About a week before the anniversary of Shawn’s death this year, I sat by the fire with Chris and started talking about what it was like to watch someone die. I’m not sure why I wanted to tell him. He’s heard it all before and we talk sometimes about how I’ve processed Shawn’s death. But it wasn’t that I needed him to know more details. It was that I simply wanted to tell the story to someone again. I wanted – maybe even needed – to process it once more.
And so he listened. He let me talk and asked me a few questions. But mostly I just remembered what that week three years ago had felt like – the one when I knew that Shawn was going to die. Chris and I must have sat in front of the fire for over an hour, and then we talked more after we put the kids to bed. Over that week, I realized later, I spent dozens of hours talking about losing Shawn. I talked about my emotions and sometimes I talked about the actual process of dying, and what it looks like.
And he listened.
At one point, it occurred to me that it must be really difficult to be Chris. To just listen and provide support, without me giving anything in return. “You know,” I said, in a moment when the sadness wasn’t rushing over me, “you should write about this week for my blog. I bet it would be interesting for other people to hear about what it’s like for you to experience this week with me.”
“No,” he said. He wasn’t unkind but he spoke with conviction. “This week is not about me. It is not about my emotions. It is not about the story that I have. This week is about you.”
I disagreed with him. His emotions still mattered, and he certainly still had them. He agreed that he had his own set of emotions around the week, but that it wasn’t what needed to be the focus for my blog – or for our family.
I pushed him a bit, and eventually he started talking about his work in Colombia. For five years, following a formal peace agreement between the government and right wing paramilitaries known as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, he worked for a diplomatic mission to support the peace process. His job entailed working with demobilized former combatants and more often with those who had been victimized by their crimes. “Among other things, the work we were doing was often referred to as a ‘mision de acompanamiento’ – meaning that we were there to accompany. It was an idea that I struggled with at first because it felt really passive. But after a bit, I began to understand how important it was to just walk alongside those who had been impacted by the conflict, oftentimes as they were grieving the loss of a parent, spouse or child. We of course couldn’t bring back their loved one. But we could listen to their stories.”
He looked right at me. “That feels like what I can do this week, for you.”
And so I let him. I’m sure it wasn’t easy when I woke him up multiple nights in a row as my anxiety overtook me. I’m sure it wasn’t easy when I couldn’t have a normal conversation with him for days. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to watch me cry over a man I loved deeply for a decade and a half.
But he accompanied me through it.
And on January 9th, he helped me do the hardest thing I do every year: face Shawn’s death. First, with my children, which meant sitting together as we watched videos of Shawn, and comforting them when they needed it. And then, with me and the kids, as we visited the cemetery.
At the cemetery that day, a crew was out filling in a new grave. There had obviously been a burial a few hours before and the kids were curious about it. Had that happened when their dad was buried? When I die, will I get buried here, or with Chris? Was dad’s body disintegrated into the earth, or still there?
I didn’t know the answers to many of their questions, and I told them as such. Chris put his arm around me as I answered, squeezing my side when the questions got really hard. “Let’s walk around,” I said, and we did.
Tommy was particularly restless, and he ran all over. Eventually, he ran back to the area where Shawn’s grave was. “I found it!” he shouted, and then he started doing a funny dance, as though he’d just completed a touchdown or something.
I laughed and so did Chris, because it was adorable. Tommy was literally dancing on his father’s grave – though obviously it was out of joy, not disrespect. Still, it made me shake my head as I laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Chris went over and hugged him, and then Claire joined them. I came up and Chris pulled me into the hug. “Austin!” Tommy shouted, “you have to be in the family hug!”
Austin joined us and then there we were – all five of us – hugging each other next to Shawn’s grave.
Eventually, the kids ran away, playing tag as children do, or at least as my children do. The cemetery is a place they feel comfortable.
Chris looked at me. “Do you want to stay longer, or have some time by yourself?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I feel okay now.”
And with that, he put his arm around me and walked me back to the car.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.