As a writer, I’ve spent my career thinking about stories and how they work. I’ve fit dramatic pieces into narrative puzzles, and I’ve thought about what feels true versus what simply feels good. But I never realized how much I bought into the idea of beginnings and endings until I started trying to make sense of the pieces of my own story. This is the beginning, but it’s not really the beginning.
On a Monday night in August 2009, my ex-husband confronted me with a shotgun and trapped me in my garage. He had been struggling with prescription pill abuse. He’d lost his job. He’d lost his wife. He’d lost that thing that keeps us tethered to this world: the ability to see tomorrow. He said to me, “You don’t know how hard this is …” And only moments later, he took his own life so then I would know how hard it was too.
In the wake of devastation, those who are affected can fall into a trap of believing the universe has punished us based on our worth as a human being. And if we’re now good enough, if we learn our lesson, we’ll be rewarded. This is what books and movies and so many tragedy narratives tell us comes next.
In the wake of my own devastation, I came up with a list of things the universe could bring me that might make things right: a Best Actress Oscar for a role I like to call a human woman pretending to be okay; a call from Oprah asking me to be part of her book club; and finally – this is the most important one – George Clooney as my boyfriend.
So I fell into this trap for a while – of waiting for what comes next. I made vision boards, I read self-help books, I went to therapy, and I tried to learn my lesson. What I was looking for, of course, was something to make sense of the past, some equal, yet completely opposite reaction that could bring a traumatic story to an end. I had the idea that maybe this phase of tragedy could be over if only some happily ever after came along. This is the structure of the stories we’re raised on, the cinematic sweep of epic films, the narratives that take a person from rock bottom to glorious heights of success and love and all in less than two hours. This is what happens in movies I like to call “misfortune porn.” Don’t Google that by the way.
No. Misfortune porn is a movie where you have this sad lead character, and they get screwed non-stop for at least an hour and 45 minutes. And then at the end they get their reward. The cinematic reward for tragedy is having your dream come true or making a big play and getting carried off the field on the shoulders of your teammates, getting carried out of the factory by the leading man, someone starts a slow clap, everyone cheers, credits roll. The End.
We want the cinematic climax to be the structure of our own difficult stories. (Sighs) So I entertained fantasies about things that could save me because I felt I needed saving, cinematic happy-ending saving. I wanted the things people promised me in their messages of condolence, the things we say when we don’t know what to say: “This happened for a reason.” “You will find happiness again.” “You deserve something wonderful.”
But the terrible truth is that even the biggest thing you can dream up is not the secret to healing your grief. What arrived for me, for a while, was a case of chronic disappointment, a certainty that I must be doing something wrong, I was failing to learn my lesson. I needed answers, and I made looking for answers my full-time job. I looked for answers in the suicide note my ex-husband had written only moments before we were in the garage. And it didn’t give me the answers I needed or wanted. Notes like these rarely do. He had written seven words: “I’m so sorry. This is very hard.”
One winter day a few years ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table writing about what had happened. I was looking out the window past the bare trees toward this vast expanse of peaks and valleys in the distance. It’s this amazing view that I forget about completely when everything is in bloom.
Now by this time, I’d written thousands of words in journals, and blog posts, and in letters to people who could never read them – all in this attempt to understand devastation. And when you got down to it, really, what I’d written was just a longer version of “I’m so sorry. This is very hard.” And on this day it struck me that we cannot wait for the universe to bring us some amazing thing, some equal yet opposite event that will make up for tragedies. And we cannot wait for a grand reckoning that will explain what is unexplainable.
Because no good thing can be big enough to erase loss from who we are now, not even George Clooney, who, I don’t know if you heard, but he got married, not to me … I don’t know why. So I decided to stop saying, “This happened for a reason.” “The next thing that happens has to be great.” “Something or someone will save me.” I decided to allow myself to say what is true: “This is very hard.” While “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” are the structure of so many movies, “sorry” and “hard” and “okay” are more akin to the structure of life. So this is the ending, but it’s not really the ending. Everything is going to be okay. I know this now. And it’s going to be hard again too, and then it’ll be okay again.