Getting Eaten by Sharks

After experiencing the horrible event of my husband’s stroke, my life has changed forever.  When John was in the ICU after suffering a massive brain stem hemorrhage, it was constant stress and chaos for me and my daughter.  In a single day, family and friends were asking questions that I didn’t have the answers to, a priest was indicating a miracle was quite possible to our daughter, Katie; our assigned social worker told then 16-year-old Katie that she had no right to be part of any family decision-making, and a doctor was telling me that my husband’s light was on, but there was nobody home.  I felt like a fish and sharks were eating chunks of me piece-by-piece.  My friends and family kept me from falling apart.  Throughout this upsetting time, I was extremely grateful to learn that I have solid and amazing people in my life.

I perceive my life as before (when my special person was alive) and after.  My marriage defined my perception of myself in my ‘before’.  We were always John and Jen.  We went everywhere together and were rarely apart.  Before his death, ordinary tasks like deciding where to go out to eat for dinner or what type of silverware to purchase seemed important.  After his death, things like that seem insignificant.  Priorities have changed.  Everything has changed.  If you are new to the widow journey, I am referring to your sleep schedule, eating habits, mental health, physical health, routines, energy level…just about everything.  When someone asked me how I was doing it was impossible to answer because I was not doing well at all, but it is too terrible to explain to anyone who has not experienced this type of loss.

In the early days and months of grief, I was constantly angry that John was no longer here with us.  I continually wondered how I would do the things he once did for us.  At that time, I simply could not think of a future without him in it, could not stop thinking that the ‘best days of my life’ were gone, and I could not stop wondering if my life would ever include happiness again.  Slowly I learned, and I still need to remind myself at times, that there is always hope.

Diving with Sharks

Our daughter is like him and always embraced life with zest.  As a young child, she was fearless and loved any physical challenge.  When she was about 8 years old, while visiting my sister, we went to a park with her family.  John always encouraged her adventuresome spirit.  Katie and her cousins were playing in the football field on a beautiful summer day.   My sister had stepped away to nurse her baby daughter and I went to find a restroom.  After I returned to the field, I saw my daughter sitting on top of the goal post!  As a mother, I was startled for a moment gauging the height and distance and the danger to her if she fell.  Wondering why her father let her climb that, I walked down to the field and she had climbed down.  When I asked her why she climbed the goal post, she replied, “because I can.”

I am not recommending going out to climb a goal post.  However, it is possible to start shaping your future when you are a widow, because you can.  Still having an adventuresome spirit, my daughter wanted to go to the aquarium in Myrtle Beach, SC, to dive in the shark tank last summer.  In my life ‘before’, I would have laughed if she asked me to accompany her into a shark tank.   In my life after John’s death, I appreciate and embrace her curiosity and courage now more than ever.  We went into the tank to dive with the sharks.  Why?  Because we could.  Swimming with sharks was a lot less scary than facing life without my special person, but I am learning ways to cope with facing the future without my beloved, John.


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.