by Phil Rice
In the dawn of my adulthood, my father shared a valuable observation: “Grieving is personal, son. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.” While I’ve encountered many folks who are quick to judge or give advice on proper grieving, I keep Dad’s words close. My learning has been a natural process. Now, after more than half a century in human skin, I’m intimately aware of the meaning of those words.
Grieving is personal.
The expected passing of older relatives and the unexpected passing of friends, the loss of parents—these have all left marks. In each instance, I gained a little more loving awareness even as I grieved the loss. Such grieving is complex and never entirely over, but the essence of my healing is that I sought healing. That was the key — actively seeking to survive the trauma. A conscious awareness of love can provide shelter from pain. The pain remains; full erasure is not an option. But love — with awareness — is the greater quotient.
Recently, an extreme period of traumatic grief enveloped me. At the age of 50, having spent the previous decade as a single father raising my son Paul, I merged journeys, spiritually and physically, with Janice. She joined Paul and me in our Pittsburgh home, and she and I mapped out our future together. We would get married, return to our native Appalachian Mountains, and gradually ease out of this earthly existence together, free and in love. It was a joyous vision, but before we could even get a solid footing, our dreams were interrupted. About a year after she joined us in Pittsburgh and exactly one month after our engagement, Janice was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme — stage-four brain cancer.
We married in the hospital, and three months later she died in our home, surrounded by love.
I had no backup plan.
Unlike previous experiences with grief, I was not well-positioned to seek healing in this moment. During Janice’s illness I had been fully engaged. My senses were heightened; my strength was indefatigable. And then she was gone.
There are no real memories of what immediately followed, only emotional flinches.
Things had to be done. Bills paid, papers signed. Personal items gathered. Photos, books, journals. Each room was filled with living memories, and I was tasked with removing those memories.
A hair brush filled with her hair. An empty nightgown on a hook.
It took days.
Time stopped … again and again and again … time stopped.
Only rare historical markers of time — my son’s graduation from high school, a visit from my daughter, the death of my mother — suggest that I was engaged with life at all.
From the outside I may well have looked as though I was aware of my surroundings, but I was utterly lost. Dear friends, sensing the darkness, sought to bring light from afar. But I kept the shades drawn. The “me” they were lovingly attempting to touch no longer existed. Not now. Not today. Not tomorrow. They wanted to understand what they couldn’t know. And I didn’t know and wasn’t trying to know.
But then there was my friend Widdy; she went beyond knowledge and into awareness.
Widdy and I had met just as my life with Janice was beginning. I say we met. That’s not quite accurate. We felt as if we had always known each other, but we had never met in the conventional sense. She lived in California; I did not. Our introduction came through social media, a place where we had friends from Tennessee in common. In a short period of time we discovered a shared appreciation for music, visual arts, poetry, and other nourishment. We also discovered some impressive examples of paralleled heritage, both having deep roots in East Tennessee and north Georgia. Our common ground proved both literal and figurative.
Our friendship was undefined from the beginning. It was an organic relationship unto itself; it was simply free to follow the light.
Widdy suffered from Chronic Lyme Disease and was frequently homebound. And then cancer joined the effort to destroy her body. She didn’t talk much about it, and never sought pity, but she was involved in a life of constant physical discomfort and pain. There were times when she didn’t feel like experiencing the struggle of even a phone chat. But we stayed in touch, if not by phone then by internet; if not by internet, then by pure energy.
Darkness can become comfortable.
The eyes of the mind may begin to adjust, but it’s still darkness. For months I stumbled in darkness. Light reached me in tiny specks. This is what I was learning: Widdy offered love. Love is light.
We sometimes had marathon phone calls that ranged from general news to deep intimacy. Although we would never have, nor even seek, physical contact, I don’t hesitate to use the phrase “lovers” when I speak of those days with Widdy. Our being lovers was truly in the purest sense: we loved each other.
There were mystical moments spent together surrounded by music, plants, and poetry. We shared a spiritual comfort. When she was in a particularly poor physical or emotional state, I would project images of holding her close so that we were breath to breath and skin to skin. And we would dance in the forest. That was a favorite. The forest was not tangible but it was real; we experienced it together.
Eventually my healing progressed. I was able to slowly, step-by-step, move through the world with less stumbling. And Widdy was always close by to keep my healing in perspective. The wounds were still fresh and I had many obstacles of grief yet to confront, but my eyes were adjusting to the light instead of accepting the darkness.
And then Widdy died.
As I started to slide into grief, I felt her in the forest, dancing. She refused to let the light fade. And I was reminded that although she was gone, her love remained. That she was love.
And this was the very awareness she had helped me gain when Janice’s journey had taken her away from me six years earlier: The love stays, and the love grows. The love grows.
Phil Rice is a native Tennessean currently living in Woodstock, Illinois. His writing has appeared most recently in PBS's Next Avenue, Ginosko Literary Journal, and The Connotation Press. He founded Canopic Jar: An Arts Journal in 1986, a venture for which he continues to serve as editor. He is the author of Winter Sun: A Memoir of Love and Hospice.