Shipwrecked: A Widow’s Journey To Healing, Parenting, And Dating Again With Jeanette Koncikowski

WRT Jeanette Koncikowski  | Widow’s Journey

 

Guilt can sometimes show up in grief. For Jeanette Koncikowski, being a widow brought up many realizations about the challenges that are often overlooked as we grieve our partners. We tend to look back and feel guilty and ashamed, thinking we aren’t good enough. In this conversation, Jeanette joins Tina Fornwald to lay bare her experiences and realizations when she lost her husband. When did she start being comfortable in the process of making choices on her own? How did she begin untangling the layers of guilt and shame? What does the healing process look like for a widow? How does she handle parenting with grief? What is life after loss for Jeanette? Find out the answers to these questions and more as you follow this episode. Plus, hear about Jeanette’s book, Shipwrecked: A Memoir of Widowed Parenting and Life After Loss.

 

Thank you for viewing this post. I am not a licensed therapist or professional life coach.

I am sharing my experience of loving the same man for 32 years, a mother to two adult children, a retired military officer, a breast cancer survivor, and my connections with others. 

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should reach out to a suicide hotline or local emergency number in their country: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/suicide/suicide-prevention-hotlines-resources-worldwide

Watch the episode here

 

Listen to the podcast here

 

Shipwrecked: A Widow’s Journey To Healing, Parenting, And Dating Again With Jeanette Koncikowski

Jeanette, welcome to the show.

Tina, thank you so much for having me.

I am glad to have this conversation. You can tell people how I tracked you down on the internet and stalked you to be here because I have no shame about that. I am always intentionally looking for people who have a voice, people who have something to share that will encourage other people. I believe it was on Twitter where I stalked you and said, “This would be a good voice to bring to the widowhood.” Thank you for not thinking of some internet creeper or something like that.

I’m happy to connect. We did connect on Twitter. It’s been a great resource. Grief Twitter is a real thing, and it’s been a huge resource in my healing.

Thank you for saying that. Before we get into your story, just on that topic, as far as the internet, I know a lot of times people say, “I don’t want to be on the internet. I don’t want to be doing all these things.” Elaborate a little bit more on how the internet or social media has been a positive and helpful resource for you.

 

WRT Jeanette Koncikowski | Widow’s Journey

 

I was widowed in the fall of 2014. While there was a local widow support group, everyone was 30 or 40 years older than me, and our challenges weren’t the same. I was raising two young kids. While I did get support from that group, initially, the generational difference was hard to meet in the middle. It was hard because when you’re 60 or 70, your issues and needs as a widowed person are very different than a 35-year-old. I had to go to the internet because it was the only place I could find other young widowed parents. That’s how I started the @WidowedParentProject, was looking for a community that was going through similar struggles as widows and parents raising grieving children.

Let’s talk about how you and your husband met or who you were before you even met him. What were some of your interests? Grief is part of our story, but it’s not all about who we are. I want to know who you are as a person.

We were fifteen when we met. We had 21 years together. He was my high school sweetheart, so I don’t know what my adult self would’ve been like without him, but we grew up together. We were very young when we met. We were sophomores in high school. On the first day of sophomore year, we met. It was hard for me to know what my life was like before Mark. It was my childhood, we grew up together. In that sense, when I lost him, I didn’t know how to adult without him. That’s been part of my widow’s journey in learning how to be alone and how to make decisions alone. We met in high school, Spanish class, and we were together for many years.

My late husband’s name is also Mark, which I thought was very interesting. You touch on something regarding when your Mark passed and adulating, decision making, also identity. Would you share how you came to realize about making choices on your own and how you became comfortable with that? What that process was like for you?

Mark and I had 21 years together. As I said, we were married in 2012 and got married when we were 24. We had a very codependent relationship. I guess it wasn’t the healthiest relationship. When you get together that young, sometimes isn’t. We were separated the year before he died. We were separated for thirteen months, but our marriage was in the process of some deep healing. We were not divorcing, but we were living apart while going to marriage counseling. It was that year before his death that I learned how to live alone.

I look back and I thank God that I had that year because if I had lost him the way I lost him, and I hadn’t learned how to sleep alone, how to take care of myself alone, and how to go out to eat alone, it would’ve been that much harder for me when he died. In some ways, that year, I told myself God was preparing me to learn how to be alone and I needed some staggered time to do that. It was some difficult circumstances under which he died. Part of that was that we were separated when he died, which is also something that informed who I am now and how my identity shifted after being widowed because there were a lot of complicating factors.


WRT Jeanette Koncikowski | Widow’s Journey
Widow’s Journey: God was preparing me to learn how to be alone.

 

I can relate to feeling like God had a hand in preparing. My husband Mark was working in Virginia and I was living in Pennsylvania, so I was getting used to him being gone. I was in the process of trying to find a job and move to Virginia. I too, when he passed, was like, “There was some preparation involved,” and being someplace else and doing something. I considered that as a gift if I could look at it that way instead of how it could have been differently. Everybody’s circumstances are different, but I tried to lean into go, “What could I be appreciative of in this process?” We all have to leave this world at some point in time, so I can understand that.

It didn’t feel like a gift in the beginning. I had a lot of guilt, but as I did a lot of therapy and worked through some of that, I was able to see how lucky I was in some ways that I had that year to focus on myself. I had the best mental health I’ve ever had that year before his death. I was in a good place. If he had died at any other point in time, particularly at the start of our separation, the psychological toll that would’ve taken on me would’ve been that much harder to cope with.

Thank you for mentioning guilt because I know oftentimes people struggle with guilt when their spouses die, and it could seem like there was nothing to be guilty about. How did guilt start manifesting in your life for you?

