Amid the pandemic, one common theme brought up by many physicians in differing specialties is concerns about mental health.  Mental health is a public health concern especially during these trying and difficult times.  Millions are out of work and are wondering how they are going to feed their families and pay their bills.  Parents struggle with the demands of distance learning and virtual classrooms for their children.  There is no industry in the US that has not been affected by the pandemic.  Times are uncertain.

Pandemic Challenges as a Widow

Personally, being widowed in the pandemic has added multiple layers of challenges to my plate.  Leaving the house kept me busy and distracted enough to not continuously notice the fact that I am no longer married and that my husband is gone.  It is not that I did not notice or think about it before, but it is different when you are at home all the time.  The home I shared with my husband is lacking his presence.  My teenage daughter lives with me, however, having a child and having a spouse are quite different companies to keep.  John was always by my side and we were a team solving life’s challenges together as they come.  Most teens have no idea how to relate to paying bills or maintaining a house.

Feelings of being lost and sad are popping up during these crazy times for me.  Since May is mental health month, I thought it important to share my struggles.  After my husband died, I went to a therapist for over a year.  She worked with me through my shock and grief to find coping mechanisms that would help me.  Initially, my repetitive thoughts included John’s terrifying screams of pain from his sudden brain hemorrhage and how helpless and scared I felt.

Grief Triggers

Guilt overwhelmed me and I often felt angry and sad after John’s death.  My healing has come a long way since then.  However, there are times when other moments of loss can trigger feelings of despair.  Being aware of this is helpful, but a wave of grief can knock you off your feet when you least expect it.

A little over a week ago, my daughter had her wisdom teeth extracted.  John was the type of Dad who would have been there with us for the procedure.  He was ever present in both of our lives.  When Katie was waking up from the anesthesia, she kept repeating, I miss my Dad.  Those repeated words triggered my feelings of loneliness and sadness, and I also felt guilty because I cannot change this outcome for her ever.  A terrible feeling of intense grief came back and it was like my heart was extracted along with my daughter’s teeth.  After driving her home, I cried for a long time.

John would have been at ease during these crazy times.  He was always a rock in a crisis and would have made me feel calm.  That was his superpower, remaining calm.  He did not need the T-shirt or mug that says Keep Calm and… he always was calm.  Some might say the same for me, however, having someone else calm by your side is so reassuring.

During these unusual times, I have had some time to self-reflect.  I realized that I could do better at self-care.  I am not talking about going to the spa or salon (they are not open anyway), but improving mental health.  Eating and sleeping have been irregular for certain and I have had increased amounts of stress and headaches.

The months of April and May have been tough mentally.  Recently, I started learning to knit.  I admit I am not great at it, however, focusing on doing something brand new has kept my mind calmer and free of worries due to the need to concentrate on one thing.  I have also tried to be mindful of the current moment and appreciate nature and the outdoors.  Planning for the future also gives me renewed hope.  I have realized that looking back is okay for memories, however, constantly looking at the past is never good for moving forward.

May is Mental Health Month

Thinking more about mental health this month, there will be people who do not have access to help when they need it.  The main reasons being financial, lack of providers, and that mental health benefits for those insured can be rather limited.  In a time when we are social distancing, we need other people more than ever.  Check on your families, friends, and neighbors during this time by video chat, calling, texting, or emailing them.  Reaching out just might make someone’s day more hopeful and for someone to feel less isolated.  Mental health matters for everyone, not just widows.


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.