Who Am I?
On the Healing Voyage, there are four gauntlets, not including the psychological ones.
First, there’s the Seymour Narrows and Johnstone Strait. This one is particularly tricky. If you don’t get the timing right, the tidal rips are reputed to grab your boat and either suck it into a whirlpool or dash it against the rocks.
We transited the strait without mishap. One down.
Next is the Nahwitti Bar. These are the shallows at the northwest end of the Goletas Channel where ebb currents flowing north meet wind and swell driving south off the open Pacific, creating a “wind over tide” condition. As with the Narrows, it’s very important to cross the bar only at slack water or things could get uncomfortable, even dangerous.
We hit the bar at the perfect time, crossing without a problem. Two down.
Marking the northwestern-most tip of Vancouver Island is Cape Scott. Off Cape Scott, currents swirl, fog thickens, and winds whip. Pick the wrong time to round the cape at your peril.
We rounded Cape Scott under motor in an eight-knot breeze just off the nose and a two-knot flood current only slightly impeding our progress. Three down.
And then there’s the Brooks Peninsula. Like a sore thumb, this ten-mile-long and five-mile-wide landmass sticks out into the Pacific about three-quarters of the way up Vancouver Island’s west coast, forcing boats to go well out to sea to get around it. It makes its own weather, with winds off the peninsula often many times higher than those on adjacent parts of the coast.
In what the Irish describe as a “cracking good sail,” we sailed out and around the peninsula on a broad reach, winds topping out at 27 knots. Four down.
Tonight, we toasted our accomplishment. With all four gauntlets run, we are slowing down, relaxing, and enjoying the rest of the island’s west coast.
Now, please allow me to share some thoughts about one of the psychological “gauntlets” confronting me, the question “Who Am I?”
Last Memorial Day weekend, I took my first tentative step back out into the world. Only six weeks removed from Jocelyn’s departure and less than a month after her Ceremony of Gratitude, I wasn’t sure I was ready but took the risk.
Jocelyn and I had been invited to the marriage celebration of the daughter of our friends Mark and Sue over Memorial Day weekend at their ranch in southern Colorado. We had planned to attend, but now I just couldn’t see going alone. I wasn’t ready to be social. Besides, how could I, the guy with the very recent sad, sad thing fake being upbeat and fun at a happy, happy weekend party?
I came up with an alternative. My friends John and Jackie had invited me for a camping weekend at their raw land in northern New Mexico. I accepted, knowing it would only be the three of us and that they would honor my circumstances. I decided to stop in at Mark and Sue’s ranch on Friday as I drove down to New Mexico, drop off my gift for the bride and groom, and offer congratulations.
When I got to the ranch, there was already a lot of activity. People were busy getting things set up for the event the next day. Sue greeted me as I arrived. Then I went on a walk around the ranch looking for her daughter to give her my gift.
Along the way, I ran into Mark who was busy with preparations. He greeted me and then asked, “Is Jocelyn with you?”
It was as if a stake had been driven through my heart. I looked at him and said, “Yes, she is.”
He instantly realized his gaffe. Looking pale, he said he was sorry. Those witnessing the exchange who knew the truth were visibly stunned.
I knew then that opting out of the weekend was the right thing to do. Soon after, I made my goodbyes and continued south.
How could he have made such a mistake? After all, he had attended Jocelyn’s ceremony less than a month earlier. Obviously, he was wrapped up in his own world, focused on things important to him. And why shouldn’t he be? His daughter was celebrating her marriage.
But for me, it had another meaning. His flub was an example of the world’s obliviousness to my grief. Though my world has been upended, the sun keeps rising each morning. The rest of creation hasn’t noticed my plight.
More than that, it pointed out something else. For nearly 40 years, whenever someone thought of me, they thought of Jocelyn. And whenever someone thought of Jocelyn, they thought of me. We had become one identity. Jack and Jocelyn. Jocelyn and Jack. A package deal.
