“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
For two years I’ve had this Samuel Beckett quote at the top of my notes. Each morning, as I began my writing for the day, I'd read It and feel the truth of the complexities of loving and losing and living in the aftermath. For two years it has been the quiet back-and-forth of my inner dialogue. For two years, I have had to verbally remind myself that, in spite of it all, I must go on.
Two years ago, I didn’t think I could.
Two years ago, my vocal, opinionated, extroverted husband whispered his final words. I held his hand and said, “I love you.” Brad looked me in the eyes, smiled, and replied with this one small word: “yes.” His body would hold on for another day, but that would be the final verbal exchange between the two of us.
When I think back to that day two years ago, I didn’t think I could go on. I didn’t think I could live through the pain of not having Brad in my life. I didn’t sleep. I sobbed on the floor for hours. I drank away my pain. I regularly thought to myself, “I can’t go on.”
But two years later, I have gone on.
I went on, not just because of my own strength and desire to live. But also because Brad deserved nothing less. I refused to waste my life when Brad’s was so unfairly cut short. I went on, in part, because of Brad's profound influence on me. Brad didn’t ever choose the easy path. He could have easily made more money, but chose to work in non-profits, serving his community. He could have lived in Boston or DC or Portland, but chose Detroit. He could have married any one of his many admirers who demanded less (hi ladies!), but he chose me. He could have talked his way through anything, but he chose to listen. He could have played it safe, but he chose risks. He chose courage. More than anything else, he chose a life of meaning.
Leading by example, Brad challenged me to be courageous. He emboldened me to ask the tough questions. He encouraged me to use my voice. He chased high expectations and big dreams. Witnessing someone reach for a life that substantial was infectious and it inspired me to reach further too.
Two years ago, Brad looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said, “yes.” That yes wasn’t just about loving me. It was about all the choices he had made - all the choices we had made in our life together.
And in the past two years, when I’d lay in my bed and cry and think “I can’t go on,” I inevitably think back to Brad's “yes” and I know: I will go on.
Earlier this summer, I spent 5 days backcountry camping throughout the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula. Over those 5 days, as I struggled with the weight of my pack, the pains, the moments of joy, and the elements, I realized how similar a trek in the wilderness is to the grief journey. Along the way, I wrote this post.
Grief is a lot like a backcountry trek. The weight of the pack, like grief, becomes deeply ingrained in you. Whether you are aware of it or not, it becomes a part of you.
In the beginning, the weight feels unbearable. You ask yourself how you can possibly make it past the first day. How you can possibly lift the weight by yourself. You sit and stare in disbelief. Frozen in shock, you initially refuse to carry the weight. You tell yourself you can't. But eventually you realize you have no choice. So you pick up your weight and take a single step. And then another. And another. It is heavy. You feel the pain with every inch forward. But you keep moving until you have survived your first day and are able to rest.
The next day, as you put the pack back on, you immediately notice the discomfort - the soreness and bruises from the weight - a reminder of the previous day’s struggle. You feel it in every single new step. Eventually, you settle into the pain and are able to move through it. Eventually, it becomes a part of you. You carry it and you feel its presence, but you also start to notice other things besides the pain. Eventually you start to notice the joy.
As time goes on, you still feel the pain, you still know it’s there, but it’s less acute, less piercing. If you’re lucky, you have people that can help lighten the load and carry the weight with you. But for the most part, you know you have to rely on yourself to keep moving. You know the weight is yours to carry.
The heaviness of the weight takes its toll on you physically. You are no longer as bright and shiny as when you started. You are more worn. But soon you will start to embrace this full and messy and imperfect version of yourself. Your life will become bigger as you learn to feel it all. You recognize the beauty in places you never would have been able to before. You begin to find light in the darkness.
Sometimes your path is through miles of muddy shit. You slip. You lose your balance. You fall. But you keep going. Sometimes barriers have blocked your path. You must lift your weight and climb over them. The terrain becomes rocky and you must learn how to navigate your unsteadiness. You wander off your path and get lost. You fall again. You rest. You keep going. You try and stay present through this new and foreign terrain because you begin to learn that inevitably there are respites of beauty that make the struggle bearable; that allow you to keep going, in spite of the pain. You begin to embrace the beauty.
At first the weight is a burden. You long for the familiar past and yearn for some different future, where the weight doesn’t feel so heavy. Because the weight will exhaust you - in ways you never thought you could be exhausted. You will ache, physically and emotionally, because of it. And you will thirst for lighter days. But you will learn to find different ways to cope with the pain of the weight, so as not to be crushed by it.
You will face many uphill battles and the weight will feel impossible to carry. Don’t think about the entire uphill journey. Don’t focus on the top of the mountain. Focus on the first step. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. When necessary, slow down. Take a break. Pause. Remind yourself of what there is to look forward to, even if it feels unreachable.
Eventually the weight becomes second nature. You learn to balance with it. You learn to carry it through the ups and downs of the terrain. As time goes on, you don’t become weaker, as you first suspected. No, the extra weight makes you stronger, more capable. You become more resourceful, relying on yourself and the elements around you.
