Catherine Tidd was 31 when she lost her Air Force officer husband in a motorcycle accident. Their kids were 5, 3 and 18 months.
The moment she heard, "He's not going to make it," changed her life forever. Of course it did.
"But the change into the person I became didn't happen in that moment," she writes in her new book, "Confessions of a Mediocre Widow" (Sourcebooks). "It didn't happen as I was riding in the passenger seat of my mother's minivan on the way home from the hospital. And it didn't happen at the funeral."
The gigantic, terrifying changes — forever a widow, suddenly a single mom — happened immediately. But equally gigantic changes took a more gradual pace.
Her transformation, for example, into a person who can go off script — whose "script" was, in essence, torn into bits and stomped all over — and still find moments of joy. Her tossing aside of pretense, and her open-armed embrace of candor.
"Not one of us is living the life we expected to when we were young," Tidd told me during a recent interview. "Once you realize that, I think the question becomes what you do with that and how you choose to grow from it."
Bradley, Tidd's husband, died in 2007. (He was 34.) She spent the initial months in stunned disbelief. She struggled to find her footing, even as she worried she wasn't acting "widow enough." Did she look sufficiently grief-stricken? Did she donate his clothes too soon? Were pedicures the best use of her time and money? Should she send out Christmas cards?
"I wish someone had told me from the beginning there's no right way to do this," she said. "The five stages of grief don't happen in order, and they happen over and over again. But you feel like you're being judged on how you're coping and what you're doing, and you constantly think you're failing."
Which is partly why she wrote the book.
"I wanted to be as raw and honest as I could," she said. "I wanted people to read it and say, 'Yes, that's me! I'm not crazy! I'm not alone!'"
She wrote it for anyone who has grieved the loss of a cherished soul, and for anyone who has borne witness to a loved one's grief.
"I also wanted to bring awareness to what the people who are trying to support us go through," she said. "Sometimes we can't see past our own grief to the intentions of others, and we don't always let others know what we're feeling. When my dad read the book for the first time, he said, 'I had no idea what you were going through.' And I talk to him every day. He just didn't know the depths."
There's a world of beauty packed inside Tidd's book.
Her humor: "I spent my 11th wedding anniversary planning my husband's funeral. If I could figure out how to make that rhyme, it would be the beginning of a great country song."
Her honesty: That funeral veered spectacularly off course and ended with her doubled over in laughter at "the Pennsylvania preacher who missed his chance on 'American Idol.'"
Her wisdom: "It takes a lot more time and effort to deny yourself the grief you feel than it does to work to accept the life — including the grief — that is now yours."
Her mettle: She pours the past seven years onto pages for all of us to read and learn from, particularly her "Tips for widow(er)s and those who support them." Her take-down of the empty platitudes we mutter to people who are suffering ("He's in a better place." "Everything happens for a reason.") should be required reading for all humankind.
Through it all, she gently reminds us that our lives will take us places we never meant to go and feel unprepared for. She keeps a card on display that reads, "A truly happy person is the one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour."
"Since I don't know of a bigger detour in life than widowhood," she writes, "I'm doing my best to enjoy the scenery along the way to wherever it is that I'm going."
We'd all do well to follow her lead.