Making Peace with the Unpredictable Triggers of Grief.

Life surprises us—in love and grief.

Early on, the best we can do is breathe, fall to our knees and howl animalistic cries for our oozing wounds. But, we can’t live there.

Eventually, we stand and walk on in our grief.

When grief is fresh and raw, we’re vulnerable to being toppled by every song, word, passing thought, article of clothing, shared food, a coffee cup that once held his hand,  a random email, a favored restaurant, … any memory of involving our loved ones who had to leave us.

Why did they have to go?

 

Repeatedly, we believe the worst has passed, as if we’re over it simply because for one day, week, month, or even a year, we function unengulfed by the gigantic hole in our hearts.

We act as if we overcame a bout with the flu or a nightmare vacation. Now, we’re home safe and feeling better—better able to navigate.

Now, I’m back in control.

The triggers move to the back and we believe we’re in the driver’s seat.

Maybe, but just as there’s mystery and magic in love, what ignites our grief can surprise.

If someone told me shopping would be my sucker punch after my beloved’s death…well, I wouldn’t have believed them any more than I believed I’d fall in love with a salesman I’d known for decades who lived in St. Louis and had a KISS painting on his living room wall. I went to visit and to see a Hall & Oates concert. Kevin’s kiss was not on my list.

Life surprises us—in love and grief.

I’ve watched my sister plan for the days that might wreck her—anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays shared over 33 years with her now-deceased husband.

Often, the dates and places we imagine will break us don’t. Then again, sometimes they do. There are no rules or formulas.

We can navigate better through love and grief, but to imagine that we’re in complete control is laughable.

My now-deceased boyfriend Kevin was a shopper, not like a shopaholic, but like a man in love who enjoyed seeing my face light up with the gifts he gave. Most often, it was clothing.

It wasn’t just that he bought me gifts.

Plenty of men have done that and there’s nothing that punches the way guilt does when you don’t like a gift you’re given—because it offers only two options, neither good.

First, lie and say you love it, like it, appreciate it, or even just “thank you” can feel like a lie when you’re thinking why the hell did you get me this?

Then, there’s option two. Tell the truth, which rarely makes the giver feel good, since most gifts are given with love and an invitation for happiness.

My ex-husband lavished me with gifts, which at first felt fabulous. Over time, I tried to tell him when the style didn’t suit me.

He’d say, “What don’t you like about it?” “Try it on.” “It looks good. You should keep it.”

Or, in response to my saying, “I just don’t like it,” he’d say, “Yes, you do.”

That’s just one man, and maybe I sound like a bitch complaining about my history of men giving me gifts, but my fortune often came wrapped in contorted feelings.

That’s why when I opened the first box from Kevin, I did so with trepidation.

We were headed to the St. Louis Big Muddy Blues Festival. He gave me a brass (not gold) necklace and bracelet handcrafted by his friend.

He said, “Icey, everybody needs a peace bracelet to wear to the Blues Fest.”

I needed the peace that perfect present offered. Not too over the top and ideal for the occasion. He didn’t invest big money, but put in the thought.

As much as we like to say it’s the thought that counts, getting it right feels nice. It was one more way Kevin helped erase my painful history.

He went on to give me gifts—mostly clothes—right up until he died.

His packed bag ready for a visit contained a final gift: a light sweater, blue, pink, and gold, a festive Reba McEntire design purchased from Kohl’s, one of Kevin’s favorite shopping spots.

Every time I wear the sweater, I get compliments. The first I wore it, I only had it on about an hour when I stood in the bathroom at Kroger. One of the employees came out of a stall. Her eyes lit up.

She said, “That’s a beautiful sweater.”

I said, “Thanks. My boyfriend just gave it to me” (kind of).

She looked into my eyes, then at the sweater, then back in my eyes.

She said, “Wow, he really knows your style.”

Yes, he did. I have a closet full of clothes given to me by Kevin, clothes that make me feel more like myself. He knew my style before I really did.

My sister and I enjoy shopping together. At least, we did before Kevin died.

