I spent a lot of the first half of 2018 looking for something to ease the strain in my chest, a pain that was obviously due to my mental state and yet also had a physical component. One night, I had my dad listen to my heart with his stethoscope, because it felt so out-of-whack. “You’re okay,” my dad said, though I knew he was only talking about my pulse and not the emotion that had caused me to wake him up so he could reassure me that I wasn’t having a heart attack. If I could have just taken a pill and made the pain dissolve, I would have done it, but since I couldn’t, I tried to find someone who could help. My first therapist, one I met just a week after Shawn died, called me “dear” and cried through my tearful recounting of my life story. I knew as I left that I’d never go back. But therapy was what everyone said would help me heal, so I kept looking. “I’ll try anything,” I’d say to anyone who would listen.
A few weeks after Shawn died, a friend sent me something she’d seen on the neighborhood listserv. It was a new therapy group called “Mindfulness and Grief” and it billed itself as a place where participants could use the practices of meditation to process difficult situations. I’d never done meditation, but I’d also never been a widow. I signed up.
The first group session was held in a small building near my house. I walked up a set of narrow stairs that led to a room adorned with a number of banners, including a massive image of the Buddha, cloaked in yellow. I was the first person there, and I chatted with the man who was the facilitator of the group. He was young, with shoulder-length blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and he asked me a number of questions. Yes, I was the widow who had emailed earlier in the week. Yes, I had children, three of them. No, I hadn’t ever done meditation.
He seemed nice, though I felt too nervous to ask him any questions about himself. Once other people entered, I stopped talking. Was I supposed to tell these people all about my loss? How would I do that while also being in some sort of meditative state? I looked at one banner on the wall, a bold splash of geometric shapes with Chinese characters at the top. Could anyone read them, I wondered? Did it make people feel like the space was more meditative just because of these characters, even if they were incomprehensible?
After a while, enough people gathered to start. We pulled our chairs together in a circle, which struck me as odd, since I figured this was the sort of group that would sit on the floor. But most of the people who were there were closer to my father’s age than my own, so I suppose the leader wanted to make it comfortable for them. The three people opposite me—a man and two women—chatted in a light-hearted way, laughing a bit about something I couldn’t make out. I stared at the floor and waited.
“If you’d like, please share about why you are here,” the facilitator said. The man across from me volunteered to go first. He had lost his dad, who was 90, and talked about his loss wistfully. He did not cry. One of the women next to him went next, telling everyone about how her best friend died a few months before. As they told their stories, I watched the facilitator, who patiently nodded his head, and I stared at the Buddha and tried to feel compassion for the other people there.
I couldn’t. I felt nothing, which I knew was odd.
After a while, an older woman told a dramatic story of her husband being murdered by their next-door neighbor many years prior. This got my attention—as well as everyone else’s—and I listened as she recounted the story of how a fight over property lines had led to his death. A fight over property lines! I marveled at her steadiness and the way her styled white hair and blue and green silk scarves made her look regal. In an odd way, she reminded me of my Aunt Terry, my father’s oldest sibling, who dyed her hair red and wore dozens of pieces of jewelry and commanded the attention of a room just by her mere presence. I felt drawn to her, as though she was family, and I thought maybe we could be friends in another time and place.
The stories continued, and I listened only a little bit. The only people there who were my age were the two women who sat on either side of me. We were going to be the last ones to speak. For a split second, I hoped that at least one of them was there because of a tragic early loss, even as I recognized that it was a gross thing to think.
Finally, we got to the woman next to me. She wore light colored jeans and bright sneakers, a sweatshirt wrapped around her waist. The room had suddenly become stuffy. I was already crying in anticipation of my turn, but I tried to listen to her story. “I don’t know how to move through the world anymore,” she said, and everyone nodded. “It’s been two weeks since my loss and I cry all the time.” There, she paused to blow her nose. “I know it shouldn’t be so hard, that people tell me it’s no big deal because he wasn’t my family, but he was my family.”
She was rambling, and it was hard to follow what she was trying to say. I watched the facilitator shift in his chair. Did he know why she was there? I looked back down at the floor. Did it even matter? Did I even care about all of these people?
The woman who was talking stopped for a brief second, and I watched her pick at her fingernails. Then she cleared her throat and said, “Without my dog, I am not okay.”
I looked up again. A bunch of sensations went through me, one of them the realization that I was in the wrong place. Was she really talking about her dog? I couldn’t conceal my shock. I looked at her with wide eyes, saying nothing.
Eventually, she stopped talking. She didn’t seem to notice that I was staring at her, even as she wiped her cheeks and looked expectantly at me. It was my turn.
I should have stood up and left, but I didn’t. Instead, I said, “My husband died in January. He was forty.” And then I cried for a full minute while everyone watched me silently. Maybe they were all staring at me like we stared at the widow with the silk scarves and the murdered husband.
I realized later that it was the first time I was telling my story to a group of people. Shawn’s death was public knowledge, but only in my neighborhood community. Most people around me knew about his illness and so I’d never had to put it all into words for more than one person at a time.
“He was healthy,” I told them, “and then he was sick and then he was gone. It took less than six weeks. We have three little kids.”
It was all of my story that I could get out. I couldn’t elaborate about the cancer or anything else. I just told the basics, and even those words were stilted.
It took me more than a minute to look up, but when I did, every single face in the circle showed one emotion: pity. I’m sure no one meant to be so obvious. My grief was very raw.
The last person to speak was sitting to my right. She paused for just a second, glancing at me and seeming to try and figure out what to do, before she started talking. She, too, was there to talk about her grief after the death of her dog.
I’m sure she felt strange, but it seemed as though she didn’t know what else to do. I think she figured it was her turn, and she had chosen this group to talk about her dog, so that’s what she was supposed to do. She talked for at least five minutes. I could feel the seconds tick by as she talked and I barely listened, trying to conceal my rage that she could be sad about a dog or even that some of the other people were sad about old people dying. Dogs and old people died. That’s what happened. That was normal. My knee bounced up and down, as it sometimes involuntarily did when my emotions were strong.
As I walked down the narrow staircase later that afternoon, away from the room with the Buddha on the wall, I gazed at the sky. It was gray, as it had been for a few days, and everything felt cold and damp. February is never a good time to feel like things are going to be okay, I thought. It was a month of icy wind and piles of snow with flecks of brown dirt and trees that seemed as though they’d always been bare. I walked slowly to my car. It was freezing, and I could see my breath even once I closed the car door. I paused. I couldn’t drive yet, because the windshield was frozen and then out of nowhere I was screaming “What the actual fuck!” over and over again. When I stopped, I put my head on the steering wheel and cried fat tears of frustration.