Almost three weeks ago I lost my fiancé very suddenly to a pulmonary embolism. He was 30 years old. I write that this is a widow’s blog because for all intents and purposes Jon and I were married. We lived together for almost all of our three years together. We shared finances. We didn’t make a single decision, no matter how big or small, without consulting one another. He was an equal partner in raising my three daughters from a previous marriage. Throughout the past couple of weeks I have struggled to find meaning in the meaningless. I’ve struggled to manage day to day without feeling like my whole world had just collapsed – which it very much did. I’ve read countless books on dealing with loss and I’ve consulted with others who have endured similar tragedy and I’ve come to one conclusion for myself: I need to help others who find themselves in this same lonely and terrifying place.
At first I thought I’d write a book – I’m a writer. I still want to do that. I found in all the books that I’ve read that nothing really seemed to capture what it is to lose someone so young. I’m a 30-year-old widow. Most books include survivor stories of widows who lost elderly spouses to illness or simply old age. Nothing seems to exist about what happened to me. And I know I can’t be alone. To share my story and possibly give comfort, or even just commorodorie, to another – to share my story and my own coping mechanisms and ideas seems the best therapy. Writing a book would take years. I couldn’t even begin to complete the book until my path also completed. And it’s a path that never ends. So, sharing my feelings as they happens seems the more appropriate response.
I want to first start by sharing my story.
Jon and I met while we were both at a crossroads in our lives. I had just gotten out of an emotionally abusive relationship and he out of one that was entirely unhealthy. We had met previously, but were both in those relationships. We instantly fell in love. He often joked that he came over one night and never left. It’s the truth. He spent that first night at my house and in the three years we shared, only spent the nights he was hospitalized for a congenital heart problem apart. On the night of July 21, 2013 we had just returned from a camping trip on an island with several friends. When we returned with our kayaks full of camping gear we went straight to my father’s house to unload. We kept the kayaks there. We went out for brunch with our friends. We floated in my dad’s pool. Our friends left, exhausted from the weekend excursion and Jon took me home. We both showered and then spent an intimate bit of time together before he left me to nap while he retrieved the rest of our camping gear and our dog from my dad’s house. When he returned, he woke me. I remember him being more passionate than usual and I soaked it in with open arms. We watched Archer, one of our favorite shows and finished an entire season. We then watched an episode of Dexter and ate crappy Stouffers Lasagne. Then we went to bed, both exhausted. Before we fell asleep it seemed like he did everthing with just a little more tenderness. I took not of it as we lie in our bed. He told me he loved me. And not just in a passing, it’s what we do sort of way. He emphasized it. And he repeated it. It was almost like he knew what was happening. I remember having a terrible thought, that something was going to happen and almost the exact scenario of what was coming only hours later played out in my head. I shook it from my thoughts as I drift off to sleep. I’m not one to believe in things like premonitions, but in hindsight it is eerily relevant.
That was around 11:30 on the 21st of July. At just before 2am on the 22nd I was awakened by the sound of Jon making a weird noise. At first I thought he was having a nightmare as it sounded like a frightened moan. As I came to, I nudged him to wake up and then I realized that the noise he was making wasn’t from a dream, it was a pained wheezing. I rubbed his chest and begged him to wake up. He did. I sprung up out of bed and practically darted toward the door. He stumbled as he got out of bed and made it only to the doorway of our bedroom. He bounced back and forth in the doorway as I grabbed my phone from the bedside to catch him. I almost broke my arm catching him as he fell. Still conscious, I asked him if I needed to call 911. He couldn’t speak, but made a pained plea, saying, uh-huh. Then he collapsed onto his back. He wasn’t breathing, I couldn’t feel a pulse. I dialed 911 frantically. I told the 911 operator he had collapsed and wasn’t conscious. I said, “I think he had a stroke or something.” I don’t know why I said that, it didn’t make any sense. Jon had a history of heart problems and just months before had been hospitalized for pulmonary emboli. The man on the phone had me do a stroke test and I don’t even remember all that entailed. But finally he told me to start doing chest compressions. He explained what to do which I vaguely remembered from a CPR course I had taken. One, two, three, four he counted with me over and over as I did compressions. The man assured me help was on the way. He urged me to count out loud. This went on for seven grueling minutes. During that time I heard a trickling. I reached down with one hand as I continued compressions with the other, fearful I might break a rib. Jon was urinating. I knew what that meant. Once the paramedics arrived, I reeled through the list of Jon’s medical history – apical cardio myopathy, an inverse T-wave, chronic hypertension, a recent hospitilazation for pulmonary emboli; he’s taking Metoprolol and Lostartin, he stopped taking Warfarin two weeks ago. To this day I am amazing I was able to recount it all so perfectly.
