Struggles: Loneliness and Rebuilding

I’m often asked what the worst part of this journey is, and at this point, I can honestly say it’s the loneliness.

Not everyone is blessed  to have family or their closest friends living close by.  I have good friends here in town, but we’re all still at that age where there’s work, family commitments, and let’s face it, they still have their spouses. Some even still have kids at home, or they have grandkids already.

Again, I’m not looking for sympathy. This is just yet another part of this journey.

I hear all the time, “At least you still have your son at home with you.”  True, but this is his time. He’s a young adult. He has his entire life ahead of him. It’s not his job to worry about me, hang out with me, or even attempt to take the place of his dad by doing things around the house. It’s simply not his responsibility.  Does he help out? Thankfully, yes! He’s proven time and again that he learned a lot from his dad, and there’s not much he can’t do.  He’s also proven that he’s learned from me. He’s a really good cook! But when I was his age, I was beginning my first year of teaching! All of life is ahead!

The flip side of that coin is finding the time to do everything that must be done while rebuilding a new life. As stated before, not everyone gets a windfall financially when their spouse dies.  For me, I was in transition between jobs at the time of his unexpected death. I’ve wound up in an unexpected, though good fitting, position that requires me to work an average of 45 hours a week.  This means I have to pretty much be available seven days a week, as there are programs offered every day and I’m the boss. Not to complain, but I don’t typically get a usual weekend.  I still have responsibilities with the company I own. Consequently, I work full days on Saturdays. Some may see that as a choice, however, I don’t renege on contracts and I need that income.  So, that leaves Sundays for things like groceries, paying bills, yard work, and whatever else needs to be done.

Which leads back to the conundrum of loneliness.  It’s a double-edged sword of responsibility and loneliness. Am I ready to move forward, have fun, and laugh again? Yes. Can I afford it? Not so much, unless it’s things that don’t cost, like hiking or free concerts, etc.   Do I have time? Some would say to make time, but what at cost? How does one make extra hours in a day to do it all?  Taking time means paying for it later.

I’ve found the best I can do is to plan, plan, plan.  I know that, unless something major happens, I probably won’t ever have the luxury of retirement. I do, however, have control over some things, and choices to make. I don’t have to live here. I’m free to make decisions about my future, and to pursue different options and career paths. I could choose to move closer to friends or family.  I could choose to change professions yet again, although at my age, that’s a scary, although possible, thought.

Whatever happens, and however I choose to face these days, it’s a choice I must make alone.



A Reason?

One of the most hurtful things you can say to someone who has suffered a major loss is, “Everything happens for a reason.”  Really? What’s the reason?

There are so many things people say that can be hurtful to someone traveling this journey.  I could list a hundred of them, as I’ve heard them all, and while every single one of them was said by a well-meaning person, not a single one of them was helpful.

When someone dies, especially unexpectedly, there is no rhyme or reason.

This week, a family in my town has suffered an unimaginable loss caused by a freak accident.  I worry about the kids left behind, after both parents passed away.  I worry about what they’ll really hear amidst all the words spoken to them, what they’ll take to heart, what they’ll remember, and how they’ll process this horrific journey at their young ages.  And I pray no one says to them that everything happens for a reason.

One of my biggest struggles on this journey has been the conundrum of God’s will versus free will.  How does it all work?  I have no clue, and it will probably be the first question I have when it’s my turn to ask Him.  When someone passes unexpectedly, you can’t help but go through the “what ifs” in your mind, even years later.  For me, it’s been, in no particular order:  What if they’d done a chest x-ray earlier? What if he’d been honest about his symptoms?  What if he’d come to bed that last night? What if he’d not been worried about worrying me?

My grandma (or was it dad?) used to tell me, “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, there’d be a party in heaven.”

The what ifs can play with you and deeply affect how you face this journey.

Sometimes there are no reasons.  Stuff happens. Accidents happen.  We don’t have to always know the reasons. But we do have to be present to face whatever comes next, and make a choice in how we respond, both for ourselves, and to others.

Find a Way or Make a Way

Many years ago I heard the saying, “Find a way or make a way.” for the very first time. At first, it  turned me off. Was it saying that I should do whatever it takes to reach a goal? But then I realized that it was, in fact, encouraging me to look at things outside the box and think about less than obvious ways to make things happen.  That saying can certainly apply to this journey of widowhood.

