Paula Wychopen, a seeker of beauty in the everyday, is a writer, mother, widow, and former caregiver for her chronically ill husband, Forrest. The eighteen years she cared for her husband at home were the most difficult and blessed years of her life. Their four children are her most treasured gifts, and she writes to leave a legacy for her children and grandchildren.
I lost Forrest, my husband of 35 years, in 2018. He was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis just before our 17th wedding anniversary. I cared for him as his disease progressed from mild, annoying symptoms to severe disability. The last seven years of his life he was a functional quadriplegic due to MS progression.
As a long-term caregiver of 18 years, I have had so many struggles in my grief journey. I knew of only one other person who had cared for their spouse as long as I had. In many ways, I was isolated by my caregiving experience. My grief seemed unique. Most widows I knew were decades past their loss or much older. I thought no one could possibly understand my journey from caregiver to widow.
When my husband passed, I found myself profoundly exhausted. Eighteen years of hypervigilance, interrupted sleep, worry about his health, mental health issues stemming from constantly being “on call” and watching my love slowly fade, the physical toll severe disability took on my body, the nonstop demands on my time, and the threat of death hanging over our heads for decades left me exhausted in every way imaginable. I had low energy for the first two years after his death and no motivation. I just wanted to be left alone.
After he died, I began to question all our decisions. I questioned Forrest’s medical care, whether the medications he had taken had been the right ones, and whether he had received the best care we could afford. I questioned all the medical interventions and hospitalizations. I questioned the boundaries he set about who he wanted to see in the end—even his decision to choose hospice care. Was there something else we could have tried or done to change the outcome?
Perhaps the most devastating thing I struggled with was the relief I felt when the difficult days of caregiving were over. I had cared for Forrest for 18 years, and in the end, I would have given my life in exchange for his. I wanted him with me until we were both old and gray. We had planned on forever. So why did I feel relieved when my caregiving was done? Why did I feel like my quality of life was better? And oh, the guilt I felt about those revelations.
Because of my husband’s chronic illness, we spent much of our time together. Alone. While our closest friends continued to keep in touch, we felt isolated from life that happened beyond our four walls. Relationships faded, people avoided us, and some simply tired of trying to stay connected to people who could no longer participate in life as we once did. When Forrest, the extroverted people-person, died, my introversion kicked into high gear. I worried about maintaining friendships. I worried about making new friends. I wondered how I could ever find new friends who didn’t know what I had been through. I didn’t want to share my story with strangers, and yet, I sometimes found myself blurting out parts of it to strangers in the grocery store. I needed to tell my story, and yet I wanted to keep it all to myself. Making friends who understood me seemed like a fantasy.
Forrest and I married young, at 17 and 22, and shortly after, we had our first child. We jumped into parenthood quickly, having three children in four years. And our caboose baby was born the year I turned 31. My hands and heart were full. I loved being a stay-at-home mom. Forrest worked as a minister and provided for our family until he couldn’t. Within three years of diagnosis, he used a wheelchair everywhere outside of our home. I went from full-time mom to full-time caregiver. I was always busy. Our children grew into adulthood during those years of caregiving. They grew from babies and toddlers to teens and young adults. And after Forrest died, I felt that I no longer had a purpose. What was my place in this new world, this second life I never wanted?
Though Forrest had provided for my future, I worried how long my finances would last. Where should I live? Should I purchase a home or rent or live with one of my children? I felt compelled to do something, perhaps get a job. But who would hire a 52-year-old with an absent work history? I never went to college, and it seemed I had no marketable skills. And I was so exhausted that the thought of holding down a job and functioning every day seemed impossible.
I had no idea who I was. I was paralyzed by decisions. I had no idea what I even liked. I had dreamed of being a wife and mom since childhood. I had lived my dream, although it was different than I imagined. I had been so laser focused on my children and then my husband, I had gotten lost in the everyday. That happens to a lot of women, but it was intensely true for me. I couldn’t imagine a future without my husband. I didn’t know where Forrest ended and where I began. What was left over from us, and what was me?
