Five and a half years ago I was closing the door of my late husband’s mental health practice for the last time. Boxes of client files went into clinical professional storage. Furniture came home, was sold, or moved to my older son’s first apartment. Various mementos found their way to family members. Tony’s extensive professional library was given to a young colleague, a sexual abuse crisis center, the library, or was toted home in white, file boxes.
Other boxes came home as well. Full of information I was told to keep, didn’t really know what to do with but might need in the continual process of closing our beloved business. One box contained outlines of every professional presentation Tony ever created. Another, all the blank forms clients filled out before beginning therapy with him. Still another box held various clinical resources–charts on the brain, lists of emotions, pamphlets on various life changes, as well as a plain, slightly worn, vanilla file folder with Tony’s escalloped handwriting on its tab. “Grief,” it read.
I found this file early on, maybe in the initial days after his sudden and tragic death. Wading through his office while sharing my shock, trauma, and grief with our children. Even though they had enough of their own without witnessing mine. The file, tucked away on a low shelf, sat along with other folders with various clinically relevant markings. This file labeled in a way I thought odd however. As if my now deceased husband left us a final gift. A folder of resources on how to live in anguishes’ aftermath. Along with some books on grief which turned out to be outdated and therefore unhelpful.
Of course, I couldn’t look at the folder. The mere sight of Tony’s handwriting sent me further down into the clenches of grief’s pit. Threw it in a pile covered by other files. Then like a rebellious child, found my own grief resources. But within a month or so the file sat on my work table. Its presence urging me to go through its contents. Finally getting my attention when I failed once again to begin my son’s college financial aid forms. “Why not?” I asked dumping the file’s slew of papers out on the desk.
Could only stare as eyes blurred over. Stomach clenched. Acid rose into throat. Stuffed the papers back into the file again.
A few years past. In that time I spent a portion of each week in therapy, lots of stolen moments reading about clinical trauma recovery, wrote a memoir, wrote another book manuscript, learned how to be a pastor, parented during really intense times, experienced profound loneliness, and tried recreating a life for myself while supporting my sons in doing the same. All the while the file sat there. Somewhere. Shuffled around to various holding positions in my office or bedroom. Getting lost again and again amidst ongoing life.
But then I remembered the grief file. Right when I felt strong enough to view its wisdom in articles, sayings, outlines for continuing education sessions, grief groups, and liturgy for those suffering from HIV AIDS. Some of the articles, outdated. The sayings, designed to be hopeful, felt like diminishing platitudes. The liturgy, powerful still. Then an outline–Tony’s. A six week session created for a congregation in the months my father slowly died of cancer’s Sezary Syndrome. Entitled “Tomorrow’s Light” and covering nineteen pages.
As I skimmed, not able to attend to each word, I noted Tony’s predictable curiosity.
“What have you heard about grief?”
“How do you define grief?”
“What messages (verbal and nonverbal) were communicated to you about grief and loss?”
“Who am I now?”
Woven with other thoughts on grief.
“Grief is a period of time [when] life is out of balance.”
“Each person experiences their pain at 100%.”
“YOU CANNOT RECOVER ALONE.”
And words about the world’s weirdness regarding the humanness of grief.
“We live in a society that…teaches us how to acquire and hold on to things.”
Suggests we “keep busy” rather than normalize the experience of grief.”
Tells us we should not “be angry with God.”
Avoids witnessing others’ pain by using a “change the subject attitude.”
Produces people “afraid of the expression of strong feelings [and who] will sometimes try to acknowledge the feelings quickly and then offer some intellectual or logical advice.”
And then there it was. On page twelve. The last statement on the page. “Sudden, untimely or accidental death of a loved one can take as longs as 4 years to get through.”
Wow. An answer to the question I asked Tony’s clinical supervisor maybe a week after he died. “How long does this shit last?”
She replied, “Two years.”
Hated her response. Resented it. Knew I needed to heal more quickly than that for my sons.
Recently the clinical supervisor and I were back in touch. When I reminded her of her answer in those early days of grief and post trauma, she admitted she lied. Didn’t think I could take the truth. “I really thought it would take 3 1/2 years.”
She was right. In exquisite expertise, this healer knew a truth I could not hold until now. Her lie, a gift. But one given by one who intimately knows the landscape of anguish, sorrow, pain, and trauma.
We did not know Tony would die, leave us, on August 13, 2016. His death was not something we prepared for together. Writing closing thoughts. Sharing enough “I love you’s” to last the rest of our living lives. Planning a funeral together. Making sure our financial life was in order. We had none of that. Only a will and a few insurance policies–more than most at our age.
Instead what Tony left us was a belief system. Belief in our human ability to heal. Belief in life after death for the living as well as the dead. Belief in each new dusk and dawn–that day follows night and night follows day and that tomorrow’s light needs the healing balm of the previous night’s dark.
The folder, not a grief manual. Perhaps a symbol, even a gift of hope’s tangible existence. A reminder the world continues creating healers who assure us healing is possible, believe in our humanity, and offer accompaniment in our time of sorrow into healing, health, and wholeness.
I never did read the file’s entire contents. It now lives in a box full of my journals and papers from the first two years after Tony died as part of the documentation of our human tragedy and truth.
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