Widow’s Support group

My EAP counselor suggested I go to an in person support group at some point.

While I don’t necessarily think we were well matched, I took the advice to heart.  When I asked her how I find one, she was particularly unhelpful.  She basically said to look for one on my own… and they are usually associated with churches.  That was discouraging. But then I saw an advertisement posted for Haven of Northern Virginia in the waiting room of the girls play therapists’ office.  There was a contact email, so I sent an email immediately.  They contacted me and told me about an upcoming widow’s support group – 6 weeks and free! I read about the organization and it sounded pretty perfect.  Unfortunately, the very first meeting was the day of Tim’s New York Celebration of Life, but they let me join anyway.  I was sorry to miss the very first week when everyone shared their stories.  I lined up childcare for the 5 Saturdays.  This past Saturday was my first group meeting.

I had people ask me if it was something I needed, if it was something I’m ready for… at the end of the session, one of the women said she hoped I would return.

This made me smile.  Maybe it was Tim’s rule following tendencies rubbing off on me, or his inclination to trust the experts, but it honestly never occurred to me not to return, or not to simply trust the process.

I don’t think I am going to enjoy it, but I simply recognize it as something I should do.  One of the things that I should do.  If I were my friend, instead of me, I would tell me to do it.

Early on, they pointed to where the group had written down what they want to get out of the 6 weeks, and I was welcome to add anything to the list.  I just started at it. I racked my brain.  I couldn’t answer that question.  The Hermione Granger in me wanted to have an answer. People had written good things.  Overwhelmed, taxes, the holidays… on and on.  All I could think was “grief” but I  couldn’t formulate a thought around that.

With a day to reflect, I think I realize now that this is just one of those things I am doing for me.  I might not enjoy it exactly, but it’s a self-care thing.

Another thing the EAP counselor told me which really baffled me at the time she said it was that I was so busy, but I really needed to take the time to grieve.  And I just kept thinking “what does that mean?!”  She went on to say that she worried that if I didn’t, I would rush into another relationship. Um, no.  That really turned me off.  However, I think it was based on her personal experience with a similar situation.  I just kept thinking at the time, how do I do that?!  How exactly do I grieve?  Do I pencil it in after the kids go to bed? Is there something specific I’m supposed to do?  Grief is my constant companion.

Grief.  It lives inside of me – in my chest, in my throat, in the pit of my stomach.  I’m just plain sad inside, all the time.  Even when I’m happy, I’m sad.  It’s similar to being pregnant in that whatever you do, you have the baby with you, there’s no separating from that.  The grief, the just plain “I miss him so much” of every single moment, it’s always there.

One woman shared something she had read about the fact that you can’t wait for the old you to come back.  It can’t, it won’t – she is gone.  There’s a new you, and you have to learn to accept her, love her.  I think that really resounded with all of us.  In my head, I’m still always telling Tim everything.  My best friend, my soulmate.  The father of the three small humans that I live with. It’s not just the grief that is always with me.  Tim too, is my constant companion.

People are always telling me I need to take care of myself.  That if I don’t, how will I take care of A, R and D?  So attending this group is for me.  I am taking steps to learn how best to handle the kids’ grief, and the many issues that will come up with them, and with being an only parent.  (Another widow online gave me that term, “only parent” rather than “single parent” and I do prefer it.)  Most of the women in this group do not have children, or dependent children, certainly none have children as young as mine.  So in this group the focus will be on grieving as a woman who lost the love of her life.   So I will “lean in” to the process, give myself over to it.  It may not be easy, but I feel confident it’s the right thing to do, it’s what Tim would want me to do.

Most of the time, I grieve as a mother. I grieve their loss, I grieve the loss for them, I even grieve Tim’s loss…when D started walking and he wasn’t there to see it. But making the time every Saturday to go to this group, will be about my own loss. I go through my days, especially at work, pretty numb all the time. I turn off emotion so I can function. I need to function at my job, I need to function as the sole bread-winner, and when I’m not at work I need to function as their mother. I am always in charge as their mother. For an hour and a half on Saturdays for 5 weeks I can let someone else be in charge. They can moderate the group. I will move through the grief however it happens. It will be a time I can shake off the numb and let myself feel.

 

New York Celebration of Life

Packing for a trip… One I’m taking without you. Again.

Driving to your home town. For the first time without you.

The long drive. Doing all the driving myself. The sun shining when we pull in, through the streets of Altamont. Always with it’s welcoming arms for us.

