I think a lot about the distinction between moving on and moving forward after someone dies. Moving on means putting the loss behind you and going back to living life the way you did before the loss occurred. Moving forward is quite different; it is integrating the loss into your life so that grief isn’t necessarily something you stop experiencing but you learn how to carry it with you into your future. Moving forward acknowledges that the loss experience will change how you live your life.
Being widowed has changed me. In October I wrote about trying to come to terms with the fact that I will never again be who I was when I was with my husband. I talked then about how I still wanted to be the person I was before my late husband died but that I was trying to focus on who I am becoming as a result of the loss. I noticed then that I was more open and vulnerable and more comfortable taking about death.
Lately, I am struck by how different the rhythm of my days is now. Widowed people often find that the loss of their loved one impacts their lives in this way.
For my entire relationship with my husband pre-stroke, I went to bed around 9 pm and woke up at 5 in the morning because he was an early riser and liked to chat in the morning. I learned that serious discussions with him went better in the morning than if I waited until after work. Now that I don’t have to get up so early, I find myself sleeping until 6 and going to bed around 10 pm, but every night when I go to bed, I second-guess my alarm setting. Waking up at 5 for so long made that feel normal and setting my alarm for 6 feels off.
Other habits are changing to accommodate how my life is now. Tom enjoyed watching movies and TV, but I prefer to read, so most nights and weekends I read. What I eat has changed significantly. Tom was a meat and potatoes guy—except for when he was eating nachos or Mexican food, which he adored. Now I eat almost no meat. I haven’t eaten nachos in nearly two years. (The thought of nachos makes me smile, though—one time when I got back from being out of town for a few days and noticed that all the meals I had left for him were uneaten but the cheddar cheese and chips were gone; he admitted to having eaten nachos every night for the five days I was gone).
The shape of my days is different. After his stroke, my day was scheduled around taking care of him. In the morning, I would wake him up, help him sit up and bring him his coffee and his morning medications. We would chat about the day and then I would walk the dogs and work out while he drank his coffee. After that, I would get him dressed and help him get into his wheelchair. He would watch TV, read, or sharpen knives (for real, that was his main hobby after his stroke) while I worked in my office for a couple of hours. I would take a break at some point to help him stretch his arms.
At midday, I gave him his midday medications and made him lunch. He usually had speech, occupational, or physical therapy in the afternoon, so I would help him go to the bathroom before that. If he had speech therapy, I worked in my office, but I usually participated a bit, even if just to cheer, in his occupational and physical therapy sessions.
In the evening, I made dinner and we ate together. Then I got him ready for bed and brought him his evening medications. After he was in bed, I would massage his legs and feet.
My entire day was structured around providing care to him. It was hard work but work I loved. The intimacy of caring for someone at that level is beyond words. When my daughter was born and depended on me for everything, I remember feeling similarly and I assumed part of the connection was that she had been part of my body for nine months. But the connection I felt to my husband while taking care of him was the same—finding every sight, smell, and sound utterly delightful, feeling absolute peace and completion when he was comfortable and happy.
As I continue moving forward, I notice intensely contradictory feelings. On the one hand, I am very happy, feeling loved by and connected to so many people and living a life that is full of joy and peace. On the other hand, I am achingly aware that as I move forward each day, I also move farther away from the beautiful life I had with my husband. I miss having those moments of care punctuating my days.
I recently remodeled my bathroom and had a tile installed that is inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold, leaving the restored piece with deep gold veins that call attention to themselves. Every time I step into that bathroom and see the tile, I am reminded that I am turning the pieces of my life into something new and beautiful. Those pieces were shaped by the love I had with my husband and they still exist, but they are held together now with something new that I am creating.