That’s a really important question to talk about, and it’s one that we don’t share enough about as widow people. One of the parts of this journey that I’ve been on for the last few years is wanting to talk about authenticity and grief. That means talking about guilt, shame, and the fact that a lot of people didn’t have perfect marriages. There’s this thing that I’ve noticed happens in the widow community where we put the dead on a pedestal. We say no ill-talk about the dead. In some ways, that does a disservice because then we keep secrets to ourselves. There’s so much isolation and grief already that then not being able to be honest about what we’re going through adds another layer to that.

 

 

It’s been important for me to talk about the guilt and the shame I felt when he died because of the separation. Mark died of a sudden unexplained death in epilepsy, which is a rare condition within epilepsy. He had been diagnosed about a year and a half before he died. I felt guilty that we didn’t notice his disease sooner or wasn’t diagnosed in time. I felt guilty that I left my husband when he was chronically ill, and that wasn’t the reason I left him, but it was a contributing factor. Epilepsy very commonly is comorbid with depression, which he suffered from his whole life. Going through his illness made his depression that much worse to the point where it was no longer safe for us to live with him, my children I, and he was not safe and caring for himself. That played a big role in our separation.

I had guilt that I wasn’t a good enough partner, even as a separated partner, that I wasn’t a good enough friend, and that I wasn’t there when he died. The hardest part for me was we were together 21 years and he died two blocks from my house in the middle of the night alone. That is what stayed with me and what ate me up. Also, this belief that somehow I could have changed his fate if I had been there that night and if he had come home as I asked him that night. I talked to him that evening before and said that it was time for him to do what I’d been asking him to do, which was learn to take care of himself, and that he didn’t need me to mother him and he needed to learn how to handle his illness alone, and he died that night.

The guilt, I felt that like, “Did I put this unfair expectation on him? I should have made sure he had a roommate,” and all these things I thought I could control in his life, which I really couldn’t. Those were also his decisions to make about his health. One of the things I was told by the epilepsy foundation after he died is that the sudden unexplained death is sudden. That’s why the name of it. There was nothing that anyone could have witnessed or reversed where, if I had been there, I could have saved him. I lived with that guilt that he died on my watch. He was my best friend, my life partner, and my co-parent.

Even though our marriage was not in the best place, I had maintained to him that I loved him unconditionally, but our marriage would have conditions going forward. It was hard, too, because people assumed if we were separated, I didn’t love him. That was not true at all. Sometimes he felt that way and that was also not true. There were a lot of layers of guilt and shame for me when he died and I should have done more for him in his death.

I believe that falls under the category of disenfranchised grief. It is that type of grief that society doesn’t give us space to be honest about. When you’re trying to discuss that, people hush that grief away. They wanted to look perfect, but what is perfect, and who is perfect? The reason that that exists is very disheartening. You’re right, grieving, you’re already isolated. You don’t need those other different layers to make it more complicated and make it feel like they’re even more isolated and trying to find a safe space.

That is why I wanted to have real conversations with people because, just like you said, going to the internet, I know that there are people whose loved ones have passed and they are looking to see if they’re alone in their situation. Is there someone else who’s somewhat similar in sharing a story that they can connect with? This conversation will let somebody know at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. We know what it’s like when you can’t sleep and you’re looking for information to be able to see other people have been on this journey and they’re not alone. Thank you for sharing that. Do you feel as if the possibility of guilt and shame still hovers sometimes or is that something that’s gone forever?

I’ve done a lot of healing in the last few years, including some trauma therapy, which was necessary to help me. I was the one who found his body. I also had some post-traumatic stress from what happened that morning. We had the separation. I had several other major losses in the years preceding our separation in his death. I had four other deaths of people very close to me. There was a lot to unpack. It took me until year seven to get the space in my own life as a widowed parent to focus on my healing.

My kids went to therapy and we went to family therapy in the beginning. The most important thing to me was that they had good mental health care. I was willing to do whatever was necessary at whatever cost. I thought the most important thing, “If I can’t prevent this trauma from coming into their life through the loss of their dad,” and they were with me when I found him, so they had an added trauma component as well, “I could help them recover and I could give them the resources and tools to recover.” I focused on the kids. I had two jobs and I did all of the survival things.

It wasn’t until I got to year 6 or 7 post-loss that I finally was able to do my deep healing. It was there that with the trauma therapist where I was able to unpack the guilt and the shame. It does still creep in as does the anger because there were also some things or secrets that Mark was keeping from me that I found out later in regards to his health status or he had not wanted the kids to tell me that he was having seizures again because he was afraid that I would take them away and he wouldn’t have custody then. There were a lot of things to feel guilty about. It played into it.

What’s been interesting is I’ve gone out and talked more openly about our story. I came back from Camp Widow in November and I spoke on authenticity and grief there. Every single person I met at Camp Widow, whether it was in that workshop or somewhere else when I talk about guilt, they talk about their guilt. Every parent I’ve interviewed for my book, many of whom had good marriages that didn’t have these kinds of problems talk about the guilt of their partner dying. It’s a normal part of our grief.

I’ve not met any widowed person who, when I’ve broached the topic of guilt, hasn’t shared with me what they’re holding inside. Even if you had a great marriage, a perfect marriage, or the ideal relationship, they’re still holding guilt. I’ve had people tell me, “We got in a fight and then he died in a car accident when he left the house. The last thing I said to her was something I don’t even remember. It wasn’t important, but I didn’t say I love you.” They have guilt about that. I do think it’s a common theme in grief and something that I don’t know that you can fully heal until you’re willing to confront the guilt and the shame that you might be carrying.

