The loss of someone you love can be devastating and people who have endured this pain will grapple with ghosts for the rest of their lives.
Dawn Picken tells her own story of loss, grief, and navigating her way through life in the aftermath of her first husband's death.
In a powerful, candid, from-the-heart story, she shares what happened but also the unusual and dramatic life decisions she made for her and her two children afterwards. And she asks a burning question after suffering loss: just what is normal?
I'm no grief expert, but I did consult experts for this piece. I wanted to share not just what happened and decisions I made, but also to ask, what's normal?
Counsellors and researchers who study grief say it has no expiration date. But that often clashes with a culture uncomfortable with loss.
If I post a photo of my late husband online (which I do two or three times per year), I'll have to defend myself against comments in-person I'm "living in the past". I'm not. I've grown my life around grief.
I have a wide circle of friends in the Bay, work I enjoy, close relationships with my children and a running habit which has delivered new friendships and experiences. Writing provides catharsis and connection. Yet no amount of joyful activities and friendships can resurrect my husband. Death severed our physical relationship, but it didn't cut my emotional tie.
My husband, Sean Stanelun, and I had been married for nearly 10 years when he got sick in late 2009.
Our children were 3 and 5 when he entered hospital with flu-like symptoms. He was diagnosed with necrotising fasciitis (NF), aka flesh-eating disease, and had surgeries on his arms and legs to cut away dead tissue. Coincidentally, he also had a large mass on his pancreas.
Doctors said it looked benign but would need to come out after Sean was largely recovered from NF. I'll never forget the sound of my husband's shrieks as medical staff changed his wound dressings. No amount of morphine could block the pain.
He persevered and was sent to a nursing home before bouncing back and forth between a rehabilitation centre and hospital. Sean re-learned to walk. His brow furrowed and he gritted his teeth while sliding his hands along two parallel steel poles similar in diameter to his spindly arms.
Sean once said during his four-and-a-half months in hospital, "It's a good thing I'm the one in the bed because you guys couldn't handle it."
As if the sickness gods had to choose one of us to torture. He bore the pain and had regained his sense of humour shortly after emerging from a two-week coma that marked the start of his hospital stay.
Our struggle was public because I'd worked in TV news in Spokane, Washington, for eight years. Sean had been a photographer at the same station before quitting to stay home with our first child. I was a consumer reporter and morning presenter.
Local networks and newspapers ran stories about Sean after he got sick. Friends held fundraisers because we weren't sure if Sean's lengthy hospital stay would exhaust our insurance coverage.
He was terrified of the pancreas operation. "Can't they wait five years?" he asked. We told him no, they couldn't. And now I wonder, why not? The operation killed him.
About a month after surgery, Sean suffered complications including a massive internal bleed, the kind of catastrophic episode that's unsurvivable, even if doctors perform CPR for 30 minutes. It happened in the blackest hour of morning during a snowstorm. I arrived too late to say goodbye. My husband died among strangers.
I carry guilt for the lonely way Sean died, along with other mental artefacts stemming from his hospitalisation - the trauma of witnessing his bloated, tubed, debrided and diseased body; the anguish of hearing his cries and listening to him recount nightmares that raged from deep inside his coma where people were stabbing him with knives.
I can only assume those were times when Sean's wound dressings were changed. I watched our then 5-year-old daughter recoil when visiting her father in the hospital's dialysis unit the first time. A day later, he was back in his regular room, and she held his splotchy purple hand.
"I'm not scared of Daddy anymore," she said. Her brother zoomed toys cars on the floor and drank Sean's apple juice.
Sean endured suffering and shuffling to seven different rooms and facilities only to die on January 23, 2010. He was 48 years old, the same age I am today.
I hate cliches, especially death cliches. So do many other widows and widowers. In a closed Facebook group, we make lists of things people have said that make us want to scream: "Everything happens for a reason", "Time heals all wounds", "He's in a better place", "You're young, you'll find someone else", "Are you over it yet?", "God doesn't give us more than we can handle ..." and so many more.
I won't get into detail about why these phrases are ridiculous and wrong; that's an entire article unto itself. Death platitudes are fillers, like saying "um" during a speech when you can't remember what comes next. Or you've heard other people parroting the same phrase, and it suddenly spouts from your lips or typing fingers.
Don't serve cliches; bring lasagne instead. Lasagne has value.
Also, ask how it feels to be us in this moment. Warning - the response requires a more significant time commitment than regurgitating a platitude or three. It might also make you uncomfortable. If our loved ones can die, yours can too. We're all returning to ash. Loss is a learning process, not a repair project. And people in Western cultures don't sit well with something they can't fix.
One cliche I often heard in the early months after Sean died was not to make significant changes that first year.
I rearranged everything in the first eight months. I knew, as Joan Didion wrote, life changes "in the instant". I wanted to see more of the world while the kids and I were healthy. I was terrified I'd die before setting foot inside Notre Dame again, visiting an old friend in Cape Town and travelling to Australasia for the first time.
I quit a good-paying marketing management job, rented out our house and packed our lives into six suitcases. We had enough life insurance for plane tickets to Paris, South Africa and Australia, plus a six-month sabbatical in New Zealand. Another widow had told me the schools were good, people were friendly and weather on the North Island would be better than the icy/hot continental climate of the Inland Northwest.
Grieving and Leaving
My children were 4 and 6 when we left home. People told me I was brave, code for, "That's crazy and I'd never do it". But after I'd seen, heard and smelled the horrors of the hospital, how my husband could fall ill in the midst of the mundane, it seemed logical to launch my trio into the world. The worst had already happened.
I started our tour with training wheels - the first three weeks in Paris spent with my dad and step-mum, plus a young friend who'd join us for the first two months as a nanny.
Extra help gave me confidence at the outset; I'd plot the rest of the trip week-by-week. We stayed with friends and family in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Luxembourg and South Africa. Everywhere, I learned something new about my hosts and about myself.
I remember the frenetic pace with which my Cape Town friend lived, working more than fulltime while raising two boys, taking part in a book club, spending hours decorating her son's birthday cake and cycling 100 kilometres on weekends. That used to be me, aside from the epic cycle rides.
The kids and I memorialised Sean globally. We scattered his ashes around trees below the Eiffel Tower.
"Maybe they'll grow new daddies!" said Master Four. Ash scattering was ritual everywhere - spreading my late husband's remains from the top of Northern Ireland to the bottom of South Africa, in Sydney's Harbour and finally, on Tay Street Beach in Mount Maunganui.
When I ran out of travel ashes, I retrieved more from Sean's sister's home in Olympia, Washington. My daughter and I visited in 2015 while Stephanie was dying of a brain tumour, Glioblastoma. She was my last best link to Sean's family, the person with whom we clicked most. Of his three siblings, she was the one to get a deadly cancer. If I didn't suspect life was unfair before, I knew it for sure after Steph got sick.
I poured a portion of Sean's cremains into a Ziplock bag inside my carry-on for our return to New Zealand. The bag was immediately identified in the Seattle airport x-ray as suspicious. A screener asked what was inside. "Ashes," I said. Her face fell. "From a campfire," I improvised, terrified I'd be forced to tip Sean into the bin.
I prepared for inspection at Los Angeles International Airport by adding cinnamon and raisins to the bag, along with a hand-written recipe for a cake. When a screener called for her boss to examine the Ziplock, the supervisor held up the bag and saw the recipe card inside. She told the screener, "It's cake mix. It says right here …" My heart thumped like a Conga drum. I didn't know if I were carrying contraband. I didn't want to know. I just wanted to bring more of Sean home.
New Home, New Zealand
We never planned to stay in New Zealand this long. But two weeks after arriving in Mount Maunganui in 2011, I started wondering how one ever leaves. February was warm and welcoming; beauty was everywhere. Six months would not be enough. I had enrolled the kids in primary school as international pupils. I'd later extend our visas to stay more than a year during that first stint.
Around the first anniversary of Sean's death, I started dating online. No one knew me; I had nothing to lose. At least I could have dinner with someone who, unlike my son, wouldn't kick me under the table.
I met with a grief counsellor to talk through whether I was ready to date. When is it too soon? What should I expect of myself? Of anyone else? She put me in touch with other widows, which was like shining a torch on the future. These women were six, eight and more years down the road from their partners' deaths. Many of them had new partners; some had remarried. I saw and heard what might be possible for me.
I started dating and fell in love, not just with him, but also with New Zealand and the idea of recreating a nuclear family. I couldn't bring Sean back, but I could have a partner and a male role model for my kids.
We married in 2014. He left in 2017 for a series of jobs - the first one out-of-country, the next two out-of-region. The last job, the one that has stuck, is four hours' drive, one-way, from home.
The situation has thrown me back to new widow status - grief waves strike more often as I raise teenagers alone. I do many things alone. While I abide my own company, I'm an extrovert who recharges around other people. A widow in her 70s recently told me how her circle shrank after her husband died.
"You don't get as many invitations," she said. "People do things in couples."
It is, indeed, a partnered world. If I ever get a tattoo, it will be a tricycle, with my name inside the third wheel.
A grief counsellor in a BBC video offered a new definition of fine. She said, "FINE means I'm F**ked; I'm Insecure; I'm Neurotic; I'm Emotional." Yes. I'm FINE. Living with grief is like walking with an invisible limp.
Normal or Not
We wonder what's normal when dealing with grief, especially when it's been years since someone died and we still have moments of intense sadness.
I spoke with James Arkwright, a counsellor and educator who heads the School of Social Practice at Bethlehem Tertiary Institute. He said people grieve differently according to a variety of factors such as how close they were to the person who died and how meaningful the loss has been. It's not just about death, either.
"It's also about a loss of wellness, loss of relationship, loss of a job, loss of material possessions, loss of our sense of safety or innocence, which we definitely experienced as a nation the last few weeks with what's happened in Christchurch with the mosque shootings."
