Recent Parkland and Sandy Hook Suicides Prove: There is No Timeline for Grief

When I’m not playing the role of the Badass Widow, I am a lawyer for network news. That means I read more than my fair share about death. So much so that I’m largely desensitized to it at this point, as I’m sure many of you are, too. Even working on reports about devastated widows don’t get to me anymore. But.

This week, I was cut down to the bone by reports about the suicides of two student survivors of last year’s high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, and the suicide of the 49 year-old father of a six-year old girl who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Those deaths impacted me because, as a widow whose husband died suddenly, ripping apart the life we had imagined for ourselves, I totally understand how those three people could have died by suicide. It really hit home, with crushing sadness for the three people who were suffering so much that they saw no other way but to kill themselves, and equal sadness for the grieving families they left behind.

The mission of my blog is to speak openly and honestly about grief; to take grief out from behind the black curtain, and make it a socially acceptable topic of conversation; to help people who are grieving understand that they’re not alone; and to help people whose loved ones are grieving by providing some insight into what grief is really like. So, with that mission in mind, I’m going to share more of my personal grief journey with you now. I’ve made the following admission to some very close family and friends, and now I’m going to admit it to you, because speaking honestly about grief is the only way to effectuate change. Here it is: there is no doubt in my mind that, if it were not for my daughter and my three stepchildren, I definitely would have died by suicide after my husband’s death. Definitely.

In the early days after his heart attack, the pain was so intense and so unbearable that I would often fantasize about driving my car at 100 mph into the back of a Mack truck. I never would have actually done it, because, when he died, I instinctively went into protective mama bear mode and focused on my children. That focus quite literally kept me alive. Without them as my focus, I could see no reason to keep moving forward on this earthly plane. When he died, it seemed as though my future died with him. I could barely figure out how to make it through the day, much less envision a lifetime without him.

We, as a society, need to talk more honestly and openly about grief. There is no shame in grief. And there is no timeline for grief. After the wake and the burial, the real grieving begins. The first year after his death was a complete blur: my brain shut off, and I went into protective mode. The second year was when the reality of my loss really hit: this is what my life is now. My life no longer includes Jimmy. As I’m now nearing the third anniversary of his death, I’m in a much stronger place, and I do see a very happy future for myself. But it took a helluva long time to get here – and, for all I know, another grief trigger will happen tomorrow or the next day.

If you know someone who is grieving, they don’t need your flowers or your Mass cards nearly as much as they need your continuing support over the coming days, weeks, and years. Put the death anniversary, the birthday of the person who died and other important dates on your calendar, repeating annually, and send a note saying you’re thinking of them on those days. Check in on your grieving friend often. Ask how they are doing today. Recommend therapy and support groups. Talk about the person who died. Tell funny stories about them. Re-live favorite memories. Don’t worry, you’re not reminding us that our person died; you’re letting us know that you remember that our person lived!

Grief fucking sucks. And it doesn’t have a timeline. It doesn’t go away in the one year since Parkland. And it doesn’t go away in the almost 7 years since Sandy Hook. Everyone grieves at a different pace and in a different way. Let’s all keep a watchful eye on the grieving folks around us, and may the souls of Jeremy Richman, Sydney Aiello and the unnamed Parkland student rest in peace.

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Do you see the butterflies circling my head?

Maybe you’re curious about why my blog is papered with butterflies.

My husband died in the middle of April 2016, and, by May 1st, my stepson had to choose which college to attend, just two weeks after his father’s death.

Three different times during our visit to several colleges upstate, my then two year-old daughter looked around and said, “Butterflies, butterflies!”‘ We were in hotel rooms or public restrooms when it happened, so I was confused, wondering what she could be mistaking for a butterfly. So, when we got home from that trip, I Googled “what does it mean when a child sees butterflies?” And I found this:

“The caterpillar dies so the butterfly could be born. And, yet, the caterpillar lives in the butterfly and they are but one. So, when I die, it will be that I have been transformed from the caterpillar of earth to the butterfly of the universe.” – John Harricharan

Several weeks later, at Trader Joe’s, my daughter pointed toward the plain white ceiling and said “Butterflies, butterflies!” I asked her where she saw butterflies, and she pointed to the ceiling and said it again. That was the first time since our college trip that she had seen the butterflies again.

