It was a few months ago when it first crossed my mind. I was co facilitating a Survivors After Suicide Loss Support Group and we were talking about significant dates – birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, the day our loved ones died, and it was just a flash thought in my head. I remember sort of catching the thought in my brain and my throat, but I didn’t say anything to the group about what caused me to pause mid-sentence.
It’s something that has been in the back of my mind in the months since, and in the last several weeks it’s become like a shadow following me around daily. It surprised me, really, how it started to affect me.
I don’t really get surprised anymore, when May rolls around and my emotions become a little more unpredictable. The tears come a little more frequently. Moods become a little more up and down. I’m laughing one minute and crying the next. But this was different. This May seemed just a little heavier, and it surprised me since it’s coming up on 15 years since I lost my first husband to suicide. It’s not that new anymore. But it was oddly heavier. And I know exactly why. It’s my birthday. I am turning 43. The age my late husband will always be because he died at 43. 43. Not just a number.
I was 28 when I became a widow. Obviously, my late husband was several years older than me – 15 years to be exact. To some that was an issue. To us, it meant nothing. When we met in 1994, after my sister’s wedding reception wrapped up and the wedding party and a dozen guests headed to a local bar to continue the festivities (I had a fake ID), I thought he was one of my new brother in law’s friends. I thought he was maybe 27 or 28. He thought I was 24 or 25. In our heads, there wasn’t that much of age difference. In reality, I was 19 and he was 34.
I was still in college; he owned his own tech company. We were definitely experiencing different chapters of life, but our connection was immediate and it would carry us through the next 8 years – all the ups and all the downs and the magic and all the harsh reality of life. It was not all sunshine and roses. There was also a lot of uncertainty and a lot of pain in those 8 years. Those were life issues, not age issues. To me, our ages truly were just numbers.
Just numbers. Until this year. This year, 43 became this haunting, taunting shadow that seemed to represent any and all unresolved feelings I have had about anything. Including my late husband’s death.
The first time I experienced this roller coaster of emotions was in 2010 – the year that what I call the reverse time clock started. The year that signified my husband had been dead longer than we had been together. You don’t think of these things in the throes of grief. Then, the day hits you like a ton of bricks and you wonder HOW you didn’t think of this before. It’s the same with 43. When he died in 2002, I never thought “someday I will be 43. I wonder how that will feel.”
So, here I am. Basking in the myriad emotions that come with what has always just been a number. Feeling so many feelings and trying to make sense of as many of them as I can.
As I have written about previously, my life is currently in transition. I am transitioning out of the practice of law and winding down the solo practice I have managed since 2002. As much as I know it was the right decision for me, it’s created a crazy amount of anxiety. Financially, the impact is stressful. I’ve gone from having a relatively steady income to income that is completely unpredictable. I’m totally dependent on my husband. That’s a first. It’s foreign. It’s stressful. In fact, it’s about as stressful as the days and months and the first year after the suicide, when I was a new widow staring at a mountain of financial calamity like nothing I had ever experienced.
I have never wanted to base any decision on just finances. I know plenty of people who make money hand over fist and are completely miserable. I know people who have dedicated their lives to doing what they love – even if it means the paychecks are few and far between and never stretch far enough – and who are the happiest people I have ever met. So, I took a leap of faith.
Point being, I know that my professional transition is contributing to this heaviness of 43. I know that when my late husband ended his life, the financial stress was a huge contributing factor. I think at 43 I understand this far better than I did at 28.
But even the financial aspect doesn’t completely explain this heavy, sometimes anxious feeling I have in turning 43.
I think that some of it can be explained by the fact that for so long, my late husband was always older than me. Years older. He had experienced more personally and professionally than I ever had. He had wisdom that he would impart when I needed it. He’d experienced much of what I was experiencing at the time – new kid on the job, new kid in a new city. Life lessons. He had experienced them. He helped me through them. He always won the years and experience race. When he died, I lost my compass. For so many years, all things had always pointed to him.
And, even though 43 is far too young to die, at 28 it still seemed a ways off. Far enough away that I didn’t need to worry about it. Until it wasn’t.
I’ve thought a lot about all the pressures he was feeling in the final months of his life. We were newly married. He was dealing with chronic physical pain that affected even his ability to walk long distances. He was trying to manage his pain without the use of heavy prescription meds, after becoming dependent on them and relapsing after a period of sobriety. He’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder which explained so much but was so hard for him to accept. His professional life was in a huge slump after massive success just years prior. There were legal issues tied to all of it.
I understand that pressure much more now that I am re-married and have children that depend on me and their father/my husband. I know how much of a toll the lawsuit I was named in several years ago took on me and my family. Having also suffered from post partum depression after my twin sons were born, I also understand that feeling of thinking nothing will ever get better.
But now, I am 43. The same age as my late husband. And I just can’t even put into words how it feels. I’ve tried with this entire essay. I’ve written and deleted and re-written and it still isn’t coming out the way I want it to.
What I feel, more than anything, is a deeper connection to him. And I didn’t think that was possible. I feel like I have a better understanding of what he was facing, on all levels, in the final months of his life.
He’s been gone longer than we were together. I’m now the age he will be forever.
So, my pledge to myself is to make 43 as life affirming as I can. Take better care of myself. Lose the weight. Exercise. Wash my face before bed. Take the time to listen. Be more present. For myself. For my husband and children. Bask in joy, not sorrow. Share myself in ways that bring me closer to what I feel is my true purpose – helping others.
With that, I think it can be a Happy 43. We both deserve that.