I write often about grieving and the feelings one can experience when they are in the throes of it. One can never know what it’s like to be in the grip of pain after the loss of a spouse or a loved one unless they have experienced such a loss.
Many, in the beginning, feel that the pain is now so much a part of them that to give it up would somehow be a betrayal to the lost spouse.
So, they suffer quietly. Or, they stuff it away until it rears its little head at a later point in time. But when you think about it, why would your spouse want you to endure the pain of grief for the rest of your life?
They are no longer here. Their lives are done. Those who experience loss are still here to live out the rest of their lives, however long that might be.
We must give ourselves a chance to look beyond the horizon and embark on a new adventure. There are so many new opportunities that await those who lose a spouse or life partner. It would be a shame to spend the rest of one’s life in mourning and miss out on the possibilities that await.
I certainly couldn’t have imagined that the initial shock and headache would not be the “new normal.” Slowly and surely, as I sought help with my grief journey, I began to surrender to the pain of having lost my husband.
Eventually, I found myself embracing the changes that occurred in my life after the loss. In this post, I write about how we can be ready for the changes that inevitably occur and how to become open to a fresh new start, if we so desire.
This is not an easy task. In addition, the process of going from grieving to living fully again is different for everyone. It is a journey rife with few highs and many lows.
When I first met the man who would eventually become my husband, it was actually through a series of meetings, not just one. I met him at a summer event in 1987. Initially, I was not especially interested because I’d been meeting him for years and years, and he never seemed to remember who I was.
It always seemed like a “first meeting.” This would eventually become a longstanding joke between the two of us. Later that summer, we met at a barbecue. He took my number, promised to call and did. We went on a date to the movies and became a couple soon after that.
Chuck and I married in June 1991. It was a rainy, overcast New York afternoon, but nothing could dim the happiness we shared as we walked down the aisle of St. Paul’s Chapel on the campus of Columbia University in NYC.
We decided to get married there because we both had attended Columbia at some point in our academic lives, and it seemed a fitting place to celebrate our momentous occasion.
As the years wore on, Chuck and I experienced a variety of “lifechanging events,” which included the diagnosis of Chuck’s mother with Alzheimer’s, the sudden death of his father, the death of my father, Chuck’s own personal struggle with diabetes and all the various hills and valleys that a couple navigates as they grow along together.
But, one thing was certain, we loved each other and that love was the glue that kept us close, strong and forever bonded to each other.
In 2007, my husband turned 60. I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. I began thinking a year in advance about fitting ways to celebrate his birthday. I found a rooftop venue in Manhattan and my son, having recently been discharged from the military, stepped in to plan everything.
The day arrived and the event went off like clockwork. Chuck was thoroughly shocked as we walked up the steps to his party and he faced 40 of his closest friends saying happy birthday. We then proceeded to party like it was 1999.
It was a perfect celebration. I felt on top of the world and never felt closer to my husband then at that moment. We had come a long way in our marriage and we were fortunate to have each other.
He told me how happy he was to have me in his life and how I was a gift to him. He said he sometimes felt unworthy of my love and affection.
So, that day, on the deck of a beautiful restaurant in Manhattan, we celebrated Chuck’s milestone birthday. I felt so lucky to be in love with the man I married and I looked forward to our future together… the rest of our lives.
The rest of the year was busy but uneventful. We had family visits around Thanksgiving and we discussed future trip plans for the summer of 2008. As Christmas approached we prepared to celebrate the holiday.
Around mid-December I came down with the flu and was bedridden. After I recovered my husband came down with the flu, having caught it from me, we assumed.
That Christmas of 2007, Chuck was still bedridden, although he managed to get up and join in the festivities and have Christmas dinner. That evening, as my husband was changing clothes, I noticed that he looked like skin and bones. I felt alarmed and I decided to call the doctor the very next day. He was sent immediately to have a CAT scan and two days after Christmas I received a phone call that would change the rest of our lives.
The physician told me that he thought he saw something on my husband’s pancreas, a possible tumor. They would have to do more tests in order to confirm what he saw.
My heart stopped. My husband was formally diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in late January 2008. He survived one year from date of diagnosis and died on January 24, 2009.
2008 was the year that I had to put my marriage vows into action, you know the part about “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or worse.”
This was a sickness and this was the worst. We promised each other that we would continue to pray for a miracle.
I prayed unceasingly and my husband prayed and journaled his thoughts as he prepared to fight the battle of his life. He would sometimes apologize to me for what he was putting me through. I assured him that he could not ever have imagined this random set of circumstances that would befall our family.
After my husband passed away, the depth of my grief was so overwhelming I could barely breathe. I would sit traumatized in my apartment and gaze into space as I wrestled with feelings of anxiety, numbness, depression, isolation and loneliness. I believe that I was in a state of shock.
Eventually, about three months into my “new normal,” I would be able to open up to a grief counselor. From there, I moved on to a bereavement group and as I regained my footing, I decided to put my thoughts about the experience of the aftermath of my husband’s death on paper.
I didn’t know how the man I loved and who had loved me back, the one who I expected to be there with me, growing old with me, could be gone, in a moment, just like that.
Occasionally, my husband would say to me, “If anything happens to me, you’ll go on, you’ll meet someone better and you’ll be happy again.”
I hated when he would say that, but, I sometimes wondered if he felt that he wouldn’t have a long life. He may have felt that way because of the diabetes, the increasing diabetic episodes that he was beginning to have, or his father’s fairly early death. He wanted to live a long life, but, I’m not sure he believed that he would.
I felt all alone and, not having had any friends who’d lost a spouse, I felt that I was treading new territory. I stumbled a lot, cried unceasingly and unapologetically, confiding only in a few.
But those few compassionate and empathetic people listened and listened to me over and over again. They did so without exasperation, with patience, kindness and love.
It’s been 13 years since my husband “went away” and now, for the first time, it seems like another lifetime, another life, another me.
Chuck and I were two people in love with each other traveling our life’s journey together. After his death the road I traveled to get past the grief and pain was long and hard, full of twists and turns.
But, I discovered so much about myself, my new self, in the process. I was starting fresh, a clean slate, and even though I was alone, I became determined to get through my sorrow and begin my new life. It took a long time, but slowly I was able to rebuild my life bit by bit.
My new life that I’ve created for myself does not resemble my former life with my husband, and I’ve come to the realization that it shouldn’t. If it did I would always be dragging the shadow of my past along with me. As I moved my life forward I didn’t want to risk overshadowing my present with my past.
This year, I decided to remove many of the pictures of my husband that I had up and around my home although one or two remain. I notice on social media, as I look at the comments and the stories that people share about losing a husband, losing a child, losing a parent that there is one common theme: “they never want to forget” or “they never want to betray the love of the lost loved one.”
I too felt that way in the initially, but now, after 13 years, time having softened the blow, I feel that my life with my husband was a part of my former life. The emotions and the feelings of love, joy, sadness and sorrow are now a part of my memories.
It now feels like another lifetime. Today, surprisingly, I’m grateful for that period in my life as it taught me so much about life, love, death and rebirth, and I grew in ways too numerous to count. But, that time is over and it is a place where I do not want to remain.
I loved my husband with my whole being. We came through the worst of the worst together. He died and I remain. However, now, I am no longer who I once was and I wish to continue on and be open to what life has in store for me next. I embrace this new life I’ve been handed.
Have you suffered a catastrophic loss that left you frozen in place? Some people are afraid to let go of the pain of loss. What are some things that you have done to move your life forward after loss? Have you been surprised by the new life that you have created after losing a spouse? Please join the conversation.