In the end, you’re not the same person who started the trek. Not better. But different. Changed. And as much as you might want to at times, you can never go back to the previous version of yourself. Embrace this new, stronger, messier, more human version of yourself. Connect with others who have walked a similar path, and who have carried their own weight. Find those who see your weary eyes and are able to recognize your bright soul.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” -C.S. Lewis
It’s been 18 months since Brad’s death and I still feel full of fear. Grief tends to do that - bring up all kinds of fears, some more rational than others. Fear of getting sick and dying of cancer seems to be an obvious one. Fear of an unknown future ahead is another. Fear of loneliness. Fear of public perception. Fear of failure.
But so many fears within grief seem to be wrapped in an impossible duality, one where you feel stuck between two opposing forces - like being both afraid of the dark and afraid of the light. At all times the pain of the loss is also, concurrently, connected with the joy of remembrance.
Living life in this duality of grief isn’t easy. But the only way to prevent those fears from holding you back is to feel them, acknowledge them, and eventually let them go.
So in an effort to release them, here are (some of) my (many) fears.
I am afraid I will never get over the loss of Brad. That his death is so entwined in my body and in my soul, that I will be broken forever.
And I am afraid of feeling his loss less. Of continuing on with my life and not thinking about him every waking (and sometimes sleeping) second. I am afraid of the day I wake up and his absence feels normal.
I am afraid of forgetting. Forgetting all the tiny little things that made up Brad. His mannerisms. His expressions. His witty banter. His laugh.
And I am afraid of remembering. His diagnosis. His rapid decline. All the trauma that still haunts me surrounding his death.
I am afraid of being alone forever. Of never connecting with anyone the way I did with Brad. Never again being seen or understood. Never being supported. Never having a partner to go through the joys and pain that life inevitably throws at us.
And I am afraid of not being alone. Of being open and vulnerable enough to let my guard down. To let someone else in. To allow another into my grief. Into my joy. To let someone else see and understand and support me.
I am afraid of never feeling like myself again. Of old traits - that used to come so freely - now come a little slower and with an extra weight of heaviness.
And I am afraid of this person I am becoming. This person that I have grown to respect and admire, but is inescapably different. I am afraid of changing so much that I would be unrecognizable to Brad.
I am afraid of the future. Of everything yet to come. I am afraid of planning a new future built for one, instead of the old future, built for two.
And I am afraid of the past. I am afraid of feeling stuck in the past and forgetting to fully live in the present. I am afraid that every future joy will be compared to every past joy.
I am afraid of how much I feel pain. Not just my own, but in other’s who are experiencing loss too. I am afraid of how much I will feel future pains, before they even arrive.
And I am afraid of becoming numb to pain. Of losing that empathy and becoming jaded. I am afraid that because of my experience I might one day start to minimize that pain.
I am afraid of grief. The grief that sits so deep in my bones that it creates a burden to every joyful experience. That for the rest of my life, every happy moment will be coupled with the weight of grief.
And I am afraid of joy. Of every single blissful moment that Brad will never get to experience alongside me.
I am afraid of death. And I am afraid of life.
I am afraid of it all.
I am afraid.
And I don’t want to be afraid.
When Brad died, I had several people ask me (and many more ask around me) if I was going to stay in Detroit. At the time I was incredibly offended. How could they question my loyalty to Detroit? Did they not know that I had lived here, and built a life here with Brad, for over 10 years? Did they not know that both Brad and I were transplants and that Brad only lived here for a year before I joined him? Did they not know that down to my core, Detroit felt like home? That Detroit was my home?
But even as I stubbornly defended my decision to stay, as more time passed, I started to recognize the tiny tension in my gut and the tiny voice in my head whispering, “but you might not stay.”
I didn’t want to hear that voice.
I wanted to stay. I wanted to continue building my life and my relationships in the city I loved. I wanted to honor both Brad and my home.
Everyday I convinced myself I was making the right choice. And everyday I heard a little voice ask, “but what if you leave?”
Acknowledging a desire to leave felt like acknowledging defeat. It felt like giving up on a city that became my home. A city I loved even though not everyone could understand that love. A city that supported me through my best and worst moments.
More importantly, acknowledging a desire to leave felt like giving up on the home that Brad and I spent twelve years building together. It felt like, not just giving up on my commitment to the city, but somehow giving up on my commitment to Brad.
Making a conscious decision to change the course of the life we planned together to go off alone into the unknown is impossibly hard.
Over the years, Brad and I talked a lot about leaving Detroit. It’s tough living in a place you constantly have to defend, despite its very real issues. Tough to live in a place where basic services like street lights and education for kids are lacking. Tough to live in a place that is so racially divided, you regularly feel like the foe, in spite of the time and work you put in to be a friend.
But Detroit remained home for us - in a lot of ways - because of these complexities. Our life here was built around a community of tough people who could handle the tough conversations. Despite being outsiders, I think we felt connected to a city that wasn’t afraid of its struggles. A city that could get knocked down repeatedly and always manage to get back up again.
Looking back, I think people questioned my decision to remain in Detroit because they couldn’t understand how I could possibly stay. How do you stay in the home and the city where you lost the love of your life? How do you get through the day when every single thing reminds you of what you had? Of what you no longer have?
