Thursday, May 18, 2017

Dear Rick

Dear Rick,

So much has happened in the 3 years since you've been gone. I'm living another life now, but it has equal parts new and old. It's a good life. I've never been stronger, never been happier.

I'm getting married next month. I feel like everything is right and awesome. When you and I got engaged, I was 22. This time, I'm 32. I've learned so much in the last 10 years. This time around, things feel so different and so much more authentic. I know you won't take offense to me saying that.

When Jeff and I went to get our marriage license at the courthouse, we paid $50 for our collaborative second chance. "Is this your first marriage?" the worker asked from behind the big main desk.

"No," said Jeff.
"No," I said as I shook my head.

We passed her Jeff's divorce decree and your death certificate, our permission tickets to a new marriage. It felt strange to be in the courthouse. The last time I was there was to file the Will after you died.

No one really talks about you anymore. It's as though any newfound happiness I have is supposed to erase the sadness of the past. It isn't true, of course. You existed. And just because I'll be a wife again soon doesn't mean I was never a widow.

I have a dog, Rick. I always wanted a dog. Jeff and I adopted her together in September. The cats are 7 now and as entertaining as ever. I wonder sometimes if they remember you or if their little memory banks are only able to handle so much information at one time.

Jeff and I bought land in Center Valley. We are building a house there where our family can have more space. It's hard to believe that in the next year I'll be saying good bye to this house where I've lived for 10 years. You and I lived here together and things happened here, good and bad. Even the very bad. It's time to go.

I laugh so much, Rick. I laugh all the time. I sleep well and I eat well and I enjoy all the people who are in my life. I love my job and I think I'm good at it. Everything I went through when you died helps me do a better job every day. I feel so lucky to have had the experiences I've had...even though some of them were profoundly painful.

Remember when we were married and I trudged through graduate school while working full time? Well, this year I made the drive to DeSales every week, just like before...but this time, it was to teach. I became an graduate school instructor and taught a whole class of MSW students. I even talked about you. About grief after a suicide. About post-traumatic growth and all the healing that can happen after trauma.

I'm acquiring two step-daughters, Rick. They are fun, smart, and beautiful. It's so great to be able to do all the things I've always wanted to do with kids. My life is one of family bike rides, family vacations, family breakfasts and dinners, days of family swimming, and a lot of games. It makes me smile.

My nieces are 4 and 6 years old, Rick! I can't believe how big they've gotten since you saw them. They love playing with my soon-to-be step-daughters. My mom and dad's house is the place to be. We all have fun there.

I still run and sing to de-stress when I can. I still write to express myself. I still think of your suicide note, your incredible emotional pain, and the horror of the day you died...but not as often. I don't have nightmares anymore. 

I've met so many great people since you've been gone. They didn't know you. They only know me. Some of them know what I've been through. Some don't. My resilient grief sometimes precedes me. There are people who know my story before I meet them. The power and reach of my writing is often more immense than I realized. 

Believe it or not, I think you've saved several lives, Rick. I have received many an email, message, or letter telling me that because of you...because of me...the person(s) writing will always choose life. It's touching. There is meaning in the horrible loss. 

Grief can't be cured or fixed or gotten over. But healing does happen.

Healed (verb):
- to restore to health or soundness
- to ease or relieve
- to set right; repair

I truly feel that my life has been restored to health and soundness. I don't have to fake or fabricate anything. I don't have to paint a positive picture. When I say that everything feels right and awesome, I mean that with every breath I breathe and every bone in my body. I don't have any fear. I have never felt this way. 

My pain has been eased and relieved by the inner workings of my own heart and soul, the tender care of others, and the amazing experiences that have shaped me over the last 3 years. I am not stressed, I am not hurting, and I am not waiting and waiting for something good to happen. The good is all around me.

Life is right. It is repaired. I feel fully in charge of my own life. I turn 33 this year and every year seems better than the last. I am open to possibilities, restful each night, fulfilled by my work, and so very loved at home.

I want you to know that I'm more than okay, Rick. Life has been good to me in your absence. Thank you for anything you helped send my way. 

Love, Arielle

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Second Chance

I have been so caught up in the hustle and bustle of a busy life, that I forgot to share some wonderful news.

Jeff and I are engaged! He proposed in front of my parents, so they got to see a huge happy moment after watching me go through so much heartache over the years. We'll be married in June. Only 2 months away! I'll be a stepmom and the girls are excited to be my little bridesmaids. Jeff and I each get a second chance at love and life, creating an awesome life together brick by brick and memory by memory.

I'm saving all my loving words about Jeff for when we write our own vows, so for now I'll just share some snapshots of me with the person who has made feel like a million bucks and then some. He is my biggest fan and truly brought joy back to my life in a big way.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Spoiled Me!

2016 has treated me well in fact that I want to take a deep breath to remember every little piece of it and say thank you for all the beautiful memories, stories, and smiles 2016 has given me. 

I am so grateful for everything I've experienced this past year and I'm truly excited for the year to come. I've been given so many gifts to treasure this year and I'm loving life with passion. My favorite photos of this past year are the ones of me, Jeff, and his daughters, but I don't post photos of the girls on the internet.

I did, however, say heartfelt thank yous as I chose each and every one of the following photos to commemorate the closing year.

One year ago, Jeff and I rang in 2016 at the place a mile from our house "where everybody knows our names," the Weaversville Inn. We call it "The Weave" and we have had many a delicious meal there in 2016, getting to know all the staff members even better, and creating lots of laughs.

We went to Aruba in 2016, a surprise Christmas gift to me from Jeff that came to fruition end of March. We spent Easter on "One Happy Island," talking about coming back before we ever left.

I climbed my first rock wall in Aruba, a 30+ foot challenge I wanted and an accomplishment that made me smile for the rest of the day. 

The beautiful sunset and sea in Aruba became a backdrop for one of our favorite pictures, which we blew up onto a canvas and now hangs in our living room.

In 2016, the back of my car received an upgrade at the request of the kids. I love seeing it every day. Obviously, this was before Luna (she's added too now). Accuracy is key in this house.

Call me silly, but Jeff making me the spice rack I'd always wanted was a highlight of my year. I love it!

My mom and dad got a beautiful pool this year and succeeded in bringing the family to them all summer long! Jeff, the girls, and I had many fun days (and nights) in the pool. 

We went on our first family vacation as a family, Jeff, the girls, and me. Long Beach Island was awesome and that was just the beginning of a fun summer!

Jeff worked tirelessly to build a patio for my parents' backyard oasis.  It came out great!

And Jeff took me golfing for the first time on a course. I drove a golf cart (not well, but my golfing attire was very cute). 

In May, Jeff's girls and I saw an educational clip about baby elephants who need help. We looked them up online and decided it was time for Jeff and I to adopt a baby elephant together and give Mia and Julia an elephant sister.

So, we adopted/fostered a baby (orphaned) elephant in Kenya via the Internet. This place in Kenya rescues elephant orphans whose moms and dads have been killed. We get a fostering certificate with a profile and photograph of our adopted orphan, info on the conservation project, an interactive map indicating where our orphan was found and a description of the habitat and the plight of the elephants in that particular area, monthly summary highlighting events of the previous month with a direct link to the ‘Keepers Diary’ for our elephant to read his daily entries on caring for our elephant, a collectable monthly watercolor of our elephant, and news of new arrivals and rescues with accompanying photos. We like to watch her grow up.

On our second summer vacation (can't believe we did two!), I finally fulfilled my dream (and something that scared me) of zip lining! It was amazing!

In September, we gained a new member of the family: Luna, the Italian Mastiff who has since stolen our hearts and our bed. She's 120 pounds of awesome. 

In October, I did the Great Pumpkin Run! I carried a 12 pound pumpkin the whole way, so I got a medal for finishing the race and a second medal for finishing the race with my pumpkin in tact! 

