above: This picture has a story. I was driving, and having a particularly rough day grieving Bill. I came to a high peak in Fenner and the sun just shot out of the sky with the back drop of a gorgeous hillside. I pulled over and decided to take in the view, and count my blessings for being alive and able to see such a view. I took this picture of myself feeling gratitude to look back at when I was feeling low…
Because being a widow will not define me. Yes, it has forever changed me; it has altered how I view the world and certainly how I’m viewed. But no, friends, I simply will not let it define me.
I have been so private about my journey and my grief, and with that has come many isolating moments. But now, I know it’s time to reach out to others. Not only to relieve my own isolation, but because I know there are others out there grieving too. Let’s celebrate the small victories within grief. Let’s lean in through the low points. Let’s do it together. I don’t wish to tell anyone how to grieve. Everyone’s journey is his or her own. But I hope that my story can provide some inspiration for someone else out there, on that journey, to embrace the sadness when needed, walk toward healing when appropriate, and, when the time is right, to leap to a newfound happiness.
My late husband, Bill, died within 10 days of us learning he had a brain tumor. What had been a 10-year prognosis stripped down, and just days later left me and our three children (then ages 14, 10, and 6) stunned, gasping for air, and with a gut-wrenching pain we didn’t know could exist. Cruel – it could not be described in any other way. A cruel blow – for us, his mother, brother, sister, my family – and everyone who loved him.
Somehow, we mucked through. We woke. We ate. We dressed ourselves. We functioned. We only functioned. Until one day I decided functioning – only functioning – was a disservice to Bill’s memory and a real piss poor way of parenting. So I made a decision: move forward. Accept, not fight, this new me. That, my friends, was by far the most challenging decision, and also the most pivotal to date. It was when my real journey began. Saying screw it to just function was the beginning of a new hope, healing, love, and life.
As I write, there’s loads of laundry to be done, closets to organize, soccer games to get ready for, and of course a teenager who will likely try to find a way to slip in a trip to the mall with the few moments that she sees may be free in my day. I have realized recently that I need to control my time. That means making time for my writing. At least that’s the super bad-ass decision I made for today, and I assure you I will stick to it (at least for today).
As I was writing about the laundry and closets and the five million other things that pull at our time, I had to stop writing, because I heard my kids screaming. In between screams I could hear the sounds every dog owner dreads. “The dog is hurling!” And of course this was happening nowhere near the wood or tile floors. He had started at the top of the stairs (carpeted, naturally) and proceeded to throw up all the way down the stairs, right to the first floor. I’m running to the scene, yelling for someone to grab the dog and throw him outside and get in response, “Mom, that’s gross I don’t want to touch him!” So I heave ho the 120 lb dog out the front door and turn back to hear, “Mom, you really should clean that up – it smells.” Yes, yes it does. Thank you Captain Obvious.
As I cleaned, and counted the eighth time I hurled into my own mouth, I chuckled. To think how I had just self-proclaimed myself the bad ass who was going to take charge of her own schedule, and just make my time for writing. I was going to block off my writing time like a TV character in sitcom — completely uninterrupted (by, for example, puking dog, screaming kids) with my nonfat, gluten-free, vegan soy latte with extra milk just to screw with the barista (or, okay, realistically, my cup of black coffee), at my super trendy desk (my bed), wearing my stilettos and skinny jeans (leggings and a t-shirt, with disheveled hair with mascara only on one eye).
I guess a balance is what I need to strike. I guess I have to be fluid. Flexible. Sometimes you have to stop to clean up the puke. Such an appropriate metaphor for life. And while I scrub the remains of the breakfast the dog stole from the kids, I am once again humbled at the differences between my version of what reality should be, and what it is.
A few months ago, it was my niece’s 13th birthday. There was nothing unusual about my kids and me attending the birthday of their cousin – the daughter of their father’s brother. Even though Bill was gone, I was still very involved in his family’s life; they still felt like my family.
Since his death, I had found these family events difficult. His lack of presence had screamed at me at every family gathering. Any of you who have been through this knows that pain. And on top of that, you feel like you’re on display: the single girl in a couples’ world. It’s hard to be in that space, watching everyone else’s lives unfold essentially uninterrupted, while nothing in your life is the same anymore. No one can fix it, there’s no answer, there’s no making that time better. You want to be there, you want to be invited. But it’s a ‘gotta gear up and grit through’ kind of moment. That’s the brutal reality. So when someone criticizes you for wanting to move forward, to date, and have a companion – please don’t internalize that. And if you are someone who knows someone going through this experience, and have not been able to understand their process, please re-read this paragraph. Read it again and again and try to imagine the loneliness.
But this time was different. This time it wasn’t just me and the kids, as it had been for so many events. This time Joe, then still my new boyfriend, was invited too, along with his two kids. So the seven of us – yes the seven – piled in the SUV, each of us with, I felt pretty sure, our own great anxiety about what might happen, and headed to the party. As we drove, I imagined the thoughts we each might have. Me: I was grateful for how Bill’s family had reacted to my new relationship. I was grateful that they were truly happy for me, despite what I knew must be a difficult adjustment. Yet, I was still nervous – not so much about myself, but more so about everyone else. Would my boyfriend be comfortable? How were my kids feeling about this? What about his kids? And, too, there was the little voice of concern – was Bill’s family really okay with this?
