(Months ago, my bereavement counsellor suggested that I write about this particular time in my grief journey. "It will help others," she said. I am now ready to share this story.)
Nine months was when it happened. When most people, aside from my family, lost interest in me talking about my pain and sadness over my husband’s death.
Some of my closest friends and supporters even struggled to feign interest and patience as I cried or poured out my broken soul to them. I couldn’t blame them. Their lives had only been mildly affected by the death of this outgoing, fun-loving, witty, gentle giant of a man, while my life had been utterly broken. After all, I spent almost 42 years with this man as a major part of my daily life. They did not. And after almost nine months of caring for me, they had already said and done pretty much everything they could think of to try to help me through my grief. No, I couldn’t blame them.
To backtrack a bit, we learned In December 2015 that my husband, Al, was not going to survive the Stage IV colon cancer that hit him out of nowhere in August 2015. He died on January 4, 2016, a little more than two weeks after we were told his cancer could not be cured. His death was unexpected, shocking, and devastating for those of us who loved him.
His last wishes were that we, the people he loved, go on and live the best lives that we can. We are trying.
When it comes right down to it, no one can help you through ALL of the pieces of grieving the death of your spouse - the most important person in your life. Not your family. Not your friends. Not your pastor. Not your bereavement counsellor.
No one but you.
You have to do a big part of the work yourself. You have to figure out your new life without your beloved in it. And you have to try not to be offended or upset when people try to help you or, conversely, walk away because they - and you - know they can't.
At the end of September 2016, I realized that I had almost made it through nine months since my husband died. I was still sad, still broken. Although some people were trying hard not to suggest that I should “move on” or be more chipper, I saw that it was becoming more and more difficult for many people to visit with me and be dragged down into my puddle of grief.
So I decided to try to hold it in. To keep quieter. To talk less about him. To journal more and keep more of my pain, my thoughts, my sadness and my loneliness to myself.
I had not been inside my own head so much in my life as I had been in those nine months. With no one to talk to every day, unless I picked up the phone or went away from my home-based business (which I used to share with my husband), my thoughts overwhelmed me and I struggled to stay upright sometimes.
After he died, I had to rethink everything. Everything.
I soon chose not to come to many conclusions about my new life. I learned early that the best strategy when grieving such an excruciating loss is to take it easy. Take a deep breath. Take another breath. Keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. Get through this moment. Get through another moment. Don’t worry about the thoughts or advice or expectations of others. Do what you need to do in that moment. Rest. Cry. Yell. Grieve. But, most importantly, be gentle with yourself.
(Read my blog - What I've Learned About Grief)
I still struggle at times to live out these wise words.
What became very clear to me was that I had to work hard at staying positive. I needed to keep taking steps forward, as Al wanted for me and I wanted for myself.
I had moved my wedding rings to my middle finger a few months after Al died, but they were starting to look and feel wrong. I realized that they were making me sad, reminding me every day of what I had lost. Even if I was having a good moment or a good day, my wedding rings moved me toward sadness. It was not how I wanted to live the rest of my life.
I tested a new look one weekend in September 2016 by not wearing my wedding rings. A few days later, on September 28, I took them off and did not put them back on.
In mid-September, I had heard a radio commercial for a local jewellery store that was closing at the end of the month because the owners were retiring. I had taken my wedding rings to that store for resizing a few years earlier, on the recommendation of Dionne Warner, the inspiring eight-time cancer survivor I wrote about in the Never Leave Your Wingman book. The owners knew Dionne and her amazing story, and the woman jeweller remembered and recognized me when I walked into the jewellery store two days before she and her husband retired from their business. I was impressed.
I told her why I was there. “My husband passed away from cancer and I don’t want to wear my wedding rings anymore,” I said. “I want something to remind me of him and our time together, but I don’t know what.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she replied. And she began to cry.
I was moved by her caring. We stood for a second, then wiped our tears and carried on. I asked about necklaces and she showed me options for melting down wedding bands and placing the diamond in the centre of the blob of gold. I laughed, and I imagined Al’s laughter at that concept too. “You wouldn’t be able to see the diamond from my ring if you did that!” I told her.
You see, Al and I became engaged in Calgary when we were impoverished students finishing up two years of journalism classes at SAIT. We went downtown one day in May 1975 to look for an engagement ring so we could get engaged before I left Alberta and moved to his home province of Saskatchewan to marry him and live happily ever after.
We found a ring that we liked and could afford. Since Al wasn’t getting paid from his part-time job as a pizza delivery guy for another few days, I wrote a cheque for the $30 down payment on my own engagement ring. That might seem silly to some, but it was reflective of our relationship – make the decision together, do what needs to be done, and move on.
Al paid me back after he got paid. No big deal.
So in September 2016, at the jewellery store in Regina, I decided that a blob of gold with my diamond set in a necklace was not for me. I also wanted to continue wearing other necklaces I own and did not want to feel compelled to wear only one, so I decided to look to see what else was available. The jeweller showed me some rings - starting at a very high price, of course, and then working down to a cost that was more to my liking. I asked to try on only two of the rings she suggested, but they were too bulky and ostentatious for me.
She then asked if I preferred gold or white gold. “My wedding rings are white gold, so that would be nice,” I told her.
She pulled out another ring from the display case and I knew this was my ring. It was beautiful. Perfect, in fact.
This new ring is a combination of white gold and gold, and I immediately loved the design. Very unique and very personal. It fit my story exactly.
I bought the ring and asked for suggestions on where to take it for resizing since they were closing within 48 hours and could not do that work themselves. I wished the woman good luck in her retirement, then walked out of the store, pleased with myself and especially pleased with my purchase.
I wanted to show this ring to all three of our adult children in person over the next few days, so I kept the undersized ring inside its jewellery box and I carried it with me. That evening, I talked with our youngest daughter, Dani, after our yoga class. I told her about my decisions to stop wearing my wedding rings and to buy another ring in memory of her dad but also in recognition of my new life without him.
Dani was thrilled. “It’s an arrow pointing to your future!” she said of the design. She was proud of me, doing something just for myself (since I am not a me-oriented person) and moving forward with my life.
Her reaction surprised me. I had not seen an arrow in the design.
The next night, I shared the story with our eldest child, our son Dave, and his wife, Kelli. Dave was shocked and speechless for a couple of hours, but that was my fault. I carelessly started the conversation by holding up my bare left hand and saying, “Look! No rings!” While I was excited by this, knowing the happy ending to my little story, imagine the grief that our son had to process in those seconds of recognizing that the band symbolizing his parents’ 40-year-marriage was now gone. I quickly apologized to Dave. I did not realize how that would look to him.
After I told Dave and Kelli the whole story and showed them my new ring, they were pleased for me. Kelli saw the design as a linking of two things. Dave told me later, “I really like it, Mom. It’s really cool and I hope it brings you some comfort.”
That weekend, I visited our oldest daughter, Lisa, and her family. Lisa was very excited by my purchase and loved the ring. “It’s two souls coming together!” she exclaimed about the ring’s design.
Friends who saw my new ring also thought the same – they saw the design as two lives joining or a clasp holding two people together. But that’s not what I saw in my ring.
When the jeweller first held it up to me, I immediately saw an “A”. For “Al”. My Al.
That’s why I bought the ring.
Weeks later, I laughed out loud when I remembered that my mom used to call my husband “Big A” – because he was almost a foot taller than everyone in my family and he was a lot larger than most of us too. His big personality matched his size as well. "Big A."
In my diary entry on September 30, the night that Dave told me he hoped the ring brings me comfort, I wrote: “I know that it will. It already has and I’m not even wearing it yet. Al did not choose to get sick and die, but I have to choose to live and to live well. When I bought that ring, it was a big physical reminder of my decision to carry on without him here, but cherishing his memory and our love everyday when I look at my hand. He will always be with me, and now I will wear it on my finger as a visible symbol of our never-ending love.”
I cherish the many years I had with Al. I wish that everyone in the world would be blessed with such a great love. I miss him dearly every single moment of every single day, but I am so grateful that he was with me, that we were together.
I have been wearing my new "A" ring for seven months now. For seven months, I have felt love when I look at my left hand. Love instead of sadness.
The never-ending love between me and my Big A.