One Year Gone
My partner in all things — living, loving, filmmaking, animal fostering and rearing, dreaming and creating— died just over a year ago. His name was Aaron, and I have periodically written updates about my progress through grief. Some I later made private, uncomfortable with baring that much of my soul to strangers and worse yet, acquaintances. I came very close to not publishing this one, because I didn’t want to feel this exposed anymore. It’s hard to go through this and then open yourself up to share the experience with others in a truthful way. Professionally, I told myself, I shouldn’t reveal so much: it will be read as weakness. I need to be hired to do things. I need to make money. I need to care for the four little lives that are now in my sole charge.
And then I re-read this note, written the day after Aaron died. When, raw with the loss of the man I loved, I was perhaps more honest than I had ever been. On that day, I asked others to let down their guard, to be vulnerable, to love others and let themselves be known and loved, and to share with others their own truths. I asked them to do it to honor Aaron, the most loving soul I’ve ever known. And I realized that I can do no less.
A quick note for others who have lost loved ones and partners, who perhaps are not as far into it: we are all different, all on our own journey, and this has been mine. Yours will be different.
So here goes.
Aaron died on April 28, 2016, at 8:58 in the morning, after a three and a half month battle with cancer. The person I had been for 40 years ceased to exist in that moment. I didn’t know it then, but I had been permanently changed by the deepest sorrow imaginable.
I spent that day, after the paramedics and funeral home people left, in a chair in the living room where he died. I watched the sun go down. The room became dark. Large windows, high up on the 43rd floor, looked out over the night’s empty air. The room became merely shapes and shadows, dominated by the large empty hospital bed in the middle of it. After fifteen years spent with my soulmate, and the last three and a half months of fierce struggle aided by the near-constant presence of friends and health workers, I was alone. Truly, deeply alone in a world forever silenced of Aaron’s deep and gentle voice, bereft of the feeling of his warm hands on the curve of my waist.
Swaddled in a dense grey fog, I entered a phase of heavy sadness and crying. I was part of the world and even taking care of things I needed to, but also apart from it. It was as if there was an invisible wall between me and the rest of life, that only I could see.
Initially, life passed moment to moment, most spent in blurry agonies of “why?” and “no” and “please.” There was never an answer. Every morning brought the destruction of the world anew, each day I tried to reassemble it into meaning. But the building blocks were faulty, incomplete, they had holes, and they didn’t add up. I couldn’t reconcile my experience of life with the sudden absence of my partner in all things. It just didn’t make sense, and my mind would puzzle away at it, trying to fill the void he’d left but only exhausting myself wandering through the unanswerable riddle of death.
As the months passed, I lost many friends, people I’d known for almost all of my adult life as well as more casual friends. My pain seemed to cover me like a poison shroud, and many averted their eyes and chose not to put themselves in the proximity of this discomfort. These losses wounded me. I was traumatized not only by Aaron’s death, but also by the sudden and shocking nature of watching my strong man be suddenly felled by this invisible destroyer, and then extinguished. That this could happen was unthinkable. To then lose others in its wake was cruel and further destabilizing. A deep fear took hold, that everyone I cared about would vanish.
But even as I lost people, others suddenly offered their friendship in new and deeper ways than I could have imagined. At least an equal number of relationships began or expanded as old ones ended. At first I resented this. I didn’t want my whole life to change. I wanted to cling to the life I’d built with Aaron. But now, a year later, I understand that there was no other way. I was changed, and others affected by Aaron’s death or circumstances in their own lives were changed as a result and these paths either joined or separated us. Those who stood with me and supported me through the lowest point of my life were the people I came to love. Those who were not able to deal with their own feelings and for whom I became a painful and frightening reminder of death and loss diverged down the tributaries of their own separate lives, and these separations have largely been final.
It has been a rocky year. I laugh a bit as I write this, because the people close to me know what an understatement that is.
There has been unbearable pain but also moments of joy and grace. Aaron’s death was a fire that cleansed me of many things. I lost almost all ego for several months. That was fascinating and freeing. I wish I could return to that pure state of selfless love and compassion, even though I practically didn’t exist except as a ball of pain. Those first few months, I was overcome by empathy for everyone around me. I felt connected to all in a web of shared, scarred humanity. The pain in me called out to the pain in others and was answered in wordless harmonic resonances, choruses of “yes I feel this too” — but from everyone. I cried everywhere I went and I didn’t care. Standing in line at the coffee shop, walking down the street, on the subway: tears and tears and tears, streaming down my face, gathering in the hollow of my throat. I got so used to the tears that I stopped noticing them clinging to my lashes, and didn’t bother to brush them away.
In those first few months, I was just learning to walk again. I also had some unfortunate and stressful things going on with Aaron’s family that took up a lot of my mental energy and distracted me. I tried and failed to find work to support myself and our furry family. Aaron and I were a filmmaking team, and we’d had a film in development. That ended with his death and left me lost and unsure what to do for money or how to move on creatively. The grief had superseded my usual creative impulses, but I didn’t know how to exist in the world without making things. I took film editing classes and tried to come up with a plan for moving forward, but it turned out to be a false start. I just really hate editing, it turns out.
I started writing a bit, not working on the script that was my next project, but doing some paid writing work and the occasional blog post on grief. This felt good. But mostly what I was doing was trying to figure out how to live in the world without my rock and my compass, my best friend, my creative inspiration, the man I wanted to make proud of me, the person whose happiness had meant more than my own. I tried to figure out why I was here, and he wasn’t, when he was the better of us. I knew that there was likely no reason at all for it, but if there was, it seemed worth finding. Actually it was all I could — then and even now — think about: my purpose. What is my purpose? Why get up in the morning? What do I have to offer? How do I live now? Who am I and who am I becoming? Why won’t the damn earth stop shaking and knocking me off balance every other day so I can figure this out?
I leaned heavily on a few friends. I was vulnerable and messy. I struggled with feelings of low self-worth, of unworthiness. I felt that I was a burden to those who had stuck by me. I kept apologizing for being difficult, for being in pain, for being a bummer to talk to or spend time with. A lot of that came out of my fear of being left again. I know that Aaron didn’t leave me, he was torn from me and from this world and his life, but the others left so soon after. These sudden and compounded losses scarred me deeply.
No one tells you how to deal with the death of your life partner. Especially not when he was in the middle of his life, and you in yours. You just wake up one day and the foundation’s gone, and it feels like all the rules have changed and you don’t know what they are anymore. You don’t know how to act, you don’t know what’s right.
I’ve said things on social media that are mortifying, have shown my pain, sought attention, solace, company, whatever salve I could find there. I wanted my pain to be witnessed. But I didn’t know how to be fully authentic in this, because I was throwing my sorrow into the many-faced void and thinking about the multiplicities of readers. Because my professional life is represented there, I more often than not felt the urge but not the freedom to express things truthfully. But I still wanted whatever solace or connection there was to be had, and I also wanted Aaron to be remembered. I was angry that so many found it so convenient to simply not talk about him. To wince and look away or fidget nervously when I said his name. But by the same token, I deeply, resoundingly love my friends who continue to bring him up and don’t mind when I talk about him, who tell me they love him and miss him and think about him. Who express to me that his life mattered, that he mattered and had an impact on their lives and on the world. He was fun and smart and good, my man, and it’s good to know that others just miss his special resonance.
So here’s a curveball, and this is the thing I most dread saying. I know I will be judged by some. I’m going to preface this also for a few very close friends who don’t yet know about this: I didn’t know how to tell you. This is complicated for me and I didn’t want to see my own doubts and self-recriminations mirrored in your eyes. Not that you would feel that way, but if I do, why wouldn’t you? OK… everything in me is cringing at writing this, but… I started dating after seven months, right before the holidays. It was somewhat born of a dark impulse. I was lonely, I felt abandoned by many, and I thought it would at least be a way to pass the time, especially with so many others suddenly absent from my life. I was drawn to the cynical horror of it. But at the most basic level, I just wanted to be held. That it was Aaron’s arms I wanted around me I pushed aside. I wanted the animal comfort of a warm body. I wanted nothing from them except maybe a few hours of forgetting. Of pretending I didn’t live in an airlock. I wanted to feel pleasure again.
But when it actually came to it, I couldn’t even handle simple kisses. I fled. I didn’t want these strange soft lips that weren’t Aaron’s touching mine. I wanted the fantasy of the solace these flesh and blood men might offer, but not the reality of their complicated human selves. And then I had a few bad interactions with men who reacted immaturely when I told them about Aaron, and I stopped my little experiment. It wasn’t fun. It didn’t feel good. I’ve recently started talking to some people online again, but I don’t know what I want from it, beyond distraction. I’ve recently made and canceled several dates. I will always love Aaron, this goes without saying. And I’m honestly not sure that anyone who hasn’t been through something like this can understand or handle me now. We’ll see. I’m in no rush.
