Don’t move on, move forward
In her talk at TedWomen 2018, Nora McInerny says, “we don’t look at the people around us experiencing life’s joys and wonders and tell them to ‘move on,’ do we?
“We don’t send a card that’s like, ‘Congratulations on your beautiful baby,’ and then, five years later, think like, ‘Another birthday party? Get over it.’
“Yeah, we get it. He’s five.”
I remember after Elena died - yes it’s going to be that sort of essay. You may want to skip this week. Although that’s kind of the point of me leading with Nora’s story.
Anyway, after Elena died, Kim and I loved to tell stories about her.
We told stories about Maggie.
“Oh that’s different,” you say, “Maggie is still alive.”
But the stories we’re telling about Maggie are from the past and they are no more valid for her than the ones from Elena’s past.
Anyway. When we would tell them at my parents house my dad would join in for a while and then he’d say, “that’s enough being sad.”
It’s more complicated than that.
My dad was sick for a long time before he died.
He came and went.
There were days when I’d visit and I was sure he understood me and days where I don’t know that he even knew who I was.
It didn’t matter. You still visit.
There are people who live in the same facility where my parents live who would stop by and visit him every day. Just to say “hi”. Just to check in and give him a chance to connect to something he might recognize.
It was sad when he died - but he wasn’t himself anymore and he’d made it clear throughout his life that he didn’t want to be kept alive once his mind was gone.
I wasn’t relieved when my dad died, but I wasn’t as sad as I probably should have been. It felt to me that it was time to let him go.
In a way, he was gone before he died.
It doesn’t always work that way.
After Elena died, Kim and I certainly knew she was dead and yet there was some sort of irrational notion that her being dead would come to an end.
I suppose it’s that gap before the seventh stage of grief: acceptance.
Kim and I came to that point at nearly the same time. We almost didn’t notice it.
I knew it had happened when I was getting an MRI as part of a heart test. I’ve told the story before in a different context, but I had to lie still in an MRI before and after walking on a treadmill for a stress test.
The technician warned that some people get anxious in such a tight space and that I should let them know if I needed them to take me out.
I lay there with my eyes shut and felt my stress level rise.
Elena crawled up on my belly and rested her head on my chest.
I exhaled and felt her hair move away from my face and then rest back down on it.
It felt so real and comforting.
I knew there was no room for her to fit in the MRI with me. I knew she wouldn’t have been allowed in there in the first place. And I knew that wasn’t really the first place. In the first place, she was dead.
I lay there with her memory and felt my breathing even out and my pulse slow.
Somehow, before that moment I had accepted her death.
Elena’s death was sudden. In the morning she was a normal six year old, in the afternoon she was dead.
That’s a lot harder to accept than a father who’s been declining for a while.
Kim’s death was the same. In the morning we had the everyday conversations that couples have knowing that they would see each other again in a few hours. In the afternoon she was in a state she’d never recover from.
It has taken me five years to accept it.
Once I had taken care of the many things that needed doing, I started working again. After taking Maggie with me for training and conferences in London, in Paris, and at Yosemite, I gave a keynote in Amsterdam where I talked about Kim.
And then I accepted every invitation given to me and sought out more.
Up until the pandemic I traveled two to three weeks out of every month. If I was in Spain and there was a conference the following week in Germany, I would reach out and see if they wanted me to come.
Sometimes you know what you’re doing and why and sometimes you don’t.
I convinced myself that I was in a position to give to the community and so I would say yes to everything. Not only that, but I would try to write new talks as often as I could so as not to repeat myself.
It was wonderful for me and an important two years - but really, I was keeping myself distracted.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t felt the loss of Kim - I had - but I hadn’t accepted it.
As with Elena, the aftermath of Kim’s death was a weird mix of it being the worst thing that had ever happened to me and somehow not quite real.
Then the pandemic. I stopped traveling. I work all the time but it’s different. I don’t see many people IRL.
Annabelle is aging. She’s about as old as Labs get. She struggles to get up and down the stairs and I have to help her get up into her favorite chair.
Annabelle helped me after Kim died. When I didn’t want to get out of bed she would stick her cold nose in my neck to nudge me to let her out and feed her. It’s the least I can do to give her a boost into her chair or to lift her onto the bed at night.
It could be the isolation. It could be the dog’s failing health. It could have been celebrating Kim’s goddaughter’s wedding without Kim. It could be something as simple as not cooking for twenty people for a Thanksgiving dinner.
Some time in the last couple of weeks I’ve accepted that Kim is dead.
I wanted to share that with you.
As Nora says in her talk, “By any measure, life is really, really good, but I haven’t ‘moved on.’ I haven’t moved on, and I hate that phrase so much.”
Really. My life is really, really good.
She says that grief is something “where you don’t get it until you get it, until you do it. And once you do it, […]You understand what you’re experiencing is not a moment in time, it’s not a bone that will reset, but that you’ve been touched by something chronic.”
We celebrate every birthday. We don’t move on.
Imagine if we’d never celebrated Elena’s sixth birthday. So what? She’s six.
Well, she never got to be seven.
We take time to see that person we’re checking in with in the morning before we head off to work. It might be the last conversation you have.
After Kim died a neighbor had me over to her house to have coffee with her and her husband. It was each of their second marriages. She had divorced her first husband and his first wife had died.
Their living room had a bunch of memories from his late wife and she was completely comfortable with it. It was a part of who her husband was and more importantly a part of who he is.
She showed me that you can move forward without moving on.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 87. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe