A Fresh Journey Through Loss
The day I lost my husband my heart felt ripped out, a feeling I had never experienced before. I felt clarity in the moment and confusion over where I was going, all at the same time. I wanted to cry at the injustice of a widow at 47 years of age. I had three boys and they each needed their father. My husband Joseph had always said the boys could get along without him.
I’d tried to tell him he was wrong. Our boys, 11, 18, and 19, needed him more than ever. He had said he was certain they would be okay. They were his boys, they were strong. How can you be okay when you lose your father? Their ages didn’t matter; the loss was real.
I hated that my kids saw their father waste away. I know it bothered Joseph tremendously, but it wasn’t something we talked about or could control. It was a difficult way to remember a loved one. He didn’t like anyone to see him like that, with sunken eyes and barely weighing anything at the end. He always joked, right up to the last 18 hours. It hurt that the kids will remember how he looked when he died, but it raises me up to know they also saw how he died-without complaint, fighting and doing his best to the end. Going about life the best he could.
Joseph died the way you think a man should die. Like in an old Western movie, with courage and dignity. Not once did he say “Why me?” If he ever thought it, he never said so. He was very matter-of-fact when telling anyone he was sick with cancer. If people were interested, he’d share the different things he was doing to beat it. He had elected not to do chemo and radiation, but instead went the route of alternative medicine.
Emotion rocked me up and down while my family lived with the knowledge that cancer was in our midst. Emotion and determination were the glue that kept me together for the entire 11 months he was ill. I always said to myself, “No matter what happens, we’ll be okay.” I still believe that, even now, almost five years after his diagnosis. There are still moments of loneliness that transcend the grief, but it is true time has a way of smoothing and healing loss. Memories of our life together aren’t forgotten, but remembered with a smile or reminiscent grin. I understand what it means when they say something is bittersweet. It applies to memories of a life shared and then broken apart. I feel we all heal in different ways and there is no prescribed way to go about it; it is each individual’s private journey. To some degree, we have the help of friends, family, and loved ones, but ultimately it’s our show.
The journey has been difficult these many months and years. The second 6 months I found more difficult than the first six months. The first several months I was caught up with keeping myself busy with business, working, and making money. I had to deal with death certificates, lawyers and social security, then there were insurance claims and survivor benefits and hospitalization coverage. The invoices for the hospital tests the last months of Joseph’s life were still coming in the mail six months after he’d been gone. We had a car payment I continued to pay, even though the bank told me I could stop since the car loan death benefit would pay off the balance. I had excellent credit, but if I had followed the bank’s advice, I would have had a mark against my credit since it took six months to receive the final payoff. We had bought the car three weeks before we found out Joseph was sick, so after requesting all of Joseph’s doctor reports, the insurance company finally paid off the remaining balance. These practical, mundane matters kept me focused on day-to-day living.
I remember after Joseph died I suddenly felt I had a lot of time to do whatever I needed to do, as if the days had grown longer. I could now leave the house, whereas I’d had the constant thought the previous eleven months that I had to make sure Joseph’s pain medicine was covered or there weren’t any doctor appointments that may be missed. It’s like I couldn’t figure how to pick up the previous threads of my life, since life for almost a year had centered on Joseph’s illness.
My strength in keeping myself on an even keel was out of concern for my kids’ welfare. I had no time to be lonely or even think about being lonely and it was easier handling the daily living that way. I kept very busy. For me, the hurt seemed to magnify and became more noticeable about five months after Joseph’s passing, right around our first wedding anniversary. It was a gnawing emptiness that at first hurt more when I saw other couples together.
The date of our anniversary my sister-in-law, my mother, and my oldest son called me on the phone. Their concern meant a lot, but I knew I would have to figure out how to deal with these dates in a way that worked for me. My kids took a picture of Joseph and I from happier times and had it enlarged and framed. They presented it to me with a card in which they had all written a little something. I was incredibly touched and I recall hugging each of them while I sobbed; their thoughtfulness something I’ll never forget.
The first Christmas after Joseph’s death was the most difficult in my memory. I went into a sort of depression, a mixture of sadness and self-pity, two weeks before the holiday and a few weeks after. I didn’t even know it was depression pulling me down until one day that heavy, sad feeling really hit me. I was so terribly alone and lonely. In my room, I would allow myself the luxury of tears. I use the words “allow myself” because for some reason I felt guilty hiding and crying.
Our family always spent Christmas at my parent’s house with my four brothers, my sister and all their families. It had been that way for years. I had always enjoyed being with family at this time, carrying on the tradition started when we were kids. However, the first year it was very difficult being around my happy, boisterous family, seeing the complete units. Mother, father, children. Boyfriend and girlfriend. Yes, it hurt. It wasn’t jealousy, I was just made acutely aware of the fact that I no longer had that complete unit. Sometimes it is so true that you don’t realize what you’ve lost until it’s no longer there. I walked around with this dull ache in my chest that wouldn’t go away. I put on the face, without even thinking about it, so everything would look fine; everyone would think I was fine. I could handle anything life shoves in my face. I’m strong, I told myself repeatedly. I don’t need anyone. That was my litany. I will not embarrass myself by crying or being needy. I couldn’t stand to be a needy, whining person. I understand it in other people but I told myself I’d never be needy or desperate. How could I embarrass myself by showing the true emotion inside, maybe even shedding tears in public? That was not me. Perhaps little snatches of it slip out now and then, but never all the gut-wrenching emotion I kept hidden.
Especially in front of my kids, I remained strong. I didn’t want them to be scared or worried that I was cracking up. Whether they knew it or not, they needed me more than I needed to break down. That was my thought, right or wrong. And maybe that is how my kids faced the world also. They kept it all together and sometimes I just wanted them to come to me so I could hold them close and reassure them that everything would be okay. I wanted to remember what our lives were like before everything turned upside down.
The boys rarely cried in front of me. They were really men in the making, taking it on the chin. I know we all had our moments of crying, but I only saw glimpses here and there. My boys kept their own counsel and perhaps they were taking their cue from me. Many times, I was operating in a revved-up mode.
In hindsight, I know keeping my emotions in control was just a way of handling life. At some point, I began to want someone in my life to fill up the empty hole inside me. I would be driving down the road, and I’d hear a song that struck a chord and it resonated in me. I’d start crying; deep, wracking sobs pulled up from the depths. Where did that come from? Just when I think I’m on an even keel, something as simple as a song sets me off. Was I heading for a breakdown?
I kept looking outside myself for help, all the time drawing closer to the truth that all answers must be found within. There are no quick-fix answers. I saw different professionals to discover the contentment within myself, and this questioning directed me on the road to finding the happiness within. I’m always willing to learn and listen. I’ve worked on myself for most of my adult life, but never more concentrated than in the several years. It’s like I’m both the experiment and the mad scientist directing the whole thing. Sometimes it is a scary prospect, thinking I was in charge of everything. There was no getting away from the truth, I was well and truly on my own, for the first time in my life. How can such a prospect be frightening and yet liberating at the same time?
Elaine Williams is a mother of three boys and a widow of four years. Her story is the story of many women