Love, loss, isolation, connection, and giving back.
Mark captured my attention when I met him in a yoga class in 2014. The room was hot and he was shirtless. I placed my mat next to his and we practiced together for the first time. Our movements and our lives were in sync from that day until Mark’s last. On April 1, 2017 our day started like any other, with breakfast and chit chat at the dining room table. Mark decided to go on a hike with one of our friends while I relaxed at home.
Mark fell from a cliff about 100 feet above a dry creek bed. Fellow hikers stood a few feet from him, dumbstruck by how fast it happened and how helpless they were. One second he was right next to them, the next he was gone. Our friend called me at home and told me Mark fell. We had no clue the trauma would be fatal. Over the next 12 hours ER surgeons restarted Mark’s heart multiple times and failed to stop massive internal bleeding.
When a surgeon officially announced Mark’s death I crumbled. My mind couldn’t accept the situation. I kept arguing with myself, “This can’t be real.”I didn’t know anyone who had lost someone so close to them unexpectedly. “No one will ever understand this pain,” I thought. I’ve never felt more alone surrounded by people who loved me.
The pain was suffocating. I moved out of the apartment Mark and I shared and took off looking for relief in California, Europe, and remote islands in the South Pacific. My grief traveled with me, even to Bali. I wanted to share that tender part of me but I didn’t know how. The few times I told people what happened I was disappointed in their responses, mostly because I couldn’t absorb what they were saying. I gave up on talking to people about what happened and decided to write about it instead. It was a one-way conversation.
When I came back to Austin I wasn’t sure I’d stay. I’d imagine Mark standing on every familiar corner. Austin didn’t feel like home without him. I didn’t want to feel haunted like this forever but I didn’t see things changing anytime soon. I had cried every day for more months than I could count. Invitations to catch up fell to the wayside. I had the thought, “no one understands” so many times that I totally believed it now. That belief took the pain I had around my loss and amplified it into suffering. Now I felt resigned, stagnant, and hopeless, all indicators of depression when sustained long enough.
Luckily, depression is obvious to mindful spectators. One close friend realized how disengaged I had become over the last year that they emailed me a list of local grief resources. I called The Christi Center from my bedroom floor, literally pulling myself up on the side of my bed from a fresh bout of sobbing. Eyes swollen, head-pounding, and dry-mouthed, I was tired of drowning in self-pity.
Telling my story to a group of strangers felt overwhelming. What would they say? Would they accept my sadness or try to push me to happy thoughts? Would they even believe my story was true? My brain still hadn’t accepted my reality so my story still seemed unbelievable to me. I attended my first support group the following Monday night, almost a year after Mark died. I spent the entire day convincing myself to show up. Thank goodness that I did!
Everyone in the group had lost a spouse or partner. Some lost their partners unexpectedly like me. Others took care of their partners for weeks, months, or even years before they passed. I couldn’t decide what was worse and I didn’t have to. What we had in common was more meaningful than what we didn’t; we didn’t want to grieve alone.
We rejoiced in being able to share what was true for us in that moment. Often times they were thoughts we couldn’t share with anyone else, feelings that ate away at us from the inside out. We were present with each other, listening and responding and encouraging each other in ways that we couldn’t on our own.
The diversity of the group offered perspective I didn’t have before. We were all in different places on our grief journeys. I found hope listening to the people who were further along than me and began to think, “I could be OK someday, even if I’m not right now.”
Each meeting closed with our facilitator asking us to talk about whatever helped us cope. I talked about the stories I wrote and shared them with the staff at The Christi Center. They asked if they could include my story about spreading Mark’s ashes in their newsletter and I agreed. I started to own my story and choose what I wanted to believe about it. A new thought brought me my first touch of relief, “I can’t change what happened – and that’s okay.”
A few months later The Christi Center staff asked me to speak about my experience at their annual events. I was nervous, just like before I went to group for the first time. I thought about how much I benefited from hearing from others and that drove me to take action in spite of my fear. It made me feel so hopeful to hear other people say the same things I thought and for them to hear me share too.
At the first event I told a story about what it is like to attend grief group for the first time. I hoped this could ease other people’s nerves about not knowing what to expect. Maybe then people could find just enough peace of mind to show up and receive the same amazing (and free) benefits that I had in my time of need.
At the next event I spoke to a few hundred members, people who had already gone to The Christi Center. For this audience I talked about courage and how it feels like fear. I wanted them to know how brave they were for showing up. People I’d never met responded with tears and smiles and handshakes and hugs.
I never realized how many people were dealing with the same thoughts and feelings that I had, mainly because I had already decided that no one understood. I had to change the way I thought about the world to see what was there all along. It was my mind that made me feel isolated, not my loss. So when I’m driving around Austin now I see strangers on the corner, not Mark, and I wonder if they might know grief too.
The Christi Center offered a time, a place, and a community for me to release those vulnerable thoughts that turned my pain into suffering. Through my interactions with other members I was able to choose new thoughts that serve me better. That’s how The Christi Center sparks hope. They allow people to create a future they can believe in – one thought at a time.