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Surviving Loss: You Always Have Choice

“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” ~Stephen Covey

One ordinary night after an ordinary day of work and family, I went to bed a mother, wife, teacher, writer-person.

I remember falling asleep between sentences exchanged with my husband after an evening spent with just the two of us on our patio, something we rarely seemed to find the time to do in our busy lives. We promised each other that we’d make a concerted effort to have more of these “dates.”

The next morning, on what was supposed to be another ordinary day, I got out of bed and found my husband collapsed on the living room floor.

Our three young children slept in the nearby bedrooms as the 911 operator guided me through chest compressions.

Our babies, ages six, three, and one, slept as the firemen wheeled their father out of our home. They were sleeping when my parents rushed over so I could follow the ambulance to the hospital. I imagine they were still asleep when I was told by a doctor that there was “nothing they could do.”

The moment I officially became a thirty-four-year-old widow.

Widow.

It’s a word that sticks to your tongue, something you want to knock on wood to prevent. It makes people avoid eye contact with you. It undermines your entire identity, forcing you into a new existence filled with the brutal realities of a life you didn’t sign up for and would never want.

Yesterday I was me. Today I am somebody else. I felt like a child protesting sleep before nap time. I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna.

Maybe it wasn’t real. If I didn’t look at it, it might go away. 

Except it wouldn’t.

I never contemplated this scenario as an option and I wasn’t prepared for the devastation. I don’t know if advanced warning would have helped, but something about the unexpectedness felt like even more of an injustice.

In a moment, my life was ripped in half and I felt a total loss of control of body and mind. I didn’t recognize myself. My brain felt like it was floating away and I couldn’t remember details.

I couldn’t sleep or eat.

But the pain I will never forget: a deep, searing kind that transcended anything physical.

There are practical matters to consider when one becomes a widow. Decisions nobody wants to think about, particularly when you are numb with grief. I found myself immediately bombarded with choices.

Mortuary choices. Funeral service choices. Financial choices. Parenting choices. Even stupid, little choices, like where to buy gas after having a husband who took care of that chore for the last ten years.

Humans generally dislike hard choices. Inconvenient choices. Sad choices. Uncomfortable choices. Confrontational choices. Too-many-choices.

When you are used to making decisions with another person, you might feel nervous and unsteady venturing out into the world alone. I remembered that once upon a time I lived alone and made decisions by myself, but now I felt out of practice.

I questioned my skills and capability. The grief made me forgetful, emotional, angry, sad, empty, and scared.

I frequently questioned my reality. I wondered if everything was always just a mirage in my head. Perhaps I was never married. It had to be a dream, or maybe a cruel trick, and now the rug was pulled out from beneath my feet.

In the days after my husband passed away, my six year old was moping around the house. I knew in my gut what choice I had to make. For him. For me. For all of us.

On a whim I grabbed a pen and paper and scribbled this down:

We have two choices: 1) Lay down and crumble, or 2) Get up, do great things, and make Daddy proud.

I circled the second choice. My son listened as I explained. He hung on to my every word and facial expression.

I knew I had to channel everything inside of me to convey to him that we would be okay, even if I wasn’t convinced of it myself. I knew I had to lead.

We didn’t choose this path.

But this was our life now and we still have a lot of good years left to live.

Nobody prepares us for the sludge in life, but this is exactly what being human is about: the good, the bad, the painful, the happy, the sad, the everything-in-between.

We can choose to sit down and surrender to our current circumstances, or we can get up, dust ourselves off, hold our heads up high and move forward.

It will hurt.

We’ll feel wobbly at first.

But we can do it. We are capable. We are strong. We still have a lot of love inside of our hearts to do great things.

The only other option was not an option for us.

People often say that good things can happen out of the bad. I’m here to tell you that it is true.

In the horror of it all, buried in the pain and the raw emotion, there was something magical and enlightening about loss. It exposed a side of life that I never previously experienced. It’s a strange, curious feeling that shocks you to the core and simultaneously makes you realize that there is still so much more to learn and discover about life. It can’t be over yet.

Your perspective will change. Everything about your thinking will forever change.

This is good and bad.

You will mourn the loss of your innocence and the days of naivety, but in return you will discover that you have newfound empathy, an ability to feel other people’s pain deep in your bones. You become sensitive to everyone else’s losses: the person going through a divorce, the couple who lost a baby, the child in a dysfunctional home, the person struggling to fight cancer.

