How to Stop a Freight Train with Your Bare Hands

You didn’t ask for it. You don’t want it. But it’s here. And there’s no stopping it, try as you might. You can either stand in front of it, your arms extended, only to have it destroy you along with everything around you, or you can step aside. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty. But I believe there is some redemption in the midst of what is lost.

In this blog entry, I’m going to attempt to describe what it is like to be a young widower — for me at least. I can’t speak for everyone, but as C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, despite my desire to be a lone, tragic figure, I am in fact a part of an army of widowed people now, many millions in the world today whose marriage has ended in one of the two ways they always end: divorce or death. It sounds morbid, but it is true. We lovers are all headed toward one or the other.

I’ve had a really hard time writing about this so far, not because it is some big emotional issue for me, but because there is just too much swirling around in my head. Every day I am thinking or feeling something that I haven’t thought or felt before. There is just too much. I’m going to try to capture some of the major aspects of my experience here anyway, even if they are just a small fraction of the real thing.

This is a long one. If you make it through the whole thing, God bless you. For the short version, read the headings.

Me and Linz

Linz and Me — Currently One of My Favorite Photos, Taken Last Night

Loneliness

Here’s a question for you: Why did God create Adam alone, knowing that “it is not good for man to be alone?” Did He want Adam to feel alone before He gave him a wife?

Well, God, I’m feeling it.

I’m usually OK when the girls are home with me. It tends to be loud and busy. There’s a lot going on. Fights. Homework. Questions. Piano. Chores. I realize that the kids are God’s gift from So Young to me in many ways, not the least of which is that they are a pretty good antidote to loneliness when they are around.

It can become difficult when I am alone at home for a few hours or days. (Please understand that this is not to say I never want them out of the house without me.) When I was alone for a week while they were in North Carolina, it was pretty hard. I just really longed for that human connection that I had when So Young was around. Nighttime is also difficult, pretty much every night.

It’s a strange thing to experience. You want her, but she’s not there. There are wonderful but inadequate substitutes. A lot of people say, “Talk to your guy friends.” Well, I have really good male friends that I can talk to and do, but it isn’t the same. I read one book saying something about widowers wanting “the feminine perspective” occasionally. That’s not it at all. You think I want to talk to a woman because I lack affinity with her? I don’t see things the way she does, so I want to talk? I don’t think so. I have always found more commonality in perspective than difference.

I can’t describe it well, but I have this feeling that talking to some dude isn’t enough. Talking to one of So Young’s friends, her sister, or my mom also isn’t enough. Even talking to God isn’t the same. I don’t have eros for God, after all. I need Him, but not in the same way. I’m pretty sure he “gets” that. (Again, see C.S. Lewis, this time The Four Loves.) It’s not a replacement. Does that sound terrible? It isn’t just about talking to a woman. I think it is about wanting So Young, and more specifically, not wanting to “be alone” in the way that God said it was not good for man to be alone. Sorry if that’s too personal, but that’s kind of the way it is. You probably won’t understand until you go through it.

I sometimes also have this sense of outrage at the unfairness of the way things are for widows and widowers in general. God took her, and there are rules about finding someone else that seem unfair to me. Husbands can talk to their wives. Single men can talk to their girlfriends or single women. Widowers, for a certain period of time that is different in everybody’s head, can’t talk to single women period. You have lost your only female companion. Too bad for you. There can be nobody else until we say so. I’m just telling you how I see it. Hopefully that isn’t too upsetting for people to hear.

A lot of it is just longing for the presence of this one person and realizing you can’t have it and never will again. There’s a song by the band The Welcome Wagon that captures this perfectly for me called “Would You Come and See Me in New York.” I’ve cried each of the dozen or so times I’ve heard it. It’s about a guy who wants his dad, who has died, to visit him in New York to see him now that he has gotten older and things have changed. There’s something about just having that person there and they aren’t and you can’t have them back but you want to. It’s really a visceral thing that is hard to articulate in words.

Fear

Lewis talks about a generalized sense of fear in his book A Grief Observed. I don’t feel that. I have a sense of fear about something Lewis embraced: the notion of my wife visiting me as a ghost after she has died.

You have to understand that I sleep in the room she died in, right next to the bed she died in. I have some pretty powerful visual images of her in that bed after she passed. And of course there are her hallucinations of children, corpses, etc. in the room, which weren’t pleasant and seemed almost demonic to me at times.

People have told me that she might visit me, I might see her, she might touch me, etc. I am horrified at the thought. This is not something I look forward to or that comforts me. I want her in heaven, which is where I believe she is, or “paradise” as Jesus described it to the thief next to him as they both died. I don’t know how it really is on the other side, but I hope for her sake she is not wandering around on earth, lost and perhaps tormented, still wanting to reach those she’s left behind. I don’t believe it, and the thought is no comfort to me. Those thoughts also make the night difficult.

There is also a general sense of fear that I too, like So Young, will die, and soon. The stress of the situation in itself seems to be enough. (And no, the stress of raising the girls isn’t it. Don’t assume I can’t handle it. It’s more complicated than that.)

Single dad-hood

Which brings me to still another point: Did I mention that I can handle this?

I’m going to step onto my soap box for a second. I get this feeling — and I could be wrong — but I get this feeling that there is a perception out there that I can’t raise my kids because, well, because I am a man. WRONG! I am just as capable of taking care of my girls as a single mom is, thank you very much.

I don’t need to be rescued. I repeat: Don’t try to save me!

I don’t need pity.

I am not overwhelmed.

Don’t read into my face too much when you see me. It is not the look of a man cowering in fear because he is surrounded by terrible little girls stomping all over him. On the contrary, my wife just died, and I may be a bit saddened by it. I may be having “a moment.” Also, I’m not a very smiley person in general. We are doing very well under the circumstances. I’m not perfect by any stretch, and neither is anybody else… OK, stepping down from my soap box now.

Regret

So much went wrong while So Young and I were together that I can’t help but feel regret. We had 20 years. That was half of her life. I would characterize five of those years as miserable for both of us, as my friends and hers can attest. When you die at 40, that’s a pretty good percentage of your earthly existence.

I always laugh to myself when I hear people vowing to live life with “no regrets.” Really? No regrets? You won’t make any mistakes? You’ve already learned everything before you lived it? I wish I could do that. I don’t know anyone who has.

There is this desire as I look toward the future with an understanding of the past that I want to do it better next time. If I marry again, and Lord willing I will, I want to do it right, or at least better, and learn from the mistakes of the past.

Waves of realization

Almost every day since So Young died, I keep remembering things she went through during the months she was declining and dying, and it pains me greatly. There’s not much to say about this one other than that it happens. I don’t intend to try to stop it from happening. I think I didn’t feel it while it was going on, so I need to feel it now.

Just plain sadness without any reason other than that So Young has died

Not much else to say about that one. Sometimes you just feel sad and cry.

A great sense of accomplishment

Almost since the day So Young died, I have had this irreverent thought that is absolutely true. It fills me with great satisfaction to think it, as strange as it is: We made it! ‘Til death do us part, as we vowed to one another on our wedding day. There were times we could have given up and very nearly did. Still, by God’s grace, we made it. This is one of the bright spots of this situation, although as I told Shanny the other day, too bad Mommy had to die for that to happen.

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15 Responses

  1. I have always loved your brutal honesty.

    • Thanks and why are we awake after midnight?

      • Because “we” had too much coffee after 12:30 pm.

  2. Dear James,
    Thank you for your rather magnificent meditation + update on what is what w/ your life @ present.

    I do not have the sense that So Young will be haunting you, although it is common for the bereaved (you) to have brief intense misperceptions including hearing a non-descript sound + thinking it is her voice or catching a glimpse that seems to be her, but then it is not. It is even more common in the sleep-deprived.

