My husband died of brain cancer four years ago. During the first year after he died, I couldn’t say the word “died.” Couldn’t type it even. (I wrote an entire year of blog posts about grief using euphemisms and other polite terms.) Some days—birthdays, anniversaries—were excruciating. Others—the anniversary of the day he was diagnosed, of the day we celebrated a clean MRI, of the day we lost hope—were jagged. In between, every day simply hurt, and the passage of time felt like a cruel joke.
Then, incrementally, somehow while I was distracted by the business of building a life as a widow and solo parent, things got easier. I could say “my husband died.” I could type it. Birthdays and anniversaries were still excruciating. Other days were still jagged. But the days in between—some of them felt largely okay. The definition of “okay” had changed, but even that had begun to make sense.
Then, inexplicably, some of the bigger days stopped feeling so excruciating. There’s a lot of guilt in admitting that—but it’s true. (And I hope that brings comfort to someone who’s in early days of grieving.)
They — whoever “they” are — say time heals all wounds. When it comes to grief, “they” often say a lot of things that sound good on the surface, but prove to be either flat out wrong or plain hurtful. But this time, they’re not wholly wrong.
They’re not wholly right, though, either.
I’d argue time doesn’t heal any wounds. Time doesn’t heal, at all. Time softens. If you’re lucky, time erodes the sharpest edges. Sometimes, though, time doesn’t even do that.
The other day a friend didn’t show up when I needed them to, and I felt alone. They were busy. Or maybe I didn’t communicate my need well. Or maybe they were doing the best they could do and sometimes we can’t be there for someone else though we’d like to be. The reason they didn’t show up is irrelevant. The whole incident was minor — a blip, really.
The feeling of being left alone was not irrelevant. It was not minor.
That feeling unraveled me. It felt earth-shattering. It felt like being weighed down and deprived of light. When I thought about it, it felt — and looked — a lot like the earliest days of grief.
Then I looked at the date. It was November 15, and my reaction to the feeling made sense.
On November 15, 2017, I felt alone. My husband’s third tumor had been discovered weeks before and his health was rapidly declining, although I wasn’t ready to admit it. That day, we spent eighteen hours in a hospital, only to be told — around 3 a.m. — that the MRI was too complicated to read and we’d need to stay overnight. When I told the doctor who delivered that news that our son was turning six the next day, and we needed to get home, her entire face softened. She looked at my husband, saw all the things I wasn’t willing to admit, and said we could sign ourselves out AMA (against medical advice) if we promised to return after the birthday.
The subtext of the doctor’s advice was impossibly sad to hear. She said, without saying, that my husband couldn’t afford to miss our son’s birthday. Later, I tried to discuss the long day and night at the hospital with my husband. The discussion went nowhere, because — he had no memory of any of the previous day. His tumors had progressed to the point where his reality and my reality were different.
I realized in that moment that I was alone. That my husband was present, but also absent, that for the moment I was alone —fighting for him, and us, and our family.
Four years later, that memory hurts. November 15 still guts me. Time hasn’t made this day easier. In fact, its sharp edges have grown teeth.
The truth is that the wound of November 15 hasn’t healed because time doesn’t heal all wounds. Sometimes, for some wounds, the sharpest edges only get honed by time. The memories get so sharp that even the barest brush against them makes them feel raw and present.
Maybe that sounds exhausting, or disheartening.
Or maybe, healing isn’t the only goal. Maybe it’s okay if time doesn’t heal all wounds. Maybe, sometimes, for some wounds, it’s enough that time has taught us to give ourselves grace for the wounds that refuse to heal.
When I realized the date, when I remembered how grief lives in the body, how our subconscious remembers the dates our mind stops consciously tracking, my extreme reaction made sense.
I took a breath. And then another one. I sat with my grief and with the version of myself that felt alone and terrified in 2017. I gave myself permission to feel alone, but also gave myself space to be the 2021 version of me, which isn’t afraid of being alone—which is actually quite good at being alone.
The weight eased. A little light peeked through the depths of darkness.
Not the healing effects of time, but the grace-showing effects.
And for me, that was enough.
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