Through the Darkness and Grief, I Discovered Myself
I fell in love with and married my best friend. We were together for 30 years, and married for 24. Matt was my soul mate, my biggest cheerleader, my everything. We created a beautiful family and have three incredible boys: Ethan, Aidan, and Nolan. I loved being Matt’s wife, a mom of a family of five. We were The Duncan 5. My life, family, and future were so carefully mapped out, so perfect. Spoiler alert. Deep down, I knew none of it was perfect. I had painstakingly crafted and embodied this armor of perfection to hide my deepest fear.
The first chinks in the armor came in August 2015, when we dropped Ethan off for his freshman year in college. I cried over the change in our family dynamic, the loss of making his school lunch, the empty space where his folded laundry should go, his empty space at the dinner table. All of those tears. If I only knew what lay ahead.
Six weeks later, I arrived home exhausted from a week-long work trip. As I was unpacking, Matt came into our bedroom and sat down in the armchair. “Kirsten, I’m gay.” I don’t remember what I said, but I remember how I felt. My heart breaking. My chest a vast emptiness. My mouth dry. The slowing of the mind. The realization that my life as I knew it was over. That our marriage, our family, the future I had planned, had ended instantaneously. And there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. No “fighting for us,” no counseling, no say in the matter. Just over. Irreparable slashes in the perfection.
Eight weeks later, while on a business trip in New York, I received the middle-of-the-night call that every parent dreads. It was the trauma center. “Are you the mother of Aidan Duncan?” My blood ran cold. Our 16-year-old son had been in a drunk driving accident. I endured the longest six-hour flight of my life back to Seattle. I had no idea if Aidan would be alive when I landed. I arrived in the ICU to see Aidan in a coma. He had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury associated with a 10% survival rate. Aidan miraculously survived and continues his recovery.
My perfect life? That was gone.
The next six months were a blur as I operated in survival mode Caring for a child with a traumatic brain injury, painfully separating from my husband, trying to guide our son in college 2,000 miles from home, hoping to create a semblance of normalcy for our youngest.
While we struggled to determine the best way forward, Matt and I rented an apartment that we rotated through to create some stability for our boys. Schlepping my belongings, down to picture frames, knick-knacks, and candles, every Sunday. Into the apartment, back into the house. Always forgetting things, like my bras, running shoes, or makeup. Then, realizing we would not be able to keep our beautiful home. The process of finding a new place to live on my own, packing up 24 years of a marriage. Who keeps the wedding album? The children’s art? Two of our children admitted considering suicide. I was terrified. Lost. Every time I struggled to regain my footing, I was swiftly knocked back down.
I was shrouded in grief yet trying to move gracefully forward, showing our boys that I was OK and they would be, too. I did not want these circumstances to define us; I wanted to take what had happened and use it to make us stronger, deeper, courageous, and resilient.
Yet, nine months after Matt came out, I hit rock bottom. I finally sought counseling and began the first steps towards reclaiming my life. Remember that perfectionism? Well, I was going to be the best patient and was going to excel at recovery. I journaled meticulously, devoured inspirational books and stories, meditated, repeated positive affirmations, relaxed in Savasana. I was going to be “back to normal” in no time.
Um. Grief, loss, and healing have their own time table. Mixed into the healing was my own shame. Throughout our marriage, I secretly feared Matt was gay. Yet every time I confronted him, he had a response that I bought without question. I didn’t want Matt to be gay, for our marriage and family as I knew it to be over. I had accepted deep down that I would quietly live with this secret, knowing that my husband didn’t truly love me. I was willing to take what I had.
It has been three-and-a-half years, and I am still a work in progress. Grief has been my constant companion. She reminds me how lucky I was to have loved as deeply as I did, that our love was (and is) real. Grief celebrates every forward step and encourages me when I fall backwards. A reminder of the vitality, fragility, and beauty of life. To embrace every second and to take wild chances.
Matt and I are redefining our family and friendship. I am discovering me. The woman who has always been there, hidden behind fear and lack of self-worth. Ready to be courageous, I began running head first into fear. I’ve traveled alone, gotten lost in foreign countries, ran off of the side of the mountain to paraglide, tried a hip-hop dance class, and learned how to speak from my heart and follow my soul. And let’s not forget dating at the age of 50. Those details are for another day. Facing my fears gave me confidence to boldly, bravely, and proudly blaze my own perfectly imperfect path.
I began seeking stories of people like me. Not able to find resources that I could relate to, I decided to create them. I’ve launched a blog and a podcast, An Unexpected Launch, where our shared experiences offer strength and forge the path for those following in our footsteps.