Feelings In the Spaces of My Heart For Which There Are No Words

Feelings In the Spaces of My Heart For Which There Are No Words.

Feelings In the Spaces of My Heart For Which There Are No Words

Feelings In the Spaces of My Heart For Which There Are No Words

When Phil’s candle burned out far too early, I snuffed out a part of me with him. In the 23 years of marriage, I found a safe harbor to weather the storms in. Before I met Phil, I didn’t have laughter in my life and I yearned for a place to call home. Marrying a military man meant that my concept of home changed from a location to a concept. Home was wherever our family was together—it was him. The shift in how I perceived my home place made it easier to move often as we zig zagged all over the country. The shift made it easy to overlook the gradual shifting of how I invested in friendships and people, too. The idea of home being a person and the shift in my friendships are the crux of my struggles three years from when my grief process began.
I stand on shifting sands. The past three years have given me a quiet confidence in my decision-making capabilities and it has given me a clear vision as to what matters in my life. The sparks have ignited, blaze, and propel me forward as I find purpose, meaning, and positive growth in writing, educating, and speaking on military issues and the military family. My faith stands unshakeable and true, but as I look at the girl peering back in the mirror I recognize that there arte essential questions that are unanswered. My assumptive world view of growing old with someone, me dying before him, facing retirement together, and even the state we were going to retire to are shattered. I thought I knew how my life was going to play out; Phil’s death obliterated my concept of future and my concept of where I fit. The broken pieces trouble me. Where do I belong? Will life always feel this lonely? Will laughter ever genuinely dominate my life again? And….the hardest question of all, where do I belong?
Where do I belong? I do not feel like I fit in any where. I didn’t consider how small my circles had become. The longer Phil and I were married, and the more moves we made, the smaller our circles became. I never realized how shallow my connections with other people were until Phil was killed and I realized that my friendships lacked depth in large part because I failed to nurture them by investing time, energy, and personal information. I didn’t have 911 friends—the type of friends that can read and sense how a person feels even if that person can fool everyone else. I didn’t have friendships outside of Phil where they would knew the true feelings and would call me out with the “Bull crap” meter. My life had become Phil’s life and vice versa. He was my circle of one.
Because my circle was one deep, Phil’s life consumed me and took over. His life-style became mine. I lived on military bases, worked on military bases, went to church on military bases, sent my children to military schools, shopped in the BX and commissary, went to military events, and did the duties expected of a military spouse. While initially the military life was foreign to me, the lifestyle became familiar and comfortable. At some point, I stopped recognizing the civilian lifestyles as being normal. I didn’t think about the shift, but as I became immersed and comfortable in the military culture that included lingo, rank, structure, discipline, physicality, living arrangements, rules, and even a time system foreign to many, my civilian life was eclipsed. While I never wore Phil’s rank in terms of entitlement, his choice became my choice.
Part of the cost of that choice was that my civilian roots and connections became very shallow. I still do not know when that shift happened, but at Phil’s death I realized that I no longer had seep connections with people. In my shyness and in my frequent military moves, I learned to unintentionally keep people at arm’s length. Sure, I could make quick connections one on one with most people, but I only let people in so far. I hid behind a mask of aloofness and shyness. I truly invested every facet of my being into my Phil. When his unexpected and unplanned for death occurred, it ruptured all that I knew. Not only was my soft place to land gone, the one person who knew me well enough to see beyond my outward masks gone, my home, my people, my culture were severed.
As a military spouse, I was told that I had one year to figure out where I wanted to move (I have since found out that it can be waived for up to three years). How do I know where I want to live? I haven’t lived in Boise, ID since 1979. I am too old to go and live with my mamma and too young to go and live with my adult children who live all over the world as part of the military. Part of the reason I work as a civilian military worker is that I am not ready to give up the camaraderie and familiarity of my adult life. I am not ready to sever the one thing I still know.
While I have figured out that I will never be an east coast girl, I haven’t figured out the rest of it. I no longer fit with military families. I don’t fit in with married couples in terms of hanging out. I feel uncomfortable hanging out in single’s groups and even civilian groups because I am lacking the skills and the comfort level to absorb those cultures or places. I am lonely and adrift. I have found great satisfaction with work, running, and school, but where do I fit. In the spaces between the holes in my heart, there is a longing to find a place—my place. While I stand on shifting sands, I search for solid footing. I do not think that I am unique in feeling this displacement. In fact, I believe that many retiring military people quietly suffer the same feelings of displacement and longing for the culture that became second nature. I do believe that after 30 years of living and being a part of the in the military community made this part of the grief process harder. There are no words, but there is a quiet prayer, a silent longing, and an unspoken hope for something more—a place where I belong.

