What Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Stronger

What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.  Gah.  Hearing this phrase makes me want to stab my eye out with a fork.  I think most widows have the same reaction to this.  Especially when it is expressed to you by someone who is still happily with their person.  I’ve heard it and read it many times since losing Kevin, and while I know it is a well intentioned phrase, it definitely falls into the category of unhelpful.  My husband is dead, I’m parenting two kids alone (forever!), I’m sad, I’m alone, I’m exhausted and at the end of my rope most (all!) days….I don’t want to be stronger!!  I was completely and totally fine being a weaker person but married to my best friend who was alive!  But if I am truly and completely open and vulnerable, the reason why it makes me want to stab my eye out, is deep down I know that it is a true.  The shit I am in right now, is most certainly shit.  BUT, it is causing me to grow.  It is causing me to change.  It is causing me to enter the flames of this firestorm, and I know I’m going to emerge from the fire like a Phoenix, stronger and more beautiful than ever.  I”m not there yet, but I’m kicking, screaming and fighting to get there.  

phoenix

As I walk through this journey, I find myself thinking increasingly about what mark I am making on the world.  I’m raising (at least hopefully) kind, compassionate and kick ass little girls.  I’m filling the world with dark, yet hopefully hilarious widow humour.  I’m a good friend (again, hopefully!) to many out there in the world.  But as my existential mid-life/widow crisis gets larger, I wonder what am I really doing to make this world better?  Is this enough?  I certainly don’t have the answer yet but I did something recently that filled me joy and pride, and I felt like I was doing my tiny part to  make the world better.  I was fortunate to have to the opportunity to speak on a panel at a conference for health centres from across Ontario.  The attendees had gathered in order to develop a cohesive strategy to fight the opiod crisis in their communities.  I was there to share my story, to share Kevin’s story and to help chip away at the stigma surrounding drug addiction.  I couldn’t save Kevin, but if my story can save another woman from becoming  a widow, or can prevent 2 other little girls from becoming fatherless, I will do it.  Being able to turn my pain and Kevin’s pain into something that may change lives was so powerful.  It also took me back deep into the pain I feel due to his death and it took me back deeper in the trauma I suffered at the hands of his addiction.  This wasn’t fun.  But it was necessary.  Going back into the fire is part of healing.  I need to go into the fire to come out the other side.  And I think I’m coming out the other side a more beautiful person.  That fucking phrase is right.  What doesn’t kill you DOES make you stronger.  I just wish Kevin was around to see it.  He’d be proud of me.

Check out my speech here

Thank you for including me in your day today. It’s a real honour and privilege to be here.  On August 7th, 2016 my life was changed forever when my best friend, my partner in life and the father of my children died of an accidental heroin overdose at home.  August 7th was the day I became a widow and the day my two young daughters lost their dad.  Its funny, because even now, a year out from his death, in my mind the word widow conjures up images of an elderly lady, wearing black and mourning her long dead husband.  If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t think ‘oh she must be a widow’.  If you saw me at the park with my two girls, you wouldn’t think ‘oh those girls don’t have a father’.  I wear black, but it’s purely because of fashion and well, let’s be frank, I’d like to look slimmer.  I look like any young (well, young-ish or young in my mind!) mom at the park.  I don’t look like what the stereotypical definition of a widow looks like.  And I most certainly don’t look like a woman whose husband died of a heroin overdose.  But I am.  I’m a widow and my husband died of a heroin overdose.  

Kevin and I met 17 years ago.  Kevin was almost 21 and I was just barely 26.  We became friends first and then 6 months later, we did as most 20 somethings do….we went to a bar one night, got drunk and made out and that was the beginning of our relationship!  Oh to be young and naive without a care in the world again!  Drunken kissing aside, we began to spend more and more time together, and as we did, we fell in love.  And as we fell in love, we became best friends too.  We knew each other better than anyone in the world, and with each other, our true selves came to the surface.  As cliche as it sounds, we made each other better.  We became engaged in 2004, and got married in September 2005.  In front of our friends and family, we promised to stick by each other through good times and bad, through sickness and health and through richer or poorer, until death parted us.  When i think about that beautiful day now, I shake my head at my naive self.  We said the words, but we didn’t know what they meant or what we were promising.  We couldn’t know what lay ahead of us.  But as I stand here now, having had death part us, I’m proud to say I stood by my promise to him.  I stood by him as addiction ripped his life apart, I stood by him as his addiction ripped my life apart.  I did not give up on him because he became a heroin addict.  I loved him despite it all.  

In December 2008, for reasons Kevin could never clearly articulate and for reasons, I can’t wrap my head around, Kevin tried heroin for the first time. He grew up in a loving, close family.  He played sports in high school, had lots of friends and excelled academically.  Nothing jumps out from his past saying ‘oh that’s the trauma that made him do heroin!’.   As a teen and as a young adult, he had lived a life in which he had used drugs recreationally.  He smoked weed infrequently, did ecstasy at raves and drank with the reckless abandon of a 20 something guy.  But never in a million years was heroin something I would have expected him to try.  Heroin was for junkies on the street, not us upper middle class, educated, gainfully employed young adults.  In 2004, he was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and embarked on a decade long journey to understand his mental health disorder, to find the right medication and to learn the tools with which to manage his anxiety.  His underlying mental health issues were most certainly a driving factor in his desire to feel different, and ultimately a driving factor in his addiction.  He wanted to feel better.  To feel excitement.  To feel something.  One night in January 2009, Kevin went to bed before me and when I came to bed 20 minutes later, I found him lying in our bed, blue in the face, unconscious and barely breathing.  In sheer panic, I called 911 and ultimately was responsible for saving his life.  After the paramedics revived him, I heard one ask him “what did you take?’.  When Kevin answered “heroin’ I felt like a mack truck hit me while simultaneously feeling like I was going to pass out.  This was how I came to learn Kevin had tried heroin.  From that night on, Kevin spent the next 7 years fighting tooth and nail to beat this.  He fought every day to stay clean.  He fought every day to slay his demons and to resist the power of heroin.  For many days, he was successful.  And for many days he was not.  He struggled in active addiction for most of 2009, with stints in in patient rehab, out patient rehab, a sober living facility in Toronto and living with me.  Eventually, his NA meetings and step work started to stick and he got a year clean time, and then 2.  And then relapsed.  And then got another year clean time.  And then relapsed.  And so on and so on.  And with each relapse, he would be tortured with guilt and shame, and then would eventually tell me and sob while doing so.  I remember clearly after one relapse, him lying on the couch with his head in my lap, sobbing while saying “I don’t want this.  I don’t want to do this to you.  I hate this.  I don’t want to die”.  It was moments like that, that gave me the strength to carry on and support him.  Because to the outside world (namely my father!  And my best girlfriends), the obvious answer was to get rid of this deadbeat junkie.  

