So Tuesday was my wedding anniversary. It would have been 9 years married this October 27th, but of course, we were right smack in the middle of year 4 in our marriage, when my beautiful husband suddenly dropped dead. The reality of this event – someone being there one second, and then the next second, not – has become more and more baffling to me with time. One may think it would be the opposite – that as time marches on, there is an acceptance of the death that has happened. But with sudden and shocking death, it is not that simple. Yes, I have logically “accepted” that he has died. I’m not an idiot. I live and breathe the reality of his death every second. However, the very idea that my husband literally just disappeared from this earth with absolutely no symptoms or warnings or big neon signs reading: “Okay, Im going now! Thought I should let you know!” – I am not sure that will ever make any sense to me. The concept of someone leaving that abruptly, in the time you can say “Poof! Gone!”, will always leave me with a sour taste in my mouth. It’s like Bindi Irwin said a couple weeks ago on Dancing With the Stars, about her late dad, Steve Irwin’s sudden death: “I think I will always half expect him to come walking through the door.” Yes.
My wedding anniversary has become my hardest “grief day.” Even harder than the death anniversary day, which is usually filled with more purpose and support from friends and family, and I give honor to it and to Don with my annual “Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day.” Of course that day is also excruciatingly hard too, but at least I dont feel so alone.
My wedding anniversary makes me feel like the most alone person walking the earth.
I would imagine the reason that day makes me feel so very alone, is because it is about US. That day is about me and my husband, and the only thing I want to do on that day is to be with him, and I can’t do that. Not in the way that I want to. It is not a day that I want to spend with friends or in a big group. I would actually prefer to not be around other humans on that day, but because it fell on a Tuesday, I had to work. I’m a part-time professor at a university, and I teach Acting and Comedy Courses, so in my job, I have to be very “on.” My students have no idea about my husband’s death. My comedy students know, because we talk in that class about the connection between pain and comedy, so it’s relevant for me to share it with them, but my acting students have no idea. And none of them knew what Tuesday was for me. I woke up that morning already feeling defeated and incredibly sad. I woke up and started crying. The knowledge of what that day was and the knowledge of him still being dead – it just punched me in the gut the second I woke up and I cried. After driving myself to campus, I had to sit in the parking lot for a good 20 minutes and get myself together emotionally, before I could go in and be a human person with a job who has to talk to other human people. I could not stop crying. Nor could I stop telling the steering wheel over and over again: “I miss you. I just miss you so much. My heart hurts, Boo. It just hurts. ”
I did get through the teaching hours, somehow. Next up was driving to Sea Cliff, also on Long Island, to the venue where we married, and to where I have his ashes scattered across the street in the bay. Every year, on my wedding anniversary, I go back there and just sit with him. Or with his ashes. Or his energy. Or whatever you want to call it when your husband is no longer here on earth to actually sit with. I go there and I try like hell to feel close to him, to talk with him, to walk along the sand and just be in the essence of him. I also write a message in a bottle letter each year, directed at whoever finds it, telling them a bit about our story, and then encouraging them to somehow pay forward love on this day. In the letter, I talk about how I believe we are all connected somehow, and that the person who finds this letter is probably a person who needs to hear these specific words right now, today. So I toss that into the water, and watch it float away. The only sound I hear out there are my own breathing, and the seagulls. It is a beautiful place to be, and I find myself struggling to leave.
After that, I had a really nice dinner with my best childhood friend Sarah, one of the very few humans I find acceptable to be around on that day. We shared Don stories, quotes, and memories, and we felt the missing of him together. And then I went home, finally, after feeling like I had just run a marathon inside my brain, and I snuggled under the covers in my bed and just cried. The next day, I was still so emotional. It was as if I had reserved this day and week for specifically grieving the future we would never get to have, and all those feelings were coming out on full blast. I had made a phone session appointment with my grief therapist, because I figured I would need to talk to someone during my anniversary week. But somehow, we ended up missing each other’s calls and emails, and I didnt get to talk with her.
I felt so very exhausted by the day, and by the day before the day, and the day after the day. I was also very confused and a little bit mad at myself, for how much this was affecting me right now. It’s been four years! This is my fourth anniversary without him – why is this one so much harder? Why was I sitting in the parking lot at campus, in year four, sobbing with the fierceness of someone in month four? Why was I crying so much? What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I going backwards in this process? I thought I was doing so well.
And then I remembered something. And I remembered it instantly, almost as if it was completely obvious all along, but something abruptly allowed my brain to see it. I remembered this: I wasn’t going backwards. It only felt like I was going backwards, but sometimes, backward is actually forward. Several things happened on my anniversary day that proved how much I have shifted and changed and grown:
I was able to know ahead of time that I might need assistance, so I made an appointment with my therapist ahead of time. When that appointment didnt happen, I didnt flip out about it or go into panic mode. It just was, and it was okay.
I was able to get through my work day, without calling out sick, and without having to leave the classroom several times in order to break down crying, like I did all the time during month four (and five and six and seven) of this new life. I made it through all of my classes, and came out of there in one piece.
I recognized what I wanted to do with the day, and I did that. The first couple of anniversary dates, I had gone to Sea Cliff and dinner, but had included several close friends in both of those outings. So we had about 6 or 7 of us for dinner, and for hanging out in Sea Cliff. (the first year, we actually went there and spread his ashes on that day together). The past couple of years though, I have come to realize that while I really want and need a huge support system of friends on the death anniversary each year, I really would like to be more by myself on my wedding anniversary. No big crowds, no big group of friends. Just me and Don. The day feels like its about us, and I want to honor that in whatever way I can.
My message in a bottle thing was about reaching out, and lately, my instinctual response to pain has been to reach out in some way. Sometimes that means writing about it and posting it publicly – other times it means helping someone else directly in some way – other times its about letting people know what Im feeling and being okay with that. When I tossed that bottle into the sea, I somehow felt a little bit better, like something had been lifted from me and sent into the universe, to the place of residence where it was always meant to be.
What I realized more than anything else, is that on this really hard day, there was one thing and one thing only that ultimately got me through it.
It was me. I am the one who got me through it. Yes, I had support and messages of comfort from some really amazing friends and family, but in the end, all of the obstacles or tough emotions I faced, were dealt with and coped with by me. I figured it out. Who cares that I sobbed for hours this week? Who cares that I couldnt stop crying in the car, or that I came home and fell into a sub-conscious half-sleep and missed my therapist’s phone call? Who cares that it’s Friday and Im STILL feeling emotional about all of this? You know what? That’s just grief. That’s just what this is. I am done feeling ANY type of guilt or feeling bad about days when I feel bad. I am finished with questioning why I am still not ready to even think about “someone else”, even after 4 years. I refuse to feel bad about any of that. As my grief-therapist once told me: You are exactly where you need to be. And she was right. And where I am right now, is not where I was 4 years ago. Or even 2 or 1 year ago. Not even close. Where I am now is way different, and I am getting better at figuring out this “death inside life” thing, every day. I just needed to see that for myself.
There are times when in order to go forward, you might have to go backwards. Or maybe it just feels like backwards, when really, it’s just a direction you can’t recognize, because you haven’t been there ever, until that very moment.
That is what this was. It was an entirely new feeling for me. Something happened while I was doing all that sobbing this week. Right there, in the midst of deep and painful crying; in the middle of missing him and our life with an intensity hard to describe; there was something else.
It was me. My own voice. And it was saying, rather clearly, in fact: “Stop worrying. You are going to get yourself through this, and you are going to be okay. ”