Last night, I dreamt I was at the edge of an ocean, vast and boundless. Although there were no waves, the surface was choppy and opaque. I was afraid it was cold, and I was anxious it might get too close.
I have been avoiding my Cognitive Grief, trying not to mourn the Could Have Beens. The truth is that Shawn and I had been on the cusp of a truly magical new chapter of our relationship. The kids are 18, and, although (mostly) still around, had all graduated high school. The challenges we’d faced over the past year surrounding his mother’s hospitalization and death had brought us closer together, and he’d been undergoing intensive treatment for his C-PTSD. Our last few weeks were wonderful. We stayed at this tiny, charming hotel right on the beach. He danced and sang in the waves in the moonlight. He colored his hair like he’d wanted to for years and finally gave himself permission to have fun with it.
Sitting next to him in the waiting room of his therapist’s office after his last session, listening to him talk about his experience and how free he felt, I was filled with so much love and gratitude. This was the man I fell in love with. I felt vindicated: after decades of struggling to learn each others triggers, fears, and misunderstandings, holding faith that it would be worth it, I had been right. This is the man I chose to marry and share my life with.
Twenty-four hours later, he was dead.
Cognitive Grief is natural. It’s normal to grieve the death of dreams, the shattering of an expected future. But neither “natural” nor “normal” mean inevitable or even necessary.
It’s like how my dad differentiates between authenticity and integrity: authenticity is being honest about what you think and feel in a given moment. Integrity is acting in accordance with your deeper values, regardless of how you feel. After all, it’s easy to authentically act like a jerk.
In the same way, I can choose where to focus my grief. In this case, I think my dream is telling me that I’ve crossed the line from acceptance to avoidance, and that’s not a good thing. Knowing myself, I can see the wisdom of needing to sink into the awareness of what I’ve lost.
When my husband’s pulse spiked to 140 and I called 911, the first thought that popped into my head was, “Don’t you f’ing dare.” It’s like I had just gotten him back, and I couldn’t believe how unfair it was that he could be immediately taken from me.
When I was driving to the hospital to meet the ambulance, I examined my “Don’t you dare” reaction, and I realized it wasn’t my choice to make. I started mentally preparing myself for the worst, accepting the possibility and imagining who I would need to be in order to get through it. This is how I was able to allow gratitude and grace carry me through those first few days.
But as time passes, it’s easy to fall into old habits. Shawn was gone so much in general that the house doesn’t feel all that different from when he was at his mom’s or his brother’s. I’m taking care of things that need doing, and I’ve again started seeking distraction instead of nurturing myself when I’m tired and sad.
And then I dreamt of the ocean, waiting for me.
When I say I know myself, I mean that my mental and emotional flexibility is both a blessing and a curse. I know we make up stories to give meaning to our lives, and I love playing with these stories. Someone described my experience as a “kaleidoscopic hologram.” I’m continually trying on different ideas and What Ifs that completely shift how I see the world. This deepens my empathy for others, and it helps me quickly adapt to changing situations.
A downside of this is that it’s easy for me to drift along, untethered by “reality.” I rarely feel a sense of urgency; if something didn’t happen the way I’d wanted, I’d adjust. No big deal.
This is one of the ways that Shawn balanced me. It’s like when we filed for guardianship for Kid2: even though we agreed we both wanted it, I was trying to get his biological family on board before doing so. (I want everyone to be happy, if at all possible.) Shawn was the one who said that, while he appreciated my desire, we needed to take care of it now.
We were awarded emergency/temporary legal custody 5 days before the courts shut down entirely due to COVID. If Shawn hadn’t pushed the issue, it might never have happened.
I need to develop that sense of urgency, of my awareness of consequences. I need to acknowledge every single time I took the easy way out, playing pointless games of solitaire when I was stressed, choosing to mope by myself instead of spending time with Shawn. Maybe if I’d chosen what I knew would move me toward who I want to be (instead of watching myself hit “Play New Game” and thinking, “Eh, maybe next time”) Shawn and I could have been closer sooner. Even if we didn’t have more time, I could have made so much better use of the time we did have.
I need to feel the pain of regret to remind myself to make different choices now.
So I stand before the fathomless sea, grief roiling beneath the surface. I stretch out my arms and close my eyes, tears falling to merge with the waters below, and I step into its turgid embrace.