After Losing A Spouse, Finding A Different Kind Of Happiness

May 2, 2017

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

K.T. Nicolaides still knows the exact minute her life changed forever. At 10:17 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2016, two days before their fifth wedding anniversary, her husband, Aaron Nicolaides, died.

Last fall, it seemed as though they had everything to look forward to. They had just welcomed their second daughter into the world and bought a house for their growing family.

Then one day in September, Aaron went to the doctor with breathing problems and found out he had cancer.

A couple of weeks later, he was placed in a medically induced coma, and he never came out.

At just 31, K.T. became a widow and a single mother of two young girls.

"I can feel around me that he's not here, and I know he's not coming back," she says, "but it's not quite real yet."

Since then she has struggled through each day, each week, each month — grieving and figuring out what comes next. She is looking for advice, but most people aren't really able to relate to a tragedy like hers.

"I'm getting a lot of the, 'Oh I know what you're going through, I lost my brother.' Or, 'Oh yeah, my divorce was so hard. I know exactly what you're going through,' " she says. "And I just want to shake them and be like, 'No you don't! You have no idea,' but instead I just nod and smile." To answer some of her questions, K.T. sat down with someone who does understand what she's going through: Larry Treadwell. He had only been married a couple of years when his wife, Amanda, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism.

That left him alone to raise their 7-month-old son, Samuel.

"I was convinced it was just a bad dream, and I argued with people," Larry says. "I was like, there's no way this is real. I'm gonna wake up here in a minute."


Lessons from Larry Treadwell

On the best advice he heard

[My dad's cousin] said, "All I know to say to you is, when something like this happens, all you can do is make the best of it." And then he looks down, and he pats Samuel on the back, and he says, "This little fella right here, he's the best of it." And I kind of made that my golden rule. I kind of made that my law. He's the best of it. He deserves for me to find a way to be happy, you know, to have a dad who loves him and is trying to give him the best he can.

On how his wife's death changed him

For good or bad, I am a totally different person than I was before. The way I viewed the world, the way I viewed faith, the way I viewed my responsibilities, the way I viewed my health — everything changed. And for me, it eventually, it became good. I'm not saying it was better, but I did find happiness, I did find peace.

On how grief changes over time

It never hurts less; it just hurts less often. Because when you think of him it's there, 'cause you love him and you're always gonna love him. And then you're gonna have days where maybe you didn't think about him as much. And then you're gonna fight guilt. It's like, "Why didn't I think about him? What's wrong with me?" And there's nothing wrong with that. It just means you're picking up, and you're doing what you gotta do.


Freelance producer Julia Botero contributed to this report. You can follow her on Twitter @jbott661.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

K.T. Nicolaides knows the exact minute her life changed forever.

K T NICOLAIDES: 10:17 p.m. on October 7, two days before our fifth wedding anniversary, he passed away.

MCEVERS: Before that, it seemed like K.T. and her husband, Aaron Nicolaides, had everything. They just had their second daughter. They just bought a house. And then one day in September, Aaron went to the doctor with breathing problems and found out he had cancer. A couple weeks later, he was put in a medically induced coma, and he never came back out. K.T. was 31 years old, and she was a widow and a single mother of two young girls.

Since then, she's tried to figure out how to get through each day, each week, each month. And she's been looking for advice, but most people aren't really able to relate to something like what happened to her.

NICOLAIDES: I'm getting a lot of the, oh, I know what you're going through; I lost my brother - or, oh, yeah, my divorce was so hard; I know exactly what you're going through (laughter). And I just want to shake them and be like, no you don't. You have no idea. But instead I just nod and smile.

MCEVERS: One person who does know what K.T. is going through is Larry Treadwell.

LARRY TREADWELL: I still have to fight that - the advice, you know, the little things people would say that just really got off with me. Everything happens for a reason, and...

NICOLAIDES: Oh, God, yeah (laughter).

TREADWELL: You know, God needed her more than we did.

