Three years ago tonight, Ralf and I shared our last meal in our home together. Spaghetti and meatballs from one of our favorite local Italian joints – Ferrari’s.
I remember it well.
I asked if he would be okay with this dish yet again – because it was a frequent craving throughout my pregnancy – and he agreed. We had it delivered and then we sat next to each other at our kitchen counter, like we so often did. Now when I look back at this moment, I specifically remember resting my head on his shoulder and releasing a sigh of enjoyment as I devoured that first meatball.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said, with a mouth full of pasta.
“What do you feel?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just feel off,” he explained.
“Yeah, you’ve been studying way too hard. You need a break.”
The promotional exam to become a lieutenant was just one week away. We were so close. He would be through with all the studying, his stress level would drop, and I’d have my husband back. We would finally be able to fully enjoy my pregnancy together. The maternity photo shoot was scheduled. He’d be able to join in on the baby shower planning and help me complete the registry – all of which I’d been doing without him because he was so preoccupied with preparing for his test. He would be building baby furniture and we’d be putting our son’s room together.
Just seven more days.
I went to sleep much earlier than he did because, of course, he had to hit the books. Being the extremely light sleeper that I am, I woke up when I felt him climbing into bed hours later.
“Where are you?” he said, as he reached for me to pull me close.
“I love you so much, Maeghan. You really have no idea.”
This was not part of our regular bedtime routine. Sure, he told me he loved me regularly, but this time it was different. His tone of voice was serious, as if he needed to make sure I heard those words that night. It was as if he knew it would be the last night we would share in our bed.
Seven days later, he missed the exam because he was hospitalized awaiting his biopsy.
Eleven days later, he was removed from life support after his tumor unexpectedly ruptured and crushed his brain stem.
Three years later, I love and miss him just the same.
Ralf died just two days before our scheduled maternity photo shoot. It ended up being the day of his funeral instead of the day we were going to have our first family portraits taken.
Those that know me well can tell you how much I love pictures. I always used to make elaborate collages of my favorite snapshots as a teenager, and still have more picture frames around my house than the average person. I think it’s amazing how a camera lens can capture a moment and freeze it in time forever. Since losing Ralf, my appreciation of the art has grown even more. Our wedding photos and video are so beyond cherished.
During my last two months of pregnancy, and then once Mason was born, it broke my heart to think that we would never have the type of family pictures I’d always wanted.
I hoped to find companionship again one day, but I never imagined finding a man who could love me so deeply, despite my brokenness.
A man who would take Mason into his heart without hesitation and love him the way I know Ralf would have.
A man who could make all of our future family photos whole again.
I never truly believed we could find that man…until we did.
This is OUR family picture.
The faces and participants are different from what both Vinnie and I originally envisioned, but the bond and love captured are exactly what we’d always hoped for.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but they could never adequately describe the value of this one.
You’d think that the worst part of becoming a widow is, well, the obvious: losing your husband. If and when you actually become one, though, you are forced to learn that the physical loss of the man you exchanged vows with is just the tip of the iceberg. All the really hard crap lies underneath the surface. I wish I could tell you that it can only get better from here, but I want you to hear the truth. I want to tell you the things that nobody told me on the day my husband died…
I posted this picture on Instagram last night. It was taken by a friend on the night we celebrated turning 21 (our birthdays are just five days apart). The picture gained a lot of likes and comments, one of them being “true happiness” – and it made me realize that there was more to this picture that I wanted to share.
First of all, if we look incredibly happy – one too many vodka cranberries may have had something to do with it. (I mean, 21st birthday celebrations usually involve alcohol, right?)
Secondly, while it was mostly an epic night, it ended with Ralf and I getting into one of the worst and dumbest fights of our entire relationship. (Yes, once again, vodka cranberry. If you asked me today what the fight was about, I couldn’t tell you.)
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. They simply do not exist. If that’s what you’ve been searching or waiting for, you will never find it. I promise you that.
We were truly happy – most of the time.
Then there were times that I wanted to wring his neck or that he wanted to throw me off of our second story balcony.
