The hospital smells of disinfectant, trying to mask the presence of heartbreak and disease. I walk into my husband’s room and give him a hug. I hold on tight, and even though he’s too weak to reciprocate, I relish the familiar touch and feel of his body. How, I wonder, will I find the strength to watch him decline. He promised he’d never leave me, that he’d love me forever. But now he has cancer and promises are for naught.

Six weeks later my sweet husband, Rex, passes peacefully at home. Even though I’m with him when he takes his last breath, I just stare in disbelief. Grief takes on many forms, and for now I feel like I’m watching a scene in a really bad play. I walk through the funeral, burial and reception like I’m a robot. I engage in conversation but I’m not really present. There’s a blanket between me and the rest of the world and nothing is getting through.

When the feelings start to come they’re not what I expect. The anger kicks in first. I tear through all of Rex’s tools and start packing them away. I call in a friend to help take down the walls of the office he built in the garage. I clean his space with a vengeance, furious at the mess that he was too sick to manage on his own. If I’m going to be alone then it’s going to be my way, and nobody better tell me otherwise.

My kids are both grown with families of their own, and I don’t want to burden them unnecessarily. But toughing it out on my own is harder than I anticipated. Out of nowhere, with Rex gone for six weeks, the tears start to come. I cry at the supermarket when I can’t decide between peaches or plums. I cry when the light turns red and I’m going to be five minutes late. I cry when the gas tank hits empty and I’ve forgotten to fill the tank. I cry when the dishes pile up in the sink and the dishwasher hasn’t been unloaded. It doesn’t take much, but for the next six months the tears feel like they’re never going to end.

And then the fear kicks in. I’m 69, but I suddenly feel very old. How will I navigate this next phase of my life on my own? Will I be lonely for the rest of my days? What if I get in an accident and nobody knows about it until it’s too late? Will I have enough money to live comfortably if I need long-term care? Who can I talk to when I’m feeling worried or sad or even happy and excited? Rex was my heart, the one I shared everything with, and now I have no idea where I’m supposed to turn.

I’m independent to a fault and resist reaching out. Until one day I see an email from a “Loss of Spouse” Grief Support Group. I decide to give it a chance. I go to the group and immediately start connecting with others. I begin to make friends and suddenly there are people who understand. “How did you deal with social security?” “Do you have to take your husband’s name off your mortgage?” “What are you doing with your husband’s clothes?” “Who do you talk to when you are feeling hopeless?” And most importantly, “Tell me about your husband, what was he like?”

It’s almost a year since I lost the love of my life, and although I am still grieving, I have begun to have hope. I journal every morning to stay in touch with my feelings. I honor my husband by sending him loving prayers throughout the day. I’ve learned to reach out and ask for help when I need it. I know who I can really talk to and who just wants me to move on. But mostly I’ve learned that I have not been abandoned. I have been loved and cherished by a man I adored, and that love gives me the strength to make it on my own.