Support groups and counseling have provided a safe place for me to talk. To share vivid dreams and signs from Adam. People who understand my anger, awkward widow humor, and the secondary losses of losing a spouse.
The first group I was invited to was December 2015. I was not thrilled to be sent an invitation to the Young Cancer Wives support group on Facebook.
This woman, kind enough to reach out when her husband had just entered hospice care. Their sons were a little older than ours when he was diagnosed with colon cancer two and a half years prior.
My husband was not going to die. He was going to defy the odds and survive well into his 40s at least. Her husband died a few weeks later. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum from my perspective.
She has become one of my best friends. We have only met in person twice but she understands me. She gets me because we are living a “what the hell happened” kind of life and finding ways to move forward. Finding ways to feel joy again.
She gave me her number and answered any time I called. If Cat was on a home visit for work, she’d text me as soon as possible. Cat was the one who walked me through how to talk with Edward about his Daddy dying, about the funeral, about death.
Cat provides support and offers advice as a fellow widowed, solo mother who is dating. Sometimes we just call to say a lot of f-bombs together. Because nothing makes us feel better then talking for 15 minutes and seeing how many swear words we can fit in.
I went to this online support group she invited me into when it felt like the bottom to my life was falling out. When I didn’t know what to say to the endless offers of help, they gave me practical advice.
They shared their experiences of having babies when their husbands were on chemo. Tips on how to prep myself. If there were any ways to prepare someone for cancer, chemo, and a newborn baby this group would know.
Women who helped me care for myself and support Adam through his surgeries, chemo, emotional ups and downs.
Caregivers who became widows. Supporting me in a way nobody else could when it was time for hospice.
In March, I will have the privilege of meeting the founder of this group and other fellow caregivers. Sadly, most of us are now widows. It is because of these groups that I have found ways to help fellow caregivers through Cocktails and Chemo.
When Adam died, Widows Don’t Wear Black (for cancer widows) and The Hot Young Widows Club became the only reason I’d log in to Facebook or Instagram. This group of strangers grateful to have each other. All of us wishing we would have never met.
It took a little more work to find a support group we could physically go to. Our social worker from the cancer center knew about a family grief support group through Fairview Health Services.
As I retold the events of how my sons and I arrived at this group, a woman across the circle kindly stared. She asked if she could go next. Anna’s s husband died less then a month after Adam from colon cancer. Their story was almost identical to ours.
Fast forward to today. Anna and her two children have become an extension of our family. She is an incredibly important person in my life.
Our oldest boys are a year apart in age, our youngest also a year difference in age. We have morning play dates and supper dates with all four kids. It is always loud, a mess, and we can never guess who will eat and who won’t.
We rarely get in five minutes of adult conversation without interruptions but that never stops us from trying.
It is helpful to have someone nearby to relate to. Our oldest sons especially benefit from playing with another child whose “daddy died of cancer too.” As her youngest daughter and my Reggie start to identify their grief, they will lean on one another.
As mothers, we lean on one another.
We have helped each other with dishes and laundry when the other was sick. When getting to regular counseling sessions became difficult with my new schedule, our weekly dates at the zoo became my grief therapy.
Regardless of how our grief is affecting us in the moment, we can get each other to smile. She laughs at my inappropriate jokes. We encourage and inspire one another. There is an exchange of f-bombs when the kids are not within ear shot. (Disclaimer: young widows love the f-bomb.)
Without social media, I wouldn’t have made new friendships.
Without our social worker at the hospital, I wouldn’t have found the family grief support group or my grief counselor.
A large part of why I am a survivor is because of these gifts.
We survived our first 5K on a hot and humid morning. (2011)
Survival was the biggest gift.
I do not remember much from the first six months. Family, friends, and our nannies helped often and frequently with the boys so I could merely survive this new life I didn’t ask for. Shock helped protect me but around July it started to wear off.
August was a wake up call when I was blessed with the shingles. Blessed? It wasn’t a blessing at the time but I can look back now and see it was.
It helped me realize several things. My antidepressant was NOT working. I was on such a low dose but honestly, never felt like I needed it. My medication was increased when I got the shingles because people in their 30’s get shingles from lack of sleep, stress, and a low immune system.
