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Grieving the death of a spouse is like trying to hang-on to a 50-pound yo-yo. Grief plunges you to the bottom of despair, then raises you up for a brief glimpse of life, as you knew it, only to drop you again… and again. I never dreamed surviving the death of my second husband would make breast cancer seem easy.

In the last few weeks, two of my friends have lost their husbands to a serious illness. I’ve lost two husbands to death. I know how they’re feeling.

One of my friends—she was the second wife—has found herself without the support of her late husband’s children or his siblings. I understand that, too, because James’s family left me out in the cold as well. Over the years I’ve written a lot about grieving the death of a spouse, and I’ve learned there are no rules for grieving.

Sometimes I was scary calm and then, out of nowhere, my loss was almost too great to bear. I buried my face in James’s leather chair, hoping to find some trace of his familiar smell, but there was only a hint, enough to make me cling to his chair like a life preserver.

Some people find grief classes helpful, but the one I attended scared me. The class was full of women who’d been holding on to their grief for years. They’d let themselves stay stuck in their webs of “what ifs.” They were examples of what awaited me if I did the same. Grief has it’s own timetable. As the grief facilitator said, “You can deal with it now, or deal with it later and even then, you may continue to deal with it.”

The loss of a mate forces us to redefine who we are, to find our new normal without them. It’s not an easy process, even for the most independent of people. Many people see themselves as half of a unit, unable to picture themselves as a whole person after the death of their spouse. It’s not unusual to have trouble making decisions or dealing with bills. Anything—and nothing at all—underscores our newfound widow or widowerhood.

We must force ourselves to keep going, to find that resilient thread inside us, no matter how slender. We must then use it to weave a new tapestry without our spouse.

Coming to terms with the loss of a spouse may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but forcing yourself to move forward is a way of honoring them. I started a journal about all the funny, poignant, even maddening things James had said and done. In the beginning it was my way of keeping him alive. I feared as time passed, and in my case chemo brain reigned supreme, I would lose pieces of him and our life together. Now as I read my “James Said” journal, I find a comfort I hadn’t expected. While it reminds me of things he said, it also shows me a vivid picture of a man who loved me deeply, who put God, country and family first. 

Time has a way of softening the edges, and at some point you will make peace with your grief and the 50-pound yo-yo. While you may never entirely let go of the string, I promise… You will become stronger than your grief.

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  1. Hi, Brenda! I always read your blogs and often find them both touching and funny. When you talk about grief and loss of spouses, I feel like you are talking to me directly. I am “soldiering” on (like those in this week’s photo), and I am finding my way as a single woman, although I do have moments, when I feel that I have lost the most important part of my life and can’t come up for air.

    • Thank you, Joan, for your kind words. I’m happy you like my blogs. I’m sorry, however, that you know this kind of grief. We do “soldier on” and it’s one of the hardest things we’ll ever do. About six months after James died, I asked an older woman at church, whose husband had died years before, how long this painful, painful period lasted. She said about a year, then you learn to walk along side your grief. An insightful way to put it. In those times you’re describing, all we can do is breathe and take a step. Breathe and take a step. I know what you mean about losing the most important part of your life, but in fact, the most important part is YOU… and what you do with yourself and how you can give back and ease the way for someone else. Help the soldiers who come after you and give thanks. xoxox, Brenda

  2. Have not experienced this method of losing a spouse. Seems as terrible as others.

    My lost spouse? Alcoholism. Invasion of the body snatcher. Incredible man I married, 30+ years, overtaken upon every layer.

    A dear friend, married over 50 years now caretaking, at home, her husband with dementia. Cannot imagine her manner of grieving the loss of her spouse. What she mentions most is the loneliness & missing him, though he’s there in body.

    Then that 2nd marriage stuff, and grown children.

    Now, 6 years after my father dying, mom opening up completely about his loss. Profound. Her sharing has made me laugh, made me cry. Enjoying stories & tidbits never heard before, and I’m 58 ! Found pic of dad recently, ca. 1964. Mom broke out laughing, saying, “He’s CUTE !” She sounded like the girl who married him, age 17, not an 81 year old woman. Waited my entire life, to hear her giggle like that.

    Pulled dad’s oil portrait off the dining room wall this month, brought it into the family room where mom spends most of her time. Not noticed immediately, she LOVED having it closer to her when she walked by, finally noticing.

    Sorry for you losses Brenda. Thank you for sharing.

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

    • Thanks for sharing as well, Tara. My first husband died of lung cancer, but I’d lost him long before to alcohol and cocaine, so I understand the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Part of me wants to have someone in my life, but the other part of me doesn’t want to encounter “his” grown children who fear the new woman will inherit something, or windup care taking for some man. I have girlfriends who are in both of those positions right now, and it’s pure HELL! I just love what you’ve written here… all of it, especially about waiting your whole life to hear your mother giggle like that. You dear, sweet daughter… I know this isn’t easy for you. You did such a sweet thing by moving your father’s portrait closer to her. So dear… xoxox, Brenda

  3. I’ve been a hospice volunteer for over 10 years so I am some familiarity with death. I’m turning 50 this year and the reality of mortality (mine and that of my husband) is more present than it has been. I see the likely transitions that await us as we prepare kids to enter High School, then college and the great unknown. I’m holding on to these last handful of years because I recognize that I am in the sweet spot. I enjoy your writing Brenda and I respect your authenticity and I am sure you have helped many by sharing your experiences.

