His breathing tightened. Each breath now was a labor. After almost 12 years of listening to the cadence of his breath as we ran marathons together, as he slept by my side, this sound was foreign, painful. I tried to hook up the oxygen tank brought by hospice.
Twice I connected the tubes to his nostrils. Twice he ripped them out. He was still fighting for life even as the cancer coursed through his body. His mother told me with her eyes that we were near the end. My heart knew it, too.
One by one, I ushered my young daughters – ages 2, 5 and 8 – into the room and urged them to kiss Daddy one more time. I cradled his hand in mine, fingering that wedding band – an unending circle of love between us. At dawn, light streamed wildly through the blinds of our bedroom window.
His hazel eyes moved toward the light. He clapped his hands together in his signature way and left his broken body behind….
When I spoke my wedding vows to Ericlee Gilmore, I never dreamed those words – “in sickness and health until death do us part” – would mean burying him 11 years later. I imagined having babies and chasing careers. I imagined traveling to distant shores and fulfilling dreams together.
I never imagined the word cancer would one day separate us.
I never dreamed I would kneel by his grave when our three girls were still so young, and we would all have to whisper our goodbyes. This is a story I never would have written for myself. Never.
Two years ago, my beloved husband made that giant leap into heaven at age 40. He was an amazing husband, dedicated father, trusted mentor, coach and friend to countless people in this community and beyond.
Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t stop me in the grocery store or at the gym or at church to tell me a story about how their life was changed by him. I draw comfort from the ways I see his legacy lives on.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned these past two years is that I need to give myself permission to grieve. Too often in our culture we obsess over getting over it. We are afraid to pause and give ourselves space to lament. We stuff down our emotions. We are too eager to avoid the memories and move on. We criticize others who are open about their pain and grief.
If you or someone you love is grieving, know this: Every journey is unique. Cover yourself or that person with a blanket of grace. Be patient. Grief is like a tangled ball of yarn. We must unravel it in our own time. No step-by-step plan or stages of grief diagram can make it all better. Sometimes what we really need is permission.
Maybe you haven’t lost a spouse but you have experienced loss in another way. Maybe you have lost a child or buried a brother. Maybe you have left a neighborhood, a job or a church. Maybe you have experienced a miscarriage or faced infertility.
Maybe you have been hurt by a family member or a friend. Maybe your marriage is broken or you have endured some other medical trauma. Maybe your heart is bleeding for the injustice in our world, for the violence against your people. This is for you.
Give yourself permission to grieve. Give yourself time to lean into the memories. Give yourself space to tend to your raw soul. I have needed permission from my circle to grieve my way – not at all the way my mama or mother-in-law or best friend or that other widow grieved. My grief is personal and different. Yours will be, too.
This past January, through a wild weaving together of threads in my life, I married a man who was one of my husband’s best friends. He has walked through the grief with my daughters and me. He has joined us in the daily dance of joy and pain. He has provided comfort, companionship and confidence where we needed it most.
What I appreciate about Shawn is he gives us freedom to cry, to remember, and to celebrate Ericlee’s life. He never shames me for talking about my late husband and lamenting his absence.
I may be happily married now, but I will always be a widow. My heart aches especially in September when the days are still hot in Fresno, but the evenings bring that first cool relief and those breathtaking sunsets. Two years later, his suffering in those final days is still vivid, but the sunset somehow brings me perspective.
No matter where I am, I always pause to watch that fiery-orange sun ball slip into the coin slot of the horizon. I love the ribbons of color dancing across the sky – deep merlot, pumpkin orange, dusky lavender and deep indigo swirling. And I am always surprised at the way the colors burn even more brilliantly after the sun is gone.
Need local help?
The Central San Joaquin Valley has many resources for individuals and families dealing with grief and loss. These are a few that were especially helpful for our family:
▪ Hinds Hospice, Center for Grief and Healing – a local organization dedicated to providing resources and programs for families navigating grief (www.hindshospice.org, 559-226-5683).
▪ Circle of Friends – grief group for children hosted at Hinds Hospice (559-226-5683).
▪ Grief counseling – Patty Behrens, licensed marriage and family therapist (www.counselingfresno.org, 559-577-3994).
▪ G.I.G. (Gals in Growth) – a group for young widows with children led by Behrens.
▪ Grief Share, a 14-week program for individuals who have lost a loved one. Sessions available at various churches, including The Bridge in Fresno (559-226-4100).
**The original version of this article was published in the Valley Voices section of The Fresno Bee. Click here for the rest of the article that ended up running in more than 20 newspapers across the country.
Do you have a friend who needs permission to grieve? Please share!