Category Archives: Erika

The Guilt

One thing that I’ve learned through these posts is that other people have felt the same things at times. And that helps to hear. I think some people have seen what I’m feeling right now and maybe it helps them too.

So there’s the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. I read that those were originally created in dealing with one’s own illness and pending death, but then eventually was expanded to additional types of grief. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Plus as others have noted, these are not linear. No rules in how long we spend in each one or how many times. I’ve definitely been in the denial stage many times. I still remember the day, walking out of the hospital and standing right there on the sidewalk staring off into the distance and saying out loud “What just happened?” In some ways, I still don’t know what happened, and many times I still expect to see her again. This just does not happen to someone who was so healthy, so full of life, and certainly not so fast.

I remember thinking about this and wondering if I’d get to anger. I didn’t think so because I can’t be angry at Erika. It’s the opposite actually. I feel so bad for her, so hurt for her, and what I’m feeling right now is a combination of anger and guilt. On the anger, I’m very angry at the unfairness of it all. I’m angry at not knowing what happened or why. I’m angry that this happened to her. It’s completely not fair. Also let me say that I know some things I think are with my heart and emotion and some things I think are with my head. These often lead to very different thoughts. I get mad at “old people” simply for being old, because it’s unfair and Erika deserved to grow old. When I see couples now I wonder if they really appreciate each other and appreciate what they have. I think that is one thing that Erika and I really did have was a great appreciation for each other and our life together. We told each other that a lot in lots of ways. In the middle of a work day, I’d walk over to where she was working, pop my head in and say “I love you. That’s all I have to say to you.” and go back to work. Or there would be times when I’d tell Erika that she had a secret admirer. She’d ask if if was me and I’d just tell her that it’s a secret. Other times I’d just stare at her and tell her that I have a crush on her. She would do lots of similar things. I’d be working my office, she’d walk in and just look at me. I knew it meant she just wanted a hug, and then go back to work. Or every night before we went to sleep, she’d say “I’ll see you in my dreams.” and would not let me go to sleep until I replied “I’ll be there.” Every night. Or if we weren’t together because of a business trip, that would be our last texting conversation of the day. Even now, every night I say it because I do want to see her in my dreams at night. Dreams often can seem and feel so real. Sometimes it’s hard to know if we’re dreaming or awake, so if I can see her in my dreams, then she is back with me.

But back to the stages of grief. After anger comes bargaining. There isn’t much bargaining that I can do right now, nothing will bring her back. But I have felt guilt, and in my researching, I saw that guilt can be a kind of bargaining. It’s the “if only I had…” type of thing. Again, there are things I think with my heart and I think that is where this guilt comes in. I know it’s part survivor’s guilt, which I’m learning is a real thing. I thought that was only when one person survives a situation and could have died with the other. But not necessarily. My guilt is about what I didn’t do more for her. I didn’t stay with her every moment she was in the hospital. I didn’t do more to protect her. And I don’t mean that in a chivalrous way. We protected each other. We both had times that we felt a need to step up for the other. We seriously had each other’s back through anything that came our way. Erika would run through a burning brick wall for me if that’s what was needed. In my head, I know that there wasn’t anything more I could do, but that doesn’t change the fact that I wish I had, or at least that I could have.

This is all where I am now. One minute I’m in denial, walking around the house, shaking my head, in disbelief that she’s not here. The next minute I’m yelling, raging that something took her away, and then feeling like I should have done more for her and feeling so sorry that I didn’t. And then there’s the guilt, knowing she felt terrible from her illness, scared from being in the hospital, scared of not knowing what was happening. I tried to put on a brave face for her and be confident and told her she was going to be ok.

Like I’ve said, there are bad days and there are some less bad days. Yesterday was a bad day with this cycle happening many times.

But as always, I want to end this with a wonderful picture of her, as that always makes me smile. I just now found this one in her photos. I’ve never seen this one before. It is from our trip to Iceland and it seems she sneaked it in as I was video recording a waterfall.

