Death Grief Suffering

Who Sticks Around

Jeff’s two best friends arranged a surprise girls’ trip for their wives and me. Last weekend, we got on a plane without children; had uninterrupted conversations; and didn’t plan our days around nap time.

Luckily, both of those men married people I actually like: one of them married my best friend from college. They are ladies who are easy to be around. We laughed a lot.

Barb and Randy stayed with the kids, and they were ‘in’ on the planning of this weekend, too. Jeff and I had planned to visit the Florida Keys for our 10th wedding anniversary last year, and Barb and Randy were going to contribute to that as our anniversary gift. Since that trip didn’t happen, they helped with this one.

When I told a few people about this trip, they commented how wonderful it was that I have people in my life who would do this for me. And they’re right. I do. I’m lucky that people have stuck around.

For the most part, people just want other people to be okay. That gives all of us the permission to live our lives like we always have. When people aren’t okay, a nagging feeling sets in that we’re supposed to be doing more, and that interrupts our lives. It requires that we rethink relationships and our role in them. And almost always, that’s uncomfortable and inconvenient, despite the degree to which we are willing and truly want to.

Jeff died over a year ago, and people have largely returned to their lives… including me, I suppose. What other choice do we have? But man: I am so blessed and touched and aspire to be worthy of the people who have rearranged their lives or reimagined their relationships so they could be in my life… and my kids’ lives.

When my grandma died in 2009, her loss permeated every area of my life. Jeff had told me, “Jess — I love you. And that’s why you have to see a therapist. I am not able to help you with this anymore. Please go see a counselor.”

So I did. Her name was Irene. She was wonderful.

Irene taught me that when we have a loss, grief will never go away — we simply learn to coexist with it. Irene introduced me to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and I learned that the five stages of grief aren’t a linear progression of mutually-exclusive feelings, but rather, categories of emotions that can coexist – and often do – and which come up over and over again throughout a person’s life.

“What you used to get from your grandmother,” Irene said, “you now need to get from several other people. It may take four or five other people to fill the one role that your grandma played in your life.”

It made me think about it: what role did my grandmother play? The easiest, and most tangible example was calling her on my way home from school. I talked to her every single day… mostly about nothing. But talking to her was like having a mooring in the middle of the ocean.

I did learn – over time – to trust others to fill the roles that my grandmother played in my life. Some roles were lost: there was nobody who shared every single memory my grandma held in her cancer-ridden brain. And that’s where the grief lingers: nobody and everybody is indispensable.

Jeff filled many of the roles my grandma played in my life. We got married four months after she died, and I transferred the daily calls to him (much to his chagrin). Jeff and I explicitly talked about how I would need different things from him. But he already knew that. And he was happy to be that person.

So when Jeff died, the hole from his loss was enormous. Its impact reverberated in my body and my life, and I thought there would be no possible way that people could fill the roles that he played in my life.

I was right. And I was also wrong.

Logistically, the kids and I are okay. Our house is clean. Our laundry is folded. Our dog is loved and walked and taken care of. And this is thanks to Barb and Randy; to Trish and Scott; to my neighbors. My family comes up as often as they are able, and when they do, it’s a weekend of food, wine, laundry, LEGOs and board games.

Emotionally, filling the roles is much harder. January is a dismal month to begin with, and last year was brutal. Each day, when I woke up, it felt like I was putting on a 20-pound vest. I existed. This year feels like I’m putting on a 5-pound vest every day. Because grief is cyclical, I feel like I’m back at square one in some ways, and that I’ve made huge progress in other ways. There are roles that Jeff played that cannot ever be filled by someone else. But – because people have stuck around or stepped up – unexpected roles have been filled.

And a pleasant surprise that I’d never thought about is this: we have filled roles for other people.

I think most people are walking around with a version of some need. Sometimes, we find that the perfect match of what someone needs and what someone is willing to give. That would have never happened without losses for each party. The older I get, the more I realize that most relationships are not what they seem. Grandparents are sometimes more than grandparents: they are parents. Aunts are sometimes more than aunts: they are mothers. Neighbors are sometimes more than neighbors: they are friends. Friends are sometimes more than friends: they are sisters or brothers. The ‘in-law’ part of some relationships could sometimes just be removed altogether. We need labels to make sense of things in the world, but often, the labels do a disservice to the complexity of what’s really happening.

Nobody can ever replace Jeff. Just like I cannot replace the people whom others have lost. But there’s something about sharing your grief with someone else and turning it into something worthwhile. It redeems the loss and the pain, and it honors the death of the person who died.

Last weekend, we ordered mimosas with lunch. As we raised our glasses, I said, “To your husbands!”

And it meant so much when my friends said, “And to yours.”

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