Learning to Love Again

Learning to Love Again.

Learning to Love Again

Weekends are difficult. I can stay busy and connected to people through the week, but on those weekends when I am not gone to a marathon, with my grandchildren, or doing something with TAPS, the hours mount. School consumes my hours outside of work, but there is going to come a day where I am finished. Then what? This loneliness is what Phil knew would happen to me and why he pressed on with the what if talk as our last face to face conversation.

Never would I have imagined that this critical conversation would come to mean so much to me. When I made jokes about Raul, the pool boy (and I do not know any Raul’s and I do not have a pool), Phil stopped me with one singular question: “If you die first, would you want me to find happiness again?” Why, yes, yes I would because I loved him that much. He loved me that much. As he drew me into his arms and tipped my chin to kiss me, he talked of my heart and how much I had to give to people. I had just sent my last two babies to college and I foolishly thought that I would like getting my house in order, having time and resources for Phil and I, and I even thought that the quiet would be nirvana. None of those inane thoughts are what happened.

In fact, the opposite happened. I realized really quickly how quiet the four walls were when Phil deployed. I missed the laughter and I missed the quiet conversations throughout the day and snuggled into one another at the end of the day. I pined for Phil, but a year seemed manageable; forever does not. After four years, I understand why Phil knew that I would need to love and be loved again. Where to start? It isn’t easy. I am warier now and all of the rules changed since I was single in my 20’s. Back then, men made the first move. They called on a phone and neither of us had any baggage. Now? I worry that my story, my job, my purpose will be too much.

I also find myself in positions where I am tempted. I struggle with doing the right thing, but I am staying true to the course because I want that chapter two that includes –God willing—someone that we are better together than apart. I don’t know if it will happen, but I do think about it on those long weekends. I am not looking to replace Phil or fill my hours, but I feel like something is missing . That feeling leads to an openness and a willingness to open my heart again. Wanting to love again will never negate my love for Phil, it just means that I can love again because I was loved well and I loved well before. It will look different and be different, but I see the possibility. In that glimpse, I believe and stay true to the course and the moral compass directing my faltering steps.

Taking Back My Finish Line

Taking Back My Finish Line.

Taking Back My Finish Line

Nobody tells you how much grief is going to hurt. Everything hurts. My body felt like it had been battered and though I am a marathoner, every breath felt gasped and fought for. This feeling lasted for a very long time. I woke up from snatched minutes of sleep with my bones aching and my body heavy. I went to bed exhausted and weary but I couldn’t close my eyes without intruding images, a heart that literally felt like it was going to stop, and I would wake up with tears rolling down my throat. I never felt thirstier and food got stuck going down. My mind stopped working and it was all I could do to get through the day and remember anything. Every person I knew had ideas about how I should “get over” my grief and how I should grieve. I even had ideas in my head about how grief should look, but none of those assumptions or expectations provided a textbook or a way forward.

From the start, people wanted to ply me with alcohol to numb the pain or sleeping pills. Maybe I should have taken the sleeping pills, but I was afraid of having any extra pills in my system. I have to take many pills every day just to live and sleeping pills worried me because I couldn’t remember anything. I also worried that I might be tempted to take too many. Every doctor’s appointment I went to, the medical staff offered me both antidepressants and sleeping pills. I was grieving and functioning, but they automatically assumed that I would want to numb the pain. Friends went about the medicating the pain a little bit differently. They wanted me to drink my way to a state of numbness. I have never had a drink of alcohol and I knew that it would be a very bad day to start when my heart was shattered.

I accidentally fell into what worked for me. The first choice I made was in the very seconds that I realized what was going on. I walked into my principal’s office and saw the sea of blue uniforms. As they started to read those devastating words, I dropped to my knees keening. I didn’t even recognize that the sounds were coming from my mouth—my soul, but one thought crossed my mind. How could I claim to have faith if in my darkest hour I turned from the faith I claimed. I chose to fall into my faith. Yes, my spiritual resiliency involves an element of church faith, but it also involves other key components of spirituality. Humor, music, purpose, meaning making, and people are part of spiritual resiliency. I also decided early on that if I quit living the assassin got me too. I simply could not let him take any more. That choice has chartered the course.

I have to fight for happiness and footing sometimes, but in the choice not to let the assassin have real estate in my heart and life, his control over the life I have is gone. I can pursue honoring a man who had no choices. I can push ahead and make a difference for those families coming after me. I can choose to spend those hard days looking to see beyond myself. I do random acts of kindness for others on those days because it keeps the focus off of what I do not have. Do I still hurt? Do I still want the life I once had? Yes, but no matter how much I want that or how much I fight to get it back, I cannot undo Phil’s death. In acknowledging that finality, I am able to take faltering steps forward.

The second choice I made was to lace up my running shoes. I could barely stand up. I was thirsty beyond what I could imagine—still have dry mouth, but I pressed on knowing that if I could get outside, I would feel better temporarily. The key was choosing to get outside and just let myself feel. I could cry and ponder my feelings. I didn’t have to talk and I wasn’t surrounded by all the things that had defined Phil’s and my life together. Running was the first place I felt happy. It just happened one day. Running didn’t always make me feel better, but those moments felt normal and those moments were lifelines when there was nothing else.

I was very quiet and shy when Phil was killed, and it felt like nobody understood the many losses I was grieving. I was grieving my community, my place in society, my family, and my husband. I moved to Germany just after Phil’s death and I was alone on my journey. I began to write about my feelings. Writing allowed be to purge what I was fixated on and once I wrote, I was able to let the feelings go. I posted those blogs on Facebook only because I lived far from friends and family. It connected me to people who supported and loved me. Those blogs were shared often enough that they became a book about my journey through military loss. I like to joke that I am an accidental author, but that book gave me a voice and a way to make meaning from the unthinkable because that book led to my involvement on many levels in the Tragedy Assistance Program. In the giving of myself to others, I can see that I have become a better version of the girl I once was.

Work was a choice I made early on. I went back to work five days after Phil’s funeral because I needed something to get up for in the morning. For almost nine hours I could focus on other people and not think about my own grief. I could be almost normal in those nine hours.

One crucial way forward that has helped me with sleep is yoga. I hate yoga. I have run for 39 years and I am not a pretzel, but yoga utilizes controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. I do yoga for runners every night before bedtime. Yoga allows me to relax the mind and disengage so that I can sleep. I can’t say that my sleep is perfect, but it is much better. Fatigue makes everything look worse. Another mindful strategy that I have embraced is regular massage. Not only does the massage help my aching body, it allows for the human touch, muscle relaxation, and deeper breathing.

Four years out, I can say that this journey is like a marathon. It hurts. Sometimes it is breathing through the bad days one second at a time, one minute at a time, one hour, one mile, one marathon at a time. A marathon runner knows that somewhere in the 26.2 miles that he is going to want to quit. He knows that his body is going to hurt badly and that it will hurt more tomorrow and even more the next day, but he also knows that if he concentrates only on taking the next step that he will eventually get to a place where he will either get a second wind or he will cross the finish line and feel a sense of pride and personal satisfaction at having pushed through the pain. It is about taking back one’s finish line. I choose to push through the cloud of want, need, and agonizing pain because I cannot let the assassin have me too. I choose to take back my finish line one faltering step at a time.IMG_1019

Memorial Day

Memorial Day.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day.

Memorial Day

Picture1 philIn the years before 2011, I was like most American people.  While I would give a fleeting thought as to the meaning of Memorial Day, Memorial Day largely stood as a marker for summer vacation.  For many years, I celebrated the extra day off with little thought to the lives gone far too soon.  The day has become personal to me.  Phil wasn’t even an American citizen by birth.  He could have retired from the military years and years before he was killed.  He chose to go to Afghanistan to help train and teach their military and their government.  He was there at their invitation and yet was assassinated by someone he should have been able to trust.  In those choices of Venezuealn French man, and the ultimate price he paid, is the very reason behind Memorial Day.

Looking at the pictures of the lives lost due to military conflict and missions is only a small part of the story.  For every traumatic death is a family that is forever changed.  A husband, a father, a son, a brother, or a friend is gone without a goodbye and without warning.  Each of these families will always remember “the knock (or doorbell)” and the sea of uniforms when the door swung opened.  Each will remember the helplessness felt at the words not said or the lost moments because  most were killed far from home and far from loved ones.  Each will know the devastation of seeing a broken body, a body still in the prime of life, broken often beyond an acceptable viewing.  Those families are lose more than a loved one that day, though.

The survivors are often left without a community.  Military families are given the year to find a new place to live.  Not only does the grieving family have to learn to live without the   fallen soldier, they must also deal with their whole life changing.  Nobody should have to make choices like that when the shock and devastation renders most grievers paralyzed and feeling like they are one heartbeat away from breaking themselves.  Even among other military families, there is a sense of no longer belonging as the family becomes a visible reminder as to what can happen.

Even in my mind, I didn’t worry about Phil.  I had worried far more about his safety when he was an enlisted man fighting the drug wars as the  drug cartel people shot at the helicopters and small planes ferrying people to the sites.  I always thought that being in the Air Force and being an officer somehow made him safe and immune to the unthinkable.  His deployment of a year was an inconvenience, but never did I consider that “what if” question.  Phil’s assassination has done more to me than end my dreams for the future, it caused me to think about all of the young faces that peer back from memorial sites.  I see and I hear how families are forever shattered by traumatic unthinkable death.

Memorial Day is a testimony to these lives and to the shattered families left behind.  While I cannot fault the celebration of summer (and I will still celebrate summer), consider the flag blowing in the breeze. The flag represents so many lives gone far too soon and it waves for so many more who know the darkness and sting of traumatic death.  I choose to celebrate life and living because I choose to honor a life gone far too soon.  I recognize that in choosing to live happy, I am honoring a man who chose me and who chose our country. v