I have developed quite a few coping strategies that are probably different to how other people would cope. I can't seem to sustain high levels of emotion for long periods of time and so although there have been many many tears and those horrible fake punches in the stomach that wind you emotionally when you least expect them, there have also been lots of calm words and stories and chatting about things that don't seem very emotional. I find that as soon as I put into words whatever has hit me that day, and preferably in that moment, it seems to lose its painfulness as I talk about it. So when I've heard a certain song, or seen something that Richard would've liked, I just tell whoever I am with, in a steady voice (and often with laughter as I think of his reactions) about what I'm thinking, and it seems to unfurl that knot in my stomach until it's gone. I can see myself on the outside, talking calmly about something that is really painful and would've crushed me a few weeks ago, and I think "Huh, this is weird. Shouldn't I be crying or something right now?" But even though I don't understand it, I just have to do what feels right in the moment, and I realise it must've worked, because next time I think of the same thing, it isn't half as painful.
One of the other unnerving things is not being able to predict how I'll be in certain social situations. Some things I have totally avoided, and other things I've surprised myself by not just going to them, but really enjoying being there too. I can't work out why some places and people make me feel really vulnerable, and others make me feel totally at home, but again, I've just gone with my instinct. Meeting new people, who don't know my situation, has become a huge gigantic obstacle to me. If people follow the normal polite social rules of showing an interest in the new person they are meeting, then I am generally screwed.
"How many children do you have?"
Well, it depends. Are we going to be talking about how old they are right now, and what schools they're at, and what we did this week? In that case I have four. But if we're going to start talking about birth stories and past holidays and what they all did when they were toddlers, then it's five. But whichever answer I give, I feel like a fraud, and then have to keep the conversation firmly stuck to the past or the present, whichever one we started at, because otherwise there's going to be that terrible moment when I have to explain the numerical difference and I see your face fall and feel like I've just thrown a huge piece of unexpected information in your way and expected you to say something sensitive and appropriate about it while opening up a huge can of worms in your head.
"What do you do?"
"At the moment I'm drifting around every day, doing logic puzzles and rearranging cupboards trying to work out what I need in my new life and forgetting to reply to messages I've been sent and hoping I remember to pick the children up on time. But before that I've been caring for my preschool age children and living in hospitals and preaching at conferences and cleaning toilets and caring for my son and then my husband when they both lost the use of their legs and helping to lead a church and making dinners and planning funerals and filling in letters for school and folding laundry." Drama queen much?
"Are you married? What does your husband do?"
I haven't worked out yet what I will say to that one, but I'm sure it will feel like kicking a puppy every time.
And because I don't want to be that awkward person who has so many topics of conversation that brush up on painful memories or stories that make the room fall into silence, it just makes me want to be around people I already know. People who don't mind if I want to laugh or cry or go off by myself for ten minutes to get my head together. Thankfully, I have a lot of those people around me and they are willing to go with me into most situations. They have been like my comrades, helping me navigate every situation I've been in so far, and making me feel like I've always got someone to share my thoughts with, just like in marriage. I thought after Richard died I would need to start a journal so I could still fill him in on what's happening every day, but I've had so many people I can share my thoughts with, I haven't needed to yet.
I made a decision as soon as Richard died to wear black (or very dark colours) every day, and not to wear makeup. I don't know how long this will last for, whether it will just be this six weeks or a bit longer too. This is not because I am traditional in any way (I am so glad we have a choice in today's society about how we mourn, instead of all being expected to follow generic rules) but for a few personal reasons. One is that I made sure every time I saw Richard when he was in the hospital that I looked nice for him, and didn't sit in a broken heap for the time we had left together. I knew there would be plenty of time for that afterwards, and there has been. Another reason is that I remind myself every day as as I get dressed that there are no expectations on me at all. I am still in my season where I must not worry about the future or load myself up with pressure about what ought to be doing. There is plenty of time for that in the future. And I have found that without makeup, not only am I free to cry whenever I feel like it, but I am also free to laugh as much as I want to. I am not putting a face on the world to make anyone feel better and pretend that I am coping. I am free to be a mess, and I am free to feel joy whenever I want to too. I wonder if laughter is as important as crying for releasing intense emotion and unknotting the stomach. I seem to enjoy it more than ever right now, and am so glad I have people around me that share my sense of humour and don't expect me to stay serious.
I think the most significant thing about this six weeks has been slowly letting go of all the dreams and ideas we ever had for our future. I don't mean I've done that now - there were so many of them that I don't think I'll ever get to the end of the list! - but it's been about accepting that we are no longer going to do them together. I'm pretty sure a lot of them are still going to happen, through me, the kids, other family members and the church. Several time the image of Moses has been used as people talked about somebody who saw amazing things in the future but died before he actually got there. His job was to pave the way for many others, and I think that is what is going to happen. Church is continuing to speak about and live the values that Richard helped to craft. I am reminding the kids of ideas and practices that Richard wanted for our family. We are going back to Nefyn A Camp this summer, to do the kind of youth work Richard and I always did, even when we had multiple babies and it seemed like a really bad idea - we just did it anyway.
A few weeks ago I got to hear one of the church leaders who has had a huge influence on mine and Richard's ministry. He and his wife inspired us hugely a couple of years ago and helped us turn around our negative perspective of church. When he stood up to speak this time, he called up his wife and spoke about how they'd been married for thirty years and of all the years of ministry they've had during that time. POW - another sucker punch, right in the stomach. Right there and then I had to let go of wanting that moment for me. Even though a few weeks earlier I'd still hoped that one day that would be my story too - decades of marriage and ministry together, leading a church that was now changing lives all over the world - as soon as he said it, I knew I had to face that that was no longer going to ever be my story. That outcome was done.
Throughout the service I wrestled with it inwardly and silently, unravelling it and trying to work out how on earth I let go of something so important to me. But by the end of the service, I just heard this over and over again in my head: "I know." Over and over again: "I know." Because He does. Even though I had a future mapped out for me with my husband, that doesn't mean it was the only possible future mapped out for me. Clearly, that future is now never going to happen. I can't go back and change that. But God knows, and more than that, He has ALWAYS known. So this is no surprise to Him either. So He must already have a future planned for me. And if He has, it must be good, because He is good. That's all I could say by the end of the service: "He knows, and He is good". Those two things haven't changed and never will.
A friend made me something for the memorial service, and when I opened it later, I just sat and stared at it for ages and ages. It just so perfectly summed up the reality of my situation (I am still finding it so hard to write "I" and "my", by the way, when I much prefer to write "we" and "our" and I wonder if I'll ever get used to that too). It has the lyrics of a song that seems to be having a big impact all over the place at the moment.
Whenever I start to think of the future, as I am now starting to do, as the six weeks have passed and I am letting myself peek back out from under the duvet, this is the picture I keep reminding myself of. Those blank possibilities and unknown days can be totally terrifying and when they are, I shrink back for a bit and catch my breath again. But they can also be as liberating as unwritten pages for a book that you know can only ever have a happy ending, and when I am able to see them like that, it makes me want to keep tentatively edging forward to see what's next.
(If you haven't heard the song, here's my cousin and her husband doing a beautiful cover of it right here: http://youtu.be/81iluE5heNo )