Tag Archives: Grief

The 4th Wedding Anniversary (That Wasn’t)

Lucky 13 carnival

(Image/Halloween Forum)

Yesterday would have been lucky-number 13.

My wife and I celebrating 13 years of marital bliss.

Only we didn’t. Because we stopped at 9. In large part because the final couple of years were anything but blissful.

Also, I didn’t remember.

I hadn’t noticed until I flipped a daily calendar to today.

And all joking aside about my totally suspect ADHD calendar management, it’s significant that I didn’t remember.

Maybe some people feel completely fine and normal after getting divorced. But other people feel shitty and want to die a little bit and cry a lot more than they’re proud of while feeling like the world’s biggest loser and binge-watching a lot of shows on Netflix and assuming they will spend the rest of their lives celibate and alone while their exes are having orgasm parties with some wildly successful entrepreneur ready to sell their tech startup for a billion dollars and pretty much guaranteeing a lifetime of their children respecting and wanting to be with the other parent more than them.

I was a member of the latter group.

Even my grandma (the sweetest, most-prayerful and non-judgmental person I know) was probably like: “My #1 grandson seems extra-losery lately. If he doesn’t get it together, he’s going to die alone, because no woman will ever want to kiss him on the mouth, let alone play fiddlesticks in his nether regions. I’m demoting him to, like, #4 in the grandson ranking.” It’s difficult to know for sure how she felt and/or whether I’ve reclaimed by spot atop the family grandson rankings.

It’s significant that I didn’t reflect on my wedding anniversary yesterday, because that’s exactly the kind of thing you tend to do when you feel broken and depressed after divorce.

Every major holiday.

Her birthday.

My birthday.

Our son’s birthday.

The Fourth of July (our “engagement anniversary”).

There were all of these things that triggered the most powerful and unexpected emotions for the first couple of years following the end of our marriage. If you’d told me some date on the calendar had the power to trigger something within me that would make my entire body revolt, I’d have called you crazy.

But then I lived it.

I felt in the most intense ways what a particular anniversary could remind you of. If it wasn’t something on the calendar, it was one of those asshole Facebook memories that seem to randomly pop up and try to ruin your day, or it was me driving by a particular building or location, or maybe hearing a certain song, and then I’d feel all the things rushing in again.

It wasn’t just hard because it hurt.

It was hard because it reminded me that I wasn’t fully back yet. I hadn’t recovered. I remained weak and fragile. It reminded me that I didn’t have control over emotions, which meant I didn’t have control over myself.

Once every day stops hurting after a major life trauma, the next phase involves unpredictable and intermittent flare-ups.

Rock-bottom has one perk. NOTHING scares you anymore, because (even if it isn’t true) it feels like it can’t get any worse.

But once the healing begins, some of the fear returns, because the ability to just behave normally during the day without all of the hurt and fear and anxiety becomes this really important and valuable thing that you had always taken for granted until you knew better.

So when something sneaky triggers us into a mini-relapse, it can shake you up because you don’t know if that’s ever going to stop happening.

It’s hard to feel like you don’t have any control about your baseline state-of-being. As if you don’t know which “you” you’ll be when you wake up tomorrow.

I often wondered when these triggers would finally go away.

And Then Something Funny Happens

You don’t really notice because you forget to look for it.

The same way that resentment and shit-festival rides and funnel cake booths sneak quietly into our relationships and go undetected until we finally bite into some funnel cake we overpaid for and it tastes like goat piss, and then we pop three balloons with our skilled dart throwing to win that awesome stuffed monkey, but instead of giving us the awesome stuffed monkey, the carnie gives us the middle finger and divorce papers…

The same way that happens, goodness and normalcy slowly creep in when life feels like it’s beating us down.

I wanted so badly to hack the process.

I researched whatever scientific studies I could find on happiness. I went to guided meditation classes. I drank a little more beer, tequila and vodka than usual.

I wanted a shortcut, and if I couldn’t find one, I at least wanted to know when the terrible pain and sadness might end.

What is the thing or the time I can look forward to because that’s when I’ll know this is mostly behind me?

I took comfort in some of the stories and experiences of other divorcees.

But still. When will it be my turn?

And then the funny thing happens. You wake up one day and realize you’d stopped counting. You’d stopped looking for signs. You’d stopped wondering when tomorrow will come because, holy shit, it’s ALREADY tomorrow and I didn’t even notice.

There was no magic to evoke.

There was no exorcism or major therapeutic breakthrough (not that there’s anything wrong with leaning on psych pros—I’d have done so if I was financially comfortable enough to shell out $250/hour).

There was no one thing I can point to that took me from the painful and debilitating shit-festival to today. The day AFTER a wedding anniversary (that wasn’t) that I never got around to noticing.

The path to today wasn’t complex or hard to explain even though I hadn’t realized I’d arrived here. The path wasn’t around. There were no shortcuts or helpful detours. There was only one straight path that could only be traveled at the speed with which I move.

There were unpleasant and difficult obstacles from the get-go. And it turns out, Life doesn’t magically remove all those obstacles to make the path easier to walk. Dealing with each obstacle by climbing over it, or blasting my way through simply made me good at navigating them.

I wanted it to be easy and fast. But it didn’t feel that way. It felt torturously slow.

But as I look back today? Four wedding anniversaries (that weren’t) later? I don’t know where the time went.

But I’m here now. (Hi!)

The path was hard. But then it gets a little bit easier. Then a little bit easier. Then a little bit easier. Then you accidentally get so busy living again that you forget to measure the difficulty.

Hope is the carrot at the end of the stick, and it’s worth walking toward. When you’re emerging from divorce or some other awful life event, how much better tomorrow can be than today is so incremental, we’re unlikely to notice it. But it IS better.

And when you wake up and breathe enough times, you stop, look back, and really see how far you’ve come.