P.S. Yes, I’m meeting with a therapist once a week to talk through all of this. It helps.

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Just This…

This was Erika’s favorite movie. We became huge Lady Gaga fans after seeing it. We watched it so, so many times.

Wish I could, I could’ve said goodbye
I would’ve said what I wanted to
Maybe even cried for you
If I knew it would be the last time
I would’ve broke my heart in two
Tryna save a part of you
Don’t wanna feel another touch
Don’t wanna start another fire
Don’t wanna know another kiss
No other name fallin’ off my lips
Don’t wanna give my heart away
To another stranger
Or let another day begin
Won’t even let the sunlight in
No, I’ll never love again
I’ll never love again, oh, oh, oh, oh
When we first met
I never thought that I would fall
I never thought that I’d find myself
Lying in your arms, mm, mm
And I wanna pretend that it’s not true
Oh, baby, that you’re gone
‘Cause my world keeps turnin’, and turnin’, and turnin’
And I’m not movin’ on
Don’t wanna feel another touch
Don’t wanna start another fire
Don’t wanna know another kiss
No other name fallin’ off my lips
Don’t wanna give my heart away
To another stranger
Or let another day begin
Won’t even let the sunlight in
No, I’ll never love
I don’t wanna know this feelin’
Unless it’s you and me
I don’t wanna waste a moment, ooh
And I don’t wanna give somebody else the better part of me
I would rather wait for you, ooh
Don’t wanna feel another touch
Don’t wanna start another fire
Don’t wanna know another kiss
Baby, unless they are your lips
Don’t wanna give my heart away
To another stranger
Don’t let another day begin
Won’t let the sunlight in
Oh, I’ll never love again
Never love again
Never love again
Oh, I’ll never love again

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Vacation Week

This is one we were really looking forward to. Starting today, Erika and I were to be on vacation in our favorite spot, Prudence Island. Not many people are really familiar with it, which is kinda how we like it, but it’s here:

You can only get there by ferry and there are no hotels or restaurants on the island. There’s only one small convenience store and a post office. Other than that, just houses. When we go, we have to bring everything we need for the week, so usually the car is pretty well-stocked. Here we are in 2015, our first time on the ferry, heading to the island for the first time:

Our rental agent warned us that some people do get “island fever” and just can’t handle how low-key it is on the island. You really have to find your own things to do. We both were pretty excited about that idea. And we sure did love it.

Here was the view from our deck in 2015, looking across the bay at Portsmouth:

So what would we do all day? One of the things we looked forward to and would actually plan for all year, was to build a few jigsaw puzzles. We usually completed about three in a week:

We’d also go for daily walks along the water, or sometimes in the water:

Erika was also a historian. She graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in history. She was always reading books about famous people and events like Frederick Douglass, Abigail Adams, George Custer, Eleanor Roosevelt and many more. But one of her favorite historical figures was Roger Williams. Erika lived in an apartment on North Main Street in Providence and we’d sometimes joke that Roger Williams himself lived there. Sometimes, we’d hear a weird noise in the apartment, one that you’d usually explain as being a ghost and we’d just look at each other and call out “Roger?” So it was really a high point for her to be able to stand up on Pulpit Rock, an exact spot where Roger Williams once stood, to preach to the indigenous people in the 1600s.

We went back two more times, always in late summer so we could do some swimming in the bay, knowing it’d be warm enough by late-July and August. But this year, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to visit the island in the off-season. When it wasn’t brimming with “tourists”, driving their cars all around the island at an excessive 20 miles per hour. We wanted to have a quieter, simpler time.

Just a few weeks ago, on September 1st, I booked us a house for this week on the island. I forwarded the confirmation email to Erika and here’s her reaction:

We were both really excited for this one as from time to time we talked about one day possibly buying a house on Prudence and maybe moving there full time. That was a discussion for another day, one that we’d talk about “later.”

