Keeping My Head Above Water

As an avid swimmer all my life, I know how dangerous and unpredictable waves can be. One minute, you’re frolicking in the surf, head above water, enjoying the vibrant, alive feeling of being submerged in the cold water, floating or swimming, and having the time of your life. The next, you’re knocked off your feet, gasping for breath as you’re pulled under the surface, panicked as the water engulfs you.

As a widow, I know the grief/wave analogy is spot on. Grief does come in waves, emotional waves that can be just as unpredictable and shocking as the powerful icy current. Yes, every widow knows that the grief/wave analogy is a perfect description of the ups and downs that make up the grieving process.

Lately I noticed that I’ve been enjoying life more. Time does heal all wounds. Sometimes, out of the blue, I’m still shocked that Rick is gone, even though it’s been more than a year since his death. But, more often than not, I’m used to being alone. I’m also beginning to have some hope that I may even have a wonderful future ahead of me, and I wasn’t expecting to feel anything but sadness without him by my side.

Rick changed my life in many ways, and I’m becoming more and more aware of how those changes are a permanent part of me now. That comforts me – to know that he will never truly die. He’s a part of who I am, and that will never go away. For instance, I was always a planner, and a bit obsessive about getting things done. I awoke each day with a list, and I liked to check off items quickly and efficiently throughout the day. Rick would ask me when we arose on a weekend, “what’s on the agenda today?” and I’d tell him all I thought we needed to accomplish.

I’ve always been like this – goal oriented and a bit stressed out. I remember as a teenager convincing my parents that the living room needed painting. They bought the paint. My dad and I emptied the living room of its furniture. I painted it all in one day – ceiling, walls, trim, and all, then cleaned up the tarps and paint and moved the furniture back. Of course, the walls weren’t quite dry, so I made sure I didn’t touch them when reassembling the room at midnight. But I wanted it done, and done quickly.

Rick changed all that. Maybe it was because we had such huge renovation projects that nothing could ever be done in one day, but when we remodeled our home in Maryland, his rule was that we do one hour of work each evening when he arrived home from his communications job. Come home, work an hour, stop. Period. Then it was time for hors d’oeuvres and wine while dinner cooked on the grill. It took us six years, and lots of weeknights and weekends, but we renovated the house from the studs out to the vinyl siding, and it was quite an accomplishment. But through it all, Rick taught me to slow down, to enjoy the process, to quit trying to accomplish it all at once. He convinced me to chill, enjoy life, and take it one day at a time.

And the driving – oh how he loved to take the long way home – or anywhere, for that matter. My philosophy was get there quickly, and don’t fart around. If there is a direct route, and a quicker option, just do it. Not Rick – wow, that man could take his time getting somewhere. I could never figure out what he was doing or where the route was taking us. It drove me CRAZY. I’d say, where are we going NOW? And he’d smile and say, just enjoy the beautiful fall day, let’s just see where this road takes us.

And over the years, I began to see the wisdom in that. Slow down. Enjoy life. Quit worrying. My attitude led to gray hair, but, honestly, Rick’s could have used a little more structure.

Once, my son asked us for some travel advice. He was flying to Vegas and Rick worked for the airlines, so he had the option to non-rev. The only thing was, flying standby was very unpredictable. What if he couldn’t get a flight home? Should he just buy a confirmed ticket?

Rick and I had exactly opposite opinions. No, I told him, don’t try to fly standby on the way back. Just get a ticket, so you aren’t stuck there. Rick thought that was hilarious – who didn’t want to get “stuck” in Vegas? Take your chances, he told him. Enjoy the adventure. Brandon said he always knew the correct option was about halfway between my fretfulness and Rick’s carefree attitude.

As a result of years and years together, some of Rick has rubbed off on me, and I think I’m a better person for it. At least, I know I enjoy life a little more using Rick’s philosophy. I’ll be stewing over some issue, wondering what I should do – what’s the “right” choice? The smart choice? And I’ll hear Rick’s voice in my head saying, “Just do what you want, Gerry. Do what you want.”

I’ve got some new driving habits, too. I like driving home from work through the park each day. Yup, the same route Rick used to take that drove me crazy. Of course, now, I have no need to get home quickly to my empty house. So I go a few blocks out of my way and take the slow route, winding my way through the park, windows down, relaxing acoustic music blaring on the radio. And I feel peaceful, and – to be honest – I feel him beside me, as he so often was on those many relaxing drives I was forced to take. He’s a part of who I am.

But what does all this have to do with waves?

Today is a beautiful fall day. I was never one to enjoy autumn. Yes, I know that’s practically sacrilegious to say. I’ll admit, the weather is lovely and crisp. The trees are beginning to turn and they’re beautiful. But for me, autumn was always a reminder that my favorite season was over. I love the sun and the heat, and the reminder that I’ll soon be up to my knees in slush and snow, shivering in the frigid air, detracts from the beauty of autumn. Autumn means winter, and winter means misery.

But Rick never seemed to care that winter was coming. He loved the sun and heat as much as I do, but he lived fully in every moment, and enjoyed a day like today immensely. “Smell that crisp air,” he’d say happily, and take a huge whiff. “it smells like fall!” Maybe for that reason, I’ve been having a tough time this week. I keep picturing him in his hoodie, lighting a fire in our yard, or raking leaves – he loved to rake leaves while listening to audio books through his ear buds. He liked it so much, that he came by to rake the leaves one day when we first purchased this house – before we had even closed on it! On a typical October Saturday, Rick loved to be out in the fall air, working up a sweat, then come inside and nap with the windows open.

I think each change in season gets to me because I picture Rick enjoying the tasks that go along with it. Whether it be raking the leaves, or mowing the lawn, or shoveling the snow, he enjoyed being outdoors, listening to his books, and taking his time performing whatever chore was necessary.

So on this nearly perfect day, I especially enjoyed my relaxed route home after work. I jumped in my car, turned up the radio, and began my winding journey through the park. It was bittersweet. I enjoyed the sunny drive, and felt relaxed and alive and content – with a little sadness that he wasn’t by my side, of course. I was anticipating the weekend ahead when I’ll be babysitting my two youngest grandsons, and I was enjoying thoughts of the fun we’ll have. I was wondering which coffee table I’ll buy to go with my new couch. I was mulling over what to do for dinner and deciding what I wanted to accomplish this evening… pleasant thoughts about my pleasant life, as I drove and hummed along with the music.

And then, it happened. I saw a bicyclist – a large man who looked just like Rick from behind, wearing his khakis and fluorescent orange shirt and bicycle helmet, bent over his handlebars, riding along the side of the road. And the wave hit hard. The unexpected sob knocked the breath out of me.

In an instant, I went from enjoyment and contentment – a sense that life was good and feeling happy to be alive – to being devastated with sadness because I miss that man so much. The wave of grief wiped all the happiness away. And the acoustic music playing – a love song, of course – suddenly made it all worse. It was like a punch to the gut. So I drove, and I sobbed, and then after a little while – it was over. I regained my equilibrium, and I realized the waves may still come – powerful and unexpected – but I recover and catch my breath much quicker than I used to.

So, yes, even though it’s been a year, and I’ve made it through the worst storm of my life, I guess I should still be prepared to have those waves come unexpectedly. For the sudden and overpowering spasms of grief to knock me over now and again, even when my life seems pleasant, and the day is beautiful, and the sea appears calm.  But after the wave has subsided, I’ll turn up the radio, wipe my eyes, and keep driving, because I have a lot to look forward to, and I need to get home.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at


  1. I love this! It’s exactly how I’ve been feeling. The same waves of emotion are happening to me lately. Thank you for sharing!

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