I remember the moment – the exact moment – when someone brought up dating in our grief group. “When will we know it’s time to date?”
Our group therapist, who was both blunt and kind, leaned back in her chair and took a deep breath. “You can start thinking about dating,” she said, “when it doesn’t make you want to throw up.”
I remember very little about this grief group, as Shawn had died just a few months prior to it and I was in the haze of new loss. But this comment stuck with me. At the time, dating was not remotely on my radar, and if I had been able to even look at other men, I know I would have found the idea of being with someone else revolting.
But I’ve often returned to this moment. Our therapist went on to talk about how this litmus test was a good one for a lot of things. When should you clean out your partner’s closet? When it doesn’t make you want to throw up. When do you start thinking about applying for a new job or selling the house? When it doesn’t make you want to throw up. When do you plan that first trip without your partner? When it doesn’t make you want to throw up.
As she talked about this idea, it struck me as overly simplistic and a bit ridiculous. I mean, was that really the bar? I should do things when they didn’t make me physically gag?
I didn’t realize until much later how brilliant of a line it actually was.
At the time, everyone else was telling me to do things when I felt “ready.” But what was “ready”? How did I know that I was “ready” for anything? I certainly wasn’t “ready” for Shawn’s death and I knew I hadn’t been “ready” to tell my children their father had died. I faced both of those things because I had to. But back in the spring of 2018, I felt like I’d never be ready for anything that I didn’t absolutely have to do.
I was wrong, of course. I got to the point where a lot of things didn’t make me throw up. I sold Shawn’s car. I took off my wedding ring. I cleaned out Shawn’s closet. I even tried a new relationship for a bit.
At each step, everyone warned me not to do things until I “felt ready.” But here’s the key: I never, ever felt ready.
I did not feel “ready” to get rid of Shawn’s possessions. It was hard to go through the books from his office and realize that while he found defense policy of the mid-20th century interesting, a 500-page book on that topic was unlikely to ever be opened again in our house. I didn’t want to get rid of that book, or any of the rest.
But I knew in the back of my mind that I needed to make space for myself in our house. I wanted to do that. In the end, I was able to donate this book (and many others) because it didn’t make me throw up.
To be clear – I wasn’t ready to part with a lot of his clothes or his car or his trinkets. They were all part of what made him Shawn. I kept a lot of his things. But when I could finally pick up a shirt of his and say, “I can let this go” without physically falling to the ground, I knew it was time to give it to Goodwill.
If I had waited until I was “ready” there would still be dozens and dozens of boxes in my garage labeled “Shawn’s office” and an entire closet full of clothes of his. I’d still be paying for his phone and his car and his CrossFit membership. I’d probably never have eaten at a restaurant alone.
Instead, I did all of those things – and many more – when they didn’t make me feel physically ill. To be fair, sometimes I misjudged my ability to be ready, and I ended up crying on the floor of a public bathroom or something equally embarrassing. But mostly, this rule has been a useful one, and I’m surprised at how often I still use it to gage whether or not I’m ready for something.
Here’s just one example from my life right now. At the end of May, a friend set up an online dating account for me. Every time I opened it over the summer, I’d feel a pit in my stomach when I’d see various notes from men in my inbox. But today, for no reason whatsoever, I decided to look through my account again.
And I didn’t feel like throwing up.
Hey, it’s a step.