Moving With The Water: On Living As A Young Widow

We all just do the best we can. I am still just doing the best I can.

Hundreds of times over the last six years, I have been told of my strength. I have been told of my persistence, my courage, my unfailing optimism. I have been told how much I must hurt, and yet how much my love shows through. I have been told that what I have gone through is unfathomable and that my fortitude is both boundless and exceptional. I have been told that the way I make my way through each and every day is in itself amazing, and that no one would ever want to walk in my shoes.

The thing is, we all just do the best we can. That’s it.

I wish I could tell you there is more, that there is some heretofore undisclosed secret to unearthing that sort of strength, but in my experience it would be untrue. I am still uncertain of my own strength and courage. All I know is this: Love can make us capable of remarkable feats.

People do not like to talk about death. It makes them uncomfortable, especially when those dying are young. Sometimes I think that others’ focus on my strength in the face of my husband’s death makes the whole thing easier for everyone. It gives the conversation a topic of positive projection, leaves room for inspiration and hope, and turns our gaze momentarily aside from the dead man in the room.

I find myself giving my own offering of kindness and support to those who don’t know how to proceed when faced with a casual conversation with a young widow and fatherless preschooler. They don’t know what to say, and I know that is hard. Their growing discomfort is made more prominent by the guilt they feel: They are so grateful that it is not them, not their family, not their love. I do not envy their position, and in some ways it is easier to be the one who has lost.

There is no question of what I have been through and there is no doubt of the loss by which I measure every aspect of my life. It is undeniably a part of me: my truth, my vision, my reality, and I don’t get to look away.

After he got sick, while he was dying, and in the aftermath, the praises came in waves and flurries from friends, loved ones, and random acquaintances. Compliments on my ability to advocate for my husband, go back to school, and parent our daughter; astonishment at my ability to hold it all together; commendation for all I carried, all I took upon myself, and that I did everything I could, that I kept him home until the end.

It was very kind of these people in my life, and I know they meant well, but the acclaim seems unjustified. It really was just all I could do.

I don’t think people understand how little control one has. It is a tidal wave, and you have no choice but to move with the water. When you don’t move with it, that’s when you break. That’s when you drown. That’s when you’re never again found. And deep down, we all want to live, so you just have to move with the wall of water. Strength, love, and life be damned.

As time goes on, it continues: how hard it must be to mother; to live through it and then have this child to also keep alive and well and happy; to do everything and then to have to keep doing everything; to keep both your heads above the water; to have to stay so strong for so long.

What is also often misunderstood is that it is not necessarily harder, and that I am not necessarily stronger.

We all just do the best we can. I am still just doing the best I can.

I appreciate when people tell me I am the strongest person they know, but I do not tell them that I do not believe it. I accept it with a smile and nod when people tell me that they cannot imagine living through the death of their spouse, to lose the love of their life, and I quietly and imploringly hope they never have to. I whole-heartedly agree when they shake their heads and say he was too young, a hand sprung to mouth or chest in disbelief: My God, he was so young.

But I don’t believe that I am all that much different from anyone else. Truly, we are all just moving with the water, often in the only way we know how.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in central Maine. Her essays have most recently appeared in Scary Mommy, Hippocampus, Modern Loss, and Brain, Child and you can find her work at

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