I’ve experienced my fair share of challenges and tragedies, but nothing quite prepared me for losing my husband to heart disease. With my kids grown and moved out by the time my husband passed, I suddenly woke up one day and was alone, responsible for everything and yet feeling incapable of doing even the most basic tasks. I could not plan a thing. I could not figure out how to eat. Just breathing was a task. I couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t figure out how to move forward. It was a crushing loneliness – unadulterated despair – and I simply couldn’t face the challenge of crawling out of the hole I was in. I was emotionally dead.
My children gave me the strength to face each day. I realized that seeing me in that state was not healthy for them; they needed to learn how to move forward after a tragedy. So I knew inside that I needed to be a good example, to gain my strength and move forward. I decided to treat my grief like an illness. Yes, I needed to take some time off to recover, but I would rebound from this.
I reached out to my friends because I needed to talk, and they were there for me. But eventually I realized that they couldn’t be my only lifeline. Everybody who goes through a tragedy needs people to talk to, but I realized that if I kept talking about the same thing over and over, eventually they wouldn’t want to hear it anymore. It was just too depressing to bear. So I realized that I didn’t want to wake up seven years later and still be talking about the same thing, still be trying to find a reason to justify why my husband – the love of my life – was taken from me so soon. I realized that I would never find a reason, and so I instituted a self-imposed statute of limitations. I gave myself a year to wallow in my sadness, to figure out how I wanted to live the rest of my life, and then I needed to move forward, become my own lifeline.
I started by taking stock in myself. How was I taking care of myself? Did I need therapy to deal with what had happened? I began by putting one foot in front of the other, baby steps. The hardest thing was learning how to live by myself, so I went back to the basics. Instead of eating at restaurants every day, I went grocery shopping and cooked my own dinner. Instead of staying in the house, I forced myself to go for a walk every day. Instead of spending each night in a daze of insomnia, I forced myself to sleep. I realized I needed something to keep me busy, so I started taking tennis lessons, something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a child. And tennis made me smile. Walking made me smile. Just getting out of the house made me smile – encountering a happy dog on a street, seeing children laugh – these things helped me get back on track. It was hard, at first, but I realized that if I stayed inside, I just felt sorry for myself. I got more and more depressed, I gained weight, I just felt miserable. And that’s no way to spend a life.
Recovering from loss is a working process – you have to experiment and you have to try things and you have to be brave. You need to work through your stress and anxiety. For me, walking was the key that allowed me to assess my pain and think it through. It’s amazing what you can overcome by just being in the sunshine with positive music playing on your iPod. I found that twenty minutes of this was all it took to put me in a better mood, so no matter that I didn’t feel terrific most days and didn’t want to leave my house, I forced myself to do it every day and I was surprised how much it helped. Suddenly not only was I feeling better, but I was looking better too. I shed that waxy indoor complexion, and then one day I looked in the mirror and I was myself again.
Sometimes we have to take a period of time and isolate ourselves to make ourselves stable. I was not ready immediately after losing my husband to move forward, and there was no shame in that. I needed that time to process, to plan, to get a grip on myself and my emotions. I needed to talk it out, and I needed to create a new life for myself.
When you’ve experienced a tragedy, in order to move forward you need to rise above yourself. You need to figure out what’s next so that you can start working toward it. Start by looking at yourself from a stranger’s point of view. Identify your areas of opportunity and put them in black and white on a piece of paper. I looked at my life and realized that I had all of the freedom and opportunity of a 21-year-old, but I also had a lot more experience and wisdom under my belt. I realized that I still had a list of things that I wanted to do with my life, things I wanted to enjoy. I forgot about that list for a while, but it was never really gone – I just needed to look for it.
Just as you would take care of friend who was sick or working through their own loss, take care of yourself. Encourage the woman you see in the mirror to keep on living. Tell her you love her and that it will be okay. Give her hope and hold her hand when she is doubting. And when things just seem too much to bear, tell her to lace up her jogging shoes and get out to the park. She’ll never know what she might find.
Susanne Veder Berger is an author, educator, business executive and mother, who currently lives' on New York City's Upper West Side. Susanne has held a variety of executive positions in the field of marketing for CitiGroup, the U.S. Tennis Association and a number of other companies and organizations. Over the past 4 years, Susanne has been working with inner city high school students in Brooklyn, New York helping them develop self-esteem, prepare for college and secure internships – Susanne Veder Berger's work in education is centered around the implementation of extra curricular activities and the development of student-run journalism programs.