How I am coping since my husband passed away

Processing grief after the loss of a partner and soul mate

Colleen Steele avatar

by Colleen Steele |

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I thought I knew how I grieve.

I’ve lost many loved ones over the years, including those in the pulmonary hypertension (PH) and transplant communities.

Each death hit my heart with varying degrees of force, but the grieving process was always familiar. I found comfort in being around people, sharing memories, and openly expressing my sadness.

Grieving as I knew it changed for me on April 21, when my husband, Brian, passed away two weeks before our 28th wedding anniversary.

Other than announcing his death and attending Mass on Sundays, I went silent and unseen until Brian’s funeral weeks later. I appreciated and needed the condolence messages pouring in but responding was too difficult. All I could bear for a while was to grieve privately with my sons, Cullen and Aidan. Brian always referred to us as a team. When we lost our team leader, the three of us tearfully huddled together to process how to continue without him.

Everyone grieves in their own time and way, but maybe something I share will help someone feel less alone with their sorrow.

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I miss talking to him

When you include dating and our engagement, Brian and I have been inseparable for almost 31 years. Even during our long-distance dating and the four months apart when our son Cullen received a heart and double-lung transplant out of state, we still felt close. Our minds and hearts remained as connected as our ears were to our phones whenever we called each other.

No one knew me as well as he did, loved me so unconditionally, supported, praised, and, yes, even tolerated me through good times and bad.

It sounds cliché, but it’s true: I lost my soul mate.

Keeping the promise I made

One of the last things I said to Brian was that we would remain a team and that his family would continue to include him in every decision.

He was such a genuine, forthcoming, and persuasive person when it came to his values and beliefs, so it’s easy to imagine how he would respond and react to most situations.

Brian was an excellent mentor. He taught us the importance of research and weighing our options before making important decisions. His patience was a virtue we admired, and his love of learning inspirational. We are doing our best to emulate both to maintain the strength, productivity, and bond that Team Steele has always had.

Through us Brian will live on.

Past trauma is helping me get through current trauma

Brian did not have PH, but our son did. As I mentioned, Cullen received a transplant almost nine years ago, after PH ravaged his heart and lungs for six years.

Seeing our child diagnosed with PH was devastating. Together, we learned to accept that life as we knew it had changed. We helped each other through this grief and the agonizing possibility of losing Cullen to PH. Together, we learned how to advocate for him, maintain love and support among all four of us, and keep our family focused on life, not loss.

I can hear Brian’s voice advising me that now should not be any different.

During moments of devastation, lack of acceptance, and grief, I close my eyes, settle my mind, and remind myself that I can use the trauma that I experienced with Brian to help me survive the trauma of living without him.

He would want me to focus on life, not his death, and encourage our sons to do the same. Brian would expect that our love would remain my strength, and that our family would continue to support and advocate for one another as we always have.

Managing the guilt

Brian’s health declined over the past few years, and I was his primary caregiver. I wanted to care for him as best I could, but I know there were times when I lacked patience or physical and emotional strength.

His death has felt like my ultimate failure, but what Brian shared in a previous column, “Our Son’s PH Journey Helped Me Appreciate My Husband More,” is helping the guilt-ridden parts of my heart heal:

“During our marriage prep classes, our priest advised us to avoid keeping a mental grudge list of all the times our spouse has disappointed or failed us. We still get angry at each other, but we always follow it with an ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love you,’ and then we let it go so it doesn’t keep dragging us down.”

During Brian’s last days, I repeatedly said “I love you” and knew by his eyes that he felt the same. I’m doing better at focusing on this memory, which lifts me up, instead of the ones that drag me down.

In the words of A.A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh), “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


Loretta Weisz avatar

Loretta Weisz

Great column, Colleen. I know how it feels as it’s been 10 months since I lost my husband and today would have been our anniversary and tomorrow is his birthday & the pain is so hard to bear at times but I keep remembering all the good times we had & how blessed I was to have him in my life and the love is worth the grief. I’m proud of you and your boys & know that Brian is too.

Colleen Steele avatar

Colleen Steele

Thank you, Loretta!

Father's Day, anniversary and birthday all in one month! I can't imagine how emotional it's been for you! The love that remains is how Cliff lives on through you! I am keeping you my thoughts and prayers and I know you have been doing the same for me!


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