How to Cope with the Sudden Death of a Spouse 33

Coping with the sudden and unexpected death of a husband

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. This week, Sarah Keast shares her hard-won wisdom on coping after the sudden and unexpected death of a partner.


Sunlight danced through the cottage. Squeals of joy echoed from the lake as my five-year-old swam with my dad. The baby monitor hummed as my two-year-old napped in a pack and play covered in a mosquito net. Hot, sticky sweat rolled down my leg as I watched my mom answer the phone and quietly whisper, “Okay, I’ll tell her.”

The world continued to turn as mine was about to explode. My mom hung up the phone, walked towards me with tears welling in her eyes, and said: “He’s dead.”

The walls caved in, the floor fell away and the room went dark. Distantly, I heard someone screaming in sorrow. As my mom’s arms wrapped around me, I realised that the person screaming was me.

On August 7th 2016, my husband, my best friend and my partner in life died unexpectedly from an accidental heroin overdose. He had struggled with depression, anxiety and substance use disorder for half of our 16 years together. The life and love we had built was gone in an instant. Like a magician’s trick, he left this earth in a puff of smoke. He was here – and just like that, he was gone.

 

My advice for coping with the sudden death of a spouse

How do you go on when you get a phone call like that? My world ended in a split second. Yet somehow, I was supposed to pick myself (and my young kids) up and carry on? I could barely catch a breath, let alone cope with this sudden and devastating loss.

It wasn’t pretty, and I cried a lot. I screamed a lot. I laughed a lot. But somehow, I got through the early days of this unimaginable nightmare. And as I sit here now, 2.5 years later, I can see that there are a few things that I did that helped me cope and made those days a teeny tiny bit more bearable.

 

1) You will feel ALL the feelings

You are now on a roller-coaster ride called grief. You did not sign up for this ride, but you got thrown on it, so hang on tight.

I would find myself completely frozen and numb, and then five minutes later I would be sobbing. Half an hour later, I would be screaming, “Fuck you for dying” at my husband’s pictures. I’d find myself overwhelmed with relief that my nightmarish life living with and loving someone struggling with substance use disorder was over. Then the guilt over feeling relief at his death would crush me, and I would be frozen and numb again.

Whatever feeling(s) you feel are normal. Feeling them all in the space of five minutes is also normal. Be with whatever feeling comes. Lean into each feeling, let it move through you.

Early on, I’d beat myself up over most of these feelings. I thought I was only ‘supposed’ to be sad. I didn’t know that the other feelings were also normal. In fact, whatever feeling(s) you feel are normal. Feeling them all in the space of five minutes is also normal. Be with whatever feeling comes. Lean into each feeling, let it move through you.

The feelings are all there inside of you, and if you push them away or ignore them or stuff them down, they only *temporarily* go away. They need to come out, so give yourself grace and let them.

 

2) Ask for – and accept – help

I could barely think straight, let alone cope with the demands of daily life in the days, weeks and months after my husband died. I quickly realised I couldn’t do this alone. I had to accept help, as humbling as it was to do so. You simply cannot manage grief and daily life on your own.

Coping with the sudden loss of a partner

My friends and neighbours organised a meal train for me where people signed up to bring my family a meal each night. I accepted these meals every night for months with gratitude – and embarrassment, and shame. Why couldn’t I handle everything? I’d yell at myself.

But as the nights of delicious home cooked meals continued, I could feel the difference it was making in my days. I cried tears of relief after the first snowstorm that winter when I was struggling to get my kids out the door for school and I realised my neighbour had shovelled my driveway. I suddenly understood how much people wanted to help me.

Letting go of those useless feelings of embarrassment and weakness was so helpful. I embraced the help that people wanted to give me. Accepting their help meant that while others dealt with the day-to-day stuff of my life, I could focus on the things that mattered: coping with my grief and parenting my kids through this nightmare. So: let people help you. They want to help. You do not have to do this alone.

 

3) You are in charge of your grief journey

The world, and especially the western world, is terrible with how we approach grief. Everywhere you turn, there is pressure to ‘get over it’, ‘move on’, ‘find closure’. Ignore those messages. You are in charge of this journey. You do not have to get over this when someone else tells you to.

You may well grieve your entire life. The way you grieve and what you feel will change, but in some way, shape or form, your grief will always be with you. This is okay. You will find ways to integrate your grief into your life and to move forward in your life, but this takes time.  

It’s okay to cry, yell, laugh or say nothing. You are the only one who knows what is best for you. There is no right time to do any of these things and there is no wrong time. There is only the time that is best for you. Listen to yourself.

In the meantime, keep your house as is and don’t move a single thing of his/hers, if that’s what you want. Or do as I did, and get rid of everything in a grief fuelled rage and re-decorate immediately – if that’s what you want. Date whenever you want. Say no to invitations to family events or holiday celebrations if they seem too hard or too overwhelming. Or say yes to every invitation, if you want the company and distraction. It’s okay to cry, yell, laugh or say nothing. You are the only one who knows what is best for you.

There is no right time to do any of these things and there is no wrong time. There is only the time that is best for you. Listen to yourself.

 

4) Care for your basic needs

Eat. Drink water. Sleep. Move. Shower. Simple things, yet they can do wonders to help you through this nightmare. I couldn’t figure out why I was so thirsty for the first few weeks…and then it dawned on me: oh yeah – I’ve been crying for days, so I must be dehydrated! Upping my water intake helped immensely.

I also went to a lot of hot yoga classes early on. I felt like I was literally wringing the grief out of my body with every posture. I was sweating so much that no one could see all the crying I was doing! It was so cathartic.

Grief saps all of your energy, and I felt like I was moving through cement most days. Anything you can do to replenish your energy is so helpful. Treat your body and mind with loving kindness as you journey through this nightmare. And yes, that may include cookies and ice cream as needed.

 

5) Find your tribe

Coping with sudden death of spouseLosing your spouse suddenly is a completely life altering and isolating experience. My long-time girlfriends have shown up for me in spades since my husband died, but all of their partners are still alive. They want to understand what I’m going through, but they can’t. The truth is, you can’t truly understand unless you are going through it too.

Find your tribe, so you don’t have to navigate this nightmare alone. There are online groups for widows and widowers on Facebook. You can follow other widows and widowers on Instagram. Find a support group in your area. Use your networks to find others like you.

Once you do, it’s a beautiful thing. I would never wish for my husband to die, but because he did, I’ve met some amazing women who have been instrumental in my grief journey. I am so thankful that I found my tribe. I’m not sure I would still be standing today if I had not.

Losing your spouse suddenly is earth shattering, life altering and indescribably painful. But you will survive this. You will thrive again. I cannot tell you when, as it’s different for everyone. But you will. Until then, just breathe. It’s the only thing you have to do in this moment. Breathe. You can do this.

 


Sarah Keast is a writer and activist, raising awareness around addiction and mental health. You can hear more from Sarah on her TEDx talk here, and on her blog, Adventures in Widowed Parenting.

 

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33 Comments

  1. I came across this article by google. I have very recently lost my fiancee to heroin. I woke up 5am in the morning on February 6th and he had passed away right beside me. Immedently I started cpr thinking I could save him because he was still hot and sweating and had all his color. But despite my best efforts, he never recovered. Later, his mother informed me that in his system at the time of his death was carfentanil meth and heroin. A EXTREAMLY deadly combination. He had taken a fancy to speedballin. She told me that it had killed him instantly and there wasnt anything I could have done. In fact, it was a good think I had been asleep, I didnt have to watch him die. I still feel guilty thinking if I had been awake I could have saved him. That was barely 3 months ago. I lost my mother a month later. I have been dealing with extreme grief and in the rural community I live in there really isn’t any support groups for this type of thing. Can you recommend anything? I feel as if I am losing my grip on reality from all the mental agony. Thank you,

    1. Hi Pamela,

      We’re so sorry about your loss. If you’re based in the UK, we recommend reaching out to Cruse Bereavement Care, who can direct you to local bereavement support in your area. Their website is: cruse.org.uk. There’s also Samaritans, who run a 24/7 phone line for people who need to talk — you can call them on 116 123.

      If you’re elsewhere in the world (as many of our readers are) then you can check the directory here to find an organisation in your area: https://www.suddendeath.org/guides-for-suddenly-bereaved-people/bereavement-directory.

      Sarah, our writer, is a member of the Hot Young Widows Club, which is an informal Facebook group for people who have lost their partner. It’s a lovely, non-judgemental space to talk and share your story with people who really understand what you’re going through. You can find out more about them here: https://www.hotyoungwidowsclub.com/

      We hope this helps,

      The Beyond Team

      1. I lost my husband 4months ago suddenley in hospital…he only was admitted in hospital for observation…i never forgot the shock and horror i felt…awaiting now for a inquest since this virus took over thats been cancelled…i have a feeling of desparation everyday ,its vile ,i feel im in a buble and carnt get out….

    2. Hi Pamela,

      My story is almost identical to yours and only happened a week and a half ago. I’d love to connect if possible (and allowed) my email is [email protected]. I feel like I am dying inside and I can never catch my breathe…

      I came home to find my fiancé extremely high on heroin and meth. I spent all night with him trying to help him through the comedown and trying to take him somewhere but he refused. Finally at 2am he insisted he’d be okay and I should go into the other room to sleep. I’d check on him every 30 minutes and finally hit a point where I fell asleep for an hour. I went to check on him and found him unconscious and not breathing. I did Narcan, CPR and 911, but it was no use. The pain of knowing I was just right there is terrible… I feel like my soul has ripped out of my chest.

      1. My husband of 17 years whom we have a 5 and 7 yr old died in February of heart failure while we were all eating breakfast. He was on dialysis due to drug abuse but was clean and on the list for a donor. High potassium caused his heart failure. I don’t know how to continue with my life. If it wasn’t for our kids who are much stronger than I, I wouldn’t be here. Any one know of young window support groups? I need support from those who are going through the same as I, not some elder widow who spent a lifetime with their partner. My soulmate was taken and now I feel broken.

        1. Hi Amber, My name is Colleen and I lost my husband unexpectedly 10 days before this last Christmas, and have an 8 year old son and 2 year old daughter. I’d love to have someone to talk to. It has been 4 months for me but I feel as though things are getting worse, especially with summer coming. I can’t handle a world without my husband in it and I can’t imagine being a little kid with no father. I ache daily for my kids.

        2. My condolences to you and anyone who was blessed to have known your husband Amber Jean. Please reach out to me. I am a young widow who just experienced a sudden loss of my husband. It’s earth shattering and I’m interested in the support group as well.

        3. Hi Amber. I lost my soulmate, my partner, my husband, in May, i also have 2 kids 7 and 10 years. it was a sudden shock, we were married for 17 years and he died 4 days before our anniversary. I am lost and i understand your pain. its so sad we had to go through this. I came acrose this article from searching on google. Thanks to author for this article and I am also looking for support group

  2. Hi I just suddenly lost my better half 3 days ago. He passed away at the age of 34.

    I can’t explain what kind of sadness i have.

    I know,life must go on especially that we have an 8 year old beautiful daughter, but whatever i do, whatever i think, no matter how much i try to convince myself that everything’s gonna be fine, i am still in deep sadness.

    I hope you can help me.

    Sincerely,
    Anna

    1. Hi Anna,

      We’re so sorry to hear about your loss. There are a few things that we can suggest that might be able to help.

      Cruse Bereavement Care (if you’re in the UK) will be able to point you towards local bereavement support in your area. Their website is: cruse.org.uk. If you want to talk to someone more quickly, there’s the Samaritans, who run a 24/7 phone line for people who need to talk — you can call them on 116 123.

      Just in case you’re outside the UK. you can check this directory to find a local organisation: https://www.suddendeath.org/guides-for-suddenly-bereaved-people/bereavement-directory.

      We can also suggest taking a look at the following Facebook group and website -https://www.hotyoungwidowsclub.com/ It’s run by Sarah, who wrote this article. It’s a really nice informal Facebook group for people who have lost their partner. It’s a safe space to talk and share your story.

      We hope this helps,

      The Beyond Team

  3. I lost my husband 2 months ago, it was a sudden and tragic death , he was 44 years old. He was admitted to hospital with this virus he was not monitored well, no escalation of care and no agressiveness of treatment given to him by doctors, they didnt considered his risk factors. As a nurse myself I felt hopeless and useless becasuse I had this virus the same time with him but I survived at home with our 10 years old son. We sent him to hospital at early stage of shortness of breath and decreased oxygen saturation to prevent deterioration. On his 9th day in the hospital , 4 hours after we spoken to him, I was picked by the police at home and was told straight away as I openned our door that I need to go to hospital my husband had cardiac arrest, when I arrived in hospital I was told that he was found dead lying on the hospital bed in a normal ward with CPAP Machine without monitor and only 2 patient in the bay. Until now im in the state of shocked and devastated. Im emotionally and psycholigically drowned. Me and my son was traumatized with his death and I cant go back to my profession anymore I lost my trust to my fellow health care workers, both myself and my huband were frontliners but our family was a victim of nhs negligence. We are still waiting for the inquist until mext year.

    1. I am so sorry I completely understand I am nhs worker on the frontline me and my husband have worked through the the pandemic I contracted the virus and he contracted it from me he was hospitalised and passed away 1 week ago I am heartbroken x

    2. I’m shocked with the similarities in your story to mine, my hubby 2 weeks shy of his 44 bday passed 5 days ago, Covid positive, admitted due to shortness of breath. Kept due to pneumonia and when everything pointed in the way of recovery, he went into cardiac arrest and we lost him.

    3. Hello
      I am very sorry for your loss. I had been married 39 years,we had never been parted until my wife passed away.
      As a young man i was knocked over by a car. To be honest i had about 12 operations and i learned to walk again.
      I could not speak highly enough of the nurses and NHS staff then.
      My wife had been very ill .she had m/s. I was holding her condition stable. She had a seizure ,was rushed to hospital.
      In the end my wife had a cardiac arrest. She then passed away.
      I now feel my wife was not monitored properly . She was not cared for properly.
      I also feel she was a victim of NHS negligence. I also am now in shock and traumatized.
      Please feel free to reply.

  4. I lost my husband a year ago due to “sudden death” so there is no rhyme or reason he died, there was nothing reported in the post Mortim.still to this day I wonder why an how he died.I found him in the lounge just before I was going to pick up our twin boys which then were 16 an going through their gcse.My heart sank when I found him laying there, he was fine in the morning an had lunch etc, it was his day to work from home.I tried cpr on him but deep down I kinda knew he was gone.The hardest thing I have ever done in my life was to pick up my boys an bring them home to tell them that their daddy has passed.They both collapsed in kitchen an while this was all going on I had paramedics police etc here.my boys wanted to see daddy, how sad that was to see their faces as they say their last goodbye to him.I have contacted cruise but there is waiting list an unfortunately the Samaritans don’t really help,they do not give you advice but are just a listening ear.I ended up getting my son private counselling, an I myself ad counselling which I did not find helpful at all.very sad days ahead what with Covid also.I think we should call it the “Double new normal”Be Safe

    1. I am very sorry for your lost and your children’s lost of their father. My heart goes out for you. I understand how you feel because my late husband’s sudden death make me feel to take my life and go with him. I went out to vote on 11/2/20 and told him I’ll pick up some tacos and my last vision of him was he was watching TV and said “sounds good”. An hour later, I came back and I said here’s your tacos. No answer and can’t find, I came back to the bedroom and saw him laying on his stomach. I started to yell and pull his hand but no reply. Called the 911 and tried their best for an hour and so. The paramedic & police asked me to call a friend or a minister, I said what happened ? The said I’m sorry. I was frozen. When the coroner came and took his body, the police officer told me not to look, I appreciate his advise. The reason is still pending and would take 2 months (February 2021)for autopsy & toxicology report.

  5. i lost my beautiful wife after 3 years of successful marriage life due to leukemia blood cancer. After cancer detection, she survived for 15 months and then she died by May 13, 2020. I never expected that my wife leave me but still unable to get from that shock and pain.
    Please suggest me to get relief from this hard pain.

  6. I lost my fiance suddenly to a car accident on November 28 2018he was my everything the father of my two kids and my best friend life has been hard there r up and downs I thank god every day for my children he lives on in them

  7. I lost my boyfriend of 3 years a month ago. We went out on a Sunday had dinner and cocktails and enjoyed each others company at home. I went to bed since I had work the next day and we told each other Goodnight I love you. When I woke up he wasn’t in bed and I went to the bathroom. I found the door locked and no response from inside, i panicked immediately calling out for him to no avail. I had to unscrew the door handle since it was locked and I found him inside. He was on the floor, with a needle next to him. I called 911 and when they arrived only 3 minutes later they told me he was already dead and there was nothing I could have done. I fell to the ground and screamed and asked if I had to call his parents who lived in his home state, i was told I should. I called them and told them I found him unresponsive and he passed, his father instantly asked if he OD’d. I feel heartbroken as I never knew he had this issue, i found a needle once but he told me it was a one time try and I had no reason to believe otherwise. Apparently he had struggled w Opioids since he was 16, but had been clean the last three years while we were together, he passed at 31. Half his life struggling and I didn’t know and couldn’t help. The tox results showed it was a mix of alcohol and fentanyl, something that basically always causes death due to the respiratory issues caused. I dont know if he wanted to kill himself with that mix intentionally, if he asked for something else and got this, if he missed the dosage, or if he didn’t know his tolerance from not using in so long. I pray he is at peace now, but I struggle everyday with the feelings of heartbreak losing the man who intended on marrying me, the anger I feel for not knowing, the regret of not staying up later, the sadness of his opportunities gone, but mostly the pain of his absence. I’m only 25 and we planned on getting married, having children, and living our lives together and now I have buried and cried over him. I truly hope those struggling find help and peace and no one has to lose anyone to this again.

  8. almost 4 years ago my son died 2 weeks after his 21st birthday. I’m 78 years old now,so do the math. It was suicide i’m sure induced by the impairment of his mind, severe schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations I don’t know why I haven’t deleted this already just that I wanted those suffering such a loss to know what helped me. I looked up at a dark gloomy night sky and told God “I will not curse you I will not condemn you I will never leave you.” Next morning weeping on the front lawn I looked up again and told God, “I’m really pissed at you.” God replied, “I’d be pissed too.” Me and God got through this. I know Jack is happy with him.

  9. I lost my husband of 14 years to alcoholism just 6 weeks ago. My chest hurts, I can’t stop crying and there are times I just can’t breathe. I’ve just recently reached out for grief counseling. Any help you can provide would be great.

    1. Hi Laurie!
      It’s been just over 2 years since I’ve lost my husband of 30 years, from a sudden heart attack and it still hurts.
      I have come to realize that everyone griefs in their own way and for their own period of time. I more or less cried endlessly grasping for air for the first couple of months. This slowed down tremendously the last past year.
      It still happens once in a while but now I feel better inside, afterwards. Almost a happy feeling like I’ve been close to him.
      It will lessen as time goes by.

  10. My husband and I were to celebrate his “44” birthday after he got a few hours of sleep since he just off in the morning from work. I said I’ll wake ya in a few hours and we can officially celebrate his bday. After I ran at the beach, picked a few groceries and came home. I went to see my husband and gently caressed him but he wasn’t moving. I turned him over and he was purple. I called 911 and started CPR after I moved him onto the floor. He was gone, no pulse, vomit exiting his mouth, pupils pinpoint. My husband started his 2nd career in nursing after 20years of serving in the U.S.Navy. We were finally going to be on the same schedule and started making plans; roadtrips to see the wonders of America, surf trips, possibly moving back to Hawaii. It’s been 2weeks and have wonderful support but I feel so lost. I’ve been a nurse for almost 20 years and have had my experience with death. I know God has a plan for everyone but why so soon for my Tim? What am I suppose to do now?

    1. omg. My heartful condolence. I lost my husband 4 days ago our anniversary which we were planning to celebrate and last week celebrated his 43rd birthday without him. I understand how much it would be hurting you. lots of prayers… same question I have, and trying to find answer.

  11. I lost my husband in December 2020 due to liver cancer. He died within 3 weeks of the diagnosis. I am a nurse. I feel so guilty thinking why did I miss it. He had a big tummy and it was getting bigger. He was diabetic and his blood sugar was erratic. He was loosing weight.
    He did not like going to the doctor especially during the COVID season. I feel sad, angry and guilty. He had a physical in September, 2 months before his death. The I am trying to make peace to myself.

    1. Mary, I feel your pain, my husband had a blockage in his bile duct, he had three symptoms over two days. He spent 5 days in out local hospital trying to ascertain what was going on. He came home for the weekend and we told our friends and our four children there was a possibility it was bile duct cancer. He went into a specialist hospital for another five days, got more tests and scan done and a bile drain put in. He was allowed to come home for two weeks. He wasn’t ill, he wasn’t in pain at all. He went back into the specialist hospital and had a 12 hour operation to remove the blockage. Everything went downhill from there, he never woke up. We had four weeks of hoping he would recover and that the liver would regenerate but unfortunately everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We went to end of life care on 12th March this year. To say we are devastated is an understatement, he truly was my soul mate. We were stronger together and now he has gone I don’t know what I have to do anymore. I am sorting everything out so my children don’t have , I’ve planned my funeral so they don’t have that pain. Then I will wait til I can join him. I have no clue why this happened , he was only 50 and didn’t deserve this. Nobody does.

  12. My partner and I were best friends, I truly believe he is my soul mate. We had our ups and downs but we laughed together a lot and be never failed to make me smile. We owned a home together and had been living together for over 6 years. He was the fittest, healthiest person I knew and only 31. Just over a week ago, the police were at the door, he’d been in a car accident and died on impact. My world has changed forever, and I’m struggling to find a reason to continue. I know people find a way to cope, but I really don’t know how they find the strength to do it. I feel immense sadness but also anger, he took such care of his health, did everything right, and has been taken away in the blink of an eye.

    1. i am so sorry for your loss,i too lost my husband and soulmate 7months ago,he was my world and was only 34 and he did everything right and we were so happy.i was left with 2 kids 8 and 4.the kids do better because they know they can depend on me but i feel so lost and alone,my other part died too i just have to breathe for my kids sake but for how long.it’s devastating.

  13. Sorry for your loss! Two weeks ago I lost my husband of 18 years suddenly and without warning. I heard a noise in the night and went to investigate and found him in the bathroom. I attempted CPR (I am a nurse) and EMS worked for over an hour to revive him but nothing worked. The medical examiner ruled the death “natural causes related to cardiac arrest”. My husband was 69 years old. At this time I feel like I’m waiting for him to return from a trip to visit his daughter. When I hear a truck driving by the house I look to see if it’s him and then I see his truck in the driveway and reality smacks me in the head. I frequently hear my mind say “my husband is dead”. I guess my brain understands something my heart has yet to accept.

  14. My husband died suddenly 2 weeks ago. I spent the first week,with family and friends but now I just want to be home alone with our pets and grieve. My family & friends think I shouldn’t be alone but when I am around others I feel like I am helping them with their grief instead of dealing with my own. How can I help them understand? Or are they right?

    1. Hi. I lost my husband on April 16th suddenly. He was told that he was extremely healthy just a day before. He was found on a trail behind our house.

  15. Hi Everyone
    Reading your stories, I feel the pain all over again,
    My husband was murdered exactly 5 years back, My brother died of cancer October 2020, which spiritually I faught with and for him till the last day, my fiance died on christmas day 2020 of covid, every situation in life i need to be there for everyone especially my beautiful daughter which is now 16, but we tend to stand alone for we have no one there for us, we need to stay the warriors and the strong ones, till you get those days where you just crawl in to bed and never want to get up, the complete feeling of lonelyness which no one else knows about because remember in their eyes we are the strong ones, sometimes i think how strong must you be, how much should you lose, and then i just shed tears, wipe them and pretend Im 100% alright inside:-(

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How Soon is Too Soon to Date Following the Death of a Spouse? 0

dating after loss of a loved one

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. This week, Jessica Marcellus takes on the tricky issue of when to start dating after the death of a partner.


Two years ago, at Christmas time, I sat on the couch beside my husband Dan, the room aglow with the soft reds and greens of twinkling lights woven around a freshly cut balsam fir. Notes of Christmas carols drifted into the room from a staticky old radio in the kitchen, the volume dialed low; the room was otherwise quiet.

Using the firm, protruding surface of my nine months pregnant belly, I folded a tiny mountain of freshly laundered infant clothing. I held each cotton onesie, each fuzzy sleeper over my abdomen, marvelling that the kicking, squirming little stranger inside me would be wearing these clothes in just a few short weeks.

After a while, Dan spoke, breaking what had been a sustained, evening-long silence between us.

“What do you think you’ll do with your rings?” he asked. “After I… you know.” He didn’t elaborate further. But I did know. After he died.

Dan had brain cancer. He had been diagnosed with the horrific, inoperable tumor just two months earlier. And now, here we were, trying to wrap our heads around the fact that he likely wouldn’t live to celebrate our child’s first birthday. All this at a time when most parents-to-be were worrying over whether to paint the nursery Chambray Blue or Cape Cod Gray.

“What do you think you’ll do with your rings?” he asked. “After I… you know.” He didn’t elaborate further. But I did know. After he died.

I bowed my head, glancing down at the diamond ring on my left hand, its princess-cut stone glinting prettily in the multicolored glow cast by the tree lights. I studied the platinum setting, then each tiny inlaid stone of the matching wedding band, the prolonged scrutiny an attempt to hide the heat that had sprung to my cheeks, the water in my eyes.

Aware that several minutes had gone by, I finally looked up to meet his gaze. There were tears in his eyes, too.

“I couldn’t imagine taking them off,” I admitted, truthfully. He nodded. Paused.

“Well, I’d hope you would get married again someday.” He said it matter-of-factly, but the magnitude of his words hung in the air between us, palpable.

“Me, too, honey.”

To this day, I consider myself lucky, in a sense, that Dan vocalised his wish for me to find someone else after he was gone. Some people, especially those who lose their partners suddenly or unexpectedly, aren’t granted the luxury of this formal approval. Others still never have a conversation such as ours due to the discomfort it could induce.

But regardless, I suppose, of a deceased partner’s thoughts or wishes on the subject, the topic of finding love again will inevitably cross the minds of most, if not all surviving halves at some point. The question, then, becomes: how soon after loss is it appropriate to begin dating?

The simple answer is, of course, that there isn’t one. Or, what every information-seeker wants to hear: it depends. But really, it does. So many factors are at play in deciding when to reenter what can be a simultaneously ominous and exciting dating scene.

Was your partner’s death sudden, or expected? Did it happen as a result of a long illness? Did you have children together? Would you like to have more someday? Do you feel well supported in your grief? Are you ready to risk more heartbreak, after already experiencing an unimaginable one?

In my case, the first six months after Dan died were spent focusing solely on raising my infant son and figuring out how the hell to survive on my own. I had no energy, no space in my soul, for anything other than those two tasks.

I was 26 years old when I became a widow. I knew I wanted to love someone again; wanted to have more children; wanted our son to have a father figure in his life someday.

So, I spent a month visiting my sister in Florida. I studied books on grieving, read novels, memoirs. I learned to use the zero-turn lawnmower — bumped along the uneven ground of our 2.5 acres on late-summer evenings with a baby monitor balanced between my knees.

I adjusted, mostly, to the quiet of the house at night after putting Sawyer to bed; to the absence of Dan’s State Police cruiser from its usual spot in the driveway; to the empty space in our bedroom closet and in our king-sized bed. Little by little, I learned to live with each of these unfamiliar, undesired vacancies, facing them anew each day until, gradually, they became less glaring.  

Beneath the thickest fog of grief, though — even in those first few months — existed an embryonic desire to fill in those hollow spaces created by Dan’s absence. I was 26 years old when I became a widow. I knew I wanted to love someone again; wanted to have more children; wanted our son to have a father figure in his life someday.

Nothing truly prepares you for losing the person you thought you’d spend your life with.

I’d also already experienced a good deal of what is so neatly termed “anticipatory grief” — that which occurs before an impending loss. In the nine months between Dan’s diagnosis and his death, I’d done my absolute best to prepare for a future without him. I’d forced myself to visualize the inevitable decline in health, the physical act of dying, the utter heartbreak and loneliness I would feel once he was actually gone. I’d also imagined — painfully, reluctantly, hopefully — the possibility of happiness with someone else.

Anticipatory grief, admittedly, only gets you so far. The reality is a thousand times worse than anything you could have imagined. Nothing truly prepares you for losing the person you thought you’d spend your life with. And so I’d needed those first six months desperately, to debrief, decompress, pull myself together.

But I do believe that the “preparation” I’d done — forcing myself to feel the emotions of losing Dan in advance, to sit with them, to accept them — contributed to my resilience, and ultimately, to an acknowledgement of my wish to move forward.

Have you thought about when you’ll start dating again?

And so, around that six month mark, a few things happened. First, I resumed the practice of going to the gym, a hobby I’d foregone throughout the course of Dan’s illness. Working out helped me feel strong again, physically and emotionally. And working out alongside an occasional fit, attractive stranger — well, there’s not much explanation needed there.

Second — and for this, I’ll forever be grateful — a few friends brought up the subject of me dating again, and in doing so, made my desire to date feel acceptable.

I can attribute one conversation, in particular, to giving me that nod of approval I’d unknowingly sought after. I was chatting one morning at the gym with a casual friend, who also happened to be the wife of one of Dan’s former coworkers. Known for her directness (a quality of hers which I had always admired), she wasted no time in getting to the point.

“So, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she broached. “I think other people have been wondering this too, but have been afraid to bring up the subject — have you thought about when you’ll start dating again?”

“Uhh,” I stumbled over my response, caught off guard by the question. “I haven’t really thought about it much, no,” I answered hesitantly, the fear of judgment apparent even from this woman who clearly had no intention of judging me. She nodded, didn’t probe further.

“If I were in your position,” she offered instead, matter-of-factly, “I think I would wait six months to a year. After that, I feel like I’d want to move on with my life, like I’d be missing out otherwise.”

I didn’t say so then, but those few words were exactly what I needed to hear. Both validating and approving, her sentiment made my desire to love again feel reasonable, practical even. I’d just needed someone to tell me that it was okay.

Despite feeling mostly ready and even a little excited to begin this new chapter, I did still worry what others would think.

A few weeks later, after a rare second glass of wine one evening, I created a Tinder profile. I told no one. I spent a few days swiping through strangers before finally deciding I would meet one of them for coffee. It was only then that I sheepishly confided in a good friend that I would be going on a date. Despite feeling mostly ready and even a little excited to begin this new chapter, I did still worry what others would think.

But in the end, my desire for partnership, for companionship, for laughter, for intimacy — for another chance at the future I’d once envisioned with Dan — was simply greater than my fear of reproval from those around me.

So I went on that coffee date, and I continued dating, for the first time in my adult life. At first, only those closest to me knew of these adventures. I didn’t mention my dating life in casual conversation. I didn’t post about it on social media. It would take more time, and ultimately meeting a man worth mentioning, before I felt ready for the world to know I had “moved on.” But when I did feel ready, I was surprised to find I encountered very little judgement at all.

As I now approach the two-year mark of widowhood, I have no regrets about the way in which I went about dating after Dan, or the timeline I followed. But I’ve also learned that if one certainty about widowhood exists, it’s that everyone’s grief is different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling it. It is not linear; follows no timeline; has no end. My journey is my own.

Others facing similar circumstances may need more time — or less — before wanting to move forward. To that end, the “right” amount of time, I think, to wait before seeking out new love is however long it takes to begin feeling ready to stop surviving and start living again.

And for those, like me, who need someone to give them the go-ahead? I’ll gladly be that person.  


Jessica Marcellus is a NICU nurse and writer living in Fairfax, Vermont. You can find out more about how Jessica and two-year-old Sawyer are getting on by following her Instagram account, @Jess.Marcellus.

 

5 Things No One Tells You About the Loss of a Spouse 0

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork.

 

My husband Brad and I used to joke about who would die first. It was a strange thing to joke about when we were in our 20s and had our entire lives ahead of us, but that’s how far from reality death was. It was laughable. Something that happened to other people. Something that, when it did inevitably happen, would happen much later in life. 

We finally compromised and decided that if we couldn’t simultaneously die in our sleep when we were in our 90s as planned, then I could go first. We both knew Brad was much better equipped to handle the aftermath of losing me.

But I didn’t die first. Brad beat me to it. After an unexpected and grueling 100-day battle with kidney cancer, I became a 33-year-old widow.

No one can prepare you for becoming a widow or widower. It is one of the most difficult losses you can endure. However, here are five things I wish I had been better prepared for:

1. The paperwork

 I never realized that with death came a mountain of paperwork. Paperwork that in some cases would linger for years. Medical bills, creditor notices, estate documentation – I was completely naive to the logistics of death that go beyond the memorial service.

At a time when all I wanted to do was grieve my loss, I had to go to court to validate Brad’s will. I had to cancel credit cards and bank accounts. I had to transfer real estate and phone bills and Netflix accounts into my name. I had to argue with the IRS over student loan bills. The contents of my mailbox shifted from travel magazines to daily reminders of my loss. It’s been over two years and I am still dealing with the paperwork and logistics surrounding Brad’s death.

2. The shift in your relationships

This will happen both immediately and slowly, over time. In my experience, people are uncomfortable with grief. They don’t know what to say or how to handle it. Most are unable to sit with you in the pain. It brings up their own grief and they are unable to handle both their grief and yours. So, they avoid the pain and discomfort, and ultimately, you.

You are living most people’s nightmare. You are a reminder that this could happen to them too. That reminder is difficult to handle. Usually, it’s not intentional – often people aren’t even aware they are feeling this way. But it’s real. Especially if you are the first in their life to go through such a loss. Oftentimes, friends and family you expected to show up end up avoiding you in order to continue living in the comfort of blissful ignorance.

But it’s not always the fault of others. When Brad died, I couldn’t handle living in the same home, in the same city, with the same friends, without him. It felt like my world had stopped and everything around me continued as usual. Every person and social situation was another reminder that Brad was dead. So, I ran away. I spent months driving around the country, avoiding the life left behind. And when I came back, people understandably had moved on.

Losing your partner will test not just you, but all the relationships in your life. Your social circle will shrink. And the ones who stick around – who continue to support well after the memorial service – will be share a bond with you for life.

3. The secondary losses

Losing your partner doesn’t mean just losing your spouse. With it comes the loss of the future you planned together. The loss of intimacy. The loss of income. The loss of security. The loss of health. The loss of your social circle. The loss of your breakfast companion. The loss of the recipient of your jokes. The loss of your jar opener. The loss of your dance partner. The loss of your road trip companion. The loss of your best friend.

There isn’t a single part of your life that is untouched by the loss of your spouse.

4. The grief ambush 

Grief is not linear. It doesn’t happen in a neat forward motion. It’s messy and unexpected. You will be triggered without notice, at the most inconvenient times. When you look in your fridge and realize the A1 sauce – and all the other condiments that only he used – will sit there, untouched forever. When a certain song comes on in the grocery store and you break down in the middle of the cereal aisle. When the dentist asks how your husband is doing and tears start streaming down your face with his hands still inside your mouth.

You will think you are doing better, and you will be ambushed again. Eventually the triggers become less frequent and less hysterical. Eventually you will learn to manage them better. But there is no timeline or finish line to cross where the ambushes stop.

5. You will learn to balance joy and grief

It’s hard to see that in the beginning, when the loss feels so dark and heavy. And the initial joy will probably be accompanied by guilt – guilt for laughing or being happy when your person is no longer able to laugh or be happy.

But the joy will come. And that doesn’t mean the grief has disappeared: it just means you’ve learned to balance both. You’ve learned to expand and feel more than you thought possible before. You’ve learned how fragile life is and that creates a sense of urgency to live.

Carrying grief gives you a perspective on life that others who have yet to experience such a loss won’t fully understand. Grief is hard and it constantly tests you, but you will find your strength – and joy –  again.



Dana Frost is a writer and the founder of the Forced Joy Project (http://www.forcedjoyproject.com). She is a big believer in sharing our stories of both grief and joy and an even bigger believer of kitchen dance parties. You can find her on Instagram @ForcedJoyProject.