Then, in June of that same year, I took the kids on a road trip to Philly to keep their minds off of the fact that it was their first Father’s Day without their father. We saw the Riverdance at the Academy of Music, had a picnic in Rittenhouse Square, visited the Liberty Bell, went to the Franklin Institute, wandered around the tree-lined streets with cute shops, and ate at some fabulous restaurants. And then, as we were getting ready to leave the apartment that I had rented for the weekend, I was getting my daughter dressed, and she suddenly had a far away look in her eyes, staring up at the white ceiling. I asked her, what do you see? And, she replied, “butterflies.” What makes this occurrence even stranger is that, while roaming around in an old Italian neighborhood in Philly that weekend, we came across a daycare center that had cutouts of all different kinds of animals, birds and flowers in the windows. As we pointed to each thing, my daughter would identify it (yellow duck, red bird, etc.), but, when we’d point to one of the many butterflies on the window, she could not identify it. In other words, the only time that the word “butterfly” was in her vocabulary was when she was seeing ones that nobody else could see.

My daughter saw butterflies two more times that summer, during our trip to a lake house upstate with two of my stepkids. One of those two times was in the same restaurant off the highway where she saw the butterflies when I took my stepson on that college trip.

That fall, during our trip to my stepson’s college orientation and to visit my dad’s family in upstate NY, my daughter saw butterflies three times: once in our hotel room (my stepson heard it that time), once in the party room where all of my family was gathered (several people heard her say it), and the final time was again in the SAME restaurant where we had stopped on our way home after each of our other trips that summer! She said it in that restaurant each time we went there, although, on that third visit, instead of saying it in the bathroom while I was changing her diaper like she did the other two times, this time she said it while sitting in her highchair at the table (my stepson and his girlfriend heard it). Every time we went on a trip in those first few months after he died, he let us know that he was there with us by appearing for our daughter in the form of a butterfly. Maybe that sounds crazy to you, but I’ve never known anything to be more true.

Then, that September, it was the first birthday of mine that I had to spend without my husband. At a family birthday party the day before my actual birthday, my aunt took the above photo of my daughter and me. Then, on my actual birthday, I was looking more closely at the photo as I was about to post it on my Facebook page, and that’s when I noticed something around my head in the photo. Zoom in. To me, it looks like little butterflies circling around my head. Do you see them? Usually, my daughter was the one to receive the butterflies, but, for my birthday that year, he gave the butterflies to me! 🦋

Do Not Compare My Dead Husband to Your Dead Cat.

Grief is filled with so many irreconcilable contradictions, and equally as many universal similarities.

On the one hand, grieving the death of a spouse is unlike any other trauma. Please do not compare the instantaneous loss of my 47 year-old husband to to the loss of your 92 year-old grandmother. Also, please do not compare the death of my spouse to your divorce. You may not have a husband living in your house anymore, but he likely has joint custody and lives not too far away from your kids. And I’m not kidding you when I say that one of my colleagues actually compared my loss to the death of his cat. His. Fucking. Cat. I’m not saying my grief is any worse than those other losses (okay, it is definitely worst than the cat), but it is fundamentally different from and incomparable to those other losses. And I’m also keenly aware that many other people are suffering from grief that is objectively far, far worse than mine – like the parents of the college kids recently shot and killed in a bar in California. There’s no way I could ever comprehend the depth of the loss of a child. So I’m not going to compare my loss to theirs because their loss is fundamentally different than mine.

On the other hand, as much as losses cannot he compared, and as much as I’ve always said that you can’t understand the pain that someone is going through unless you’ve experienced that same pain yourself, there is a fundamental universality about trauma and loss. For instance, when the brother of one my colleagues passed away, I sent a sympathy note that said, “Grief sucks.” As she well knew, I’ve earned the right to speak in such a flip and honest way about grief – because, on the most basic level, I do understand her pain. I can feel its jagged edges. And, as much as I have no idea what it’s like to lose a brother, the universality of loss allows me to process, understand and empathize with many kinds of trauma and loss.

And, actually, lately I’ve been struck by how similar the trauma of losing a spouse is to many other non-death-related traumas. For instance, when my mentor of 20 years recently and unexpectedly left the company, my brain processed this loss as a trauma. Obviously it was not as severe a trauma as losing my husband, but my range of emotions mimicked my grief response: I was shaken, disoriented, and broken. Another example of my reaction to a non-death-related trauma is when our house was completely destroyed by Hurricane Irene, we lost nearly all of our possessions, and we were displaced from our home for more than two years. I didn’t know it back in 2011, but my reaction to that flooding trauma was astoundingly similar to my 2016 loss of my husband. Shaken, disoriented and fundamentally broken. Both times, I was in shock mode, triage mode, panic mode, trying to make sense of my new reality and the rug that had been ripped out from underneath me.

If you’ve suffered any kind of trauma, you have a window into the way my trauma feels. But, remember, it’s just a window. And please also remember, my husband is not your fucking cat.

