Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Riding the Waves: Aren't You Better Yet?

I'm writing because it's 1:01 a.m. and I can't seem to go to sleep, even as Philopena is crashed out at my feet. We spent most of the day either walking outside or napping inside and I'm more and more opening myself up to the gift that is this little dog.

I wrote about it on facebook, but not here, so I'll share the story of her name. Some time last week I was thinking about naming her as I fell asleep. "PHILOPENA!" is what I heard clearly in my head. It made me giggle, because I've never heard the name Philopena and didn't know where the thought came from. But I liked it.

The next day I looked it up online, expecting to see something about a Greek Goddess. Turns out "Philopena" is not a name at all, but an old lovers' game of German origin. When two nuts are found in one shell, they are shared between lovers. Upon the next meeting, the first to say "philopena!" is owed a gift from the other. This is repeated at each subsequent meeting until the gift is given.

If Gareth had anything to do with finding and naming this dog, this would have been the outcome for sure. A good family friend of his, who was German, recently passed, and I smile to imagine their collaboration. Each time I say this pup's name, I am reminding my lover to give me a gift- a gift, I believe, that has already been given. A little dog.

So, here we are, me and Philopena. And I'm a bit ashamed of the heaviness and grief that I'm feeling today. I'm wanting to move on, especially to make those around me feel better. I want to be able to change my Gareth/Bridget profile pic to comfort my sister. I want to be able to show incredible joy to comfort Gareth's mom. I want to show friends and family "See? I can do it! I'm doing it! Look at me! I'm happy now!" Mind you, no one has ever even hinted that I'm not moving on quickly enough or that I should do anything other than exactly what I'm doing.

But I find myself shaming myself a bit, nonetheless. Today, on a run, I was trying to focus on beautiful things. I was trying to see God in what was around me- flowers blooming, the sun gleaming on the water's surface- but there it was, the heaviness like a veil that makes beautiful things able to enter, but just in tiny amounts. "Why do you feel so sad?" I heard myself say to myself. "It's not like you're Gareth's mom and dad, who lost a SON. You didn't lose a BROTHER. You were only with him for less than 2 years. Isn't this a bit dramatic? Take it down a notch, would you?"

How mean is that? I mean...really. I would never, ever say something like that to anyone else, nor could I ever possibly imagine anyone else saying it to me. So my focus in prayer will shift for a bit from easing the pain of others who are also feeling the loss to easing the criticism of myself while I'm feeling it. The fact of the matter is Gareth and I had a deep bond and were undeniably in love. We spent a lot of time together and nearly all of my experiences here in Korea are woven into my time with him. Everywhere I look I am reminded of him and every new experience I have I am longing for him to be here so I can share it with him. It's completely understandable that I'd be feeling deep grief. Yesterday marked only two months since he died.

I'm incredibly grateful for a grief counselor that I got connected with. She is from a hospice program in Southern Illinois and she and I skype together once a week for over an hour each time. She gets it. Totally gets it. The whole entire story. And I can't tell you the relief I get from having her as part of my support system.

One of the things she said last week is that the grief for everyone who knew Gareth is going to be different depending on the relationship we had with him. How we knew him. How long we knew him. Complications in our knowing him. All of this affects what that grief will look like. There are many, I'm sure, who have felt the initial waves pass and have settled into occasional thoughts tinged with sadness. I remember that with my buddy Adam when he died. Like with Gareth, Adam's death was sudden and unexpected. The initial shock was a bit crippling for everyone who knew him, but in the days and weeks that passed, it subsided for me. He was my friend. And I loved him. But he was not my son, my brother, or my lover. Adam's love, Rebecca, his daughter, his mother, his lifelong friend- these people continued to ride the waves long after I had started to experience normal work days not interrupted by tears.

I asked my counselor the question everyone experiencing grief wants to know. "How long will this last?" The million dollar question. And, of course, she can't answer that. But she did acknowledge that because Gareth and I were in a romantic relationship for a considerable amount of time and because there exists unresolved business from the last few weeks he was alive, my grief will potentially be long. And, she pointed out, as time passes, people around me may wonder why I'm not further along like they are. You may genuinely want to see me out of the pain, and believe me, I do too. But I imagine this upcoming year will be more like living life as a skipping stone, with times that I'm cruising along, and times that I touch down on the surface of grief and make a brief splash.

