My husband, Troy, took his life on May 12th 2015. In the 800 and some odd days since, I’ve learned a lot about grieving, parenting and being kinder to myself along the way.
1) Self-care is non-negotiable.
The way I look at it, I’m the only captain of this ship now. If I go down, there’s no one left. This journey is brutal. Losing the person you were supposed to co-parent with, to love and guide your child into becoming an adult with, is awful. One income, one bank of sick leave, school events as the only parent. Knowing that if something happened to me, my daughter would be left parentless. That’s about as heavy as it gets.
I have to be constantly filling my tank so I can be there for her. If I let myself get depleted, I get cranky, easily frustrated and that leaves me unable to fulfill all the things I need to do. I will say it until I’m blue in the face, self-care isn’t selfish. Someday when my daughter is an adult, I can’t expect her to care for herself and put herself first, if I never show her how to do it. A significant part of my budget is devoted to things that are for me. Babysitters for exercise classes, massages to keep my stress/migraines in check. I take walks at work, and when I need a break or a minute to step away, I call one of those people who have said, “call anytime”. Because I’m worth it and because she deserves a healthy, happy mom.
2) It takes a village, no seriously.
I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to be loved in so many ways in the time since Troy’s death. Meals made, monetary help, helping me move, free babysitting and dance classes. Playdates where friends have offered to bring the dinner so we can just show up. Installing a dishwasher, putting a new roof on my house, hand me downs for my daughter. Both sets of grandparents have taken her overnight so I can go camping, be with friends, go on dates etc. All this helps me remember who I am as a person, not just a widowed mom.
Another huge part of my village are people who get it. A support group of others who’ve lost loved ones to suicide. An online support group of widows/widowers who get what it’s like to lose your spouse. A work environment where taking care of my mental health is supported. And therapy, seriously, do it.
3) Re-grieving is a thing
Here’s a great article, but to summarize, children will continue to grieve different parts of the loss as they develop and mature. My daughter was 16 months old when he died. She was mostly pre-verbal and so the extent of her grieving at that time was to look around the house and say “dada” with a confused look on her face. This continued until she turned two and I had to explain that daddy was never coming back.
Now, at 3.5, she understands that he died because his brain was sick and he didn’t go to the doctor. That death means your body stops working. That everyone dies at some point, most people do from getting really old. This has prompted questions like, “Are you going to die, mommy?” “am I going to die?” “why didn’t daddy go to the doctor?” “Why did my daddy die and (her friend)’s dad not die?”
These questions don’t just come up at home. They come up at the grocery store, in restaurants, at school events and they’re only going to continue to get more complex as she gets older and can understand more.
Finding a play therapist for Norah at 2 that we’ve continued to meet with several times a month has been a huge help for us. It helps me feel less alone and to ensure the answers and explanations I give are age appropriate. Then I take what I’ve learned and share it with her teachers, family members and friends so we can all make sure we’re consistent.
4) Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
I used to think if I just tried hard enough, I could do it all. Then Troy died and I realized how ridiculous and unnecessary that was. In any given day I have my own needs, Norah’s needs, whatever needs to be done at work and the house to take care of. And that excludes anything fun or pleasurable. There simply isn’t time to get it all done. I’m constantly on a budget with my time, energy and emotional resources. That means we eat quesadillas for dinner more than we should, the dishes pile up more than I’d like and my backyard landscaping style can be best described as “every man for himself.” But at the end of the day, if we’re both healthy, she feels loved and I can go to bed knowing I did the best I could, that’s enough. I’m doing enough. My worth is not tied to the cleanliness of my house or the number of tasks I accomplish in a day.
5) It is always going to suck, but it will get better
That terribleness never goes away. Someone told me early on that losing someone you love is like being handed a brick when they die. It’s heavy and awkward and you have to learn to carry it. We never get to let go of the brick but we get better at carrying it, and more accustomed to the extra weight. That’s where I’m at now. I’m carrying it and I wish more than anything I had never been given this brick, but it doesn’t feel as heavy as those first few weeks.