When Shawn died, I started keeping a diary.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “of course you did! We’ve read over 500 entries here on this blog!”
And yes, part of my writing was public, and I put it here on my blog. But I had a whole separate place where I wrote more personal things, or things that I just didn’t know how to turn into a blog post. It’s where I wrote about the real fear I had, before I could write publicly about fear. It’s where I wrote about crying in the shower and waking up at 3 am and worrying about my kids. And yes, some of that eventually made it on the blog. But much of it was just for me.
It was also where I wrote about my parents – about my mom’s depression and suicide, and about my dad’s experience with losing her. It’s where I put down my feelings when I finally read her diary, and it’s where I jotted notes after particularly meaningful conversations with my dad.
The diary was just for me, really, though sometimes I’d read it when I needed ideas for the blog. But then one day, something changed.
It was the fall of 2018, and I’d just published my second article in the Washington Post. (It ran in print, and many of my friends saved copies for me.) A neighbor read it, and emailed me. She knew I wrote this blog, and she thought I should talk to an agent she knew about writing a book. Would I be interested?
I was, a bit. But what did I know about writing books?
I met with the agent and his team, who were encouraging. I showed them pieces of my diary, and they encouraged me to keep writing. I brought a few different drafts back to them over the next year. My writing was raw, as I was often processing things in real time. Each time we talked, they were kind but noncommittal. I could write….but my book just wasn’t ready, they said. And then, the pandemic hit, and I stopped working on the book and focused on keeping everyone upright. Also, I was falling in love. There was a lot going on.
But at the start of this year, a friend (and editor herself) again encouraged me to start writing. I reached out to the team at the agency. They were still interested. This time, I had enough critical distance to think about a story arc. I was focused. I wrote in every in-between moment I could find at home or school or at 3 am. I wrote all summer long.
And a week before I left for Maine to marry Chris, I showed the book to the team at the agency. “I don’t want any feedback until I’m home from my honeymoon,” I wrote in my email.
So it wasn’t until last week that I got a reply that said, “no, thanks.”
To be fair, it didn’t actually say those words. But that was the gist. It wasn’t, “keep trying.”
It was “no.”
I was really sad. I mean, I knew it was possible I’d get rejected, but I had wrapped my head around the idea that maybe it would work. Chris comforted me. Even my kids knew it was a big deal and felt sad for me. I spent much of that day with a heavy heart.
I was okay. It’s not that I wasn’t sad, but rather that the crushing feeling never appeared. I was actually a little shocked.
I had so many setbacks the first year (okay, first two years) of widowhood. I’m not just talking about the grief – that part was always present. I’m talking about the real-life obstacles I hit that were above-and-beyond that grief. I got turned down when I applied for a promotion at work. I hit an emotional wall at 14 months that sent me into a tailspin. I got rejected by the first man who I really let myself feel something for. The list goes on.
Each time, I was overwhelmed by my emotions. “Crushed” is not too strong of a word to use. Time and time again, I spent days sobbing over a lost job or a lost man or a lost opportunity. “I just need this!” I’d say to myself, no matter what “this” was.
Because I did. I just needed something – anything! – to make me feel like I was making it in this world. Of course, sometimes I got those moments, but when things didn’t work out, it was so much harder on me than it had ever been before I became a widow. I was so much more fragile.
It wasn’t something that got easier each month or each year. And yet, after about a year and a half, I felt the world shift. As I approached the two-year mark of Shawn’s death, things felt different.
In the spring of 2020, right before the pandemic hit, I wrote a blog post called “I Guess This Is What Healing Looks Like,” which was about realizing that I was becoming more resilient when the days were hard. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote after coming to school really tired one day:
I pulled into the parking space and sat for a moment, listening to my music. It was Lizzo, and I was trying to get some energy from the music. I turned it up, and for a moment, laid my head on the steering wheel.
And in that moment, I realized that I hadn’t done that in a very long while.
Yes, I still often come to school tired. I am still overwhelmed by a lot of things in my life. I still miss Shawn desperately at inappropriate times, like when one of my students is talking about foreign policy in class and I have to turn toward the board so that no one can see my face.
But it’s different this school year. I’m still regularly overwhelmed by exhaustion and grief. But I’m not overwhelmed by exhaustion and grief every moment of every day. I can come to school some days, park my car, turn off the engine and get out of the car without laying my head on the steering wheel as I listen to Nine Inch Nails.
I guess this is what healing looks like?
At the time, I only had a partial understanding that I was feeling better. But what I could notice, in real time, was that – most days – I didn’t have to lay my head on the steering wheel to emotionally prepare for teaching. This was something I’d done for years at that point. But somewhere along the way, I’d mostly stopped doing it. Somewhere along that way, I’d begun to heal. I’d become more resilient to the things the world threw at me.
I’m having another one of those moments right now. Yes, I’m sad about the agent not wanting my book. But I’m okay. Maybe I’ll find a new agent, or maybe I won’t. Sure, I want things to turn out. But if they don’t, I’ll survive. That’s always been true, of course.
It’s just that I know it now.