‘I smiled, kissed her and said, ‘I love you.’ That’s the last time I saw Dana. The next morning, she died instantly.’

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“Later this year will be the 28-year anniversary of Dana’s death. I was 23 years old then, now I am 51. It blows my mind I will be 79 years old 28 years from now. But it also gives me comfort in realizing how far I have made it. I look at it now as somehow having made it approximately halfway through this journey of loss.

We were that couple everyone looked up to. Always together, laughing and having fun. We knew we were blessed to have met each other. So thankful we had each found such a soul mate to spend the rest of our lives with. It truly was a fairytale; a one in a million relationship.

Being a year older than Dana, I graduated two quarters before she was supposed to. Once Dana graduated in December, we would be closer to living happily ever after. I moved back into my parent’s house while Dana was finishing school. During that time, we decided I should buy a house. A house I would live in by myself until we got married in a year or so. Then it would become our first home.

Monday night of Veterans Day weekend in 1990, we stood out in front of Dana’s house to say goodnight. We hugged, kissed and talked for thirty minutes or so. We had so much to talk about. The new house, the wedding we had just gone to, what our wedding was going to be like. Life was perfect, and we knew it. As I was about to drive off Dana said, ‘Three more weeks and we will never have to say goodbye again.’ I smiled, kissed her again and said, ‘I love you.’ That’s the last time I saw Dana.

Man's wife smiling back over her shoulder who has since passed away
Courtesy of Bob Millsap

The next morning she was just outside of Bakersfield, driving toward San Luis Obispo. The details are so hard to talk about. A car took a left turn too carelessly. It clipped the back of Dana’s car, spinning her out of control. Her tiny car was then swallowed by an 18 wheeler coming from the opposite direction. She died instantly with her car and the truck finally resting in flames on an elementary school playground.

The memory of the phone call from her dad to tell me that Dana died is etched in my head in slow motion like it was yesterday. The next days, months and years blend together with such a painful fog. I have a lot of memories of how I was told that time would go. I vividly remember many older people telling me I would be fine. They would speak to me as if they had the answers since they had lived longer than me. It was a consistent narrative that went something like this; ‘In time you will look back fondly at your first love, but a new life will begin and take the place of that.’ Several people told me the story of their ‘first love’ and how they still sometimes happily thought about him/her. It was so frustrating to me at the time. Being marginalized because of my young age and the fact we were not yet married was so hard for me to tolerate.

Husband smiling with arm around wife who has since passed away
Courtesy of Bob Millsap

Many people my age wanted to compare my loss to their particularly tough break up. This was ridiculous to me. Of course she did not become my ‘ex’ in death, why couldn’t others understand that? I suppose it’s because most have no other way to relate to the loss of a significant other. In their mind a loss is a loss that you eventually ‘get over.’

I married Shelly three and a half years after Dana died. I am so blessed that we have an amazing relationship in which she makes me extremely happy. But the two relationships are mutually exclusive of each other. People struggle to understand that. Society believes that once you fall in love again you have moved on and replaced the one that has died. This is such a fallacy. What actually happens is the heart opens up to love two people. The love for the person lost does not diminish. But the ability to deeply love and have a great relationship with the new love can flourish in an amazing way. I consider myself very fortunate that this is what has happened for me.

I can’t imagine making it to this point without Shelly and our two sons, Dylan and Taylor. My love for Shelly has such a depth and complexity to it due to what I have been through. I am able to love in a way I don’t think would be possible without my loss. Shelly is remarkable in how accepting and embracing she is of what I have been through. Maybe it is because Shelly and I were such good friends prior to us falling in love, and that she also knew Dana. Whatever the reason is, I am truly grateful she handles this in the secure, loving way that she does.

Man whose first wife passed away stands with new wife and their two teen sons
Courtesy of Bob Millsap

If people could understand the way the widowed heart really reacts and moves forward, it would ease a lot of pain and misunderstanding.

I moved forward; I did not move on. There is a big difference between these two terms. We have no choice but to move forward. The challenge is how to do it most productively. For me, moving logistically was the key to moving forward. The rest of it started to fall into place once I moved 2,000 miles away. Upon moving I was able to finally put the pieces in place to start seeing some hope and excitement with life again.

It was important that I was able to find those handful of things I was passionate about and could put my head and heart into. This focus seemed to help in my battle with both anger and depression. Those ugly demons really take work in fighting. After decades of work, I have gotten good at not worrying about things that aren’t really important. When you go through the tragedy of loss, perspective certainly is gained on what really matters. But this took so many years to sort through. In my case, the anger and rage were my toughest obstacles to overcome.

I have also noticed that I love change. Without change I become stagnant, enabling the demons of the pain to steadily take a bigger toll on me again. Whereas change occupies and distracts my mind. The need for change has at times hurt my career and financial situation, but I am at peace with that. Change has become a friend that has enabled me to better deal with the time and the pain.

I love music. I am a fanatic for alternative music and punk rock. My oldest son shares this passion. With his help I stay up on new bands and new music. We have gone to the Coachella Music Festival together 9 times. We had a weekly radio show called ‘The Hole Enchilada’ on KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson, Wyoming, for nearly 5 years. I both connect and escape through music. The saying, ‘music is my therapy’ is so true for me. I am a firm believer that by discovering these joys in life (whatever they may be) the days, months and years start to pass in a more manageable way.

The significant dates all remain significant. Some years they hit me harder than other years. The memories are still there. I do still think about Dana every single day. Most days it’s with smiles and happy thoughts. Some days it’s with tears. Then there are days where it’s with anger. Thankfully those days are not as often for me anymore. The anger can be so destructive, but I also found it to be an agent that helped with the passing of time. As weird as it sounds, in the years that I had such anger it became a distraction that got me through those years.

Thankfully now I realize that time is much better passed with positive distractions rather than the hateful, negative stuff. For so long I kept all of this inside, which became a devastating burden to carry. I recently began writing, which has helped tremendously. I am humbled to have found a platform where I can use my experiences to help those that are facing similar circumstances. It seems to have given a purpose to the pain.

I hate the term ‘time heals all wounds.’ Sure it heals and numbs many of the open, gaping wounds. But the reality is that the constant of pain is there no matter how much time has passed. It’s just there, a part of me. Being almost 28 years into this journey of loss, I guess I can say that I have become okay with not quite being okay. The grief of such a loss is a life sentence. My wish is that society could accept and embrace that with the empathy it deserves.”

Man smiling in picture frame with wife who passed away 28 years ago
Courtesy of Bob Millsap

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Bob Millsap, a 50-something who has been on a long journey with grief and adversity. He is blessed with an amazing family, wife Shelly, and sons Dylan (23) and Taylor (18). He lives in the far western suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. You can follow his journey on his blog, Ten Thousand Days. Read more of his work below:

‘As I drove up to the cute 1950’s California ranch house, the emotion of our shattered future hit me hard. The tears flowed down my face.’

‘Three more weeks and we will never have to say goodbye again’: Man epically recounts ‘fairytale’ love story

‘Ginger ale slowly fermented and turned into a bomb. It detonated at the exact moment she walked passed it. The force of the blast knocked her unconscious to the ground.’

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