What is Strong?

I was talking to a friend of mine the other night. Her mother died about six months ago and she was saying how people have told her that she’s so strong but she gets tired of it. I can totally relate to that!

My own father died when I was nine years old. That was my first experience with death and grief. My grandmother died when I was sixteen years old. Another big loss. By the time Steve was killed, I had experienced several losses and, unfortunately, knew about grieving. I understood, way more than anyone else, the pain that my children were feeling because I had felt it too as a child. I am not sure if those early losses were God’s way of preparing me for Steve’s death or just an unfortunate coincidence in my life. In either case, I believe they helped me to move forward after Steve died. Since I already knew from personal experience that there was life after death, I could just put one foot in front of the other with the faith that I might feel better someday.

I am blessed with friends who have known me since before my father died, over 30 years ago. They have known me through all of the losses in my life. When Steve died, one of them told me that I would survive his death too because I was one of the strongest women he had ever known.

Strong. What exactly does that mean when your life is suddenly changed? What does it mean when you are abrupbtly widowed, motherless, fatherless? I certainly never felt strong and I do not feel it now. In the midst of grief, I would venture to say that no one thinks they’re strong when it feels like your heart is being ripped out of your body.

Even when you know that a death is coming, as with an illness, no one can prepare you for the grief that will follow when your loved one actually dies. My father died suddenly. My grandmother had cancer. By the time she died, we were so relieved that she wasn’t suffering anymore. But the grief felt the same. It was still a shock to lose her. It’s as if your mind cannot completely comprehend that your loved one is gone so your body hurts in a very real way. I felt physically ill. I couldn’t concentrate. I would become irritable for no reason. I cried often. It didn’t matter that I knew her death was coming, it still hurt when I could no longer hear my grandmother’s voice telling me that she loved me.

Losing my spouse was the biggest shock to my system and has caused some residual effects because of it. I had a therapist who likened my body’s reaction to Steve’s death as similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Certain smells (like those in a hospital) can trigger an anxiety that I never knew before he died. A day in the calendar (like his birthday) can render me completely useless as I stay curled up in bed crying and exhausted. On days like these, I don’t try to be strong. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other with the faith that the pain won’t last forever.

So what does strong mean to me? It means that I continue to take care of my children, no matter how bad I feel. I pray and have faith that the pain will get better. I reach out to others who support me while I’m grieving; people who don’t question WHY I’m still grieving but who understand that crying is not weakness. When someone calls me strong, all I can think is, “What choice did I have?” I guess I could have curled up and died after Steve did. I certainly wanted to do that! But, I had two young children who still needed to be fed, needed clean clothes, and needed their Mommy. I have always thought about what Steve would EXPECT of me. He would expect me to care for our children, to give them the best life possible without him. It’s the same that I would have expected had I been the one to die first. I have no doubt that Steve would have continued to be a fantastic father to our children despite his pain. So, in my eyes, I had no choice but to honor his memory with these children we created. If that’s being strong, then I guess I am but I certainly do not feel it. I am just living this life that God has given me.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rhonda!
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 18:46:32

    As always, Mary, you make your point so eloquently. The love that you have for Steve and the love that you have for your children is so evident in every blog that you post. I hope as you write your blogs, you realize the positive impact that you are having on those of us who are reading. Thanks so much for sharing!! You are an amazing young woman and I am so proud to know you!!!

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  2. Christine Smith-Johnson
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 22:34:48

    Hi Mary! I am genuinely sorry for the loss of your husband. Unfortunately, I am able to relate to every single word. I also lost a lot of loved ones throughout my life, beginning with my father when I was seven, and my Grandmother was my best friend. Everyone always said I would make it through the death of my husband since I was the strongest person they had ever met. I always did feel sort of strong until my husband was killed. I hate knowing I am no longer a strong person. I absolutely hate it. You spoke of the physical effects you are experiencing. That is the worst! No matter how motivated I am, it depends on my body if I can accomplish things or not. Nothing is the same after losing a spouse. Just getting dressed daily can be a major effort.

    I say it is the worst, but I have one more…Others expecting you to keep living life in the fast lane. Which is a lot like people saying you are strong (in other words you will get over this). They do not understand why we haven’t accomplished everything that needs to be done and they say we should already be okay. If we are not okay within their timeline, we need doctors or meds. They get upset when we’re too exhausted in the afternoons to go somewhere we were invited to, after we have been the mother and father all day and need to rest. I get more frustrated over these two issues than anything else.

    Your words ring true sentiments to my heart. I am so sorry you are also experiencing this. I to suffer from the post traumatic. (I have written why in a few of my articles, which was extremely hard to do.) I have since learned I am depleted of adrenaline. Your body can only release so much until there is no more to produce. Then when you need it, your body overcompensates, which just adds to the tiredness. I have a website that just had an article posted, asking others to share how they overcome the energy blocks, if you are interested in helping others who suffer. We all have to find new ways of doing things. I shared how I manage and would love to know how you accomplish your daily tasks.

    Again, I am truly sorry for your loss. I wish I could bring all the good ones back to us.

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    • Mary
      Jan 09, 2012 @ 23:16:13

      Christine,
      Many of our symptoms are the same because we share a grief that only a widow/widower can know. I am seven years into my grief journey so I don’t experience these things very often anymore. I am thinking that you are newer into your journey? I healed one day at a time, by allowing myself to rest when I felt tired. Grief is so exhausting! Those who don’t understand, will gradually fall out of your life. But the most amazing people will be the ones who stay. The ones who, seven years later, still let me call them if I am having a grief day, without any judgement or feeling as if I should be “over it” by now. I encourage you to see a doctor if it has been more than two years since your husband passed, though. There is no shame if your grief has turned into depression. I suffered severe anxiety after Steve died and medication has helped me to manage it. Unfortunately, our bodies have suffered a shock that few know and it would only make sense that the chemicals in our brains could be messed up because of it! One day at a time, I promise you will heal and your energy will return. You may need to force yourself to do something outdoors, like take a walk, or something else that you enjoy, when you feel like going to sleep. Slowly, you will begin to feel better.
      Take care of you,
      Mary

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  3. Christine Smith-Johnson
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 22:40:57

    I forgot to give you the website. It is http://TheLifeAtHome.webs.com
    The question, How do you energize yourself?, is in the forum, under widow’s emotions. It is brand new and I hope you will share your information. I am finding that so many of us struggle with this.

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  4. donnacopeland
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 14:47:51

    This post reminds me of something my brother-in-law said to me right after the funeral where he buried his two children (my niece and nephew) while my sister’s condition was still uncertain. He stood up during the funeral and spoke eloquently about how parents should love their chilldren.

    After he spoke I said, “Tom, how could you speak so well in the midst of the funeral?” He replied, “When you need God’s grace, it is there.”

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