After Husband’s Death, a Year of ‘Solitary Firsts’

As I write this article, 2-1/2 years after my husband Marty’s death, I am overwhelmed with surprise that so much time has passed. Memories of that first year are wrapped in a surreal haze and when vivid images do surface, the fog lifts and reveals my year of solitary firsts. February 11th, 2009, marked the death of my husband, my mate of 42 years.

A quote on the back of the Joyce Carol Oates book, A Widow’s Story, says “of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters:  on the first anniversary of her husband’s death, the widow should think ‘I kept myself alive.’ ”  When I read those words, I remember thinking, “I did that.”

My flight to New York for Marty’s Celebration of Life service was laden with emotions.   I remember walking with heavy legs through the airport wanting to scream, “You don’t understand, I just lost my husband.”   I remember sitting next to a middle-aged couple and wanting to say to them, “You don’t understand your time together is limited.”   I remember writing a note to Marty on the plane, telling him how alone I was feeling, pressed up against the window, weeping silently and wanting to be invisible.

After the Celebration of Life, I turned around to find Marty to say “okay, let’s go home,” and felt a wound to my heart. I had forgotten for an instant that he was gone. That moment brought with it the realization that my husband would never be there to go home with again and that I was no longer Marty’s wife.

I don’t remember the trip back to Florida. All I do remember is the feeling that I wanted to go home.   Entering our house to no one’s arms and a “hi babe” was grim and deafening.   Yet it was also somehow comforting because it was our home, it held our things, and most of all, Marty’s energy was still palpable.

Everywhere I turned, there was a sense of his presence and of his loss.  Marty’s side of the bed was empty, his place at the kitchen table was bare, and his closet was filled with clothing that would never be worn by him again.  I wandered around like a ghost, closing doors. I fell into our bed and tried to avert my eyes to the sights of emptiness and my ears to the sound of silence.

At night, I reached over in my sleep to touch Marty with my hand or foot, and awoke with a start remembering that he was GONE.  I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking, “This was the time it happened, this was the hour.”   Sleeping and eating became unwelcomed obligations – what I knew I had to do in order to survive, but had no taste for.

I didn’t have a big support system in Florida and knew that I had to get help.  I met with a hospice counselor who encouraged me to join a bereavement group.  Talking with people who understand grief and who had also experienced loss was as essential part of my healing process.

Sometimes I liken that first year to a soldier returning from the war with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).  Images would flash before my eyes at unexpected moments.  When I passed a building associated with Marty’s illness, I would shudder; when I saw an emaciated person who looked ill, I would lose my breath and look away.

Rituals started to emerge. I wrapped myself in Marty’s bathrobe and sprayed it with his cologne every single night – envisioning his arms around me. For more than a year, I wrote letters to him and when I showered, I wrote love notes on the steamy glass shower wall.  I put on Marty’s watch and his Chai because it felt like his “energy.” I calendared a reminder to myself (as if I would forget) to light a memory candle on the 11th of each month.

When it came time to pick up Marty’s ashes, I felt anxious and panicked.  As I drove to the crematorium on my own, I was in a state of suspended disbelief over what I was doing. When the container holding his ashes was placed in my car, a sense of calm came over me because I was taking my husband home. I don’t believe that these ashes contain Marty’s spirit, but they sit on a credenza facing the golf course in a special wooden box.  Just in case there’s a bit of his spirit there, I want him to be able to watch his favorite sport.

During the first six months, I called home many times to hear Marty’s voice on the message machine. It took courage for me to change that message, and I only did that because I was able to capture his voice and store it on my computer. I then recorded my first message as Laurel, a single woman.  It was an “I’m not home” message, not a “we’re not home” message.

Every day brought in something new and unanticipated; sometimes it was a day filled with raw emotion. I no longer lived in a state of fear, because the worst had happened – Marty had died. At other times, it was a day that brought me little slivers of hope and optimism. I enrolled in art and writing classes, formed new friendships, and started to live life as a single woman. I was experiencing a renewal and my own transition and there were days when I even managed to smile again.

As it got closer to the year “anniversary”  (why would anyone call the day someone dies an anniversary?), I felt anxious and wanted it to be over with.  I didn’t know what to expect or how I would handle the day. It was very difficult during those two months before the year marker, much tougher than I had thought. I was raw; once again, I was left waiting and, as if in a thunderstorm, fresh tears rained down.

To mark the year gone by, I decided that I would plant a memory tree outside my office window as a living symbol to honor Marty’s legacy.  Letters from my children, my grandchildren and me, along with some cherished pictures and mementos, were buried in the soil underneath the roots of this memory tree. On February 11th, 2010, some of my dear friends came over and we held a small ceremony over that tree of love.   It was then that I decided that the day shouldn’t be about loss, but should symbolize something good.   Simply put, I now chose to recognize the day that Marty passed away as one of transition – Marty’s and mine.

In the rush of life, there are many symbolic moments that slip by without notice. After someone you love dies, that first year is filled with memories which are too countless to describe.  That year, the year of solitary firsts, is stitched into my heart and will be with me for however long my forever is.

Laurel D. Rund   2011

Story art by Essence of Laurel

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Laurel D. Rund

More Articles Written by Laurel D.

