This is what grief looks like when you become a widow at 22
At 20 years old, I married my high school sweetheart — the man I planned to grow old with. Yes, I was young, and yes, I was naive. There was so much I didn’t know about life, love, and marriage. But he was the one I wanted, I was the one he wanted, and there was no changing our minds.
At 22, I was a widow. This is the most devastating word in my vocabulary: widow. To me, there’s nothing so painful, so final and terrible as that word. I was alone.
C was my rock for years. We were together from the time I was 14, when I was a freshman in high school, until the night he died. No breaks, no “I need space.” We knew what was right for us. Even now, I can say without a doubt in my heart, that we’d still be together today, 14 years later, had he lived.
The next few years after he died took me on a path that I never expected. There were days I stared in the mirror, trying to remember who I was. Days when getting out of bed was beyond me. And, although I’m not proud of this, days I started drinking in the morning and continued all day long, just hoping I could pass back out and not think about it anymore, to not feel like my purpose in life was gone. I wanted not to feel anything.
Looking back on this time, I can see how deep in my grief I was. I lost contact with friends, the people I needed the most, because I couldn’t let them see the shell I was becoming. My family told me how well they thought I was doing, because I hid my pain and devastation. I knew they wouldn’t recognize who I was actually becoming, that they’d try to help, try to bring me back to who I was. But I didn’t want to be who I was without C.
I would lie in bed (sometimes all day long), and I would wonder what C would think about something that happened, or a news story that had come on. I would wonder where he was, and think about existential things like heaven and hell and limbo, and I would pray with everything in me to fall asleep and dream about him. But I never wanted to join him, and for that I’ll always be thankful and very grateful that I never became depressed to the point of wanting to hurt myself.
Grief didn’t follow a set path in my life. There wasn’t denial, and then anger, etcetera. I can’t remember going through these stages. I understood the moment I knew he was gone that he wouldn’t be coming back. What grief looked like in my life at that point was just an overwhelming need to disappear into the pain and the dark. I couldn’t tell you when I started to rejoin the world, when I started feeling like there was light at the end of the tunnel. One day, I just realized that I missed who I was. I missed the carefree girl I’d been with C. Grief had changed me at my core. I was different — a little colder, a little more cynical, a little harder. But I was a hell of a lot stronger.
It’s been 6 years since he died in his sleep while on leave from the army. He’d been in Iraq for nearly 6 months at the time, and had come home for our 8th anniversary. We spent a wonderful 10 days together, and one clue that I was coming back to myself was when I realized I could be grateful that he died at home, with me, after we had that time together. He could have died alone in Iraq. The plane that brought him home to me could’ve crashed. But instead, he came home and spent that time with me, and with his family, and he went peacefully in his sleep. I can be thankful for that.
Grief doesn’t look the same on everyone. And no matter what the experts say, I don’t believe it ever truly ends. I’ve moved on in my life. I have a boyfriend now, I’ve found my friends again. I make plans for the future — tentative plans that I understand could change at any moment, no matter how hard I try to cling to them. There are days, however, when I can’t remember how to keep going forward. Days that make being this person feel impossible. Those days are when I need people the most. I need people who knew me before, and that still know me know. They know that I’m different, but they love me anyway.
On others, grief looks entirely different. There are people who are much tougher than me, who have dealt with worse, who have turned their pain into something useful. There are people who go ten, fifteen, twenty years, always reaching for that person who’s gone, who stay in that place of overwhelming pain. There will never be a path we can plot on a map, because grief is one of the most powerful things that can touch our lives, and it changes us at the core of who we are. And no one processes it exactly the same.
I still miss C. I know I always will, and I know he will always be the love of my life. I am exceedingly grateful to have spent those 8 years being his. I also know that I can never build my life around a man again. I have a boyfriend that I love very much, who loves me and respects me for my past and what it’s made me. I also have friends, interests outside of my relationship, and a job, and I’m planning on heading back to school to finish what I started. I won’t let myself be left with nothing again, because I know life can change in an instant. It’s become vitally important for me to know that if I was suddenly alone, I wouldn’t be cut off at the knees. I would be devastated, I know that. But I can’t afford to lose myself again. I wouldn’t survive it.
That’s what grief looked like to me: a long, painful journey back to myself, without C. A journey I’ll be traveling the rest of my life. There are days I can look back and smile, and appreciate the bittersweet feelings that come when I think his name. There are days that his name is a weight on my chest, making it harder to breathe. I expect I’ll always experience both of these days. I am never sorry, though. In his life, and even in his death, he helped to make me who I was and who I am — and showed me who I wanted to be.
Chely Lamb lives in East Tennessee. She spends the majority of her time reading, trying out new recipes on her boyfriend and parents (and sometimes her dog), and binge watching Buffy and Friends.
(Image via Alessandro Gottardo.)