    • I appreciate your comments, Bryce. Sharing and telling it all, with honesty and authenticity is the only way I know to write. A girlfriend of mine once told me she wouldn’t share 95% of the things I write about… Hospice!! I have such respect for anyone who has the strength and patience and inner grit to do hospice. How have you done that for so long? I would think it takes an emotional toll on you, but yes… You have a heightened awareness for how quickly life can change. Brava for recognizing your sweet spot. You’re in an enviable place. Cherish it. Enjoy it and remember it… xoxox, Brenda

    • Dearest Sandra… The fact that you and your husband are still together and loving one another after 57 years gives me such great joy!! Thank you for sharing that. We all love happy endings, and your marriage is one of those. xoxox, Brenda

  4. I am remarried after my first husband passed away six years ago. I relate to so much of what you have written here. I turned to blogs written by widows in my early days of healing. I was struck by how many of them were still so miserable in their grief years out from losing their spouse. I knew I didn’t want to live like that!! I wanted to heal and move forward, and I have done so- extremely clumsily at times!! I can’t imagine losing my second husband and dealing with breast cancer!! But, I also know all too well that playing the “widow card” isn’t an option- other bad things are going to happen in my life. Trials in life are unavoidable which is a very scary fact! I also feel that surviving one of the worst things that could ever happen gives one a great strength!!! I have a new boldness and live and love much more deeply because of it!! Your comment about living in the “what ifs” spoke to me. I want to share a post I wrote last year at this time on that very topic! I started this blog in my grief. I don’t have very many followers, but just try to keep it very real and organic. The few followers I do have give me great support for which I am thankful!!! I am from Texas but moved to New Mexico when I remarried a great friend from high school who lost his wife a few years before my husband passed away. I live an extremely quiet life in the New Mexico mountains now which has been a great source of healing for me. I haven’t been following your blog very long and had no idea you had been through all of this! Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. It is six years this month that my first husband passed, and April has always been a hard month since!! I appreciated your words this morning.

    • Dear Sharon, Your post is beautifully written, and I still hear your pain. Most importantly you make me think, twice, about finding someone else to love. I’m so happy for you and know that feeling of “will I ever love anyone, again?” but you so eloquently answered that question. I rejoice for you! A friend of mine in San Antonio, named Do McCuistian, died before my husband, so that was at least 7 years ago. Any relation? I visited him, sometimes, in the care facility where he was. He was a good man. Thanks so much for your comment, Brenda

  5. Witnessing this more and more as my circle ages.
    It’s easy to tell yourself that death is a prat of life.
    But much, much more difficult to actually wade through.
    Thank you for this tender, understanding post!

    • Hi Diane! The fact that our circle is getting smaller or is at the age for strokes and dementia, etc. is what makes me hesitant to look for another man. Too many of my friends are caring for second, even third spouses who’ve had a stroke, memory issues, ALS, or who’s children who don’t appreciate that they love their father and are doing their best to care for him. My mother was in that position. I think I’d rather be alone than find myself there. Thank you. xoxo, Brenda

  6. Hi dear Brenda… so sorry for your losses, but you are an incredible lady, who lives life to the full, with vigour. I am sure this will be of great comfort to others in same situation xxxx

    I have NOT EXPERIENCED THIS AS YET and of course I hope I NEVER DO.
    LOVE LOVE LOVE your journal idea.I may start that TOMORROW!!!!!!!IN THE GARDEN all the things that drive me NUTS!
    I would MISS HIM ……..but I have some FABULOUS IRON GATES that will GO UP once he is in the GROUND!
    (More on that in MAY!)This is a JOKE between HIM and Me and I realize it sounds terrible!

    • I love your “gate” story. What if you tell him that if you “go first,” whenever he looks at those gates, he’ll regret he didn’t agree for you to put them up because it would have made you so happy! That said… If I’d kept my French garden chairs… which James thought were “butt ugly,” he would have felt nothing but RELIEF about those chairs had I died first! xoxox, Brenda

  8. Brenda you write eloquently about grief, as you’ve lived it in many of its versions. Thank you. Journaling is such an important part of grief, whether or not it’s in the form of letters or whatever form works for you.

    • Thank you, Margaret. Keeping that journal was one of the only happy things I did for a long time after James died. Every time I thought of one of his colloquialisms–he was raised in West Texas–or something I wanted to make sure I remembered, if I wasn’t at my computer, I would record it on my phone or send myself an email. They were like little gifts from him. xoxox, Brenda

  9. So sorry for your losses, Brenda. Thank you for sharing such profound and inspiring words for anyone at any stage of the grieving process.

  10. I can’t even imagine that 50 pound yo yo! But you’ve certainly offered some incredible help here, particularly the journaling idea.
    Blessings to you as you live your way into healing and hope.

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