MALMO, SWEDEN—Death was new to me. I had obviously heard of it and I knew it was there, I just never met it until the day my husband, Grzegorz, died in October 2011.We had just returned from a dream vacation with our 23-month old daughter and my mother-in-law. We drove through all of Italy, through Austria, the Czech Republic and finally we arrived in Warsaw, where we lived. Life was beautiful. I was fulfilled as a woman with a job and a family. I had waited for my husband all my life; I was 31 when I met him and I knew this was the man for me, the man for the rest of my life. We were happy, planning to have more children, we had just bought a bigger apartment and were making plans for the future.
I so clearly remember the last day of his life, and to some extent the last day of my life as I knew it. We had dropped off our daughter, Julia, at nursery, and then I dropped off my husband at work. I had a day off from my job as an events manager so I drove home and finally unpacked all things from our vacation. Life felt really peaceful.
That evening, not long after Grzegorz called my daughter to wish her a good night (he was a journalist and they were closing the magazine that evening so he was working late), I received a call from a colleague of his that would forever change my life. My husband, a non-smoker who looked after his health, had collapsed at work. He died in the hospital the next morning, just 40 years old.
So I became a widow at 35, with a toddler daughter. As Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook who lost her husband suddenly and prematurely points out in her book (as well as its title), “Plan B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” sometimes you need a backup plan. I hadn’t anticipated any kind of Plan B. Yet here was this unexpected Plan B, asking me what I was going to do in the midst of my depression and sorrow.
I don’t remember much about the first month after the death of my husband but I do remember finding out he had had a massive stroke and I know I had old friends from all over the world flying in to show their support. My house was full of flowers and my best friend was Xanax. I know I could not breathe and I know I behaved irrationally at times. It was my husband who had been the rock. I was the crazy one. He kept me calm and he made me believe that I could be a good mom and person who could have a family, a career, a happy marriage, a fulfilling life.
After his burial, time passed slowly in the fog of widowhood. The flowers from the funeral withered and people went on with their lives. After a while, the phone that seemingly couldn’t stop ringing right after his death and funeral had grown eerily silent. A large majority of friends that we had as a couple were not so interested in me alone, and I did not have the time or energy to be interested in them. How peculiar it was to me, this very social and outgoing person, that I was alone.
My friends and family kept telling me I was strong as if that was some kind of guiding reassurance and something that would somehow make me feel better and also shield me from the pain. But it also felt like a warning—because you are strong, you of all people are not allowed to break down, you must survive. And often instead of feeling strong and brave, I felt guilty for feeling weak.
People are not very comfortable with talking about death. It is the elephant in the room, often no one knows how to approach the person left behind. They know how to show their support in the immediate situation but tend to drift away in the aftermath of death marching someone away unexpectedly. My best analogy would be if you go bankrupt after spending years being rich and popular, and then all of a sudden your friends drift away. I found out who my true friends were, which maybe saved me wasting life on people who turned out to be fair-weather. It was a good, if tough, lesson and was a period for reflection.
I found the death of my husband was not the only grief that I had to face. I had to make a funeral for my old life and be born again as someone new with a deep understanding and acknowledgment of the awareness that we have a limited amount of time at our disposal. And I knew without question that that time should be focused on my family, my true friends and on Julia.
My daughter saved my life. The fact that she needed me, that she gave me a sense of purpose and was in need of routine, gave me strength to get up and do what I had to do every day. It became, and still is, the reason why I want to still be here. To see her grow up and to see her happy, despite the very hard start she has had in her life. I have been so lucky to witness my daughter blooming into a happy, sweet, smart and sassy young girl.
Those first few months—years even—time passed by and I was like a robot, somehow managing and surviving. But I did it. After a few years, I left Warsaw, where my parents and brother lived, and got a job in Sweden, the country of my birth. It was a new start for us.
I often reflect on how our lives changed so suddenly on that Friday evening in October 2011. And I recently have been thinking about what I have been through and how I have learned to cope, not only because of Ms. Sandberg’s book but also because a friend asked me how she could help one of her friends who, like me, lost her husband suddenly and shockingly, her young child now fatherless. I told her to tell her friend that, in time, she the would get used to this new normal. And then I came up with a list:
1. I am not dead, I am just not myself yet. Be patient, I will be back.
2. I am not out to steal your husband, you can still invite me to your place.
3. Do not be mad if I will turn your invitation down 10 times. Please call me again. I am simply not ready yet. But I will be.
4. Don’t give me pitiful looks and don’t be afraid to tell me positive experiences happening in your life. I am not all doom and gloom.
5. You and everyone else you know, including your children, will also die eventually. My experience is not original. I should not be your poster child for sadness.
6. Be prepared that I might behave in weird ways sometimes. I do not know now how to react in certain situations. But I will again.
7. Just be there –on the phone, in person, over email.
When someone dies, the grief process is perceived as much shorter to spectators. For the person actually grieving, it often means coming back to life and finding out how to live again. Raising awareness and understanding about the importance of talking about death is very important. Keeping away and avoiding the topic is not the way to help a person move on; everyone will experience grief and preparation for it through conversation in everyday life would have helped me a lot in my own experience. But life, for all its sham and drudgery, is a beautiful, precious thing. Keep peace within yourself, be kind to yourself and love those you care about with passion, greed and commitment.
Alexandra Sommer has a BA from the Stockholm School of Economics and has worked in marketing and event management in Stockholm, Warsaw, Moscow and across Eastern Europe. Fluent in Polish, Swedish, German, English, Italian and French, she is currently studying at Malmö University to become a teacher.
All photos courtesy Alexandra Sommer.