Friday, July 18, 2014

How to go to sleep. A primer.

It’s hard to sleep when the one you love isn’t there. You already know that, from business trips and the occasional separate vacation. Now imagine they will never sleep by your side again. You will never hear them breathing. You will never nudge them to make the stop snoring. You will never again be able to wake them when you had a bad dream and know you don’t even have to ask for them to hold you. None of these will even be faint options, the poor choice to be regretted later. They are beyond your reach.

Imagine that.

So the question naturally arises, how do you go to sleep without them? Here, in the first of a series of  occasional instructional farcical posts, are directions. 

How to go to sleep when the one you love is dead.
  1. At first you may find sleep is your only ally. Your fatigue from the long sick nights finally has a chance to be appeased. Sleep becomes the place where you can hide and pretend none of this is happening. Like a child, you burrow into your covers and put pillows all around you, a fort against the pain of the outside world. This won’t last so enjoy it while you can.
  2. The laws of physics shift and, while you know it’s impossible, the nights become unbearably long and impossibly quiet. Perhaps the planet has tilted in some new way. You will wonder if you have gone deaf or if the voices in your head have become so loud you can hear nothing else. So you do everything you can to delay the moment when you turn out the light and you are alone in the dark.
  3. Avoidance is an excellent tool. Do laundry. Do dishes. Watch shows on tv at which you previously scoffed. Go for a walk. Go out with a friend. Do everything you can to avoid that still, silent moment when the light clicks off and all you can see is nothing.
  4. The time will come when you need to go to sleep. Some of you may choose to avoid your shared bed. That’s fine. Some will choose to remain there. That’s fine, too.
  5. Surround yourself with the things you love, that which has given comfort in the past. Your books, your journal, your tv remote. Now may be the time to find your old teddy bear and hold her as close as you can. While none of these will help, they are at least cardboard arms against the dark.
  6. Build your fort. Pillows at your side to remind you of the warmth of your love when they lay beside you. Blankets around you, swaddling as if you are being held. Whatever you need to know you are safe. Or as safe as you can be without them there.
  7. Avoid the dark until your eyes are so sandy they hurt. Then.
  8. Be brave. Turn out the light. This is your second bravest moment of the day, exceeded only by getting out of bed in the morning. Notice the shifting shadows and the soft sounds. Cry if you need to, your eyes shut tightly against the night. Talk to your beloved and beg them to be there, even if you can’t hear them answer. You don’t know for sure that they can’t hear you.
  9. Finally, after many gasping breaths, starts and stops, the light turned on and then off again, lie back. Breath. Look into the night because the night has no terrors in it now. You have already survived the worst.
  10. And wait. Eventually sleep may come. Or not.
  11. In the morning avoid the mirror. You know the smudges under your eyes already, they have become your flags of honor. Go through the day. And then finally, when it is late enough, try again.

(16 weeks. I would stop time if I could. I don’t know how. I would do anything to have you here and whole again.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 11, 2014

Cognitive dissonance; healing and betrayal

I've written before about the complexity of grief. About its twistiness, its odd intersections, its self-contradictory nature. I am living in a state of cognitive dissonance. Because grief is what it is and I am who I am, I find the nature of the dissonance changes almost daily. Some days I'm torn up because I didn't do something while he was still here, other days it's because I forgot something - do I remember the shape of his hand? It changes.

These days, most of the dissonance comes from the inescapable fact that parts of me are starting to heal. This isn't to say I won't always miss Kevin, won't always grieve him - I will - but parts of me are beginning to scab over. I am no longer always an open wound. Much of the time I feel raw and exposed, but I am aware that I've laughed. I've thought about the future in some limited way. I have had days where I didn't cry.

I can hear some of you cheering, telling me this is great. And it is. It is also beyond comprehension, cruel, an act of betrayal. Just writing it down feels like betrayal. Part of me knows without any hesitation that healing is betraying him. betraying my love for him. That part of me wants to remain suspended in this pain, in this grief, because it's a connection to him. That part of me states, quite loudly, that if I move forward, if I let the wounds crust over, I am choosing to forget him and betraying the love we have for each other (ignore the tense issues. I prefer present tense for this stuff). That part is loud, powerful and angry.

Other parts of me know differently. They tell me that I can remain connected to him, even if I heal. That the love between us is so strong that nothing can end it, not even death. That, frankly, I will never stop missing him, but it is okay to move forward (not on, never on) and it is, after all, what he would want. Wants.

These parts battle it out every day. In some ways it's interesting, stepping back and watching them fight, but mostly it's just tiring.

