It’s been a year since my life changed. Since my worst nightmare came true. A year since I lost my husband.
I was blindsided when he said he wanted a divorce. When I woke up that morning, I didn’t know that was the last day. That he had been that unhappy. That the life I thought we had was a different story from the one he thought we had.
Joe and I have known each other since junior high, and we started dating our senior year of high school. We sat by each other in first period and sang together in choir. We went to college together, performed in show choir and musicals, and married a year after graduation. Our twenties were filled with adventures—living in different cities and taking fun trips. Our thirties were spent having kids and balancing work, family, and hobbies. We were together for 22 years. We became adults together. He knows me better than anyone.
Walking on Eggshells
The night Joe told me he wanted a divorce felt surreal. We had gone to a party and had a small argument on the way home. I went outside to sit on the back patio. He followed me out there and let it out. "I want a divorce." I was in shock. I begged him to stay. I thought he must be depressed or having a mental breakdown. He said he had felt this way a long time—but if there were signs, I had missed them. We had just bought a new house, booked our summer vacation, and he had asked me to go to a conference with him the next year. That night, during our patio conversation, he agreed to stay for a few days until he could make an appointment with a therapist.
I spent the nights sobbing in my closet, so the kids couldn’t hear me. My days were spent pretending like nothing was wrong and putting on a good act for the kids. The act was so good, I got my hopes up thinking he wouldn’t leave.
Knowing it might be the last week for our family of four, I tried to soak in every moment. Our son said something funny, and Joe and I looked at each other across the table and gave each other the smirks parents give when they know they have a little secret from the kids. It was one of those moments that reminds you parenting is a team effort, that it is nice to have someone else to share the joys and challenges. I was hoping the look we shared would convince him to stay.
Each night, I remember thinking, "We had a nice day, but maybe he’ll leave us tomorrow." I was walking on eggshells. At that point, I felt like my husband was on life support, like I was waiting for him to die. I also felt like he was pointing a gun to my head, and I was waiting for him to pull the trigger.
On Thursday, he told me he was leaving. We were sitting on the hearth of the fireplace. He walked out, and I felt like a sandbag dropped on my chest.
Half of a Whole
Losing my husband was like a death. It’s a loneliness many people don’t seem to understand. I wanted to announce my pain to the world but understood it wouldn’t be appropriate to air my dirty laundry. Death is public, but divorce is private. Death is received with compassion and empathy and casseroles, but divorce is received with judgment and gossip. So I curled up in my closet.
A widow has a funeral where family and friends cry alongside her. They look through pictures and share good memories. She’s surrounded by love and compassion. Divorce is different. He is gone, but only to me. Unlike a death, no one else has lost him. Other friends and family get to see more of him. Even my kids get more one-on-one time with him.
Friends picked sides, and some abandoned me. Some shrugged and said, "You should move on and try to be happy." Didn’t they know I couldn’t just replace him? The person I was with from age 17 to 39? The father of my kids? I felt so much pain and didn’t know who I could reach out to. I hadn’t focused enough on my friendships, and I realized I didn’t have anyone to call when I was sobbing at 3 a.m.
In our small town, I couldn’t hide. I was constantly being asked how Joe was. Sometimes, I would lie when I didn’t feel like a conversation. I started to realize how often strangers asked about my last name; Joe’s family has a grocery store with the same name. "Now, how are you related to the store?" What should I say? "I used to be married to Joe, but he left me." I realized I had to change my name. I couldn’t keep answering that question forever.
Marriage joins two people together. We became one. Separation didn’t just separate us—it ripped us apart. Part of him stayed with me, and part of me went with him. I felt shredded. I lost my identity. Who was I as a single person? I had always been half of a whole. I wasn’t sure how to be a whole all by myself. I just felt like a half.
The Darkest Days
I was in shock and so sad. My best friend, parenting partner, and person I had planned on spending the rest of my life with was gone. I was sad for my broken family and broken dreams. The grief was intense. I didn’t want to move out his clothes, take down our beautiful family pictures, or change anything. I was hanging on to every last bit of him. The house we just bought suddenly felt like a big, empty, sterile shell.
The first few months, I spent a lot of time sobbing in my closet, curled up in its cocoon. In the morning I would sob in the shower and while I was drying my hair, hoping the noise would muffle my crying, so the kids wouldn’t hear. I would sometimes cry at work. I tried my best to hold it together and then let out the sobs on my lunch break. I’m so grateful for the wonderful, supportive people I work with—people who let me cry and who gave me lots of hugs, cards, and listening ears.
