If one thing has understood my grief or best reflected my experience of grief since Kim passed, it has been the Netflix show, After Life. My good friend Leann recommended the show to me about a month after Kim’s passing. The main character, Tony, played by Ricky Gervais, has recently lost his wife to cancer and is now trying to navigate life. The show has some crude language and humour (Ricky Gervais is the writer, after all), but for me, the writing of the show, and Gervais' acting, has resonated so deeply with my own experience.
At the end of the first season, however, I got worried. Tony, the widower, was beginning to show positive signs. He seemed to be emerging out of the darkness and grief that marked the show's first five episodes. I was worried this would be like every other show about grief or loss, and this was going to be the start of a trajectory of recovery and happily ever after. But when I apprehensively began episode one of season two, I was met with a surprise. Tony was once again down in the dumps and had slid back down the snake of grief.
C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia series) wrote a book entitled, A Grief Observed. It is about his experience of grief after losing his wife to cancer. In it, he writes, “Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it over-head; physical pain is like the steady barrage on a trench in World War One, hours of it with no let-up for a moment.” Having lived in England for both World Wars, I trust he knows what he is talking about. But this is what grief is like; one moment, the bombers are overhead dropping their bombs, and you don’t know how you will ever survive the barrage of chaos. And the next moment, the sky is clear, and you can come out into the sun. Sometimes the cycle of dread and relief is tight; other times, it is wide.
For me, as the month of October began winding down, the grief-bombing of that month began to let up. A simple event happened that lifted the ceiling on my grief and allowed me room to reflect and remember.
For environmental reasons, dairy farmers are not supposed to spread manure on their fields from November to February here in the Lower Mainland. Therefore, the goal is always to get the pits empty by the end of October. One of my jobs on the farm is spreading manure, and I love it. There is nothing like looking at a field plastered with manure at the end of the day to make you feel like you’ve done something.
As everyone knows, this fall, we have seen a torrential amount of rain, beginning already in September. So, when we had two days of nice weather near the end of October this was the chance we needed to empty the last bit of manure from our pit. And in regards to some of my depression, this was the first light in the darkness--grief is that strange. Spending two days in the tractor, hauling 33 loads of manure (148,500 gallons); the empowerment of feeling the weight of 4500 gallons of shit sloshing around behind me with each load, feeling the horsepower and torque of the tractor under my feet; it was just enough to lift the fog, distract my mind, give me a sense of joy, and get me onto some solid ground. With this crack in the door, other dominos began to fall.
A couple of days after emptying the pit, I was at home rereading one of my favorite book on spirituality, New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. I came across a sentence that I had earlier underlined: “Why should joy excite me or sorrow cast me down, achievement delight me or failure depress me, life attract or death repel me if I live only in the Life that is within me by God’s gift.”
What struck me while reading this quote was not its subject matter. Instead, while reading this sentence, I remembered a conversation that Kim and I had a couple of times. The crux of this discussion, or Kim’s expressed desire in those conversations, was that she did not want me to become depressed or sad after she was gone. What grieved Kim the most in her final months was not so much her own death but what it would do to me and others. She didn’t want me to live in the paralyzing fog and sorrow that I indeed found myself in for much of October.
For some reason, reading that sentence by Thomas Merton woke me up to the fact that Kim would be heartbroken and most likely a bit angry if she knew how I had been doing since her memorial. I realized that this was no way to honor her. By not seeking to come out from under the depressive fog I was lost in, I was, in a sense, re-enacting her death all over again. Now, it wasn’t like this was a miracle-fix or anything, but again, it was something that helped lift the clouds a bit more and made me take another step in trying to find a way through this grief. There was now the incentive to honor Kim with my life going forward.
The next domino fell two days later, on a Sunday afternoon. I went for a short walk along the Nicomekel River in South Surrey. I was contemplating my mood and season of grief, wanting to find a way through. During that thirty minutes in the cold wind, I decided that I needed to get busy. I had to begin filling my time with routine and work (anyone who has read my book will know I like routine).
I also realized I couldn’t hit my grief head-on. I believe there are times when we need to face our grief and sorrow face-to-face. To look it in the eye and feel the total weight of its powerful blow, to let it break us so that we can begin to put the pieces back together. But having done this a couple of times, I also began to see that to survive, I had to start hitting it from an angle. I had attempted several times to catch grief out on the open ice, line it up in the trolley tracks and take it down. Though this worked in the summer while I was in shock, I was now feeling the full pain of these head-on collisions. In taking on my grief from an angle, I could make contact, deal and wrestle with it for a bit (such as writing these blog posts), and then spin off and get busy with something else when I felt the balance of power shifting against me, when it became too much.
Throughout the following couple of weeks, now transitioning into November, I also did some work for my close friend, Garrit, who owns his own contracting business. There is nothing like spending a day shoveling dirt, carrying drywall, or loading a tonne of broken concrete into the back of a trailer to help get those mind-cleansing endorphins going.
I began setting up a schedule for my week, with specific days on the farm and certain days at home, writing or spending time volunteering in the CF community.
Another domino to fall was the release of my book in early November. As I outlined in the previous blog post, the book's release was a cause of pain, but the reception it got in terms of how well it sold was very heartwarming. To see it hit the FriesenPress and Amazon bestseller list on its first weekend was incredible.
I wished so badly that Kim could see it, but I also can’t discount the boost of self-confidence it gave me. And the texts and social media feedback I have received since has been overwhelming.
So, where am I at then today? Well, let me begin to bring this post to a close with another, rather lengthy quote, from C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed:
“Getting over it so soon? The words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be biped again.
“Still, there’s no denying that in some sense I ‘feel better', and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness. I’ve read about that in books, but I never dreamed I should feel it myself. I am sure [Kim] wouldn’t approve of it. She’d tell me not to be a fool...
"For me at any rate the program is plain. I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness. I will even salute her with a laugh. The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her.
"An admirable program. Unfortunately, it can’t be carried out. Tonight, all the hells of young grief have opened again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering stomach, the nightmare reality, the wallowed-in tears. For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it...
"The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. They say ‘The coward dies many times’; so does the beloved.”
As I have written in earlier posts, I never realized until Kim was gone how much she propped me up, how much I depended on her for my confidence. She was the support and confidence of my life while we were together, and now, in her expressed desire to see me live a positive life, to not remain in the depth of sadness over her passing, she continues to be my support today. Even in her death, she is propping me up. Each night now, as I get into bed, I take her picture off my bedside table, hold it in my hands, and tell her about my day. It is in turning to her in gladness, and even some nights with humour, that I do feel closer to her. She supports me still.
Like Tony at the end of season 1 in the show After Life, the period I am in right now is a positive one. I have taken some steps and added some awareness of what I need in order to be in a better place emotionally and physically. I know another depressive season will one day hit. I still hear bombers in the distance coming around; I feel the frailness and pain of my "wooden leg," but I feel I am at least holding onto a ladder, ascending one slow rung at a time.
This blog post then brings me up to the present day on my journey with grief. When I made the outline for this series of posts, I thought that my present-day would require a new post, separate from how I had been doing a couple of weeks ago when I started writing, but that is not the case. The positive season is holding for now. I will, however, write one more chapter before I break from this series. It will deal with a couple of themes that have run throughout my journey but haven’t fit within any specific chronological time frame. Thanks for reading and sticking with me thus far.
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.