Grief’s a bitch

There, I said it.

We’re just over a week out from the 2-year anniversary of John’s death. Boggles the mind. The last two years have been a series of ups and downs, and I’d venture to say more ups than downs. I’ve tried my hardest to make the best out of a shitty situation and on a lot of days, I feel really good about the things I’ve done. Like Leon Bridges sings, “I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.”

But some days, I feel really fucking awful. This month has been particularly difficult, which is something I thoroughly didn’t anticipate. When I first started reading about the stages of grief, most sources advised me against believing the myth that once we pass one stage, we’re done with it forever and can simply move onto the next. Good advice, I daresay. I don’t care to remember what all the stages are, but I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced every single one every day this month, and it’s made doing normal life things that much more difficult. My income is essentially dependent on how much work I can produce, and if every week were like last week, I’d be in poverty.

Luckily my parents have provided me (once again) with a free place to rest my head for a few months, so I’m not in the dire situation I would be in if I had more bills to pay. I’m extremely fortunate in that regard and am very aware that many who experience emotional hardships don’t have the luxury of taking a few days off to recoup. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Life is heavier right now for a few reasons. First, February in the Midwest objectively sucks, and I know I’m not the only one feeling the emotional toll of perpetual gray skies. It’s hitting me harder this year than most, probably because I spent a year living in the tropics and have run out of patience for this bullshit weather. Once you get a taste for how it can be, it becomes harder to tolerate how it actually is.

Second, I’m 27 years old, balancing three jobs, and living with my parents. That does something to one’s self-worth. If you had asked me two years ago where I’d be today, I would’ve told you I’d be living in a bright and airy apartment in Chicago with my husband John and a lot of animals, down the hall from Nate and Gab. I would’ve told you that I’d be working my way up in the marketing world and making a good living. I would’ve told you that I’d be happy. I can honestly say that today, I’m not happy. I’m actually pretty unhappy. I have really happy moments and make an effort to fill the open spaces with people who make me happy, but overall, I’m unhappy. Admitting that to myself is liberating in a way, letting me see myself for what I really am in this moment rather than lying to myself in the hopes that it’ll make me feel better. I don’t need to be happy right now. It’s okay to be unhappy sometimes.

Third, I’m single. I’d like to think that I’m a badass independent woman who don’t need no man, but I actually really do. I know that I don’t need a man, but I want one. I want to fully love someone who fully loves me back again. I want that unconditional, (im)perfect love. I want someone to see my flaws and pull me closer instead of push me away. I want to rest in the truth that I am once again safe in my partner’s arms, without question that it’s forever. I believe that I’ll find this again one day, but not really knowing how or when or who is scary.

Also, I broke a toe on Friday via slamming it into a metal chair, but honestly it’s been a really exciting experience for me because it’s my first broken bone. She hurts, but you know, purple looks good on her, so it’s fine.

Through this murky month, I have found little glimmers of joy, as I am wont to do. I really love my job at School on Wheels and have begun to formulate a plan to get my future self where she wants to be. I discovered a grapefruit sparkling water at Trader Joe’s that makes me happier than sparkling water should. I spend time with friends who I love so dearly and who make me laugh a lot. Whenever I have a moment of, “I gotta get out of here,” I think about them and I change my mind. My community is the reason I came back and as always, they continue to show up when I need it most. I also have some exciting travel plans with various gal pals coming up over the next few months, the one thing I’ve been spending most of my money on since I don’t have rent right now. No ragrets.

I stumbled across the image below on Instagram the other day and it brought me a great sense of calm. It’s important to be reminded that grief’s a bitch and healing isn’t linear. All of this has been entirely out of my control, something I need to acknowledge more often. All I can do is my best and if my best is making it from my bed to the couch some days, that’s excellent. Powering through pain is possible, but sometimes it’s better to rest in it, knowing that happier days are ahead. I’ll keep rooting for that sun to come out, running with my motivated moments when they come, and resting when I can’t because this too shall pass.

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Grief: Year Two

When I started reading things about grief after John died, I frequently came across the idea that the second year of grief is more difficult than the first. I scoffed every time I read that. How can the second year be harder? How can any feeling be worse than what I’m feeling right now?