But he was not and is not a ‘junkie’.  He was a person who struggled with addiction and mental health issues.  He was an intelligent, curious, hilarious, wacky, caring, compassionate, loving person who was also addicted to heroin.  His addiction is part of his story, but it is not his whole story and it does not define him.  Kevin had his masters in social work and had spent more than a decade working with seniors in long term care.  In early 2016, he had left long term care and had moved into hospital social work and was working in the palliative care ward as well as the oncology ward.  He was an amazingly amazing dad to our two young girls.  He was a trouble making middle child who was adored by his parents and by his 4 siblings.  He was a friend to many, and he brought people together with his infectious energy and his deep belly laugh.  And a good number of Simpsons quotes too.  The list goes on.  His custom made, monogrammed dress shirts hid not only a ton of huge and amazing tattoos but also his track marks on his arms.  Our basement held not only his weightlifting equipment, our Christmas decorations, and our laundry room, but it also hid his drugs and his needles.  He hid his addiction from most people in his life, and he hid it because he was ashamed and because of the stigma society places on addiction.  This shame and stigma lead him to isolate himself, to pull back from his friends, his family, even from me.  And in this isolation, the thoughts that told him to return to the drug, the thoughts that told he could use just one more time, got louder and louder until eventually they were all he could hear.  

Early on, after Kevin died a dear friend from high school sent me this condolence card that says ‘Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason’.  It was so perfect, I wanted to kiss her.  Because it’s true, there is no reason in the universe that I should become a widow at 42, or that my girls should lose their dad when they were 2 and 5. No reason.  But now that I’m a year into this new, unchosen life, I can see that I can squeeze some good out of this awfulness.  I do not want another wife to lose her husband.  I do not want another 2 year old or 5 year old to lose their dad.  I want Kevin’s story to be a lesson for all of us.  

Addiction is a merciless beast.  This opiod crisis is an equal opportunity life destroyer.  Addiction does not care how much money you have or how educated you are or how loving you are or how many friends you have.  Addiction is not a disease of ‘the other’.  It is a disease that is all around us, in all walks of life, in all our communities.  I talk openly about my journey of loving an addict in hopes that I can be a part of reducing the stigma around addiction, and consequently allow a long suffering addict out there to feel less shame and to reach out for help. Until this stigma is gone, and until the ‘othering’ of addiction is stopped, addicts like my beautiful husband will continue to suffer in silence and will continue to die alone.

Some cool related resources

Association of Ontario Health Centres

Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance

Donate to harm reduction in Toronto

 

 

Advertisements

The Ugly Emotions of Grief

 

21616286_10156544176322004_2693133859942656025_n

When I came across this quote in my Facebook feed this week, I couldn’t help but smile and mutter a ‘fuck yes’ under my breath.  My husband died almost 14 months ago…am I veering into annoying behaviour similar to parents when they refer to their 3 year old as their 36 month old??  C’mon!  I don’t want to do math.  I’m grieving, life is hard as is. Let’s not add math into the mix.  He died just over a year ago.  Much easier to say!  Math problems aside, it’s been long enough since he died that outwardly, I look happy.  Life is moving forward and I am happy-ish. But inwardly, the roller coaster of emotions is still there.  Not so many tsunamis of grief anymore, but the waves continue rolling in, pulling me under and make me gasp for air.  I’m pretty sure they always will.  And each day (and multiple times!) I’m struck with the thought “what the fuck?  What the actual fuck?  He is dead??? What has happened to my life??”  It physically hurts my brain because no matter what, I simply cannot make sense of that thought.  I don’t think I will ever be able to wrap my head around it.  Hence my immediate, visceral connection to this quote.  

But the second part resonated even more.  It touched a part of me that I am not proud of, but a part that I own.  A part of me that is not pretty.  Ugly emotions like envy, anger, jealousy, frustration, guilt.  This week, I attended a support group for widows/widowers with young children.  Minutes into our first meeting, a widower spoke of the feelings he had towards the people in his life who loved his wife and loved him, and just so badly wanted to help him.  Empathy, gratitude, connection?  Those would be typical or expected things to feel towards loving family and friends.  But all he felt was anger and hatred towards them and their luck that their significant other was still alive.  As he elaborated, all I could think was ‘fuck yes!!’.  (I wanted to shout it, but it was the first meeting so I wasn’t yet sure of the F bomb etiquette in this particular group)   He spoke of the knife twisting pain that comes when you are newly widowed, grieving the loss of the your best friend and lover yet trying to parent your young kids alone.  Trying to navigate blindly through a life that you had built for two that is now unrecognizable and must be steered by only you.  Most certainly, everyone around you is grieving but as widows and widowers, not only are we grieving the loss of our person, we are also trying to put back together the pieces of a life that was blown to smithereens. Your spouses friends and family are hurting so much over the loss, and yet when you look at them, all you can think is ‘your day to day life hasn’t changed.  Mine is completely blown apart and is nothing whatsoever like it was’.  So many times after Kevin died, I wanted to stamp my feet and have a tantrum shouting ‘NOT FAIR!  NOT FAIR!’. (But I didn’t have time for that, because one or both of my kids was in the midst of their own tantrum that I had to cope with.  Fuck.  Can’t a widow have a tantrum when she wants one?!!)  The co-captain of Team Awesome (Kevin’s term of endearment for us a couple, and as a parenting team) was no longer on the roster and this new team of one was not what I signed up for.  I did NOT want to be the only captain of this team.  As my friends and family would sob over Kevin’s death, there were times when all I could feel was envy and anger.  Envy for what they still had and anger at what my life had become.  I would think “at the end of this tough day, you get to go home, be sad and be comforted or cared for by your partner.  I get to go home, to the home I shared with my husband, a home filled with his things, his smell, his presence and cry myself to sleep alone in our bed. There is no one there to rub my back as I cry myself to sleep.  There is no one there to bring me a glass of water because now I’m so dehydrated from all the crying. There is no one there to take care of me.  And when I wake up after sleeping alone in our bed, I get to get up and parent two grieving children, run a household and work at a job that hopefully earns me enough to provide for myself and our children.”  Cue the envy, anger, frustration and guilt.  Told you there were tsunamis of emotions inside of me!  But now that I’m over a year into this shit storm called widowhood, I own it.  Yes, envy is ugly.  Yes, anger is ugly.  Frustration and guilt too.  But it’s okay.  This is my grief.  It is not just tears and sadness, like the movies would lead us to believe.  Grief is ugly.  Really fucking ugly.  But by being open, honest and sharing what I’m going through, I get to be a part of this really beautiful thing called human connection.  Hearing other widows and widowers talk about this feeling of envy and anger made me feel less like a circus freak, and more like a normal widow just trying to keep her head above water.  I felt less alone, less crazy and as a result, more secure in my footing on this road to healing.  I hope my words here do the same for other widow warriors out there.  And if you are lucky enough to not be a widow warrior, but have one in your life….I hope my words give you a glimpse into the tsunamis she is coping with.  She doesn’t hate you, she is just a bit envious right now and that’s okay.   

Celebrating the First Anniversary of My Husband’s Death

FB_IMG_1502373647746

I’ve always had a love hate relationship with New Year’s Eve.  An excuse to buy a new outfit and party with all my friends?  Yes please!  A time to reflect on my bad habits and how much weight I may or may not need to lose? No thanks.  And as my husband liked to say,  “New Year’s Eve is for party amateurs!  It brings out all the lightweights.”  He is not wrong.  Mostly, it’s just an arbitrary date that brings out ‘best of’ lists (love!) and unattainable new year’s resolutions (hate!).  But what I do like about New Years, is it is a natural time of reflection.  A place in our busy lives to look back on the year, and reflect on what has transpired, both good and bad.  A place to realize how far we have come, and to take note of things we didn’t even notice as they were happening.  Now that the one year anniversary of my husband’s death has passed, I’m beginning to feel the same way towards this anniversary as I do towards New Years.  An arbitrary date that makes me look at both my weight gain AND my ass kicking widow ways.  Should you have a widow in your life who is approaching her one year anniversary, go give that chick a motherfucking hug and tell her what a warrior she is.  One year on this planet without your person?  Still standing?  Mostly showered and fed?  Wiser?  Stronger?  Fuck yeah. Amazing.  Fucking amazing.  I’m here, I survived this year.  I’m ready to slay the next year.  I’m not ready to lose the grief weight, but whatever.

I’ve learned tons about my needs, my self care and what triggers me as I’ve navigated this grief journey over the last year.  So I knew that what I would need most on the anniversary was to be with friends, family and booze.  I launched into party planning mode, and as per my overachiever self, I ended up planning 3 events for the anniversary day.  A luncheon with my family and my in laws, a graveside balloon release with family and friends, and a potluck BBQ with friends.  Crazy? Perhaps.  But throughout this year, I’ve channeled much of my grief into frenetic party planning energy.  What can I say?  I like a good party.  When I explained my plans to my grief counselor, she cautioned me to let myself lean into the grief when it did come.  So when I was getting dressed on the day before the anniversary and I was brought to my knees by an unexpected crying spell, I leaned in.  It wasn’t pretty, but I survived. I also knew that post anniversary I would need to not be a parent and not be a career woman.  So I strategically arranged for my kids to spend the week after the anniversary with my in laws and I also booked the week off work.  Newly widowed me wouldn’t have understood that I would need this, but more seasoned me knew those things had to happen!  

As the anniversary approached, I felt myself slowly unhinging.  Work was becoming increasingly stressful and I was making mistakes.  My kids were becoming increasingly insane and insanity inducing.  I took the Friday off before the anniversary weekend to do memorial party errands. I came home from these errands with a shit ton of booze in my trunk and a crazy expensive pair of jeans in my hands.  I thought to myself ‘yup.  Clearly I’m a widow mere days away from her one year anniversary of her husband’s death’.  

IMG_20170805_115808_991

And as I spent the next two days alternating between yelling like a maniac at my kids and sobbing uncontrollably when they wouldn’t listen, I nodded inwardly ‘Yup.  I’m about ready to celebrate this motherfucking anniversary!’  Needless to say, by the time the actual day rolled around I was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.  But also weirdly calm and happy.  The impending anniversary had forced reflection upon me.  I was forced to look at the past rollercoaster year of my life in detail.  And when I forced myself to look at all I’ve done and how far I’ve come in my first year as a widow, I couldn’t help but smile.  Holy fuck.  I’m still alive.  My kids are still alive.  My house is beautiful (and I hired someone to come every two weeks to clean it, because fuck if this widow has time or energy to clean!  Plus all that grief fueled redecorating really does look good!), I’m working full time again, I have a boyfriend, I have the wisdom that can only come through a tortuous journey through grief.  My inner resilience comes bubbling out at any opportunity.  I am rebuilding a life for one that was meant for two. And I like how it’s turning out. Doesn’t mean I didn’t get blind drunk on the evening of the anniversary.  But hey, I was surrounded by the love of my friends and we had a dead guy whom we all loved a lot to celebrate.  I didn’t choose to be a widow, but I do get to choose how my life moves forward.  I like where it’s going.  

