After the Wards: One Month of being a Young Gay Widower

10 minute read - 8 months ago - Full Size Images

The silence when it happened was similar to when we were first told the news. I distinctly recall no longer hearing the murmurs of conversation in the hall, or the wind blowing in the trees outside, or the rabbits roaming lightly over the grass outside the ward room. I didn't expect to feel panic though, like I did when he first got diagnosed. This time I was hoping more for peace - but instead, it felt like I had just been plunged underwater and was taking my first frantic, shallow breaths from my tank. Saying goodbye to my husband, Aaron, as I held his hand, was the last thing I ever expected to go through as I waltz through the later half of my 20s.

People describe losing their spouse as losing everything. I described my relationship with Aaron as being fiercely independent, wherein we found happiness in the times that we came together. I say this because we thought it would make my life after he died easier. I now think this is total bullshit. When you construct a life around someone, they fall into the crevices of every facet of your existence. I say this, as someone with a solid, supportive career; a great network of wonderful friends; a loving family, who have been there for me every step of the way - but even I feel incredibly vulnerable, and sometimes straight up lost.

Stephen Colbert shared a beautiful sentiment in an interview with Anderson Cooper wherein he described learning to love the thing that he most wished had not happened. He highlighted that it’s a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that. To that, I fully agree. Tragedy in life is inevitable, and as Nora McInerny describes it, everyone you love has a 100% percent change of dying. It can be said, then, that going through an experience like this is perhaps the truest, and most natural expression of one's humanity - to confront and live through the death of those most important to us, and to somehow emerge from the other side.

I have a deep respect for people who can pour happiness and joy into the world, despite the loss or pain or challenges that they may be shielding from the public eye. I now look to those people as models for how I, and I think Aaron, would want me to navigate my grief. That is to find it as a passage for generating something good in this world.

We never have enough time with each other, no matter if you live through to 60, 15 or 99. I hope this grief stays with me because it's all the unexpressed love that I didn't get to tell said Andrew Garfield in an interview on the passing of his Mother. Although the unexpressed love we have can be poured into a quickly depleting stock of tissues, I've found it can also be poured into a new found empathy and appreciation for the vastness of experiences all people in our lives have.

It perhaps can be said that it is possible to be both incredibly sad, but also incredibly grateful - sometimes even happy - for the suffering that comes with remembering those closest to us. It loosely explains why I sometimes oscillate between crying my eyes out in my car, through to maniacal laughter about how exhilarating life is with the windows down driving over Sydney Harbour Bridge. I said this to a close friend, that when you feel the full range of human emotion; that's the greatest gift of life. To feel, to experience, to embrace and to suffer, and to walk in and out of each of those experiences taking something with you.

What I thought would be the greatest challenge in navigating his death, isn't the emotions or the pain, because that is expected with loss and something I've embraced in the same virtue as above. Instead, I have struggled most in navigating living a solitude life in the spaces of what was a whole. Life makes it obnoxiously apparent of what was; from asking about marital status in visa applications, to going to house inspections where the agent remarks how surprising it is that you came alone. It's bizarre being lonely in a room full of people.

So to that, and to other people in similar situations to mine; the sadness and the emotions are the greatest gifts I have had in this time, despite it being the most unbearable at times. One of my most significant challenges has been navigating life in the newfound and enduring isolation of the crater of what was.

Playing "Mia and Sebastian's Theme" for Aaron

Lessons from Time Passed

Before him, funerals were always a regretful slot in a busy schedule. A moment to pause, reflect, perhaps cry for a moment, before shielding myself away and moving on to whatever was next.  Western society teaches us to lean away from grief, to fiercely move forward and find your new normal as quickly as possible - sometimes to unconscious criticism if too slow - so as to not get your sad all over other people.

I unknowingly did this in all the deaths I've confronted years past. Hiding my sadness for loss, and not sharing the questions death raised because why bring the mood down? I recall being in the car with my Uncle a few weeks after his wife passed away from cancer, where I put on some breezy coastal songs in the car and discussed how sick the bass line was and that he just had to hear it. Except, I forgot that the song was called "Find a New Woman" which awkwardly popped up on the stereo screen. So, to say I was just as clueless navigating being around a deeply grieving person before this happened to me, would be a sweeping understatement.

Grief is complicated, and hard, and confusing, and entirely non-linear. I attempted to return to work a few weeks after he passed, and connected my headphones to my work laptop therein greeted by "Aaron's AirPods Pro”. I had been using his headphones and renamed them on my phone a few days prior, because I lost mine. That descended me to a sobbing mess in my office’s kitchen because it was one more piece to erase of his existence. Life, in the weeks immediately after, felt like traversing a minefield, especially when you shared and built a home together, of places, things, and smells, all ready to pounce on you at any moment.

Some days, it's feeling drenched by the tidal wave of change that just crashed onto you, and deciding if you're either going to tell your barista that you're fine thanks, or that you just finished up 9 months of being a carer to a cancer patient where he died holding your hand, your rear-right tyre is leaking air and you just remembered the milk in your fridge you used this morning to make cereal probably expired weeks ago. So yeah, I'm fine thanks.

With my customers and colleagues at work, through to my friends and most new acquaintances (maybe not your barista); opening up about the emotions, experiences and challenges I'm faced with has enabled me to more intimately connect with the people in my life than I ever did before. There is no experience more human than connecting empathetically with another person on the full breadth of experience life brings - and it typically invites people to share their experiences too.

When you have gone to hell and returned, and still have time to smile and express positivity and warmth to the people you encounter; there is no greater gift you can deliver into this world.

