What Trauma Takes
We were laying on our bed, our heads touching, as he told me what was happening. He had been drifting in and out of consciousness for hours, but we continued to talk as he experienced things I could not see.
The three guys standing at the edge of the bed were there to take him to the gig, he said. They were going to play that night and this time, he explained, he could finally rest. Although I smiled and laughed from nervousness and disbelief, I could taste the tears coming down my eyes as they streamed down my face.
“Yes,” I said, “you can finally rest.”
He looked at me with such relief in his eyes for a few moments. Suddenly a wash of concern flooded over his brow. He looked at me with a serious face, “Do you think I should practice?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Ugh, this man! In the literal throes of death and he is worried about the music. I couldn’t have loved him more in that moment.
“No,” I said. “I think you have practiced enough. You’re ready.”
He held my hand and started playing it like a piano. I assumed he was getting in one last practice session. Just in case.
When I think about trauma, this is where my brain always rests. His last moments, the last hours he was here on earth. My mother, father, and my best friend Becky (who happens to also be a pastor) stood in vigil over him: waiting, watching, and comforting him as he fought leaving this world. Those last few hours were the worst hours of my life. Every once in awhile, the images come flooding back to me and I slam the door as hard as I can so that I don’t have to think about it. When we all stood around him and wept, when a wail from so deep within me came from a place I didn’t know existed. When the hospice nurse said she was quitting because she couldn’t do it anymore, it was too hard to see death so up close.
Yet I know those last few hours is where my trauma truly lies.
It’s one month away from J.R.’s death anniversary. It will be two years on October 20, and as I try to come to terms with where I am at this mark, it has been difficult. I feel like I have come so very far with my grief, yet I have to admit that there are many things that I am still learning every day.
The most prevalent emotion has not been sadness but deep and abiding anger. For the last year or more, I have been so angry at him. As the rawness of his death gets farther and farther away, the grief “button” is pushed less and less. Yet when it is, anger is where I go. A friend of mine warned me about this anger. She told me that she would write letters to her late husband, asking him why he left her. How could he abandon her? How could he leave and she had to stay? When she first told me this at the beginning of my journey, I didn’t understand. How could I be mad at HIM? He didn’t choose to leave.
She was right.
As I passed through my grief, I healed in many different ways. I became vulnerable to others who were experiencing grief, pain, and loss. I started to become more aware of my own emotions and started building spiritual practices that have been healing and have remained in my life. Yet, when the grief button is “triggered” as I try so hard to build my new life, it was always anger that came. A picture of us from Christmas was a regular fixture on my refrigerator, and whenever I had a grief episode, there I stood, yelling at him. I told him of all the things he took from me when he left: our life together, our future children, growing old together, and all the music we would make. He took my joy, my confidence, and my peace when he took his last. Were we so connected that when he died, part of me died to? I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe parts of me would never return.
He took it from me. He took it all.
This narrative had been spinning in my brain for at least the last year and I accepted it wholeheartedly.
Like a detective in a murder mystery, the last few days I have been starting to question why I have put the blame on him. Someone close to me suggested that maybe he didn’t take those things from me, but could be helping me to become aware of those things and become those things, fully and on my own.
At first, I didn’t like it. I even frowned. It didn’t fit my nice little narrative, but one thing I have learned through all these experiences is that when something is uncomfortable, there is a reason. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but when your spouse dies, there is a sense of abandonment that no one talks about. Even though they had no choice, you still feel like they left you. They left you with all the financial and medical bills. They left you to figure out life on your own. They left you.
Your spouse dying feels less like death and more like a bruised, bloodied, and broken heart that you are left to piece back together.
But if he didn’t take those things, whose to blame? Why do I have to have someone to blame?
Then I read Brene Brown’s words, “Of all the things that trauma takes away from us, the worst is our willingness, or even our ability, to be vulnerable. There's a reclaiming that has to happen.” (Brene Brown, Rising Strong)
“Of all the things that trauma takes away…” It hit me so hard.
This is what trauma is.
My friend was right. My search to try and truly be vulnerable and alive with people again as this new Laura emerges, my attempts to better myself by eating well and exercising, are now for myself, fully and on my own. Learning how to tell someone how I truly feel and making friends that only know me as Laura, not J.R.’s widow, this is my journey towards letting go of the trauma that his death caused.
It feels clunky and unrehearsed, like a toddler trying to stand for the first time, her body looming towards the next great fall, but this is growth.
Letting go of the idea that my late husband was to blame for leaving me, is just one more thing, among a million I am sure, that I have to do to keep growing. It’s one more thing I have to do so that I can let trauma stop owning my life anymore.
This new life that I am forging: with reading and papers, friends that know me just for me, and of course, full of dogs, is beautiful. It’s not the same. It never will be without him, but it’s undeniably beautiful.
My friend Jonathan and I sang at a memorial service yesterday, in the same place where we celebrated the end of J.R.’s life. As Jonathan and I walked back towards the pews to sit down, he missed putting the guitar pick in his pocket and it landed on the floor right in front of the casket.
I get it, J.R., you’re here and you’re rooting me on towards this new and beautiful life.
I am reclaiming my joy. I am reclaiming my peace. I am reclaiming myself because it’s all beautiful.
I see it all like a hymn
The constant refrain of the echo and change
And all is beautiful
All is beautiful
Everything everyone building and breaking
Oh I see the grace of it all
There is no giving without any taking
There's no love without any loss
All is beautiful
-Gungor, “Lion of Rock,” One Wild Life
Photo by Mat Reding