The hidden complexities of life after losing a spouse
Believe me, every heart has its secret sorrows, which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hyperion
The sun streamed through the skylight above, hitting my face as I looked up, eyes closed in frustration, and let out a deep sigh. “Silver Bells” echoed through the air, competing with the din of the crowd, as gold-tinseled trees shimmered in my peripheral vision. Shadows scurried past, preoccupied with the last-minute shopping rush before Christmas. I looked down to see my elder daughter chasing after one of the red-green pears still tumbling away from the Harry & David gift boxes lying half-open on the ground. They lay among the tattered plastic bags that never stood a chance holding 30 pounds of fruit, despite the store clerk’s misplaced reassurances. My daughter picked up the pear and broke into a big grin as she cupped it in her hand, showing it off to her younger sister.
From afar, the scene must have seemed almost comical, like that bit in Home Alone when Kevin is walking home and his grocery bags break, their contents spilling onto the sidewalk.
I could feel my brow furrow, my mind racing to figure out how I would manage to get myself, two young children (one in a stroller), and the half dozen large gift boxes to the parking garage half a mile away. Some onlookers glanced over sympathetically, with expressions that seemed to say they were unsure how to help or whether they even could. It was a familiar feeling, the same one I experienced frequently after Linda died. By the time we made it to our car, I collapsed into the driver’s seat, drenched in sweat, my arms limp with exhaustion. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard; 10:34 a.m. - there was still the whole day to get through.
A few days later, I cheerfully presented those hard-earned gifts to their recipients. All they saw was the meticulously wrapped paper covered with snowmen and reindeer, the gleaming ribbons, and the perfectly placed bows; there was no indication of the exertion that had been required to procure them. No one could see what was not apparent beyond the superficial.
And so it has similarly been with the many complexities of my life since Linda passed.
There has been the grief, of course - that solitary emotional struggle with pain that ebbs and flows, pain which early on felt like it could swallow you alive and now resides compacted inside your heart, occasionally breaking free. There are the moments alone, while putting away the dishes or driving past a familiar place, when you feel as if your world is as fragile as a giant soap bubble about to burst.
There has been the parenting - that endlessly demanding yet indescribably rewarding experience of loving and raising two young children as both dad and mom. There is the mental load of solely bearing all decisions, both large and small, for three lives, without someone else to cover on a sick day, let alone share that burden. There are instances, like when both kids are awake, crying, at 3:00 a.m because one wet the bed and the other one vomited (thankfully this has only happened to me once), that make you realize how much easier it would all be with someone else. Or the time when your daughter accidentally bumps her head and you have to rush to the emergency room with a toddler and an infant in tow, dinner left half-eaten on the table, getting cold, and you question why you ended up as a village of one.
There has been the responsibility of supporting a child with development challenges - that experience of researching her condition (cerebral palsy); coordinating with over a dozen medical specialists; navigating a myriad of services, two state programs for early intervention and therapy, and home exercise routines; and most importantly learning how to be an advocate for her. There is the emotional roller coaster that comes with the uncertainty of both progress and setbacks. In the dark of night, you lay awake restless in bed, contemplating what it all means and worrying for your child’s future.
There has been the practical - that process of settling affairs, closing bank accounts, reviewing medical records, filling out the “paperwork of death.” There has been a court case (probate) lasting a year and a half to handle and a home to sell; there have been nights spent poring over legal documents and contractor estimates for renovations, long after the kids went to bed. Your marital status is now “widowed,” and you cannot help but notice the ties that once existed, that bound you to another person, are being severed one by one.
There has been work - that job which provided some degree of normalcy after everything changed. There have been both leadership and product transitions to manage through, each significant, in addition to the already daily stresses of running a startup that are par for the course. There are the long nights you toil online, all the while wondering whether it ever gets any easier.
There has been the weariness - more than two years of interrupted sleep and early wake-up times, the countless chores and tasks needed to keep a household humming, the medical appointments throughout each week, juggling two drop-offs and two pick-ups on weekdays, and pressing on through dreaded, marathon weekends. You stare at your kids and question whether, decades from now, they will come to appreciate the sacrifices you have made. You wonder what unknown toll life has taken.
By all measures, my family is thriving today. Most people who I come across in everyday life, at work or socially or in other contexts, in fact know not a thing of the hardships I have experienced; there is nothing to tip them off. Society might point to this as evidence that I am functioning well in a difficult life situation. But what generally remains lost on others are the quiet, invisible struggles one must face alone. When you have a fulfilling marriage, as I did, you have a spouse who comes alongside you and appreciates what the world does not. When that person is gone, it often feels as if no one can see you beyond the facade.