Death Put Warts On My Pumpkins

Like most people who have experienced the death of a significant other, I mark time in my life as either “before he died” or “after he died.”

Before he died, October was a magical month. My very favorite month, in fact. It was the month when he and I first met (at a dive bar in my hometown), and it was the month we went on our first date (sushi for dinner and then walking through the middle of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and stopping right in the middle of it for our first kiss). October was also the month we got married (under a tent on the water in Montauk with 20 of my best friends dancing down the aisle and a party that went on for many hours after it was supposed to end). And, it was the month when we’d celebrate that he and his daughter were born on the exact same day (he always said having his daughter born on his birthday was the best birthday present he could ever ask for). Before he died, October was also a month filled with cozy oversized sweatshirts, blankets on the couch while watching football, homemade sauce that he’d make on Sundays, and trips to fall festivals to eat apple cider donuts and pick out our pumpkins.

After he died, warts grew on my pumpkins. They are different than everyone else’s bright orange smooth pumpkins. Every morning in October when I wake up, I think to myself, what memory of him do I have from this day in October? Those are still happy and good memories, but they’re different. They’re not the advent of family traditions with our kids; they’re just memories. And now that’s he’s gone, there’s a new milestone in October; October 13th is the half year anniversary of his death. So, as of this year on October 13th, it was 2.5 years since we lost him. And now every October reminds me that my sweet stepdaughter has to live the rest of her life sharing her birthday with her deceased father. That sucks. And today, on what would have been the 8th anniversary of our wedding, I’m writing this post while on a flight to Orlando for work, having left our 4 year-old daughter at home with family and her nanny. I used to fly all over the world. In fact, the top of my bucket list is to travel to all 7 continents, and I have 5 of them under my belt so far. But, in the 2.5 years since my husband died, I have not taken a flight anywhere: paralyzed with the largely irrational fear that I will die in a plane crash, leaving my daughter and my three stepkids to carry on without me.

So, in this still-new era of “after he died,” my pumpkins will never look the same. But, ya know, those warty pumpkins are kinda cool. They have character and intrigue. They stand apart from regular smooth orange pumpkins because they’re rough and tough. And my kids and I are rough and tough, too, because we keep putting one foot in front of the other, tackling each new challenge that life presents to us. Challenges like getting on a goddamn airplane – and, ya know what, this flight is about to make a safe landing in Orlando. Life is different now, life is in many ways harder now, but I’m a stronger person in this era, and I’ve realized that it’s okay to say that life is good, even without him here with us. Life is good, bitches.

PSA: Do Not Send Cut Flowers to Grieving People

It’s been almost 2.5 years since the sudden death of my husband – not exactly a recent trauma – and yet I still can’t stand the sight of cut flowers.

As you’d imagine, when he died, family, friends and colleagues wanted to express their sympathy. What’s the most common and accepted way to express sympathy? With flowers, of course. Gorgeous vases full of cut flowers and wreaths made of cut flowers filled the funeral home for his wake. Everywhere, there were flowers. The notes included with the arrangements warmed my shattered heart. They came from a broad spectrum of people, many of whom I hadn’t heard from in years. All of their hearts were in the right place. But, they just didn’t know. They didn’t get it.

After the wake, one of my stepdaughters surveyed the funeral parlor room full of flowers and quite rightly decided that it would be a shame to let all of those flowers go to waste – so, she and others loaded up all of those flowers into several cars and brought them back to our house. If you’ve ever been at a wake, you know that funeral flowers look very different than birthday flowers or Valentine’s Day flowers. Funeral flowers are formal, stiff, sad, and pungent. And now our home was filled with all of that sad, smelly energy.

And do you know what happens when cut flowers sit around for a few days? They die. Please let me say that again: THEY DIE. So, now, because you gave cut flowers to me, I had watch them wilt and die. And then, I had to empty the vases of all of that stinky dead flower water (who doesn’t know the smell of dead flower water?!), and throw all of those flowers in the garbage. Because they are dead. Because they are DEAD.

What’s the moral of this story? Please, please, please send a plant instead. Send a plant! The best gift that I received when my husband died was a plant in a pretty wicker basket. It was beautiful. And it took a full two years before I killed it. Whoops.

Never Alone in Buffalo

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This past weekend was the second anniversary of my husband’s death. It was important to me to be together with as many of my kids and stepkids as possible, so I drove with my three-year old daughter for 10 hours from Long Island up to Buffalo, NY, where two of my stepkids go to college. On the drive up, my throat started to really hurt, and, by the time we arrived in Buffalo, it was hard for me to swallow or talk. So, early the next morning, I left my daughter with my stepdaughter at the hotel, and I found an urgent care clinic. The doctor there basically dismissed my sore throat as being nothing more than a viral cold symptom, prescribed a steroid to reduce the swelling, and sent me on my way.

