Grief is a Liar

I think I know why Death wears a hood.

It isn’t, like many of us think, so that we fear him.   Or so that he is able to keep his face from being recognized too soon.   I don’t think the hood has to do with either of those things.

I think Death wears a hood for reasons that have nothing to do with us.

I think he wears his hood so that, when he approaches us with his arms outstretched, he doesn’t have to see us look at him in disbelief.  I think he wears a hood so that when he carefully and gently takes the hand of our person, he doesn’t have to see what it does to us.  So that he doesn’t have to see the pain.  I think he wears his hood so he doesn’t have to watch us drop to the ground with our hands over our faces.  He wears it so he can muffle out the sounds of screaming.

Death wears his hood so he doesn’t have to listen to anymore pleas for “one more hour. ” For one more minute.  For one more second.   It’s so he doesn’t have to hear people who used to shrink from him…beg, for the first time in their life, to go with him.  To ask if they can follow him.  To ask if he would be so kind as to take them instead.

He wears his hood so we can’t hear his voice break as he whispers, “I’m so, so sorry.  I don’t understand this either,” as he leaves.

I bet he wears his hood because his job breaks his heart.

And I would bet, that as he slowly walks away from us, Death pulls his hood up tighter so he doesn’t have to look Grief in the eye as she strolls past him towards the ones left back in life.

And I bet, with all my heart, that Death shuddered and hid even deeper under his hood once he looked over his shoulder six months ago and saw Grief crouching next to me.  And I bet he watched with a heavy heart as she leaned in and began to whisper the first lie she tells us all:

That she is here on behalf of Love.

Grief whispers that where there was great love, there must now be great pain.  She says this many times, so eventually it begins to make sense.   And we naively begin to accept that, for the rest of our life, this love will always have to hurt.  Because it should hurt.

And with this, we begin to trust her… so we lay at her feet with our hearts open, and ask to hear more.

So Grief tells us a bigger lie.  She tells us that what happened…the accident, the sudden heart attack, the cancer…that it was personal. That what happened to our person doesn’t actually happen to anyone else.  Not like this.  She tells us that our tragedy was designed specifically for us and us alone.  That these things “don’t just happen.”  They happen to us.

She tells us that Death comes for our person because the world has a personal stake in our unhappiness

This is where the anger, like a fever, begins to settle in.  And grief, stoking the flames continues and says quietly:  “You should be jealous of everyone else.”  

This is the lie that turns the spark of anger you had been holding back, into an inferno. 

It’s the lie that makes us look at other people’s happiness and say: They don’t deserve what they have.  They don’t really love one another.  They will never have what I had.  They will never understand.  

This lie turns us against the world around us and tries to lay waste to the friendships and relationships that had always sustained us.  And the anger feels good.  Because Grief knows that righteous anger always does.   

And after Grief begins to chip away at the relationships you still have here, she turns her sights on your relationship with your person.

And asks one simple question:  What makes you so sure they loved you? 

She brings up the fights you got into. The words you threw at one another like weapons when you were arguing.  She brings up the times you chose to get off the phone early for no real reason.  The times you rolled your eyes at them instead of giving them the hug you know they needed.  The times you thought you might be happier with someone else.  The times you thought that they would be happier with someone else.   She reminds you of all the time you wasted.

She makes you question your worthiness, your goodness, the happiness you brought them.  She makes you minimize the good times and think only about the bad times.  You can’t remember the love you gave them because you’re too busy replaying the pain you know you caused them on a loop in your head over and over and over.

And she doesn’t whisper her lies anymore, she shouts them at you over and over and over again until, with your back against the wall, you finally start doing her job for her and, looking Grief in the face, you tell yourself the biggest lie of them all:

That they’re really gone.  

That all you can do when someone dies is grieve them.   There is nothing more.  Just a cold, growing, empty space between your life back then with them, and your life right now without them.

You tell yourself that there is nothing more of them left here for you to love.  Death took it all.  And all you are left with is Grief who will walk next to you in your person’s place.

And Grief nods.

So you take Grief’s hand and begin to walk forward knowing that, yes…this love will always hurt.  And suffering will always find you.  And Grief sits silent for the first time and smiles.

But in that silence comes a voice from a lifetime away.  It’s so quiet at first, that you’re certain you’re hearing your own thoughts inside your head.  The voice, unlike Grief’s, doesn’t sound real.  Couldn’t be real.

But it seeps in somehow… from the cracks of the most broken places of your heart that only one person…your person…knew about.   Because they were the only person who you ever allowed to see those dark and broken parts of you.      

And it’s from those broken places that your person, after trying for so long to be heard over Grief, is able to finally get their message through and say…

My love, she’s lying. 

Death didn’t take me;  Death doesn’t take any of us anywhere we don’t want to go.  He simply explains that just as we made choices in life, we can make choices in death.  So I chose to stay with you.  How could I choose differently?