After, I needed a dress for his memorial service. Jayne told me when she needed one for her husband’s funeral, she said, “Okay Tom, you’ve got to help me with this.” The first dress she tried on was the one.

I said, “Maybe Kevin will help me.” Same thing. First dress. Perfect. Slim fitting, but not tight. Black, with one white and one lavender stripe—the color of the Tanzanite bracelet Kevin gave me and the color of the sky since he died.

I sent my little sister a picture of the dress and told her, “I still want to look pretty for him.”

It was the kind of dress my man would’ve found for me, but now, he’d never buy me another piece of clothing.

That was the thought that hit me the first time Jayne and I ventured on a typical girl’s shopping afternoon after his death. We went to Kohl’s, where Kevin took me shopping for my birthday.

Kohl’s in Columbus mirrors the Kohl’s in St. Louis. The dressing room is set up the same as the one Kevin sat outside as I tried on clothes he picked out.

He participated in the process—the perfect balance between the guy trying to ply his gal to win her favor by shopping for her and the bored man in the corner.

Kevin enjoyed shopping with me. He enjoyed being with me and seeing me happy.

There, in the dressing room entrance, I reminisced and forced myself to swallow the fact that none of it will never happen again.

My tears took me into a hot, wet flood of emotion. I missed him so bad I wanted to throw up. I dropped the clothes I’d been considering. I got my sister and we left of the store.

She said, “I’m sorry.” She was sorry I had to endure this pain she knew too well.

We weren’t too far down the road before I realized, “My bracelet!” The Tanzanite one Kevin gave me. I called the store as we drove back. The gal assured me she looked in the dressing room and found nothing.

The bracelet wasn’t expensive; it was irreplaceable.

We raced back—Jayne wanting to fight for her little sister and me desperate for the damned bracelet, as the memory of the moment he gave it to me hit me like a slap.

I tried to tell myself the loss was nothing; the bracelet didn’t matter.

Not too long before (hours? at lunch that day?) I told Jayne something I never got around to telling Kevin, although he would’ve been jazzed about it.

People get diamonds when they get married because it’s the hardest substance known to man. Many people think diamonds are unbreakable, but they can break, like marriages. Hit hard enough in the right spot, they can shatter.

I sold diamonds and jewelry for years and took full advantage of my discount. Tanzanite was one of the only stones I love, but never acquired.

Without that knowledge, Kevin gave me a Tanzanite bracelet I love more than my 3-carat diamond tennis bracelet.

Tanzanite is rare—much rarer than diamonds. It’s only recently discovered. Its color—which can range from light lavender to deep purple—is unique in nature. However, Tanzanite is fragile.

I told my sister that was exactly why if Kevin and I had married, I wanted my ring to be Tanzanite. It represented him, us and our crazy, sexy, cool love, recently found, unique and special enough to be worth caring for.

Now, I’d lost the only piece of Tanzanite jewelry I owned.

It was with me one minute, then gone—like Kevin.

It was too much to bear.

As we made our way back to Kohl’s, I prayed no one played Finders Keepers. My sister insisted I not give up hope, but she was scared for me.

She drove like a woman determined to stop disappointment.

We parked and split up. Jayne headed to customer service. I went to check the dressing rooms. I couldn’t remember which one I’d been in.

The bracelet must’ve fallen off when I tried on clothes. I checked the floors in every dressing room. Nope. Nope. Nope.

Then, in the last dressing room, the little corner shelf held my bracelet—and more, a sort of restoration of my heart.

I was elated. It was worth the trip back. It was worth the hope.

When I told Jayne, she saw the Band-Aid on my battered soul.

Shopping would never be the same easy high it once was for us. I’d decline for months.

When I did go, many times I felt the heat of tears and we’d leave.

I love the wardrobe Kevin blessed me with. Somehow, all the clothes he gave me suit me perfectly. They fit me, not just in size. They become me.

Surprising colors, like blues and pinks I long ago decided weren’t mine. Like Kevin, the blouses, jeans and shoes were an upgrade I never imagined.

