If you are reading this, you are probably either a widow or a survivor of loss.  Nobody on this planet is immune from loss.  Everyone will eventually deal with grief and loss, and each person manages it differently.  For my grieving process, I have gone through multiple phases of guilt.  At first, I felt guilty that I should have done more, known more, and somehow stopped this horrific event from happening.  During the first year or so of grieving my spouse John, all these things that I felt guilty about made sense to me rationally.  My mind constantly reeled with thoughts of why I did not protect him from this horrific event of having a brain stem aneurysm and why did I cause my daughter so much distress from not preventing that.

Rational vs. Irrational Thoughts

Looking back, those thoughts sound completely irrational.  I know that John took care of himself very well.  He did struggle with some health issues, but he stayed on top of things and followed doctor’s orders.  He went to doctors regularly, took medications without fail, exercised daily and wanted to live a long and healthy life.  When he went to a doctor, I sometimes tagged along and filled out all his paperwork because 1) I wrote much faster (funny but true) and 2) I knew his medication names and allergies.  We were one of those couples joined at the hip.  Somehow going to doctors with him made me feel like I was helping keep him safe.  I realize now that was naïve thinking.  We can do our best to prevent health failure, but we are not in control of when we die.

Now that 3 years and 7 months has passed, I rationally know that guilt is not helpful to my healing.  Presently, I have new types of guilt.  I feel guilty for getting rid of any of his possessions, that I don’t maintain the yard like he did,  that I am not able to be both a mother and father to my daughter, and feel guilty about moving forward with a new person and getting married again.  These feelings of guilt have continuously led to negative thoughts and that is not conducive for healing.

My brain knows these things are not worthy of feeling guilt over.  I know that I cannot possibly save everything the man ever touched or owned.  The yard was his thing, his hobby, his passion, and not mine.  I know I am only me and cannot be 2 people to anyone ever.  I know in my mind that John would not want me to be alone and find love again and move forward.  However, my sub-conscious mind continues with feelings of guilt and negative thoughts.

The Brain and Grief

I have done some general research on how grief affects the brain.  In my experience, grief can make you feel like you are going crazy.  Grief alters how your brain functions.  When brain imaging studies are done on grieving people, they show increased activity in areas affecting memory, perception, conceptualization, and also include irregular activity in the regulation of the heart, digestive system, and other organs.  When we dwell on negative thoughts, it can continue to increase activity to those areas in the brain and can cause a person to be perpetually distracted, sad, and depressed.

Moving forward, I am trying to stop the negative thoughts in their tracks when they emerge and stop feeling guilty.  I started saying, STOP, out loud and it helps.  I have also found that if I address negative thoughts during the day and not right before going to bed, that is helpful.  The widow journey is difficult to say the least, but I know I will get through this with my mind and body intact.  I am fighting negative thoughts and guilt and that will make me much stronger eventually.


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.