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Finally grieving after 32 years


Craig

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In October 1979, I lost my girlfriend Jan in a car accident. I was 18 and had just started college. She was 17 and a senior in high school. I came home for midsemester break to the news – it had happened the night before.

"Girlfriend" seems like such a trivial word. She was a miracle in my life. I had lost my mother 4 years earlier, and in my first couple years of high school I felt so alone and depressed, though I didn't know it at the time. My world was very dark and I was negative and bitter. Jan didn't see any of that – she looked at me and saw a pretty wonderful guy. She walked through it all, past all the walls that a brooding loner had put up, as if they weren't even there. She loved me and gave me her heart. She just knew me, and I knew her. We were like brother and sister. We were meant to find each other in this world. She brought light to my darkness, and showed me that there's such a thing as love, when I didn't believe in it. She gave me her heart, and gave me my heart. She showed me that I can love. She gave me so much just by being who she was and loving me. In spite of everything, I don't know who or what I'd be today if it weren't for her.

Losing her was so awful, so unthinkable, and I was so young, that I just couldn't face it. It was the cruelest joke imaginable, to be given something so beautiful, so profound – the greatest possible gift, when I needed it most – only to have it ripped away after such a short time, when I hadn't even learned how to accept it yet. It almost felt like a punishment for not appreciating what I had been given.

I went back to school because there was nowhere else for me to go. And once again I was alone. I tried to bury myself in my work, and there was a lot of it, but eventually I couldn't continue and I left. I spent the next 15 years, which seemed then like a lifetime – several lifetimes – drifting from one thing to the next, one place to the next. Working, traveling, back in school, leaving again, moving, lots of different jobs.. No direction, no sense of the future. And the whole time, I was running away from her death (and from her), trying to keep it pushed far far away, never letting myself think about it. I felt like it would destroy me if I did.

Eventually I went back to school and got a degree in computer science, finally had a career and some "direction" in life. I've spent the last almost 20 years doing that, and still running away, acting almost like she never existed, because I couldn't bear to think about her. The fact was there, but the reality and the feelings were locked away. Until last August, when a high school friend sent me a picture he found of Jan and me, leaning against a car, my arm around her, her leaning against me and reaching over to touch me gently, smiling so sweetly, me looking like the brooding loner with a bad haircut. I had never seen it before, I didn't remember it being taken, and it was the first new picture I'd seen of her in 32 years. Such a sweet picture.

I looked at her face, and I didn't see a picture of Jan. I saw Jan. I felt her. She wasn't in the picture, she was in front of me. I could see her face, her smile, the way she moved. I could hear her voice. I could feel her spirit, her personality, who she was to me, so close, so familiar, as if I had just seen her yesterday. After all that time, all that running away, my memory of her was still fresh, it hadn't faded at all.

I sat down with that picture and just looked at it, feeling her again for the first time. And it all started coming. At first I told myself not to do this, to just put it in the box with the rest, the box of pictures and letters that I've carried with me my whole life, that sat in the back of a cabinet, or the bottom of a storage box. Just put it away, I said, this is not a good idea.

But then I realized that this was different. In the beginning, I would sometimes try to read her letters or look at her pictures, and a knot would just form in my stomach. I would feel numb and dead inside. So I stopped doing that a long time ago. But now, I felt my grief. I felt it flowing through me, not getting stuck inside me. And I said, Maybe I'm finally ready for this. Maybe I can do this now. And I didn't have to do anything. I just had to let it happen, and let it flow through me. I sat down with the picture and did nothing else for the next 2 months, other than going to work. I just sat on my screen porch with the sounds of the forest around me, with a candle in front of her picture, and let it come. I looked at all her pictures, and read all her letters over and over, crying and remembering. There was so much to remember, so much I hadn't let myself remember for my whole life. So many beautiful memories, some that I had forgotten completely. I pieced back together the story of us, that I had let myself forget over the years. I talked to her, and told her everything I was feeling, everything I wanted to say to her.

I hadn't locked my grief away, and I hadn't pushed her away at all. When I finally stopped running and turned around, I saw that it was all right there the whole time, waiting for me. She was there the whole time, right next to me. I just didn't want to see her.

The last 8 months have been the most profound journey of my life. I've gained so many new insights and perspectives, with the help of a very good therapist. I've looked back at my life as a whole for the first time, connecting all the fragments and putting it all in perspective, seeing what was driving me for so long. I've seen how much her death defined my life. I don't know what it would have been otherwise, but it would have been nothing like what it was. I look back at that time now and feel so sad for myself, for how lost I was for so long.

But the most important insight I've had is that although the sorrow will never really go away, I don't have to be afraid of it, and it can't really hurt me. And I've seen that it comes together with all the happy memories. They can't be separated. I've been trying to run from the pain my whole life, but in doing that I lost my happy memories of Jan. So now I welcome them both, though I don't dwell on the sorrow, only the happiness. And the sorrow comes and goes, but the happy memories, and all that she gave me, are always with me.

And Jan is with me always too. Through this, I've gotten her back. I feel her always now. She's a part of me, in a very real way. I don't know what that is or what it means, and I don't call it anything. I just know that she's with me always, because I feel her. I've never been religious or spiritual, but sometimes I wonder..

Thank you for letting me share this. I found this forum because I've been feeling so alone with this. Nobody who hasn't experienced this can even begin to understand or relate to it, and they'd frankly rather not, even your best friends, even your family sometimes. I've been feeling like I'm in the Phantom Zone. (Does that reference date me??) It helps so much to be able to share this with people who understand.

Craig

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Craig,

Your wonderful story is so inspiring for those in desperate need of some encouragement. I am so glad you were able to finally work through your pain and suffering.

Was there any particular thing your therapist told you to do that just "clicked" and made sense? Can you share it?

Thanks for sharing,

ModKonnie

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Thank you for your reply, Konnie. I can't think of anything my therapist has said that just clicked for me. I usually have to mull things over for awhile. She suggested I write, which I had already done a little, whenever there was something I wanted to say to Jan, or just wanted to share what I was going through with her. Putting my thoughts and feelings down on paper has helped me, and made me feel closer to her.

Mostly my therapist has just helped me to see things more clearly, see that whatever I'm feeling is ok, and get a better perspective on a lot of things. I always had so much guilt and regret because for those first 2 months that I was in school, I was so busy, everything was new, and the days were going by so fast, I didn't pay much attention to Jan. She wrote me a lot and would tell me sometimes how sad and lonely she was, and even that she thought I had forgotten about her and moved on. And I read her words but still didn't see it. I've always felt so horrible thinking that she died believing I didn't love her anymore. But my therapist said, "That just sounds like a typical 18 year old guy", and she pointed out that that's the normal dance of a relationship, especially between a couple of kids. In the normal course of things, hopefully we would have gotten it worked out – that is, I would have stopped being stupid – and it would have been a little speedbump. But because that's what I was left with, it always loomed large for me. So I've been able to see all of that with more perspective, and give myself a break. The regret is deep because it's been there a long time, but at least now I can remind myself that I don't deserve to torture myself with it. Besides, even if I did, I think I've paid that debt many times over by now.

I can't say I've worked through it all in the sense that I've come out the other side and the pain is gone. But I always try to learn something from it. And if feeling the pain means I also have Jan with me again in some way, it's a small price to pay.

Craig

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