I joke that I’ll be wearing the wardrobe from Kevin for decades.

However, Jayne and I recently returned to shopping. She needed shorts for her trip to Florida with her boyfriend.

That, too, was bittersweet. Kevin was from Florida and for our first trip he took me to Indian Rocks beach, back when he was convincing me to call him my boyfriend.

Deep breath. My sister was excited for her trip. I was thrilled for her.

We went to Clothes Mentor, a second-hand designer store Kevin likely never went to. Still, I wasn’t in a shopping mood.

Until I was. Jayne and I spent hours trying on clothes. I didn’t even cry.

We scored. We walked away with two big bags of clothing (over 20 pieces, but only one pair of shorts) for under $200. Nice!

Plus, as elephant journal founder Waylon Lewis says, “The most eco thing is second hand.”

On that Saturday, I allowed myself to be happy. It’s part of the path to loving life again.

I do, mostly. And, I have a new favorite outfit. Kevin would love it.

How I Learned to See Through the Lens of Sacred Love

I’ve experienced an impossible reality; my dead boyfriend lives in me and shows me what he sees.

It happens still—not often, but there are days when I look in the mirror and see myself through my beloved’s eyes.

I gasp at my beauty and light up at the sight of me.

It’s not ego trying to gain on my good looks, or my slightly insecure self desperate to deny my faults.

No, it’s him. I see myself as he sees me.

Feminine. Bright. Easy and extraordinary.

Not flawless, but perfect with the scar on my lip—lips that call for kissing. Eyes that invite gaze. Body worthy of touch.

Seeing myself through his eyes, I feel love—intentional, chosen, yet gifted.

I’ve looked in the mirror for five decades, but not until my beloved’s death did I have this vision, this new way of seeing myself. It’s a subtle shift beyond my confident acceptance (which I worked damn hard to earn) and even praise (which served as affirming armor).

No, this way I see myself is how I saw him since the fateful few days when we slipped from friendship into the fire of love.

I looked at this man for years before I ever saw the treasure before me.

Overnight, I came to relish the sight of him—his eyes, moustache and stature that was all man.

I enjoyed looking at and touching his skin, face and long legs.

I took in the way he sat in his kitchen and office, smoked cigars and made coffee. And damn, did his smile light me up!

Now, all of that joy is mine again—from a glimpse in the mirror.

I see myself the way he saw me, the way I saw him, through the lens of sacred love.

My prayer is that I may learn to see the world with such eyes.

 

The Dangerous Game of If

The only thing I know about death is it comes when it does. We’re not in control and only in the rarest of cases responsible for it.

Recently, two women I know lost their sisters. I ache for them, knowing they’ve just been thrown down a cliff.

One saw it coming; one didn’t. Does it make a difference?

We can’t really prepare for the pain of loss when we’re busy begging death to keep its distance.

We can’t save people, even from themselves.

When my mother was diagnosed with…well actually, the doctors didn’t know what the hell they were diagnosing her with, but the soon-to-be-ditched doctor who delivered her first diagnosis said, “You just want to take her to a better doctor or a better hospital, but you need to face it. She’ll be dead in two weeks.”

Yes, we took her to a better doctor and a better hospital. Still, she only lived four more months.

Can you imagine what I thought while my mom sat silently as that doctor’s words seeped into her soul? Surprisingly, I didn’t slap him.

Now, with decades of hindsight, I imagine the doctor’s crassness was him trying to prepare me for what I couldn’t control. I was in my late 20s.

I had to learn through experience. Death came and there’s no one to blame.

Yet, people do. Not too long ago, I learned my brother’s friend blames himself for Bill’s death. Oh, that breaks my heart!

He wasn’t the person who was driving the car or bought the beer or sold it. It’s someone who wasn’t even there.

Yet, he’s concluded it’s his fault because maybe if…if…if.