I think I’ll go back some day. I thought about going this week anyway, just Jaro (our dog) and me, but I eventually realized it’s too much, too soon and I canceled the reservation. It’s partly because I’m not ready to be there without her. It was our special place, it was what we looked forward to each year. It’s where we spent entire days together sitting, reading, figuring out what to have for the next meal, watching the water, going for walks, working on the puzzles, me waiting for Erika to wake up from her daily naps (she was a champion napper), and then watching the sunset each night with a bottle of wine or sangria. We violated the “wine night” rule while on vacation. It was just great to be with her, sitting, talking, relaxing.

I’ll share more pictures from our trips to the island as this week goes on, and maybe someday I’ll go back and be with her in my memories.

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How’re You?

This is a question that I get a lot. How are you doing? Are you doing ok? And let me start off by saying that I am thankful and appreciative for each time that someone asks. The support has been amazing. Thank you. This post is not an indication that I want people to stop asking, because I don’t.

Each time I get asked, I don’t really know how to answer this question. I think in part because I don’t know how I’m doing. Do I say “Good thanks.” when I’m not doing good at all? Do I say I’m “ok”, when even that is a stretch? I think I’ve resorted to variations of “I have good days and I have bad days.” and “Getting by, day by day.” Because when you lose someone who is as important to you as Erika was to me, that is about all you can do. Plus, I understand that quite often, the person asking me the question is also struggling with Erika being gone, so I try to be aware of that too. I’m not the only person who has suffered a loss. She touched so many people, there are many who are shocked and hurt by this. But yes, I do understand that very few were as close to her as I was lucky to be.

But back to the original question, I’m not sure how to answer it. It is true that I have bad days, and less bad days, as right now there really isn’t anything I’d consider to be a “good” day. I do think that I am going through the stages of grief, and they can be cyclical. Denial is the first, and I’ve definitely been there. It’s also shock and disbelief. I’m also still there at times. I still cannot believe that she’s gone. I still have moments when I expect her to come home. To see her in the house, or think she’s just away on a business trip and maybe tomorrow night, she’ll be back home again, only to quickly realize that is not the case. I am just having such a hard time understanding how she is gone. For those wondering, I don’t have an answer yet. The doctors never got an answer, we still don’t know what happened or why. They are working on that and we hope to have answers soon. The not knowing is also a huge issue for me. She was so healthy, so full of life. None of it makes sense. All I can do is think back to very recent times when we were home, together, having fun, making each other laugh, waking up to each other every day.

So how am I doing? I really don’t know. The answer isn’t good, but I’m not sure what to say when people ask. I’m getting by. I’m dealing with it. I constantly think of Erika. I constantly miss her. I constantly cannot believe she isn’t coming home. I know everyone says that it will get better with time, and that’s probably true, but just so hard to believe right now.

I like to end these posts with a picture. Here is one of the the last pictures that she and I ever took together. August 10th, at home, on our backyard deck, just having fun together.

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Two Weeks

It’s been two weeks now. I miss her more every day. I think the initial shock and fog might have lifted, but I am still cycling through the various stages. There are times of the day when I cry, hard. There are times when I’m really angry, but not at Erika. I’m angry at the unfairness of it all. She was only 46 years old. She was robbed. The world was robbed of the things that she brought. She had so much more to do. We had so much more that we wanted to do, together. I recently read one of her tweets to an old friend where she wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here “I will go back one day” to Lake Baikal in Russia. She spoke of that being the most beautiful place she had ever seen, and she was very well-traveled. She saw a lot of the world. Lake Baikal in Russia was her favorite. She often told me about it, often talked about us going there, taking the train up and showing it to me, and she getting to see it again. I looked forward to that.

We’d also talked about going to see the bears in Alaska. She and friends would often watch the “bear cam” in Brooks Falls at Katmai State Park. We even looked into scheduling for that type of vacation, what it’d take to get there. It was on the list of things to do.

But the other thing that hits me every day is when I wake up. Waking up in our house. Our house. I feel like:

That’s just half of the yin-yang. The other half isn’t there, so it seems very odd, or out of place, like something obvious is missing. Half of me is missing.