    I do not think it is a good thing that you are experiencing fear in your bedroom. It was sacrificial + very meaningful to So Young, I bet, that you brought her back to the stabilizing comfort of that room. Now that the hospital bed is gone, if it were me, I would ask God to help me pick out a good rocking chair to go in that exact spot, so I could rock in it as hard as I wanted to, as I talked out loud to God AND So Young every time I experienced the pain + sadness + fear. There’s that verse about taking every thought captive to Christ so it can be dealt with His way (2 Cor 10:5). And that He tells us that it is not His plan to leave us “out there” + afraid. See 2 Tim 1:7, Mt 28:20, John 14:27, Isaiah 53:4,
    That way, you would be reclaiming your space AND spending quality time w/ one foot in Heaven, so to speak, as we know they have all the time we need to listen to us, up there.

    For waking up in a panic @ night, I have found it useful to keep a small night light on + arrange in advance some kind of soothing ritual (like: Go make yourself a cup of herbal + make yourself sit @ the table + slowly inhale its scent until it is drinking temperature.) For re-occurring panic attacks. + persistant insomnia, though, you know you should cut yourself some slack + consult a professional.

    Thanks for trusting us to walk this path w/ you + your family. Our prayers are with you.

    Ellen

  3. Grindingly painful post which captures some of the hauntingly difficult aspects, not only of recent loss of a spouse, but of the deep loneliness of being alone. While I have never lost a spouse, I have spent the last fifteen years alone and celibate while raising my two orphaned daughters. Few people can understand that the need for human companionship (not gal pals…) cannot be satisfied by my faith in God! As you so brilliantly said, ‘I don’t have Eros for God!”

    James, you have an awesome responsibility in raising your three daughters alone — while dealing with your grief and your loneliness. While I pray that you would eventually find the companionship you yearn for, I can attest that finding a spouse is elusive at best. Know that there are other parents like yourself who are raising orphaned children alone. Fifteen years for me alone has been more than challenging. But by God’s grace I continue unaccompanied.

    Thank you for your courage in bearing your feelings in such a raw fashion. I continue to pray for you and your thee girls.

    Pax,
    Amy

  4. Thank you James for writing this. It is helpful for all of us.

  5. Thank you for sharing.

  6. James,
    This blog is perhaps the best one I ever subscribed to. While not the same I have experienced death and the likes over the past several months. Your testimony through here has been both a relief and a coping mechanism for me. That part about single dad and a life “without” regrets really are perfect. Thank you for continually sharing. If you ever need an ear or a presence around feel free to hit me up. I can sit and listen I can sit and talk and I can simply just be around.

    Jimmydjarhead@hotmail.com

    • Jimmy, thanks for always being there for me and my wife.

      • James I am being a very serious honest! If ever you need to just break free of the norm for a minute let me know.

  7. Hey James,
    I am truly sorry if I am being a pest + you only need to email me privately if that is the case.

    But I just flashed on you sitting in the spot in your room where so many intense memories were made as you did honor every breath of “until death do us part”. It was you singing loud + soulfully, “NObody knows the trouble I’ve seen. NObody knows but Jesus…”

    I think I am accurate in remembering that you play guitar, which makes it that much more of a whole body participatory prayer of release.

    The Blues are perfect for complexities that defy normal trains of thought.

    In my typical Hop-skip-jump thinking, I began wondering about the possibility of someone recommending a teacher of Blues Guitar locally who would also respect your beliefs + seeming paradoxes in a warm + accepting manner. Better than therapy for some people for uncorking their inner artesian wells.

    I realize it is bold + off-the-wall, but I asked God to provide, if it is something you decide that YOU wish for.

    Love,
    Ellen

  8. I am proud of you and your sweet So Young. You are a good, faithful husband and father. You are correct in saying that God understands you. Peace, my son. Pray when things are difficult. Seek God’s advice and comfort.

  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts at this time. Thinking of you and your beautiful girls.
    Debby

  10. Your directness and honesty will take you to a better place, James. Be patient and accept what you feel and think. I pray for peace to fill you and the girls when the time will have come. Love to you all.

  11. I saw how sweet you were with Audrey when I visited, and I thought, “what a loving dad!!” It was very cute and since then you had my utmost confidence that God entrusted you with (not one, not two, but…) three daughters because you are capable and worthy of it!

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