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Finally Grieving After 32 Years


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In October 1979, I lost my girlfriend Jan in a car accident. I was 18 and had just started college. She was 17 and a senior in high school. I came home for midterm break to the news – it had happened the night before.

"Girlfriend" seems like such a trivial word. She was a miracle in my life. I had lost my mother 4 years earlier, and in my first couple years of high school I felt so alone and depressed, though I didn't know it at the time. My world was very dark and I was negative and bitter. Jan didn't see any of that – she looked at me and saw a pretty wonderful guy. She walked through it all, past all the walls that a brooding loner had put up, as if they weren't even there. She loved me and gave me her heart. She just knew me, and I knew her. We were like brother and sister. We were meant to find each other in this world. She brought light to my darkness, and showed me that there's such a thing as love, when I didn't believe in it. She gave me her heart, and gave me my heart. She showed me that I can love. She was the deepest and truest friend I've ever had – in that sense, she was the only friend I've ever had. She loved me, she saw the best in me, she wanted the best for me, and she wanted to be there for me always. She gave me so much just by being who she was and loving me. In spite of everything, I don't know who or what I'd be today if it weren't for her.

Losing her was so awful, so unthinkable, and I was so young, that I just couldn't face it. It was the cruelest joke imaginable, to be given something so beautiful, so profound – the greatest possible gift, when I needed it most – only to have it ripped away after such a short time, when I hadn't even learned how to accept it yet. It almost felt like a punishment for not appreciating what I had been given.

I went back to school because there was nowhere else for me to go. And once again I was alone. I tried to bury myself in my work, and there was a lot of it, but eventually I couldn't continue and I left. I spent the next 15 years, which seemed then like a lifetime – several lifetimes – drifting from one thing to the next, one place to the next. Working, traveling, back in school, leaving again, moving, lots of different jobs.. No direction, no sense of the future. And the whole time, I was running away from her death (and from her), trying to keep it pushed far far away, never letting myself think about it. I felt like it would destroy me if I did.

Eventually I went back to school and got a degree in computer science, finally had a career and some "direction" in life. I've spent the last almost 20 years doing that, and still running away, acting almost like she never existed, because I couldn't bear to think about her. The fact was there, but the reality and the feelings were locked away. Until last August, when a high school friend sent me a picture he found of Jan and me, leaning against a car, my arm around her, her leaning against me and reaching over to touch me gently, smiling so sweetly, me looking like that brooding loner with a bad haircut. I had never seen it before, I didn't remember it being taken, and it was the first new picture I'd seen of her in 32 years. Such a sweet picture, taken probably 2 months before she died.

I looked at her face, and I didn't see a picture of Jan. I saw Jan. I felt her. She wasn't in the picture, she was in front of me, she was around me. I could see her face, her smile, the way she moved. I could hear her voice. I could feel her spirit, her personality, who she was to me, so close, so familiar, as if I had just seen her yesterday. After all that time, all that running away, my memory of her was still fresh, it hadn't faded at all.

I sat down with that picture and just looked at it, feeling her again for the first time. And it all started coming. At first I told myself not to do this, to just put it in the box with the rest, the box of pictures and letters that I've carried with me my whole life, that sat in the back of a cabinet, or the bottom of a storage box. Just put it away, I said, this is not a good idea.

But then I realized that this was different. In the beginning, I would sometimes try to read her letters or look at her pictures, and a horrible knot would just form in my stomach. I would feel numb and dead inside. So I stopped doing that a long time ago. But now, I felt my grief. I felt it flowing through me, not getting stuck inside me. And I said, Maybe I'm finally ready for this. Maybe I can do this now. And I didn't have to do anything. I just had to let it happen, and let it flow through me. I sat down with the picture and did nothing else for the next 2 months, other than going to work. I just sat on my screen porch with the sounds of the forest around me, with a candle in front of her picture, and let it come. I got out the box and looked at all her pictures, and read all her letters over and over, crying and remembering. There was so much to remember, so much I hadn't let myself remember for my whole life. So many beautiful memories, some that I had forgotten completely. I pieced back together the story of us, that I had let myself forget over the years. I talked to her, and told her everything I was feeling, everything I wanted to say to her.