A few months after Forrest died, I was Googling articles on widowhood and loss. I randomly stumbled across something called Camp Widow, a nonprofit organization that invites widowed people from around the world to attend workshops, meet one another and find connections. I read all about it, and although I was terrified, I paid the registration for the next camp in San Diego. And then I panicked! My husband had been dead for three months, and I had just committed to fly to San Diego alone, get a hotel room, and go to some event where I would be surrounded by hundreds of widows and widowers. I don’t know what made me click that link, but I did.
I showed up the first day knowing no one. I cried in line checking into the hotel, cried registering for Camp Widow and through the welcome session. I was alone. Nervous. Completely grief-stricken. But I was there. I went to my first session and cried my way through it. Had I made the right decision?
But something else happened. I met other widows. I engaged in random conversations while waiting for sessions to start, by walking up and introducing myself to someone sitting at a table, and seeing someone in the Starbucks line wearing a Camp Widow lanyard. One by one, I met my tribe. By the end of the weekend, six women, each of us who had lost our husbands in the previous six months, had exchanged phone numbers and friended one another on Facebook. One of us started a Facebook group message.
Over the next three years, we became close friends who loved and supported each other. We became one another’s cheerleaders, validation and sounding board. Throughout these last three years I have learned so much from these amazing women, the Badass Widow Warriors.
They remind me to practice self-care. They encourage me to rest, to sleep when I can, and take breaks when I need them. They remind me to take deep breaths, to eat a bite or two, to stay hydrated, because we have all cried so many tears. They help validate my feelings, and encourage me to feel them all. To cry, to scream, to be silent, to feel angry, sadness, joy, sorrow, apathy, or any other feeling that shows up in the midst of grief. They remind me that self-care isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. We encourage each other to stay away from unhealthy coping mechanisms that only complicate our grief.
We have shared our struggles in doubting the decisions we made throughout our journeys in the death of our spouses, as well as in our grief after their loss. We came to the conclusion that we each made the best decisions we could make based on our knowledge at the time, that if we could have done more or better, we would have. We have helped each other release the guilt surrounding death and loss.
My widow friends helped me talk through the relief and subsequent guilt I felt when my caregiving was over. They taught me that it was OK to be happy about participating in my children and grandchildren’s lives to a greater degree than when my husband was alive. To feel joy, satisfaction and be OK with my better quality of life. They helped me see that guilt is a natural part of surviving such a horrible loss. That being alive is a gift, even when it doesn’t feel like it. They helped me to understand that Forrest wanted me to enjoy our family and my life. That his selfless love wanted me to be happy.
In these beautiful new friendships, I learned that I could find people who understood my new life while respecting my old one. I learned that I could introduce myself, reach out to strangers, and reap huge rewards by putting myself out there in small ways. I learned that there are people who would listen to my story without judgment. That I can hold space for them as they share their stories as they hold space for mine. I learned that we can validate one another in a way that I hadn’t found in my group of “normals.”
These beautiful women reminded me that I have value on my own. I have purpose. From our first meeting, we spoke about what we enjoyed, what we wanted our lives to look like. We began to reimagine our worlds. We shared dreams of things we could do: travel, new hobbies, investing in our relationships, giving back and supporting others. We began to dream of thriving.
My widow friends gave me confidence in who I am. They have encouraged me to find and pursue dreams. We have all found a desire to write and share our stories. We have taken classes together and joined writing groups. Each of us has traveled and tried new things, seen new places, and dared to find happiness and joy. Some of us have met for weekends. Some have begun to date and seek new relationships. And we have bolstered each other’s confidence and reminded one another of just how beautiful, amazing, strong, and worthy we are.
And one year at Camp Widow four of us came back and told our stories in “Widow Friendships Matter: A Panel Presentation by the Badass Widow Warriors” about how our friendship has been instrumental in helping each of us move forward into our new lives. We encouraged everyone in the room to meet a stranger or two, to talk, and see if they might find someone who might become a friend.
I could never have imagined that one decision in those early days of grief could so drastically and wonderfully change my life. The decision to invest in myself, attend Camp Widow, and reach out to perfect strangers has made a world of difference. The rewards of these widow friendships have been validation, feeling of belonging, so much compassion, complete acceptance, and genuine care.
In them, I have found a new kind of love.