Losing my husband 9 months ago was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever experienced. Watching him suffer was hell on earth. I can spout off colon cancer statistics and treatment options and warning signs almost robotically. I lived it. It consumed my every thought for 18 long months of suffering. I can recall everything that happened in vivid detail. When you live every day in fear that the person you love the most will die, you burn everything into your brain. Even the horrible things.
What no one prepares you for is the afterlife, what happens after the last sympathy card is opened, what happens when the crowds have gone, the next trauma has happened to someone in your community, and people have moved on.
Then it’s just you against the world. Or sometimes, the world against you.
The afterlife is all about survival, but I have learned it has to be as much about recovering from the trauma than it is about survival from it. Merely surviving is not living.
I’m reading a book called “Whole Again” by Jackson Mackenzie. In it, he writes-
“Recovery becomes more about symptom management than root cause resolution. It’s akin to putting out buckets of water every night to catch the leaking rain, rather than fixing the hole in the roof. Eventually the buckets become full, so you’re running around finding new buckets and emptying old buckets, feeling more exhausted with every passing day.
This is the nature of trauma. It keeps you distracted with bucket management so you never have a chance to look up at the roof.”
My husband died on a Saturday. Sunday we didn’t know what to do with ourselves so we went to church because it’s what he would’ve wanted us to do. Monday we planned the funeral. Tuesday was the funeral. Wednesday my daughter started school and Thursday I started my job as a preschool teacher after living a blissful life as a stay at home mom for 6 years.
I was distracted with bucket management immediately.
I think somehow I thought that if I stayed busy and resumed life as “normal”, it would fix the brokenness I was determined not to allow myself to feel. I was traumatized and not dealing with the trauma in the appropriate way. I was running around in circles, trying to keep the buckets from overflowing but never really making progress. I stuffed away every bad feeling with anything that would help as a way to not deal with them. I spent a lot of time replacing the bad feelings with good, the lows with highs, the negative with positive.
When I was at my most vulnerable just 2 months after my husband died, I met someone. In my mind, I thought that somehow this was a naturally occurring relationship. I do not believe that was the case from day one, in retrospect.
Widows, if you have someone take extreme interest in you very soon after the death of your spouse, these people aren’t your soulmates.
This is predatory behavior that you may not be able to identify because you are too busy with bucket management. Be hyper vigilant.
It’s hard to be in pain and have someone come along with the sole intention of taking from you and causing you more pain. But these people exist and they walk among us. The best way to preserve your sanity is to remind yourself that no respectable, caring, loving, or admirable person would ever see you so fresh off of the loss of your spouse and start a relationship with you. Their intentions are not sincere from the beginning.
Grief clouds your judgement. Trauma makes you cling to things that are not good for you. This could be a new “love” interest, alcohol- anything to divert your attention away from working on yourself and healing from the trauma.
What I have learned through therapy for my PTSD associated with watching my husband suffer, die, and then following that up immediately with a terribly abusive relationship is that I am broken. I am a broken person trying to piece my life back together like trying to mend a broken wine glass (I use that analogy because I break every wine glass that makes its way into my house). I kept picking up the same pieces and they kept cutting me, but I was so determined to make it work that I just kept trying and metaphorically bleeding all over everything I touched.
It’s really easy to forget when you’re running around filling buckets that you’re in control. When you’ve lived life in survival mode for so long it’s hard to look up and see the hole and fix it. Sometimes you lack the ability to fix the hole yourself. That’s when you call in the professionals and soak up every bit of information from every book about trauma and grief you can possibly find. Knowledge is power.
I cannot stress this enough. Every. Single. Widow. needs a therapist. Male or female, young or old. If you have lost a spouse you need professional help. There is no shame in seeking help. What you’ve been through is the worst of the worst. Your person is gone. Unless you want your family and friends to sit back and watch you self destruct, seek help.
Focus on Yourself
Now is the time to be selfish. Especially when you’ve been a caretaker for a terminally ill spouse. You’ve done the best you could do. You most likely put your own health and well being on the back burner and poured yourself into saving a life. Now it’s time to save yours, because survival is hard. It’s really easy to jump right into saving someone else’s life. I poured all of my energy into a relationship I shouldn’t have even been in so soon after my husband died. In the long run, the pain and subsequent trauma of that relationship far outweighed anything I ever got out of it. What I should’ve done was focus on myself, but I was in “caretaker mode”.
Self care has been the most important part of my grief journey behind therapy. It’s ok to say no to people, it’s ok to splurge on things that make you feel good (we have regular spa nights over here), it’s ok to set boundaries and demand that people respect them.
If you have children, ESPECIALLY if you have children, they need to see that mom/dad is ok. My daughter didn’t need to see me sobbing my eyes out because someone broke my already broken heart. She needed to see mom taking care of herself and focusing on healing us from the trauma, not jumping heart first into a relationship with Mr NotSoWonderful. Lesson learned the hard (and expensive) way.
Have friends who don’t mind calling you out
I am lucky. I don’t surround myself with yes people. I surround myself with genuine friends who will straight up call me out if I’m out of control in any way. You have to be receptive to what they’re saying and not live in denial about it. Have a handful of people who knew about the relationship I was in and told me to run and run fast. I was in denial and didn’t listen. I was too caught up in it, but my eyes are wide open now. I will never ever forgetting crying into my best guy friend’s shoulder and him telling me to get it together and get away from what was hurting me. Everyone needs safe people who do not intend to hurt them emotionally that they can trust to tell them the truth even when they don’t want to hear it. I am blessed enough to have a close group of friends, male and female, that love me and tell me like it is and I love them right back for it.
Pray. All the time, pray.
At the end of the day when you’re all alone with your thoughts and you feel like dying, pray. Pray to get through the next hour. If that’s too long, pray to get through the next minute. Sometimes I pray for sleep just so I won’t have to pray to get through the next 20 seconds. Grief and the aftermath of trauma both come in waves. You cannot numb it. You have to sit in it and feel it to heal from it. What I have learned is that no level of distraction is going to fix this. No amount of “busy” or ignoring it is going to change any of it. I have to do the work to get past it and protect myself from more trauma by not making bad decisions based on previous trauma. The only way I get through the hardest parts is prayer. I have begged God to give me the will to live. I have also begged God not to wake me up the next morning. It’s a delicate balance of sane and insane, broken and shattered. It changes daily.
Get comfortable hitting the pause button
This weekend I did just that. My widow friend and I headed south for sand and sunshine. Sometimes grief needs a vacation, too.
It’s vital for grieving widows to be able to step away from the house they shared with their spouse. The walls can feel like they are closing in at times. Hitting pause and saying “Hey, it’s ok if I get away so I can catch my breath and then come back and face it all again” is ok.
I feel like, for the first time since my husband’s death in August, that I’m finally beginning to heal. I feel like I’m swinging back at the grief and trauma that has been hitting me over and over again since he died and I inadvertently welcomed chaos into my life.
Healing is a daily battle. I don’t know if I’ll ever be whole again, but I hope to go through this life a little less broken than I have been. It sure feels good not to play with broken glass anymore.