Clare Saumell VanderWeele

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The Day Death Ripped My World Apart

There’s something deeply human about imagining worst case scenarios. We like to think we know how we’d react to hearing horrifying news. From Hollywood to the Hallmark Channel, we see movies of people screaming, fainting, punching walls, or wailing.

But when three policemen knocked on my door on an October Friday morning and uttered the words that would ring in my ears for the rest of my life, I didn’t – couldn’t – say a word.

Words are not possible when you discover your lungs have morphed into cinder blocks; when the bitter truth ruptures your chest, searing through your abdomen and down to your toes.

I still have no clue how I didn’t drop my 18 month old son in my arms.

His father, my husband was dead.

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Telling the Story

I’ve written and replayed this story, the aftermath of that fatal car crash, so many times in my head, as if I’ll one day stumble upon meaning in the depth of this nightmare of losing Chris.

More than a year later, I write these words again because back in my darkest, most agonizing days, I found slivers of solace in reading and hearing stories of other lives touched by death. I can only hope sharing my own words here may help someone else.

The First Day

Those three policemen refused to leave until I called someone. I called my mum, choking out a plea to come over. Waiting for her to arrive, the cops made small talk with me about my son, his cold, my dog, our new house…

The way shock worms its way in after the initial blow is surreal. How could there have been small talk after that news? But there it was, masking the fact that I had to keep reminding myself how to breathe.

As family and friends showed up, I surrendered to the task of calling people to spread the news. Over and over I repeated the officer’s words verbatim, and even today I remember the exact reaction of everyone I called: echoing screams, silence, roadside prayers, and tears.

The First Week

Within days I caught my son’s cold, and while my house filled up with more family and friends, I drowned myself in antihistamines and cold medicine.

As those first days passed, my fridge overflowed and my house reeked of lilies. I shopped for a funeral dress, wrote an obituary, and watched my corner of the Internet fill up with condolences from friends and strangers. I was absolutely blown away by the staggering generosity that poured from these people as the news spread.

I was exhausted, crippled with shock, but sleep did not come; not that night and not for weeks.

Astonishingly, there was laughter woven into those early days. Close friends flipped through old photos, shared stories, and picked out a playlist of Chris’s favorite music for the visitation.

It was surreal. It was not my life.

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The following Friday, I was the first to walk into the visitation parlor. The shock stuck in my throat. There lay a body I had loved, hands that kept me safe, shoulders that held me up. The impossibility of it all left me numb. Someone who didn’t feel like me stood and smiled and hugged as more than 300 visitors filed through. There was the passing thought that Chris would have hated all of this: being the center of attention, being stared at, being cried over.

When we closed that pine casket, Nicholas sat on my hip, yelling, “bye bye, Daddy!” over and over, not understanding why Daddy didn’t answer. Heartbreak cannot begin to describe the feeling that tore through my soul on hearing that little voice utter those words.

The Line Between Normalcy & Insanity

The following week I considered it a success to have showered once. I was restless and lethargic simultaneously. My brain, in protest of reality, began seeing Chris everywhere. I binge watched TV. When the TV stopped, I couldn’t stop moving. To stop moving was to feel the pain.

At work I trudged along, tiptoeing the impossible line between normalcy and insanity, doing what was necessary to survive.

The brutality of that winter felt offensive; an affront from nature itself.

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Months piled up like old newspapers. There were moments of white hot rage and moments of pure, unadulterated sadness. There was a persistent, deep-seated ache for one more: One more talk, kiss, hug, look.

There were times when I strongly suspected I was clinically insane. Actually crazy. I imagined myself in a strait jacket as the anguish built up and poured over.

Seven months out, I was gripped by panic attacks and major anxiety; at times it took everything in me to convince myself I wasn’t dying.

I spiraled into some kind of existential crisis: On the outside I tried to remain composed, but on the inside, my brain and soul groped desperately and urgently for an answer to life. With every book, website, pastor, group leader, and therapist I encountered, I had my breath held, expecting to find the answer.

Today, the impossibility of it all still lingers. I think of Chris, and I cannot comprehend the meaning of “gone” and “forever.” I know, but cannot yet accept, that I will never find the answer I’m looking for. Not in this life anyway.

Just Do the Next Thing

Grief, to me, is an ice bath; shocking and excruciating, then numbing and isolating. When you emerge, you are shivering, vulnerable, and lost. The process of warming up is not linear; it comes and it goes and this is sometimes the worst part.

All the grief experts say, just keep doing the next thing. And so I have done. Because through all of it, there is still a pervasive, even offensive sense of normalcy. Because somehow life still goes on. Bills still have to be paid. Stop lights still have to be obeyed. People still talk about their boring weekends and annoying spouses and failed diets. My world was ripped apart, but somehow the world outside still chugs along.

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The truth is that you don’t “get over” something like this. All you can do is get through it, and the process of getting through it is as hard and as painful as the depth of your love for the person you have lost. For a long time, you live life on the outskirts of this massive abyss, an inescapable void. You live with the heavy despair that there will never be joy again.

This isn’t true, of course. There will be joy again. It’s a battle to believe in that, but it’s worth the fight. That’s what I believe.

claresig

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Cemetery photo courtesy of Great Beyond

Winter Day photo courtesy of Henri Kotka

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12 Comments

  1. Hi Clare–As an Augie alumn, I have come across your beautifully written blog post. Just wanted to drop a note to tell you that I am sending healing thoughts yours and Nicholas’ way.

  2. My husband died two months ago suddenly. We have been together since I we were 13 years old. We have two boys ages 5 and 6. I never would of thought at 33 I would be a widow. I dread waking up because I see him in my dreams. Thank you for your story. My best friend sent it to me right after I woke up. I need to hear that it gets easier. Our dog just died this weds I have pnemonia and I have to keep going on for my boys. It’s nice to know my feelings are normal because you feel like your going crazy. I feel like I’m starting a new chapter of my life without my husband. My biggest fear is my kids won’t remember what an AMAZING father they had. How do you handle that with your son?

    • Hi April, thank you so much for sharing your story with me. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through and for what you have lost. Having young children can be both challenging and miraculous in the face of grief – single parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I know it’s because of my son that I’ve kept pushing forward each and every day. He has so much joy; how could I not share in it, even in the darkest moments?

      As far as memories go, I would imagine that 5 and 6 years old would be just old enough to retain at least a few memories, and keeping lots of photos around, passing on some of their father’s possessions to them, and telling stories to remember together should help keep those memories alive.

      My son is so young, he won’t ever have memories, but that doesn’t stop him from talking about his daddy. I’m sure he’ll go through his own grief process as he grows, and that scares me, but no matter what happens, I’ll always make sure he knows who his father was.

      Keep pushing forward and take one day at a time. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at clare@claresaumell.com

  3. Hello Clare, My daughter sent this to me last week in an email. She is also an Augie alumni. I lost her father two and a half years ago and it totally ripped my heart out. There is no describing the thoughts and feelings you have. Unfortunately one has to experience the tragedy to fully comprehend. My kids are all older, so fortunately they have memories of their father. I don’t believe we ever find the answers we are looking for, but am confident that one day they will be revealed to us.Wishing you the best in your journeys through life.

    • Hi Loretta, I hope you’re right, that these answers will one day be revealed to us. I’m glad my words are being shared and read by those who, sadly, understand as well as by those who seek to understand what’s it’s like to experience such a tragedy. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment; I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through this heartbreaking grief, too. I wish you all the best 🙂

  4. Dear Clare…thank you for this gift you share… I still am not ready to talk about it, and I am glad that, Ready or not, you do. I need to hear what you say. So much love…

  5. Beautifully written so much so I was in tears. I will continue to pray for you and Nicholas. I know grief never goes away you just find ways to live with it. I am always here if you want to talk.

  6. It is a heartbreaking story, beautifully told. Thank you for your vulnerability and honesty. Sharing your grieving process will certainly assist others in theirs.

  7. Clare,

    I needed to read your words today. Thank you for helping me push onwards. Thank you for doing the next thing.

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