Occasions that were normally joyous made me want to hide and not face the fear of not being with my family. Thanksgiving and Christmas were coming up. I went to a hospice class on grief during the holidays and was crying harder than anyone. The class made me feel worse. Everyone else talked about remembering their loved ones with stories and pictures. My memories felt tainted. Decorating the house was really sad. Every ornament had a memory from collecting them on trips. I couldn’t put them on the tree. I went to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving and traveled to be with my family in California with the kids for Christmas. I cried every day, but it was so good to be surrounded by family.
It wasn’t until I got home after Christmas and the kids went to his house that I had my darkest days. There was a stark contrast between being surrounded by loved ones—my parents, my sister, and her family—and being in a house all alone. I didn’t do anything productive those days. I sobbed and sobbed.
I can’t think of a worse feeling than feeling unloved. It takes effort to breathe. I had to force myself to inhale and exhale. It’s hard to accept that the person I depended on to protect me would be the one to choose this. I felt so betrayed and abandoned. How had I not seen this coming? I felt like I had failed at being a good wife. The thought that my husband had been miserable with me was crushing. I cried, "Why doesn’t my husband want me?" Seeing him reminded me over and over that I wasn’t wanted. I wasn’t good enough. I was rejected.
As a parent, I want to protect my kids from hardship, but I felt completely unable to control the destruction of our family. The kids would ask me questions about why we chose to get divorced. I didn’t have an answer. Joe and I used to talk about how, someday, one of us would have to suffer the other one dying. I remember thinking what a sweet conversation that was, picturing one of us sitting on the other’s deathbed.
I never thought it would end this way.
I was barely sleeping. Each morning, I’d wake up early with a sense of dread. I started running each day before the sun came up. Some days, it was raining, and I would let it soak me. I just wanted to keep running away from my life. I longed to return to my old life, but I knew it was gone. Running toward the future seemed too terrifying. I was running away from reality.
There are so many moments when I want to share something with him. Even though he’s gone from me, he’s still alive. The boundaries are confusing. I spent more than half my life being able to tell him everything, and the next day I didn’t have him there anymore. I want to tell him I miss him. That I saw something that reminds me of him. Everything reminded me of him at first. Before he left, I used to text him on my way home every day. Now I’m not sure if I can share anything with him that doesn’t pertain to the kids. I can’t imagine anything more painful than this. He’s a mile away, yet I feel like a widow.
The reality of having to share my kids was one of many losses accompanying the main loss. It felt so unfair. The years we have with our kids go by so fast, and now those days with them are cut in half. A few weeks after he moved out, I had to drop something off with Joe at the house his grandparents had lived in. His grandpa had just died a month earlier, and Joe’s new home was still decorated with their pictures, doilies, and comforting grandparent items. It felt lived-in and cozy. I walked in, and Joe and the kids were sitting down in the dining room having dinner. I desperately wanted to pull up a chair and join my family for dinner, but I dropped off the item and had to leave.
I barely got to the car before huge tears started streaming down my face. It was the most painful day of my life. My family was sitting down having dinner together, and I was not invited. Not welcome to pull up a chair with my favorite people in the world. It was hard to fathom that this could even happen. I lived for family time; it’s what I treasured most in life. This didn’t feel real. I thought we had an unconditional love. That with our family, we are allowed to be our true selves and be accepted no matter what. I drove home, walked back into my big empty house, and sobbed.
Weekends were the worst part of the week. I would panic a little if I didn’t have a plan for times I didn’t have the kids. I hated hearing, "Have a great weekend!" People didn’t realize that the weekend brought on loneliness and anxiety. Instead of going to a farmers market with the family, I was wandering around my house aimlessly, not motivated to do anything productive.
I was accustomed to hearing the kids’ voices, seeing them every day, knowing what they wore to school. I was used to making sure they did their homework and feeling their presence when they were in their beds sleeping. Now, there were days when I was a mother with no one to mother. I was alone in a quiet house, while my kids were somewhere else. There were LEGO bricks left on the floor but no one home to play with them. I would sob, and I would scream. My whole family had been ripped away.
Being a single mom was rough, too. There were days when the kids were refusing to listen, or arguing, or throwing up, days when I wondered how I would be able to do it. Sometimes I couldn’t. One time, I called my dad to come put the kids to bed because my son was throwing a fit, and I was too overwhelmed with grief to handle it. I had never wanted to be a tag-team parent. I wanted a full-time partner in this tough part of life—someone to stand with me through the turbulence and celebrate the joyous moments.
