How I reclaimed who I was after the loss of my husband.
There is a startling identity vacuum that accompanies loss. Those caught in the wake of grief are often swallowed up by feelings of inadequacy, confusion, and crumbling self esteem – something I never could have understood until my own husband passed away.
For nine years Craig made up such an enormous part of my life, it became impossible to imagine one without him. I was his beautiful wife, the funny girl with a million stories about work, the listening ear at the end of the day, his cooking buddy, and junk food enabler. We finished each other’s sentences and called each other first when trapped on a crowded train in the dead of winter. We were each other’s best friend and looked forward to dates at the grocery store and weekends of sifting through comics and old books at the flea market. We sang at the top of our lungs in the car together and made ourselves laugh so hard we often had to stop for me to run in somewhere to pee.
We became everything to each other. And for those nine years, the me I saw was the me reflected back through my husband’s eyes. I knew I was funny because I always made him laugh. I knew I could be sweet because I was his sweetheart. I was smart because I was the first person he came to for advice. I was beautiful because I always caught him looking.
The day he died, I stopped knowing who I was.
No longer did I have a mirror walking around, reflecting back to me who I thought I was. I didn’t have anyone to laugh at my jokes, not that I had many at the time. Gone were the days of my husband greeting me at the door, snuggling up to me for movies, and curling against me at night. The lack of physical contact left me bereft – I’d never felt less attractive, less beautiful. Of course incessant sobbing that left mascara tracks down my face and a constantly running nose didn’t help.
Along with the physical shock to my body – that wonderfully included constant nausea, sweat-inducing anxiety, and frequent chest pains that left me doubled-over gasping for air – my mind decided to call it quits. While I had previously taken pride in my work, always studying up and reading to be one step ahead of very question, every task, I had suddenly inherited the attention span of a goldfish with a memory to match. A co-worker would tell me something and 20 minutes later I’d have to ask them all over again what they had said. Then again in another hour. And at least twice more by lunch. I couldn’t think, couldn’t focus, and the years and years of facts I had accumulated for my work trickled out of my mind like a leaky tap.
I suddenly became as incapable and feeble as everyone around me seemed to think I was. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lawn mower. I couldn’t change a simple light fixture. I couldn’t seem to remember that my car keys didn’t fit in the house door. I bumped into every pointy surface, spilled all things spillable, and couldn’t put a shirt on the right way to save my life.
Everywhere I went people gave me a wide berth and while I knew, logically, it was merely out of discomfort, I began feeling more and more like a social pariah, as though my grief was the worst kind of infectious disease. I’d walk into rooms and instantly the conversation would stop. Or the whispering would begin.
It’s no wonder I was lost.
Gone were the days of the smart me, the funny me, the clever me, the me who could take on the world. At best I was broken. At worst, I didn’t exist at all.
The hardest part in this was trying to articulate what was happening to me. That I had lost my identity – everything I thought I was. Everything I knew myself to be. It wasn’t until the day I caught myself whooping with delight over de-clogging my own bathtub drain for the first time that I realized what needed to be done.
I needed to take back me.
I started small. I learned how to hang my own pictures in the house. I forced myself to shovel my own walk. I reminded myself to put on both earrings before leaving the house. I even shaved my legs. Both of them. On the same day.
With those small tasks underway, I began stretching further. I forced myself out of the house to meet new people. I tried new things. I played pool. I tried rollerblading. I swam with dolphins and went speed boating. I sweated through yoga and even entered a photography contest. I made my first cheesecake from scratch. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, inch by painful inch.
Soon I began tackling the bigger things on my life list. I travelled, visiting places I’d never gone to but always secretly yearned for. I changed my wardrobe. I cut my hair.
Then I took the biggest leap yet – I finally summoned the courage to leave my career and go back to school, starting all over. It wasn’t easy. That first semester was one of the hardest things I’d done and every day I dragged myself to class, feeling beyond uncomfortable over the obvious age gap between me and the other students. My attention span and memory were still not what they once were (and likely never will be) but I hunkered down and forced myself ahead.
Every new challenge became a new victory.
Getting my first A, finding a new job, surviving my personal trainer at the gym.
And slowly, slowly I began to find me again.
Turns out with a little bit of make-up and the right pair of heels I could still be beautiful. While I’ll certainly never pass for athletic, I could finally do a full hour of weights and sprints without fainting. While it means working at bit harder, I still get my straight A’s and even won a scholarship. Now I’m on the dean’s list. And after amassing a new set of great stories, it turns out I can still be pretty funny. Even if I’m only making me laugh.
The nice side effect of all this is that I’m starting to love not only my life again, but trying new things as well. I can’t wait to start fencing lessons and plan on giving snowboarding a try this winter. I am volunteering as a grief group facilitator in town and have recently taken up hot yoga.
Given my lack of athletic prowess, it’s not surprising that the latter actually makes me cry more.
But I’m getting to know me all over again. And you know what? I kind of like it. It’s good to be me again.
Our thanks to guest author Emily Clark for sharing her story here with us. You can read more of Emily’s journey through young widowhood on her blog.