On the morning of New Year’s Day, 2017, I sat on the balcony of my condominium and gazed at the Atlantic Ocean. The sun had just risen, smearing the sky with splashes of pink and orange before being overshadowed by a smudge of slate gray clouds. I have always loved winter at the beach.
My husband Dave and I, along with our dog, Molly, discovered this quiet strip of shore, which lies just south of Virginia Beach, while on spring break in 2008. We made this place ours, returning together nine more times over the years. We walked hundreds of miles on that sand while Molly chased seagulls, always ending at the Sandbridge Market to share a stale hot dog and a fresh-made doughnut.
Now, for the first time, I was here alone.
A year earlier, Dave died suddenly of an aortic dissection. Exactly one month later, Molly followed him. The two of them came into my life in 2002. It seems they were destined to leave together as well.
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I barely survived their loss. The toll of profound shock and the anxious exhaustion of deep grief nearly destroyed me. I did everything I knew to help myself — counseling, support groups, meditation, exercise and writing. But no amount of interventions or assistance could help me with my one singular problem. I could not accept that Dave was not coming back. My head knew he wasn’t, but my heart could not admit this awful truth.
That morning I bundled myself in a blanket and sat quietly. The waves crashed their cadence and I imagined the feel of their weight pulling me down. I shivered and I cried, sobbing out my pain in ragged gasps. I made sounds I never hope to hear again. In those moments, the last shredded pieces of my heart tore. There was nothing more left to break.
I took a deep breath and the frigid air filled my lungs. I was thirsty. I gathered the blanket from around my ankles and I stumbled inside with one thought in mind: coffee. I poured a large mug and picked up a coaster on the way back outside. I took a sip and scalded my tongue. I set the coaster on the table and noticed it for the first time. Like many things in the condo, it was adorned with a cheery beach theme of seashells and seahorses. It also had a saying: “It doesn’t get any better than this!” Laughter exploded from me and I spilled a good portion of my coffee down my front. I laughed so hard that I began crying again.
Yet again humor rescued me from the precipice of despair. Dave and I shared a comic sense that had sustained us through difficult times. Years before, Dave was in ICU with sepsis and as the nurse got him settled, she asked me if he was an organ donor. I handed her his ID and said, “He is. But he’d better leave here with every part he came with.” His quick wit still intact, Dave recited the list of his most important organs. Our laughter echoed down the quiet hallway.
When Dave died, I lost the person I most wanted to spend the moments of my life. I lost the brilliant and loving man who could cry and laugh with me. My partner in all things was gone, taken from me in a shocking and awful way. My soul rebelled against the truth of his absence.
As the months have passed, my heart is somehow slowly being sewn back together. These stitches feel ragged and uneven, but I sense a small difference that is still undefinable. I suppose when your heart breaks and begins to heal, it has the opportunity to become bigger. I certainly hope so.
I have cried in many public places in State College. Never in my life have my emotions been so unruly. Grief does that to a person. It inhabits you and erupts in unwelcome places and surprising times. Because of this, I choose to surround myself with people who are not ashamed to shed scalding tears or laugh until their stomachs ache. Both are necessary and healing.
I’m still slogging through my grief. It is a daily effort. I accept it because with the deepest love comes the deepest sorrow. You cannot have one without the other. So be it. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Beth McLaughlin, MFA, is a writer and a service coordinator for Allegheny Lutheran Social Ministries. This column is coordinated by www.ltlwys.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.