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The love of my life died. My grief had to take a back seat to putting food on the table for my kids

This First Person article is written by Wendy Powell who lives in Stony Plain, Alta. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was lying in bed in the middle of the night, wide awake as always every night since my husband passed away. I didn’t know that grief could feel so heavy.

I needed a plan but thinking logically felt impossible. It had only been a month since Andrew had died, but worries about finances and taking care of my family pressed on my mind. Rent needed to be paid and food needed to be put on the table, regardless of how devastated I felt. 

Andrew and I met in 1997 on an old-school online chat forum, way back in the days of dial-up internet access and long before dating apps and modern social media . 

He lived in Los Angeles and worked as a composer for TV shows. I was in Edmonton attending the University of Alberta. Our friendship started as email pen pals and then progressed to expensive, long-distance telephone calls. We exchanged song lyrics and poetry, had deep heart-to-heart conversations, and talked or emailed daily. I had fallen in love with him before we ever met in person.

A bearded man and curly-haired woman smile for the camera.
Andrew, left, and Wendy met online in 1997. He was a musician in Los Angeles and she was a student at the University of Alberta at the time. (Submitted by Wendy Powell)

When I was 21, I quit university to move to California where we got married and had two of our three kids. Eventually we moved back to Alberta, settled near family in Stony Plain, and welcomed our third child. 

Andrew and I never really followed the expected life path that others travelled, even though it probably would have been easier.

We didn’t have normal 9 to 5 jobs with benefits and life insurance policies. Andrew was always self-employed, working as a video editor and motion graphics artist once we settled in Alberta, though music was always on his mind. He played in multiple bands and ended up putting together his own jazz group, The A Powell Band, shortly before he got sick. 

I stayed at home with the kids, managed the house and took horticulture classes to learn how to grow our own food. We even dipped our toes into homeschooling for a few years. We marched to our own beat and sacrificed a lot in order to support our family on one income. 

Andrew and I were making plans for the next few years and life was moving along until one day it just wasn’t anymore. 

Four men play instruments while wearing Christmas outfits.
The A Powell band playing a pre-Christmas gig. From left, Andrew Powell, Jason Allen, Ted Tessier and Stephen McGann, who is Wendy Powell’s brother. (Agnes Allen)

Nobody expected Andrew to get cancer. Nobody expected him to die just two months after he was diagnosed. I definitely was not prepared. Andrew passed away in March 2020, just days before the pandemic shut down the entire planet. 

In those long days of deep grief following his death, I somehow managed to put together a plan. I would resume working on the university degree that I had left behind so long ago. And then I would be able to find a job that would pay enough to support my family.

In the meantime, I planted a huge garden and sold homegrown produce and homemade relishes in order to make some money. That summer, I focused on my kids and the garden while I tried to work through university courses. A kind friend offered some freelance writing work, which also helped keep a roof over our heads. 

A woman holds up an armful of carrots in a garden of sunflowers.
Powell turned to her garden in 2020 as a source of income. (Submitted by Wendy Powell)

But I didn’t know that grief would affect me in so many ways, both mentally and physically. 

The first year after Andrew died was sharply painful. Everything hurt. Everything was hard. Parenting three grieving kids while alone in the isolation of a pandemic and with a broken heart was difficult. The second year surprised me by being even more challenging as I gradually came to the realization that the pain was not going to magically disappear one day. The heartbreak became more real and more permanent. 

I had a hard time concentrating and little energy. There were many days when just getting out of bed was an achievement. My school books started to gather dust and my online classes at Athabasca University — which doesn’t operate on set semesters — took months longer than I expected. Looking back, I realize that I should have waited a year or two before returning to university.

A smiling girl stands next to a stack of children's books and university textbooks.
Powell’s daughter Felicity poses with her mom’s stack of school books for a children’s literature class at Athabasca University. (Wendy Powell)

Now we are in the third year without Andrew and life is becoming more bearable. In the last few months, I’ve been able to properly concentrate on my work and studies.

Never in my life did I think that the grieving process would be so hard or so long. And while I can’t say that the grief has subsided, I am proud that I have become stronger. 

Along with my newfound strength came a new sense of self-worth. I have stopped feeling as though I am taking too long to get on with my life. I am doing the best that I can, even if it doesn’t look like it from the outside. If I am trying my best, what more can anyone ask of me? 

What more can I ask of myself? 

I’ve recently enrolled in my final course and expect to graduate with a bachelor of arts in the fall. I hope to find a job with nice co-workers and good benefits — a predictable and reliable 9 to 5. 

I am intensely proud of myself for continuing to persevere, even through the many days when I thought life was impossible and even pointless. 

I don’t know what the future holds. But I do know that I have discovered the strength to take on anything.

A bearded man holds a guitar while sitting on a stone ledge in front of a body of water and mountains in the distance.
Andrew Powell photographed in 2017 in Canmore, Alta. (Submitted by Wendy Powell)

LISTEN | Andrew Powell sings Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors, in a recording made by Wendy on her phone. “The lyrics are very inspirational when times are tough,” she says.

Radio Active3:00Andrew Powell

Singing True Colors

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