My birthday plus sad hard things plus good wonderful things

Today is my 37th birthday. It is also the one year anniversary of the last day we spent with Matt. It was a beautiful day-- he made me breakfast in bed with the girls, with my favorite strawberry short cake, and he spoiled me with a beautiful leather journal and a tiny gold triangle necklace. We had a wonderful talk about the future, lying next to each other while the baby nurse and napped between us. I was going to be in Utah for the summer, taking care of grandma, while he took the space at home to finish his PhD and start a cattle herd to join his flock of goats. We talked about replacing our wedding rings-- his had been lost on a fishing trip, and all the stones had fallen out of mine. That night he had me braid his hair and cut off the long braid. "It's time for a change," he said.

He had to leave early the next morning to catch his plane-- he tried to leave without saying goodbye but I stopped him, told him I loved him; he said he loved me too.

Months later, I found a poem he had written a week before that, asking to be cremated and his ashes buried under a tree.

He was probably afraid it was goodbye forever, but he didn't have words to tell me. He just talked about his plans, listened to me worry about the girls, and tried to slip quietly away.

So today I am in two places at once. I am here, today, in this blue sunshine Utah afternoon, and I am time traveling. I am one year ago, tasting pears and whipped cream, listening to the peacocks up South Fork canyon, fretting about the future, with a husband.

It's bizarre and unbelievable.

But today, this real actually NOW today, something amazing happened. My family and friends swooped in and worked with me for hours and hours in the sun. Starting at 6 am, we cleared and dug and weeded and hoed and hacked and irrigated and planted. And this morning I had a weedpatch and now I have an enormous garden-- 80 feet wide and probably 40 across. Friends brought vegetables and herbs and flowers and trees and it was amazing.

It's so healing to be helped like that. And I'm thinking about what else has really helped me.

I've been the recipient of some astounding acts of kindness and friendship.

A friend got in touch a couple of weeks ago and said, "I want to come help you out. I'm free Thursday, put me to work!" She helped me unpack boxes I'd been avoiding and sort some daunting piles of detritus that I couldn't face on my own. She didn't judge me and she had a perfect sense of keeping the work moving forward without pressuring me to get things done that I wasn't ready for. I felt supported and respected-- even empowered by her help.

An acquaintance came to visit right after Matt's death. The world felt like a hostile alien planet. We were chatting on the porch and my "I'm doing fine" veneer was wearing thin. She stopped the chit chat and said without preface, "My aunt and cousin were murdered in their sleep when I was a kid."

Instantly I could drop my, "I'm fine!" act and have a real talk. We hadn't gone through the same things, but knowing that she had been through her own hell made it easier to be real about mine. Ditto when a friend said her husband was in jail for murder and when another friend told me about her unexpected divorce, and another about her suite of physical and mental illnesses. All these different hells!

As soon as I knew where they had been and how they had struggled, I felt like we could connect and learn from each other. Even if all we have to say is, "OMG that is awful. Terrible! The unimaginable worst!!!!" Pain is pain is pain, trauma is trauma is trauma. I might not understand how it feels to be in your unique situation, but I can empathize with being in the heaviest and sharpest pain of my life.

The other day at a mom's group we were talking about what do to for people when they are in crisis. One mom said that we have a Utah cultural problem where you say, "let me know if you need anything...!" on the way out of the door. I groaned-- that's my least favorite phrase. Don't ask me that question! Don't make me come up with it! Don't put the burden of organizing help onto the person who so desperately needs help she probably can't hardly eat, breathe, function, sleep?

So then what do you do?  We talked about it and decided the best thing is just this: offer to help in a specific way. But what's appropriate? One mom was worried about that-- in a serious, terrible situation, you don't want to say or do the wrong thing!

I said, just offer what you have. If all you have in the whole world is a grasshopper milkshake, offer that. If the poor soul at the center of the maelstrom doesn't like grasshopper milkshakes, at least they can say, "I like vanilla, or smoothies!" And voila, you have a task, and it will be just right.  Another mom said, "I'll just bring you my favorite!" Or show up and ask if I can vacuum the floor, or do a load of laundry, or empty the dishwasher. Or in my case today, pull a ton of weeds from my garden.

I appreciated it yesterday when a woman I hadn't met before said, "You don't know me, but I know what you've been through, and I'm so sorry."

In the first few days and weeks after a disaster, don't ignore it-- if you don't have anything helpful to say, just say, "I don't have anything helpful to say." You can add a chaser of, "I'm so sorry you're in this situation." You shouldn't pry or dig for juicy details, or make assumptions about how they're feeling.  I did NOT appreciate it when a person I had NEVER met before said, "Oh, I heard it was a suicide, was it terrible at the end??" I responded coldly, "I don't want to talk about that." And left.

So now that it's been a little over a year since Matt died, the fog is clearing a bit and I can reflect on things that help. I can try and turn my focus outward a little bit. I can try and learn from the help and love I was given and extend it to others. It's clumsy, I feel inadequate, I don't want to do it wrong when I see somebody else in pain. But I just have to remember the things I've learned about receiving help from others:

I appreciate being acknowledged but not pried into.
I appreciate being seen, my agency being supported.
I appreciate being held up.
I appreciate honestly and authenticity.
I appreciate our shared experience and our connection.
I appreciate material support-- send food, send money, send boxes, send flowers. I've been so touched by all the physical tokens of love I've received. I'm terrible at thanking people properly, but I treasure these things. Hawaiian snacks and handmade jewelry and mini spa treatments.

I need to remind myself to extend those gifts again-- tilt the next good domino forward the bless the next person.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Let's lift each other. And not be insensitive assholes. ;)


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