Mara, Cochina Beach

Loneliness is a powerful ruler. And heartache is her companion.

So it seems that my grief takes on many forms in the passage from loss to renewal.

The photos bring me comfort and pain. For comfort, I see them as a validation that for 34 years, I had the most wonderful journey in life with a beautiful, loving and specially talented man. But my heart aches in pain as I look at the photos, moving from one to another as they tell the story of our lives together.

I still feel the texture of his skin, the warmth of his breath against my neck, hear his heartbeat that once beat against my ear, or the deepness of his voice as he calls out my name. And my heart aches. The giant hole that was left behind when he left this world cracks at every thought of what might have been, what was lost, my loss, his loss, my children’s loss.

But there is something different now. It has been more than seven months and the dreams have continued to come. Some more disturbing, some more comforting. Yet each time the dream comes, there is a message for me from Keith…

… survive.

In one dream, I am panicking because I believe Keith is being attacked and I cannot do anything to save him. An explosion of some acetylene tanks is imminent and at the very last second, I pull myself up out of danger leaving Keith behind, and I am screaming at the top of my lungs. I awaken to realize my screams were only in my head.

In another dream, there is a minor motorcycle spill and the woman laying on the ground is crying and I go to help her. The man’s face cannot be seen because the sun is behind him. But I know it is Keith. The woman is my alter ego, the “reckless” side of me. The message… this activity is no longer for you… it was for us. No more.

As the Spring came, I thought I would be excited. But the snow melt revealed a yard badly in need of attention, having been mostly ignored over the past 7 months, and hidden by the clean white snow. The pressure of taking care of it while fulfilling my other more academic and professional commitments weighed heavy on me. Ours was a partnership. Keith took care of me as much as I did him. But practically, that meant certain chores were split up in ways that made our home run well. And now there were two properties, and the main caretaker was gone.

I’ve had to learn a lot about some of these “practical” things. And along the way, I’ve made some mistakes. Trusted a bit too much in some, and kept others at arm’s length. Nothing terrible or that couldn’t be fixed. I find I still don’t handle the stresses of things gone wrong very well. But I also give myself permission to not always being the best at something, too. My best today may not be as good as my best was before or in the future. I forgive myself…

That first dream indicated a desperation bordering on self-destructiveness, one friend indicated. He wasn’t far off. There were times when I wondered if it might have been easier to follow Keith into the grave, like widows of India once did (or may still). People have been known to die of a “broken heart”. Mine was reaching its breaking point.

And so I was reminded of something my grief counselor mentioned to me last Fall when I tried to go through the services offered through the funeral home. (I’ve since started going to a regular therapist who has been very comforting in providing a sane and objective touchstone when I’m feeling the need to unload my thoughts more privately.) He said something like this:

You’ll have this overpowering need to feel that hole in your heart. The grief is physical, the hole is real, for once it had been filled by the deep relationship you had with your husband, Keith. So how do you heal it? how do you fill it now? Especially when the loss is your lover, best friend, confidant. Those are roles not easily filled by just filling your day with things to do.

Some widows/widowers will throw themselves into their grandchildren, their jobs, their hobbies. But the last two will only last so long before the ache returns… who do you share the challenges and triumphs with? For me, it becomes meaningless without that confidante to share it with. And as for grandchildren, they are a while in coming for me. My grown children still have lives of their own to build before they’ll be ready to start their families. The pressure of their mother’s grief should not a factor in that decision.

The other option is rebuilding a life based on a new relationship. Not a replacement for Keith at all. In some ways, I’ve been reminded often, I am who I am because of my life with Keith. So with my next romantic relationship, he will need to demonstrate respect for and acceptance of this. Which is why it is particularly confounding to me that I would meet someone a little more than six months after Keith’s passing who not only has expressed an utterly unabashed love for me, but also a deep and abiding respect for my late husband. Patient, caring, talented and intelligent, I wonder if my spirited protector, Keith, has had something to do with this.

Here is someone who is very different from Keith, but who shares many of the same interests, who looks upon Keith’s work with understanding of how it was made, and almost reverence for the creativity that blossomed there. I know my children are pained to hear me say this. But if circumstances had been different, and the two men had met, they would likely have become friends.

And should some of the readers of this post think I am rushing things, it may be important to point out that this lovely man had been “talking” to me online for nearly two months before I would even give him my real name, let alone a real telephone number. He was the first… and only one to answer the question I began posing to any potential suitor who had a rather slim profile on the dating website where I thought I’d find an occasional dinner companion: “What fulfills you? and what fills your days?” He knew the difference between the two, and he answered them carefully and thoughtfully.

Since finally meeting him in person after yet another few weeks of hours-long conversations, it felt very natural. Like we’d been old friends. On the romantic side, I am again confounded by my own feelings… like a 52-yr-old school girl, but one who looks at this relationship through the lens of decades of life experience. I know what love looks like. The only thing left is to give myself permission. Friends remind me that Keith would not want me to be as lonely as I’ve been. And I would not want it of him if the roles were reversed. When I am with this man, or even talking on the phone, or texting between conversations, I no longer feel alone. Since that first meeting, we have spent much time together, sharing stories of our pasts, the lessons, frustrations, and humorous moments. Here is someone to share these things with, the romantic endearments, irreverent jokes, or just talk about life and all the baggage that comes with it.

I know the months ahead will be filled with many firsts for me and my family. Some very sad ones. Some, hopefully, much happier ones.

I envision the journey ahead to be one of renewal, building on memories that bring comfort rather than sadness. It’s a journey built upon the past. But ruled less by loneliness and heartache, and more by hope and a longing to build a new future, the keys to becoming a stronger survivor.

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Photo above: I’m sitting on one of the breakwaters at Cochina Beach near Sarasota, Florida, March 9, 2013, after spreading the first batch of Keith’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the most special trips Keith and I had done together was canoeing around a bird refuge on Sanibel Island in the early 1980s. It seemed apt that we would bring him back there. Photo by Anastassia Fulmer

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