The world rocks on its axis when you lose your spouse.  You don’t realize all the little things they do that now become your responsibility. Stupid little things like changing the light bulb in the fixture at the highest point of the vaulted ceiling can become a challenge. Even cutting grass for the first time and buying a new weed wacker can be a challenge, a cause for celebration when you do it successfully, and even bittersweet because, well, there’s always that little bit of the feeling that he should be here and you shouldn’t even have to do these things!

But beyond the mundane day to day tasks, the home repairs, and maintenance that come up, there’s also the task of rebuilding a life without the one person you planned to live the rest of your life with.  And somewhere along this journey, you realize that they did, in fact, live the rest of their life with you, and you can’t help but have a feeling of gratitude among all of the other feelings.

But how to rebuild?  That’s where “find a way or make a way” comes in.  Sometimes life throws you a real curve ball and you realize that your life is not going to be at all the way you planned or hoped.  Maybe that other old saying about never tell God your plans is true! However, no matter what happens, you do get through. You find a way or make a way. And somewhere along this road, you may get a little braver (or a lot), a little more comfortable in your own skin, and you begin to make a way.  A way that is uniquely yours. And you begin to see how everything comes together to make you who you are now.  If you’re lucky, you may even begin to see a glimpse of what you might like the future to be. (But there goes those plans again!)

I am not at all the person I was almost three and a half years ago when he was still here. I’m in a totally different career, and while I’m good at it and it’s a good fit, I can honestly say that while I like it, it doesn’t feed my spirit the way my other career did. Still, I am grateful for what it’s teaching me, and I’m happy to be in a job that positively affects other people and makes a difference.  Here’s hoping it’s just another step on that trip to making a way.

Would it be great if he was still here? Definitely.  But he’s not.  It is what it is now.  Find a way, or make a way, but realize you’re never really alone.

This week I was blessed to spend my vacation time with a group of people who are like family to me. They’ve seen me at my best, my worst, and have helped me travel this journey in a way I never thought possible.  I realized while with them that, for this week at least, I felt truly like myself again. My spirit was filled (in fact, it soared), and for a few days, I was good enough again.  For this week, gratitude was enough.  Will I ever get to do that again? Who knows?  But for now, I’ll find a way or make a way.



Tough Times

As I referenced before, somewhere along this journey someone said to me, “You have a 100% success rate for getting through rough days.”  It’s true! I wish I could say, “Every day above ground is a good one,” but the reality is, there continue to be some tough times.

Again, I’m not looking for sympathy or having my own personal pity party, although at times it’s tempting, but I really don’t have the patience with myself for that anymore. The reality is, rough days still happen, but now, nearly 3 1/2 years post loss, I find myself just powering through them.

When I started writing this entry, it was the 4th of July.  That was always “our holiday”.  Why? Because July 6th is our wedding anniversary.  We always joked that it was so nice for people to put on such a great party for us each year.  That first 4th of July is when we had our bachelor/bachelorette parties. Every year thereafter, we’d go to the festival uptown and to “our spot” for fireworks, usually joining up with the rest of my family.  Up until Mom died, four years ago today, we always had family come home for the 4th as part of their summer vacation.  Always a good time.

There are so many events that are still difficult, even this far out. I was naive in thinking that this year’s anniversary would be easier, since I’d made it through what would have been our 25th last year. This year, I decided it would be a regular day and went to work, per usual. But as 10:00 came near, my mind couldn’t help but remember our wedding day.  I made it through, of course, but it still was rough.

Facebook can be particularly rough. Again, let me repeat: I’m not looking for sympathy or pity, this is just the way it is.  Seeing everyone’s photos surrounded by family, out with friends, enjoying grandkids, going on vacation…. are all difficult for those who are alone, and for those who are faced with rebuilding their lives. When you’re widowed in middle age, there just aren’t too many to share the journey.  You watch your friends celebrate anniversaries you’ll never have. It’s tough. You see vacation photos and wonder if you’ll ever have that kind of fun again, and you see family photos and wish you had family closer.

Tough times happen.  It’s part of the journey.  Some months are rougher than others.  July is particularly rough for me, even this far out.  Part of me is ready for new things and new adventures, and the other part can’t help but think that he should be here. It’s a double-edged sword.

Tough times, rip tides, landmines, whatever you call them, they still come out of nowhere at times. They can still knock the breath out of you, but thankfully, although still intense, they don’t last as long as they used to.  And it’s not long before you’re refocused on the future again.  Maybe those vacations will happen some day.  Maybe some day there will be someone to have fun with again.  And maybe some day July won’t be as painful, but just a month to look back at past events and be grateful that they happened.


