This was the title of a panel session at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville last weekend. I was one of two panelists. The room was full because people want to know what it takes to heal.
What did it take for me to heal? I tried to offer some meaningful thoughts from my experience through grief as told in my book Remember the Dragonflies. Everybody’s different. What it took for me might not be true for others. But I think it can help.
Four hours after my husband died, my sister arrived from Memphis and said, “Well, Kathy, you just have to build a whole new life.” It hit my brain like a block of ice. I could not yet grasp that I had lost my old life.
At some point life boils what’s in your crucible down to the salt of YOU. The old life is gone. Somehow you build anew out of the crystallized residue left in the vessel that is you. You unknowingly reach down and pull up what is deep inside you and stand on it…because that’s all you have left. You don’t even know what is down there until you need it. You don’t even know you are using it as you lay hold to it. But all the years of living, praying, doing life, studying, learning, faithing, believing, and becoming have put substance in you, and that is the residue left in your vessel when all the physical things fall away.
What does it take to heal? For me, in order to heal:
1. I had to hurt. Everybody wants to take the pain away. “Take a pill.” “Pray; ask God to take away the pain.” I instinctively knew I had to let myself feel my grief. I had to take hold of it and manage it and work through it. I didn’t need to rely on anything or anyone. Loss and grief were given to me. I needed to hurt the grief out.
2. I had to shoulder into it. I had to push myself, make myself keep going, pick up one foot and put it in front of the other, then do it again. Sometimes that’s all you can do. I had to do the things I did before my husband died, plus handle all the things he handled. I had to take care of business. He was a business owner. He died on a Saturday evening. Monday morning before his funeral on Tuesday I had to go to work to let his customers know and to get a backup plan for them. Over the next month I had to close his business, write a contract, merge the customers with a new company, get a job (I had worked for him), and pay the bills because the mortgage company and the electric company don’t wait for their due. Six months after Charlie died, I was sitting at my desk at my new job, looking around at my co-workers and thinking: he doesn’t know any of these people, he doesn’t know I have this job, he doesn’t know where my office is, he doesn’t know anything about my life now. I have…sort of…built a new life, as my sister had advised.
3. I had to get the pain out (even as I was shouldering into it). All the emotions — anger, fear, guilt, regret — get them out! Crying is a release. I cried until I could cry no more. I cried for a year and a half until I got mad about having to cry, so I told my deceased husband that I was done with it and I wasn’t going to cry any more, and then I cried some more. I wrote my feelings out in blog posts (that I used in my book). I cleaned out his office and threw old stuff away in the dumpster at the office complex — threw it all as hard as I could, slamming it against the metal sides, hurting something else as I was hurting. I went on walks, hard and fast walks, slung my hands, and told the grief pain to go away. “Get out! Get out of me! You can’t have me!”
4. I needed to remember and honor him because that put me in control and took me out of a “victim” mode. I set his place at the first Thanksgiving table. I put his favorite Vols cap on top of the Christmas tree. Scattering his ashes at the one-year mark was a significant healing moment. He’d always told me he wanted his ashes scattered in the Tennessee River across from the Tennessee Vols’ Neyland Stadium, so I took his urn and went to Knoxville. Not only did I fulfill his request, but I gave him more. I went inside the stadium and released some ashes behind the goal post under the scoreboard. I saw a cameo of him — laughing. He was pleased. I was, too. I had an immediate awareness of feeling lighter and better. I had done something meaningful.
Life doesn’t stop when you lose someone. It keeps going on all around you. You go to work, you go to the grocery store, you pay the monthly bills, you get the car’s oil changed, you shop for Christmas, you celebrate new grandchildren, you lose someone else. You hang on to that spinning merry-go-round. Cycles of weeks, months, seasons, and years come and come again. Birthdays and holidays roll around. The revolutions spin you, and meantime, you are not only moving around in calendar circles, you are moving forward.
I guess what I’m saying is: you can’t help but build a new life. It happens over time. It happens by default. But you can choose to hurt, to push on, to release the hurt, and to take some control over the madness and chaos and meanness of grief.