Disney World After The Loss Of A Spouse
by AllEars® Team Member Jack Marshall
Most of you don't know me although I have been a part of the AllEars® Team since 2001. I do many technical behind-the-scenes things and have written several newsletter articles over the years, but I never thought that I would ever be writing a first-person article like this.
I suddenly found myself in the unenviable position of having first-hand experience on the loss of a spouse. My wife of 38 years, Judy, passed away suddenly and very unexpectedly in mid-August. Needless to say, my life was turned upside-down. I had two Disney trips planned at the time, one as a family trip in October and a solo trip in December.
The October trip was planned as a family vacation back in May. Judy in fact picked the dates so she could once again experience the Epcot Food & Wine Festival. After she died, my daughter Janet and I discussed whether we should go or cancel and we both decided that Judy would have wanted us to go.
The days leading up to our departure for Florida were filled with apprehension for me. I slept very restlessly, often waking for no reason. I couldn't help thinking what it would be like going to our Happy Place as we had for the previous 24 years (often multiple times in a year) for the first time without Judy. I knew that memories would flood back bringing with them the tears and sniffles of sadness. For the first time, I actually was not looking forward to a Disney trip.
Then the thought came to me: You cannot start the healing process until you get past this. I decided my best course of action was to minimize my idle hours by doing things to occupy my time. Now I'm no expert and I don't guarantee my method of coping will be of any value to you or someone you know, but I did find several things that helped me greatly.
VARY YOUR TRADITIONS
If you always went to the same restaurant the first night or the same theme park the first morning, it will be wise to change that. Try a new restaurant or a different theme park. Old traditions were wonderful but they are loaded with years of memories that are apt to flood back unexpectedly. It's best to avoid the situation. Visit that restaurant or theme park later in your trip.
LIMIT YOUR IDLE TIME
The worst thing while grieving a spouse is isolation. Being alone will foster thoughts and remembrances that will depress you. I was lucky enough to have several Florida friends to help occupy my time for the critical first few days. Having them around to make me live in the present was a godsend. The cardinal rule is simple: do NOT sit alone in your room for an extended period. Use it for sleeping and showering and get outside the rest of the time. This is particularly true if you are traveling solo. If you refuse to allow the time for sorrow and pity to creep in, it will not bother you. Stay active and busy. If you can travel with someone or can arrange to meet friends there it will help you a lot.
TALK TO CAST MEMBERS
I found that a great way to keep my spirits up while in the parks was to engage the cast members in conversations. It didn't have to be anything elaborate. A simple "How's your day going so far?" is all you need for an ice-breaker. I found that the vast majority of cast members were more than willing to talk if their work duties allowed for it. Ask them to recommend their favorite ride or attraction or their favorite place to eat. They really are a wealth of information.
MAKE NEW MEMORIES
Of course, I will always have 24 years of Disney memories with my Judy. I found however that by moving forward I was making new memories with my daughter and my friends. If you are busy making new memories, you don't have time to let the old ones come flooding back. If people-watching was a shared experience, you can still do it. Just move on to different places rather than going back to that same bench or table you always used to sit at together.
HAVE A SPECIFIC PURPOSE
One thing that helped me face the sadness head-on was that I had brought part of Judy with me. She had been cremated and I brought some of her ashes with me for the trip to our Happy Place. I wore several of her favorite Disney t-shirts during the trip and one of her favorite character baseball caps. Yes, I did get emotional for a little while doing this but it's not like no one has ever cried at Disney World. It came and it passed and I suddenly felt a lot better. It was like the sun and moon and stars all came into alignment again. The beloved flower child I married touched off my own Age of Aquarius. It helped me feel a little closer to her.
A word of caution though. The TSA x-ray machines don't like ashes in a carry-on. You can almost count on being singled out for extra screening. Once the situation was explained to the second screener, I had no problem getting through.
IT WON'T END IN ONE TRIP
I was very happy at the way my first trip without Judy went. I made great strides toward inner peace with things. But a single trip is not going to be a permanent cure as I found out with my December trip.
Every December, I go to Walt Disney World to meet up with friends from all over the country for a weekend of fun, laughter, and theme parks. My time is usually pretty well filled from awakening to bedtime so I have little alone time to reflect on things. But the opportunities for reflection come at the most unexpected times. Shopping in The Emporium and seeing a t-shirt that I am sure Judy would have liked. Stopping for a bite to eat at Columbia Harbor House and realizing that Judy never got to eat here. Seeing something new like the updated Hall of Presidents and wondering what she would have thought of it. But this trip went a lot better than the first one.
Different people will grieve in different ways and for different lengths of time. There is no hard and fast rule. My next trip will hopefully be a little easier and the one after that easier still. I hope to be able to look at something and smile and tip my cap as I remember a certain event that we shared rather than cry at the sadness of not having her here with me. Your goal is to get to the point where the now-painful memories make you smile as you remember the good times.
Make no mistake about it. No matter what you do, there will be periods of intense emotion that will sweep over you. It is completely normal. You will cry and well you should. Pack and carry lots of tissues. Your goal is to lessen the amount and intensity of those times. It will be a long time before you will eliminate them.
I will do all that I can to get past this because I must. Judy would have wanted it that way. And I will. Walt Disney World isn't the most magical place on earth for nothing.