The park nearby our home for a group photoshoot

Cardboard Facade

People have often made comments to me that I’m dealing with this incredibly well, that I’m somehow powering through this in a way that they couldn’t imagine. But I want to be clear, to anyone who may find themselves in circumstances such as mine, that I do this because it is the only option available to me - at least in my eyes.

I could sit at home, and cry in a state of paralysis (which to be clear I frequently do, usually with some pizza and some Tina Wafers) - but then I would be stuck in limbo for an indeterminate amount of time - and that certainly isn’t really living anymore. Thus, the bereaved are forced to pick up the pieces of a life, and try to play inverted Jenga, reassembling a tower on that single slot on the bottom of a wobbly mess ready to tip over at any moment.

Over Halloween, I had my closest friends come around for dinner the day prior to a dress-up party I was hosting at my house. As a side story, I dressed up as a Edna from the Incredibles, photos available only on request after signing an NDA. They turned up at around 10PM on Friday night after driving down from Sydney, and for the preceding few hours I found myself drinking whisky, listening to sad music, mourning my dogs going to a new home and just bawling. As soon as they turned up though, my spirits were lifted and we spent the night laughing, ordering Nugs' (McNuggets) and drinking nice wine.

Managing my grief has been the same as managing a bucket with a faucet. The bucket is always filling up at a constant rate. Sometimes, to get ahead of overflowing, you just need to let it out on your terms. In the days after he died, the bucket was constantly overflowing; but now, 2 months on, it feels as though it fills up significantly slower than it did before.

Vaporised Insecurity

Something interesting in circumstances like this, is the vaporisation of my insecurity and anxiety. I've struggled deeply with Imposter Syndrome, particularly amongst my incredibly bright colleagues at work; but when a significant event takes place, it sets root that you've now qualified as a human. As someone who has lived, has felt, has lost - in the same way that I expect experience and maturity stems from tenure in a job, where loss, failure and obstacles overcome are signs of someone successful.

The second month after he passed away, I felt liberated. Not from the beautiful components of my life together that I so desperately longed for, but liberated from expectation. Perhaps it's because I feel like my life is a mess regardless of what I do now, so I might as well just try my best. Perhaps it's the fact that anything better than surviving is winning now.

I realised how much pressure I imposed on myself from other people, family, friends - to be something, or to achieve something. But underneath it all, I now realise that to have been, to have loved, to have lost - that's living, not chasing the next pay rise, or buying the nicest car. It's finding solace, and joy in the individual, seemingly insignificant moments that craft a lifespan. It's contributing to something meaningful for you, based on a clear set of values you fundamentally believe in. This is something I'll explore more deeply in the coming months.

To me, now, I feel like I have the primitive knowledge of how to construct a full life. One that doesn't feel like it's running away from me. It's flying across the country to go on a Mexican dinner date with a long lost friend in Texas. Or, changing your flights across the globe last minute to hang out with a new companion.

Decision Free Fall

I feel like these past two months have been a constant free fall, I've crashed through the top of a skyscraper of decisions, going floor by floor until my momentum ran out and I emerged exhausted, sore and very, very injured. Do I move out of our home? Do (or even, can) I keep our dogs? What casket would he have liked? What do I do with all these clothes? To top it off, you have to go through all of this without the single person that you would have spoken to about these things, cried next to, or who would have grabbed you popcorn and a glass of wine to calm you down.

So instead, over these past few months, I’ve done everything to run away from my problems. I’ve crashed on wonderfully generous friend’s couches like James' because I can’t bear to be at our home alone anymore (especially when home was wherever Aaron was). I’ve flown across the country to spontaneously visit special people like Kassidy from middle school, who I haven’t seen in years, because I just didn’t want to leave the USA. Or, the day after Aaron died, my close friends Matt and Maddie, fanged it through a 4WD track in a Volkswagen Polo to watch me leave a blood trail on a rock face as I scaled it without any fear. Then did it all over again the day after the funeral, this time with the gorgeous Ciaran who has been the shoulder I needed each step of the way through Aaron’s cancer journey.

To my families, you have been my rock through everything. Calls, cuddles, company - I couldn't be more grateful for the many ways you have all shared your unique skills for both Aaron and I - from beginning, to the end and now afterwards.

Mum, for always being a few short steps away at each key moment in this journey, from finding out at the hospital to the moment he passed, arms or ears always held open to catch me.

Dad, for being the company I needed in the quiet in-between times; and in helping me confront the silence at home in the days after I lost him.

Jamie, for taking me far, far away from it all when I needed most to leave.

Exchanging rings

I reflected on something Madeline observed when I first broke the news to her about Aaron’s diagnosis. She said she could never tell if I was calling to tell her a chaotic and hilarious story about the journey, or if I was about to drop the most horrible news on her ever. I think that’s what grief is. It’s a cocktail of chaos, sadness, happiness, weirdness and then trying to laugh it off because you’re desperately trying to make it not all that you are when you are with people.

Grief as a son is trying to (and failing) to dry your eyes out on the streets of Sydney when your Dad texts “I don’t have any words of wisdom, just letting you know I care” because not even your parents have lost their spouse yet. So all they can do is hold your hand tightly for the ride.

Grief as a spouse, and as a carer is also being grateful, in some weird kind of way, that all of this happened. To have loved, and have helped someone through their greatest battle, will always be the greatest privilege of my life. And to have the person you love pass away holding your hand because they chose you, is the greatest gift to receive in life.

I say without a doubt it's better to have loved and to have lost, than to never have loved at all.

The photographs in this article were captured by a wonderfully talented companion to Aaron and I, Lauren Campbell.