Am I alone? The reality of sickness in life after a spouse’s death

About 13 months after my husband Jim died, I fell hard on the ice. Not thinking too much of it — this is Maine, after all — I didn’t go directly to the hospital by ambulance. I got up with help from coworkers and went to a meeting. Only later did I go to walk-in care, where the gravity of the situation became clear when I was whisked away by ambulance to the hospital, to have a chest tube inserted so doctors could inflate my collapsed lung.

I was fortunate though to have a strong support system that stepped in immediately. A coworker friend followed the ambulance and called my parents, who were able to take care of my dogs while I was in the hospital for a few days.

But going home after that stint in the hospital was a shock. Suddenly, the reality of my aloneness without Jim started to sink in.

Just hanging out with my girl Sassy at camp. She and I have been through a lot together.

Just hanging out with my girl Sassy at camp. She and I have been through a lot together.

I’ve never been one to have people hover over me when I’m sick. Usually, I just want to be left alone to feel miserable. Jim respected that, but he would be nearby, doing household chores or puttering with meals in the kitchen or doing laundry. Or some project that would have him going in and out of the house what seemed like 5,000 times in an hour.

He also had this amazing knack for trying to distract me from my misery by starting some large project he would suck me into. It seemed to be his response to not being able to make me feel better.

Sometimes I think Jim deserved a special patch on his angel wings for putting up with me when I was sick.

But as much as I liked to be left alone, there was also a comfort to hearing Jim puttering about, talking to the dogs, doing the little domestic chores I didn’t feel like tackling. I loved that he would try to come up with comfort food that might taste good to me, or at least not aggravate my digestive system. I appreciated that he would sit for a while to keep me company, or call to check on me if he was at work.

Whether I thought I wanted those attentions or not, I came to rely on them. They made me feel loved and cared for and special to him.

Bullet is so good at just being there when I don't feel well.

Bullet is so good at just being there when I don’t feel well.

I really can’t remember if I had any colds or flus the first year after Jim’s death. But coming home from the hospital to heal from my collapsed lung … that I remember well.

In many ways, I was fortunate. I had plenty of people I could call on, and did call on some of them. But it was several months before I could lift 40-pound bags again. The pellets for my pellet stove — necessary for staying warm during those cold winter months — came in 40-pound bags, as did the salt for my water softening system. Friends helped me carry them, or I would open the bags and carry smaller quantities in a pail.

I also had to stop buying large bags of dog food, which I was unable to carry. Groceries had to be toted in smaller quantities. And most of all, I had to be careful not to fall on the ice because the scenario likely would start all over again.

Members of my church visited me, as did family, coworkers and friends. My neighbors were a godsend to me. I was blessed to have so many people who cared.

But something was missing, something I felt so acutely as I healed. I’ve never again felt as vulnerable and isolated in my life as I did during that time. That situation really drove home that I not only was without Jim; I was alone. My husband couldn’t be there to putter around creating a soundtrack for my recovery anymore. I had to get my own comfort food, do my own laundry, take care of all of the little issues of the house, take care of the dogs, and deal with winter’s inconveniences in an old house without the backup and support of my spouse — AND heal a lung that had collapsed.

I felt broken. Physically, of course, since I was healing. But emotionally too. It seemed to be too much. I was perched on a precipice dreading the gust of wind that would come out of nowhere and send me over the edge.

I know that many people would come to my rescue, but they couldn’t live in my life as Jim did to take up the slack, to be strong when I was weak, to share the daily responsibilities of an old farmhouse. It was a true wake up call to my new reality.

And it scared me to death.

That period taught me several important lessons. First, there are people in my life I definitely can count on, and that’s so important. But I also quickly learned that I had to get strong and stay that way. I needed to be mindful of my health, not take crazy chances, be cautious, because I was no longer half of a whole. I was the whole.

I recently was ill with the latest cold/flu bug going around. It had been nearly a two-week thing. As I huddled under warm blankets in my recliner, working on my computer, I missed hearing Jim puttering away at our domestic life. It was too quiet. Even my four Brittany dogs were low key. So different from when Jim was alive, busily keeping our house running while I paused my life to get healthy.

But as I sat in the quiet of my house, I suddenly would hear the ding indicating a new text message and my friend Alice would be checking on my well-being, asking if I needed anything at the store or if I had worsened and maybe needed to call the doctor. And my friend Ann would facebook message me to see how I was doing and to encourage me to call the doctor. And a friend from work would g-chat me to check on my well-being, and suggest it’s time to call the doctor.

Maybe I’m not really alone after all.



Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.