 

Music As Therapy (Once I figure out how to use Google Play)

My husband was a huge music snob.  Or nerd depending on how you looked at it.  Or who you asked.  Regardless, it was a huge part of who he was.  As our lives became more and more entwined over the years, he organically took on the role of musical sherpa in our house.  He found new music, created party playlists, chose appropriate music depending on the weather and was in charge of all musical related technology in this house.  So then he died, and music is supposed to help you in times of emotional strife, and I realized through my grief stricken eyes…I didn’t know how to use Google Play (let alone what the fuck our password was) or how to make the stupid expensive wireless speakers we had work.  I just wanted to cry my eyes out to some music and I couldn’t even get that right.  Fuck.  Such is the curse of a widow.  You are struggling with big emotions, the loss of your partner and best friend AND you have to figure out day to day shit that usually your person handled   Gah.  Irritating to say the least.  BUT also, after many fucks were given about so many new tasks, I’ve began to realize the beauty in that widow curse.  Conquering stuff that wasn’t usually in your domain, while painful and frustrating during, generally results in feeling like you kick ass in so many ways.  I never thought that taking the recycling out, putting up the outdoor Christmas lights or mastering the BBQ (haven’t done that yet, but hey…he’s going to be dead forever…I don’t need to slay everything in year one right?!) would make me feel so good!!

Conquering Google Play is one such achievement. Small and simple, yet such a huge step.  In the last few months, I’ve figured out how to use it, disabled our old account (somewhat accidentally but that’s a whole other story lol), set up a new account, created a bunch of playlists and figured out to use BOTH the bluetooth speaker in the house AND the car.  Most importantly, I’ve begun discovering music for me and all by myself.  Of course, I’ve found a bunch of music Kevin introduced me to and added it to my music library.  But I’ve found a bunch of stuff on my own, some of which I KNOW he’d hate and I love having a dance party for one to this stuff!  

playlists

I recently discovered a song called “Glorious” by Macklemore (featuring Skylar Grey) and I can’t stop listening to it.  Let’s call a spade a spade… I can’t stop listening to it and singing my heart out.  It speaks to me so much.   Kevin died last summer and I’m heartbroken that my best friend, my lover and my partner in life died. But here I am 11 months later….back at work and trying my best to kick ass at this widowed single working mom gig, I have a boyfriend who has awakened parts of me I didn’t know existed (he’s a pretty good kisser too….) and makes me believe love is possible again, I have a new career as a writer starting…..things are terrible and amazing all at one. It’s pretty glorious, in a weird way.  This song sums up all those feelings….especially these words:  

I feel glorious, glorious

Got a chance to start again

I was born for this, born for this

It’s who I am, how could I forget?

I made it through the darkest part of the night

And now I see the sunrise

Now I feel glorious, glorious

I feel glorious, glorious

Take a listen

Picture me and my broken, yet mending heart, singing away in my kitchen.  I’m going to be okay.  Grief isn’t going to keep me down.  Kevin probably would have hated this song, but he would love my happiness.

Happy Father’s Day, Mommy

I received this card for Father’s day.  

father's day card

Buy this awesome card here

However, my kids are not old enough to shop alone or to write sentences, so yes, it did not say anything on the inside and I bought it for myself.  But whatever.  It means a lot to me and hangs in my kitchen to continually remind me of the job I’m doing as a widowed mom and how important that job is.  But as motivating and inspiring as the card is, it still exists because of Father’s Day.  Oh ya, the day where you celebrate the person with whom you made your kids.  Well fuck.  He is dead, so this shall be real fun.  

Visiting his grave with our kids in tow was not how I imagined celebrating him on this day. I was supposed to let him sleep in. Instead the girls watched too much tv, while I drank too much coffee, because I’m too tired. I was supposed give him the gift of time so that he could have some precious time to himself (also, maybe steak and a bj? mmm…let’s be serious.  Widow or not, I’m way too tired for that!) Instead, I entertained the girls all day and got almost 0 time to myself for the millionth day in a row. We were supposed to order pizza in his honour for our celebratory dinner. We still ordered pizza in his honour, but there were leftovers instead of him eating every last piece.  The girls were supposed to give him their ugly, beautiful daycare crafts and he was supposed to put them up at his work with pride. Instead we took the ugly, beautiful crafts to his graveside. But most importantly, he is supposed to be here with us. I am not supposed to be doing this alone. He was and is a better parent than me. I continue to remember his words of patience, love and guidance to me as we tried to figure out what the fuck we were doing as we raised our girls. I am doing my best to keep his presence alive for the girls and we talk of him and love him everyday. His impact on the girls is profound. He may have only be in their lives for a short while, but he was instrumental in building their foundations.  He has contributed to the beautiful people they are today and to the beautiful people they are becoming. I will be forever grateful that Kevin and I made such wonderful (and sometimes, insanity inducing) humans. They will change the world one day with their kindness, their grace, their love and their curiosity. On Father’s day, despite his death, I still celebrated him and his amazingness as a father. I also celebrated all the dads in my community. They’ve stepped in and are doing their best to help me raise our girls. Such an amazing collection of dads in my life who understand the meaning of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. I wanted to do something nice for them all today, but I have my fucking hands full with my kids, so that’s not going to happen!

My first Father’s day as a widow was messy and beautiful, just like so many things in this crazy widow life.  I spent the morning releasing balloons in Kevin’s honour with our girls at the cemetery while sobbing, I spent the afternoon laughing with friends and neighbors as our kids ran wild around us while drinking champagne and I spent the evening making out on the couch with my boyfriend.  A messy, confusing, beautiful and exhausting day.  But pretty much par for the course for a widow.  And a perfect example of where I am in this journey…feeling the darkness and pain of the grief, while simultaneously feeling the warmth and the beauty of living life and moving forward. Bittersweet.

