Last year on this day, I had no idea that I had less than two weeks left with John. I had no idea that going to see Lion that evening was the last movie we’d ever see together in theaters. I had no idea that when I looked at him across the table under the florescent lights in our favorite hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, eating our favorite $5 tortas, snickering about the grumpy lady behind the counter, it’d be one of my last memories of him. Four years of memories were building up to those last couple weeks, and on that freezing cold Chicago Valentine’s Day, I was blissfully unaware.
Today I’m sitting in the spare bedroom in the green house I live in here in Costa Rica; my room at the back of the house gets too hot in the afternoon sun. I’m listening to Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell album on repeat and watching two kids race a truck down the street. Some things are universal. I should be getting some work done, but I can’t much focus. I need a day to think.
The past couple weeks have given me a lot to think about and I’ve finally come to a realization that I wish I’d come to earlier: I have been viewing my grief as a burden on others. When John died, I was absolutely flooded with love, prayers, cards, flowers, attention from all over the world. After a month, I moved from Chicago back home to Indianapolis to live with my parents. I gave John’s cat to one of my best friends and took my cat to Indy with me. I did a couple months of traveling to clear my head and see some people I love. I stood up in a dear friend’s wedding. I got a receptionist job at a real estate company. I was posting about him and crying at home and sometimes with my closest friends, but otherwise, I was attempting to shoulder past the grief without anyone noticing that I was in pain. I truly was a shell of myself, shielding my raw grief from the world in an attempt to make everyone else feel better. I began apologizing – I actually just did this again last week – to people I was newly meeting when I had to tell them about John. Here’s an example from last summer:
Real estate agent: Tessa! I want to follow you on Instagram.
Hands me his phone. I enter in my handle. He clicks on the most recent picture I’ve posted, a photo of me and John.
Agent: Ooooooo is this your boyfriend?
Me: Um, sort of.
Agent: Sort of? Did you break up?
Me: Uhhhh no, umm. Actually he died in February.
He looks at me with a stunned look on his face.
I cannot tell you how many times I have apologized to people because John died. Of course I was (am) sorry that John died, but that’s not what I was saying. I was apologizing for inflicting this horrible news on someone, for bumming out a perfect stranger for no good reason, for potentially giving this person a reason to pity me. I was sorry that they had to know about this terrible tragedy that I was dealing with below my smiley exterior.
Now, let me be clear: I really have come back into myself during the latter part of this grief year. Of course the John part of my heart still hurts – it always will – but the laughter, smiles, happiness that I’ve felt and exuded over the past 5 months has all been genuine. In the same vein, I’ve had really rough nights since my move to Costa Rica in November and know that I’ll have rough nights here and there for the rest of forever, no matter what my life looks like. Happiness and grief are not mutually exclusive; I can feel both pure joy and grief at the same time. For the most part though, I’ve kept these rough nights a secret. I’ve sent the random text to a friend or my mom, but typically, I prefer to experience these things alone because I know that if someone else knows that I’m feeling sad, something in me will try to stop my sadness. I can’t explain this, just like I can’t totally explain why I feel the need to apologize to people for telling them about John’s death.
What I can do though is attempt to be more transparent. Grief is one of the most universally human experiences and for me to brush the reality of it aside is to do myself, my friends, my family, my future partner a great disservice. John’s death and my subsequent grief are not things to apologize for. They’re things to recognize each other in, to see yourself when you hear your new friend say, when my brother died… or your other new friend say, when my mom died… They’re things to feel, cry about, joke about (within reason). They’re not things to feel guilty about or cover up, ever.
So, on this Valentine’s Day, one that looks different than I ever thought it would, I vow to love myself enough to stop apologizing for my grief. I vow to stop saying, “It’s okay,” when people tell me they’re sorry because no, it’s not okay. I vow to let the people I trust around me in on this with me because I know that if the roles were reversed, I would want them to do the same. I know that I will once again have a great, BFF, over-the-moon love worth celebrating. The sort of kind, unconditional love that will curl up with me on the rough nights and laugh with me on the good ones. It’ll be different, but it’ll be perfect just the same.
Happy Valentine’s Day.