Once the paramedics took over, I put on clothes – both Jon and I had been completely naked. It pains me to admit that even though I knew he was dying on the floor of our laundry room I was embarrassed that we were both naked when all these men stormed into our home. I grabbed my phone again and immediately called Jon’s parents. The first call went to voicemail. I tried his mother. Voicemail again. His dad. Voicemail. It took four calls before they answered. I told them what had happened. The panic in my voice must have been palatable. His mom asked if I had given all of Jon’s medical history. I told her I had but said it again to put her at ease. I asked them how soon they could get here – we are in Florida, they live in Maryland. We got off the phone with the promise of an update and then I called our best friends. I asked them to come right away and explained through choked tears what was happening. After what seemed like an eternity, they were at my house and I was climbing into an ambulance with my beloved being told that it didn’t look good – we’re breathing for him and pumping his heart for him they told me. I called Jon’s parents again from the ambulance and relayed what I had just been told. His parents said they were packing their bags and headed to the airport and to call them as soon as I had an update.
Once we got to the hospital – not under lights and sirens which at the time seemed like a good thing, but now I realize they probably all knew he was gone – they unloaded him from the ambulance and wheeled him quickly into the ER. A nurse rolled a chair over for me to sit in in front of the door where they took him. Asystole. Asystole. Asystole. I kept hearing them say. One need only watch one hospital drama to know what that means. His heart was not beating. I sat there numb. I didn’t feel anything. Not fear. Not panic. Not sadness. Just nothing. At one point, one of the paramedics came out to talk to me. He told me that one of the best doctors in the county was working on my Jon and they were “doing the best they can.” It’s phrase I’ve come to learn means, “he’s dead.” A few minutes later the doctor came out. The fact that the doctor was not still in the room should have told me everything I needed to know. He told me that Jon’s heart was not responding, but that they would keep trying. He invited me to come in the room. I said no. I said no. I thought I’d get in the way. I thought I’d sob uncontrollable and be inclined to interfere. I thought it better to stay in the hall. Jon’s best shot was for me to not be there getting in the way. It’s a decision I have not, as of yet, regretted. A little while later the doctor came out again. The hall was silent for the first time in a half hour. He asked me about Jon’s medical history. How had he felt before bed? Was he complaining of anything? What could have triggered this? I answered all of his questions with careful precision, like it would somehow bring him back. Finally he said, “it’s been an hour. We’ve tried everything. I’m very sorry, but he’s passed.” I didn’t sob. I didn’t yell, “no” over and over as Hollywood would have you believe this sort of thing happens. I just simply shook my head and then my hands and then my whole body. I stood and told them I had friends in the waiting room and that I’d like to be with them. He showed me the way and when I emerged through those doors I just looked at my best friend, and Jon’s – they are a couple – and I shook my head. They both looked at me curiously, pleading with their eyes that they had no idea what I meant. Then what came out of my mouth was a pained and probably inaudible “he’s gone.” I fell to the floor shaking wildly. My friend wrapping her arms around me and trying to calm me. I don’t know what Jon’s friend was doing. Finally after a period of time I have no idea how to explain – it could have been seconds, minutes or even hours, I just don’t know – I stood and said, “ I have to call Jon’s parents.” I dialed their number with unsure hands. They answered from the airport, presumably both with their ears to the phone. I uttered the same words, in the same way, “he’s gone.” What I heard next will haunt me for the rest of my life. Jon’s mother wailed. His father just kept saying, “no.” I dropped the phone into my lap and Jon’s friend retrieved it. He spoke to them for a few seconds or a few minutes or a few millennia as I pulled myself together and then he gave the phone back to me. There was a sudden calm in his dad’s voice telling me that their flight would not be in until 10 in the morning. It was only 3.