Another coping mechanism has been alcohol. I drink a lot. And that’s ok, for now. Partially it’s because I go out so much. I’ve been more social in the last six months than at any other point in my life. It’s hard to go from spending almost every moment of your life with someone to suddenly being alone. But I’m trying not to be so hard on myself. It was always Aaron who gave me permission to be human, and now I have to do that for myself. Luckily I have some friends who remind me to give myself a break. To treat myself with the same compassion I have for others. It’s a work in progress.
I’ve met many people now who have lost partners, and I seem to be doing worse than all of them, at least at getting my life together. I’m afraid of getting — or right now being — stuck. Of falling behind. Of losing my creative spark, my will to live, and my ability to do good work. I seem to be always gauging myself and my progress, and I find myself lacking. But this is a hard time right now because I know he’s gone, and I can’t find the will or motivation to do what it takes to move forward.
I have to remind myself that I lost my creative and business partner as well, and that we were at a transitional moment, moving from documentary into narrative filmmaking, and that it was going to be a tough moment even with the two of us pushing forward together. I try to remind myself, and not to look at the successes of others as confirmation of my own suspected lack of ability. My creative processes were forged — since I was 22 — in partnership, and this is not an easy thing to create anew. I’m working on a script now, one that many people have told me would be better left to a later date as it is so tied to Aaron’s death and my grief, but I push on. Slowly and painfully, because it’s all I know to do.
I’ve battled — and am very much still battling — a lot of depression in all of this. There is grief and there is depression and they are different. Grief sends shuddering waves of sorrow over my whole being, days get lost in memories and desire for my person to be back with me. Reality bucks and rocks with the impossible reconciliation of fact that he’s gone forever. I rage against it and nothing answers me back. Nothing. Nothing. And more nothing. This kind of sorrow burns hot and there is a strange comfort in the utter baseness of pain to be had there. I am my most authentic self when roiled with gnashing sorrow, brought back to those early ego-less days. They are miserable but they are pure and there is truth there and even certainty: it is hell, but it is absolute and in that there is a kind of absolution. My sorrow is as deep and true as my love.
Depression is another beast, and it is… very hard. The worst part of every day is the morning. I wake, and I know that Aaron’s dead. He’s not here, he’s not coming back, and he’ll never be here again. There are still those occasional moments when I’m running on instinct or habit and I think for a moment about checking something with him — rude little bursts of forgetfulness that are followed by swift stabs of pain. But I know he’s gone. It still hurts like the devil, but I understand that I won’t be seeing him again. And that knowledge, which stems from grief, bleeds into depression.
I have to get out of bed, I have to walk my dog, and I have to face another day. The effort of that alone is tremendous. Then I have to grapple with trying to find a way to support myself that doesn’t sap me of whatever will to live I have left. And the biggest hurdle is that I know I need to somehow find a sense of purpose. And it’s just not there. I have no motivation, and every problem seems insurmountable. This is depression.
This is where I am now. Wracked with uncertainty about my ability to produce meaningful work, not properly supporting myself, and searching for a reason to go on. For now, my animal family gets me out of bed. That, and a stubborn streak I was lucky enough to be born with.
When Aaron died, I told myself that I would give it a year before killing myself. I used to think every day about doing so. I knew how I would do it, and I have since the day he died. I thought that in a year I would either know that life wasn’t worth living without him, or that I’d be doing much better. I’ve gone through all the firsts: birthdays, his and mine, first holidays (unadulterated hell, if you’re wondering), first anniversary of his death.
That was… oh my god. I wasn’t ready for it, even after dreading it for a year. The anxiety and pressure built up around and in me. Then the day finally hit, and I was actually ok. I had a nice talk with a friend who had entered my life and offered his support as someone who had been through the loss of a partner. Later I saw a movie and had dinner with a friend and we talked about Aaron, and I thought I was OK. The next day I woke up. And I realized that I really, really wasn’t. I felt that my life was a mess, and that only I was going to be able to change it… but I didn’t have the faintest idea how. I freaked out, pushed a friend away in a hurtful manner, went out and got extremely drunk. Not my best moment.
I fall down. A lot. I fall down again and again. I’m still not able to stand on my own. I would never ask someone else to, in these or any other circumstances, but when I was a child, I was shown that I had no value, that I was unworthy of being cared for. And I’ve spent the rest of my life proving to myself and others that I’m worthy of respect and love and that anyway, I can stand on my own without needing anyone else. But I can’t right now. It’s hard to admit that you need help. And harder yet to admit that you still need help.