 

How to Pick the Perfect Condolence Card

After my husband died, like any other new young widow, I was inundated with condolences… flowers, messages and cards to name a few.  The girls and I moved in with my parents after Kevin’s death so all these flowers and cards went to their house.  It smelled like a funeral home due to the sheer number of bouquets in the house.  There was one waiting to greet you at every corner.  I never liked lilies before Kevin died, and I most certainly don’t now.  Why is the flower with the strongest, most cloying scent the one that is so prevalent in condolence arrangements??  It smells like death to me.  That scent filled the days and weeks after my husband died.  I can’t unsmell that memory.  The smell of a lily will now forever take me back to that hellish time.  The mantel in my parent’s living room groaned under the weight of the ever increasing pile of condolence cards.  I would walk by the room and catch a glimpse of this physical representation of the outpouring of sadness for me and tears would well up in my eyes.  (and a sneeze in my nose due to the god damn lilies!).  I have saved every single one of those cards, and have them carefully boxed up in my ‘Kevin’ memory box in my room.

However, there are a few that I kept out on display and still have not yet put away.  These cards are cards that say it like how it fucking is.  This cards don’t contain poetry and images of oceans or birds or some shit like that. There are no pretty metaphors about death and the afterlife and all that hallmark bullshit.  They are real, honest and came from the hearts of my friends.  And fucking  funny.  The first one I received was from a dear friend from high school and when I opened it, I literally laughed out loud.  And at that point, I don’t think I had laughed wholeheartedly since Kevin died.  This card caused a sincere smile to warm my face and made me genuinely laugh.  Rare things in the early days after your husband dies unexpectedly.  What a gift.

happens for a reason

Seek this card out.  Buy in multiples.  Keep on hand for future occurrences when you need to send a condolence card.  It is perfect.  It recognizes that some (*cough*alot*cough) of the things people say to comfort you are in fact bullshit.  Losing my husband when I was 41, and when our kids were 5 and 2 did not happen for a reason.  It is not part of god’s plan for me.  It did not happen because god gave me the strength to cope.  It did not happen in order for my husband to go to a better place.  It happened because life sucks sometimes.  Life is hard and cruel and unfair.  And I got handed more than my fair share of the shit sandwich of life.  A card that recognizes how unhelpful and hurtful a phrase like “things happen for a reason” is gold for a young widow.

I received many other gems too.  Each one made me smile or reminded me that yes, I AM doing this.  I’m surviving and learning how to live again.  Many of them simply recognized that this period in my life is SHIT.  And that’s okay.  And my people are with me in the shit.  So they sit on my kitchen window sill to inspire me, to comfort me and to motivate me each day in this new widow life.  And I have two kids, who are disgustingly messy and constantly eating, so needless to say I spend A LOT of time at the kitchen sink cleaning up.

window sill
Providing comfort to someone who is grieving is so hard, and most of us do it terribly.  We try and say things to make it better, to make the person less sad, to lessen the awkwardness.  But we fumble at every turn.  Platitudes like “everything happens for a reason” can hurt more than they help.  A simple “I’m sorry.  I can’t make this better for you.  I love you so much”  goes along way.  As does a card that says “Fuck you 2016”.  Or maybe that is just me?  Either way, know your audience.

fuck you 2016

Buy some amazing cards here

Before and After – How a Widow Divides her Life

You know that thing little kids do when they fixate on something, and start repeating it, day after day until what once made your ovaries twinge because it was so cute, now makes you want to stab your own eye out because they do it ALL THE TIME?  Yah, my 2 year old is in that right now.  She constantly asks ‘who bought that?’ and methodically works her way through each object she sees in the house.  I love her to bits but for the love of god, STOP ASKING ME THAT!!  Very strange, very cute and unexpectedly (like most widow things) very emotional and takes me down a Kevin spiral quite often.  In her infinite wisdom that all kids have, she has clearly showed me the stark dividing line that now exists in my life. Before he died.  After he died.  My life is clearly divided into the days, months and years before Kevin died, and the rest of my life that stretches before me.  Everything that comes ‘after Kevin died’.  

Piper will point at things in our house and ask ‘who bought the table?’ ‘who bought the floor?’ ‘who bought the lamp?’ ‘who bought the painting?’  And on and on and on.  To which I patiently answer “Daddy and I” or “Me”,depending on the item.  As this game started, I didn’t see the path it was taking me on.  I just started answering the inane questions of a 2 year old.  But then as she continued, day after day with this, she is inadvertently giving me fucking tour of my life before and after Kevin died.  Thanks kid.  As if looking in her sweet face and seeing my husband’s face wasn’t painful enough. She’s reminding me of my life with him, touring me through all the things we bought together! The dining room table we bought when we moved in 11 years ago.  The floor we picked out together when we renovated the kitchen last spring.  The lamp I bought in a grief fueled shopping trip in the Fall.  The art I bought with some of his life insurance money.  Before he died.  After he died.

I could not have expected that things around my house and this fucking really annoying game my 2 year old created would remind me of the path my life has taken.  Even simple things like food frozen in the deep freezer or toilet paper stored in the basement.  He bought the toilet paper as he did the Costco shopping.  He stocked the freezer because he was our cook.  But those things are consumable.  So they get used.  And then slowly, things he did or things he touched are disappearing in our house.  I want so desperately to keep those things around me, to hold onto the last things he touched.  But that would be fucking crazy.  We need to eat.  We need to use toilet paper.  As time goes on, the things I bought grow and the things we bought together are diminishing.  I’m thinking about selling the dining room table…it’s too big for the space now that I’ve renovated, and let’s be serious, it’s too big for a family of 3 that includes 2 small humans.  But once it’s replaced, that is just one more thing that gets added to the “after Kevin died” side of the balance sheet and one less thing on the “before Kevin died” side.

I think most widows end up viewing the world with this before/after lens.  And now that I’m here, on the ‘after Kevin died’ side of things, that worldview makes sense to me.  How could you not?  A widow’s life is irreversibly changed with the death of her partner, so sorting things in her topsy turvy world into before and after categories is another attempt to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense anymore.