I know healing takes time. I know I will eventually not be this sad all the time and that this is a good thing. I know that living my life fully is the best way I can honor Kevin and it is what he wants. I know these things. Equally, I know that I have been through something traumatic and any change is frightening now. Suspension is easier, in some ways, than movement. And lastly, I know that I will change. That my feelings will ease, that I will eventually scar over and become someone new. Similar but not the same.

I just hope that new Laura never forgets this one, that she understands that healing is not betrayal, that she can be tender with us both.

(15 weeks. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 4, 2014

Time is a liar

Happy fourth of July. Last year Kevin and I spent this holiday with friends at their cookout. As we were walking home we held hands and talked about how coming to Kansas City was the right move. I still think it was the right move, though everything is different now.

Today marks 14 weeks since Kevin died. 14 weeks is both a long time and nothing.

A 14 week old fetus is about the size of a nectarine.

At 14 weeks I am beginning to really understand that he is gone. The pain is a deep, grinding thing. It's no longer constant razor blades, but it's more endemic, more inescapable. The illusions are thinner now. In some ways, I am sadder now than I was 6 or 10 weeks ago. I have begun to drift towards the middle of our bed. I wake up and move back over, wanting to leave room for him.

14 weeks into a college term, everyone is panicked about finals. 14 weeks into elementary school the kids are dreaming of their December break. It's cold enough they need to wear coats outside at recess.

At 14 weeks I find I am more able to function, though I am still utterly exhausted. I am cooking occasionally. I spend time with friends. I'm thinking about work again. I still get tired easily and have very little tolerance for crowds or even long conversations. I am still deeply internal. I am still in some amount of stasis, though I know holding still won't bring him back.

14 weeks into a new job you are starting to get your bearings, but you still worry that you'll offend your new work friends or forget some vital piece of HR knowledge.

14 weeks into grief, I still cry almost every day. I might skip a day here or there, but no longer than that. I still feel the lack of him every night and in every decision. I rarely laugh. I don't want to be forced into it, I'm not ready yet. Funny how crying and laughing use most of the same muscles.

14 weeks is just over a quarter of year. It's a fraction of a lifetime. It seems like such a long time. It seems like such a short time. 

I'm beginning to get hints from a few friends that I should decide to feel better. Decide to have a good time. Decide to move on. Grief doesn't work like that. Time is a liar when you're mourning the  love of your life. It's hard to understand both how little time and how long it has been if you haven't gone through something like this. It may even be hard to remember what it was life, if it was long enough ago.

Time has always been an elastic and confusing thing; when we're happy it moves so quickly and when we're sad or bored it becomes interminable. Our perception of time turns us into liars and the lost.

I can't believe it's been 14 weeks since I last kissed him, it doesn't feel that long. I can't believe it's been only 14 weeks since I kissed him.

I think the Victorians had it right, that it takes a good long year to be ready to be in the world again. Or maybe it doesn't. I won't know until I know. And until then, please remember that your measure of time and mine are very different right now. I am living without. Are you? If not, then please be patient and wait for me to measure my life in minutes again, instead of breaths, absence and growing distance from the one I love.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Grief has turned me into a four year old

Have you ever seen that little kid in the supermarket having a full on tantrum? Crying, stomping, shouting, declaring that they don't wanna? Yeah. That's me these days, though I usually have my tantrums in private.

Grief has turned me into a screaming four year old. My world has changed in ways I don't understand, nor do I want to understand it. I don't like. I. Do. Not. Like. It. I want it the way I want it and that just isn't going to happen.

I'm in an anonymous motel in Ohio on my way back to Kansas City from Boston. I got here and more than anything else wanted to call Kevin, to let him know I am safe and sound, stopped for the night. This was the first time I've been on a road trip, stopped in a motel and he wasn't there for me to call. As soon as I realized this I started sobbing. Full-on, howling, contorted face sobbing. I cry like this fairly often, and often I find myself thinking I don't want this! I want my old life back!

These are not unreasonable things to think; my old life was one of love and companionship. This new life is indescribably lonely and often indescribably painful. But it's the life I have. I am still blessed with friends and family, but it's not what it was. It isn't Kevin. I miss him. I want him back. And that can't happen the way I want.

Sometimes I can see a path through this pain and loss, a way to be okay. Other times? I have tantrums. I am four years old. I howl because I want what I cannot have and my heart is broken.

So it is.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Happy birthday sweetheart. An open letter

Today is Kevin's 56th birthday. I suppose some would suggest I should say "It would have been his 56th birthday," but I disagree. It still is the 56th anniversary of his birth. He isn't here bodily to celebrate it, but I am. His kids are. Others who love him are. So, it is his 56th birthday.