Also in October, I officially became a land owner. Jeff and I are excited to start our future together on just over an acre in Center Valley, PA. It will be a process, but eventually we'll be starting fresh in a home that's new to both of us. We're excited to begin creating our dream house in 2017. 
Jennifer and I headed to a Stars Hollow-like town to fulfill our Gilmore Girls themed Pumpkin Weekend. 

Jeff helped us end our third annual Pumpkin Weekend on a high note by providing this stuffed pumpkin masterpiece.

My favorite picture of 2016 is probably this one: a work of art by then 7 year old Julia. It hangs on our front door to welcome people to our house. After we got Luna, she added Luna in it. 

In November, Jeff and I hosted Thanksgiving. It was something we had both wanted to do, but never had. Teamwork made the dream work. This was the sweetest photo I took on Thanksgiving Day.

Christmas was magical. We had a naughty Elf for the season and I had so much fun baking and shopping with the kids. My second real tree of all time made the house beautiful every day. 

And my Christmas Eve present from Jeff is definitely the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I've ever had. I just love looking at this picture.

2016, you've been good to me. The most wonderful thing is that I know 2017 is going to be even better. How that's possible, I'm not sure... but I know. I know it will be. Thank you in advance for an awesome year. I'm the luckiest woman in the world. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lorelai and Rory: a Prescription for Grief

When I lost my husband in May of 2014, my friend Jennifer had the idea that we should start watching the Gilmore Girls together because it's light and witty and a perfect escape from reality. It was hard for me back then to find shows or movies that wouldn't hurt me in places, or that were predictable enough to ease my fear of getting blindsided by story lines of suicide, violence, or tragic loss since I had little bits of PTSD symptoms.

Anything too sad or dramatic also seemed to be wrong as a mood lifter. It was amazing to me that my usual go-to shows could trigger the pain of the trauma I'd experienced when my husband completed suicide. Watching characters on cop shows experience a violent loss hit me in the gut. Watching characters turn the gun on themselves when faced with a terrible turn of events had me reaching to change the channel or squeezing my eyes closed. I had a significant startle response for a while and shows that kept me on edge were never best. Even when nothing specific in my usual shows hurt me or startled me, the tone was all wrong. Nothing felt right.

I had never watched the Gilmore Girls. I knew it was a popular show from about a decade earlier and I knew it had a big following. I knew some of the actors in it from snippets I'd caught on TV when passing through channels. That was all. So when Jennifer brought over the Gilmore Girls on DVD that first night almost 2 and half years ago, I was new to the show.

In the days following Rick's death, I never imagined that something as simple as a TV show could help me heal. My time with Jennifer was sacred to me and brought with it something extra to anticipate - a bright spot in my week surrounded by friends.

It wouldn't be a stretch at all to say that early on what got me through each week was the friendship of three women: Jennifer, Lorelai, and Rory.

It felt good to smile at the characters on the screen... to laugh at the antics of the plots... to lose myself in the town of Stars Hollow. I initially felt much the same way I always felt reading and re-reading Anne of Green Gables... there's an idyllic comfort in Stars Hollow, like a modern day Avonlea.

That's the thing about the show - it's like a place. You're there. Home. Happy. Invested. Content. And so, as time went on for me and my new life, we kept watching...and season after season, the Gilmore Girls became like home.

What made the escape better was being able to share it with my friend, though actually it was quite the other way around: my friend was sharing it with me. In a way, she wrote me a prescription for grief. "One dose of Lorelai and Rory at least once per week."

It seems funny to credit a TV show with healing powers, but the fact of the matter is my heart hurt less when I watched it.

So we ate junk food with the Girls, we celebrated every town festival, we drank coffee at Luke's, and we lived.

When we started, I had no idea the show would transport me in such a perfect and emotional way. We  laughed imagining what Rick would say about us, snuggled with cats in my living room every week with our special TV show. We penciled in days on our calendars as though Lorelai and Rory were a serious commitment...because they were. We toasted to Rick when I reached the first anniversary of his death.

