My wife died in November 2013 at a hospice in Rockville when she was just 54 years old. Cheryl and I met in our 20s in Pittsburgh through a mutual friend and soon fell into happy routines we thought would carry us into old age.
After we moved to the D.C. area in 1984, we had two daughters. Our entire adult lives were happily entwined before Cheryl’s colon cancer diagnosis in 2012.
We had been married 30 years, more than half of our lives.
The first month after she died, I would burst into tears in the car when reflecting on Cheryl’s death or on the future we would unexpectedly not share. I felt so utterly alone, it was almost eerie after being a partner for so many years. I could not believe I’d never see her auburn hair or hear her hearty laugh again.
I returned to work as a government lawyer after being off for one week. This is Washington; I was anxious about not getting behind. I also thought a return to my daily routine and normal interactions with colleagues would help. At work, I could dive into legal analysis and not think of my loss for a bit, and I greatly appreciated hearing words of encouragement from friends and colleagues at the agency where I had worked for 25 years.
But I missed having a partner to discuss the events of the day. The empty house was so silent, more spooky than peaceful. Where was the person I came home to every day for more than three decades? I was slow to adjust to the empty chair at the kitchen table where Cheryl had joined me for thousands of meals.
Here’s how I got through the rest of this past year as I reinvented myself without my spouse.
Bereavement groups were recommended to me by the hospice where Cheryl died and by friends. I longed to share my feelings and express thoughts with others undergoing similar losses.
Most spousal-loss support groups focus on widows and widowers of my parents’ generation. I could not see myself having much in common with them.
I attended a bereavement support group for younger widows and widowers. My small group was led by two trained volunteers who had lost spouses several years ago. Our discussions provided emotional support for each of us. Peers shared stories of their loss and their experiences in the months since the loss.
The widows in the group provided me with empathy during these sessions. However, as the only man in the group, I felt that I was literally and figuratively the odd man out. I sensed that the widows were developing friendships among themselves. When the meetings ended, they continued to talk. We didn’t keep in touch after the sessions ended.
Perhaps my experience with this group would have been different if I had a fellow widower for these discussions.
I became the sole parent for two daughters in their 20s. It is important to me to be available for any of their concerns at any hour — the ones we used to talk about (such as jobs and finances) and any that they had previously discussed with Cheryl.
Beyond the girls, family and friends returned to their own lives. I am social. Unfortunately, several of our couples friends disappeared. I was no longer invited to social events geared toward couples and even if I could attend, it would be uncomfortable attending alone.
This change of friendships was unexpected. I missed them, but I did not want to pursue relationships not mutually desired.
I continued to be invited to gatherings with Cheryl’s family. Additionally, e-mails, Facebook messages and telephone calls from her relatives around the country kept me up on their lives, and I welcomed that.
My life outside work started to become rich again. I replaced time spent with Cheryl with more frequent attendance at temple and meet-ups with friends. I craved interactions with others, as I emerged as a new me — alone but lonely no more.
Returning to my exercise routine promoted feelings of well-being and relaxation. My usual five-mile jog allowed me to contemplate a new future, one where I was not walking into the sunset holding hands with Cheryl.
During these runs, I sometimes felt a stab of guilt for being the healthy survivor, for not being at Cheryl’s side at the moment she died, and even for the return to routines without her — but these moments passed.
During the year I traveled frequently, both for work and on personal trips. Getting outside the Beltway was refreshing and enriching.
Indeed, a trip to Scotland in April was an emotional turning point. Although the trip was exciting and highly satisfying, I knew that I preferred not to travel solo. Visiting new places without Cheryl proved to be a major adjustment.
However, while on adventures in Scotland, I began thinking about a woman I had met just twice, named Fern.
This trip provided me with an ideal transition between stages of my life. I became mentally ready to create new relationships and a new life.
My healing had truly begun.
At times, I thought back on my long, successful marriage by looking at pictures or simply conjuring up memories. I reached a point where I could remember without grief. I had a happy marriage, and together we raised two great daughters. I did not want to forget the good times or the seminal life events we had shared.
Much time was spent on paperwork related to Cheryl’s death. Often death certificates had to be provided to terminate an account. Joint accounts were changed to single. That act jarred me into the realization of my new status as single or widower. Beneficiaries had to be changed. Most difficult was the termination of her cellphone account because I could no longer hear her voice-mail message. Oddest of all was the occasional call for Cheryl from a remote friend who did not know she had died.
Certainly Cheryl wanted me to be content in midlife. After a number of months, I felt ready to enter into a new relationship.
I discovered a meet-up group for young widows and widowers. My experiences with this group were quite different from the spousal-loss support groups. The interactions were more informal.
This group provided a social setting for those of us who had experienced midlife spousal loss. Great discussions ensued as we shared stories about going through similar life events.
The third time I attended this group, I spoke briefly with Fern and shared with her that The Washington Post had just published my story about cancer caregiving. At a meet-up the next month, Fern told me she had read my article and that she was able to relate it to her own experience. We then chatted about how much we had in common.
We began to date and eventually fell in love.
Our hearts are big enough to love again. I believe that once it is in you, love endures. Instead of spending my nights staring at an empty chair in my kitchen in melancholy silence, I look forward to evenings and weekends with Fern, and to our future together.
Schwartz is a lawyer for the federal government and lives in Burke. His previous article on cancer caregiving was published in The Post on Feb. 18.