“Bye, Sweetie!” I yelled, racing down the stairs, already late for work.
“What?” He yelled back from our bedroom.
“I said, ‘Good-bye!’”
Less than four hours later, I was sitting in the ER, holding his hand, surprised that it was already cold. Someone came in and asked about arrangements.
“Money & King, I guess.” I turned to my in-laws to explain, “They’re the only funeral home I know of. They did the funeral I went to last week.” The funeral I went to immediately after my ultrasound appointment, where I saw an image of my second child for the first time. The only image my husband would ever see of this child.
I didn’t know what to think, or feel, or do. Usually, when I couldn’t figure something out, there was one person who could help me talk it out, look at the problem objectively, analyze the nuances, and decide a path forward. But I had just said good-bye to that person for the last time.
The day my husband died of a heart attack, only immediate family knew that I was pregnant.
Five days later, as I stood in the receiving line at the wake, I discovered that my pregnancy had become common knowledge. In fact, it was a popular distraction from all of the grief and death in the room.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” someone would say, immediately followed with, “So I hear you’re expecting—congratulations! When are you due?”
What do you say to that? I had just bought two burial plots the day before: one for my 27-year-old husband, and one for me or either of our two children, whoever got to it first.
Even if I could feel happy in this moment, what kind of wife would that make me? Celebrating new life seemed like nothing short of ignoring my husband’s death. But what kind of mother did that make me? To dwell in grief was to dismiss the joy of this new child.
There was no way to escape the guilt, and as I stared back at the strained smiles of the well-wishers, who were nervously waiting for a sign that it was okay to move on, I knew there was never going to be a way to escape the guilt.
“May 17,” I would answer. “Yes, I’m very excited.”
Shortly after the funeral, I officially entered the second trimester, and I gladly welcomed the unofficial second trimester boost of energy. Physically, I felt great, and I took advantage of the extra energy to keep myself too busy to even think about feeling sad or guilty.
During the week, I worked long days at the office, volunteering for more assignments with shorter deadlines. On cold weekend afternoons, I chased my rambunctious, 18-month-old daughter inside shopping malls, or I bundled her up so we could explore the piles of snow built up by the snow plow outside our suburban townhome. While she napped, I cooked and baked for whatever social event I was hosting that weekend—game night with my siblings, brunch for the widow support group, a children’s Valentine craft party for the neighborhood social committee.
I submitted my application for a PhD program, and I decorated and delivered a four-tier wedding cake for a family friend. I tried to work on my novel in verse, but writing involved reflecting on my thoughts and feelings, and I couldn’t have any of that.
I needed to be so tired by the end of the day that I could overlook the empty impression on the right side of my bed and just be grateful to close my eyes.
It worked pretty well, and I was proud of myself, until I faced the very large flaw in my plan: a few weeks into the third trimester, I was completely drained of all the energy that had made these distractions from my grief possible.
My abdominal muscles were separating, eliminating whatever core strength I had left to lift the 15 to 20 pounds of pregnancy weight sitting on my waist, let alone the 20-pound toddler who needed to be carried up and down three flights of stairs every day. I was forced to slow down, and I hated it.
Without my physical strength, I had to rely on emotional strength to get me through the day, and I didn’t know how—comforting me, calming me, convincing me that I was loved and everything would be okay had always been my husband’s job. The thought of doing it alone hurt too much, and I just wanted it to be over.
One of the problems with avoiding my feelings was that it made it harder to anticipate them. And if I could not prepare for how my grief might affect a situation, there was no way anyone else, even those closest to me, could prepare for it either.
Soon after I found out I was expecting a boy, I told my aunt that I wanted her to be my son’s godmother. Elated, she said she wanted to throw me a baby shower.
For weeks, I hesitated agreeing to the idea, and I warned her that I might not have the “emotional aptitude” to handle a shower when the time came.
Then, as my physical strength waned, the self-induced, paradoxical guilt that I first experienced at the wake hit again in full force.
Could I put aside my mourning widow routine for one Sunday afternoon to act excited about the birth of my child? But should I pretend to enjoy pastel cupcakes and smiling teddy bear giftwrap on a bright spring day less than six months after my husband, my partner, my best friend, and the father of this fatherless child was torn from my life?
Either way felt like an offense to someone I loved. But as other friends and family started to make noises about a baby shower, and because I couldn’t make up my mind anyway, I conceded.
My aunt sent out the invitations the same day she, and the rest of my immediate family, received invitations to my nephew’s first birthday party, and both events were scheduled for the same day and time.
I’m not sure how the next five days became as tense and dramatic as they did, but it mostly involved text messages and phone calls between people who wanted the best for me but couldn’t agree what that was.
Finally, when the most assertive of my sisters called me, and refused to take, “No, really, it’s fine, please go to the birthday party instead,” for an answer.
