When I got the call that my husband had died, the only sound I could hear was a piercing wail making its way with disturbing efficiency throughout the house. That shriek was an immovable savage that sucked the air out of me and left me trying to focus on where I was. I was confused for what seemed like an eternity and then, although it was a voice I had never heard before, I realized the shriek was mine. I stopped screaming only because I ran out of breath. My daughters then 14 and 10, having mistaken my shrieks for ungovernable laughter (our usual circumstance), came running down the stairs to see what was so funny.
As they looked at my face looking at theirs, they knew something was awful. I crumpled down onto the bottom stair, took their hands and said, well, nothing. I said nothing for too many seconds only because I could not find a voice to tell them their father had died. I could not summon the breath I needed to tell them he had taken his own life. So, I told them there had been some kind of an accident and that “daddy died.” I was sure there had been some kind of accident and that I had misunderstood the message that was, in reality, too clear to misunderstand at all. I tried to shove the reality of his death out of my head.
I cried non-stop for about a week until my 10 year-old daughter asked me quite simply, “Mommy, when are you going to stop crying. We need you to be normal.” The question was a gift that brought me back to what was sweetest in my life – my 2 young daughters. I cried visibly less, but for the next 6 months the tears and new bursts of heartache came in waves unexpectedly and quite outside my control like in the middle of a dinner party or work meeting. After a few of months I was conscious of doing rather well.
My 14 year-old daughter had asked me if we would still have our same friends over and as often. She wanted to know if life would be once again cheerful or would we sink permanently into gloom. Another gift of a question, and soon enough our house was filled with the same wonderful friends (mine and my children’s) that we had always had for dinner parties, sleepovers and celebrations, and our home and life once again rang with laughter, friendship and music. I eventually put in new carpeting, paint and a couple of pieces of new furniture so the house reflected me and my daughters, things that said “fresh start”. I had thought I was doing well, and, given the hole in our hearts and the daily feeling of slight nausea, I was in some sense doing very well.
But at the two-year mark I was surprised by an actual physical sensation of some new lightness, something lifted from my shoulders, and I breathed in fresher air. Some secondary layer of sadness had lifted. The sickening nightmares about my husband’s death eased off. I had already learned that my new road was one I could learn to travel with strength and love to see us through a truly hideous tragedy. Now I knew it would be traveled with joy.
I had, at some point, focused on what my daughters needed, what they had lost and their being haunted by a fear for my safety as the only living parent. It is, when all is said and done, a terrible thing for a child to have a safety net with a glaring and dangerous hole in it.
My little girls are now exceptional women, and I have been happily remarried for 25 years to a wonderful man who appreciates my memory of my husband (yes, I still see him as husband rather than first husband or late husband) and the father of my children.
Do I still think about the man who was supposed to be my “forever”? Almost daily. I feel his presence every time I look at my daughters whose genetic gifts from him are huge. Accepting this death has been an ongoing process, and now, 30 years later, I can say that I will never truly absorb this loss. I do not know what closure means. I do know what it means to live joyfully with a new reality. I will always be consciously happy for having had 18 years of what was extraordinary about him.
Janet Gallin 2012