Saturday, September 18, 2021

There are always firsts

The thing about profound grief that people can’t understand if they haven’t experienced it, is that it’s never actually “over”. It definitely changes over time—searing pain diminishes, missing them softens, the ability to carry on without the lost one increases—but it’s always there, the embers waiting to be fanned into full flame. Anything can do that, like a memory popping up, finding something belonging to the one lost, and, maybe least obvious, firsts. Firsts never actually stop.

Anyone who’s lost a particularly important person will immediately know what this means, but to illustrate this, here’s the sequence of firsts I experienced after Nigel died: The anniversary of when we got legally married, the anniversary of my arrival in New Zealand to stay, Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday, the anniversary of our Civil Union, Nigel’s birthday, and then the first anniversary of Nigel’s death. Those are the kinds of things that most people who haven’t experienced profound grief are at least vaguely aware of, but there’s so much more.

How about the other, less obvious firsts? Like the first time I did the laundry after Nigel died, or the first time I bought milk, or the first time I ran out of peanut butter and had to buy more, or the first time I drove anywhere, or the first time I had pizza, or the first time I had a doctor’s appointment. The first time that such everyday things roll round, they’re reminders of what we’ve lost, both the person and their place in our lives. The reminders don’t actually stop, though, over time, we’ll probably notice them less.

The photo above is actually an example of how the silliest, most insignificant and utterly banal things can trigger an awareness of a first. It’s of a mangled, empty box of baking paper. I bought that box at least three years ago, possibly more, and refilled it many times since. The box was ratty from use when I moved into this house, but it started to get really bad here (the drawer I keep wraps in isn’t ideal for that). I knew I had to get a whole new box, not just a roll of baking paper, so I tried one that’s supposedly more “eco friendly”, and when I put the new box away, I was instantly aware that it was the first time I’d replaced a box of baking paper since Nigel died—baking paper!

This isn’t just a silly example of how firsts can pop-up unexpectedly, at any time, and triggered by anything (even a box of baking paper!), because there’s something else in that example: Evidence of change. If I was still in the depths of grief, I probably would’ve replaced it with exactly what I’d had before, but I didn’t: I decided to try something that might align with my values (jury’s still out on that), and that’s something I also probably would’ve done if Nigel was still alive. In this case, the first wasn’t really a reminder of what was or of what I’ve lost, it was, in a sense, a sign of a return to what’s normal for me, and my awareness of that, I’m pretty sure, was also a first.

The other side of these firsts is that they’re not always about remembering loss or pain or despair or how empty one’s life is without the one lost in it, they can also be a sign of moving forward, of shifting into the life one is trying to build without the loved one. Such firsts can be big—buying a new car, shifting into a new house, getting a new job—or they can be tiny and unimportant, like, yes, buying a new box of baking paper. The what doesn’t matter, it’s the why, and moving forward is always an important why, regardless of how small it may seem.

I’ve completed all the first anniversaries since Nigel died, and right now I’m beginning the cycle of second ones. So far, the seconds seem to be much easier for me than the firsts ever were. The firsts that still happen for me now aren't usually about events, nor even about the basics of adjusting to losing someone so important to me in every sense. Instead, they're now starting to be about the first steps toward whatever my new life will end up becoming. That’s an enormously positive thing, and one I probably wouldn’t have believed was even possible last year, as the first round of first anniversaries drew to a close.

It’s true that for anyone experiencing profound grief, firsts never actually stop. However, with time, patience, and probably a lot of deep breaths, those firsts can actually be opportunities for growth, not grief. Two years ago, people basically told me that when they said things would get eventually better. I, of course, didn’t actually believe them. At all. Turns out, I had to experience it myself, first.


Roger Owen Green said...

kinda existential.
I remember the first time I had grits. I was about 12, visiting friends of my parents. I HATED them.
First time I saw crosswalks that allowed one to cross diagonally. It was in Concord, NH this century, so it was either before the child, or when she was at home with her grandparents. It made SO much sense.

Arthur Schenck said...

First time I ever saw one was in Auckland, and I was absolutely amazed—and a little terrified to be crossing an intersection diagonally, but Nigel was confident, so I just followed his lead. Even so, I felt kind of naughty the first time I crossed diagonally. I now think they're awesome.

You probably know this already, but when people cross like that it's called a "Barnes Dance", which commemorates traffic engineer Henry Barnes who was a strong advocate of the crossings.