Aaron is the only person I ever truly let in. I was drawn to his kindness and warmth (and his talent and passion for art) like a hummingbird to nectar. I let him see into my core, I was soft and vulnerable with him, and he loved me. He gave his love freely despite me making him prove it again and again. Now is not the time for the litany of regrets at how I treated this sweet man, but perhaps another day. Or perhaps I’ll learn to forgive myself, knowing that I was hurt by not being loved enough when I was little and defenseless, and that I did the best I could to let down my guard and love and be loved anyway.
If I could take what I’ve learned now though, and use it to shower him with all the love I felt… I can’t tell you how much I wish for this. A friend called me earlier, to discuss a problem she was having with her boyfriend. She wasn’t sure how to broach it with him. And I realized again how simple most things are, if we can just remember that we’re here to love and care for each other. I thought about what Aaron would do and advised her to lead with kindness, not recriminations, to think of what she loves about him and how to help and encourage him to be that better self she loves. Because I’m pretty sure that when we treat each other with kindness, things go better for everyone. We have the ability to support each other into growing into the best possible versions of ourselves. We’re here to help each other learn and grow and express the truths that live within each of us, waiting to be nourished and sprouted as Aaron’s love nourished me and enabled me to share myself and create from a place of truth.
And that’s really it: a year on, I’m pretty much back at the beginning, believing that we live to love. I also know how simple and simplistic this sounds. All these lies that poison us in society - that men must be strong, that women are first objects of desire, that being vulnerable makes us weak, that shame is a natural state of being, that white people have more value than others, that such a thing as “other” even exists — that’s all bullshit. That’s religious guilt and tools of state and capitalist control and separation. And in this strange time we’re living in, I think it’s good to remember that those are lies designed to separate us and control us when our core nature is to come together and raise each other up.
Sometimes I can see these things clearly. Sometimes I know who I am. I am the wounded child Aaron loved into full personhood, and the woman learning to love again without him in my life. While I do not wish this awful nightmare that I’ve been dropped into on a single one of you, it is not without value. I know what matters now. Not every day though — on the days that I’m falling down and alienating friends and floundering for my identity, and generally being a wet puddle of angst and fear — not those days. But these other days of clarity happen, and then I remember. We’re just here to love each other, despite our faults and our differences. And even if we’re not here for any “reason…” it’s kind of like, fuck it, you know? It’s not going to hurt anything. Let’s just stop all the other bullshit. All the ego shenanigans.
One thing I admired so much about the man Aaron was is that he always saw people’s potential and gave them the acceptance and respect they needed to step into it. He wasn’t threatened by the greatness of others. He literally made the people around him better versions of themselves by instantly spotting and nurturing their unique spark.
I write that and the pain rushes in. I love him so, so much. My heart is still broken at his absence.
But I am still and will always be inspired by his boundless capacity for kindness. He knew who he was, and it allowed him to see others without any false filters born of insecurity. He was exceptional in that way. I still want to be the woman and artist he saw in me, loved, and believed in, even as I am forged into something new in the fire of his death.
I wrote a year ago that when Aaron was dying, we walked him home, surrounded by love. And I’m crying now as I type those words for the second time, knowing the gulf of time and pain and knowledge that separates these two writings. But they’re as true now as they were then. Aaron walked me home every single day of our lives together by seeing me, and accepting me with all my faults and loving me anyway. That love and kindness healed me every single day. That love was (in part) romantic love but it was also friendship and respect and simple kindness, and I’m quite sure those types of love nurture and heal as well.
There is truth inside the sorrow with which I’ve become intimate, and what my deepest self knows is that love heals, as corny as that sounds. We’re all wounded, we’re all in pain, and we all have the power to heal each other with loving respect and kindness.
And so this is me, a year after the death of my partner: I have a tremendous, daunting sense of pressure to get my life together, to stop falling apart with friends, to care for them as they care for me, and to be confident and sure of myself and my path, to do good work when I don’t feel capable of it. I am torn between poles of truth and insecurity and I am still wounded and lonely and soft and vulnerable and very depressed. I still have more bad days than good ones. But I have more good days now than I used to. I’m still here. I’m not going to kill myself. I’m still struggling and I still need help and encouragement. I still need love. I still need to help others and to give to others the tremendous amount of love I feel.
I also struggle against the cultural programming that tells me I should be ashamed to tell you this. That tells me I’m weak. That tells me I’m broken. I know I’m wounded, damn it, but I’m also beautiful in that pain and in this struggle and in my refusal to see these scars as ugly. I refuse to be denied the beauty of my strength in the face of a journey through hell, even as I know I have occasionally lost my mind in this dark and frightening place.
