When my kids were little I used to tell them life isn’t fair, but we try to be. Life isn’t fair or unfair – it just is. We’re the ones who decide what life is by the way we think about it. We’re all going to die. What’s unfair about that? I mean, what if no one died? On the simplest level, we wouldn’t fit on the planet. Everything goes in cycles, everything changes, all things end. It’s more helpful to observe the way life is than to decide how it should be. So many people have said to me that Philip shouldn’t have died. Really? How can anyone know that? What matters “should?” That he died is my sorrow, but I can’t see the bigger picture we’re all part of. I want him to come home, but “shoulds” are not for me. He has died and I have to live with it. It’s not fair or unfair.

As for good-bye – there are things that do not have “closure.” The very idea doesn’t make sense. If the definition of closure is to bring to an end, how can you possibly have “closure” when someone you love dies? I think the yearning for closure is wanting the pain to stop. But as long as you love, you’re vulnerable to pain. Closure and acceptance are different. Acceptance is when you stop fighting what’s so – that’s all. It doesn’t mean you’re happy about it. And “moving on.” What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve said a million times, you don’t move on, you live with. I will never “move on” from Philip’s death. I don’t live in wild, crazy grief any more, but I’ve a deep, abiding sorrow. It’s quiet, and it’s always there. But that’s the other side of my love for my son. I can’t get rid of one without the other.

Facing death is our biggest challenge, and we do everything we can to avoid it. I don’t think we even realize what we do – go to the gym, stay in shape, wear the right clothes…what is it all for? It’s to prolong life, thereby avoiding death. I get just as caught up in it as anyone. Death is terrifying because we don’t know what it is. When someone we love dies it affects us deeply and irrevocably. You change a little every time. Grief doesn’t go away any more than love goes away.

Death is the last and biggest change. All the changes we go through in life can help prepare us if we stop resisting them. Every time we release an emotion, release a fear, we’re getting ready for death.

What would life be without death? What would make us stop and think and try to make sense of life if there was no death? Death shows us what’s important, time makes us forget. I have forgotten. I am too much in the world these days, too much at the whim of what’s happening instead of letting it be. My new job is a challenge. And instead of remembering I’m competent, I’m riddled with anxiety. I forget to eat because that’s what I do when I’m anxious. And if I think of eating, my throat closes down.

Such old behavior. I can’t control the work that’s thrown at me, but I can control what I eat. Not eating feels powerful – a need that I’ve turned from. And by the end of my work day, when I know I should eat something before I go home, I’ll pick on my salad or eat slow spoonfuls of yogurt. My upsets always tie into food. For years I had bulimia. On and off, but when I was on, I went full blast. When Philip died, first I whittled my 5’4″ self down to 100 lbs. And when I could no longer stand the hunger, I started eating and throwing up. Punishing myself, because when something goes wrong, that’s what I do. I did it until the violence of what I was doing to my body started to scare me. I’d shove my finger down my parted throat and strain so hard my insides felt like they were coming out the other end. I had to rid myself of what felt wrong and dirty. Until my eyes were bloodshot and my head was throbbing . Until my body felt as empty as my life did.

In the years following Philip’s death I began to see what was important. I understood – no, I knew – that whatever it was, I could put space between me and it. Like if I took a new job, my real work was not Excel spreadsheets and vendor payments. It was the way I treated what I was doing. Every situation is an opportunity to make meaning, to learn how to love. And what are we here for if not to learn how to love? How, exactly, does Excel teach love? It doesn’t. It’s what I make of it. If I remember that what I’m doing matters to my boss, if I work to give him what he needs, if I do it with care and respect, that, right there, is love. Because love is not merely a feeling, it’s a state of being.

But I’ve been panicking a lot, feeling like what I do isn’t good enough, waiting to be exposed. Drama, drama, drama. I can’t seem to get myself out of it. Then I go home and hibernate. I don’t know how to make a life I could enjoy. I would say the biggest reason is the nasty, nattering voice in my head that I goddamn can’t stop listening to.