You know what suffering feels like. You’ve walked through hell and your calloused feet are stronger because of it.

Nobody escapes this life without suffering, and now it is your turn. Tomorrow it might be someone else’s. But the universe doesn’t keep score, so you shouldn’t either. Acknowledging that you can’t control everything is part of your liberation process. It isn’t personal. It just is.

When life doesn’t go as planned, we must hold on to the knowledge and hope that we still have choices, and that we are strong enough to make them.

There is always Plan B. Plan C. Plan D.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but this is what I’ve learned about making choices and how to navigate through difficult times.

Invest in Your Health

The temptation is out there to drown your sorrows in unhealthy habits that temporarily make you feel good. A quick fix always sounds great, but you’re in this for the long haul. There are no quick fixes to help you rebuild the rest of your life.

Sleep may feel impossible. Or maybe you’re sleeping too much. Exercise may not be a priority. You might eat horribly.

Choosing healthier habits—working out, getting enough sleep, eating well, and staying away from substance abuse—will promote good health. If your body isn’t well, it will permeate all aspects of your life in a negative and destructive way.

Strive for balance, reflect regularly, and readjust when it seems you are going astray. Staying healthy will help make the mental agony of loss a little easier to overcome.

Avoid Isolation

It is vital to maintain connections with the people who love you. Even when you don’t feel like seeing anyone, it’s important not to isolate yourself. Your friends and family will form a chain of love around you in the early days of loss and help you get through the rough patches.

Sometimes they won’t know what to say. Actually, most of the time they won’t know what to say. Forgive them. Know that they have good intentions.

Everyone is bumbling their way through this experience. Most people want to help, they just might not know where to start. Don’t build walls around yourself. Let them in. You won’t regret it.

This doesn’t mean you become a doormat. It is important for your mental health to establish boundaries with people, particularly with family who can have a tendency to become too comfortable with us and inadvertently cause us pain. You must enforce these boundaries, even when it feels uncomfortable.

Express your feelings and don’t apologize for them. Most people in your life will not understand firsthand what you are going through. They won’t even know when they have crossed the line. They may even blame you for getting upset.

People are not perfect, so don’t hold on to their mistakes and don’t hold it against them. It will only drive you crazy. Forgive soon and often. Also, you will learn who your closest allies are, who you can trust with your innermost feelings, and who you can lean on. These people will play a tremendous part in your healing process.

Figure Out What You Love

Our passion is what keeps us afloat day in and day out. Doing what you love will help your sanity during the most tumultuous times. It is imperative that you remember or discover what makes you happy.

For me, it’s writing fiction. Creating characters and getting lost in story worlds is my escape. It’s what nourishes my soul on my most painful of days. I also enjoy traveling, music, exercise, reading, and staying busy in my community.

You must determine your own personal interests. Make a list. Go out and do them. Do not let the loss define you. You are so much more than that. You get to define yourself. You make those choices.

Make Time for Yourself

I’m now an only parent of three young children. Time is a rare commodity, but it’s not extinct. I have to actively pursue it and I’ve become skilled at scheduling and time management. I share with others that if I can have a full-time job, remain active in my community, parent my children without a spouse, and still find time to write and do the things that I love, then they can too. We all can.

I don’t have any superpowers. I figured out how to make time. I used my choices to prioritize. I make mistakes and I adjust. I make more mistakes and I adjust again.

Banish “I can’t” from your thoughts and vocabulary. Eliminate “I don’t have time.”

Choose to make time for yourself. Even a little bit of time will help. Sometimes I have to get creative about making it happen, but I am committed to loving myself.

Stay Busy

Don’t stay home and allow yourself drown in sorrow. One of the worst things to do in the midst of surviving loss is to have time to twiddle your thumbs and wallow in self-pity. There will be a time and a place for the wallowing, but you don’t want it to consume your life. You don’t want to get stuck there.

Acknowledge the feeling, make space for it, feel it, and then move on.

Being a young widow with small children is both a curse and a stroke of luck. Children don’t have time for wallowing. They still need to eat, be changed, entertained, and cared for every single day. There is no such thing as taking a break from those responsibilities. It is what kept me going during my toughest times.

If you don’t have this in your life, then you’ll need to create the “busy-ness.” An object in motion stays in motion. Keeping your mind occupied is healthy and important.