Why would I leave you here? Can’t you see that everything that has ever happened… happened to get me to you and you to me.  Stars were born and stars died.  Continents shifted, oceans froze, mountains moved so that one day we would be here together…even if just for a few years.  How could death take that away?  

I’m sorry.  I couldn’t stay in that body.  But I’m here.  Don’t let her walk in my place. Please: don’t listen to her.   I’m right here.  

And that’s when the landscape shifts.  When Grief feels you loosening your hand on hers, and she, for the first time, looks confused and says:  you can’t let go of me…that isn’t a choice.  If you don’t grieve them, you never loved them.  

And on hearing that, you realize for yourself, plain as day, that Grief…Grief is a liar.

You Weren’t Allowed to Do This

There were rules, babe.

You said it yourself.  Time and time again… Whenever someone at work was acting up, or whenever someone in their personal life was doing something idiotic, you’d shake your head and talk about “the rules” in life:  The things people are allowed to do, and the things they aren’t.

We didn’t agree on everything, and that was part of the beauty of what we were, but we always agreed on “the rules.”  We lived by the same ones both in our lives, and in our relationship.  Simply put:  we knew what we were allowed to do and what neither of us were allowed to do.  The rules were very clear.

And as the years went on, I’d like to think I got more liberal in my allowances.  I think we both know I started off pretty…rigid.  But I think towards the end there, we were really getting it right.  By the end, after loving you for so long, there were a lot of things that I would have happily allowed you to do:

You were allowed to forget to call. 

All those times you would fall asleep, phone in hand, and wake up to 17 angry missed calls from me…were totally allowed.  Though I said otherwise at the time, all that anger…all that irritation… would disappear the second I saw your name appear on my screen the next morning.

I’d listen to you frantically explain what happened: how tired you were from work, how you fell asleep watching a movie with your roommate, how sorry you were for not calling.

And I’d tell you to never do it again because it worried me…because your job is dangerous and whenever you didn’t call, the worst case scenario would explode in my head… and you’d swear it’d never happen again.  But it always did, because it was allowed.

You were allowed to fight with me. 

And man, did we fight.

Those knock-down drag-out brawls where we’d be set on nothing short of complete and utter annihilation of the other person’s point (or feelings)…those fights were allowed.  The fights were allowed to be ugly.  They were allowed to be ruthless.  They were allowed to hurt.

Truth be told, I loved fighting with you; honestly I did.  Because, no matter how bad they got, every single fight we had  would lead us to the same realization time and time again: The realization that the bottom was never going to fall out on us.  That we were never going to give up on one another.  Never not have each other’s backs.  Even if we needed days, weeks, months to get over something.

To give up on one another…that…simply was not allowed.  Ever.

You were even allowed to leave me. 

You were allowed to decide that you needed something else in a partner.  You were allowed to meet someone else and be happy with them.  I would have allowed it.  Because I’d still have been able to have your back, though someone else would have your heart.

You were allowed to find someone your family liked, someone who loved themselves more, who didn’t press you so hard on every…single…stupid…thing.  You were allowed to do that, babe, if it made you happy, because at times, I certainly didn’t feel like I made you happy.  And you deserved nothing short of that.

You weren’t allowed to die.

Not even a little bit.  It wasn’t even something to be discussed.

You weren’t allowed to leave me here and not take me with you.  We had adventures planned…together.  I wanted to go everywhere with you, and you went to the one place I can’t get to, and to say that that completely breaks my heart is the understatement of a lifetime.

And I can’t talk to you again, and I can’t call you again, and I can’t see you again, and I can’t figure out what exactly you expect me to do because you’re not here for me to ask you, and that wasn’t ever allowed.

You’re gone.  You stopped living.  You broke the rules.

But I didn’t, so I still have to follow the rules we set for one another: I have to be tenacious.  I have to be honest.   To be a better version of myself every day.  I have to walk outside everyday in a world you’re not in anymore and continue to try to be a good person.  And I have to do it without my best friend, my wing man; I have to do it without my heart.  And I have to pretend that it isn’t utterly exhausting just to keep breathing sometimes.

And sometimes, it’s too much, and I just miss you.

And I know…I’m not allowed to fall completely apart.  Or to give up on myself.  Or give up on people.  I know that because you made those rules very clear over and over again when you were right here next to me.  You believed in me.  Always.

I know I’m not allowed to turn into a person you wouldn’t be proud to know.  I’m not allowed to turn into a person you wouldn’t recognize.  I’m not allowed to turn into a person who stops showing up for her friends or family.  And I won’t .

I’m not allowed to let the space in my heart that held all of the joy and happiness you brought me turn into a sanctuary for bitterness and anger and resentment.  That place is only allowed to be filled with goodness.  With you.

