Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Heartbreak and Miracles

Under the surface 
you don't know what you'll find
until it's your time
no second chances 
but all we can do is try
I made up my mind
I can't see you
but I hear your call
baby, hold on now
we're going home

 - Vance Joy, We're Going Home

I journaled every single day for the first six months after John died. Not a day passed where I didn't put words to paper, in trying to sort out this tangle of grief and heartbreak.

At the end of each month, nothing was any more sorted out than it had been before. Nothing was cleared up and nothing was easier.

But time did pass, and consistently, things were different.

I want to tell you that I turned a corner and found myself happy again. I want to tell you that the pain lessened and that the grief became bearable.

None of those things would be true, though. Nothing about healing has been sudden. My heart was shattered when John died. That pain is no less. It has not suddenly become bearable. But there is this, I have learned to bear the unbearable. Those are the best words I can use. 

Three months after John died, I went into the hospital terrified to eat, but determined to do so. After my eating had been normalized for a week, I came home.

And then within days I stopped eating, again.

When I'd left the hospital I went right back into day treatment. I'd arrive at treament diligently each morning. I'd eat my snack. Eat my lunch. And then when I went home for the day, I'd eat nothing else. The next morning I'd have to report what I'd eaten the night before. And I was just so exhausted with my eating disorder. It seemed to be arm wrestling with my will to live, and winning.

One morning I walked into day treatment, sat down and laid my head on the table, and wept.
There was a counselor in the room with me.

"I don't want to keep hurting like this," I pleaded with her.

I still remember the way she looked at me. A flash of relief and then a tenderness.

"Good," she said, quietly. "That's a very good start."

And that was where I began to turn. I laid my head down on the table in front of me and cried over what was true. I just didn't want to keep hurting like this.

Something inside of me whispered. Can we lay this down now? This need to punish ourself?  Can we start to heal? Please?

I want to tell you that something more profound happened on that day. Or something less. I want to tell you that John's angel came to me, or my mother's. And maybe they did. I don't know. But what I can tell you is just like grief itself, nothing was fast and nothing was easy. It's just that this one day, I was able to say out loud, "I don't want to keep hurting like this," and something inside of me heard.

That's how I began to eat again, outside of the hospital. Accountable to nothing other than my commitment to life.

That was enough. 

Today is Valentine's Day. Take two or three deep breaths in and John will have been gone for a year. Often, I still feel as if he is just around the corner. Often I still feel as if he is just one car ride away. Often, I am still waiting for him.

Valentine's day is the holiday that marks the first time John ever told me he loved me. It would be easy for me to plant myself squarely in the middle of misery today. But I don't want to do that. I want to remember last Valentine's Day. And the Valentine's Day the year prior. I can remember what it felt like to be in his arms on both of those years. Those memories are a gift, I know. Perhaps they are John's gift to me.

So that's the way I choose to experience this holiday. Holding on to the memory of my beloved John's arms around me. How wonderful it was to fit in those arms.

John was not perfect. But there were moments when he was perfect for me, and that is what I want to remember today. That I have spent so many moments of my life wrapped in the perfection of John's arms, and that nothing will ever make that untrue.

John would be flattered and somewhat humbled by my writing about him. But I know this too, he would also cringe at some of my portrayals of him. Because he was proud of being flawed. He was proud of being human. I learned a lot from him in that regard. Still, it is hard for me to tell you about him without telling you about the best of his qualities. 

His intelligence and humor, his above par aptitude for forgiving, and his extraordinary compassion. 

There are so many ways that John lived his life in service to others. One of the first things he ever told me was that he hoped that he could one day retire somewhere where he could perform volunteer work in order to help others. He wasn't picky about who, or where. He just wanted to be of service. 

I like to remember that about him. That this was a goal of his, to make life better for others. 

Today is Valentine's Day, and I am choosing to remember John for all the beautiful and compassionate things he wanted to do. I am choosing to remember him for the future that he wanted to have. 

Some have said to me that I only see him through rose colored glasses now. That I have perfected him and idolized him in my mind. There is of course some truth to this, I know that. After all, there is no saint who is canonized while still living. But there is something purposeful about the memories of John that I share publicly, too. 

Yes, I remember the struggles. I remember the harsh words and occasional cruelty (both his and mine). I remember. I remember his illness and I remember how my own issues impacted him. I am not immune to remembering the pain. But our pain was put into a profound context when John died. The pain spoke to our struggles. The pain spoke to the things that made us human. It is true too that the greatest pain did not belong to us, it belonged to John's disease. His illness wielded a confusing sword over much of our relationship, especially at the end. Mental illness took so much away from us both. I did not know how to fight with it when he was still alive. But today - I am done with giving his disease power.

I will not remember John by his disease. I will not represent him to the world this way. It is not because he is perfect now nor is it because he is perfect in my memories. It is, very simply, because he deserves better than that. His family deserves better than that. All who love John deserve better than to have his memory sullied by angry words or accusations.

Today is Valentine's Day, and I will remember John by the sound of his laughter. I will remember him by his beautiful blue eyes.

Today is Valentine's Day, and I will remember John by his compassion and his commitment to making the world a better place.

I will remember John by that fact that he made my life better, and in this sense, he achieved his life goal.

Nothing changed overnight. I spent months wondering how in the world a human being is supposed to get through such unfathomable sadness and pain. It shifted slowly. It became an awe of sorts. I am amazed at how much suffering a person can get through and still come out the other side. 

