Life After My Husband's Sudden Death
My Four-Step Journey to Happy
By Karen Kaplan
Ten years ago this spring, my husband of 36 years passed away suddenly. We’d met on the very first day of college, and when I spoke to my parents later that day, I told them, “I met the man I’m going to marry!” We were not only spouses, but also worked together after he started his own business a few years later. Not all couples can be both life and business partners, but we were always the best of friends, and that helped us weather the inevitable ups and downs of life and business. In one heartbeat, I lost my husband, my best friend, my partner and my career. When I looked ahead, all I saw was a sad and endless void.
Grief is such a little word to describe such an enormous experience. Five letters, one syllable, containing a universe of sadness and pain. Grief isn’t an emotion unique to losing a loved one. During the past year, many have lost their jobs, their businesses, their savings. Friends and families were separated, holidays were spent alone, milestones were celebrated in front of computer screens. None of us is immune to the pain of loss, and none live a life unscathed by it.
My own loss 10 years ago was devastating. At the time it seemed I’d never have a pain-free day again. And yet here I am, 10 years later, living a happy life. Happy to wake up each day. How did I do it? And how did my deep Jewish faith play such a major part in this recovery? How can it help any of us after a major loss?
1. Choose Life
Moses, in his farewell address to the Jewish people, says these words: “Choose life.” The meaning seems so obvious that one wonders why Moses felt he had to utter them. But in the darkest times it can be tempting to withdraw from life, to never get up from the sofa, to wear your old bathrobe all day, and to let your phone go to voicemail and never return the calls. It’s normal to grieve over losses, but Moses is telling us not to make negativity a habit that becomes as comfortable as that old bathrobe.
The first step, therefore, is to decide to take that first step. In my case, choosing life meant acknowledging my grief, accepting it and feeling it—but also deciding that I didn’t want to make a permanent home for it inside me. I imagined myself a year into the future. Who did I want that person to be? Someone who had turned grief into a lifestyle? Or someone well on the road to living a full life? I chose life. But how to make that happen? And what would that life look like?
2. Say Yes
If you’re already living a Torah-observant life, it has prepared you for this next step: Saying yes to the daily activities that present themselves. Say yes to social invitations. Say yes to volunteer opportunities. Say yes to classes, and book clubs, and daily walking groups. Over time, you’ll discover which are worth continuing and which aren’t, but in the beginning say yes to it all. Even if you don’t feel like it. Especially if you don’t feel like it.
If you’re Torah observant, you’re already used to doing mitzvahs many times a day, even though sometimes you may not feel like doing them. You do them because you know there is spiritual value in doing them, even when it’s not apparent. Building a new life after loss takes consistent effort. You might want to stay in your bathrobe, but if you see the value in building that new life, you’ll make the effort even on those days when you’d rather not.
They say “Fake it until you make it,” and that’s what I did. I promised myself that the word “no” would be banished from my vocabulary for an entire year. Without fail, I got up each day, got dressed and got busy. If something had the slightest chance of being interesting, I put it on my calendar. Even when I was having a bad day, I plastered a smile on my face and faced the world outside. No excuses ever.
By the end of the year, I’d learned a lot about myself. I loved Jewish learning, but secular adult learning wasn’t my thing. I loved visiting Jewish patients at nursing homes, but didn’t like book groups. By saying yes, and trying it all, I now knew exactly the kinds of things that were enjoyable and meaningful to me, and built my days around them. The “future me” was taking shape.
3. Forever Only Applies to G‑d
During that first year, I remember often wondering if I’d ever really feel good again. Yes, the grief wasn’t as unbearable as in the beginning, but I feared that feeling good was forever out of reach. And then, one day the phrase “Forever only applies to G‑d” popped into my head, and my entire attitude shifted. G‑d is eternal. He exists outside of time. But humans don’t, and that’s a good thing, because time is change. Anything that exists in time—and that includes us!—undergoes change. Therefore, your feelings will change. Give it time. What a breakthrough it was to understand this!
This doesn’t happen in one seismic shift. It’s a series of small victories. At first it was an occasional hour when I didn’t think of my loss and immediately hurt. Over time, those isolated hours became longer stretches of time. Progress happens in fits and starts, but it’s inevitable. Because forever only applies to G‑d.
4. Pay It Forward
Empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others. Some people, after suffering a great loss, close themselves up emotionally, unwilling to let even an echo of that pain ever enter again. But that is not the Jewish way. The Torah tells us to “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt" and goes on to command us to be kind and charitable to strangers, widows and orphans, i.e., to those among us who are vulnerable and suffering. We are instructed to build on our own painful experiences, of which slavery in Egypt is the prototype. We are told to remember it, to internalize it, to grow from it, and to use the empathy we develop to become better, kinder people.
When I finally made the transition from feeling only my own pain to feeling the pain of others, I knew I’d fully rejoined the world of the living. Where I once felt grief, I now felt compassion. Where I once felt pain, I now felt empathy. The journey from grief to happiness isn’t one of eliminating pain, but of using it as a springboard for personal spiritual growth. And isn’t that what happiness is all about?
A happy life isn’t pain-free. Rather, it is purpose-full. Even grief has a purpose. If it didn’t, G‑d wouldn’t have created it. Your life’s journey was created by G‑d for you alone. It is His unique gift to you. Even the difficult parts. Experience them. Learn from them. Build on them. That is your very own Journey to Happy.