The hospital staff had told me during all of the commotion that the nurses were going to clean Jon up and then I could go in and see him. This statement didn’t settle until after I spoke with Jon’s parents. Then I found myself asking, “do I even want to see him in such a way?” Only hours ago Jon had been paddling along in a kayak, happy as ever. Now he was laying cold and dead on a hospital gurney. Is that how I wanted to remember him. The registrar told me they weren’t ready, so I had time to think. By the time they came to get me I had decided that I needed to see him. I asked Jon’s friend to go with me. He was Jon’s lifelong friend and the only person in the world who meant as much to him as me and our girls. And I couldn’t do it alone. I grasped his arm as we walked down the hall to the room where Jon was. They took us in and Jon had been dressed in a hospital gown – I think. Maybe he was just covered in a blanket. I don’t remember. He still had a tube coming out of his mouth from the respirator. There was dried blood around his nostrils. Someone had neatly folded his arms across his belly. I sobbed. For the first time that night, I sobbed. I leaned into Jon’s friend not knowing what to do. Do I touch him? Do I kiss him. I contemplated for a moment before leaning over his body and clasping his hands through the rigid hospital blanket. He was already getting cold. His face had already lost most of its color, but he looked peaceful. A circular scab where he had cut himself shaving a couple days prior was still on his cheak – the stubble of the weekend still apparent. I leaned over and kissed his hands and wailed, “Oh, baby.” Not in the erotic way it had been previously uttered, but in a pained, questioning sort of way. I just kept saying, “I love you” over and over. And then I looked at his friend, who had tears welling in his eyes, and I said I need to leave. And we left.
I was told there was more information needed – insurance info, funeral home choice, etc. So we stayed for a while longer. Finally I told them the name of a nearby funeral home and that I didn’t have any of Jon’s insurance information because he had just started a new job. He had health insurance, but we hadn’t received the card yet. I had quit smoking about seven months or so ago and, sitting outside the ER, looked at my friends and said I wanted a cigarette. I didn’t have one. I was wearing a conglomeration of weird articles of clothing. A pair of my gray work pants. A button up shirt of Jon’s and Jon’s house shoes. They were the first things I could find without having to step over Jon’s body to get to my bedroom. Our friends had brought clothes and shoes for both Jon and I in a bag after I left in the ambulance. I changed out of Jon’s house shoes and into my flip flops and then they took me home. As we drove, the whole world seemed a blur. We got to our house and I opted to lie down in my daughter’s bed. She had a trundle for sleepovers which I pulled out for our friends and we all just lay there in silence until my dad showed up. Then we decided to clean. I needed something to do and in a matter of hours my home would be filled with do gooders coming to try to help. My friends cleaned while I wondered aimlessly in circles. Several times I attempted to “get some sleep” but always emerged thinking I needed to do something.
At around 8 that morning – both my mother and father had already arrived – a man from organ donation called. Jon was listed as an organ donor and I was listed as his emergency contact. The man on the phone apologized for calling so soon, but explained that there was only 24 hours to harvest organs and other body parts for donation and he had several questions that might be hard to answer. Sitting at my dining room table with our friends, my father, my mother and her boyfriend I had to go detail by detail into Jon’s medical history. I did. Without missing a beat. I knew everything. Every ailment. Every medication. The dosage of those medications. The people around me looked on in awe as I answered the questions. “How the hell can she do this right now,” they mused to one another. My mom’s boyfriend looked at my mom and even said, “wow, she’s smart.” I was later told I should revisit my education and become a cardiologist. The organ donor then told me all the ways Jon would help others. His eyes will give a new born the gift of sight. His bones will give accident victims the gift of mobility. More than 200 people will be helped because of my Jon. It gave me comfort.
At ten that morning I got a call from Jon’s parents – they wanted to see Jon. They asked me to meet them at the hospital. I got there before them and spoke to a nurse who explained that Jon was in a morgue and no one could see him. I was worried that Jon’s parents wouldn’t be happy. I sat in the lobby shaking violently. I was approached by a volunteer and asked to eat a piece of candy – she didn’t want me passing out. Finally after what seemed like forever Jon’s parents arrived with Jon’s Aunt and Uncle who are also his God parents. I met them in the parking lot and we embraced in what was the single most emotional hug I’ve ever experienced. They cried, but I wailed. I shook and I could barely stand. They helped me inside. Jon’s mom, who must have been wrecked with agony, immediately demanded that I be given something. She’s a nurse. The ER nurse came in and explained that it wasn’t a good time to see Jon and that they should wait until he was at the funeral home. He answered some questions and we were on our way.
On the drive back to my house I was catatonic. I responded only to say where to turn next. When we got home, my kids were there. They had been at their father’s house in South Carolina for the summer and he drove them through the night to be with me. I met them in a teary and emotional embrace. I apologized to them. I told them it was going to be ok. But in my heart nothing would ever be ok ever again. Then I laid down on the couch in what felt like a coma for the next several hours.
