“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, Love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
an epitaph from a headstone in Ireland
I stared at the plain paper note that had come in the mail. It was from Jack, my husband, and said simply, “It’s time for me to take off.” Enclosed in the envelope was a deposit slip showing that he had emptied his checking account and transferred the funds to a household account in both our names.
Struggling to breathe, I phoned my adult son who lived nearby; he kept reminding me to “Breathe, Mom, breathe.” I was gasping as I told him what I had found in the mail that night – the note, the bank slip, and the simple written words that let me know Jack was calling it quits. For good. For the rest of his life, and for the rest of mine.
I didn’t know it then, but that night was the beginning of a seven- year journey of grief in which I would learn about resilience, healing, and the mixed gift of memories, some that filled me with joy, and others that brought deep sorrow. The road ahead would be winding, full of unexpected turns, with caring friends who would be with me, and then, understandably, return to their own lives, leaving me to come home most nights with grief my only companion. The oscillating nature of grief would rise and dive in waves; sometimes, I wept and wondered if I would ever feel normal again, and at other times, I felt a light buoyancy that gave me energy and a sense of pleasure in living again.
Suicide is often the end result of a long struggle with depression, as it was in Jack’s case; a wonderfully trained minister, and an effective marriage and family counselor, he had helped hundreds of people over the years, yet was unable to help himself. His depression worsened in the last three years of our marriage; he finally consented to see a skilled and trusted therapist. But her words were unable to reach him in that dark place, where suicide made the most sense to him, in order to free himself from pain.
That same therapist told me, in a session after Jack was gone, that “Suicide is meant to kill more than one,” and I understood instinctively how true that was in our case, even though the words shocked me. Jack had a good deal of anger in his heart that he was barely able to claim, or talk about. He also had a persistent sadness that only occasionally surfaced in our intimate conversations. I came to understand that anger and sorrow were two sides of the same coin in his inner world, and it was unreachable to me. There was little I could do to help him with those buried emotions other than to listen, to be present, and to witness our narrowing options.
Another therapist friend who knew us both, shared a thoughtful observation with me six months after Jack had left that “He wanted you to live his life as well as your own, and that was not only patently unfair to you, but a betrayal that he imposed on himself.” In a flash of painful insight, I recognized that Jack had made, what must have seemed to him, “safe” choices and they had led him into unsafe times. Seeking to preserve his autonomy and false pride, he had let loose dark thoughts, and fearful imaginings of loneliness and despair that eventually overtook him. In the process, our capacity to remain close was depleted; it was a tragic and regrettable path.
When his life ended, I was left to reinvent my own. I gradually realized that I had underestimated my own resilience and the role that it plays in the grieving process. The journey I commenced included discovering the healing power of music, art, meditation, and a support group I took part in for two years after my loss. I found ways to express my grief through drawing, sketching, coloring, and photography. The combination of music and art, in particular, encouraged my natural resilience to emerge and helped me regain my emotional footing.
Grief is a normal and healthy reaction to loss, and so is resilience. We each have the capacity to learn how to live with our losses, and we each have our own style of grieving that is as unique to us as our fingerprints. Grieving takes time and healing happens at its own pace. We don’t get over grief; we integrate it into our way of life and we give it a space to occupy so that it co-exists with our other memories. Resilience does not keep us safe from the pain of grief, but coupled with self-compassion, it can be the fuel that helps us decide how to go on living.
I also found that grief brings a gift along with it. Grief can empower us, and cause us to see the world in a different light, which can be the impetus that pushes us to say “yes” to life as it gives us the courage to relocate, change a career, seek joy with a new love, or leave a relationship that is unhealthy. Grief, in that sense, is a potent disruptor!
One of the positive things it does is to remind us that someday we will die, like every other human being on this planet. That knowledge is an awesome invitation to fully live the life we have. When we know we don’t have forever, it helps us choose to live each day more mindfully, and to intentionally share our talents and love with the world and with those who are important to us. As my father often said, “Don’t wait until the funeral to give flowers; give bouquets now while the person is alive.”
Slowly, as the years unfolded, I found my way home to myself; the “old” me was no longer present or retrievable. I let go of that identity during my grief, when I embraced the pain fully. Without resisting the change that had taken hold of my life, I began listening to my inner wisdom as it whispered, “Keep growing, learning, and loving.” It assured me that my creativity thrives on compassion, self-care, and kindness. I was reminded of my journey when I read this tender Maori proverb that gently instructs, “Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.”