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(After) Life

From the Introduction to After Life, a poetry collection coming late 2020.

On February 15, 2020, I woke up to a nightmare. My husband of nearly seven years and father of my four-year-old daughter had died in his sleep of what amounted to a freak lightning bolt. A fluke. The fact that his passing was painless and instantaneous was meaningless at the time, though it brings me deep comfort now.

Life as I knew it ended that overcast Saturday morning as firemen, paramedics, police, medical examiners, and trauma volunteers cycled through the home we’d meant to live in forever, in a city and state we’d moved to only months before. I don’t smoke, but remember asking for a cigarette. A neighbor swept my daughter into her home, then returned to squeeze my cold hand. My husband's best friend took over at some point, and eventually held me upright so I could say goodbye to my love.

With my psyche flooded by vicious post-traumatic stress, shock, and devastation, I remember only bits and pieces of the first week. There was a shower fully-clothed. Screaming that left me hoarse for days. Nausea, sleeplessness, disorientation, and surreal bouts of slipping time. I once stared at a wall for what felt like seconds but was nearly ten minutes.

The mental fugue was like nothing I’d ever experienced. By nature I’m a methodical, critical thinker. An analyzer. I’ve considered it a shortcoming at times—my need to make sense of everything around me—but now, I was suddenly cut off from normalcy in my own head. My thoughts were sluggish, disjointed. I would forget my husband was gone, then suffer the blow of the truth over and over again.

While it may have looked like it from the outside at times, shock didn’t send my brain on vacation. My absent-mindedness was in fact super-mindedness, as my mind worked harder than it ever had before attempting to reconcile a cataclysmic change in the world as I knew it. I couldn’t make sense of it because it didn’t make sense.

While it was recommended by professionals (strongly, in several cases) that I take advantage of medication for my various grief-symptoms—insomnia, anxiety, mania, etc—as a woman of longterm sobriety, I declined. No booze, no pills, thank you very much. You might think I was nuts. Maybe I was.

How did I function?

I didn’t function. I felt.

There were certainly times I wavered. Teetered on the edge of darkness. But the reality was, even though I’d never felt so alone in my life, I wasn’t. When I fell, I was caught by my community. I didn’t have to ask for help—it was given. I ate because there was food in front of me. I showered when I was told to. A terminally skeptical adult, in my grief I became childlike, and thus rediscovered whole, perfect trust in the love and care of others.

I was lucky. So incredibly lucky. A tribe of truly selfless women and men formed a tight, protective knot around me. Their love and support enabled me to emerge from my grief for longer and longer periods. They nurtured my daughter when I could not, and gave me the space I needed in order to be emotionally present for her each and every day during morning and nighttime routines.

Somehow, the first week passed. Then another. There was a thrown-together memorial at our home I only vaguely remember. The mailbox was full every day with condolence cards. More than once, I fantasized about a bonfire with them as kindling. I scrubbed floors. Vacuumed compulsively. Adopted two cats. Tore pictures off walls, then rehung them. Buried myself in his clothes and slept for hours. Took catatonic baths until the water turned cold. Regretted adopting said cats when my daughter (obviously) reneged on her initial promise to clean the litter box.

Life cranked inexorably onward. When stay-at-home orders were issued for Oregon due to COVID-19, I barely blinked. I was already isolating. Already maxed out on fear, shock, and sorrow. There was little room in my head for considering the longterm impacts of the pandemic on our global and local communities. The shape of my world was already surreal - another dollop of insanity was hardly notable.

Instead, I found an amazing grief counselor who would work with me via telephone. I read (though only partially comprehended) books on grief, the words of which melted into a single takeaway:

The process of grief is not some neat, linear map, but a convoluted, spiraling, emotional shitstorm that manifests differently for everyone. There’s no pretty map, no color-coded checklist, no resolution date. The storm is bigger than you, meaner than you, and you have no choice but to surrender to its whims in order to survive.

If you’re lucky, like me, you have a life-raft. Mine was built out of sheer stubbornness and a dash of defiance, and it’s held together by the love of others and the love I bear for my daughter. My family and friends. My tribe. Those who remind me daily that even the worst storms give way to clear skies.

There are still days I slip and begin to sink, that I swallow water as the sky darkens overhead. Days when I mourn the loss of my partner, and my daughter’s loss of a father. But I don’t fight the currents anymore. I’ve surrendered. My process is not one of healing (I find this notion absurd) but to embrace with love the tender, new version of myself who is slowly, slowly, emerging from the wreckage.

The good news is none of us have to understand grief. Only make space for it. My grief doesn’t want me to hurry up and heal, but to slow down and feel. And as I honor my own process, what I’ve discovered is something truly precious. My own beating heart, still full to brimming with love.

Laura Halloran

May 15, 2020

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