You can’t fully heal until you're willing to confront the guilt and the shame that you might be carrying. Click To Tweet

It is a concept that if you do this, that will never happen again. The idea of saying it does have a way of creeping in and you have to use those coping tools and those things that you learn to reset your mind and say, “This is what the truth is. Not the head chatter that wants to try to slip in.” My husband Mark had a heart attack and we were together. I’m CPR certified, a retired officer in the military, and all these different things. I didn’t have the capacity to stop what was inevitable. It took me time to be honest about how I was feeling. If I’m feeling this way, how do I change this narrative to what the truth is?

There are still moments when people talk about different things. I had to come to the conclusion we all have an appointed day moment in time, and no matter how skilled or whatever you have, you cannot prevent that. I can relate to that. Would you mind speaking about the difference between the trauma therapy that you receive versus what someone may think as a regular therapist? That may help somebody understand if they need that in regards to what they’re dealing with.

If there was another blessing in our situation, it was that I was working as a trauma educator at the time. I worked in the child welfare field in New York. I know a trauma therapist and I have a degree in Trauma Counseling. I was very privileged in that I knew who to call for this assessment. As I said, I was the one that found his body and I tried to resuscitate him for 45 minutes to no avail, and the police had a breakdown of the door. My kids were there. It was a very difficult situation.

In addition to the loss of him, I knew from my background that my kids probably needed some psychological first aid, and I knew I was going to need psychological first aid. I reached out early, the first week, to a trauma therapist that I knew and told her what had happened. She agreed that sometime in the next month come in and get an assessment at least to see what we might need.

My children and I did do regular grief therapy. There’s a local bereavement center. Six months after he died, they had a family support group. We did that. That was six weeks. That was helpful but different than trauma therapy. The trauma therapy and traumatic grief, I don’t like to say it’s any more severe than regular grief. It’s just different than regular grief. Traumatic grief will have a component of that added trauma where there are usually some type of intrusive thoughts or flashbacks. There may be a replaying, a reliving, and a re-experiencing that happens.

It’s more of the symptomology that you’re having after the loss in addition to the overwhelming sadness, loneliness, isolation, and anger that comes with normative grief. With traumatic grief, you also have this reliving of the experience of the death. For us, we went to see this trauma counselor. She was a specialist in children. She met with both of my kids individually in a playroom setting and decided that one of them was probably okay and hadn’t witnessed as much, whereas the other one probably would benefit from some trauma therapy. We made a decision to also base it on what I could afford because it’s private pay.

The older one went into trauma therapy with her and the younger one connected her to the child psychologist to help her with the separation. She was having some struggles with that and had one session with that therapist before he died, and I had to call her back and say, “That was going to be difficult enough. Now her dad just died. Can you help this child? Are you skilled enough?” She said, “I think can.” She saw my five-year-old, and the other child went with the trauma therapist.

Being the ages they were at 5 and 9, that was helpful at that age. What we found over time was it was the reverse. My oldest child did not develop post-traumatic stress disorder. My youngest child did. She was the one who later needed more intensive therapy to help her cope with that. I focused so much on the kids during the first five years that by the time I was struggling and knew I needed more therapy, it was just an issue of waiting for the time and space in my life to deal with it. Trauma therapy is also a little bit different. At least one of the things that’s changing now is they’re changing to a model where you do more of an intensive trauma treatment and a retreat style.

Imagine taking a week of your life and instead of going on vacation, you go see a therapist eight hours a day with some breaks. Instead of having to open and close every hour, once a month, you’re doing your therapy intensively to work through what happened. What I ended up doing was a mix of therapy where I would go for maybe 2 or 3-hour sessions at a time with the trauma therapist. At the end of it, I saw her for two-day retreats where we were able to work through the hardest pieces of the loss together.

That is extremely helpful. You mentioned something that often people with young children who are grieving that not only do they have to put off that psychological first aid that they need, but just the day-to-day grieving. I’ve talked to so many people who had to limit that to being in the car or the shower. Do you recall having to isolate your grief from your children? How did you manage that part?

Some of the advice that the trauma therapist gave me in that very first meeting was to not hide my grief from the kids. You don’t want them to be overwhelmed when they feel like they then have to take care of you. It was a balance. I did have a lot of crying in the car, in the shower, and with the bathroom door locked where mommy needed to be left alone to cry for a few minutes. I would pick myself up and go back out. I also cried in front of my children. I mourned in front of them. We went to the cemetery together. They saw me sad. That also permits them then to feel the same.

Often what happens with bereaved children is they’ll see the parent hurting and they’ll stuff down those emotions because, “Now I have to take care of mommy or daddy. I have to be strong for mommy or daddy now.” They become almost in this co-parent role. I saw this with my nine-year-old as she got older and I was this solo parent. She would try to step in and almost act like the other parent. I’d have to be like, “You’re eleven, you don’t get to speak that way to your sister. I’m still a parent and there’s only one in me, but this is not your role. You need to be a kid.”

 

 

It wasn’t because I wasn’t doing my job. It was just that she felt she was supposed to be grown like that now that dad was gone. That’s the risk when we don’t give children space to be kids that mourn. One of the other things that’s common with kids, which is sometimes hard for adults to wrap around because their grief is different, is they do something called puddle jumping where they jump into their grief and then they jump right out. They could be knee-deep in it. I had a conversation out of the blue. My kid wanted to know what happened to daddy’s brain after he died while we were driving. “I guess we’re going to have this conversation now.”

Two minutes later, my kid talking to me about whatever favorite TV show was on PBS. Kids only have so much bandwidth or how much grief they can process at once, and then they need to recalibrate and regulate by going back to normal everyday things. Whereas for adults, we get into our grief and then we get to jump out to go to work or whatever, but we go deeper. They do too. They just need to do it differently than adults.

