A Widow’s Survival Guide-17 Tips For Year One

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 motherinlaw 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. It’s actually not ok to throw produce at the elderly couple holding hands in the grocery store.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.

It’s complicated.

I’ve almost done it. The last big “first” without Jesse that we have to make it through is almost here. Twelve out of twelve first holidays/birthdays/anniversaries DONE. Yes, two weeks after Jesse died I actually picked up a calendar and counted them out, because if there is one thing my parents taught me that stands out it’s PREPARE FOR YOUR FUTURE AMANDA, so that’s just what I did…and to my dismay there would be at least one (sometimes 2!) EVERY F’ING MONTH until July. I had no idea how I was going to survive the next 9 months, but I knew if I found a way and somehow made it through them all, then I would magically feel better and be back to shitting rainbows and unicorns like my old self. It’s that simple RIGHT?!?? (Breathe if yes. Recite the alphabet backwards in Japanese if no).

It’s ironic to me that Jesse’s birthday happens to be the last of the firsts, because I actually dreaded his birthday every year. I know that’s going to sound terrible and bitchy and selfish…and maybe it is, but I’ve yet to sugar coat anything when it comes to his death and our struggles and as hard as it can be to talk about, I’m not about to start now. Who Jesse was at his core was a good, good man, and I loved him fiercely, but during the times that he’d hit rock bottom there were sides of him that came out that I hated. And every year on his birthday, that is exactly what seemed to happen.

Before I go any deeper into this, I just want to say that for a long time I felt completely alone in the fact that my grief often feels very complicated. I miss my husband terribly, and I’d do those 10 years with him all over again to have known and loved him. But our relationship was far from perfect, our difficult times were REALLY difficult, there were lies and betrayals and in his death I was left with a lot of questions that will never get answered. On top of my sadness has been a great deal of anger and resentment, and I know now that there are many others who have experienced a similar grief journey. So if that’s you too, with the extremely mixed emotions, the unanswered questions and the closure that will never come, please hear me when I say, you are not alone, and this post is for you.

Jesse and I were a rollercoaster from the very beginning. Our connection was just as much a shock to us as it was everyone else. I was your typical conforming, people pleasing, good girl with the happy childhood and perfectly planned out future. Jesse was the rebellious bad boy with a dark past and sexy AF sometimes brown/sometimes green eyes, who drove a crotch rocket and assumed he’d either be dead or in prison by the age of 25. (Literally his own words) He showed me a side of him though that only a select few, special to him, people got to see, and I knew under that tough guy image was a silly, kind hearted man just trying to find his place in this world.

We fell in love fast and hard, and at 21 years old I was completely naive to what loving someone with addiction struggles and a traumatic childhood actually entailed. I knew about all of it from the very beginning, but in my mind I was going to be the one to “save” him. He’d change, just as he promised he would, and we’d live out a normal life that met the societal standards of grown up jobs, white picket fences and 1.5 children. I laugh and look back now at my young, dumb self, and think HOLD ON HOMEGIRL, because you’re about to go for a ride!

Our entire relationship consisted of extreme highs and lows. When things were good, and Jesse was sober and in a good place mentally, they were really, really good. He was kind and attentive and made sure that we knew how much he loved us. We’d go on adventures as a family or as a couple and laugh and make fun of each other and talk about our future, which always planted in me a seed of hope. But when times got tough, they were really, really tough. Jesse would sink into deep depressions for weeks and even sometimes months, and random dates like his birthday would trigger it. I’d find him in tears in the shower or on our back step. He’d tell me he knew that he had so much to be grateful for and that he loved us, but he still couldn’t escape the pain and the thoughts of wanting to end it. To this day I don’t think he felt he actually deserved any of the good that he had in his life. He also often turned to alcohol to escape and numb the pain, and it made him distant, irritable and angry. I’m not sure at what point I accepted this as my normal, but I did.

You hold on through the lows with the anticipation of the highs.

I did eventually decide that I wasn’t going to be a victim of my circumstances, and I learned how to take responsibility for my own happiness, despite which version of Jesse was going to show up that day. I had to in order to survive. For a long time I was also close minded and thought mental illness was easy to fix if the person just tried hard enough, and addiction wasn’t a disease but a choice. But after living it long enough I realized I was wrong…so fucking wrong. I could see it in his face and hear it in his voice every time we talked about the negative things going on inside of his head. I wanted so badly to help him, but I too was drained and finally realizing that I couldn’t give him the help he needed.

