Life After Losing a Spouse
The Day Begins
It seems that I begin every day with a kind of quiet renewed energy. Everything is fresh. Even before I open my eyes and get out of bed, I usually feel a sense of opportunity. My dreams have successfully swept away the fragments of loose memory floating around in my subconscious, and my mind is in a rare state of calm.
There are the usual rituals: Fresh water and food for my dog, coffee for me, and therapeutic herbs for my dog and for myself. Then inevitably some time at the computer to see what has taken place in the world while I was asleep (haven’t taken a newspaper in years, and don’t care for TV news, so this has become my window into the world). Then a little time in my day planner to center and focus.
Perhaps this is where the turning away from the fresh morning light begins. From the bright white, clean slate of my mind, to the beginning of the cluttered, unruly, dark energy that slowly seeps into my very being as the day progresses. I don’t consciously want this to occur, it just seems like the forces of pessimism and self-pity are hovering, waiting for me to reflect on a negative emotion and pounce.
But first, there is the walk to look forward to. My dog is very good about not letting me forget. Not less than 10 minutes, and sometimes half-hour or so. It all depends on what types of smells we encounter, and how many “pee-mails” she needs to read and answer. And God help the cat that accidentally crosses our path.
But even the walk can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes it refreshes, with a glorious sunrise, or a random hummingbird crossing our path. But sometimes it distresses me, with reminders of loss and letdown.
What reminders, you might ask? If you were along on our walk, you would definitely not notice them. Don’t believe me? Okay, I’ll give you an example: that tree over there. Yes, that one. The one where we saw an opossum at 4 AM one summer morning. He stood stiff as a board, even as the dog barked just inches away like her life (and perhaps her next meal) depended on it. It was fascinating behavior. And from the opossum’s perspective, it worked, since the dog was on a leash and we actually walked away and left him alone.
Yes, “we.” No, not “we” as in my dog and I. “We” . . . the three of us: our dog, me, and my late husband. And so the veil of despair descends, and the shadows begin to form. Reminders are everywhere, once you begin actually seeing them. Some are subtle (like driving by the IHOP where he ate his last earthly meal) and some blatant (I really must put his tools away and the boxes they belong in, rather than leave them just as he left them on his workbench in the garage).
First thing, upon arising, my awareness level must be low. I see books on shelves. I’m barely aware of the pictures on the wall. I feel the worn carpet under my feet. I can even go to the grocery store, and just see merchandise neatly stacked on shelves. Why would anyone have a panic attack over any of these mundane things?
Recalling the Meanings of Things
As the day wears on, however, the meanings of these things return. Books on shelves become passages I read aloud to him when his eyesight was failing. Pictures on the wall remind me of the life we had together that was cut all too short (although, I must admit, out of self-preservation I’ve taken down most of “our” pictures and replaced them with pictures that are meaningful mainly to me). The worn carpet reminds me of how I was willing to wait, and wait, and wait, to buy new carpet, so that “we” could renovate the garage, and add concrete and block walls, and buy motorcycles, and . . . well, you get the idea.
The grocery store is probably one of the worst places for me. It is where I had my first bonafide panic attack. I had to consciously hold on to the cart, and breathe deeply several times. As the “plum” in my throat rose to threaten tears, I bit my tongue to redirect my thoughts with some more “immediate” pain.
“No,” I thought to myself. “Today I don’t need to buy noodle bowls. I don’t eat them. They were his favorite, and he’s not here to eat them anymore.” And I don’t need to study the holistic health isle for yet another remedy. Nor do I need to buy any type of tobacco product.
Strange that those two products (tobacco and holistic herbs) – which pulled in two opposite directions of the health equation – should occur to me at almost the same moment. By the time I get back home with the groceries and put them away, I’m ready for a nap.
Sleep and Being Numb
At first, sleep is the ally. You can drift off into your own private world, where anything is possible. But it can also become the enemy, when you dream that your husband is still asleep by your side, and wake to find an empty bed.
There is no “easy” way to become a widow, but I must admit that he sheltered me from as much pain as possible. Death was quick for him. His heart just stopped. No lingering, no days and weeks in a hospital bed. Just here one moment, and gone the next. In fact, just before the attack, he was with good friends, and had just started to laugh at a joke as his heart gave out. As fate would have it, I was somewhere else, and was spared the immediate horror of his final moments. Just the way he would have wanted it.
The days and weeks immediately after his passing consisted of a numb haze. I realized then, as I realize now, that I was actually in a profound state of shock. I did things that needed to be done. I ate. I slept. I talked to people. I responded to requests. I even began making plans, with a distant nonchalance – as if they were in reality for someone else. I believe the phrase “going through the motions” would apply here.
