After my husband died, I wanted to travel. I wanted to run and escape and take my two kids and just get out—out of our normal that couldn’t be normal without him, out of our house that didn’t feel like home, out of our lives that simply did not fit, anymore. I wanted to burst out of our little microcosm and find something new that didn’t hurt all the time.
But I didn’t. For so many reasons. I’m a homebody. I like being home and waking up at home, with my morning routine and my own bed and my stuff. I have trouble thinking through what I need to pack for a long trip and I have a mental block against making logistical plans. My husband had been the planner and the logistics thinker—and the one time I tried to take over the planning, we ended up in the wrong hotel on the worst flights with a half-empty suitcase. I’m afraid to fly; my son is a picky eater; and my daughter’s grief swells too high too often.
But mostly, I didn’t take my kids to travel because I was afraid. Because I thought after his death, after fighting so hard and failing to defeat the disease that ultimately stole him from us, what my children needed was routine and “normal.” I thought what we needed to survive that absolutely unbearable hole in our lives was stability. What I didn’t realize in those days and months right after he died, was that normal was gone for good; there would only be new normals, from here on out.
So I fought the urge to run and escape. We found a normal that was new. We moved houses but stayed in our neighborhood. We built a life that fit just a bit better, that was just a bit better suited to our lives as a family of three. And I thought that was the best we could do. I thought, maybe in loss and grief, it would never fit quite right and that was just the truth we’d have to carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Then COVID-19 ravaged our country and lockdowns and quarantines shut down everything. Normal—even our new normal—was ripped away in a heartbeat and we were left to find our footing in a new world where nothing was guaranteed and no one felt like they fit. Those routines I’d tried to preserve for my kids vanished. That stability that I thought was so important to get them back to themselves was non-existent. And the days that followed were as terrifying and raw and humbling as I would have expected.
And…we survived. Not gracefully. Not smoothly. But we did. (With our health and safety intact, which I’m unendingly grateful for, and I know not everyone can say the same.)
Without our routines and normal, that hole didn’t grow larger; it didn’t overwhelm and destroy us as I thought it might without all the routines and normals to keep us grounded and busy and so precariously stable. That hole didn’t grow smaller, certainly. Living through a pandemic without our fourth is high on the list of painful life experiences I hope to never recreate. That hole in our lives simply changed, just like it changed when I tried to squeeze us into a new normal and new routines. It changed to cause new hurt in some ways and lessen the hurt in other ways. The hole in our lives changed and we survived, and it was easier to see that rebuilding routines and normal wasn’t the only path forward to survive loss and grief.
That hole in our lives was there, either way, which is maybe sad, but also, maybe freeing. Because maybe that means there’s no right way to live after loss and maybe it means whatever way you choose will be right for you.
And maybe escape isn’t the right word exactly to describe that need to go. Because escape feels like running away, and that’s not what I want. Maybe the better word to describe that need to go is a need to live.
If I drill down to the heart of that need to burst out of our little microcosm after my husband’s death, I can see that what I wanted wasn’t really to escape, but to live. To soak up as much life from as many different corners of the world as I could. To see and experience and be present in every moment I could be present in because nothing was guaranteed—not a marriage that should have been perfect, not a husband that should have been healthy, not a life that could have been a fairy tale. Not even a world free of a virus that takes and takes without forgiveness.
And live—that’s what I want to do now, after COVID-19 has disappeared (because I believe that it will, with a vaccine and a proper public health response). What I’ve seen during lockdown is that we (my children and I) can survive without our routines and normals, and routines and normals were never going to “fix” us—not in the way I’d subconsciously hoped. And maybe our life felt like it didn’t quite fit right not because that was just the truth we’d have to carry, but because we weren’t living a big enough life after loss. I thought we needed to shrink to fit, but maybe instead we needed to swell.
I’m still a homebody. I’m still terrible at logistics. I can’t even begin to imagine how to balance budgets and schedules and real life to make all this traveling happen, but I know, without a doubt, that not trying to figure it out, because of fear, would be a mistake. Because if there’s anything I’ve seen in these last few years, witnessing disease and death, and more recently, witnessing how fast everything can change, is that I can’t be afraid to live, not anymore, not while I have the chance.
The truth is, our life might never feel like it fits quite right. I expect this hole will be there forever. But what I’ve realized in this COVID-19 world is that we (my children and I) don’t have to try to fit into a smaller life. We’ll survive…without normal and without routines. And it’s time for us to live as big a life as we can.