Leah Lair Conner
Warning: real, honest, raw words ahead...
It has taken a great deal of bravery and transparency to write what I’ve written here. It’s much easier to just keep hard things private and keep going, letting the world think that I have a perfect marriage – highly idealized – than to open up dark wounds and admit to failings. BUT, it’s in those admissions, and in that sharing, that others can feel safe about their own insecurities, iniquities, and struggles with similar issues. It’s also in that opening up that freedom is found – freedom to be just who I am, just who we are – in the knowledge that I am enough. Enough in all the ways that matter, but mostly, enough for myself.
Warning: real, raw, honest words ahead.
The first time I really learned about grief was thirty-five years ago, when my father died unexpectedly, and I was twelve years old. Sure, I had experienced loss before that – deaths and disappearances of family pets, leaving childhood friends when I changed schools, innocent hope when my father had open heart surgery, and I realized life is temporary and precious – but nothing like the finality of knowing the most wonderful man I’d ever known would never hug me again, never tuck me into bed and arrange my thousands of stuffed animals just the way I liked. It was a whole, new level of pain that I didn’t handle very well, really, if I’m honest. The death of my father kicked off several years of me perfecting a slow decline in my mental and physical health. I became depressed and anxious, and though my flirting with bulimia began before he died, those flirtations bloomed into a full-blown daily relationship with the eating disorder monster. After my first visit to a mental health facility, Baylor’s Eating Disorder Unit, where I “celebrated” my sixteenth birthday, though, I learned some pretty incredible coping skills for dealing with grief…and more. I got a crash course in Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving (DABDA), and I was able to look at the last few years of my life and start to unravel where I’d gone wrong and how I needed to allow myself to actually grieve the loss – instead of just trying to figure out why I couldn’t “just get over it.” It was after those weeks I spent in the EDU that I realize every human being on the planet could greatly benefit from some time in a psych ward. Seriously.
Loss has come to me many times since that first big, memorable loss, and every time, it requires a reflection on the grieving process, a sort of “self-check-in” to make sure that no pieces are being ignored, that grief takes its necessary time for healthy healing. One very significant thing I’ve learned, though, is that sometimes there is an even more difficult form of grief that comes to us, and that is when we have to let go of or lose someone (or something) while they’re still living. I dated quite a bit when I was younger, and looking back, now, I see that I would get ridiculously attached to whomever I was dating at the time, planning my whole life with them, not even taking stock of compatibility or real feelings – just going for it, every time, with the expectation that this person would fall in love with me and we’d live happily ever after. I do now recognize that that probably had to do with some unresolved “daddy issues” from losing my dad and wanting a replacement for that hole left in my soul, so I cut myself slack, now. But wow, did I put myself through more and more grieving due to unreasonable expectations and way too much emotional sabotage. I look back now and am THANKFUL for so many of those losses, because though they really hurt at the time, I needed to grow up and grow through some unresolved emotional wounds to become who I am today (and I like her pretty well, finally).
Our hearts are fragile, even those of us who may try to keep them guarded and hidden behind walls. Our fortresses may be strong, but the heart – that beautiful, beating part of our soul – is a fragile piece that realizes we have no real control, and can be shattered in a split second.
About a year ago, I started dealing with a big loss, and yes, it’s one of THOSE kinds where the person lost is one still living and breathing in this world. Here comes some of that real, raw honesty I warned about. My husband and I have been together for over eighteen years, and we are one of those couples that truly did know, right away, that we were soul mates, destined to find each other and love each other, forever. Over the years, we’ve had many people ask us our secret and tell us that they envy our lives together, and I really couldn’t blame them. We managed to never really have bad days or a bad time in our relationship – at all – and we cherished that. Until we took it for granted and, unconsciously, stopped tending to what kept it so special. They say it happens to everyone, right? But we never really thought it would happen to us. Until it slowly but surely, outside our conscious mind’s eye, did. For whatever reason, we stopped putting each other first and always considering the other, first. I’m oversimplifying, here, but while our life together still looked the same (for the most part), we were allowing a chasm to build between us. During that time, I looked for my emotional and intellectual needs to be met in other ways, through other people and interests. I threw myself into new adventures, like a big, fun, music festival and deciding to become a yoga instructor and evolving through some pretty significant changes in personal beliefs and constructs – all of these things, ultimately, proving to be positive. I can’t speak for Tod (my husband) for what was happening on his side, but that’s just it – we started to become different “sides” and our paths started to diverge, subtly. Some of this NEEDED to happen, really, because some of our “togetherness” was, without question, unhealthy and codependent, but we just lost sight of each other a little too much…and for me, that resulted in an emotional affair with someone else.
