Name: Francesca S.*
Tell me about the person who died:
James was my husband, my soul mate and the bravest man I ever met. I loved everything about him: his laugh, his hands, his intelligence, his irreverence, his sense of adventure, his hunger for life. He was big and bold and the most fun I have ever had. He was the best and scariest rollercoaster, the best song, the deepest belly laugh. He made me feel I was capable of anything, that I was finally fully alive. We accomplished more in our years together than I can fully comprehend. He was ready for anything, loved by all, and had dealt with more physical pain and illness than anyone I know. Every day was a triumph and a struggle. Born with hemophilia, he was given tainted blood and co-infected with HIV and HepC. He died suddenly of a heart attack one hot summer night in 2008, not long after we married and a few months short of his 40th birthday. I will never be the same.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why
James was smell to me, deep spicy smell. He was a smoker, a secret one, always trying to quit and keep it from his family. He smoked on the back deck and in his car, so whenever he was about to see his family, he would stop in a random parking lot, spray the car and then himself with Febreeze, and then douse himself in Armani cologne. He had a bottle in his car, one in mine, one in his bathroom and others littered through the house. Everything he owned smelled of it, and his iPod and his watch still give off the scent. The bottle was important too, big and black and bold with a gold top with just a little bling, like James. I cannot think of him without the smell of it permeating my memories and I cannot smell it without thinking of him, closing my eyes and breathing deeply.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
It has always been a completely embodied experience. I hurt all over, my skin peeled off my limbs, I could not eat, and I soiled my pants in the emergency room when they told me he was dead. The experience was sleeping in his t-shirts and putting his huge ring on a necklace around my neck. It was falling to the floor and sobbing uncontrollably everywhere and anywhere. It was quiet at times and full of resolve. It was remembering that he wanted me to go on, and it was confusion and hurt. It was the roof leaking and the ceilings coming down in the months after. It was the dog I adopted and who was the only living thing I could be with after he died. It was wanting to die a lot of the time and then wanting to live for him–at exactly the same time. It was deep anger and no memory, nausea and panic.
The panic started slowly at first and then grew into full blown panic attacks that lasted for five years and still visit me to this day. That became not wanting to be in groups or with people who didn’t know him, not being able to work much but being able to teach. It was also very spiritual. In the year or so after he died, the tv and the lights on the bookshelf he had installed would turn on by themselves, and he appeared to me once, not fully, but I saw his outline standing in the dining room with light behind him. I knew it was him, and my dog, who was standing on the sofa and barking her head off, knew it was him too. He also woke me up one night, shaking the whole bed to get my attention. So I visited a medium. She allowed me to “talk” to him, and he told me how much he liked the orchid I put by his side of the bed and wanted to know why I had changed the duvet cover he had made. He said he was sorry for scaring the dog.
A year and a half after he died, another medium led me to information that sent me into a tailspin and deep mental and emotional distress. I went quite mad. But it was the only thing that set me free from him, let some light in for another relationship to happen. And happen it did. I married again, to a happy, strong, loyal and protective man with a knack for the truth. But my grief makes me hyper vigilant, and I worry still that it will all end again.
My grief for James remains embodied. I still smell him from time to time, I feel him (though less), and I talk to him. The grief is quieter, like someone tired after sobbing too much. I could not be more grateful that he chose me, so I take what he taught me: how to laugh, how to live big. I do it as best I can.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape you've been passing through, what would it look like and feel like?
It was a jungle at first. Hot, humid, wet, murky, dark. I hate humidity now as he died on a hot night and my body starts to tense up the minute it gets hot in the summer. Then it was very, very cold, with many mountains that I could not go around; I had to go over, alone, with my pup. I would take rests and then keep climbing, and sometimes think of going to sleep in the snow. I was so tired. I could not get warm. I wanted to just stay in bed, but I had to go out again and climb. I actually got over the mountains, and now it’s gentle hills. Some bad weather from time to time, but mostly gentle hills, open skies, and sun. Just like James would like it.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
The panic. I knew I would be sad, and I knew I would be mad, but I was unprepared for the terror that gripped me. I felt as if I was going to die every day from a heart attack. I felt my family were all in danger too. I worry over my second husband too much, and I still have deep panic at the slightest physical symptom–because I should have been more vigilant about James, because I should have prevented it.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
Some people were incredible. My parents, my brother who came for the weekend to help with all the stuff, my old friend who came to stay with her new baby, my former PhD supervisor who had lost her husband. A group of widows I met. A neighbour. The friends who kept sending food. The people who have lost their ‘most important person’ understood. James’ friends were incredible. They made me go to yoga and the movies.
But there were many who had no idea what to do or pretended it didn’t happen or said ridiculous, minimizing, dismissive things. I had no tolerance for bullshit. I lost people. I think I was blamed for his death. But people go mad after death. I see that now. I see my own role in the cycle too.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
One person who loved James deeply has not celebrated Christmas since he died. There have been major illnesses in his family since, and more death. The pain seems unrelenting there. His friends get together to talk about him and grieve him and laugh and I love them for it. There is also a social media space dedicated to him.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
They were very similar. I let them seep into each other. It was part of the healing to allow the tide to come and go out when it needed to. I think this freaked people out. I didn’t care. I got very bold with my grief. I mourned big.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
James was Greek Orthodox and I really appreciated it. Not at the funeral, which I did not understand. But the traditions of marking particular days were all very important to me. They allowed the grief to have space and time. At the third-year mark his Dad told me I could love again now. That I was ready. I felt it. I also loved the sitting stone we made for him that says ‘He taught us how to live’. I sit on it and talk to him. The sun always comes out.
How did your loss and your grief change you?
Everything changed. I feel people’s grief now. I respect it. I research grief. I write about it. I respect mediums. I respect grief rituals. I have patience for grief. I have patience for anger. I have patience for panic. I feel like I have been chosen to help people free themselves of grief limits or ways in which they are not allowed to grieve.
*Name has been changed.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I then photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. I’m looking for many more submissions and for a range of experiences, so please share widely! Learn more about the project and submit your story. - Mindy Stricke