Grief is very specific – so personally and tragically specific. I cannot and will not ever speculate or pretend to know how a grieving mother must feel, because to mourn the loss of a child is incomprehensible to me. The death of a sibling, as I’ve witnessed through the loss of Bruce’s brother, is excruciatingly painful. I’ve not lost a parent, and while it seems the natural progression of life, it still brings heartbreaking sorrow. The grief, I can only imagine, is overwhelming every day.
What I can speak to is the sadness and emotional “bottoming out” that comes with the loss of a husband – father of your children, but more importantly the death of a father through your children’s eyes. The scope of pain is broad. I hurt for me, but I agonize over their sorrow. Whether his loss came in a split second or over months of sickness, the journey is harrowing. The commonality of how we cope as wife, mother and child is similar and how we endure each morning is the common thread connecting us, bonding us and keeping us moving forward.
Although this journey is mine, it belongs to Maré and Charli. Some days I forget they’re feeling the loss of their Dad more than I can imagine. I miss him so differently than they do. I miss him as a husband, friend and partner, but they miss their father. His love was unconditional and he was our backbone. Bruce had a neutralizing effect on our family dynamic, when we soared to outrageous outbursts, he brought us back to reality. When we felt defeated, he’d remind us that the world is full of good things and good people. He shared an energy and connection with the girls that I can’t rival. I tell myself and share with the girls words that are meant to be gentle support combined with a, “pull yourself up by your boot straps” mixture of guidance and survival, but I know Bruce would have done it more gracefully and positively than I can muster on most days; but he knew we could do it, he knew we’d cling to each other and keep our family together, so that’s what we do, every day.
How we’re moving through our grief is a process. The girls are 12 and 16. Old enough, by many standards, to understand and comprehend the death of their father but there are still so many layers of healing to be done. I often forget that they were shielded from the day to day doctor’s visits and hours of sitting by Bruce’s hospital bed. I need to remind myself that we purposefully protected them from those distressing, miserable days so they would remember Bruce as the strong, smart, confident man he was. They don’t have to be bogged down in the memories of sickness, but rather, can move forward missing their Dad with their memories of health, strength and a light hardheartedness that Bruce brought to every situation. They can remember all the afternoons we spent motoring around the bay on Jean, as a family – Bruce refusing to take us back to the dock. Or all the Sunday night dinners he insisted we have together. The girls laugh at how he’d rise to make his special sauce at 7am, front door wide open standing in his boxer shorts and the Rolling Stones blasting from the stereo. We’re not sure what was in his special sauce, but we’re convinced it included every single leftover from the past week.
Through our process of coping and grieving, I can say that what matters most is living, loving and connecting with one another and our memories of Bruce. He was an intelligent, humorous man that kept us laughing most of the time. We are slowly allowing ourselves to laugh a little and remember the funny things he’d say and comical things he’d do. During the first few months after he died, I’d try and remember where we were a year ago or measure the progress and prognosis we were facing down. I’ve allowed myself to slowly let go, of uselessly revisiting the past that I cannot change. I am learning to quiet my mind when it wants to race back through the past year to a doctor’s appointment, test or procedure. Instead, I think of all the times Bruce told us he loved us and he loved his life.
I’m slowly, very slowly, starting to clean out the garage, the house will be next, but it may be a very long time before the three of us can tackle the emotional aspect of that gigantic feat. Again, it's a process and we get to decide how swiftly that process moves. I can’t part with much. The thought of taking his clothes to Goodwill and seeing his jacket on a homeless man in O.B. makes my stomach hurt. The alternative is to create a space, a holding area, in the corner of the garage – either that, or drive it to a Goodwill in Arizona.
The girls start a new school year this week. Charli will enter 7th grade. She is as tall as his sister and less than an inch from my height. Having been blessed with Bruce’s humor, brains and creativity, she remembers the fine details of her Dad’s personality. His funny and odd way of doing things and how he loved a good movie and most definitely cried at the end of a romantic comedy.
Mare will be a junior in high school. A varsity volleyball player, focused on a year of academics. SAT, ACT, and college tours are on the lineup for this fall and winter. She has Bruce’s hard working, “stick-with-it-until-you-get-it” trait and inherited his logical, linear way of thinking. Like her Dad, she has a mind for physics, how, and why things work.
I forget to tell the girls how proud I am of them. I am so breathtakingly astonished at their resilience. I often remind myself it has nothing to do with me. I want to guide, protect, and determine how life unfolds for them, but what I say or do as a mother depends less on my words and more on how I lift and listen and love them. It is their unique capability to cope that will carry them through this stage in life. At such a young age, they’ve accomplished a lifetime of growth and their potential is limitless. Bruce never doubted that they were going to be amazing people. He had a way of making them feel like they could conquer the world. When I take my evening walk with the dogs I try and tap into the beautiful slice of Bruce’s character that was genuinely kind and forgiving. It’s not that it doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m so focused on surviving that I often forget – they’re focused on living.
There is an edge to their survivor-ship that I hope softens with time. I have it too. Maybe it’s the anger stage but we're sort of apprehensive and often uneasy. It’s not unusual for us to sit in the car after we’ve arrived at our destination and listen to music, talk or cry. Again, the process is all about giving into timing, there aren't specific rules that determine when and where we'll be sad and happy. When we talk about Bruce to one another we feel comfortable and at peace but when we hear ourselves saying his name to others it feels awkward and uncomfortable. Knowing this is all part of the process helps, but it’s a process.
We had a glorious time with friends as we joined and spread Bruce’s ashes in Nantucket. We laughed together and we definitely shared some tears, but most significantly, Bruce’s friends from the island pulled us together as one big family. It’s almost as if Bruce sent us a personal message forbidding any sadness. A day that started with rain gave way to a mist and the sun peering out behind the clouds for the few minutes we said farewell. My fondest memory of the day is watching everyone play wiffle ball on a wet lawn, knowing Bruce would have loved every moment.
The island is magical and I understand Bruce's request that his final rest be the place of his youth. You'd imagine that we would have had long conversations about where and how it should be done, but we didn't. Our conversations were brief but intentional. The island and waters of Nantucket and the waters of San Diego. Helping me fulfill his island request, Bruce’s dear friends ferried us to the water where Bruce first learned to sail, this is where he could be found on any given day during the summers of his youth. Not too far off shore, it was in that protected cove that we sent Bruce into the waves; the water welcomed him home and I believe he is a wind shift closer to peace.