Productive Struggle

Three years ago my life changed forever. Three years ago on August 10th, 2019, my husband lost his battle with stage 4 colon cancer.

We had prepared for death the only way we knew how. We had exhausted every option for treatment. He was tired and ready to go to his heavenly home. We quickly had to accept what was and admit defeat. I wasn’t mad at him for giving up. I admired him for giving his all for our family. I promised him that when he said enough, that would be it. I kept my promise to him and held his hand as he crossed over to the next life.

I used to think that the story of my life would be how I met the man that I would spend the rest of my life with after a miserable marriage and divorce. I used to think that the victory in my life was finding someone who matched my energy, loyalty, and want for something so solid that even death itself could not remove us from each other. I took my vows very seriously- in sickness and in health. I watched cancer take him from a vibrant, healthy young person to a shell of himself. I never loved him any less. I knew the day he died just like I knew the day we married that I was loved. What more can you really ask of a spouse than to love you until the bitter end? I didn’t know what was coming next, I just knew that I was forever changed by the end of our earthly connection. I didn’t know that what happened next would be the real triumph in my life because it would show me what I’m made of.

What’s happened in the last three years can only be described as struggle. Every waking minute of life feels hard. Sometimes I can’t believe that this is actually my life. Everything before cancer felt so easy. I struggled to fit into social circles because I went from married with child to single with child. We oftentimes felt forgotten in this world, through no fault of our own. I stopped relating to my peers, because it’s hard to listen to someone complain about their husband when you would give anything to have yours back. I forced myself up and out of bed on days where being in a dark room with the curtains drawn would’ve been a much easier way to pass the time. I fought addiction to things I sought to ease the pain of the grief I was experiencing but that I really didn’t understand. I had highs, but I also had new lows with the ever-present freefalling feeling that comes along with the loss of a loved one. I forgot who I was and to whom I belong more times than I can count. I had high expectations for people who could never meet that level of loyalty that I had once found so much comfort in. I clawed my way out of a dark hole that I had put myself in. I have been living life as a sober person for over a year now. Daily drinking ceased. The light returned to my life. I became a better human, one “no thanks” at a time. The hits did not stop coming. They continue to come in waves, but I don’t tuck myself into bed with wine anymore. I don’t drink alone. I try not to do anything to numb the waves of grief. I am walking through it, instead of walking around it with an ever present drink in hand.

For that, I am proud. Drinking and prescribed Xanax were a way to mask the pain I was in. Taking the two out of the equation forced me to deal with my grief on a deeper level. I am a person who feels deeply and takes things very personally. Alcohol and pills allowed me not to care about things that I should’ve cared about. It’s ok to be a feeler in a world that seems to feel nothing. I challenge you to make space for the feelers of the world.

My daughter’s school had a parents only chat night last week. I sat and listened to her teachers describe their teaching process in detail and the explanation from her math teacher about their strategy for math instruction stood out to me for reasons unrelated to math. She said that their objective for students is to teach them the difference in getting answers quickly vs productive struggle. They teach in a way that makes the children take the long way around. Through this struggle, the kids learn valuable lessons on how to troubleshoot the problems and why the answers are what they are, instead of allowing them to solve the problem without ever knowing the why. This resonated with me.

Every day, I get up and face a life I didn’t plan on. My situation is not unique. People all over the world face challenges that alter their personality and the way they interact with others. I do not have the market cornered on grief. I have learned to lean into the struggle and really feel it. Sometimes, the why is clear. Sometimes it is not. I am not immune to pain and sometimes it hurts worse because I am having to face things that would’ve been non-issues if my husband was still alive. But he is not. This is my reality, and fast, easy answers teach me nothing. What I’ve found is that there is power in the productive struggles of life. I give 110% of myself to every situation and, though it may feel like I’ve been kicked in the teeth repeatedly for 3 years, I’m a better person for having been shown the perspective I have now.

Sometimes life is really good. Sometimes, it gets really hard. I constantly feel as though I am walking on quicksand and I have to remind myself daily that I have taken a bad situation and made the best out of it that I could possibly make. Battling depression and anxiety feels really hard without outside means of comfort. I have learned to hold hands with my grief and meet it in a space where I can reflect on what I have accomplished instead of focusing on what I’ve lost. It’s lonely sometimes, mainly because I don’t want to burden an already burdened world with one more story of struggle.

One thing I know for sure about life is that it’s always changing, usually right when you get comfortable. I thrive on routine and schedule and find comfort in stability now more than ever, so this can feel really scary at times. Nevertheless, I welcome change with open arms because I know that growth happens when you allow space for change. I have learned to place myself outside of my comfort zone without fear, because somehow everything really does always work out. I used to spend nights awake worrying how I would survive as a single mom raising a child alone. Now I sleep like a rock knowing I’m doing all I can do, and that’s enough.

My struggle is productive, and I continue to learn more from it that I could’ve ever learned from anything else. Sometimes I just have to cry it out before I get the answers I’m seeking, but they always come.

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