Joe and I: We met online, after a friend prodded me to create a profile. I certainly wasn’t looking for a relationship – but I did long for companionship. The word lonely doesn’t do justice to the feeling of isolation that I was experiencing.
I was so nervous to meet him. To consider a date seemed almost impossible! But I went for it. With a shaking hand, and nervous butterflies in my stomach – I went for it.
From the beginning, I was upfront with Joe about all the rules. And I did have a ton of them – all related to Bill and the kids. I wouldn’t allow anyone to quiet our voices about Bill. I knew we had to talk about him openly and freely, as much as needed – that would always be part of our healing. When I explained this to Joe he didn’t bat an eye. “Of course, Sue, that would never be an issue for me.” And he has never wavered on that.
After a few dates I felt a real connection to Joe. I had not expected this and truthfully I didn’t know what to do with it. I was overwhelmed with excitement and guilt, simultaneously. I felt guilty that I was “cheating” on Bill, and guilty about how my kids would feel. I struggled to find balance between keeping their needs as my priority and the question of my own path. Didn’t Sue, the woman, deserve happiness again? As a result, in the beginning I tried to push Joe away. He was patient, understanding, and just there as a steady presence. So, slowly, we began to build something. After a while, when it felt stable, we introduced the idea to each of our children.
That was a rocky road. I don’t claim to be an expert. My gut just said to be open and honest with the kids and allow them the space to do the same. There were some tough conversations –shouting matches, and definitely tears. But it all came out. And it was healing – but boy does did the process hurt. I believe, however, you have to let the pain in – you have to accept the truth of it – to begin to see yourself on a path of moving forward. So, I’ve always let the kids speak their truth. My role is to monitor; to see when one needs more of my time, ear, attention or, yes, at times, to be a punching bag. If it helps them be well adjusted, healthy, and emotionally strong, then it’s all worth it. And they will have a different level of empathy, feel deeper, and love harder.
For my kids, going to see their aunts, uncles, and cousins on their father’s side – this was their turf, their family. So, I imagined, they perhaps had some territorial feelings. As for my boyfriend, I knew he was more worried about my swirling thoughts than his own. At this point he knew me well enough to recognize that when my foot starts twitching, and for a few moments of the day I’m actually quiet, then something is up. I imagined his thoughts were focused on that, and surely his own set of nerves, as well as concerns about his kids. All of our thoughts, I imagined, were pretty full.
But about half-way through the party, as I watched it all unfolding with no problems, no tension, just a peaceful ease – that’s when it hit me. The definition of us. I am a widow at a party of my late husband’s family with my kids, my boyfriend, and his kids, I thought to myself. This is not typical. We are not a typical family. We are pieces of a puzzle born from tragedy. And it’s working. Our Non-Traditional Family. That’s the definition of us.
And we aren’t alone. So many of us aren’t “traditional.” It was a humbling moment for me. For 16 years I was married, with kids. We felt traditional. And I arrogantly assumed it would always be so. I watched friends divorce and remarry, juggle kids and custody, and I thought, I’m so glad I don’t have to experience that. It wasn’t with judgement, but I’m embarrassed that I allowed myself to think in such a tunnel.
Since that time, Joe and I and our “Starting Five” have become stronger and more connected and bonded. Joe coined that basketball reference early on and that’s our core – our starting five. But the branches spread out exponentially. They grow into our extended, traditional and not, family.
Anyone who’s experienced the blending of families can speak to the many, many firsts. For us, they include all seven of us taking a 14-hour road trip to Joe’s parents over the holidays for our first meeting. Similar emotions were at work during that drive as we had experienced on our way to the birthday party. But, it was another first that worked. We were welcomed with open arms and open hearts: our new family.
I know we aren’t the first to navigate this. Our experience isn’t unique. And while I am very blessed to have the support of my immediate and extended families, I know not everyone does, or will. And though that is challenging, it is not insurmountable. I certainly experience my fair share of eyebrow raises, critical tones, and judgmental quips. Most of the time I can shake them off. However, I’m human, and at times it gets in my head.
But I believe in bold and brave conversation about the processes of grieving, and of forging new love and life. Together we can lift one another up, inspire one another, listen through pain. I hope that, in sharing my story, I might lighten a little the burden of anxiety and uncertainty of someone else, as they navigate a similar experience.
Because new beginnings are allowed. New beginnings are exciting and scary and it’s okay to grieve alongside all those emotions. It doesn’t mean you’re holding on to the past, nor are you neglecting the future. You’re balancing. Feeling. Living. And if it works for you, then it works. That’s it. Simple.
Oh and P.S. The blending can work. I know. Because I got a beautiful Christmas surprise: A proposal. A heartfelt, with the kids there, marriage proposal. And I accepted. Here’s to the next chapter…