The only path was through.

Never easy. But always worth it.

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How to Be Comfortable Alone on Valentine’s Day

guy sitting alone at restaurant

Totally NOT this. I promise. (Image/Its Box Office Forums)

If I’m hospitalized or incapacitated from a car accident or emergency health problem, my ex-wife will be the first person anyone calls.

That’s because, even four years after our divorce, she’s still my emergency contact.

In a reverse-scenario, I’m probably the fourth person to get an emergency call about her. Yes, I’m aware of how pathetic that sounds.

On a night where she might go out for dinner, drinks and whatever else with her boyfriend if our son wasn’t at home with her, I’ll sit alone in my kitchen writing things for a client after grabbing a takeout dinner on the drive home later.

I have no way to prove I’m not just writing this in some lame attempt to sound cool or tough, but I have exactly ZERO problems with my Valentine’s Day plans today.

I want to talk about why, because I think the things that make people feel lonely on Valentine’s Day are the same things that compel people to marry someone before they’re ready, or to ignore their partner’s behavioral red flags, or jump into a relationship super-fast after a breakup or divorce and ultimately suffer for that choice.

I remember when it wasn’t this way.

I remember how excruciating it is when your body is still learning how to operate with entire pieces of your insides missing. Crying, even though you never cry. Unable to breathe, even though you’re always breathing.

I remember.

Because Valentine’s Day is hard for a lot of people. We like to associate that feeling with single people and maybe feel sorry for them as if they’re all alone because no one will ever like them or find them worthy.

To be sure, many divorced people will be afraid of that. I was afraid of that. Maybe still am.

But I don’t think single people are the loneliest people. I think people in broken marriages, or people who are the givers in one-way relationships that just haven’t broken yet, are the loneliest people.

Being married or carrying the “In a Relationship” label DOES NOT prevent loneliness.

Connectivity to others prevents loneliness, regardless of whether you share an address or exchange bodily fluids with them.

Self-love (self-compassion and respect, not narcissism) and self-acceptance prevents loneliness.

And something else does, too: Getting used to being alone.

The Reason I’m Single

Save it, dicks. Of course not everyone finds me attractive. Of course not everyone likes me.

But that’s not why I’m single.

I’m intentionally single today in a way I wasn’t four years ago, and I want you to understand why because it matters.

I am divorced primarily because I spent years taking my wife for granted, leaning on her to do most of the heavy lifting of Life and household management, including paying our bills, coordinating our social calendars, planning holidays, developing a caretaking system for our newborn, and executing the day-to-day management of everything required of working adults with a child and a mortgage in the 21st century.

I think MOST divorce today stems from this same toxic condition.

I can’t speak for other guys. Just me.

I grew up in a small Ohio town. When we were all together for large holiday gatherings, or when I visited friends’ houses, or just my experience with my mom at home, I almost exclusively watched wives and mothers doing things like cooking, clearing the table afterward, broom-sweeping the floor, washing dishes, changing baby diapers, folding laundry, vacuuming carpet, cleaning bathrooms, etc.

I’ve heard so many men call this stuff “women’s work” and seen so many men retreat to the living-room recliner after dinner to let their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters take care of the cleanup, that I felt OFFENDED by my wife wanting me to do more housework.

I’ve had four years to think about this, and finally see it for what it is.

First, I was a baby and small child, and everyone did everything for me.

Then, I was in grade school and high school, and all I had to do was show up, get decent grades, and have fun with my friends the rest of the time. My parents did all of the heavy lifting.

Then, I was in college where even the super-rare chores were things I was doing with my best friends, usually while drinking beer or after sharing a joint.

Then, I was with my girlfriend. The same one who, 16 years later, would be my Life-emergency contact despite being divorced for four years.

In other words, every second of my existence from my earliest memory until the moment my wife walked out the door and never came back consisted of me having almost no life responsibilities other than staying alive, and a constant support system INSIDE the walls of wherever I called home.

Later, I either had my best friend or my wife under the same roof. An adult I could count on to back me up, and trust with everything I have including my favorite little human on Earth. Someone I could talk to. A living, breathing human being exchanging stories, ideas, hugs, kisses, comfort.

Then the only vinyl record I’d ever heard, the same one spinning for 33 years straight, screeched to a halt, and all that shit drove away in a white SUV with a woman I used to know behind the wheel, and the other half of my entire world sitting in the backseat.

I freaked.

Some of you remember.

I remember.

So when people are having a hard time on Valentine’s Day, I’m not inclined to tell them to suck it up because breaking on the inside feels so much worse than breaking on the outside and I learned the hard way that’s not something you can know until you, just, know.

I Vowed I’d Never Do That Again

Not to my son.

Not to my partner.

Not to myself.

Because it does feel scary sometimes. I can’t hitch my wagon to someone who I’m not EXTREMELY confident I could potentially have a life-long marriage with.

No settling. NONE.

But someone else isn’t what scares me.

I scare me. Must be this tall to ride.

I won’t be with someone just because I want something from them, including the comfort of not being alone.

So, here’s the task I’ve given myself: Get comfortable alone. Get comfortable taking care of yourself. Get self-sufficient in all of the areas you spent your life relying on others. 

Because my biggest relationship failing was that. Relying on others to take care of things for me.

And that’s not okay. Life is hard enough. We can’t expect others to carry all of our things too.

And that’s where I am today. Right now.

That’s where many single people are. They’re not unlovable or unsexable rejects. They’re not all a bunch of emotional charity cases.

They’re just walking the path for the first time without a trail guide and learning to find their own way.

Maybe all of that changes tomorrow. Or maybe in three years. Or maybe never.

In the meantime, I must arrive at a place where I have complete and total faith in myself, and where I demonstrate a strong capacity for self-care and self-sustainability.

