In the early morning hours of September 1ST 2005, sleeping restlessly, I became aware of a warm red light filling the darkness of my bedroom. As I sensed the pulsing illumination, I listened intently for an accompanying noise. Still on the edge of sleep, I realized the glow in the room was coming from my husband’s alarm clock. I thought it was strange that there was no sound—the volume was obviously turned down. Why wasn’t he getting up, I wondered? For him to let the alarm go on for so long was unusual, and I started to worry that he would be late for work.
Then I remembered. Panic began to rise in my chest; quickly I calmed myself with the thought that I had surely been dreaming. In this disturbing dream my husband Phil was dead—many family members were at our home, the kids had all been told, friends had arrived to comfort us, tears had poured out uncontrollably, and somewhere in the back of my mind I could hear myself screaming. Yes, it must have been a dream. Still, I was afraid to open my eyes. What if he really was dead? Lying there, I imagined that if I stayed very still with eyes squeezed tightly shut, the horror of this dream would fade away with the beginning of the new day.
In the background of my rationalizations the light of the alarm continued to flash, each rhythmic glow a dare to verify my untested theory. Reluctantly, I slid my hand across to Phil’s side of the bed. To this day I can still feel the cool, crisp sheet in the place where his warm body should have been. The reality of his absence gripped my heart, as the unbelievable memories of the night before came flooding back. Tears flowed again as I repeatedly reached for him, eyes still defiantly closed, wishing desperately to wake up from what was rapidly becoming a nightmare. That morning I would begin my first day as a widow.
As time marched on and the initial shock of Phil’s death began to fade, I found being a widow to be both demanding and disconcerting. Not only was I abruptly left without a partner, but I felt the weight of unspoken expectations at every turn. All of a sudden every decision was mine to make at a time when I could hardly remember my name. As my whole being twisted in agony at the thought of life without my husband, the practical pull of daily life continued to demand my attention. Thrust into a fishbowl of well-meaning, sympathetic company, I wavered between the alarming temptation to allow the rising tidal wave of grief to consume me and the equally pressing need to prove that I would not crumble under the weight of despair. The tug-of-war between the desire to drown and the instinct to swim was exhausting. Suddenly my mind was paralyzed by previously inconsequential choices.
Overwhelmed and inexplicably unable to make decisions, I lost the self-confidence on which I had always relied. The moment I lost Phil, I was transformed from a poised, goal-oriented, content woman into a remote, indecisive, despondent ghost. I didn’t recognize myself, I didn’t recognize my life, and I saw no course that would lead me back to the person I used to be. Not only was I lost, but I didn’t care that I was lost. Anguish, fear, confusion and apathy became my constant companions.
Reading about the “stages of grief” frustrated me, because the broad concepts of denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance were not reflective of my daily experiences. The information I sought about being a widow was more personal – I didn’t want to know if other widows had been in denial; I wanted to know if they had worn their husband’s clothes. The bargaining phase did not interest me, but I yearned to find out what widows did with their husbands’ wedding rings. Being angry about losing your life companion was logical, but where was the logic in believing your dead husband could walk through the door any day? Depression threatened to consume me daily, while hope escaped me. Acceptance was a state I couldn’t even consider, so how could I aspire to it? Maddeningly, the “stages of grief” presented a road map that was deceptively linear. Each time I entered what I thought was a new stage I would quickly find myself backtracking and re-visiting an old one. Grief began to seem like an endless maze. I wanted reassurance that I wasn’t going to be lost in this labyrinth forever—I wanted to meet some survivors.
Suddenly I was certain that other widows were the source of the elusive answers about widowhood that plagued me. If I could find women who survived this loss and were willing to talk about it, the compilation of their stories would be the kind of comfort and reassurance I craved. Led by my desire to find out exactly how other women lived through the crushing loss of a husband, I traveled the country spending over one hundred hours speaking to women about their day-to-day life as widows.
The women I met while preparing to write this book changed my life. They told me their stories with courage and honesty. Each one of them allowed me into their sorrow without hesitation, unknowingly urging me to recognize that letting go of my sadness would not mean letting go of Phil. Welcomed into their homes, I met, through stories, pictures and personal treasures, the men they lost. The warmth and love evident in their remembrances demonstrated that it was possible to carry my husband within me, even as I began creating a new life for myself.
Slowly, it became obvious that there is no recipe for living through the loss of someone you love. I learned that grief is as individual as it is universal, and that healing happens one day at a time. Most of all, the intense despair these widows survived and the gratifying lives they lead now taught me to hope: hope for the day when I recognize myself again, hope that I can lead a life of purpose, and hope that love is not only a gift of the past.