Your name. Tim Gaige. In the newspaper. On the sign outside the American Legion. Your face. In photos on the walls. At the house you grew up in, in the banquet hall.

I feel you everywhere here. I see you in the faces of your family. Your parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Always I see you in their faces: your children. The three tiny people you loved more than life itself. The job you loved the most: being their dad. How proud you always were to bring them here, to bring me here, your hometown. I see us spending Christmas here, going to the park, the Church, late night walks to Stewarts for ice cream after the kids went to bed.

Today was beautiful. The family reunions. People meeting in person for the first time. The kids getting to play together. Your best friends from Virginia and Massachusetts making the pilgrimage, getting to see your hometown for the first time. My siblings first trip to Altamont. Your brother. Your cousins.

It was beautiful and I feel you here. See you around every corner. Hear your voice. See your smile. Hear your laugh.

Two years ago we came this very same weekend to get our dog from his summer trip to Altamont. Our fall trip to your hometown for all the things you loved about fall: the foliage, the apple picking and cider, the apple cider donuts. How you loved to come here in the Fall. It’s easy to believe this is the weekend we might have come if you were with us. If life was normal. If last May never happened.

We are here. You are with us. But not the way I want.

Today was beautiful, but it was overwhelming.

Overwhelming in a way I think it will take me a long time to process.

It was your celebration of life done the Altamont way, and other than you not wanting a fuss made about you, I know you would have loved it.

Thank you for all that you gave me when you brought me here ten years ago, my love.

Telling the girls

In my post “The end” I mentioned:  I had to tell the girls.  I think I will save that for another post.

There is a great deal from this time, from the last 4 months that is turning blurry. Including June 11th. But one thing that is not blurry, and I can’t imagine it ever will be, is A’s reaction.  The way her face contracted, the sound of her voice screeching, “Daddy died?!?!?!”

I came downstairs the second time, after getting the girls down for breakfast, then lying back down.  I was exhausted.  Exhausted in every single, possible way.  And D was still sleeping, so I lay back down.

When I came downstairs again, there were definitely people there.  My sister, my sister-in-law, my father-in-law, my niece.  My brother-in-law and nephew too, but I knew they were asleep in the basement.  I knew my mom and my brother were en route.  They had to be told to come here – to my house – not to go to the hospital.

I felt a sense of urgency.  Who feels a sense of urgency to tell a 4 and almost-6 year old their dad is dead?

I did.  Maybe in order to control the message?  Maybe because I knew I had to tell them before I updated caringbridge, shared it with the world? (Although neither can read or has access to the internet.)  Maybe because I knew it was one of the most difficult things I’d ever do, and I needed to do it, so let’s rip off the bandaid. Who knows?  But I felt a sense of urgency, and I remember communicating to my sister and sister-in-law that I was going to do it now and seeing a mixture of surprise, alarm, and maybe fear in their eyes.  And in my sister’s eyes: a fierce stealing herself to be whatever would be needed.

The girls were in the playroom, so I went in.  The other grown-ups swarmed in.  I know D was there too, but I don’t remember who had him.  I told the girls I needed to talk to them. They stopped what they were doing and we sat on D’s puzzle-piece play mat. R got in my lap.  Chief (my father-in-law) got on the floor, and A got  in his lap.

I asked if A remembered what I said the night before about what the Doctor’s told me for the first time yesterday.  I said what I wanted to talk to them about was why I had to go back up and lay down… why I was so very tired this morning.  Last night, Chief and I got a call and we had to go back to the hospital in the middle of the night… Daddy fought so hard, but the disease and the infection was too much.  Chief and I were with him. We held his hand.  And Daddy died.

A’s response. R,  I think, at the moment, responded to A’s response.  How could she not? R is my emotional child.  She FEELS her way through life.  She burst into tears too, but I’m not even sure she immediately knew why… other than her sister’s crying was so alarming.  So raw.  So out of character.  And she must have felt everyone else’s response, the mood in the room.

The piercing whaling.  And I cried too.  More silently, but the tears streamed down my face.  I pulled every ounce of strength I possibly could and explained that yes, Daddy died.  He won’t be able to come home now, but he lives in our hearts now.  He loved us so very much, each of us. We loved him so much.  So very much.  He will always live in our hearts.   A’s face.  Her voice, “Daddy died?!!?!?” Her anguish in understanding. It will be forever on my heart.