This is the first Kevin's birthday that we are observing without him. Later on today his kids and I are going to grill some salmon and drink a toast, reminding ourselves and the world that he is loved. Death doesn't stop love. The observance will hurt, I'm sure. But that's okay. That won't stop the love either. Frankly, I'm grateful for the pain because it means the love is still that strong.

A few weeks after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, one of the medical personnel asked Kevin why he was so intent on chemo, even knowing the cancer was advanced and treatment would be trying. He wryly replied, "I'm 55 years old. I'd like to make 56." I remember thinking, and possibly even saying, "Honey, that's only a few months away. You'll make it."

I was wrong.

Today is not only Kevin's 56th birthday, it marks three months to the day since he died. It's been a hard three months. That's an understatement. But as much as I have tried, I can't stop time. I can't undo what has happened. So I grieve and I live.  I know he wants me to keep going, so I do.

I write to Kevin every day, often several times a day, so in lieu of a gift or a card, here is a letter to my husband, on this, his 56th birthday. You can read it in his stead. Thanks.

Dear Kevin,

I'm not sure what else to say. Dear, beloved Kevin. My love, my heart. I miss you, but you know that. I love you, but you know that, too.

Today is your birthday. Do you remember, last year, when we celebrated by grilling steaks, drinking a bottle of wine and sitting on the porch until the bugs were too bad to bear? I think we talked about the year that had passed, how much had changed. Changing jobs, moving from Boston to KC, getting married. You know, little things like that. 

Little did we know what was coming. Talk about change.

I don't want to dwell on it. It sucked. It was unfair and brutal. You know that, too. And I write to you enough about how much I miss you, how much I hate what has happened.

Here is what I want to say, on your 56th birthday. 

I am so glad you were born. I am so glad, so grateful that you had your mom, your sister, your grandparents, all of those people who helped you became the man I love. I am so glad your kids are the amazing people they are. I am so glad you and I had 15 really good years together and even those last few desperate months. Even those months had elements of good, because we were together, because it only underscored the love.

Kevin, if someone were to travel back in time and tell me that this relationship would eventually lead to the worst pain and grief I could imagine and beyond, I would still say yes. 
I would still lean against you at that conference all those years ago. 
I would still make the hard decision to learn how to be a stepmother and make mistake after mistake after mistake and fear I was getting it all wrong
I would still love you fiercely, with every iota of my being, even knowing I would have to watch you feel pain, watch you die and be unable to stop it, even knowing I would be left behind to manage without you.

I do not regret any moment of us. You are the best thing that could have happened to me and you did.

Thank you. I love you. You are still the star in my sky, the voice I long for, the touch I crave. Happy birthday, sweetheart. I'm so glad you came into this world. 


(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, June 23, 2014

First person singular

The word "widow" is derived from Old English widewe which in turn is derived from an Indo-European root meaning ‘be empty’; it is related to Sanskrit vidh ‘be destitute,’ Latin viduus ‘bereft, widowed,’ and Hebrew alem 'unable to speak.'

I am all of these things . Empty. Emotionally destitute. Bereft. Unable to speak. Sometimes I can't string a sentence together. And sometimes I teeter towards functional if not yet okay.

The root of widow that I think is missing is "singular." I used to be part of something that was greater than the sum of my parts. Now I am less than half. In becoming less than half, in becoming singular, I have lost more than just my partner. I have lost knowledge, social standing and really an entire worldview.

I have lost much of my knowledge of the world. Part of being in a couple long term is mind-sharing. Not in the Vulcan mindmeld kind of way, but in the distributed knowledge kind of way. Kevin and I each took over different parts of our lives and, in so doing, we each became both more and less competent. Kevin took over electronics; I have no idea how our stereo, television or network are assembled. I used to know how to do those things. I took over cooking; Kevin was at one time a decent cook but was happy to delegate food and shopping to me.

It's more than just losing half my mind (some days I think I have lost all of my mind). It's a deeper kind of singularity that has significant social ramifications. The things we used to do together I now do alone. I've always been comfortable with being alone, but it was a choice; I'd get lunch by myself because I liked the experience. Now if I eat out it will be, by default, alone, unless I find someone to come with me. Sometimes this is a relief. If I'm having one of the days where I am alem, unable to speak, it's easier to be alone. But I don't like that it's now my default. What's more, this isn't a culture that is comfort with single (or singular!) people. I sometimes get crummy seats in restaurants because the nice tables are reserved for at least couples; more people equals more money equals a bigger tip. I sometimes am overlooked in social event planning because I throw the numbers off. It feels like I am an awkward extra.

