I’ve lived through some pretty stressful times in my life but none compare to standing beside my husband Jack in the cancer journey that ended in his death 18 months ago. It was 5 years of a roller coaster from hell because just as we felt good about the progress something else happened that plunged us back into the black hole of despair. While those years were mostly stressful at least we were together, holding hands, fighting the good fight and supporting each other. When he passed though the roller coaster became a downward spiral that sometimes I did care if I survived. But I have and so does everyone else whose love has died.
Survival is relative though when you wish all life would have stopped when your loved one died. Life however doesn’t work that way. There is a reason I’m still here, why you are still here, alone. The reality of our life after their death is perhaps the hardest part of the cancer journey… the one we have to travel alone.
You can surround yourself with friends and family but not one of them is living your pain. It was your husband, wife or partner. Your life is the one that has been irrevocably changed and you are never going to believe there is a purpose to their death and your survival, even though there is. The “one door closes another opens” philosophy feels like a hollow platitude and one that just makes you angry. It’s like being told by a relative “he died, get over it.” (Yes, I was told that.) It’s also anger you don’t need on top of all you’ve lost.
Moments after Jack passed I heard him say to me, “Everything is OK now.” For months every time I heard his words I’d yell back, “You may be OK but I am not!” and I wasn’t. It wasn’t anger so much as frustration. I couldn’t save him and now I didn’t know how to save me from the pain… and the panic of being without him.
In the end we are alone with our loss. We have to feel the depth of this despair and allow the tears, the heartbreak, the gut-wrenching pain to flow or we will never heal. As exhausting as curling up in a ball in the corner and sobbing uncontrollably is… it is also a necessary release of the built up emotions that we can no longer hold back. In my worst moments I forced myself to remember there was a reason I needed to feel this pain so I allowed myself to be consumed by it. At first this went for days at a time, then hours and now… moments.
As the months have gone on the hurt has changed. Some of it is a result of the callous built up by the pain. We get use to it so it doesn’t have the same effect as it did in the beginning. The waves may still crash over my head but they don’t seem to knock me down as hard. Most of all I’ve learned that it’s OK now for me to distract myself from the pain. I turn off the sad songs that I know will bring the tears. I get up and walk out the door when the walls close in on me. I go somewhere or do something that Jack & I didn’t do together so I don’t miss what we did do together. Those “tricks” enable me to enjoy my life just a little bit more as time has gone on.
There have been times that I have felt guilt for laughing or having fun since Jack died. We feel that we are being disrespectful of our marriage, of our love. Reminding ourselves that those who have passed wouldn’t want us to live out our lives in misery is a good thing to do but it takes time to believe it.
Life after their death is our journey. We may not know what is coming but then did we ever? It’s scary to walk alone when we’ve always been a couple. As the weeks and months and years pass we realize the strength it took for us to survive. And in that moment there is a different flash of perspective where we realize we made it through hell. We have survived the worst life has to offer and so there is hope that tomorrow will be a better day. And it is.
We learn to take each day, each moment, as it comes for what it is… an opportunity to turn our survival into testament for the love we were blessed to have. We make the choice to honor that love by living each day with the same strength and grace they showed us in their dying. And our life again has purpose. Remember in the beginning of your journey alone you didn’t think your life could ever go on let alone have meaning? Look how far you’ve come. Acknowledge your journey to this place. It’s not over. It may never be over… but you’re not done living yet. Be grateful for your progress and celebrate, yes celebrate, your resilience!
With love, Cheryl