Our time together with Lorelai and Rory waned as we gained different jobs and juggled new schedules, but still we made the promise to finish every season. I met Jeff along the way and explained the importance of our commitment to the Gilmore Girls like I was sharing a beloved and hallowed tradition. We hit the 2 year mark of my widowhood. Much later, when Jennifer and I made the trip to Connecticut to experience a town like Stars Hollow, Jeff wasn't even surprised. He had known it would come to fruition, because the weekend away was on par with a serious job meeting or event. We had a mental appointment there.

Believe it or not, it was only AFTER Jennifer and I had arranged our stay at the inn in Connecticut that the Gilmore Girls Fan Fest came into play. They announced it and sold tickets AFTER we had booked our own weekend. When we saw that the Gilmore Girl Fan Fest was not only in the same area of Connecticut, but on the same weekend we'd already booked, we knew it was all meant to be.

We were on the last season of the show when we traveled to Connecticut last month. We sat in our room at the inn, smiling, relaxing, and knowing it would soon all come to a close. We played the theme song in the car as we entered the town and laughed. We talked fast. We drank a lot of coffee.


When we heard the Gilmore Girls revival would come out on Netflix the day after Thanksgiving this year, we knew we had to finish the series in time. So yesterday, stocked with donuts, coffee, candy, pizza, and Chinese food in true Lorelai and Rory fashion, Jennifer and I sat in my living room from 9:30 am until 7:15 pm and watched the remaining episodes of the Gilmore Girls.

We laughed and we cried. And we ended where we began, back in my living room together. When we started, I was a young widow in a sparsely furnished living room, crying with my friend and my cats in the dark. When we finished yesterday, I felt my house was bursting at the seams, Jeff talking football scores and feeding our new dog, as Jennifer and I sat on new furniture in a newly painted living room in a space I'd somehow been able to clear of the kids' piles of art supplies.

I'm grateful for Jennifer and her idea that changed my life and my grief. I'm indebted to Lorelai and Rory for their part in my healing process. I'm not sure I can truly ever explain what the show means to me. The world and the people around me may change, but Stars Hollow will always be home.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Gratitude in Loss

Every new loss I see in my hospice work is another opportunity for gratitude. Every death is a chance to be thankful for the people I have in my life. As I meet new people and watch them let go of someone they love, I am reminded of the wonderful relationships I have. I invite the emotions to swirl around inside of me, sadness stirring, empathy seeping from my pores, and I say silent thank yous.

If a wife says good bye to her husband, I can remember too well what it was like to say good bye to mine and then I smile on my drive home to my significant other who is most likely making me delicious food or waiting to tell me about his day. If adult children are saying good bye to their mother, I take it as a cue to call my own mother on my way home to tell her I love her and am so glad to have her in my life.

If these losses are cues to be grateful (and to express my gratitude) for my own relationships and the people close to me, the daily interactions that are full of impending loss are cues to be grateful for my own health. I never want to take my health for granted. I may sit regularly with fabulous people who are living with (but dying from) any number of conditions - various cancers, ALS, heart diseases, MS, etc. And as I sit with them, traveling through their thoughts and memories with them, I am reminded to be thankful for my own vitality, mobility, independence, and wealth of wellness. I get in my car and sing to the radio, cognizant of the air filling my lungs and the power behind my voice. I walk, aware of the spring in my step. I go to sleep each night with the promise of a new and beautiful tomorrow. I am lucky.

Is it possible that I can leave a trail?

I'd like to think so. I'd really like to believe that amid grief, I can leave something behind. I think we all can. Sometimes, I feel like the world doesn't give me what I need. Things are not offered that I wish were offered. And when that happens, I sigh really loudly and become upset/dejected/irritated for a moment...then, I make the first move. When I want to feel better myself, I send things out into the universe.

How do you welcome a life-altering event with open arms? How do you relinquish control and give yourself over to the process? How do you move forward each day without expectations, just gratitude?

Those are the very questions I asked myself in the past few years since my own life-altering event. I still ponder them every day, holding fast to the belief that gratitude changes everything.

I may have a baby face, but I have an old soul. And I know that we were put here on this earth to live life to the fullest. "The fullest" means something different for each of us, but we are not meant to live for fleeting moments of amazing, resigned to status quo the rest of the time - we are meant to turn those fleeting moments of amazing into hours and days and weeks and months and years. That is the secret to this thing called life.