My 2 year old will eventually move onto to some other adorable yet annoying thing to repeat.  I think it’s already starting as everyday last week, she proudly told me what they ate for snack and lunch at daycare.  Thrilling.  Her ability to highlight the before/after tension that exists in my life will fade.  But the push and pull of before and after will always exist.  And as life moves forward, and as I continue to live my life, alone and as a widow, more and more things will move into the after column.  I’ve bought new toilet paper, I’ve cooked the food that now stocks the freezer, I make the big furniture decisions now.  More things are in the after column, but I will never forget the before column.  That dividing line in my life will always exist.  My after may be longer, but I will never forget my before.

amazing artwork by my dear friend Erin MacKeen, find her work here

A Widow Gets Punched in the Face

I’ve been punched in the face once in my life.  I was 19 (maybe 18?  But Mom, if you are reading this, I swear I was 19!!  ) and on the dance floor at a bar, and inadvertently wound up between two guys arguing and was accidentally punched in the jaw.  Pretty cool eh?  But since my husband died unexpectedly in August 2016, I’ve been punched in the face so many times that I’ve lost count.  Metaphorically of course.  But these metaphoric face punches have been far more painful than that drunken dance floor punch so many years ago.  These punches in the face are moments when life reminds you about your lost love.  A memory, an item, a thought, a sound…something happens and it triggers something in you that you didn’t predict.  You were trucking along thinking you were okay, and then whammo.  Face punch.  Oh ya.  He’s dead.  You are alone.  Your future as you lovingly planned it is gone.  Your children are missing a dad.  The love of your life is dead.  That’s a widow face punch.  And it fucking hurts.

This past Christmas, there were many predictable face punches as the holiday season is generally triggering for many widows.  I saw a lot of them coming.  But I didn’t see how innocently wrapping presents would punch me in the face.  I love the paper products that come along with Christmas.  I know I should be wrapping my gifts in newspaper or reusable bags, but I’m a sucker for cute wrapping paper.  I innocently thought I was going to have a lovely and cozy afternoon one day in December when I planned to spend the afternoon drinking a latte, while wrapping my presents for my girls, in all the beautiful paper I had picked out.  Wrong, silly widow.  Wrong!  I wrapped the first two, wrote the tags and stuck them on.  Then I sat back to smugly admire my beautiful wrapping.   There it was, in my own god damn handwriting.  “Love Mommy”.  Not “Love Mommy and Daddy” like I had written on all the tags for the previous 4 Christmas (because let’s be serious.  I did ALL of the shopping and wrapping!!).  These stupid tags staring me in the face were almost mocking me.  It looked so short and weird.  Just “Mommy”.  No Daddy.  It hurt and it punched me in the face so hard, it knocked me on the ass for the afternoon. Those stupid little tags were reminding me that I was alone, and Kevin had died.  And my kids didn’t have a dad to give them Christmas presents.

15578812_10157872131695007_8993682086051463641_n

I got punched in the face recently when making my bed.  It was kind of a double whammy. Doing chores is bad enough, but getting punched in the face with grief while cleaning?? C’mon, universe!  Where is the justice in the world?  I walked to the end of the bed to start straightening and fluffing the duvet when I was struck by what I was looking at.  Looking at the unmade bed in front of me, it was so painfully and strikingly obvious that only one grown up lived here.  My side was wrinkled, rumpled and the duvet was tossed to the side as I had gotten out of bed.  Kevin’s side was untouched.  Literally untouched.  Duvet smooth, pillows in place.  His side was untouched because I was sleeping alone and I was sleeping alone because he was dead.  Fuck.  Early morning hard widow punch to the face.  I sobbed and sobbed as I finished making the bed.  I longed for the days when I would make the bed and grumble because it seemed like Kevin was fighting a war in his sleep and our sheets were so tangled.  I longed for the days when I had to fight for the covers in the night.  I longed for the days when I would get in bed on a cold night and he would be on my side warming it up for me.  However, I will be honest and say, I don’t long for the days when I would be awake half the night screaming at him to stop snoring though!

15941196_10158000122650007_7542861170573078657_n

I even got punched in the face just a few weekends ago when I ordered takeout for the girls and I.  I just couldn’t deal with being the only parent anymore that day, and I mailed it in. Clicked on my ubereats app, and in a few minutes dinner was taken care of.  I ordered Chinese food and ordered what I thought was a reasonable amount.  But after I served the girls their dinner as well as myself, it quickly became apparent that I had ordered dinner as if Kevin was still with us.  I had ordered dinner for 4, even though we are a family of 3. Punch in the face, covered with chicken ball red sauce.  But I did eat chicken balls and fried rice leftovers for days, so there was a little bit of goodness in this grief knockout.

16826179_10158209571205007_8039715835594654998_o

All these moments brought me to my knees.  The memories of my former life, the reality of my new life and the finality of my loss washed over me and punched me in the face.  I will forever remember the sting of my widow face punches whereas I barely remember the pain of the physical punch from years ago.  Grief stays with you.  It burns into you, finds a nice home, deep inside of you, and sets up shop for life.  You don’t “get over” your loss. You don’t “move on”.  You learn to live with your loss.  You learn how to recover more quickly, and more easily from the punches in the face.  You may even acquire the skill to see them coming and dodge a few of them.  I’m not there yet.  I’m still getting beat up on the regular.  I’m a tough cookie though.  Someday I’ll get in the ring and I won’t get knocked out.  

A New Widow Says Thank You

When I was a kid, my mom made me write thank you notes for birthday and christmas gifts.  I hated it.  Hated.  It.  It was like pulling teeth, writing each one.  But somewhere along the line, it sunk in.  A handwritten thank you note is a really thoughtful and beautiful way to thank someone for the kindness and generosity they have extended to you.  As an adult, I have embraced this old fashioned piece of etiquette.  I love browsing stationery stores, picking out beautiful cards and sending thank you notes to friends and family.  Letterpress are my favourite!  Once my kids can write (and legibly!), I will enforce this tradition of thank you card writing on them as I think it’s really important.  So when my husband died, and my friends, family and community showered me with an outpouring of love, kindness and generosity so huge, I did not know where to begin my thank you card writing.  I couldn’t think straight but now I was contemplating handwriting hundreds of thank you cards?  Widows do crazy things, and this thought of undertaking a massive thank you letter writing campaign was certainly one of them.

