remember bad things could be worse and more people have less than we do. Some people might take this the wrong way, but we are lucky. I believe that. So anyway-that’s all about a “disclaimer” I wanted to make about what I write. I might write about sadness, anger, guilt, shame, grief, etc.–but that never equates to “oh, poor me”. I’m just talking about my feelings and how we get through life without Jake.  At least that’s where I’m at today.  That’s good enough for me!

One of Jake’s best buddies, carried some of Jake’s ashes to the highest point in North America-the summit of Mt. McKinley.  I feel very fortunate that he had his fellow climber take a video as he spread Jake’s ashes.  For me, the video is intense and brings on goosebumps and tears.  But, when I watch it, I also experience a feeling of relief and maybe even happiness?  I watch it and know with everything in me that it was perfect for Jake.  At this point in time, there is no place else Jake would prefer to have his ashes spread.  If he were alive, he would want to be up there with his buddy.  That’s the kind of stuff that Jake loved and dreamed about.  It was perfect.

I have watched my 8-year-old son grow progressively more angry and destructive over the past two years.  He says things to me like “Why don’t you just run me over with the car?” and “I hate this life”.  He thinks he is angry about something so minute, like a pizza crust, but I know his anger comes from a much deeper place.  For Fathers’ Day this year, his classroom project was “Five Things My Father Taught Me”.  This is what he wrote.

Owen's 2016 Fathers DayOwen 2016 FD 1Owen 2016 FD 4Owen 2016 FD 3Owen 2016 FD 5Owen 2016 FD 6

 

To anyone outside of our family, this may seem like a perfectly lovely project and what a wonderful job completed by my son.  However, I look at these pages and it tears my heart to shreds.  It tears me up because Jake did not teach my 8-year-old these things–at least not all of them.  The very first page–the one about math-yes, Jake did teach him math at a very young age.  But, that’s all my son could remember about what daddy taught him.  Because the rest of the pages…do not apply to Jake.  By no means am I disparaging Jake.  Jake was an incredible and wonderful dad.  But, I know my son did not learn these things from him. My son struggled so hard with this project that he ended up copying a friend’s work.  There is no way his teacher or anyone else could have known this.  But I knew it as soon as I saw it.  I picture him sitting at school trying to complete this project and not being able to come up with anything besides math. No wonder he is angry. He doesn’t recognize on a conscious level what experiences like this do to him on the inside–to his heart and soul.  His entire existence was changed in the instant I told my babies that their daddy died, but he doesn’t think like that.  He just thinks he is pissed about an uneaten pizza crust–so pissed–that his body is shaking and he is ripping up grass and throwing around giant surfboards.  Well, guess what?  There are times I hurt so badly, I miss Jake so much–that I actually want to destroy things.  I want to lie on the grass and start clawing at the earth.  I want to punch walls and throw things.  So, I get it.  I just want to pluck that hurt and anger right out of him and I’ll take it all on myself.  I wish that I could do that.

This summer, I had the chance to visit with people I haven’t seen since last summer, which happened to be” The first summer” in the AFTER.  This year, (the second summer in the AFTER), I heard from quite a few people who mentioned that I seem so different from last year.  They were happy to see me smile, interact, and engage.  These people love me and they also recognize that this doesn’t mean I’ve “graduated” from my grief.  It just means that when they last saw me, I was withdrawn, sullen, and had a very flat affect.  I know that last summer I was still stuck–stuck in a fog filled with disbelief and wishes that I could go back in time.  I honestly couldn’t relate to anybody.  Couldn’t focus.  Couldn’t attend or engage.  I will never stop grieving for Jake.  But, people noticed a difference.  I’m still ditzy and forgetful.  What was important is that the changes people noticed were positive! They saw positive changes…in me.  Smiling=positive. Interacting=positive.  Engaging=positive.  I will gladly embrace the differences that people observed.  That is the direction I am working towards.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my mother and her circle of friends.  Her best friend (let’s call her “Elle”) passed away several years ago.  During “Elle’s” long illness, my mother was frequently flying back and forth from Seattle to New Jersey to take of her dear friend.  When I was growing up, “Elle” was like family to me.  I remember my mother in the kitchen, chatting away on a phone that still had a cord(!), to “Elle” for hours on end.  They showed up at each other’s homes without calling first.  They had a very special friendship. I found myself feeling down when I was thinking about my mother and “Elle”, because I don’t have an “Elle”.  I have so many friends and I love them and they love me.  But it’s not the same as it was with my mother and her friend.  Then I realized–Jake was my “Elle”.  He was that comfort and closeness and special person.  When he was sick, I took care of him.  When I was sick, he took care of me.  Sad, happy, silly, angry, funny or otherwise–Jake was the very first person I called.  (There are actually still times when things happen and my immediate thought is to call Jake and tell him.)  I had my “Elle”.  I lost him.  I just want everybody to appreciate your “Elle”s.