I told her, through sobs, the little I could articulate about my feelings: there was nothing anyone could do to make me feel better about my situation, but there actually were ways to make me feel worse, and stressing me out about family dynamics and party attendance was one of them.
After that call, a quick conversation with my mother, and an even quicker phone call to my aunt, the baby shower was officially postponed until after the baby was born.
During my first pregnancy, I discovered how often people, both strangers and acquaintances, use a woman’s pregnancy as a conversation starter. Then, it was mildly annoying, maybe even offensive at times. Now, it was heartbreaking.
Whether I was walking through the lobby of my office building, standing in the neighborhood playground, or sitting at Panera, people would stop me, congratulate me, and ask if I knew the sex yet or had any other children.
Once they heard I had a daughter and was expecting a son, nine times out of ten, the response was some version of, “Your husband must be thrilled,” “Then you’ll have the perfect family,” or my personal favorite, “So you’re done now, right?”
Sometimes, I decided to channel my emotional pain into making teaching lessons of these moments, responding, “Well, my husband is dead, so I don’t really know what the future holds.”
Usually, however, this backfired, with the shocked and guilty party demanding more details about my husband’s death or worse, trying to console me with, “Well, you’re young. You can get married again,” as if my greatest hardship was a temporary lack of a partner.
The one good thing to occasionally come out of these conversations was an intense anger. If the anger burned hot enough, it could distract me from my sadness, giving me some much-needed relief, if only for a moment.
I dreaded giving birth without my husband. He and I had been through so much together in the short six years we knew each other, in less than two years of marriage, it felt wrong to go through such a major life change—actually giving life to another human—without him by my side.
And if anything went wrong during the delivery, I doubted whether I had the strength to make the right decisions, endure the fear and pain, and stay hopeful without him there to guide me.
With every day that passed away and brought me closer to the due date, my fear grew stronger, my physical and emotional capabilities were weaker, and my will to keep living without my husband continued to fade.
Then, on a Saturday afternoon in early May, I took my daughter for a walk around the neighborhood, and she playfully ran away from me, sprinting toward a busy intersection.
I tried to run after her, but like a bad dream, she was too fast, and I was too slow, and all I could do was keep running and yelling to get her attention. She stopped right at the curb and turned to face me with a big, silly grin, daring me to chase her. I slowed down to a brisk walk, and as I had practiced every day for the past six months, I covered my panic and fear with a smile and a bright tone.
“Oh, you got me. Come with mommy.”
She hesitated, and just before I reached her, she turned to run away again. I lunged at her, grabbed her, perched her on my right hip, and used the rest of my strength to carry her home.
When she stopped squirming and kicking, she rested her left leg on top of my huge pregnant belly, oblivious to the fact that soon there would be three of us, unable to remember that there had been three of us, only a few months ago.
To her, it didn’t matter that she only had one parent. As far as she knew, that’s all she needed, and I knew my unborn son, who was kicking up against the pressure of his sister’s leg, would think so as well.
They believed that I was strong enough for them on my own, and I decided I would do whatever it took to prove them right.
The labor and delivery of my son turned out better than I could have possibly imagined. I was induced a day before my due date, and I was joined by a doula who heard about my circumstances from a friend and offered her (typically $900) services for free.
My doula and I chatted about cake decorating, reality TV shows, and memories of my husband, like how I threw ice chips at him when I was laboring with my daughter and he made fun of my breathing technique.
When I felt a contraction, my doula stopped talking, and I breathed through it. Several times she remarked how peaceful I looked, and a nurse commented that I was made to have babies.
“I wanted to have lots of children,” I said, and the loss in my words hurt more than the searing pain of the contractions, but I breathed that out, too.
I labored for four hours, pushed for a matter of minutes, and after what felt like the hardest and longest journey of my life, my little passenger was crying out loud and placed in my arms. All I kept thinking was, “We made it."
After two surprisingly peaceful days in the hospital, I came home, and it was like coming home the week after my husband died—the grief was smothering me all over again.
I’d wake up for the 3 a.m. feeding, and I wanted to see my husband sitting on the edge of our bed, playing a first-person shooter game, trying desperately to stay awake in case the baby stopped breathing, even though I kept yelling at him to turn the game off and go to sleep because I was going to need his help in the morning.
Instead, the only light in the room came from the red numbers of my alarm clock, and the only sound was the stirring of the new infant in the cradle beside me. My husband’s absence from the moment, from so many moments, was a sharp, cold pain.
But now, it was a pain that I recognized, and I knew what I needed to do to survive it. I needed to stop thinking of myself as alone—too many people had shown me enough love and support to prove that although I was no longer “coupled,” I was anything but alone.
I needed to let myself cry, and I knew how to time it so my kids wouldn’t have to watch. I needed to ask for help and accept it. I needed to reconcile that good memories are worth the tears they might bring.
I needed to believe that I was stronger than I’d ever been or ever hoped to be, and it was only through pain like this, that I could learn just how strong I really am.