Finding my (New) Community that I didn’t know ExistedBy Emma Pearson
December 6, 2023
Featured Photo by Sarah Treanor (streanor.com)
10th August 2019
A need has been bubbling to the surface of my consciousness these past days as our “holiday” in the Dominican Republic draws to a close and my mind and heart, inevitably, lurch to “back home-ness”.
As the incomprehension of my cumulative losses begins to make itself marginally more comprehensible, an insistent voice, my voice, keeps repeating:
“You need to find someone, anyone, who has experienced something like you”.
I know a gazillion widow(er)s now. Sadly. I think I know thirty widow(er)s well enough to call friends, even if some are remote in space and time and I’ve not met them physically. Men and women who I am in regular contact with. Men and women whose stories I know, whose spouses’ names I know, when they died, how they died, what brings them comfort, what increases their pain.
A whole tapestry of knowing that is rich and tender.
I know it’s rich and tender, because when any single one of them writes to me, spontaneously or in response to some writing I have posted, I know that they “get” my life. They refer to Mike in language that resonates. They ask questions about Ben and Megan. They know about Don and Edward, and they now know about Julia. Some knew about Julia this past year as things were so impossibly hard and I couldn’t talk to more than a handful of people. They know I am lucky enough to still have two healthy parents. And they know about my delicious and nutty Medjool, Neil.
They know my life, the textures and colours of my tapestry, and use language that soothes. They know they cannot help, and they know that somehow, they do help. They listen. They witness. They don’t judge. And they don’t advise unless I specifically ask for advice.
I feel seen, heard, felt. Loved. Carried. Supported. Cocooned.
It’s healing, soothing, refreshing. Respite from facing the non-grieving world which is often harsh. Ruthless and brutal.
I barely knew any widow(er)s a few years back, and certainly none recently widowed. That’s partly a function of getting older. But mostly it’s becoming one myself, and finding groups and a Community of People Like Me.
And now I need more than widows and widowers in my life. Some new and different relationships to provide soothing and cocooning. People who will help me begin to talk about and feel the loss of Julia. Not run away from the pain, but lean into it. With me.
I know that there are support groups and resources for people who have lost a child. And I know that there are support groups and resources for people who have lost a loved one by suicide. But I need to find people, someone, anyone, who has lost both a spouse and a child.
Otherwise it’s incomplete. Just too many holes in the stories for me to be able to resonate.
A book was recommended to me a few weeks ago, by Dr Jennifer Ashton, whose ex-husband had died the year prior by suicide. I downloaded it and started reading it. It’s a tragic story, a tragic loss on many levels. Any death of a loved one is. But reading it pissed me off royally. Well, the bits written by her about her experience pissed me off. Some of the book was very rich and good, and I realised it was other people’s stories, but not the author’s herself.
What pissed me off was that (a) it was an ex-husband (and I know, I really do know, that there is often love, deep love for an ex-spouse. Ex-spouses are too often forgotten or ignored when their ex dies); (b) it was an adult, not a child who had died by suicide; (c) she wrote the book within 12-18 months of the death, which I think is too soon to have felt and learned from the impact; that’s because for me, the shit, the enormity (of Mike’s death), hit after a year or more. Two plus years on I am still not sure I’d have any wisdom for new grievers, other than, “Ignore everyone and do what feels true to you”, and “read ‘It’s OK that you’re not OK’ by Megan Devine”, and “if you like to write, go to Refugeingrief.com and do the 30-day ‘Writing your Grief’ course”. (d) she was in a new relationship within months of the ex-spouse’s death (which helps – from my very recent experience, it’s massively soothing); (e) none of her kids had died; (f) she kept banging on about having two full-time jobs, where I can’t even handle one freelance one.
I could go on. I just didn’t identify. I didn’t identify with her guilt, her fears, and mostly what I feel is her lack of self-awareness.
I don’t really want to diss another human being. She is clearly a highly accomplished woman. But other than the parts where she brought in others’ stories, the book didn’t resonate, didn’t strike a chord in me.
I know of books for people who have lost their spouses, and read some of them. A number of my wid-buds have published their stories.
I know of books for people who have lost a child, and read at least one of them. Joanne Cacciatore’s is the best I have come across.
But I need more. I need to speak to people who have lived and not just survived but regained joy and passion, which I know is at my core. Of that I am not in doubt.
So I wrote to my grieving community and asked for ideas. Immediately, big, long, warm, loving and comforting arms reached from all corners of the globe. And I got names, resources, authors, and places of healing that I will explore further.
What I needed to hear was that there was someone I could contact, a real and tangible human being, who’d lost a spouse and a child.
Of course there are many. Millions. All the world over, we know from just watching the news, that this horror happens to people every single day.
Natural disasters. Gun violence. Political instability. Global warming and food shortages. Disease. Epidemics.
Everywhere, there are incredible stories of people who survive the loss of their entire families, and extended families at that.
And I remembered, through friends’ responses, that I had met a woman, Nancy Saltzman, last year at the Soaring Spirits Camp Widow in Toronto, whose husband Joel, and two young sons Adam and Seth, were killed in a small plane crash on 24 September 1995. Her entire immediate family wiped out. No other kids. What a horror. Light years beyond my horror. I just started to read her book, Radical Survivor: One Woman’s Path Through Life, Love, and Uncharted Tragedy. And I have reached out to her in the hopes that she will become a new friend.
And I was sent this story too. Again another bigger horror than mine. A man called Ted Wiard whose brother died, then his wife, and later his (only) two daughters, and mother-in-law.
And finally I was re-reminded of the work of Tom Zuba whose baby girl died, then his wife, and then another son. He has one remaining son. He writes on his website (https://www.tomzuba.com/pages/toms-story):
After my daughter Erin died I was broken, shattered, lost, confused, angry, shaken, sad and many, many other things for many, many years. My foundation was destroyed. Nothing I had held to be true stood firm. I had no way of knowing if there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It took me a long, long time to discover that yes, indeed, there was a light.
When my wife Trici died eight years later, I knew I would survive. I had done this before. I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. This time, the tunnel had parts that seemed familiar. This time, the tunnel also had parts that were new and different, oftentimes overwhelming, frightening and confusing. This time, my 3-year-old son Sean, and my 7-year-old son Rory were staring at me. They were looking at me to create a new life for the three of us.
And when Rory died in 2004, I knew I would survive. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. What was the point? But in time, I realized that not only was there light at the end of the tunnel, but this time the tunnel was lit. This time I was able to observe my journey… not simply feel victim to it. This time I learned so much. About grief. About mourning. About the gifts of denial. This time I realized that I could consciously participate in my own transformation.
It’s such early days. The order of my losses is different, but some of the magnitude is there. The speed of my losses is what makes my experience particularly unfathomable.
But like Tom Zuba, I already have a sense, having lost Don, Ed and Mike, “Ok – I will survive the horror of losing my baby girl. I know something now about how to live with, how to be with this. I WANT to live, fully and completely, whole-heartedly”.
With the help, love and care of more people than even know they matter, I will survive this. And finding my new community will be a big part of my survival. It’s a small community, but it’s there.
I will survive this. And more.
I will continue to live with joy, love and gratitude.
I am already.
And the pain and emptiness are always there. Right alongside the joy and gratitude.
Bumping up against each other. Perpetually.