The holidays are difficult.
Grieving is difficult.
Trying to grieve during the holidays is not only challenging, but nearly unbearable.
Those around you expect you to “snap out of it” and feign a jovial mood.
Holidays are difficult for many people, and it has always been the case for me. There is the pressure of spending money I don’t have, and adhering to a schedule that is exhausting, especially for one suffering with Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.
And then there is the emotional side. I’ve always been an extremely empathetic and compassionate being, from the time I was born. I find it difficult to celebrate when I am aware of such unconscionable suffering going on everywhere in the world, even on the streets of my own city in America.
There are so many people who have little hope in life, every day is a struggle to survive, and finding the joy in such a situation is often not possible. There are people who are alone, who feel discarded and unloved, even unrecognized as a fellow human being when they have nothing, are living on the streets, and have to to beg to survive, a humiliating act which is often met with scorn and judgement rather than compassion and empathy.
There are children who are in unsafe and unstable situations, who lack that vital sense of safety and security, who may be struggling on so many levels. They are innocent beings who find themselves in these situations which are beyond their control.
There are people struggling with addiction, mental illness, unresolved demons from the past, and having to live with the results/consequences of their circumstances and choices.
It is difficult to see a way out of one’s despair or bad situation when one is mired in the muck. The future seems untenable, and so far away. The challenge is to survive from day to day, sometimes hour to hour, trying to identify problems and find solutions.
As one who struggled all of my life with suicidal ideation, but who ironically had this rather unconscious protective mechanism in me that made life-preserving decisions instead of reactive, destructive ones, I am sensitive to the suffering of others. I found that I needed to find hope in something, and to “try everything” to stay alive before making a decision that I could not take back.
It turned out that in my case I needed to find that one person who loved me when I couldn’t love myself, and who gave me the sense of safety that I had so urgently sought all of my life.
That person was David Ketroser. Though neither of us was interested in relationships – we were both still reeling from having each been abandoned by our former spouses when dealing with serious illness, the same progressive and degenerative disease of Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis – we both knew the moment we were innocently introduced that our hearts had found their rightful homes in one another.
It was an odd feeling. I had never been more sure of anything in my life. Our love progressed very quickly, and soon, with his love and the safety he provided me, I was finally able to do the last of my personal work, the deep trauma work that I couldn’t even access before I met him. I was finally free of my demons and able to embrace love, and life.
I loved him so very deeply that nothing else mattered. Yes, we both had this damn disease to deal with, and we needed at least one of us to not crash while the other was struggling. But it always worked out. I held him up and he did the same for me. There was never a hesitation or consideration of how difficult life could become as our diseases progressed. We were going to face life together. Joyfully. As a team.
I had always been a very independent woman, and yet suddenly I met this person for whom I would do anything and I morphed into him in a way. I had always had a career that was a top priority for me, it was my identity. Yet suddenly all I wanted to do was to enable him fulfill his amazing career. Our lives were focused on managing our diseases to ensure that he could accomplish his work. It took some getting used to, suddenly losing my professional identity. At the same time I felt a sense of contentment, I no longer felt the need to keep striving to be better at my profession. He expressed the same foreign feeling of being totally content with life. We made sure to keep our relationship harmonious at all times. No fighting or yelling. No being disrespectful. It wasn’t hard to do as we both adored one another, and had immense respect for one another.
We each put the other’s happiness first.
Here I am now, empowered by his love and my growth over the years, but feeling lost. He was my sole focus. Now I feel such a huge hole in my soul. Surprisingly to me, I am realizing that I am strong enough to live without him, though I never imagined that I would ever be apart from him. I am slowly finding the will to live, to honor his legacy and memory, and to try to carry on his work as best I can. But I am also starting to see new possibilities for my own legacy. I have a courage that I didn’t have before I met him, the courage to focus on some of my own dreams and professional aspirations, without the paralyzing fear of failure looming over me and stopping me from even trying.
I learned this fearlessness from David. He demonstrated it every day in everything he did. He had the luxury of a strong sense of self and a lack of self doubt. I am learning, practicing the art of believing in oneself.
Perception is an interesting thing. I have accomplished a lot in my life, yet never felt successful. I never felt I was good enough or worthy. David, on the other hand, had this innate sense self, unwavering and unafraid to pursue that which he wanted to do. Nothing stopped him, certainly not a body that was failing him, making daily life so difficult and exhausting. He never used his disease as an excuse, and he never thought that he could not do something. I so admired this confidence and strength of character that he possessed.
I now must find this in myself. Without his guidance and encouragement. Except that I do believe that he lives on in me and is influencing me. When I am feeling stuck or overwhelmed I ask myself, what would David say? What would David do? This doesn’t get any easier, this trying to live without him. In fact I still cannot totally grasp the fact that he is gone. I just refuse to believe it. I wasn’t ready. There was so much more that we wanted to do in life. I have to admit that I would have never been ready to say goodbye to him.
Sometimes at night, as we held each other and had our nightly “gratitude sessions,” where we thanked each other for the love and joy, the gift that we were to one another, I would start to cry quietly. He would ask me what was wrong and I would tell him that I just couldn’t imagine life without him, that he was my oxygen and I could not conceive of life without him, to which he would reply that he would never leave me alone. He would wait until I died before he would go. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that while I appreciated the thought and he had many talents, I was pretty sure that he wasn’t in charge of that department. And yet, I believed him. I couldn’t conceive of his dying…after all, he had beaten the odds so many times before.
It’s not the being alone part that bothers me, it’s the being without him, without his constant physical presence that I cannot imagine, and yet that is my reality now. The man I called my sweet cockroach (so named because he seemingly wouldn’t die and had always beaten the medical odds) actually died in my arms. Why couldn’t I keep him alive? Did I miss something, do something wrong?
Which brings this long “stream of consciousness that should really just be written in a private journal” post back to the theme of how to get through the holidays without the one person for whom I lived. Perhaps that is one of the lessons that I am learning: I need to be living for myself also. That’s not to say that I regret a moment of our life together and my decision to dedicate my life to helping him achieve his life’s work. And maybe this is will start to look more like an opportunity to explore my own aspirations, once the pain of losing him is more bearable. I certainly plan to tell his remarkable story.
As we go through this holiday season, we need to be mindful of the personal struggles of others. I am not just wallowing in my grief if I say that I don’t feel like being festive and merry, or even sociable. It is just that it is unnatural for me at this moment to laugh and celebrate when I am having a very different and difficult personal experience. I need time and space to grieve.
I also have the complicating factor of the empathy gene, and feeling rather guilty for indulging in my grief in this way, when so many others around the world, and I am thinking especially of my brothers and sisters in Syria and other conflict zones, face loss on a daily basis. They are not able to grieve, much less do so indulgently, as they are struggling for survival in a cruel and uncertain world.
This holiday season (and always) my thoughts are with all people who are facing struggles, be they personal issues, tragic loss, or oppression and violence. This world needs more love, compassion, empathy, and understanding. We all need to be the change we want to see.