Allyson and I hiked our way up a mountain in Salt Lake City with her dog, Charlie. My breath was heavy as I adjusted to the elevation and incline.
It was early June and I was just a few days shy of facing my husband’s first birthday without him. Sergiusz would have been 29 and grief was taking its toll. I was vividly dreaming about him, waking up with the false notion that he was next to me, talking to me, touching me. It was only when I swung my feet out of the hotel bed that I remembered he was dead.
“All of the anniversaries are very hard and I can’t imagine a very sudden loss like yours,” Allyson said to me, validating my grief and giving me permission to take ownership over my trauma.
At 32-years-old, Allyson has settled into the identity of widow and life without her husband, Brandon. He died in April 2013 from a glioblastoma brain tumor, an aggressive form of cancer; the five-year survival rate is just 10 percent. She was six months pregnant with their first child at the time.
Allyson and Brandon met in 2006 working at a summer camp outside of Seattle. He was 26 and she was 22. Three years later, six months after they moved in together, he was diagnosed with an orange-size tumor in his brain. “He was a life-of-the-party type of person. He had a very loud laugh and a very loud personality and gave these very big hugs and he hated more than anything being the guy with cancer,” she told me.
For four years they lived with his diagnosis. They continued to work and travel together and go running. Because of where the tumor was located in his head, there was little evidence of the disease and the fact that he had undergone three brain surgeries. In that time they were married and became pregnant, and although they chose to remain skeptical about his terminal diagnosis, they understood that their future together would be short.
“Brandon had this tumor before we got married, so we kind of always knew that it wasn’t forever,” she told me. “I never felt cheated out of time with him because it was just so much a part of our reality that his life would not be that long.”
This was a stark difference to my reality and to most of the other widows I had met in the recent weeks as I traveled to work on my portrait series about young widowhood.
She was one of the first women I met who was fully living her next chapter. She shares a new home with a partner who has become a father for her 4-year-old son (when I met her, she had just come from opening a joint bank account with him). I watched her, confident in her new self and felt reaffirmed in my understanding that one can hold deep sadness alongside joy, love and contentment.
Hoping to gain some insight into what might be part of my future, I asked how her grief has changed over the years. “For me it became a much less self-involved sadness. Year one and two felt very much about me. Year three was starting to feel more about, oh yeah, it’s also really sad for him that he died and he is missing out on all of this. In the beginning it is hard to get outside of yourself.”
Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and other significant days have a habit of bringing grief back in full force. Common symptoms include anxiety, anger, flowing tears and depression. Fatigue is normal as are increased feelings of guilt, pain and sadness. Some have trouble sleeping and others may experience an inability to do anything but sleep. It is a startling sensation, to go so suddenly from being ‘okay’ to being unable to engage with the world around you.
Currently, I am in the middle of a series of anniversaries. August, September and October will forever be loaded with the joyous memories of our wedding, Sergiusz’s immigration to America and the day that we gathered with our closest friends and family on a farm in Denmark to celebrate our union. In between these anniversaries is the day he died. This year is full of firsts. I am still able to sit back and think ‘a year ago today…’ In the future, it won’t be so easy. As time passes and the world turns, other life events will happen – celebrations and losses will come and go.
A big symptom I have personally been facing is the return of disbelief. A number of times a day, in the most random of moments, I am punched in the gut with reality. ‘Oh yeah, he is dead,’ I will think while tying my shoes or pouring my morning cup of coffee.
Carrie, a new friend and fellow young widow, lost her partner, Adam, to tuberculosis a week after Sergiusz died.
“I am two weeks away from the first anniversary of his death, his “deathaversary” as some in the grief world call it. The problem is, there is no manual that tells each person what it’s going to be like or what the ideal thing is for someone to do after their person passes away,” Carrie wrote to me as we compared thoughts about our looming dates. “Two of my closest friends have planned a beach vacation with me for that week. If I have learned one thing through this journey, it is that you cannot run from these anniversaries. You can try, but they will still be there. I am learning that finding a way to build added space within myself on these days and allowing the feelings a place to come in is a much better way for me to celebrate the person that deserves celebrating. Adam deserves every bit of space I have for him.”
As I find solace in my friends who are on the same grief timeline as I am, I am always thinking of the wisdom Allyson shared with me as we looked out over Salt Lake City at the peak of our hike.
“In year one, I was still in this place where I would tell anybody who would listen that my husband died while I was pregnant. In year two, I became more comfortable in my singleness and my single-motherhood and being alone. And then years three and four are finally like, this is what it is going to be now. I am always going to be sad. I am never going to all the way recover from this.”
There is something comforting in knowing that I will always hold this sadness, as I can’t imagine a birthday or an anniversary or a ‘deathaversary’ coming and going without making the space to feel everything love, life and loss provides.
This is an ongoing project. If you or someone you know would like to participate, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.