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'You're never free of the grief' — women on tragically losing a spouse

Devan McGuinness is the award-winning founder behind UnspokenGrief.comUnspoken Grief, a resource and support site for those touched by perinatal loss and grief. She’s a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in various pu...

Women's stories on losing a spouse that can teach you how to help a grieving friend

The thought of unexpectedly losing someone we love often provokes feelings that can best be described as "can't even imagine."

But some women have a deeper understanding of what it really feels like.

You can't prepare for the grief

In 2011, Elyse Hein from Brantford, Ontario, was only 27 years old when Joe Hein — her husband and father of her two children — died in a motor vehicle accident. Hein describes the days following his death as, "terribly excruciating."

"I was not prepared for the loneliness — the pain and suffering was just agonizing, such intense pain and totally unexpected," she described. "The days were long and cold and I was all alone raising my girls — I felt empty," she continued.

Hein shared that she didn't have much experience with death and loss until that point. She not only had to navigate herself through the raw grief, but also had to tell her children, who were only 5 and 7 at the time, what happened.

"With children, it's very important to spell things out as they are — black and white, no grey," she acknowledged. "I had to be very matter of fact with them so that it didn't leave room for misunderstandings, so I told them, 'Daddy was in an accident tonight, and he is dead. He won't be coming back,'" Hein remembered.

More: Here's how to talk to a child about a death in the family

The grief lingers for a long time but the support doesn't

In 2005, Cassie from Stratford, Ontario, was only 23 years old when two police detectives visited her at work and told her that her partner of four years had committed suicide.

"I don't remember much about the actual interaction. I can't recall their names, their faces, their exact words," shared Cassie. "What I do remember, vividly, was hearing the word 'no' coming out of my mouth repeatedly, but I don't remember saying it — it was like I was watching it happen from outside of myself," she added.

Cassie later found out that her 28-year-old partner, Matt, had battled depression since he was a young teenager and what she thought was their relationship drifting apart was his depression taking a "strong hold."

"I was young and had never seen someone dealing with depression before. I didn't know the warning signs," Cassie shared. "I didn't understand what was happening so I thought he had lost interest in me, I thought we were growing apart," she added.

Cassie shared that in the months following his death, everyone was kind and understanding, but grief lingers longer than that and friends and family forget.

"What surprised me most about the grieving process was not the months immediately after the loss when everyone is so understanding of your pain, but the ones that follow those where you're supposed to be mending and feeling better," said Cassie. "But you don't, and suddenly the understanding and support from friends and family isn't there anymore."

More: Grieving father's simple request touches strangers' hearts

It's like an earthquake destroying your life

April Schubert, 33, from Alberni, British Columbia, lost her fiancé, Gareth, late in 2014 when he suddenly died due to a pulmonary embolism. He was only 49 years old and had no signs of any health issues, other than heartburn the night before, and his unexpected death "rocked" Schubert's world.

"It left me in the midst of an earthquake. I was so concerned about everyone else," Schubert recalled. "I put myself entirely off. Everything [was] a blur for weeks afterwards," she continued.

When it came time to share the news with their blended family — two girls, aged 11 and 17, and two boys, aged 13 and 20 — Schubert sat them down in the middle of the night with the boys' biological mother.

"Something that is theme and seems appropriate from my experiences is there are many things you can learn or feel and there are no words. It's just an understanding," she shared. Continuing, Schubert said, "You know what's happened, you know it's there, but you can't explain it. No worldly thoughts or explanations can describe them right. The experience of telling our children that their dad just died was one of those times."

Your life plan is shattered but you have to keep going

In her first public statement since her husband's death, Sheryl Sandburg shared that her partnership with husband Dave Goldberg gave her "the experience of being deeply understood, truly supported and completely and utterly loved," and while she hinted she felt things would eventually be OK, losing your partner at a young age changes everything.

"Losing your spouse is so much different than losing a friend, or your parent, or another family member for that matter," acknowledged Hein. "I chose to spend my entire life with this man. We had plans, so many plans."

When life changes course unexpectedly, so do goals and plans and friendships. "I have many friends, but most people are [only] there for good times," said Schubert. Adding to that, she said, "I've learned to lean on myself for support and to let go and forget about the crap with friends."

More: Lea Michele: There is an empowerment that comes with grief

You're never really free of the grief

Death and grief are a part of life, but when we experience our first real loss, there are many ways living with pain can catch us off guard.

"It surprised me how quickly a good day can turn when something small reminds you of the person you lost," shared Cassie. She continued, "For me, it was always the most random things that would suddenly conjure a memory and I would breakdown on the spot." Cassie added, "Ten years later, I'm married with two small kids and I still think about him and tear up."

Schubert says her grief has been a motivating factor in helping her live "more true" and has learned that life is more about "moments" rather than "chunks of time." Her goal now, as she lives life without her fiancé by her side is "just to make him happy. Proud," shared Schubert.

She confessed that she will "never be free of grief" and doesn't feel it ever goes away, but shares that it does get easier over time. "We just passed the four-year anniversary of Joe's death, and every April Fool's Day we celebrate his life," Hein shared. "I am able to talk about him without crying, most times, but it's a constant struggle," she added.

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