The outdoor light on the shed in the back kept turning on. With each gust of wind, branches would blow casting shadows across the small sensor inviting light to stream through the open window, fighting the dark with lightsaber-like beams.
An intended safety feature was overreacting, having negative affects on my sleep.
Much like my over-active brain which was playing loops on repeat.
After a few hours of restlessness and an unsuccessful attempt at taking an Advil to relax my clenching muscles, I grabbed my pillow and stepped quietly downstairs to lay on our big, blue couch.
“Well this seems fitting,” I thought to myself as I rested on my back, staring at the ceiling. “This is where it all started.”
Those cushions couched my grief from day one. During the first week, I burrowed in the corner, surrounding myself with blankets and boxes of tissues as I made phone calls to tell folks we lost him. I choked back sobs at two in the morning while my husband was upstairs sleeping. The foam absorbed my tears and the worn upholstery still remembers the shock waves reverberating through my body.
Three and a half years later, there I was again, laying on my back, staring at the ceiling, thinking about my grief. No intense tears, no shaking sobs, just clenching fists and racing thought patterns as I prepared to fly across the country to lead others in a writing workshop on how to bring words to their grief stories.
I was trying to be brave. Mostly, I was terrified.
I tossed and turned and when 4:30 am rolled around signaling it was time to wake for the airport, I rolled off the couch and into my outfit I previously set out for my adventure. Dylan drove me through the dark and I breathed deeply, as my therapist instructed, as I prepared my mind.
“Life,” they say, “begins on the other side of our comfort zones.”
I checked my monster of a bag at the curb, made it through security, found coffee and sat down at the gate. Not a minute later an email buzzed through on my phone.
My eyes began to blur as I read the words, “Your flight has been cancelled.”
“Shit!” I mumbled under my breath and stood, making my way to the long line appearing at the front of the gate.
I once read the universe likes to test our commitment to our own goals. Challenges arise when we are about to embark on something we hunger to accomplish. Situations outside of our control flirt with our efforts, daring us to take one more step we didn’t think we could.
When I pitched a proposal to lead a workshop at a bereavement camp for 20 and 30-somethings back in April, I thought I’d just throw my name in the hat and see what would happen. I put together speaker proposals at least once a week. I thought applying would be the risky part.
Then I got accepted and said yes, I’ll go to grief camp with a bunch of bereaved strangers – still feeling silly and insecure and fearful of other peoples’ pain. Then I bought a plane ticket. Then I had to actually get on the plane which was proving more difficult than I thought it would be.
I called Dylan to inform him of the change and swallowed down tears as I explained my choices to him. He encouraged me to figure out how to get where I needed to go. I ran between concourses, taking trains and talking to airline employees about options for my bag and my transportation. The man at the United counter was not helpful. A kind woman at Southwest helped me figure out another route.
After nine hours at DIA, a two-hour flight and a one-hour carpool with strangers who kindly picked me up in a rental car, I arrived at grief camp. There were over 100 other people my age who lost someone significant in their lives. What a beautiful thing.
I got checked in and as I hugged the coordinators I noticed an open bottle of wine with a welcome message sitting waiting for us late arrivals. A fellow traveler who also spent hours trying to arrive from Philadelphia pulled out the cork and took a giant swig of red. No time for glasses. Balancing nerves, delayed travel plans, and latent grief calls for soft tannins and flavors of grapes.
Eventually, I found my way to my bunk, unfurled my sleeping back tucked in the bottom of my giant duffle, and tried to fall asleep as kind strangers snored below me. Another night on my back staring at the ceiling flooded with thoughts and fears. I learned 30 is maybe too old for communal sleeping arrangements with strangers.
Over the next 48 hours I led my session and participated in workshops where we explored our grieving and resilience through words, photos, sounds, and memory. I joined support sessions and sat in a room with at least 40 individuals who also lost their dads. We had a talent show. People freely read eulogies, poems for the departed, and danced their emotions out to their brother’s favorite songs. There was a group altar full of pictures and favorite things – hats, and cookies, and cards, and cups of coffee for the departed. I finally had a place to lay his favorite things and kiss his picture and whisper how much I missed him.
With every session and every conversation I could feel in my very bones the truth: I am a part of something dark and beautiful, heavy and freeing. Other’s pain I was so afraid of brought me more comfort than I anticipated. Connecting stories from bios to real faces and human hearts helped me to realize all of us carrying loss stories are not to be feared.
Yes, I’m in the very worst club with the most beautifully brave people who are living with heavy piles of shit.
Please do not fear me because of my loss.
It’s in the places where we sit and listen, where we touch hands and honor wounds where we get to extend our wavering whispers of hope and connect with one another. I kept gasping in small breaths when others would say things I’ve been thinking for years. I lacked the sacred places to share my unmentionable thoughts.
No one was afraid of making others uncomfortable – we’re much too weary of surprising others with our unsettling thoughts. Here I am. Take me or leave me.
How could so many strangers take me when others whom I loved chose the later?
We sat in our pain, absorbing the horrible truth – we must move into a forever forward timeline without our people. The bereaved still welcomed and embraced the mysterious joy flowing from the life force of love left behind in the people we love.
I’ll be processing for awhile.
During the weekend’s closing session, the organizers asked for feedback.
I raised my hand and said, “For a long time, I’ve known I’m not alone in this thing called loss in my head. This is the first time I’ve felt I’m not alone in my heart.”
What a beautiful thing.
I also met an Artist, Meredith Adelaide, who wrote this poem originally published in her book The Great Blue World an exploration of grief and loss through imagery and word. She helped me remember this precious grief of mine is precisely that – mine to own, mine to hold, mine to share, mine to love and honor. And while this grief is all my own, I am not alone.