Grief & Floral Shirts

Art and I loved each other very much but we didn’t really love one another’s choice of clothes.  It happens.  We tried, in not so subtle ways, to influence one another.  He bought me shirts with wild, brightly colored floral patterns that I never wore.   I bought him starched, crisp shirts that he never wore.  During one of his business trips I even threw out one of his tie-dyed t-shirts that used to make me dizzy.  One day when he was searching high and low for it, I finally admitted “what if it sort of accidentally got thrown out?”  It didn’t go well.  

Despite our disagreements about who was taller, had more hair and weighed less, the truth was that we were the same on all three dimensions.  This meant that when he died, my wardrobe instantly doubled.  It left me, though, with lots of clothes I couldn’t imagine wearing but also couldn’t imagine getting rid of, leaving big empty gaps in our closets.  

One day while getting ready for work, I impulsively looked through his shirts and found one that was somewhat suited to my taste while pushing the envelope ever-so-slightly.   When I arrived at work, I was barely through the door when someone told me how much they loved my shirt.  By the time I made it to my office I had already received three compliments!  It was sweet and satisfying keeping my little secret that this was my deceased husband’s shirt and wearing it felt like I was wrapped in his arms.  It made me smile and gave me a little chuckle knowing that Art was probably feeling a sense of fashion righteousness.  

A few days later I tried it again and got the same reaction.  A week later I found a third shirt and put it on more as a research project than a connection to Art.  My research question was answered when an employee came into my office, closed the door and sat down opposite me.  “I just have to say, you’ve really been stepping it up with your wardrobe!” Wait!  I thought I had the better taste in clothes?  Were my clothes actually boring all these years?  Did I need to push the envelope further? Should I have kept the tie-dye?  

The thing about grief is that it is never done.  My experience with Art’s shirts brought me back to a couple of key questions about grief: how do I integrate it?  What do I learn and create from it?  Who do I become now and what does life look like on the other side?

In some small way, my shirt experiment was another way of experimenting with my grief – to figure out if this was another way to connect with Art…would wearing his clothes be a way to honor and remember him that would be satisfying?  Could I keep a piece of him alive in this way or was it meaningless and maybe even creepy?  What parts of him, his life and our life together will I bring forward and what parts need to be packed up and given to Goodwill.  

On Art’s anniversary last year, a good friend told me that he felt that I was still hanging onto Art and in a lot of pain because of it.  The words hit me like a ton of bricks.  I knew he was right.  As I looked around the house I noticed how much it looked the house Art and I shared, despite it being an entirely different place.  I noticed how much of Art was there.  Of course, there’s no magic way to be with the changing stages of grief but I knew it was time to find a new way.  I wrote a letter to Art releasing him to the Universe.  With every ounce of my being I wished him well…wished him peace and freedom – the things he sought most in life.  I packed up photographs, momentos and household items that were uniquely Art and decided to try to make room for what was next.  I gave away some stuff, ordered some new furniture and mostly gave myself more permission to indulge my own desires and find my own style and expression.

I’m not sure that anything looks terribly different which isn’t really the point anyway.  It has felt different though.  It doesn’t feel as if I’ve pushed Art away but rather left my heart open to experience something new without him.  

The past year has been beyond any of our wild imaginations.  I’ve often found myself reflecting on the year from the perspective of grief.  With COVID, we have grieved multiple losses – the deaths of nearly 400,000 Americans, financial and emotional losses, the loss of social contact and support, and the fear that can come with all that loss.  It has also been a year in which many of us have grieved for our country and the world – for the things we believed were true, for the spotlight on vicious and systemic racism, for the political divisiveness that has driven deep wedges into long-standing relationships.  

It brings me back to Art’s shirts.  At a time when it can feel like everything has crumbled around us, what remains to bring forward with us?  Can we let go and stand in that empty space, letting go of the order that was there to welcome what can be created now?  Can I be with the sadness and mystery of these days, and stay open-hearted to create a new space that I – and we – can thrive in?  Rather than growing increasingly impatient with the current state of affairs, can I listen to the silence with as much attention as I listen to the barrage of news coming at me?  Most importantly can I bring the colors of Art, the joy of what we shared, the open-heartedness he fostered and step into the unknown, tethered to the values I hold dear but also welcoming the mystery that lay ahead.  It seems to me that the tragedy of grief is not only what we have lost, but our inability to carry the best forward and make room for what can become of the loss, even the loss of hope.  

Four years have gone by in the blink of an eye and yet feel like a lifetime.  Many days I’d do almost anything to go back.  As I write this I’m listening to the song “Defying Gravity” from Art’s playlist…”Too late for second guessing.  Too late to go back to sleep.  It’s time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap.”  

~ by Art on January 10, 2021.

9 Responses to “Grief & Floral Shirts”

  1. Lovely, lovely John; how I cherished reading this post. I laughed and then I cried and then I laughed again. ..and then I cried a little more. You have brought me so immediately IN to the experience, the journey of grief and I so appreciate that and you. Much, much love to you. I hope you will come to visit us in Ashland, Oregon when such things become a possibility once again.

    • I’m so touched by your words! Thanks for reading it & sharing the journey. You are always in my heart when I think about those last months. And thank you for the invitation! I LOVE that area & would love to see you when travel becomes possible. Hope you & Henry are well. Much much love to you!

  2. Hi John, all of these posts are amazing! (Im a late arrival but did some catching up:-). I appreciate so much the depth you are willing to explore; the grief you are willing to name, and the courage you live out by expressing it. Its one thing to go around in our heads with these thoughts, as many of us do, its quite another to share and enable others to learn from them. Makes me want to have a two hour cup of coffee or walk with you!
    You are certainly ‘carrying the best forward and making room for what can become’.

    • I’m so touched by your kind words Kathie. Art had really encouraged me to keep writing and part of what I have enjoyed about it is the conversations it has opened with others. So…yes to coffee, a walk and a talk with you. I’d cherish it!

  3. Beautiful and it feels so true. Also I love the story about the shirts. Somehow its just perfect. Thank you John.

  4. You are such a beautiful writer. I love your ability to share in this way. I love that you are ready, to give yourself permission to leap. So very thoughtful and honest with yourself. I love that too. 😘

  5. Beautiful post, John.
    Love the invitation to try something slightly outside of our comfort zones and see what happens!

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