In speaking of work, going from the separation, your husband passes two jobs, mothering, and it sounds like you’re in school at that time, still doing some studying on top of that.

I was working for a college when he died. I was also teaching at another college. I was adjusting on Saturdays. I was working a full-time job. The year before he died, my mother died and I had been caregiving for her. He was getting his doctorate for most of the years. My kids were young. He had graduated the year before he died. There was this period, the five years before he died, where I was working two jobs, he was working part-time, he was in residency, and he was in school. I was caregiving for my mom. So often it happens to people in our generation, in their 30s and 40s where you’re in that sandwich.

I like to think that if we had 1 or 2 fewer stressors, our marriage would’ve sustained through it. We were under so much incredible stress. There was just a period where it was constantly crisis after crisis. That was also some of the work I had to do in trauma therapy, looking at all the losses I had gone through and grieving the whole of what I lost in five years. Not just Mark in my marriage, but I lost a best friend. My mother had died, I lost my grandmother, and I lost a pregnancy. It was so much. When you have that much loss, you start telling yourself, “It’s something I did wrong. Maybe it wasn’t another life, but why is God punishing me? What have I done wrong in my life to have so much suffering?”

Part of it, too, for me was like, “How do you come through all of that with your identity intact and your mental health intact?” It transformed who I was. Work was the one thing that was stable for me. Work was the one place in my life where I felt successful still. I didn’t feel like everything was falling apart. The morning he died, I was set to get a big promotion. I had a presentation that I never made it to. About a year after he died, they gave me grace for a year. They came back and said, “We’re going to need you to move into this role.” I became an executive at the center where I was working and took on more work.

For my kid’s early years, I have some regrets that I wasn’t more present. They were in afterschool care a lot. They were in before-school care. I was a working mom and a working widowed solo parent during their formative years. That’s something that sometimes I have some regrets about. I also had to look at the long term of like, “How am I going to put two kids through college or pay for daycare in afterschool care if I’m not taking this other job that pays more?” It was always a trade-off of I can be financially stable or you can be a mom more. It was just in 2023 that my oldest survived to adulthood. She’s in college now and I decided to leave another job I was at where I had a very high-profile community job. I made a decision to step down and take a break this 2023 so that I could be home with her because I felt like I had missed out on so much of her childhood.

We do have to make a lot of decisions and those decisions come so quickly. I found that we made the best decisions we could with the knowledge that we had. Everybody can look back at the crystal ball of what we’ve done already and say, “I could have done that differently.” The things that happen in such a rush, you have such little time to address different things. That’s why I recommend people who have just gotten married or been married for a while to have a lot of conversations about what life would look like when one of us is not here.

 

WRT Jeanette Koncikowski | Widow’s Journey

 

Those are difficult conversations. Oftentimes, when we’re saying these wedding vows, we’re saying until death do us part. I don’t think a lot of us unpack what that would look like as far as having a will, a trust, life insurance, and all these other different, “What type of financial investments are we doing to posture that remaining spouse?” Did you and Mark have any of those types of conversations?

I tried, but he was not willing to have them. If anything, I struggled with these adulting tasks. We got married young, we were 24, I thought at the time we were grown. I got married again at 42. I can tell you that 24 and 42 are drastically different.

We are going to get to that.

I had life insurance and a retirement plan. Mark was the opposite of me. He was very type B. He didn’t want to deal with those things. What that meant is when he died, I totaled out $314 in his retirement savings. He couldn’t get life insurance once he got sick. No one would insure someone with epilepsy. This was always a fear of mine. It made me hyper-independent like, “I can’t count on you.” That was an issue in our marriage. This time when I got married at 42, it was like, “You want to buy a house? I need a couple of survivors. Do you want to get married? I’m going to need a will and legal guardianship.” It was the opposite because I had suffered through it.

You mentioned that you remarried. There had to be some dating before you got to him. What did dating look like for you then?

It was a hot mess. Dating in your late 30s or early 40s is not something I would ever do again. I did not date very long. I met my now husband in a support group for widowed people. That first meetup I mentioned that I went to locally that was mostly 60 and 70 years old, there was one man in there who looked to be about my age. We formed a friendship because everyone else was so much older. It’s kind of natural like, “I see you, you look about my age. Let’s talk after.” We formed a friendship.

His first wife died two months before my husband. It was both our first meeting. We were on a similar trajectory in our grief at that time. It was hard to know if this was someone, “I felt guilty about that. I shouldn’t be hitting on the guy in the widow group. What’s wrong with me?” yet I found myself attracted to him.

We are alive.

There was a period when we weren’t sure if we were just friends. I did not know how to date. I had my 65-year-old therapist tell me that writing him an email to talk about a friend-with-benefits situation like it was a business transaction was a terrible idea and that I should just ask the man out on a date. I didn’t know how to do it. I don’t have a lot of time. This is what I’m looking for. This might work for you. She was like, “No.”

How did you do it? How did it work though?

I was patient with him. We joke about it now. I had asked him to coffee after that as a friend and he canceled on me the morning saying he had a work emergency on a Saturday. I was like, “That might be viable. People have work on Saturdays.” The second time we scheduled for coffee, he did the same thing. I told myself, “Maybe he was not ready to be alone with a woman, even a friend.” I was like, “I’m not going to continue to pursue this.” A couple of weeks later he messaged me and said, “We were both having a tough night. We should go out sometime and have some fun.” I was like, “I get a babysitter every time you say that and then you don’t follow through.” He was like, “No, I did have work emergencies. I do want to go out. I didn’t know if it was a date.”