It began in 2009 when a life-changing event transformed me into the woman I am today. Never could I have imagined that the death of my husband of 42 years would take me on a journey through loss and grief to a redefined sense of self. Death, an unexpected teacher, was my transformative metamorphosis. The slow and painful healing process unfolded my creativity and, in what I can only describe as a “new normal,” Essence of Laurel was born. "Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens." Khalil Gibran My first book, “Emerging Voices” has a purpose ~ to serve as a journal and healing catalyst for anyone who has experienced a loss. The art and poetry within is a testimony as to what can happen when we acknowledge grief in all its forms. It allows for the discovery of a new perspective which will lead you on a journey of self-discovery and renewal. “Art from the Heart” has become my playground; a place where I can tap into my innermost creativity as an inspirational writer and artist. The surprise is that it came at a time when I thought that the next chapters in my life would be lonely; without purpose or passion. Instead I have been given the gift of a renewed sense of life, its possibilities and most importantly, an appreciation for living in the present moment. Our human experience, whether in a crisis or a life transition, continuously gives us the opportunity to learn and grow. We can choose to stay in a place of sorrow and regret, or embrace these life-altering experiences from which we can discover a new way of being. My hope is that my writing and ‘Art from the Heart’ touches and inspires you. Laurel

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  • Anne Garden says:

    Beautiful One

    I have been single most of my life; I have never known a long term
    companion.

    My childhood was traumatic with parents divorcing when I was ten.

    I have always wondered what it would be like to know the closeness
    you have now expressed with a mate, another human under your own
    skin!

    I have recently met someone I hope to know as intimately as you have shared
    with us.

    I am only sad that I will never know the impressions of 40plus years,
    my birthday was 2/11/50.

    My Birthday now has a new tatoo on my heart with you and Marty.

    Thank You for my birthday gift for all my forever Laurel.

    It’s funny, on your birthday, at your party at the meadows,
    you gifted me with your book.!

    So many gifts to so many come from you; it makes me
    wonder ALL Marty must still have in his Spirit from you!

    Thanks Again,…. and again……
    Love, Anne

  • Ken & Mabel says:

    We pray that the seed of your GOD-given talent continues to grow and flourish, as you convey the power of healing love to others.

  • Dixie Mahan says:

    Laural, You have hit the mark with this essay! I have used your book almost daily, reading your poems or journaling my own responses to the loss of my husband, Russ, 11/7/10. I often feel that I am doing well, getting use to living alone after 56 years of marriage, and then something will trigger an overwhelming sense of loss and emptyness. My first birthday alone was filled with cards and friends, but I still went to bed alone. Our anniversary is coming up in a few days, and it seems unreal that he has been gone all this time. I tell myself to buck up, after all we did have 56 mostly wonderful years together! But, I still have this emptyness in my gut.

    Laural, I really appreciate your writings, as it puts words to some of my feelings, and helps me to understand what I am experiencing. I also feel gratitude for our friendship.
    Love, Dixie

  • Kathy says:

    I am coming up on the one year “anniversary” of my husbands death. Thank you for writing. You understand. I needed to find someone else that understood.

  • Catherine Shultz says:

    Today would have been my parents 53rd wedding anniversary, and tomorrow marks one year after my father’s passing. He died the day after their 52nd anniversary. I was searching the internet to find a poem or words that would some how make my mom feel a little better about today and found your blog. Your blog was the only thing I could really find. Thank you.

    The double agony of a first missed anniversary that falls before the 1 year anniversary of someone’s passing is a double blow. My mom doesn’t have a computer or use email so I will share your post with her. I think it will make her feel a little better knowing that someone else in the world was married 50+ years, suffered this horrible first year of firsts and made it through!

    Spring was supposed to be my father’s time of recovery after all the chemo and radiation was finished but instead he learned that the cancer spread to his lungs and he was gone so quickly after that. It was shocking. I planted a cherry tree last spring shortly after his passing and I’m waiting for the blossoms to bloom. I hope and pray now that the first year of missed birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Father’s Day are behind, that somehow we will be stronger and can look back with happiness and not melancholy.

    Thank you for your post. It brought me comfort today.

  • heather lonkard says:

    I recently lost my Husband of almost 9 years in Dec 2012. I pray those in my shoes have a strong will yo cont to survive for their families and loved ones.

  • cindy says:

    I am so glad to find your page…..what you said hit so many spots for me I smiled….because I was not the only one to do what you did….thank you!

  • JENNIFER WAGNER says:

    On Tuesday 5 November 2013, I saw 12 months since my gorgeous man was taken from me suddenly. I seemed to do OK on the day with phone calls, flowers, friends calling in and then went out to dinner with my sister’s family as it was her birthday that day also. My slump came on the Thursday and I felt the grief again consume me. So many aspects in your story hit my heart as I have lived them also. One can feel isolated after such a life experience and only those you have lived it, truly understand. Thank you with all my heart for the beautiful and wonderful sharing.I know I am not alone as others have lived through this also and it gives me great courage to go forward.

  • allan says:

    My wife died 7-19-13. I am totally lost with no friends or family that cares. I have to say I have thought how I would commit suicide but I don’t have that much guts to do it. So I just continuue we were married 44 years and she was always the prettiest girl in the room and looked 30 years youngher than her age. so now what I have known her since we were 11 years old. now I’m 65

  • Dear Allan,

    I am so sorry to hear about your loss and your pain. All I can do is offer you the knowing that your pain will soften with time. It will not go away, but the good memories that you shared will come forward when the time is right.

    Please go to a bereavement group, I did and it was a blessing. Most hospices offer these groups for free. You need to be with others who understand your grief. Allow time to heal your heart. Love yourself enough to be kind to yourself.

    Your email came on the last day of a special time for me. I am gifting my eBook ‘Emerging Voices’ for free – http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GA2W89S/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk
    It is filled with the poetry and artwork that came from me after my husband’s passing. It is also filled with my transformation into a place of hope and renewal.

    I have a knowing that my husband’s spirit will always surround, love and protect me. So will your wife’s. She doesn’t want you to be defined by her death. She wants you to be defined by your love and life together. Please remember that.

    May your healing process bring you peace and hope. With understanding, Laurel