A Journey Through Grief In the long moment that his life ended, hers as an emotional exile began

June 05, 1994

Ellen Uzelac, a former national correspondent for The Sun, was widowed seven years ago at the age of 31. Her husband, Jim Thomas, an editor for The Sun, was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 1986. He died six months later in San Francisco, where Ellen was working as the paper's West Coast bureau chief. Following is an excerpt from "Lost & Found: A Journey Through Grief," Ellen's just-published account of those wrenching six months and her emotional and spiritual recovery.

I have never felt more alive than during the months Jim was dying. Home was a precipice, a place where the air was thin, but the view revealed truths I had never before known. At times, I felt drenched with insight.

There was a fullness to the days, a sharpness of focus. In that climate, I discovered my bare self. Where some might have seen only bruises, I felt a ripening.

Even when most afraid, I could wrap my arm around Jim and find relief in the simple act of touching his face or rubbing his hand. When I sighed, he was there, taking my broken pieces and cradling them in his heart. Our lives were propelled not by promise, but by rich moments that offered everything from giddiness to grace.

When Jim died, a silence began living in the house. Sometimes, I'd go half a day or more and suddenly realize I had not uttered a word. My cheerleading days were over. I had lost my voice.

An emotional exile, I traveled low to the ground in space that seemed temporary, borrowed. The days I inhabited now were unstable and long; I didn't trust my footing. As soon as I woke up in the morning, I would look at the wind-up clock on the old oak school desk beside the bed and count the hours until I could sleep again. I became an intimate of the darkness, which cloaked me in its black veil.

My hunger for Jim fed me, and I looked for him everywhere. One afternoon walking down 24th Street in San Francisco, I heard a motorcycle cough behind me. I couldn't see the biker's face, but wisps of brown hair curled out from under the back of his helmet, and his legs, lean and taut, reminded me of Jim's. I began to follow him.

Twenty-fourth Street, where it cuts through my old neighborhood, hosts an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops and apartments. It's a lazy street where no one drives fast. Picking up my pace, I hurried down the sidewalk in the motorcycle's wake. Just as the distance widened between us, and I feared he was lost to me, the biker paused for a stop sign, allowing me to catch up. After three blocks, he parked the bike in front of a health-food store, swung one leg in a perfect arc over the leather seat, and stood. As he reached up to remove his helmet, I turned away.

One thing about grief -- it doesn't let you in on its travel plans. In the middle of a conversation with a blue-suited executive or standing in a grocery line next to a woman chatting on about the price of avocados, I would remember Jim was dead and that I would never see him again. I struggled to trap the bad news inside me. This was knowledge that had to be accepted slowly, carefully, one piece at a time.

You never know what will trigger the sadness -- walking through the men's section in a department store; seeing a woman lean into her boyfriend while they wait at a corner for the light to change; anniversary cards in a stationery store; a lyric from a familiar song floating out of a passing car.

Nor is it possible to predict what will trigger the anger. Shortly after Jim died, I was standing outside a store looking blankly into space when a man turned to me and said: "You look like you've just lost your best friend. Where's your smile?" For months, I received as personal assaults such casual remarks as "I could have died" and "I feel dead" and "She looked like death warmed over." One morning, I nearly ran down a group of teenage skateboarders. "You idiots," I yelled, jumping out of my car. "I could have killed you!" In those dark days, I was afraid everyone was going to die.

Then there are the well-meaning questions people ask: Are you married? What does your husband do? Dead? How? Cancer, did he smoke?

The world outside the apartment had become a dangerous, demanding place. Questions usually require answers; far too many of these begged the past tense. For me, the only safe place was home.

For many months, the apartment on Grandview was my ground conductor, the one place I felt connected, the only place that gave me shape. In the pink of the evening, I'd sit in the recliner Jim had insisted on buying before we left Baltimore, gaze out of the window and wait for the loneliness to rip through me in gushes. So pronounced was Jim's absence it seemed a presence, something just beyond human sight.

After Jim died, my periods stopped and my hair began to fall out. When I showered, hair would come out in wet handfuls and clog the drain. A doctor told me I was under stress.

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