Discover more from My Sweet Dumb Brain
A brief offering, in lieu of an essay.
It’s been four years since my husband’s death—the anniversary is this Thursday—and I’m finding myself a bit lost. In past years, I’ve spent this difficult date with a group of friends, usually gathering at Jamie’s favorite brewery to reminisce. Between the beers, hugs, and inevitable laughs, I always wind up feeling a lot better.
That’s not possible this time. Because of the pandemic, I can’t gather with the people or go to the places that have previously provided comfort.
And so I’m taking things especially slow this week, starting with today’s newsletter. Instead of the usual essay, I’m offering up three short things to read.
In a way, taking this shortcut feels like progress. In past years, I’d work extra hard to prove that I was fine—no, really!—when I may not have been. I’d organize the memorial gathering, put extra effort into an essay, meet all of my work deadlines, add on some extra work for good measure, and exhaust myself in the process.
This time, I’m giving myself a break. I’m making space to grieve and honor Jamie on my own terms.
The transformation of grief
I read Kerry Egan’s On Living last year after receiving a copy from a newsletter reader. Egan is a hospice chaplain, someone tasked with providing spiritual comfort to people in their final days, and her writing is tremendously poignant.
While reading the book, I bookmarked several passages. This one in particular stuck with me:
When the story never changes—when someone tells the same story the same way, over and over, I get nervous as a chaplain. When my questions elicit no new answers, when my prayer seems to bring no comfort, when there are never new connections with other things the speaker has seen or learned or thought or experienced, when the person does not even seem to know I’m there as he tells the story again and again, the same way each and every time—that means the story is stuck, and the suffering is immobile. It means that there is no meaning to the loss. And if that loss is the story that defines your life, it can mean there is no meaning to life.
It might seem strange to think that grief has a life, but it does. It develops and grows, like an organism. Sometimes it undergoes a quick and startling metamorphosis. Empty sadness can turn into burning rage overnight. Stoic denial can crumble into hyperventilation in a moment. Sometimes grief changes slowly, almost imperceptibly, and one can see the changes only looking back twenty years, thirty years.
But one always hopes that it changes. When grief develops and grows, the suffering at the heart of it changes, too. It becomes less acute, less raw and fiery. I’m not sure it diminishes, but it somehow becomes diffused across the memories that surround the loss at the heart of it. It seems less concentrated, and therefore more bearable.
Speaking of grief-related reads, I put together a list of my favorites on Bookshop.org. Something I get asked fairly often is how people can support grieving friends. Sending a book from this list could be a start.
Friday’s subscriber-only issue included some big news.
Last November, just three weeks after giving birth, I was hospitalized for postpartum psychosis. I spent three days in the psychiatric ward, in a room with a tiny window, a bed, and a plastic chair. That’s it—no phone, no television, no clock, no visitors, nothing to write with. I had to ask for permission to shower and stand in line to make calls home. I don’t know what it’s like to be in jail, but it feels like I got a taste.
The entire experience, needless to say, was pretty traumatic. I’m still processing everything—and just getting comfortable talking about what I went through—but I promise to write more in time.
And, hey, maybe this is a reminder to become a paying subscriber?
‘Our hearts keep growing in beauty and pain’
Last week, I asked readers how their lives had changed over the past four years. As it turns out, that was a difficult question to answer. But I did get a couple of very thoughtful responses. After I’d already written Friday’s post, I heard from Susy, who shared this beautiful recollection of what she’s experienced:
In November 2016, around the time that Trump was elected president, we knew something was wrong. My partner Jake had been having trouble writing. We thought he had carpal tunnel syndrome, but it just kept getting worse. Then in November he fell off a chair. The symptoms and signs were adding up to something neurological. I lived in terror. In December, we visited his family in San Francisco for the holidays. He hadn't told them much about our fears. When he tripped over a rug in the kitchen his sister said, "Geez, walk much, Jake?!" and I felt so alone in my pain and fear. I met a friend for coffee and just sobbed saying something was wrong, we needed to stay in San Francisco and camp out outside the best neurologists’ offices until they could see us. Instead we boarded a plane back to Texas and left on time.
In January 2017, as Trump was inaugurated, our world fell apart. Jake was diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease). I choked back tears asking if this was terminal, and the doctor said, "Yes, he has 2 to 25 years. You need to see a specialist." We were then ushered out into the overwhelming world. I remember standing next to the car, looking at the trees blowing in the wind and beautiful sunlight dancing all around, and thinking, how can this be? That night I went out for pizza and beer with a girlfriend and thought I ought to enjoy the moments we had before our lives imploded.
Fast forward four years and Jake is still alive. We now have a two-year-old girl. The world keeps spinning and our hearts keep growing in beauty and pain.
Thanks to all of you for reading this newsletter. I’ll be taking this Friday off, and will return with a normal essay next Tuesday.
I hope you can give yourself a break when you need it, too. Susy’s right: The world will indeed keep spinning.
A sweet shoutout
Thank you, Alex, for this very sweet post:
Speaking of, Alex will be interviewing the wonderful Masuma Ahuja (another newsletter reader!) about her debut book, GIRLHOOD: Teens Around The World in Their Own Voices. The event (which is free and online!) will be held on February 16, and is hosted by the super charming Little Shop of Stories, located in Decatur, Georgia.
My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who misses the endless pun-offs, TV and movie recommendations, craft cocktails, and hearty laughs Jamie was so well known for. I love you forever, JHG. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
This newsletter contains Bookshop.org affiliate links.