The new year changes everything, right? Resolutions are made and expectations are garnished with a rejuvenating spirit. Hope walks you into the unknown. It is a time to restart, to recalibrate, to move forward.
But, what is a new year after loss, when time has merely become a series of emotional benchmarks? When holiday cards blur with condolence cards and the seasonal music is always given a bridge of “I am so sorry for your loss.”
For me, time stopped when my husband’s heart stopped. And since then, I have struggled to figure out which days are landmines and which are a space where I can find comfort and a new version of happy.
The first of everything was directed by heavy anxiety. For so many months I was numb.
My birthday, last January, was spent in a silent space with a glass of whiskey, neat, next to me. That was 4 months after he was gone. By the time his birthday rolled around, which was in June, I had more energy and spent the evening enjoying dinner with my mom in San Francisco. More months passed and by the end of summer, I was staring down the barrel of a series of loaded dates. I kept repeating to myself, “if I can just get through these months, I will be okay. I just need to make it through this first year.”
I have heard my fellow widows repeat to me over and over that year two is the hardest. By year two, I was told, people think you are okay. Friends and family who have provided patience and caregiving will see you stepping out into life and assume they can let go of your hand and have you walk through the world on your own. I believed them and I could feel the onset of such a reality, but I was so focused on getting through year one, that I chose to not spend time worrying about what was ahead.
Now, three months into year two, I am consumed by this notion of a new year.
2017 was and will remain the first year that my husband was not in the portrait of my life. He was not here to be a part of my stories or to witness my wanderings. I celebrated success and felt suffocated by sadness and I did it on my own, without him.
In year two, the fog lifts and the realities of loss take on a role of permanence. If year one is survival, year two is just existing.
Despite feeling like my grief is sometimes forgotten, I don’t want to be back to year one. I don’t want to be the center of attention and have every conversation focused on my heartbreak or “how I am.” I don’t want to always be thinking about the life I was robbed of, but rather be focused on forming the life I have been gifted. I want to be the friend I have always been, the lover I once was, and to once again dance with a joy that makes my body feel light.
On occasion I get glimpses of that girl, the one who was more naive, who found complications in the simple things rather than the calm in the complicated. I know she still exists and I look forward to welcoming her back into my life. But, it is going to take time. Year two doesn’t all of a sudden make grief go away just like a smile or laughter doesn’t mean our hearts are healed. We never shed our past and anyone who has worked through a close loss knows that grieving is not a process that will ever be finished.
For both those in grief and those walking through the dark with someone they love, it can come as a shock that year two can hold as much emotional intensity as year one. In hopes of breaking open this conversation and providing some insight, here are some reflections about year two from fellow widows who have taken part in my Welcome to Widowhood project.
Alaina James, Oregon | Widowed at 34
“The most difficult thing for me in my second year was the judgment.
‘Why did you remarry so soon?’
‘It’s been long enough, why are you still grieving this much?’
‘You don’t grieve enough. It’s only been, like, a year and some change…’
‘Why do you still post things on his Facebook? He’s been gone almost two years.’
It’s that grey area for most people who don’t understand. They want me to be happy enough to move forward or they think I’m too happy and shouldn’t be handling life so well.”
Maureen Cradick, Illinois | Widowed at 35
“Year two closed this weekend. December 9th. I have 3 small children, a full time job and have experienced some painful secondary losses this year. When a widowed friend explained to me that the first year “you are numb, the second year is harder” I thought that could not possibly apply to me and was hopeful that all the mental and emotional pain would somehow subside miraculously at year two. It was shocking to finally understand that statement and realize how true it was. It is terrible and tragic to lose people YOU love. We lose family and friends throughout our life….but to lose THE person that LOVES YOU is where I was hit this year. He loved me and I did not appropriately anticipate what this loneliness would feel like. It is suffocating. I have met so many wonderful also widowed friends this year and those friendships have helped work through all of the painful experiences of this most difficult year. The second year brought me into a new harsh reality and further from a time when he existed. When his physical presence was further and further away, it became more challenging for sure. Still very much is.”
Allison Beebe, Arizona | Lost her Partner at 21
“The second anniversary was back in August, and it’s been almost 4 months exactly since then. I didn’t usually expect people to check in, but i wanted them to. Which meant that on top of feeling my grief, I felt guilty and selfish for wanting people to consider me. Now, almost midway through year 3, I definitely haven’t had anyone ask how I’m doing with everything since before Thanksgiving. It’s just the way it works.
As a result I’ve kind of learned to push my feelings down so no one *has to* ask me. Year two was a lot of me making myself & my feelings smaller for the comfort of others, but honestly I’m still really struggling.”
Fay McCormick, Minnesota | Widowed at 30
“In year 1 I was in shock, just trying to navigate this new life, figuring out how to do things as a “single” person. The pain was acute and was triggered often by a myriad of things, both expected and unexpected. Year 2 feels like a chronic pain I know I will live with for the rest of my life. The triggers are deeper and the pain is more intense in the moment, often lasting longer too.”
Jenny Stults, Oregon | Widowed at 34
“Year one was utter survival. Just keep breathing, just keep moving. I have no recollection of it at all. I too thought if I could just make it through year one I would be all better. Done grieving. Ha, we all know that didn’t work. Year two was sucky in a different way because you were expected to feel better, you were expected to move on. I even expected it of myself and it just wasn’t happening. I think trying to actually live and not just survive is what makes year two harder. Try as I might, and I tried damn hard, I still couldn’t function wholly in year two. In many ways it felt like year two was just a really really long year one. Year three Is better, but not better. We still miss him with everything that we are, but I think we are learning how to live and miss him at the same time, which in a way is also crushing.”
Erica Morin, Massachusetts | Widowed at 32
“Especially because of what happened to my husband was so public, a lot of people knew. Community members knew. They brought meals. Everyone knew – my work. Greg’s work. He was also an attorney. And so people sent all kinds of stuff. I think part of the isolation is that you get so much support and then it is just gone. And it is not like I had all of that in my life before, but it just feels like suddenly you have this upswell of people who are trying their best and then they don’t reach out anymore even just to say, “hey, how are you?”
Renee Paseka, Illinois | Widowed at 41
“I think you are just so in shock for a year. And, so many years ago I would think that is crazy to say because I watched it all happen. I saw my husband got sick and I was there for every second of it, but yet, it didn’t really sink in. And so many people are surrounding you that first year and expecting you to have a hard time so they are there. But it has been year two and people disappear. And, they don’t know what to say anymore because they think you should be okay and then you are left with now what? I really thought I had my life kind of figured out.”
Even with the foresight that my interviews with fellow widows have provided, year two has taken me by surprise. I expected myself to feel better or perhaps I just desired it so badly that anything short of normal feels awful. In a recent story for WBUR’s Kind World, I shared that the night after Sergiusz died, I woke up in my parent’s basement to see the sun illuminate the leaves of the trees; it was a beautiful fall day. I played with this light, moving my head the slightest bit to change the direction of the rays. It was my first lesson in grief — the tiniest shift in position can change your perspective. Time is perspective and the death of my husband feels very different in this year than the last. It is more real. It is visceral. It is permanent.
Learn more about the project on Cerrotti’s Website: Welcome To Widowhood and by following @rachaelcerrotti (#welcometowidowhood / #nowawidowstillawife) on Instagram.
Read Cerrotti’s first Welcome to Widowhood essay here.