“Why do you HAVE to keep writing about Russ? We get it, he died, but you’re poly and you have a spouse, so it’s not like you’re alone. You’re young. Move the fuck on.”
No, I haven’t heard that exact combination of words from any one person but the various versions of that, condensed together, equal that sentiment. (I will circle back around to that.)
Not from the people I consider part of my circle, my spouse and close friends and found family. They’ve been amazing and I’m truly grateful for them.
I know Russ died 18 weeks ago tonight even though on his death certificate they listed it as the day before I found him, 24 hours later than what I know deep inside is true. I know this the way I know the moon moves from dark to full and dark again over the course of four weeks. I know, as a writer, from studying the overall clues, that there was a window of approximately 5 hours when he passed on that Tuesday night. I know this based on my gut and listening to it.
The flashbacks have been amazingly horrible the past few weeks, as bad or worse as they were in the beginning. Yes, I have a therapist who specializes in trauma and CPTSD and who’s working with me almost weekly.
I’ve had multiple people who’ve lost spouses/partners tell me that grief can feel like waves, sometimes gentle, sometimes crashing on shore. Some of them admitted they were still struggling and close to drowning even years later.
And while I’ve splashed around and paddled in rough grief seas before, I’ve never spent so long without respite feeling like I’m absolutely drowning. Because it does come in waves. It crashes over my head and makes me gulp for air and settles down long enough for me to catch my breath before the storms rise again and I’m floundering once more.
What people don’t adequately convey to you about grief is how it insidiously sneaks into every corner, seeps into every crevice of BEFORE.
Having a fairly strong day and then you pass a familiar place, memories slam into you, and you have to pull over and sob because you can’t draw a full breath.
You work on edits for a book you wrote most of BEFORE and find yourself unable to see the screen through your tears because you remember WHEN you got the idea for that scene, or when you actually wrote it, and it was BEFORE.
You stand in front of your closet and stare at an outfit you can’t bring yourself to wear yet because you remember the last time you wore it–BEFORE–and you’re also irrationally terrified it might get ruined and rip one more tangible artifact of BEFORE from your fingers, unravelling it into nothing.
You spend hours clutching a picture taken on an evening BEFORE when you can remember exactly how the beach sand felt crunching under your feet and how he laughed when you took the selfie with him with a gorgeous sunset behind you.
You try to push through and do something you used to do BEFORE and spend hours (or days) later crying because of how that THING is forever now tied to the one you lost.
You feel horrible and want to isolate yourself because months later you still randomly burst into tears, because a memory from BEFORE will slam into you, and you don’t want to make your friends uncomfortable with the raw agony of your grief.
Or, its close cousin, you partake in events you know will physically drive you to your knees because you’re too busy doing it and causing the bad kind of pain in your body, but hey, it helps keep BEFORE at bay for a little bit so you can almost remember what it felt like to be…”normal.”
And then you feel guilty later for seeking that respite.
Because something else they also don’t adequately tell you about grief is that even random, unrelated things can trigger BEFORE to slam into your brain in insidious ways.
“Russ would love this.”
“Russ wanted to do this.”
“Russ and I planned to do this…”
And then you struggle to breathe and feel like an absolute albatross chained around your loved ones’ necks–even though they haven’t said or indicated that–because you know others have survived worse. You know others have moved on. Others have found their footing and dragged their exhausted, gasping bodies out of the surf and found safety on the beach. You know you’re not exceptional or special and you also logically know that you aren’t supposed to turn it into a competition–that all grief is valid and everyone’s path through it is different.
It’s looking into the abyss of the future where YOU HAD PLANS.
Where you had plans to travel, plans to do things, long-term plans to live together.
Plans BEFORE to grow old together.
Plans not only that no longer can be, but that when your brain skips over the grooves in the record and the needle accidentally settles into one of those well-played tracks cruelly cut short, you physically feel punched in the chest.
Because that was before.
And it’s not like you don’t want to be able to move on and find a new normal and be “happy”–duh, obviously, you do. Grass green, sky blue, water wet.
Before, however, you had different benchmarks what that looked like.
You know all the logical things–that they would want you to be happy, that it’s not disrespecting their memory to move on, that it’s healthy to grieve and miss them and have to sweep away the plans that turned out to be drawn in sand instead of forged into steel and start over.