In the moment, I felt a panic from everyone there.  Who knows how to handle that situation?  No one.  No one should ever have to handle it.  Telling a 4 and 5 year old this news.  But I immediately felt that I was in charge.  The other adults were looking to me, even if I was their baby sister or their daughter-in-law, I was the mother of these two whaling children.  I couldn’t “fix” it, but it was my call how to “handle” it.  I felt that so profoundly in that moment, and so many moments since…I am in charge.  I tried to reassure.  I talked about how daddy was in our hearts, but yes.  Daddy died.  It was so very sad.  I was so very sad too.  We love him, we will remember him.  We will hold him in our hearts.

I have subsequently read a pamphlet someone gave me “talking to Children about a loved one’s death”… of course its all about talking about a grandparent, as that’s most children’s first experience with death.  Not my children.  All of their grandparents are still alive.  The pamphlet says to specifically use “died” rather than “passed away” or “gone to sleep” because these terms are confusing to children.  You need to be direct with them to help them understand.  No one had to tell me that.  All I could think while doing it was “I have no idea what I am doing”…”I have no training in how to do this… in how to deliver the worst news of their young lives”…”How do I do this without completely screwing them up?”  But no one had to tell me to say Daddy died.  No other term was accurate.  He did not “pass away” as people love to say to try to make it sound less harsh. It is harsh. He died.

I remember R popping up very quickly with an urgency to tell people, to tell his friends.  I told the girls we would have a big party, we would invite everyone to come and celebrate Daddy’s life.  Because Daddy was awesome.  He  was amazing.  And he deserves to be celebrated.  I struggled that day, and I struggle now – between the past and present tense.  R ran to their hand-me-down pottery barn play table that just 2 months before she had been writing out invites to her 4th birthday party, and wanted to write invites for Daddy’s friends to come to his party.  We had to tell people.  People had to know.  I told her I would tell them.  Not 15 minutes later she approached her grandfather and said “Chief-y, are you sad because your son died?” with sincerity and compassion.  I honestly don’t know how he maintained any composure at all as he tried to answer his 4-year-old granddaughter’s question.  Knowing she just lost her father, knowing she had no idea yet, really, what that truly meant.

When their uncle and cousin came upstairs later, the girls basically SHOUTED at them, “Daddy died.”  It was cringe-worthy.  But what could you do?  It was now their news to share.  Their pain to bear.  Who knows how to process it – at any age, let alone theirs?

In the afternoon, when I thought the girls were having quiet time, resting… I asked my father-in-law to put up Tim’s hammock.  He did, and I snuck outside with the dog… and got this pic.  It was summer.  It was hot.  But cool enough inside in the A/C for pants…

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Before I knew it, I had company…

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That’s my brave face.

You can see in our eyes the tears we shed.  The pain.  But maybe hope too?  Certainly, our own survival.  For better or worse.  Likely the most blatantly unattractive photo of me I’ve every willingly shared.

I posted this photo to Tim’s wall on Facebook with these words:

Before I knew it, I had company. First, Annabelle, we shared our memories of you, each taking turns “it’s a pattern” then Rosie came and joined. She remembered naps in the hammock with you. They wanted to plan what we will do to celebrate your birthday next year. In many ways, I hate that we could not say goodbye. But I am grateful you never had to know you’d be leaving us, because knowing the pain we’d experience to lose you…it would have crushed you. You were my best friend, soulmate, and the best dad imaginable. I know you are always with us. Even if not the way I want. I love you. Sleep well.

Later that day, A started shouting in the den during a show, in front of her aunts, uncle, cousins.  “Daddy is NOT in my heart!  Daddy is gone!  He is not in my heart, he isn’t anywhere, he’s gone.”  I felt paralyzed with how to address that, especially in front of others, who were also of course profoundly uncomfortable.  Then, at night, alone with me brushing teeth before bed she got upset. “Mommy, of course daddy is in my heart!  I love him!  Why did I say that he’s not?  He’s in my heart.  Of course he is!  Why did I say that?”  I told her it was ok, she was simply confused.  It was terribly confusing.

Heading up to bed, R looked at me and said “Mommy!  You didn’t go to the hospital today!?”  Breath catch.  I had to explain again.  “Well yes, R, I didn’t go to the hospital today. [Like I have  each day for the last 26 days of your life.]  I had been going to the hospital to visit daddy.  Because Daddy died, he is no longer there.” Honestly, at that point,  it was a weird day for ME to not have spent it at the hospital.  It was weird for me that I didn’t have to.  It was weird for me that he wasn’t there.

