Trying to rebuild my safe zone

My late husband Jim was a protector by nature. He always wanted to make sure I was safe.

Safety to him meant many things: regular maintenance on our vehicles, new wheel bearings on the boat trailer, taking firearms courses, carrying a cell phone, checking in with each other regularly, locking windows and doors, rewiring the old house up to code — the usual.

All of those things are important, but “safety” has other meanings for me.

I remember our family when I was a young child, with two loving parents and a younger brother. I felt safe and protected within my family, and then my parents divorced when I was 5. I remember the heart-wrenching day my father said goodbye to me and then I saw him only a handful of times until I was an adult. Trust broken; safe feeling gone.

Survival mode.

My father holding me.

My father holding me.

My mother remarried when I was 6, and although I know my stepfather loved us and he worked hard to support us, he had his own issues, and I never really regained that feeling of safety.

Then when I was 11, my brother died from complications related to a congenital heart defect. He was my playmate and my confidante, and the blow of his death shattered whatever tendrils of feeling safe I had left.

That was the day I stopped being a child.

First day of school photo in 1970. I was 11. My brother was 8. He died three months later.

First day of school photo in 1970. I was 11. My brother was 8. He died three months later.

My mother, who tried to rebuild a “safe” environment for me, became ill with cancer and died when I was barely 17. She didn’t leave me alone though. I had plenty of family willing to take me in, but she, in compliance with my wishes, had arranged for some wonderful people to become my guardians. They later legally adopted me.

My new family — two parents and two sisters — supported me, even when I wasn’t sure I wanted their help. They encouraged me to pick up the pieces of my life and move forward. And, I also had the support of my biological family — when I accepted it.

As I went out on my own, having a job meant safety.  Purchasing a house, and joining a church did too. I was putting down roots and building my own “safe zone.” Then I married Jim, and he was safety, home, happiness, love and life itself.

When Jim died, my feeling of safety died with him. I still had my job, my house, my family and friends, and my God — all things that had meant safety to me in the past — but Jim had become “home.” My ultimate safe zone.

My mother's and stepfather's wedding day. I am sitting in the background. I was 6.

My mother’s and stepfather’s wedding day. I am sitting in the background. I was 6.

I found myself needing again to rebuild my safe zone. Safety has come to mean new things since Jim’s death, like having my four Brittany dogs around me and particularly Bullet, who has taken on the role of my protector in Jim’s absence.

He was Jim’s dog.

It also means calling my neighbor when I get up on the roof to shovel off snow, being careful going down stairs so that I don’t trip and fall, making sure windows and doors are secure, being extra careful on ice in winter, always being aware of who is walking by or slowing down near the house, and texting a friend to let her know where I will be bird hunting and when I expect to return home.

When you’re no longer part of a couple or don’t live with your nuclear family, you have to create your own safety zone. It’s easy to feel vulnerable, but it’s much more challenging — and necessary — to build your own security network. Develop relationships with nearby neighbors, check in with friends and family regularly or even subscribe to paid services that will keep track of your welfare through checkins.

These days, I have a neighbor who’s become a dear friend. I check in with her often, and when she notices a deviation from my life patterns — ones she’s come to know so well — she checks in with me. I have daughters, parents and other family and friends who look out for me too. And I’ve developed my own self-sufficiency to help rebuild my safety zone. And all told, I’m finally beginning to feel safe again.


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.