It’s one of the most defining moments in my life since losing my husband. It was a couple days after the funeral and I was back at the cemetery which had become my place of solace (besides my shower, of course). As I sat on the grass, with my husband – the one person I never imagined losing – beneath me in his casket, I tried to find peace. Tried to make sense of the fact that I was 32 years old and yet the title of widow was forced upon me…
I heard the vehicle before I saw it. I immediately panicked because it seemed odd that in this great, big cemetery, the person was approaching my car. A middle-aged man pulled up behind my car and got out. I know I thought I wanted to die so I could be with my husband but I certainly didn’t need my life ended at the hands of a cemetery killer! I relaxed a bit when he smiled and nodded.
He walked over to the row above my husband’s plot and looked downward. I went back to my silent mourning as he stood watch over his loved one.
Some time went by and I was jarred from my thoughts by his words: Are you visiting your dad?
“No, my husband,” I said, choking on my words.
He turned around and shared that he was there to visit his wife. She was in an accident (I think) and her health took a downward spiral not long after. I told him about my husband. How an incorrect diagnosis had led to his death. It was so fresh. I was angry. Angry that he was overseas. Angry that the doctors missed malaria. Angry that I hadn’t been there. Just angry.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that exchange with the stranger would put me on my path to healing. Looking back, the most valuable lessons I learned that day were:
Let Go of the Guilt
As I explained how my husband was misdiagnosed, he explained that his wife was here, in the United States, when a series of medical missteps led to her death. He reminded me that it could have happened anywhere and the U.S. isn’t immune from its share of medical mistakes. As for my not being there when my husband died, he assured me the pain would still be as it is – devastating. Whether you’re there in person or you get a phone call, death will bring you to your knees.
Know You’ll be Okay
He was the first young(ish) person I met who was widowed. When he told me I’d be okay at some point, I didn’t want to hear it. My heart and head couldn’t conceive my ever being okay. How are you ever “okay” after burying a spouse? How does life just go on? How do you live with a gaping hole in your heart?
I don’t recall how long he’d been widowed but he told me I would find my happiness again – though perhaps in a new form. I rolled my eyes. My happiness had been snuffed out and I planned to merely exist. He saw my apprehension and again reassured me that the overwhelming sadness and grief wouldn’t last always. One day, if I kept an open mind, bursts of happiness would mix in with the bad days and before I knew it, they would outnumber the bad days.
You Will Love Again
As he told his story, he shared that he’d remarried. Remarried? I wondered how a heart so damaged could heal itself to the point where it is capable of receiving and holding on to love. I had such an incredible connection with my hubby that the thought of being with someone else let alone remarrying seemed like a foreign concept. He told me he didn’t initially think it was possible either. But, his new relationship was all the proof I should need to know we were capable of love after loss.
The Heart Expands – Loving Doesn’t Mean Forgetting
It was lost on me that he mentioned being married yet he was standing in a cemetery mourning his late-wife, looking down at a headstone that awaited his inscription. They were to be buried side-by-side. It wasn’t until I started dating that the beauty of the scene revealed itself to me. He was in love, happily married and there he was at the cemetery. He hadn’t forgotten his late-wife. He didn’t forget she existed. He remembered their love. He remembered their story. She, her memories, who she was and what she meant to him remained very much a part of his current life. I felt that love when he told me about her. His eyes filled with tears as he recalled their time together. My heart didn’t have to completely heal itself. It would simply expand to allow more love in. Even with the damaged section, even with the scarring, it was still capable of love!
Be With Someone Who Understands Grief
I remember him telling me his current wife is a good woman. She seemed to understand that he loved someone before he’d met her. It’s not the kind of love that one needs be jealous of, like when a man or woman is still in love with an ex-partner. This love is different. It’s unfinished love. Love that was interrupted – whether by malaria, a cancer diagnosis, suicide, heart attack, etc. Our love expired before we were ready to say goodbye. Even if we were in crappy marriages, having a partner die because of an overdose or an accident leaves a heavy burden on the surviving spouse. We hold on to remember them, to preserve their memories for our children, and so the world doesn’t forget. It takes a special person to understand that we will always love our spouse and not feel threatened by that love.
To this day, whenever I visit the cemetery, I look over at the headstone above my late-husband’s to make sure the inscription next to the stranger’s wife’s name is still empty. I then say a prayer for him – wherever he is in the world. I never know that a cemetery, filled with so much death, would be the place that laid the foundation for me to live again.
Mom to a feisty preschooler, Kerry Phillips became widowed at age 32. She runs an online support group for young widows and widowers venturing back into the world of dating and is a blogger for The Huffington Post.