Risks and Vulnerability

This journey is a wild one. Am I right? You are constantly torn between knowing you have to move on with your life, and actually being ready or able to do so. Embarking on a new journey can be terrifying. Personally, I have always been a risk-taker, (Just ask my parents — they would love to tell you about it!) but as I’ve matured, risks seem less than ideal.

In my rebellious teenaged years, I knew everything. Because of this, I skipped school too much, got myself into arguments with teachers, and dabbled in the occasional fisticuffs with older girls. To be fair, many of the girls I went to school with were freaking crazy, but we also all grew up in a town where going to the local Roast Beef place for shoestring fries on Friday nights was the cool thing to do. That said, there were always rowdy and cute boys there and I loved boys.

For most of my young life, I couldn’t wait to fall in love and get married. I think I had my first crush in 4th grade. Do you remember those Grade/Classroom photos you received with your school pictures? Mine was hidden in the jacket pocket of Where the Sidewalk Ends, where I was sure my father would never find it, since realizing I liked a boy at nine-years-old probably would have given him a heart attack.

The desire to find love like my parents shared was real. They have been married for more than 45 years and together even longer. The love between them is fierce and something to be admired. My dad worked his ass off providing for my mother, my sisters and I and he is the standard to which I have always held men I dated accountable. Only Mark has ever exceeded that standard. (So far, anyway — there’s a lot of life left to live.)

I took my first risk on love at age 18, when I moved 1,000 miles away to play house with a young Gunner’s Mate (US Navy) I was absolutely sure I would be with for the rest of my life. That didn’t happen, but if I’m really honest with myself, I’ve always loved the idea of being in love. And who doesn’t? Love is wonderful. But as life with Mark taught me, actual love — and the idea of being in it — are two very different things.

To be fair, my love rebellion occurred in the early 90s, when the Internet was in its infancy, and after I lost my grandmother, a prominent female role model in my life. We had a special bond and her death was my first real experience with loss. She was sassy, brave and loved her family deeply. I’m often told I resemble her, and I do have a lot of her traits (minus her love for Gin.) She was widowed too, losing her husband young. Somehow she found the courage to raise her four children alone and God blessed her with another deep love. Her “Chapter Two,” as us widows call it, whom she also lost in 1975.

Fierce right? She took chances, and she was a gambler on more than just love. I guess I got that trait too because I love the casino AND I’ve never been afraid to risk my heart. But once you’ve lost everything that matters to you, taking any risk becomes terrifying. A new job, a new house, changing your preferred coffee brand…you get the idea. Instead of taking risks on new experiences, you suddenly want to remain attached to what you know, because it’s familiar and safe.

I finally understand why grief counselors and experienced widows/widowers are adamant about NOT making major life decisions in the first year after loss. You’re in a grief-fog and barely existing. Your brain is only there to keep your body alive. Critical thinking isn’t really an option, because your brain turns off any features deemed optional (like rational thought) to ensure physical survival. Because of that, your ability to make decisions is hindered.

Life Lessons

Less than three months after Mark died, I took a job at a private high school. Having suddenly become the only income again, I had to find something. This job was close to home, in the marketing and communications field, and the mission resonated with me. Unfortunately, I had never worked in an independent school so I had to learn a completely new market, and I had to do it fast.

I thought I was up for that challenge, but I was wrong. I remember feeling overwhelmed because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Not within my role, but in my life. I cried in my office more than once, devastated I wasn’t as productive as I could have been because my mind was incredibly broken and focused on other priorities. It was so unfair to both my colleagues and myself. If I’m really honest, I became a little resentful. It had nothing to do with the role itself, just my own internal turmoil.

Because of this, I struggled to adapt. It wasn’t because the people around me weren’t phenomenal and understanding, (not to mention patient) but rather, I had just begun to process my loss and truly feel my grief. I also developed a nasty infection that nearly killed me, so that made me question all my recent decisions and what I really wanted for my second act of life. It’s just what happens when your world crashes, regardless of why — you reevaluate everything and consider new, more meaningful directions. I still struggle with how I can effectively put this concept into words, but I give it a go below.

Do What Sets Your Heart on Fire

Mark had a short life. He was 44 when he died and barely in the prime of his life. He walked this planet for 44 years. We think we’ll always have time to accomplish the things our souls need to feel fulfilled in this life, but the truth is we really don’t. I’ve learned I cannot effectively (and happily) live my life by planning it all out and to this day believe that’s why the universe brought Mark and I together. So he could teach me how precious life is, remind me that this is my only shot, and make sure all my future moments count.