And now, I’m very happy in my relationship with Vinnie, but it isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. There are days when the very ugly parts of grief surface for each of us, and it takes a great deal of patience and understanding.
Don’t look for someone to love you perfectly. When you find someone who will love you despite your own ugly imperfections – that’s who you should hold on to.
The one who will still see your beauty and your worth even when they are buried under irrational, unwarranted anger brought on by too many vodka cranberries.
The one who will see past your irritability and depression caused by grief and wait for you on the other side with open arms.
And if you’re lucky enough to find that, remember that the length of your time together is impossible to predict.
So cherish it.
All of it – even the unpleasant moments. Because working through the hard stuff is when your relationship will have the potential to grow the most.
Fight and argue if you need to; air out your dirty laundry.
Then, remember that you must always fight for each other.
We never met while you were here on this Earth, but I feel very connected to you. You were the love of the man who now holds my heart. Like him, I have suffered the loss of a great love of my life.
I completely understand how he yearned for you, cried for you after you left – and how a part of him always will. I understand how even now he can be having a completely “normal” day and suddenly see your eyes in the face of a stranger or hear your laugh in the line of a song and be swallowed up in grief all over again. I understand how he may feel guilty at times because his mind occasionally has trouble justifying his right to be in love and feel happy again, even though his heart of hearts knows that happiness is what you would have wanted for him. I understand that while his soul overflows with pride and gratitude every time he gets to witness and share in another milestone with Mason and me, that there is an underlying, eternal ache for all the missed moments that he should have had with you and Anthony. A pain that is ever present but that he has learned to live with because he’s had to.
I understand that I will never be you, because, how could I be? You were the only you there could ever be. And from what I’ve been able to gather from stories, pictures, and my own imagination, you were special and beautiful both inside and out. I understand that he doesn’t need or want me to be you, either. His heart has grown despite his suffering and has made additional room for me, with your space completely intact forever. As it should be.
You were you and left too soon. It was completely out of your control.
I am me, and I’m still here. And while it’s impossible to know for how long, I hope to honor your legacy by giving him all the love you planned to. I know that I can, because it’s the same love that I envisioned giving to Ralf until old age. But like you, he had to leave sooner than anticipated.
We move forward into this unpredictable life, but you are and always will be a part of our story.
So will Anthony.
So will Ralf.
And what a crazy, tragically beautiful story it is.
It finally happened. I’d read about it in some widow groups that I’m a member of, but had never personally experienced it myself. I’ve even had the audacity to think to myself, “Wow, these women know some really insensitive people!” And now, I stand corrected…
I met Ralf just a few months before my 18th birthday. Even with as young as we were at the time, I knew very early on in our relationship that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. We instantly shared a very special connection that was apparent to our family and closest friends. Alike in so many ways, to the point that some friends would jokingly say we were the “same person” – just in male and female form. There were definitely differences, though. I was the passionate emotional one, he was patient and level-headed.
One of the biggest obstacles I faced after losing Ralf, was learning who I was without him. I’d been with him for so long; I’d transitioned into adulthood with him. The lines between his likes, his preferences, his dreams and mine now seemed blurred. So much of the person I’d become was because of what he and I had learned and accomplished together. Now I suddenly was forced to discover a new self . A self that would have to exist without Ralf’s presence in the physical form. A self that had no choice but to continue without him. A self that would have to experience initiation into parenthood alone, while simultaneously trying to rediscover my own identity as a newly widowed young woman.
It was hard, and oftentimes still is.
Just the other night at dinner, Vinnie and I were having a conversation about this. I was explaining to him that learning to be in a relationship with a man who isn’t Ralf has been challenging. Not because I’m comparing one man to another, because there is no comparison – they are two completely separate people. Not because I’m lacking any feelings for Vinnie, because I am very much in love with him. Not because of anything Vinnie has or hasn’t done, because he is nothing but patient and understanding of everything I go through. It’s been challenging because I’d only ever experienced a long-term, committed, adult relationship with one other person for nearly 11 years. Grief and life after loss look different for every individual. I imagine, though, that most people who have lost their spouses can relate on at least some level.