THEN. Then I can be a good partner to someone else in a way I wasn’t in my marriage. Maybe other people are that way too.

I don’t think we can NEED someone else.

That’s a bad power dynamic, and frankly, unattractive—so we’ll have a hard time finding viable partners like that anyway.

But we can be whole all on our own.

We MUST be whole on our own.

Because I think when we’re whole all on our own, we’ll be ready to deliver on the things we talk about around here.

How to Get Comfortable With Change

We have a tendency to resist all kinds of changes because change is uncomfortable.

We struggle with loss because life changes dramatically, and it’s uncomfortable.

We feel uncomfortable behind the wheel of a strange car, or sleeping in a strange bed, or moving to a new town, or starting a new job.

But, inevitably, if we stay alive long enough, the new things become familiar.

The new things become the new normal.

And we get comfortable.

Step 1 – Breathe.

Step 2 – Do your best at whatever you’re doing.

Step 3 – Repeat.

We all want painkillers or life hacks or magic fast-forward buttons to zip us past the shit storms, and we so rarely stop to feel grateful for the opportunity to gradually adjust to things in a sustainable way. No one would ever succeed at, or be comfortable with ANYTHING if we always hit the “Easy” button every time things got hard.

And things do get hard.

So, hug.

Cry.

Scream.

But also.

Smile.

Laugh.

Hope.

Because tomorrow comes. Just by breathing.

You start the journey crying in your kitchen alone wondering when the journey will end and someone will save you.

But after enough steps, you realize the journey NEVER ends.

And that it’s you who has to save yourself.

And that you can’t save others. You can only encourage them to save themselves.

Not with heroics or anything dramatic, but by doing the simplest thing we do absent-mindedly more than 20,000 times per day and 8 million times per year.

Just breathe. Everything’s going to be okay.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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And Then I Woke Up Three Years Later

(Image/Paramount Studios)

Are you mentally playing the Top Gun Anthem in your head right now? You should be. (Image/Paramount Studios)

I spent the first year depressed and freaking out.

I spent the second year using reading and writing to get to know myself.

This past year, time seemed to move faster than ever.

And then I woke up this morning.

My wife left on April 1, 2013. We’re funny about anniversaries. We can be five years removed from an event, and we feel good and our lives are in order, but then that date pops up, triggers a bunch of memories, and we’re left sorting through a bunch of feelings and trying to figure out what they mean.

I’ve yet to find a better word than “broken” for what I felt in the immediate aftermath of my marriage failing.

Not many people in my personal life knew how bad it was at the time. But it was bad. Your vital signs indicate being alive. But nothing else does. I roll my eyes at all the motivational posters and sometimes cliché- and a little-bit-fake-feeling “You can do it!” messages we’re bombarded with on social media, but some of them are cliché because they’re true. And one of those truths is how valuable of a life experience excruciating emotional and psychological pain can be once it’s in the rearview mirror and it’s not violently stabbing your chest and skull every day.

There’s the me before experiencing that, and the me right now.

Before experiencing that, I didn’t know how to empathize or even what it really meant.

And now I do, for having been through it. Success in love and marriage, in parenting, in super-close social and business relationships appears impossible without the ability to empathize. Maybe some people can learn it without having to hurt first. I hope so.

I tend to learn things the hard way, which isn’t the optimum path to personal growth, but it’s got to be better than never learning.

I was a WRECK. A total mess of a person. My chest felt tight every day. My head hurt every day. I felt full-body anxiety often. It made me vomit a lot.

I can’t remember many instances of feeling more pathetic than the times I found myself teary-eyed, puking, struggling to calm my heartrate, knowing I probably needed some serious couch time with a shrink but couldn’t afford it, and thinking: This is why she left you. And now no girl will ever like you because you’re a total failure.

There were a million things I wanted to know, but the thing I wanted to know most is: When will this be over? Soon? Never?

How to Heal After Divorce in 3 Simple Steps

  1. Stay alive by breathing.
  2. Love yourself.
  3. Repeat.

I said it over and over again, even when it was hard to believe: Everything is going to be okay.

It didn’t feel okay after one year.

It felt kind of okay after two.

And on the three-year anniversary of the worst day of my life, everything is absolutely okay.

I wish I could pass out little manuals to everyone struggling with the end of a marriage and/or loss of their children at home, including the 2013 edition of me. But there are no instruction manuals for grieving. There’s no “right” or “best” way to suffer.

It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t suffering the wrong way. I didn’t think at the time that divorce warranted the devastation I felt. I didn’t think it was worthy of so much hurt. I concluded weakness instead of letting it be what it was—a highly stressful, totally life-changing event which psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially damages nearly everyone it touches.

Three years ago, I wanted to know what I could do to speed up the process. To fast-forward to the Okay part.

I never did find that button.

Here’s what worked for me:

1. I put my son first. He’s my baseline for all things. If it’s not good for him, I don’t do it. That helped heal the post-divorce relationship between his mother and I. It helped me build a kind, respectful, cooperative relationship with my ex-wife. I’d like to believe I’d care about her wellbeing regardless, but because she’s my son’s mother and an excellent parent and caretaker, one of the best things I can do for my child is treat his mom well. Which I try to do.

His long-term wellbeing drives my business endeavors and serves as a guidepost for me as I consider potential relationships.

2. I admitted that I don’t really know anything. Growing up, I thought being an adult meant you just knew stuff. The meaning of life. How to be disciplined and exercise self-control. How to not be afraid. Not knowing anything reduces the pressure. Not knowing anything allows you to ask better questions and stay curious. Not knowing anything helps you remain humble. Not knowing anything allows you to withhold judgment, and treat others and yourself better. Almost every adult is just making this up as they go. You’re not alone.

3. I wrote here. Putting thoughts and feelings to paper (or the keyboard) has long been touted by mental health experts as a good thing to do. Everyone’s experience will vary, but writing here created a lot of good in my life.