I hadn't locked my grief away, and I hadn't pushed her away at all. When I finally stopped running and turned around, I saw that it was all right there the whole time, waiting for me. She was there the whole time, right next to me. I just didn't want to see her.

The last 10 months have been the most profound journey of my life. I've felt my grief and loss and sadness and confusion and emptiness fully for the first time. I've talked to Jan and yelled at her, asked her for help, told her how much I still miss her. How much I've needed her for my whole life when she wasn't there, and how alone I feel, still, without her. I've wondered over and over how such a thing could happen. So many unanswerable questions.

I've gained so many new insights and perspectives, with the help of a very good therapist. I've looked back at my life as a whole for the first time, connecting all the fragments and putting it all in perspective, seeing what was driving me for so long. I've seen how much her death defined my life. I don't know what it would have been otherwise, but it would have been nothing like what it was. I look back at that time now and feel so sad for myself, for how lost I was for so long.

But the most important insight I've had is that although the sorrow will never really go away, I don't have to be afraid of it, and it can't really hurt me. And I've seen that it comes together with all the happy memories. They can't be separated. I've been trying to run from the pain my whole life, but in doing that I lost my happy memories of Jan. So now I welcome them both, though I don't dwell on the sorrow, only the happiness. And the sorrow comes and goes, but the happy memories, and all that she gave me, are always with me.

And Jan is with me always too. Through this, I've gotten her back in some way. I feel her always now. She's a part of me, in a very real way. I don't know what that is or what it means, and I don't call it anything. I just know that she's with me always, because I feel her. I've never been religious or spiritual, but sometimes I wonder..

Thank you for letting me share this. I found this forum because I've been feeling so alone with this. Nobody who hasn't experienced this can even begin to understand or relate to it, and they'd frankly rather not, even your best friends, even your family sometimes. I've been feeling like I'm in the Phantom Zone. It helps so much to be able to share this with people who understand.

Craig

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The "Phantom Zone"; how profound. It is like you have read my mind. I think that may be just where I am and where I have been the last 6 years. Wonder if it will take as long as you to finally come to grips with my Roger's death? I hope not for my girls' sake... but I do wonder? Thank you, your story hit home and helped to see things in a newer light. Yes, it is a gift to be able to express our feelings here with responses. It makes us feel "normal" if only for a moment.

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I am so very glad you have rediscovered your beloved...what a wonderful gift. Losing the person who makes the world feel worthwhile is beyond expression. Thank you for sharing your story and memories with us.

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zeeks, you're already coming to grips with it, like everyone here, and like me finally. I'm an unusual case, maybe a hard case, because I tried to run away from it for so long. I wouldn't recommend anyone try that! It doesn't work. Like I said, it was all waiting for me the whole time. It's strange that it's all so fresh now, but I have the perspective of the last 3 decades without her to look back on. Still, right now I feel like I can never really accept it. It still feels like something that couldn't possibly have happened. But who knows what the future will bring? I never expected this to happen, and it did. The future is unwritten.

Thank you for your words, Lina. You're right, it's so hard to find words. Even talking about what Jan meant to me and what she was to me, I feel like it all sounds like clichés. But it's not.

Craig

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My dear Craig,

Your beautiful story moves me to tears. Better than anything I could ever write or say, your experience proves once again that it is never too late to do the work of mourning. Love never dies, and surely the love you have for your precious Jan is still right there in your heart. How wonderful that you've rediscovered its presence there, after all these years. I am deeply grateful to you for sharing your story here with all of us. You may never know how many people you have helped by doing so. (You might find this article to resonate with your experience: Delayed Grief )

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Dear Craig,

I read your story last night but was sleepy so I read it again today and I am so inspired by how you have chosen and are choosing to deal with your loss and your grief. I agree, that we can run but we can't hide from our losses and our grief. Your story (and how you wrote it ) is amazing and I know it will help others and inspire many as it has me. I am sorry that you lost such an important and loving person in your life.

Mary

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Craig,

Welcome to this site. Your experience is profound, I am glad you are finally connected with your grief and with her again. I relate to what your saying in that I feel George within me, all of the time, he is here. I have funny memories, sweet dear memories, love, comfort, strength, encouragement, pain, all rolled into the relationship that was ours. It is never too late to begin your grief journey, and as you can testify, you can push it back but it is still there waiting until you are ready. Grief is not to be feared, but gone through and experienced. There is so much I have gleaned from my grief journey. I am a different person for having gone through it.