That’s a dangerous game to play. If I’d convinced my now deceased boyfriend Kevin not to take the medication that I believe killed him… If I’d been more panicked over what may have been warning signs, but at the time seemed simple symptoms of life… If I would’ve been with him…

Anyone can jump in on the guilt game—even someone completely removed from the situation at the time of death. Or, we can play the blame game.

For me, I wanted to blame the doctor who prescribed the medicine and the pharmaceutical company that put it on the market.

In fact, I indulged in that for a bit—maybe so I could feel the anger of my grief. Guilt is anger turned inward.

But, I’m not guilty. I’m not angry.

I’m sad. I’m sad that people, especially the ones I love, die.

Yet, it’s the inevitable part of life we like to pretend away.

Isn’t thinking it’s our fault or we could’ve controlled death a way of denying it?

Maybe the what-ifs are a part of grief, but I choose to let them go, knowing they don’t serve, but only harm.

What-ifs invite guilt and anger. Both could kill me—slowly, but surely.

So, I let go in honor of love—for myself and those who died.

For now, it’s my job to live and love the one my beloved loved with a fire that refuses to die. No what-ifs about it.

Butterfly

butterfly-998292__180

Every time grief washes over my sister’s face, I feel it like a slap. I want to fix it—the way she’s fixed me up and put me back on my feet.

My sister doesn’t yet see her reflection as the butterfly she’s becoming. It’s still sticky where she lives, in a cocoon of grief. But, the sunshine is bursting in and someday soon she’ll realize she has wings.

Right now, she’s remembering all that went wrong and why can’t it just be yesterday? From the sidelines, it’s almost too much to endure, like watching a teenager attacked by hormones screaming hatred and then melting into a hug like only the innocent and broken can do. But a grown woman does it all with poise.

My sister was broken when I arrived to live with her. Now, she’s spiraling up in life. She’s loosened her grip. Sure, occasionally she trips. And no, she’s not there yet. And yes, grief’s shadow haunts her every step.

Still, sometimes I stand a few steps below. The vision of my sister is radiant. She turns to look at me, always looking out for me. She sees me beaming back at her and gives me undue credit. She can’t see all the light shining from behind or the team of angels assuring, “We got her.”

My sister can’t see her ocean-blue eyes are alive again. She stands oblivious to the formation of her wings. Perched at the edge, just a little bend and the right whiff in her direction, this gal’s going to fly.

The Challenge of “How Are You?”

banner-1090830__340-1

Grief is being unable to answer the question, “How are you?” because most people don’t want to hear, “I’m a fucking mess!” Others will want to fix you or feel sorry for you. The everyday question becomes overwhelming.

Even if you tell people to stop asking, they won’t. It’s habitual. They also really want to know because they care.

In grief, sometimes we must choose to care for ourselves. That might mean saying “I’m fine,” when you’re falling apart. Other times might invite telling the messy truth and crying the tears regardless of others’ reactions.

Still, “How are you?” can be a hard one. Sometimes I want to scream, “How the fuck do you think I am?!” but then I remember, they don’t know. Sometimes, neither do I.

Be Like Kevin

12928205_10209096539595682_1762683544267154292_n

Call. And call again. Take the calls—even when you’re driving to dinner with your girlfriend and looking for a parking space. Take the call, especially if it’s your dad. Not because he’s 85, because he’s your dad.

Connect with people. Laugh. Let your funny be infectious. Don’t be a hater. Speak your mind. Apologize when you screw up. And mean it. Move on.

OWN your anger. Be forthright, but be gracious. Love women. Really love them. And music. Listen to music-LOUD! Especially the 80s. Hard rock. KISS.

But take Etta James and the candles. Yeah, bring that old boom box to the beach. Play the game Washers.

Read. The Bible when you feel nudged. Take pleasure in reading. Find your guy. Kevin’s was Lee Child, but he also read Mark Twain, JR Moehringer and Alice Lundy.

Give people nicknames. ICE! ICE! ICE! Let it be your way of honoring them.

Pray. Out loud. In the morning. While drinking coffee and watching birds with your girlfriend.

