A little more than six years ago, just nine days after our second child was born, my thirty year old husband (and high school sweetheart), Kenny, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. From there, it was four and half years of beautiful highs (a third child!) and unimaginable lows (of which I still can’t talk about). About four years in, the neurological ninja in his head upgraded itself from a low grade “he may live a long normal life” tumor, to a Glioblastoma, the most aggressive of the brain cancers. He was gone four months later, at the age of 35.
When I became a widow eighteen months ago, there was no guidebook to help me navigate; and books about grief did little to help me. Some days, it was agony to get myself out of bed, let alone handle being a single mom of three young children (who, right now, are eight, six and three years old). Something that helped give me the push was reading motivational quotes at the start of every day. I’m aware how hokey that sounds, eye-roll worthy even, but the thing about that level of pain is that you’ll jump on any bandwagon that gets the sheets off your body and the coffee in your mug. These seven are among my favorite!
“Grief never ends, but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. It is the price of love.”
Here’s the deal, and I don’t say this to scare anyone new to the scene here in widow(er) land, but grief is not a linear concept. You will always be sad your spouse died. You will never be “okay” with the events surrounding your partner’s death. You will think of them every single day for the rest of your life. You may feel like you’re drowning in it right now. You may feel like life is unfair, the world is unfair, your friends are jerks, and you cannot possibly fathom how you’ll ever feel capable of joy again.
The “sad” will drown you. The “suck” of it all will hurt you. Here’s my guidance on that: you have to let it. I’m sorry. I wish I had better advice to give. I wish I had a magic wand, a secret pill, or some super special piece of advice. There is none; there is literally no way around grief, you just have to let it take you under, drown you, and then you have to let it change you. It’s arduous and exhausting, but worth the work (I promise). I think of Kenny every day, and I talk about him with the kids all the time. The “relationship” just shifts over the months and years, because it has to; you can’t stay married to a spouse who isn’t here anymore. I know, dear friends. I know how painful that fact is. I know how we all want to go back in time and grab them and not let them go; but we don’t live in a world of “what if,” we live in “what is.” “What is,” is that our spouses are gone. “What is,” is that we have to find a way to go on. If you’re new to this, you’ll get there, I swear. Just do.the.work.
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
When my husband’s prognosis became terminal, we’d just made a big leap to a new state after having been told he was in remission; a fresh start after he’d been laid off during chemo (YES, this actually happened). I think, after he passed, many expected that I’d move the kids back to our home state. While I did contemplate it (I even started a job search and toured homes), my heart wasn’t there anymore. It was terrifying, but I chose to continue on the path of the fresh start we’d already begun. It was difficult, and scary, but the more I reminded myself of the life I hoped to give our kids, the harder I worked at getting it set up. It’s been about fifteen months since I made that leap, and so far, my kids are happy, thriving , if not deliciously normal (and sometimes maddening and infuriating) little monkeys. They have their moments (of course), but they’re doing well. I’m proud to say that I am, as well. I haven’t quite evolved to where I want to be yet, but I’m so happy to feel like its possible for me to get there someday.
“Every next level of your life will demand a different version of you.”
I often think back to the person I was when Kenny was first diagnosed. That 31 year old version of me, not all that long ago, and yet, a different lifetime; she and I have very little in common anymore. I think of the hurdles she had to jump, the mountains she climbed, and the cliffs she fell over. She’s been knocked out, and risen, at least five times in six years; and at least a dozen in her lifetime. I can see her in my memory so clearly, but I can’t feel her anymore. She lived a different life than I do; with different hopes, different dreams, and radically different daily life.
Losing your spouse changes everything. You can’t be the person you were anymore, not just because of the pain and grief, but because you’ve lost a piece of your identity. Your “personal puzzle” has been blown the smithereens, and your pieces are missing edges and cut into threes. When I chose to accept that I wasn’t Kenny’s wife anymore, it was the most soul crushing, and yet liberating part of the process. Once I started making decisions with only my likes, dislikes, wants or needs, I was able to start piecing myself together again. I learned who I was now, and where I wanted my life to go. It’s not easy; the guilt ate me alive a thousand times, but the more I challenged myself, the quicker I would rebound with every trip down the rabbit hole of shame. You can’t put yourself together perfectly, but a new personal puzzle will take shape—its up to you what that puzzle looks like.
“Sometimes people around you won’t understand your journey. They don’t need to, it’s not for them”
Unless the people around you have experienced a similar loss, they will never understand it. They can try, they can love you to the moon, but they simply cannot understand it. They’ll try to help, and sometimes say things that seem insensitive – try not to take it personally. Although if they cross the line from “innocently thoughtless” to “douche train express” passenger, feel free to give them the boot. No explanation, no big fight- just cut them out. You’re allowed to. You’re also allowed to make your second act whatever you want. You’re allowed to pursue the career you never thought you’d be brave enough to, or see parts of the world you’d only ever dreamed of. People might guess you’re in the throes of crisis, and you’ll somehow “return” eventually. The reality is that you’ve just witnessed the unimaginable, and have a newfound appreciation for trying to live your most authentic life. You have to learn to let the judgements roll off your shoulders, whether you’ve found love again or simply choose to change the venue of your life.
You have to give YOURSELF grace while you figure yourself out. You can’t go back no matter how much you wish it so, you can’t change what’s happened, you cannot undo what’s been done. Forward is the only way. Remember that always.
“Do what makes your soul shine”
I’ve wanted to write my entire life, but I was always afraid I wasn’t good enough. I started my blog as a “joke,” when I was twenty-nine; a challenge to myself to try new things before the big “3-0.” Over the course of the years, it became an outlet for the stress and anxiety of raising a young family while my husband was sick. I always short changed myself with the negative self-talk, “It’s just a hobby,” “I’m not good enough to do this ‘for real,’” “No one really even cares what I have to say.” I’m also very into fitness and nutrition, but anytime people would compliment me on my physique or say that my outgoing personality would be great for personal training, I’d start with that negative self-talk again. “I’m just a mom,” “I’m not as good as these trainers I see online,” or “I’m too old to start up new ventures.”
The truth, however, is that I love these things; whether I remain a novice or become a professional. Choosing to pursue these passions the past few months has set my soul on fire; I didn’t even think it was possible for me anymore. I’m thirty seven years old, and I’ve been through the wringer a time or two; but the more I dive in, the more I’m convinced that going for it is my only option. I’ve done immense work on positive self- talk, and challenging myself outside of my comfort zone. I realized this year that none of us know when our time is coming; a lesson learned the hard way. I think of Kenny every time I want to give up, and realize I owe it to him, for all the things he won’t get to do, to live my best life. I owe it to him, to our children, to give life my all, and show them they can, too. After all, as they say, “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.”
Megan Courtney is a widowed mom of three young wildlings, ages eight, six, and three, and dog mom to two goofy black lab mutts. She writes about her journey through widowhood and single parenthood on her blog (http://mom-entum.co/), and continues passionate work as an advocate and fundraiser for the National Brain Tumor Society. She is also a fitness enthusiast and health and wellness coach, who’s training for a half marathon and working toward earning her CPT certificate. Megan holds a BA in English Literature and always finds inspiration in the little things: her favorite song, a new book or planner, or a fresh set of pens. You can find her on Instagram as @megs_momentum.