Now, well into year two of this journey, I think I understand what people were talking about. In a million ways, the second year of grief is way easier than the first. The random sobbing fits are much more infrequent. The raw, open wound of loss has healed into more of a scab that splits open from time to time. My life is filled with possibility and I look to the future with hope and excitement. I feel much more like myself again, no longer floating from distraction to distraction, no longer seeking out things to momentarily make me feel human again. I feel my humanness very acutely these days. Maybe that’s what makes the second year so much harder. Year one was a year to survive. Just get through this, I told myself. Power through, go to work, put one foot in front of the other, laugh with your friends, don’t feel sorry for yourself. And I did those things. I fought my way through unimaginable pain, leaning on my friends and family along the way. I made a life-altering decision in the very early stages of grief that landed me where I am now in Costa Rica. I only felt a little sorry for myself. I thought that if I let people in on how broken I really was, I was going to be seen as weak. I wanted people to think I was strong and courageous, that I could handle anything, even the traumatic loss of who was supposed to be my life partner.

Looking back, I know that this was doing an incredible disservice to myself. Losing John was extraordinarily traumatizing, and I didn’t really let people in on that. I didn’t let myself in on that. I just wanted to survive and get on with it already. I didn’t want to be sad and I was afraid that if I admitted how truly terrible all of this was, I was going to be sad forever. Now that I see all of this extremely clearly, now that I’ve survived, I feel all of this in a new way. I realize how much I avoided during year one and how much I need to confront now that I’ve come back to earth a bit. And here I am, living the life I dreamed about living last year, and all I want to do is go home. All I want to do is finally go to therapy, to deal with this bullshit, to actually let myself feel the really deep pain in order to mend it. All I want is to be around people who really know me. Living in Costa Rica is wonderful, but sometimes I feel as though I’m living with a big secret. My emotions and thoughts confuse me and make everyday things just a little more difficult, and I don’t know how to explain that to new friends who I don’t truly know all that well. I don’t want their pity; I want understanding.

Year one of grief was both the worst and best year of my life. I made so many decisions and did so many things that I wouldn’t have if John had not died. I wound up in Costa Rica, where I met some of the best people I will ever know. But now that the realities of year two are setting in, I need to go home. I need to be with people who really know me and let myself actually feel the grief. No more powering through, no more faking it. Pretending everything is okay is far too exhausting. As my dear friend Sarah put it, you can set yourself on fire trying to keep other people warm.

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Taken by Eli Stillman (www.elistillman.com)

A Mindful Mother’s Day

When I was in middle school, I became friends with a girl whose mom had died. I remember coming home one day after hanging out with her and sprawling out on the couch in the family room, sobbing about her not having a mother on Mother’s Day. Of course at that point, I had never fully considered how my dad must have felt every Mother’s Day, having lost his own when I was a wee babe. Over the years, I began to know more people who experienced great loss up close, myself included, and thought more about what these holidays mean to different people.

As we near Mother’s Day, I thought I’d compile a few ideas for how we can still celebrate those we love while also being a little more mindful of those around us. Mother’s Day isn’t just difficult for those who’ve lost their mothers. It can also be a tough day for those who might be struggling with infertility, who have experienced a miscarriage, or who have had to bury a child, to name a few. As I have experienced none of these things, I can’t speak directly to those exact struggles, but I can speak from the loss I do know. I hope it helps.

Meet them where they are.
Maybe it’s your friend’s first Mother’s Day after loss. Maybe it’s their second, fifth, tenth. No matter how much time has passed, grief can rear its ugly head in a variety of ways, and very often, holidays like Mother’s Day can become a grief trigger. Don’t set any expectations for how your friend should be feeling or grieving. If your friend feels okay, celebrate that! If your friend feels broken, sit with them in their brokenness. Listen, cry, hug, laugh. Don’t give advice, don’t pass judgement. Wherever they are in their grief, they just need you to be right there with them.

Acknowledge it.
There’s nothing worse than feeling like everyone else has forgotten about the person you’ve lost. If you have a friend who you think Mother’s Day might be a tough day for, it probably is. Don’t let the day go by without acknowledging it. Make a phone call, send a text, and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about it, too. You’re not alone.” You have no idea how much it could mean.

