This article is based on the book, Hurricane of Love.
My two daughters were hugging my wife, Beth, and I was holding all three of them in my arms, when Beth took her last breath on October 30, 2015, at 2:40 p.m. We had three years to consider the possibility that this day would come. Still, there was no way to totally prepare for it.
Even though I was relieved that Beth was finally out of her pain from battling stage 4 cancer, my heart ached from the realization that after spending 37 years with her, I would never see her again — this side of heaven.
I had no idea that this was just the beginning of my grieving process. The year of firsts was coming.
For the next five weeks:
- I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
- Taking a shower, shaving and getting dressed just seemed like too much work.
- I didn’t want to leave my house.
- I spent my days looking at photos and watching videos of my late wife.
- I didn’t really want to see anyone other than my daughters and my grandchildren.
Before long, Thanksgiving arrived. This was the first holiday without Beth. It was the “first” in my “year of firsts,” and I didn’t realize how gut-wrenching every first holiday, anniversary, and birthday was going to be without her.
1. Recognize these will be tough days.
My family had celebrated every holiday since 2010 with my oldest daughter’s family and her in-laws. We usually had Thanksgiving dinner at her in-law’s home. Her father-in-law, Ed, did all of the cooking. All I had to do was show up and eat. When Beth was alive, I always looked forward to having Thanksgiving dinner with them. But now that she was gone, I didn’t feel very thankful, and I didn’t feel like pretending that I was. Everyone was understanding and caring, but I just wanted to eat and go back home.
When we sat down for dinner, I realized they had a place setting and a chair at the table for Beth. It was a nice gesture, but it felt like a dagger to my heart. I kept looking at the chair, and I kept thinking she should have been there.
“I begged God to give me the strength…”
I remember when I crawled into bed that night, I cried myself to sleep. I begged God to give me the strength to make it through Christmas. I knew it would be brutal, and I had no idea how I would survive. I had no desire and no intention to put up a tree and decorate. In fact, I didn’t want to celebrate Christmas at all, but my daughters wanted me to. “Mom would want us to celebrate Christmas,” my youngest said.
I knew that every ornament and every Christmas song would bring me to tears. I finally carried the tree and the ornaments up from the basement and began what turned out to be one of the hardest tasks I have ever done.
2. Express how you feel.
My second “first” came just days before Christmas on December 22. It would have been our 31st wedding anniversary. My daughter very wisely suggested we all go to New York City for two days, so I wouldn’t just sit in the house and cry. I bought tickets to “The Lion King” on Broadway, figuring it would be entertaining for everyone including my two grandsons. It was good that we stayed busy as a family. While we were all thinking about Beth, the change of scenery helped.
Christmas Eve came and we all went to church together. This was always Beth’s favorite service. She loved the end of the service when the congregation lights each other’s candles and the sanctuary is slowly transformed from complete darkness to light as we sing “Silent Night.” I always loved this tradition when Beth was standing next to me, but this year it was just another event to endure without her. My eyes opened up into a river of tears.
3. Celebrate holidays. It honors their memory.
After the Christmas Eve service, we went out to dinner as we always did and then came back to my house. Beth would always buy everyone new pajamas to wear on Christmas Eve. That was the one gift we opened at night, saving the rest for Christmas morning. When we came back to my house, my daughters looked in Beth’s closet and were shocked to discover that their mom somehow managed to order each of them pajamas during her final days.
We took a picture of them wearing those pajamas in front of the Christmas tree. They posted on social media that their mom was still sending them gifts from heaven. This tore me up emotionally, but it also brought me some comfort.
The pajamas made me realize that I was being selfish wallowing in my sorrow. I thought maybe this was a sign that Beth wanted us to celebrate Christmas in a way that honored her memory. I tried really hard to enjoy Christmas day. It was emotionally draining, but I tried to picture her being there with us encouraging us to celebrate the birth of our Savior.
4. Live in the moments you have.
The next “first” was Beth’s birthday on February 3. We got together as a family and decided that we would celebrate the day together. We started a tradition that would be meaningful for us all. We went to her favorite restaurant for breakfast. We have gone there for years and all of the waitresses and cashiers know us. They loved Beth and sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers to our home five days before she passed into heaven.
We all ordered what Beth always ordered: two eggs over easy, bacon, rye toast and coffee. After breakfast, we got purple helium balloons (Beth’s favorite color) and sharpies. All of us, including our grandsons, wrote messages to her and let them go into the sky. We have continued this tradition on her birthday and the anniversary of her passing.
5. Hold on to hope.
While her first birthday was very tough, I began to feel hope that it wouldn’t always be this difficult.
I was seeing a Christian counselor at the time to help me work through my grief. I knew in my heart that God was in control, but I was struggling with Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God….” Really? Even my wife’s stage 4 cancer?
I’m told that the surviving spouse often has a great deal of guilt. I certainly did. I wondered why I was still strong and healthy, but Beth had to go through stage 4 cancer. I kept asking myself if I was a good enough husband.
“…I still have a race to run…”
When I told my counselor what I was wrestling with, she looked me in the eye and said, “Dan, do you really think Beth is in heaven judging you? No! She is cheering you on! She is telling you to finish your race and to take care of your daughters and grandchildren!” That really connected with me. I realized that I still have a race to run and that Beth was cheering me on!
The “firsts” kept coming, and it seemed like they would never end.
6. Lean on your family and friends.
Easter was yet another difficult “first,” but it wasn’t as bad as her birthday. The summer holidays were hard because we always had the family over to our house on Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Labor Day. Beth loved being the host, and she loved being by the pool. We all talked about her, and we realized that we were all in the grieving process together. It is vitally important to lean on your family and friends during those “firsts.”
Finally, the one-year anniversary of Beth’s entrance into heaven arrived, and we all went to the cemetery and released the purple helium balloons with messages to her. We did the same thing on the second and will do it again on the third.
7. Remember God will never leave you.
I wrote about my wife and how I made it through the grieving process and the “year of firsts” in my new book, Hurricane of Love published by WestBow Press.
My prayer is that our story will help to calm your fears, strengthen your faith and inspire your hope. God will never leave you, even in your darkest hour. Hold on to the hope that you will see your loved one again in heaven.
For those grieving:
If you are grieving or caring for someone who is terminally ill, just know that “the year of firsts” is coming. But have hope that you will make it through. The year of seconds will be a little bit easier. What’s important now is to live “in the moment.” Pour your love into your loved one. Don’t hold back in expressing how you feel through your words and your actions. And as you go through the year of “firsts,” recognize that those are going to be very tough days. Try to use them to honor your loved one’s memory and draw on the strength of your family and friends.