Forgive Yourself Soon and Often

You’re going to have good days and bad days. I have great weeks when I feel like I’m on top of the world and doing an amazing job. The next week I might feel like a hysterical mess. The waves come and go. That’s what they do. Ebb and flow. It’s normal.

Allow yourself time to cope with the bad days. Recognize the negative feelings and understand that they are only visitors in your mind. Temporary visitors. They will go away.

When the bad thoughts visit, take a bubble bath. Splurge on nice sheets and comfy slippers or whatever little comforts you want to indulge in. Read something fun instead of tackling work. Give yourself permission to relax.

Ride out the bad wave and wake up the next morning with a fresh start.

Forgive yourself. This is the most important advice I can give you. On some days you may feel your loss morph into a three-headed monster in your head. You’ll hate yourself. You’ll hate the universe. You’ll hate the person you lost and you’ll start feeling hate backing you into a corner. That’s when you have to push it back. Acknowledge it in the room, compartmentalize, and then choose to not let it consume you. It will be a struggle.

I often ask myself at the end of a day: Did I do my best? Did I do everything I could’ve done?

If the answer is yes, then that’s it. Nothing else I could’ve done.

If the answer is no, then I make a concerted effort to do a little bit better tomorrow.

But in that moment, it’s okay to pause. Reset. Take a break to do something happy. There are many more chapters left in your story.

At the end of the day, everyone has to go through their experience of surviving loss in their own way. Life doesn’t always go as planned, but that doesn’t mean your life is over. You get to choose what is next. That is your power. Remember, you are not alone.

Profile photo of Teresa Shimogawa

About Teresa Shimogawa

Teresa Shimogawa is a human trying to do good things in the world. She is also a young widow with three young children. She writes at www.houseofteresa.com.

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  • What a wonderful post, Teresa! Thank you for sharing a topic most of us would avoid. And blessings to you and your children.

  • BellaForStar

    Yes, yes…and yes. Through the worst Grief of my life four years ago, there was always this false notion hanging about saying that I was all alone. Thank you for sharing your story.
    “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” ~ Haruki Murakami

  • Rachel

    This is so true. Thanks for sharing your story. As I read this, I feel exactly how you feel.
    Pain has made me a better and stronger person. The pain is still ongoing and there are good days and some very bad ones. But I have found my own ways to cope.
    I missed the old naive me at times. Haha.

  • Thank you for writing this.. I had experienced loss in life twice.. Lost my two daughters in fraction of a second one after the other leaving me in worst grief happening to human… I actually can co-relate to the last part you have written.. Grief brings in both ups and downs of our own mind. My mind shall trick us believing that we are fighting in great manner on one day while on just the the day, it shall bring us into its dwell of sorrow telling ohh this is intolerable and no one bear this… I appreciate that you took the courage to write about this topic…. Love to your children.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I am passing this on to my dear friend who has also been widowed with three children. I know your words will give her hope as well as some sound and practical advice. Keep sharing your story. Out of great tragedy and sadness there is always a hidden treasure. There are no coincidences and I believe I was meant to happen upon your story here on the day it was published. Love to you and your children xxx

  • Mary So

    Just what I needed to hear today, thank you for sharing.

  • Lise Giroux-Beatttie

    thanks for sharing… I am also a recent widow (19month) and I have made many changes also but I also have followed your steps to stay well and even though I am still hurting life goes on. I can now be grateful for my new life. Enjoy life with your children!

  • Eva

    Beautiful and so inspiring. I’ve recently lost my husband and your story is of great help. Thanks so much.

  • TammyDavis

    Thank you Teresa, for being so brave and generous! You have freely exposed your vulnerability, your complete authentic self, to the world. And you are offering this incredibly personal gift out of pure compassion – your strong desire to help others. You make this world even more beautiful! In Peace & Gratitude, Tammy

  • Lily

    I think it’s important to remind myself that it’s okay to allow myself to feel as badly as I feel and grieve as long as I need to, including feeling anger, sadness, even despair. This has been my road to recovery from unspeakable trauma.

  • Andrea

    Wow! What a honest and insightful piece. Probably the best article I have read. Thank you. Brilliantly written and in a way that tackles loss as a topic. Reading it, the idea of loss can apply to any loss not just bereavement at the passing of someone close. It resonated with me. Thank you for writing your journey and lessons. It will help many more x

  • I definitely struggle with skillfully dealing with loss. I’ve tried many numbers and found that hitting it head on as you describe here is the surest and most beautiful healing. Your article grabbed my heart and kept my attention, as I felt as if we journeyed together. Thank you for your graceful guidance on one of our toughest life skills.

