Anyone who observed my life would have declared it to be perfect, a life that would only be found in a love-story book or movie. I was 31 years old, I had a fulfilling career in information technology and telecommunications in a large corporation, and I was married to my first love. We both were very athletic, our beautiful daughter was two years old and we lived in a house full of love, laughter and happiness. What else could anyone ask for?

It all changed on April 14, 1992, when I spoke to my husband at 5:20 p.m. and told him I would pick up our daughter, Gretchen, from daycare and we would meet him at home. I arrived at home and he wasn’t there, nor would he ever return. He passed away that evening as he was leaving his office for the day.

Rod died from arrhythmia. He walked out of work, climbed into his car and bent his head over the steering wheel. The people in the parking garage assured me that he did not suffer and that they did the best they could to revive him.

I was officially widowed. The next few days were spent making the necessary phone calls, living through the memorial service and coping with all the people at my house. But no one could have explained to me then how I would in the years that followed be a single mom, find the strength to go to work, maintain a household on one paycheck and live with my own emotions and fears.

As I traveled the path of the unknown with my 2-year-old daughter, I searched for answers to my questions, stability in my life, happiness in my heart and a smile for my face. I learned so much. I ignored so much. And, I hurt so much.

Although I am a logical person, I found that once my emotions “took over,” my logic was lost. It caused me to waffle in all my decisions, hide from everyone and everything and cry every second I was alone. Turning to religion for help wasn’t really an option as I had lost all faith. I read almost every book on death, or at least I tried. It didn’t seem to help, probably because I was looking for answers when we all know there are no answers.

During my first summer of widowhood, I joined the swimming pool in the next town so I could pick my daughter up from daycare and go right to the pool to avoid people. I would sit in the 12-inch-deep baby pool every night and listen to the people around me say, “Isn’t she a perfect mom sitting in the pool with her daughter.” Little did they know, I sat in the baby pool so I would not have to talk with them! 

I tried so hard to take care of myself, but it was not working. As I searched to find a way to sleep through the night, eat nutritional food and exercise, I came up with the idea that I would participate in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon in my husband’s honor. Rod has always wanted to compete in the Ironman but did not want to take time away from our family.

Along with the rest of my new life, I was very naïve as to what my new goal entailed. I am not only referring to the athletic requirements but also to obtaining an entry slot. I discovered that 1500 athletes from around the world compete every year and only 250 are women! What was I thinking?! What did I get myself into?

While the goal was very ambitious, the process proved to be my ticket to find myself, reach out of my comfort zone and find a bit of balance emotionally. I hired a coach, trained and raced for two-and-a-half years before I successfully crossed the finish line of the 1995 Gatorade Hawaii Ironman World Championship. What I found on the other side of the finish line was a new world for me. A world that said if I set my mind to it, I can do anything, I can get to where I need to be emotionally and I can learn a great deal about myself and others along the way.

While my heart remains broken that my first love and the father of my little girl does not have the same opportunity that I have to embrace life because it was cut so short, I do embrace all the gifts that I have received through the process. In a weird way, I do thank him daily for those gifts.

Avatar

Rachel Kodanaz

The idea of writing and speaking on Life Changing Topics was a direct result of my experiences while grieving the unexpected loss of my husband in 1992. At the time, I was a member of management in a large corporation and a mother of a two year-old. The challenges while overwhelming me drove me down a path of rebuilding and finding “the new normal” for my family. After spending several years recovering and helping other grievers, I began assisting companies who were dealing with grieving employees. I published Grief in the Workplace Handbook and a booklet titled Grief in the Workplace. My efforts led to me writing a column for ten years titled “Grief in the Workplace” for Living with Loss (formally Bereavement Magazine), speaking nationally on the subject and appearing on Good Morning America. As I continued my journey to pay it forward to other grievers who are suffering losses, I joined HeartLight Center, a grief center in Denver, Colorado. I was instrumental in developing the programs and infrastructure and over the years held the position of Executive Director, Program Director and was a member of the Board of Directors. In addition, over the last 7 years since the center opened, I facilitated many groups, including Baby Boomer Widow Group, Loss of a Parent and Facing the Mourning. The research and development of the Facing the Mourning program provided me with the opportunity to not only support those who are grieving the loss of a loved one but also support families who are “anticipating” a loss whether it is a terminal diagnosis or form of dementia. As I continue to provide support for those who are experiencing a loss, I maintain my column for Living with Loss, help workplaces implement grief programs and speak nationally on grief-related topics.

More Articles Written by Rachel