On Loss and Living On

In the midst of tremendous loss and pain, LGBTQ people deal with both expected and unique challenges when facing the death of a romantic partner. Below, a handful of our community relate their own stories of being widowed in the hopes of helping others better navigate one of the most difficult parts of our lives.

Gary Hollander

This morning the sun stood
right at the end of the road
and waited for me.
—Ted Kooser

Most people who know me understand that I am not much of a romantic; my sentiments tend to get examined and put aside. Neither am I religious or a spiritual believer. Still, I harbor many, many beliefs that may be baseless in fact, but are as real to me as breath. These are a couple of them: My late husband, Paul, had always waited for me. He would not always do so.

Paul died on December 24, 2014. In the last month of his life, he said almost daily, “I apologize. For everything.” We would laugh and laugh and laugh about that, because he had nothing for which to apologize. The week before he died, he added, “I apologize for everything. For the stuff I’ve done, the stuff I am doing, and for the stuff I am about to do.”

There he stood. Right at the end of the road. But he could not wait for me.

When we met 32 years ago, he was a danseur with Milwaukee Ballet. He was young, handsome, and funny beyond words. When he died, almost half of my life had been with him, and more than half of his had been with me. For the last 13 years of our time together, we lived with his diagnosis of a progressive form of multiple sclerosis. During those last years, we celebrated with others the victories of marriage equality, but we also mourned that we would not marry because to do so would bankrupt us with his medical expenses.

Paul’s death required many accounts from many people. Fire fighters, EMTs and police had all filed them. Medical examiner and mortuary personnel made theirs. The clerk who received the shopping bags of prescription bottles I delivered to the police station certainly made a log, even attached a copy of my driver’s license to that one. No doubt the home health agency did one; the primary care, urology, neurology, ophthalmology, nephrology, audiology, radiology and infectious disease physician offices, made theirs. Researchers from Medicare, Medicaid and the Medical College called and wrote to complete their files on the sweetest man who was so recently in the world. There is a lot of busyness with death.

I cleaned for much of the past year, too. At first, I was almost looking for my late spouse in his closet and dresser drawers. I slept with some of his clothes and, though they were too small, I wore others. While I scrubbed and scoured some areas of the house, I didn’t touch the room where he died for some time. For months, I would get to the floor and lie there on the spot where he died.  Along the way, I started to do deferred household projects, things that I could not get to while I was caring for him. I did projects in parts of the house that were inaccessible to him in his wheelchair; those came last on my list.

In addition to dancing, Paul was also a talented painter, muralist and sculptor. With dear close friends of Paul, I mounted a month-long retrospective of his work at a local gallery. Because Paul’s parents became estranged in the conflict between his sexual identity and their rigid religiosity, they had years earlier sent him all of his childhood belongings. This included all of his childhood artwork. I was able to exhibit his earliest crayon drawing of his name and his final self-portraits, scratched out weeks before he died on the floor of his studio.

Because of Paul’s long illness, my social life changed dramatically over a decade. Where we once entertained in our home on a weekly basis, at the end we were lucky to do so annually. My own family relationships have been re-examined in the past year. Many of my friendships have been considered as well. Neither Paul nor I wanted funerals. The art exhibit served as a memorial of his life. But more has been needed to address the distance that grew among social connections over 13 years of chronic illness, distance punctuated by grief at his death. It became necessary for me to express sorrow to others over their loss of their friend, my husband in all but marriage.

Gary_Paul

I have apologized to a dozen people or more about my ignorance of the depth of their loss when their own spouses had died. These people, mostly straight, assured me that they knew exactly what I meant. Even though I have experienced numerous deaths in this age of AIDS, I had not known loss like this. My recognition of my ignorance has been a real help in letting go of the ineptitude of others in the time of my grief. Until you live it, you cannot imagine how completely dopey the death industry is.

How am I doing? While I have grown accustomed to giving my answer to this question, it remains tricky. “How am I doing? I am doing really well. Thanks for checking. You see, I expect to be sad, angry, afraid and lonely. I have lost a great love.” From that vantage point, I am doing extremely well. I am also happy, content and very much alive. My close friends, a few family members, a couple of former caregivers, some neighbors, our little dog—we are in this life together.

Cris Derrick Soluna

In 1990 I made a life commitment to the woman I loved to spend the rest of our lives together, to raise my children together, and to grow old together. In 2004 that woman began to have disturbing illnesses on a regular basis. They became more frequent as the years went by, and neither our doctor nor any of the many specialists could explain why she was getting so sick so often.

In February of 2008, we finally said ENOUGH and pretty much told the medical professionals we were done playing around and needed answers. In three months’ time, she was added to the transplant list for a double organ transplant. She almost didn’t survive the wait when, miraculously on August 8, 2008, she got her transplant. Three years later she was scheduled for a “routine” surgery to fix a hernia. She didn’t make it out of the hospital until I brought her home in hospice. In less than a week, my life was changed forever.

I had never considered the possibility of Nikki’s death. I was the cheerleader, keeping her spirits up as her health ebbed and flowed. In better times we had talked through all the possibilities and what we wanted. We had the papers drawn up for power of attorney, both for health and financial. We had wills drafted (but never finalized) and we knew what the other wanted done. But trust me when I say that I had no idea how it would feel to have that power of attorney enacted. I was devastated, terrified, overwhelmed—and yet calm because I had to make serious decisions. And you make them, because that is a part of the commitment you made. Because you love, you do what you need to do.