Say, “I LOVE THAT!” often. Say, “I love you.” Write it. Write letters. Send Valentine’s Day cards with love to everyone.

Enjoy good food. Make memories, like taking your gal to Tony’s, where you used to go with your mom. But, also go to dive bars. Bring home Taco Bell sauce packets that say “Marry Me” and present them like a bouquet of flowers.

Seek love. Be romantic. Be real.

Follow your passions and applaud others. Take care of your business, but don’t be so serious. Make work fun. When it’s not, refocus. Readjust. Decide what you want and go for it.

Change. If you want to. Become better.

Be at peace with yourself. Take care of yourself. LOVE YOURSELF. And especially, BE YOURSELF. Kevin was totally himself, not imitating a soul.

Be emotionally courageous. Say: This is how I am. I have a temper and I can be selfish, but I’m the man for you. Yeah, be a man—in the best sense of the word.

Support your team and Diva’s team and your people. Show up. Be on time. And have some style!

LIVE your life. If it ever comes to your door, kick cancer’s ass!

Speak a different language with your brothers—one your girlfriend couldn’t understand if she wanted to. Make your cousin a brother and make the word BROTHER mean something. Make friendship and family mean something.

GO ALL IN. Whatever you’re doing: sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, sales, wooing a woman, loving your mom, hanging with friends, frying fish, developing relationships, telling a truth, listening,… damn, Kevin could listen.

I know he could talk, but he could really listen.

Open doors. Pull out chairs. Hug. Hold your partner tight through the entire night. Kiss too hard and love like this is your last chance and you want to get it right.

Buy little gifts. Don’t expect so much from others. Give because it makes you feel good.

Tell stories. And make them good!

Hang with your boys. Be wild when you’re young, but never grow old. Get out of the house, but spend time hanging at home, just chillin’.

Be like a kid. But be a man. Face life head on.

Be like Kevin, but you can’t. There was only one. So, be like you—the one Kevin loves. Still.

 

 

Just an Old T-shirt

guy-tshirt__180

Just an old t-shirt,

All I asked my sister for,

Her husband’s old t-shirt,

Her husband who died.

Was it only three months ago?

Now, I know why a man

Said to my mom just weeks

After my brother died,

You’re not over that yet?

It wasn’t callousness or ignorance.

If you don’t own the grief, you

Push it as far away as possible.

That crap’s contagious!

Man, it can bring you down.

But, when you own it,

When that grief is yours,

You’re busy bracing,

Trying to balance, breathe.

Craning not to be crushed

By grief’s weight—

Makes everything heavy,

Even just an old t-shirt,

From a guy who’s not here anymore,

But is everywhere in this house.

Once he wore that old t-shirt.

He’s the only one who wore that old t-shirt.

It was his old t-shirt. Now,

I’m going to wear it, dye my hair in it.

I’ll stain it and it will never be the same,

Like everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

Going First

map-1434486__180

How do you thank a sister for being big and bold, for taking life on first?

How can I thank her for knowing everything and explaining our parents’ divorce to me when I was in 5th grade? How can I thank her for taking me to Australia to swim in the Great Barrier Reef and pet wallabies? For enduring hardships I only had to taste?

Is there a Hallmark card for a woman who did it her way first in marriage, career and kids, giving me an example to look at and freedom to say, Me, too! or No way! and never judged me for my choices—even the ones she would’ve never made, the ones that landed me on my ass?

How can I thank my sister for creating a marriage masterpiece for herself and loving someone unconditionally when for me it was only a concept? How can I thank my sister for not throwing a fit when I didn’t pick her to be a bridesmaid in my first wedding? For fully supporting me in my second marriage—both the beginning and the end?

There’s no way to measure how my sister’s destiny spreads its arms before me like a world map.

How can I thank her for all the times she told me what to do and I defied her—like the time I wanted to make a pie in elementary school and I didn’t need her help! I forgot to cook the crust. She’s the one who got in trouble from my dad. It happened often because I was the baby and I knew how to play it. I was just a kid, but so was she. How do I ever thank her for that?

