- By Jill Smolowe
The morning after my husband was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, I went for a speed walk. Though music was playing on my iPod, I was deaf to it as tears blurred my vision and the image of a black abyss clouded my mind. When a stark thought crystallized — If he goes, I’m going to have to reimagine my whole life — I began to sob.
Over the next two and a half years, as Joe endured chemo, a stem cell transplant and related side effects, that frightening thought lingered at the back of my mind, surging to the foreground each time his health took a downward turn.
I never tried to clarify what exactly I meant. I just accepted it as an expression of my deepest, darkest fear.
On June 20, 2009, Joe fried some eggs, sat down to the read the newspaper, then toppled backward — and died. In the coming weeks, I became acquainted with profound sorrow as I began to confront the startling fact that the man I loved, the one around whom I’d organized my life for the last 28 years, was gone.
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Yet, to my surprise — and relief — I held it together better than I would have predicted. That wasn’t the only surprise.
In my journal, I wrote: People have been amazing. Writer friends. Pennsylvania friends. New York friends. Neighbors … I had thought when I saw the abyss after Joe’s diagnosis that I would have to “reimagine” my whole life. I no longer think that’s true.
Now as the fifth anniversary of Joe’s death approaches, I find myself surprised once again — this time by the realization that I actually have reimagined my life.
No less striking, this reinvention has neither been engineered by a dramatic redesign nor been attended by a sense of fear and dread. Instead, step by step, I have worked my way into a life that is very different — yet very familiar.
Falling in Love Again
The first step of that transformation involved acknowledging that I did not want to be alone.
This did not reflect a need for some guy to direct my life; to the contrary, I’ve always preferred making, and acting upon, my own decisions. Rather, my desire to repartner was both a tribute to and a reflection of the relationship I’d had with Joe.
I knew from our years together that life is sweeter when shared. The prospect of spending the rest my life alone felt unbearable.
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So, I ventured into the world of Internet dating. Ten days later, I received this message: “I’m a recent widower … Your profile is intriguing. Would you be interested in a chat or perhaps a cup of coffee?”
When I punched up his profile, I was struck by how many of his priorities echoed my own. “I want to share my life,” he wrote. “Mutual respect and an ability to compromise are essential.” Particularly appealing was this: “I was happily married to a dear woman for 38 years.” I liked that he’d had a long, happy marriage.
Over the next two years, as Bob and I became entwined in each other’s lives, changes continued to unfold, but in gradual increments.
My daughter took the SAT. We made the college rounds. She decamped. Bob softened the sting of my empty nest by moving in. A year later, we married, surrounded by my daughter and his two grown children. By then, the idea of spending the rest of our lives together was a foregone conclusion.
Facing Life Head On
I also got more serious about keeping my aging body in good condition. I’ve always exercised, but my level of dedication underwent a shift the day I shouted across the fence to my neighbor, “Hey, you look great! Are you dieting?” and she responded, “Nope. Pilates.” She signed me up for a complimentary class, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
The classes I now take four times a week leave my 58-year-old body feeling stronger and more flexible. I want to believe they’re helping with that annoying, post-menopausal memory deficit thing, too.
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All the while, my work life was also undergoing subtle alterations, an extension of changes that had begun to percolate long before Joe got sick.
A working journalist since graduating college in 1977, I’d stepped back from the five-day workweek in 1999 to take a two-day-a-week writing job at People in order to write books, but on a schedule more compatible with the needs of my daughter, who was five at the time.
My novel-in-progress, which had been sidelined by Joe’s illness, continued to remain on hold as more sickness, then death, came my way again and again: my mother-in-law, my husband, my sister, my mother, all of them gone within the space of 17 months.
By the time I dug myself out from that tsunami of grief, I was no longer interested in the novel. Instead, I wanted to write a memoir that would jostle preconceptions about caregiving, defy clichés about losing loved ones and help enlarge assumptions about how people cope with grief.
Not long after I finished the first draft of that memoir, which I would eventually title Four Funerals and a Wedding, the parent company of People announced a downsizing.
I’d ignored earlier Reductions-In-Force, but this time I checked out the package. There, along with the severance calculations, was a gem I hadn’t anticipated: a generous retraining allowance.
‘One Step At a Time’
Years before Joe’s death I’d labeled a folder “Future” and started filling it with articles that suggested options for someone past age 50 who might want to make a career change. Now when I opened that folder, it was apparent the option that had repeatedly caught my eye was “life coach.” As I (re)read the descriptions of the various subspecialties, one instantly resonated: grief coach.
After encouraging conversations with two businesswomen who had transitioned into coaching, I went online to research my options.
I was seeking a coaching school that was within driving distance of home, offered on-site training and would be covered by the retraining allowance. When I identified a school that matched my criteria, I contacted several of its graduates, among them a grief coach. Excited by what they told me about their experiences, I decided it was time to take the plunge.
But one step at a time. My first step away from People was to “retire” from my two-day-a-week gig, then re-up as a “temp.”
As I trained to become a coach, then launched a grief and transition practice drawing clients from around the country, I continued to write for the magazine one day a week. Three months before the publication of Four Funerals and a Wedding, I also began writing articles intended to draw attention to my book.
My workweek was getting ridiculously busy. Something had to give.
In April, in sequence: my book was published, I became certified as a professional coach and I tendered my resignation at People.
Now, five years after losing Joe, I find myself with a new husband, a new career, a new exercise regimen and a new book.
Although this reimagined life was born of unwanted and once-unthinkable loss, the idea of reinvention no longer fills me with fear and dread. Instead, I’ve come to understand and appreciate that no matter what life may deal me, it is always my choice what I make of it.