Since John's death, I have learned to appreciate the profound impact that love can have on a person. I do know now how human beings get through unfathomable sadness and pain. We do it by surrounding ourselves with love. We do it by no longer waiting to get through it, but instead in beginning to understand that grief can be held for as long as need be - if we have others who will hold us for as long as need be.

Nothing changed overnight, but I began writing letter after letter after letter to other survivors of suicide loss.

I'm sorry. I never met your brother/love/child, but I know they were important. I wish I could take away all of our pain. Your loved one will not be forgotten.

I did it by writing these words over and over again, and meaning them every single time.

My heart is with you.
My heart is with you.
My heart is with you.

I did it by beginning to understand that every time I extended my love to someone else who was hurting, another stitch was applied to my own broken heart.

And I wrote. I survived those six months (I survive still) by writing and writing and writing. I shared my writing on my blog and on social media and in grief groups, and suddenly message after message began flooding my inbox. People needed to have their pain voiced, and they were so glad that someone was doing it.

Nothing changed overnight, but I got through by writing less and less for myself, and more and more for others. 

The shift began. 

I went to suicide prevention fundraising walks. I went to survivors day events. I joined county mental health commissions. And always, with every step, I had someone beside me who loved me. When I wasn't sure if I could take another step, someone would remind me that I'd already been walking for a while, and that they knew I could keep going. So, I did.

Nothing changed overnight, but every single day I received messages about my writing. Every single day I spoke to people whose lives had been touched by suicide. Every single day, I reached out to people and they reached out to me.

"Hi, my name is Chelise. First, I am also a survivor of suicide lossI am so sorry. My heart is with you. I am wondering if you would be willing to talk to me about your experience. I think there are people reading my blog who want to hear about you and what you are doing in order to heal."

Over and over again I got responses. "Yes. Thank you for what you are doing. I want to share."

For me, the words 'I am a survivor of suicide loss,' became more than just the obvious heartbreak, but also an invitation into the hearts of others who had suffered similar losses.

Today is Valentine's Day,  and I want John to know that through my love for him, I've learned how to better love others. 

John told me that he wanted to spend his life being of service.

I know that so long as I am still alive, I will do everything I can to advocate for others who suffer from diseases such as his. So long as I am still alive, I will do everything I can to share my experiences so that others know that they are not alone. And so long as I am still alive, I will do everything I can to give a voice to those who also have stories to tell.

But it is important to me that people know that it is not John's death that inspires me to do these things. It is the opposite. I am inspired by John's life.

It gives me so much comfort to know that even without him here on this earth, his goal of service and of helping others is still being achieved. I want to hand him that. The fact that his life mattered when he was alive. That fact that his life still matters, now.

Today is Valentine's Day, and I want John to know that this is not my first Valentine's Day without him. This is the Valentine's Day where the best of him is still here.

Last year, just as the season was turning from winter to spring, my John slipped away from this world in the early hours of a Sunday morning. Likely, it was still dark out. Nearly all who loved him were still sleeping. Did we flutter our eyes at the moment he was gone? Did we roll over restlessly when he took his last breath. Did John visit each one of us that morning, in dreams that we've yet to remember?

I don't know. What I do know is that we were afforded one final gift. Each of us woke up in a world where we believed that John, in body and spirit, was still with us. Each of us, on that morning, woke up believing that our worlds were still lit up by his presence.

I woke on the morning John died and looked again at the last message he'd sent. A message he'd typed less that eight hours earlier. The only note he left was this message to me. And in the message he spoke only of love and of a forever that I would come to understand had never been as limited as I once thought it was.

I believe that John lives now in the best of the forever that we spoke of. That he is there waiting for the split second (which sometimes feels to me to be an eternity) before we are together, again.

John was always more spiritual than I was. Since childhood he understood just what it meant to be held up by the love of God.

Today is Valentine's Day, and I want John to know that I no longer wonder and I no longer waffle. I am absolutely certain now that God calls on each one of us to be compassionate, to be forgiving, and to react with integrity and love. I am certain of those things and I want John to know that this is a gift that he, over this past year, has given to me.

Today is Valentine's Day, and my heart is forever broken and yet it is forever healing at the very same time. And this is how I begin to be able to bear the unbearable.

Nothing changed overnight. It still isn't fair. My world will forever be amiss without John present. I still cry every single day. I still think of him and miss him every single minute of the day.

I don't want to get political or data heavy or delve into a lecture. Not on this post. Not on Valentine's Day. But I will say this. There are medical and therapeutic and legislative advances on the way, that are going to change the face of mental health care in this country. Too many people are dying. Too many people are hurting. Too many people are lost and too many people are left behind.

Changes are on their way, some already and some soon. I want John to know that he is on the side of history where the tragic loss of beautiful people just like him is inspiring necessary change. I want John to know that when he was fighting to stay alive through the worst of his pain, he was a hero, and I want John to know that he is a hero, still.

Nothing changed overnight. But I know that John loves me. I know that he wants me to be happy. I know that he wants me to be ok. 

Today is Valentine's Day, and I want to give John the only gift I can. I want him to know that even in the midst of my ever present grief, because of him, this one thing is true:

I live in the constant miracle of how much love a broken heart can still contain.

John has been my greatest heartbreak, and John has been my constant miracle. When I wrap up what I want to share about those first six months, I can tell you that nothing changed overnight, but the shift began to happen when I realized this one thing:

It turns out that heartbreak and miracles can live side by side.  

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