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Don’t ask. Just do.
I have a hard time telling people that I need something and I know I’m not alone in feeling that way. When people told me after John died that I could come to them if I needed anything, I knew it always came from a genuine place, but I was never going to do that. I was never going to call someone up and say, “Hey, I can’t get out of bed. Can you bring me a cup of coffee?” or “I have no food, but I can’t bear the thought of going outside. Can you bring me a big bowl of cheesy pasta?” Avoid the let-me-know-if-there’s-anything-you-need trap and take it upon yourself to do something tangible to help your friend, no matter how small. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite them over for dinner.
  • Stop by in the morning with an iced coffee. Or Bloody Mary mix. Or both? (Probably both.)
  • Bring them a self-care goody or two. A new book, a nice candle, a new nail polish color, a bath bomb, trashy magazines, a Red Box movie, a box of ice cream, 6-pack of their favorite beer. Something that you know will bring your friend a little joy on a rough day.
  • Email them a gift card to their favorite restaurant.
  • Bring something over that they can stick in the freezer and heat up on a day when cooking feels extra difficult.
  • Pick them up to go on a walk in the evening. A little fresh air and a good friend at the end of the day can do wonders for a hurting heart.

I think it’s important to emphasize here that you are by no means responsible for fixing your friend’s hurt. It’s not up to you to make their pain go away. But you do have an opportunity – a privilege – to help them carry their burden and lighten their load. You know your friend and you know yourself – help in the best way you know how.

I still think about that middle school friend every Mother’s Day, but until now have never reached out because I always think, (1) we haven’t been more than acquaintances in over 10 years, and (2) the people she keeps around her surely love and support her enough – she doesn’t need to hear from me. I’m right about one thing: she doesn’t need to hear from me. But that doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t.

From this year forward, I vow to do Mother’s Days, Father’s Days, etc. differently. I will continue to celebrate the wonderful woman who is my own mom (not just on Mother’s Day) while loving, supporting, and being mindful of those who need it a little extra on that day. Think: fewer meaningless social media posts and more action. I hope you can find your own way to do the same.

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Valentine’s Day

John

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.

Me: Sorry!!

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.

The Hairdresser.

About a month after John died, I went to get a haircut – my first in many moons.

The salon was polished but empty. Probably recently opened, which is why I’d found a Groupon for it. The hairdresser – we’ll call her Steph – was tall and thin with freshly pressed, white blonde hair. She had a sweet, unassuming smile, and I prepped myself for the often unbearable banter between hairdresser and customer. She began innocently enough with a question about where I worked, and I realized in that moment that this was the first person I was having a conversation with who didn’t know what was going on in my life. Steph was the first stranger I’d have to break the news to about John.

I worked in marketing in Chicago.

“Oh! Are you just visiting your family at home this week?”

No, not exactly. I just moved home actually.

“So you didn’t like your job in Chicago? You didn’t like Chicago?”

Oh no, I loved Chicago. I enjoyed my job. I just had to get out of there.

“Okay. So you don’t have a job. So what will you be doing?”

I was going to travel for a bit. I had a bachelorette party in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia coming up. Then I’d be going to Germany, The Netherlands, and Costa Rica for a bit.

“Oh, wow. I wish I could travel like that.”

Yeah, it wasn’t normal for me to travel that much, though. I was just trying to figure things out. See some people I love and explore new cities. Soul search.

“Sure. So what made you decide to do that?”

Here goes. Well my boyfriend died about a month ago and you see, we both lived in Chicago, so I had to get out of there and start over. Travel a bit. Figure things out. See some people I love and explore new cities. Soul search.

The comb sorting through the knots in my thick blonde mess stopped. I felt her wide eyes on the back of my head. Her silence was deafening. My face became hot. My sinuses suddenly burned and my eyelids seemed to thicken and I held my breath to keep the tears in check.

“How long were you together?”

Four years.

“That’s all I need to know.”

Our conversation turned to idle chatter about her church, her family, how she got into cosmetology. How she never really liked school. About the time she backpacked around Asia. Her mom’s passing two years prior.

