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Grief and Marriage — A Relationship Defined by Loss

Posted by Kellyn Shoecraft on

My husband, Nate, and I started “courting” in the fall of 2003. I choose that term because it’s the only one I can think of to accurately describe the bizarre song and dance of our early affection.

This confusing period lasted from the day I noticed our AIM conversations had suddenly turned flirtatious (late August 2003), until we became “official” (late April 2004). Despite many months of obvious interest, the transition to boyfriend/girlfriend was fuzzy. One day I worked up the nerve to ask Nate if he would be my boyfriend and he responded with confusion, “Oh, I thought I already was…”

This long, bewildering period was partly due to the fact that I was terribly awkward, inexperienced in romance, and lacking self-confidence. Meanwhile, my partner in crime wasn’t particularly forward, was purposefully avoiding a new relationship after the relatively recent break up with a long-term girlfriend, and had a hell-of-a-time reading my mixed signals. To add a little spice to this sultry mix, my dad was dying.

Anticipatory Grief

My life at that time was dominated by anticipatory grief. I had been readying myself for my dad’s death since childhood. The ultra-smart doctors at Mt. Sinai and other fancy New York hospitals struggled to categorize my dad’s illnesses, so I took it upon myself to try to stabilize his declining health. I did so, between the ages of 8–20, by following a wide variety of daily compulsive behaviors.

Every day, multiple times per day, I forced myself to accomplish meaningless tasks so that my dad would live: get a new high score on Tetris, throw a stone and hit a specific tree, walk along some slippery river stones without slipping, turn off the microwave before it beeped, count to 100 before I saw the school bus headlights bouncing down the street, or walk 4 awkwardly large steps between the patterned colored tiled squares in the hallways of my high school. The dopamine rush of an accomplished goal was short-lived, though. Within minutes of successfully completing a challenge (like unlocking my school locker before anyone talked to me after the final bell), I had my sites set on a new one.

Every birthday cake wish, every wish on a shooting star, every wishbone wish, every eyelash wish — all of the wishes were for my dad’s health. I never wished for my dad to get better, that was something I couldn’t imagine, but I hoped that he wouldn’t get worse. “Please let my dad be ok,” was a phrase I repeated in my head countless times.

All this to say, my dad had always been sick and his health dramatically shaped my life.

By late 2003, his death was imminent, though I don’t recall anyone actually admitting it. During the last 6 months of his life, as he was in and out of the ICU or sleeping on a hospital bed in the living room, Nate was a person I could consistently turn to for joy and excitement while my life was dark and miserable.

When I was home during Dad’s final weeks, I would think of Nate, back at school, and feel lighter and hopeful. I would daydream about him; imagining him in his dorm room, sitting cross-legged atop a sweatshirt blanket (so cool in the early aughts!) while tapping away on his nearly broken laptop. All of his clean laundry would be piled next to him in a heap on the floor — a practice I found very confusing.

These images of Nate, our late-night phone calls, and waking up to 32 missed Instant Messenger messages from his screen name, Farmer Po (I was Lambert513), gave my brain a break from the reality of my dad’s weakening mind and body, and his verbal wonderment if the life he was living was worth the effort. Despite the harsh reality of my day-to-day life, I distinctly remember leaving my dad’s hospital room one afternoon and smiling in the parking lot as I thought about Nate.

Facebook Official (Before Facebook)

Nate and I became ‘official’ 10 weeks after my dad died. (Facebook was around, but only for those attending ivy league schools).

Ah, young romance. Nate and I at his college graduation in May 2004 

When I look back on those early months after my dad’s death, the memories are very cold and warm. A mixture of some of my most painful memories — like when I was crying alone on my closet floor or the time a friend forgot that my dad was dead, and lighthearted merriment and joy — like the time we held hands in Central Park on a sunny spring day or when we spent the day making out (publicly and embarrassingly) on a beach in Connecticut and I solo ate a large bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and washed it all down with a giant watermelon.

But the early intoxication of a new boyfriend was soon weighted by the realities of my fresh grief and our long-distance relationship. Nate, a year older than me, graduated that May and was living at home with his stable and charming family while working at a nonprofit in a neighboring city. I returned to school that fall, unbearably lonely both because I was living with grief and not sharing it with anyone around me, and because Nate was now living in another state instead of down the hall.

As expected, my father’s death infiltrated our relationship. At school the year before, I had presented myself to him as a quirky girl who wore Velcro sneakers with splashy knee-high socks and put fake dreads in her hair. Sometimes I’d top it all of with a visor, or I would walk around campus in a blanket and slippers. While I tried to maintain this bizarre facade, hidden very shallowly behind it was a girl who would wake in the night, muscles clenched rigidly and unable to stop shaking. I was also the girl who would call Nate frantically when I wasn’t sure of his whereabouts, panicking as I imagined him dead on the side of the road.