I want to thank the people who have stood by me, held my hand, and let me melt down with them. There’s a handful of you whom I have come to love. You know who you are. I am deeply grateful for your love and care for me in this last year, and I hope you know that you’re probably stuck with me forever now because there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you. And new people continue to come into my life and as my community grows, so does my certainty that that’s how we’re supposed to live: in community.
I’m grateful to the people who have written of their own struggles with grief. It’s why I’m writing this now and why I’m being honest, despite it making me feel exposed and a little bit terrified. I’m grateful to the friends who have guided me through this and shared their own painful memories and experiences and made me feel less alone and more cared for, in a previously unimaginable hellscape. The ones who have talked or texted with me at 3 am or 5 am, when I felt so lost and alone. I love my friends who tell me that it’s OK for me to still be struggling, that a year is not a magic number. I love my friends who encourage me to write, little by little and bit by bit, and who tell me that I’m still funny and smart and brave and capable and not to lose hope. I love my friend who has given me the security and stability of talking once a week, no matter what else was going on. I love the friend who refuses to accept that I don’t like going to parties and still invites me to them every week. My friends who call and text and check in and tell me about their lives and make me feel part of that web, and not just the one of pain. The ones who will get really drunk with me and hug me when I cry and tell me that they’re always open to where the night takes us. I love you guys.
I want to end this with a memory of Aaron. Because in many ways this sums up his beautiful soul and is a reminder for me of how to live. And how to love.
The day before he died, Aaron was lying in his hospital bed in our living room. He wasn’t doing well. I had an appointment the next day for him to get a blood transfusion, but he was weak. He had trouble breathing then, and he had lost so much weight. My strong handsome man was so vulnerable, and so near the end, though I refused to believe I could lose him, even with him lying gaunt and and cancer-weakened in a hospital bed in our home.
He rasped something to me, because that was all the strength he had. I walked to the side of the bed, leaned down, and said “What, honey?” He looked at me, right at me, and whispered, “I’m dying.” Tears sprang to my eyes, fast, stinging, and when I could breathe again I said, “Oh baby, I don’t know.” He looked at me. He wasn’t asking. “I love you so much,” I said. He told me he loved me too and reached up, with one shaking hand, to gently wipe the tears from my eyes. And that was it. He died the next morning but he was still taking care of me right up until the end. And I took care of him. It was the greatest privilege of my life to do so.
It still hurts so much.
This entry in the journal of my grieving, a year after Aaron’s death, is a lot like the one I wrote the day after he died. Only now I know just how much of a struggle it is, when bombarded by a culture sick with toxic privilege, patriarchy, racism, and capitalism, to remember this simple truth: that we are all, as Ram Dass said, just walking each other home.
It took me losing the man I loved, with whom I found acceptance and the only safe harbor I’d ever known, and with whom I’d built a home and a life and a career and creative practice, to learn this lesson.
I hope you find a less painful path to kindness and compassion. I want the best of Aaron to live on in me. I want to have enough security in who I am to be able to help others express the truth of their individual natures and selves. To see their spark, and nurture it. I think it would helps us all to let ourselves be vulnerable. To let ourselves love and be loved. To ask for help when we need it. When one of us falls down, let the rest of us help them back up. I’m pretty sure it’s what we’re meant to do.
In light of the news today of the suicide of someone who, through his art and music, gave strength and joy to many people, I’m also going to ask you for something. I’m going to ask that if you suspect someone in your life is going through a rough time, that you reach out to them and offer a hand, an ear, a shoulder or just simple companionship. I’m not kidding when I say that thoughts of suicide were never far from my mind over the last year. At one point I texted a suicide hotline. I hate telling you this, I don’t want to, but I do so because there were many days that I barely held on. I did so only with the support of people who cared enough to check in on me. Depression can be hard to identify, but if you suspect someone is going through a hard time, please be there for them. And I also want to say that I’m here for anyone who’s feeling down and wants to talk. I have no good advice to give, but I’ll happily listen and give you a hug and tell you that you matter.
To those who are themselves dealing with a loss: hang in there. I send you love and hugs, and the knowledge that there are people out there who get it. And yes, I’m still struggling, very much so, but this is my path, and I’m on it. Although yes, I do wish this stretch of it wasn’t made of quicksand.
With love and gratitude, and the knowledge that I will likely be a mess tomorrow.