Later that day we had to meet with the director of the funeral home. His name is John. I did not like that that was his name so we called him John with an H. This is where the advice starts.
I decided I should dress myself. I put on a maxi dress Jon liked. But I covered it up with one of his button up dress shirts and tied it in a knot. I carried with me Jon’s kilt. He hiked the Appalachian Trail in it before we met and he wore it at home when we were just lounging around. He was wearing it when he proposed and plan to wear it at our wedding. One of the first things I told the funeral home director was that I wanted him to be wearing it at the funeral. My biggest fear at that point was whether or not I’d be able to have a say in the decisions about what happened to Jon from there. Since we weren’t married, I was not the legal next of kin. I feared that his parents would take the reins and that I would be an afterthought. Never have I been more wrong. They wanted to fly him home to Maryland to be buried and to have services there so that family could all be present. My immediate thought was, “how will I visit him?” But immediately I was consulted on every decision – will he be cremated? No. What casket would he like? Something simple and beautifully crafted. What will the obituary say? My name and the girls’ first. I wanted to put his wedding ring on his finger. OK.
My first set of advice to a newly widowed person is this – funerals are expensive. Jon had just gotten a new job. It paid well. But he had only been there a week before he passed so we didn’t have much money in the bank. I could not have afforded a proper funeral had it not been for his parents. Be prepared for that dollar amount to sting. It creeps into the thousands without you even realizing. Even with Jon having fairly well off parents, we still became award of cost and looked for ways to save a bit of money. If you are planning to send the body “back home” expect that number to climb even faster. But, the funeral home director is your friend. They take so much off your plate. They are prepared to handle everything. Let them. It’s what they do for a living and they are good at it. You are not. Take their advice.
Since we were having funeral services in Jon’s parents’ hometown, I was left to scramble something together in our home with the people we knew and loved. I quickly decided that a beach memorial was in order. I decided I wanted a service at a beach where you could see the island where Jon spent his last weekend. I didn’t let others help. I should have. Don’t be a martyr. Let your friends and family help you. It doesn’t mean you love them less. It means you are wise. I was not wise. I asked friends and family to print and frame certain pictures. I asked people to buy candle luminaries that float off into the sunset as a tribute. But that’s all I asked. I should have asked someone to be a master of ceremonies per say because that ended up being me. I kept it together to do it, but I ended up feeling like I must have looked like I didn’t care. I let friends and family organize an impromptu reception at our home. They bought beer and wine and brought food. I’m still enjoying leftover booze. But I should have let others start and end the ceremony. I didn’t and I took it on myself, a feat which I managed but wish I hadn’t.
In the end, about 100 people showed up – some of them had never even met Jon but had heard stories of his awesomeness. I am a radio host so many people felt compelled to attend just because they felt like they knew us. People spoke who had only met Jon once or twice. It was truly touching. Later that night, after everyone else had left, including Jon’s parents, our best friends were all that was left. We had a box of wine called “chillable red.” That was the wine that Jon would drink on camping trips. No one else would dare drink that wine. We poured a rather large glass, started a fire (Jon like fire) and we each took turns saying something about him. Then we each poured a bit of the wine into the fire. This was a personal tribute we shared between our closest friends and I highly recommend coming up with something personal for you. It made all of us feel closer to Jon and the stories we shared during it brought smiles to our grieving faces.
On Wednesday, two days after Jon passed, his family and I were able to go to the funeral home to see his body. I was terrified. Just two weeks prior to Jon’s death we had traveled to Maryland for Jon’s grandfather’s funeral. During the viewing, his grandfather looked nothing like himself and Jon and I had had a conversation about whether or not it was a good thing to see someone is such a state. I was of the mindset that it’s better to remember your loved one alive and well than dead in a box. I wasn’t particularly keen on seeing my Jon dead in a box. I was afraid it would look like someone else. But I was desperate to put that ring on his finger. It was my only chance. So I went. When we walked into the room where he was and I approached the casket, it was him. It looked like him. He even had the slightest smirk on his face. Jon was known for his smile. Surprising myself, I slid the wedding band over his stiff fingers and I cried. I said, “you can’t say I do now, but I can. I do baby.” And I held his hand, now wearing the wedding band he so looked forward to showing off and I kissed his head. And I’m so glad I did. It was the wedding we were robbed of. And his mother and father were able to see him and finally feel that losing their son was very much real and not, actually a dream.