Six days before Jesse completed suicide, he came home and confessed to me that he had been using drugs off and on again. He had finally admitted to himself and to me that he had a problem and he couldn’t do this on his own. He said he wanted to seek professional help and take his life back. I was COMPLETELY BLINDSIDED…how could this be happening and I not know it? I was so dumbfounded, and he actually begged me to get mad..to yell and to scream and to let him have it. But all I could do was look at him and say “I’m just so tired babe.” I had no idea what I was going to do, and it honestly didn’t matter, because three days later Jesse’s brain would begin to fail him and the psychotic breakdown would begin, and three days after that I would lose him forever.

Jesse was a complicated person who had a very complicated past and an even more complicated death. He was an addict. He was someone who struggled immensely with mental illness. And those two things could bring out the worst in him. But he was also the type of guy who would go out of his way to be kind to the elderly. He had a unique connection to animals that I believed truly showed the kindness in his soul. He volunteered hours of his time and energy to help our friends build a memorial garden for the baby girl they lost to SIDS. He believed in doing the right thing and always giving 100%. He was the hardest worker I’ve ever met. He loved his mom. He showed a side of him I’d never seen after our kids were born, giving everything he had to make sure they were taken care of. He was my best friend, and he knew me better than anyone.

We want things to be black and white, especially the difficult things, because it makes them easier to understand, but rarely is that the case. I wouldn’t wish this pain of losing someone you love in this terrible, tragic way on even my worst enemy, but if I can use it to help someone else I will.

Life is so much harder and messier than we ever imagined it would be. But inspite of this, I know there’s still so much good to be found.

To The Girl Who Didn’t Know Better, I Forgive You

It’s been almost 6 months since I lost my person. A half a year since I’ve kissed him, woken up next to him, or heard him say the words I love you babe. And it feels like just yesterday and a million years ago all at the same time. The grief time warp is weird like that, but when you lose your spouse, everything about your life seems to change. Sometimes I even feel like I lost so much of my identity when Jesse died, which is pretty dramatic, but it’s the honest truth. I spent 10 years as either Jesse’s girlfriend or Jesse’s fiancé or Jesse’s wife, and then in an instant I was handed the “widow card” and became none of those things. All of a sudden I’m left to figure out who the hell I am apart from him, as a “me” instead of an “us.” It’s weird, sad, uncomfortable and mentally exhausting.

Marriage is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I loved being Jesse’s wife. If you told me a year ago that someday I’d miss finding his stinky socks right next to the hamper (instead of actually in it) I’d have said you were NUTS. It’s true though, I miss it all, the good and the bad. I’d even let him shove the blanket over my head after he ripped ass one more time if it meant one more conversation at the supper table, one more hug goodbye, one more opportunity to lay on his chest and listen to his heartbeat while watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory…a huge mistake we make in this life is assuming there will always be one more.

It’s hard to explain the rollercoaster of emotions that you experience when you lose someone to suicide. And even though every grief journey is as unique as a fingerprint, I can confidently guess that there is one emotion that is more present than all the others for every suicide survivor….GUILT.

Jesse struggled with PTSD, depression and addiction for as long as I’d known him. The trauma from his childhood haunted him, and it was almost like he would use whatever he could to escape his reality and numb the pain..sometimes it was drugs, sometimes it was alcohol, sometimes it was even video games. I knew that things would even get so dark from time to time that thoughts of ending his life would creep in and that was scary. For many years he was resistant to getting professional help, and I was completely in over my head thinking I could be the one to help him, but I loved him and knew that he loved me, and I hoped that would eventually be enough. (In case you’re new to this, that’s not how addiction or mental illness work)

The first time my grief counselor asked me when I started walking on water I was completely taken aback..I mean YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE MY FRIEND CAROL!! Now you’re accusing me of thinking I’m Jesus!?? But she was right. I spent many years thinking I was capable of saving Jesse, desperately trying to hold on to him. To keep him here. To convince him that living was better than not living. And when I couldn’t. When he’d fall back into the depths of depression and addiction, I’d feel like it was my fault. Like somehow I wasn’t enough or I didn’t do enough or say enough of the right things. Like it was my sole job to fix him. It sounds silly when I say it out loud now, but at the time I was doing what I needed to do to survive a situation I didn’t at all understand.