How do I thank Jayne for taking me on dates with her boyfriends and later taking me in to live with her and her husband? I was in high school and left halfway through the time I’d allotted to stay, never thinking how it might cut her to have me—the only family she had in Michigan—run home to New Mexico.

Is there a bouquet I can send that says thanks for opening your home to me in college—as you and your husband juggled a baby and low-paying jobs, while I squandered my education and exercised my independence like it was a marathon?

How could I possibly thank you (but I do) for going before me in losing your great love to death? Then, with a brutalized heart, encouraging me to trust love and the man who lit up my life in all the ways I longed for? Without her permission, her presence, safety, and security, would I have made the leap?

How do I thank her for giving me more than a place to stay—a real home in a way I hadn’t known, after being kicked out of and running from so many?

Can I send a card, a letter, a parade to say thanks for what you went through when my lover died and you had to relive your loss while watching your little sister get slapped by the same?

How do I thank my sister for smiling in the mornings, and when she comes home, and loving my dog who feels like my lifeline?

Jayne’s love is action, but it’s more. Have you ever seen someone look at you like you can do no wrong—even with all the evidence?

One way I can thank her for the thousands of ways she’s lifted me is life itself—living mine to the fullest, even when it’s dark and I’m lost.

There’s more, though. My sister says she could never endure the loss of me. So, I promise to live longer. Losing her would be brutal, but I’d go through the shredder for my big sister.

Besides, we’ll be in our 100s by then and I’m sure I’ll have a handle on this grief thing, right?

 

 

Fully Loved

lovers-1259124_960_720.png

Maybe because Kevin and I knew each other for 25 years before we became us, we established a no-bullshit zone. It’s not that we never had run-ins. We did, but we had depth, connection and intimacy that went way beyond the physical. Ours was the kind of relationship we both sought our whole lives & never found. It was crazy, sexy, cool, and so were we.

Kevin believed that somehow his mom brought me back into his life so he could have the kind of love she always wanted for him. Who was I to disagree? It made me feel safe—like he wouldn’t hurt or dump the woman his mom brought! He didn’t.

He loved me so well—with honest, masculine courage and vulnerability. Kevin was such a man. He made way for me to be, in all my femininity. He honored my mind, thoughts and dreams. Kevin got me and my writing—all of it. He read it all. He gave me pens and wrote me epic love letters. We danced, laughed, traveled, watched movies and TV, and talked. That guy could talk!

I don’t regret one single moment or feel anything is left unsaid. I don’t question how Kevin felt about me, our relationship, Hilary Clinton, my dad, drugs, my book, guns, cops, or basketball. Ok, maybe basketball. He knew I didn’t care and it was cool.

We thought we’d have a long time together. I thank God ours was no rose-colored-rearview-mirror relationship or overly focused on the future. Sure, we had plans. We planned on being in New Orleans the day of his memorial service. We intended to enjoy the trip Kevin won for outstanding sales booked for Dublin, Ireland in April.

Kevin and I were always excited about our time together. Although we had less than two calendar years as a couple, I feel like I got a decade worth of love—the most real love I ever had. We lived our moments full. We didn’t miss a thing—except more time.

No Magic

magic-cube-378543__180

When the cop confirmed

Her beloved breathed his last breath

She fell on her heart

As if it was a sword.

 

For days, weeks, months,

She walked in the woods,

Drank water, and wailed

Like a widow.

 

In June, she jumped on a plane.

Belize—the place to be reborn—

A yoga retreat would do the trick,

She told herself.

 

Vulnerability pursued her

On the pier, by the beach, under the stars,

By the blue water with the big fish,

She broke open.

 

Spread thin like the yoga teachers’ words

Demanding she manage

Muscles and mind into moments,

Just moments.

 

No magic; Damn it!

Balancing poses. Breath.

Hers. The groups’ stretched

Into something more.

 

She arrived with less

Of herself, her heart, her certainty.

She learned to stand solid.

Still alone, without him.