You think you’ll never be truly happy again.
You believe that life will never be enjoyed to the same extent it once was.
From my own experience, I’ve learned that it is possible to be truly and equally happy again – just in a different way.
Last weekend, I treated Vinnie to go see Incubus in concert for his birthday. We had such an incredible time together. I had several moments throughout the show where I felt immense gratitude for a great night with my new life partner. And yet, there were many thoughts and memories of Ralf, as Incubus was one of his favorite bands.
At the end of the show, the crowd cheered and the band reappeared on stage for an encore performance. The song they played is not very well-known or popular, and it was one of Ralf’s favorites. It was a regular on his playlist during our boating adventures. When I heard the intro, it brought a smile to my face and tugged at my heart all at once. The next morning, Vinnie and I were reminiscing about all the fun we’d had the night before. I’d already mentioned my memories of that final song to him. He said, “I can’t believe, of all songs, they chose that one for the encore. He is always with you.”
He is always with me. Ralf’s memory and spirit will forever be anchored in the depths of my heart.
And now, Vinnie is with me, too.
Reminding me daily just how much my heart is capable of expanding.
Showing me that it really is possible to love what was while cherishing what is – all the time, every day.
I am not, by any means, an expert on grief. I know that there are a lot of really knowledgeable mental health professionals out there who have years of education, research, and numerous publications on their list of credentials, who can provide you with all kinds of information and resources. I can only speak from my own personal experience. I can tell you what grief has looked like, and continues to look like for me.
In the beginning, my grief was very public. Looking back on this now, I think there were a few reasons for that. I initially started posting on Facebook and Instagram to update our family and friends on what was happening after Ralf had been admitted into the hospital. It just made it easier. He and I were both being flooded with phone calls, texts and emails that were nearly impossible to respond to, and I wanted to relieve whatever stress I could for him. I took to social media because obviously it was easier to reach everyone that way. Then somehow those factual status updates and requests for prayers evolved into something more. They became my therapy. I found that writing allowed me to express my feelings in a way that I wasn’t able to otherwise. When I saw the response that I received, I was completely blown away. I decided to start an actual blog and I could not believe that so many people wanted to read MY words, that they found comfort in what I had to say. Honesty, I still can’t believe it. I remember seeing that my blog posts had gotten tens of thousands of views – some even from people outside of the U.S.- and thinking, “Seriously?!” I NEVER imagined that I could have that kind of impact.
Then at some point, my grieving process changed. I no longer wanted the attention. I no longer wanted to be recognized at the grocery store or at the gym as “the poor young widow” who lost her husband at 28 years of age while pregnant with their first-born child. It became overwhelming. It had nothing to do with everyone else and everything to do with me. It was the same love and support that I had been receiving, even from complete strangers, from the beginning. But somewhere along the way, it became a repeated reminder of the life that I had lost. Of the life that I was supposed to have and that would never be. I remember several occasions where I had to paint a smile on my face and try my best to utter a sincere-sounding “thank you” when all I was thinking in my head was, “If one more person gives me their condolences, I am going to lose my damn mind!” I didn’t want condolences. I didn’t want any more monetary donations or gifts. I just wanted Ralf.
I continued to write a few more blog posts after I started feeling that way. After all, writing it out is my way of working through my feelings. Unfortunately, however, I allowed a couple of negative comments to affect me so much, that I decided to fall off the grid for a while. I realize now that I was too vulnerable at the time. My writing and my blogging originally stemmed from a need for support and understanding because I was experiencing something so excruciatingly painful and I felt alone. When I came across negativity, I was in too fragile of a state to realize I couldn’t let the opinion of a couple of complete strangers keep me from doing something that I love to do and that so many other people appreciate – to write.
My resolution for this new year is to make more time for the things that I love to do, and to make them matter – and continuing to write about my experiences and feelings as a widowed mother does both. If I can touch just one person who is hurting or going through something similar, then I have succeeded.
