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My new life as a young widow and single mom

When my husband died, I felt gutted and broken. Slowly, I’m finding ways to let him go while also keeping him alive for my girls — and myself.

by
Sarah Keast

Christmas Day, 2016, as a family of three. (Sarah Keast)

Snowsuit season in this house is over. And as a newly widowed mom of two young kids, all I can say is thank God. Parenting tasks that are annoying on the best of days can be soul-crushing when you’ve recently lost your husband. The daily snowsuit battle with my two girls was one of these things, and it brought me to tears many times this winter. As soon as I got one kid in boots, the other would need help with her mitts. Then I’d turn around and kid No. 1 would be crying about said boots, while kid No. 2 flung her mitts across the room because “they feel weird!” My brain would scream, “I have to deal with this nonsense alone for the rest of my life. Alone. For the rest of my life.” The insanity of my children combined with the overwhelmingness of that thought unhinged me many a winter morning.

So the act of washing and putting away those freaking things made me feel utterly joyful. But then I brought out their spring jackets, hung them up in the front hall and was punched in the face by my grief again. Staring up at me in black Sharpie ink from inside each of my daughters’ little jackets were their names, written in my husband’s quirky, beautiful handwriting, the same handwriting that had written me love notes, birthday cards and anniversary cards. Eventually, the girls will outgrow the jackets, and they will be passed on to friends. Yet another thing in our lives that Kevin touched will be gone.

Kevin and I were together for almost 16 years, and married for almost 11. He struggled with addiction and mental health issues for eight years of our marriage. His struggle came to an end on August 7, 2016, when he died at home from an accidental heroin overdose. He left behind myself and our daughters, Brooklyn, five, and Piper, two. We’ve been stumbling along through our grief ever since.

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Sometimes I look at my daughters playing happily (or not, because you know, siblings…) and my breath catches in my throat as I think, “They don’t have a dad. Their story will always be that their dad died when they were little.” When I describe this feeling to my grief counsellor, tears pouring out of my eyes, she gently but emphatically says, “They do have a dad. Kevin will always be their dad. Death doesn’t change that.” This is one of the bajillion lessons young widowhood teaches you: Death of a partner doesn’t mean death of the relationship. It means finding ways to keep him in my life and in my kids’ lives, while at the same time letting him go and moving forward. Amidst the crushing pain of losing my best friend, my lover, and my partner in life, I have to figure out how to live on my own, parent my two young kids through their grief, and also teach them how we can still love Kevin despite him being gone. I’m exhausted just writing that sentence.

My grief counsellor’s words resonated deeply within me. At every opportunity, I look for ways to include Kevin in our day-to-day lives. In November, we celebrated his birthday by bringing pizza and chocolate cake, his favourite birthday foods, to his gravesite. We regularly have kitchen dance parties where we try our best to emulate Daddy’s silly moves. (He’d be proud to know that I’m teaching them the joys of Face to Face and Drive-By Truckers.) Last December, in a grief-fuelled retail-therapy session, I bought wood ornaments for the Christmas tree with everyone’s name on them: Brooklyn, Piper, Ryder and Daddy. Ryder is the name of our son who was born and died at 22 weeks’ gestation. He is Brooklyn and Piper’s older brother and we have always talked openly about him in our family. Brooklyn put the new ornaments on the tree and excitedly motioned for me to look. She had grouped Piper and Brooklyn together on one side and Daddy and Ryder on the other. “Mama! This is where the dead people go!” she proclaimed. I stifled a giggle and my heart exploded with love. We’re slowly redefining ourselves as a family — one that has dead guys in it. We aren’t pros yet, but we’re getting there.

A picture Brooklyn drew for a book she made called "How Not to Be Sad When Someone in Your Family Dies"

A picture Brooklyn drew for a book she made called “How Not to Be Sad When Someone in Your Family Dies”

As Christmas got closer, I alternated between manically trying to make it “the best holiday ever” for my newly fatherless children, and trying to keep myself from falling to pieces. My grief counsellor had been suggesting that I reflect upon rituals Kevin had during the holidays and try to incorporate one into our family celebration. Consequently, Kevin’s ludicrous tradition of doing the Polar Bear Dip in Lake Ontario on New Year’s Day had been rolling around in my head. For the past four years he had done the Dip as a way to reboot his system and start the year fresh. The girls and I would go along to cheer him on, while at the same time I secretly mocked him under my breath.

I hadn’t officially committed to this ridiculousness until one morning when I was home watching daytime television, in a relatively fragile state. The host and her guest, a family therapist, were talking about how grief can make the holidays extremely hard for people and she echoed what my own counsellor had said about adding rituals that honour your loved one and also honour your grief. I started bawling hysterically, mumbling to myself that I have to do this godforsaken swim, and before the commercial break was over, I’d found the website for the Polar Bear Dip, signed myself up, and emailed out my fundraiser link.

I felt like a total badass braving Lake Ontario in a string bikini on January 1. But the swim also marked a shift in my widowhood. It was the first activity I’d done to honour Kevin in which I didn’t feel utterly gutted and broken. Instead, I felt renewed, strong, and ready to kick ass in this new, unchosen life. (I also felt freezing due to the whole going swimming in January in Canada thing.) It was such a cathartic experience, and I knew I needed to make this an annual tradition.

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With each passing moment, Kevin’s presence becomes less sharp and less fresh. I’ve redecorated our bedroom — new dresser, new bed frame, new art, new sheets. (I don’t think you’ll find a widow who hasn’t bought herself new sheets.) I’ve thrown out all of Kevin’s toiletries. I got rid of all his hot sauces in the pantry. I sold his weightlifting equipment. His clothes are still in his closet, but in time, I will get rid of them, too. His man cave is now a bright and happy playroom. I wear my wedding rings sporadically now. I’ve been on some dates. I’m even dating a guy regularly now.

I’m living. I’m happy-ish. But I still feel Kevin around me. When the Leafs clinched their playoff spot this past April, I heard his thunderous clap and his “Way to go, boys!” cheer. The girls and I have fallen into a routine of telling Daddy something about our days during our bedtime snuggles. When I picked out an outfit for a recent date, I swear I heard Kevin tell me I looked good. When I told my date a hilarious — and off-colour — joke, Kevin’s deep belly laugh sounded in my ear.

His spirit, his energy and his voice are with me as I move forward in my new life. This push-and-pull is painful and beautiful at the same time. I hope that in time the pain lessens and the beauty grows; I feel that happening already. It’s far from easy, but with graveside birthday parties, polar bear swims and kitchen dance parties, I can keep him alive. A beautiful and unique relationship with a dead guy.

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Read more of Sarah’s story at her blog, Adventures in Widowed Parenting.

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