The one year mark for my husband’s death is approaching, and I’m slightly panicking. I mean, I was under the impression that this was the “hard” year, and if I could just make it through this one then I would magically start pissing unicorns and rainbows again, and also completely have my shit together. As of this morning, the unicorns still haven’t shown up, my kids ate last night’s popcorn for breakfast, and the only real life goal I have is mustering up the courage to clean the last of Jesse’s cigarette ashes out of his pickup’s cup holder. Because even though they keep getting all over me and the bottoms of my coffee mugs, those dumb ashes [that I used to nag him about daily] make me feel like a piece of him is still here….and wiping them away feels like wiping the last of him away. ALSO my mother–in–law just pointed out the other day that after year one we will never again be able to say “at this time last year Jesse was still alive,” and that hit me HARD. I’m not sure where this accepted norm of grieve for one year and then get it together came from, but I’m 100% sure this is going to be just one more failure I have in terms of successful adulting. There’s so much I wish I could go back and tell my one year ago self, and my heart breaks for all the newby widows out there who have been thrown into this messy journey and are being told all of the same ridiculous things. I still remember those first few very dark months like they were yesterday.
Your soulmate is gone. Your world has been turned completely upside down. Everytime you get out of bed your entire body aches with sadness. It scares you that some mornings you wish you just wouldn’t have woken up. You know that nothing will ever be the same, and because of that, you have no idea how to even begin to put your life back together. But you better believe you’re gonna figure it out in the next 365 days because THAT’S THE RULE.
Totally kidding. I mean I’m not, people do actually believe this, but I don’t think there is an actual time frame for any type of grief. There is no other side or end destination to reach. You simply learn to exist in a new normal of duality, missing what was while having gratitude for what is. But just in case you’ve been fed this bullcrap too and have that same ultimate goal of getting your poop in a group by the one year anniversary of the worst day of your life, I’m going to share a few pieces of advice I was given that were actually helpful to me during my first year without my person….and maybe some random things I somehow managed to figure out on my own.
Your year one survival guide:
- Grief is like a fingerprint. In case no one has told you yet, there really isn’t a right or wrong way to do this. Every grief journey is unique to the person walking it. Maybe you had the picture perfect marriage, and in the days ahead will be overwhelmed mostly with sadness, missing what was and grieving the future you had planned with the love of your life. Maybe your marriage was hard and rocky and even full of trauma, so your grief is more complicated, and the person and the future you are missing are actually more of what you hoped and felt they could be, rather than what they really were. OR maybe you’re somewhere in between. Our society likes to think everything is black and white, but most things really aren’t. So just remember there are as many ways to grieve as there are people living in this world, and your walk is yours and yours alone.
- What other people have to say about you is none of your damn business. There will be people who think they know exactly what you should be doing in your time of grief, and they will be very verbal about it. Maybe not always to you, but it will somehow make its way back to you. These same people are almost always the ones who still get to go home to their person every night, have supper with them, tell them about their day and then fall asleep peacefully next to them. They will be judgemental, self-righteous, and sometimes even cruel. FORGIVE THEM anyway. Not just because they truly are ignorant to what it’s like being on this side of loss, but because your peace and your healing are worth your complete and undivided attention, and you don’t have the time to be messing around with things you can’t control. After all, we’re on a one year time crunch here!
- You have one job. For some reason we’ve set this standard that we should be able to turn every lemon into lemonade, and if we can’t there’s something wrong with us. I think that’s crap. Sometimes REALLY bad things happen, and all you can do is simply say this sucks, I fucking hate this, and ride out the waves until they pass. I honestly can’t tell you how I’ve gotten through the past 8,760 hours, but I know every moment I didn’t think I was going to survive I did, and so will you. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok if all you did in a day is just make it through it. You’re going to have good days and bad days and in between days, and on each of them your one and only job will still be to simply survive. You are stronger than you think, and you will make it through. I promise.
- Grief brain is real. Walking into a room and not remembering what you came for. Losing your train of thought mid-sentence. Not even being able to put words together to make an actual sentence. Looking at something as dumb as an apple and not remembering what it’s called….all completely normal thanks to your new dysfunctional brain that will probably never work right again.