Those reminders have been both a blessing and a curse. Some days, I smile seeing a tiny token of my life with Brad. Other days, it puts me in a puddle on the floor for hours. Many days it’s both.
At first, I thought I just had to get over my grieving. A certain amount of time had to pass and then it would all be easier. Life would start to go back to some semblance of normalcy and I would figure it all out.
But you don’t get over the grief. Time doesn’t heal. And normal - whatever that used to be - no longer exists.
After getting through the one year mark of Brad’s death, and realizing my life wasn’t going to automatically start improving (and also realizing the following several months would prove to be harder than I ever thought possible), I knew something had to change.
I’ve been stuck in the life that we planned. Going through the motions of a life that no longer exists. Sleeping in our bed. Cooking In our kitchen. Visiting our bars. Hanging with our people. None of it felt right anymore. In the beginning, I forced myself to show up and go through the motions, with a smile plastered to my face. When that became too exhausting, I just stopped showing up.
Brad may be dead, but it was me who felt like a ghost, quietly wandering though this foreign life.
I wanted to feel alive again.
So I started to quietly acknowledge that little voice telling me I didn’t have to stay - in this city or in this current life of mine. I would daydream about living on a farm or up in the mountains or on a quiet little lake somewhere. I thought about starting over in a place so unfamiliar I had no choice but to make it my own.
But that’s all it was - a daydream. A fantasy. Distractions to temporarily remove myself from this current life I was unhappy in.
It wasn’t real.
And then tragedy happened. Again and again and again. Over the course of a couple weeks, death and sickness and cancer all reemerged in my life.
And in the obvious and cliche way that tragedy seems to stems change, I was done. Done being a ghost in my own life.
The tiny little voice in my head was no longer a tiny little voice. It was my heart and my mind and my gut roaring all at once. The daydream didn’t have to be a dream. I had a choice. Be miserable or change.
Life is too fucking short. It’s too. fucking. short.
Be miserable or change.
So with my life crumbling down around me, I made a choice. I chose potential future happiness over unfulfilled familiarity. I chose the unknown over the stagnant. I chose joy over misery.
I chose possibility.
I chose the daydream.
I don’t know where this new life will lead me. And honestly, I am scared shitless. But the rash and irrational decision of waking up on a Monday to quit my job and rent a house on the lake in the Leelanau Peninsula, felt more right than any other active decision I’ve made in a long time.
I don’t know if I will come back to my home here in Detroit. I don’t even know what home feels like anymore. But I do know that the only way to figure out what home is - my home, not our home - is to leave.
I love this city and the life I built here. I will miss so much of that past life. But that is a life that is no longer available to me.
It’s time to explore something new.
It’s not you, Detroit, it’s me.
1. The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.
2. Strength in the face of pain or grief.
I’ve spent the last year and a half openly talking about and writing about courage - courage in the face of illness, courage in the face of death, and courage in the face of life after loss.
But the reality is, I’ve spent the last year and a half utterly terrified.
Living in total fear.
Fear of change. Fear of being stuck. Fear of dying. Fear of living. Fear of it all.
I have been swallowed up by fear.
Even so, I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of pushing through those fears to live a life of courage, in spite of the constant state of panic I internally experience. I’ve taken risks, I’ve spoken my truth, I’ve shown up and connected with loved ones. I’ve tested my strength in ways I never thought possible.
But all of those came with a deep layer of terror. Followed by the inevitable layer of guilt for not feeling as courageous as others maybe perceived me to be.
Inside, I felt like a scared little girl, all alone in an overwhelming new world.
And I wish I could say that acknowledging this truth will somehow make it easier to let go of the fear. But that would be a lie. I am still afraid. Doing it alone, without a partner - without the love and support I’d grown accustomed to - fills me with constant doubt and uncertainty.
Change is hard. Walking into the unknown feels like a barren landscape of terror.
But I've come to realize that if I’m going to continue to evolve and change, that I have to keep walking through it. I've also come to realize that if I want to continue living a life of courage, I will never be able to fully let go of the fear. Instead I need to learn to embrace the fear, finally coming to terms that you can’t have courage without fear.
Courage isn’t letting go of the fear. Courage is moving forward - one tiny, authentic step at a time - in spite of the fear. Courage is following your heart even when you heart has been shattered to pieces. Courage isn't having all the answers. It's living in the questions.
So instead of letting go of the fear, I’m moving forward with those fears. To me, that's what living courageously is all about.
With courage and fear, I'm preparing myself for some big changes. Stay tuned.
I’m part of a Facebook group called Hot Young Widows Club. You don’t have to be hot or young or even a woman to be part of the group. The only requirement is that your partner is dead. But the name sets the tone for the type of group: it’s full of attitude and sass and zero fucks. It’s the most supportive grief group I’ve found.
Earlier, a fellow hot, young widow posted about March being kidney cancer awareness month. I didn’t know this existed. Maybe I should have - because of my own diagnosis, I am aware that blood cancers have their own month and lymphoma has a special color cancer ribbon. It only makes sense that kidney cancer would get its own month and special color ribbon too (I looked it up - it’s orange). But I didn’t know. And because of that, my initial feeling was one of guilt. Am I a bad cancer widow for the total lack of awareness I have about kidney cancer awareness month? The disease that stole my love and my whole fucking future and I don’t know anything about it?