When you're shown a slice of amazing, it's a gift. It's okay to stand in awe of it for a little while... but then you have to let gratitude show you the way.

Every time I'm shown a slice of amazing, I soak it up and carry it with me. Then when I go to sleep at night, I say to myself: How can I make more of this happen? How can I have more of this in my life? How can I treat this as something precious so it never goes away and actually multiplies?

I'd like to think that's why my life is not a mess of misery and pain. It's not that there's not misery and pain in it at times... it's just that I choose not to ignore the amazing... in fact, I am beyond thankful for the amazing... and in asking for it to multiply, the misery and pain diminishes considerably.

My heart often hurts for the grief, loss, and pain I see. But rather than carrying it with me in a way that internalizes that ball of sadness, I do my best to turn it into something else as I make my way through my own daily life.

When loss incites gratitude...when loss invites're doing it right. At least that's how I choose to think of it.

Friday, October 28, 2016

No More Why

A long time ago, on my original blog The Cat Widow, I talked openly about death questions and my experience.  I'm not sure you could find a person who is more open than I am when it comes to my personal life and my experiences, and I don't mind being a voice amid confusion on certain topics. That said, I think it's important for me to explain that I don't ask why this happened to me or why Rick took his own life. And I need to write an open letter on the subject.

Early in my grieving process, I found myself asking "Why?" It's a question typical of grief, but even more typical of suicide grief.

I have stopped asking why.

Let me say it again. I have stopped asking why. 

I will never know why. I will never fully understand why. I may be able to tick off on my fingers the reasons Rick may have felt. I may be able to guess. I may be able to assume. I will always miss him. I will always wonder. I will never completely know.

So... I have stopped asking why.

I hope, if you're reading this, that you will stop asking me "why?" too. For the most part, the folks who talk to me or read what I write make statements of comfort or offer consolation, friendship, and love. They do not ask questions. And I'm not saying that questions are bad. Most questions are 100% fine with me. I'm okay with it. But I can tell you that even now, 2 and a half years since the death of my husband, people still ask me why.

"But I don't understand. Why did he do it?"

I do NOT know any more than you do. 

I can reply that he was in excruciating physical and emotional pain. I can reply that he was depressed. I can reply that he felt he was out of options. I can reply that he felt he was doing me a favor. I can say all those things or nothing at all, but I don't really know WHY. Please, please, stop asking me. I have asked myself over and over again. I do not have the answers.

I know it is shocking, even heartbreaking, to hear of my husband's death. I realize that people who know me, or who have followed me on the web for a period of years, who have heard me speak or read my writing feel surprise and sadness when they learn of Rick's death. I understand that they feel for me. That they just can't imagine how Rick could leave me.

I have no malice, no meanness, no scolding to offer. I get it. I can barely wrap my head around it myself. It's almost unbelievable to hear that my husband took his own life and left me alone. I get it.

But it hurts me to hear those kinds of questions. It catches me off guard (and I'm a pretty collected individual). It makes me tell the story. It makes me go back. It puts the responsibility on me.

I had so many questions floating around in my head. So many pressing upon my heart. And finally, stopped asking why. There is no benefit to asking and re-asking such a question. Not for me. Not for you. I have not come up with a comforting answer in all the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years I have asked myself why. I have stopped asking why. If I'm sad rediscovering a memory or upset in the dark of night, I prefer to tell Rick I'm sorry he's no longer in the world rather than asking why. I prefer to tell a funny story rather than asking why. I prefer to explain what's on my heart rather than asking why.

There is no more why. There is only now.

Grief is grief. It hurts. We all feel pain deeply no matter the cause. We all feel that pain differently. We all cope differently. I will never compare my grief to another's and I will never say my loss is greater. What I can say is that I sometimes feel the stark contrast of my widowhood compared to other forms of widowhood. It doesn't make me worse off than another widow or in more pain than another widow. But it has made me feel more alone at times. Generally speaking, there are a lot of things that make grieving a suicide death different from other kinds of death. Not sadder...not necessarily more difficult...but different.

