Fighting cancer is truly a team effort. But what happens when the caregiver of the team is no longer the caregiver? What happens when your loved one passes away, and you have to find your new normal?
This is what I’ve struggled to figure out since my husband, Dave, died one year ago on June 30, 2014.
Saying goodbye to Dave and my role as his caregiver
For eight years, Dave fought hemangiopericytoma, a type of brain tumor, in the most relentless, selfless journey I’ve ever witnessed. I was his full-time caregiver while continuing to teach high school science, run our family’s brain tumor foundation and care for our beautiful, blue-eyed baby boy.
After sleepless nights researching brain tumors and clinical trials that might provide relief, I began to listen when Dave said, “You’ll be OK.”
Still, I wasn’t quite sure how I would find meaning in my life again.
I unconsciously prepared for Dave’s death for months. When it came, it was peaceful, his last goodbye going to our son.
Finding a new normal for me and my son
After Dave died, I knew it was time for me to wake up to the young boy who lost his father. My husband needed me to be both mommy and daddy to our son. Preston needed me to be not just his superwoman, but his superman, too. I had to find a new normal for both of us.
If I wanted to make Dave’s life meaningful, I had to find meaning in my own life again. I had to start by putting my selfishness aside. I was not the only one who lost Dave. A son lost his daddy. A mother lost her son. A brother lost a brother. Friends lost a friend.
I also had to learn how to make our past part of our future. I could go away for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, or I could choose to celebrate their memory.
Since our son would only have memories of his daddy, I knew I had to nourish those memories for him. A friend told me, “Your son has the greatest daddy in the world. He can make him anything he wants him to be; whereas, we, as parents, spend our parenthood trying to prove to our children we are good people.”
Still, I knew it was my job to make my son proud of his superman daddy. It was up to me to make Dave vibrant -- only now in the form of memories. But first, I had to become superwoman again.
Looking back on my first year as a widow
Transitioning to this new normal has been a journey only other caregivers can understand.
Even my closest friends and family couldn’t relate. Many conversations – once easy and full of laughter -- quickly turned to awkward silence. Friends often avoided asking how things were, filling the space with an awkward “my heart breaks for you” or silence. It hurts them to see me trying to make the best of this world for my child without Dave.
I now know how important it is to stop and ask, “How are you?” when someone loses a loved one. Even if they get upset, you’re giving them what they need most. You’re letting them know you care and that they still matter in this world. You’re pulling them out of their grief and emptiness, if only for a few moments.
And often it is for only a few moments. Moving forward takes time.
Keeping my promise to Dave
This past year, I’ve learned that while it’s important to respect others’ thoughts and concerns, it’s most important to listen to myself. I know best what my son and I need.
After all, I am the one who had to pack the clothes and transition our home to embrace Dave’s memory, while blending those memories into a new beginning, just me and my son. I am the one who will bring our son to the grave to wish his daddy a happy birthday and happy Father’s Day. I am the one who’ll have to fake my pitching skills on the baseball field, amongst all the dads. I am the one who will remember our anniversary. I am the one who takes off my cape after bedtime prayers, only to put it back on before anyone notices.
I am the one who had to find my meaning again because I made a promise to Dave. Today, I take every new breath not just for me, but also for Dave.