I am winning the epic mind battle that is widowhood


The mind is an amazing thing. It’s not an actual organ like the brain is, but it can control how so many organs function. It defines our humanity, and how we react to life. It is the keeper of all of our emotions and life experiences.

And yet, it has a sense of humor. It plays with us, torments us, tests our mettle. The mind can be enemy or friend, guardian or aggressor.

It can be a widow’s greatest nemesis or greatest comfort.

When my husband Jim first died more than six years ago, part of my mind just plain shut down. Memories were too painful to allow in my present, and the sheer enormity of what had just happened was too overwhelming for it to bear. Just a piece of my mind stayed cognizant enough to let me get by from day to day.

I seemed to be stuck in a panic mode that I couldn’t control. Part of my mind couldn’t bear the pain and wanted me to fade away into nonexistence, even while part of me knew I had no choice but to keep going. My mind warred with itself in this epic battle for survival.

And it stayed that way literally for years. It was exhausting.

Now the memories that were so painful at first have become a comfort to me. I still get a catch in my throat when one catches me off guard, but then it makes me smile. The happiness the memory evoked when it was being made overwhelms the sadness that I will never make another one like it with Jim.

Going ashore on a cruise ship tender.

Yet, the same mind knows all memories are unique anyway. Even if Jim were alive, we would never make the same memories again. We would make new one of a kind memories.

So I am making new memories with the people I love who still are here on Earth with me because I now know just how very precious they are, and will be, to me and to them.

We can’t go through life dreading our demise or the demise of those we hold most dear, but we can make the very most of the time we have together. We can appreciate the special gifts of family and friendships. We can choose to take the positive and not the negative pathway through our lives.

My faith in God is an important part of that for me, but my healing mind is too. Some injuries simply take a lot of time even to begin to heal. We lose some feeling in the area of the injury — the mind’s way of making it physically bearable to us — but eventually the nerves begin to knit and the healing blood to flow and we can feel the injury’s presence. There may be stabs of pain or a constant nagging ache or some other physical sign to remind us of what has happened.

But it will heal, even if it’s slow about it.

I had a surgery when I was a teenager in which the doctors cut through muscle around my shoulder blade. Once the edges of flesh had knitted together and a scar formed and toughened a little, the scar tissue was numb to my touch.

Over the years, the nerves in that tissue have slowly healed and I now have regained feeling in some of that area. Every once in awhile, I will feel a sharp twinge, like someone just poked me with a big needle, and I know it’s the nerves still repairing themselves.

Widowhood is like that too. Huge trauma and slow healing.

We never “get over” our trauma of loss and what it means to our lives because it changes us, but isn’t that change also a gift of the mind? Changing makes it necessary for us to redefine ourselves and our lives so that we can keep moving forward.

We may not change core values, but we certainly change priorities. We change how we use our minds, how we think about things like family, friends, safety, financial security, and community. We change how we react to situations. We change how we deal with memories.

My best friend and I went to dinner on a recent Saturday night at a restaurant just over the New Hampshire state line. Besides excellent and affordable food, the restaurant boasted a magnificent vista of the White Mountains. We were awed by the beauty of it as the scene was framed in the setting sun.

And just for one fleeting moment I thought to myself that I couldn’t wait to tell Jim about this place, because I was sure he would want to visit it someday too. That was followed by fleeting sadness, but I was left with a flood of memories of so many wonderful travel experiences Jim and I had together. Moments in magnificent sunsets filled with love and contentment.

Funny thing is, I can still conjure the memory of the love and contentment. I can hear Jim’s voice. My body remembers the feeling of my hand held in his, what his skin felt like to my fingertips when I touched his arm to get his attention. I can hear his footsteps and feel his presence.

Tricks of the mind. Gifts of the mind. Spirituality. Whatever it is, those kinds of memory jolts no longer feel painful, but soothing.

The mind is amazing. A powerful weapon and a powerful healer. Friend and foe. Light and darkness. And mine is ever hopeful.

Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.