When losing a loved one to suicide, the grieving process is often longer than with other kinds of death. I have read countless items, both in my previous studies and in my personal quest for enlightenment post-Rick, that say this. There were times I felt very impatient to move forward more quickly, but my physiological reactions and grief bursts did not allow it. 

When losing a loved one to suicide, the survivor is roped into/tied into the "story" in a way that does not happen when someone dies another way. For example, if your husband dies of a terminal illness, strangers, acquaintances, and friends do not say, "Wow. What happened? What went wrong?" as they do with suicide. It isn't necessarily that people want to know the details (though sometimes they do), it's that they can't fathom a suicide loss the same way they can fathom other loss. We know that different kinds of cancer can kill. We even understand that being a soldier or a police officer, for instance, is a dangerous occupation and puts people in harm's way even though the loss can be tragic. We know that saying "It was a heart attack," leaves little to the imagination.

With suicide, people say, "But why would he do that?" They say, "Did you notice anything?" or the even worse version of that question: "Didn't you notice anything?" They say, "Was he depressed?" or "Did something happen that day?" And the person left behind is right there in the death again, up to her elbows in trauma, pain, and questions. You can choose not to answer the questions, of course. But it doesn't mean they aren't asked. The person left behind is constantly roped into being part of the tale. Like they had something to do with it, because they were the bystander in the life, the other occupant of the house, the one who found the note. Like they had some knowledge of the reasoning. Like their job is to make some small sense of the horror for the person asking.

When losing a loved one to suicide, happy memories are constantly questioned in a way that does not happen with other kinds of death. Things aren't taken at face value. Reminiscing about good memories or looking at photos is just not the same when suicide is the cause of death. When looking at a photo, the person left behind might smile and think of the good memory displayed in the picture, but she is also wondering, "Was he happy here? Had he already decided to end it? Was he remembering this moment as 'the last time' we would ever do that? Did he know?" For people dealing with other loss, happy memories are happy memories, times they miss or wish they could relive or always want to remember. No over-thinking. No philosophical ponderings that re-break the heart.

I've pushed through the grief, the conversations, the questions. I know the drill. But the more I grieved, the more I learned...and I am always learning...and the more I learn, the more I want to share.

I do not ask why. Instead I say thank you for everything I have been given along this journey. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hello, 32

32 is a fairly nondescript age, not special and not exciting. It is, however, going to be a great year for me. I can specifically recall my 30th birthday, 2 years ago. It was my first birthday without Rick and it was peppered with both sadness and hope. I remember when I wrote this post 2 years ago today: Thirty.

Last year, Jeff took me up in a hot air balloon for my 31st, allowing me to cross a very special "wish" off my List. He often says he won't be able to top that, but I feel like every day with him is better than the last. I frequently consider how lucky I am.

I love my job. I help hospice patients and their families complete unfinished business, get plans and affairs in order, provide them with counseling and support, and walk with them through the process of grief and loss...all with the understanding that while people are dying, they are still living. I help with anticipatory grief, financial concerns, complicated family dynamics, and advocate for patients and families in all aspects of life.

I drive around home to home, going into skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, and hospitals too. I have the privilege of sitting with people in their own environment. I have the honor of being part of a sacred and private time. I drive around independently in beautiful areas of the Lehigh Valley with my music as a guide and mechanism to help me process each patient before moving on to the next. I am lucky to have the position I have and I am lucky to do what I do.

If I ever complain, please remind me that I am blessed. I drove around in the rain today, cornfields all around me, smiling and singing along with the music in my car. I talked to people, I learned from people, I felt useful. It was my birthday, but it could have been any other day. I'm this happy every day. I have the same daily routine no matter the date on the calendar.

Jeff fed me delicious food and gave me so much love. As we plan for a magical and awesome future, my heart is full and I feel good - no, great - about 32. I feel certain the coming months will bring positive experiences, fun, good news, more plans, and lots of gratitude.

I have a fantastic life. I'm so excited.