survivor's guilt

I’m on the cusp of a new life, but it’s difficult to leave the old one behind. And, if I’m honest with myself, I feel guilty and sad, regretful that I have been able to survive without Rick, that I am making that new life on my own.

When Rick died, I never thought this would be possible – to live, to laugh, to go on and have a future without him. But I have, and – sixteen months later – now I know that I can. But as I enter another new year without him – 2019 will be the second year he will never experience – I feel I’m being disloyal to him. I feel like I’m leaving him behind, betraying him. I KNOW it’s crazy, I KNOW it’s not logical, but that’s how I feel.

I loved him so much, that the grief nearly incapacitated me. I think back to the months after he died, and I was only half alive. I remember small things, like going to vote at the local school, and sitting in my car for a half hour pushing myself to go in without him. I forced myself to go in, and when I signed in, I felt like my other half was missing. Then, after casting my vote, I remember returning to the car to sit again (was it a half hour? an hour? more?) staring out the window, so sad, over something so small and insignificant as going to vote. We always did it together, and here I was alone.

Those memories keep cropping up – not just memories of us together, but also memories from the past year of doing things for the first time without him – all the firsts, so many firsts – going to diners and stores, going on vacation, living through each holiday and each new season without him by my side. The first time I went swimming without him sitting under the gazebo chatting with me. The first time I repaired something without him by my side. Waking up without his cheery good morning. Going to sleep without his arms around me. Driving to Florida and up north to our cabin alone in the car. Spring and summer alone in the yard. And enduring things without his support – the first flat tire, the jammed dishwasher, the home invasion. So many firsts without him.

And now that I’m “okay” again, now that I’m more myself, I remember how overwhelming the grief was every single day: forcing myself to leave my bed every morning, knowing how badly it would hurt, how painful every reminder would be.

But it’s different now. I’m used to being alone. I’m used to the quiet. I rarely expect to see Rick coming around the corner of the hallway anymore. I rarely expect him to call out to me each morning when I awake, or to be there when I get home from work, or to be sitting under the gazebo each evening. Last month, for the first time in a long time, I returned to my home office to work. Since Rick died, I’ve been working at a small folding table in my living room. I never really thought about it. I had a new MacBook, and it was convenient to work anywhere, so I just plopped down in my living room chair on “work at home days.” Last month, I wondered to myself why I wasn’t just working in my office like I used to. So, I took the laptop back to my desk, and looked across the hall to Rick’s empty office. Then I knew, THAT’s why I had avoided it. I couldn’t stand not seeing him there, not hearing him plunking away at his keyboard. I couldn’t stand not chatting back and forth with him as we worked on projects. And now, more than a year later, I don’t expect to see him, and it’s safe to return to my office again.

So, my new patterns without Rick have become normal. My new independent life has a rhythm that I’m comfortable with. And I’m back to the old me, the one who liked to plan and dream, the woman who was excited about life and anticipated the future. I’ve begun formulating plans for myself now. Plan number one is to retire within the next two to three years, and I’m imagining and envisioning how and where I want to live. And these fantasies of my future are exciting – for a while. Then, usually as bedtime approaches, and I wind down from a day of work, and home projects, or socializing, I see Rick again in my mind’s eye. I remember the little things again, and all we shared, and I lose my momentum. And I think nothing I look forward to matters, because I will never be as happy as we were together. My life will never be the same. It will never hold as much joy as when we shared it together.

I have a new car that we didn’t choose together. I’ve checked off my list and cancelled his iPhone and NYT subscription and Audible account. I’m slowly redecorating the house with my taste, not ours. We had planned to replace the couch, and picked out one together a year before he got sick, but I found one I liked better, and in a symbol of my need to move on, I bought it. Then I bought a new coffee table to go with it, and a new rug. And that leads to more potential changes – Do I like the old lamps? What about the old kitchen counters? And slowly, inevitably, the house is changing to become my home, not ours. And that, too, leads to ambivalent feelings: I like the changes, but at the same time, it’s different than the home we shared together, and that makes me sad.

I’ve made 16 months of decisions and plans and choices without him. I have 16 months of memories that he wasn’t a part of. Life has moved on, and after one year of grieving, I have finally awakened from my fog of grief and started to engage with life. Oh, yes, the first year, I was moving forward. I was rising from my bed each morning and working and playing, because I forced myself to. But, looking back, I wasn’t really there. I wasn’t feeling much of anything but an overlay of sadness and lethargy that I fought each day to overcome. I never really believed I would ever feel again – hope or joy or enthusiasm. I was just moving with the current because I didn’t die when he did – at least not physically – and I knew I had to go on.

So, I’m happy to be where I am today. I’m happy to realize that I actually feel joy again – and excitement for my future, and anticipation for what life will offer in the years ahead, again. I’ve worked hard for forty years – to be able to retire and enjoy my golden years (yes, the ones I thought I’d share with Rick), but now, finally, I am able to accept that I will be enjoying those things alone. And it’s okay. I look forward to writing, and traveling, and playing with the grandkids. To finally getting my genealogy in order. To enjoying the sun on the beach, and swimming in pools, and lakes, and oceans. To meeting new people and trying new things, and (dare I even think it?) perhaps even finding someone to share that life with me.

So now, as I’ve finally begun to embrace my life and anticipate my future, I just need to work to overcome the guilt. Because, yes, I feel guilt and sadness that I’m able to enjoy life when Rick can’t. That he’s missing all this, that I’m having a life without him. I know it’s not realistic, but logic has nothing to do with my grief or my feelings, and I feel incredible sadness and remorse because I’m alive and happy. When I expressed my anguish to my counselor, she said I should borrow and adapt the mantra from Alanon: I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it.

I didn’t cause the cancer.
I couldn’t control the fact that Rick’s life was ending.
And I didn’t have the power to cure him in the end.

So what can I do, but live the life I have left? And I know, deep in my heart, that Rick is cheering me on, that he would want nothing less than for me to enjoy life, and that he’s happy I’m beginning to embrace my future without him.


On August 13, 2017, I lost the love of my life. Rick Palmer and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary one month before he died at age 63 of complications from treatments for small cell lung cancer. He was my partner and soulmate, the love I had been looking for and finally found at age 40.

Rick was a talented writer and web designer and, in 2002, we began our own web and print design business. We worked together building the business and enjoyed traveling, writing, and playing together. Our dream was to spend our golden years together doing more of the same, but in the ten months from diagnosis to death, that dream shattered.

After Rick’s death, I quickly realized that the enormity of his loss was too much for me to handle on my own, so I began grief therapy. I also began writing through my grief in a journal of feelings, thoughts, memories, and poetry. As I navigate my new life alone, I share my journey and my efforts towards creating my “new normal” on my personal blog: The Writing Widow. I’m also on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

I recently published two books about my grief journey: my poetry book, I Wanted to Grow Old With You: A Widow's First Year of Grief in Poetry, and compilation of my blog posts A Widow's Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry - The First Year." Both books are available in print and Kindle versions on