And it's more than losing knowledge and social role. When we were together, up until the instant he died, we were a team. We solved problems together. We helped each other. We took care of each other. My worldview was based in this knowledge, that he would always have my back. Now he may still have my back, but it's from a much greater distance. I no longer have a sense of safety and of home in this world. I am living in a new land and my viewpoint is that of stranger, that of a woman navigating alone.

I am no longer part of a "we" I am now I an "I." First person singular.

I miss Kevin with an intensity that is only matched by my love for him and by my sorrow. I miss his touch, his voice, his mind, his presence, his everything. And I have no choice but to be present with first person singular. To do anything else would both be self-destructive and further remove Kevin from this world in his existence through me, which I will not do.

But still...
Unable to speak.

(c) 2014 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Memorial (after)

Yesterday was the last official memorial for Kevin, at least for some time. It was very, very hard. It was appropriate, celebratory, sad and what I think most people needed.

I don't yet know how I feel about it for myself, but I'm glad it's done. I'm glad it helped people, most especially Kevin's kids. I'm glad I got to hear the stories. I'm glad everyone got to remember him together and comfort each other. I expect that, eventually, I will look back at it as powerful, meaningful and part of my healing process, but for now...

I am exhausted. Not physically so much as emotionally. I feel numb, the way a wound does before it really starts to hurt.

I am grateful to everyone who participated in any way. Speakers, listeners, people who schlepped stuff, everyone.

I feel so much love because, if I have learned nothing else, we must love one another as much as we can while we can.

Mostly I miss Kevin. I hope he was there in some way, embarrassed, proud, glad he was so well loved.

Below are my remarks, in case you want to read them. Be well. Love one another.

June 21, 2014

Let me start with gratitude.

First, I am grateful for everyone involved in making this event possible. Speakers, musicians, cooks, technical support, everyone who helped with set up and clean up. Each and every one of you have come to remember and celebrate Kevin. Thank you for being here. From the moment Kevin was diagnosed we were held by your collective love. Whether you sent a card, a good wish, a donation or something else, we needed all of it. His family and I continue to need your good thoughts and presence. The love of our extended family and communities is helping. Thank you.

Second, I am grateful to those who are closest to Kevin, in particular his kids, for their input and creativity in planning this event.

And third, most importantly, I am grateful for Kevin's life. For everything he taught me and each of you about the world. About story. About creativity. About patience, swimming, cycling, music, dancing, laughing, listening, failure and success. I am most grateful for everything he taught me about love. Today is a reflection of his capacity for love. Boy can that man love.

As we've heard today, Kevin was many things to many people. He was my heart. I could tell you stories about our life together, but those are for quieter times, more private moments. I am not yet ready to gives those memories to the world. I will say that he was my partner in just about every action. He was my friend, my sounding board, my lover, my ongoing challenge, my beloved, my foundation, my soul mate. He still is. With all of his ability, flaws and wonder, in his entirety, he still is.

Which brings me to the other thing I want to say. Today is not necessarily about closure and endings, but continuation. Kevin's earthly body may not longer be here but he continues. That isn't to say I am not eviscerated by his loss, but I know even in my deepest, darkest moments, he is not forgotten, not lost, not gone. Regardless of your feelings about an afterlife - an afterlife that Kevin believed in - he continues. His radiance and his energy are not gone because energy is never lost. It is no mistake that we are gathered on the solstice, the longest and brightest day of the year. A light as bright as Kevin's forces shadows from their hiding places and illuminates possibility all around. That light continues. He continues when we care for each other. He continues when we listen to each other. He continues when we remember him wherever we are in the world and, because of that, I know he will never be truly gone from the world, from my heart or from yours. We each carry his light.

I cannot describe to you the pain and emptiness I experience every day because of his death. But I take solace in his continuation. In the light I see in each of you. Thank you for joining us today. Thank you for celebrating that great light in the world, the light that continues in each of us, thank you for remembering and sharing your father, your brother, your uncle, your friend, my beloved, Kevin Michael Brooks.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, June 20, 2014

Memorial (before)

Tomorrow is Kevin's Boston memorial.

I'm not sure what else to write here, because that one sentence is an abomination. It makes no sense.

A memorial? For Kevin? How can he not be here on this earth by my side holding my hand? How can this much time have gone by already? How can I be breathing?

Intellectually I understand that this is important. I understand that this gives our extended communities a chance to come together and remember him. I understand that this is part of the ritual when someone dies. And yes, I know he is gone. But I am unable to fathom a world, my world, without him in it. I am unable to understand my continuing life without him in it. I know it will come with time. I just don't want it.

I am still enraged and desolated by his death. So the thought of spending time admitting he is gone... well. That's hard.