  • Joseph Dabon

    Good for you, you were still asleep when your hubby died. My wife died in my arms and there was nothing I could do but cry buckets of tears. That I was able to hastily gather my children together when the ER doctor officially announced her dead was no consolation. She was dead and I had to live my life alone.

    But I was never confronted with the so many things you had to contend with. Mine was simply to live each day without her. My children stepped up to the plate. They helped me through our crisis. We helped each other cope with my wife’s, and their mom’s, loss.

    In the process, we bonded together so well. I lost my wife, I gained the love and support of my children.

    We all lose something precious and valuable during our lifetime. The irony is that, that loss often serves its own purpose. It makes us realize that we have other treasures waiting in the sidelines, and which we can call on when everything seems lost.

  • Beautifully written, inspirational and heart wrenching at the same time. Your children are blessed to have such a strong mother. Thank you for sharing x

  • Abhinav

    Thats truly inspirational. Looking forward to read more from you. Can give any human the needed strength at the time of crisis, at the time when its most needed..

  • David

    Thank you for such a wonderful post! I lost my wife 3 years, 9 months, and 15 days ago. I have survived by throwing myself into my work and my two children. You have expressed in so many ways how I have felt and the experiences we go through in times of such loss. It helps to know that we are not alone in this journey.

  • Tracy Carpenter

    Thank you so much for sharing this. You have discovered a very great set of truths, and skills, around loss. You have helped many readers, I am sure, and as you say, connecting is so important. I am an old psych and hospice nurse, and I hardily wish you ongoing courage!

  • lou13

    I just wanted to say how brave you are and to wish you and your children well on your new journey.I wanted to comment because I’ve been through a life changing situation of helping my teenage daughter battle anorexia these past 6 months. This has totally changed our comfortable ‘normal’ life.But brought with it positive changes forever.We too as a family have not laid down and been beaten but faced it with positivity and hard work and we’ll continue to do so.Good luck and lots of love your children are lucky you are leading them now.

  • This was amazing, Teresa! As dark as the pit may seem, there’s always the possibility of climbing out of it.
    😉 #keepgrowing #keepcreating

  • How did you get so wise in this arena of Loss and Grief?? You write an amazing piece on grief and living on. And to truly live this way is even more Amazing! What a gift you are giving your children – to model how to transcend and live on well through and despite Adversity.
    Our lives are all about Choice. Many people don’t see it that way. They think they must become victims of their awful circumstances; that circumstances dictate our lives. But it’s our responses to our situations that build or destroy our lives. You seem to know this and live this naturally/organically.
    If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend you read the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. This will resonate with you completely as you are living his main theories/concepts. ” Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
    My best wishes for you and your children as you rebuild your lives rich with meaning, purpose and joy.

  • I found that allowing yourself a time to grieve helps. From there, you need to start picking yourself up again until you can move forward.

  • Nina

    This was beautifully written.I recently lost my cat which was my family and this article helped a lot. The only problem I had was when you wrote ‘magical and enlightening”. I get what you mean but I found your choice of words somewhat very disrespectful considering the death of a loved one. It would have been better to write that one realizes how short and precious life is, not to take anything for granted. Problems that seemed huge before the loss fade away into nothingness… The
    irreversibility of death forces one to change one’s whole perspective on life… to become humble..all of this can have positive effects… but there is nothing great about the griefing process itself. It’s hard and ugly..

  • Joshua Adam

    This post resonated with me, as I too have been faced with tough choices to make regarding loss. Like you said, we always have a choice as to how we respond to unfortunate circumstances. While some of the misfortunes that we face are truly hard to handle, what matters most is how we respond. I appreciate everything you said, and look forward to reading more!

  • That is such a nice story from someone who experienced this firsthand. It was transformative and it does serve a bigger and a more beautiful purpose.

  • Veronica

    I lost my first husband at 34 and had 4 children…I met my second husband a year later . I recently lost him after 35 yrs of marriage my grief is different this time taking longer to move on and just when I think I am on the way I fall back down the rabbit hole . I am having trouble figuring who I am now I have a been a wife all my life and I miss having someone love me and someone to love. My children don’t get it they think It’s almost a year I should be over it, they do give me support.