- It’s actually not ok to throw produce at the elderly couple holding hands in the grocery store.
- Suffocated by love. I hope you have a family as amazing as mine, who loves and supports you through this emotional shitshow. If you don’t, I’m truly sorry, you deserve better, and remember family isn’t always by blood. But if you do, just be warned that in those first few months they will take that large amount of unconditional love and smother you like peanut butter on toast. You might have parents that worry too much and still as they watch your very mature and independent (80% of the time) adult self drive off in your Chevy crew cab pickup, they picture the little girl with the giant green glasses and blonde ponytail down to her butt, riding off to the swimming pool on her white and teal mountain bike. Or maybe it’s an overly protective older sister, who sometimes mistakes you for her first born child and has made it her mission to never let anyone or anything cause you this kind of pain again. They all really do have your best interest at heart, even if sometimes you disagree about what is best for you and your new life. So set boundaries. Stand up for yourself when needed. But also give them a little grace. Because they really don’t know how else to be there for you. All they want is to take your pain away, and the harsh reality that they can’t, that there is literally nothing they can do to fix this, has them drowning in worry and helplessness.
- The little things. You’re already prepared for holidays and birthdays and anniversaries to suck, but you don’t expect to be blindsided by the first time you make your grocery list and realize you can leave off the Mountain Dew and Little Debbies. Things as dumb as having half the amount of laundry to do and twice the amount of leftovers at meal times will hit you in the gut like a ton of bricks. I still can’t bring myself to watch any of our favorite tv shows. Your spouse was intertwined in every part of your routine, and you’re going to be reminded of this daily for a really long time.
- It’s ok to laugh. I wish you so many deep, pee-your-pants-tears-rolling-down-your-face, belly laughs in the months to come. Not because they are a sign that you’re “moving on” or “over it” [they’re not] but because they are just plain old good for the soul.
- Having a conversation with your husband’s ashes at 1 am to tell him how INCREDIBLY PISSED OFF you are that he pulled such an ASSHOLE MOVE by leaving you to face this insane world BY YOURSELF is NOT crazy. It’s normal. And sometimes necessary.
- Well well well, if it isn’t those feelings I’ve been trying to avoid. When it comes to those “I’m fine” castles that so many of us build around ourselves, I’m pretty much the Queen, so I’m not really sure why I feel qualified to talk about this topic, but I’m going to anyway! Take it from an expert, you can distract yourself with trips and work and people and shopping sprees, and you can self medicate with wine or whatever it is you’re into, but those negative feelings you are avoiding will eventually find you, and when you let them build and build, they tend to come in like a freaking wrecking ball and will wipe you out for days and even weeks. What I’ve learned with sadness and anger, is when I force myself to sit with them for awhile, I can finally let them go.
- That awful feeling deep in the pit of your stomach won’t be there forever. Someone told me this at the very beginning of my journey, and I didn’t believe her until the day actually came when it really was just, for no specific reason..gone.
- You will never be the same. Your view on life and the world around you is going to change considerably, so as you slowly start to put yourself back together, the pieces will probably get put back differently. That’s ok. Just remember in your own hurt you’ve pretty much become a professional at hurting others, and it’s a thin line to cross over for becoming someone you actually don’t want to be. My BFF Bri who has experienced every parent’s worst nightmare with the loss of a child once fed me the perfect tough love line when she said, “You can either let it totally fuck up your life, or you can go forward with purpose.” You do have that choice, and no matter how many times you cross that line, you can always find your way back.
- Move over Beyoncé. Number 13 is probably not going to be anyone’s favorite. You’ll get to the end and say I guess she had some good points, except for #13. I hate #13. She should have left #13 out of this! But it’s something that has consistently held true for me throughout the past year, so I felt like I really needed to include it. I know the last thing you want to do on your darkest days is shower or exercise or even put on pants, but I did find that when I forced myself to do these things, it actually did make a difference. I mean, the fact that exercise boosts your mood through endorphins is LITERALLY science, but taking care of myself physically in any way really did help…sometimes a great deal and sometimes only a tiny bit, but relief is relief on your lowest days. I’m not saying strive for perfection on this, you will have days where you absolutely can’t bring yourself to do anything, and that’s ok. I’m also not talking about running marathons or primping yourself for a beauty pageant. My kids and I like to have dance parties in our living room when one of us is having a bad day (Meredith & Cristina were onto something), and for the first time in my life, I bought teeth whitening kits that I’ll probably use wrong at some point and end up looking like Ross in that one episode of Friends. Small things can be big things when you’re hanging on by a thread. So put on the mascara. Go for the walk. Take the yoga class. Make that hair appointment. Dance it the F out. Just don’t give up.
- Embrace the lonely. I remember the very second after Jesse died, feeling like half of me went with him. My entire identity was wrapped up in who we were as a couple, and I had no idea who I was as an individual. You’re going to hate hearing this harsh truth, but it’s on your most gut-wrenchingly, loneliest days that the biggest personal growth will happen and you will learn the most about yourself. The good news is, in the long run, this will turn out to be a beautiful thing, because self awareness is going to be a big part of your healing. Walking into a public place alone used to give me a full on panic attack and now at least once a month I take myself out on a date, whether it’s to dinner or just to belly up to a bar and people watch. Even though I’m totally weird and awkward I love meeting new people, especially those who make me laugh, because I believe laughter truly is the best medicine. I have a newfound appreciation for music and have realized I actually love concerts and live music. I love sunrises and sunsets, road trips with my tiny humans, drinking coffee in the quiet of my backyard and sitting in bed with a glass of wine watching trashy reality tv after the kids have gone to bed. A year ago I knew none of these things about myself, or I at least didn’t pay attention to them. Open up your heart and your mind to finding out who YOU really are and learn to love that person. Take yourself on dates. Figure out what brings you joy and give yourself permission to do it. Life is short and time is precious and nothing is guaranteed. But you already knew that, because life shoved that reality down your throat the day your person died.
- I’ll see your awkward, and raise you an inappropriate dead husband joke. People are weird about death, and they certainly don’t like to talk about it. So don’t be surprised by the appalled looks, when you finally grow tired of people asking what your husband does for a living and start answering with “THAT MOFO HASN’T LIFTED A FINGER IN MONTHS”….and then of course precede to tell them you’re only messing with them, he died. There will be only a few very special people in your circle who will share in your dark humor. Hold on to them for dear life.
- If you would’ve known better you would’ve done better. I used to think suicide widows were unique in the amount of guilt that is tacked on to our grief, but I’ve learned that this dirty G word is actually ruining lives everywhere. There are so many what if’s in every scenario, and self forgiveness is probably one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to healing. I hope for you just as much as I do myself, that one day you can truly forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know at the time…for not making him go to the doctor sooner; for not seeing the signs that she was depressed; for not being the one in the drivers seat; for not calling for help soon enough; for not knowing that the last time was going to be the last time you would get to hug him or kiss him or say I love you. You are no more and no less human than the rest of us, and you do deserve to let that guilt go.
- Welcome to the club. It didn’t take long for me to realize that when you join the widow world you basically become a part of a super sucky club full of really cool and amazing people. A club that none of us actually want to be a part of, but we’re here nonetheless, so we look out for each other. I’m so insanely grateful to those in the club who have reached out to me in the past year. There is comfort to be found in people who truly “get it.”
It’s awful, looking at someone else who’s about to walk into these flames and knowing the hell they’re about to endure. I wish I could say that we’ve all collaborated to come up with the perfect blueprint for navigating your way through it to help you avoid having to feel the intense and maddening pain of loss, but unfortunately that just isn’t how this works. One of my “widow mentors” (If that’s not a thing it should be a thing) once told me, there is no way around grief, you have to hit it head on, and you and only you are the one who can push yourself through it. My goal in writing this was never to tell you how to heal. My truth and my experience are mine and vice versa, and you need to learn how to navigate this, in your own time and in your own way.
And one last thing, from one widow to another,
I’m sorry you’re here. I’m sorry you’ve been forced on this walk you never wanted to take. I’m sorry that life has punched you in the face and given you the worst lemons you’ve ever tasted. I’m sorry for every time you will wake up and reach over to their side of the bed, only to find it’s still empty. I’m sorry you’ve had to pay the ultimate price that comes with allowing yourself to love someone so deeply. I’m sorry, so incredibly sorry, you lost your person.