He didn’t know if it was a date. I spent all this money getting my hair done and my nails done in a whole new outfit in case it was a date. When he kissed me, I was like, “This is a date. That’s nice.” I broke up with him for a minute because he wanted children and I had already had two. I’m not doing this again at my age. I thought he was this great guy and he should go have that life he was supposed to have with his wife and that’s not me. I decided to take control and cut it off before it got anywhere.

When that lasted all of a week or two, I remember him asking me like, “Do I get a say in this relationship? I think I could be happy as a stepdad someday if that was where we go.” That’s where we ended up going. My dating time was short. I did see 1 or 2 other people in the in-between, and that was a disaster. I was like, “This guy at least is nice. He may not be the world’s best communicator, but he’s trying.” Once I got to know him, he was very different than anyone else I’ve ever fallen for. It was not the person I would’ve gotten out of my way to meet. It’s very different than my first husband but turned out to be exactly who I needed.

When we got married, I very much felt the minister said, “God didn’t abandon us in our darkness.” Neither one of us knew that at the time. I didn’t expect to walk into a support group three weeks after my husband died and meet my next husband. We took it slow because of my children. They didn’t even know we were dating for the first year. It was another year before he stayed overnight, another year before we stayed at his house, and another year before we lived together. We got together quickly and then we took the relationship really slow for both of us and the kids because we were all healing.

One of the things I learned in dating a widower is his grief is very different than my grief. There were 4 people in our relationship and 2 of them were dead. We had to both navigate how you simultaneously fall in love and experience joy while you’re also having your first holidays without your person while you’re having your first anniversary of their death. How do you manage that as a couple that wants to respect each other’s space and their grief and still be there and support each other?


WRT Jeanette Koncikowski | Widow’s Journey
Widow’s Journey: One of the things I learned in dating a widower is that his grief is very different from my grief.

 

It was definitely, I’m sure, unlike many other dating stories, but I was grateful for meeting him when I did. To be with someone who understands I’m never going to forget Mark who had no expectation my children would somehow just adopt him as their dad now, he understood what we were going through because he was going through it too differently.

He had a very different marriage. He was only married 3 years and mine 12. He’d only been with his partner a total of 6 years to my 21 years. They weren’t together long enough to have those ebbs and flows of a marriage over time. We both had different experiences and expectations about how he would grieve. Men do grief differently than women. It seems to be in my experience at least. There were ways we had to adjust early on in our relationship. We had to learn to communicate a lot quicker than a lot of people do in-depth because of what we were going through.

I’ve heard that having someone who truly understands your journey does make that relationship a little bit different. To be able to understand that space of always, “You will love someone else as I am loving you,” doesn’t diminish what we’re at, but you’ve lived this entire life with someone. It impacts the way you move forward. You mentioned the timeline. From that first meeting to when you got married, what was the time in between?

It took us five years to get married. We were on a slow roll. We got together quickly, in part because I was really afraid of getting married again. I was not sure after coming through everything I had been through with Mark that I didn’t feel confident in my ability to be someone’s life again. I wanted to work on my healing and making sure I was ready for marriage again. He was patient, so I’ll give him that. He was very patient with me working through my stuff so that we could get to a place where we were both ready. We got engaged in 2019. We did get married in June 2020.

When COVID hit, that threw me right back into all my PTSD because I had just done all this work to get better and to recover. Here was this grand, horrible thing that could take everyone I loved away again. It got me into a spiral. We almost didn’t get married because I panicked, “I can’t go through another loss of a husband again.” I tell people one of the things I’ve learned in trauma counseling is we all have these reptile brains. My lizard brain took over for the first six months of COVID and I was back in survival mode of like, “I can’t marry you because what if you die on me?” I couldn’t shake that fear that if I reached for some happiness, a catastrophe would happen again.

I couldn't shake the fear that if I reached for some kind of happiness, catastrophe would happen again. Click To Tweet

That is such a good point. I would dare say that for any widow or widower who is thinking about dating, recoupling, or marrying that thought is inevitable. You were in this situation because our first spouse died. The reality is one of us is going to die again, just who will be first? That can be crippling and prevent people from even thinking about having love or doing that. I know that that is something that I had to struggle with and think, “Do I want to subject myself?”

I’m older. I was 51 when my late husband passed and I’m older now. I’m already realizing there’s more time behind me than there is in front of me. It’s not for everybody, but I realized that it was not something that would prevent me from having this gift of this experience because I just felt like it was worth it. Did you struggle with the reality of that past COVID but the everydayness of it and what that would look like?

Between the time that I had separated from Mark and the time I moved in with Brian, there were five years. I had been now in the space of being hyper-independent in some way. When I moved in with him, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to live with a mannequin.” I like the arrangement we had where you come over two nights a week, we go there on the weekend, and I have a couple of days to myself. I wasn’t sure I was ready to do full-time again.

Prior to COVID, the job I had, I got laid off and Brian happened to also get laid off. We had this economic downturn in 2018. We both got laid off in two weeks. We had been together for three years at that point, we couldn’t afford two houses. We could afford one house. Is this the right reason to move in together? We were heading in that direction we were living there on the weekends.

It forced our hand a bit of like, “Where do we want this relationship to go? Am I going to move my kids into an apartment now because I’m going to lose my house if I don’t have a job? Can I trust this person financially?” It caused a lot of that. I had to take a step back and do some deep thinking about what I wanted and where I was. I pretty quickly looked at how supportive he had been to me, how much he cared for my kids, and recognized that it was my fear and my guilt getting in the way and recognized that I could be happy if I stopped sabotaging myself and worked through my stuff. That was the point where I started seeking a different therapy.

