Two weeks ago I hit rock bottom. I’m sure that’s a relative term, but for me it meant that I was feeling the lowest and most defeated that I have felt in a long, long time. Call it process overload, call it grief, call it whatever you want… I just wasn’t myself and was having a hard time finding my way back.
The truth is that I was pretty close to full capacity for stress before my Nanny passed away on April 30th. And it was in the midst of that sadness that the phone rang on May 5th with the surreal news that Dean’s dad had died from a sudden heart attack.
Our week in Edmonton with Dean’s mom and family was both harder than I expected, and more normal than I thought possible. I found myself marveling at how life still goes on – even in the tough times. I’d be getting groceries and thinking ‘how weird this is that no one who looks at me would know the roller coaster of emotions going on inside.’ I took great pleasure in the way that our family was able to talk openly, tell stories, enjoy each others’ company, and even laugh together. I was deeply comforted by that.
The kids were amazing. While both reacted and dealt with the news differently – I was again comforted by their candidness in asking questions, making comments and observations, and going about entertaining themselves in their normal ways. I did find them both to be very short-tempered with each other – and they spent lots of time playing on their own (Ethan would disappear to play Minecraft or shoot basketball hoops, while Audra would watch shows on her ipad, or play outside with grandma’s dog). But they both had melt downs periodically that would break my heart.
In Edmonton I felt like I coped well. I felt capable, and like I was in touch with that core of strength that lies deep inside. I was strong in our travels with our kids (although the frequent video texts my sister sent of my nieces literally saved my/our lives a few times that our emotions almost got the best of us). I felt strong enough – albeit a little anxious – to see Dean’s dad at the viewing. But again, the kids were amazing. We explained to them what to expect and gave them the option to choose if they wanted to ‘see Grandpa’ – to which they both immediately insisted that they did. At the funeral home, I actually had to hold them back from running in – just to give Dean’s mom a chance to go in first. And I was so proud of them as they walked up to the casket – quietly cuddling in to myself, Dean, or Grandma. (And then the stream of questions began: “Does Grandpa have shoes on? Why? You can’t even see them! Why is his hand puffy? Why are his eyes closed? And on and on. It was so normal to hear the natural curiosity that it lightened the experience substantially.)
We got through the funeral – including a very moving ceremony with a long procession in which his military friends saluted his body and then Dean’s mom – and we ended the day in the kitchen telling stories with friends and family. In Edmonton, I grieved, mediated the sporadic breakdowns from our kids, cooked for our extended family, and nurtured everyone as best I could. I leaned heavily on my own family – including many Facetime calls to my mom (who was still in Newfoundland following Nanny’s funeral), and my sister – whose wonderful girls made me laugh at the times I most wanted to cry. Again, I am eternally grateful for technology – especially when geography makes us so far away.
The hardest time I had was once I returned to Ontario with our kids. Dean stayed in Edmonton for an extra week – and while my dad had offered to fly up if I needed him – I decided that I could get through 5 days without Dean, and with a little help from friends. As a matter of fact, help from friends in our little town of Beeton was one of my saving graces. One friend took the kids before school – and even offered to pack their lunch for them on that first day back (A little gesture – maybe – but it was one of the kindest and most thoughtful offerings I have ever had extended to me. Thanks Lisa – I doubt you know quite how much that helped me!) Other friends got our kids from school and fed and entertained them until I got home from work. The net result was a load off of my shoulders, and an extra-fun week for our kids with their friends. Again, my gratitude was enormous.
Maybe it was knowing that our kids were well taken care of – and that Dean was exactly where he was most needed – that lead to me letting go to keep on processing my own grief. It took everything I had to practice for the first two days – especially as I will only put my hands on people if I can be in a state that is healthy enough to help them. It took every bit of focus I had to be present enough to be in my practice.
I was exhausted, napping every day by necessity – but not sleeping at night. I tried working out – only to find that my muscles were so weak that I could hardly get through the classes. I remember one workout in particular when I couldn’t talk to anyone because I was afraid that I would blubber if I opened my mouth – and willing myself to keep it together while doing my warm ups. I was eternally grateful that friends were feeding our kids dinner so that I didn’t have to think about that. And for the first time in years, I found myself wanting to emotionally eat. Bad choice, possibly, but I wanted pizza and junk food, and things that I know make me feel awful.
