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Resilience – After the Death of a Spouse

Resilience – After the Death of a Spouse
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pictured: Rich and the kids on vacation before his diagnosis

By Deborah Wagner Farber

When I began this piece on resilience, my first stop was Dictionary.com to look up the true meaning of the word. It’s defined there as follows: 

1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.

2. ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.

When you lose your spouse, neither of these definitions applies. There is no returning to an original form; there is no recovering readily. The process is not linear, it’s not easy, and it’s a solitary and personal journey.

My own journey began during the summer of 2007, the summer before my daughter started her first year of college and my son his sophomore year in high school. My husband’s back was bothering him. But lower-back pain was a way of life for him ever since he’d fractured it in college. Ibuprofen and heat usually did the trick.

We had just returned from vacation the week prior and dropped our daughter off at college to start the new chapter in her life and ours. The morning of September 2, our 29th wedding anniversary, Rich awoke to symptoms that sent us immediately to the ER. Tests were run by a harried ER doctor with a less-than-stellar bedside manner. “You probably have cancer. You need to see a urologist.” That is how we found out his pain was not from his long-ago injury. From there we went to the urologist, then on to the oncologist. On my birthday, September 17, we got the diagnosis: pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer. The scariest two words I’ve ever heard or muttered.

I won’t try to explain what it’s like to care for someone who’s dying of pancreatic cancer. Suffice it to say, it’s not pretty, it’s not peaceful, it’s not something I would wish on anyone. I will say that caring for my husband and helping him die in the most peaceful and dignified way possible was something I would do again in a heartbeat. I am honored to have been at his side throughout this.

We fought a futile war. On the evening of January 8, four months after his diagnosis, surrounded by family and friends, Rich, the love of my life, the father of my children, left us at just 53. I would never again be the same person I was on the 7th of January.

On September 2, 1978, I became a wife. On January 8, 2008, I became a widow. Nothing prepares you for this new role. A numbness sets in. It’s what gets you through the beginning. I think it keeps you from hitting the people who, while meaning well, say stupid things like “I know how you must feel” (No, you don’t, and you won’t until you’ve lost a spouse!) or “He’s in a better place” (No, he’s not. He’s not here with his family! How is that better? F**k you!).

People would marvel at my so-called strength. It wasn’t strength. I had kids. I didn’t have a choice. You get up, you get dressed, you put one foot slowly in front of the other. You remind yourself to breathe because you forget how to do that. You stop laughing, because you feel guilty enjoying life. You forget about living; you just survive.

When you think about grief and the so-called grieving process, it sounds very linear. The books imply that all you have to do is check off the different stages and, at a certain point, you dust off your hands and say “Well, that’s over. Whew!” But it’s not. You move back and forth through the stages. Sometimes you go through multiple stages simultaneously—“I accept that you are gone, but I know you’re going to walk through that door, and when you do, I’m going to strangle you for leaving me!”—acceptance, denial, anger.

Did resilience play a role in my ability to move forward? Maybe we need a different word. You see, to me an experience like this changes you forever. It’s like making a ball out of Play-doh. You make it round, it’s smooth, it’s perfect. Then you flatten it out and make the ball again. It’s round, but maybe not *as* round. It has that little seam that you can’t quite get rid of, it’s not as perfect as the first one. It looks pretty much the same, but it’s not. It will never be the same.

On January 8, 2015, it will be seven years since Rich left me. I was forever changed that night. There are still moments when I am so overwhelmed by loss that I sob uncontrollably. But there are also moments when I smile and laugh at memories and pictures. I talk to him and update him on his children and my life. And, I started moving forward. I began dating (boy, is that a story in itself!), mostly catch and release. I reached a point of giving up. I accepted that I might be alone, but that was all right. I had my 30 great years with Rich. If that was the price, I could live with that.

I was letting my Match.com subscription run out when I got the email. He didn’t meet my criteria. He wasn’t Rich—that’s what I thought I wanted. But the universe has its own plans. We corresponded for about a month before we met. That was over two and a half years ago. He’s nothing like Rich—but I think that was the greater plan: no comparing. And not a day goes by that I don’t tell him that I love him or that I cherish him. Life changes in an instant, and he will never leave my sight without knowing how grateful I am that he is in my life.

Looking back, I went through one of the most difficult times that anyone can experience. I came out the other side. It wasn’t a straight path. It was more like one step forward, two back, three sideways, five back, and then more forward and fewer back. I moved from darkness into a slow dawn into the sun again. Is that resilience? I don’t know. Some will say yes. I don’t give it a name. It’s just my journey, one without a map and one where I really didn’t know where the destination was. But I found a place where I want to stay and build a future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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