I went back to therapy at that point because I recognized that I needed some help working through those fears and that I did want to be married again. I did want a long-term relationship, but I was really afraid of, “What if he died again?” When COVID did happen, it was one thing in theory to be like, “I can work through this. One of us will die someday, but I’ll be all right.” All of a sudden, people are dying everywhere. Everything that I thought I did in therapy got undone with COVID. We ended up getting married in our backyard and we didn’t decide until the day before the day we were supposed to get married.

I didn’t wake up until that morning and knew that I wanted to do it. It came down to me deciding that I was not going to heal, this would always be my story if I let the narrative control me, and I didn’t deserve to be happy. This wasn’t anybody punishing me. Mark didn’t die because I was a bad person. That this was just sometimes what happens in life. People will die on you. The people closest to you will die. We will all die. I had to grapple with, “Could I live with that happening again? Could I risk that vulnerability?” It was okay to love him from a little bit of a distance. It’s a whole nother thing to commit again.

Even with having the house, we had been living together for a year at that point, but that’s still different than marriage because I can walk away. I just got to get out of this mortgage. I always had a plan B. I just woke up in the morning and I remember being like, “I want to be happy. I’m happy and I want to keep being happy, so I’m going to marry you today.”

We got married on Zoom in our backyard. Our minister was in Rochester, we’re in Buffalo. We had just the kids and my dad. His parents came for the first time. We had seen them since the lockdown started. My brother and my other brother were on Zoom. That was our wedding. A year and a half after that, we got to have the wedding we planned. In 2021, we had our actual second wedding. I call it our sequel wedding, the wedding, we want it. Now, I’ve been married three times to two different men.

That is a beautiful story to share. What are you doing now? I believe you’re doing something, helping widows in that process. What does that look like for you now?

In 2016, two years after I was widowed, I mentioned how I couldn’t find a community of other widow parents. I started an online Facebook support group called Widowed Parent Project. I’ve been growing that for years. That has turned into the second year of presence on Twitter. I have a nice Twitter following and a lot of community engagement there. In 2022, when I decided to step down as an Executive Director at a community nonprofit, I evaluated like, “What do I want to do?” For me, this was my time now. My kids are teens, one’s in college. I had an opportunity to say I’ve got this great partner that is supporting me and I don’t have to do everything alone anymore, and maybe it’s time to give myself some space to grow.

I decided to move into consulting full-time. I have a nonprofit management side that I do and take those skills and work in the community still around health equity. I’ve also started doing coaching for widowed people. That’s been fulfilling work. I see clients privately as a coach and work with them in this life after loss. It’s different than therapy. I’m not a therapist. I always tell people that coaching is best when you’re ready to move forward, when you’re ready to be actionable about what you want your life to look like in the after. To me, there’s always a before and after when there’s loss.

Coaching is best when you're ready to move forward, when you're ready to be actionable about what you want your life to look like after. Click To Tweet

When you’re ready to focus on the after and who you want to be and redo that identity work, a coach can be helpful for that, especially someone with lived experience with loss because they know what you’ve been through. “I’ve been through it and we can look at what are some of the tools and skills you can develop going forward in your life.” For me, it was very much a Phoenix process. I had to say goodbye to the life I had. The Jen I was with Mark, Jen died when Mark died. I can’t go back to who I was before him or who I was when he died. All I could do was rebuild a new life. The life I have now is beautiful, and it is so wholly different than the life I had before. There was a lot of work to get here.

I want to help be that guide and pay forward what was gifted to me by other mentors. It’ll be ten years in 2024 since he died. During this time, very slowly I’ve been writing my memoir. My memoir is coming out in the spring, it’s called Shipwreck: It’s a memoir of widowed parenting and life after loss. It’s moving through this process of how you rebuild when you feel like your life is shipwrecked. How do you move from feeling like you want to die when your person dies to being able to set fail again, take those risks, do those hard things and those challenging things, and live your one beautiful, precious life for you now?

People talk about gifts and death and gifts and grief. A lot of people don’t like that idea. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but I have found gifts in my grief. One of the gifts I’ve gotten from Mark is this bond that has persisted even after he died. Our love has not died. He died, his body died. Our spiritual connection is deeper now than it ever was before. I feel him with me all of the time and I wanted to honor his life he didn’t get to live by living mine happily and knowing that that’s what he would want from me.

I detailed all that in the memoir. I also wanted there to be a real practical hands-on guide, like the book I wanted that I went looking for at the bookstore that wasn’t there on how you raise grieving kids, how you help your children when you are heartbroken, how you move your family forward, and how you reimagine a life after loss as a family. That’s the book I ended up writing and it’s coming out in the spring. That’s what I’ve been doing now.

I hope to get a copy of that. This sounds like it would be very a well-read book and a guide on what people need to do. A couple of things, if you don’t mind. You mentioned the coaching. How do you meet with people and is there a limit to where people live that you can support them?

Thanks to the internet and Zoom when it decides to cooperate with me. I do virtual coaching. We just met on Zoom. I assess in the beginning and talk to people about what they’ve done in their work and their grief where they want to envision their lives. Every client is different some people really want to focus more on very practical things like, “How do I learn to be more independent? How do I make decisions by myself? How do I parent without a partner and deal with the day-to-day stress of that? What are some things we can do as a family to make meaning of what has happened?” For other people, it’s more about the grief process. Even though it’s not therapy, we’re more focused on skills-based ways that they can find support and resources and help them identify that.

It varies on what the individual needs of each client are. I try to make sure that the coaching I’m doing is useful to them. It’s not like there’s a program and we work the program. It’s very individualized to what their particular situation is. I’ve shared my contact information with you, so I also really want coaching to be affordable for widows people. There’s so much financial need after you’re widowed. I try to make it much more affordable than therapy. Not saying you shouldn’t do therapy, but I recognize it as an addition. It’s a lot. I’m trying to have this be a lot of the meaningful work I do and how I give back to the community by keeping this very affordable so that people can get support in the community.