Onwards and Upwards

Onwards and upwards has been my saying since this whole journey began.  Why?  Because it seems to motivate me.  Every time something happens and I get through it, I find myself thinking these words.  It doesn’t mean I like it, but it means I survived whatever was thrown at me.

There are many different ways to interpret these words. They always make me picture a mountain with various paths for climbing.  Sometimes you have to switch paths mid-climb, other times you might need someone’s help to get over an obstacle, but most of the time, once you’ve accomplished it, you’re just a little bit further along than you were before.

Not everyone traveling this messy grief journey chooses to move forward.  For me, after a few months, I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere by just staying in my recliner and wallowing in tears and memories.  I’m one of those people who has to be productive; has to do something.  I’ve never been one to sit around too much, although, as an introvert, I do need my down time.  So, after a few months, I got tired of myself.  It didn’t mean it hurt any less, or that the memories weren’t still throwing me back into the thick of it, but I needed to do something.  I think the first step I made was that spring, when it came time to switch out the closet from fall/winter clothes to spring/summer.  I realized that if I moved his clothes, I could have the entire closet full of all seasons of clothes and no longer have to trek up and down the stairs to make the switch. Closet space is definitely a motivator for me!  Besides, his clothes had long since lost his scent, but yet it was a very difficult decision. Luckily, I found a way to keep some of his clothes, without having them take up space. One of my best friends agreed to make blankets for us out of his dress shirts, and a quilt out of some of his ties.  Once I started going through things, it was a bit easier knowing I wasn’t truly getting rid of all his things, and I soon took over all the drawers of the dresser and chest of drawers, too.  Onwards and upwards.

I also had to do something about an income. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone inherits a windfall when someone passes.  After all, who plans to die unexpectedly at 58 years old? I had quit my job of almost 18 years just 9 months before, which turned out to be a blessing as it allowed me to spend quality time with my mother before she passed away, plus time to work on clearing out our family home.  But, with hubby’s death, the financial fears soon hit.  Onwards and upwards. Time to get things moving! And, while my initial plan didn’t work out, in the long run I’ve landed in a meaningful position that uses my skill set very well.  God is good.

Then there’s the house. Wow, you don’t realize how much your spouse does until they’re no longer here! Not only was there the hurdle of figuring out if I could stay in our home, but there were all the little repairs to be done, the never-ending yard work, and all the bills that roll in.  Talk about anxiety!  Plus, everything still looked exactly as it did when he was still here. That was another tough decision. Sometimes you realize that if you’re going to keep moving onwards and upwards, you need to make changes so that the emptiness and loss don’t drag you down day after day. Just moving a piece a furniture or changing a wall hanging can change the view from what it was when he was here, and make a physical reminder that he’s not going to walk through the door saying, “Hey, everybody!”

One of the first things I did was make a list of all the little things I accomplished on my own. It was quite empowering!  Figuring out how to change the lightbulbs in the fixture on the vaulted ceiling.  Having the railroad ties removed outside and the wall and steps put in (a project we’d planned for that spring).  The first big change I made was to repaint the master en suite.  When we painted initially, we went with a color that he liked that I never really cared for (but I never told him that, since we finally found something he agreed to).  There was no reason not to change it now, and while the furniture placement and items hanging on the wall haven’t changed, that room is now my haven. Since then, I’ve repainted most of the interior of the house and redecorated some. It’s enough the same to still feel like our home, but changed enough to feel like mine.

Having suffered through a lot of losses in a short amount of time, I soon realized that “stuff” was no longer important. I made the decision to surround myself with things that have meaning for me and that make me happy.  Over the years, I’ve collected Santas, as in I had three curio cabinets plus more in storage, totaling over 100 of them.  I’ve since downsized that collection to just one curio and a few bigger ones to pull out during the holidays. Onwards and upwards.

The journey isn’t over yet. I still face the difficult task of going through his garage workshop, and figuring out what tools to keep or give to our son.  Even now, that’s a tough job to think about, and every time I set foot in there, I know it needs to be done, but I just can’t start it yet.  That’s his sacred space. I know I’ll tackle it soon, if only a little at a time, but unlike the other things I’ve done, this one won’t feel as productive, it will only feel like losing another part of him.