The anxiety I feel at work turns into helplessness when I go home. I want to move but the thought overwhelms me. I want to be inside but I think I should be out. Sometimes it’s like I’m just waiting to die because what’s it for, anyway. I have forgotten. When Philip died I was plunged into a life I couldn’t scramble out of. Eventually I began to work with the void and understood why it’s called “fertile.” But my heart’s closed along the way. Along with that writing’s been tough. I can’t write when I’m shut down.

More on that later…

© 2017 Denise Smyth


13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Pedro
    Mar 18, 2017 @ 22:37:07

    Hi D,
    Glad you posted, it ties in with our conversation we had several weeks back as you said it would. I told you earlier that having you as my friend gives me great comfort. I want you to know that I mean it! Thank you.


  2. tersiaburger
    Mar 19, 2017 @ 06:27:31

    Denise, I don’t have words for you… I am on a mild anti-depressant and it helps. It takes the edge off everything. Have you considered going onto an anti-depressant? Much love my friend – Namaste


    • Denise
      Mar 19, 2017 @ 22:05:01

      I do take an anti-depressant…it helps, for sure. It is SO good to hear from you, Tersia. I hope you’re doing as well as you can, and your grandkids, too. Sending much love right back. Thank you for being there.


  3. jmgoyder
    Mar 19, 2017 @ 07:51:05

    Hi Denise – you are so bloody amazing. I have two friends dying of cancer atm and don’t know what to say to them. I love the way you speak OUT about ordinarily taboo topics. Philip continues to be an inspiration via you! Much love xxx


    • Denise
      Mar 19, 2017 @ 22:08:23

      What can you say to them?? Being there, listening, caring – they will get much comfort from you. And I know this because that’s how I feel, knowing you’re out there.


  4. Lucia Maya
    Mar 19, 2017 @ 15:36:37

    Dear Denise,
    you have amazing wisdom and clarity, whether you’re shut down or not. I’m grateful, always, for your writing and being willing to share your experience. And I’m sorry you’re struggling at times…
    grateful to be on this path together.
    Love, Lucia


    • Denise
      Mar 19, 2017 @ 22:17:13

      Hello, my friend – how are you? I think of you and Elizabeth often. I don’t know whether it helps or not to say this, but when I think of her my heart hurts. Even now I’m crying. This is not a “bad thing.” I’d rather feel deeply, whatever it is, than be shut down. Maybe I should think of you two more often. I don’t know what it is, Lucia, and I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but something about your daughter just breaks my heart. She is such a strong spirit – I might be crying, but she isn’t. I feel like she’s watching me, calm and sure. And that is comfort.

      I love you both.


      • Lucia Maya
        May 01, 2017 @ 14:40:08

        I missed this somehow…and I’ve missed you too. I love knowing that you think of Elizabeth often. And even that she makes you cry, though I’m really happy that she watches you, calm and sure and that find comfort in that.

        I agree about preferring to feel sad than feel nothing. I’m feeling sad quite a bit these last few days, just missing her, even missing my memories of her, feeling that she’s slipping further out of reach… do you find that too?

        Grateful to connect with you. I love you and Philip too.

    • Denise
      May 01, 2017 @ 15:56:27

      Yes, I feel that way, too. Five years. He’s not coming home. I have never been more lonely.


  5. candidkay
    Mar 23, 2017 @ 11:19:55

    The realization you had about the Excel spreadsheets, etc. not being your real work–bravo! I had a similar revelation during a tough time–that in order to move through the tough bits, I had to focus on the experience/life lessons/my own reactions rather than what was actually going on. I get it. Enlightenment comes at a cost, but at least you are heading to it–I feel badly for the ones who pay the price but don’t claim their enlightenment from it.


    • Denise
      May 01, 2017 @ 15:54:50

      First off, I don’t know how I missed this comment – know that you’re much appreciated. Yes, enlightenment comes at a cost; but what do we have without it? When I was in my 20s, I met someone who told me my life would be a spiritual one. I imagined that meant I’d be walking a lovely path with a halo over my head. I didn’t understand the darkness that was involved. I want Philip to come home, but I also know his death wasn’t something “done” to me. I know his death can show me the way to light…but it’s been so hard lately. I just miss him.

      Thank you for caring.


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