Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Untangling My Strands of Yarn: Reflections On Grieving

It’s been almost three months since Susan died. I’ve been wanting to post my thoughts during that time but I haven’t been able to get them out. I think I finally figured out why. The other night it came to me just before I went to sleep.

In the last few years of her life, one of the things that brought Susan great joy was knitting. Some of you have artifacts of her work, and some of her work is yet to be discovered by future grandchildren or others at some other time. She was prolific until the last couple of months, often working on multiple projects simultaneously. Occasionally, when she picked up a project that she had set aside, she’d find the yarn in a tangled mess. The tangles were particularly difficult when she was using more than one yarn at a time and knitting them together. She would often enlist my help in getting the yarn(s) untangled so she could proceed. This recollection has become a metaphor for my grieving process. My thoughts and feelings have been in a tangled mess, needing some time and patience (and help) to get untangled. The eventual result of Susan’s untangled yarn was always something beautiful – and useful. And so it is that I hope the path of this grieving process will take me to a beautiful, more comfortable place of reconciliation, where more recent events are overwhelmed by memories of our entire 30-plus years together.

My tangled feelings have evolved over the weeks. I felt pretty much OK in the first week or two after her memorial service. Patrick went back to school and Jon was in Uganda, so I had time for introspection. I went back to work and choir and felt more or less normal. But then I began to notice myself wanting to talk to her, to share some story, thought, or event – only to be disappointed at the realization that she wasn’t there. I’d roll over in bed and be surprised to find her gone. Gradually, it began to sink in to my psyche that her physical absence is permanent and that I have work to do in order to get used to it. There are so many things I’d like her to know. They’ve been so snarled up in my head that I didn’t even realize I was experiencing so many different feelings. These are the strands of my tangled yarn:

First of all, the memorial service was incredible. There were somewhere around 400 people in attendance, including a huge family turnout (both from her side and mine) as well as friends and colleagues from our life together and from our respective professional lives. I was particularly gratified by the showing of so many people from my work community – many of whom I would not have expected to take the time to come. Susan’s pre-planning paid off in a big way. It was not only a fine tribute to her, but also a celebration of our humanness as a community. Our friends who spoke or read or sang or played really poured their hearts into it.

There are still lots of tasks to complete. Part of me wants to wave a magic wand and take care of them right away. But part of my growing realization is that the important stuff will get done, the less-important stuff will get done in its own time, and the stuff that doesn’t really matter will eventually fade from my concern. There are of course the financial details and the legal records that must be completed and changed. I’m finally getting near the end of that. Then there is the disposition of Susan’s belongings and figuring out how to run the house. There are so many things she did that I either quietly appreciated or took for granted – but that I am otherwise clueless to replicate. My colleagues at work now have to point out things like the stain on my shirt that Susan would have caught before I left the house! Part of the loss is knowing that many things won’t be done, or won’t be done in the same way. And all of this is taking longer than I ever would have anticipated.

I’m occasionally having what I can only describe as some degree of post traumatic stress disorder. The final five weeks or so were incredibly intense. I sometimes have flashbacks of both the more difficult and tender moments. The night she got so upset and belligerent and wanted to “go home and find her husband” sticks out as bittersweet. The morning she silently placed her hand on my cheek while we gazed into each other’s souls is a treasure. Remembering what she went through is agonizing. Remembering her when she finally let go is indelible.

Then there is the big hole in the fabric of our lives. Her absence is palpable and I miss her terribly. I yearn to interact with her. I try to talk to her at her crypt. Yet, she’s still here in some way – the chills I experience, the dreams I have, the hummingbird images I notice, and the things that remind me of her must all be evidence of her presence. Somewhere along the way it became clear to me how strong our life partnership was and how challenging it is to function without her after 32 years of doing virtually everything together. Sometimes I feel at a loss to make a simple decision because she’s not here to consult. Other times I realize how liberating it is to make decisions for myself and then feel a brief sense of guilt at the realization that she might have preferred something else. Not being in partnership with her is going to be a hard habit to break.

I’m struggling to keep the entire 32 years in perspective. I have difficulty remembering what life was like before cancer. And yet the cancer journey, particularly the way she handled it, became such a defining aspect of her and our partnership. How can such a curse, such a scourge of the human experience also provide such growth and enrichment?

It has not escaped my attention that we’re all grieving together and that everyone who cared about Susan is experiencing something proportionate to her place in their lives. I’ve had lots of conversations with lots of friends and family. Everyone is taking good care of us and each other. Our good friend Susan (TOS or “the other Susan” as we joke) loaned me a really good book of meditations on grieving. (I’ve referenced it under “Good Books to Check Out”.) All of these things reaffirm what I know to be true: we’re going to be OK. People have been walking this path ever since humans have had the capacity to feel. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do and all is right with the universe.

My yarn feels a little less tangled and I’m hopeful that we can eventually knit something beautiful to fill that big hole in the fabric of our lives. I hope your grieving process is moving in that direction too.