This morning I woke to find the comment you wrote on my post entitled “I Still Look For Him.” I could see that today was a particularly painful day for you and I started to write a response. My words went like this …. “how I wish I could help ease the pain you suffer.” But as I wrote those words I realized that wishing alone does nothing, and so instead I have chosen to write this: “Let me help ease the pain you suffer. It is a pain I know intimately well, and I think I can help you.”
The burning question in your mind must be “How? How can you help me? Can you bring my husband back?” I know that question well because I ask it all the time. When people say “how can I help?” I think to myself – and sometimes say out loud – “Can you bring Ben back? Because that would be most helpful.” It makes for awkward conversations at times but at least it gives me a chuckle when I see someone stumbling for words after hearing my honest response. People don’t expect honesty, I think. Or they don’t want it. They prefer to hear “everything is fine, thank you for asking.”
Anyway, back to how I can help. I think I can help you by continuing to share my own story with you. (Sorry … no magic answer there. I know you were hoping for more). I think I can help you by reminding you that you are not alone. By reminding you that, most sadly, others do suffer with you / us and do know our pain. And others do move through the pain toward a brighter future.
I have come to know that it is a fallacy that people “get over it,” but I believe people do “move through it.” I am moving through it, Kathy. So are you, whether you realize it or not. I move through a little bit more every day, sometimes with two steps backwards, but I do move through it and so do you.
For me, I am doing it by just being as honest and true to myself as I possibly can. I am doing it by trying to make sure that I do exactly what feels right at any given moment. Sometimes that isn’t pretty. Sometimes it involves tears and snot and making other people feel very awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes it means avoiding people when I have no idea why. Sometimes it means hurt feelings – both mine and others’. I try to be kind to everyone, but if other people’s feelings get hurt simply because I feel this odd need to re-enter the real world at a snail’s pace by dipping one toe in the water at a time, so be it. I cannot and will not worry about their hurt feelings, because my need to do what I need to do supersedes their needs, quite frankly. I’m being selfish and I’m glad I am, because I strongly believe it will help me in the long run. I believe it already has. If it takes me 18 months or 24 months or 36 months or longer to fully immerse myself back in the real world of visiting with people and doing some of the things I “used to do,” then I say so be it. People will just have to patiently wait for me or move on without me. The hurt feelings of others are irrelevant compared to my pain, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time thinking about it. As you and I are intimately aware … life is too short to waste time worrying about the trivialities.
I do not believe that you or I will ever find anyone who understands us like another person who has lost their own spouse. There is no loss that is the same as losing your life partner. Regardless of how fiercely one may love their child / parent / sibling / friend they simply cannot understand the pain of losing their spouse until it happens. All loss is not the same. All loss is painful, yes, and nowhere will you ever find me saying that my loss is more or less painful than anyone else’s loss. But all loss is not the same. I hope to never understand the pain of losing a child, and I will not pretend to know what it feels like to lose a child just because I have experienced my own extreme and unrelenting loss that began the day Ben cried “I have cancer. It’s in my kidney and my bones.” So I don’t want anyone who hasn’t lost their own spouse to presume they understand my pain. On the day your spouse dies you are thrust unwillingly into an exclusive club that you never asked to join, and only other members of this shitty “Dead Spouse” club can truly understand.
As you know, aside from the fact that you lost the one person you had pledged to grow old beside, you also lost so much more. You lost the security you felt in knowing he would be there when you got home at the end of the day. He was supposed to be there always. When you struggle with raising your kids, he was supposed to be there struggling alongside you. When your dishwasher broke, he was there. When you got the flu, he was there. When all the kids were out for the evening, or gone for the weekend, he was there. When he wasn’t there, you knew how to reach him. Perhaps you even relished in the free time because you knew he was coming home eventually.
Being alone back then did not mean staring out at the vast “alone years” ahead, it meant being alone for an hour, or a weekend. It did not mean forever.
Losing a spouse robs you of the person who promised to hold you as you watch your children leave the nest and move across the city, or the country, or the world. Losing a spouse forces you to look around and say “Now what do I do with the next 40 years?” Losing a spouse forces you to acknowledge that when you send your babies out into the world, you will be doing it alone. There will be no one there to hold you and cry with you as you wave goodbye to your baby. Losing a spouse means there is now no one in the entire world who loves your children as much as you do. Losing a spouse is lonely. A kind of lonely like no other. A kind of lonely that can never be filled. Losing a spouse robs you of the person you immediately turn to, to tell them something trivial that no one else in the world would really care about. Losing a spouse robs so many people of financial security. Losing a spouse robs many of the health care benefits that covered their children through their spouse’s employment. Losing a spouse robs many of their homes. Losing a spouse means you have to figure out how to change your own tires, buy your own cars, kill your own spiders, find someone to fix your roof, and eventually maybe even pack all your belongings by yourself to move houses. The last time I checked, there was no friend, child, sibling or parent who filled all those roles. Just your spouse. And they are gone. Forever. So no, there is no loss the same as losing a spouse.
I have found that people tend to say “There is no greater loss than that of losing a child.” (Someone actually wrote that in an email to me shortly after Ben died. Seriously???) Well, I beg to differ. And anyway, do we really need to put loss on a scale? Which type of loss we presume to be greater? Unless one actually loses a child, a spouse, a best friend, a sibling and a parent all at the same time, it would be safe to say that a person can never truly know which one feels like the greatest loss to them, right? And thank God for that.
