A phrase I hear a lot now is a variation of “there are no words I can say to you right now.” I completely understand that sentiment. There really aren’t words that we can use to convey the depth of sorrow, empathy, sympathy, loss, love, and common human togetherness that we feel when someone, whether it’s one we know and love or a complete stranger, is suffering from the loss of a loved one. In a way, those words convey all of these feelings, like the phrase is a magic spell to bind emotion into language, itself incapable of conveying it, in a short, succinct, and meaningful way. I appreciate it when people say that to me, because there are simultaneously no words and not enough words that can truly soothe a suffering heart.
Of course, it’s a real shame that there are no words. Every human being who has lived in the history of this planet is either dead or will be. We should probably have come up with words by this point. But I understand the difficulty, especially now in an age when “thoughts and prayers” is a phrase that conveys a complete indifference to the actual suffering of people. (Fun side note: I received a card from coworkers after Julienne was in the hospital for two weeks with her second collapsed lung. All but two people used the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” The other two? “Prayers and thoughts.” What a world.) Both no words, and not enough.
There are a few times people have decided to use words anyway. They have donned the armor of language and chosen to tilt at the windmill of sorrow. In some cases, it has worked beautifully. I’ve had long conversations with people, some whom I didn’t even know very well, and we have shared scars and tears and expressed the howling depths at the pit of our souls. In other cases, however, what comes out is something either identical or very close cousins to this:
“I’m really sorry. But one day, you’ll move on.”
You’ll. Move. On.
Hearing that phrase now, when my life died three weeks ago (at this second, as I type, almost to the minute), infuriates me. My usual response is “that’s what they say.” The response I would prefer to give is “how in the flying fuck do you know, you fucking dipshit? Do you know me? Did you know my wife? Do you know what we felt for each other? No? Then why don’t you go fuck yourself in the eye with a cattle prod and leave me the fuck alone for fucking ever?”
I don’t say that, but I want to.
Here’s the thing: I don’t even know what they mean by “move on.” Do they mean I’ll find a way to muddle through, or do they mean that one day the pain will fade and I’ll find love again and move on to the next phase of my life with what I’m going through now a distant memory? I feel like it’s the latter. They want me to know that, hey, things may suck now, but later on, you’ll be fine and happy and all this is just a speed bump on the Road of Life. Which is, of course, bullshit.
Not everyone “moves on” from trauma. It’s why PTSD and other conditions exist. It’s why people can literally die from grief. The idea that everyone just fucking gets better every fucking time is a lie told by people who have either A) never truly experienced loss or B) have never loved anything other than themselves to the degree that they are unable to cope with the idea of losing them.
When I said that my life died a couple paragraphs ago, that was not a typo. I am not only grieving my wife. I am grieving over the loss of the man that I was while I was with her. I am now the man that is without her. This doesn’t just mean I’m “by myself”. I am without. For the last five years I had her by my side, even if we were separated by distance. We lived every pain, loss, joy, wonder, sadness, fear, hope, and magic together in a way that I never experienced before and I never will again. We joked that we shared the same brain often, saying the exact phrase to each other the second before the other could say. We could look at each other and know in a second that something was off or wrong. We got each other through the hell of four years of dealing with cancer. Now I’m in a new hell, and I am without.
That is not to say that I don’t have people who love me and care about me and are willing to take the 3 am phone call. I do, more than I would have expected, another gift from my beloved Julienne. But, no matter how much we love each other and want to help each other, they are not her. I am unmoored and untethered, a solitary balloon drifting high into empty sky with everything I know receding behind me. I am bereft. I’ve known the meaning of that word my whole life, but now I understand the emotion contained within in it. I am stolen. The me that was me with her is gone, forever, and the me that is now wears the same face but is so irrevocably changed that the entire world around me is unrecognizable.
“You’ll move on.”
If the person that I am now ever appears to “move on” it is because I’ll have managed to figure out how to navigate the world again without. Julienne and I appeared to have “moved on” once our final chance to have children was torn from us. We grieved terribly when she lost her ovaries during the surgery that saved her life, knowing we’d just been robbed of the chance to have children made up of the two of us. We “moved on” to the idea of IVF, and a chance of children gifted to us by one of the greatest people in the world, but we didn’t stop grieving the ones that would have been ours. When cancer finally decided that we would never have and raise children, our grief became anguish. We never moved on. We coped, but we cried about our lost children and five frozen embryos that will never know a life all the time. I cry about them still. There is a chest in our basement where we gathered things for them. Toys. Tiny furniture. The unfinished secret nook for them to hide and read of fantastical adventures. Even if those things are packed, put away, painted over – the grief is there. It will never go away. Some things just don’t fucking get “moved on” from.
There is something that I relate to very strongly in this time, something I thought I understood when I read and reread the books but only now have reached a much truer understanding. It’s from The Lord of the Rings (because of course it is – the Me-That-Was may be dead, but I’m still a fucking nerd). It’s the end of the book, the part where filmgoers bitched that “the movie should have ended when Aragorn was crowned”. The war is over. The King is crowned. Everyone’s happy. Except one person. The one who experienced the most loss and pain. Tolkien very deliberately showed that Frodo was not the same. He would smile at the celebrations, be happy for his friends, do things to help make his community stronger after the trauma. To some, he probably seemed like he’d “moved on.”
He didn’t. He coped. He did what he needed to do, until the time came when he wasn’t needed. Not wanted – no doubt the ones who loved him wanted him there with them – but needed. They had indeed moved on, because the burden wasn’t the same. Sam has Rose, and his children, and a life ahead of hope and promise. Frodo is alone, wounded, and haunted by the loss and pain and death of hope from what he’d endured. This passage conveys more of what I’m feeling than any self-help book, kind words, therapy, or my own meandering sentences can:
‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
– Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Chapter 7
I don’t know what the rest of my life holds. I don’t know how long this soul-tearing pain will continue to send me into collapse of screams and tears. I think that over time the raw wound will heal, to a degree, but I am not the same person I was without her. It’s impossible for me to see the future even dimly. But I will never wholly recover from this. I’ll never have “moved on.” I will likely only find a way to keep my composure, take pleasure in the joy of the ones I love, cry with the fresh griefs yet to come, and find a way to keep one foot in front of the other until I can finally find rest. “Sometime, when you’re ready, come lie beside me. I’ll be here, somewhere, waiting for you. I love you.” She wrote that to me at the end of burial instructions she had in her purse that I found days after we buried her. (We did everything just as she asked, to my indescribable relief.) It was another gift from her, one of so many.
I’m not going anywhere for a long time, if I can help it. I don’t want anyone to worry about that. I have Spaniel Day Lewis, Tali, and Waffles to take care of and shepherd through life – although the latter do most of the actual herding, to Lewis’ chagrin – and other things to keep me from considering harming myself. Most importantly, I made a promise to one that I will never forsake. I promised that I would survive. Bless her, she never made me promise to thrive, because she knew I couldn’t swear to that. But this Alan-That-Is will continue on, lost in a world he doesn’t recognize or understand, doing the best that he can, until it’s time for a very welcome rest.
So, to the next person who tells me that I’m going to “move on”, be very fucking careful. You may “move on” to the next world yourself after I punch you in the fucking throat.