Should I be more aware?
But after the guilt subsided, anger set in. I may not be aware about kidney cancer awareness month, but I am certainly aware about kidney cancer. That I am fucking aware of.
I'm aware it’s a sneaky cancer that doesn’t let itself known until it’s too late. I'm aware that the “lucky” ones who discover it early, usually discover it on accident. I'm aware that for the rest of the people (the “unlucky” ones), it is so fucking aggressive and awful that right when you settle in to fight, the fight is over. I'm aware it has the ability to - in an instant - swoop in and steal the life of the person you love most in the world, taking your life along with it.
I'm aware that we were too busy fighting it to advocate for it. Too busy fighting for a future, any future, to worry about awareness and ribbons. And I'm aware that with late stage kidney cancer, chances are, it’s going to be a shorter fight than you want.
I am also aware that the people who are AWARE of cancer awareness month are the people still living. The fighters. The survivors.
But stage 4 kidney cancer doesn’t leave a lot of survivors. It leaves a lot of widows. That I am aware of too.
So what is the point of kidney cancer awareness month? What exactly are we trying to be aware of? What kidney cancer looks like? What it feels like? Usually nothing. It looks and feels like nothing. And it’s because of this lack of awareness in the body, that it is so often undetected until the cancer has metastasized and it’s too late.
I am aware.
How about what kidney cancer does? Should we be aware of that? Because I can tell you about that too.
I am aware that kidney cancer silently attacks your body. Every day, quietly wrecking havoc on your system. For years. So by the time you are aware, it’s too late. And then it quickly - so fucking quickly - destroys you. It will spread to all your organs. It will cause life threatening blood clots and strokes. It will eat away at your bones. It will take your energy. And your vision. And you ability to sleep. And your appetite. And your ability to move. And if you’ve made it this far, it will eventually fuck with your mind. And finally, when it’s taken everything else, it will take your heart and with it, your very last breath.
I am aware.
With stage 4 kidney cancer, I am aware there is no cure. No treatment that provides any real hope (although you’ll hear the story of the one guy who is 6 years in and doing well or the person who miraculously cured her stage 4 cancer and I am aware that you’ll grip and hold hope to these examples with every bone in your body). But in most cases it’s a fucked up disease that will drop a bomb on you and obliterate everything and everyone in its path.
I am aware.
That’s what kidney cancer fucking does. Thank you awareness month. I am perfectly aware.
And now that you’re also aware, now what?
Typically the purpose of cancer awareness month is to bring awareness to symptoms to look out for for early detection. For some cancers that’s a lump. For others it’s fevers and night sweats. These symptoms can be detected early and can often times be the difference in life and death. But what about late stage kidney cancer? What then? Be aware of the indiscernible, silent thing growing inside you? The mass that shows no symptoms and you will not physically feel until it’s metastasized and spread all over your body? Be aware of that?
There’s no early detection. There’s no early screening. Even the American Cancer Society says, “There are no recommended screening tests for kidney cancer in people who are not at increased risk. This is because no test has been shown to lower the overall risk of dying from kidney cancer.”
And because they can’t give you any concrete actions to make you aware, they recommend eating your fruits and veggies and getting sleep and working out and reducing stress and not smoking and all the other preventative shit we all know.
I am aware.
And it all feels like a bunch of bullshit.
Instead of a month of awareness, how about just be aware? Be aware of your life and live. Live so fucking hard. Chase passion and excitement and love and adventure. Be compassionate and kind. Take risks. Fail.
Live a life so full and so aware that when you are taking your final breaths, you aren’t thinking about all the things you should have done. Instead you are replaying all the moments you chose to fully live.
Live that life. Be aware of that.
Happy Kidney Cancer Awareness Month. I am aware.
A year ago today we were lying in bed together. I was curled up in the nook of his arm - the spot where I had spent thousands of hours over the course of our relationship. His one hand was gently resting on my thigh and the other was tucked safely inside my own, our fingers entwined. He was asleep and I was lying next to him, listening to the fierce rhythm of his heart.
It was the first morning I woke up and wanted it to be over - a thought that is hard to admit, but one that, unlike so many other thoughts over the last year, comes without guilt. After my own struggle with cancer, we had more conversations about life and death than your average young couple. We knew how we wanted to live - and equally as important - how we didn’t. I woke up, snuggled in the crook of his arm, and for the first time I knew: Brad wouldn’t want to live like this.
He hadn’t spoken in 24 hours and it had been days since he had been able to carry on any conversation beyond a few words. Brad was a man of many words. Words that gracefully poured out of him like poetry. Words of passion, about social justice and equality and Detroit and most of all, words about love.
Brad embodied love.
