This is a guest post from Jeanette Koncikowski. Jeanette is the founder of the Widowed Parent Project. You can follow her on Twitter/X @widowedpp.
I kept secrets for the 21 years of my relationship with my husband. Hell, I kept secrets for most of my life. This is the way trauma (and trauma bonds) work. The secrets existed to protect the people I loved from the truth. From the deep pain I held that I wanted to prevent them from sharing in. I thought I could love beyond truth. I believed that love would save us. And it has. Just not at the expense of truth.
When 2024 comes roaring in at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I will be entering a full decade of life since losing my first husband, Mark. We were 36 years old when he died suddenly. His death was the answer to how our marital separation would end. Throughout our separation, I had maintained to him that our marriage would now be based on conditions but that my love for him was unconditional.
Mark was my highschool sweetheart. He was my first love, my protector, and my rescuer. The father of my two children. From the start until the end, our 21-year relationship was nothing if not intense. He loved me fiercely. But he could not give that same love to himself.
Most people that came to Mark’s memorial service did not know we had been separated. Some knew of his physical health struggles with epilepsy. A few closest to us knew he had been “touched” by depression (as if depression were a dove landing on your shoulder and not the god-awful thing that could turn him from Jekyll to Hyde.) Only a handful of his friends who he partied with knew of his substance use. But no one lived with or loved him through these difficult things the way I did.
Mark’s death was also not the first significant loss I had in my late thirties. In the four years before his death, I had lost a pregnancy in my second term and I watched my mother suffer from terminal breast cancer until she died at the age of 62. One of my closest friends died suddenly the following summer and it was her death that was the catalyst for me to walk away from my crumbling marriage. My grandmother died next and thirteen months into our separation, when Mark and I were actually, finally, in the process of deep healing, I lost him too.
Mark died alone in the middle of the night in a run-down apartment building, just a few blocks from where our children and I lay sleeping in the home we used to all share. I was the one who found him in the morning. His life was more than his illnesses. He was a loving father, a caring chiropractor, and a good friend. I blamed myself for his death. I thought if I had just been there, I could have somehow intervened and rescued him, as I had done so many times before, when death seemed to have him in her reach.
Going through loss after loss, culminating with Mark’s death, gave me the gift of rawness in grief. What does life mean when the people you love most can die on you at any time? When they can die on you in quick succession? It was leaning into this vulnerability that finally stripped away my ego, which had been the part of me carrying all of the secrets of our past and present. I realized that they were not, in fact, protecting anyone. I did not have that kind of power or control.
When we show up in our grief the way we really are: messy, devastated, guilt-ridden, shame-ridden, blaming ourselves, hating ourselves...when we let ourselves feel these hard feelings, we can eventually accept that none of it was our fault (nor the fault of our deceased loved ones). Facing the guilt and fears I had about what Mark’s final moments were like allowed me to also face the good, the bad, and the ugly in our relationship as a whole. It was then that I began to heal.
The funny thing about healing from trauma is that it’s not a “one and done” kind of thing. Opening the wounds from Mark’s death opened the wounds from our marriage which opened the wounds from my childhood. Trauma therapy taught me that once I started showing up as my true self in my grief, I could make space to show up as my true self in the other areas of my life. Learning to be more authentic required me to also have and keep boundaries in relationships. I learned how to walk more humbly and share more of my real thoughts and feelings with the world (and most importantly, with my children and my next partner). I learned that asking for help when we struggle is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It was not a linear walk. Mark had kept secrets from me too and some of those had trickled down to the truths our children carried. I learned how to replace secrets, shame, and guilt with grace: for myself, for Mark, and for everyone I loved.
What I have ultimately learned in the years since Mark died is the embodiment of one of my favorite quotes from Brene Brown. “Owning our stories and loving ourselves through that process is one of the bravest things we will ever do.” Whatever your loss and love story, know that it mattered. It is valid. That your grief, however complicated, also matters. And you are not alone. Being honest about who you are, what happened to you, and what you need now will help you cultivate a life not only of authenticity but of joy.
Life may teach us to hide the darker parts of ourselves from others but death teaches us too. It shines a light in the holes of our heart. If we follow that light, we might just find the path back to our true selves.
Jeanette's first book, Shipwrecked: A Memoir on Widowed Parenting and Life After Loss, will be released in Spring 2024. Sign up for launch news or learn more about grief coaching with her by visiting Thrive Community Consulting LLC.
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.