The dreams.  Lately, I’ve had an abundance of dreams about people who have passed away.  In my dreams they are very much alive but there is also some pervasive thought throughout the dream that says “Wait a minute–this can’t be. You’re not alive anymore.”  When Jake and I first started dating, he had a motorcycle.  It was yellow.  He sold it not long after I met him.  That motorcycle has been in the background of my dreams.  Every night my two littlest ones sneak into bed with me at some point.  Last night I dreamed that Jake was standing at the foot of the bed-watching over my little girl.  For almost two years now, I have believed in nothing. Death is the end.  There is no “heaven” or “other plane of existence”.  I have wanted to believe in something else.  I have wanted to believe so, so badly.  But the more I learned, the less I believed.  I recently had a conversation with a childhood friend (she happens to be “Elle’s” daughter), and she believes.  She has faith.  She told me about her thoughts and beliefs in a way that wasn’t preachy or condescending, and so I listened respectfully, but skeptically.  This amazing girl (well, she is a woman now–but she’ll always be the girl around the corner to me!)–without even trying–has me wanting to believe in something again.

I’ve been thinking about a lot of people.  Most people I know have been through some really rough times.  Some people are still going through them.  The people who inspire me, the people I admire, the people I enjoy being with are the people who are going through shit I can’t begin to relate to, but remain positive, even while they are hurting, grieving, suffering, etc.  Everyday, I work hard to “be like them”.  I don’t know if you folks all know who you are (there are a lot of you!), but you guys are my personal heroes.

Fathers’ Day

These weeks leading up to Father’s Day have been really hard. I am bombarded with emails about what “dad” needs for Father’s Day. My first instinct is to cringe-then I immediately delete. The younger kiddos have Fathers’ Day events and crafts and presents at school. Everytime I walk in the door to the preschool the notice about the “Father’s Day Picnic” stares me right in the face. Right at eye level. The kindergarten teacher changed the event name from “Doughnuts for Dads” to “Doughnuts for Dudes” and I have been incredibly grateful for that. Two years ago on Fathers’ Day–I don’t think I even noticed how much Fathers Day was in my face everywhere. Now I notice every little thing. Except they are not little things anymore.

I work at reminding myself about my strength. I work at being mindful. But I sometimes wonder at what expense? Everytime a sad memory or image pops into my mind I STUFF IT DOWN. That is exactly what it feels like. Stuffing it way back down to the boxes in the basement. But, the boxes don’t go away.

I very much sense people–people I love, kind-hearted people, well-intentioned people–feeling that I really need to “get past this”. If I smile or laugh, people think I’m “fine”. If someone asks me how I’m doing and I say “good”–they breathe a sigh of relief because I’m finally moving past “this”. If I go out on a date, people think I must be doing fantastic. In the BEFORE, I would have probably thought these very same things about someone else. And really-I believe it is comforting for people who love me to think these things and if it is important enough, I will let the “people” know otherwise. But what I despise–what makes me angry to my core–is the judgement. I was not perfect BEFORE and from August 27, 2014 forward-I fall at the opposite end of that continuum. I am often flustered, overwhelmed, and forgetful. I don’t tend to care about things that really don’t matter (like when my daughter cut her own hair a few weeks ago-it doesn’t look so great, but it’s only hair). I alternately feel disconnected and so connected to my kids. I love them to pieces and can’t wait to see them–until five minutes (or less) after I pick them up and they are driving me crazy. There are still days that I just crawl into my bed and sleep because it’s easier than staying awake and feeling the bad feelings. I don’t do this everyday. I’m not apologizing for these imperfections. I’m done trying to explain to people who will never understand why I’m not getting past this. The only person I really need to answer to is myself. It’s my brain that bears the beating. I can choose to beat myself up like some other people do, or I can reconcile the facts that my family has suffered a senseless tragedy and it’s okay that I climb into bed every so often during the day. It’s okay that my four kids drive me crazy sometimes because I am the only parent. There is no shared custody here. I am it. I’m totally giving myself permission to get angry and yell and scream sometimes because I am an imperfect person, in pain, raising children who are in pain, and I’m doing it alone.  Yes– I have a lot of help and support.  Thank goodness.  But ultimately-it’s on me.