Well, my throat didn’t get better. It got a helluva lot worse. By Saturday night, my two stepkids had gone back to college, and my daughter and I were having dinner with an old friend of mine who hails from Buffalo. She could tell that I was really struggling through dinner, because I was barely able to talk or eat. We called it an early night and my toddler and I went back to our hotel.

The next morning, my daughter and I were supposed to be making the 10 hour drive home to Long Island – but, two problems: there was an ice storm happening outside, and my throat was incredibly swollen and painful. I was reluctant to re-visit the urgent care facility that had obviously misdiagnosed me two days earlier, and I was tempted to drive through the ice storm and see a real doctor back home. But, common sense got the better of me and I returned to the urgent care. This time, having nobody to leave my toddler with, I had no choice but to bring her with me.

The doctor looked at my throat and immediately identified that I had developed a “peritonsillar abscess” – more commonly and disgustingly known as a big pus-filled pocket that formed near one of my tonsils. It was causing the nearly unbearable pain, pressure and swelling on the left side of my throat. The doctor said that, if I decided to drive home without having the abscess treated, my throat could close, I would stop breathing and I would die. Oh, okay, so driving home is not an option. Instead, he said that I had to have an IV of antibiotics and steroids, and then he said I should immediately go to the ER for an emergency procedure to drain the abscess.

Wait, what? What?! I’m alone in Buffalo with a three-year old and you want me to go to the emergency room. Holy hell. HOLY HELL.  It’s hard to fully describe the sheer panic and anxiety that I experienced at that moment. I was sitting there in a room with a doctor, a nurse and my daughter – with my two stepkids relatively nearby and one of my best friends living down the road – but, at that very moment when I was told that I had to go to the ER with my toddler in tow, I have never felt so alone in my life. So. Alone. Cursing my husband because he should have been there with me. Cursing my life because it’s not supposed to be like this. But then.

I called the friend we had seen the night before. We have known each other for more than twenty years, since we were roommates together during a study abroad program in London. Barely able to speak, I told her I was in urgent care, had to go to the ER, and asked if she could come get my daughter. Without even a second of hesitation, she said, “We’re on our way.” She meant that she and her husband were on their way. She brought my daughter back to her house for pancakes and to play with her cat, and her husband drove me to the ER and stayed with me while I had the abscess drained. Then, he took me back to the house where my daughter was happily playing. They took us in for the night and took care of both of us, and, in the morning, I finally made that 10-hour drive back home.

Every time that I replay the events of that day in my mind, I cry. I cry thinking about how alone I felt – if only for those few minutes. I cry thinking about how I could have died if I had tried to drive back home without getting medical attention. But, more than anything, I cry thinking about how grateful I am to have such good friends, who were willing to drop everything to come to my rescue. You see, I was never REALLY alone in Buffalo.

“Time Heals All Wounds”: I Call BULLSHIT!

(Photo credit: Clare Cusack)

Who is the big fucking liar who coined the phrase “time heals all wounds”? That’s just not true. I would go so far as to argue that, when it comes to the loss of a spouse, the exact opposite might actually be true: time worsens and infects all wounds. In fact, Time takes a sharp steak knife and stabs those old wounds over and over until they’re bleeding again. Why? Because we widows, badass or otherwise, can’t help but mark time with birthdays of our deceased spouses, death anniversaries, and other incredibly depressing date markers. It’s not the actual dates that hurt so much – it’s the buildup and anxiety about the impending dates that’s almost unbearable.

As the second anniversary of my husband’s death is quickly and stealth-fully approaching, I can’t stop thinking about how the passage of time has not made me feel even one tiny bit better about losing him. The passage of time has not given me any greater sense of understanding as to why such a hardworking, good, loving man should be instantaneously ripped from this world, leaving behind four children and me. The passage of time doesn’t begin to make me miss him less. In fact, I’d say the second year without him has actually been a whole hell of a lot harder than the first year.

I spent most of the first year in a fog, first taking one breath at a time, then one step at a time, then one hour at a time. After a while, I was able to take one day at a time. But it was surreal. This couldn’t be my life. In MY life, my husband does not die young. He could not die. But then came Year Two when I was repeatedly smacked in the face with the realization and reality that I’m stuck on this earthly plane without him.

So, to whomever coined that stupid phrase “time heals all wounds,” shame on you for making some of us feel like we’re not doing a good enough job in our healing processes. And, to those of you out there who are moving forward with strength and courage despite the unhealable wounds, you are a hero. You are loved. Keep bringing it. Every. Single. Day.