By Guest Blogger Sofia Tannenhaus
In June, my husband and I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime 6-week vacation to Greece, Spain, and Italy. He had earned a sabbatical, I was on summer break from teaching, and we were ready to start a family.
Photo: Sofia & Dustin overlooking the town of Mykonos, Greece
Four weeks into our trip, Dustin had a heart attack. We were in a region where little English is spoken with the nearest hospital 20 minutes away. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, fell into a coma, and died shortly thereafter. What started off as a dream vacation turned into an unimaginable nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from. I had left the U.S. with my husband on June 21st and returned on July 28th with his ashes.
The next day, I found out I am pregnant with our first child.
I was shocked and overwhelmed with emotions. Isn’t this what happens in movies? I was now a 31-year-old pregnant widow and this was my new reality. In the span of eight months, my grandmother (who I was very close to) lost a short and painful battle with leukemia, my husband tragically passed away, my grandfather died of dementia. One can never imagine their life being flipped upside down like mine. However, tragedy strikes and you are left with only one option: adapt. You adapt to your devastating circumstances with no handbook on how to get through it. You do your best to put one foot in front of the other as you stumble your way through an alternative life.
By the age of 32, I had witnessed my husband go into cardiac arrest.
I had to ask that my husband not be cremated on his 34th birthday.
I carried my husband’s ashes on a flight back to the U.S. from our vacation in Europe.
I wrote a eulogy for my husband – something neither of us should have had to do for another 60 years – and shared it with family, friends, and coworkers at two memorial services.
Oh – and meanwhile, I just felt our baby kick.
I had a prenatal appointment the same day my husband’s death certificate arrived in the mail. I stared blankly at the official document – complete with a fancy raised stamp – wanting to rip it to shreds. I proceeded to collect some papers from the dining room table and before I knew it, I was holding two things that nobody should ever have to bear simultaneously: my husband’s death certificate and my unborn child’s sonogram. The visual representation of a life for a life broke me down. Why couldn’t I have my husband and our child like everyone else gets to?
It has been 5 months since I lost the love of my life. Time has flown by despite each day being painfully slow and devastating. I think about Dustin nearly every waking minute of every day. Someone recently tried to offer some comforting words we all know: “time heals all wounds.” Six months ago, I would have agreed with that cliché. Now I understand that time heals most wounds, but not all. In her blog, a fellow widow explained the loss of a spouse as “growth around a permanent amputation.” This is a much more thoughtful alternative to the “time heals all wounds” cliché that no longer makes sense. Losing my husband this young is like an amputation that has become a part of who I am. A missing limb won’t heal like most scabs, scratches, and injuries do with time. And when someone loses a limb, they must learn to adjust. The wound doesn’t have to be debilitating, but it takes time, commitment, and patience to arrive to a place of acceptance of a tragedy you never asked for.
Speaking of patience, grief is unbelievably patient. If you had a list of everything I should be doing to grieve healthily, I’m likely doing 90% of those things. Unfortunately, it’s only been five months…and grief doesn’t reward achievers. There is no checklist of tasks to accomplish in order to get through the pain. Instead, the pain will always be there and it’s a matter of learning how to better cope with it.
Tears come when you least expect them to, sometimes with no rhyme or reason. Thanks to my therapist, I have grown in my ability to deal with my permanent loss…and I have many years of counseling ahead of me. When I am triggered seeing men with their children, I hold my belly as a reminder that I have my baby girl. And rather than tiptoeing through interactions hoping nobody makes a hurtful comment, I gently educate others when something inappropriate is said. By no means do I enjoy having a plan for being triggered by almost daily occurrences, but It’s important to acknowledge the progress I’ve made.
It’s Christmas Day. I’m not surrounded by loved ones because I chose to spend yesterday and the better part of today on a writing retreat. My senior dog is sleeping by my side and this is what feels right in this moment. If I feel like being social, I have plenty of caring people in my life who have invited me to spend the holidays with them, which I am beyond grateful for.
Photo: Our last Christmas together, 12/25/18.
In lieu of gifts this year, I decided to invest my time and effort into making a video of my beloved Dustin. It was therapeutic and emotional to create this video. There was plenty of ugly crying every time I sat down to work on it. And that’s okay because I spent many hours reliving beautiful memories of my husband and now I have this video to show our daughter one day.
I have a completely different perspective on life, loss, and how society awkwardly and uncomfortably reacts to sadness. I’ve learned many lessons over the past five months, but three of the most important takeaways are:
Strength is NOT keeping it together. True strength is vulnerability.
Before I lost my husband, only a handful of people had seen me cry. I wasn’t a crier and I didn’t like others seeing me cry. We know everyone grieves differently, but I am a firm believer that nothing good can come from suppressing one’s emotions. Similar to a bottle of coke bursting when there is too much built up pressure, we can only suppress so much before we, too, explode. Honor how you feel. Determine a way to let the anger and sadness out when it presents itself: crying, screaming into a pillow, or calling a friend who will listen intently, among many other ways to healthily release intense emotions as they arise.
Be kind to yourself
Some days it feels impossible to get out of bed and, conversely, many days it’s a struggle to get to sleep. Celebrate the victories of getting out of the house each morning, driving yourself to where you need to go, and preparing your own meal.
Tasks you took for granted before are no longer easy, so don’t try to do it all. If someone offers help, take them up on it (i.e., groceries, meals, dog care, errands, etc.).
If you need to take time off work, do it. It’s a worthwhile investment in your mental health. Ask Human Resources about your options to take a leave.
Do what is best for you – and do it unapologetically
Know how you want to respond to questions such as, “How are you?” and “How did s/he die?” You don’t need to engage in pleasantries and you certainly don’t owe anyone an explanation about what happened to your spouse. If you feel the need to say, “Well, my husband is dead and I’m still sad” in response to being asked how you’re doing, all the power to you. I used to answer curious people’s questions about my spouse’s death. I now prefer to respond with, “why do you ask?” Handle uncomfortable interactions however you see fit.
Sometimes you think you know what you need, but then you find yourself at a dinner, an event, or in a conversation that you really don’t want to be in. Give yourself permission to leave or to end a conversation, especially if you are triggered or suddenly need time alone. Have an escape route. Grief doesn’t take into consideration when it’s not ideal to break down.
Bail on plans when you need to. Many caring friends wanted to spend time with me in the first three months and before I knew it, I was exhausted (emotionally, physically, and mentally) and overwhelmed with commitments. People will understand and you should never feel bad for cancelling plans. You are going through the unimaginable.
And today, what is best for me is spending most of Christmas with my dog, writing an article about what I’ve learned since my husband tragically died in hopes that this helps someone in some way.
To those of you grieving the loss of your person, remember you are doing your best every damn day and that is more than enough.