We were together for almost seven years (November 11), but we’d lived together for about the last five. We shared an apartment in Providence, eventually grew to not like that place anymore and when we began to think of where to go, Erika suggested “What about buying a house?” I’d never considered that before, but I immediately loved the idea. We started looking in April of 2017 and we cautioned ourselves to go slow and not want the first house we saw.

On the first day, we saw the house we ended up buying, but were both cautious. After seeing a handful of other houses on other days, we both brought up this one again. It was the first one we saw and we both loved it. Both thought it was perfect for us. It checked all the boxes for Erika and her requirements (garage for her car, central air conditioning and hardwood floors). We bought it, and we couldn’t be happier. We were building our life together. We merged all of our possessions. Figured out whose furniture we liked better and sold off the duplicates. For some things, we went out and bought new, or “adulting” as we called it. It was fun to do things like buy a new bedroom set, or to try out mattresses in a show room, or to see the happiness on her face as she tested out various recliners at Cardi’s. I’d also learned that Erika liked to play ping-pong when she was growing up. I too consider myself a ping-pong expert, having won the Arlington Boys Club 11 year old championship in 1981 (only one other person showed up, but hey, I got the trophy). So one day I bought a ping pong table and somehow got it all the way into the house, into the basement and assembled it without her being aware. Then I had her come down to the basement to see it all set up. We had fun with some competitive games there.

We also have artwork that we both like hanging. Some that one of us bought for the other, like this one I got for her, a sampling of cheeses that hangs in our kitchen:

There is also this one, hanging in our kitchen that she got for me, an artist’s rendition of Prudence Island, our favorite vacation spot:

But maybe the best of all is these, that hang in our bedroom:

Both of those are Iceland’s Kirkjufell mountain. What makes those the best is for Christmas one year, we got those for each other and we had no idea we were both doing it. I unwrapped mine first and just started laughing. She didn’t know why, so I immediately had her open hers. It was one of those “Great Minds Think Alike” type of moments, but also showed how much we knew what we liked, and also just how alike we both were. The perfect gift for each other that year was essentially the same gift. This is why they hang side by side in our bedroom. To me, it just shows how were were one mind, often one person, together. Made for each other, perfect for each other.

Two weeks. I miss you.

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The Under(dog)

As many people also are, Erika was always a fan of the underdog, the little guy, or in our Bruins hockey world, the backup goalie. A few years ago, Anton Khudobin was the Bruins backup goalie and Erika was a big fan of his. Even though Khudobin’s play style could be a bit erratic, to the point of Erika shouting during the game with things like “What is he doing?!?” and “Get back in the net!” Smooth or efficient are not a words anyone might use to describe his style of play.

But Khudobin moved on and then the Bruins signed Jaroslav Halak to be the Bruins new backup goalie behind Tuukka Rask. Erika also became a big fan of his. I’d joke (or maybe I’m not wrong) that she is the biggest Halak fan outside of his own family. I even got her a Halak jersey to wear to Bruins games.

Erika getting ready for the Bruins first playoff game on August 15th, 2020, wearing her Jaroslav Halak jersey

Her love of Halak also goes back into 2018 when she and I attended a Bruins game together. At each game, Bruins staff always hand out a small poster before the game with one of the players on the front and stats on the back. For that game, the poster was of Jaroslav Halak. I think she got 3 or 4 of them. We got them home and they sat around for weeks, maybe months when one day I was just doing a little house cleanup and threw them away as clutter. Well, she noticed and wasn’t happy.

Fast forward to a Bruins game this year that I attended with my buddy Deane. Once getting in to the Garden, I noticed it was a special poster that night. Not the typical black and gold, but a purple one, for Hockey Fights Cancer, and whose face was on the front, none other than Jaroslav Halak. I made sure that I got multiple copies as insurance that I could get at least one home in good quality. But I didn’t tell her right away. Instead, I did this with it:

That is proudly hanging in our kitchen to this day. Also, if the name sounds familiar, it’s because Jaro Halak is also the origin of our dog’s name. In spite of Jaro being a man’s name and our dog being a female, Erika was pretty excited to give our dog her new moniker.

