Surviving the First Year

Tomorrow, June 25th, it will have been one year since Karsten died.

I’ve gained a vast amount of insight about life in the last year. I learned that the initial year after you lose someone is sometimes called “the year of firsts,” because every experience, no matter how mundane, becomes significant when it’s the first time you’re doing it without your loved one.

Karsten and me, December 2005

Karsten and me, December 2005, photo credit Joe Hendricks

I learned that there are a lot of aspects to what it means to pick up and carry on after someone you love dies. There are the practical matters, the earthly things. None of these is simple to deal with, although some are more complicated than others. After I got over the initial resistance to sorting through Karsten’s clothes and shoes, it was relatively easy very early on to give away or box most of them up, yet despite several attempts, I have yet to make much of a dent in going through his collected treasures, art supplies, reference works, and the plastic filing tubs with folders stuffed with concept sketches in his art studio.

There are the issues of time and habit and what we used to do together, and what he used to do for me and for us. He used to carry things for me as a matter of routine, always saying “beautiful hands shouldn’t have to lift heavy things.” I remembered with sadness his saying that as I carried grocery bags up the front stairs by myself the first few times, but after a few months, that chore had already become commonplace.

Some things are mundane but important, like various kinds of household maintenance, for which I’ve had to find substitute arrangements, like hiring a lawn service, or for which I’ve had to learn new skills, like clearing a blocked drain. Some things are routine and important, so I’ve had to develop new habits and modify my schedule around feeding the cats and cleaning the litterboxes. Some less mundane things I’ve learned to do without, like taking evening walks around the neighborhood. I tried to do those alone for a while, but it just didn’t feel right without him.

And then there’s the issue of companionship, of romance, of love. It may sound surprising, but I dipped my toe back into the dating pool less than two months after Karsten died. I’m a quick study, both intellectually and emotionally; I’d already done a lot of the work of grieving and processing my new reality by then, and I felt like I needed to laugh and find some joy. People so often tell such horror stories about dating; I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was incredibly lucky to have a series of mostly charming experiences over the next several months with a cast of enjoyable characters. I sought out people with funny stories to tell, and I heard enough tales to fill a few books. (And yes, I kept notes.) Those months of dating helped me feel stronger, more discerning, and more sure of my own identity, independent of the me that had been dissolved and conjoined into happy couplehood for the past fifteen years, the me that suddenly felt shockingly naked and incomplete when the other half of that couple was unexpectedly gone.

All of which meant that after those first few months of dating, I was feeling steady on my feet when the real thing began to happen organically — a work-related photo shoot unexpectedly yielded a dinner date and then turned into a magical evening at an impersonator party and then into spending lots of time together and then into spending as little time apart as possible — and by then I was sure enough of myself to let it grow at its own pace and into its own thing without concern for whether I was ready.

You don’t always know when you learn something how and when it’s going to be useful to you. One of the most valuable pieces of wisdom I’ve ever gotten came from my friend Lee years ago, quoting Neil Gaiman, who said “the difference between comedy and tragedy is where you stop telling the story.” It’s made this past year so much easier. Life goes on; you live, you learn; for every bad, there is good; seek the whole truth. Be grateful, be grateful, be grateful.

I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned in this year, in no particular order:

