How grief cleaved me in two

Living with grief is like living with a darker twin sister with whom you share genetics but no real characteristics, values or traits.

I am basically a glass-is-half-full kind of person. I find the positives in situations and nurture them to blossom into something good. I have a strong Christian faith. I work and play hard. I always take on more than I can handle and somehow get it all done anyway. I am very independent. I am loyal and loving, but can be fiercely protective and opinionated. Stubborn is my middle name.

I know this person. I have lived with her most of my life, and that’s who I have recognized for more than 50 years when I have looked in the mirror. She is as familiar to me as the feel of my skin or the color of my hair. I am confident in who she is.

But on Dec. 7, 2010, the love of our life died of pancreatic cancer, and the action of that death cleaved my whole person in two. Part of me looked familiar but the other part was a gaping wound that would not heal for the longest time. And when the healing slowly began, the raw wound scabbed and the pieces began to take shape again, but the healing half was not restored to the woman I was before the death of my husband.

As a matter of fact, I was barely recognizable.

The resulting darker twin sought solitude, ran from daily life, fought depression and developed a bad relationship with food. Putting one foot in front of the other was a struggle some days, but she had no choice but to push forward. To what she had no idea. The future was a dark echo with no shape.

Her family, her friends, her church and her dogs all kept her from tumbling into that endless abyss from which there is no return.

My Brittany Bullet seems to understand when I need to lean on him sometimes. He was Jim's dog.

My Brittany Bullet seems to understand when I need to lean on him sometimes. He was Jim’s dog.

As the healing light began to push the darkness away, her two halves looked in unison toward a future that began to fill their vision but still had no real shape.

The darker twin, whose outward movements and habits were familiar but not the same as the original whole person, was not confident, and at times, was outright fearful. Not of anything in particular, but of the future in general.

She still had a strong Christian faith, deeper in some respects, but a little dented in others. She still worked and played hard, but her primary goal was to avoid situations in which she would have to face her own demons. She was independent, yet more needy on some levels. Still loving and loyal, but more vulnerable and less sure of herself.

Stubborn as a rock, she still approached life as if her glass were half full, but the liquid in the glass was not clear and she feared it would spill, leaving her glass devastatingly empty.

The emerging woman wants to be happy — and is much of the time — but feels her twin trying to pull her into the dirty ditches of grief she has begun to crawl out of, like a constant nagging voice in her ear.

And these two selves live and work side by side every day as conjoined twins who share a heart. We walk together through daily motions, life’s blood pulsing through and between us; a constant duality of love and hate, joy and sadness, confidence and fear. We breathe familiar air and go through familiar motions, but everything is changed because one of us can never be the same.

My hope is that someday, I will look in the mirror and see a whole person again. I know that person will be changed, because recovering from that kind of wound changes a person, but I hope she will be recognizable. And I hope I will see strength, and faith, and confidence, and know that the woman looking back at me has a plan to do something good in the world.

I want to see the survivor I know this woman has always been.

Changed, but stronger, independent, loving and loyal. Protective and opinionated. Definitely stubborn. Whole in some fashion. And co-existing in peace with her twin born of grief.

Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.