I’ve mentioned my support group-for survivors like me-before.  I have not missed one meeting since last August.  Sometimes I don’t want to leave.  I want to go home with these other people who totally get it. We are all in different stages of “new-ness” to the events that changed our lives forever-but there is absolutely no judgement and when we are there–nobody interrupts anybody else.  We all say what we have to say and sometimes we cry for each other and sometimes we laugh with each other-but there is never judgement and there is always, always space.  We give each other space to be.  At my last group, one person made a fantastic analogy that I need to share.  It’s like the person we lost had this huge box of shit and they couldn’t deal with it anymore.  When they died, they passed that huge box of shit to us and a TON more shit was added.  Now we are all holding these overflowing boxes of shit and there’s so much of it that the box can’t hold it so we are all getting covered in shit.  Because of this–no one wants to be around us because they don’t want to get any shit on them.  Nobody wants to share the shit (who can blame them?).  We can’t clean the shit off without putting down the box of shit and even if we put down the box and clean up a little–we always have to pick that box up again at some point and get dirty.  It reminds me of something I’ve said before–the person we love, took their temporary pain away and spread it out on those who loved him/her permanently. Forever.

Every year on Father’s Day weekend, there is a huge Washington Brewers Festival.  I remember Jake and I (and the kids) going to it a few years ago and having such a great time.  Jake loved good beer.  He loved craft beer.  It was like his Disneyland.  We had so much fun.  For the first time, I am going back.  Not as a party-goer-but as a volunteer.  I don’t know why.  It just seemed like something different to do that might be fun.  (I’m kind of dreading the commitment right now because its cold and rainy outside…but oh well).  I’m going into this with one expectation–that I will be filled with happy memories of Jake everywhere I look.  I also think, Jake would have been there, bragging about his wife who was pouring beer for X brewery.  I know he’d come over to my spot every so often, say “Hey hun” and give me a kiss or a slap on the ass, and then go off to try another beer.

There is one other thought I had recently that I want to share.  A few months ago I pulled my hamstring–a common injury for trail runners because we trip a lot (and sometimes fall) and have to catch our balance.  I refused to rest-knowing that my running is my best therapy.  I just couldn’t really run uphill anywhere.  So, I ran and did a lot of stretching etc.  Recently on a run, I started thinking about how good my hamstring felt, and how I could probably get back into my routine of running hills, etc.  Not five minutes later–I kid you not–not only did I trip-but I fell HARD to the ground and just felt the pain in my hamstring as I practically heard it shred.  Once I checked to make sure I wasn’t broken or unconscious-I got up and limp-ran the rest of the way.  I even laughed at myself out loud because I thought it must have looked really funny when I fell (even though no one saw me).  But I also started thinking about how analogous to my life and my journey that whole situation was.  I wrote a post talking about how great I was doing and strong I was and hear me roar etc.  Then I started to get inundated with Fathers’ Day events and emails.  Then I sensed judgement from people who love me the most.  Then I fell.  I didn’t, however, just lie there and wait for the bears and cougars and snakes to come eat me.  The super important thing I did, the most important thing that I did even though I was hurting more, is that I got back up, picked up my box of shit, and kept going.

 

Tenacity, Fortitude, Powerhouse (way better words than strength)

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” Winston Churchill

What an emotional rollercoaster it has been for the past 22 months. 22 months. How can that be?

Then I realize that I have made it through the past 642 days. 642 days since the loss of the best thing that has ever happened to me and my children. I’m doing this. I’m not curled up in my bed. I haven’t been committed to an insane asylum (quite frankly, most days I think I already live in one!). I haven’t turned to illegal drugs (yet 😉 ). I even had to do the calculation to figure out the 642 days part! For so long, I felt the sadness and despair–every Wednesday, then without even noticing it, every 27th of the month. I don’t know how long its been since I even realized it was the 27th of the month.