I guess this is a really roundabout way of starting to tell people more about Erika and how she always loved the underdog, the overlooked, and the underappreciated. For those who knew her in journalism, they know that these were her favorite stories. She loved telling the stories of students in the Baltimore schools. Or her story about Josie King, the one that earned her a Pulitzer finalist spot. Or more recently when she chose to change careers and earn a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Tufts University so she could focus on fighting climate change and working in the renewable energy field, pushing for more solar electricity. And in the last couple years, she also began to focus on racial and equity injustices. She and I both worked from home and her work day included many phone meetings. Many times I could hear her very professionally trying to explain these issues to others who just weren’t “getting it” yet. She was trying, trying so hard to fight for those who need a voice from someone like her. She understood the powers that she had, the abilities that she had and yes, the privileges that she had and she was using them. Using them for those who she wanted to help. In time, this work she started will continue. It will not stop now, there will be more from Erika Niedowski. Stay tuned.

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Two Depths

I got divorced in early 2013. At that time, I felt a large part of my identity was tied to being married and to my family. I felt like a total failure. The lows I felt from that were something I’d really never felt before for such a long time.

I’m back there right now. There are similarities, but I’ve also been trying to figure out the difference between that and now. Well, the obvious that a divorce is a failure of sorts and the other person is still around. You can get angry, you can blame the other person (and yourself). But now with Erika’s passing, there’s no anger toward her. It’s all hurt. It’s all pain. It’s all emptiness. I was thinking tonight that any time I was feeling down or sad or hurt or bad about anything, I could always turn to Erika and she’d know how to make things better. We were one. I always had that trust with her that I could tell her anything, talk to her about anything, and she would always try her hardest to make it better. Multiple times in the last few days, the thought flashes in my head to talk to her. To have her make it better. To have her help me fix it. But she can’t. The person that I need most to help me feel better isn’t here. It’s a total void. Total darkness. Lost. I thought I had the right words for all of this, but I’m not sure I do yet. It’s just such an empty feeling where I’m just so used to being dependent on someone else, and she’s not here. The one person I trust that I can talk to, is not here.

I know all my gushing about Erika may seem corny and maybe unbelievable to some, but it’s really true. Most mornings, I woke up before her, sometimes by a couple hours. Multiple times, I sat around like a little kid on Christmas morning, waiting for the whole family to get up, just so I could start my daily routine with her. Just so I could see her again. We had so many little corny things that we did for each other. One that we had was every morning, we’d celebrate her simply getting out of bed. Yep, it really was that silly. When I’d see her come downstairs, I’d throw both hands in the air and cheer “Yay! You did it again! You got up!” It always made her smile. If there was a morning I forgot to do it immediately, she’d just stop and look at me and start to put her hands up as if to say “Do I get a cheer today?” Like I said, it was silly, but it was fun, and it was what we did.

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Out Driving

My friend John Marion from Common Cause is collecting photos of ballot drop boxes from each town hall around the state. He needed four more, so I drove around today to get them, with Jaro. As I was driving, I saw parts of Rhode Island that I’d never seen before. I went through Smithfield, North Smithfield, through Burrillville, to Glocester and eventually Foster. As I was driving, it hit me multiple times how much fun that trip would have been with Erika and it’s exactly the type of trip that we’d do, often on the spur of the moment. On Friday wine night, I might blurt out, let’s go take those pictures for John tomorrow! And Erika would assuredly say “Ok!” and off we’d go, driving around on a Saturday morning.

