It was midnight on a cold Autumn night in Melbourne, rain pounded on the roof of the car and the windscreen was opaque with streaming rivulets. I had just been told by a doctor that my husband would likely die the next day. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer only 10 days before. His symptoms - largely back pain - had given no clue as to the real cause of his illness and I was in shock.
In the dark of the night, finally alone, I allowed myself to really cry - an every-cell-of my-being melt down - fueled by all the pent up pain, fear and emotional trauma that had brimmed inside me as I had slammed up against each successive and increasingly pessimistic prognosis of the past few days. Grief liquified and poured out of me in a way I had never experienced before. I was 47 and privileged to be able to say I had never truly wandered deep or long in the valley of death. Of course people in my life had died, but for some reason, I had managed to avoid the pain and destruction of life changing, excoriating grief.
So, floundering around in this ocean of pain, I was surprised to observe my mind split in two. While one part was being tossed by the shocking undertow of grief, a new thought rose up unbidden and unexpected: “So this is what true tragedy feels like.”
I started to see that I could play with my mind, flipping it to the first voice that wailed with the self-pity of grief, but then effortlessly sliding into the cool, calm and collected perceptions of an objective observer, when a ground-breaking realization hit me: I had a choice.
I could be the sad and sorry grief-stricken widow, wallowing in the outpouring of sympathetic attention of everyone around me, or I could rise above the pain and observe myself in this experience with a cool and detached eye, understanding that it was merely adding to my bank of human experience, which I came to see led to a greater compassion and a far deeper wisdom.
The first voice, whilst offering a tempting warm embrace of others’ caring sympathy, would only every keep me in a state of helpless victimhood. If I wanted to retain agency in my own life, I needed to reassert my natural optimism and adjust my dreams and expectations to fit my new circumstances, and work towards creating a new but no less happy, peaceful, interesting and exciting life. I had to say no to self-pity and choose the new possibilities and potentials of my new life, not as had been for 20 years, but as it was now.
So, in the year following my husband’s death I did many things I had never done before. I opened myself up to a range of experiences that culminated in traveling to California to attend workshops and conferences that eventually led me to a new group of friends and ultimately to a whole new life on America’s west coast that feeds my soul in a way my previous life never did. Though unforeseen, it has been a wonderfully stimulating and exciting adventure that I now would not trade for anything.
I look back now and I see that in that one moment on a cold, wet night, I realized that I had a choice, and it changed everything.