He was a lover of life, taking big risks with even bigger payoffs. He was an optimistic dreamer who had the unique ability to both have faith in his ideas and recognize their barriers. He was a spectacular listener, allowing conversations to linger in thought before offering feedback. He toed the line of comfort, loving the quiet space between awkwardness and self discovery. He was hilarious and quick witted, both in his self deprecation and his joke telling. He was a fierce and passionate leader, who knew the power of leading by example. He constantly wanted to know more, always encouraging to dig just a little bit deeper. He was thought provoking, challenging basic assumptions.
He was, oftentimes, way too serious, but he was silly too. He loved his family, especially his nieces and nephews, and regularly taught us all what it meant to show up. He was hard on himself, most notably in situations I found hysterical (he was never more angry than the time he flipped a burger so it landed perfectly - and got stuck - in the one inch space between the stove and the wall). He was intimidatingly brilliant, but never made you feel as if you were less than. He was unconditionally supportive of other’s dreams, quick to pull out the white board for a brainstorming session to make them a reality. He was fearless, never afraid to take the road less traveled. He was gentle and kind. He was a romantic, we all witnessed that. But not just in love, also in life.
He was authentic.
He was vulnerable.
He was courageous.
He was ineffable.
Brad was love.
And a year ago, I woke up and I knew. And I believe Brad knew. This was no longer the way in which he wanted to live. And shortly after that, with me curled up in his arms in the quiet of our home, his hand still grasping mine, he let go.
A piece of myself died with him that afternoon. A version of myself I will never get back. In its place, grief quickly settled in. There is not a single facet of my life that loss has not touched. From the obvious gaping hole in my heart down to the minuscule details of my daily life, like the chipped “Brad” mug that he used to drink his coffee out of. It's all a blaring and inescapable reminder of loss.
But there is also not a single facet of my life that love has not touched. Because Brad was love. And his impact so deep, it would be impossible not to carry that with me. Brad constantly reminded me what it felt like to be loved. To feel safe. To know trust.
Loss has followed me every day for the last year, but so has love. Because love - the kind of love we shared - is something that not even death can take away.
Thank you, Brad for showing me what love feels like and allowing me the greatest pleasure of being your forever. I will miss you always - and in all ways. I love you more than the sun and the moon.
It was two and a half months after Brad’s death. I was running away and was in Florida at the time. I stubbornly refused to celebrate, not wanting to acknowledge the day. Not wanting to acknowledge another minute had passed without Brad. And with the exception of a “non-celebratory” stop for tacos and tequila at the nearby hole-in-the-wall mexican joint, we didn’t. It was my 34th birthday and my first major milestone. And I was exhausted.
Grief is exhausting. All the time. Even the mundane, daily tasks require 100 times the normal effort, oftentimes requiring superhero strength just to get to the pile of laundry taking over a significant corner of my bedroom. Grief also has a way of taking previously joyful occasions - like holidays and anniversaries and other momentous celebrations - and turning them into gut wrenching sobfests.
And ‘tis the season for big milestone dates, coupled with the constant reminder of where I was this time a year ago (With Brad celebrating our anniversary in the Upper Peninsula. With Brad healthy and happy. With Brad sick. With Brad dying).
I am constantly tallying an emotional checklist of all the major milestones I've already survived this season and the ones I have yet to get through. Each one preceded with copious amounts of dread and followed by an exhausting emotional crash.
Wedding Anniversary: Check!
My Own Cancerversary: Check!
One Year since Brad's Diagnosis: Check! (Barely.)
Annual Holiday Party: Check!
New Year's: ?
One Year Since Brad's Death: ??? (FUCK.)
Some of these moments are beautiful and joyous occasions. Others are harsh and traumatic reminders of what I've been through. Both can feel unbearable having to tackle alone. But I have no other option than to keep moving and get through them.
And that’s the thing. What used to feel like days I had to get to, now feel like days I have to get through.
And each milestone feels heavier than the last, breaking me down just a little bit more. Each one adds to the weight I have to carry with me. Each one, I silently carry alone. Until I can’t carry anymore. Until the weight of it all crushes me.
It feels like there is no escape. And in some ways there isn’t. Grief is my constant companion - it also just happens to be the loneliest company.
Getting through all the “firsts” this year has been a rollercoaster. It’s been lonely and empowering and joyful and painful. After January, I’ll be in my second year of milestones, which I hear for many, is worse than the first year. The first year is a blur of basic survival. The second year is when some of the grief filled haze lifts and reality really sets in. The unbelievable reality that this. is. my. life.
Every day I move forward - every milestone I get through - feels like a step further away from Brad. One day further from “the last time” with Brad. I’m constantly juggling the juxtaposition of wanting to move forward and find meaning and happiness and purpose in this new life, but still gripping so tightly to my past one. I hold hope for my future in one hand and grief for the loss of my past in the other. It is the confusing and uncomfortable dance of both pushing myself forward and digging my heels to stay back.
It is a delicate balancing act carrying both life and death, joy and sorrow.
Ultimately, it’s all a reminder of time. Time we had. Time we didn’t have. And mourning it all.
Next year I won’t be able to look back at the previous year’s milestones and think “this time last year” with Brad. Next year, I’ll be looking back on just myself.
And somehow, in spite of that heartbreaking thought, time - and me - will continue to move forward. One day at a time.
