A Year in Review
My heart was as heavy as the rain drops. Their relentless, steady flow was familiar. The ache in my chest a parallel. They didn’t stop for anything or anyone. They were untamed and unapologetic, falling with nowhere specific to go but everywhere to be. My tears, sometimes, are the same. They build with no destination and they fall with no target to land. But oh, how they flow. Some days, they’re soft and gentle and dry up with the morning dew. Other days, they’re fierce, big and loud, gathering in a pool of water in the low, shallow parts, the black pit that’s built a home in my heart. It’s hard not to live there, not to drown there. But ultimately, I don’t. Because so many times, the pools dry up as quickly as they came leaving the hollow, empty hole in their place. As my pleas echoed through the rows, my voice bounced off the stones into silence, the unwavering drops slowed to give the leaves a break and I breathed deeply, naïvely wishing for mine. The break, that is.
It has been one year, well, 375 days to be exact, since Joe died and the breaks, they come when they can I suppose. When I’m suddenly singing in the shower or immersed in a good book. I get a few moments of reprieve, seemingly forgetting for an instant the ache in my chest, the hole in my heart. But ultimately, I’ve realized the breaks don’t come in forgetting because there is never truly a moment I forget. Instead, they come in how your heart, your mind, choose to remember in the moment. The break may pop up in laughter, and if you knew Joe, this is frequently the case, when I am reminded of something he did or said. The other day I craughed (that’s cried and laughed) at a video of Joe singing on the couch. Even as the tears rolled, my chest felt a little lighter. The break may come in a song he liked or a dessert he devoured. The break may come in stories a friend or family member shares, one you didn’t know and in that moment, you realize you can still learn something new about your person, even if it wasn’t in the way you had planned. And then some days, the breaks are impossible and they simply don’t come. The weight of this life feels crushing and intolerable and the anger burns a second hole in your heart. The thing is, grief is always there. It never stops or even pauses. But in many moments, a break, even the smallest, will come.
I have found the breaks also come in the knowledge that grief and joy can co-exist. This has been and continues to be a complex concept but I work towards embracing it daily. In a society that has notoriously made grief out to be either/or, black and white, hysterics or happiness. In a world where grief is presented as a series of stages to systematically go through, magically coming out “fixed” after the last is complete, the concept of allowing yourself to feel both grief and joy, often simultaneously, brings confusion, a pit in your stomach, uncomfortable feeling and a whole lot of guilt. And that is every damn day without fail. Over this past year, I struggled with allowing two very contradictory feelings to intertwine in my soul. Yes, my soul because any feelings brought on in these 365 days have been bone deep, to my core. I can remember laughing for the first time at a movie by myself after Joe died. I felt an intense wave of sadness while also enjoying the whitty script. Within minutes, the guilt slowly crept in, leaving a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. There in that moment, I was feeling three strong emotions and none of them felt OK. But the truth is, they absolutely are OK. We grow up labeling our feelings as one emotion. ‘I am angry.’ ‘I am happy.’ No one tells you how to process multiple, conflicting emotions all while asking yourself if you’re crazy as tears roll down onto the sweat pants you’ve been wearing for a week straight and you’re having yet another conversation with yourself in your head. I find I am in constant need of the reminder that grief and joy can co-exist. I am learning it is always both/and. It is never either/or. Grief forces you to make space for the happy and the sad. The anger and the peace. The heartbreak and the hope. It is not easy. In fact, it’s really freaking hard, but each day, we work at it.
I’ve learned that truly no two people grieve the same way. You may find one who grieves similarly and I’d suggest holding on to that special human for dear life. But the reality is no one will grieve exactly the way you do. This will cause frustration, anger, confusion and desperation, among many other emotions. On the flip side, it teaches acceptance, understanding, empathy and forgiveness. No two people grieve the same way and this affects relationships whether you want it to or not, including and perhaps most importantly, the one you have with yourself. You’ll feel isolated, disconnected, detached from your old self, the person you were before the loss. (Side note, I HATE referring to Joe dying as a “loss” as I know exactly where the heck he is or isn’t. But that’s a different post). Grief changes more than what’s on the outside. It changes more than a routine and daily life. It changes you internally, it’s inevitable. It changes the way you think, the way you do things, the way you see the world around you. This occurs in both negative and positive ways. Grief can steal, twist and turn two relationships, many of which you’ve spent most of your life building. And it forces you to spend the rest of your life learning to grow and embrace a new one, the one with yourself.
I’ve truly come to understand the concept of being in a room filled with people and still feeling alone. Over the past year, as the fog slowly started to fade, I found more and more I would be sitting with friends or family, chatting and laughing or sometimes just listening and yet no matter what was happening, I didn’t quite feel fully present, fully there. Some of these people I love deeply, couldn’t do this life without and still, I felt like half my heart was missing, lost in a place no one else could find, alone. A few Sundays ago, we had a small memorial mass for Joe. I sat with both our families, right in between two people I talk to daily, hourly sometimes, and yet I could have been alone in the back pew in an empty church and it would have felt the same. As my anxiety built, my immediate, gut feeling was needing Joe, to find him, be with him. When that safe, familiar person is no longer here to tell you everything is fine, it’s hard not to feel alone. In reality, I know I am not alone, far from it. And I am thankful every minute for the people in my life that love me in all my moments. But at times, it’s hard not to feel like a recurring house guest. I learned that home can truly be found in the heart and soul of a person and when they’re no longer here physically, it feels like you’ll never quite get home again.
Ultimately, I realized I wouldn’t trade my grief for the world. Well, of course I would trade it in a heartbeat if it meant getting Joe back but that’s not how this life works. So, I wouldn’t change my grief. In fact, in some ways, I’m almost thankful for it (I said almost). Because you see, it is a constant reminder not just of pain but of love. Of the love we shared, the family we built, the life we created. My hands wouldn’t long for his if I hadn’t known his grasp. My ears wouldn’t strain to listen if I didn’t know his laugh. My heart wouldn’t ache for him if I didn’t know how beautiful his heart was. I often hear the sentiment that grief is simply love with nowhere to go. And that is absolutely true. I agree our love can no longer be expressed or shared in the physical or “normal” way we imagined. However, I do believe our love has many places to still go. I put my love for Joe into our daughter Vienna, into myself in those moments I desperately need him with me or I imagine what he’d say. I put my love for Joe into our family and friends and now, I put a whole lot of our love into the JoeAbate Foundation. I live this life for both of us. Without our love, I wouldn’t know grief. And without this grief, I wouldn’t know the strength of our love. I would trade this grief for Joe without question, but I wouldn't trade our love for the world.