Life Plan and the Happily Ever After

Our lives unfold in stages.  We wait for the beginning of the next exciting and challenging step.  I looked forward to riding the bus to start school, then I could not wait to graduate from high school, finish my education, get a job, buy a house, a car, fall in love, and get married…   After that, I anticipated the happily ever after with a special someone.  Not everyone falls in love or gets married.  If you do meet your soulmate, and fall in love, I would consider you a lucky person.  After I fell in love, I couldn’t wait to get married and for the happily ever after… until death do us part.

I met a special person in 1992.  John and I immediately had an attraction.  He made me laugh and he was always happy.  We were blissfully wed on October 5, 1996.  After getting married, we waited to buy a house, waited to buy a new car, waited to start a family.  Life seems to have a lot of waiting…  In between waiting and making memories, we started to plan for our future, our child’s future, our family’s future.  We were planning to retire someday and grow old together.

After Loss: Not the Happily Ever After

My imagined ‘happily ever after’ is not going to take place with John by my side.  Tragedy struck quite suddenly, and my life completely changed forever when my soulmate died on March 29, 2017.  Becoming a widow at age 45 was not part of the life plan.  John suffered a massive hemorrhagic brain stem stroke on a Saturday morning that started like any other Saturday.  He became comatose.  I made the impossible choice of removing the ventilator.

I was in shock and devastated, and asked myself, what now?  What are the next steps?  How do I survive this ‘stage’ of life?  Is there a plan to follow when your spouse dies?  It turns out, there is no plan for loss.  Grief is the only way to get through it.

Grief has no plan.  There is no such thing as waiting for grief to end.  I naively thought that if I followed some type of plan, the pain, (oh the pain) would go away.  My fog of grief made me think there was a type of checklist to go through. Go to therapy, check.  Write in a journal, check.  Let myself grieve, check.  I thought checking these items off a list would take me to a next ‘stage.’  There is no checklist for the pain of loss.  It seems the pain lessens, but it does not go away.  While grief includes sorrow and pain, it also has allowed me to see a light in myself that I never knew I had before John’s death.  Oddly, at times I see myself as John must have seen me and that is comforting and makes me feel like he is still with me.

What’s Next?

Most people have not planned how you will live your life without your spouse, even if you know your loved one will not likely survive an illness or disease.  After John died, all I could think to do was just survive.  Everything was hard, even breathing.  That first year was a blur.  I do remember thinking that I needed to change a few things in my life to start allowing new memories to form.  Even though I desperately wanted things to go back to the way they were, and still do many times, I was not going to wait or plan.  I was going to live in the now.  Certainly, that was harder to do than I thought it would be and still is difficult.  Initially, everything I did, I would wonder how John would see it or what he would think.

Making New Memories

A few months after John died, my daughter mentioned learning to scuba dive.  It is good to go outside of your comfort zone.  Right!?  She had wanted to dive since she was about 8 years old.  John suffered from sinus issues and would not have been able to dive with her.  Although I was a bit nervous to venture into something unknown and potentially dangerous, I wanted to make new memories with my daughter.  We took classes and became scuba certified.  I discovered that being underwater is peaceful because there are no noises or distractions.  Therefore, you only hear yourself breathing and forget what is happening on land.  What happens next is unknown, but I will remind myself every day to live in the moment, don’t plan into the future too far, and remember how important it is to make new memories.


Northern Virginia has been Jennifer Carstens’ home since she was a teenager. She met John when she was working at the D.E.A. Headquarters in Arlington, VA, during the summer when she was in college. Honestly, it was love at first sight for both of them. He had a way about him that made her feel like everything was going to be okay. They were married 4 years later and lived happily for the next 21 years. While their lives were not
flawless, they were close to perfection. Their daughter had just turned 16 when tragedy struck on March
11, 2017. John was healthy and happy, but suffered a massive brain stem hemorrhagic stroke. Much to
their horror, he slipped into a coma, and would never wake again. He was 49-years young. Their daughter
is now 18 and they are still piecing together their ‘new normal.

Jennifer believes he would be proud of the ways they are moving forward. They continue to seek peace and healing through humor, love, and sometimes tears.