I've always been an anxious person. I think this stems from an early and deep rooted need to always be perceived as perfect (ridiculous, right?). I blame being the middle child - aka the "peacemaker" - during a tumultuous childhood. When things felt out of control, I took it on as my job to attempt to keep the peace. Or at least not add to the turmoil.
Don't create waves. Don't rock the boat. Don't cause drama. Be polite. Be nice. Be quiet.
Be unrealistically perfect.
I was a straight A student and a varsity athlete. I didn't drink or party or date. I didn't cuss. I didn't talk back. I did everything I was "supposed" to do.
I was miserable. I was drowning.
Drowning in my own anxiety. Drowning in my own expectations of everyone else's expectations.
I couldn't outwardly express myself, so I internalized. It wasn't anyone's fault really. I remember my mom constantly asking, "what are you thinking?" "How are you doing?" desperate to know what was going on inside my head. But my scripted answers were always the same, "Nothing." and "I'm fine."
Through multiple divorces and addictions and traumas and my life, at times, spiraling completely out of control, I was always fine.
Brad was the first to challenge that. When we first met, he asked me "What's your story" and when I replied that I didn't have a story, he kept asking. He never let me off the hook - always pushing for me to reveal more of myself. The parts of myself I kept hidden from the world. The parts of myself I hated. My anxiety, my fear, my stubbornness, my anger. He wanted to see it all.
By the time we were living together, Brad was well versed in my internalized anxiety. Our running joke about my constant state of anxiousness became, "Why worry when you can panic?" a stolen quote written in graffiti on the bathroom stall of a bar. It summed me up perfectly.
Outwardly, I was calm and collected, laid back and agreeable. Outwardly, I was "fine." Inwardly, I felt like I was in a constant state of panic. I was overwhelmed and stressed. I took on the weight of the world, even when I had no business doing so.
Then I got cancer. And I wasn't fine. And then Brad got cancer and I really wasn't fine. And I couldn’t pretend anymore.
During that time, keeping quiet and internalizing my thoughts and anxieties felt like I was emotionally being choked by my own inability to express myself. My own cancer, a tumor in my chest and creeping up into my throat, seemed like a blaring sign from the universe that my refusal to release these feelings was literally strangling my voice.
So I took control in my most unnatural way: I let that shit go and started sharing my inner thoughts with the world.
I started this blog. And then this blog. And finally this blog you're reading today.
I started dropping f-bombs all over the page. I wrote about fear and anger and all the shit life was throwing our way. I wrote about anxiety. And about being vulnerable. When Brad got sick, I wrote about feeling helpless and my worry of not being enough for him.
I found my voice and I wrote about it all. The topics I had internalized and had been stuck in my head, suddenly were written down for the world to see. And then when writing about it wasn’t enough, we started to talk about it. Through the podcast, we openly discussed our anger and our guilt and our hopes and our fears and our optimism.
Brad was there though it all. A constant companion, encouraging me to keep going. Keep sharing. To continue finding - and using - my voice. When I felt weak, he built me up. When I closed off, he opened me up.
And when Brad died, I continued. For him, as much as for me, I continued. I kept talking and I kept writing and I kept sharing. And it helped. Helped me connect. Helped me digest. Helped me to externalize my internal thoughts.
Then the anxiety started to creep back in. Not all at once, instead starting like a slow drip. And with that anxiety, I started sharing less and started retreating more. Back into my head. Drip. Drip. Drip. Until eventually, I felt like was once again drowning in anxiety. Drowning in my own thoughts. Only now, Brad wasn't there to pull me out.
And I realized, right around the 6 month mark, that I had been running on the adrenaline of grief. I was numb and in denial and had run away and was distracted by the stress of logistical things that no 34 year old should have to think about. I was writing and living (as best I could) and doing all of the things Brad would have expected of me.
Until I wasn't. Until I couldn’t. I ran out of energy, out of motivation. 6 months after Brad died, I couldn't keep going. So I slowed down and this "new normal" started to emerge (fuck this new normal by the way). And I started to live in a routine. And it was in that routine that I realized - like a wind knocking punch to the gut - that the only person that ever really knew me - knew how to handle all these difficult parts of me - was no longer here.
The person that helped me reveal myself - my true and authentic self - was gone. And a new layer of grief, a layer I didn’t know was possible, set in.
Brad used to walk in from work every evening and tease me because - within minutes - I would download an entire day's worth of information to him. Before he even had time to take his suit jacket off, I'd tell him about the article that I couldn't stop thinking about or a situation a client was in or a joke that I couldn't stop laughing at. I would wait all day to share with him, eager to know his take.
And now I walk through the same door. Every evening. And It's just me. And I have no one to download my ideas to. No one to question about the day. No one to dream with. No one to ask, "your thoughts?" And that lonely, quiet, reality, was more than I could handle.
I was stuck and I was alone.
So I started to retreat. To hide those parts of myself I struggled with. The sadness, the anger, the overwhelming grief started taking over my life. I woke up every morning physically feeling the weight of my anxiety on my chest. And instead of leaning on the people around me - the people who wanted to help - I closed up. I didn't allow them to show up because they weren't Brad. And those that showed up anyway, I still resisted because I didn’t want my anger and negativity and struggle to become a burden on them.