May 1, 2011, I became a non-legally recognized widow—one week before what would have been our 21st anniversary. I was in shock; devastated. Dear friends, my Threshold singing sisters, family and others gathered. There was a whirlwind funeral, religious customs that Nik didn’t follow but her family did. I was not able to see many of the people who came to honor Nikki, but I knew that many did come.

I was in a daze. After the formalities, I came home to be with my kids for a bit and then went to sing at my Threshold rehearsal. I needed something familiar in a world that had suddenly become a nightmare.

The days went on and so did I. There was no longer form to my life other than the calls and visits from friends and the singing for others who were at the end of their lives or seriously ill.  My sisters in song had come once a week for three months to sing for Nikki and me, and it felt good to be able to do that for others.

Hospice offered bereavement classes, but it was all straight women mourning either a parent or a spouse. It was the only support group offered at the time, but it was lacking understanding and tact. They continually referred to the love of my life as “your friend” no matter how often I corrected them. It filled time.

In the two months that followed a very dear friend (and Nikki’s co-worker in her last job) died, as did Nikki’s father. It felt like the world was closing in on me. Death was all around.

I was very lucky to have a few people close to me keeping an eye out and checking in on me, but I was at loose ends. There were details I never thought I would be working on: Returning durable medical equipment, rearranging my house, cleaning things out, legal details would mostly wait, many thank-you notes to the people who had donated to the causes chosen.

I had a horrible experience with an attorney who point blank told me that Nikki’s mom would be getting our house because our wills were never executed. In shock at this joint family meeting with the attorney (Nik’s mother and sister were also there to address her father’s estate), I asked if the fact that we were legal domestic partners would affect anything and was told, in no uncertain terms, that it didn’t matter. It left me in a state of total shock for over a week until the legal intern contacted me to tell me they were wrong, that the house was mine.

After much searching I found a Lesbian Widows online support group, and it helped me to see that others had much of the same kinds of experiences. From the moment their beloved partner dies, their lives are never the same. The loss is unimaginable, you lose your heart, you lose your way of life, you lose your dreams and plans for the future. The sense of being lost is huge.

I spent almost two years finding my way, with support from friends, some who had no clue about the things I was dealing with, some who understood, and some who had been or were going through their own loss. Eventually I began to build a new normal.

It is possible to find love again after that deep a loss. The process can be fraught with potholes, and it takes a very special love to help you pick up the pieces and begin again. I think the depth of my love for Nikki was what allowed me to find a deep and true love again. I will always have Nikki in my heart, but now there is someone new to share the growing and loving. Nikki and I always agreed that if one of us died, the other should not be alone. In the beginning, I didn’t believe that would be possible. But when your heart is open, things happen that you never expected. I fell in love again. My wife and I were married this August.

With endless thanks to Nikki Baumblatt (1961–2011), the woman who opened my heart to love, and Casper Soluna, the woman who fills my heart each day.

The support group mentioned in this piece is L.I.G.H.T. (Lesbians in Grief – Healthy Transitions) and the website is lesbianwidow.org.

Rory Ward

I lost my partner, DJ Douglas, in 2010. We had been together 40 years and had studied, worked, problem solved and had amazing air, land and water adventures together. I have been an elementary school teacher, researcher at the U.W., a firefighter-paramedic, pilot and psychologist. She had an amazing life: passing as a boy to fly airplanes, then teaching flying in WWII and later here in Madison; earning the seventh U.S. black belt in Judo in the late 50s, earning five degrees with no formal schooling, becoming a professor here and at other universities.

Her death was a sudden, unexpected embolus that involved emergency response and 36 hours of brain stem death with all the drama and trauma that involves. During the process I had to make decisions literally of life and death with little information and within a matter of hours, sometimes minutes. I was forced to rely on the medical staff who were very kind and sympathetic but could do little.

Initially, I lived day-to-day with what I would describe as piercing sadness and the raw emptiness of her absence. Her caretaker Linda (now my wife) helped me pull together a memorial service that was a spectacular tribute to her; larger than most but matched to her life. She gave me comfort and work to do—a focus for those first weeks.

A few months after her death I was determined to find the reasons for a missed diagnosis of vascular dementia not a result of Alzheimer’s. That search also helped me find the answer, cope with guilt for missing her problem, and the irony of ending her life in the system of emergency care both she and I had studied and worked in.

Grieving for me has a different emotional impact after five years than it did initially; it is still as painful but not overwhelmingly at the forefront of consciousness. I do things; I am physically active, solve problems and intellectually attack questions as I always have. I know that maintaining my lifestyle, activity and interests—and even expanding them, with Linda’s love and support, helps me manage the ever-present grief. As the old Irish tune says: “Let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day.”

Cindy Hanson

It was a very quick but extremely painful thing that happened with Terri and me, and it took me a long time to get a handle on it. I did a lot of journaling back then, so I have a lot of words in my head about all of it. I wouldn’t know how to put it into a short piece, so instead, for now, I just want to point out some of the most important things I learned while going through the huge loss of a loved one:

Make sure your paperwork is in order—wills, titles on property, directives, etc. Never take that for granted. Your life as you know it can be literally destroyed over a minor word difference on a title.

If you have a specific wish for your remains and you have parents (or siblings, if your parents are gone, as they can also have rights over these decisions) that don’t agree with your lifestyle, these preparations are crucial. Prepay for a funeral. Otherwise, they can do whatever they want, no matter what your wishes are.

And, most importantly, love the ones you love the best you can at all times. You just never know when that might be taken from you.