This summer, after COVID turned everyone’s life upside down, I knew I needed a different path. I started caring less about planning for how I’d spend the years ahead and instead thought about the following things: What will people remember about me? How can I make a positive impact on the world every day? Am I living a life that’s worthy of remembrance? Mark certainly did. He was a wonderful person with a forgiving spirit and the kindest heart. He showed me how to overcome adversity through resilience and positivity, which I often lost sight of before I met him. I owe him everything for this experience. Mark reminded me to live with purpose, and by doing so, he saved the rest of my life.

Through this tutelage, Mark helped me evolve into a more forgiving and loving person. I want nothing more than to continue the fire he ignited within me and show as much kindness to others as possible, and maybe help them realize their own goals and aspirations in the process. Whether that’s through a helping hand, financial support, advocacy, friendship, whatever, and I’ve practiced this for the last two years. But this mentality has also got me into trouble, because I’ve also struggled to distinguish if those I have helped really needed it, or if they just capitalized on my kind nature and vulnerability. Enter grief-brain.

When Your Brain Fails, Listen to your Body

In the past, I have heavily relied on gut feelings or intuition to help me make decisions. When you’re grieving it’s harder to do this, because your body isn’t well-aligned with your broken brain. Everything is wonky. Plus, I made the very naive mistake of thinking because I had already endured the worst pain imaginable, the Universe couldn’t possibly dish me more romantic life lessons.

To my fellow wids: you’re on this journey with me too, so you know this struggle. The loneliness feels like it will never end. Sure, we manage life’s daily tasks okay, but the desire and basic human need for human connection, physical affection and sex are very real things. These feelings don’t just apply to situations where a partner has passed either. They apply to any romantic relationship that has ever ended, for any reason, ever. We grieve the loss of love, no matter how it occurred.

BUT, as I’ve already said, when you’re grieving the death of a significant person in your life, your brain isn’t working optimally. Because of that, you start to question yourself, your gut feelings and your own intuition. Please don’t do that. Those “feelings” are physical reactions to negative energies your body is sensing. They’re still functioning, because your body is in survivability mode. It’s basic fight or flight, but because a grieving brain is a mess, you will question those responses.

I am so guilty of this. I completely dismissed so many warning signs about a man I had begun spending time with last year. I use this example, because I repeatedly ignored the “WTF are you doing, Laurie!?!?” warning signs but my brain responded: “Oh this feels familiar and safe. I hope Mark isn’t angry at me. Did I pre-make my coffee? I need to write that press release. I miss Mark. Why can’t I sleep?” and a host of other thoughts.

And now, for the warning signs:
– Man wasn’t divorced or emotionally available.
– Told me everything and anything I wanted to hear and meant absolutely none of it.
– Ditched me/blew me off way too many times, despite making plans.
– Ignored my requests for help, despite my helping him (more than once!)
– Joked about my living room mantle being a “shrine,” where Mark’s ashes rest.
– Became argumentative and defensive when I expressed my feelings about the above.

And I ignored these things for months.

Why? Because my brain turned off my ability to think and act like a rational human being the second Mark died, and this guy made out like a bandit because of it. He got my time, my attention, my affection, and my hard-earned money and he wasn’t worthy of any of it. Hindsight is a funny thing but if I had just listened to my body from the very beginning I would have suffered far less self-inflicted anxiety and embarrassment. I felt — and ignored — the signs. It pains me to admit what I allowed in the name of vulnerability, but my lesson is your gain.

I am not suggesting situations like the above will apply to you, because we are all different. But I will argue your vulnerability is more present than you may realize. Consider this fact as you make decisions moving forward. I now recognize I needed to learn these lessons to understand where I was in the grief cycle, but also to realize and accept my rational brain’s total vulnerability.

Take extra time to consider what you’re getting into or the decision you need to make. Sit with it for a while. I know you’ve lost your person and you feel like you need to make decisions quickly to get “back to normal,” or feel like you have more control of your life, but don’t rush any decisions right now. Gather every thought and consider every probable outcome. Take the time to listen to your body on these matters. Your mind will thank you.

Be brave and be bold. But most importantly, be honest with yourself.

In support,

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