I've had some milestone happenings which may appear insignificant from the outside. I purchased cherry tomatoes a couple of days ago and cooked with them tonight. The first meal Gareth made for me at home was a saute with chicken, cherry tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and a vegetable we called "mystery green" because it was green and we had no idea what it was. Who would have known that a week or so after Gareth died the sight of a package of cherry tomatoes in the local market would cause my stomach to sink and sobbing to start? I had decided that I would never cook with cherry tomatoes. I couldn't stomach the weight of the package, or sliding my finger under the plastic lid and hearing the sound. I couldn't rinse them and use my special knife to slice them into smaller pieces. Cherry tomatoes were going to be written off forever. And there are dozens of things like this. Some I can list at the moment and other things I won't know of until I'm met with the same reaction.

I can't imagine that I'll ever:
-buy a pair of funny Korean socks
-go to a DVD room here and watch a movie
-eat Fruit and Fibre cereal again
-read a book of Korean poems translated to English
-go to the Jinju Lantern Festival
-go to the Jinju Fortress
-visit Namhe or Geoje Island
-stay in a love motel anywhere in Korea
-play with a bb gun
-celebrate Christmas or my birthday
-take part in a race
-have tea in our favorite tea house in Hadong
-hike behind the hills of the tea house
-visit Samseonggung
-cook eggs over-easy

And here's where the grief counselor comes in and does amazing things. "Should I just force myself to buy the stupid tomatoes and take them home and cook them?" I asked. "I mean, shouldn't I just MAKE myself do it? I can't live life afraid of some f****** cherry tomatoes."

She suggested I pay attention to my reactions. If I pass by the tomatoes and think "Maybe...maybe there's a chance I could get some..." then I go ahead and get them. Even if I throw them out at home. But if I'm having that stomach-sinking reaction, don't do it. It's not time.

And it's so nice to get this permission. It's the antidote to me writing off my grief as silly or wrong or something that other people would look down upon. Even if (and I doubt this is true), but even if no one gets why I am feeling this way, the fact is that I am. And it's normal. And I'll continue to until I don't.

Here is a list of things that were on the "I can never do that" list but I've ended up doing them in the past 8 weeks:

-paint my toenails
-ride the KTX
-go to Yoger Presso in Hadong
-go to Seoul
-have a cup of English breakfast tea
-go into the Daegu YMCA building
-go into Buy the Book
-go to Gyeongju
-get on an escalator
-eat at Grazie
-eat cherry tomatoes

So, the first list will get shorter and the second will get longer over time. This I know.

I had a dream about Gareth last night. He was in a hospital bed and I was in there with him, snuggling. We were talking to each other and it became clear to me that he had no idea that he was going to die. He thought he was going to get better. "Babe," I said to him, "what do you understand about what the doctors said of your condition?" He explained that there was a lot of bleeding in his brain and also that he was a "c***" for saying some of the things he said when he was admitted into the hospital. (He used to call himself this if he was really mad about something he said. The ultimate in shame and it always made me sad to hear him do this.) I let him know that whatever he said was ok. That he suffered severe trauma to his brain and that probably made him say weird things and everyone understood that. (In reality, Gareth never regained consciousness after the fall, but this is how my dream was playing out.)

I held his head and cried and realized that I was going to need to tell him that he wasn't going to make it out of this. And that he had no idea. I told him. And we kissed. And we kissed and kissed and kissed and kissed. And I woke up.


  1. Like a movie I've been flying over the waves. Thanks.

  2. I remember asking other survivors, "how long with this last?" A couple of weeks ago I met the author of a book given to me by her friend, my friend, called "Swimming with Maya: A Mother's Story." I told her about losing Jessica and when she died--February 2013. She commented "That's just a nano second." I felt validated by a mother who had years pass in her grief process.

    Other survivors speak of initially not being able to visit shared places, like favorite restaurants, and then, in time, could do so. Not long ago, we went to Rojos, Jessica's favorite burrito place and got carryout. I used to avoid glancing in the restaurant's direction while driving past it; now we could enjoy those great burritos. Something so seemingly little, yet a milestone.