It forced me to look deep within for answers and explore uncomfortable topics.

I discovered other people who knew how I was feeling, and when life is hard, one of the most helpful things is the realization that someone else is walking the same path as you. It just helps when someone understands.

I got positive feedback about the writing, and that gave me confidence.

People sometimes said that it helped them, and that gave me purpose.

And the entire exercise of writing and asking questions and answering questions gave me something to pour my time and heart into when my young son wasn’t home.

And then I woke up one day and it was three years later.

My son’s mom and I had a couple friendly and peaceful text exchanges about our son.

I came to work and didn’t cry or puke in the bathroom.

I didn’t feel anxious, because I’m neither a wreck nor a complete mess.

Two different large websites published my work today in what has become a regular occurrence since the “dishes” post.

I like and respect myself—which is something a person should not take for granted—and I’m looking forward to liking and respecting myself even more in the future.

It was the worst day of my life. And God knows, conceptually, I regret the end of my family. But three years into the metamorphosis, I have to ask the question: Can the thing that changed me for the better, allowed me to explore relationships with my eyes wide open and an uncommon awareness, and granted me the opportunity to actually do something that matters to people, fairly be labeled the worst thing that ever happened to me?

I don’t know.

I only know that tomorrow arrived and everything really is okay.

And all I had to do was breathe.

Then again.

And again.

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When Someday Gets Here

someday

(Image/riereads.blogspot.com)

I used to believe depression was code for “weak,” and that criers were wimpy losers.

I had heard of people described as “broken,” but I didn’t know what that meant.

Then I lost everything that really mattered to me, and I broke. So now I know what that means, and that if crying is wimpy loserdom, I was a huge wimpy loser, and that if depression is weakness, then I was the opposite of strong.

It taught me one of life’s most critical and valuable lessons: empathy.

Now, when someone is grieving, I can more accurately guess how they’re feeling and am better equipped to support them.

Now, when someone is crying, I know they shouldn’t feel shame, and that it might just be years and years of bottled-up shit coming out in an inevitable and psychologically necessary purge.

Now, I know what’s really at stake. Inside of a person. Now I know the importance of taking off masks in relationships. Of a good night’s sleep. Of the support of family and friends. Of health and wellness. Of peace.

When the lights are off, and it’s just you laying in the silent darkness. Just you. Not the one wearing any of the masks we sometimes wear at work or school or church or socially or on dates or whenever because we’re so afraid of people seeing the real us and running away or pointing and laughing or telling us we’re not good enough.

When the lights are off, and it’s just you? When you take a deep breath, and smile, and feel good, because you like and respect yourself? There is no amount of money we would trade that for. Because there is no thing in this world that can heal that brokenness. When you come apart internally, you feel it every second of every day no matter where you are.

There is nowhere to hide.

People try to numb the pain with alcohol or drugs or money or sex or other escapism. But it just follows you around because wherever you go, there you are, which is, I think, why people sometimes kill themselves. Because maybe then the hurt will finally stop.

Learning about that hurt—and what it really means to be a broken person—changed everything for me. Forever. There’s no going back after that. There’s who you were before, and who you are now. And they’re not the same.

There’s Always Someday to Look Forward To

One of the best things about writing this blog was the discovery that so many other people knew the same pain.

People here got it. People here really understood. It helped. It mattered. I’m not the only one.

One of the worst things about writing this blog more than two years later is that I’ve crawled through the shit, and now I’m pretty much Andy Dufresne standing fearlessly and triumphantly in the cleansing rain while the thunderstorm rages, but countless others are still desperate to find a way out.

Every day, someone in the throes of despair—someone who can’t even catch their breath—discovers this blog for the first time and finds a guy who was once just like them.

And then sometimes they write me: “I’m so afraid. This hurts so much. How do you make it stop?”

But you don’t make it stop.

You just serve your sentence and bide your time. And when the time is right, you crawl through the shit tunnel just like everyone else had to. No cheats or shortcuts. Just the way. And then you’re less afraid. Because freedom no longer represents the loss of everything you were ever sure of—of everything steady in your life.

On the other side, freedom looks like hope and possibility.

I didn’t get much right in the early days of divorce. But on my darkest days, I always chose hope. That part, I got right.

I’m so afraid. This hurts so much. How do you make it stop?’

It’s good to be afraid, because it’s the only time we ever have the opportunity to choose courage.

It’s good to hurt, because when everything’s broken, it’s the only way you know you’re still alive.

And it’s good that we’re forced to be patient. Because forcing things generally yields undesirable results.

I used to give myself a pep talk to maintain my sense of hope.

And now I find myself giving it to others.

In the context of the human experience, I think it’s one of the most important ideas I’ve ever had.

Someday will eventually get here.

When we feel like we lost everything—when we hit the floor and know it’s rock bottom—we have a few choices.

But there’s only one good one. And that’s holding the following truth close to our heart and remembering to breathe every day, because your only job is to stay alive:

If you just keep breathing, tomorrow always comes. Someday eventually gets here.

Someday. When it doesn’t hurt anymore. When everything will change.

Someday. When something inexplicably beautiful happens.

Someday. When you get to feel like you again, only now you have these superpowers because now you have courage and wisdom and strength that you didn’t have before.

Because of fortitude. Fortitude and breathing and bravely getting out of bed in a brazen attempt to live.

And finally—finally, dammit—you get to look at a puzzle image coming into focus. A picture of your life that helps explain that you could have never gotten to today—to someday—without every single experience before it. Even the bad stuff. Maybe especially the bad stuff.

In my experience, there is very little in this life better than anticipation. Like a child staring at unopened presents under the Christmas tree.

We don’t need much. Air. Food. Water. Shelter. And something to look forward to.