Onwards and upwards doesn’t just apply to stuff, though.  As I look back over the last few years, I often wonder if he’d recognize me.  I think nothing now of going to a restaurant and having a meal by myself or going to a movie alone.  I never would have done that before. It would have caused a major anxiety attack.  I think of all the things I do in my job now that just a year or so ago would have freaked me out.  Making calls and just talking to people, visiting schools and businesses…. that all was so out of my comfort zone before.  I’m still not as brave as many of my friends. I know others who travel alone and have no reservations (pun intended) about it.  That’s something I couldn’t do. Just last night I passed up free tickets to an awesome concert because I just couldn’t do it alone, even though I knew I’d run into people I knew once I got there. New situations still scare me and the what ifs take over my thoughts.  Still, compared to the beginning, I know I’ve come a long way becoming more self-assured and assertive.

Holidays are still rough, and sometimes Facebook is not my friend as I watch friends celebrate anniversaries and milestones we’ll never have. I’m not looking for pity, it’s just how it is.

Looking too far into the future can be scary, but I’ve learned to take each day as it comes. There are still days where it feels like I’ve backslid a bit, but just like that mountain trek, it’s always onwards and upwards.



Fake it til you make it

One of the things I hear often is, “You’re so strong.”  Uh, no.  Well, okay, yeah, I can lift the 50# bag of dog food, so I guess I’m a little strong, but I know that’s not what they mean.  Honestly, strength has nothing to do with the grief journey.  And it’s not like there’s a choice.  One day you wake up and realize your entire life has changed, and there’s not a blasted thing you can do about it. No matter what you do, the reality is, he’s gone and gone forever.

So, what do you do? Literally, you fake it til you make it.  Those first days and, if you’re lucky weeks, after the funeral people rally around you and you get through. Sometimes it might just be breath by breath, but you get through. But, eventually, they all go away and you’re left on your own to soldier on.  As much as you’d like to curl up into the fetal position and never leave your bed, that’s not usually an option as there are details that must be attended to. There are medical bills, funeral costs, things to change to your name, the blasted death certificates to get to various places to prove to others that he’s gone, insurance stuff to take care of. The list goes on and on, and they won’t wait. In those first weeks, you have the busy-ness of taking care of all of that. For me, in those first days, weeks, and months, I often said that the only reason I was vertical was because dogs gotta poop!  And in the beginning sometimes being vertical is the toughest part of the day, but you get through it a little at a time.  In some ways, it’s okay because it forces you to get out and do stuff, but at the same time, you can’t wait to get home and just collapse again. Honestly, for me, my memory is that I didn’t leave my recliner for six months other than to do what I absolutely had to do, but those blasted Facebook memories prove me wrong. Apparently, I did get out and do things.  And for me, one of the main things I had to do was find an income!

It’s amazing the things you can force yourself to do, given any particular situation. Believe it or not, I’m an introvert, so I’ve never liked new situations, and I’ve never liked going into places I’ve never been before. I’ve never liked having to walk up to someone and initiate a conversation. My mom liked to tell the story of how shy I was when I was little; so shy that even after riding a school bus to kindergarten for an entire year, I wouldn’t say goodbye to the driver on the last day.  I’ve always been that way.  Now, after three and a quarter years post-loss, none of that bothers me anymore.  Fake it til you make it.

How?  Somewhere on this journey, someone told me, “You have 100% success rate for getting through rough days.”  That little phrase, along with searching for the blessings in each day, got me through.  And somewhere in that journey I started to believe it, and to realize the things I’ve done that I’d never done before.

Some days I wonder if my husband would recognize me now, doing things that before would have sent me into major anxiety.  But I have no doubt he’d be proud of me. And I can thank him for a lot of that; for the things he taught me, for the confidence he gave me, and for the person I became because of our relationship.  During those tough days I can hear his voice in my head telling me I can do it.

As for the make it part, eventually you get there.  I can honestly say that the anxiety is minimal now, unless I let myself look too far into the future and wonder about what might happen.  I can also admit there are days when I am truly happy and I know he’d be proud.  I still miss him every single day, but I know I now have the confidence to take things as they come and, thanks to a wonderful support system of family and friends, I know who I can call when I need advice or help.

Onwards and upwards! (That just might be the next entry…)

Harsh Realities

There are a lot of myths about widowhood, and the realities one must face are difficult and harsh.  I looked at the thesaurus site to see if there might be a better word than harsh, but they all describe the reality very well:  bitter, cacophonous, bleak, severe, unrelenting.  Yes, the reality of life after a loss of this magnitude is all of these.

