February is anniversary month, when loss rises like nausea, climbing and swelling until the day itself, February 21. This is the day my first husband Brett died of a brain tumor, a medulloblastoma. He was witty, green-eyed, and just shy of his fortieth birthday. I was 37, and our twins, well, they were less than three years of age. Out daughter, Rebecca, and son, Casey, did not inherit Brett’s green eyes, but they do share his nose, innate kindness, and love of ATS: All Things Sweet.
Ours is a not a recent loss. Brett died twelve years ago. That’s nearly five lifespans for the twins, who are coming up on their fifteenth birthdays this spring.
What pained me in the fresh years of grief is different today. Mainly, I am no longer afraid of the future. I assure you this isn’t because I ascribe to the falsified mindset: “The worst has happened; you’ll be spared.” That’s plain hooey. Anyone with real lived experience (read: the people who have faced adversity and loss of any kind) know that awful things can happen at any juncture. Suffering once doesn’t spare you suffering in the future. When the losses do occur—even the multitude of non-death losses—it’s human nature to feel a bit unmoored. Acting otherwise doesn’t mitigate the events. Nor does living in mortal fear of bad things happening cause them to actually happen.
Pain is part of the human experience. Twelve years after Brett’s death, I understand and appreciate this truism with new meaning. There’s a depth to it now, and contrary to what you might expect, shimmers of light can be felt at the rawest of moments, turning black to gray. This, I believe, is where we ought to focus our energies, in the gray, fluid space between life at its worst and life at its best.
I can even recognize the gray looking back upon earlier times.
From Both Sides Now
“And When Mommy Came Back”
NAKED JOY. That is what it felt like to walk into the apartment and hear my children scream “Mama,” running toward me as if the world was born again. They would grab at my thighs, wanting to be picked up, and for a moment—as long as I could hold them close against my chest—we stayed in a pure embrace. Such greetings were stripped bare, free from all burden: nothing more than a mother and her children loving fully, drawing nourishment from the cup of life.
Fits and starts. That’s how Casey and Rebecca dealt with Brett’s death. One minute they were playing happily on the living room rug, moments later their sunny moods darkened and they became clingy and frightened. They needed to know my whereabouts at all times, and this I understood. Losing their father cracked open their sense of safety in the world. Some days the whining never seemed to end, and it took massive restraining on my part not to lock myself in the bedroom and throw my own tantrum. We were all entitled to pitch fits, yet someone, me, had to be in control.
…The clean truth. In manageable doses. That was what they deserved. “Yes, Mommy is sad because she misses Daddy,” I’d tell them.
“And when Mommy is sad she sometimes cries.” No child likes to see her mother cry, but for my children, stable ground shifted. Panic spread across their faces and they rushed at me with all the force their tiny bodies contained. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” Which made them cry, hard. I remember these moments not because I cried often, but because I cried very little around them.
It’s so clear to me now how fear and comfort, joy and sorrow, young and old, past and present, co-exist. This is what it means to be in the gray: to find ways to live amid these central paradoxes.
Embracing the gray of both sides now is the biggest lesson I have learned from my husband’s death. It’s the one I carry with me when I try to quell my daughter’s ever-present anxiety about feeling safe and assured in the world. She still has a primal need to know my whereabouts at all times, and panics at the idea of anything happening to me. Finally, she has begun to express her fears and is getting help.
The lesson of both sides now is also the one I carry when I think about my second husband Steve Saunders, a man who lost his first wife to pancreatic cancer while parenting two teenage boys. His wife died in 2003, the year before Brett.
Steve and I have been married nearly eight years. I met him a year after the twins and I moved to Denver to re-start our lives. The challenges of blending families under these circumstances are real. There’s loss on both sides—for him and his boys, for me and my twins. But in spite of our individual pasts, we found something to root us in the present. It’s called love. And that, too, is real and sturdy. Love is the better part of loss and pain. Love makes fear manageable and is what allows us to re-remember pleasing memories, which we must do in order to hold our losses close without allowing them to dominate the present. Love is what opens us to hope.
In the prophetic words of Joni Mitchell, “Well something’s lost but something’s gained.”
Nancy Sharp is the author of the bestselling memoir Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, winner of eight book honors, including Books For A Better Life. As a keynote speaker and Bold Living coach, she works with groups nationwide about loss and moving forward. Learn more at www.NancySharp.net.