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My Own Two Feet by Michele Neff Hernandez

Before Phil died I never questioned my ability to stand on my own two feet. Being in a relationship was something I loved, but I didn't believe that living life as a pair was mandatory for achieving happiness. My husband was my partner and my friend, but we were definitely two individuals with our own opinions and preferences...that didn't always line up. Then the world shifted, Phil died, and I was inexplicably unstable on my previously solid two feet.

Death made me feel, for the first time in my life, like half of a person. Suddenly I struggled to define myself, even though my identity was clear to me just days before becoming a widow. It was as if adding the word "widow" to the list of labels I wore mixed up all the others and left me wondering what applied and what didn't. This confusion was both terrifying and disconcerting at the same time. The dread I felt about living life without Phil made sense to me, but I was confused by the fact that I didn't know who I was without him. Since when did I define myself only by my marital status? When did I lose tract of the fact that I was an individual in a partnership? To take that a step further, I was proud of the fact that Phil valued me as an independent, intelligent, self-sufficient woman...um, where did she go? I was terrified that I would never see that version of myself again and that I would be stuck with the half person I saw in the mirror in the weeks and months after Phil's death.

Over time I have come to see my definition of self as a playing card pyramid. Each role I play in life is represented by one card in the deck. Inborn talents, preferences, bad habits and good habits, shortcomings, interests, indulgences, unique abilities and quirky life experiences...all stack precariously one on top of the other to create my life pyramid. Since every structure needs a base, I see my most important roles~ wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend ~as the foundation of my self-definition card house. When Phil died, one of my base cards was ripped out and the whole structure toppled. Playing card pyramids are constantly falling down. Usually, after a deep breath, the rebuilding process is patiently started and the pyramid slowly rises again. In the aftermath of my identity collapse, I was temporarily unable to remember what card went where in the rebuilding. And I hesitated to use the new card, "widow" to hold up my personal pyramid, unsure if this unwanted joker would be capable of stabilizing my house.

I have learned that the new card is indeed capable, as am I. In fact, this new card is much stronger than I ever would have guessed. There is solidity and confidence associated with the role of widow that most people do not know. I have heard many a widow utter the phrase, "Well I have lived through worse." The knowledge that the widow card is actually the survivor card changes the way I look at myself, and every one of my roles in life. I am no longer afraid of being a widow, and I am a better person for having lived through this devastating, unwanted experience.

At my parent's 40th anniversary party I noticed something about myself...I felt whole. I was me, not us, and that was amazingly okay. Not wanted, not planned, not intentional, sometimes still intensely painful, and yet not incapacitating. As I looked down at my yellow shoes I suddenly realized that I was standing on my own two feet once again.

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Comment by Michele Neff Hernandez on March 9, 2015 at 9:50am

Thank you all for taking the time to comment on this post. Discovering that the widow card is the survivor card, and that we own that card for life, has been a game changer for me. It doesn't take away the pain of losing my Phil, but it does somehow make that pain mean something. 

Goldie, I think we learn to live again by practicing. We put one foot in front of the other, we open our minds and hearts to new experiences, and we make room for our grief, too. Bit by bit we build our lives, and in the meantime we rely on that survivor card to get us through.

Sending love to all of you today, one step at a time we walk this road together!

Comment by Goldie on March 7, 2015 at 5:00pm
Reading all these comments, make me realize that this grief can be shared, it helps a great deal to know others have the same thoughts and feelings. Others who know this heartbreak. I keep wondering when I will start living again, it's hard to know where to start?
Comment by rodsgurl09 on March 7, 2015 at 4:45pm

Michele....I could have written the first two paragraphs of this, I relate that strongly to them. I remember thinking that nothing could possibly ever make sense again, if I couldn't even make sense of my own self. The house of cards analogy is BRILLIANT. Love it! 

Goldie, my Rodney used to tell me the same thing.....that I was the strongest person he knew, and that I was the strong one in our marriage. After I lost him, it used to cross my mind that he must have been insane for thinking that. LOL Because post-loss, the last word I would have used to describe myself was "strong." But I think our husbands were right, after all. I mean....we've survived, right?? You will trust your feet again. I'm at almost 4 years and just finally getting my balance back. I think forever we'll wobble once in a while, but ....who doesn't? What matters is that when we fall, we don't just lie there....we get back up. (((hugs))) Welcome again to WV. 

Comment by Mel5BradyO on March 5, 2015 at 12:30pm

Your words are very helpful to me today. It covers all the things I am going through and explains my muddled thinking. I was doing so well building my house of cards back up and I don't know what happened but they toppled again. Thank you for your words. It is helping me to know that this feeling is only temporary and that i will get that good feeling back again.

Comment by AEDforever (Ali) on March 4, 2015 at 4:37pm

Thanks  Michele.  This is a part of the widowed experience that outsiders can rarely grasp.

Comment by Goldie on March 2, 2015 at 4:46pm
Michele, your words are wonderful to read. I also was a very independent, married women, but still my own person. My husband told me that I was the strongest person Ihe knew. But after he died, suddenly I could not make a decision, and alto 2 1/2 years have passed I still feel like the world is not steady under me. I am standing on my own two feet, but I have no trust in them anymore.
Comment by only1sue on March 1, 2015 at 2:11pm

The fact that the widow card is also the survivor card is something I have discovered too.  I know I am strong, after 13 years as a caregiver that was evident but it took me two full years to define myself as a survivor.  now I am slowly rebuilding my card house but it has odd angles in some places so I know there are other things to be discovered before it all comes into a steady structure in place of the wobbly one I live in now.

Comment by RGL Events on February 28, 2015 at 9:49am
Yes, I am remarried. I actually wrote this article three years after Phil died (that is almost seven years ago, which is so hard to believe!), before I met my husband. Despite the fact that I wrote this seven years ago, the concept remains true for me today. Being married again doesn't subtract the "widow" card from my card house. I've added the "wife" card back in, and that took some shuffling for sure. No matter how many additional roles I add to my life, the widow card remains an incredibly strong and stable card that will be a part of my life forever. Being a widow taught me things that I will never forget, and having been widowed has changed me as a wife this time around. I can no longer be blissfully unaware that people you love really do die; I learned that first hand when my very healthy 39 year old husband died. So, I no longer assume that everything is going to be okay in every circumstance. But, I do know that I can survive, because I did. That knowledge sits powerfully in the background of my life, and reminds me to live large while I have the chance. I believe that knowledge also allows me to love my husband in a very different way, because of my widowhood. 
Thanks so much for reading, and for asking your question. 
Michele

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