I turned into a zombie from the increased dose. I was exhausted and no amount of coffee or naps helped. In November, I couldn’t take it anymore. Six weeks later on a new medication, I am not exhausted anymore. My highs actually feel high and I can feel the lows too. My mood has leveled out and I can function better.
I needed to find ways to get quality sleep and take better care of myself. While I have not found the answers to simplifying life with two busy boys, it has improved. The new medication and taking melatonin before bed has greatly improved my overall health.
In November, instead of turning to wine to drown my sorrow, I joined the YMCA. I can workout while they boys play; instead of trying to exercise at home with them literally under my feet, asking for a snack every two seconds. I am enjoying exercise again, something I got away from when the lows became more frequent then the highs. It has been key to my mental and physical health.
Okay, so you might be asking yourself, “Why is she sharing her medical chart with us?” Antidepressants get a bad name and some people assume they are for the weak or grieving. I think that is absolutely wrong. I was on an antidepressant in college for about six months. Sometimes these medications are long term and sometimes they help your body and mind get through stressful situations until you can maintain balance again. There is no shame in asking your doctor about a prescription.
Exercise. Simple right? Simple to skip, that is what I think. I go through phases this last year where I think, “Why even try to be healthy? Adam exercised, ate well, and lost weight the years before he was diagnosed and it didn’t matter. Eating organic didn’t matter. Drinking only once a week didn’t matter. Why will it be the difference if I exercise, eat well, and limit my (bottles of…) wine?”
Honestly, I don’t know what to believe is the right answer to prevent cancer anymore. Fitness didn’t prevent Adam’s body from overproducing cancerous cells. I do know it was one of the things he did that helped his body and mind feel better. Exercise helped him feel in control of something. It helped him survive when he felt terrible.
I think about us going to the gym together over the years. The body pump and cycle classes we went to. The session of yoga classes he took with me at a studio. Imagine Adam in yoga? Yeah, it was as hilarious as you are imagining! He did it though and never complained. He started running with me one summer and we ran a 5K. He even stepped in and ran with my friend when I was injured so she didn’t have to run the race we planned to do together. We walked the river boulevard probably a hundred times when we lived in St. Paul and biked by the river.
When I get in a rut and don’t want to exercise, I think about Adam. I think about him going for a walk when he was wearing his pump for chemo. I think about him walking after his surgery in summer and how every step was like climbing a mountain for him. Getting back to fitness has helped me feel better overall and has been a big factor in surviving.
I survived a lot this year. Even something as simple as eating and going to a body pump class brings a constant flood of memories with Adam. I trust I will survive all the happy and sad memories next year too.
Survival, the biggest gift of 2017.
Julianna, Reginald (19 months) & Edward (4)
I am grateful for the blog posts I wrote this last year, the status updates on social media, and the pictures I took. These help me remember the pain, the good times, and the accomplishments. My hope in sharing these with you is that in some way, my blog helps you.
Why do I want to remember the pain? This is really very simple for me. I want to remember the heartache because it is from pain I have grown. It is how we all grow.
If I have learned anything this last year, it is to be grateful. It is “okay, to not be okay.” It is to find ways to be patient amidst trying times. It is to continue living and loving fully, with no regrets.
We have enjoyed all of the holiday cheer mailed to us, thank you! As we close out the year, I am going to share with you each day a gift 2017 brought. Stay tuned this week of Christmas to hear more about them. I will share a little cheer, some hope, and a lot of honesty.
Here is a preview of The Gifts of 2017 we were blessed with.
Survival was the biggest gift.
Support groups and grief counseling were the most helpful gifts.
New hobbies were the gifts that helped find joy.
Going back to work was the hardest gift to accept.
Organizing and starting the Minneapolis Cocktails and Chemo Chapter was the most rewarding gift.
Dating was the most unexpected gift.
Edward, Reginald, and Matilda were my favorite gifts!
We wish you a blessed Christmas and New Year.
Live, Love, No Regrets.
Julianna, Edward, & Reginald