Not a day (or probably even an hour) goes by when I don’t think about Jake. How could I not? He’s a part of me and holy shit–he’s literally a part of my kids. Nearly every day I stop because of a joke, a facial expression, or catch of a profile of one of my kids and it floors me how much that kiddo IS Jake at that time.

It is so incredibly sad.

Since that very first Wednesday when our lives were changed forever, people have told me I am strong. I have always brushed those comments off. But in the last few weeks, something changed. It was like someone slapped me and a light bulb appeared above my head. I am strong. If I could get through the past 642 days, I can get through pretty much anything. Are there worse things than what happened on August 27, 2014? Absolutely. Good grief–I hope to never, ever have to experience anything worse and I wish the same for my family and for Jake’s family. I know bad shit happens. I know now that it can happen to me and people I love. I know there are no guarantees in life-ever and all of our futures are completely uncertain. I’m not going to obsess over that. Not anymore, Whether I obsess or not, shit may or may not happen. What I am going to focus on is the here and now. Today, I am strong. I have been strong. I’ve had moments where I didn’t feel strong or didn’t want to be strong. I still do. But the overriding thoughts in my head lately are of strength, courage, tenacity, and fortitude (aren’t those awesome words?!).

So, I’ve been focusing on the here and now and what I want and what I don’t want. I’ve thought about the “questionables” (yes–they are always there) in my life and wondered why I keep them around if they are “questionables”. Buh-bye questionables. I think for a long time, I thought I had to settle.  Settle into this role of “poor widow with four kids”–what quality person would want to be with a 28-year old 😉 widow with 4 young children? But I’ve realized-ONLY a quality person would show up for this. I do not have to settle for anything. I’m fucking strong and fun and independent and sometimes I even think smart thoughts. (I know my Boston/Stuart Smalley dude has been trying to drill this into my head since last summer–but it took awhile for me to actually believe it.) Like lately with my brilliant insight–If I could make it through the past 642 days, I could make it through pretty much anything.

For awhile, I felt like only when I accomplished something major–climbing rocks, running up mountains, lifting more weights than I ever could before, buying a house, helping my dad put in wood floors(!), mowing my own lawn, hiking up a mountain in the pitch dark to see the sunrise….that I was strong. But I’ve realized–the strength has been there every single day–even when I wasn’t accomplishing those things–I was still really accomplishing something. I was surviving. It took a lot of strength to wear that Kristen Suit. It was very heavy and exhausting and still is sometimes. But lately, it is lighter and I’m starting to realize it’s not so much a suit anymore because it’s not temporary. I can’t take it off because it is who I’ve become. I’ve changed–I really am the Kristen Suit.

I finally opened Jake’s ashes. Man-that box was heavy and it took forever to figure out how to even open it. I didn’t know how I’d feel. I just knew I wanted to be alone. I have never actually seen anybody’s ashes before. I didn’t know what to expect. But I sat outside and put my hands in the bag and felt the ashes and wondered, “How is this Jake? How did this used to be the person I love? How could this tall, super strong, athletic guy be reduced to this? In this small box?” I still don’t believe it. When my emotional brain conflicts with my logical brain–my emotional brain wins almost every time. I can think about it and think about it–but I doubt it will ever make sense to me. So I just try to accept.

Same with Jake and Wednesday August 27, 2014. I’ve obsessed over the events of that day and the days prior for 632 days. (Yes I said 32–10 days less). The “what ifs” and “had I only”s…these questions are just my brain’s way of trying to force some sense into a senseless act. There will never be any sense to this-no matter how often I fruitlessly replay and re-ask those questions. I am working on being in the moment. I’m not guaranteed tomorrow. I can’t change the past. I need to accept that and just focus on–now. As I’ve said many, many times, grief is not a linear process. It is not a series of steps and then yay(!) graduation. I fully realize that I could fall back down the spiral at any time. But I’m not falling at this moment.

So now, in this moment–my focus is on my strength.  I can do what I can do and that’s about all. But I’m going to stand up tall and embody that strength because it is me–it is who I am. I am strong. I’m doing this. I refuse to be stuck in hell.  Winston Churchill was a brilliant man.  I keep on going.  (I wish there was a brain muscle emoji to insert here…)