It's been two and a half years since my 39-year-old husband died suddenly and left me a widow at 37 with six-year-old twins.
In that time, I thought I'd seen and heard it all.
I've been comforted by literally hundreds of people, spent time mourning my husband with his family, friends, colleagues and patients, listened to beautiful words of encouragement and the occasional way off-base comment.
I've heard every "at least" in the book. At least you had children together. At least they were old enough to have memories. At least they were young enough to not really understand. At least you had 15 years together. At least he didn't suffer.
I've been asked probably thousands of times "are you okay?" by well-meaning friends and colleagues who, with kindness and compassion, check in regularly and are there for me in whatever way I need.
And then, last week, someone asked me a question which I had never been asked before. Someone I'd only recently met, who didn't really know me and knew only the bones of what had happened. He asked: "How's your heart?"
The question floored me. My response floored me more. I felt this intense pain. Immediate. Like it had all just happened yesterday. All of a sudden I was vulnerable again. The scab had been ripped off. This seemingly simple question forced me to really consider how I'm actually going.
At first I avoided answering the question. If distraction has been the number one strategy I've used to deal with grief, then avoidance is a close second. But he was having none of that.
And so I had to answer, but first I needed to ask the question of myself. I stopped my car, pulled over to the side of the road and took a moment to think... How is my heart?
Here's what I know about my life now. I am grateful every day for the fact that my children and I are surrounded, cocooned almost, in the tight grip of family and community. I enjoy my work, my kids are healthy and happy. I know I could pick up the phone and someone would be at the other end to listen at whatever time of the day. I am healthy, financially literate and have managed to learn how to live as an independent adult for the first time in my life. I've also learned how to kill big spiders and use a screwdriver. I must be okay.
But in between the love of my children and the intellectual stimulation of my job and all the other things that I have to be grateful for, my heart is still broken and possibly always will be. There has not yet been a day when I don't think of my husband, and there may never be. The glue that holds my heart together hasn't dried, it may always feel tacky to touch. But in taking a deep look I noticed that where there is a scar, even a deep scar that opens every now and then, there has also been healing. That's what facing the "how's your heart" question showed me.
I've spent the past two and a half years trying new things, meeting new people, going against my natural personality and deliberately trying to force my heart to stay open to new possibilities. It's that attitude which led me to meeting the questioner, a person I would likely never have met had I hidden in the same old safe places trying to hold my heart together on my own. In making conscious choices to look up and out of the depths of my pain, I met someone who forced me to stop for a moment and truly look right at it, and in doing so I can now honestly say, I will be okay.
As we approach R U OK? day on Thursday, I urge you with both your questions and your responses... go deep.