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  • Becky Adams

I Don't Belong Here

No matter where I was, what I was doing, or who I was with, in those first few months after my son died, the same four words would repeat themselves in my head: I don’t belong here.

About six weeks after my son died, I attended my cousin’s college graduation out of state. He is significantly younger than I am, but we are the same generation. There aren’t a lot of people left to cheer for you when your aunts, uncles, and grandparents are 30 years older than everyone else’s relatives—let’s face it, most of them are dead or too elderly to travel. It was important to me to show up for my cousin; I wanted him to know how proud and excited I was.

I honestly wanted to be there, to see his school, to see the off-campus house where he lived with his roommates. I wanted to watch him walk across the stage. I wanted him to experience waving to a big group of people, all there supporting and celebrating him.

I thought it would be good for me to get out of my dreary house and go away for a few days. My cousin’s college was in a city I had never been to; I thought it would be good for me to have a weekend of playing tourist. I figured it would be safe to be around family; it wasn’t like I was attending a conference with a bunch of strangers who wouldn’t understand my fragile state.

It turns out that I didn’t understand my fragile state. My parents and I completed the first leg of our trip, the 7-hour drive to my aunt’s house, without incident. We had plenty to talk about; we could even tuck in an occasional mention of Matt. “He would love this rest area; it has McDonald’s and Burger King!” “Look at that construction site, remember when Matt was obsessed with construction equipment?” We took turns driving and enjoyed spending time together.

I felt myself fraying just a bit that first night; we were staying overnight with my aunt and uncle. We needed a break before the 4-hour drive to the college the next morning. As I shut the door to my bedroom, I could feel that first quiver of panic: am I going to be able to sleep? Am I going to lie here thinking about Matt all night? Can I keep smiling? Am I actually ok or am I just pretending that I’m ok? In those early months, I couldn’t always make the distinction. Grief makes everything blurry. There was a whisper from the back of my mind: I don’t belong here.

I had brought my comfort book: a frayed paperback copy of The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella, a funny novel that I always bring on vacation. I had also brought a little extra sleep medicine on the advice of my nurse practitioner. I remembered the wise counsel of my therapist: a little denial goes a long way. Nothing would be gained by sorting through raw emotions in the guest room.

I swallowed my medicine, settled in with my book, and stepped out of my world of grief, into the world of the silly main character. For perhaps the hundredth time I read about her accidentally spraying bathroom cleaner onto her hair, I imagined the ridiculous bleached streak, and some of the tension left my body. The day of driving caught up to me and I fell asleep quickly.

(Sophie Kinsella, you have no idea how many times in the past five years you have helped me take a break from grief, escape my problems, and even laugh. This is the power of writing. If I have provided that type of comfort for even one person, I am a success. Anyway, shout out to Sophie, and heartfelt thanks.)

Sorry for digressing, but it had to be said.

Unfortunately, the fraying in the fabric of my mood worsened. Most of that second day is a blur to me now; I vaguely remember the ride to the school, the tour of the campus, lunch at my cousin’s house. I remember eating a ton of cookies at lunchtime; I’m not a delicate, willowy griever. I’m a stuff-your-face-to-fill-up-the-space griever. I can’t imagine refusing food and I make no apologies for that.

By late afternoon, my head was spinning. I had made a hotel reservation much too late (my signature move) so I was staying at least a mile from everyone else. We had about an hour before an awards ceremony, then dinner. I went with my parents to their hotel room for that bit of down time.

As soon as we closed the door, I imploded. The fabric of my mood disintegrated so thoroughly that it became a pile of random thread. I remember saying, “I can’t stand it.” I remember bursting into tears-- and not the kind where you sniffle and a few drops of water spill elegantly from your lashes. Oh no, not at all.

This was completely undignified, a gulping, choking crying jag that commandeered my entire body. I wanted my boy. I was surrounded by people who still had their boys. I just couldn’t stand it. I felt so achingly out of place.

My parents started crying. We clung together in a tight teary circle for minutes. They were all set to load the car and drive me back to CT, no questions asked, no explanation necessary. At the very least, they were willing to skip dinner entirely and fetch me McDonald’s. My Mom and Dad love me so much, and I never take that for granted.

However, after we finished blowing our noses and wiping our faces, we realized that we all felt a little better. We realized that two things were true: it was both graduation day and our 51st day without Matt. I decided that I needed to push through the next 24 hours for the sake of my family, and I did.

But I will admit, as I sat there in the auditorium the next day, I could hear the words: I don’t belong here. I was surrounded by smiling, proud parents and all I could do was miss Matt. I was convinced that I would feel this way forever.

The football field was where Matt felt happiest, so I went to a lot of football games after he died. Strangely, even though I didn’t have a kid playing on the field, I felt like I was among friends. Football moms greeted me and hugged me; friends of Matt sat with me in the bleachers. I think it’s weird that in a place where I technically didn’t belong, I felt like I belonged.

In other settings, however, the awful feeling persisted. It hovered above me when I was out with friends, either as a group or one-on-one. I have a lot of friends with sons. My feelings were so complicated! I was jealous because they still had their sons. I felt guilty for feeling jealous. I felt relieved and grateful that they could not understand what I was feeling because their kids were alive and well. Those emotions tangled themselves into a knot in my gut and expressed themselves with four words: I don’t belong here.

I didn’t belong at parties because I didn’t feel festive. I didn’t belong at work because I couldn’t have cared less about my job. I didn’t belong at the grocery store because the Gatorade aisle made me cry. The first time I attended book club after Matt died, I could barely stay in my seat, so strong was the urge to let those four words chase me out the door.

Eventually, the feeling fades. Those four words don’t pester me as much as they used to. The best way I can describe it is to think about that time in your life when you cut your hair short, and everyone else’s was long. Or you showed up to an event wearing pants while everyone else had dresses. You can’t glue your hair back to your head and you can’t take off your pants. So, you square your shoulders, and you mingle. After a while you realize that most people aren’t paying attention to your hair or your clothes.

There’s more to me than grief; there’s plenty left to offer the world. The grief is part of me, like my wrinkles, my hot flashes, and my mischievous sense of humor. Everyone is complicated; everyone is dealing with something. That’s how I know we all belong.

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