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

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