It’s 2:34 p.m. on a Sunday and I’m sitting inside, staring at a willow tree in my parents’ backyard that sways delicately as wind combs through its branches. I’m alone and it’s quiet, save for the sound of my dog picking at her food in the kitchen behind me. I’m wearing jeans I found in a drawer full of my old high school clothes. My dog and I, along with countless others, have been thrown into solitude, riding out the pandemic in a place that has become home for the foreseeable future. No one’s quite sure how this all will play out, this unprecedented situation we find ourselves in that’s turned our world upside down.
It was about 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday in July 2018 and I was sitting outside under that willow tree in my parents’ backyard that swayed delicately as wind combed through its branches. I was alone and it was quiet, save for the sound of my mom opening and closing the sliding door to the back porch to look at me sitting and typing on my laptop, barefoot. I was wearing one of my old, ragged sports bras and some basketball shorts I borrowed from my little brother’s closet of old high school clothes. I had been thrown into solitude, riding out the initial phase of grief in a place that had become home for the foreseeable future. I wasn’t quite sure how it would all play out, this unprecedented situation I found myself in as a widow at age 30 after a sudden accident that turned my world upside down.
The coronavirus has stopped life as we know it. While its spread is somewhat within our control as we stay home, wash our hands, and cover our mouths with our elbows when we sneeze, the simple fact of the virus’s existence is not. We didn’t plan for this: a potentially fatal illness that could take the lives of loved ones, unofficial jobs as homeschoolers, the total decimation of our 401ks, unemployment by historic millions, and physical isolation perhaps from the people we need hugs from the most. For many, the sudden, unexpected nature of the virus’s various forms of devastation is the most terrifying part of the pandemic. The truly unexpected and life-altering nature of it all is foreign to most.
As I watch this crisis unfold, I can’t help but think that I just went through this: a life-altering event that wasn’t supposed to happen, and that I never saw coming. Less than two years ago, my husband was killed when he was hit by a semi-truck while riding his bike on a beautiful D.C. Saturday. Healthy, popular, kind, and generous, Jeff was exactly the type of person this sort of thing “does not happen to.” He was special and therefore invincible, of course. I’d never have to worry about losing him, about not having kids together, about not holding hands in rocking chairs on the back porch of our house in our 60s and 70s. Of course we’d have those kids, watch our daughter play soccer, and wake up every day with a sleepy “good morning,” followed by a quick kiss before starting our days.
So when that sort of thing did happen to him, my world stopped. The feeling of “I can’t do this” often washed over me as I planned a nearly 1,200 person funeral, managed new family dynamics, closed out his accounts, cleaned his clothes out of our closet, and woke up in the middle of the night to feel the emptiness on the other side of the bed. We had plans for the rest of our lives together, but in an instant, those plans were gone.
The uncertainty of my future brought on the kind of fear that I sense many are experiencing now, as the questions of “When will school start?”, “Will my parents or partner contract this disease?”, “How will I support my family or sustain my business?”, or simply, “When can I hug my friend?”, hover heavily over all of us.
I frequently get texts these days asking me how I’m holding up alone through all of this. And the answer is: mostly fine, and strangely equipped to handle the moment we find ourselves in. My privilege in this moment as a white woman with resources and a large, tight knit community isn’t lost on me, and it’s an enormous part of why I’m doing OK. And I’m also relatively OK because I’ve been through this before.
My husband’s death caused me to feel incredibly isolated. While I had a community that helped me cope, the role of 30-something-sudden-widow wasn’t one my community had seen up close, so I walked the path alone. I’ve been through the sudden elimination of future plans: no kids together, no growing old together, no getting on a plane together in three weeks to see family in California. I’ve been through the harrowing realization that death does come for the invincible — and one day it will come for me as well. And as for wanting physical touch, I know exactly what it’s like to be unable to hug the one person you need a hug from the most.
