grief journey

The Vision Board: Rediscovering Hope

One thing I’ve learned about widowhood is that it’s exhausting; it’s so much work. At first, it’s trying to make it through the long awful days without your husband. Being bombarded with memories and tears. Adapting to the empty house. Working to control your emotions in public. Striving to get out of bed each morning to face another painful day missing him, wanting him, feeling empty, like half a person.

And it never lets up. The first year is filled with surviving “the firsts.” Each first major holiday without him here. Each anniversary – first date (23 years ago today), first kiss, the day he proposed, wedding day. Each first small event – movies, restaurants, shopping trips, trivia nights, birthdays, parties, weddings, vacations – all things we enjoyed as a couple and that were stressful, sad, and empty without him.

Then there was adapting to life alone at home, the responsibilities he used to handle, and the chores that were all mine to take on. The part-time business we owned was becoming too much to handle with my full-time job, so I had to start cutting clients – and dealing with the pain of watching so much of Rick’s work and his beautifully created websites begin to disappear. And then there were the unexpected things, like getting past a home invasion without my big bodyguard of a husband to protect me.

Going into the second year was easier. I had conquered all those firsts and was getting used to being alone. I was more in control of my life and my emotions – usually – with some unscheduled grief episodes popping up to derail me every few days, and especially on the long, empty weekends. I had new habits and activities and was adapting to my new life, yet I was still often stunned by the depth of how much I missed him and never knowing what unexpected trigger would unearth a fresh wave of grief, even after so long.

In general, as I near the end of 19 months, I’ve adapted to my new normal. I’m okay. I’ll survive. Life has moved on. I’ve gone from not being able to say the “w” word to accepting widowhood, to beginning to think of myself as the “s” word: single. So, at this point, my life is no longer taken up with so much “work.” As a result, I have some leftover time (and some room in my head) for mulling over what’s ahead, and for planning my new future. I have more time to envision my life ahead. I just need a vision.

Even after all these steps forward, adaptations, and revisions to my life… even after regaining myself and my place in this world and relinquishing the hopes and dreams I had for a future with Rick, even after coming through it all, I had never regained any inkling of hope or enthusiasm for the next few years of my life. The future as I saw it, was just something to survive alone. I am alive. He is not. I was relieved to realize that I could make it on my own, that I could survive his death, but looking towards the future held no promise, no joy, no HOPE.

When I finally had the epiphany that I need to dream again, and that I should try to dig deep into my mind both to discover new dreams and to rediscover those that remain unfulfilled, it was like unleashing a damn. Hope? Is that this rare feeling that seems to be surfacing? It’s been so long, I can’t recall what it feels like, but I’m pretty sure it is.  Yes, I think I feel a glimmer of hope, again. Then when my counselor suggested that I create a vision board, that was the last piece of the puzzle I needed.

Always one to dive into any project with relish, I was stunned to discover that I was really looking forward to creating the vision board. Wait, what?! I’m feeling something else that I haven’t felt in a long time. I’m not sure what it’s called. Something that starts with an “e.” …. Excitement! I feel excitement about something, again! Why is this such an unknown/forgotten emotion? Because, I came to realize, it’s been literally years since I’ve felt it.

Since Rick died 19 months ago, I certainly haven’t achieved more than contentment at best. I’ve felt no hope, no excitement about the future. Oh sure, I’ve laughed, I’ve enjoyed things, but my overall goal had been to just stop feeling miserable, and I was relieved to feel simply content again – no joy, no anticipation about my future, just coping and getting along.

And before Rick died? For the ten months after his cancer diagnosis,  at first, there was only striving to help him survive all the medical procedures and treatments, followed by the helplessness and hopelessness of watching him slowly fade towards death. No joy, no dreaming – unless it was dreaming and hoping that he would live, but the time we spent together had a veil of unreality and a desperate sadness enveloping it.

So, I’ve literally not been myself for about 2 ½ years. The old me, the pre-cancer and death me, had a sense of excitement about my future. I anticipated good things. I felt hopefulness, joy, and had a mostly positive lookout. The old me, the me before cancer, death, and widowhood was the eternal optimist. Post-cancer me was not.

But now, I have vision again. As I search my mind for ideas, and I search the internet for photos, and sayings, and things that appeal to me, I have begun amassing dreams, lots of dreams. I’m discovering ideas that appeal to me, enervate me, give me hope, and I keep coming across more and more. And in the process, I’m getting excited about my future, again.

Last night, I gathered some of the photos and graphics that represent these new ideas, and I began to create a visual plan for my future. As I started to piece together the vision board, I started ….

… sobbing.

Sobbing? Yes. Sobbing.

This newfound joy, the idea of having goals and dreams again, the feelings of excitement and anticipation, all became overwhelming after being absent for so long. As I mulled over the change in me and the hope I’m beginning to feel, and how long it’s been since I’ve felt this way, I started to cry – for no reason – yet for many reasons. I was completely overtaken by emotion, but for the first time, this overwhelming sadness was not for Rick, not from grief at how much I miss him. No, this time, I started sobbing for me!

I’m sad that it’s been so long since I’ve really felt something. I’m crying for the 2 ½ years I’ve missed. I’m angry at the horrible, awful years spent first worrying and striving to keep Rick alive, then mourning his death and all I have lost. I’m angry at cancer. I’m mad at life. I’m sick of useless regrets. I’m tired of wishing it wasn’t so, of longing for him, of working to adapt and survive, and for having to start my life over. I’m angry at life for stealing Rick from me, but I’m also angry that I allowed life to steal my joy, my hopes, my dreams. I want them back!

I want myself back!

And this tidal wave of feelings, and regrets, and sadness, and hopelessness just totally overcame me as I take this step towards regaining my life, my hope, my anticipation for the future. They were also tears of relief – relief that I’m back. The real me, the person who used to feel things other than grief – and merely contentment – is starting to reemerge. I’m thrilled to be stepping out of the void of hopelessness and despair and remembering how life used to be when I felt joy at just being alive. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt hope, anticipation, or excitement. It’s been way too long.

Hope, I missed you. And I will do all I can to try to keep you here in my life, all I can to have a vision of a rewarding and fulfilling future. If creating a vision board is a catalyst to giving me the ability to dream again, then I’m going to throw myself into the task wholeheartedly, thankful that I’m beginning to see the old me returning again.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been here. And I’m so happy to be back. And I know that somewhere out there, Rick is smiling, too.

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

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