Spilling your guts to random strangers
Later on that day we were set to leave Florida for Maryland. While in the airport with Jon’s parents and our three girls, I decided that I should grab some drinks and snacks for the trip so I ventured to one of the shops in the airport. I had no intention of speaking to random strangers about the pain I was feeling. But there was a woman in the store. She was trying to decide which drink to get and she looked at me and pointed to two different drinks and asked which one she should get. One of the drinks she pointed to was a Pomegranite tea – Jon’s favorite. I immediately told her the Pomegranite tea and without even thinking said, “that was my husband’s favorite, he just passed away two days ago.” I was almost embarrassed at the revalation to a complete stranger, but her response was priceless. She looked at me with a sense of understanding and compassion and said, I lost my husband a few months ago. We shared a very brief commorodity and then parted ways. A few moments later she came up behind me at the check out holding the pomegranate tea and said, “I hope it gets better for you, I’m sorry for your loss.” It was so profound and comforting I cried all the way back to our terminal. They say telling your story is a crucial part of recovery and I say, your body knows who to tell, listen to it.
Back in Maryland
The reunion among Jon’s family without Jon was quite the emotional feat. There were hugs and tears aplenty. None of them had ever seen me without Jon. I served as a reminder of what they had lost. But to me, seeing them was a reminder of not only what I had lost, but what I was about to. These people are my family. But would they be after the dust settles. My new fear became, how to I remain a part of this family when I had never officially become a part of it? One of Jon’s relatives told me, when I opened up about that fear, that I needed them now, but I might not always. And at the time I didn’t like that response. I still don’t really. I love Jon’s family and I want to be a part of them forever. But, there will come a time when I move on and then what? Do I expect them to still consider me daughter, or sister or niece or cousin when the day comes that I marry another. I’m 30. It’s going to happen. Maybe not anytime soon, but someday. And if we had been married, would it be any different? They’d all still look at me and assume that someday I’d move on and have a new life. It’s what you do. It’s what I know Jon would want. He doesn’t want me waiting alone for the rest of my life. Being with them makes me feel a part of him and I don’t want to lose that. My kids see his parents as grandparents. I don’t want them to lose that. But is it inevitable? I suppose to some extent it is, but for now, I’m unwilling to see it that way.
If you do a viewing, understand right away that it is going to suck. The second you see your loved one in a casket, the emotions are going to flow. But that’s not the worst part. You’ll pay your respects. Maybe you’ll just look and say a prayer. Maybe you’ll touch their hands. Maybe you’ll kiss their heads. I did all of the above. But then you are going to be subjected to an onslaught of hugs and well wishes and with each new hug you are going to cry. And then just when you think you are enjoying this massive amount of people around you telling heartwarming stories that actually make you smile, you are going to look at the slideshow playing of pictures and you are going to crumble to pieces again. But none of that is the worst part. Throughout the night you will find yourself increasingly more attached to that body in the casket – at least if you are anything like me. I told him stories. I told him about the typos in flower cards and even the prayer cards we had printed – “open you yes” instead of “open your eyes.” Maybe you’re going to love being able to kiss him and see him. At the end of the night when you have to leave, if you are anything like me, it’s going to hit you like a ton of bricks. You’re going to approach that casket and kiss his head and clasp his hands in yours and maybe share a private joke or two and then you’re going to know that it’s time to leave and tomorrow, he’s really going to be gone. Someone is going to close that casket and put him in the ground and you will never see him again and suddenly this feeling of dread consumes you. You think it can’t get worse than this, but it can. Prepare yourself.
The funeral isn’t so bad. People tell awesome stories about your loved on. In the case of my Jon they were mostly stories about the Appalachian Trail and other monumentous advertures. You smile at these memories and thing it’s not so bad. You laugh at the anecdotes. You cry at the sad moments. You hold hands with those closes to you for comfort. But at the end of the funeral, it’s the end. And you have nothing left to cling to. At the end of Jon’s funeral I made sure to meet with the director to get Jon’s kilt and wedding ring back. Then I left the room. I waited outside behind the hearse and when they carried the casket out I wailed louder than I had since he died. I could barely stand. My twelve year old daughter practically carried me to the car. We then followed the hearse for an hour to the cemetery and I was in a trance every second.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more emotional, it does. So here’s how the internment works. You’re handed a rose. As is everyone else. Then you sit, or stand near the casket while a priest or whoever conducts a service. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Prepare to crumble. I had to be the first one to put my rose on Jon’s casket. I did it. And I kissed the casket and I said I love you. But then I sobbed uncontrollably.