What It Was Really Like After My Husband Died Unexpectedly

Photo: Instagram/larastarr
Family, Heartbreak

A written by a woman who lost her husband 6 months ago.

My husband John and I met during my first semester of college. We were together for 28 years and married for 18.

He died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50 earlier this year while I was out of town on a business trip.

Our 16-year-old son Max found him, tried to administer CPR and called 911.

My son was in the care of police officers at first, and then my mother until I could get home. If there was anything I could do to take that experience away from him, I would.

But I can't. It's part of his story now.

The past six months since he died have been a roller coaster of shock, sadness, anger, and disbelief — however, at the same time, there has been incredible love, connection, support, and growth. A lot of what I've read online and in books about grief didn't feel true to me. It's a very individual process, so I took the time to reflect on what it's meant for me, to tell my story.

Here's what I've learned: 

1. “How are you doing?” is an impossible question to answer.

I’ve asked “How are you doing?” to folks going through tough issues a million times. I welcome it like I welcome all expressions of concern, with gratitude and humility, but I’ve learned that it’s easier for me to hear “You’re on my mind” or “I’m thinking of you.” When asked, most of the time, I say, “We’re doing well.”

Which, like Facebook, is accurate, but not complete. Our son Max is doing well. I’m doing well. We’re doing well. The house is in order. Grades are good. Laundry is getting done. I’m keeping most of the work-balls in the air. Bills are getting paid. I’m even flossing!

But, at the same time, everything is different. Grief is a constant companion. There’s not a day that’s gone by that I haven’t thought about “that night,” and I have no idea what the future looks like.


2. My FOMO goes to 11.

I’m even MORE obsessed with checking my phone, email, messages than before.

I’m really anxious about missing (or missing out) on something important (or even not all that important). I’ve never been that much of a helicopter parent, but, when I was in a town without cell service for several hours a few weeks ago, there was a mild anxiety knowing Max couldn’t get a hold of me.

I accept (almost) every invitation or opportunity that I’m fortunate to have come my way and panic a bit when I don’t/can’t. I passed up free theater tickets for a show I could have gone to see, but it would have meant a bit of juggling and maneuvering, and I decided not to do it and I can’t shake the feeling of regret.

I’m not so naive that I don’t understand that I’m likely filling to avoid feeling.


3. It’s not (all) about me.

The support we’ve received has been overwhelming in the best sense of the word.

I’ve been absolutely floored by the kindness and generosity.

Much of it was about John. And me. And Max. And the people who know and love us. But… so much is about them. Who they are and the experiences that shaped their lives.

A very casual work-related acquaintance donated very generously to a fund we started to buy Max his own car — far out of proportion to our relationship. I can only guess that his life has been impacted by sudden loss. Perhaps he was the beneficiary of a great kindness.

Whatever it was that inspired his generosity, I learned it is actually very generous to accept it. That it’s very healing to meet others halfway.

It is a kindness to accept what others choose to give (but man, it’s hard!).

And, this may not make sense if you haven’t felt this way, but there have been times I didn’t attend a memorial service because I didn’t know the person that well and going felt like it was making it about me. Like after 9/11 when I joked with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who we figured was combing through the victim list, desperate to recognize a name she knew so she could make it all about her.

(Yeah, I can be snarky like that, but you know the type.)

I learned that going to the service is ALL about the mourners.

I welcomed every last person and was so grateful they took time out of their day, no matter how small the connection to me, John or Max.


4. The new normal set in quickly

Maybe it’s because our lives were already fairly routine, but it’s been both comforting and unsettling how quickly and easily Max and I have developed new routines and new ways of doing the life stuff with just the two of us. I often joke that I don’t really believe in astrology, but Max is SUCH a freakin’ Libra. So steady, so balanced, so even. Early on, he said, “This is the way things are now.” And they are.

It doesn’t mean we don’t miss him — both in the longing sense and the sense of “How do you use the slow cooker?” — or that there are not more shoes that have yet to drop, but I’ve learned that new lives can be built quickly, especially if you are fortunate enough to have the financial, emotional, and logistical resources that we do.


5. You never know / there are things I don’t know.

I have no idea what will be easy and what won’t.

It wasn’t hard to go through his clothes. I was glad to donate them to people who can use them.

There’s a note on the chalkboard in the kitchen he wrote that I haven’t erased.

I’ve been writing and erasing around it for six months and will keep doing so for as long as I can.

Sleeping alone isn’t as weird as I thought it would be.

I can’t imagine taking my wedding rings off.

I’m not a spiritual person, but I’ve learned there are things we don’t know.

I was in Boston at a recurring conference when John died. Last week, I went to the same conference in Orlando. It wasn’t not weird to be back in the same sitch I was in then, but it was ultimately a wonderful experience. But, while I was in Orlando, several times when I was posting a photo to Instagram, it located me in Boston.

I’ve been in several cities since January 8th and it has never not known where I was.

I can’t explain it. Is Instagram… haunted?


6). I’d rather be divisive than indecisive.

I’m gonna chalk it up to a combination of being hit in the head with life is short*, getting older, this insane election, and culture of violence we’re living in, but I’ve become much less concerned about speaking my mind and much more likely to take a chance that I might cause offense.

Thought that’s (usually) not my intention, I’ve gotta be OK with not being everyone’s cup of tea.

I’ve told authors who get bad reviews that not every book is for everybody and that the only thing everyone likes is vanilla ice cream. Once you add anything interesting to it (chocolate chips, cherries, walnuts), you lose some of your audience.

So be it. And if I’ve offended a Trump supporter, a racist, someone oblivious to their privilege, then I’ve done my job.

I’m trusting my gut when I’m inspired to respond to comments, issues, or opinions. And yep, I’m gonna step in it from time to time. I’m gonna regret a few things. I’m gonna have to be open to being educated. And I’m gonna have to apologize. I’m down for that.


*Maybe this is thing 6.5, but I think I’ve always felt this way: Life is short. 

in the sense that you never know when it will end, your kids grow up so freakin’ quickly, and you can’t believe you’re “fill-in-the-blank” age. But… when I think about how long I need my car to keep running, or how hard it is for folks over 60 (or 50) to find a job, or how long retirement savings are supposed to last, or how we can linger in old age with minds and bodies that fail us, life can seem very, very long.

Until it isn't. 


(These are our first and last family photos together.)


Lara Starr is a children's book publicist, radio producer, cookbook author and semi-pro thrift shopper in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her antics on Instagram at @larastarr


All photos courtesy of the author.


Explore YourTango