Life Lessons of a Young Cancer Widow


Cancer robbed our family of more time with my husband. In the years since his death, this is what I’ve learned on grieving, life, dating and the fear of letting go.

There are moments in life that will stop you in your tracks. The kind of moments where you can’t breathe or move. For some that moment could be the birth of a child and for others it could be that moment when a man and woman lock eyes as they are about to become husband and wife.

For others, this life moment will affect you in ways you never saw coming. In this moment literally everything will move in slow motion and time will stand still because cancer chose my family.

Imagine for one moment being in a hospital where people are talking, doctors are yelling and you are being asked so many questions that your head is spinning, but in your world at that moment, everyone around you sounds like that teacher from the Charlie Brown movie, completely muffled and nothing is making sense. You know they are speaking to you, but with so much commotion going on, you are questioning what is unfolding right before your eyes.

The life you knew was about to be forever changed because your spouse has just died. Their pain and suffering are now over, but what about those of us who are left alone to pick up the pieces? Our real pain and suffering is about to begin. We have been abandoned. We are lost. We are angry. Broken.

As much as I wanted to emotionally unplug myself from the world and tried to shut people out, it was impossible. I was thrown into a new position and with that came a new title. I was now the sole provider for my family and a widow at the age of 42. This was an extremely scary position to be thrown into, and while I knew it was inevitable, I still could not fully wrap my head around it.

Cancer, why? Why would God, who was supposed to love us unconditionally, inflict pain and suffering on those we love?

Watching life leave a body is not for the faint hearted. It is downright scary, but scarier than that was the idea of having to move forward while my heart was breaking not just for myself, but more so for the three little boys who were trying to wrap their little heads around the fact that their father would not be coming home. I wanted answers.

When I reflect on these last five years, I realized God never directly answered my questions, but instead sent people and circumstances to heal my heart. From the dragonflies that swarm me during the summer months to one of my boys doing or saying something so eerily familiar (just like their father would have) it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The five-year anniversary of Scott’s death over this past summer was a tough one, not just for me, but the boys as well. I felt tempted to lay in bed most of that day, but soon realized how ridiculous that was. Three insanely crazy boys would not allow me to do that. Instead, we chose to celebrate Scott’s life and fully embraced the day simply by living.

On Grieving

There is no right or wrong when it comes to grief. Everyone deals with grief in their own way. Some cry, some get angry, some laugh uncontrollable because the pain is simply too much while others completely shut the world out. Trying to find a silver lining and put on a brave face has been extremely difficult.

Initially after Scott died, I grieved privately mainly because every time I broke down the boys couldn’t handle it. The shower was my best friend. I could cry until I had nothing left and if my eyes were red when I got out, that little white lie of getting shampoo in my eyes while I was washing my hair always worked like a charm. There were no late-night calls to friends or that dreaded breakdown at the funeral. Don’t get me wrong, I lost my composure at certain points, but those bigger moments happened behind closed doors privately.

Grieving is like the biggest roller coaster ride you have ever been on. That phrase “It will get better, just give it time,” was a joke. I was angry and resented those around me who kept telling me it would be OK. OK? Nothing about this was OK.

While year one is pretty much a blur, year two is a doozie. I now had to face the harsh reality that he was never coming back. The “year of firsts” was over. No more funeral arrangements, no more dinners, no more dodging telephone calls from friends and family to “check in” to see if I was OK. The numbness of year one had worn off, year two was now a harsh reality.

On Life

You know that saying “live life to its fullest”? I would ponder that phrase late at night when I couldn’t sleep and at times I thought, “what a bunch of crap.” How are you supposed to live life to its fullest when your entire world has come crashing down all around you?

Before becoming a widow, the only other widows/widowers I ever met had been the older adults — my grandparents’ generation mostly.

I have since changed the way I see things. Little things that use to drive me nuts no longer influence me. Dishes in the sink? Wash them later. Burnt dinner? Order out. Dead battery? Call AAA. We all know that we can’t take life for granted because tomorrow is never promised to any of us. We are all here on borrowed time. I have worked and focused on striving to live the best possible life each day.

Every day I can spend time with my boys is just another reminder of how much Scott has missed. Cancer robbed us. Some days are easier than others and I would be lying if I said they are all fabulous. I don’t always see unicorns and rainbows, but I try to not let insignificant and mundane issues dictate how I live my life. After all, life shouldn’t be that serious, should it?

On Dating

This now brings me to the extremely interesting and daunting task of dating. Judge not! This is my journey and mine alone. This is not a journey that every widow/widower wants to take and ultimately it is up to us when or if we are going to take this next step and go down this road.

Three years, that’s how long it took for me to even think about putting myself back out there to meet someone new. I needed to make sure I was emotionally and mentally prepared for the possibility of welcoming someone new into my life.

The dating scene is so insanely different than it was 30 years ago. Dating apps? I couldn’t really wrap my head around this concept. Why couldn’t I just go out and meet someone like I had done years ago? Because dating is like a job interview and these dating apps make it just that.

At the beginning, I was completely confused. A lot of it was false advertisement if I am being honest. Men portraying themselves as these amazing individuals on paper and then upon meeting it was clear they were looking for one thing and one thing only. Sorry boys, not this woman. I say boys because a good nine times out of 10, that is exactly what I was dealing with: men who acted like children. I already have three young boys at home, and I certainly was not looking to take on anymore.

The date where I was told that I would never be able to find someone because I came with too much “baggage” might have been my all-time favorite. My children were baggage? What was happening in this world? Don’t get me wrong it was not all bad and I did meet some amazing individuals so please don’t be frighted by what I am saying. Putting yourself back out into the dating world can be downright scary, and you may find yourself even feeling guilty. This will come in waves, but do not let guilt cloud your judgment for be able to love and be loved again.

The Fear of Letting Go

Let me be completely blunt, I hate this phrase. “Letting go” means you are starting to forget the life you had before. Coming from a widow, I am here to tell you that you never ever forget. Our memories are like a rolodex. These moments are filed away until something triggers us to go back into that rolodex, pull out the card and make us remember. We never forget, even when we wish we could.

We as humans are capable of some amazing things, like resilience and adaptability. As time passes, our brains learn to manage emotional pain and slowly but surely, we get a little more control of our memory. As we get further from our loss, the pain starts to ease up. What I have come to realize is that our loved ones are NOT disappearing as our pain diminishes, but rather we are learning to live with the memory of our loved one in a slightly different way. So, if you take anything away from reading this let it be the following: To let go, isn’t to forget, not to think about or ignore. It doesn’t leave feelings of anger, jealousy or regret. Letting go isn’t winning or losing. It isn’t about how you appear, or pride and it certainly is not obsessing or dwelling on the past.

Letting go isn’t blocking memories or thinking sad thoughts, and doesn’t leave emptiness, hurt or sadness. It isn’t giving in or giving up. Letting go is NOT about loss or defeat.

To truly let go is to cherish memories, overcome and move forward, but never moving on. It is having the courage to have an open mind and confidence in the future that awaits you on this new journey. It is accepting, learning and growing. It is having the courage to accept change, whether you are ready or not and having the strength to keep moving. It is about growing up and realizing that the heart really is the most potent remedy.

This post was written and submitted by Caroline Johnson. The article reflects the views of Caroline Johnson and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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