I do know for sure that from the moment your child is born, you know somewhere in the back of your mind that they are not your life partner. You borrow them for 18 years and then you hope that each of you mutually love and respect each other enough to be friends for life. But inevitably we turn our children over to their own love with whom they can share their life. They will belong to someone else. Someone else will,and should, come first to them, and you will still not have your spouse.
Anyway, Kathy, I do understand. I understand so well, and I hope it helps you to know that. But I will also say this, and I believe it too, that life is a gift that was robbed from our loved ones. It was not robbed from us, even though I know that sometimes you may wish it was. I know that some days I certainly do. But for whatever reason, you and I have still been left with the gift of living life, and your husband and mine would want us to live it. It is not a gift worth having if it is not lived and appreciated fully. Maybe not today, and maybe not for the next while, but eventually you must live it. They gave their gift up unwillingly – there is no way they would want us to waste ours.
I believe the best thing I did for myself was to ignore everyone who had opinions on what I should do to heal. “Get back to work” was a big one. I caved to that pressure initially and it was a terrible mistake. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe without crying. It added to my torture, and so I left. I took time with my kids but mostly I took time for me to figure out what I needed in order to breathe, and live. I don’t regret it.
I still haven’t fully gotten to that place of breathing and living easily, and I probably never will. I get hit by waves of grief and I go with them. No shame. I do what I feel I need to do to get me through the next wave and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks because they are not living my life. I’m living it. And Ben would want me to. So I need to do what I need to do in order to get where Ben would want me to be.
Ben would not grieve in the same way I am, which is ok. Neither would my sisters, my parents or my friends because they are not me. My kids do not grieve the same way I do because they are teens and quite frankly they are annoyingly resilient. Thank God for that. As my doctor recently reminded me, that’s the way it is supposed to be. But right now I need to do what is right for me. I am feeling my way through life carefully and if something doesn’t feel right then I try to honour myself and Ben by not doing it. I am no longer afraid to say “No.” Usually I succeed in doing what I need to do. Sometimes I cave to the pressure of others who think they know better, but not often. I get stronger at doing what I need to do the more often I do it. And I remind myself, “They do NOT know. They do NOT understand.” Despite their love and compassion, they don’t get it. They can’t get it. And that is a good thing. That’s ok. I think I’m doing an OK job anyway.
Kathy, I wish you a peaceful Christmas. Maybe a quiet Christmas. Maybe a loud Christmas. Maybe a Christmas buried in helping others which can possibly be a help to yourself. Whatever feels right for you. Just know that there are others who do know your pain, and although those people may not be directly present in your immediate circle of family and friends, they are there. Reach out if you need to and tell someone you need a shoulder. Reach out to someone who actually knows your pain. Consider joining me at Camp Widow in the New Year.
One thing Ben said early on (and wrote about in this blog) was that he knew there was someone out there in the world who had it worse than him. And he was right. Even as he drew his last breath there was someone out there who had it worse than him. And even though we all still need to cope with our own pain, I do try to remember there are people out there who have it worse than I. Remembering that helps me. Maybe it will help you too. Or maybe not.
I promised Ben I would not crumble, and I won’t. I will continue to put one foot in front of the other and some days I will only be doing it just to get to the end of the day. Other days I will be doing it because I want to actually go somewhere. My own levels of agony are getting to a point where I no longer want to rip out what is left of my heart out and throw it at the disease that took my Ben (I tend to think of cancer as something tangible in my odd brain) and scream “why don’t you just take what’s left, too!” I consider that progress.
Lastly, besides actively seeking out people who know my pain, the other thing that helps me through is by finding very specific ways to honour Ben. Carving ‘Ben The Titan’ everywhere I go is one of them.
Runyon Canyon Park, LA
Santa Monica Pier
Toasting Ben with Kracken on special occasions is another. The next time I do it I will yell “Release the Kracken!” just as he did. And I will ask others to do so too!
Having a candle holder engraved so that we can light a candle in Ben’s memory is a way we can remember him on all our “occasions.”
This year I had our final traditional Saint-Onge Five Christmas ornament made, after countless years of hanging family ornaments on the tree. These are only some of them:
And the final / last one made this year, where the 5th snowman has angel wings …
I created a headstone that honours Ben and tells the world a bit about what kind of man we lost. (Below is the computer rendition that is being engraved in granite as I write this post. Ben’s photo will go in the white oval)
My kids and I have decided that going forward we will forever find a way to gather together (even if it needs to be via Face Time) every single year on two specific days … Ben’s birthday and the anniversary of his death. (I will keep our wedding anniversary to myself.) We will take the time to remember the man he was, the husband I had, the father my kids had. And then we will go about our business of living our lives the way he would have wanted, and the way I promised him we would. At least, that is the plan.
Kathy, I know you’re tired. I am tired too, but I don’t believe that will last forever. The pain you feel is the price you are paying for intense love. I bet you wouldn’t trade the pain if the other option had meant loving your husband less deeply.
I hope that something I said was helpful to you. If not, I hope that you are comforted by simply knowing that I understand. I really understand. But I wish I didn’t.
Wishing you peace and love and a desire to move through.