In the moment I was told my husband had taken his own life, I felt something inside me shatter. Something important was ripped away. I felt my life draining from the wounds left behind. Sheer agony is the only way to explain it. Knowing, without a single shred of doubt, that I was dying.
I felt as if I was burning inside my skin. Every breath felt like liquid metal was being poured down my throat. The fear was paralyzing. The agony and despair and hopelessness felt as though they had ripped my soul from my body. I remember thinking that a person couldn’t survive this much pain. It would kill me and I hoped it would hurry.
My mind was racing and blank at the same time. I was desperately trying to make sense of what was happening but I couldn’t. I was trying to breathe but I couldn’t. I was trying to scream but I couldn’t. I was trying to stop the free fall into the abyss but I couldn’t.
I knew I was dying. It’s nearly impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t been there but, I did die. Who I was before the moment they told me that my husband was gone had died. I felt it. It was as real and recognizable as it would be to have your leg cut off. I KNEW I was dying. My body was alive but something in me was dying a slow and agonizing death.
I was able to hold on until the day of his funeral. I was able to focus on taking care of him and honoring him. I had to make sure he was honored and loved and his body was cared for. I had to make sure he was treated with the love he deserved. Then, I could die.
The day of his funeral was the day I died. I walked into the chapel and was with what was left of him for the first time since he had died. There was a large photo of him in uniform, his combat boots, his helmet…and his ashes. His ashes. My sweet, beautiful husband was ashes in a box. I died a little more.
People started coming in. Condolences. Tears. Hugs. Seeing the agony on the faces of the people who loved us. Pity. Fear. Sadness. I died a little more.
The memorial video started. There was my life flashing across the screen. Beautiful memories of the best years of my life. His smile. His face. Him so vibrant and alive. Each photo, all 80 of them, ripped me apart. I died a little more.
I somehow walked to the front of the room. My body felt foreign to me. It was heavy and awkward and no longer worked the way it should. It didn’t feel like my body anymore. I stood in front of the people who loved him and gave his eulogy. I don’t remember what I said. I only remember that I died a little more.
I sat and listened to others stand up and speak about how wonderful he was. I don’t remember what anyone said, specifically. I just remember the grief and the love. With each persons words, I died a little more.
Then, it was the moment I died. I know the exact moment when who I was before he died finally succumbed to the injuries. My Casualty Assistance Officer came over to me and stood me up. I took his arm and he escorted me outside. I could see the funeral detail waiting with their rifles. I could see the man with the bugle. I knew what was coming but I couldn’t have prepared myself if I had a thousand years to do it.
“Fire!” The first volley startled me. I felt it like they had shot me in the heart. I gasped and my knees buckled. “Fire!” The second shot rang out and I couldn’t hold back the moans. Dying this way hurt so much. I felt the bullets of finality rip through me. I could no longer hold myself up. “Fire!” The third round was the fatal shot. I felt my life leaving my body. I had to be held up. There was no more life in me.
I died a little more.
The soldier started playing Taps. It felt as if he were playing it for the both of us. I knew I was dying. I don’t know how to explain it. I felt my life slipping away. I wanted so much to go with him. I barely heard the trumpet. I was screaming inside my skin. The screams of agony of a woman burning alive. No one could hear them but me. I died a little more.
They led me back inside. I’m not even sure if or how I walked. I don’t remember that part. The next thing I remember is watching them fold the flag in front of me. I remember screaming in my head, “NO! Don’t give that to me! I don’t want it! NO! NO! NO!” I died a little more.
Then Jay was standing in front of me with that flag in his hands. He was fighting back the tears as he looked at me. He took a deep breath and what he said next is something I can never forget. I have had nightmares about it. It was the moment I died.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
And that was it. I felt my life leave me. I felt it as sure as I would if those gunshots had been real and pointed at me. Every bit of my life drained out. I became empty. I wailed as the last of my life escaped me. Then, I was done. I knew it was only a matter of time before my body died, too. I died.
In the following months, I kept expecting to die. I was more sure I was going to die than I have ever been of anything in my life. Every morning I woke up and was still alive, I was truly shocked. I did not understand how I could possibly be alive and dead at the same time. It was truly confusing to me. I knew I was dead on the inside. How the hell was my heart still beating? How was my body still alive? It made no sense.
I lived. I don’t know how and I’m not sure I ever will. There are huge blank spots in my memory. I don’t remember so much of the first 6-7 months after he died. I went to a place that was so dark and lonely and painful that it was a kind of death. I went to the abyss. I met Death. We talked and I begged him to take me. I looked him in the eye. I felt his breath on my face. I surrendered to him. But he left me, too. He wouldn’t take me. That hurt almost as much as my husband dying.
So, here I am. Still somewhere between dead and alive. More alive than dead now, though. I’m learning who I am now that I am no longer what I was. I’m slowly coming back to life but not the same. I’ve been transformed by the pain, by the experience of dying. Nothing is as it was. It’s like being reborn in a way.
So, here I am. Learning to live. Learning to breathe. Learning to connect. Learning to walk. Learning to eat. Learning to take care of myself. Learning what I want. Learning what I need. Learning to care for myself. I’m relearning everything.
I’ve learned to be patient with myself. I only allow people who are patient with me in my life. People would be patient with me if I had a catastrophic physical injury. This is no different, it’s just a catastrophic emotional injury. I’m having to relearn everything. I guess that’s what happens when you’re reborn.
Meeting Death is a transformative experience. Dying while you’re still alive is a transformative experience. I will never be what I was before. I’m learning to be okay with that and embrace who I am now. I’m stronger than I ever imagined. That’s as good a place to start as any.