But at some point last week, in the middle of immobilizing, hyperventilating tears, I realized I couldn’t keep living this way. I was refusing to accept my reality and in that, I was falling down a deep, dark hole of depression, focusing on everything that was missing and awful in my life. I hit rock bottom. And at some point in the middle of it all, I realized I had to stop waiting for Brad to show up and pull me out. I knew I needed to rely on myself and some way or another, crawl my way out.
It wasn’t easy. It isn't easy. It's probably one of the most difficult things I have to do. Day in and day out, I have to acknowledge my new reality and keep living anyway.
In order to do that, I needed a plan. I needed to force - not joy - but acceptance. Contentment. Gratitude. I needed a list of the most simple things I could do at any point, on my own, to help myself breathe when the anxiety became too much. When reality became too much. So I made a list - a list of ways I could deal with my crippling anxiety and channel that negative energy in a more positive way (ways that didn’t involve me constantly breaking things…).
And because I am sure I am not alone in experiencing soul crushing anxiety, I want to share my list. Because as much as I refuse to admit it or allow sometimes, we are all in this together. So here it is. The list of "Things to Do When It’s All Too Much:"
This list isn’t perfect. Sometimes none of these help. Sometimes, I really do just need to ride out the wave, feeling every ounce of anxiety ridden sorrow before I can move forward. But sometimes, simply focusing on breathing or taking a walk is enough of a step in the right direction. And that one tiny step is followed by another tiny step. And slowly, progress is made.
One small step at a time.
Please feel free to share what works for you - even if I don't ask for it and tell you "I'm fine," I’ll take all the help I can get. Until then, let's all just keep breathing.
My sister recently made the comment that nobody really discusses loss and grief on an everyday level.
(Don’t mind me over here, typing away about…loss…and grief…)
After I was finished feeling righteous and offended, I realized she’s right. Even those of us that write about it (and talk about it), still do so in mostly sweeping statements about waves and universal truths and fragmented stages in time. Usually, I’ll share a moment - a moment of struggle or a moment of joy, allowing you the reader to get a glimpse of myself in that particular place in time. But we don’t talk about the everyday grief. The part of grief that is small and constant. The part of grief that is so regular, it becomes a part of your days. It becomes part of yourself.
And I think it’s because dealing with grief and loss on an everyday level is, frankly, depressing. And talking about grief and loss on an everyday level is equally depressing.
So we avoid. We reference it - the sadness, the loneliness, the anger - but we don’t go deep on a linear level. Most of us are uncomfortable sitting in sadness and loneliness and anger for too long. We gloss over it in favor of positivity and hope. Everyone likes positivity and hope.
But today is 4 months since Brad died. So today I am skipping positivity and hope. Today I am going deep in loss and grief on the most basic, everyday level.
So 4 months in, this is what my everyday grief looks like:
I wake up. I am usually exhausted because sleep - like grief apparently - comes in waves. Maybe I got a solid 2 hours, maybe I got 6, broken up by bouts of restlessness. Whatever amount I got, I am sure it wasn’t 8 hours. I can’t remember the last night I had 8 full hours of sleep.
I lie in bed and have to convince myself to get up. Convince myself to not waste my life. Convince myself to be responsible. Convince myself to make Brad proud. Usually I settle for convincing myself to make it to the coffee maker.
Coffee in hand, I check Facebook and email. On some days someone has sent me a note or video or article. Sometimes from a stranger, sometimes from a friend. They are always appreciated, but I never know how to respond or am too exhausted to respond thoughtfully. So usually, I don’t. I add it to my mental to-do list for another day (“write thoughtful and appreciative response”). I look at my Facebook memory of the day - hoping Brad posted on this day and I get to remember another piece of him I normally wouldn’t have remembered. Usually they are all too serious articles from the New York Times. But sometimes, they are things like “Dana won the pool. I won at life with the best girl ever.” or a hilarious Instagram photo of Dune taking a shit next to the tacky “No Dog Pooping” sign outside the hotel next door. I love those moments. And hate those moments. I smile and cry at those moments. I screenshot them and put them in a folder for safe keeping in case Facebook decides to one day implode.
I debate doing normal adult human activities, like eating breakfast, showering, or getting dressed. On any given day, it’s questionable whether any these things will happen. On a day where all three occur, it feels like a fucking miracle.
I try and figure out my future. This has always been a struggle for me - the “future.” But now I attempt to do it alone. Without Brad whiteboarding ideas for me and asking me relevant (and seemingly irrelevant) questions. Now I have to accept the fact that I can’t rely on my business alone and need more income in order to maintain my life. That my little entrepreneur soul is probably going to have to get a 9-5. This thought, combined with the fact that most days I can barely eat breakfast, shower, and get dressed, depresses me. On a good day, I’ll avoid this by daydreaming about a future business idea that excites me. On most days, I just avoid altogether.
A familiar song comes on. It makes me think of Brad. Either I smile or cry (oftentimes both), but I lose my concentration, knowing whatever I was hoping to accomplish probably won’t get finished now. This happens about 20 times a day. I tell myself I should turn off the music, but then it’s quiet. Too quiet. And through all my grief and loss, music is still my one constant companion and I just can’t stand to lose that too.
