“Widow.” I wore the word like a painful brand seared across my forehead. I was 37 and entirely unprepared for the way widowhood would strip me of my identity, taking center stage for years. For someone who had been a successful public relations executive, expertly crafting messages for others, I was suddenly at a loss for how to craft my own story.
“I’m Nancy Sharp. I’m widowed.”
My entire life had been reduced to those five words. Forget, “Let me tell you about my adorable twins — my daughter, Rebecca, and son, Casey. Let me tell you about working for UNICEF and spending an entire afternoon at New York’s Plaza Hotel with Audrey Hepburn.” And then I could have added: “I’m actually new to Denver.”
I could have said any one of these things but didn’t. Grief had blackened all the other defining parts of my life. My husband, Brett, died of a brain tumor in 2004 when Rebecca and Casey were almost 3 years old.
As a young married couple in our late 20s working in Manhattan, life was exciting. We had jobs that afforded us regular dinners out with friends, the occasional Broadway show, and travel to St. Martin and Puerto Vallarta. Then Brett began to hiccup and burp. We joked about it at first, until weeks passed, and he couldn’t stop.
These symptoms morphed into a burning sensation when he swallowed, followed by headaches, blackouts and significant weight loss. Eight months later, we received a diagnosis of cancer. Brett underwent several surgeries, traditional and experimental chemotherapy, and the strongest radiation possible. Though we hardly felt lucky, it was lucky that his diagnosis wasn’t terminal (at first), and that he had a relatively good quality of life — working full time and being a devoted husband, son and friend.
In May of 2001, that came to a halt, when we learned the routine MRI he’d just undergone, the one that had been clean for nearly two years, showed new tumors in his brain and down his spine.
The collision of life and death haunted me. Here is what I wrote in my book, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living.
“It was all so haphazard, the ordering of our lives, the lack of divine direction, and our own human frailty. This is what unraveled us most. Why, on a day of new life, were we staring into the rim of death? I didn’t understand it then. I still don’t.”
It was both merciful and anguishing when Brett eventually succumbed to his disease a few years later. It took a shocking amount of time for me to discover the choice to shine light on myself. How do you write a different story when life hands you the unthinkable? I’d spent the whole of my 30s caregiving and mourning, and the idea of facing a new decade stuck in the canyon of grief pushed me to take a giant leap of faith. I decided to move to Colorado. My closest friend from college lived there, and the snow-capped mountains and open skies spoke to me.
Denver was the healing bridge needed to write the next chapter. I had no other expectations in Colorado but to be engaged with the world again. I took our children hiking. Enrolled them in ski lessons. Sought new career connections. Made new friends. And one February day I sent an email to a local TV news anchor who also happened to be widowed and raising two boys on his own. He was featured in a popular magazine as one of Denver’s most eligible singles.
I’d dated in the years since Brett died, wanting to feel alive again physically as well as emotionally. But I couldn’t shake the thought that I was damaged goods. Writing Steve was a lark. Amid all Hollywood happy-ending odds — we fell quickly into a committed relationship. There was, however, one significant obstacle. Despite all the ways I’d moved forward, I hadn’t realized how stuck I remained in the way I viewed myself.
“Pretend you are meeting someone for the first time at a party,” my Kabbalah teacher, a psychologist, asked our regular group. When it was my turn, I said, “I’m Nancy Sharp. I’m widowed.”
This time the words felt all wrong, spoken from my mouth yet disassociated from my body. The tears came fast. All seven women stared, waiting for me to speak. I had come to this excruciating realization on my own. It was time to dispose of the label that I made a curse, time to realize that widowhood was not a state of being, that it was part of me but not the whole part.
“The stories we tell ourselves make up our identity and dictate what we believe we can and cannot do,” writes master empowerment guru Tony Robbins.
Seeing takes time. I went on to marry Steve in July 2008. It’s been hard work blending families, though well worth it. Those old insecurities about being relegated to sadness and adversity still rise to the surface, though I’ve learned to see them for what they are: thoughts and fears, not the unvarnished truth. Today I can speak about loss and all the challenges borne from it without feeling insignificant and shattered at my core. I’ve taught myself to do the opposite. I feel like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. I no longer need to mask the past, or present. It’s my story after all, and I intend for it to be golden.