I’m not someone who generally hides my feelings; I wear my emotions on my sleeves. Since Kirsten died, especially, I’ve sobbed on the couch at my favorite coffee shop, broken down standing in the aisle of the grocery store, and curled into a puddle of my own tears sitting on the couch in my loft as my girls dutifully completed their homework at the dining room table. At more difficult times, these might all have occurred on the same day. People know I’m grieving. My friends, and nearby strangers, know that I’m broken and bereaved. I live my life authentically. We only have one shot, so why not be true and real and raw? I do try to keep it together for my employer. They are paying me a salary, of course, and expect me to be functioning. I also don’t want my three teenage daughters to worry about losing their remaining parent, so the emotional expressions of my grief are, around them, sometimes mitigated. That confession would likely surprise them.
What most people don’t know is that I’m more broken that even I seem. There are two primary reasons for my anguish, I think. The first is that Kirsten was my life partner, but more she was the biggest and best part of ME. Who am I now without her? How will I be THAT kind of happy again without her? Will life have meaning again? I didn’t as much lose a friend as I’ve lost myself. Kirsten was my life, for most of my life.
Kirsten and I met at Ricks College in 1991. I was barely 18. She was so cute and fun. We fell in love quickly and were rarely apart. Our grades plummeted, but we didn’t care. We were in love. She waited for me the two years I served as a Mormon missionary, then I joined the Air Force and we got married. We bought a house. She got pregnant. After Skye followed Jenna, then Hayley. Kirsten, and our little family of girls, were my life. She celebrated my every win and comforted me in every loss. She sent me perfume-scented letters during my mission and woke up in the middle of the night to take my phone calls from Saudi Arabia. She put googly-eyes on the hard-cooked eggs in the refrigerator and threw me a party when I earned my pilot’s license. I adored her sweet and playful personality, sense of humor, and seemingly tireless devotion to meeting every need and exceeding our every expectation and desire. I grew with her and she grew with me.
We are inseperable, even in death. The paradox, it seems, is that while she is in my every thought she is simultaneously very much not here, leaving in death a massive, gaping hole in my soul. That void will never be filled. Not by another woman and not by any hobby or pursuit. The hole from which I seem to be constantly hemorraging my very essence is Kirsten-shaped.
The second reason I am distraught is because I haven’t had the opportunity to release the pressure valve that’s capped years of accumulated stress. I watched Kirsten die for years, and in the decline our relationship was tested, the girls lost their ways, and I withdrew from a life that kept me engaged, passionate, and fulfilled. Most assume my grief story started at Kirsten’s death. What they don’t realize is that this has been my life for years.
On my last day of work at Outside Television in 2012, while I was celebrating at lunch with my colleague, Kirsten was on her way to the hospital. She had been driving and was confused. Coincidentally, she had been on the phone with her endocrinologist who told her she needed to get to the hospital. The days and weeks that followed were horrific. Medical teams rushed to figure out what was killing Kirsten, knowing only that her endocrine system was pumping out levels of cortisole that were slowly robbing Kirsten of vitality. After myriad tests, surgeries, expensive drugs, and staying on nearly every floor of the hospital, including several stints in the Special Care Unit, Kirsten was discharged to an inpatient rehabilitation hospital. She had on a neck brace to support her fractured neck and was too frail to walk on her own, or even sit up.
Eventually she was able to come home. We had installed in our apartment a shower head that detached to facilitate bathing in a sitting position. She had a claw grabber to pick things up from the floor. My young, sexy, fun partner had been reduced to a person who struggled with the basic tasks of life. What was broken on the inside, however, was perhaps the most difficult for her and us to endure. Without adrenal glands, Kirsten’s stress response was anything but normal. Between that and other neuroendocrine causes, combined with not feeling well, unable to meet not only her needs but those of me and the girls, which was her life, she became depressed, illogical, unreasonable, paranoid, and more than once suicidal. Most of the time she was her happy, selfless, positive, funny self, but that struggle for normalcy was punctuated by bouts of extreme distress and despair. I was incapable of handling it all, lacking the capacity to both understand and respond to her needs. Managing responsibilities is a zero-sum exercise, and I had more plates spinning in the air than for which I had the ability to respond. I escaped into Tennis and a new friend. I didn’t know it at the time, but that reprieve likely saved my life. I stopped caring about life altogether. Most days I thought of little else besides putting one foot in front of the other, minimally meeting the many obligations in my life, and killing myself. I couldn’t care for Kirsten, myself, and our girls, so I’d vacillate between my primary responsibilities, playing a horrible game of Whack-A-Mole with my life. Every failure or disappointment piled up inside. Eventually, the weight of this stress created exceeding pressure, much of which I feel even now.
I thought Kirsten’s death might bring some relief. No more doctor appointments. No more watching her wither and suffer. The girls and I could move on, somehow, and begin to write a fresh, new chapter in our lives. Kirsten’s death in May of 2016 offered no reprieve. It was not a release of the pressure and stress as I’d hoped. In fact, it created a gaping hole that decreased my ability to function almost entirely. I didn’t want to do anything. Then the guilt really set in. Could I have been more understanding and compassionate? Why didn’t I care for her in the ways she surely would have cared for me? Why didn’t I let go of my idealogies and care exclusively about how she felt, as irrational as it seemed to me?
I took the girls on a road trip out west for 19 days. It was an attempt at a reset. It didn’t reset anything. I bought us a loft and moved us out of the apartment. It’s been great in many ways, but hasn’t dulled the pain or released the pressure.
What most people don’t know about me—perhaps nobody—is that while it often seems like I’m doing fine, I am not, and when it seems like I’m falling apart, I’m feeling much worse than it looks. I do have hope for a bright, happy future for myself. That’s my nature. But it’s a long way off, and will be a difficult road. I don’t know how to live without Kirsten, and I am struggling to allow myself to even consider it. I know I must. My girls need me to. And I deserve it; my happiness is what Kirsten wanted, always.