The two biggest things that made a difference for me were finding community and finding my purpose. Once I was able to do those two things, I was amazed at how quickly things fell into place for me in my healing. It was very hard. It was a lot of work to go through psychologically and emotionally. I like to think I’ve done a lot of work on myself and I’m still growing and learning. I can also tell you that as a parent now, with my kids being almost ten years out, the best thing I did for my kids was take care of myself. By being okay, they’re okay. They’re thriving now. The investment in our mental health through therapy, community support, and some of the coaching that I was a beneficiary of, all of that helped us be who we are now. Mark would be very proud of who the three of us are now.

WRT Jeanette Koncikowski | Widow’s Journey
Widow’s Journey: The investment in our mental health through therapy, through community support, and through some of the coaching helped us be who we are today.

You mentioned it’s virtual. Is there a limit to locations where people are that you can support them or if they have Zoom?

As long as they have Zoom and as long as their time zones work, we can make it work. I have been much better generally about holding a boundary around my own time now. I’m not working 80 hours a week anymore, so I don’t tend to do as many evening or weekend things, but I will. I’ll try to make a late afternoon work for someone, or if they need a Saturday because they’re a widowed parent. That’s all they got. We’ll make that work. Not everyone needs it long-term. It isn’t therapy. Maybe you just need a couple of sessions to talk through some family problems.

I often find that the parents who have the hardest time aren’t the ones with the littles. It’s the teenagers and the young adult children that are sometimes the hardest to work with because they are not going to accept mom or dad dating again. They’re not going to want to practice their grief with you. When they’re little, you can control their environment a little bit more, not so much the older ones. For some of the clients I work with, a lot of it is more relationship building and talking to their adult children or their teenage children about their grief and trying to help give them some skills for how to have those conversations.

Grief as a whole is something we don’t do well in America or the world. People don’t have these skills. They don’t know how you have conversations with your kids. When I read the chapter in the book about how to talk to your children when your partner dies, everyone assumes it’s like a one-and-done that’s not ever been widowed. No, you’re going to talk to those children about the death and the loss for the rest of their lives. Those conversations are going to shift over time, and you’re going to be with them in their sadness, their shock, their anger, their anger at you, their guilt, and their reshock. You have to know how to pivot as a parent. No one teaches that. It’s not in the What to Expect When You’re Expecting guidebook.

I read that.

I try to be there as a resource, “I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what I know from trauma therapy that works. Here’s what I know from my background in education psychology and child development that works. Here are some tools that worked for me. Maybe they’ll work for your family or let’s talk about what you think as an expert on your own life would work in your family.” We try to find those tools and resources to help parents get through that or tune inward. Maybe it is their identity work that they need to do. It’s a lot of re-imagining. Maybe it’s financial that is the pressing problem. We have to think creatively about income. I try to meet people where they are and support them for however long they need support to get to that next phase of their growth.

Is this men and women that you’re supporting?

Now, it’s been only women but I’m open to having men too. It’s harder for men to ask for help, which is another thing in our society. On Twitter, I do engage with a lot of widowers. I seem to have a lot more men engage with me on that platform than I do in the Facebook group. I just started the coaching. This is very new. Now, I’m just serving women, but I’m open to both men and women. It doesn’t have to be a widowed parent. I’m open to working with widow people of all ages and stages in their grief. I usually find it’s best for people should be at least six months, if not a year out from the loss because they have to have time to process and to go through that initial grief. That’s where community support and therapy may be most helpful.

Most of the people I’m seeing now, the couple I’m seeing are more like in the 2 to 4-year range where they got through what they think is the worst of it, and now what? What comes next? It’s not always clear what’s supposed to happen. You get through the terrible thing and then what on the other side of it? That’s a really good place where coaching can help them think about what’s next.

To give someone an idea of how you would help them, and I know this is a broad question, but for someone who is stuck in grief and they’re trying to find an action or a process to go forward, what are some ideas or things that people could consider?

I have a background in mental health and trauma counseling, but I’m not a licensed counselor. One of the things that I am looking for is if are they stuck because there is something like guilt, shame, or some deep-seated emotional health issue, then I will refer them to therapy because that’s not appropriate for coaching. If they’re stuck because I was stuck in my guilt about how he died, I needed a therapist to support that. If they’re stuck because they can’t envision a life without this person, they’ve never lived alone, or because they feel overwhelmed by the loneliness and all the possibilities, then that’s where coaching can come in and be helpful.

One of the things that some of my clients have found helpful was just learning about different models of grief. I interviewed 30 widow parents for the work I’ve been doing on my research project for the book. Only one of them knew any of the more modern theories on grief. All we hear about are the five stages of grief. It’s a 50-plus-year-old theory at this point, and there is no evidence backing it up. One of the things I try to do in coaching is to educate people about some of the newer models of grief, particularly around family bereavement, to say maybe some of this makes sense to you and applies to you. Let’s talk about, for example, the dual processing model where you swing from the past to the present. That is perfectly normal. People think there’s something wrong with them if they are one minute going to the cemetery.

One day, I was going to buy my wedding dress to marry Brian and it was the anniversary of my husband’s death. I went to the cemetery before buying a wedding gown. I remember when I shared that on Twitter, someone got angry with me and they were like, “You’re doing a disservice to both of those men. You can’t possibly love one this way and one that way.” Actually, you can. This is one of the other gifts in my grief. I can love more than one person, just like I love both of my children. My heart expanded to have this other man in my life.