About a year ago, that relationship, that emotional tie, started to end…funny way to say it, “started to end,” but that’s what happened, because as my husband learned of my too-deep friendship with another man (also a friend of his), and I recognized it for what it was (an emotional connection that tickled the line of infidelity, even though no physical infidelity had occurred, nor would it), communication was suddenly back in focus between the two of us. It wasn’t pretty communication, to be sure, but it was a deeper kind than we’d had in a while – and it was IMPORTANT and NECESSARY. This past year has been one of the ugliest and most beautiful of my life, and I already know I wouldn’t trade it, but boy, has it involved loss and grief – on a grand, excruciating scale. We (my husband and I) lost our old relationship (the new one, though, is proving to be even better – incredible how things work that way), we lost pieces of ourselves, and we both lost an important friend. For me, the loss of that friendship is proving to be a grief that does, indeed, come in waves, because while Tod and I are back to putting our marriage and our respect for one another first, it’s hard to lose something/someone that for a time felt like a lifeline. It was hard to just start “doing without” something that had become a beacon, a safe place, an outlet – not to mention, suddenly being no longer able to have discussions that had become, almost literally, lifesaving (for sure sanity-saving). Just as when a person dies, you cannot just replace them with another person, it’s also unhealthy to just let go of a relationship and try to replace it with another. I cannot just shift my attention and feelings off of this person and pour them into my husband the same way – that’s unfair to everyone involved. I have to release and grieve a piece of my life that, right or wrong, was important, but not healthy. I am beyond fortunate to have a husband who, instead of raging (though there have been some necessary, deserved rages), SEES ME (even if he lost sight for a hot minute – we both did), understands me, and understands that letting go of something or someone takes time. It can’t be just swept away as if it never happened, otherwise, no lesson has been learned for either of us. Even if my friendship with someone else went too far in that it became too important and damaged my marriage, it is still a loss. It still requires grieving, and grieving is ALWAYS a process, not a switch that can be flipped to the off position and forgotten. I am amazed that not only does Tod understand this, but he holds space for me and my process in his own heart, loving me more than I maybe deserve, and showing me that our love really is what so many have seen it as over the years – beautiful, intentional, unending, and always worth saving.
I’ve come a long way in a year’s time, as have MANY of us – just surviving 2020 and learning to live in a worldwide pandemic is enough and envelopes a lot of loss for EVERYONE. My life looks entirely different than it did one year ago, and I’m learning to recognize that as a wonderful, magnificent thing, for which I am so grateful. I will continue to grieve losses, as necessary, because that is how we heal and grow into better, more aware human souls. I am thankful for my losses – all of them – because they’ve brought me here. And here, I am more than enough.
Quotes on Grief –
The reality is, you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole, but you will never be the same again. Nor should you be the same, nor should you want to. – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. – Winnie the Pooh
What was once enjoyed and deeply loved, we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes part of us. – Helen Keller
Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim. – Vicki Harrison
NOTE: There’s obviously A LOT that has transpired in the saving of my marriage and coming to a new, healthy place – an even better place…much more than is discussed here. I WILL be writing future blogs on the more intricate details of CHOOSING to let go of relationships and/or habits that are unhealthy and CHOOSING to put yourself and your spouse (or significant person) first and foremost – resulting in a deeply fulfilling marriage. I’ll also address that this isn’t always the case/outcome in these types of situations. This post, though, was geared toward loss and grief, specifically, so stay tuned.
I’ll also be addressing eating disorders and psychiatric/mental healthcare in future posts, if those topics, touched upon here, interest you.
Please, if any piece of this post resonates with you and you want to reach out with your own experiences, struggles, advice, encouragement to others, etc. – DO SO. It is so liberating and healing to share and know that you are not alone, and you can extend that community to others. Leave comments or feel free to message me, at any time, at email@example.com.