Life surprises us—in love and grief.
When grief is fresh and raw, we’re vulnerable to being triggered by every song, word, thought, piece of clothing, food, coffee cup, email, restaurant, and memory of moments with our loved ones.
Early on, the best we can do is breathe, fall to our knees and howl out our animalistic wounds. But, we can’t live there.
Eventually, we stand and walk on in our grief.
Repeatedly, we may think the worst has passed, as if we’re over it simply because for one day, week, month, or even a year, we function as if not engulfed 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. His kiss was definitely 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 days 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 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—or anything that resembled truth.
He’d say, “Well, 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 for clothes 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 what 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.
It must’ve fallen off when I tried on clothes. I looked on 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.