The plans I had for my life fell apart, and I had to build something entirely new, on my own. Some days, rebuilding meant just getting out of bed, showering, and putting real pants on. Some days, it meant making bigger decisions, like if and when to move out of our shared apartment, or pulling back at a job I loved in order to focus on managing the paralyzing flashbacks that came from watching Jeff suffer through the last moments of his life. It meant putting my ego to the side and calling our friend Dan, instead of Jeff, when I needed someone to walk me through repairing something in my apartment, something I had clearly botched. It meant figuring out how to set up the bike rack for my car via YouTube video instead of shouting down the driveway to Jeff for help. I struggled to accept life alone, but ultimately, through hours of doubting my ability to carry on, I did. Rebuilding alone, without Jeff, was — and is — painful. But it’s the only choice. Forging ahead into the unknown is all I can do.
We’re told that we may be experiencing the Pearl Harbor of our generation. The cruelty of this disease means that those who die will likely slip away without a loved one by their side. My husband died that way. Lying in a hospital bed at 36 years old, when just 36 hours before he was changing into workout clothes for a yoga class he’d never attend. I don’t actually know who was in the room when he died — it’s possible he was entirely alone. If he wasn’t, he was surrounded by healthcare workers who spent every last ounce of their energy trying to save his life. Their efforts showed in the sweat falling down his nurse’s brow and her shortness of breath while trying to communicate an update to me in the waiting room. She could only speak to me for 10 seconds before she sprinted back to the I.C.U., at eight months pregnant, to try and save my dying husband. He did die, and he wasn’t with me when he did. He wasn’t with his mom, his dad, or a friend either. He was without a loved one as his heart stopped, hopefully holding hands with one of those nurses, or a respiratory therapist, or a surgeon he wasn’t conscious to meet.
Sudden, unexpected tragedy is brutal. And we’re all experiencing it right now. This is true whether you have the virus, your loved one does, or your heart is breaking for the sick, the jobless, or the exhausted. But, sadly, this kind of tragedy is a part of life — a horrible, paralyzing part of life, but a part of it nonetheless. And this club I’m a part of, the most horrible club in the world of people losing their people to sudden, unexpected death, has grown much, much larger.
Many of us have reached the “impatient” phase, itching to get out of our homes, get back into school, and get back to life as we knew it because maybe, just maybe, that means we can put this behind us. But, like it or not, our old lives aren’t really there anymore — putting this completely behind us isn’t an option. The life I had before my husband was killed is gone. Coming to terms with the fact that I’ll be a widow forever is, at times, just as hard as losing my husband. Every time “our song” plays at a restaurant, I’ll flashback to the way we used to slow dance — the way we won’t again. Every time I pass watermelons in the produce aisle, I’ll flashback to Jeff, cross legged on our couch in the summer with a half a watermelon and a spoon, scooping out bite after juicy bite. These are facts of my life, just as the virus is now a fact of ours. And while I wish I could rush through the grief around not having my old life, around those lost slow dances and laughs at watermelon all over his face, I can’t.
While we’ve lost so much, take it from someone who recently learned about loss in ways I still can’t comprehend: In time, it’s possible to rebuild. You’ll stumble and make mistakes, say things you don’t mean, and experience elements of anger and sadness that were previously foreign for a long time. I still do and expect to, in different ways, for the rest of my life.
But with time, patience, and care, we can become stronger. After Jeff died, I learned how to move through emotions and anxieties that were previously unfamiliar. I began to appreciate my health and my body, and even the daily 3 p.m. meeting with co-workers around that dated conference room table. It took time — it still does. And slowly but surely, I’m getting there.
The road ahead will be long, and stretch beyond the era of this pandemic. The coronavirus will cause us to face mental health and economic challenges for years and even lifetimes to come. Building resilience may be forced upon us, but you’ll build your own version of it to cope with unexpected, unimaginable future challenges you never thought you’d be able to overcome. You’ll get out of bed, shower, and put real pants on. You’ll find your own friend Dan to walk you through that apartment repair. You’ll set up the bike rack that you were once convinced could only be assembled by MIT’s finest. It won’t be easy, and at times the grief may feel endless, but it’s my hope that we’ll find that strength — that resilience. It’s in there.