I was sullen whenever Nate insinuated that we shouldn’t get together on a particular weekend. I had chosen my class schedule so that I had off both Fridays and Mondays so that I could frequently make the 4-hour drive to his house. I consider this a real labor of love because his family didn’t have a lock on one of their bathroom doors (WHY? I still can’t understand it) and the other bathroom had a think sliding door that opened up right into his parent’s room. I never felt comfortable enough there to have a bowel movement. Every Sunday night, when I’d pack to return to school, I’d feel pain in my stomach both because our separation was imminent and because I hadn’t used the toilet since the previous Friday morning.

After I graduated we both moved to Boston, but despite the proximity to my main squeeze, my life with grief wasn’t getting any easier. I was sad almost all of the time. At night I would walk around my Cambridge neighborhood feeling total despair as I glanced in people’s windows and noticed images of people functioning. Families getting ready for dinner. Children watching TV. A couple laughing at the dining table. I also felt very disconnected from people my age — their focus seemed to be on career advancements and weekend brunch decisions. I was wondering how I’d possibly be able to live the rest of my life consumed in a heavy fog.

On a work-bonding trip to the Boston Harbor Islands. I’m on the left in a painter’s cap. Photo snapped a few days after the breakup. Devastation is at an all-time high. 

Nate and I broke up just before my dad’s birthday in 2007 (surprise!). Partly because of my relentless grief and how it crippled me with anxiety and made me clingy and sad and dependent on my boyfriend for all of my happiness and security, and partly because Nate had never seen grief like this up close, and it was more than he could handle.

The end of our relationship brought my grief to the forefront. For months I stumbled along, crying daily and eating large bowls of popcorn for dinner. Since Nate had been my only source of joy, his absence meant that my despair doubled. All I thought about were my dead dad and my alive boyfriend who chose not to be with me.

After a 6 month break from each other, I wrote him an impassioned, middle of the night email promising to get help so I could reclaim the person I used to be. He drove over that same night to pick me up and we started trying to repair what had been damaged.

I went to therapy and started an anti-anxiety medication. He was more understanding. We talked more. After getting to a new place that was more stable and having the ability to experience real joy for the first time in four years, we both separated again, but this time by choice. I went to graduate school out-of-state, he flew off to India to start a new job. We agreed to rejoin forces stateside in 2010. But the 10 hour time difference and spotty internet reliability made communication nearly impossible. In the spring of 2009, Nate confessed he wasn’t sure if he wanted to move back to the US, and I was sure I didn’t want to move to India. Unsurprisingly (again), we decided to go separate ways.

But he stayed on my mind, and I spent my summer figuring out how I could lure him to America. But, it turns out that I wasn’t a necessary part of that equation because that October he called me to tell me that his mom had stage IV breast cancer. During a late-night phone call after he moved home a few months later, we decided to reunite once more.

Paying Your Dues

When Nate and I got married in 2014, I shared with him, and the 25 people standing around us, that I had so much confidence in our marriage because we had already navigated some of life’s toughest shit.

Nate and I are married, July 2014. Photographer’s ponytail cascades on the right side of the frame

Many marriages fail, and I assume it’s partly because a couple might not have had to tread some of the murky and scary waters that life presents (like disease and financial insecurity and people dying) before they sealed the deal.

Nate had seen me at my lowest, and while neither of us handled that situation perfectly, we had learned a lot from it. I was with him and his family in the hospital room when his mom died, and tried to help them reform in the wake of her monumental absence.

When I held Nate’s hands on our wedding day, I honestly couldn’t imagine anything worse than what had already happened. I spoke to Nate with the confidence of a person who believed that the worst was over. And now I cackle like a witch at the naive person I once was. A person who truly believed that losing a parent 30 years too soon was the worst possible thing that could ever happen.

But it didn’t take long for me to eat my words, because exactly three years and one week after I assured Nate of our strength and capacity to withstand hardship, my sister died unexpectedly.

Yes — it’s shitty luck. Well, it’s not shitty luck, exactly, it’s just life. And life is random and there is no reason for our misfortune. It just happens. And it has been so gosh darn awful.

I can’t believe that I ever walked around thinking that I would be spared greater heartache than losing my dad when I was 20. But I had been convinced that I would be free and clear because Nate and I had paid our dues. You know — the dead dues. We paid twice because by the time we were 28, there were two dead parents between us.

Where’s the book on Option C?