So much has changed over the last year. My beautiful boy continues to grow and amaze me every day. I have a new man in my life who adores us both, and who understands my struggles because he too experienced the loss of a spouse. I have a new job and home in a new town. Many wonderful and exciting things came out of 2016, but I will forever be in the process of healing. I’m okay with that, because it’s a testament to just how much I loved and will always love what is lost. This beautiful, crazy, unpredictable, and challenging life continues – and I want to make every minute count.
Since I deleted the old site (soaringthroughsorrow), I was unable to reactivate it. So, I had to come up with a new name. I was brainstorming all weekend and of course, all the names I thought of were unavailable. Last night as I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, I found myself singing “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts, as I so often do, and it came to me. This was the song that Ralf and I danced to on our wedding day. The first line says, “I set out on a narrow way many years ago, hoping that I’d find true love along the broken road.” Life is a very broken, twisted, winding road full of great times and hard times. But if you are blessed enough to find true love along the way, it’s all worth it.
Happy New Year to everyone reading this! I hope you find what you’re looking for along the broken road. Stay tuned…
Yesterday I went with my in-laws to design Ralf’s tombstone. It was completely surreal. I couldn’t believe we were having conversations about what granite color he would have liked, what cross he would have chosen. I couldn’t help but feel like the whole thing shouldn’t have been happening, like we shouldn’t have had to be there. That I should have been at home with Ralf, watching him frustratedly yet ever so lovingly build our son’s crib, or bassinet, or Pack-n-Play. That Ralf should be around to complain about me stealing all his t-shirts because none of mine fit my humongous belly, or to ask “Again?!” when I get out of bed for the 18th time to pee in the middle of the night. We should be enjoying my last few weeks of pregnancy together, knowing that our married life will change soon, but that it will be worth it. Instead, the only person whose life has completely flipped upside down is mine. I’m still excited to meet our son, but I am honestly more terrified. Becoming a mom is scary enough to begin with, but the thought of having to learn to become a parent on my own without my partner is sometimes more than I can take. I went to bed with a very heavy heart.
So many people keep telling me to remember that everything happens for a reason- that this is all part of God’s mysterious yet perfect plan. I do believe that God has a plan, but my interpretation may be slightly different from how others see it. I don’t – actually, I CAN’T believe in a God that would cause my 28-year-old husband of less than 4 years to die unexpectedly from a vicious disease, all to teach me some valuable lesson about the fragility and brevity of life, or to make me a stronger person. Especially not while expecting our first child together. I refuse to believe in a God so cruel.
The God that I believe in is just as saddened and angry as I am about the unfairness of this entire situation. God did not cause this to happen. Just as God did not cause the recent earthquake in Nepal. These incidents were acts of nature, which has free will just as we human beings do. Does God know what’s going to happen before it happens? Yes. But it doesn’t mean he can stop these disasters or injustices from occurring. It’s difficult (perhaps impossible) for our human minds to comprehend.
The God that I believe in brought Ralf into my life early so that I would have more time to love him, because he knew that his life would unfortunately be cut short. The God that I believe in spared Ralf of the agony he would have endured had he not suffered that hemorrhage during his final days. Had it not been for the bleed, he would have had the biopsy done, would have been obsessing for weeks about the results which would ultimately be heartbreaking, and then subsequently have to await surgery and watch his body deteriorate while living with the knowledge that he would die soon. Instead, he lost consciousness and went peacefully and without pain, never even knowing he went into surgery. Most importantly, the God that I believe in blessed me with the little life growing inside of me so that I could continue to have a piece of Ralf here on this earth even after his passing.
A few weeks ago at mass, Father Bob Vallee said something that really struck me. He was talking about St. Thomas the Apostle, also known as Doubting Thomas, and he said that being a faithful follower of Christ does not mean one shouldn’t use his or her brain. A true Christian does not simply follow blindly – he knows what he believes and why he believes it.
So, yes, I do believe that “everything happens for a reason” but it’s important to understand that this philosophy is much more complicated and profound than it appears on the surface.