Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Chapter Two

Don’t ever give up on your story, no matter what 'they' say. 
Don’t ever let anybody take away your voice. 
You have something to say, 
your soul has a story to tell. 
Write it. 

- Melodie Ramone, Author

Chapter two. That's what they call it. When you lose a spouse or partner to suicide, and then you move forward, allowing yourself to love again. That effort has a name.

Chapter two.

When John died, I was adamant that I would never love again. It was what I believed. It was impossible for me to consider feelings for someone else, when I was still so in love with John. When I told people I'd never love again, it was true. It was true for me then. Just as our youth is true when we are young, and the cloud filled sky is true on a rainy day.

When I joined survivors of suicide loss groups, I watched with trepidation and envy as those who were ahead of me in their journey began to let in a new love. This would never happen for me, I knew. I was certain that the sharp edges of my grief had forever severed the possibility of romantic love in my life. I was lost in my desolation, and I didn't want to be found.

I remember the day, not long after John died, when I realized that no one would ever hold me again. That in his death, John had taken with him the arms that held me whenever I was tired or sad. This thought was just as unbearable as all the rest of having lost him. And this too - in the months after he was gone I could still remember every detail of our kisses. The memories both comforted and haunted me. So many of my memories of John were like that. Laden with beauty and agony, both at the same time. It is beyond my ability to describe. Perhaps only others who have lost someone in the same way can understand. How a heart can be broken completely, and yet each new day, the sweetest of memories can break it again, and then again. 

But, the heart is also the strongest muscle in the body. Physically, this is true. It's unending beat gives us hope, even when we don't want it to. It has a goal. By default, our hearts work tirelessly to ensure that we give life another chance. 

I remained devoutly in love with John, well over a year beyond his death. It was purposeful. It allowed me to feel his presence whenever that was what I needed. And, I needed that, often. I suppose some who were close to me could see the continued suffering that was inherent in being so desperately in love with a literal ghost. With the best intentions, they would tell me that I would one day love someone new. I always bristled. At first offended, and later convinced that there was no way they could understand. How could I explain that my loyalty to the ghost of John brought me comfort?

When he died, I was tormented by the thought that John had been unaware of how deeply I loved him. I all but made a promise to his memory that I would never be in love with another person. Perhaps a part of me believed that being alone would, at least in part, be some kind of atonement for what I perceived to be my wrongs. 

Still, I must say this too. While I didn't think John understood the depth of my love, I always knew that he was aware that he was loved by me, too. Those two convictions sat side by side in my heart. It was a dichotomy that, again, is hard to describe.

And with equal certainty, I knew that he loved me, up until his dying breath. He had so much as told me. He put it in writing: I will always love you. Those were the last words he ever wrote. Because of that, I felt that I had a responsibility to tell the world about his loving nature. I believed that from the day he died, and I believe it still.

A part of me knew, deep inside, that my guilt belonged to me and was of my own making. It was not something John, who loved me, would have wanted me to contend with. Some part of me knew that John would not want me to shut myself off from love and being loved. But remaining in love with him was a vestige of my unwillingness to let go. Maybe it was partially born of resentment, too. He'd never asked me if I was ready to let go. Among all the injustices surrounding his loss, the expectation that I stop being in love with him was unfair.

I'd never been given this script before, losing a partner to death. Suicide as the culprit or not, I didn't know how to do it. I understood from day one that I'd never fully move on. This remains true. In fact, for every partner or spouse (of someone who died by suicide) that I've talked to, there is agreement that the impact of this lack of total closure is simply a permanent part of our loss.

But moving forward does become possible. It becomes possible because moving forward (as opposed to moving on) requires no finality around the other feelings of grief and loss. As survivors of suicide loss, during fresh loss everything stops for a moment. Grief can paralyze our connection to the world. As time goes by, we first see that just like the death of our loved one, life too goes forward without our permission. With a lot of work and intention, we ourselves can begin to move forward too.

But in those first days and months after John died, I knew none of this. How could I understand that it is possible to soften the pain around someone being gone from this earth, by wrapping it in the blanket of permission that we give ourselves to remain in the world? How could I know that a new love could appear, and even flourish, even if it has to share a heart permanently?

I am a reader, and a writer. I learned early on that the best writing occurs when you write what you know. And as I said above, I had no script for this. I had no narrative. Nothing to read. Nothing to write. When it came to falling in love, how could there ever be a chapter two?

And then one day, a year and a half after John died, it seemed like a chapter two might be possible. I am not sure what changed. Like all symptoms of grief, so many of which come and go - there was no rhyme or reason. I can tell you this though, by then I'd come around to accepting that I'd be ok, even if I were forever alone.

You see, the truth is I was never really alone. Every one of my needs was met, in terms of love and support, beginning within minutes of when I found out that John was gone. And that truth was always greater than my loneliness. It was the constant love and support that held me, and healed me, and kept me afloat.

Let me repeat that. The love and support of others never faltered.

So, if a survivor of suicide loss were to ask me for advice as to how to open themselves to the possibility of new love - I'd offer this:

Lean into the arms of those who love you today. Reach out to others. Ask for what you need, and allow people to help you. 

There was nothing that made it more possible for me to consider dating again, than the act of allowing myself to see and feel the love that already existed in the other areas of my life.