The other thing that hit me about this trip is that Erika told me about how driving was stress therapy for her. She told me that when she first moved to Rhode Island back in 2012, she did a lot of it. She’d drive to all corners of the state, discovering her new home, but also doing it to clear her mind or to think about things like “What’s next?” That’s where I was today. I was wishing so hard she could have been there with me. She should have been there with me. It would have been fun together and probably another of those little things that we did that someday would be a “Remember that time we drove around taking pictures of ballot boxes for John?” Because we did that a lot. It didn’t have to be any big, momentous event for us to “Remember that time…?” It was always just more about the time we spent together and how it made us happy. It was so often the little things that made Erika, and me, happy.

Some might think the gifts that she liked best were a little bit odd, but I had a pretty good idea of what things she’d like best. This was also one of the things that I loved most about Erika is she was atypical in this way. She didn’t wear jewelry, she didn’t like fancy clothes (actually she hated them), didn’t like anything flashy. One of the best things I gave her recently that made her so happy and got her excited is just so typical. She loves the outdoors, she loves nature and all of its oddities. We’d joke that she wanted to quit her job and just be an “Outdoors-ologist.” Yeah, we made that up. She read a book about how trees can communicate with each other and then wanted to study trees. She was just starting to get into beekeeping with her little hive of Mason bees. So when I saw this thing during a recent walk in the woods with McKenna, I just knew Erika would love it. And I was right, she talked about it for days and how awesome it was. Here it is:

If you can’t tell what that is, it’s ants working. They’re hollowing out a log and there’s a pile of sawdust. That is the kind of thing that Erika just loved to see, and loved to get. It’s just another thing that made being with her so much fun.

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Me ‘n’ Squeaks

Yep, Erika is Squeaks. That was my name for her for years. Why? Well, I think at one point she made some kind of high pitched sound with her mouth closed when she wanted attention or something and it sounded like a squeak to me. So I called her Squeaks once and she liked it.

I walk our dog Jaro (soft J, like Yaro) twice a day. First thing in the morning and again after dinner. It’s about a 1 mile, 20 minute walk by myself, so I have a lot of time to just think and in the last week, the entire time is just spent thinking and remembering Erika. My mind goes from the best times we had together to remembering how she looked in the hospital and on her last day. Let me just say that was heartbreaking and I hope I never have to say anything about that ever again.

I’m also trying to think of how I will eulogize her. I’ve never done one before, never wanted to, didn’t think I could hold it together to do one, but for Erika, I want to. I want everyone to know just how incredible she was. Sure, most people talk about how much they loved her, how great she was, how she lit up a room, how positive, or funny or down to earth. And all of that is 100% true, but it also doesn’t even scrape the surface of how great she really was. I always thought I knew how much of my life that she was but now that she’s gone, I realize she was so much, much more of my life.

One thing that’s really interesting about our relationship is that it actually took me years to finally feel like her equal. And that had nothing to do with how she treated me. She always treated me as at least her equal, but for a long while, I just didn’t see myself as measuring up to her. I did eventually see us as a “co-equal” couple, which made it even better between us. Made our conversations so much better when I had the confidence to challenge her on things and dig in. I’ll talk more about some of those in the future as she and I had some plans that we wanted to tell everyone at some point.

I think one thing Erika did to help me get over that feeling of not being her equal was just her reaction one time when I told her that. She seemed legitimately surprised. For some reason, that was a piece that helped me to get over it. That didn’t fix it overnight, but the fact that her reaction wasn’t “well yeah…” definitely helped.

One other thought that hit me recently while walking Jaro, and there have been a lot of these. It was one of those gut-punch thoughts about her. She had an incredible life, she did so many things that were impressive, but I think at times many of those things were stressful to her. Just in the last couple years during a quiet time, or during a pause in conversation, she’d look at me and just say “I like our life right now.” And it really was only in the last couple years she said that. We had a house together, we had our cats, our dog, we both worked from home so we saw each other constantly. And yes, I also really liked our life together right then. And that’s the gut punch of where it took us 40+ years of our lives to get to where we were both simply happy about everything in our lives, only for it to end so suddenly, so tragically, so abruptly. All gone in an instant.

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