It’s been 80 months since I became a widow, 21 months since I said vows for the second time, and two months since my first child was born.
Sometimes I need to pinch myself. As I tenderly rock my little girl in my arms, I can’t help but remember the reason I got this rocking chair six years ago: as a coping mechanism for post-traumatic stress disorder. I was supposed to rock 20 minutes a day, or whenever I felt myself triggered and unable to block out the horrifying images of James’ death: rear-ended and dragged off his motorcycle. The theory behind this rocking prescription is that movement disrupts memory patterns and neurotransmitters whose paths are deep, destructive, and automatic.
If you’ve heard of a TENS unit or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), they follow the same logic. One uses alternating vibrations in the hands, and the other uses a pendulum to follow with the eyes. The main difference from rocking, in my personal experience with each therapy, is that TENS and EMDR are accompanied by verbal analysis attempting to change feelings or effects of memories.
For example, I tried both therapies in order to lessen my fear of driving, panic when hearing ambulances, and anger upon seeing motorcycles. My therapist would ask me to picture myself driving, ask how I feel, introduce another car, ask how I feel, ask how I want to feel and why, introduce an ambulance, ask how I feel, ask what images I can re-associate with ambulances, etc., all while the nerves in my left and right brain were being stimulated, one side at a time.
The end result of this line of questioning is often the development of new mantras, to redirect automatic brain responses to external stimuli. Mine became: I know how to be safe. Driving is worthwhile because maintaining relationships is worthwhile. Ambulances often save lives. I cannot and do not want to control the future.
Mantras, rocking chairs, and art (especially Ukrainian eggs and mosaics) were not only my most effective coping mechanisms, they remain beautiful layers glued atop the broken fragments of my life with James. I used to say so often that I was broken, that my life was broken, and that I didn’t know how all these pieces would lead to any kind of life worth living again.
I’m so thankful I don’t feel that way anymore.
The transformation out of brokenness started and ended with women named Ruth. I wandered into a church one day after being away from any kind of faith community for many years; I felt a pull to pray, or maybe bargain, out of my desperation. The story that day was about a young widow who had lost everything and was alone in a foreign country with only her mother-in-law. The pastor picked up a kaleidoscope, pointed it toward the light, and claimed that we have a God of Plan B’s. While only looking to work and provide for her mother-in-law, Ruth found a new life and became the great-grandmother of King David. A beautiful new pattern was created out of the broken pieces and journey of her life, just as a kaleidoscope does when one turns its body.
With time and a new mindset, I began to see that my address book, once full of people who weren’t there for me as I tread the waters of autopsy reports and family expectations, is now highlighted with people who value discussing life’s ugliness and hope. My home, once a place of destroyed pictures, abandoned tables, and lonely nights, is now a remodeled sanctuary with a starry nursery, colorful garden, and piles of laundry I’m grateful to do. And finally, my dreams – once shred of all meaning – are renewed through relationships: as a teacher helping kids with loss, and as a wife and mama nurturing health and adventure.
In early February, which was my ninth month of pregnancy, I was asked these questions: “Does James come up in your thoughts and emotions as you prepare for the baby? Do you struggle with that, or do you feel settled with it? And how does this all affect Sean?”
James certainly still enters my mind and heart often. But not as the dagger that his memory was for many years. When I think about him, I remember how he always gave people the benefit of the doubt and exuded thoughtfulness. His love of ’80s music, cheesy potatoes, poetry on post-it notes, and Beowulf. I’m grateful for how he changed me, and the strength to make my decisions – not circumstances – guide my future after his death. I’m the wife and mother that I am today because I don’t take these opportunities for granted.
When I struggle with the fear that my new husband will die in an accident, I quickly remember that I don’t want to teach that fearfulness to my daughter. I sing Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera” and tell her all the beautiful pieces to our lives that I never expected – all the Plan B’s. This doesn’t take away the reality that we live in a scary world where bad things happen, but it helps me accept that I can go forth with both fear and joy. I can be settled in the knowledge that I know how to keep going in this life that will never be easy or fair. I know the roller coaster will always come back up … and that hopeful certainty which I want to impart to my daughter, the other incredible woman named Ruth in my life, completed my transformation out of “complicated bereavement.”
I can’t wait to show my daughter the kaleidoscope that her daddy designed for me when I was pregnant. I’ll point out the swirled walnut wood and glass fragments in my favorite colors. We’ll name them together as we marvel at the brilliance of the changing patterns when held toward the light. I pray that I’ll never misplace the note Sean attached, which read, “I love the new beautiful images that the broken pieces of our lives have made.” I am in awe of how he understands me and creates space for continuing conversations. It must not be easy for him to have a wife with PTSD as well as a first husband. But he tells me, every time I need to pinch myself and reconfirm my reality, that he loves the woman I became as a result of my hardships, of being tested to my core, of searching for hope. What a beautiful way to look at what was once broken.
As Sean and I take turns rocking little Ruthie, I hope she internalizes the mindsets that keep us open to hope.
Connect with the author at http://michellejarvie.com
You write so beautifully and I love your story of grief and hope to happiness.