Dating under these circumstances has been tricky. I am a changed person now. When it comes to romance, I don't have the same capacity for blind faith in the future. Nor do I have patience for confusion and mystery. If I have a question or concern related to my relationship, I want the issue resolved now. 

But I do know that blind faith and mystery can both be lovely things in a romance. It is a lot that I am asking of someone, to forgo those things. I know that. I know that even though it isn't my 'fault', the expectations and needs I carry into a new relationship, as a survivor of suicide loss, have been a lot to ask of someone. 

When I first considered dating again, I knew two things to be true.

"He's going to have to be very patient, and very strong."

I said those words to myself and I said them out loud to others.

The beginning of a new relationship has been harder than I expected it to be. It began with an innocuous crush. That part was sweet and fun, as it should be. But soon, I realized that the emotional trauma around John's death encompassed more than just grief itself. In order to move forward in a new relationship, I have had to to combat unexpected bouts of panic over things that had never bothered me before.

More than once, I have been consumed with fear that the person I am dating has disappeared into thin air. Some days I am fine. Others, if I call him and he doesn't get back to me within half an hour, I am completely beside myself. At times the fear feels like someone has grabbed my throat and I am choking. I can barely breathe, until I can confirm that he is alright, and most importantly - still alive. It is as if I am suddenly reliving the morning John died, the experience of trying to reach him to no avail. And that is not something I want to remember, much less feel again.

I have also become overly distraught over unintentional conflict. Not always. Not the majority of the time. But sometimes. Sometimes if I say careless words that hurt his feelings, I wrestle with a concern that his hurt feelings will result in his death. It sounds unreasonable writing it down. It sounds ridiculous. None of that matters. The fear itself does not care about what is reasonable. It just takes over. Out of the blue, small conflicts become matters of life and death. The amount of patience that is required of the man I am dating, over this one issue alone, is profound.

Of course, even before I began dating him, just having a crush felt significant. I was amazed that I was feeling things that I'd assumed I never would again. That part though, the sweet feelings, also came with a cost. It was unexpected, but when it hit, it was all consuming.

I felt guilty. Deeply, frustratingly, guilty.

On every rational level, I knew I had nothing to feel guilty about. John was gone. A significant amount of time had gone by. No one could tell me I was rushing into things. John would want the best for me. Of course it was o.k. for me to care about someone, and it was o.k. for that person to care about me.

But, as with much of grief, rational responses didn't apply. As my feelings for this new man grew, so did my desperation to somehow find a way to talk to John. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry. Sorry about having feelings for another man. I wanted to be able to extend some sort of act of contrition. 

I considered going to his cemetery. I imagined sitting down at his grave and begging him to forgive me, asking him to give me permission to be with someone again. But, it was a short lived consideration. John wasn't the one who I needed permission from. I knew that.

I haven't written much about the person I am dating. I'm not going to. This post is about me and this process of moving forward. Not so much about he and I specifically. But, what I will say is this. He is very patient. And strong. And kind as well. I didn't want the pain around John's loss to take this new man away from me.

Still, in the beginning there were times when I found myself debating whether or not having feelings for someone was worth the related panic and guilt. The debate was agonizing. Ultimately though, I knew he was worth it. For now, that will be the extent of what I will say about him personally.

Maybe it was the guilt that posed the greatest threat. The darkness of guilt has the capacity to cast a shadow over everything. Living in that darkness is completely untenable. Feeling as if I were somehow betraying John was not acceptable to me. I was questioning my own integrity and being a person who lacked integrity was not ok with me.

It wasn't easy, but I talked about these feelings and concerns in my suicide loss groups. 

How is it I could love a new person, when John wouldn't be able to love another person ever again? And would my caring about someone new send the message that it was ok with me that John was gone? Putting these thoughts into words and saying them out loud was heartbreaking. But it was critical that I do so. 

Once again, it was my fellow suicide loss survivors who helped me the most. One woman reminded me that when John was not ravaged by the worst of his disease, he'd taken good care of my heart.

She was right, but I couldn't imagine why she was telling me this. At first her words made me feel worse, not better. But, she continued.

"Chelise, John took care of your heart because he wanted you to feel loved. I think he'd probably be heartbroken to know that because of his loss, you'd never let yourself be loved again. I think if you choose to care about someone new, it would be a way of honoring John and what he wanted for you and for your heart. I really do."

These were the very best words anyone could have said to me. It was as if John were whispering in her ear and telling her what I needed to hear most. Not only were her words beautiful, but when I thought about them, I believed that they were true.

Many writers will tell you that when they begin an essay or story, they must set aside their notions of what the end result will be. Our best writing often happens when we let the words write themselves. We are often as moved or surprised by the endings as any other reader would be. 

I can tell you this. If loving John has been the foundation for this portion of my life, if he was the basis for chapter one, then I know I have done (and will continue to do) his story justice. As always, I will continue my efforts to advocate for suicide awareness and prevention. I lost my mother and I lost John. The pain around loss to suicide is devastating, and there are close to a million families worldwide, each year, who suffer these same losses. I will not stop fighting for those who are gone, and for those of us left behind.

But this is true too. There is a chapter two in my story that is writing itself. Just like the beating of a heart that always encourages one to give life a chance, chapter two in a novel always gives the promise of a story yet to be told.

And in the end, who am I, if not a writer? I write to honor my mother and I write to honor John, as well. Both of them will always be a part of every single chapter of my life. And for that, I will always be grateful.