Last Saturday was Feb 28th. I found myself faced with deep, colliding emotions… profound grief, a post-holiday-high, the excitement of a new life… all attempting to occupy my brain at the same time.
Our 34th Wedding Anniversary
34 years ago, Feb 28th was also a Saturday. The temperature was a scorching 38 degrees C. When I took my shirt off that night I had coloured spots all over my back… dye had leaked out of confetti that found its way down my collar and stained my perspiring skin.
Last Saturday would have been Rosie’s and my 34th Wedding Anniversary… the first wedding anniversary after losing her… and a whole raft of grief was trying to rise to the surface.
Coming home from an incredible holiday
In stark contrast, I had arrived home late the night before after a 12 day expedition through the more remote parts of North-East Victoria…
Four days in Mt Beauty at the foot of Mt Bogong, Victoria’s highest mountain.
A drive across the top of Victoria on the Great Alpine Rd through the unique flora of the high plains. I stopped at two rustic high plains huts to relive staying there in my early hiking days.
Five days at a horse farm in a secluded valley set amidst beautiful mountain scenery at Anglers Rest.
A long drive over gravel roads took me deep into the remote north-west wilderness region to spend two nights camping at the spectacular McKillops Bridge, an incredible feat of engineering crossing the wild, unpredictable Snowy River in one of the most rugged mountain areas I have ever been.
And then a long drive out of the mountains to camp at Marlo on the southern ocean, where the mighty Snowy River enters the sea.
All of this interspersed with hours of mountain driving (something I love), climbing mountain peaks, riding horses, and exploring amazing places I have never seen before. Encountering spectacular views, especially those from rugged mountain peaks accessible only by a long, tough uphill climb, is literally exhilarating (so much so that twice my total absorption in stunning scenery was broken by the horror of realizing I was standing on large ants nests and had ants crawling all over my boots and socks!)
Being in the bush, spending much of the time on my own, soaking up awesome scenery, touches my spirit like nothing else. The relentless busy-ness and demands of regular city life fade away. The bush takes me to a different mental space… a place of “being” as opposed to constantly “doing”.
When emotions collide
I came home on the ‘high’ of a great holiday then woke next morning to the grief of Rosie’s and my 34th wedding anniversary. It was like being in the ocean surf and seeing big waves coming towards me, each one about to break over my head. Would I be ‘dumped’? I know too well the feeling of being turned head over heels underwater, surrounded by swirling surf, struggling to get to the surface to breathe but not knowing which way is up, while fearing being slammed headfirst into the sand below… you can’t control what’s happening and you know the outcome could be dire.
Grief takes many forms
It is easy to think that grief has just a single form. The reality is far from this…
Feelings of profound loss of a loved one are to be fully expected. It is no surprise that many places, events and calendar dates that were shared with them prompt deep feelings of grief…
Rosie’s and my final holiday together was a trip to Caloundra, her favourite Queensland holiday destination. Caloundra hosts an extensive street market every Sunday. This time Rosie discovered beautiful orange rock salt lamps selling for only $20 so we bought one, lugged the heavy rock home to Melbourne, and it has been lighting her bungalow day and night ever since. Every time I see that soft glow in the bungalow prompts deep feelings of loss and but I cannot turn it off because it is a symbol of her presence in a space that was very dear to her. I know the right day will come… but not just yet. Even going up to the bungalow is very tough. It holds so many memories of Rosie and my feelings of loss become very intense when I’m there.
Our wedding anniversary felt like being in the bungalow… it was a day rather than a place, but feeling grief was to be fully expected.
Grief, however, is not always predictable. I’ve found it can hit me hard when I least expect it…
One of the amazing places my trip took me to was Little River Gorge. This spectacular gorge is the deepest in Victoria. At one point the rugged mountains plummet 500 metres to the stream below. As I was walking the steep track from the road down to the lookout I suddenly felt a deep sense of sadness knowing that Rosie would never get to see the sight I was about to see. This thought and the grief it brought struck me out of the blue. Why then and there I don’t know, but each time I think back to walking down that track the grief returns.
