“Wow, I can’t believe it’s been a year” is the most frequent phrase I’ve heard at the first-year milestone. Well, I can. It was the longest year of my life.
In August 2016, my soul mate and life partner, Tracy, died after battling cancer for many years. By the end of his life, I was wishing for him to be free of the endless mess of doctors’ appointments, glimmers of hope that always faded, bad news and physical limitations that had overtaken the last two years of our marriage. Our relationship, which was frequently the envy of our friends, was rooted in mutual respect. We met at 21, married at 26 and navigated all of life’s challenges together — from graduate school to the death of a parent. He was my anchor, and life with him was fun, stable and constant. Things were all in place — until they weren’t.
The difficulty with navigating the first year after the loss of a partner cannot be minimized. It is not only facing alone all of the milestones such as birthdays, the wedding anniversary and the holidays, but the shedding of your entire sense of self: You must purge possessions that evoke emotions, change routines and experience social situations as an entirely new person.
At 48, I’m still considered a young widow, but I’ve spent more than half my life with Tracy and find myself looking at an unclear future and asking what’s next. For other young widows/widowers in my new and as-yet-unbroken-in shoes, I offer some advice:
- Brace yourself. Your grief is going to overtake your body, mind and emotions and won’t be controlled, no matter how hard you try. Once you become comfortable with a deep fog or racing mind, mood swings and emotions that seem to arrive out of nowhere, you’ll be in a better place. Just be with it. It is going to take time for your brain to work correctly again.
- Ask for help. This is the time to do so. Take the meals, visits, offers of child care and yard work, and anything else that comes your way. No guilt or “I can handle this on my own” attitude. People are genuine in wanting to do something for you, so let them do it and thank them.
- Make plans for the big milestones like holidays, your anniversary, spouse’s birthday or any other days on which you’ll need the support of your family and friends.
- Stay in the present. You are in your new life now, and it takes time to adjust to this. Replaying many past experiences causes profound sadness, and thinking about the unknown future causes intense anxiety. It sounds so simple, but once you can train your mind to do this, it makes each day easier.
- Take care of yourself first. This means being mindful of everything that can affect your health. Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep. While things like alcohol and medications to help you sleep may be tempting, they dull and delay the process of feeling better. If you have children, you will be a much better support for them if you are getting your own needs met.
- Find the support you need. It could be a therapist, counselor or a support group. Social media is also a tremendous help in locating others sharing similar experiences.
- Make any changes you need to make. The advice “don’t make any big decisions for a year” does not necessarily apply to young widows. Over this past year, I have watched newly grieving friends sell their homes, move across the country and start dating again. Be mindful and seek support if you need to, but your timeline for moving forward is yours and yours alone.
Now that I have survived the first year, I can acknowledge and take pride in the work I’ve done. I am morphing into an entirely new person, and it’s OK that the person I was just one year ago is gone. Change forced upon us can be tremendously difficult, but the end result of this change is growth, strength and resilience. You can do it. I did.