Losing a beloved spouse is like being sliced open, with a piece of you taken out forever. Not only will you never get that piece back, but you are unavoidably changed from that time on. You still look like yourself, you may keep the same habits, but you are different.
I have lost two husbands, fifty years apart. The first time I was 24, so young I was still unformed. I had a lot to learn, while taking care of a young daughter at the same time. The pain was intense, and I buried myself in books, which took me to a place where I could escape. Gradually, I was able to live a normal life, and to discover joy again, as the person I was becoming, on my own. I never wanted to remain single, but it took me ten years to find Jerry, a man who complemented me, and who loved me as I loved him. We had almost forty years together.
Now I am mature, I know what I want out of life, and I feel content with the person I have become and am still becoming. It was not even a shock, as it was with my first husband, Jim, when Jerry died, from Acute Myeloid Leukemia. We had been battling Jerry’s two cancers, off and on, for 15 years, but our times together were almost all good. He was always active, and had great vitality.
My two experiences of grief were very different. As a young person, it was devastating. My husband, Jim, completed several years in the Army, including a tour of duty in Vietnam flying medevac helicopters, from which he came home unscathed. After the service, he took a temporary job as a lumberjack for his dad’s lumber company in Pennsylvania. He had applied to several law schools and was waiting to hear if he had been accepted. One day he went to work cutting trees in the woods and never came home. A tree fell on him, killing him instantly. He was 28.
I was in shock and had no idea what to do. I was fortunate enough to be able to live with my parents for a few months. I kept this image of a tunnel; if I could only make it through, there would be life and light on the other side. I clung to that, because I just knew the pain would get better. My brother-in-law, who lost his father when he was a teen, also assured me that time would help me heal, and I kept that message close to me.
About nine months after I lost my first husband, I moved 500 miles away, with my two-year-old, to attend graduate school. By then, I felt strong enough to pursue a life for her and me, although I knew it would be hard.
After losing Jerry, I suffered again, missing my special, unique man who was smart, caring, had many friends and was so full of life. I have been very lonely without him. But this time I have noticed a strange phenomenon. I have felt vulnerable, which is normal, but I have also felt like I am experiencing the whole world for the first time, and really enjoying everything, like a wide-eyed innocent. I am reminded of advice which is given to new widows: don’t move or make any big decisions in the first year. Now I know why they say it! I keep running into people who just delight me, people I had never met or people I knew only slightly. I am enjoying the feeling of being opened up, letting down my defenses.
I am also not afraid; I have this optimism that everything will be fine. There will be challenges, probably some mishaps, but I will be able to weather them. I will soon be entering my second year of widowhood, and I expect it to be full of exciting new experiences.
I should note that this past year of grief has coincided with the covid-19 pandemic. How much of my experiences and attitude could be attributed to that, I wonder? For example, when I meet someone I really like, I can’t decide if I am really delighted with the person or just the opportunity to actually get out of the house and talk to someone! I feel so grateful that a new year is upon us; it just has to be better, which means my life will be fuller, and I will no longer need to be so isolated.
Although I knew about grief, I did not know it would be so different the second time around. Perhaps I was more prepared than I realize, but probably it was just the gift of years of living, and not being blindsided. I feel like my grieving has been easier this time, and I am thankful for that. I have survived, and I am ready for tomorrow, whatever it brings.