“There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In January 2018 I left my corporate job to support a woman through a recurrence of breast cancer. Her prognosis quickly became terminal as cancer spread to the bones, brain, and lungs. I walked her into her death. I spent the next year supporting her family as they learned to navigate life without her.
In December 2018 I divorced after almost 20 years of marriage. I lost my marriage, my faith, and my community all within a few months.
Through these experiences I have learned grief comes in many forms.
Shared in twelve brief scenes, here is a glimpse into that story.
“What does it take to fall in love with being alive? Being willing to see the end of what you love." – Stephen Jenkinson
We were both dying and neither of us knew. N from cancer. Me from loss of self. Her diagnoses had been hiding within brain cells. Mine had been hiding within a marriage.
As N approached the end of her life, I spent hours beside her bed. Something about being near her made me feel less alone. I remember thinking she was the only one who understood what this felt like.
Two days before she died, N lost the ability to communicate. She was alive, yet she had disappeared. I remember the day it happened. I watched it occur over the course of a few hours. I held her hand during the transition and felt as though I was watching a reflection of myself.
After N passed, her family gave me time alone with her to say a final goodbye. I sat down beside her, stroked her face, and told her through tears we did it. We made it. I helped her hold onto her life long enough for her husband and four children to arrive. She helped me hold onto mine long enough to gather my courage.
N’s death was a deep, painful loss for many. It was also a gift of courage for me. During the next two years, these two things—death and courage—transformed my life.
“What does it take to fall in love with being alive? Being willing to see the end of what you love." – Stephen Jenkinson
I’ve come to see religion as a container, something that provides structure for the expression of one’s spirituality. I don’t think religion is spirituality. I see them as two separate things that can be independent of one another.
Containers are certainly not required. Sometimes having one is helpful; sometimes it is not. When a container no longer provides meaningful structure, or we lose the right to choose for ourselves within it, it no longer serves us, and we are free to choose something different.
For most of my life, I chose Christianity as my container. I no longer do. The process of changing containers these past two years was hard. It felt like another death. It created another wave of loss during a time I was already drowning in an ocean of grief.
My container now is large and encompasses anything that expands my experience of spirituality in a way that feels safe, provides meaning and opens doors for growth. My deepest relationships now are with those who embrace their own containers without a need to prove or protect. These friendships have been life preservers. They’ve not only brought me up for air, they’ve also shown me how to swim down deep under the waves.
4. Intersecting Stories
“In marrying Bela, I feared I had done the same thing—forgone taking responsibility for my own dreams in exchange for the safety he provided me.” – Dr. Edith Eger
I was not expecting to feel angry after N died. The intensity of the emotion caught me off guard. I was protective of her. And I felt angry at her. With time and wise counsel, I began to understand how N abdicated roles and responsibilities to me that were never mine to carry. Even though she was dying, she overstepped boundaries in our relationship that I was too exhausted to notice at the time. N did not intend to hurt me. She simply felt safe in my care.
My recovery from caring for N paralleled my journey into divorce. The two intersected when I saw how this same dynamic with N occurred in my marriage. I abdicated my role of defining my purpose to my husband. When we married, nearly twenty years prior, he had not known he was stepping into this role. It was a heavy burden. One he was never meant to carry. I did not intend to hurt him. I simply felt safe in his care.
Watching N die, I understood for the first time I could change my story. I didn’t want to disappear. I wanted to live. But in order to do that, I had to own what was inside me. If I was really going to change my life, the responsibility to do so did not rest on my husband or my marriage. I had to carry it myself.
“Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” – Toni Morrison
A year into my divorce my mother came to visit. I had a counseling appointment scheduled during the time she was here. I asked my mother if she would like to join me.
The three of us sat and talked through several topics during the session. At one point my therapist turned and asked my mother what she saw or observed in me at this particular point in time.
I’ll never forget my mother’s response. With tears with her eyes, she looked directly at me and said, “There’s my girl!” My mother went on to describe the life she saw returning to me for the first time in years.
Over the following months as I continued to navigate through all the emotions, I would often bring this interaction in my therapist’s office to mind. It was the first time someone acknowledged from the outside what I was beginning to catch tiny glimpses of from the inside. She saw me and it gave me hope to keep going.
“What I know now is this: Sex is the way in which my Body has always reclaimed Herself back from everyone and everything that has ever told Her She did not belong to me.” – Jamie Lee Finch
I waited to have sex until I was married.
We had some good sex, but it eventually became a source of struggle and emptiness in my marriage.
I internalized it as my fault. After all, I am the one with a story of childhood abuse. I am the one who was hospitalized for anorexia in my teens. I thought I was the broken one.
I will never forget the first time I had sex after leaving my marriage. That was when I learned the truth: I am not broken.
When I left the marriage, I began a process of understanding who I am. That sense of self impacts every area of my life. Sex is different now because I am different now.
7. What Took So Long
“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have been asked, and even wondered myself, why did it take so long for me to speak up? I was married for nearly twenty years. How much pain could have been spared if I had been able to say something sooner?
When it comes to growth, I’ve begun to understand I don’t set the timeline. I cannot determine the pace. I can choose whether or not to open myself to the process, but it takes as long as it takes.
My answer to the question now is that it took me twenty years because it took me twenty years.
The same is true for healing. It’s been two years since my divorce. There have been moments when I have felt the impatience and frustration of others that I wasn’t “over it” yet. I could not just switch off the pain or guilt or hurt. I refused to ignore the emotions and pretend they weren’t there. I also made the decision that settling into anger or bitterness did not represent true healing for me.
Healing, like growth, is slow work. I don’t set the timeline. I cannot determine the pace. I open myself to the process, but it takes as long as it takes.
