“Loss stuns us into a place beyond any language ... Language is a cover for that annihilating stillness, and a poor one at that.”
(Megan Devine, It’s OK That You’re Not OK)
In the months leading up to Kim’s passing, Kim and I talked a couple of times about her memorial. We made a rough plan of what it might look like and who she would like to speak at it, and we talked about a couple of songs we would either sing or have played. We also talked about timing of the memorial, and that she wanted us to wait until after COVID was over so there wouldn’t be any restrictions on who could attend. Kim wanted everyone who wanted to attend to be able to do so. She was always thinking of others.
When we made these plans, all signs pointed to COVID-19 being significantly weakened, if not in our rear-view mirror by the end of summer 2021. The vaccine was rolling out, and summer was coming. What we didn’t know was that the fourth-wave of COVID was also about to begin.
As you now know, we were not able to honour all of Kim’s wishes. In August, when we met as a family to discuss plans for a memorial, we all felt that if Kim knew the current situation, that the Delta-Variant was now active and growing, and that it was most likely going to spread through schools once September hit, she would most likely have said, “OK, get it done already.” And so, with that, we went ahead and had Kim memorial on September 10th, with a limit of 200 people in attendance and COVID safety measures in place to ensure we did not become a spreader-event and to protect persons like myself.
I mention all this as background to this next chapter of my grief. Because we waited five months to hold Kim’s memorial, I believe the experience of her memorial was much different than if we had held it within the first month.
In the week leading up to Kim’s memorial, I felt a growing anxiety within me. Not only was I worried about how painful and difficult the actual event of Kim’s memorial would be, but there was something else happening, a feeling I couldn’t put into words. It felt as if a chapter of my life was coming to an end. With Kim’s memorial happening on a Friday night, I had this feeling that something was going to happen over the weekend, that there was an "opening," an abyss, that was about to engulf me. I felt as if I was coming to the edge of a cliff.
I am so incredibly proud of Kim’s memorial. I am thankful to everyone who spoke and how they honoured Kim with their words and stories. Pastor Jenna Fabiano, who officiated, did such an excellent job as well. The musicians also brought such a peaceful atmosphere to the building. I was so grateful that Kim could be honoured in such a powerful way.
The rest of that weekend, however, just kind of slipped by. I worked on Saturday to try and keep my mind busy (we were in the middle of corn harvest). On Sunday, I stayed in my PJ’s all morning until I went to the farm in the afternoon to work again.
But something happened on Monday morning. That thing I had felt inside of me, that change that I felt coming during the previous week, that anxiety, finally came to the surface. Monday, September 13th, was a bright and beautiful morning. I woke up at my regular time, had breakfast, did my lung function tests as I do every morning, and then decided to go for a walk. I was about three-hundred meters from my house, about to cross a street (I can picture it clearly in my mind), when all of a sudden, a phrase came into my head that stopped me dead in my tracks: Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
That was it! That was what the growing anxiety, the suspicion of what Kim’s memorial would mean. A new chapter, a new life, was now beginning. But, whereas this phrase, the first day of the rest of your life, is often used in a positive or motivational fashion, this instance of it came with nothing but immense life-piercing sorrow.
In the five months preceding the memorial, it still felt like I was somehow living with Kim. I don’t know if it was because of the shock that I wrote about in the previous post, if it was because her passing was still so fresh, or if it was because we had not yet had her memorial; but it felt like Kim was still with me somehow. The chapter had not yet ended. During the summer, I was still anticipating something with Kim. The symbolic book of our marriage, our journey together, had not yet finished. Throughout the spring and summer, there was still something to come that had to do with Kim, something I would still do for her, something that Kim would be part of, that she would be central in. Kim’s chapter had not yet ended.
However, with her memorial, and the symbolic nature that memorial services often take on, it was as if the chapter was now closed; and now, on the following Monday morning, I was staring at a blank page. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in this book, Lament for a Son, writes, “Something is over. In the deepest levels of my existence something is finished, done. My life is divided into before and after.”
It was as if there was this open space, this empty silence in front of me. It felt like I was expected to move on, that any excuse of not making plans for the future, of finding stability, were now over. There was nothing to look forward to, no more ending point; there was now just a future without Kim. It felt like the chapter, whose title still included Kim’s name in it, was now done, and from here on out, the chapter titles would only have my own name. From this moment on, it felt as if Kim would now exist only in my memory. And each day after the memorial would feel as if I was moving further and further from her.
Again, in this book, Lament for a Son, Wolterstorff writes, “It’s the neverness that is so painful. Never again to be here with us––never to sit with us at the table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us, never to cry with us, never to embrace with us ... All the rest of our lives we must live without [her]. Only our deaths can stop the pain of [her] death. A month, a year, five years––with that I could live. But not this forever.”
Here is something I just thought of in writing this (writing always helps me process things). The word “widowed” means “to be empty.” Since Kim's memorial, I have been saying that I have this sense of “openness” in front of me, but I always need to qualify that by saying it is not a good thing. It is like being unanchored in a storm or staring out the door of an airplane with no parachute. But maybe instead of saying I feel this sense of “openness,” I should say I feel a sense of “emptiness” in front of me. I know I feel empty inside. I feel like the shell of the man I was a year ago. But maybe that is also the word that best describes how I feel about the future: EMPTY.
I’ve used part of this quote in an earlier blog post, and I wasn’t planning on using it here, but I think it fits. Again, it is by Nicholas Wolterstorff:
“Let me try again. All these things I recognize. I remember delighting in them––trees, art, house, music, pink morning sky, work well done, flowers, books. I still delight in them. I’m still grateful. But the zest is gone. The passion is cooled, the striving quieted, the longing stilled. My attachment is loosened. No longer do I set my heart on them. I can do without them. They don’t matter. Instead of rowing, I float. The joy that comes my way I savor. But the seeking, the clutching, the aiming is gone. I don’t suppose anyone on the outside notices. I go through my paces. What the world gives, I still accept. But what it promises, I no longer reach for. I’ve become an alien in the world, shyly touching it as if it’s not mine. I don’t belong anymore. When someone loved leaves home, home becomes mere house.”
I think it felt like Kim had not entirely left before her memorial. But now that the memorial was over, I felt suspended. She is gone for good other than in my memory. Life got back to normal for everyone else, but my life (and those who loved her) would never be the same. I go through the motions of life, and I can find some enjoyment in them, but the big questions of life that matter are left empty; they are unanswered because I don’t know how to answer them.
This chapter of discerning this sense of emptiness continues today. When I try to look ahead, it is still an abyss. However, the “purity” of this emptiness lasted only for a week or two after Kim’s memorial, as is was soon filled with a fog of depression.
The season of grief that followed Kim’s memorial was maybe not as visceral and unpredictable as certain moments that preceded it in the spring and summer, but it was more profound and painful. As September turned into October, and even as good and exciting things began appearing on the horizon, I started slipping into a depression and fearfulness that I had never experienced before.
George Keulen's Blog
Welcome to my blog, where you will find general ponderings about my life: Of living with cystic fibrosis and a double lung transplant, being an advocate for person-centered care, being a widower, and of course, reflections and news about my book, Big Breath In.