Suicide? Selfish?

Suicide? Selfish?.

Suicide? Selfish?

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I have watched the frenzy that has followed the suicide of a well loved, good guy, comedian. Robin Williams death rocked many people and it has polarized people in their reactions. Essentially, it comes down to mental illness versus choosing selfishness. While I still do not fully understand mental illness, I have grown through losing people close to me to suicide. Robin William’s death at his own hand is heartbreaking because it always goes to the choice of choosing a permanent solution to a temporary problem and the choice to end life when so many people want life, but lose theirs far too soon. It is easy to point fingers and to judge, however, Robin Williams was like all of us, he wore masks to hide the pain. In a moment of pain and most likely in the thought processes of not wanting to hurt those the closest to him, he chose an unfixable act—to cause himself pain vs. those who loved him.

I am not saying that it is logical thought, but he certainly fit the demographics of the fastest growing age for suicide. Males 50-59 (yes, he was just outside of this range). Men this age often feel socially isolated EVEN if they are surrounded by people. Consider for a moment. All of us in our youth have multiple opportunities to make friends and maintain friendships through school and sports. As the years go by, men in particular isolate by making their circles smaller and smaller. Many men develop a circle of one—a spouse. What happens when the body slam is the spouse or the perceived loss of a spouse. Additionally, men of this age usually go through what we women go through earlier—a crisis of body image. While women make peace with their bodies in their 50’s, men often hit a crisis of self doubt as their body and physical skills start to decline. It has been widely reported that Robin Williams had heart surgery. They also can very successful and have many shallow connections, yet often those that hide behind that humor and all is well are hiding pain and feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Like people of all ages, people can contemplate suicide for a long time and in a moment of crisis feel that there is no one to talk to about what is going on. If the loss is so great (remember, it is individual perception) that they feel that they cannot let the “real” thoughts out, the individual may feel trapped, in pain, and they may even recognize the pain they are causing others. Yes, Robin Williams had substance abuse problems. Did that play into his death? Even if there are traces of drugs or alcohol, I posit that those drugs and alcohol were an attempt to self-medicate and to feel good—feel normal. When it seems like everyone around you is normal and that the people around you only like the masks that cause a person to behave the way they do (humor, military bearing, etc), the self-medication may help the conflicted person forget, dull the pain, or even feel better. I am not saying that it is a normal response;I am saying that the thought schema is conflicted.

Robin Williams loved his family, and he recognized his missteps, but some where he came to see no end to his pain. Men often do not feel that they can get help without the stigma of being weak. While Robin did get help, he may have felt he was losing more than what he had. He talked of getting help and being in a good place, yet the signs were there. He had lost a lot of weight, he looked beaten, and he looked tired. In fatigue, people make choices that they wouldn’t make in a well-rested lucid state. People commented that he didn’t seem like himself. Could they have rescued him? I don’t know. I once had a friend who tried repeatedly until she was successful in her 20’s. She had family and friends that loved her, but she just didn’t see beyond her pain and the pain she thought she caused all of us. In her own mind, her death was not selfish but an act of love so she didn’t let anyone else down. While many of us reached out and loved her, her pain consumed her. Did that make her less of a person? No. I came to see the tender heart she had and I came to understand the depths of her pain led her to acts that I cannot fathom. I do not have to agree with the choice made in the pit of internal hell, and while I hope that I can see another person’s pain and change the course of fate, my sole responsibility is to love and forgive all. I make different choices, but like all of us, I am flawed. I choose to love and forgive.

Robin Williams and those in my life gone far too soon due to suicide, your life mattered. Until we meet again.

You know, while this has never been my issue, I have had people close to me try to commit suicide and I have had some related and not related that were close that did kill themselves. I think that in the moment they can see no other way to end the pain. I don’t think that it is a decision to hurt those left behind as much as it is that they cannot see any other way to stop feeling so bad or hurting others. My heart simply bleeds for those that loved him. This was not their fault.

