As a widow in my 40’s, the most common expression I hear from people once they know my story is, “I cannot even imagine”.  Nobody wants to imagine a tragedy like mine happening to them.  I prefer to think of myself as broken and scarred, but healing.  Prior to John’s death, life’s challenges made me feel like a ‘work in progress’.  I made mistakes, however, would always go back and try to improve the next day.  After I became widowed, my life was just about survival at first.

Losing the love of my life broke my mind, body, and soul.  I have permanent scars, but many of those scars have started healing.  Below is a list of some things I have learned in my journey so far.

  • The intense grief after my husband’s death affected my brain. Studies have shown that grief affects the brain in a magnitude of ways.  I definitely experienced ‘widow brain’.  Anything that required concentration was difficult for a long time.  Any decision that needed made seemed daunting.  I could not read books for any length of time.  I have always loved reading and could not concentrate long enough to retain the words.  Several people gave me books about loss after John died.  It was impossible to concentrate long enough to finish more than a few pages.  My concentration improved, and I had to learn to be patient and gentle with myself.
  • I felt like people were always trying to ‘fix’ me. My daughter’s first therapist told me I was doing things wrong by not changing everything in her environment.  She asked why I had kept all of John’s things after 2 months had gone by since his death.  She told me my daughter was being stoic and did not want to talk freely with her and it was my fault.  I soon dropped that therapist and learned that not everyone who is a designated ‘helper’ is helpful.  It is important to always do what is best for me and my daughter.  Also, I learned that therapists vary widely in their approaches when you are grieving.
  • Sometimes words of comfort were not comforting or had the opposite effect and made me angry. People said dumb things to me and my daughter at the funeral and shortly afterwards.  These words hurt at the time.  Looking back, the words were well meaning, but were said by people who simply just did not get it.  I realized how raw my emotions were at the time and have forgiven them and let go of the anger.
  • Just getting through the day was and still is at times a win. While grieving, my brain seemed to be either on auto pilot or went haywire into meltdown mode.  Sometimes I just went into auto mode and did what needed done and sometimes my brain would simply not allow me to do even the simplest tasks without becoming frustrated and upset.  I learned that if I was or am having a bad day that setting small, simple goals is helpful and makes me feel like I have some control over things.
  • I am on my own to make all parenting decisions. Solo parenting has been one of the hardest challenges from John’s loss for me.  I often questioned whether I was a good parent or ‘enough’ because it is only me.  I have learned that I cannot be him and that I am always going to be enough because I am trying my absolute best.
  • Nobody truly understands what I am going through. Even people who have suffered the loss of a spouse have not had the same experiences as me.  Relationships are all unique.  My journey will always be different than anyone else’s journey.
  • The healing process has been long and painful for me. The stages of grief and loss include denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.  These stages are not linear.  Some of these feelings still come and go for me mostly in the form of anger.  I am learning to let go of feeling like it is wrong or bad to have these feelings.
  • My grief made me feel selfish. In the early days, I was furious at other people besides my daughter for grieving John.  I didn’t think they felt anywhere close to the intense pain we were going through and in my mind at the time, my pain and my daughter’s pain were all that mattered.  I learned that my relationship with John will always be sacred and the knowledge that John’s friends, family, and co-workers cared about him so much is a great comfort to me now.
  • My grief has sometimes been put on ‘hold’ due to handling my child’s intense grief and having to work because I need to pay the bills. Sometimes I would take a grief ‘time out’.  I learned that ignoring my grief is never a good thing and that I should not feel ashamed for needing to grieve in my own way.
  • I have accomplished many things that I am proud of without John. He did not like traveling due to motion sickness issues that exacerbated as he got older.  My daughter and I have been on traveling adventures together.  My boyfriend and I also went on a very special trip to Italy this year.



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.