A lot of things I have now read talk about children’s difficulty in understanding the permanence of death.  Other than that one moment, one question from R about me not going to the hospital on Sunday, June 11th, my brilliant daughters seemed to very quickly (or immediately) grasp that.  Grasp the permanence of death.  They have struggled, battled, been challenged, but in some ways, they seemed to traverse through all stages of grief at light speed in that one day from morning to bed time.  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – it was amazing to watch.  Amazing, heart-breaking, awe-inspiring.  Those stages are not linear.  They will live with that grief their entire lives, I know.  And I know that for now, I am in charge – of helping them with it day to day, at consulting and contacting the right resources, at talking about it with D when he’s ready, at steering the message, at supporting, backing away, holding, loving, bearing witness to the pain.

I may be in charge.  But I am following their lead.  I am learning, every day, from them. Without a doubt, he would be/ is so very proud of them.

 

 

Anniversary

No marriage is perfect.

 

I know that.

 

And ours was no exception.

 

Recently, though, I was reminded of the concept of infidelity.  And that in some cultures or circles in the world, and even in the U.S., much as I hate to admit it, its accepted…overlooked… ignored for men to be unfaithful, and not respect women.

 

Being married to Tim, it’s easy to forget that exists.   The way he was, the people he surrounded himself with…

 

Tim and I were both terribly passionate, opinionated, stubborn people.  We argued about everything.  Sometimes, he felt I argued just to argue. Maybe he was right.

The last argument I remember us having was about the car keys.  Or rather, about me lying about them.

 

To explain: the keys to our SUV – which I primarily drive – had remote access keys.  This allows you to start the car, lock, unlock, open the back hatch without getting the key out of your bag, pocket etc., as long as it is close by.  But this feature requires good, working batteries.  Ours were both going, so we bought the new batteries, and I asked Tim to change them – he did it the last time, looked it up on YouTube, etc.  Weeks, then MONTHS went by where he didn’t do it and I was losing my mind.  With three kids in and out of that car all the time, the remote key was soooo missed, having to get it out to start or lock the car was driving me crazy.  And I just didn’t feel like figuring it out to do it myself. I finally got tired of waiting and just stopped at a Battery place near work and had it done.  I didn’t tell him mostly because I thought it would be entertaining to see how long before he noticed.

When he found out, he was livid.  I mean absolutely temper tantrum angry.

His reason – not that I had done this, but that I hadn’t told him.  I had purposely not told him. I had lied.  If I could do that, what else could I lie about, what else could I hide?  “It’s a slippery slope.”

 

Remembering this now I smile.  A sad, ironic smile… but still.

 

This was my marriage.  We fought about silly stuff, but never in a million years could I believe he’d cheat on me.   And now that I have access to his entire personal, physical and digital life, I know that to be true even more.   Nothing I found surprised me.  And he certainly had no time to prepare!

 

He was one of the best. One of the good guys.  His love for me, his remarkable, unwavering moral compass. His desire for the world to be a better place for his children. His desire for equality and social justice.

 

Yes, I was robbed of the life I planned.  But I know I am also in a way, one of the lucky ones.

 

My life with him was too short, but what an honor to be his wife.

 

Wherever you are, my love, Happy Anniversary.  I love you.

 

Time

Time marches on.  It’s so hard to believe.  Tim used to make so much fun of me for my obsession with dates.  I’d always remember dates, birth dates, anniversaries, compare year after year, put significance in dates… when it was 12:23, I’d say it was my birthday in time… point out my sister’s birthday in time too.  He thought it was crazy, over-the-top. Mostly, I think he just liked to tease me about it.

At his bedside on June 11th, I promised I wouldn’t make a big deal out of the date, because he wouldn’t want me to. I’ve mostly kept to this.  I noticed 7/11… partially because it is his mother’s birthday, and because it was the date of the blood drive my company had in his name.  I largely let 8/11 go by unrecognized.  Mainly because I was packing for the beach. I didn’t acknowledge 9/11 in a big way other than to reflect on 9/11/2001.

But today I gave blood.  Which means it was 2 months or 8 weeks since the last time I gave blood.. the drive that was  in his name. The drive that was a month after he died. 3 months ago, my Tim breathed his last breaths on this earth.  It’s hard to avoid all that.  So I didn’t really try.  One of his friends told me we have to mark the passing of time.  Like it or not, I do.

This weekend we will celebrate what would have been my and Tim’s 7th wedding anniversary.  I have two big events planned – the dedication of a bench at the Vineyard where we were married and the planting of a tree in a nearby park that we liked and was where we took our family photos since moving to Fairfax.  It might be a lot.  But I wanted to fill the time… so I can’t wallow.  I look forward to this weekend and am grateful for all those who plan to join us!

