It took Shawn an entire day to die. I laid next to him as he came in and out of this world, holding my hand and squeezing it when he could.
Of course, it took him longer than a single day to die. He had been dying for weeks, and we knew for days that the end was very near. But he was always cognitively aware until the very last day of his life. That day, he was more out of this life than he was in it.
I knew that he was going to die that day, or sometime very soon. The doctors told me. The nurses told me. My father even acknowledged it, as did all the friends who stood vigil in the hospital waiting room. But it was still shocking to watch Shawn be slowly pulled from me. I laid next to him, filled with so much anxiety that I kept kicking the bed to try and release the emotion.
“I know this is real,” I kept saying to myself.
“Please make this not be real,” I kept pleading, anyway.
Three years later, this is what I am thinking about on the anniversary of his death. It is 10 am and I am alone in my house. Chris has taken the kids on a hike, so that I can have a bit of space. The sun is streaming into my kitchen and I’m drinking a cup of coffee that he made for me before he left. The kids were overjoyed that they were going back to their favorite hiking spot this morning, and I loved seeing them excitedly get on their coats as they left. Our “to-do” list on the wall reads “call orthodontist, email wedding venue, marinate chicken.”
Objectively, my life is better than I could have ever imagined.
And I am crying.
It started at 3 am. The anxiety made it so I just couldn’t get comfortable. Try as I might to ignore it, my body knows what day it is. My body remembers. Chris was up with me, trying to help. And he did help. I fell back asleep.
But I also cried in bed when I woke up for the day. And then again before our run. And then again in the bathroom before the kids left.
“It feels like you’re trying to fight something,” Chris said to me last night. “I’m not sure if I should be giving you any advice, but maybe this is something you don’t try and fight. Maybe you just let it wash over you.”
So that is what I did at 3 am and that is what I am doing now. It’s better, I guess, just to feel what I feel. But it is confusing. It’s confusing because I know that I am happy. I know that Chris is my person. I know that my kids are happy and that we are all safe.
And I still feel sad.
For years – years! – I have said that widows (and all who are grieving) can be “both happy and sad.” I bet I could find a dozen blog posts even in the first year of widowhood where I said something like that. I believe it. You can be happy and also still feel sad. We can hold both emotions.
And yet now that I am living a life where I am happy, where every day I wake up overwhelmed by the love I feel for Chris, I feel like I shouldn’t feel sad. This feeling is exactly what I’ve spoken out against for all these years. Widows should be able to still feel sad about the person they lost even when they find new happiness.
But in the spirit of widow-confession, I’ll say this: it’s still unsettling to me that I feel so sad today. It’s confusing to me that I’ve cried so many times this week. It’s strange to me that I still miss Shawn when I am in love with Chris.
My children were not openly sad throughout the morning, even though they had their moments when their emotions ran high. Tommy does not remember much about Shawn, which is heartbreaking for me, but easier on him. Austin seemed okay for much of the morning, which was what I was initially expecting. He was only six when Shawn died, and when I look at 6-year-old Tommy now, it’s shocking to me that I thought Austin would be old enough to really conceptualize the loss of his father. Instead, Austin exists in this in-between space where he can think little about his father’s death for much of the time, and yet each year he surprises me when the sadness overwhelms him. That happened as we watched the videos that Shawn made for the kids. When he’s sad for those short bursts each year, I’m always a bit taken aback. His grief is brief – but it’s there. To my amazement, he can let it come and go with some ease.
Claire does remember her father, and feels sad when she thinks about his death, but her worry today was more about me. “Are you okay, mama?” she asked me a number of times this week. Unlike her brothers, she didn’t complain at all about me skipping the hike this morning. She just watched my face as I made breakfast, smiling quickly whenever I turned towards her.
She seemed to understand, somehow, that things would still be sad for me on this day. She didn’t question why I needed time alone. She followed Chris’s lead, so when he said, “mom needs a few hours by herself,” she didn’t interrogate it. She might not know why I needed it, but she freely gave me the space.
I suppose that’s what I should be doing now – allowing myself space to feel sad without questioning it. Allowing myself to feel 3 am anxiety and 6 am tears. Allowing myself to think about Shawn and about our life without thinking it taints the life I’m leading now.
It’s still a struggle. As the kids and Chris were leaving this morning, I let the sadness wash over me a bit more. At that moment, Claire returned inside to get a mask. I was standing in the kitchen, and she came over to me. “Mama,” she said, hugging me, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” I said.
“Look how tall I am!” she said, standing back a bit. “Almost as tall as you!”
I laughed, because she’s still only eleven. But she’s so much bigger than she was three years ago. “Take care of your brothers,” I said, and she winked at me.
I watched her from the window. She ran up to Chris and her brothers, and they went to get in the truck. The kids jostled each other just a bit, playing around as they piled in it.
“They are happy,” I thought. “They are still so full of joy. I am so grateful to have them, and to have Chris.”
I watched them drive away. “I am happy,” I thought.
And then I was crying again. Because I also still feel sad.