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The Things I Learned From My Husband's Death

My husband died suddenly two months ago. It was so very cold that night and we had just gone to bed. I was snuggled safely beside him, my hand on his chest and his arm around me. Then his breathing changed. I could not wake him. I called to him, shook him, begged him, performed CPR, called 911. They were too late. I was too late. Was I too late? Or was it all beyond what I could do? His eyes were open the last time they let me see him. Then the police, who got there first, hustled me out, while the EMT's went to work.

I did not see him again until I was brought in to the room where they had worked on him after we got to the hospital. After the doctor who tried to bring him back came to tell me she could not. "He's gone. There was nothing I could do. I'm sorry." She said it in a cool, somber tone of voice. Practiced. She said it too many times before for it to touch her. Maybe. Maybe she went and rubbed her forehead and cursed her inability to perform a miracle. I don't know. All I know is that I did not see her again. They assigned a nurse to stay with me, to lead me through to him, to escort me and sit with me, I guess in case I completely fell apart. And I did. When I saw him so still under the white sheet pulled up to his shoulders. His eyes were closed. I'd never see his eyes looking at me again.

I sat in the chair and I held his hand and I told him I loved him more than anything else in the world. I told him I loved him and that I was scared. I cried into his still hand that could not close its fingers around mine. Then I sat silently with him, talking to him inside myself so no one would hear. But after several hours, around 3 AM, they told me I needed to go home and sleep. The nurse said I would have so much to do the next day, that day really, too much to do and I needed to let them "take care of him for you." The funeral home people were already there to take him. They needed the room.

Trying to save my husband from a sudden and catastrophic heart attack was my entrance into a class about human behavior that I know will never stop handing over lessons. My first was the harsh realization that I was now alone. My husband was dead. My love, my life, my breath, my joy, my happiness was in a place I could not go.

I got back home and curled up in a ball not wanting to acknowledge anything. I was utterly alone. There was no one close geographically to come rushing to me. I was afraid to cry after I left him. The pain was such that I was afraid I'd lose myself in my tears. Drown. It took my children, bless their hearts, until 8 PM the following night to get flights and finally come to me and hold me while I cried. I could finally cry, really cry because there were people there who loved me and who would watch over me while I allowed myself to fully feel the intensity of the heartbreak.

Lesson one: my husband was dead and there was no way of knowing what ramifications his death would bring to me beyond the acknowledgement that there was a pain I had never known now living inside me.

My second lesson came the next day. My husband's son and ex-wife demanded that I give them some of my husband's ashes. Now. They would arrange to meet me halfway. They were calling all the relatives on their side to come to the funeral. Let them know. Did I know he'd been in Scouting? Did I know he'd been in the military? I was stunned. I'd been with my husband for years. I had been to Scout meetings to help out. I had sewn on patches for him. I'd been on rock climbing trips with him and his scouts. And yes, I knew he'd been in the military. Yes, I knew he'd been a Marine, Force Recon. I had his medals and his bivy bag and his bush hat. I had comforted him through his nightmares. I'd stayed by his side during Memorial Day parades and when we went to put flags by gravestones. I knew my husband very well. We were a team. We were a perfect fit. We are soulmates.

Ashes on the day after his death. It takes two days for the death certificate to arrive. Massachusetts does not take them immediately and cremate them. There is a waiting period. The organ bank received him first. His last sacrifice for someone else. By the third day, his ex-wife was screaming at me, then my daughter, on the phone. If we were going to be "that way about it...." She did not hear the words, "He goes tomorrow to be cremated. We don't have any ashes yet." She hung up on us. Then her and my husband's son's last minute refusal to go to the funeral. She had the family go to her house to "hold their own private mourning service without his father's ashes." I had picked up the ashes at 5 PM the day before the funeral. And there was no way I was opening the box and dividing him up in the parking lotof the grocery store she wanted to meet at. I wanted him whole at the church.

Lesson two: people who have never been nice, will get worse.