“I’ll never know, and neither will you, about the life you didn’t choose.” – Cheryl Strayed
N did not want anyone to know the severity of her disease. At her request this applied to her own family, lifelong friends, even her husband’s professional colleagues. She wanted to be alone, to be obscure. Few saw behind the curtain. Those who did were usually only allowed in for short periods of time after days, if not weeks, of coaxing and convincing. And even then, things were hidden.
I did not know N before she was sick. When I stepped into this role, I had only shared a few brief conversations with her over the phone. We had never met in person. Our relationship was an imperfect dance as I learned to follow her family’s rhythm and step in and out of the different patterns and dynamics so familiar to them, yet so unknown to me. By the time she died, N would communicate complete sentences to me with her eyes. I learned to read the most subtle expressions on her face even while she slept.
My role with N gave me a unique perspective into her life. To this day I still don’t know how much of the N I came to know was truly her and how much was the cancer. What I do know is N chose to hide her death. My relationship with her allowed me to observe what this decision cost her in terms of connection with friends, family, and loved ones, including her own children. N’s choice to hide was final; it could not be undone. My decision was still fluid.
“Long after the actual event has passed, the brain may keep sending signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists.”― Bessel A. van der Kolk
After my experience with N I felt drawn to end of life care. I began a Master of Social Work at Columbia University. My plan was to utilize the degree in the field of palliative care. By the end of the first week of classes I knew something wasn’t right, yet I couldn’t articulate the emotions or feelings in a way that made sense to myself or those closest to me. Over the next two weeks I lost my appetite, wasn’t able to sleep, and began to experience panic attacks. I was unable to have conversations without emotion that seemed disproportionate to the situation.
Initially I assumed it was stress and old insecurities about being in grad school. I chose to slow the program down and lighten my load. Still, something was off. Something I couldn’t explain. Finally, I decided to push away all of the outside guidance and try something new: I listened to my body and trusted what I heard. I made the decision to withdraw. Later I was able to recognize the intensity of my emotion those weeks had less to do with academics and more to do with a PTSD like response within my own body.
I know what it feels like to be in something that isn't right. I know what it means to make a decision that ignores something deep inside. The first time I experienced this was in regard to my marriage. I knew before I got married 20 years ago I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted. Not listening to myself, not speaking up, cost me and others dearly. It took me 20 years to acknowledge it before. This time it took 3 weeks. While the situations are different, I celebrate and own that progress.
“If the body is a temple, then tattoos are its stained-glass windows.” – Sylvia Plath
I was eighteen when I got my first tattoo. I had just broken up with my soon-to-be-then-husband-now-ex-husband. He didn’t like tattoos, so it was the first thing I did when we were no longer dating. I got a small daisy tattooed on the top of my foot and I have loved it ever since.
I got my second tattoo 22 months after my divorce from this same man. I was nearing the end of a 3,200 mile drive across the country. During the drive something in me finally let go of the pain and guilt I had been carrying since leaving my marriage. Perhaps it was the 8 days of driving in solitude. Perhaps it was the hours I spent absorbing brilliant fall colors through the window along the way. I can’t explain how or why it happened then, but on that drive, something shifted.
I had been thinking about another tattoo for a while but hadn’t been ready. When I felt the shift within me on the drive, I knew it was time. Before reaching my final destination, I stopped and got the words “trust yourself” tattooed on the inside of my left wrist. It is a daily reminder of all that took place these past two years. It’s a reminder of what I did.
“There is no we until there is an I.” – Dr. Edith Eger
In conservative Christian culture getting married young is valued. For women, particularly in the south, it is prized. I grew up in Georgia. I met my husband when I was 16. We started dating two years later. I married him 10 days after my 21st birthday.
Like most young couples we had dreams. There was laughter. There was love. There was a sweetness to it. We were kind and gentle towards one another. We still are. And though it was painful, we were through the divorce as well.
As the years went on there was a growing sadness within me I couldn’t put into words. I should be happy. I tried to be. But what do I say? “I’m not happy” and “I don’t want to be married” were not acceptable statements in the faith I held at the time. To focus on oneself is selfish; to leave a marriage without cause is sin. Sad, isn’t it? How the truth was hidden by shame.
My decision to pursue divorce came out of a growing acceptance and understanding that we had different visions for life. We had different ways we wanted to live and express our life’s purpose. Neither was wrong. They were just different. And we both had the right to choose.
12. What I’ve Learned
“Successful love is not necessarily love that lasts forever. Successful love is any love that taught you, that changed you, that grew you. You did not waste your love ever.” – Glennon Doyle
I learned I can trust myself.
I learned to listen to myself first and others second.
I learned sometimes people will feel hurt when I speak up, but even then, my voice has a place.
I learned my ideas and thoughts are meant to be seen and not hidden.
I learned what kindness and grace look like. And I learned the opposite.
I learned there are some who can hold space for different opinions and others who cannot.
I learned the pain of gossip and slander.
I learned the value of true friendships and who the people are that hold that place in my life.
I learned I am stronger than I ever realized.
Most importantly, I learned is what it feels like to be alive again.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
As a child I remember the first week of every month my mother would drive my siblings and me to the library in the city. We each had a library card that allowed us to check out 10 books. I would spend hours walking the aisles carefully deciding which books to choose for the next month.
After making the decision to withdraw from Columbia, I took a 9-day solo cross-country drive from the east coast back to Oregon, where I had lived for the past 14 years. During the drive I had a sense I was returning to say goodbye. Perhaps not to the location itself, but certainly to this season and what it has represented. It feels like a well-worn book I am putting back on the shelf. The story was good, and it was hard. It was life changing. Now I am walking the aisles deciding what to choose next.
I am no longer dying.
I have not disappeared.
I am alive.
I am here.