And that’s one of life’s secrets that not enough people think about: We ALL have something to look forward to. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know what it looks like or when it will happen.

Someday will arrive. Every single day we wake up, someday is closer.

Sometimes someday arrives. Awesome! But now we have no idea what might happen next. Afraid! Because the unknown is scary. That’s when all that courage and something like fearlessness helps. You earned those things. You earned them by crawling through the shit.

And now the wind, thunder and lightning don’t faze you. I’ve survived worse.

And now the heavy rain feels like an old friend.

Because salvation laid within.

When someday finally gets here.

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When a Partner Grieves: The Moment of Truth

hands1

“Your life is about to fall apart, you’re going to get divorced, and things will never be the same,” is what my wife’s cousin could have said.

But she didn’t. She told me in vague and confusing ways that we’d lost my father-in-law without warning and that I needed to tell his daughter.

Oh no.

She had to be mistaken. We had just had dinner with him the night before and he was the same great guy I’d known for a decade. He was fine!

It doesn’t always make sense when people die. I don’t think it makes sense for people even when they see it coming.

But sometimes we don’t see it coming.

We just wake up and have the same kind of day we always do. And then someone surprises us with a phone call.

And now, even though the earth will need to spin a billion more times before you can finally process it, you know: Everything is different now.

And it’s true. Everything you think and feel now has a new layer in it. Something uninvited. And it casts shadows. And makes things heavier.

The day my father-in-law died was the day my marriage died. I just didn’t know it yet.

Hold On, Don’t Let Go

One of my favorite cousins got married two Saturdays ago and I was fortunate enough to attend the wedding. It was the first day of my summer vacation visiting family and friends.

It was my second wedding since my divorce.

They feel different now.

I used to go to weddings and (even if I was wrong) I just knew they were going to be married forever. Now, it’s not like that. Statistically, one of the two marriages I’ve witnessed as a single guy will end in heartbreak and misery.

There are all these themes of love and loyalty and togetherness at weddings. All this talk of unselfishness and service and forgiveness.

It’s the kind of stuff most people tune out as they smile and take photos for Instagram and Facebook while looking forward to the party afterward.

I used to be just like that. But then my marriage died and all the symbolism and messages of love took on much deeper meaning. The sacredness of the occasion feels much greater now.

I look at these two people and (even if I’m wrong) I just know they have no idea what they’re in for.

Probably not soon.

Probably later.

Once complacency or resentment or sadness or grief sets in. My cousin is very close to her mother—my aunt. She moved to Florida a few years ago for all the same reasons I did after graduating college. Her daughter missed her very much. Would start crying the day BEFORE she or her mother would have to say goodbye to one another during visits, which is why my aunt moved back home.

It’s a beautiful mother-daughter bond. And one of them will have to say bye to the other someday. No one gets forever in this life.

My cousin is going to break on the inside when she loses her mother. She has a dad and brother, too. And lots of friends and other family members. Loss is part of life, but it’s one we don’t think about until it sucker punches us without warning.

Will her new husband know what to do when that day comes?

How could he?

I shook hands yesterday with a man at his wife’s funeral. I hugged his three daughters, all standing next to their husbands in the receiving line. And as much as I attempted to focus on these women trying to cope with and process the loss of their mother, I spent most of the time thinking about these husbands.

I can’t be certain this will be their greatest tests as husbands, but I’m pretty sure it will be their biggest one yet.

In Good Times, and In Bad

This is what we promise standing on that alter or in front of whoever is officiating our marriages.

We know there will be good days AND bad days, but we’re going to love our partners forever, no matter what. At least, that’s what we all say.

But then shit hits the fan without warning and life gets really inconvenient and THAT’s when we’re measured.

Everyone grieves differently.

I don’t know what I was expecting from my wife when she lost her father, but it wasn’t what I got. She seemed like a different person. One who no longer wanted me around. She said as much about a month into the grieving process.

I don’t know what the optimum way would be to deal with that, but I chose the wrong way. I moved into the guest room and felt sorry for myself every day until she left a year and a half later.

I would advise against that strategy.

I don’t know what it will look and feel like when your spouse or partner loses someone close to them. But it’s safe to assume they will hurt and feel brokenness on the inside. They’re going to feel lost and scared because they won’t feel like themselves anymore and that’s a terrifying experience.

I wish I could tell you what to do. How to make everything okay for your partner and you.

But there are no instruction manuals for this stuff. There are no blueprints to follow.

I thought it was unfair that because my wife was sad about losing her father that I had to be treated like a leper. So instead of being strong and EVERY DAY asking: “What can I do to make your day better?,” I pouted like an asshole instead of asking myself the hard questions about why my wife wasn’t coming to me for comfort.

When your spouse is grieving, this is NOT your time. This is THEIR time. Put them first. They hurt very badly. And you need to be the rock they can lean on instead of selfishly hoping he or she gets over it soon so your life can get comfortable again.

I write it a lot: Love is a choice.

When your spouse isn’t his or her fun self anymore and they don’t make you feel good because they’re lost in a vortex of emotion that changes day to day and they don’t know how to manage their own feelings, let alone yours, it’s easy to throw up your hands months later:

“Does she really think this is more important than our marriage?”

“If she’s not going to try, why should I?”

“Why is she doing this to me?”

The Moment of Truth

No one’s out to get you, and unless you and your spouse are master communicators (and you’re not, otherwise there wouldn’t be any problems) about half the things you believe your spouse is thinking and feeling are wrong. We’re sometimes bad guessers.

The phrase “The moment of truth” originated in Spanish bullfighting, referring to the moment in a bullfight in which the matador is about to make the kill.

Specifically, the dictionary tells us it’s “The moment at which one’s character, courage, skill, etc., is put to an extreme test; critical moment.”

When your partner is grieving and you feel your life unraveling because you don’t know how to help them, and you’re hurting yourself because you feel the relationship slipping away—it’s your moment of truth.