She asked me to follow her into a back room to have my hair washed. I got up from one chair, followed her, and sat down in another chair, my neck resting snuggly on the edge of the wash basin. The lights were dim and soft piano music floated from the speakers. I felt the hot water on my scalp, smelled the eucalyptus in the air, took a deep breath, and for the first time in a month, let my shoulders relax. My eyes fell shut and my body softened. My jaw loosened. My fists unclenched. Steph massaged the shampoo through my hair. She didn’t say a word. Her hands felt like paradise. She massaged slowly, covering every inch of my head with tenderness, as if she had just realized that she had this great duty to help me breathe. I let myself momentarily fall into the care of this perfect stranger because I knew she knew. I knew she knew that my sinuses had burned and my eyelids had thickened. I knew she knew that as the words about John fell out of my mouth, so too had the wind and the gusto holding my body upright. I knew she knew that the world as I had known it had come to a screeching halt and the smile I’d been wearing on my face had been strained. I knew she knew that there was nothing she could do in that moment to rid me of my heartbreak.

So, Steph washed my hair. And for 10 minutes, that was enough.

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A Start.

It’s been about 281 days since John died – about 284 since I last felt his eyes on me. For 284 days, I have experienced emotional turmoil that I did not know existed. I have fallen apart and pulled myself together again. I have physically collapsed into the arms of people I love and have stood up again. I’ve gotten out of bed every single morning with a purpose – even if that purpose was just a shower or a cup of coffee. I’ve found countless reasons to throw my head back and laugh, even during the darkest days. Those who were there for the three excruciating days in the hospital (rest assured, there were many of us) can attest that even by John’s deathbed, we laughed. We laughed at stories of him, at things he’d said, at things he’d done. We laughed at the thought of him waking up and having to endure all of us giving him a hard time for this for the rest of his life.

I remember Mikey nodding at me with his cheeky grin from across John’s bed to say, “Tessa, what’s the first thing he’s going to say when he wakes up?” I laughed and told him he’d probably say what he said to me in his sleepiest voice almost every morning when he woke up: “Oh hey Tessa, what’s up?”

In that moment, that was my biggest hope. To hear five of the simplest words every morning for the rest of my life. To have the chance again to fall asleep next to him, his hand around mine. To feel his breathing, to rest my cheek on his chest and wrap my leg around his, to feel his chin on my head and his hand on my back. To wake up in the middle of the night to the glow of his laptop screen. To continue to have to wash my pillows way more than the average person because of his drooling habit. I hoped and I hoped and I hoped not to lose the simplicity and the purity of us.

I also screamed and I cried and had a full-blown hospital meltdown when I realized my hope was slipping away. When I realized I was losing my beloved. My beloved! I fell into a blind rage and screamed at John. I told him to wake up, that we weren’t done yet. That our time together wasn’t up yet. That we hadn’t gotten our German Shepherd together yet or walked all the way from Rogers Park to Chinatown together yet or gone to the Maldives together yet or moved in together yet or had 10 kids together yet. That there were going to be more Pixar movies coming out that he was going to miss and that Test Pie was going to be wondering where he’d gone and that if he died, I was going to have to figure out what to do with that fucking fish tank that I really did love. That if he died, what was I going to do? Where was I going to go? How was I going to survive? How was I going to watch another Netflix stand-up special or eat another torta or hear another Relient K song or even stand seeing coconut water at the store when I knew I couldn’t buy it for him? How was I supposed to panic about things that didn’t matter without him there to chuckle and shake his head at me and tell me everything would be fine?

Somehow, 281+ days later, I’m surviving. Some days are very, very hard. His birthday. My birthday. Weddings. Holidays. The 26th of every month. The random Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday here and there. Despite those hard days, the days that feel like literal hell, I can tell you exactly how I’m still surviving: my people. My people my people my people. I had no idea that the people I had inadvertently collected over the years loved me so damn much. I want to list them all here, but I know I’d accidentally leave people out and I don’t want to do that. You know who you are. My lifelines, my heavy-lifters. My Day Ones, my J. Crew, my Indy family, my Joey and my Phoebe, my Nashville boo, my east coast and west coast and middle America friends, mis hermanas, my international loves all over. My head hurts trying to come up with the right words for you because they’d be inadequate. Just please know I love you in a crazy and real way. That’s the best I can do right now.

Anyway. My friend Sam asked me a couple months ago when I was going to start writing, so here’s a start. My struggles, my revelations, my triumphs – my Eat, Pray, Love. Sometimes about grief, but probably mostly about people and cats and traveling. John’s still here of course, in the stories, in the PBR, in the habaneros, in the pickle juice, in the manta rays. Always in the manta rays.