When a young mother comes face-to-face with unimaginable loss, she uncovers the ‘in-between of grief’ — a powerful space where not-yet-OK breeds hope and healing
In 2014, Marines dressed in their best uniforms arrived on my doorstep with news that my worst nightmare had come true. My beloved husband was dead in the aftermath of a fatal aviation accident on the other side of the world. Minutes before, I was someone’s wife, dreamily preparing to introduce him to our newborn daughter. Now, I was a widowed, solo mother of four living on a military base in Japan with a funeral to plan. Six days later, our family of five boarded a trans-Atlantic flight with thirteen suitcases and four kids too young to understand, to bury their dad.
The surreal enormity of grief is the most exhausting and heavy experience we humans will know.
In the days and months that followed his death, I felt myself wane to a sense of barely there. Time didn’t make sense. The future certainly didn’t make sense. The days were about logistics and keeping my children fed. I finally understood why they call us survivors. Living with grief requires Herculean strength especially in the beginning. And yet, after the funeral and the busyness of buying a house and the first day of school that came and went — things began to shift in a fascinating way. That’s when I first encountered what I now call the in-between of grief.
Mine felt like the wild outback of emotions and fears. I was terrified that the rest of my story was going to be a scraped together, second-best kind of life. I wasn’t sure who I was now and I was certain there would be no happy ending. Daily life felt equal parts heavy and empty most of the time and the brief moments of joy were disorienting. My life was humming along, but it didn’t quite feel like mine for the living.
They say time heals all and I, like so many others, treated grief like a holding pattern as I tried to outlast the pain.
I was working desperately to get my grief ‘right’, but nothing changed and for awhile, I just kept waiting. The waiting for things to feel easier can quickly shift into the dangerous territory of settling for the way things are. It’s so subtle we hardly know it’s happening. Slowly, we let go of the one thing that can sustain us in life’s darkest hour: hope.
I almost fell into this trap myself until I heard a question rumbling around in my head: Is this really all there is now? Is this really all my life as a widow will be now? The answer that came echoing back was the voice of limiting beliefs, a waning sense of worth, and the hurt of my heart: You’re a widow and solo mom. Your job is to survive, keep your kids alive, and try not to be too sad. Your life will be about longing, loneliness and exhaustion. There’s no way around it. Widows don’t get to be happy. This is it.
Or is it?
That empty answer woke me up to see I had given up on dreaming because it was too painful to believe in something I thought I couldn’t have. There were rules etched into my subconscious dictating what was possible (or more accurately, impossible) for people with hearts and lives that felt broken like mine. I didn’t know what I wanted from life after loss, but I believed enough in the resilience of the human spirit to go in search of something more than the whispered impossibilities of my fear.
I committed myself to seeking out support that created space for empowerment, inspiration, accountability and hope. It was a journey that required vulnerability and a willingness to turn toward everything I thought and felt with tender curiosity and total honesty. It was a journey that asked me to willingly examine my grief, fears and beliefs. It was a journey that invited me to take responsibility for what came next in life after he died.
This journey is rooted in the simple practice of noticing what you notice without pushing it away or making it mean anything.
You notice what you feel, need, want, secretly hope for and don’t want — and practice bringing awareness to it all. My yoga teacher calls it “cultivating the witnessing mind.” I call it noticing what you notice with curiosity. This awareness brings us back home to a life of possibility and moves us daily toward the sweetness on other side of grief that’s hard to believe in until you find yourself there. This mindful way of showing up beyond the ‘in-between of grief’ put me back in the seat of actively co-creating my life, one tiny step forward at a time. Instead of life after loss happening to me, I was learning to live again.
In truth, we need this gnarly, surreal, uncomfortable piece of the journey in life’s transitions to move us in the direction of what comes next.If we can resist the urge to out-hustle our pain and be where we are, clarity begins to seep in. If we can stay away from the numbing enticement of settling for suffering, we’re capable of looking up from the rubble of our grief to see life with new eyes of possibility. Sometimes we need the solidarity of others who understand our journey in order to feel safe there. Sometimes we need the gentle guidance of others who have been there as we find our footing. This journey was not meant to be walked alone and we find ourselves in this most impressive digitally connected society doing so much of it on our own.
Nature shows us the unwavering pattern that we humans so powerfully resist in our darkest days. After every cycle of death, decay and destruction, new life emerges. When a tree falls in the woods, new life begins to form on the microscopic level almost immediately, yet the untrained eye simply sees it as a dead tree. With time and the nourishment of spring rains, rich soil, sunlight and the help of some many-legged creatures, we eventually see the intricate moss forming right alongside the impossibly ornate fungi and the new green shoots of seedlings coming up all around what once appeared to be lifeless.
The ‘in-between of grief’ is not meant to be experienced forever, it’s simply the transitional time between no longer and not yet.
While the human experience of rebirth and regeneration is more complex than that of the forest floor, perhaps we can learn something from it. Even in our darkest of days, if we’re willing to surround ourselves with the right support and the nourishment to sustain us, new life will always prevail.
Like the fallen tree and the regeneration of life from what was once alive and mighty, I too began to reclaim my life after loss one small step forward at a time. I allowed myself the permission to honor and remember the love story that was cut short while also opening my life and heart to the way ahead. As I healed, I was also unlearning the fears of impossibility and replacing them with the belief that anything is truly possible. Instead of forcing, I learned to soften and trust my intuition above all else. Instead of striving to prove myself worthy, I doubled down on radical self-care and surrounded myself with an unconditionally loving tribe and allowed inspiration to flow in. Instead of surviving, I began choosing the way forward in the direction of the life of my new dreams that bit by bit came into new focus.
One day, a few years later I looked up and found myself in a life of sweetness — one I never could’ve imagined, the day I became a widow, could ever be mine again.
That’s the lie grief spreads upon you. But there is a way out of it — it’s through it — one foot in front of the other, however you can. Life’s nectar is too sweet to abandon, I promise.
It led to the beautiful unfolding of my new chapter: my life coaching practice, taking ownership of my voice, being an advocate for others, even writing a best-selling book. I dedicated myself to shouting solidarity, hope, empowerment and possibility from the widow-sister mountaintops — pulsating with life yet again and determined to walk others through the darkness.
And through it all love found me again. The most delicious love story arrived while writing my book. My heart had once again opened to receive. Absolutely everything in my life after loss is different, yet I feel more myself, more inspired and more alive than I ever knew how to before death taught me to live. Grief leaves you forever changed, but it doesn’t have to mean forever suffering. There is life after loss — and it can be glorious. Allow yourself to accept its invitation.
You may also enjoy reading Doing Death Differently: Embracing the Home Funeral by Kelly Notaras