I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with being numb. Far from it. Actually, I found that numb was working for me. It allowed me to function, somewhat, without having to deal with the anguish and despair that lurked just beyond the corners of my mind. Numb and I became friends. And if numb ever began to waver, I could always rely on alcohol to shore up and enhance the numbness.
I must have done a pretty good job of “masking” my pain. I went back to work within a couple weeks, and I never broke down on the job. In fact, my façade may have been just a little too good. When I was explaining my “lapses” in cognition, enthusiasm, and productivity to one manager, he actually told me that I did not “appear” to be in grief (to this day I still have no idea what grief is supposed to look like). After all, when his wife lost her Mother, she cried for days in visible anguish. I took this to mean that grief without tears doesn’t count. Oh well, my mistake. If I ever lose a husband of 28 years again, I will be sure to keep that in mind.
Once the total fog in my brain began to lift slightly, the numbness began to be replaced by a sense of confusion – almost bewilderment. Since my husband had passed away at the tender age of 49, the thought of "why?" and "what did I do to deserve this?" were foremost in my mind. Then, as I began talking with others, I "heard myself" say "well, I'm not in charge of these things. It wasn't my choice. That was his fate and his destiny. He was actually reconciled to an early death. And although we were deeply connected, his life is now over. Now I must go on alone. That is my path now."
I need to remind myself, from time to time, that it's not "all about me." God, in his infinite wisdom, will allow the universe to unfold as it is supposed to unfold. It just is what it is. Death is an inevitable part of life, and I must find peace with that fact at some point. And I don't control everything. The only things that I can control, to some extent, are my own thoughts and my own actions.
Days Become Weeks
Some days are better than others, of course. Some days I can go about my daily activities and only think about the life we “should” have had about a dozen times or so. Other days that’s about all I can think about. So I find I must take a new approach, because he was the one who died. Not me. I’m still here, damn it, and it makes absolutely no sense to waste this life that God has given me in a state of perpetual numbness. Every day is a gift, and if his death didn’t teach me that (at least), then I am a poor student, and his loss is only magnified.
So, now, as the days and weeks continue to roll by, I find I must “re-invent” my life. Not with the same, precise, methodical, “in control of everything” certainty as before, but with a new more open and accepting approach. Life is about learning and growth and opportunity, and I must embrace change. Change as an ally can be empowering. Change as an enemy can be more devastating than any weapon ever created by mankind.
I must entertain new thoughts and ideas and people and places and experiences, until I reassemble a new, autonomous consciousness. I am no longer married. I am now, for all intents and purposes, on my own. That is probably the hardest part of all. But it also brings an incredible freedom.
That is not to say that I am not connected with other people. In fact, since his passing, I have made many new friends and established new relationships. I have taken up new activities, joined groups, and even “reconnected” with friends from my past. It’s just different when you are no longer in a formal “pair-bond” as before. Other people view a widow, or a girlfriend for that matter, much differently than they do a married woman. That is also part of the learning process, and each new day brings new opportunities.
So, in the early morning hours, as my day begins to take shape, I must concentrate first on choosing my attitude, and then finding activities and thoughts to support it. I have already learned that the powers of negativity will envelop me, unless I prepare my defenses. In essence, I must choose the light over the darkness, and act accordingly.
I find that I can reinforce a positive attitude with the right music. Usually Bach. “Begin with Bach” I sometimes say to myself. I would say it to my dog, but I find that she has little to no appreciation for baroque music.
I will also write “Today I am grateful for . . . . ” on the daily notes page of my day planner, and fill in the sentence as the day progresses. Sometimes it is something simple like “I am grateful for my early morning walk.” Sometimes it is a bit more profound, such as “I am grateful for the thought process that Sarah stimulated over lunch.” But whatever it is, it channels my thoughts and feelings towards appreciating what I have, and the journey that I am on in life, as opposed to what I have lost.
Grief is a process, and I am fairly certain that I will never “recover” to my original state. Truth be told, I would not want to go back in time, even if I could. Navigating the shoals of life is hard enough going forward. Going back over previous mistakes and trying to correct them is much more difficult than simply learning from them, and moving forward. I will use them as navigational aids, and keep moving.
Which brings us to today, as I begin my Monday morning yet again, and find that a new week beckons. I know that there will be new lessons, some joy, some sorrow, and perhaps if I am very lucky, some love. But whatever the week may hold, first I must choose the light.
Since this was written, I have indeed moved on. I am now happily married again, and have added a step-son and another dog to my family. I am blessed. It is my sincere desire that others can benefit from the sharing of my personal journey, or at least feel less alone in the process.