Signs of Distress
I remember thinking that he should be arrested. He ruined my life. Breaking promises, destroying our family—isn’t that worse than drug possession or burglary? He can just change the rules, and everyone is okay with that? There are no consequences?
I feared for my financial situation. I worried the kids and I would have to move, that I’d have to get a new job. I would lose his income, his life insurance, and his retirement. Everything I had planned for the future could be taken away. Why had I been so trusting and not protected myself? Life insurance had been the protection I thought I needed. There is no protection against this.
The timeline of moving forward wasn’t a linear path. I would feel stronger one day and be in a puddle of tears the next. I went back and forth in my head between "Come back! I miss you and need you!" to "I hate you for doing this!" Acceptance was hard. I was set back a few times by getting my hopes up that he would come back. Being crushed after getting my hopes up was almost harder than the initial shock.
On top of the sadness, I was overwhelmed with uglier emotions. Anger, rage, jealousy, and possessiveness moved in. There were times I was afraid of my emotions. I was so angry I wasn’t sure what I was capable of. I talked myself off the ledge. All feelings are acceptable, but all behaviors are not.
My body showed outward signs of distress. I had a period for two months and lost fifteen pounds. Certain triggers would bring on anxiety attacks. After a few episodes of uncontrollable shivering, I figured out how my body reacts to a threatening situation. I started being able to listen to my body’s reaction instead of relying on my mind. There were days when I couldn’t turn off the thoughts in my head. I would go to bed crying and wake up with horrible images of Joe with another woman. I wanted to curl up in a corner to escape my thoughts. They would go around and around, and I couldn’t get away. Even if I tried to focus on the positive things in my life, my negative thoughts would barge in. I feared another woman replacing me in my family’s pictures. I was afraid that another woman would be the one to share the trips we had talked about taking.
Survival and Transformation
We had just booked our summer vacation to Priest Lake when Joe left. One of the first questions from the boys was, "What about our vacation? Are we still going?" I told them I didn't know. I didn't cancel the camping spot. Instead, I spent months thinking about how I could take the kids on that trip. I felt overwhelmed by the thought of taking our camping trailer by myself. But I wanted to give the kids that vacation. They had lost a lot, and this was the thing that concerned them the most at the moment. My parents ended up deciding to go with us. This picture is on a hike overlooking the lake. It is our survivor picture.
This year transformed me in many ways. I’ve embraced the experience and absorbed the emotions. Like a car getting an oil change, all of the crud was dumped out, and I opened myself up to being filled up with something new and clean that would help me run better.
It’s the first year of my life I’ve been on my own. I went back and forth between feeling helpless and feeling empowered. All of the first times were hard, but they prepared me for the next. Decorating for Christmas, dealing with a water leak, losing my car keys, barbecuing, figuring out the electronics, and mowing the lawn were some of the things I did for the first time as a single adult.
My emptiness was slowly filled with some great new friends. I climbed the hill of grief to become a stronger person.
I’ve persevered and can feel I’m becoming a more complete person—a person who is compassionate and empathetic. I didn’t realize the depths of pain people could withstand until this year. I wailed sobs that sounded like a wild animal. I didn’t know I was capable of that kind of intense emotion. One night I collapsed on the floor and cried out, "Okay, God, it’s just me and you. Just stay with me and get me through this."
I’m humbled by the number of people who took me to lunch, offered a shoulder to cry on, sent me cards, and came into my life. I sought out new friendships with other divorced parents, who have been the biggest gifts to come out of this. In the worst year of my life, I have felt the most love. It has made me want to be more like these people.
I’m still working my way out of the trench. I’m given hope by people who have gone before me who understand how painful this is and guarantee that it does get better. It took a year to feel like I’m beginning to move out of the deepest part of the trench into a better place. I’m starting to accept my new life. The sadness and anger are still there, but I am starting to feel different. Changing from hope of reconciliation to acceptance felt huge.
The holidays are coming up, a time of year that magnifies our emotions. It will be my first Christmas Day without the kids. My plan is to do something for myself that day and attempt to ignore the calendar. In our house, the Christmas season will last longer, and we will celebrate with my parents later in December. Christmas doesn’t need to be on a certain day. It can happen when we make it happen. It’s time to start new traditions and accept this new life.