Another form that grief takes is one I didn’t expect, and one that is harder to deal with. At Rosie’s funeral I shared how, just like every other marriage, our marriage wasn’t perfect. There were many profoundly good things in our relationship, but even after 33 years there were issues we struggled with and never managed to resolve. While Rosie and I had talked about these issues many times and benefited significantly from professional help in the later years, we still struggled to connect in some key areas, and I find myself now struggling with grief about what our marriage was not (and perhaps could never be).
Now is not the time to share these issues in depth, but suffice to say Rosie and I struggled with issues which are common to many other marriages.
It is worth noting that while wedding anniversaries in our society are seen as an opportunity for couples to celebrate the positives of their marriage, no doubt many couples feel a heightened awareness of the difficult aspects of their relationship at the same time. (If you are married and can relate to this I encourage you to address the issues sooner rather than later… marriages, like our lives, are finite and eventually come to an end.)
Relief and excitement
The tough 16 year cancer journey Rosie and I walked together is over. Rosie’s final days, her death, telling people, dealing with others emotions as well as my own, organizing and attending the funeral, dealing with all the official paperwork afterwards, facing people for the first time without her… these were stressful and emotionally exhausting months. This phase is now mostly over and as life has begun to ‘settle down’ positive feelings are emerging alongside the grief.
I have a deep sense of relief that the exhausting, downward, rollercoaster journey has come to an end. After 16 years of emotional exhaustion a whole new life and sense of freedom are emerging. It’s still early days but I feel an energy that I can’t remember having since my youth and an excitement about the wide range of options that lay ahead.
My new life offers all sorts of possibilities and choices. How will I invest my time? What activities will I pursue? How will I support myself financially? Do I return to paid work? Will I shift house at some future time? A particular challenge is how do I prioritize my relationships? In addition to family and my own friends, I have got to know and value so many people through Rosie, but I know maintaining quality relationships takes significant time and energy, and I don’t have the capacity to manage the number of relationships that Rosie did.
Having new options is exciting; having many new options at the same time can be overwhelming. Assessing them and making choices can be scary. New life brings a sense of excitement, but it is not without some apprehension as well.
Managing colliding emotions
I arrived home high on holiday adrenalin. The next morning I faced the grief of my first wedding anniversary without Rosie… both the profound loss of all that was good about our relationship, and the grief over what our relationship never managed to be. Alongside this I felt the relief, energy, excitement and apprehension of a new life emerging… a mixture of very powerful but very discordant emotions all calling out for attention at the same time.
The breaking waves were threatening to overwhelm me with unpredictable consequences.
How could I deal with this? All I could realistically do was let myself roll in the emotional surf… to allow the different emotions come and go as they would, rather than trying to suppress them, analyze them or resolve them. The important thing was to protect myself from being emotionally slammed into the potential depression that lay at the bottom of the swirling emotions… to just allow the feelings to be, knowing that the turbulence would gradually pass, and that in time I could stand steady and continue my journey.
And that was ok. I didn’t have to deal with it all on Saturday, or Sunday, or this past week. I don’t have to deal with it all in the coming month. It’s okay to just sit with the colliding emotions, to keep feeling the joy of an amazing holiday, to feel the pain of losing Rosie, to be excited and apprehensive about my new life ahead. I don’t have to shut one emotion out for the sake of another. I don’t have to rush to address or resolve the feelings, or face all the decisions and challenges immediately.
Instead I can allow myself to live life one day at a time, and as each day comes, choose what feelings or issues I do or don’t address that day. Each day is part of a much bigger process that is happening progressively with time. Thinking, writing and talking to others about the issues I face will help me set the general direction, but I cannot charter the course with any accuracy and the good thing is I don’t have to. My life will find its way and there are no fixed milestones or deadlines I have to meet.
No doubt more days will come when life causes my emotions to collide again. And that’s ok too, because I now know I can let the waves come and go, and emerge out of the turbulence one step further along the road.