Tomorrow I will do my best to be kind. To be gracious. To accept all the love and support and genuine emotion offered. I will set aside the part of me that wants to clasp her hands over her ears and run away screaming. I will set aside the part of me that is nothing more than a husk. I will set aside the part of me that holds onto a slim hope that this is a bad dream, for all that I know it is not, it is my life now.

I will be present as we remember and celebrate the love of my life.

And later, well... that's another story.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, June 13, 2014


Photo courtesy of dominik99
I've never been one to assume that things are simple. Everything in our lives is potentially fraught with complexity and complexity muddles everything. Relationships are complex. Emotions are complex. It's nice when we can simplify, but right now I'm living in the land of grief which is a highly complex landscape full of pitfalls and glimpses of light and razor blades and silk ribbons.

Every time I think I have a small handle on grief, I realize I am wrong. This is without a doubt the most complex emotion I have ever experienced, the most complex state of being. It's not one thing, never the same thing moment-to-moment though parts are becoming familiar.

Because of this complexity I brace myself whenever I'm asked "How are you?" by even the most loving of questioners. I know they truly want to know, want to hear my response but there is no simple answer.

How am I?

  • I got up today. I'm not still in bed. Does that mean that I'm doing better? Does that mean I'm healing? And if I'm healing, does that mean I'm forgetting him or betraying the depth of our love?
  • I sobbed last night until I had no voice left. My throat still hurts. Does that mean I'm worse? Does it mean I experienced badly needed catharsis?
  • Today is eleven weeks since the love of my life died, 20 weeks since he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Yet I'm up, moving around, might even have smiled today. Does that mean I'm callous?
  • I have maybe 40 years in front of me and I'm not really looking forward to it, don't see much happiness on my path. Does that mean I'm depressed?
I'm grieving. And grief contains such a panoply of emotions, I don't even know how to describe it. In the same moment I'm aware of both the hollowness in my gut and chest, that place where happiness used to live, and the small satisfaction of finishing some task or another. I'm aware that I could start crying at any moment because he isn't here yet I can see the utter beauty of the light-dappled leaves. I am full of creeping dread at the thought of life without him and yet I'm hoping to find some interesting work soon. And so on. It's a state of cognitive dissonance that has no relief, at least not yet.

This doesn't mean I don't want you to ask "How are you?" but it does mean there is no easy answer. It means I am unpredictable in new and unsettling ways. It means things are complex, with no simple resolution. Yes, life is complex, but not typically like this. So please be patient. It may take me a while to answer. 

(Eleven weeks. I love you. I miss you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Alone in the middle of a crowd

The day before yesterday was Kevin's Kansas City memorial. I can't say it was lovely, because I am not willing to call anything about his death lovely, but it was meaningful and I guess that's what we want memorials to be. I am grateful to those who came and glad we could share this time celebrating him.

Several people spoke of him, spoke beautifully with such love and respect. I could barely hold myself together, speaking briefly at the beginning and end. And again, I guess that's part of what memorials are supposed to be, or at least often are; the opportunity for the bereaved to display the wound and maybe be less alone in their segmented state.

I was surrounded by people who love Kevin and, by extension or by good luck, love me too. And I have never felt so alone. Maybe that's not true, I have felt just as alone, but I don't think I have ever felt more alone. Because I was.

Grief is an incredibly isolating experience. I am mourning my beloved, my soulmate, the person I love most in the world. No one knows exactly how I am feeling, for all that this is a common, miserable, everyday experience. Likewise, Kevin's kids are mourning the loss of their dad. No one knows exactly how they are feeling, for all that this is a common, miserable, everyday experience. And the same applies to his family, his friends, his communities. We all are experiencing something common and utterly unique, utterly personal.

Grief isolates us. It brings out the animal in us, the part that writhes and howls and does all manner of socially unacceptable things. It is a pain that cannot be bourn alone, yet can only be bourn alone. I do not want to share the most private moments of my grief with anyone. The raging, sickening cries are mine and mine alone.

There are so many hard parts to this. One of the hardest has been being amongst others, especially others who love him. We struggle to connect and yet there is often a gulf. Sometimes we manage to bridge it, but we each carry our own loss inside, where it cannot truly be seen.

The best we can do is make allowances for one another. To remember that we all are wounded, howling animals sometimes. To throw away the social conventions that try to define grief and simply accept each other, alone even in the same room. Maybe we can find companionship in our isolation. I don't know.

All I know is my grief holds me apart even when I look like I am with you. I am alone in the midst of the crowd because the one who held me in this world is gone. I hope, eventually, to be able to meet you on the bridge and hold your hand as we cross into the unknown.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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