My husband died two years ago this past January.
And after two years I hear all sorts of well-meaning comments from friends and family telling me I’m “strong” and “doing well.” They compliment me on my resilience while I think, “What choice do I have?”
There are also those equally well-meaning people who say things like, “Time to get on Match and start dating!” “Why don’t you clean out the closet and make a quilt out of his shirts!” And because my husband died by suicide, I get the, “It must be a relief that you don’t have to deal with his depression anymore.” As if that makes his death any less traumatic. As if that makes me miss him any less.
Then there’s the silence when I mention his name or share a memory.
During these two years I’ve learned how to make and eat dinner alone, to shop for groceries without breaking down, to sleep through the night, to fix things, to take a trip by myself.
I’ve also started to dismantle his life. Yes, his clothes are still in the closet, but I donated his shoes, removed his name from credit cards, financial institutions, insurance papers, alumni groups, and organizations. I’ve fillled plastic bins with his photo albums and scrapbooks, letters, cards, resumes, and yearbooks. I’ve shredded his medical records.
And when I see my married friends what I want to say is, “Look at me. This is going to be you one day.” Because pretty much everyone who is married or partnered will be in my shoes at some point. And when you’re walking that mile, how seamless will it be for you to go from 30 years with your partner to dinner and a movie with a stranger?
But I don’t say anything because no one gets it until it happens to them.
When I joined a spousal grief group shortly after my husband died, I heard over and over how terrible year two would be. “Year one is bad,” the widowed would say, “but year two is really rough.” Great, I’d think. That’s just what I want to hear.
This is what I’ve been told: Grief is not linear. Everyone experiences grief differently. Grief moves at its own pace.
That is all true. But there are some commonalities to grieving. During year one you’re pretty much in shock, and the numbness created by that shock helps you traverse anniversaries, holidays, and special occasions without completely losing your mind. Even though your heart is breaking, shock helps you put one foot in front of the other to get through your day-to-day existence.
In year two, as you transition from “we” to “me,” the shock and numbness begin to wear off. I asked my therapist how I would know when I was out of shock and she said, “You’ll feel worse.” And that’s true. Now I understand what the widowed in my group meant when they said that year two is rough.
Because, without the cushion of shock those anniversaries, holidays, special occasions and daily living hit with a new reality that can dope-slap you in the face and buckle your knees. It’s an everyday reminder that the person you laughed, cried, argued, lived, and loved with is gone.
In grief circles people talk about grief as a wave. In year one those waves come at you like tsunamis. You’re in a constant turmoil of churning water that threatens to pull you under each and every minute. It’s exhausting just to claw back to the surface and take a breath. Reaching the safety of land seems impossible.
In year two those waves are further apart and not as overwhelming. You get pulled under but not as deep. There are more hours and days when you are at least treading water, and when the water is calm, you can slowly move toward the land that is now visible on the horizon. Maybe you even find a life jacket.
Year two is full of contradictions. I’m adjusting to my new life even though I miss the past; I feel like I need to make decisions, but then I remind myself that it’s still early on; I try to plan for the future, but I have no idea what that means.
But here’s something interesting: What I also realize in year two is that I am pretty much who I was before my husband died. That seems crazy, I know, but although the things we did together are over, and the tenor of those anniversaries, holidays, and special occasions has changed, I’m basically the same person I was before he died. Just because my husband is gone it doesn’t mean I’m gone. And that brings me hope.
I am more sad, lonely, tired, and anxious – but I wake up every morning and the person who looks back at me in the mirror is me. And recognizing who I am each day keeps my head above water and swimming toward that land.
Life can unravel at any time. The last two years upended my life in ways I could never have imagined. So, to know that I’m still me is the hope I need right now. I get up, I open the blinds, I turn on the radio, I brush my teeth, shower and dress, feed my cats and dog, I take a walk, and begin my day.
No, not every day is a good one. Plenty of times I’d rather just stay in bed. But I don’t. I get up and try again. Every day. So, if you ask me to describe the difference between year one and year two, I will say it’s one word… hope.
Sarah Miller is a writer based in the DC area. Her husband, Victor, took his own life in 2019. She’s working on a series of essays that chronicle her journey through the grief process.
Sarah has written for Grief Dialogues before. You can find her previous essays at Grief In the Time of Isolation and Eleven Months.