Guest Post: Invictus II

by Kimberly

Kimberly Burnett is a policy policy analyst and mother of two boys in Arlington, Mass. She finds that she is developing a certain amount of (unwanted) expertise on topics related to widowhood and grief, since her husband and mother both died of cancer last year. She published a guest post a few years back for us. You can read more at her blog, Walking on Water.

Some days are good. I wake up, get the kids to school, go to work, pick them up after school. Then I nag the boys to practice the piano and finish their homework. We have fun together sometimes. We drink hot chocolate, and watch movies, and play games, and wrestle in the big bean bags in the basement, and read together before bed. Many days are good.

But some days it is all I can do to keep from flying apart. Something sets off a trigger, and sadness and pain wash over me like a tidal wave. The intensity is the same as it was the day Mat died – higher because now I truly know what I have lost – but now there is no one grieving with me. For everyone else, it’s been 21 months. For me, my soul is being torn in half right now.

When this happens it helps to get it out, and then I do everything I can to pull myself back together. I have no choice – my kids have only one parent. Sometimes my outlet is screaming in the car where no one else can hear me. Sometimes it’s putting on my old running shoes and pounding up the hill next to my house – the best sledding hill for miles – hoping to trade physical pain for the emotional pain that feels so much worse. I run up the hill hoping to make myself throw up. No luck. Try again. Again. Again.

I’m listening to a song, a modern-day version of “Invictus” (a horrifying comparison on literary grounds, but better for playing on an iPod while running). It’s “The Fighter,” by Gym Class Heroes:

Until the referee rings the bell, until both your eyes start to swell,
Until the crowd goes home, what we gonna do y’all?

Give ‘em hell. Turn their heads, gonna live life ‘til we’re dead.
Give me scars, give me pain.
Then they’ll say to me (say to me, say to me),
There goes the fighter, there goes the fighter.
Here comes the fighter.

That’s what they’ll say to me (say to me, say to me),
This one’s a fighter.

Some days this motivates me to keep going. (It also makes me want to take up boxing.)

When I can’t get away to scream or cry or run it’s worse. Then I have to count backwards from 10,000 by seven. I’m not good at doing math in my head, so it requires a lot of concentration. This is key to distancing myself from the emotions that otherwise will not stay tamped down.

When you see me next, I will most likely be fine. I will be thinking the same thoughts you’re probably thinking. ‘What should I make for dinner?’ or ‘Is there any hope at all for the Red Sox next season?’ or ‘Hello, Mary Ellen, the eighties are calling. They want their mom jeans back.’

But if I look deep in concentration, and maybe I’m even moving my lips a little, then what I’m thinking is, “Seven thousand nine hundred and ninety eight, seven thousand nine hundred and ninety one, seven thousand nine hundred and eighty four …”

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13 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    This is so powerful, Kimberly, thank you. I think grief– the kind you describe– is not just for death, but any loss, I think. Someone who has lost a job, a child in miscarriage or dealth with infertility, and otherwise…. are all relate-able. Thank you for putting it down in words. Thank you.

  2. CatherineWO says:

    Thank you for expressing your feelings in such beautiful language.

  3. Deborah says:

    My heart aches for you. This is a stunning window into a grief observed. Blessings on your family and you….

  4. EmilyCC says:

    Thank you for sharing this, my friend.

  5. DefyGravity says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I don’t quite know what else to say, but thank you.

  6. Megan says:


    I learned, in time, where the mines lay so I began to know what would most likely set off that trigger, but that was only the most common mines. There were (are) others and while it’s less frequent to have those overwhelming floods of loss and pain they do still come.

    I was particularly touched by your comment that you found the intensity of your grief higher with time – that is exactly what I have found. I know more now, the grief that comes carries the weight of the grief I’ve been carrying.

    Thank you for articulating it so beautifully.

  7. April says:

    I am so sorry. God bless.

  8. Caroline says:

    Thank you. Your post makes me think of my own mom, who was widowed when I was 2 and my brother was 5. I can’t imagine how alone and sad she must have felt at times, but your posts gives me a window into it. All my best to you.

  9. Alisa says:

    Kimberley, I appreciate this so much. I am not quite sure what to say, so I am going to ramble a bit. My dad is dying; he was diagnosed with cancer over eight years ago, but was in the 2% that survived that type 5 years, only to get a different, but related terminal kind over 3 years ago. I spent most of the holiday break from work, where I was planning on spending time with my special needs toddler, instead at my dad’s bedside, for 4 nights did not sleep much so I could respond to his fussing about wrinkles in the sheets and boredom. He’s paralyzed on his right side and is confined to his bed and now his doctor thinks the cancer may be in his brain. It’s awful. He longs for death. And this grief is very lonely. I think that because he’s been sick so long people aren’t really up to asking me about it, or they assume it’s a lot easier to watch him slowly die (maybe it is? I don’t know, but I think grief ought not to be a competitive sport). A couple of weeks ago, an old childhood friend, also a college roommate, messaged me asking how my dad was, and I wrote back the unvarnished truth, telling her how he had fallen twice in the night and bled all over and would not be able to leave his bed anymore, and she wrote back with, “OK, I hope you have Merry Christmas!” So being raw and then realizing I’ve made others uncomfortable like that increases the loneliness of my grief, this grief that may go on for some time. Then there’s all this pettiness and frustration I have that I’m not proud of. Seems I should be much more like an angel at this time than I am, a bringer of peace and tapped into the divine. Things are complicated, and I am spent, and I’m not being a good person in relation to pretty much anyone else, I believe. I would not want to be around me now.

    I think what I mean to say here is that I appreciate you laying out your heavy grief and your coping strategies, for writing something beautiful and real about grief, which in an odd way felt like breathing again for me. I needed it because I am alone in this and unsure of what to do with myself.

  10. Suzann Werner says:

    Kimberly and Alisa,

    What you have tenderly and honestly expressed about your grief will help others realize they are not alone each time the tsunami waves of sorrow reappear.

    Alisa, I am sorry your father is so ill and suffering. I carry this vision of my dying father walking down the hospice hall clad only in diapers.

    Grief is tough. I send my love to both of you.



  11. Eco Hábito says:

    It is a pain that will not seem to finish more … I wish you strength to face this pain.
    Stay with God

  12. Suzette Smith says:

    I just love you, Kimberly. Thanks for sharing.
    For me, grief is strange because (as you say) sometimes it’s not around and then, just when you think you’re making progress, it knocks you off your feet. It just circles around and around.
    But life is still so good. And I’m glad you’re a part of mine.

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