The outpouring of love and support that was showered on the girls and I after Kevin died was incredible.  And overwhelming.  And heartbreaking.  The world was showing us how much we were loved and cared for.  And my best friend in the world, the person with whom I was desperate to tell about all this amazingness that was happening to me was dead.  Day after day in the early weeks, I would catch myself thinking ‘oh my god!  I HAVE to tell Kevin about what so and so just did for us’.  Time and time again I thought this.  And time and time, I would have to remind myself that he was dead so I couldn’t tell him and that all this was happening BECAUSE he was dead.  Another hard widow punch to the face.  I did undertake a medium size letter writing campaign, spent a small fortune on beautiful letterpress cards and sent thank you notes to my inner circle who had gone above and beyond.  Each day when I sat to write a few more cards it felt vaguely reminiscent of writing thank you cards for wedding gifts.  Somewhat of a chore because you had to write so many, but also you felt compelled to do it because people had been so kind.  But oh yah.  These aren’t thank you cards for a new china or towels.  These were thank you cards because people had done amazing things because my husband was dead.  Fuck.  Sigh.

One group of people was still unthanked however.  My neighbourhood had mobilized when the news of Kevin’s death spread.  Before I knew it, I was receiving dinner drop offs for months, cooked by other families in the neighbourhood and these home cooked meals were a godsend.  But they were from strangers, for the most part.  I couldn’t write thank you notes to strangers!  Gah.  I felt this overwhelming need to express my sincere gratitude, but felt paralyzed because I  didn’t know who to thank!  So when I heard a story on the radio requesting that listeners share their stories of Toronto the Good, I knew I had to share my story.  A few weeks later, I received an email back from one of the producers telling me that they were going to read my story on air later that day.  Later that day, hearing my words read on air, and realizing how many people were hearing my words of gratitude really touched me.  I was so thankful that I was able to let the world know the depths of my gratitude in my darkest days.  Below is a copy of the letter I emailed to the CBC.

I heard your story last week about the woman who was blind and broke her arm and her neighbours supported her so well.  I wanted to write in and share my experience with Toronto the Good as well!  I have been so overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers in my neighbourhood that I’ve actually struggled with wondering how can I thank people I don’t actually know??  Perhaps sharing my story with your audience will help!

In August 2016, my husband unexpectedly passed away at home at the age of 36.  He left behind myself, as well as our two daughters, age 2 and 5.  Needless to say, my world has been turned upside down with grief and life instantly became almost unbearable.  I’ve been stumbling along as a new young widow ever since.  Of course my friends and family instantly rose to the challenge and stepped in to carry us.  But what I was blown away by was the support that poured out from my neighbourhood, essentially from strangers.  I live in the east end of Toronto, off the Danforth near Greenwood.  We have lived in the area for almost 11 years and love it.  In the last few years, I joined a facebook group for moms of young kids in the area called East Toronto Young Mothers.  This group has been a great resource for all kid related questions as well as a fountain of knowledge (where is the best place to get a birthday cake?  what is going on the neighborhood for kids this weekend?  I need a daycare recommendation!  etc etc)  My story of loss somehow made it onto the facebook group and instantly the neighbourhood mobilized.  My friends had set up a meal train (an online calendar where you can sign up to bring a meal to someone in need) and this link got shared to the group.  And the response to cook for me and my girls was incredible!  I didn’t have to make a dinner or pack a lunch for my SK kid for September, October or November.  3 months!  I’m still receiving occasional meals even now.  Every day someone would drop off a meal on my porch, and often the meal was accompanied by a kind and compassionate note from the family.  My girls received hand drawn pictures from other kids in these strangers families.  Some mornings we would come out on our porch and there would be treats for the girls or a bottle of wine for me.  The associated Dads’ group organized getting me a gently used bar fridge which they set up on my porch to receive meal drop offs.  A kind stranger came by every Thursday night and pulled out my garbage, recycling and green bins.  My leaves got raked, my snow gets shoveled…all by random people on my street.  The parent community at my youngest’s daycare anonymously raised funds and paid for 3 months of daycare fees (which in Toronto is no small sum lol!).

Receiving these meals cooked with love and kindness for so many months has carried my girls and I through our grief in a way that is very hard to explain.  And has given me a real life example that shows me that people are good.  They want to help.  They have compassion.  They see a family who is hurting and want to help.  It’s changed me, and changed me in a good way.

I’m not thankful that my husband died and left me alone to pick up the pieces.  But I am thankful I live in a community filled with people who want to help me pick up the pieces.  Parents throw around the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” but don’t know what this truly means but I’m learning its meaning now.  My village is filled with strangers who love me and my kids and want to help us.  It’s amazing.

For those of you who have cooked a meal, made a donation, sent flowers or a kind word to a new young widow and you haven’t received a thank you, please know she is grateful.  She is beyond grateful.  She’s also exhausted, frightened and overwhelmed.  She just can’t keep her head above water long enough to breath well, let alone undertake a massive letter writing campaign.  A few emails and texts I received early on included the words “please don’t feel you have to respond to this” and this sentence changed my world.  It took the pressure off.  These simple words were a game changer for me.  It meant I could read the note or enjoy the meal, be comforted by the act of kindness and then simply be with that comfort.  I didn’t have to add another thank you note to my to do list.  I didn’t have to feel niggling guilt when I didn’t get around to writing that thank you note.  My journey through grief is teaching me things everyday.  Big and small.  And the realization about how helpful these words were to me was a small but important lesson.  From now on when I write a condolence email or drop off a meal to someone newly grieving, I going to make sure to include those simple by powerful words.  Please don’t feel you have to respond.  To those of you out there who haven’t yet received a thank you note from me, please know it’s still on my to do list, it might never get crossed off that list, but I am forever thankful for your kindness and generosity.  

Take a listen…..