Grief is one of the daggers that rips at your relationships. From the outside, it’s easy to assume that all it takes is one tragic death to put your cards in order and hold on tight to your people. That’s not how it works. When my dad died, I clung to Nate in every way imaginable. I smothered him with my pain. This time around I’ve pulled away, isolating myself and crawling through the wreckage of this upended life that I had never, ever expected.

Grief is the longest and slowest road. There are days of normalcy and there are days of never-ending weeping. To be a partner to a bereaved person takes an extraordinary level of love and patience. During the first six months after my sister’s death, Nate set reminders on his phone to check on me three times a day while we were apart. He took over more responsibilities for our daughter’s care. He would wake with me when I nursed so I didn’t have to be alone. He has gone to most of his family gatherings alone because I don’t like to navigate crowds. He has seen friends by himself because I am incapable of participating in small talk.

But he can’t read my mind. Four months after Alison died, he put on my winter hat that has my name handknit in orange yarn and threw his head from side to side, making the dangling, colorful pom-pom dance around. I started crying because my sister made that hat and he was (unintentionally) making light of one of her precious artifacts.

When I moved our home office around he reminded me that he wanted to get rid of a rickety wooden bookshelf. I broke down because the bookshelf was my sister’s (15+ years ago) and I couldn’t believe that he’d even suggest that I discard something she once touched.

As time moved forward, I began to wonder how long I could expect him to be patient. How was he supposed to know when to push me forward or when to let me be? What if he didn’t love the new person I’d become? (I honestly wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t).

I had become an exoskeleton of the person I’d used to be. I looked the same on the outside, but it felt as if there was nothing to me. Sometimes, when I would start to tell him a story, my mind connected what I was talking about a memory that closely (or incredibly loosely) related to my sister and I’d let my voice fall mid-sentence and I stare off into space. I couldn’t remember anything and accidentally reordered us 5 credit cards, each time forgetting that I had already completed the chore.

Nate told me one day in exasperation that the only people I cared about were our daughter and my dead sister. I didn’t argue with him because he was right. I was, and continue to be, fiercely protective of my sister’s memory and I actively hated anyone who has ever said anything negative about her. I would shy away from difficult conversations because it just feels like too much. I complained about people who were insensitive to my situation or treated me like nothing is amiss and he reminded me that people are doing their best and I am not the center of their universe.

All I wanted was for him to agree with everything I said, all of the time, no matter what. Was that too much to ask?

His needs

I would occasionally poke my head out from my self-absorbed chrysalis and wonder about his needs. The problem was that I didn’t feel like I had any capacity to care about other people’s problems. I couldn’t keep the names of his coworkers straight. I didn’t remember the nights he had work events. His small complaints of everyday problems felt like someone was twisting a knife into my wound. How can he express annoyance about a mis-scheduled conference call when my sister’s body has been burned to ashes?

Grief is hard and lonely and heavy. Finding the right path for your own grief support is completely unique. Just because you marry someone doesn’t mean you will understand their grief process.

While I believed on our wedding day that the worst was over, what I now know, with even greater certainty, is that more terrible things will happen — terrible things that we can’t imagine. And while more terrible things will happen, I know Nate will show up.

When he and I walked into the ER to see his mom in the final hours of her life, he rushed to her side and stroked her face while my legs buckled in the corner. Nate is not afraid of being present when it matters most, and I feel peace when I imagine him holding my hand if/when my body is riddled with cancer.

Nate and I are slowly making our way. When I promised my new husband that we could get through anything, I didn’t come close to imagining this. And this shit is hard, but I desperately want our partnership to survive. To do so, I know I must figure out how to be a partner again. I have to learn how to be supportive when I feel like a shell of my former self.

Nate with our daughter, playing Pooh sticks. Image courtesy of the author

Nate, if you’re reading this (and I know you are because I promised you could read it before I shared), I really want to make it through with you. Even if it means I need to reinforce my fragile self with the sticky stuff that came on the backs of five credit cards I ordered accidentally.

I thank you for your patience. I will never be the person I was a few years ago, who was already a reconfigured version of myself. After someone dies, there is a before and after. I’ve had too many important people die so I guess that means I’m on version after-after-after — or maybe that’s Option C? Or Option D? It’s confusing.

While I will never be the old me, I promise to continue to work towards becoming a better partner in our marriage. I want to be someone who is capable of being there for you and helping you carry the load, and when you need me, to take more than my share. I make this promise even though I know that getting through this most recent loss is no guarantee that it won’t happen again. We’ve now paid our dues three times, but #4 could happen tomorrow. And if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, all I can be certain of is that it will happen eventually.

What I can promise is that should you die before me, and if I am there, I will show up in the way you have taught me. I will stroke your face and hold your hand, and I hope it will bring you peace and comfort.

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