What The White Rabbit Did Not Know About Grief and Time
It’s been a week that I’ve had my old and new Halloween decorations up in my apartment (click here for last week’s post). I was most apprehensive about the Halloween countdown calendar figurine that I gave Ben, and I was prepared to return it to its box if it was too emotional to display it. Ironically, I find great comfort and connection to Ben when I dutifully change the number of days remaining till Halloween. I can see Ben’s smile and I feel like I am doing this for and with him, taking pride in the knowledge that it is a gift that he absolutely loved and that brought him joy at a very unjoyful time.
I’ve been thinking about how is was the first time in the three years since I lost Ben that I was ready to have any Halloween decorations. I cannot explain why, at this point in time, the countdown calendar figurine gives me a sense of connection to Ben in a good way and yet, other things continue to upset or unnerve me, conjuring the memories of the pain of loss. I’m still not ready for some of the items in our collection and I don’t know if I will ever be ready for the things that I brought to decorate Ben’s hospice room. Only time will tell. But, should there be a time limit at which point I should without a doubt be able to cope with all of this?
They say time heals all wounds. When it comes to grief, I think time helps you adjust to and learn to coexist with the grief. The White Rabbit in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland says, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.” I have felt like that as I have dealt with grief, except that I never knew what date to set or if, in fact, any such date exists. There is always the sense of measuring how long it will take to get past the pain. When loss was very new and raw, I simply wanted just to get to a point where grief became easier. When I wasn’t wondering when I would feel better, or if I should be feeling better than I did at any given time, other people were placing a time stamp on my grief. There are always the people who remind you that it’s time to “move on,” which is one of my least favorite expressions. Those dates have been based on their own experiences and opinions, and sometimes even on their own comfort level with my grief. The thing is, everyone handles grief differently and in their own timeframe.
I have always asked myself if I’ve been handling grief well. I ask myself if I should still have such a hard time celebrating Halloween without Ben. Time has allowed me to joyfully embrace some memories but not others. Should it be different? Have I missed a deadline for grief to subside? I really don’t know. On a day to day basis, although I have bad moments and bad days- especially on milestone dates- I feel like I am functioning just fine. I have always been a person who cries easily, so I cannot measure grief by tears. Still, I constantly question and assess myself. To me, the fact that I made the decision to welcome Halloween this year is a good sign of progress. It seems okay to me that some things are easier than others. I test myself, as I did with Ben’s Halloween countdown figurine and, sure enough, it is actually making me happy. If I’d decided that I was not yet prepared to display any Halloween things, would that have been okay, too? Should I be rushing or worrying that I’m late to coming to terms with my new life and new normal?
How long should grief last? How can we say? Grief began the day Ben was diagnosed with ALS. We grieved our life as we knew it, we grieved the future that we wouldn’t have, we grieved each ability that Ben lost as a result of the disease. After he left this world, I grieved his loss, and I grieved the loss of purpose that I had as his caregiver. This weekend, I was reminded that for at least a year after Ben died, each time I did venture out into the world to socialize, I cried on my way home. I remember that on one of my first outings, I cried on my way to the subway, because in addition to missing Ben, I also realized that being alone and returning home by myself had to be my new normal. It also scared me that no one would even know if I arrived home. It took me more than a year to begin to establish routines. I tiptoed into life, testing the waters to see what felt comfortable, worrying that I was not progressing quickly enough. On Friday night, after attending a Broadway play, I walked to the subway and thought about how I have become more comfortable with my new normal. I don’t experience the same pains and anxiety to return home alone. I don’t love it, and I do hope that one day I will find love again, but I embrace the good and bad days and moments simply as part of life.
I see a lot of comments on support groups from people whose family and friends make them feel like they either haven’t grieved long enough or they’ve grieved for too long. As I see it, there is no such thing as an appropriate time to grieve. That said, I did seek therapy and join grief support groups after the loss of my mom and of Ben, because I felt like I needed support with getting back to living. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to seek help if you feel that you need support to function in a manner that you think is appropriate and that gets you from day to day. It was helpful to me to talk to others who were in a similar circumstance, though it did at times fuel our insecurities to compare our experiences coping with grief.
People have asked me if I often still think of Ben. Yes, I think of him every single day, and I often talk to him and about him. It feels right to me. Some people feel that I shouldn’t still be thinking of him so frequently because it’s dwelling on the past and it keeps me from “moving on.” Frankly, I am not moving on and leaving Ben behind. I am moving forward, continuing to live but having been shaped by my love for and experience caring for Ben. Some widows and widowers share my experience and others say they don’t think about their spouses as much anymore. I’ve heard people make negative comments about those who have lost spouses and have found new love within several months. I am not aware of any formula or correct answer to any of these situations. There should be no judgment, and if there is, please keep it to yourself.
I have not wanted to return to Walt Disney World without Ben, although I do miss it. I still cannot imagine attending the Halloween festivities without him because that was truly our time, even marked by his proposal one Halloween. But, I don’t rule out a return. In fact, I do feel a tug of wanting to go and to feel the connection to Ben at a time other than Halloween. I guess I’m not like the White Rabbit. I’m not setting any dates or deadlines on how I deal with grief and its integration into my life. I have not set a deadline for myself and I will not accept a deadline set by anyone else. There are times that I feel that I’m not where I should be, and at other times I feel like I cannot rush myself, following my emotions and experiencing life on my own terms, and although I’m not always steady on my feet, I’m stepping forward every day. In my opinion, White Rabbits around me can turn off the alarm and relax , because when it comes to coping with grief there is no finish line, because it never completely passes. What’s more important than deadlines that I might have missed is that, in my own time and in my own way, I am more welcoming of the creation of new memories.