At the funeral people from my husband's scout troop came up to ask me for things that belonged to my husband. His scout shirt. No way. It smells like him. His camping gear. Fine, take it. All his Eagle Scout cards given to him from the different things he'd worked on toward that goal. He'd become an Eagle Scout at fourteen. Those cards should stay in the family and not go to some kid who happened to think it was "way cool to have them since they're way old." I was blindsided left and right by people wanting things from me, wanting me to turn over things that belonged to him.

Lesson three: at every funeral there are vultures.

I moved to North Carolina to be near my daughter and closer to my son. I do not know anyone so I joined a widow's group at the Church. The sister is very kind. She has a big job. Bereavement is not an easy career. It is full of tears, anger, confusion, despair, and loneliness. People can be at their worst when they are grieving. The mission statement of the group is that the veteran widows assist their little sisters who have suffered a more recent loss. I was given a woman who was to call me regularly to see how I'm doing. Grief is deeply personal and can be such a painful experience that solitude is to be avoided when it gets too bad. I'm supposed to be able to call this woman when I'm having a bad day. She called me once to introduce herself, then a second time to tell me about her bad day and gain my advice. She has not returned my phone calls. I am alone more than the allowed time during, what Sister calls, the first four to six month of "deep grief." I have emailed Sister twice and called her three times in the last five weeks but she has not returned my calls or emails. I only want the name of a grief counselor.

Lesson four: not everyone who offers help, will. sometimes you really are in this alone.

My ex-husband has risen to the occasion. He has helped me financially when he doesn't have to. He has promised he will help me with my bills. He has sent me money to start my own business. I'm going back into my art full-time and putting my things in consignment shops since I am having a hard time finding a full-time job. We ended our marriage for reasons that I am not here to discuss. This is about death and grief. But the past is past and he has stepped up in a gracious and gentlemanly way, telling me I will not hit bottom. I can only be humbly grateful.

Lesson five: sometimes the people you've written off will step up and surprise you so do not burn bridges or keep old doors locked. Grief is devestating, demoralizing, exhausting. Anytime anyone is willing to share the burden, be grateful, gracious, and accept. There are precious few who will help you.

Sometimes I feel like saying, "It's fair weather today. Where are all my friends?" Some people will stand by you when the sun is shining and you're pleasant to be around. They aren't the people you call when you're drowning in sorrow. Unfortuately you do have to call them to find this out. Other times you will be laid out in shock at the ones who step up and say, "Let me take care of that for you." Try not to voice your surprise in too great a voice

This is by no means the only other lesson I've learned in these painful, devestating two months but it is important, I think. It is the introspective reconciliation to the life you lived with the person who died. I've been thinking about my husband. Was I a good enough wife? Did I say "I love you" often enough? Did he know he meant everything to me? Will I see him again? Oh, Lord, the thoughts run through my brain at the speed of light and I can no more answer one than another burns its way past. It's a cacophany of my own voice working through the pain I feel. There is one thing I do know and it is in response to one of my favorite quotes.

James Thurber said, "All human beings should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why."

I know what my husband was running from. He was running from being imperfect and from the nightmares of what he did while at war that he felt made him a monster. He was running to doing everything he could to protect his family and keep them safe. He was running to me because he knew how very much I love him. He knew, because I told him, "no one will love you more, better, or longer than I." He was running because he was a kind, wonderful man with a valiant heart. He sacrificed himself ten million times without a word of the pain, fear, or agony it cost him. His dreams while a POW were horrific but he always let me comfort him. He realized he wasn't alone anymore and that my love could heal him. By the end of his life, his nightmares were fewer and further apart. I like to think it was because he felt the strength of my passion for him, the pride and humility I felt when I spoke of his life in the Marines, and the nearness of me while he slept, knowing I was beside him to offer him any part of myself he needed to find his way back. He was running to our future and our life together.

He just ran out of time.

Lesson six: loving someone means being willing to take the risk of losing them to something as irrevocable as death. I do not regret one day that I had with my husband. Even knowing how he would die, how alone and devestated I would feel, I would do it all again in a heartbeat, just for the chance to be with him for the time we were allowed. I will offer one more quote; this one from the movie "City of Angels."

"I would rather have had one breath of (his) hair, one kiss of (his) mouth, one touch of (his) hand, than an eternity without it."

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