Coping with loss often means discovering a “new you.”
by Becky LeRud
The paperwork looked routine until the words marital status leaped off the page. I paused, tears streaming down my cheeks. This was the first time I had to mark that dreaded word: widow.
I was facing an identity crisis: no longer a wife, but a widow. A good friend phrased it well: “You’ll have to redefine yourself.”
As I began redefining, I struggled to cope with this new me. It felt as if a part of me had been severed; I was no longer whole. I had to deal with language itself. How difficult to begin saying I instead of we. After more than 43 years, I had been “Becky and Stan” for so long, I didn’t know how to be “just Becky.”
I discovered that grieving is hard work. It’s a lonely process that takes time, and no one can do it for you. There are no short cuts. It’s impossible to map out how long it’s going to take to “get through it.” In a sense, you never “get through it.” You will always be a bereaved person.
My grieving began months before the actual moment of Stan’s death. The doctor had pronounced the grim prognosis: This type of cancer had only a five percent survival rate.
My heartbreak escalated as my husband’s health continued to decline. A roller coaster of emotions wore me out. Anger, fear, disappointment, denial, feeling cheated, regrets — all took their toll.
As we tried to absorb the enormity of what was happening, Stan, in his gentle, loving way, tried to protect me. “I don’t want to die at home,” he said. “This has been such a happy home. I want you to have good memories.”
But I insisted he stay at home where he would be surrounded by loving family.
Learning to grieve
A few days later, Stan’s pain levels reached an all-time high. At last I was willing to let him go, knowing he would one day meet his Savior. I said my goodbyes, but later found out that goodbye is a process.
I kept asking, “Am I normal?” I didn’t know how to grieve; I’d never experienced this kind of loss. What is appropriate grieving protocol? Some people made me feel as if I needed to apologize or be ashamed of my grief. Others were so uncomfortable, they shied away from even mentioning Stan’s name.
Finally, to my relief, a good friend asked, “Would you rather we not mention Stan? Would that be easier for you?”
Surprised, I responded, “By all means, mention him. If you don’t, it’s as if he never existed!”
“Oh, I hear you lost your husband,” people would say. But did they understand what that encompassed? My loss seemed overwhelming. Loss of touch, of embrace, of that special deep bass voice, of companionship, of shared memories and realizing I was the only one left who remembers certain family members or events.
Who would share memories of a picnic on a mild spring evening? The picnic supper that culminated with a rush to the hospital to give birth to our firstborn son? An overwhelming sense of disappointment dulled my thinking, and feelings of depression threatened.
At times I felt pressured to make decisions I just wasn’t ready for. Stan had been the decision-maker, and I gladly let him take the responsibility. Now it was up to me.
Decisions had to be made, of course. Should I remain in our home? I was terrified of living alone, and my family knew it. The weight of emotion made decisions hard. I wanted to be open to loving and wise counsel, but I struggled to find proper balance between stubbornness and letting others make all the decisions for me.
Sharing memories of happy times, of family stories and anecdotes brought comfort. However, I also understood I needed to say goodbye — again. That’s when I gained a deeper awareness that goodbye isn’t said all at once. It can happen in bits and pieces.
I found myself repeatedly saying goodbye to Stan, to broken dreams and plans, to life that could never again be the same. Our plans for overseas travel, dreams of a post-retirement career in missions, dreams of seeing our grandchildren grown and married would never be realized.
Hollowness and loneliness
A few days before Stan’s death, we sat in the afternoon shade in front of the house, the August heat shimmering in waves across the fields. We spoke of tender moments, of longings, of disappointment.
“Sweetheart, this has been so hard on you,” he said. “I hope you’ll regain your bubbly spirits. That’s one of the things that attracted me to you — your enthusiasm and sense of fun.”
I thought of his words late one night as hollowness and loneliness threatened to engulf me. I phoned my sister. “Tell me again it’ll get better,” I begged as sobs clogged my throat. I was so far from the bubbly spirits Stan had loved.
As weeks and months passed, my feelings of loneliness became unbearably painful. On the outside I maintained a façade of having it all together, but my heart was shattered.
I awoke one morning feeling as if my insides were splintered into millions of shards, like a fragile wine goblet smashing onto a tiled floor. I couldn’t gather the broken pieces of my heart and hold them all together.
Instead of succumbing to the temptation to isolate myself, I consciously chose to face the day and its obligations. Forced into a new role not of my own choosing, I determined to become the best widow I could be.
What I chose to do with the rest of my life was critical. I could honor my husband’s memory, as well honor my Lord, by willingly embracing this new identity and moving ahead.
Instead of mourning what might have been, I began to anticipate what could be. I looked for ways to live a full, productive life, redefining myself without forgetting who and what I had been.
Pushed beyond my comfort zone, I reluctantly agreed to serve as hostess in a Hungarian restaurant owned by good friends. They recognized that I needed to be with others and feel useful.
Greeting guests and having to make small talk helped drive me toward the outgoing person I used to be. I began to look forward to seeing people instead of cutting myself off from others.
When the pastor’s wife asked if I’d team-teach a women’s Sunday school class, I surprised myself by saying yes. I had taught in public schools and children’s Sunday school classes, but I’d never taught adults. That had been Stan’s role.
Writing curriculum for the class was a part of the preparation. Discovering my gift, I embraced an entirely new world. I loved teaching women, and I loved teaching Bible studies.
As I pored over the pages of Stan’s Bible with his handwritten notes and comments, reconnecting with him filled me with contentment. I had found a way to honor his memory and a new purpose in serving the Lord.
Life as a widow would never be the same as my life as a wife, but a new eagerness replaced the heaviness of sorrow. It took nearly two years for me to come alive. My bubbly spirits were returning. In redefining myself, I discovered I was comfortable with the new me.