The dual processing model is this movement from the past to the future. You have to swing on that pendulum to process your grief so that you can move into a future that is healed and whole. I didn’t know about that model until I started trying to do my research for the book. When I learned about it, I was like, “This makes so much sense to me. That’s actually what I’ve been living.” I didn’t have a name for it. I didn’t know it was a thing. Learning about that helped me stop feeling guilty about that movement from the past to the future. That’s what we do to heal our grief. I just didn’t know that.

That’s something I might share with someone who feels stuck. It’s okay to go to the past and it’s okay to also think about your future. You have to have that movement. Sometimes we get stuck in the middle and that’s because either we’re scared to go back to the past or we’re scared to go forward. We might break down like, “What is it that feels overwhelming about being in the middle? Is it scary because it was in the past? Is it scary because it’s in the future?” We work through some of that together. I’m all about the baby steps. We don’t have to change your whole life, but can we take some baby steps together that’ll help you take a step forward? You got to do that and do that until suddenly you’re changed.

It's okay to go to the past and it's okay to also think about your future. You have to have that movement. Otherwise, we get stuck in the middle. Click To Tweet

That gives someone a concept. Thank you. That’s very helpful. I know we’ve been talking for a while. I have two final questions for you. What gives you joy?

There are so many things now, and they’re little things. I have become obsessed with birding. It is a newfound thing for me. We moved out to the country with my now husband. I’ve always been a city girl and I love that I watch the birds. I have birds that come to my bird feeders. I’ve gotten really into identifying the different species. It’s these little things that I didn’t make time in my life for before Mark died. I was always run, do, and achieve. I had to relearn how to connect to simple joys. My simple joy is I get my coffee in the morning, sit here in my sunroom, and have a little winter bird feeding station, and the birds still come in the winter. It gives me a lot of joy.

Same thing with fish. I have a fish pond here. I love these fish. I’ve named them all. They come and live inside my tank in the winter. My kids joke that they’re my other children. They’re like, “Crazy bird lady, crazy fish lady.” I’ve always had a connection to nature, this caretaking of nature is something new to me and that brings me these little joys every day. There is one of the other things that was healing for me and that I worked through in my healing process because I didn’t know what brought me joy. All I had was so much grief.

At one point a therapist said to me, “What brought you joy as a child?” I had to think about that. I remember that when I was little, I used to love to paint. Somebody told me my painting was terrible when I was in Catholic school and I never painted again. When I was 35, I bought paints again and I painted. I’ve been painting for the last couple of years. I love it. That has been a really important part of my new life.

My final question is if you could speak to a younger you, what age or period of your life would you choose and what would you tell her?

I would go back to those awful years. From 2010 to 2014 when I was losing everyone I loved and that culminated in Mark’s death. I would tell her to hold on and that she has it in her. All the answers she needs, she has in her. She just doesn’t know that she’s going to be the one to pull her through it. I wish now so much I could go back and hold that part of me, and I did. That was some of the work I did in therapy was to imagine going back and telling my younger self, “You’re going to get through this. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to suck for a long time, but you are strong enough, wise enough, and you can heal yourself. Everything you need is within you.”

 

WRT Jeanette Koncikowski | Widow’s Journey

 

I didn’t believe that when I was younger. I didn’t think I was good enough, smart enough, and all the things enough. Now I know I am enough and not perfect by any means, but I was enough. I know that in my 40s in a way I didn’t know in my 30s. I wish I could go back and let her know that she is doing the best she can with what she has at the time.

Thank you for making this time. I will allow you to close out this conversation and talk about any points you wanted to that we didn’t cover. I’ll let you wrap this up for us.

Thank you so much. Thank you again for taking the time to talk with me, Tina. Thank you for stalking me on Twitter. I love meeting Twitter followers and it’s cool actually when they slide into the DMs and I’m like, “You’re a real person.” Thank you so much for being a real person with me. It’s crazy to me that it’s going to be ten years in 2024 like that. The weight of it being the ten years coming up is a lot. I had a friend who was going through a different trauma, but a traumatic experience. He said, “I know your trauma’s been very different, but I need someone to tell me how I get through this because I don’t want to live.” I said to him, “You need to find community and you need to find your purpose. If you can survive until you find those two things, you will be okay.”

I’m pleased to say he took that to heart. He did the work, and a year later, he’s out here telling people about community and purpose. The woman who started or connected me to that meetup group, even though the group didn’t work out for me, mentored and befriended me. I think of her all the time. I had a woman from the Epilepsy Association Reverend Lauren whose husband died of SUDEP and they connected me to her. A minister in Maryland. I’ve never met her in real life, but she shepherded me through the worst of my grief. I try to pay forward the gifts that other people and other women have given me in my deepest grief to be there for someone else now. That’s the purpose and meaning of life, paying forward what you’ve been gifted and giving that to others.

Thank you for this opportunity. I hope people will read the book when it comes out. I will be self-publishing it so you can buy it through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and my website. It’s called Shipwrecked. It’s a memoir of a widow of parenting. If anyone is interested in coaching, I’d love to connect. Slide into my DMs on Twitter. One of these days, I’ll get up on Instagram. I’m working on that. I’m never going to do TikTok. I refuse. I would love to meet more of the followers like this and to share with you what I’ve learned. Thank you for this opportunity.

Thank you.

 

Important Links

Thank you for viewing this post. I am not a licensed therapist or professional life coach.

I am sharing my experience of loving the same man for 32 years, a mother to two adult children, a retired military officer, a breast cancer survivor, and my connections with others.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should reach out to a suicide hotline or local emergency number in their country https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/suicide/suicide-prevention-hotlines-resources-worldwide