Life Lately

I haven’t been actively posting to social media or blogging recently and it feels good to “unplug” and spend time away from my phone after work. When I don’t share my life or feelings in some public way, it seems like I have a if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods-and-no-one-hears-it kind of relationship with this digital age we’re living in, but most of the things that I’m feeling are messy and uncomfortable so I prefer to share them in real conversations or in grief-related spaces. And I want to document the good parts of my life right now, but if I only share those shiny parts without context, it feels incomplete and insincere. Still, I want to document some things, so here’s a life update that bounces around into all of the difficult and joyful pieces of my life lately. Grab a cup of coffee, this is a long one.

Truthfully, I feel disconnected from a lot of people right now. I attribute some of that to my own social isolation but I’m also just tired of explaining that I’m still grieving. When someone asks how I’m feeling, I never know how to describe it. I have a giant hole in my life where my dad is supposed to be and I can’t even begin to put into words how much I miss him. Or how homesick I feel when I think about the version of myself that I got to be whenever I was around him. Winter darkness and cold temperatures reignited a lot of my pain and trauma so Christmas didn’t feel like Christmas and now this winter just feels like a weird place lodged in time that doesn’t fit into a normal, chronological calendar year.

I don’t feel fully present most of the time. Most of the time, normal conversation topics feel too “small potatoes” to me, and whenever someone talks about their dad or says anything that remotely reminds me that my dad isn’t physically here, my heart aches. Sometimes I get angry, sometimes I shut down, sometimes I cry. Sometimes I push my feelings down and keep it all together, but that never feels good.

I still cry when I go to yoga half the time (I took this photo before a yoga class in December).

At the same time, while grieving, I’m out in the world doing normal, functional things. I was just in DC, for example. I worked in a real office with real people (I’m kind of over teleworking right now) and one night, I enjoyed a bottomless champagne happy hour with coworkers. In that moment, I felt light and free. Then, I got to spend some time with my sister and baby nephew and brother-in-law and cousins and I belly laughed. It was so wonderful. I doubt I would be in a healthy place right now if it wasn’t for my incredible sister’s patience and perspective. And I’m so very grateful for the friendships I have with my cousins. We are abnormally close and I love it.

I have a lot of good things in my life. And I have a lot of good moments, but good days are regularly interrupted by tough emotional work and even though my therapist assures me that I’m managing everything really well, grief makes normal life feel helplessly exhausting. It’s something I never understood before – how intensely grief can take over and become a part of everything you do and think and feel. I’m grateful for the people who get that, but I don’t blame the ones who don’t.

It’s been hard to live so far away from my support system, but making friends in Boone, especially friends who understand grief, has made this freezing mountain town feel more like home. For a while, all of my Boone friends were couples with babies and while I adore them and value their friendships so much, no one was ever available to hang out after 8pm which made me long for my Tallahassee and DC and Harrisonburg people. I’m so grateful for recent weekends where I’ve stayed out until midnight (what???) enjoying things like Cosmic bowling and late night dinners and empowering conversations about resistance and activism right here in sleepy ol’ Boone. Last week, we had friends over just to watch the Olympics until 11. On a week night. I loved it! I also grabbed coffee with a new friend one morning and had such a good conversation about life and faith and being more engaged in change – it was such an energizing way to begin the day. Spending regular face to face time with people feels so good and so necessary (especially after a week of teleworking!) and it’s something that I was missing for a while.

I still need to spend a healthy amount of time “off the mountain” as they say and Bret and I have a lot of travel coming up. We both have work travel and fun trips on our calendars – some together, some separate. When my snack time co-founder was like, “Hey do you want to go to Canada this summer?” I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I’m hoping that by always having something to look forward to, I can fight the uneasy feeling I get when I’m stuck at home for too long. I may have over-scheduled myself, though. We’ll see how I’m feeling in a few months.

This past weekend, I ran the Disney Princess Half Marathon again. I was running through the Magic Kingdom and Epcot and literally chasing after that feeling I had in 2016 when I first flew across the finish line. February in Florida is warm and sunny and Bret and I spent days in our favorite Disney parks and nights walking around Disney Springs or sitting by our hotel pool just soaking in the hours we had Florida. And for the most part I felt truly, authentically, soul happy good. Like, maybe if I lived in Florida, life wouldn’t be so painful.

