Time, action, and bagels.
I know a woman named Christina. She married a wonderful man, earned several university degrees, and built a satisfying career. The present was joyful and bright–and the future, even brighter.
Then one day, a blade fell and sliced her world into hideous ribbons. Her husband Bjarne. Cancer. Stage four. He died at age thirty-five, leaving Christina a widow with two young children at home.
After this horrific loss, Christina felt imprisoned inside “the waiting room of grief,” as she calls it. That limbo space where your old life is over but your new life hasn’t begun. You’re not dead. You’re not alive. You’re not here. You’re not there. You’re in between two worlds, feeling unable to move forward, up, down, anywhere. Paralyzed. Numb.
“Just give it time,” Christina’s well-intentioned friends and colleagues told her repeatedly. “Time heals everything. You’ll see.”
Years passed. Many birthdays and parent-teacher meetings and winter holidays. A great deal of time. But Christina didn’t feel like she was healing–at least, not fully. Yes, she was functioning. She had a consistent routine. Kids were being fed. Bills were being paid. But she didn’t feel alive. The house was still standing, miraculously, but the lights were shut off.
She waited and waited and waited. Waiting for time to work its healing magic. Then one day, while researching neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and adapt to new situations–Christina had an epiphany: You don’t build a new brain–or a new life–just by giving it time. Time is not enough. You also need action.
Action. Movement. Forward momentum. Even the smallest step–taking a breath, opening the window to let in some fresh air, trying on a new shirt, checking out a new book from the library–begins to reshape the architecture of your mind.
Action is the medicine that brings you back to life.
Surviving the biggest heartbreak of my life has required…a lot of action. For me, the action plan includes a weekly appointment with my therapist. And also, plunging into the ocean and screaming underwater like a battle-mermaid, and painting, and talking to my parents on the phone about everything and nothing, and yoga like never before, and writing things down and burning the paper, and praying and meditating and chanting, and ho’oponopono, and finding “that one song” that somehow encapsulates everything and blasting it at a spine-shuddering volume, and going to an empty studio at night and dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing, and glowing in the dark, and running until my legs are wobbling, and watching the eclipse, and selling the house that B and I bought together, and buying all new underwear and other things, and writing the phrase “You’re doing a great job” at the top of my checklist every single damn day just to remind myself…I am.
All of these actions, and thousands more, create little splinters in the ceiling of the waiting room. Cracks of gold. Light pours in. First, just the tiniest sliver. Almost imperceptible. Then it widens. Then more.
Six months ago, I called my older brother and–through choking, hysterical sobs–I told him I was going to be celibate for ten years, minimum, and that I could never love again, never trust again, never believe anyone’s promises ever again, and everything I used to believe is dead, etc. He told me, “You feel like that now but you won’t forever, I promise.”
I told him he was wrong. He said I owed him a dozen of his favorite bagels from a special bakery in Montreal, shipped to his home, once I realized he was right. I told him, “You’re never getting those bagels.” He said, “We’ll see.” I told him my heart will never be the same. He said, “You’re right. Things will never be the same. But that’s a good thing.”
Beyond the waiting room is a strange and beautiful new world. I feel myself moving closer to it. Today’s actions compounding upon yesterday’s actions–actions laying new pathways in my brain. New energy. New dreams. New hope. Maybe one day, even bagels.
You live inside the waiting room until one day, you don’t.
Everything feels impossible until one day, it’s not.