MCEVERS: Larry Treadwell lost his wife Amanda in 2011. They'd only been married a couple years when she died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. So Larry had to raise their son, Samuel, who at the time was 7 months old by himself. Larry sat down with K.T. earlier this year for our series Been There, connecting people on either side of a shared experience, so she could ask some questions and he could give some advice on how to deal with grief while things still don't feel real.

TREADWELL: I was convinced it was just a bad dream, and I argued with people. I was like, there's no way this is real. I'm going to wake up here in a minute, and this has just been a bad dream. That's all this is. And after a couple of months, I realized it wasn't just a bad dream. And then I had to fight guilt. I mean Samuel's - she missed all of his firsts.

She never heard the first words. She never saw the real first step, the first day of school, the first birthday for God's sake, the first Christmas. She didn't see any of that. So every time one of these milestones would come along, you know, I should be happy. I should be happy this is my son doing this for the first time. And all I can think is, she's not here to see this.

NICOLAIDES: Was there anything that helped you cause that's where I am right now.

TREADWELL: You know, the day of Amanda's visitation, we went to the funeral home, and there was this guy there, one of my dad's cousins. And he's this big, rough-looking dude. One eye's bad, loud voice, was, like, a retired professional wrestler or something. He comes up to me, and he hugs me. And he asks if he can hold the baby. And this dude is so big he's got Samuel in one hand. He's literally got him in one hand.

He says, buddy - he says, a lot of people are going to tell you a lot of things trying to make you feel better. He said, but all I know to say to you is when something like this happens, all you can do is make the best of it. And then he looks down, and he pats Samuel on the back, and he says, this little fellow right here - he's the best of it. And I kind of made that my golden rule. I kind of made that my law. He's the best of it. He deserves for me to find a way to be happy, you know, to have a dad who loves him and is trying to give him the best he can.

NICOLAIDES: Does Samuel ask about his mom? Does - is there anything that kind of smacked you in the face that you just did not expect him to say or do or ask or...

TREADWELL: Yeah, he asks a lot. There's things he does and things he says that reminds me of her. If I ever got frustrated or upset or lost my temper over something, she would do this thing where she would come up, and she would take my face in her hands. And she'd say, it's OK, big daddy; it's going to be OK. Just calm down. And the other day, Samuel comes up to me. And he gets right in my ear, and he says, Daddy, I need you to do something for me. I need you to make me a robot dinosaur.

NICOLAIDES: (Laughter).

TREADWELL: I looked at him. I said, is that all? He said, yeah, it needs to be big enough where I can ride it. I said, I'll see what I can do, buddy. And then he takes my face in his hands, and he pulls me over and gets right in my eyes just like Amanda used to do. And he says, can you do this for me?

NICOLAIDES: (Laughter).

TREADWELL: He didn't learn that from her. He never saw her do that. But it's just this thing that she did and every now and then he does too.

NICOLAIDES: I'm - I know I'm going through - I feel like I'm a completely different person than I was before he died. And I guess I just want to know, like, am I ever going to feel that way again, or is this just - that was my life before; this is my life now, and I just kind of have to find myself as this new life progresses?

TREADWELL: For me, it was definitely the latter. For good or bad, I am a totally different person than I was before. The way I viewed the world, the way I viewed faith, the way I viewed my responsibilities, the way I viewed my health - everything changed. And for me, it never hurts less. It just hurts less often because when you think of him, it's there 'cause you love him, and you're always going to love him. And then you're going to have days where you - maybe you didn't think about him as much. And then you're going to fight guilt.

NICOLAIDES: (Laughter).

TREADWELL: Like, why didn't I think about him? I'm - what's wrong with me, you know? And there's nothing wrong with that. It's just - it just means you're picking up, and you're doing what you've got to do.

MCEVERS: That was Larry Treadwell. His wife Amanda died in 2011. He has since remarried. He was talking to K.T. Nicolaides, whose husband, Aaron, died late last year. If you are going through a big change or if you have advice to share, let us know. Send an email to nprcrowdsource@npr.org with Been There in the subject line.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN SOLLEE'S "LEAVING FAMILY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: