Careful

Join or Die banner in DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley's house

I could tell about halfway through my run this morning that I was going to have to quit early. It happens sometimes. I think I’m okay, and then running puts me into this zen-like place where I start pondering the big questions in my life.

And then the tears come.

Sometimes I can run through them. Sometimes I can slow down, and lean against the side of the treadmill and breathe and then start again.

But this time I had to stop. I saw the fat tears drop on my shoes and I gave into my sadness.

The tears were not about Shawn. Well, they weren’t exclusively about Shawn. I don’t know if I’ve cried since Shawn died without at least some of those tears earmarked for my grief over losing him. So when I start crying about something else, sometimes it’s hard to know what percentage is for the current issue of the day, and what percentage is for Shawn.

I started crying over something I don’t need to go into here, but suffice to say that I got my feelings hurt.

It was a relatively new sensation for me. Before Shawn got sick I used to get my feelings hurt sometimes. I’m not a super sensitive soul, but I’m socially aware enough that there were times when I felt the sting of a missed invitation or a friend who slighted me in some way. But once I was dealing with cancer and then widowhood, I just didn’t care enough to cry over anything that wasn’t a life-or-death issue.

I tried to talk to myself this morning as I took a few deep breaths. “You’ve been through much worse,” I said to myself. I looked over at the banner that hangs behind the treadmill – the one that Shawn put up. It’s the “Join, or Die” flag from the American Revolutionary War. He was somewhat obsessed with everything American, and he loved that image.

“God,” I thought, “it’s crazy how much I still miss him. Still.” Looking at the flag I felt the grief shift from the present moment to the past, and it almost overwhelmed me. That pain – the grief I felt from losing him – struck me and held on.

It was overwhelming. It always is. I let myself wallow in it for a few minutes before I went back to thinking of my current problems.

“Careful,” I actually said. I’m not sure why I felt the need to say it out loud, but sometimes I talk to myself about my emotions. I put my hands over my face and tried to pull myself together. I knew that if I became swept up by these new painful feelings – ones that were mostly unrelated to Shawn – there was a chance that I could get really hurt.

But I can’t get hurt like that again. No, this minor drama of the day isn’t going to rip my heart apart like Shawn’s death did. Nothing ever can. But if I open up my heart – to friendship, or really any kind of relationship – there’s a chance that someone is going to hurt me. It might be unintentional, but the risk is there.

I’ve engaged with the grief surrounding Shawn’s death. I feel okay leaning into it. Sometimes I even like it. I like feeling that pain again because it means that he’s still there with me.

But I feel myself holding back – and being careful – around my other relationships. I need to make sure to protect my heart, because I can’t again survive something like the pain of losing Shawn….Hell, I can’t survive anything even close to it.

In some ways, I am stronger. I can let things roll off my back that used to bother me. I can navigate difficult situations because I know what really matters and what doesn’t matter at all.

But in a lot of other ways, my heart is weaker. And so to protect it, I put up barriers. These barriers aren’t impenetrable, and over the past year I’ve become more open to letting people through them. I want to engage with the world, and I want to have deeper and more meaningful relationships, even if that means I might get hurt. That’s what life is, right?

Still, when I think about the people in my life – the ones whose lives are intricately connected to mine – I hear this cautionary voice in my head. I can’t quite make it go away.

“Careful,” it says.

9 Replies to “Careful”

  1. Sending lots of love!

    1. Thanks my friend!

  2. It’s been two years since my husband passed away and I recently started dating. It’s terrifying to put your heart out there again. I too have put a wall up since my husbands death out of fear that I won’t survive another devistating blow, but then I ask myself……which is scarier the thought of getting my heart shattered again or spending the rest of my life (and I’m only 50) without someone walking beside me and sharing this life with? The later scares me more. I also know that the pain could never quit equal the loss of losing my husband.

    1. Oh, believe me, I’ve asked myself this a thousand times. What’s better – risking you heart or staying safe? I’ve got a different answer each time you ask me!

  3. First of all, it is not crazy for you to miss a husband you lost scarcely a year ago. Human perceptions of time are often flexible, so a crowded year can seem like more than twelve months. But vivid experiences are always closer to us. A year just isn’t that long.

    For better or worse, I know a lot about careful. Careful can be a function of the perception of risk, which differs wildly from person to person for all sorts of reasons. One of those can certainly be time. Athletes who tear a knee ligament can take a year or more before fully trusting that part of their body again; what you’ve been through is a much bigger deal than that. I don’t think this necessarily means you’ll be thinking “careful” to yourself for years to come. But be patient. You’ll be all right.

    1. I know. Patience is so hard, however! 🙂 But it is true that a year is no time at all, really.

  4. Marjorie, I think Joseph Britt touched on the major issues here, namely the perception of risk and trust. That numbness you felt during the first weeks and months allowed you to cope with the initial shock of your loss as well as dealing with the practicalities of death including wills, lawyers, bills, utility companies, banks, etc. Somehow you got through all of that and I know that with me, I can’t even remember a lot of what I did or said that first year. I just know that I got through it. So did you. And I also know that some part of my reptilian or mammalian brain protected me so I could get through it. You’re still in survival mode and one year is nothing; everything is very raw for you and of course, you are going to still be protective of your heart which has been lacerated so deeply because you still feel vulnerable. You will be for a time. As the months go by that numbness wears off and we sometimes become hyper-vigilant about other things including relationships which comes down to trust. You may feel as if you’re putting up walls and moats around your heart, but you can build bridges over them and you said you’ve found that you have. It takes time and one thing I learned is to take that time. Let those tears flow and don’t place high expectations on yourself. It used to drive me crazy when people said, “You are so strong” because it was as if believing that made them feel better. If they saw how much I missed my husband and how it literally brought me to my knees in tears on the kitchen floor they’d take that back real fast. I finally told a few people to please stop saying it because I wasn’t “strong”; I was just doing what I needed to do because the only other choice was unacceptable. That was then; now I do feel stronger because I have weathered so much and I have become more trusting. But I’ve also learned to walk away if someone made me feel uncomfortable and expected too much of me. Our whole world shifts with a loss like this and sometimes it feels as if, to quote Yeats, “the centre cannot hold.” But it can, and it did, and it will for you, too. As for missing Shawn, you loved deeply; you’re going to grieve deeply. This is normal. Wish I could give you a big hug, Marjorie.

    1. Very, very well articulated, Melanie. I second everything you’ve said here. It’s been 7 months for me and even though I try to project what passes for “strength” to my family and friends, I found myself sitting at the computer, with my face in my hands, saying out loud “I need you here to help me with this!” to my husband because I was dealing with a financial decision that I wasn’t sure about. I eventually figured it out myself, so I guess I can count it as one more small success on the long list of things I’ve dealt with this past year. Yes, people want to think we’re doing okay because, like you said, it makes them feel better about us. We don’t want them to worry so we say we’re doing alright even when we aren’t.

    2. What a beautiful comment – thank you so much for it. I love that you have become more trusting – that’s beautiful.

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