Two lovers walk under the winter solstice full moon; arms intertwined.
“This is going to be a special year for us,” he says. “I think it’s the start of something new.”
“Let’s have another baby,” I whisper, as we stop to kiss under the trees.
A week later, he wakes up feeling a bit unwell. He is dead within three months.
That blissfully simple moment under the moon feels like it happened to another person, light years away although in reality it was only a few months ago. Since then, I’ve learned that a freckle on your cheek can kill you. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if you’re strong and healthy and kind. Brian, the love of my life and the father of my little girl, has died of melanoma at 41.
“We cry for Bri every night,” a friend says to me. She and her husband are good friends and she’s trying to tell me that they care. But all I hear is the word “we” and it makes me want to scream in my solitude. The image of them sharing a sacred moment of grief makes my heart ache for Brian with a depth that I didn’t know existed.
I suddenly notice the “we” word everywhere.
“Can we come over to say hello and drop off some groceries?” another friend asks. I’m friendly with her partner, but he’s not someone I feel ready to sit down and talk with days after Brian’s funeral. My insides are on the outside. I decline her offer.
Another friend sends me a sympathy card: “We are thinking of you,” it says. It is signed by herself, a husband who I’ve met a handful of times, her two young children and her dog. “Look at my abundance,” this card says to me. “This is the future that you have lost.” I throw it in the garbage, immediately.
My grief comes in waves, just like the waves of my contractions during my daughter’s birth. Anything can trigger them; a smell, a sound, catching a glimpse of an image out of the corner of my eye. My soul and body know when I can handle another one.
Just as I did in labour, I surrender to the wave. I let it take me out, sometimes so far that I don’t recognize myself or my place on this Earth. These waves are longer than the longest of contractions. They can last for days. When they pass, it’s hard to remember what that overwhelming pain felt like. During these reprieves, I can breathe. I respond to some of the messages that have piled up. I cook healthy food for my daughter. I try to read or do the laundry.
Each time, I think, “Okay, that has to have been the worst one. I’m pretty sure I’m feeling a bit better now.” And each time I am shocked with the pain when another wave hits.
With time, it seems that for others, the grief is slowly lifting. Messages of support slow down to a trickle. For me, there is silence. Life goes on for everyone else. But my life has still vanished.
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” I hear over and over again. But what they mean to say is, “I don’t want to imagine.” That is the difference between sympathy and empathy and it makes me feel deeply alone.
I cling to my three-year-old daughter. She still remembers our life together as a family of three. She feels the loss of his presence in every moment, too. “This is where Dada sits when we eat oats together,” she tells me in the morning. I fear for the day when she will no longer remember these small rituals.
My grief counsellor suggests that I reach out to a support group for widows. “Widow?” I say. It’s a strange word; it feels foreign on my tongue.
And yet, one warm evening two months after Brian’s death, I find myself getting out of an Uber in front of a bar to go on the weirdest blind group date of my life. Their warmth astounds me. “You’re so brave for coming,” one of them says, hugging me tightly. “I barely functioned for at least six months.”
“Let yourself fall apart,” another whispers. “Let someone take your daughter for a few days. With time, she’ll learn that you’ll always come back.”
I realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that scares me. “It doesn’t necessarily get easier, it just changes,” another one says carefully, four years out from her young husband’s tragic death. “You won’t feel the way you do now forever.”
Suicide. Accidental overdose. Brain aneurism. Undiagnosed fatal heart condition. Cancer. These words cross our tongues urgently and are met with openness. Each of us navigates other people’s pity, judgment and awkwardness every day in a society that has no idea how to live with death, darkness and grief. So, we nod and we witness each other’s stories without fear. We have all walked though fire and emerged on the other side. We clink glasses, “To life,” we say, knowing the depth of what that truly means.
One evening, my daughter and I are dancing in the kitchen as we cook dinner together. For one second, I let myself imagine that Bri is with us. The realization of the greater possibility for happiness in that moment is too shocking to actually digest. It forces me to recognize all that I have lost.
I learn to access my own vulnerability in a way I never have before. This vulnerability gives birth to a strength I did not know that I possessed. I am aware of how quickly life can be taken away. I know how sacred it is to have a working, able body. I walk around with a secret and sense a connection to the divine. I feel Brian protecting and guiding me.
I let the darkness in and am surprised to find that it’s just another form of light. My grief for Brian mirrors the depth of my love for him. My grief gives life to a greater love than I knew existed.
One morning, I wake up and the sun is shining. My daughter comes running into my room with a smile on her face. I turn over and remember that Brian is not here. I feel darkness and light, grief and love. They sit together in my heart now, side by side. I remember again that I am still here.
I open my eyes and I get out of bed.
Mira Simone Etlin-Stein lives in Toronto.
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