Maybe I am Broken

Lately, I have felt like I am broken. I feel like I live in that changed state that has made great forward progress in decision making, driving, work, school, and self-confidence. When my Phil was killed, I didn’t trust my own decisions because I had spent my entire adult life following him all over the world. I knew who I was as Phil’s wife and I knew who I was as a military wife and mother. I liked that girl. I wanted for nothing else. When my dreams of the future ended on 27 April 2011, I struggled to find my footing on all fronts. Everything changed.

I had to decide where I wanted to live and had to do so in that fugue state that people enter after a totally shocking traumatic death. My body hurt every where. I couldn’t grasp conversations going on around me or remember to eat at times, yet I had to make decisions impacting leaving behind my dream job at my dream school, a state I loved, and people I fit with. I recognized that we all needed space to grieve and that leaving for awhile would be best, yet the past three years has been figuring out where to go and what to do.

I changed. I became outspoken and put a name and face on military loss. I no longer was that quiet girl who lived in the shadows of her family, yet I am still a nomad. I know where I will be when I retire in a handful of years, but learning to fit in as a widow, as a single person, as a person whose life is largely public is difficult. I feel like I am at a good point in my journey. While I miss my Phil, I have come to a point where I have considered a chapter two. I was reminded, however, that maybe I am too broken to let someone in.

It isn’t that I compare to Phil, but I feel different. Dating in my 50’s is different from my 20’s. The most obvious thing is that there is a very limited pool of men who are single. Many of those in the single pool are scarred from multiple marriages, wanting to have a relationship while still married, or are looking for a quick fling. In my 20’s the men I dated understood waiting for intimacy, but at my age, not so much. It is charming the first and second date, but then there is that expectation of something more after that. It isn’t that I don’t want that, but my moral compass has not shifted or changed. I want the friendship and the quiet knowing that we are two people moving in the same direction. I have come to recognize that I have changed little since my college days when I would dump men after the second date because I do not see a future with them.

I had a nice man ask me out recently. We connected on many levels—family, running, faith, and loss. He has lost a child in the worst way possible. One would think that would be enough, but it isn’t. I didn’t feel or see a future. The door slammed shut when he referred to Phil as my ex-husband. My ex-husband? Does that make his son an ex-son? Phil is not my ex-anything. He was my chapter one and he loved me enough to give me the green light and nudge for a chapter two.

I am concerned that I have shut down. Maybe that gentle heart that had room for love and loving is closed. I know that relatives have thought I am too picky. Maybe I am. Could I be alone forever? Yes, but it sure would be nice to experience life with another person. It would spark my heart to be able to love well again. Would I recognize that love again? Could I trust another and let another in fully? While I believe that I can, maybe I am too broken and shut down to be a lovable person. I want more than the physical aspect. I want a deep friendship, laughter, faith, and shared lifestyles. Maybe it isn’t possible.

Being a widow, especially a military widow, makes me feel like nobody understands this journey unless they share this journey. It has set me apart and perhaps that is what stops me. I am not sure, but until I am sure, I am not dating to date, nor am I looking to satisfy physical longings. If Phil is all I get, then I will be filled with gratitude for the 23 years we had. If there is a chapter two, I know that a certain angel will be dancing and nudging me forward.

Three Years and Grief Has Led To Understanding

When Phil was killed, I felt like I was all alone and that somehow I no longer fit in the world that I had been a part of since I was 21. It had been many years since I was the center of gossip, but from the early moments less than a week after the funeral, people that Phil had worked with were making bets about how long it would take for me to date and remarry. Someone considered it funny enough to tell me about it. Other people shied away from me perhaps feeling like Phil’s death was contagious. Maybe they didn’t know what to say. Many didn’t. Many people came and remembered Phil’s life at his funeral, but I never heard from them again. As time has marched on, and Phil’s death is not such a raw event, I have become better at laughing off the inappropriate behavior and remarks, yet the pain lingers as a muted dull ache of wanting the life I thought I was going to have.

Three years after Phil was killed, I have realized that I, like most, had a skewed perception of grief. I thought that grief was finite and that people could “get over the loss”. I suppose I thought that someone else who could fill the void could replace some how people. Yes, I had experienced death before Phil, but most of my loss followed a predictable pattern and the end either came from death at an old age or was someone not close enough to create a lifetime of “what ifs” or missed family events.

