It’s an odd thing to miss someone who’s standing right in front of you. But for a while, that’s what I did. Even though my husband was still physically there, ‘the man I knew, the man I loved’ was somewhere else. The brain injury had stolen him away from us, and brought back this distant, vacant person in his place.
Through his recovery, I would spend every waking second with him. We would go for walks together, eat dinner together, and try anything we could to feel like a family again, but my heart was never fooled. When I would lie down beside him at night, I would find myself missing him. I was going through the most difficult time in my life, and the person I wanted to lean on the most was gone.
My husband would come to refer to the accident as ‘the day he died.’
It wasn’t until my own grief settled in that I realized he was right, in a way. Brain injury is a sort of death. All the stages of grief are there: denial, anger, sadness, regret, and acceptance. And I felt them all, only I felt them beside the very person I was grieving for. He felt them too.
But there is a misconception with grief that you drift through one stage into another until you are finally free of it all. The truth is, you never really graduate from grief. The emotions of it can find you years later, when you thought you left them far behind.
Like most, I struggled with acceptance; not only the acceptance of the death, but the acceptance of this new life. I struggled to accept this new person who looked like my husband, but wasn’t my husband. He was different, distant, changed. It was as if I was widowed and remarried all in the same day. How could I trust this stranger?
How could I love this stranger?
So much of a marriage relies on the familiarity of the other person. Knowing their likes and dislikes, their responses to any given situation, their quirks that only you know; there’s a comfort in the predictability of the relationship that makes you feel at ease and safe. All of that was wiped away after the brain injury. My husband’s sense of humor had changed, his tolerance for the world had changed, and his temper had changed. There was no more predictability.
I felt a wave of regret. All those years of marriage, and I didn’t appreciate what I had. All that time wasted bickering and complaining over trivial things, and not embracing everything about him. Not realizing how soon it was going to go away.
I started to cling to his memory until every little thing I could remember about him was suddenly dipped in gold. I didn’t remember our struggles or our differences; I didn’t remember his faults or annoyances.
I put the past on a pedestal.
It took me a while to realize that this perfect past was keeping me from accepting the changed man standing before me. I was comparing the new him to the best part of his former self, and he was always coming up short. I felt I couldn’t love this new person, and I was scared that if I ever did, if I ever accepted who he was now, then I would be letting go of who he was then.
It turned out, that’s exactly what I needed to do. I needed to come face to face with the past. I needed to remember the authentic him in his entirety. I needed to let him go.
So I wrote him a letter. A letter he would never read for he was already gone, but that seemed to pour from me once I let it out. I filled it with everything I needed to say to him; my thoughts, my struggles, my grief. I said goodbye. I’d like to say that at the end of that letter, I was ready to move forward and ready to accept this new husband, but that didn’t happen. It was however, the start to the process of letting go of our past, and letting go of him.
Today, I barely remember the man I had to let go of. I have lived alongside my husband post injury for so long now, that man has faded from my mind. Sometimes I still read the letter though, reflecting on that time in my life. I don’t recognize the author anymore. She’s gone too.
“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero.