Before and After: When My Old Life Died, a New Life Began

With my sons David and Anthony

With my sons David and Anthony

My life is divided into Before—the time between meeting my husband Vic in 1966 and his death in 2008—and After.

I am no longer a wife and partner. I am still a mother, although my adult sons watch out for me as much as I watch out for them. I still have a close community of friends, but some have moved away or moved on.

The woman who was half of an entity called VicandElaine or ElaineandVic is gone. The woman who bounced decisions off Vic, told him every feeling, and called out to show him hawks soaring over the hedgerow. She’s gone. The woman who told Vic her dreams, cooked dairy-free for him, and slept beside him. Gone.DSC03742

My new life is built on the solid foundation of the old. I imagined I would sell our property after Vic’s death, but I’m still here. I learned to drive the tractor, tend 71 acres of fields and forest, and hire help. My helper reopened trails Vic abandoned during his illness making paths to visit all the oldest trees. I became a woman of the land and found comfort there.

My relationship with solitude deepened as my hearing grew worse. I began losing hearing in the 1990s from inner ear pressure imbalance or Meniere’s Disease. My hearing stabilized long before Vic’s illness and for four years after his death.

Moving firewood with the Kubota

Moving firewood with the Kubota

I no longer enjoy noisy restaurants, concerts, and social gatherings. My high-tech hearing equipment is a godsend, but I cherish quiet conversation, small classes and groups, readings, and lectures rather than noisy environments. I can complain about the challenge or take it as opportunity. Writers and meditators need quiet, after all.

I learned to contain my irritability and impatience. Since I had no sparring partner, I had no choice. When sad or lonely, I turned to friends or family, but when grumpy, I took long walks with my dog Willow or turned to my journal. Ralph Waldo Emerson would applaud my self-reliance.

DSC03976The new me worked to protect Seneca Lake from gas storage, a problem we hadn’t imagined when Vic was alive. I volunteered with Hospice and led hospice bereavement groups. I wrote about loss and bereavement instead of women’s health as I did in my Before life. I was honored to move into the belly of grief with others because I know some of the terrain and found renewal and possibility there.

So much of me died along with Vic, but I cherish my new life–most of the time. I indulge in fewer trivial complaints and feel more gratitude for what was, what is, and what will be.DSC03621

“I’ll find a way to be OK without you,” I often assured Vic before he died. I’ve kept my promise.

***

Do you have Before and After moments in your life, a reference point where everything changed? I hope you’ll also enjoy these stories about my life After: My Mysterious Home and My Hector Home: Protecting the Forests of the Finger Lakes.

54 Comments
  1. While I’m so terribly sorry how you got here, dear Elaine, I’m so grateful that you’ve created such a rich and bountiful afterlife for yourself and for all of us who are blessed to know you now. You are an inspiration, and the gifts you share with us, including all you’re learning about loss, are priceless. ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. Life tosses us into the water and we have to learn to swim. I knew I wanted a good life after Vic’s death, but didn’t know how I’d find it. There have been many surprises but also much continuity. Still miss having Vic and still feel happy when he shows up in my dream, but there are wonderful things about being on my own. With love and gratitude for the path you clear for me and others, Elaine

  2. I’ve only known you “after,” and you are vibrant, smart, fun, interesting, beautiful. You were always that and always will be.

    • Wow, Kirsten. I’ll take that beautiful complement and luxuriate in it, plus I’ll refrain from boring you with stories from my dark side. Thanks for a ray of sunshine.

  3. I guess my new life started shortly after the loss of my daughter. Because of her I started writing. The writing lead to photography and photo-shopping. The photo-shopping lead to hospice training which is leading me back to teaching, where I left off in my old life. But one very different thing in this new life is my appreciation of life and living. I’ve never before loved life like I do now. Guess I’m loving it for two of us now.

    • Beautiful, Robin. I can say that some days. Some days are gloomier. I realized in my essay I forgot to say I’ve become a photographer. That might need it’s own blog. I can’t remember if you’re doing Hospice training now or already did it. I think now. Wonderful community.

  4. If I were wearing a hat, I’d tip it to you, Elaine: Tending 71 acres of fields and forest, even with help, is a huge order, but you have proved you’re up to it.

    Yes, Emerson would applaud your resourcefulness, and so do I. Though you still keenly feel the loss, the gratitude for what remains is fueling the strength to keep you going.

    • I take the tip of the imaginary hat, Marian. I wouldn’t stay on this land if I didn’t find my forest a place of healing. And like everything else, there will be a point in time marking “After” I lived on this land. And then this place will still be in my dreams even though I live somewhere else and I’ll have hundreds of sunset photos! Thank you for your encouraging words. So appreciated.

      • I think our souls stay forever in the places we love.

        • Nati, this comforts me. I feel my husband’s presence on our land and in my heart, but don’t know what is objective and what is subjective. I just accept the soulful presence I feel. Thank you for sending this loving idea this morning.

  5. Before and After. Yes, two distinct realms describes well what happens when the love of your life dies. You are an inspiration to others like me who were once part of a whole and now stand alone.

    • Thank you, Jill. You stand alone very well and I’m sure partnered well, too. Don’t you miss having someone who witnesses the grumpy difficult parts and loves us anyway? There will be an “after” the winter of 2013-2014, but not this morning. I’m ready.

  6. Elaine, you know that I relate to so much of what you say and feel the truth and strength of your wisdom. I’ve had two husbands die of cancer – Gene, the father of my children, died very young at 42. 10 years later, I met and fell in love with my second husband, Harold, who died after we’d been together only six years. I think of my life as having many separate existences. Now, retired from my public profession, I am immersed in my grandmother life and struggling to maintain my freelance ‘writer’ self. Of one thing, I’m certain: Life is change. If we go with it and find ways to thrive in spite of the heartbreak and downturns, we are blessed with new growth like a Spring forest. Your live is such a beautiful example of that. Heart. Jenna

    • Thanks for your beautiful note, Jenna. You’ve had such difficult losses. Of course, I wish you and your family could have been spared those wrenching experiences. Yes, life is about constant change and adaptation. The silly ego keeps forgetting. It helps so much to have good psychological and spiritual tools for support–and good families and friends. And dreams. Eight days after Vic’s death, I dreamed I would live in the House of the Green Man. Regeneration and renewal would happen, although I didn’t know how. With love and gratitude, Elaine

  7. Dear Elaine,
    “Knowing” you this past year has been a godsend. Thank you for so openly, lovingly, and thoughtfully sharing your life and wisdom.

    Again, I am reminded: grief binds us all.

    By the way, I sent a friend to you (via email), Kris Campbell, as her parents in Ithaca are dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s and her mom could use some support. Very lovely, interesting, and politically aware folks: the Larsens.

    Did you receive an email from Kris?

    Once again, sending love and gratitude!
    Ava

    • I know you know, Ava. Thank you for reading my blog and sending a message of encouragement. I’m so glad we connected and hope we’ll meet in person some day.
      I did not hear from Kris, but just sent her a friend request on FB. I know a few good contact people for Alzheimer’s issues–one is in Ithaca and both are on FB. They’re both writers and actively involved with support for Alzheimer’s caregivers. I think there are appropriate groups around Ithaca, but my friend would know.
      Love and gratitude back your way, Elaine

  8. Elaine you are such an inspiration to so many. You took your lemons and made lemonade, a feat that many have trouble doing. I applaud you my friend and thank you again for sharing your soul and your wisdoms. xo

    • Thank you, D.G. I’m tarnished in plenty of places, too.
      I wonder how things are going in your world. I know it’s a hard time. Sending love, Elaine

      • Thanks Elaine. We are readjusting to life this past week. My husband hasn’t been sleeping well, he tells me he dreams of his daughter every night. I told him she is visiting him and he should feel comfort in that and somehow he does. 🙂

        • Hi Debby.
          I don’t know if your daughter is still here, but I know things are tough. Sending you the best.
          Dreams of Vic were something to look forward to for the first few years. I did lots of grieving and digesting in dreams. Dream Vic still shows up fairly often, especially if I need reassurance. These things are a mystery.
          I send you both peace. Elaine

  9. Elaine – I’m so inspired by your growth, determination, and appreciation of life even despite the great loss you have endured. You teach us all that there is life after loss and that we can remember and honor our loved ones best by appreciating every simple, yet beautiful thing in the world and by living each day to the fullest.

    I’ve scheduled a post for the LaWR (FB) to share this, and have shared on my FB page and in the USAgainstAlzheimer’s closed community. I think your words will speak to so many who have experienced their own loss.

    • Wow. Thank you, Ann, for your encouragement and for sharing my post.

      It would be easier to live life to the fullest if it weren’t so cold. I’d complain night and day, but Willow just falls asleep. Willow and I are taking off for North Carolina for the weekend to see my son and his wife. Flowering trees, daffodils, and 70 degrees.

      Grateful for your kindness and generosity.

  10. I had heard about Vic’s death randomly through conversations with my brother and sister in law but had no frame of reference for the characters. Because of Facebook posts with your precious Willow, I was drawn to you, as one of my great loves was Cecil, a chocolate lab. Now reading your blog gives me a strong feeling of being connected to the characters. Thank you for your intimate sharing and for allowing me into your life.

    • Thank you, Lori. We met, I believe, many years ago in Lodi–or perhaps I just heard a lot about you. Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to reach out. I’m glad we’ve connected in a few ways. Love those Labs. She’s my buddy.

  11. You kept your promise so well, Elaine! I am enjoying every word of these posts and your photography. xo

    • Thanks, Patti. And I wonder how your adventures are going. I’m taking off for a few days. Need an adventure of my own. I await more stories and beautiful images. With love, Elaine

  12. What a beautiful way to think about your life. Knowing your son, I can say you spirit loves on in North Carolina. I am so sorry for your loss and it it touching to hear how you are coping and giving back. Wishing you many happy years in your “after” life.

    • Thank you, Janice. I love NC. You have flowers in March unlike upstate New York! I so appreciate you taking time to read my post and send words of encouragement. We all have our before and after moments.

  13. Elaine –
    your writings are so wonderful and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing your journey. I admire your strength and tenacity! Thank you for being a part of my life and Hospicares.

    • Wendy, Hospicare has been part of the healing process for me, as you know. And it seems we all have more strength than we imagine. Thank you for your love, sweet heart, and constant concern. You encourage me in every way. With love, Elaine

  14. Elaine, you have created a beautiful “after” and the way your share your experience is an inspiration to all of us who have lost loved ones.

    My life seems more fragmented than yours, with many “befores” and “afters.” I am still struggling to find my life alone almost three years after my husband died. Like you, I am grateful when he shows up in my dreams.

    • Lynne, it’s been twice as long for me. Everyone differs, but I felt completely fragmented and lost at three years–although less lost than after two years when I doubted I would ever stop crying. I can think of so many other before and after experiences, but Vic was my longest relationship with anyone except my brother. I had just turned 21 when we met and he died when I was 62. Sweet dreams.

  15. Dear Elaine, I enjoyed this piece of writing very very much and look forward to reading more. warmly, Marta

  16. Hi Sweet Elaine,
    It’s always inspiring to read what you write. It definitely evokes a lot of deep-rooted emotion from me. I have profound respect for you and for your strength of recognizing, accepting, and embracing your “new”you.
    I’m not “there” yet. But I think Alan’s passing has released a lot of a “me” I knew was always there but was afraid to tap into it. Wish I could explain it more clearly. I’ve changed, but I still hold on to the 3 of us as being a family- he’s just on another plane…in another realm. I still like to think we’re working together, as parents, as musicians, as life mates.
    Thank you for all of your writings. Very moving for me, always.
    Marisa

    • Marissa, you know I carry grief always. Vic is still my inner companion and I miss him no matter what I do. But, slowly, the goodness and love of life strengthens and I can move into new possibilities with my grief as a strength rather than a weakness. I dream of Vic, think of him, remember him, imagine what he would say to me on a hard day (this is a hard day since my only brother is having a life-threatening surgery). I want Vic beside me, but instead I feel him strongly within me. He trusted me, loved me, honored me, so now I have to do these things for myself–as well as be a risk taker and be willing to fail.
      Perhaps a certain bravery comes when one of the worst possible things has already happened, and we find ourselves still standing.
      I honor you as you make your way in your life both with and after Alan. I can’t imagine the challenges of losing your love when you have a young child. Maybe this is the “there.” Still standing, laughing, and enjoying spring and our children.
      Thank you for reading and responding.
      With love, Elaine

  17. Elaine,
    I throughly enjoyed reading every word. I am touched and inspired by this. Thank you.

    Charles W. Sidoti

    • Charles, you know this experience well in your work with the bereaved who find themselves standing bewildered in a new life. Thank you for reading my post and for taking time to comment and send encouraging words.
      Best to you and your important work,
      Elaine

  18. I admire your spirit Elaine.

    • …and I admire yours, Jenna. My brother survived a harrowing 7 hour surgery today in Cambridge. He’s coherent and talking to his wife and children. I will dance with the flowers in celebration. He didn’t want to make a fuss, so wanted me to come after he is out of hospital. I’d rather hover, but I’m greatly relieved.

  19. What a touching story. I, too, have many Before’s and After’s. There were even a few before my husband died @32. We had only been married 11 years but had 3 beautiful sons. We were building a house on our little 5 acres in the woods so I was charged with finishing it and moving us. All of that work plus single parenting ate up whatever time there was to grieve. I still miss him some 27 years later. I resonate with a lot you said in your article as I learned to like being alone but miss the companion/best friend/mate I had in him.

    Now another AFTER as our middle son died a few months ago. This is jarring and unsettling and a totally different AFTER. I feel Peter’s presence with me, helping me get through this. He is my angel from the “other side.”

    Sometimes I wonder how many more of these BEFORES and AFTERS I can take but I know it is very early in this one . . . .

    Thank you for penning your feelings and reaching out to others who understand the concept of BEFORE and AFTER.

    • Hi Susan,

      I’m sorry about your husband and even sadder about your son. I haven’t lost a child, but many people say it is the hardest loss and the closest to the heart. I can’t imagine how you managed your first loss with no space at all for the grieving. You had to keep the boat afloat. I hope you have support now and are taking time to grieve. I’m grateful you feel Peter’s presence with you. Seems like our hearts grow little pockets to carry around those we’ve lost.

      And it’s only been a few months since your son died. Not long at all, but I imagine it sometimes feels like forever. It seems the older we get, the more we have to absorb and live with our Before and After experiences. Feeling how temporary life is makes me appreciate every little joy and beauty. I’m mostly grateful for the love I don’t ever have to give up.

      Do you know about Grief Healing Discussion Groups on line? The link is http://www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com/ They’re moderated by Marty Tousley and Mary Friedel-Hunt, two outstanding grief counselors. I imagine they have a group that’s suited to you if you’re curious about what they offer. Marty has a website called Grief Healing and Mary’s is called Personal Growth and Grief Support Center, but they work together on the discussion groups.

      Thank you so much for taking time to read my blog and respond to it.
      wishing you peace and strength,
      Elaine

  20. Thank you for this inspirational post, Elaine. I think most of us who lose well loved husbands start by feeling life is over. But as you found, as did I, it’s not. It’s just different, but it’s still our life and we owe it to ourselves – and to our husbands’ memories – to live it well. You are certainly doing that!

    • Helen, yes, WE have done that. There is a choice to be made, a hard choice. I thought I would never stop weeping in the first two years, but I also poked my head out of my fox hole during this time and looked around at the world wondering, “What am I doing here?” and “How can this life be good again?” The only way I could get to the other shore was to let myself grieve for as long as it took–and if I did that, I found I could begin building the new even while weeping over what was gone. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article and respond. I love your perspective.

  21. Thank you for this article….I too know it will be ok, that I will be ok..and I often assure Bridgett of that . You help clear some of the paths for me in your writings.

    • Oh, Chaya. I’m glad to know that. You’re in that sacred time where every minute is precious. Those days were also exhausting for me. Most precious fatigue. I hope you have plenty of help. I began seeing a therapist before Vic’s death because I needed support as I supported him. I’m glad you have Hospicare helping. I send you and Bridgett love and tenderness. I’m glad you got to see Cheryl this summer and read her beautiful book.

  22. Thank you for such an inspiring blog. I was drawn to it because I also separate my life. Into a ‘before I met my husband’ and after I become a part of a couple. In a ‘when my parents were around” and a ‘when I became the elder in the family’. When I read another blog this morning that discussed a dream of swimming in the river Styx’s I was reminded of the urgent need to embrace our own deaths. To breath live into death on a daily basis. Like i imagine you do when you go out yo walk with your dog. Being in nature and see the natural rhythms that come and go, like the energy of our live.

    • Thanks for your comment, Susanne. I think we’re always in a state of Before and After, but sometimes it’s not noticeable without looking back. In those big changes such as a death or meeting a life partner, we’re given the gift of knowing at the time. Swimming in the River Styx! What a strong image. I dream often of my husband as surgery time nears. It isn’t a risky surgery, but having general anesthesia is its own journey to the Underworld. My dream mind still chooses Vic as the protective masculine.

      My forest is a great teacher about the constant cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Every young tree is a potential. We hadn’t cut any large trees for 12 years, but recently did a “harvest” of about 30 unhealthy trees for the sake of not spreading disease and letting the younger trees have a chance. The foresters are careful to not do unneeded harm to other trees and trails. The goal is to keep the forest healthy and strong. I like the goal but not the cutting. The logs are dead bodies dragged from the forest to the field near my house in tidy stacks with limbs cut off. They’ll be hauled away to become lumber and flooring. The limbs are being cut into firewood to keep me warm for winters to come. The cycle goes on. Fortunately, the forester thinks we won’t need to cut anything more for at least 20 years. I’m thinking about Imbolc and the quickening time, as I know you are, too.

  23. Thanks for sharing, Elaine. I am Curious if numbness was ever part of the grieving stages for you. Although, I am aware that everyone grieves differently and that her illness was long and painful. I’m disturbed about my own reaction to my wife’s death. I have very little emotion.

    • Carmen, I believe anything you feel or don’t feel is fine. There is no right way to grieve or feel. It’s common to be in a state of shock so soon after a death–and deep fatigue and disbelief. I felt disembodied and the world felt surreal. I could only feel absence. I needed to be alone with it but also with a few friends who loved us. Others need more people around. Grief is so particular for each of us.

      I hope you’re getting strong support. It also helps when a professional helping you knows about grief and isn’t a personal friend. Our hospice offers private grief counseling sessions, even if the person who died wasn’t a hospice patient. I wasn’t ready for bereavement groups for over a year, but therapy helped right away. Small rituals helped too, just lighting a candle and reading a poem. Once I began talking to a therapist about what had happened and my dreams, the feelings flowed. And I wrote and painted. I also let myself make sounds without words when alone–in my forest without judging myself. My grief sounds opened the tight places. It can start so softly and then let the sound go where it will, including into silence. That may not be your way. So back to my first thoughts. There is no right way to grieve and it’s very soon for you. I hold you in my heart, dear Carmen.

  24. Elaine – I have been and continue to be awed by your perseverance; always moving forward, being grateful and spreading love. Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights!

    • Thank you, Wendy. One of the gifts of Vic’s death was becoming involved with Hospicare, meeting you for a volunteer interview in 2009, and developing our friendship since then. Thank you for support and love.

  25. Hello Elaine. Just dropping by to say I read your book over the weekend and it is a great touch stone for me. Thank you. Our stories differ, yet in so many ways our feelings, thoughts and paths crossed. We too were blessed with a long lived love which left me living alone for the first time in my life two years ago. I have also remained in our big home and have come to embrace the solitude – spending much of it writing. Wishing you continued peace. JoMae Spoelhof, Rochester NY

    • Thanks for connecting with me, JoMae. I’m grateful my book was helpful to you. Solitude is a big adjustment, but it can become useful for a writer. I’ll look at your blog, but probably not today. I have cochlear surgery in Rochester (Strong Audiology) tomorrow–your home town. Recovery doesn’t usually take long, but I plan to rest as much as needed for speedy healing. As you can imagine, it’s times like this when I long for my husband to hold my hand.

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