Theoretically, it won’t be the only one.

It’s hard to put yourself on the back burner and selflessly love without asking for anything in return.

But that’s what it takes. It’s a test of your character.

And you’re afraid. So afraid. Because you don’t know if the sacrifice is going to pay off because you’re not promised love and loyalty in return. It’s a test of your courage.

No one teaches us how to do this. To serve others at the expense of our own comfort, and sometimes, happiness. It’s a test of your resourcefulness. A test of your skill.

Because you’re being put to an extreme test.

And it’s a critical moment.

And many of us don’t make it.

Because we’re lost.

Because we’re not heroes.

But maybe you are.

And even if you’re not—maybe you can choose to be.

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The Milestones

shawshank1

Right after your wife leaves you and you’re crying and barely able to breathe, the only thing you want to know is: When is this going to end?

I’ve never had suicidal thoughts, but when I felt that for the first time, that’s when I knew why someone would do it. To shut it off. I was a naïve optimist who had never felt pain from life. At least not the kind that rewires you.

I liked talking to people who had been through divorce and understood what I was dealing with. I was always a little bit like “Fuck you” every time they’d sit calmly on the other side of the table with a smile on their face and assure me it was going to be okay.

They were smiling because they remembered and were so relieved they no longer felt that way.

“Just give it time. Everything will work out. You’ll see.”

I wanted to punch every person who said that to me. I would scream on the inside: “You can’t know how this feels! You must not have cared as much! You must not have hurt this much!”

One time, a divorced mother told me she sometimes enjoyed when her son was with her ex-husband because she was able to do fun things that would be otherwise impossible.

On the inside, I screamed: “You’re a shitty parent then! You must not love your son as much as I love mine! I will NEVER enjoy my son not being home!”

I’ll never forget feeling that way.

The rejection fucks you good. You’re not good enough!

But then all the sudden your child is gone half the time, too, and the combination of those two radical life changes just ruins your insides.

You pray and beg for relief. You drink vodka sometimes even though you’ve always had a never-drink-alone policy. You indulge in escapism with friends and books and movies, but when you wake up in the morning, life is still real and hard.

You’re still alone.

Your heart is still broken.

Your life still feels over.

And all you want is for your friends’ predictions to come true: Everything’s going to be okay.

Lessons From the End of a Marriage

That’s the name of the blog and book written by Lisa Arends who I like and admire very much. Yesterday, she published a post called “The Shortcut for Healing After Divorce,” which I instantly clicked because I want to know the secret and tell everyone!!!

Lisa’s clever post title compelled me to read the story where she expertly told me something I’d been figuring out along the way.

There is no shortcut. There is just… the way.

Nobody wants to hear it because we all want things now, now, now. There’s no immediate gratification when your spirit is broken. The amount of love and laughter and adventure and friends and family and new life experiences it takes to recover is pretty immense.

The journey for each of us is exactly how long it’s supposed to be. I think the road is the same length for everyone, but some people are better conditioned to run to the finish a bit faster.

No tricks. No magic.

Just slow, sustainable healing as you rediscover yourself.

Andy Dufresne: Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.

Red: What’re you talking about?

Andy Dufresne: Hope.

Signs Along the Way

You’ll see them without even looking hard.

The first one I remember is that I could go have dinner with a girl without feeling that Everything is wrong feeling I’d had for so long.

And then you notice the silence at home isn’t so loud anymore. You can be there alone and just be still. And it’s home. It’s safe. It’s okay. That’s when I knew everything would be okay.

And then you develop new routines. Make new friends. Build a new life. I can do this.

And then you can drive by places that used to make you cry, but now they don’t.

And then you can walk by the very spot where you proposed to her and surprisingly your heart keeps beating.

And then you can sit with them at school events for your child and laugh like old friends.

And then you can learn about an out-of-town trip they’re taking without that familiar panic setting in: Where are they going? Who are they going with? Oh fuck. Oh shit. I’m dying.

It’s not something you could have understood two years earlier. It’s just… okay now.

You’re not dying.

It’s like magic, but it’s not magic. You walked the path.

Everything is no longer going to be okay someday. It IS okay. Right now.

You can live with your son being with the only other person on earth who loves him like you. You love him just as much, but don’t carry guilt for enjoying life even if he can’t be there, too.

You can feel tangible joy.

You can feel brave.

Strong.

I’m not just different almost two years later.

I’m better.

I am the best version of myself I have ever been.

You crawl out of the emotional shit tunnel just like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption.

A huge gulp of air. Of emotional freedom.

And now anything is possible.

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It Gets Better

Image by Incessant Star at Deviant Art.

Image by Incessant Star at Deviant Art.

I read my text message and laughed out loud because my ex-wife wrote something funny.

One of my friends at the office asked what I was laughing about.

I told him. He smiled.

“You wouldn’t believe what a difference nearly a year and a half makes,” I said.

Sometimes my ex and I laugh about stuff.

The Darkness

There was so much darkness after she left. I freaked. Big-time.

Partially because something radical and different was happening, and change scares me. Partially because my little son wasn’t home all the time anymore and it feels like a piece of your soul is missing. Partially because the wounds of rejection run deep and can feel exactly like betrayal.

I was broken. Dazed. Crying, sometimes. It wasn’t pretty.

I have never gone back and read anything I wrote a year ago. But I think it’s all there.

Growing up, nothing extremely horrible ever happened to me. My parents’ divorce was the worst thing.

I grew up in this safe little Catholic school in this safe little Ohio town and had a safe little non-scary life.

Life had inadvertently pulled the wool over my eyes.

Then she left and started seeing someone else and I felt like dying.

Sometimes, I intentionally try to recreate the feeling because I don’t want to take for granted the peace I feel today. I NEVER want to forget how uncomfortable life can feel inside your own skin when you’re broken. Because that’s the fuel I need to build my new life.

