The Year that Changed My Life

This piece was orginally published in the May 2018 issue of Harper’s Bazaar Australia

It was 9 p.m. on New Years Eve when I walked into our apartment for the first time as a widow. My phone buzzed with a group text. It read “Happy New Year to you and your men. Sending you so much love now, we might not make it to midnight,” beside a photo of smiling faces and glasses of champagne. The new year was just hours away and my husband, Jacob, did not make it to midnight. As my mind raced, I kept coming back to one particularly haunting question: What would a new year bring without my husband?

Earlier that day, Jacob and I were enjoying the holiday at home–cooking, laughing, finishing projects around the house and making love. I woke up from a short nap, rolled over and was surprised to see he was not in bed next to me. Seconds later, I found him unresponsive in the bathroom looking as though he had fainted.

When I touched his face to wake him, my whole body surged with certainty that he was gone. Hyperventilating and in shock, I called for an ambulance and did CPR until help arrived. The medics’ unsuccessful attempts to revive him increased my panic. I packed a bag for him — his wallet, glasses, jeans and a sweatshirt — not realizing that he would never come home. They transported him to the nearest hospital and pronounced him dead on arrival. He was 30 years old and had no known health problems.

I sat in silence at the hospital, holding Jacob’s hand while my sister made phone calls to our families to tell them the devastating news. I was unable to speak or make decisions. All I wanted to do was uncover him, crawl in the hospital bed and tell him again that I love him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t move. Just over an hour later, the doctor asked us to leave so the coroner could perform an autopsy on Jacob’s body. As I rode home in the passenger seat of my sister’s car, I felt both numbness as well as stark clarity. My life had changed irrevocably.

Midnight passed, and 2016 came to a close. Down to the very last day, it would always be the final year I shared with my husband. I began 2017 in a state of shock and fear. That night, I laid very still in our bed, not sleeping as the memories we shared as husband and wife flooded my mind.

Before I met Jacob, I came to know him through the comments section of my Instagram photos as @jcb_jhnsn. He would drop by often to check-in, offer encouragement or make me laugh with the perfect combination of emojis. We had no mutual friends, but I could see from his images that he was special, and I wanted to know him.

Soon after we met, we fell deeply in love, and our lives quickly intertwined. Charismatic, generous and an excellent listener, Jacob could make anyone in his company feel important. His soft curls and big smile drew me in, but his kind heart kept me close. He had a boundless lust for life, and a maturity and assuredness that I hadn’t found in anyone else. As a partner, he was sensitive and the first to show me a full, compassionate and honest love. He inspired the confidence and creativity that fueled our happiest days. I had never before been in such an uncomplicated relationship, free of emotional games or second guessing. He enlightened me to my full capacity. I take comfort in knowing that he left this world an exceptionally happy and loved man. Together, we had seized every opportunity to live passionately.

The weeks that followed his death were painful and disorienting, but the results of his autopsy were blaringly clear. Jacob died of an undiagnosed aortic dissection. His heart had inexplicably burst.

“These things happen,” the doctors said. “We don’t know why.”

When a young person dies, it shakes the foundation of the entire community around them. There is no silver lining, no consolation. It is an unfair and unfortunate reality. Hundreds of mourners gathered to celebrate Jacob’s life as a woodworker, athlete, friend, brother, son, and husband. I had never seen so many people weeping in one room.

Unable to return to my normal life without him, I quit my job as a food photographer when his life insurance settlement arrived. I told everyone I was taking a year off to live. I felt fortunate to have had this privilege to step away from my responsibilities and focus on whatever made me feel stable. Other widows have to raise children, manage mortgages or pay back major medical debt.

My friends and family were a net, dragging me out of turbulent waters and supporting me with their thoughtfulness. As a woman who thrives on caring for others, it was difficult to accept the vast kindness and assistance I received. I began seeing a therapist, who reassured me and became a reliable source of comfort. Slowly, the intensity of my pain dulled.

Every day for a year, I turned to Instagram to memorialize my husband, sharing a photo and memory from our life together. With transparency, I chronicled life as a young widow. Grieving in public amassed a community of heartbroken and empathetic readers. They comforted me in my most lonely and terrifying moments, and inspiring them gave me a sense of purpose. Telling the world our love story helped me regain a sense of control in my life, control I lost when my future with Jacob vanished. Through my daily practice, I felt increasingly confident that I was destined to be an artist, transforming my agony into photographs and writing to help heal myself and others.

Along the way, I confronted the many taboos surrounding death and the notion of a “right way to mourn.” Without a clear path for how to cope, I forged one myself. I considered flirtation, dating and sex with strangers. My relationship with Jacob could not be replicated, but my need for touch and intimacy felt urgent. Using dating apps, I invited people into my home to provide temporary comfort. I set the terms for what I wanted, and many times it meant not getting to know my partners. It was easier to want them if I didn’t know the ways they failed in comparison to my husband. I met a man in an open relationship, who was happy to service my needs without any desire to be a part of my life. Our fling, once a week for several months, opened my eyes to new sensations and a type of physical relationship I never experienced as a wife. It felt good to be seen and appreciated sexually.

I made my best efforts to continue living as Jacob and I had lived together, using free time to revisit special places from our past and traveling to visit friends. I felt joy more often than I could have anticipated. I danced, hiked, biked and laughed. I learned to enjoy my own company. I felt best when I put my energy toward a big goal, whether it was riding my bike 400 miles across Jacob’s home state of Iowa, setting up a scholarship in his honor or curating an exhibition of his photographs. Some days and weeks, my mood lightened enough to feel recognizabily myself: the same confident, creative and thoughtful woman Jacob had loved so fully.

It continues to be difficult to navigate the world without my biggest advocate. After the first anniversary of his death, I relinquished my obsession with our past and began to imagine what my future might hold. Though I am no longer a wife, the woman that emerged from 2017 is more compassionate and alive than I would have ever resolved to be on that tragic New Years Eve.