I check the mail. I used to love checking the mail. I loved the possibility that on any given day, someone may have thought of me and sent me a letter. Now I dread the mail. It almost always involves communication from creditors, vultures trying to buy my home, hospice surveys, medical bills, student loan bills, attorney bills. I feel overwhelmed and angry. On days I feel strong, I tackle this mail. But usually I put it off for another day.
Maybe I’ll leave my house. Either because I have to or because I am attempting to avoid being the isolated hermit I instinctively want to become. Either way, I will inevitably see someone I know. I will smile and say hello and they will smile back, the kind of half smile of pity. Well intentioned, they will ask, “how are you??” I will have a split second to decide. Do I answer honestly or do I say I’m doing "fine" and quickly move on. It usually depends on how much time I have and how exhausted I am and whether or not it is okay to cry in whatever public space I am in. Usually I lie. Then feel guilty. Then tell myself I am never leaving the house again.
My car is rattling. It needs an oil change and new break pads. I’m pissed I have to do this alone. Which is absurd because even when Brad was alive, I still took care of my car myself. But I’m looking for reasons to justify feeling angry (aside from the obvious). So I focus on the noises in my car and the fact that I don’t have a man to take care of that for me. My feminist self dies inside a little, but I don’t care. I just want to be angry, so I let myself pitifully go there.
I start thinking about dinner. I used to cook. I used to love to cook. But now cooking requires going to the grocery store. And seeing how Detroit is “the biggest small town in America” (as Brad used to say), I know there is a high probability I will run into someone I know at the grocery store. And wanting to avoid the half smiles of pity, I avoid the store completely. Plus I don’t know how to shop - or cook - for one person. So I buy too much and it goes bad. And Brad would be upset at the wastefulness. So I feel guilty. And I don’t shop. So dinner, which used to be a shared experience of love, is now one of guilt, dread, and loneliness.
Some days I’ll meet up with friends and watch a movie or grab a drink. I’ll probably drink too much because even with my closet friends, even through my smile, I feel alone and in a thick layer of grief. Usually I’ll bail and go home early. But sometimes, I’ll connect in an authentic way, where for a brief period of time, I don’t feel so alone. Sometimes I’ll have joyful experiences with people I love. We will laugh and talk and it will feel incredible. And then I feel guilty. Even though I know it’s bullshit and I deserve to have fun and Brad would want me to connect and blah blah blah. But I feel guilty, because I am human and miss my husband and can’t imagine being able to have a joyful moment with him being dead.
I think about Dune and how he will be factored into this new life of ours. Right now he is with my mom in Virginia. But soon I will have to figure out how to readjust my dog to life without his Papa. Readjust him to being left alone for extended periods of time or going to doggy day care most days of the week. I worry about his separation anxiety that was already present before Brad got sick. I worry how I am going to take care of both him and myself. I worry that I cannot provide enough love for the loss we both feel. I know this readjustment will not be easy. Dune - like most of us - does not like change. So I worry about this too.
I get ready for bed. This is the hardest part of my day. Even with music, there isn’t enough noise to drown out the deafening silence of Brad’s absence. I crawl into the king size bed we upgraded to a year ago. After 10 years, it was the only bed we ever picked out together. I loved this bed. Now I fucking hate this bed. I curl up in the corner where Brad used to sleep, taking up the tiniest fraction of my too big bed. Maybe I’ll fall asleep quickly. Usually, I’ll toss and turn for hours, get out of bed, and walk aimlessly around. Sometimes I’ll be fortunate enough to talk a friend or family member who is also still awake. Eventually I will sleep.
The next morning I wake up, exhausted, and do it all again.
And that’s my everyday grief.
Fucking depressing, right? I’m naturally inclined to want to immediately tell you that in between all of that grief is hope and laughter and love. And that’s true - there is. But I feel the need to say it because, like the rest of you, I am also uncomfortable just sitting in the openness of my grief. I still have the urge, even on paper, to want to rush through and gloss over it by yelling, “BUT DON’T WORRY, I’M OK!”
But I’m not OK. And that’s OK.
I don’t tell you all of this for pity - although that is naturally where most people will go, followed by the immediate and helpless desire to fix and solve my grief.
I tell you all of this because it’s real.
Talking about loss and grief on an everyday level is depressing as hell. But grief in itself is depressing as hell. And sometimes acknowledging that grief on the most basic level makes it easier to “move through,” instead of being “stuck in.” It means I have to take off my warrior mask and be vulnerable. It means I have to acknowledge a reality that I don’t want to admit is mine. It means I have to own up to feeling…everything.
And sharing this, as hard and depressing as it is, gives me the opportunity to connect with others sharing similar pain. Sharing my grief hopefully allows others to feel less alone in theirs. Otherwise we all sit alone in our everyday grief feeling like no one in this entire universe "gets it." So we share. And we connect. And isn’t that what this is all about? Connection?
So tomorrow we’ll go back to positivity and hope (maybe). But for now, let’s just sit in our everyday grief a little longer. And be OK there. Together.