On October 1st, 2017 my worst nightmare came true when Jesse took his life. And when I realized it wasn’t all just a bad dream, I wasn’t going to wake up, it wasn’t just a sick joke he was playing on me..the guilt started to flood in and completely consume me. The what if’s, why’s, should have’s and would have’s were all I could think about. I didn’t know that emotional pain could make my entire body physically hurt. And even though Jesse is the one who pulled the trigger that morning, I felt 100% responsible for his death.

This is the reality of suicide. The pain doesn’t disappear, it simply gets passed on to someone else.

I had spoken with one of our close friends a few days before Jesse died and asked her for some advice. It was a quick conversation and there was no way she could have known how badly we were struggling, because I didn’t share that with her. I simply took in her response and that was that. Some time after his death, this same friend and I were talking on the phone, and that conversation got brought up. With an intense sadness in her voice she asked me if I was mad at her for not asking more questions that day about why I needed her help. I had been so consumed by my own grief that I had no idea anyone else had been carrying the same burden of guilt for so long. My heart hurt so badly for her, and my thoughts turned to other conversations I’d had. I realized there were so many others I’d brushed off who felt the exact same way as she and I both did…

The friend who sensed something was wrong when she gave him a hug that Friday before. The buddy he had spoken with on the phone less than 24 hours before. The ones who said they wondered if they could have said more or listened more. His mom. My parents. So many people who loved and cared for him and who were also asking themselves those same questions I had spent weeks playing over and over in my head.

But the reality is we’re all holding on to guilt that doesn’t belong to any of us. Just like Jesse spent all those years carrying around shame that didn’t belong to him. We couldn’t love his problems away. Like I said earlier, that’s not how it works.

Jesse didn’t want to die. In fact, just days before his death he told me he was finally ready to start living. He backed those words with actions (something he never did) by attending an AA/NA meeting and even calling around to different therapists in our area. He said he was ready to do whatever it took to take his life back, even if that meant in patient treatment. He wanted to be there to teach our son to hunt and fish and to walk our daughter down the aisle.

This part is important. This is not how Jesse wanted his story to end, and it should be him here using it to help bring awareness and encourage others, NOT the absence of him.

I miss my husband. My kids miss their dad. And I will keep sharing our story over and over and over again if it means sparing even one family from this heartbreak. If you are the “me” in your story, please know that you are not alone, you don’t have to do this alone, and it is ok to forgive yourself. If you are the “Jesse” in your story, please choose life, accept the help, and be here tomorrow.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255


Before My Dad Died

There was a time in my life when I was incredibly confident in my abilities as a mother. I knew exactly what it took to be the perfect parent who raised perfect children. AND THEN…I actually had kids. One unexpected day, (sometime around the beginning of June 2011) I became pregnant and nine months later birthed a REAL LIFE child and holy fuck, shit got real. FAST. I was no longer just using my imagination to raise my future non-existent children…I was officially a MOM and responsible for another human life. Whose idea was it to trust me with this!?! And if that wasn’t crazy enough, I decided to gamble a little bit more and have a second one 2.5 years later. Because if you screw the first one up, it’s always good to have one more try at it, right? 

There’s so much you can’t prepare yourself for until you’re actually in the trenches of parenthood. Have you ever caught diarrhea mid-air in the palm of your hands? Well I have, and it’s definitely as awful as it sounds. One time I actually watched my daughter dip her head in a toilet full of pee. She LITERALLY gave herself a swirly. Tiny humans really are appalling and fascinating all at the same time. In the midst of the crying, whining, puking, poop, mischief and boogers, they can still manage to turn you into an instant puddle with a simple “I wuv you mom.” I wish I could tell all the soon-to-be parents out there that there’s a handbook to get you through every crazy adventure of parenthood, but I truly don’t believe there is any way of predicting or preparing for all of the crap that gets thrown your way.

The moment I had to tell my 5 year old son his dad died was one that will be permanently burned into my memory forever. Watching his little chest move in and out so fast and hard as he tried to choke back his tears and hold it together in front of me..it was one of the worst moments of my life, and I’ve spent every day since worrying about what’s going on in his little mind. I’ve been told he’s reacting and responding like any kid his age would, but naturally as a mom the reassurance of a “professional with decades of experience” isn’t enough. I still over analyze everything he says and does and wonder daily if I’m totally screwing him up. 

T loves to talk about his dad, and it’s been through our conversations that I’ve realized our lives are now forever divided into a before and after. In his little mind, we have the “Before my dad died” memories and then the ones that have come after. He’ll look up at me out of nowhere while he’s playing some days and say, “Hey mom, remember before my dad died” and rattle off some random thing that must have popped into his head. The boy’s memory is insane, he remembers things I don’t, and the wonderful thing about a 5 year old’s perspective is that they typically choose to remember the good. 

In the first three months after Jesse’s death, I found myself drowning in the memories that were tainted by addiction, substance abuse and depression. It wasn’t what I wanted to focus on, but grief is a bitch and unfortunately there is no way of avoiding whatever particular stage you’re in. What is fortunate though, is that I have my boy to remind me that in spite of the bad, there was also so much GOOD. His conversations about the “before” include things like our camping trips, the rope swing at one of our favorite lakes, packing up half the house just to spend a day fishing, how much we loved living on the farm, Sunday morning pancakes and the fact that his dad was a much better driver than me. Jesse was more than his struggles. He was a husband. A dad. A son. A friend. The type of guy who pulled the car over to help a turtle across the road. His presence and his time here mattered. 

It’s scary and overwhelming right now to think about our “after” without him, because so much is unknown. But I do have a huge support system, and even though some days are incredibly lonely, not once have I felt completely alone. When you experience a loss of this magnitude, it’s like you become a part of this club full of really cool and amazing people. A club that no one actually wants to be a part of, but we are due to no choice of our own, so we instinctively learn how to take care of the newbies…those who have been suddenly thrust onto this walk that they never wanted to take. 

My best friend Bri is pretty much like a soulmate if friends could be a soulmate (SORRY HUSBANDS). She’s the Cristina to my Meredith. The PB to my J. The chip to my guacamole. That one person I can say anything to and not be judged no matter how twisted it is. In fact, she finds my awkwardness and inappropriateness hilarious because we are one in the same in that sense. And when Jesse died, she was just there. Most days it felt like all I had to do was give her a look and she knew exactly what to do..because she gets it. 

Bri very tragically lost her first child, a daughter, to SIDS when she was only 2 months old. She’ll tell you that what I’m going through is way worse, and I’ll tell you there’s no way because what she went through had to be worse, but in reality they are both unimaginable things that shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s life story. Parents shouldn’t outlive their kids and wives shouldn’t lose their husbands at 32 years old. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. 

A day or two after Jesse died she, myself and my sister were driving in my sister’s Tahoe on our way to get our outfits for Jesse’s funeral (because EVERY occasion is a shopping occasion), and I remember looking back at her and letting her know that seeing where she is now, 7 years later, knowing how far she’s come and how she was able to find her happy again, it gave me hope that I was going to survive this. I WOULD survive this. Isn’t it incredible how even the tiniest humans can have an impact on someone else’s life? I still think of sweet little Autumn every day. She is proof that your time in this world matters, no matter how long or short it is. 

Jesse suffered terrible trauma as a kid at the hands of someone who was supposed to be one of his number one protectors. It was unfair and something that can’t be made sense of. He let it define him well into adulthood and unfortunately his sad story would end up having an even sadder ending. 

The day my husband took his life I felt like his abuser had won..like he had officially stolen Jesse’s entire life from him. And I know that if I stop living, then he keeps winning, so I won’t. If there is one thing I get right as a mom, it will be mustering up enough inner strength to show my kids that the terrible things that happen to us don’t have to define our whole life. That it’s ok to be sad, because the pain of missing their dad means we loved him, he was real and his presence in our lives was significant; but it’s also ok to laugh and to feel joy in our after. And that we can find our groove and our happy again. 

Because life is hard. And then it’s amazing. And then it’s tragic. And then it’s good again. And we do have a choice where we go from here. 

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger…Or Something Like That

If you look up the word “strong” in the dictionary it will give you the definition: “having the power to move heavy weights or perform other physically demanding tasks” or “able to withstand great force or pressure.” Ok I lied. Google says that. But nobody uses an actual dictionary anymore anyway, and I’m the queen of Google so that’s where I decided to go to figure out why I’ve heard this word 1,597,142 times since October 1st, 2017.

When someone dies, the word strong gets thrown around like freaking confetti, and when you’re living with grief brain you become really great at taking everything everyone says and twisting it to mean whatever fits your emotional agenda for the day. Of course I hear “You’re so strong” quite often, but I’ve also been told “You’re trying to be too strong, it’s ok to let it out,” which causes me to frantically question if there’s more wrong with me than I initially thought, all while trying to muster up some tears to make this person feel better, by giving them the opportunity to pat my back and spend the remainder of their day with my snot and tears wiped all over their shoulder. “You have to be strong for the kids,” is another one that has come in various forms and phrases, resulting in me laying in bed every night remembering how much I nagged my son that day, and envisioning him sprawled out on a therapist’s couch at the age of 40, talking about how he’s never had a real relationship with a woman because his mom couldn’t get her shit together and figure out what being “strong” actually meant.

This is of course, all my doing, because like I said, I’ve become a master at overthinking. People really do mean well, and it’s not their fault, they’re simply trying to find the right words for a situation that doesn’t have any. And the only people who truly get it, who do say all the right things, are those who have experienced a loss of this magnitude…a child, a spouse, etc. I am both fortunate and unfortunate to have several of these people in my life, meaning I wouldn’t wish this pain on anybody but damn it it’s nice to have a few people who understand just how much this stings and how hard it is to navigate your way through grief….because there are as many ways to grieve as there are people living in this world. (An actual licensed therapist told me that, in case you think I’m being dramatic).

And I understand that many people don’t know how to “take” me sometimes. I use dark humor, sarcasm and inappropriateness to deal with just about everything, and it can make almost any situation super awkward. But I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be a victim to my circumstances, regardless of what life was going to throw at me. I never in a million years imagined it would be something this extreme, but here we are so buckle up Susan, we’re doing this.

Most of these people also don’t know our story. Jesse’s story. They weren’t there through the intense highs and lows that are often accompanied by mental illness, addiction and loving someone who has experienced God awful trauma. If you don’t learn to grow from it, you won’t survive it, so that’s what I did. Although I had no idea at the time that I would actually be equipping myself to deal with the fact that life wasn’t about to just hand me lemons, it was going to full on beat me in the face with them.

Watching someone who has EVERYTHING..a wife who loves him, 2 beautiful kids, 1 healthy boy and 1 healthy girl, a good job, friends and family rooting for him every single day, not be able to enjoy or have gratitude for any of it, because he doesn’t feel like he’s deserving of it, just plain sucks. I think this is why even in his absence, with the circumstance being that he literally made the choice to leave this Earth permanently, it isn’t me that I feel sorry for, it’s him. Jesse spent so much of his life in emotional pain. He never got to find peace. He didn’t get to experience the world the way that I see it. And that just seems so unfair.

I know I’ll be ok, and I’ll find genuine joy and happiness again, because I’m not special. Others have been through exactly what I’m going through. They learned how to keep going and so will I.

And because one of the last things Jesse said to me, two days before he took his life, in the midst of his downward spiral, when he was at a point where he was still able to somewhat find his way back to me through the paranoia, depression and psychosis, was “Babe, please do not let this world break you.” I didn’t make the promise right away, but I did a few days after he passed, as I sat sobbing on my bathroom floor, half hating him for what he had done, half pleading with God to bring him back to me. I promised Jesse I wouldn’t let this break me, and I won’t.

I will for the rest of my life be living a constant duality though..one of sadness over his absence and gratitude for the life that is here. And I intend on kicking ass at it in my own hot mess way. To some that might mean I’m trying to be too strong, and to others it might mean I’m not strong enough, because it won’t seem like I’ve completely moved on.

The reality is I’m creating my own path through grief; my own messy, chaotic, unique to me path, toward whatever my new version of happiness is going to be. It has nothing to do with being strong. It’s about keeping a promise to that man that I loved.