The feeling is unmistakable and all-consuming. And you only know it if you know it. If you don’t know what it feels like to not be able to breathe because everything you ever thought was true just crumbled, then I really want you to keep your loved ones close, because you’re going to need them when it finally happens.

It hurts more than anything you’ve ever experienced. When you break on the inside. And the wounds are so deep they take an excruciatingly long time to heal.

But they do heal.

Sometimes my ex and I laugh about stuff now.

Clocks, Calendars and Fear

I was 34 when my wife left after a dozen years together. Mid-thirties with a son in kindergarten.

A single, graying, average-looking dad who just got dumped. My entire social network, altered overnight. My home went from a steady, warm, safe haven, to a quiet prison that felt much like a tomb.

I was (sometimes, am) afraid of so many things.

Who will ever want me?

How can I set a good example for my son?

What’s my purpose in life now?

Am I going to survive, financially?

Will I ever feel like myself again?

I wrote.

I read.

I watched a bunch of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.

I went out with friends.

I kept waking up each morning and breathing.

The clocks ticked.

The calendar pages flipped.

The sun kept coming up.

No Shortcuts

I don’t think so, anyway. I don’ t think there’s any way of cheating the process. When we lose things, we grieve. And everything I understand about grief and loss is that we all deal in different ways, but we all go through the same stages. Some of those stages take longer than others.

The five stages of grief are:

1. Denial

2. Anger

3. Bargaining

4. Depression

5. Acceptance, and Hope

I wasn’t shocked when she left. The shock happened a long time ago when the marriage went bad. The denial, too. She’s not leaving!

I was wrong.

But I didn’t have any trouble being angry and feeling like a victim. That part’s easy.

In the bargaining phase, you long for the past, forgoing the present by focusing on what might have been.

Then you get depressed.

I got totally depressed.

I wasn’t moping around, like how I imagined depression to be. But just a deep emptiness and sadness. You tend to not give a shit about a bunch of things you used to. Simple things, really. All my old hobbies—my favorite sports teams, poker, cooking, etc. I just didn’t care anymore. They feel so insignificant after something monumental happens.

And it turns out this is completely expected and normal. And there’s no set amount of time. Everyone has to walk their own path. And it’s important to remember that when you’re feeling so shitty. The depression IS the path. It’s the way out of all the suck. Keep moving forward.

And finally, acceptance. Hope.

This doesn’t mean you’re all better. Woo-hoo! I accept it! I’m totally healed now!

I don’t think that’s how it works. At least not for me.

My world ended on April 1, 2013.

A life that only exists now as a high- and lowlight reel in my memory bank.

And now I have to build a brand-new life.

With new goals. New dreams. A new script. A new supporting cast.

And you know what? I’m going to.

It’s not like I ever had much of a choice, but when you’re walking through all those phases of the Grief Path of Suckage™ you don’t feel much hope or really anything at all.

When I felt like dying, the thing that made me feel best was connecting with people who understood. Via this blog. Via real life. Crossing paths with people with the same wounds and scars. Crossing paths with people who had been through the exact same things and would pat me on the back, reassuringly.

“It will get better.”

And if you’re still in agony, it’s hard to hear. It’s tricky when other people seem happy or peaceful or unaffected.

Don’t they know the sky is falling? Don’t they know the sun might not come up tomorrow?

They walked through fire.

And they emerged stronger.

Better.

Taller.

And I know there are millions of people out there now. Having trouble breathing. Crying and terrified.

It makes my entire body hurt to think about because that feeling is still like muscle memory, just below the surface. It can still be recreated in short bursts. And it’s horrible.

But it doesn’t last.

It can’t anymore.

Because one day you look in the mirror.

Hey! I know that guy.

And someone else makes you smile.

Hope.

And your child fills you with enormous pride.

Love.

Because real healing has taken hold.

Because you kept breathing.

Because clocks keep ticking.

Because the sun is indiscriminate and it won’t stop setting, rising and dancing across the sky for anyone.

Because sometimes my ex and I laugh about stuff—strangers, but strangers who don’t hurt each other anymore.

Because everything is going to be okay.

It really is.

It might even be amazing.

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The Godsmack

I said I wasn't grateful. And then I had a wake-up call.

I said I wasn’t grateful. And then I had a wake-up call.

He gets this look on his face sometimes. My son who is nearly six.

It looks almost like panic.

I have a super-low tolerance for whining. But this wasn’t whining this morning. This was legitimate sadness.

Because he didn’t want to invite a mean kid at school to his upcoming birthday party.

“I’m sorry, man. The rules are that we have to invite everybody in your class.”

He’ll come to my party just to be mean to me.”

“Oh, buddy. I bet he won’t. I bet he won’t come at all. Is anyone else at school mean to you?”

“No. He’s the only one.”

“Is he mean to other kids?”

“No. I’m the only one he’s mean to.”

“What does he do when he’s mean to you?”

“He calls me mean names.”

As we brushed his teeth and combed his hair for school, he explained to me that this boy in school is going to go to the same college as him some day just so he can continue to be mean and call him names.

They say you learn everything you need to know in kindergarten. How silly.

Kindergarten doesn’t teach you that you’re not alone. Other people feel just like you.

Kindergarten doesn’t teach you that life is hard. That tends to happen later.

Kindergarten doesn’t teach you that life isn’t fair and the sense of entitlement we all feel is a byproduct of being particularly lucky right up until we’re not anymore.

That first really hard smack from life tends to leave a mark.

It breaks my heart to see my son sad. He’s way too young to feel sad.

And all I want to do is save him. All I want to do is hug it all away. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But you try anyway. Because that’s what parents do. We try to fix the unfixable with magic.

Don’t cry. Everything’s going to be okay.

