Last weekend I made the trip from Murfreesboro to Knoxville. I’ve made the trip so many times lately that it’s really become commonplace. Yet, just two years ago, I’d only ever stopped in Knoxville if I needed gas or something on the way to or from Gatlinburg. But, because of Emily, I started making that trip quite frequently in 2021 and 2022. She loved going home any chance she got, and I can’t say I blame her. There’s just something about visiting that town that feels welcoming and calm.
Over the past 4 months, that three-hour drive and my weekends in Knoxville have become one of the things I look forward to the most. I think it’s because it offers just the right mixture of comfort and catharsis. She’s everywhere I look when I’m in Knoxville, so I feel connected with her when I’m there. Yet, at the same time, the heartache washes over me at the most random times while I’m there — and I’ve simply learned to embrace it.
Short Time, Long Story
I won’t go into details now, but I will say that much of my life before Emily wasn’t great. Because of the signals I received during critical points in my life, I repressed a lot and placed much blame for every horrible event in my life upon myself. But, thanks to months of trauma therapy and Emily’s love, I’d reached a point while we were together where life was good. So, naturally, one of my first fears, when Emily died, was whether or not I was about to fall right back down the mountain I’d worked so hard to climb.
I really don’t remember much from October 19. My memory from that day is a blur, with random snapshots of single moments or items I can recall, almost like polaroids. But, one of the things I do remember doing was texting my therapist from the table at First Watch. I told her, “Emily died. I know I have a session scheduled for tomorrow, but I could really use support before that.” And, as soon as I met with her that afternoon and shared all that had happened in those last 48 hours, I told my therapist that I had no idea how I was going to work through this, but I knew that if I didn’t start doing something right away, I was going to fall all the way down the mountain and I probably would never make it back up again.
So, for the past few months, I have been working through The Grief Recovery Handbook (or “the purple book” as my therapist calls it). It’s different than any other workbook or therapeutic modality I’ve ever encountered, and yet I’ve found it incredibly beneficial.
Anyway, the final three activities involve a lot of memory recall as you essentially map out every single loss you’ve experienced in your life (the loss history graph), then make a timeline about your relationship with one of the losses you selected from your loss history graph (the relationship graph). And, I’ll admit, I’m a bit of an overachiever when it comes to therapy homework, but doing so with these activities really helped me see a lot about my life and, more specifically, the years where Emily’s life intersected with mine.
I often feel like people judge me a bit when I say that Emily and I only knew each other for 4.5 years and then call her the love of my life. But here’s the thing: when you look at all that happened in our lives in the time period between when we met and Emily died, it’s as much as some people experience in a decade or more.
In less than 5 years, Emily and I went from being strangers who sat next to each other in a room for a couple hours each week to the person we wanted holding our hand in our final moments. We took a half dozen vacation-type trips together, plus went on even more weekend road trips. We watched each other make major life changes, land new jobs, buy cars, and earn a master’s degree (at least Emily did). We spent late nights confiding in each other, and spent many mornings sipping coffee together with no pants on. We hugged, we kissed, we had sex, we lived together, we got engaged… I could name all the things we did for hours without even starting on all the plans we made for our future together.
I know people say that when you find the right person, time often ceases to exist. However, I think the reasoning behind the way Emily and I lived our lives together is even deeper than that.
I think that Emily approached everything in life with the mentality of “live every day like it’s your last” and “you only get one life, so make the most of it.” And, I guess that’s how most people would approach life if they’d almost died and received a life-changing miracle. She never once took a single breath for granted, and she was determined to do as much as she could with whatever time she had here on Earth.
Meanwhile, I think my approach to life became focused on finally having the self-worth and tools I needed to build a life that made me happy. In a way, I felt like I had 30+ years of playing catch-up to do. But also, I just didn’t care about what other people think anymore, and I wanted to carve out the life I’d always dreamed of.
Together, I think our approaches to life in general created a perfect storm the moment we both looked at each other from across the table at Hooters. We both had “lightbulb moments” simultaneously, and we just knew without even saying a word that we both wanted a “happily ever after” together.
The Aftermath of an Unexpected Storm
I knew going into it that this week would be hard. Our Week 2 task for the grief group I joined was for each of us to share the story of how our partner died. Then, as if it was perfectly planned to coincide, my homework for individual therapy was to write a letter to Emily about anything possibly left unsaid between the two of us (with specific parameters outlined in the book).
With both tasks, I couldn’t help but focus on the suddenness of her death. It was so unexpected and completely unpredictable. And yet, it happened. It’s like a tornado that fell from the sky without warning or a hurricane that changed course in the 11th hour, leaving people with no way to prepare. We were planning a wedding, we were going to have a child together and be a family of 5 with a dog and an adorable house with a backyard that had trees for Emily to climb or hang a hammock up while the kids and the dog ran around. We were going to open a treatment center together, then eventually retire to the beach and spend our days making music together and collecting sea shells.
But, that’s not what happened at all. and I am stuck in the devastation without any sign of rescue… or so it feels at times.
And I think that, although Emily and I were not at all on bad terms or holding onto any type of resentment, the suddenness of it all left me with a lot of unsaid words.
So, when I sat with Emily at the cemetery on Saturday afternoon, I talked to her about it all… a lot. In fact, I told her about the letter my therapist had assigned me to write, and I actually wrote it while I sat there on a blanket in the grass right next to her. A lot of it, as you can imagine, was filled with apologies and regrets. I was sorry for not telling her how I felt about her sooner, I was sorry for getting her kicked out of DBT group (remind me to write a post about this), and I was sorry for not protecting her when she dated Julian (another post for the future). But, at the same time, almost half of the letter was me thanking her and acknowledging all that she did. I thanked her for taking a chance by sitting next to me in DBT group on the first day, I appreciated how she loved me and my kids, and I was so proud and awestruck by her willingness to risk a lot by simply coming out.
When I finished the letter on Saturday, I read it to her, word for word. And, just like when I read the speech I’d prepared for her funeral, I completely broke down as soon as I read the last sentence. But, instead of melting into the arms of a dear friend like I did as soon as I walked away from the pulpit at the funeral, the only thing I had to melt into on Saturday was the ground. And boy, did I wish for a moment that I could melt down into the ground with my sweet Emily.
It’s funny, though, because this week has felt much different than anything that’s come before it. As I told my therapist before I read the letter to her today, it almost felt as if I left some of the wreckage of this disaster there in the grass on Saturday afternoon without even realizing it.
I’ll Always Be Broken, But Not Beyond Repair
Don’t mistake my words in this post. I am a heartbroken human who will probably never understand why everything happened the way it did with Emily. In many ways, I saw her as my redemption arc, my opportunity to love and be loved the way I always wanted to love someone and deserve from another. But, I think this week, and especially writing that letter to Emily directly, has helped me see that there’s a difference between broken and unfixable.
Because of Emily, I not only learned what true, unconditional love from another person felt like, but I also started to see that I deserved such a thing. What’s more, I learned that I could, in fact, tolerate or even like myself. And, by sharing with her the pain points of our time together, especially those thing I’d wished I’d done differently (even if none of them were things I could have done anything about), I think I finally let go of at least a portion of the burden I’ve felt every single day since October 19.
I don’t know that I’ll ever even think about dating again, and I know that my heart will always be held together with superglue and duct tape because it completely broke in those early morning hours of that October day. But, thanks to Emily’s love and our time together, I now know that I never have been, nor ever will be, broken beyond repair. And, anytime I need a reminder of that or need to recenter myself, I know exactly where to go — Knoxville.