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.
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
Losing 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.