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I toss and turn. Glancing at the phone, I see it’s only 2 a.m.
Another sleepless night as my mind goes over the past five years of mistakes. Before I can stop myself, I begin to wonder what other people think of me. One particular person comes to mind. I’m sure he’s smug, shaking his head in disgust. He tried to tell me to slow down early on. He warned me that I was at risk of making the typical mistakes newly single women make. Is he watching now and thinking, “I told you so”? That now I’ve gone and made a fool of myself?
Finding myself on my own, I had wanted to prove to the watching world that I could do it differently. I planned to proceed cautiously and think through whatever course I took in my arrogance and pain. I wasn’t going to be like the others, whoever that was.
No one had warned me of the intense pain of finding myself widowed after living with and loving someone for thirty-three years. I was ill-prepared to cope as I faced one big decision after another.
I had to decide when to move out of my residence, a temporary rental. And where to go. Should I return to counseling others? I’d left my practice six months earlier to care for a dying spouse. Would I have to rebuild the business I’d lost in that period? Was I in the emotional shape to counsel others when I wasn’t even sleeping through the night and still cried spontaneously? What about the storage unit with the family stuff? When do I go through that? Then there were my late husband’s clothes hanging in the closet. Memories of our marriage and the unique person I’d lost were everywhere.
Right after my husband died, I forced myself to face each of these mountainous tasks. I paid bills, planned the memorial service, and wrapped up the last of my married life. There was no advice on how to survive this transition.
I remember my mother doing the same after my dad’s death. One visit sticks out in my mind. We chatted and caught up. Then my mother walked me to the car as we said our goodbyes. As she pulled me into a quick hug, her face broke into tears. I had never seen someone I loved in such agony. The look was one of utter lostness, loneliness, and grief. For a second, I stood helplessly, unsure of how to fix it. As I drove away, I cried for her and for me.
All too soon, it was my turn to have all the familiar landmarks of life ripped away. And I tasted the pain I saw etched on my mother’s face that particular day. And while coping with loss, I’ve had to move forward. Life would not wait. And in my grief, I did many things right and a few things wrong, but the mistakes I made have cost me dearly.
We all want a pain-free life. But even more than that, we want to be loved and accepted just as we are. To live a life without reproach. It’s bad enough to make an error, but it’s worse when it’s in front of a watching world. There are reminders everywhere in comments, looks, or avoidance. We watch those around us and judge.
And there is plenty of advice given and a few naysayers who scold and criticize. People who hope they would do things smarter and would know better. That somehow they could live pain-proof existence and be above it all. They comfort themselves by avoiding messy people and situations. After my husband’s death, many relationships dried up and disappeared. Right when I needed even more help, I faced much of the situation alone. Those who showed up are my angels — special people.
I think that’s why we tend to pull back and judge others. We want to protect ourselves. So we distance ourselves and pretend we’d never be foolish enough to make the same stupid decisions. We, however, are lying to no one but ourselves. To live a full life requires us to take chances and risks.
Lately, as I rewrite the story of my major fuckup of my latest marriage, I can barely stand to face the old me. I want to warn this vulnerable woman, shake her awake, and protect her from the coming pain. If this is my reaction as I read and write the past four years’ events, no wonder others want to do the same.
During my last counseling session, I shared the shame I felt writing my life’s details with my therapist. She smiled tenderly. “Forgive yourself, Kerry. You took a risk and loved another. That’s the only way this works. To find love, you have to take a chance on it. What you did was a beautiful thing. You did nothing wrong.”
Her words are hard to hear when avoiding danger, and pain is hardwired into our very being. Since childhood, the mantra I’ve lived by has been to use today’s mistakes as lessons learned to avoid repeating the same mistakes tomorrow. Such a motive makes me afraid of messing up.
But isn’t failure a necessary part of learning?
It’s hard to live a life filled with tolerance and grace. Everywhere I look, I see screaming people. We mock and shake our fists. Where’s our kind world gone? Maybe it only existed in our dreams, and I’m finally waking up to the reality of what is.
So in this middle-of-the-night assessment, I discover how hard it is to find self-love and acceptance. If I cannot be patient with me, how can I extend patience to someone else? I must first stop condemning myself. To find forgiveness for being human. For trying and loving again amid the devastating experience of losing a spouse.
Finding absolution must begin with me, as I stare at my brokenness and errors with love rather than judgment. And as I do this, I discover I become softer. With my self-acceptance, I become more loving of others. More understanding, patient, and supportive. How can I point the finger at them without also implicating myself?
Isn’t that what we are all afraid of? Of being found out? Isn’t’ this the reason we drink too much, work too hard, and drown ourselves in mindless TV? Why we spend more than we can afford? Why we find ourselves awake in the middle of the night? Why the thought repeats through our mind: What would people think if they knew the dumb shit I’ve done?
No one is perfect. Well, I’m certainly not. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and will probably make more. But as I’m becoming more accepting of myself, I’m becoming more understanding of others.
Dr. Kerry McAvoy is a clinical psychologist, mother of three grown sons, writer, and author of the devotionals: Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Bringing Hope and Healing, Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Healing Without Limits, and Pain as a Starting Point.
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