|Rob and Devon on Martha's Vineyard|
...To climb these coming crests/one word to you, to/ you and your children:/stay together/learn the flowers/go light --Gary Snyder, "For the Children"
Worrying about death is counter-productive. Rob and I imagined a future--the continuation of the work we so loved and the day when we would more or less retire. That future, though, always stopped short of death. We did not imagine our own or each other's death. In fact it would be correct to say we were completely unprepared for Rob's illness and hurried to have a will made in the closing weeks of his life. I'm so grateful now that we didn't waste time on what we neither controlled nor could know. In some ways the best revenge, if that's even the sentiment I'm after, is to live and love fully and to learn how to turn to one another.
Turning to one another helps us to confront the waves of grief that well up after loss. In so many ways, having Devon in my life and needing to care for him and be cared by him has been enormously healing. Life marches on with a teenager in the house as it does for the surviving spouse. Connecting with others helps.
In the two months prior to Rob's death I began writing and publishing blog posts that chronicled what was happening and how I was feeling. People I have known and others I have never met began to comment. Those comments mattered more than I think I could know at the time as they formed a lifeline that kept me present in the world, when I least had the presence of mind to do so. I did not know then that some who read this blog were in turn reading posts to other family members, sharing posts with friends. Learning this has been healing as all these acts connect us, connect me to you, and I suspect you to others.
During the six months Rob was ill, we were confronting on a daily basis some new horror, and a steady group of friends and family stood beside Rob, Devon and me and so many times held us up. Towards the end of Rob's life my brothers came to the house daily spending the day and evening with us and two friends, Robyn and Jane, more or less moved in, while other friends saw to the myriad of things I simply didn't even know needed seeing to. There were friends who came early in the morning to get Devon and bring him to school. Friends who grocery shopped for us. Friends who arrange for kind people from the town I live in to build a ramp so that I could get Rob out of the house if need be and helped me to find reliable care for Rob for the few mights I did so. Other friends brought food. Others simply texted a quick message of love. Against all the grief this helped us to feel happy.
Jane tells me that her son, Peter shared Robert Waldinger's research (The Harvard Study of Adult Development) about what makes for a happy life with her. The crux of the research is that happy people have the constancy of a handful of others they can count on and be present with regardless of what is happening and not happening. Waldinger the director of the project that has stretched across 75 years says,
...The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
We've learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected...
...And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that we learned is that it's not just the number of friends you have, and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship, but it's the quality of your close relationships that matters.
In a grief group I attend each week, others there have commented about the surprise they felt given how soon I sought out the group. It was 8 days after Rob died that I joined the group. Believing in the necessity and goodness of others is what I have learned being married to Rob, raising Devon, and being an educator. Teaching, like a good marriage, is first about love and the solace that comes from being a teacher is the single most important 'outcome' that gets made in classrooms and schools daily. It did not occur to me that I should wait to seek the comfort of others. I'm so grateful now I did not wait. I knew it would be hard to be so raw, so vulnerable in front of others I did not know. But here's the thing: they recognized me by my story, my grief, my loss and the connection was rather immediate.
In The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavment Tells Us About Life After Loss, George Bonanno, a clinal psychologist at Columbia University writes, "We are not accustomed to thinking of grief as a process of finding comfort. The idea seems a bit odd, but this is precisely what resilient people tend to do" (p.72). I had not connected comfort seeking with resiliency but see how they might be linked.
Finding comfort requires action. It requires courage. I cry easily. Just thinking about Rob is often enough for me to tear up and cry. Doing this publicly remains disquieting. Nonetheless, seeking comfort also is allowing me to heal. I feel this too in my bones: Rob's death will not kill me. Frankly, I wasn't always sure of that. Dying from a broken heart felt very, very real.
A significant turn, that I did not see as a turn happened a couple of weeks ago when I began to remember Rob beyond the memories of his last week of life. I was listening to Devon talk after his prom and I naturally began talking to Rob in my mind and this led me to thinking about the many times Rob and I secretly shared joy about our son. No one else will love this young man as we do. What I could not know then was the significance of that remembering. The memory of Rob's last weeks and breath were so seared in my mind. For weeks I would relive his end. I would think about him and those thoughts were limited to the last few weeks of his life. I couldn't remember before this. He was Rob who was so sick. Rob who no longer could walk. As I listened to Devon wax on about the prom, an earlier memory of Rob surfaced. I could see him, his head back, ponytail lying alongside his shoulder blade as he lifted Devon and turned toward me. I lifted the camera and caught the joy. And Rob took such joy in Devon's exuberance with being on holiday. We were on Martha's Vineyard early that April and Devon was just three years old. In my mind, I could see Rob twirling Devon through the air and hear their laughter. And perhaps that is what broke through the grief first: Rob's laughter. Of the hundreds of photos I made of Rob, almost all capture him smiling and laughing. He was a man who laughed easily.
As I write this I'm reminded of Margaret Wheatley's words on healing, comfort, and leadership--words we so need today. At the close of her book, Turning to One Another, she tells us,
"Remember, you don't fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together."
I love that sentiment especially the understanding that not only is there human goodness, but we can and ought to rely on it. What losing Rob is helping me to learn is that people need to stay together. We need to turn to one another. As Snyder writes, "learn the flowers/go light".