SHARED BY TIM G.
Before my wife, Jen, and I could deal with our grief as a married couple, I discovered I first had to deal with all of my own issues. But even before that, the actual first step was to acknowledge that I had issues to face. There was no way we as a couple could thrive if I didn’t tackle my own issues. I could feel my issues underneath the surface, but we were both numb—until one day I couldn’t hold the issues down any longer.
A New Part to Play
Some morning—during Jen’s pregnancy and after the diagnosis—I vividly remember crying in the shower. I didn’t know exactly what was to come, but I knew we had just lost something. Not only would our lives be forever changed, but we as people would change. That was my only true and honest emotion before and during the life of my son, Eli. The rest of my emotions were stuffed down and bottled up in an effort to survive our new reality.
I felt like I was a character in a movie where my life completely changed. I didn’t know how to play this new part. No one told me how to be this new person, so I just went through the motions. I saw life as a to-do list, and I accomplished the things I could without being emotionally invested. I was detached from my own life just to survive my life. I allowed myself to go numb because I had never learned to express my emotions well. I had struggled my whole life with issues of self-esteem, self-worth, and the concept of respect. Instead of facing these plaguing doubts, I pushed through, stuffed down, and carried on.
But grief has a funny way of bringing out all of the things you have stuffed down. For me, everything I had stuffed down came out in one big mess at Eli’s one-year angelversary. No emotions fully came to the surface until this time, when I finally allowed myself to feel, express my feelings, and acknowledge my pain.
Going through the Motions
I began counseling—months and months of counseling. Counseling required me to acknowledge that, in order to survive (not even to thrive), I would have to change. Once I dealt with the issues of self-esteem and self-worth and the concept of respect, I was able to realize that expressing emotions and all of the facets of grief are perfectly healthy, perfectly okay. My grief was not something to be ashamed of, not something to be compared to someone else, not a checklist or something to question: "Am I doing this right?"
I know it is a cliché, but change did not happen overnight. My counselor had to repeat some things a few times for me to actually get them. It was not an easy road, but it was a road that was necessary for both me, personally, and our marriage.
Up until this intense counseling season, our marriage was going through the motions just like I was. Our daughters needed us, I needed to work, bills needed to be paid—the "normal" daily things of life continued. While I participated in these things, I was never fully present. There were brief moments of emotion, and I was comfortable saying everything was okay. I was wearing a mask that prevented me from ever being transparent and honest. I was spending so much energy trying to stuff everything down and keep the mask on that I never thought about our marriage. I never thought about Jen, or whether she noticed, or if something was wrong with our marriage. Separation or divorce weren’t thoughts, either. Hiding, stuffing, and playing the part that I had to play was all-consuming.
Through counseling and setting the mask down, I had to face my marriage. I had constructed this play in my head in which I was portraying the perfect husband. But this was not reality, just something I had made up in my head. In reality, we were a mess, and I had choices to make. I could continue along this unhealthy lie. I could go through life without ever being fully honest and transparent with the person who loved me the most. I was risking it all just to “be safe." However, this would ultimately end in divorce—and that was the reality—or I could do the opposite. I could express my fears, my doubts, my mistakes, and yes, even my hopes and dreams. While this sounds normal and easy to most of you, this was a foreign concept to me. In my mind, this was the risking-it-all option. What would happen if I said these things out loud? Would Jen still love me? Would she accept me? Would she forgive me? I had to learn that, no matter the answer to those questions, if I wanted a marriage to come home to, I needed to do my part.
First I needed to recognize and accept the fact that our marriage was in trouble, and unless things changed, it would end in divorce. This was not easy to hear and accept. My whole life, I had operated under the belief that once I got married, I would always be married—that no matter what, we would never get divorced. I was operating under a false reality, and only when I accepted that Jen was serious about ending our marriage could I begin to move us forward. Since I wanted our marriage to continue, I began to make changes. I learned to open up to Jen about my feelings and emotions. We talked, and I actually listened to her. Guess what? The world did not end. Not to say that everything was sunshine and roses—I stumbled a lot as I learned this new way of living authentically—but over time, it became easier and less scary.
In addition to this, I also had to get my wife back. I had to woo her back all over again. I had to learn what love and romance look like after burying our son and losing her trust in me. I found my thoughtful and creative side again. I learned that as much as I needed to be respected, Jen needed to be loved, cherished, and desired. I had allowed my outward affection and attention to her to be lost amongst our grief and me working on becoming healthy. However, this was as important to the success of our marriage as the honesty and transparency.
Together and United
Over the next year, in small steps and small ways, we found a new marriage. We accepted that we were not the same Tim and Jen who innocently met at a backyard barbecue, got married a year later, started a perfect family, and then lost Eli. We finally accepted that Eli, the good and the hell, had changed us forever. Instead of ignoring one another, instead of going through grief in a fog alone, we finally faced one another and decided to walk through the pain together.
Because we gutted our marriage, we also then eliminated anything that was holding us back or hindering us from moving forward. We became united in focusing on things that make us thrive as a family. We now focus on loving others because we know first-hand that lives can change in an instant, that the things we hold dear and love can be taken away at a moment's notice. We now strive not to hold anything back, to say yes to crazy ideas. We love others unconditionally—and we act on that, not just saying it. We are purposeful and intentional in our marriage and with each other. Though we are definitely far from perfect, we will always have our counselor on speed dial.
When I look back from the time my son died to the time I woke up, I am grateful for the person I am now. I would not want to relive those first years. In fact, I would like a do over, but I can see where I have changed and where I have grown because of those choices. Now I am confident. I am sure of myself, and honestly enjoy my life. Without these, I would not have a thriving marriage that I absolutely cherish.