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Thank you, Marty. Your article gave me a lot of insight. You wrote, "it is the love you have for these three precious beings that requires you to mourn for them. We do not grieve for those we do not love." I realized that by not allowing myself to mourn for Jan, I wasn't allowing myself to feel my love for her, or hers for me. I had exiled myself from that for so long, because I thought I needed to be strong, and I thought that's what being strong meant.

And it occurs to me that everyone's story here, though it's a story of loss and grief and pain, is first a story of love.

I was also touched by the writer's story of her dog. 2 years ago my cat Cocoa died of cancer after unsuccessful treatments. He was my buddy and companion for 14 years, and it was hard to lose him. When I came home and found him finally gone, I sat with him and petted him and cried. It's never been easy for me to cry – strong, silent, stoic Swedish family, you know the drill, I'm sure ;) – and it felt good to just let it come. It was the first time I had let myself feel the grief and pain of any loss. A part of me knew that it was coming from a deeper well, and I kind of said to myself, "Remember this. You can feel this now." I got another cat, who was pronounced healthy by the vet, but he died 5 months later of a disease which is impossible to test for and hard to diagnose. I was with him when he died and watched him take his last breath, and I cried just as much for him. So my two cats helped prepare me to mourn for Jan when the time came, to know I was ready and not be afraid of it.

Thank you, Mary and Kay. I can't tell you how good it feels just to be in a place where everyone truly knows and understands.

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Craig,

I am so glad that you have been able to work through your grief and see where you are in the process! You truely do understand how we feel and know that we get what you are saying and feeling, because like you said we have been through it, and unfortunately there will always be those that don't want to talk about this, as you posted in one of my postings. Thank you for sharing with all of us, and please continue as it does help to have others who "get it" so to speak, to talk to and get support from.

amw

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Craig, I want to tell you how much I respect your giving Marty permission to post your letter for others outside of this forum to read. It is an amazing explanation of your journey and I KNOW it will help many. I have run into many folks since Bill died (and before) who admit they never dealt with their losses and then 10 or 20 years later regretted it. You presented your story in a way that others will find helpful and it will perhaps help an unknown number of folks to own their pain of loss early on. I think, without sounding sexist, that it is also so important that your piece is written by a man because I believe it is more difficult in our society for a guy to grieve...it is hard enough for all of us in a society that denies death, but there is a lot of pressure on men to "man up". You are giving an unknown number of men (and women) an insight into a better way. Thank you allowing yourself to be vulnerable for the sake of others,

Mary

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Thank you so much, amw and Mary.

If it might help someone, I figured I could overcome my squeamishness about going public and become a Voice ( voice voice ..) of Experience ( ence ence ..) – like I need one more thing to remind me I'm getting old! I've never set all this down in writing before, and just writing it was so emotional. Telling it to others, here and elsewhere, has also helped me a lot.

And now it's helped me in other ways too. I sent it to a good friend who I haven't had much contact with in the last few months, because he didn't understand and couldn't listen. – just to protect myself and be with myself, not out of resentment. He sent me an email saying he felt so bad that he hadn't been there for me, and that he finally thought he could understand.

I also sent it to one of my brothers, who I've recently been talking to more openly than I ever have with my family, and the same is true for him. It's the first time I've talked about this at all with anyone in my family, believe it or not. We've never been a true family in that way, and I've kept my distance for a long time, to find something better for myself.

I think having it on Marty's blog, where it's more "official" and a little less personally confronting, somehow made it easier to just send people the link. ("Look at this interesting article I found. Oh, that's right, it's mine!")

You're right, Mary, it's harder for men – not just to say what they're feeling, but to even know what they're feeling. For me I think the stoic unemotional nature of my family was a bigger barrier, but somehow it was clear to me from a young age that it was a straitjacket that was choking me, and I had to get away and unlearn that as best I could. And I don't think I would have had the strength or the hope to keep going and find my way if it weren't for Jan. That's the supreme irony.

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