People step up willingly and provide a shroud of support in the immediate aftermath of traumatic death—any death. They step up to provide food and a physical support. They are willing to listen and they are willing be the hands that reach to the broken spirited griever, but people (and I am no different) quickly reach the end to their capacity to give. It isn’t that they do not want to be a good friend, but all of us have life responsibilities and the need to connect with people who bring life into our own hearts. This time limit usually is six months for those that are the closest to those who grieve.

When caregiving fatigue kicks in, people begin to look for life to resume in what is perceived a normal way. At this point, many things may be said and done not to hurt another person, but simply from not knowing what to say or do. While a person would never tell another person to get over being happy, it is exactly the opposite with those who still cry, talk about the loss, or mourn in any manner six months-12 months-whatever that number is.

I have had people in my life suggest sleeping with someone, getting drunk to forget, sleeping pills, etc as a way of forgetting the pain. While those things may work temporarily, I have been smart enough to realize that all to soon that the pain would come rushing back and that pain would be even worse if it carried the elements of guilt, self-loathing, or delayed grief. A person must simply continue to step and breathe one minute at a time until the pain is blunted enough that a person can grow and find meaning or remember the person lost not as the event that took their life, but as a collection of happy memories and shared events.

Another element of this journey that has shifted in my paradigms is that I once said to my minister that I was waiting for God to bless me like he blessed Job after all of his losses. God did indeed bless Job after his loss, BUT as my minister pointed out, people are not replaceable. God allowed Job to find love again and to reestablish his business again, but Job still bore the scars of having lost his family.

At this point in my journey, I still think about Phil. There are days that will always bring with them the weight of darkness. I can’t control those days or basic time frames, but most days I am confident that I am doing what I need to be doing. I honor Phil and the love we shared even as I take small faltering steps forward. I have begun to believe in myself and in my future without my Phil but that progress in no way means that I am “over it”.

My future does not mean replacing or forgetting Phil and what he meant to me. It simply means learning to live as Linda instead of as the Linda/Phil team. This future means developing a new future—one that I never wanted—because it is what he would have wanted.

He even told me that in our last face to face conversation. Phil wanted that what if talk right before he deployed. I wanted none of it. I made jokes about Raul the Pool Boy. I do not know any Raul’s and I certainly do not have a pool. He got exasperated and asked me a question that compels me forward in hope and in confidence. He turned to me and asked, “If you died first, would you want me to be happy again?.” Why, yes, yes I would. Phil wanted happiness for me because he loved me that much. Perhaps the people who want us to get over it love us that much.

Get Over It?

Get Over It?.

Get Over It?

Three years after Phil was killed, I have realized that I, like most, had a skewed perception of grief. I thought that grief was finite and that people could “get over the loss”. I suppose I thought that someone else who could fill the void could replace some how people. Yes, I had experienced death before Phil, but most of my loss followed a predictable pattern and the end either came from death at an old age or was someone not close enough to create a lifetime of “what ifs” or missed family events.

People step up willingly and provide a shroud of support in the immediate aftermath of traumatic death—any death. They step up to provide food and a physical support. They are willing to listen and they are willing be the hands that reach to the broken spirited griever, but people (and I am no different) quickly reach the end to their capacity to give. It isn’t that they do not want to be a good friend, but all of us have life responsibilities and the need to connect with people who bring life into our own hearts. This time limit usually is six months for those that are the closest to those who grieve.

When caregiving fatigue kicks in, people begin to look for life to resume in what is perceived a normal way. At this point, many things may be said and done not to hurt another person, but simply from not knowing what to say or do. While a person would never tell another person to get over being happy, it is exactly the opposite with those who still cry, talk about the loss, or mourn in any manner six months-12 months-whatever that number is.

I have had people in my life suggest sleeping with someone, getting drunk to forget, sleeping pills, etc as a way of forgetting the pain. While those things may work temporarily, I have been smart enough to realize that all to soon that the pain would come rushing back and that pain would be even worse if it carried the elements of guilt, self-loathing, or delayed grief. A person must simply continue to step and breathe one minute at a time until the pain is blunted enough that a person can grow and find meaning or remember the person lost not as the event that took their life, but as a collection of happy memories and shared events.

Another element of this journey that has shifted in my paradigms is that I once said to my minister that I was waiting for God to bless me like he blessed Job after all of his losses. God did indeed bless Job after his loss, BUT as my minister pointed out, people are not replaceable. God allowed Job to find love again and to reestablish his business again, but Job still bore the scars of having lost his family.