That trip wasn’t all smiles, though. Enter, grief. While I was in Disney, I thought about my dad constantly. And I love thinking about my dad and feeling close to him, but grief can be such a crash and burn out of control experience. One day, it seemed like every turn of a corner reminded me of another happy memory with my dad. Those memories felt so recent – some of them happened just a year and a half ago – and it made me cry. It caught me off guard every time. Bret comforted me whenever that happened and it was mostly manageable but it reminded me that I can’t just run away from grief.

I think I keep chasing after feel good experiences because I WANT to feel happy. I want to do normal things. I want to make positive contributions to the world. I want to keep living the way my dad would want me to. I’m hopeful that each year will bring more peace and comfort and healing, but grief is a slow, painful process and I’m still in it. Sometimes, I wish I could just set it down for a while. I try to push it down sometimes, but it always boils over.

I rarely know how to describe how I’m feeling because my emotions can be so complicated and unpredictable, but I am taking care of myself and prioritizing my healing and still doing the important work. When I see areas in my life that could use some change, I’m trying to address them. Is it time for a move? A job change? A volunteer opportunity? I’ve had a healthy priority shift over the past year and I’m in the process of shedding things I don’t need and growing in ways that are good. Even though I say I feel disconnected and not fully present, I’ve also been feeling a lot more sentimental and reflective and real.
So, in short, I’m still going through something that is really hard, and I’m waiting to see how I come out of it. Time will tell, but I think I’m on a path to growing into the person I’ve wanted to be.


Modified Gratitude

It’s November. Gratitude season. It’s also November: ten months after my dad died.

Holidays are painful this year. I don’t feel like celebrating a year that has been washed over with grief and pain, but I also don’t want to deprive myself of the traditions that bring me comfort and joy. I’m still deciding what to keep and what to skip.

Every November for the past 5 years, I’ve made a “Grateful Jar” and filled it with lists of things that I’m grateful for. Each one is a tiny time capsule. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a 2017 jar, but I decided to make one that reflects my dad. I decorated it with photos of him and phrases that remind me of him like:

  • stay humble
  • listen more
  • let it be
  • be kind

I gathered paper and pens, but I didn’t pressure myself to write every day.

When I did write, I’d focus on experiences I’m grateful my dad and I got to have together. The good thing about gratitude is you can start small, and it snowballs. Sometimes I wouldn’t write anything for a week, and then I would write down one memory and that would remind me of another and another.

On Thanksgiving, I opened the jar and re-read each one. I was flooded with happy memories. It was such a special (read: emotional) way to start the day.

In addition to so many wonderful memories with my dad, I also wrote that I’m grateful for:

  1. My little nephew, Sebastian.
  2. Velveeta the cat (always)
  3. Bret for being such an incredible partner and making me French Press coffee in the morning, half marathon training with me even when it’s freezing outside, and for playing songs on his guitar when I’m sad.
  4. A wonderful therapist and an incredibly empathetic doctor who have helped me better understand and manage my traumatic grief and depression.
  5. Friends who made the long trip “up the mountain” to visit me in Boone this fall, friends who sent me thoughtful snail mail, and friends who continue to check in with me and talk with me even on those difficult days when I’m not myself.

I have a lot to be grateful for, but some days, I can’t see it. I feel helplessly sad. Or I feel angry. Or I feel numb. Because I wasn’t sure how I’d be feeling on Thanksgiving, Bret and I decided to stay in Boone. I missed being with my family, but staying home was peaceful and comforting: the two things I’m seeking most during this season. Bret did ALL of the grocery shopping and made mashed potatoes from scratch. I made Spinach Gratin for the first time which was really, really good (recipe here!) and we also made cranberry sauce and brussels sprouts and bought the most delectable yeast rolls made from scratch at Stick Boy Bread Co.

Side note: Looking at these pictures reminds me I’m grateful for Stick Boy and their delicious yeast rolls, cranberry apple pumpkin bread, and pecan pie, all of which graced our table this week. I think Stick Boy may be my favorite thing about Boone.

It’s difficult to find gratitude in the midst of grief, but sometimes, there is room for both. I can be painfully aware of my dad’s absence and I can be missing him, but I can also be thankful for the holidays that we had together in past years.

I hope you had a wonderful, peaceful Thanksgiving holiday. I’m hoping to create a holiday season that is as comfortable and manageable as possible. If you are looking for ways to support a friend or family member dealing with traumatic grief this year, here are some things to keep in mind.

