I woke up at 3 am last night. I was confused for a moment, as it wasn’t yet light and I hadn’t been awoken by my children. I sat in the confusion for a moment, and then I felt a warm body next to mine. I felt calm as I laid my head back down to sleep.
This does not seem like the start of a dramatic story, but when I reflected on it in the morning, I realized how far I’ve come.
Like many people, I’ve woken up at 3 am throughout my life. As a college kid, on the couch that had enveloped me in sleep. As a 20-something, living across the world and confused by the time change. As a young mother, jump-started by the tiny screams of a baby. As a cancer wife, running to get cool washcloths and other types of salve.
But what I remember most is how often I woke at 3 am in the months after Shawn died. Those were the worst 3 am moments I had in my life.
Once, about a year after Shawn died, I woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep. I cried, tossed and turned and then cried again. Finally, I started to write.
It was a blog entry, I thought at the time. But when I went to read it the next morning, I decided it was too bleak. My friends and family would worry about me if they read something like what I had written. Instead, I hid it in my drafts folder, marked “3 am: private and not for publication.”
But since it has been more than a year since I wrote it, I feel okay about putting it out in the universe now. Here is what it said:
It’s 3 am.
I’ve been crying for an hour.
Maybe I should just give up on sleep?
The other side of the bed is empty, as it’s been for 14 months.
My heart is physically hurting again. When this first happened, right after you died, I thought I was going to die. But it’s just something that happens sometimes. There’s a medical name for it, but everyone in my widow groups refers to it as “broken heart syndrome.”
I am so lonely. I thought I was getting better. I thought I was able to be alone in this world. But I am not.
I am not okay.
You left me. You got to live only 40 years in this world but they were 40 good years. You had parents and sisters who loved you and you had a wife who adored you. You had 3 great kids and an enviable career. You had only 40 years but you had everything anyone can ever as for in a life.
And I had it too. I had it for a while.
Why couldn’t it have been me? I would have been content to live just the first four decades of my life and die in the arms of my beloved.
But that won’t happen for me. I have to survive for my kids. I will not die. Or at least not anytime soon.
Instead, I’ll live in this purgatory.
It is 3 am. The loneliest time in the world.
I’ve re-read this draft many times over the past year and a half. I’ve thought about how far I’ve come and how much I’ve changed. I’ve felt relief that I am no longer in that emotional space. But I think it’s also important to tell you that it was a process. No, I didn’t feel better right away. My grief was not linear, and in some ways month 10 was easier than month 14.
But I think it’s also important to say this: It gets better. No, it doesn’t go away completely. And sure, at least a part of my grief is easier because I have someone who is lying next to me at night. But it wasn’t his arrival that made my grief ease.
It was time that helped me, as well as the general process of grieving over a period of months and then years. It was the natural healing that often happens with loss, even if there wasn’t any way that I could fully heal.
So if you’re reading this and thinking “I feel a lot more like that bleak 3 am Marjorie of 2019 than the newly-in-love Marjorie of 2020,” just know that I’ve been there.
It gets better, even if the healing isn’t perfectly even. There is a time – and it’s different for every person – when you can feel an easing of the intense grief. When you can start to see the beauty in this world. When you don’t write things like I once wrote in my diary during my dark days of early 2019.
It gets better. 3 am starts to look a little more like 3 am should look. Dark, of course, but not bleak.
3 am is just a few hours from dawn.