I whined yesterday even though I have a low-tolerance for whining. I’m a hypocrite sometimes because I’m a person.

While writing about how sad I was about only seeing my son half the time because of my ex-wife and I’s shared-parenting agreement, I mentioned that I should probably be grateful I get to see him more often than most divorced fathers typically see their kids.

I believe we should always feel grateful.

But I told you yesterday that I don’t feel grateful. I told you that I feel cheated. Because this life is not what I wanted.

Because the Universe is supposed to acquiesce to my every beck and call. But the Universe never got that memo. Or maybe the Universe thinks I’m an asshole. Or maybe both.

Wake-Up Call

A beautiful nine-year-old girl named Abby Grace Ferguson is not likely to ever get her driver’s license. Or attend prom. Or graduate high school.

Abby is probably going to die a teenager.

Abby’s mom and dad watched their daughter achieve every typical developmental milestone until she was about my son’s age. A kindergartener.

That’s when Abby began to exhibit a learning disability and a developmental slowdown. After a few years of medical testing, the doctors told Abby’s parents that their daughter has a disease with no cure.

Hopeless?

Terminal, the doctors said.

Always?

100-percent of the time.

I try to put myself in that moment as a father. Breathe. In. Then out.

“She was diagnosed with Sanfilippo Syndrome, a rare disease that we passed on to her. How could that be? How could our precious daughter be born healthy and at age 8, we find out she is not healthy at all?” Wendy Ferguson wrote about her daughter.

“Her disease causes progressive brain damage. She will lose her ability to walk, talk and feed herself. She will more than likely lose her hearing and have seizures. Most children diagnosed with Sanfilippo Syndrome do not live past their teenage years. Aside from losing her, our biggest fear is watching her suffer. The thought of watching her lose abilities that she once had, slowly fading away, just makes my heart ache even more.”

And I wrote that I didn’t feel grateful.

Because my biggest problem in life is that I only get to see my son half the time mostly due to the fact that I was a shitty husband who didn’t appreciate how good I had it enough to cherish it when I could have.

I wrote that I didn’t feel grateful.

Because my—near as anyone can tell—perfectly healthy child is sad because of one mean kid at school who might plot to ruin his birthday party and intentionally attend the same college as him in 12 years just to be a dick.

I wrote that I didn’t feel grateful.

And I meant it. I wrote that I felt cheated. And I meant it. Because the world delivered me a shitty hand and now I’m sad when I never really knew sadness, and afraid when I never really knew fear.

After Abby’s diagnosis, we live by the cliché, “enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

It Tastes Like Perspective

Your pains are yours.

The reason divorce is so hard for me is because life had mostly been easy for my first 30 years.

I don’t think people should feel guilty for the pain they feel. For the sadness, or the fear. We only get one set of eyes with which to view the world. We feel what we feel.

Let the truth be the truth.

The reason my little son is worried about this kid at school is because something must have happened recently. He has, literally, never mentioned this kid throughout the entire school year. Not until today. An unkind exchange on the playground likely led him here.

It hurts to see your child upset or suffering. Physically hurts. Helpless. So you hug, because that’s your best move.

Everything’s going to be okay.

Fake magic with a placebo effect.

I think about Abby Ferguson’s parents and it takes my breath away.

In. Then out.

Because I’m so afraid of things in my life now—things that maybe I shouldn’t be afraid of since I see all these other people living so bravely.

Every day, the Fergusons have to say goodbye to their little girl.

Because tomorrow, Abby won’t be like she is today.

“We found strength we never knew we had.”

The Fergusons are literally living like there is no tomorrow. Where clearly drawn lines separate what’s really important from what isn’t.

“Now, I just want to enjoy a smile, a hug, or a laugh from my daughter. I want to sit with her and play. I want to help her brush her teeth, wash her hair, and help her put her shoes on. I can’t take enough pictures of her. We celebrate the smallest accomplishments as if she won an Olympic Medal. I am aware of what the future holds for her but try not to think about future milestones. It is too painful. I just want to live in the moment and enjoy her right now, the way she is.”

I wrote that I wasn’t grateful.

Thank you, God, for the well-timed smack.

I wrote that I wasn’t grateful.

Thank you, Ferguson family, for teaching people how to live courageously.

I wrote that I wasn’t grateful.

Thank you, Abby. You will teach so many lessons in your precious life. All of the things most adults haven’t figured out. About love. About gratitude. About what it means to be alive.

I wrote that I wasn’t grateful.

And I’m so sorry I did.

I’m going to go home tonight and hug my son. I’ll ask him how his day went. If the situation requires, we’ll have a fake-magic hug.

And maybe it will actually help. Mom and dad hugs do that sometimes.

I wrote that I wasn’t grateful.

So, I’ll squeeze him again.

And maybe it will actually help me. Hugs from a child do that sometimes.

Everything’s going to be okay.

Real magic.

Abby Ferguson has a lot to teach us about life.

Abby Ferguson has a lot to teach us about life.

Author’s Note:

A special thanks to Wendy Ferguson for allowing me to share her family’s story. You can follow Wendy’s blog here. Also thanks to her close childhood friend Gretchen at “Drifting Through My Open Mind” for sharing the Fergusons’ story with me.

*Please visit Abby’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/CureSanfilippo to learn more about her progress and fight for a CURE.

*To learn more about Sanfilippo Syndrome, please visit www.mpssociety.org or www.teamsanfilippo.org

*There is HOPE for a CURE for Abby and other children like her. Gene Therapy has shown promising results but has not gone to clinical trial yet. We are raising awareness along with other parents of affected children to help start the trials at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio. If you are interested in donating towards a CURE for Abby, please visit her Go Fund Me page at www.gofundme.com/abbygracecure. All donations are tax deductible and 100% go toward research and finding a CURE for Abby.

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