At this point in my journey, I still think about Phil. There are days that will always bring with them the weight of darkness. I can’t control those days or basic time frames, but most days I am confident that I am doing what I need to be doing. I honor Phil and the love we shared even as I take small faltering steps forward. I have begun to believe in myself and in my future without my Phil but that progress in no way means that I am “over it”.

My future does not mean replacing or forgetting Phil and what he meant to me. It simply means learning to live as Linda instead of as the Linda/Phil team. This future means developing a new future—one that I never wanted—because it is what he would have wanted.

He even told me that in our last face to face conversation. Phil wanted that what if talk right before he deployed. I wanted none of it. I made jokes about Raul the Pool Boy. I do not know any Raul’s and I certainly do not have a pool. He got exasperated and asked me a question that compels me forward in hope and in confidence. He turned to me and asked, “If you died first, would you want me to be happy again?.” Why, yes, yes I would. Phil wanted happiness for me because he loved me that much. Perhaps the people who want us to get over it love us that much.

The Need for 911 Friends

The Need for 911 Friends.

The Need for 911 Friends

Developing relationships critical to overcoming “body-slams”
Commentary by Linda Ambard
Hanscom Community Support Coordinator

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. — People need connections and other people in their lives. As a military spouse, I didn’t recognize how narrow my circles were or how shallow my support group was until my husband was killed. Until that time, I never considered how disposable my relationships had become. I had spent 30 years traveling the world as a military spouse. I was really good at making fast connections, being able to say goodbye and then, if I ran into these same people later, very good at starting where I left off. I never considered that fast and shallow connections was a bad thing because it was our way of life and everybody around us was the same. As long as I had my immediate family with me, I was content.
But what happens when a body-slam is to the one person to whom a person confides in?
Body-slams are events that affect a person emotionally, physically, mentally or spiritually.
One of the casualties of military life is that it lacked “911-friendships.” As military families know, we are nomads. This transience leads to having connections worldwide, but these connections rarely are where we are or know what we need in times of crisis. These are friends that know each other well enough that words are not needed. These shallow roots impact all of us. Men seem to narrow their circles and connections more than women when they marry. Men work all day, go home to family and then go to bed. It leaves little time for hobbies or deep friendships.
When my body-slam happened to the one person I had a deep connection with, I realized how alone I was. My connection was severed.
A person often thinks they know how they will react when trauma happens, but the reality is not one of us knows how we will react or how the people in our lives will react. I didn’t really consider the what if’s prior to my body slam, but if I had considered tragedy, I would have thought that family would be the answer, but as I found out, when every person is grieving, the support isn’t there in a way that might be healing. Even my own mother didn’t call as she didn’t know how to deal with my trauma. I thought that long-term acquaintances would be there, but nobody knew how to deal with my trauma. My children were shocked and hurting. I was not able to be the lifeline they needed because I could barely function.
How can anyone address the hurt in children if they cannot address the hurt in themselves? Being a military family, home becomes whichever base a family is together at. Home is a person versus a place, thus when trauma or tragedy happens, people may not have the resources to fall back on.
Relationships take time and energy. Relationships are built on a mutual investment of ideas, thoughts and feelings.
A person must invest energy and personal information to build these connections over time. It is sometimes easier to feel that friendly acquaintances are enough. Think about it. We all put on masks at work. When was the last time you let someone in?
During trauma and tragedy, or during body-slams, connections give us hope and they give us a reason to recover. This connection is key is to establishing and maintaining these relationships before hard times are endured.
Military spouses need to develop opportunities outside of the house to establish connections, because in doing so, they are able to develop friendships at a deeper level.
While it is not impossible to establish and maintain 911-friendships in the military, it takes a commitment and it takes vision.
Never again will I allow my circle to be one deep because I understand how hard it is to come back from a body-slam alone. Connections matter because relationships are critical for wanting to get up in the morning.
Relationships are important because they give us accountability and a sense of purpose. While social resiliency is only part of the puzzle, it is a critical element to consider carefully in the military life that we have chosen because it is the one area that most of us are very shallow-rooted in.
(Editor’s note: Linda Ambard is the Community Support Coordinator. The position was created to help Airmen and their families withstand, recover and grow in the face of stressors and changing demands. For questions concerning resiliency, contact Ambard at linda.ambard@hanscom.af.mil or at 781-225-1771.)