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Love, Loss and, Suddenly, Single Parenthood

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I found my true love at age 18. Her name was Liz. She was smart, outgoing, strong-willed, gorgeous and so much more. Though it was a love that I knew would last forever, I waited nine years to ask her the question that she would inevitably say yes to. There was no hurry to get to our future because we were too busy living in the present. We knew immediately that we would have a long life together, never to be torn apart by separation or divorce. We were married at age 28, and a year later we were filled with immense joy when we found out that Liz was pregnant. Our daughter Madeline was born healthy, though seven weeks before her due date, on March 24, 2008.

The next day, Liz died.

The pulmonary embolism that killed her came on so quickly that there was no detecting it, and worse, no stopping it. In an instant I became a single father and a widower. I had never considered these words as possible labels for myself, yet there I was, living a life defined by them. I had no idea who I was anymore, and I was worried that I wouldn't be able to survive without Liz, especially with a newborn daughter.

In the weeks after her death, friends and strangers who read about what had happened sent me books that were supposed to help me learn to grieve. Some of these promised to provide me with 10 steps for survival. Others included daily mediations that would help me along the path to moving on, or bible passages that would pull me from darkness back in to the light. They were written by RNs, pastors, or people with Ph.D.s, and almost all of these people lacked a truly personal experience with death. Admittedly, I didn't read any of these books because simply flipping through them or eyeing the summary on the dust jacket led me to believe that they were written for someone else. They made me feel like I was grieving all wrong.

I started to feel that these books weren't actually written for the person who had suffered the death of a loved one. In fact, it seemed as if they had been published just so people who had never experienced such tragedy could buy them, send them to the mourning person, and feel like they'd done something to help.

But none of the books seemed to acknowledge that grief is a complicated and very individualized thing. Even though I was living through it, it took me a while to figure that part out.

For months it seemed like some of my family members didn't want to talk about Liz or acknowledge her death, that by doing so they'd send me into some unending tailspin from which I wouldn't be able to escape. Even so, it was important for us to spend time together, and I found it especially important to spend time with Liz's parents and sister because I hoped Madeline's presence in their life would help them best. I wanted to be closer to Liz's family than I would have been if she were still alive; I wanted them to always be a part of our lives. It's not that I felt that I owed it to them at all; I just know it's what Liz would have wanted, and I wanted it, too.

Looking ahead to the moments that I knew would trigger the most heartache for us, the first of many firsts without Liz would be August 13, the date of our wedding anniversary. I talked Liz's parents into taking a trip with Madeline and me, with the idea that we'd all be in a place together that none of us had previously visited; getting through the day itself would be difficult enough without any other reminders of a place where we had made memories with Liz.

During dinner on what would have been our third wedding anniversary, I waited, hoping my in-laws would talk about Liz, or at least about why we were all sitting together in a restaurant in Canada. But they never did. They never brought any of it up, and at the time, their silence was devastating. I didn't tell them that, though, nor did I mention Liz's name for fear that I would make them sad. Our quiet and lack of acknowledgment of the anniversary got us through it, I guess, and the next day was just as any other.

A few months later, Madeline and I flew to Minnesota for Thanksgiving with my and Liz's families. Without telling me, Liz's parents had transformed Liz's childhood room into a nursery for Madeline, wiping away many of the reminders I had of my life with my high school sweetheart. Just seeing it brought me to tears, and as Liz's mom held me and broke down crying with me that night for the first time since the funeral, a few things finally hit me.

First, my friends, my family, and especially Liz's family all had the same goals -- to keep each other comfortable -- but we were all so busy trying to be considerate that we forgot to ask what we all needed. We simply weren't communicating. I'm sure my friends would have been happy to hear me tell stories about Liz, if only I had said that it made me feel better to do so. I know now that if I had talked that night in Canada about how wonderful the Stargazer lilies had smelled at the wedding or how little I had danced at the reception, there might have been tears, but her family would have supported me. And that Thanksgiving, I learned that Liz's family talked about her all the time, just not in front of me for fear of causing me to break down.

And that led me to the most important conclusion: everyone grieves differently. Of course the grief that I felt was different from that of my in-laws, my family, Liz's friends and my friends, but I didn't understand that until we finally spoke about it. Yes, we were all grieving, but in completely different ways. As long as we held each other up the best we could, well, we were damn lucky to have each other.

Over time, my relationship with Liz's family has strengthened, and we have become closer than ever before, thanks in part to increased communication and our willingness to share our emotions with one another. Getting on the same page meant that time wasn't spent worrying that we'd somehow make each other sad, which allowed us to truly enjoy our time together. Some of my relationships have weakened, though. Some friends have dropped out of my life, unable to relate to the person they thought I'd become. Others entered my life, including several widows and widowers I met online who became indispensable as sources of information and support as I navigated my new life.

As time wore on, I realized that more than anything, I just wanted someone to relate to. Someone who could relate to me. Someone who didn't tell me how to mourn like those books tried to do. I didn't need advice or a quick method for getting over Liz. I wanted to hear someone swear and tell me that things sucked. I wanted to know that it was okay to think that things would never be okay. I wanted to see, hear and feel some real emotion. I wanted to be around people who "got it." That's exactly why none of those grief books worked for me. They were clinical in the way they told me to deal with my grief, when they should have been saying that there's no one way to deal with it.

My book doesn't have any advice to help you move on, no plan to help you conquer your own pain. I'm not going to tell you to follow the steps I took to get to a happier life -- because the path from grief to happiness is not linear. In fact, it's not a path at all. It's a jagged, messy and unpredictable thing. Some days I can be laughing with my daughter as she tells me about her friends at daycare, and suddenly I'm thrust back in time to the worst day of my life because a song that Liz requested to be played on our wedding night comes up randomly on my iPod. And sometimes I can be laughing at the headlines on the tabloids at the grocery checkout line when I smell the now not-so-familiar scent of Liz's perfume on a woman standing ahead of me. Moments like these are reminders that I will never finish grieving, and that the memories I have of my time with Liz will never leave me. Really, though, I don't want to finish grieving; I don't want those memories to disappear. Because if that happened, then Liz would disappear, which is the last thing I want to happen for anyone who ever knew her. And especially for Madeline.

That's what my book is about.

It's nothing extraordinary.

It's just a story.

My story.

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