Arkwright says feeling powerless after a loss is normal. But grief involving flashbacks, panic attacks, angry outbursts, traumatic dreams, feelings of numbness, withdrawal, making decisions based on fear, negative self-image and being hyper-vigilant for danger may require expert help.
"If they persist for a long period and don't seem to be lessening, it would be good to involve professional support from a psychologist, counsellor or doctor. I wouldn't say to that person it's abnormal; I would say the significance of the trauma needs unpacking and exploring and support is required."
Arkwright said what used to be called pathological grief is now more often referred to as complicated grief. It means a variety of factors impact the grief experience - current stresses as well as old ones. It's why, he says, someone who gets a flat tyre after losing a loved one might burst into tears - they're already feeling overstretched and emotional. Having personal and financial autonomy and social support are helpful for the adjustment process.
But someone with a challenging family situation, financial stressors and multiple jobs who's looking after children alone may already be pushed to the limit.
"When something else happens, that's not such a good platform for coping well."
Arkwright says people carrying historical traumas such as relationship breakups and childhood abuse need compassion; otherwise, they may seek comfort in drugs and alcohol, which are poor substitutes for human connection. "Grief and trauma are easier to cope with if you have a community of support."
People with a sense of purpose, he says, are also better positioned to navigate grief.
Comparisons can stifle conversation. Arkwright says grief over a job loss, death of a pet and death of a loved one all hurt.
"It's not a competition. Everybody will grieve differently and people experience trauma differently and it's very unhelpful to have comparisons."
Grief Support Services senior counsellor and team leader Janet Baird believes more people in the community are recognising the value of talk therapy after a loss. She says referrals and client enquiries have soared the past year, but the number of clients the service can see remains static due to lack of funds to hire more counsellors.
Baird says wait list times have nearly trebled compared with 2018.
"The Mental Health Foundation campaigns and letting men know it's okay to reach out; all those campaigns are making a difference," Baird says we're in the midst of a cultural shift that says it's okay to find the right space to speak.
"The experience of grief is so different for everybody, so to say what's normal is a bit tough because it creates expectations for people. Being able to speak out loud about their grief and their circumstances allows them to feel they're probably doing pretty well or recognising things that aren't helpful so they can bring about change to make the experience of their loss more manageable. I know it's cliche, but one phrase is grief is as unique as a thumbprint."
That's one cliche I can stand.
Baird encourages asking a grieving person how they're doing and for close relationships, even suggesting outside help if needed.
"It may be the last thing they want, but if the seed is sown, they may find someone to talk to. It doesn't have to be a professional. It's not unusual to hear clients say I have lots of people around me, friends, family, but I need an anonymous space to think out loud, to work things out ... that's very hard to do inside your own head."
The old thinking, say researchers, was that the grief bubble shrank over time. A newer school of thought says the grief bubble might fade in intensity but retain its size. We grow our lives around it. Triggers like birthdays and anniversaries often cause us to dip back into grief.
Likewise, stages of grief modelled by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross around 1969 - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance have fallen out of favour as gospel.
Kubler-Ross developed her model to describe the process patients go through as they come to terms with terminal illnesses. Studies show people don't grieve in lock-step.
A 2017 article in Psychology Today said, "Even Kubler-Ross said that grief doesn't proceed in a linear and predictable fashion, writing toward the end of her career that she regretted her stages had been misunderstood."
A more recent grief theory called the Dual Process Model posits we alternate between facing our loss head-on, and at other times setting it aside.
The idea of grief waves makes sense to me. I often joke I'll have a lot more time to grieve after the kids leave home. I may collapse into a heap in the wardrobe after the work of child-rearing is done. I can have a good cry without being interrupted by shouts of, "Where's my shin guards?"
Rather than waiting for some stage of grief to hit us, Arkwright suggests we give ourselves compassion and take action, too. He said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern modelled for the world both attributes following the Christchurch shootings by being physically present for mourners, and initiating changes to gun laws plus an inquiry into how to prevent future attacks.
"In the face of incredible powerlessness, there are lots of things we can do to take a position of resistance against things we won't accept."
Reinventing the Third Wheel
It's Tuesday after Easter, and I've brought the kids to a holiday park near Thames for two nights. An escape attempt before Easter failed. Holidays the past few years have been shellacked in dread. It's when I feel most out-of-synch with the rest of the world.
I must stop looking at social media, at everyone's shiny, happy nuclear family holidays. It's like diving into the comparison bucket when I need to focus on dog paddling in my own pool.
It poured yesterday. I wondered if this trip was a mistake as the kids and I spent most of our time inside a tiny studio unit. A two-hour drive for Nickelodeon on SkyTV? Today, the sun re-emerged. Master 13 and I hit a tennis ball and played petanque; Miss 15 took turns with her brother manoeuvering a two-seater tricycle around the park before letting me on. She spun the trike, pedalled fast, then jerked the brake. I felt my cheeks widen from smiling.
If I'm a third wheel, within my family I'm the one in front. My tricycle tattoo would be complete with the names of our trio inside each wheel. Sean's name could rest on the handlebars. It does not mean the end of grief or loneliness, but it could be another reinvention of what it means to be three.