Normal Grief

It was a rare slow night at Amicas, the wood-fired pizza restaurant in my neighborhood, which meant John, my favorite manager, had time to chat after I ordered my pizza to go. 

“How have you been?” he asked. I haven’t been in for quite a while. Either I’m on the road, or home and feeling too vulnerable to be social–my loss, I know.

“Pretty good,” I waggled my hand to indicate the ups and downs. 

He waited for more, a warm smile on his face. John taught kindergartners and he has a background in counseling, specifically, he reminded me, in grieving and death, so he can be very patient.

“It’ll be five years this November,” I said. “You’d think that would be long enough.” (Richard, the love of my life and the guy with his arm around me in the snapshot at the beginning of the post, died of brain cancer in November of 2011.)

John bent his tall form toward me. “It takes three to six years.” His voice was kind. “So you’re quite normal.” 

“Which is funny, since I’m not normal about anything else in my life.”

John smiled again, and we talked about the layers of grief, and anniversary dates, and then the conversation turned to other things. Before I left, he looked me in the eye and said, “You have support.”

I swallowed sudden tears. “Thank you. It means a lot.”

As I walked home carrying the deliciously fragrant pizza, I thought about John’s words, and the idea that it’s normal for grieving to take three to six years. 

Amicas’ Thai chicken pizza, with peanut sauce, green chiles, thinly sliced cabbage, cheese, and avocado chunks–yum!

I’m 59 now, the age Richard was when he saw the bird hallucinations that led us to discover the brain tumor that would kill him two-and-a-quarter years later. By April of that first year of brain cancer, he had already had his first of four brain surgeries, gone through a course of radiation, and was adjusting to his first round of oral chemo.

Richard was seriously, lay-on-the-floor-and-refuse-food-and-drink miserable each month for his five days of intensive chemo–his “comma” he called it, alluding to women’s monthly menstrual cycles–until I coaxed him into taking the anti-nausea medications his oncologist had prescribed. Those drugs, which Richard resisted because he didn’t want to take any unnecessary medications, made the monthly cycle almost bearable.

That and his oncoologist’s “prescription” for eating his favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream every day, even for breakfast if he wanted. And he did want. (Thank you, Dr. Klein!)

I’m sure that even when I’m not conscious of remembering that spring five years ago, my body remembers the fear I fought to keep at bay so that Richard wouldn’t know I felt it, the nights I lay awake trying to reconcile the image of my brilliant, robustly healthy husband with the reality that he had brain cancer. The times when my all-too-vivid imagination persisted in exploring the ending my heart refused to believe we were heading toward. 

So on the days when I find myself staring at nothing instead of writing, my mind suddenly blank and tears filling my eyes; the evenings on the couch when I know I should just drum up the energy to do something besides read an escapist novel with a happy ending, because happy endings are all I can bear these days…

On those days, I will try not to be too hard on myself and remember what John said: It takes three to six years to journey through grief after losing someone we love. In my case, someone who was my other half, someone who I lived with for just a few weeks shy of 29 years, someone who I loved so deeply I never imagined living without him. 

Our shadows at sunset at Carpenter Ranch, on our last road trip, two months before Richard died.

It’s normal, this going along perfectly fine, happy most of the time, until some small thing trips me up and grief smacks me again. Normal.

I understand that intellectually. Emotionally though, I forget. I forget that losing the great love we were so fortunate to share means weathering the pain of loss as the small and large threads that bound us gradually unspool. Memories fade, habits fall away, the little rituals we so enjoyed are no longer. I miss the sound of his deep laugh, the feel of his heart beating under my head when I lay on his warm chest. The lovemaking, the sitting together in silence, each deep in our own thoughts, but still together; the road-trips, the walks hand-in-hand. Even the fights. 

All of that is normal. Which does not ameliorate the pain when grief sneaks in unawares. But it is reassuring. 

As is John’s reminder that I have support–from all around. 

Thank you, John. (Not just for the great pizza.)

And thanks to you all for walking this journey with me. Your company is both comfort and gift.