“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.
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.
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.
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.