The Shriver Report – A Widow’s Journey Through the First Six Months

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A Widow’s Journey Through the First Six Months

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My body shook as the officer walked toward me. He was about to confirm what I had spent the last several hours telling myself could not be true. “There is no easy way to tell you this. Your husband took his own life.” I turned, ran ten steps, and collapsed on the ground screaming.

I’d like to say that my memory of that night is a blur, but it isn’t. I remember it vividly and recount it daily. I remember the kind officer who stood over me, trying to keep me calm and distracted while the coroner did his job. At one point, a huge shooting star passed over his head. I believed that was my husband waving goodbye.

It was Halloween night and my mom was watching my 7-year old son while it all unfolded. I sent a text asking her to take him trick-or-treating and to try to keep things as normal as possible for him. But he sensed something was wrong and refused to go.

A few hours later, I had to have the most difficult conversation you could ever have with your child. I had to tell my sweet son that his daddy—the man he viewed as a real life superhero—decided he wanted to go to heaven. “How did he kill himself?” he asked innocently. I wondered how he even knew what that meant since I avoided using those words. The chaplain had suggested I be honest without going into great detail.

“He made himself stop breathing,” I replied.

“Who will be my daddy now?” he asked.

“Your daddy will always be your daddy,” I said. We held each other as we cried.

By midnight my house was full of family and friends. I never slept. The next day they asked me what I wanted to do with his body. “His body?” I asked, confused. “What do you mean?” I had never planned a funeral before.

At the funeral home I lost my mind. I said we didn’t need a service—nobody would come. And we certainly didn’t need memory cards or a guest book or an obituary. When we went in the small, dim room to pick out an urn and a casket for the viewing my father-in-law wanted to have, I began hyperventilating and ran out of the room.

People I hadn’t seen for a decade came to the service. I got up and shared the story of our journey, and somehow got through it without throwing up. Then I listened to others recall their time with my husband, tears streaming down my face. My son held my arm tight and smothered it in kisses the whole time, as if he could erase all the pain if he just loved me hard enough.

Within a couple of weeks, the people who had surrounded me returned to their own lives. Condolence cards still showed up in the mail, and I was left struggling to keep life together. The business that I’ve run for more than a decade suddenly felt like a 1,000 pound weight on my shoulders. I handed off more and more tasks to my staff, and eventually sold off part of the business so I could relieve some of that weight. It was frustrating to lose the passion I once had for my work, and I am still trying to find it again.

I joined a support group for suicide survivors. There are a lot of parents there. It is incredibly hard to attend the meetings, yet oddly comforting. So many sad stories fill that little room at the community center. We can’t seem to break the code. Why did they do this? Didn’t they know how much we loved them? Why couldn’t we stop them?

I have learned that the grief from loss by suicide is considered “catastrophic” and “complex.” It has been likened to what soldiers go through when returning from war. From my own experience I can say that it is incredibly overwhelming. The what-ifs and woulda-coulda-shouldas that dance around in my head all day are exhausting.

The pain of this loss lives in my body and attacks me when I’m not looking. I’ve cried in the grocery store, hardware store, post office, and my son’s first little league game. I often feel the grief rise up through my body. It sounds like a wild animal in agony. When I sob like that it’s hard to breathe. I hate that it has control over me and can derail what would have otherwise been a decent day.

Grief has given way to what my therapist calls “situational depression.” It’s ironic, really. My husband battled bipolar depression off and on for most of his adult life. I could never really understand it because I’m someone who has traveled through life seeing the glass as half-full. Now I have a much deeper understanding of what he struggled with, and thinking about the pain he endured can bring on those gut-churning sobs.

For some reason Mondays are my toughest days. It’s a miracle if I make it to my desk in my home office. Most of the time I don’t. I watch reruns of old sitcoms, write in my journal, consider buying stock in Kleenex, and let the grief wash over me. And then I beat myself up for missing another day of productivity.

My son sees a therapist twice each month, and he’s also participating in a wonderful children’s bereavement art program. He had some behavior issues early on, though that has settled down. He seems to laugh more than he did five months ago. But there are still signs of his pain. One day a couple of weeks ago, he carried a framed picture of his dad around the house all day. I worry constantly about how I’m going to prevent him from being permanently damaged by this desperately unfair loss.

I have shared a small fraction of our saga with my friends on Facebook. I don’t want to bring the party down so I try to focus on our victories, like going to the San Francisco Giants opening day game, which we attended in my husband’s honor. He never missed opening day.

People say things like, “You’re so brave for sharing.” I don’t feel brave at all. My husband committed suicide. I think it’s a horrible tragedy and that we should be able to talk about it. Too many people struggle with depressive illnesses. We need to remove the stigma and figure out how to help them before another family has to endure this.

People tell me I am strong. They should see me huddled up on the couch on my rough days.

People tell me “time heals.” I call it “the T-word.” Knowing that Time will ease this a bit isn’t much consolation when I feel like I’m moving through quick sand. I’d like to tell Time to fuck off.

I never believed he would take his own life, though I feared it for many years. In therapy sessions, I asked if he thought about it and he said he did, but insisted that he would never do that to his family. This is the hardest part to understand. Perhaps it’s denial, but I cannot accept that he made a conscious choice. The man I met twelve years prior, when he was healthy, would never have wanted to leave the people he loved so much. And he certainly wouldn’t have wanted to hurt us so badly. I believe the illness won.

Now I’m struggling to learn how to navigate through my own depression. Most days require great effort just to get dressed and then force myself to sit at my desk. I eat a lot of toast and cereal for dinner and my poor kid is eating way too much soup and other pre-packaged delights. But as down as I can get, I never ever consider not wanting to be here. I realize that is a whole other level of darkness that my husband, and so many others, have experienced. I still view life as a gift. I wish my husband had been able to see it that way.

Thankfully, I still have moments of laughter, and I don’t feel guilty about that. If anything, this tragedy has reminded me that life is too precious to waste. And the fact that I struggle to enjoy each day is incredibly frustrating because the glass-half-full girl in me wants to come up for air and appreciate the beauty in life again. But I’ve learned that if I push myself each day, I can usually get through whatever needs to be done. And so that is what I do, while I wait for better days to come, and look for ways to honor the man who once made me deliriously happy.

I miss feeling care-free. I was fortunate to live 41 years without experiencing any real tragedy. Now I’m aware of how fragile life can be, and it was far easier when I didn’t know that. I was also fortunate to meet and marry the love of my life. Those early years were a tremendous gift, and the happiest years of both of our lives. Some people never get to experience that once-in-a-lifetime kind of love, but I did. We did.

At the funeral, my husband’s best friend quoted a Garth Brooks song:

“And now,
I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end,
The way it all would go.

Our lives
Are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance.

Despite all the pain and the challenging road ahead, I will always be grateful for the dance we shared.

Stephanie Chandler is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Stephanie Chandler is an author of nine business and marketing books, including Own Your Niche. She is also the founder of The Nonfiction Authors Association.
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