Before I delve in to this messy business, let me preface this post by saying that I’m not posting this in search of sympathy.  Actually, it’s just the opposite. My hope is that by being brutally honest about widowhood, I might somehow help others to realize what is helpful, should they be faced with helping someone along this journey.

One of the myths of grief is that you “get over it”.  It’s not a mountain to climb, where you reach the peak and then it’s all downhill and easy.  It’s more like a wave with lots of rip currents running through it.  You might be overwhelmed and feel like you’re drowning for awhile, then suddenly it’s all smooth and you’re surfing along the top doing great, when all of a sudden, something pulls you right back under and you feel like you’re drowning again.  Now keep that cycle going, not just for a few months or a year, but for years. Plural.  Because the reality is, there will always be things that drag you back under. It might be a song, a glimpse of someone who reminds you of him, or a joke or a place. You never know what can trigger a grief attack.

This is one journey that could never be wished on anyone.  Imagine, if you will, how many times you speak to your spouse in a day; how many times you text, or think about them and know right where they are and when you’re seeing them again.  Now yank all of that away.  Whether you’ve been married over twenty years like we were or just a few years, it’s still the same.  You will never hear their voice again. Never receive another text. They won’t be on their side of the bed in the morning.  No more coffee made (or in my case, Diet Coke over ice waiting) in the morning. No more shoes by the door, or dirty dishes left on the table by the chair. No more of those little things that drive you crazy.  Other than a recording, if you’re lucky, you’ll never hear their voice again or see their face, except for in photos.  Now take your imagination and magnify that emptiness by about a million, and that’s what it’s like.

One of the myths is that if your spouse died of a long illness, then, “at least you got to have the long talks and say goodbye.”  Yes, maybe, but that doesn’t lessen the loss.  Another myth is that if they passed quickly or unexpectedly, as in the case of my husband, then, “at least he didn’t suffer.”  Maybe not, and I pray he didn’t, but that doesn’t lessen the loss.

I understand that people don’t know what to say, and they fall back on platitudes and what they’ve heard others say.  And there are some people who just don’t “do” death.  It’s easier to ignore than to face the reality that someday it will affect each and every one of us. Mortality is a messy business. No one likes the unknown, although if you’re a person of faith, it’s not nearly as scary.

Another myth is that widows are all okay because at least they got his life insurance.  Guess what? Not everyone has adequate life insurance. Some don’t have any, especially those who die too young and unexpectedly.  Add all the financial mess on top of navigating the loss, and it can all seem insurmountable.   Think about it.  Do you know everything you need to know about your house, insurance, bills, investments?  In most couples, one person knows this information and the other doesn’t.   It’s very rare that a couple sits down and takes care of it all together.  One of the most difficult things can be figuring it all out, and finding out if you can even stay in your own home.

People often think that if a woman is widowed young or middle aged, then she should immediately start dating again.  Would you?  If you’ve been married for more than half your life, would you jump back into the dating game again?

Here’s what it boils down to:  there is no right way to grieve and there is no set way to walk this journey.  Do you feel like dating? Go for it.  Do you not? Then don’t.  Not sure? Then do what feels right.

As for me, yes, I’ve gone on a date.  (GASP!)  I’m very lucky to have very good friends, both male and female, so several months ago I went out on a “real date” with a very dear friend I’ve known longer than I knew my husband.  He’s one of the good guys. There are very few who are open, honest, and as patient as this friend.  And he knew it was awkward for me and didn’t push.  I am blessed that we’re still friends, even after attempting that dating game again.  (Turns out I wasn’t ready, by the way, but I couldn’t have asked for a nicer evening with a nicer guy.)

So, what can you do if you have a friend who’s widowed?  The best thing I can recommend is listen and be there.  People tend to rally around the first few weeks or months after a loss, but the reality is there is no set time limit. There can still be rough patches even years down the road.  I think most widows would agree that the worst part of the whole journey is the loneliness.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have family nearby or kids and grandkids around.  For young(ish) widows, it’s rough because friends all still have their spouses and families, so you’re either on the outside looking in, or you’re the extra wheel.

It boils down to doing what feels right for you.  For myself, I’ve become incredibly brave post-loss. It’s nothing for me to go out to eat by myself now, or go to a movie alone.  I never would have done that before.

It’s a strange mix, this journey.  I often wonder if he’d recognize me now, because there’s so much I do now to take care of things, that I never did before. The rip tides still come and drag me under, but they’re fewer and farther between.  But it boils down to this:  there is no right way to travel this path.  You do what’s right for you.