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Choices and Cheeseburgers: How We Grieve My Husband's Suicide

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I had to make a lot of choices during the first year following my husband John’s suicide — choices I was ill-equipped to make considering the fact that in those early days, my shock-saturated brain kept making me leave the house with two completely different types of sandals on my feet. Decisions such as, sell the house or keep it? Roll John’s retirement fund into my Roth IRA or cash it out to pay off his debt? And the routine middle-of-the-night panic attack I affectionately named the, “How will I afford medical insurance?” freak-out.

Because life had the audacity to just keep going on, these vital financial decisions had to be pondered simultaneously with the truly significant questions in my new life like, should I stay in bed for the third day in a row or should I attempt to shower and pretend to be a human today? Should I chug the liter of Vodka that’s in my freezer or should I just put the vodka in an IV bag and let it drip into my veins until bed time? And most pressing of all, what do I do with my dead husband’s dirty underwear?

As the one-year anniversary of John’s death approached, I faced yet another decision. How do I commemorate such a thing? Do I commemorate such a thing? Do I take flowers to his grave? Would my all-consuming rage even allow me to put flowers on his grave, or would I succumb to my hatred and light the cemetery on fire instead? Should I make some sort of baked good? How many carbohydrates would be in said baked good? Should I post a sappy poem on Facebook? What will the kids want to do on this day?

As the weeks drew near I felt an increasing sense of anxiety. Utopian photos and stories about John had already begun surfacing on social media, and everyone would be expecting to see something similar from me. Only I had nothing like that to share. The man all these people were memorializing was not the man I had come to know during our 10-year relationship. He was so much more complex than the rose-colored photos of him smiling in front of his race car. I guess no one looked past his smile.

Maybe I should fake it and spend the day in a black veil on his grave after posting pictures of our wedding day to my Facebook wall. Being disingenuous would surely make everyone else feel comfortable.

Thankfully though, in the last year I’d developed the ability to stop caring about the comfort levels of others in reference to my grieving process. The only thoughts and opinions I cared about were those of my 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. So I decided I would do whatever they wanted to do on the anniversary of their father’s death. I would be gentle and sensitive to whatever they decided would ease their suffering on this day. If they wanted me in a black veil I would drape myself in miles of black tulle. If they wanted to lay flowers on his grave I would buy them 10,000 roses. If they wanted to run a way and hide, I would take them to Jupiter.

Turns out, they wanted cheeseburgers.

Yes, cheeseburgers. It was that simple. When presenting them with the traditional options of a gravesite visit to lay roses or a balloon release on the beach, they were both quiet for several seconds before my son asked if we could eat cheeseburgers that day instead, since the other options sounded “boring.”

My daughter took some convincing, although not much since she loves cheeseburgers almost as much as I love anything drenched in cream cheese frosting. Her main concern was this: cheeseburgers made her happy. Was it OK to be happy on such a day? I eventually convinced her (and myself), that yes it was. Feeling however you wanted to feel on whichever day of the year you feel it was always OK.

On the morning of the anniversary, I was surprised to find that I felt nothing. Not like the numb-I’m-so-depressed-I-can’t-even-taste-ice-cream nothingness I’d become accustomed to — no, this was not a nothingness per se; it was a normal-ness. I took the kids to school, ran errands, and made lunch.

In the afternoon I checked my social media to find exactly what I had expected: photos and stories of a man everyone felt they knew. People still expressing shock over the way he had died and countless, sappy, overused poems with floral arrangements and beach sunsets in the background. Poems with rhyming words. Poems that made the general population feel comfortable with the way in which they were expressing their grief.

I am not the general population. As a matter of fact, since John’s death, I had done nothing the general population had approved of. I drank, I online dated, and I documented every bit of it on social media.

I became enraged the more I scrolled. How dare they? I thought. How dare they bombard my eyes with pictures of him smiling when he hadn’t smiled at me in three years! He was not a happy person!

At least he wasn’t to me anymore.

He had become disconnected and unpredictable. He didn’t sleep or eat well. He lived in the garage filled with dust and grease from the dozens of car projects he had started but never finished. He lived in the garage with other women. He lived in the garage with the survival gear he’d accumulated when he had become convinced the end of the world was eminent. Where were the stories and pictures of that?

They were inside of me and the kids — the only ones who had seen fully this side of him, the side of him I chose to leave six weeks before he took his life. The sides people were sharing on social media felt fake. They showed the masks he’d put on to convince people he was healthy, and these people did think he was healthy.

My rage subsided at this realization because these people were grieving a healthy version of John — a version I was slowly forced to grieve over the years as I watched him change. I remember this pain. My rage quickly turned to empathy, and my empathy turned into an understanding of why these people had to grieve in this way; remembering him fondly felt natural to them, like cheeseburgers seemed natural to my children. How could I judge these people for grieving in such a way when part of me still feared being judged by them for eating cheeseburgers?

What if no one judged another for how they chose to grieve? What kind of world would that be?

That evening, when we all reached the milkshake course of our meal at Ruby’s Diner, the mood had gone from normal to downright happy. Silly, even. The three of us were laughing about the chocolate dripping form my son’s chin and the noise my daughter’s thigh made each time she peeled it from the pleather cushion of our booth.

Not once did we speak of John. Not intentionally, he just simply never came up. I never asked myself, “What was I doing a year ago right now?” I was too busy enjoying the presence of my children and the elation of freeing myself from my low-carb lifestyle for the day. The mood-boosting ability of complex carbohydrates cannot be overstated.

So many other times in the past 365 days had been devoted to the act of mourning. And it is, like love, an action. Random Wednesdays when the smell of a stranger’s Swisher Sweet cigars sent me into crying convulsions, John’s birthday when we reminisced about how much he loved German chocolate cake, Fourth of July when we each pointed out which firework we think Daddy would’ve liked best, Saturday at 3 a.m. when my nightmares were so vivid they induced an asthma attack.

Yes, so many days and weeks and moments in that first year had been devoted to thoughts and actions about him — missing him, crying for him, regretting not having done enough for him, celebrating him. But on that day, one year after he took his life we chose to celebrate us — our resilience, our mutual love of greasy cheeseburgers, our ability to still laugh about the arbitrary things that make up life like milkshakes on chins and thighs on pleather.

We had made it through the first year intact, and we will make it through so many more. Together. Inseparable. Adhered to one another through our tragedy and triumph like cheese adheres to meat patties.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo by annamoskvina

Originally published: April 19, 2017
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