And even though you were way better at following the rules than I was…I’ll finally say what I never said during any fight we had, and that is: Ok, babe…you win.  I’ll follow the rules…some days more so than others though, but I’ll do it.

But one rule I need to make absolutely clear to you is that I am allowed to keep loving you…forever.  And I will, babe.  Every day.  Without fail.

The Word “Widow” Doesn’t Cut It

The other day, someone asked me whether I would consider myself a widow.

I know that people need labels, but honestly I haven’t thought much into what I would call myself.  Things have been confusing recently.

The amount of times that question has come up has caused me to really have to ask myself what John and I were.  What was he to me and me to him?

Was he my  “boyfriend?”  No…the word itself sounds so trivial.  The word “partner” seems to fit, but doesn’t seem to capture the gravity of our relationship.   So then there’s “husband” or “spouse,” which for some reason seem to be the terms that carry the most legitimacy, but apparently, John and I missed out on the paperwork and fees that those terms require.  So…oh well.

But when I sit and think about it, even if he were my husband, and I was his widow…those words just, frankly, seem to fall flat.  There’s an emptiness to them, a vagueness in regards to the journey and path that our relationship carved into who we were and who I am.

What is the emotional difference between a boyfriend, partner, and husband?  And why does it matter so much to people?  Honestly, I don’t know.  I guess people need to make as much sense out of senseless events as they can, and the labels help.

But I can’t help people with that. I don’t know if I would consider myself a widow for one simple reason: I didn’t lose my husband.

John wasn’t my husband, not even a little bit.  He was so much more.  He was a part of my spirit.  He was a soulmate.  I lost the person who made me…me.  As someone else put it so perfectly, I  lost the echo of my life.

Is there a word for that?

John wasn’t my husband, but I would listen to his heart beat for fun.  Forty-two beats per minute.  It was the slowest…heartbeat… I had… ever… heard.  When we were lying around together, bored on a weekend,  I would ask if I could listen to it.  It fascinated me…how I could fit two of my heart beats into his one.  How even our inner workings seemed to balance one another out.

He wasn’t my husband…but I enjoyed hearing him live.  Literally.  That slow rhythmic beat that told me I was not alone in this world.  That I was his and he was mine.  I didn’t lose my husband, but I lost that.  What is the word for that?

He wasn’t my husband, but we would talk about the future.  The real future.  Not about the wedding and dresses and engagement rings, but of the struggle that would come with married life.  The arduous nature of military life and how he would miss out on the kids’ birthday parties because of deployments and how he would have to cope with the inevitable moments where I might feel resentful that I had to give up everything I knew in order to support his career.  We would talk about it.  The struggle of a life together where we knew we would have to fight to make each other happy and recommit ourselves to each other every single day.  I didn’t lose my husband, but I lost the promise and chance of a future with someone who would fight with me and for me.

A friend of mine once described the nature of relationships and said that people start off as squares, and that life chips away at us until we are whittled into little jig-saw pieces.  And at some point we meet someone who just “slots” into those pieces that are missing from us.  And that person makes you not fully whole…but makes you just a bit better.  They make life a little less scary.  And they make you a lot more fearless.  I lost that.

John told me once that I “helped heal the broken parts of him,” and he did the same for me.   And he died.  Even the word “died” doesn’t seem to fit:  He was ripped away.  Wrenched out of my life.  And for a while there, my life felt like it was meant to feel like punishment.

He died.  He wasn’t my husband.  He was not my spouse.  I am not his widow.  But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to fight for me and our love in ways that I simply cannot explain.

We never got married, but I know that my phone will ring with only his name flashing on the screen and no way to hang up on the call and no record of it after I finally have to turn off my phone.  I know that my five year old niece started saying phrases that were shared only between me and him.   I know that the one time I needed four quarters to fill my tires up with air, a student of mine randomly walked up to me and handed them to me and said: not sure if you need these, but here.

He wasn’t my husband but I know the first time that I sent him a voice note a month after he died, I asked if he was proud of me.  And when I got home that day and opened my apartment door, a red balloon floated in from literally God knows where and nestled at my feet.  What is the word for when someone dies, yet they keep showing up for you?  What’s the word?

I know he’s dead.  Not my husband…but my partner.  My best friend.  My hype man.  I know’s he gone, but I also know that he’s found ways to make sure that even though I’m struggling with emotions that range from agony to grotesque indifference, I’ve never had to deal with feeling lonely.  Because I somehow still know he’s here.  Whispering.  And guiding.  And loving.  And honestly, spooking me out a bit, which I’m sure he is absolutely loving.

I know he’s dead and people need a way to refer to me, so the best thing I can come up with right now is that I’m not a widow…because I’m still very much his girl.  His person.  His best friend.  In heart and body and soul.  Because those are the only labels that really ever mattered.