The weekend when Dean came home I felt like the missing piece of the puzzle was put back in place. For the first time in a week, I slept. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. As a matter of fact – I think that the combination of having Dean home and having our best friends Tanya and Mike and their kids visiting possibly provided the ‘perfect’ time for me to go into breakdown mode. I realized that I needed help and support – and that I was afraid to lean on Dean the way I usually would. How could I lean on him for help when it was his dad that had just passed? I didn’t want him to see what a hard time I was having. I didn’t want to add any stress to him. I didn’t want to worry him – and felt guilty for not being strong enough to be the support for him that I expected he would need. All of the sudden, I felt that the joy of having Dean home had transformed into a greater sense of alone-ness.
I had lost my rock.
We have a busy life and there are lots of responsibilities that I have. And one thing I know for sure is that I would not be able to ‘do my life’ without the constant love, support and encouragement that Dean gives me. I was perceiving this unexpected but massive loss (albeit inaccurately) and it may have been the final straw for me. I felt like I was trying to balance on a three-legged stool that had just lost another leg.
Fortunately, the presence of our friends helped immensely. I could cry to them (and I did), while knowing that Dean had support, too. And while ineffectively ‘hiding’ my breakdown from Dean, they were able to assure me that Dean was okay – that he saw and understood that I was afraid to lean on him as I usually would – and that he wanted to still fill that role for me.
The truth is that my rock bottom was not only about losing people that I loved. It was that the very foundation of my life and beliefs was shaken. I was afraid to trust life. I was living in a state of anxiety about how quickly things can change. I was afraid whenever the phone would ring that it might be bad news. If Dean called me and I missed his call, that fraction of time before I called him back was filled with unreasonable worry that something else might go wrong. I felt like I was living in state of perpetual fear. And it felt so foreign to my normal way of thinking that I wasn’t able to be myself.
I have made a conscious choice in life to focus on what’s right vs worrying about what might go wrong. It isn’t from a place of being naively optimistic – but rather one of being realistic to circumstances and choosing the most empowering way of thinking that I can in any given moment.
One of the questions I ask myself when life’s challenges show up is:
Will this matter in a month, a year, 5 years? (and usually the answer is NO)
Or I reaffirm to myself that “Everything that matters is good.” (our kids are happy and healthy, we have a roof over our heads, good food in our fridge, a loving and supportive marriage, purposeful work that we love, and great relationships with our families.)
For the first time ever, my modus operendi didn’t get me through. Yes – this would matter as time went on. And everything that matters wasn’t good. We had lost people who we loved, and who were central to our lives. Some things would never be the same again.
I realize that I had to go down to the bottom of my grief before I could begin to climb back up again. I may even be grateful (soon) that it happened with such velocity, albeit intensity.
I had a choice. I could let these combinations of experiences change me and how I viewed the world. I could wallow in sadness, add a little more fear to my viewpoint, and play a little smaller (safer) in life. Maybe then it wouldn’t hurt so much. Why couldn’t life just be EASY?
I could pick myself back up. Put my routines and supports back into place. Lean on Dean – and let him lean back. Be grateful for all the parts of our life that are still great. Be present to the people in front of me. Journal. Write. Do my morning routine. Get back to the gym. Eat well. Take my vitamins. Get good sleep. And trust life again.
I started back to journaling my list of gratitudes every morning – reflecting on what was going well. I allowed myself to hope and dream for the future again – even knowing that things may not work out exactly as I want. I decided I would rather live life full out – including putting my heart back into everything I did – even if it meant that I may face heartbreak or disappointment again. Essentially, I chose to not let these experiences break me. I needed time, help from friends, connection with Dean, and love from family to get back to being ME.
Am I different now? Yes, some things change you forever.
Let me sum it up with this: Years ago I was asked which life path I would choose: Would I rather live a happy, even-keel life – or a life with unbelievable highs and lows? One would be ‘safer’, with less mental/emotional challenge – while the other could be like riding a roller coaster of extreme highs, successes and moments of great joy, while peppered with monumental challenges, extreme lows, and moments of defeat.
Fundamentally, we have chosen to live life full out. Option B is the one for us – highs and lows. Let’s face it – the lows suck. Truly. But I am choosing to believe with all of my heart that the highs will make it all more than worthwhile.
I know that life goes on, and that time heals. I don’t know what to expect in the upcoming weeks, months and years. I know that we will be very busy, welcoming new challenges, while hopefully enjoying many moments of happiness and ease. I feel like we are due for another up-swing. And even if all doesn’t go ‘to plan’ – I’ve decided that it feels better to lean in and hope anyways. In the very least, I feel like I’m ME again. And quite frankly, I think that’s how I need to be and who I need to be to ‘do my life’ and do it well.
Thank you everyone for your help and support, kind words, prayers and hugs. They have been so greatly appreciated.