  • As someone who values self-sufficiency and not being a burden on others, when situations force you to lean on friends, it can be a pretty jarring experience. But without the ability to accept help, you don’t know true humility. And without knowing how to ask for help, you don’t know the intimacy of trusting your friends. They’re both skills worth learning and experiences worth having.
  • No one knows what to say, and what some people think is appropriate can be upsetting at best, and devastating at worst. But empathy for the fact that people are doing the best they know to do, along with patience and grace, can smooth over a lot of awkwardness.
  • My grief is not the only grief. Some people grieve by being angry. Some grieve by telling all their funniest stories. I have seen a wide range of reactions, and none is right or wrong. I feel for everyone who lost Karsten, and I recognize that I am their closest link to him. The way his and our friends interacted with me was often more of a reflection of their grief for him than their feelings about me.
  • When the unthinkable happens, your horizon shatters and everything in your worldview becomes fractured. It can be impossible to handle day-to-day activities with appropriate perspective. But recovery is a long process of reassembling the fragments. There’s a balance to strike between challenging yourself to go back to work, be social, and move forward, and allowing yourself the safety of escape and avoidance to recover and heal in private or with very close friends.
  • And here’s an extra hint about that: the right balance changes all the time. There’s no substitute for listening to your instinct. If you feel like you might need to skip a social event, then you just might need to skip that social event. But if you cut yourself too much slack and don’t risk a few awkward meetings, you make no progress.
  • As is true in evolutionary biology, to survive catastrophic change, you must adapt. But adapting and surviving describes a merely functional level of existence; there is an opportunity to thrive, but it means seeing the remainder of your life as an undiscovered country, a place full of wonder and unknown experiences. You have to embrace the opportunity your new reality grants you. And you must reinvent yourself to match it.
  • I think the reason this is difficult is because of guilt. To thrive and enjoy life after someone we love dies at some level seems to imply that their loss meant nothing, or that adjusting to their absence was easy. But I think this has something to do with our social taboo about death. If we accept that death is a part of life, we can perhaps think of our lives as timelines that overlap each other but don’t start and end together. When one person’s timeline ends before ours does, we have the luxury of continuing to live and we are all but obligated to do so.

So here’s to marking the end of the “year of firsts.” Here’s to learning humility and accepting help from friends. Here’s to loving again. Here’s to surviving death. Here’s to life. Onward.

12 thoughts on “Surviving the First Year

  • Kate, I love how open you are to everything… and how well you take it all in and explain it to others like you did in this post. This was so wonderful to read.

  • Kate,

    Reading your year of firsts was like reading my very own with a slight twist. It’s been 3 1/2 yrs for me. Thank you for keeping the spirit of Karsten with you as you continue with more firsts. Yes, life goes on, the world keeps turning, and the list goes on. Yes, to love again is magical and proof that you and Karsten really had true love. Cheers to you, your life, your love and your positive outlook! Enjoy the ride…we never know when it will end.

    Hugs to you!

    M

  • Beautiful commentary, Kate. I lost my uncle when he was 54 years old. Completely unexpected…just driving down the road and had a stroke. No symptoms, no health problems, nothing. His wife (my aunt-in-law?) is now into her second year. She describes her journey similar to your journey. But at the end of the day, life continues and you can “get busy living or get busy dying.” She’s been dating someone for a year now and she’s much happier for it. I’ll be sure to share your perspective with her.

  • Beautifully stated as you always do Kate. I know we don’t know each other well and I did not know Karsten personally but I feel extremely familiar with everything you shared. I lost someone in 2008, it was sudden, unexpected and put me into a very quiet introspective place for some time. I experienced each of the things in similar ways as you stated above with the exception of dating. Not sure why but I am still struggling with that part but I have become very happy with where I am. My catastrophic event caused a lot of change as well, the person I have become is much better than who I was before, primarily because I have learned to be much more grateful for everything in my life….and that includes people like you. Beautiful words from a beautiful soul, thank you for sharing.

  • Thanks for feeling out loud, Kate. I believe that [to the extent that we are still alive] the best is yet to come. But the only way I can support that is to look at others whose losses preceded ours. My friend married a woman whose first husband ran off with another woman – without that open hand, he’d still be holding his other hand. My parents lost a baby at birth – that open crib was mine through adoption. My mom passed in 2004 – my dad’s dating a woman…

    And maybe it’s like you expressed – be grateful 3X! Your reflections remind me to make sure my daily routine includes splashes of life…to do pushups, use the stairs, hope, be grateful, do something scary, help someone, encourage someone, learn something new.

    Sorry if this seems trite, I hope it isn’t, but today is your first day of seconds. As a child, did you ever say no to seconds of your favorite meal/dessert?!

    Blessings from a raving fan!

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