It’s just so hard to believe.  As recently as early May, Tim was asking me what I might want to do for our anniversary this year…that seems like yesterday, and it also seems a lifetime ago.  Which I guess it was.

I can’t stop time, I can’t slow it down. I simply have to live in the present.  Breathe, survive the present.  Survive with my constant companion, Grief.  Try to recognize the wonderful moments with my little ones as they come.

Try to make a difference.

Any way that I can.

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The hospital time… “Love is watching someone die”

I spent every single day from May 17th through June 10-11th at Fairfax Inova hospital.  25 long, full days, in the cardiovascular ICU.

For the most part, I am glad that most people did not see him then.  He would not want anyone to see him like that.  While he wouldn’t have wanted me to see him that way either, I know he wanted me there. He made that clear in our last moments talking together.  And I also know, because I would have wanted him there for me. When I was in the hospital for all three deliveries, I insisted on him staying there with me throughout… even when we had another child or children at home for whom we needed to get childcare.

So my goal is to spend some time writing about our hospital time.  Using my trusty notebook that I scribbled away in every day while I was there.  It was 25 days.  It was a lifetime, and it was also the blink of an eye. I’m hoping I can do the time justice for the kids to read about later.  More to come… these may come in time, interspersed with some updates on the now.

This Deathcab for Cutie song was brought to my attention by an online widow’s group.  It’s very powerful to me.   Very close to home.  I pretty much lived it.

“What Sarah Said”
And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time
As I stared at my shoes in the ICU that reeked of piss and 409
And I rationed my breaths as I said to myself that I’d already taken too much today
As each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther away from me
Away from me

Amongst the vending machines and year-old magazines in a place where we only say goodbye
It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds
But I knew that you were a truth I would rather lose than to have never lain beside at all
And I looked around at all the eyes on the ground as the TV entertained itself

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news
And then the nurse comes round and everyone will lift their heads
But I’m thinking of what Sarah said that “Love is watching someone die”

So who’s going to watch you die?..

 

What he didn’t know

The ultimate silver lining is what Tim did not know.

There are many many times for me, when how completely unprepared for this we were is crippling.  Emotionally, and also practically. There is an incredible amount of paperwork that comes with death.  I am not through it.  I’m probably not even close.  I’ll save that for another post.

When I was in the hospital from May 16th to June 11th, there were many times when I pleaded with him: If this is it.. if this is the end… just sit up and talk to me one. last. time. Please. Let me hear your voice again, let me tell you…

But that plea was entirely selfish.  I know that, and I even knew it then.

If he had woken enough to talk to me when he was hooked up to all of those life support machines, he would have been so afraid.  He would have had to face the possibility that he would die.  He would have had to think about all the things that he would miss.  He would have realized that…

  • he would not see D’s first birthday
  • he would not see A’s patriotic performance or her last day of Kindergarten
  • he would not see R’s 2 end of the year recitals
  • he would not see his children again
  • he would miss so many firsts, so many lasts, graduations, dances, proms, recitals, GAMES, meets, performances, back-to-school nights, donuts with dads, Watch DOGS days, dates, anniversaries, weddings, grandchildren/new babies, our retirement plans…

He would realize that I would have to live this life we built together, without him.

The knowledge of his impending loss, of our loss… it would have shattered him.

 

Tim did not even know he had cancer.  It was a week in the hospital before I found out.  He knew he had no white blood cells.  He knew he had pneumonia.  But people recover from pneumonia all the time…. But he hadn’t reached out to his medical family members with questions.  Which tells me he had no clue how bad things were.  He was asking me about his phone charger, and whether I had brought a book.

When I had to accept that it was over, I briefly thought it would have been better if it had just happened that first terrifying night, so he wouldn’t have had to go through so much – all the transfusions, surgeries, machines, indignities.  Certainly it would have been better for him.  Maybe for me too when you consider the medical bills, etc….  But I quickly realized, no – I needed that time.  That time that he fought so hard, every day – it was his last gift to me.  Had he not been so young, strong, and healthy, we would not have had that time.  Had he not kept himself so healthy, his heart and lungs would not have survived as long, even on ECMO.  I needed that time to really understand what was happening, to process, to pour out all my love to him, to adjust, to be ready to hear those words when then came “Tim is dying”, to realize I could survive it.  Somehow, I will survive it.

It is the ultimate silver ling.  It is a comfort to me, and I hope to others who loved him, all the things he did not know.