Now there was only Jack.
How can I go on without my partner, my soulmate, the person who made me complete?
Who am I now?
My friend Betty is a member of the club I wrote about two blog posts ago. Having suffered the loss of her dear partner, Pat, several years back, she understands.
Following my last blog post, she texted me this:
“’How low can I go?’ This is the question posed in your blog. There will be many low points, some lower than your current state, because this healing does not present itself in a straight upward trajectory.
“The shock and the idealization stages appear to be waning as the anger monkey and self-pity monsters are trying to grab onto your psyche. You are now entering the battle for self-identity. It will be a long hard fight, healthy emotions vs. self-destructive emotions, emotions vs. reason. As you fight this inner battle, remember you do have agency over emotions. You are fighting for the Jack you want to be.
“The question you should put in the forefront of your mind is not ‘How low can I go?’ but ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’ When the anger monkey approaches, ask yourself, ‘Is this the company I want to keep?’”
A week or so after Jocelyn’s ceremony, I decided I could put off reviewing the papers on her desk no longer. She had spoiled me, you see. She took care of everything to do with expenses. In our household, I had very little to do with money (other than making it, of course). As our accountant, she kept track of everything – managed the bills, maintained records of how money came and went.
Now I would have to do all that.
Looking through her in box, I found a past due property tax bill. She had it in her pending file, obviously intending to pay it as soon as she got back from British Columbia. Distracted, I hadn’t noticed it until now.
I took it to the county building the next day along with her death certificate and pled my case. The clerk was really nice. She said there would be no problem. No late fee, nothing. Just pay the bill and all’s well. I was relieved.
But in the process, I had to fill out a form. On the form was an entry for marital status. I had to choke down a lump in my throat when I suddenly realized I would have to check the box “widow.”
Now the world views me differently.
Shortly after my first (virtual) meeting with my grief counselor, she sent me what she called “some useful material.” There was a pdf on the stages of grief. Another one entitled, “Myths of Grief.” One called “Reconciliation Tasks.” And one more, “Who Am I.”
Hesitatingly, I opened each in turn, disbelieving that I was now a student and practitioner of such subject matter.
In the file called Reconciliation Tasks, there is a heading #4: “Develop a new self-identity.” Beneath it, it reads, “Part of who you are was formed by the relationship you had with the person who is gone. The way you defined yourself and the way society defines you has changed. Re-anchor yourself, reconstruct your self-identity. This is long, hard work.”
Opening the “Who Am I” file, I found a lengthy series of questions intended to elicit self-assessment. Here are a few examples:
What were the three most positive events of your childhood? The three most negative?
What is one specific situation where you feel angry or frustrated?
What period of your life did you like the most?
What types of people do you enjoy spending time with?
And so on.
This grief business just got more complicated. Not only am I grieving the loss of the love of my life, now to go on I have to reconstruct my identity?
As if tears, rage, anguish, loneliness, and inexpressible sadness weren’t enough, now add fear to the list.
That’s the overriding emotion when I think about the “work” of building a new self-identity. To do so requires looking deep within, recognizing the good but, perhaps more saliently, confronting the bad. Prodding demons out of hiding so they can be confronted and conquered. Slaying dragons that corrupt my psyche.
Demons and dragons. Terrifying.
I suppose I could procrastinate. I’m not sure I want the Healing Voyage to take this turn quite yet. One step at a time.
In September, I’ve enrolled in a five-day silent meditation retreat at a place called the Gaia House in Devon, United Kingdom. The theme of the retreat is Healing After Loss. Perhaps that is the time and place to tackle self-identity reconstruction. Until then, baby steps.
Jack, It was great to read your blog and see you are conquering the sailing obstacles one step at a time with skill and experience to guide you! You will approach the inner demons the same way, one step at a time with the skill and experience you’ve acquired over your lifetime! Kudos to you my friend! Happy sailing!
Blessings to you of strength, peace and calm waters