How I Can Lighten Up in the Wake of Overwhelming Loss

How can I "celebrate" with my in-laws who are both having a second birthday without their beloved son? How can I lighten up when I worry so much about my daughter? How can I lighten up when I'm grieving my love of 20-something years?
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Man with dog admiring sunset on  Pacific Coast at Monterey Bay
Man with dog admiring sunset on Pacific Coast at Monterey Bay

I came across a video of my daughter recently, grabbing one of what seemed like a hundred balloons, scattered above the ceiling behind her. She untied the end, inhaled deeply, then spoke in a silly, helium-infused voice. She was maybe 10 years old, we were all laughing on the video, her father still with us. I paused the image, and I thought, I want to be as light as those balloons.

Except for videos and photos, I will never see my husband again. Maybe when I die, he'll be waiting for me in the white light. He'll be young still. His green eyes twinkling. I will be old. At least I think I will. I've learned that death can't be predicted, even when the doctors are telling you, "Your husband is critically ill."

Now I am left with our daughter to raise on my own. She will live her life having more years without her father than with him. I am left to raise her to be well-adjusted, happy, successful. Left to ensure that her education is a good one. That she has interests and activities. I am left to make sure she chooses the right friends, the right kind of man one day, the right profession. I am left to make sure that she can function in the world, fulfilled, productive and again, happy. No pressure.

I am also left to repair the leaky faucet in the kitchen. I am left to replace the windshield wipers on my car. I am left to call the gardener to deal with the massive tree that fell over in the backyard. And like all single parents, I will do these things in between the grocery shopping and bill paying, and meal planning and meal prepping, and rides, and tutors and doctor appointments and the overall care-taking of everyone and everything in my house which also includes wiping tears (my own, and my daughter's), doing the laundry, picking up the dog poop... speaking of the dog...

I am left to take care of her, too. To wonder if her current near death experience will really be the end this time. It's the second go around with her loss of appetite, lethargy and occasional blindness. The dog psychic -- yes, dog psychic -- said to let my dog's body "do what it needs to" should she get sick again. My daughter and I joke that Joel isn't sure if he wants the dog in Heaven just yet. He may want her to stay with us, to drive us crazy, for just a little while longer. She's a neurotic dog, after all.

I am left, too, with Joel's family -- my in-laws. Two sets, as Joel's parents are divorced, and each is remarried. All of them have birthdays this month. Joel's sister is coming in for the weekend to celebrate. Joel and I used to host almost everything: Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Passover, sometimes two nights each for the two sets of in-laws. But what do I do now that my husband isn't here? I feel his absence at every occasion. Still, they're the ones who lost a son. I don't know how anyone can recover from that, whether your child is 5 months, 5 years, or 50.

So in light of these things, this responsibility, this new life of mine, how can I lighten up? How can I "celebrate" with my in-laws who are both having a second birthday without their beloved son? How can I lighten up when I worry so much about my daughter? How can I lighten up when I'm grieving my love of 20-something years, even while surrounded by the loving support of friends, family, and a wonderful new man?

I ran into a neighbor last week, who I haven't seen in a while. When he greeted me, he asked, "How are you?! I haven't seen your husband or the big dog in a long time, how is everyone?"

The "big dog" was Lucy. She was 15, a genius and super model among dogs. She was old, but hanging in there... until my daughter and I went away for a few weeks, to heal. Friends say that Lucy died when we were out of town so we wouldn't have to witness yet another loss, so soon after Joel's. I have no doubt that they are together now.

But when I saw this neighbor, who obviously had no idea, I was rendered speechless. How could I begin to utter the words that "everyone" had died? He took in my expression. "Oh, no!" he said. "Not the dog?!"

I swallowed the sobs that were screaming from my gut. I didn't want to make a scene. I think I muttered something along the lines of, "Both of them." He clasped his mouth with his hand, lost all the color in his face, legitimately shocked. "I am so sorry," he managed to say.

I did not think I could keep it together. This was, and continues to be, my biggest fear -- running into people who don't know, who innocently ask about my family... and then, having to explain.

But I reminded myself to breathe. And in that breath, something strange happened. This tremendous, unbearable loss, this hand I had been dealt, came to the surface. It was so hard to fathom! The ridiculous sadness of my life was... well, it was almost laughable!

So I smiled. I had to.

The next day, I found a condolence card from the neighbor and his family. It was attached to a balloon, a little something for my daughter. I took the card and let the balloon float to the ceiling, light as air. And in that moment, I somehow felt lighter, too.

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