My Toronto the Good Story on CBC radio

 

Loved and Lonely – Happy Birthday to Me

I used to love the month of September.  As a kid, shopping for your back to school outfit was pretty much the best thing ever.  Shiny new school supplies?  Yes please!!  In university, September was a great month…assignments and papers weren’t really due yet, but everyone was back at school and in full on socializing mode.  Even once I was fully in the adult world, September still felt full of promise.  New beginnings.  A fresh start.  Now that I have kids, September is the parent’s version of Christmas.  THE KIDS GO BACK TO SCHOOL!!  And now that global warming is melting the earth, the weather in September is generally pretty glorious.  I got married in September, so our wedding anniversary is at the beginning of the month.  And my birthday is at the end of the month.  So all in all, September historically has been a month filled with sunshine, new beginnings and celebrations.  But this past August, my husband died unexpectedly.  So that sucked.  And September was no longer a month filled promise and sunshine.  September fucking sucked.  It was my first month living at home as a new widow.  It was my first month parenting my young kids on my own while dragging the grief monster around on my shoulder.  I faced and survived my wedding anniversary early in the month.  But I still had to face the next shitty widow milestone…my first birthday without him.  My first birthday alone.

Somewhere in my thirties, birthdays became less and less exciting.  As a kid, it’s pretty much the greatest day of the year.  In your 20s, it’s an opportunity to get shitfaced with your friends.  But then it starts to feel less fun to get drunk with your friends simply because you have more grey hair.  So while my birthday had organically become less of a big deal over the years, Kevin still always made me feel special.  He always made it clear he was glad I was born.  There was always a sweet card for me when I woke up.  And a huge Kevin bear hug as he wished me happy birthday.  A bouquet of flowers.  When we first moved in together, Kevin brought a childhood birthday tradition with him to our home.  On your birthday, you got to pick a sugared cereal you wanted to have.  Lucky charms became my go to choice over the years, so there would always be Lucky charms on the counter in the morning.  And guaranteed, he and I would have another bowl together late at night.  Despite the quiet of the day, I still felt loved and celebrated by him.  Now staring down this impending milestone, I wondered how stifling the loneliness would feel on that day.  All those little touches would be gone.

The actual day rolled around, and as expected I was sad.  Everyday there are things that remind me he’s gone and I’m alone.  But your birthday without your husband?  That really fucking hurts.   My kids are young, so it wasn’t like they could pick up the slack and shower me with love and attention.  They just showered me with more whines and more ‘mama!  Can you help me??’  Happy fucking birthday to me.  However, when we walked out the door to school that morning, there was a bouquet of flowers on the porch waiting for me.  It was from Kevin’s best friend.  My jaw dropped open.  It was like Kevin had sent his friend to bring me flowers.  That night, as my parents and I sat on the front porch, having a glass of wine while the girls played on the porch, a neighbour from down the street arrived with another bouquet of flowers.  She hadn’t been able to attend the funeral and wanted to extend her condolences.  She didn’t even know it was my birthday.  I don’t know what I believe about where Kevin is or if he is still with me, but receiving two bouquets of flowers on my birthday certainly felt like Kevin’s influence.  We had a nice dinner that night, and my girls proudly sang me happy birthday and helped me blow out my candles.  I felt loved and lonely all at the same time. Such a bittersweet place to be.

The lessons in young widowhood are vast, varied and abundant.  However, your brain is not functioning in any way, shape or form so the lessons are slow to be received.  It’s a bit of catch 22 really.  So much awesome stuff to learn, become a better, wiser, more compassionate person blah blah blah.  But do it all while you can’t think straight, can’t sleep and can’t stop crying and/or swearing?  Okay.  I’ll get right on that.  However, one of the first lessons my brain did start to process and absorb in those first early weeks was that I was the architect of my happiness.  With the absence of another grown up in my day to day life, if I wanted to social contact, I had to do the inviting, the organizing and the social wrangling.  Of course, my friends have been fantastic and have been there in spades with invitations and company.  But I couldn’t just wait for plans to materialize.  I could host stuff.  I could make plans.  And so I did.  Without a husband to organize my birthday party, I put on my big girl widow panties, and threw myself a birthday party.  And it was fucking fun.

And when you turn 42 just a mere 6 weeks after your husband expectedly dies on you, let me tell you…people show up to your party!  This wasn’t a night when people can’t make it.  And they were up for it.  And truth be told, now that my addict husband was dead, booze made its sweet sweet return to my house and to my lips.  My birthday party night was no exception.  The plan was to have my 8 best girl friends, their husbands and children over for an easy dinner as well as champagne and cake.  The kids would run wild while the grown ups had some cocktails.  When one girlfriend showed up with 7 bottles of prosecco, we all teased her that she had seriously gone overboard with the bubbles.  However, we plowed through those and then some.  The party turned into an epic dance party spanning the generations.  The kids all danced on the furniture, including the coffee table.  They all got so hot they ended up taking off their shirts and dancing the night away, while us, their parents, danced alongside of them (we kept our shirts on though!). It was a night I will never forget.  I don’t think any of the kids ever will either.  In fact, anytime my girls and I have a kitchen dance party now, my youngest takes her clothes off and asks if she can dance on the coffee table.  I always chuckle to myself when I hear myself saying ‘No you can’t.  We only dance on tables at parties.’  Top notch parenting right there.

friends

I was overwhelmed with love for my friends for making this such a fun night for me and for our kids.  And yet again, cue that fucking hard widow face punch.  Kevin was missing this.  He was missing seeing his kids have the time of their life, shirtless, sweaty, and dancing to some of his favourite songs on the coffee table.  He was missing my birthday. It was an amazing night with our friends and it was his own fault he was missing it.  I cried for hours after everyone left.  The additional glasses of Prosecco I consumed while crying certainly didn’t help.  I survived the night (and the hangover next day!) but the sting of him missing the important stuff remains.  My 42nd birthday was like no other birthday I’ve celebrated.  I felt loved by so many, but I also felt so lonely.  It was the first major event since his death where I felt this overwhelming sense of loneliness in a room full of people who love me.  I hope that with time the sense of love i felt from my friends continues, but the loneliness lessens.  It hasn’t yet.  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, I’ll be over here, drinking some Prosecco while my kids dance on the furniture.