You know you shouldn’t feel guilty about the rare “good” days. The laughter. The smiles.
The moments where your mind isn’t stuck in BEFORE and you’re living NOW. Feet touching bottom and the water maybe at your knees. Catching your breath for the first time in forever.
The moments before the waves crash over you again and the rip current sucks you right back out and leaves you struggling.
And once again you’re drowning.
You know you should stop counting the weeks but you can’t. Because it feels like a betrayal to stop.
It FEELS like trying to forget BEFORE when you don’t want to lose a damned second of those precious memories.
Your brain tries to process that it had to only be HOURS ago when you last woke up next to them, hugged them, kissed them, felt the way their beard brushed your skin, the way their lips tasted. How could that be BEFORE when it’s still SO FUCKING FRESH?
You edge past the piles of stuff that you retrieved from their apartment and have difficulty processing that it was 18 weeks ago when you set them there.
When you’re talking to them and they send certain songs to you as you’re standing there crying and holding their urn clutched to your chest, and the waves crash anew.
Why do I write about this? Why do I “open a vein” (writers know this one) and bleed all over the page about this time and again?
Well, for starters, because I’m a writer. How I process emotions is inextricably linked to writing.
Secondly, I write because I know I’m not alone. Because I’ve sadly had people reach out to me who were drowning in their own Before Seas and tell me it helped them to not feel so alone.
Because that’s the other thing they don’t tell you about BEFORE.
That you can be surrounded by loved ones and still be drowning alone. Because loved ones can do things for you to help out, errands, yard work–whatever.
But dog-paddling in the Gulf of Before is a completely solo endeavor. Everyone can watch on from the safety of boats or the shore, shout encouraging words to you, but they can’t keep you from sinking. An occasional flotation device might sometimes pass by close enough you can latch onto it, but if you can’t learn to at least tread water it will still become waterlogged and you will sink if you can’t at least figure out how to float long enough to catch your breath before struggling to swim again.
They don’t tell you that Bayou Before is sometimes thick and swampy with the consistency of cold molasses and there are times it feels easier to just swim down. And that if you can keep even your nose above water until you drift out into calmer waters, you can renew the struggle to swim again.
They don’t tell you that they can give you world-class swim coaches, but even the best instructions sometimes can’t help.
They also don’t tell you about the extra burden of guilt that might weigh you down because you feel you’re letting your loved ones down by not swimming harder. That maybe it’s not the swim instructors who are the problem, but you just suck at swimming.
They don’t adequately warn you that some days you might be a bad-ass Michael Phelps owning the Bay of Before…
And some days you’re the captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking straight to the bottom of Lake Before.
They don’t warn you that muttering, “Just keep swimming,” makes you feel like a fucking imposter of an adult because you don’t have the energy to swim. Sometimes, you don’t have the will. But you have to flip onto your back and try to take a couple of breaths and float for a little while before trying again.
There is no navigational chart that can help you out, either. You get bounced around by the seas, at its mercy.
So that’s one reason I write, because I want others to know they’re not alone bobbing out there in dire straits in the Before Straits.
Because you can be widowed from “just” a partner. The world at large might not understand that you considered each other spouses, even if not recognized as that in legal status. Because countless hours spent talking together BEFORE about future long-term plans, and looking forward to spending the rest of your lives together, growing old together, doesn’t count as “spousal” status to a lot of people.
What they also don’t warn you about is that you have to hold space for yourself and your pain and refuse to discount it or try to “logic” yourself out of it no matter how tempting that might be, because people who aren’t poly or don’t understand it might unintentionally heap more pain on you. There’s an extra layer of pain there, too, when that not-legally-a-spouse partner is entwined with you in a M/s dynamic.
Because they don’t warn you about what can happen if you let someone with the best of intentions prematurely drag you to the “safety” of the shore. Once you’re there, you have to move on under your own steam, or else the waves will literally drag you back into the water to start the process all over again.
Before eclipses everything and obscures what’s “beyond.” Because amid the darkest storms of grief, the waves bouncing you around won’t let you see where the shore is or give you hints about how deep the water is.
You just do your best not to drown and hope it’s good enough.