Year 4: Life is short & love is forever

Four years ago, while writing my wedding vows, I imagined a future with Bret: traveling the world, writing books together, moving to new cities, and finding adventures. I probably thought about the hardships, too. I figured we’d support each other through challenging careers and hold each other up through life’s struggles, whatever they may be. Maybe in the back of my mind I considered a far distant future after our parents had the chance to retire, travel, and live full lives when we’d have to say goodbye to them, but I never imagined losing my father so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and so young.

My dad is on the forefront of my mind all the time. I miss him so much that it hurts, and this pain impacts every aspect of my life including my relationship with Bret. Bret has assured me, a hundred times, that I’m still me and we’re still us, and we’ll survive this and continue to honor my dad and have him be a part of our lives forever. And I believe that. But still. The ground under my feet is unsteady.

One of the questions in my daily journal is: are you craving adventure or stability? Every year, I write: ADVENTURE! But this time? Stability. Stability because I feel unsettled and unsure of everything I’ve ever believed to be true. Nothing feels real and I’m not my normal optimistic, joyful, or adaptable self. And I hate that.

One thing that doesn’t feel real or make sense right now is time. I know that it’s May, technically, but most of the time, I feel stuck in those early weeks of January, and then I forget what month it actually is. I almost forgot about our anniversary, for example. I remember looking at Bret sometime in early March and saying, “Our anniversary is next week” and it was just a passing thought.

We realized our anniversary was the same day that our car, Sparky, was scheduled for service so we just went together at 7am and enjoyed the complimentary Panera bagels and coffee that Subaru serves while you wait. Then, we had typical work days. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but after we ate, we opened a couple sweet cards from friends and family. I tried to reflect on the past year like I usually do, but it felt surreal in a bad way. It felt wrong because those past 12 months were wonderful until they weren’t.

In Year 4 of marriage, we:

  • Explored Scotland, England and Wales with new friends
  • Visited Bret’s parents’ in their new Florida home
  • Spent time with my family in a town my dad had always wanted to visit
  • Watched the Olympics (Bret LOVES the Olympics)
  • Celebrated Bret’s birthday in Asheville with friends
  • Attended the first JMU football game of the season
  • Had friends & family visit us in Boone
  • Watched the Gilmore Girls revival together
  • Spent an amazing time in Disney with my in-laws
  • Enjoyed a wonderful Christmas with my family

…but then my dad died. It still doesn’t feel possible. And my heart hearts.

One of my friends described the experience of losing her father as a “crack in the universe” where there is a definitive ‘before’ and ‘after’ and I already feel that so much. It’s impossible not to.

Since January, while attempting to navigate this life that doesn’t make sense, I’ve leaned on Bret in ways I never wanted to. He’s been there through uncontrollable tears and panic attacks. He’s brought me food and water and tissues on demand. He’s let me be angry without being angry in return. He’s dropped everything to drive me to Richmond (a 10 hour round trip), or to watch a family home video (17 of them), or whatever I’ve needed. He helped me set up a shelf in our living room to honor my dad when I decided I needed that done immediately, for example. Just, anything. I’m sure I’d be doing the same things for him if our situations were reversed. This reality we’re living: it’s just something I never, ever anticipated.

At some point when Bret was consoling me for the third time in a single day and listening to my same difficult questions, I told him I felt bad because he didn’t sign up for this, and he just said something like, “Of course I did. Remember that whole marriage vow thing?” which made me cry more.

Days after our actual anniversary, I realized we hadn’t taken our annual photo. It was snowing outside so Bret suggested we just stand outside on the deck. We set up the tripod and wore our matching JMU sweat pants:

Taking this photo felt sad and forced – completely different from every year before. I’m glad we have it now, though, that I see it added it to the collection:

Year OneYear Two | Tallahassee, FL

Year Three & Year Four | Boone, NC

Usually this is where I’d say cheers to year five, but I don’t know what I want for this year. I feel guilty even acknowledging this anniversary, to be honest.

We do have one big thing planned: we’re traveling to Japan. Bret is teaching in China this summer and I’m going to fly over and meet him in Tokyo when he’s done. Part of me wants to stay here, tucked away safe at home, but I have been dreaming about visiting Japan for years, and my dad encouraged me to take this trip from the start and again whenever I shared any hesitation in going. So I’m going for him. And for me. And to try to scrap together any semblance of hope that life can still be an exciting adventure.

Some days that does feel like a distant possibility, other days it doesn’t. For now, I’m just going to stay grounded in the truth that has never felt so true: life is short and love is forever.