A Chat with "Bad Widow" Alison Pena!

Updated: Oct 1, 2020


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In life’s journey, we must seek to reflect, learn, and grow. Welcome to the Road to Rediscovery, with your host, Aubrey Johnson.

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Aubrey Johnson: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another great episode of the Road to Rediscovery. I’m your host, Aubrey Johnson. The Road to Rediscovery is about reflecting on life’s lessons to learn and grow from them. And, of course, take it to the next level to help others who are struggling through dark times. I am quite thrilled for today’s chat, and I’m equally thrilled to introduce our special guest to you.

I’ll tell you. I had to get her on the show. I really, really had to, and I’m so grateful that she’s agreed to join us here today, and you’ll see why I had to have her on the show. In the truest form and sense of the Road to Rediscovery, she’s transformed a devastating, heart-breaking loss into a mission, a purpose, and is outward-focused in helping and supporting others.

Having lost her husband to pancreatic cancer four years ago, she has mourned and grieved, and then made a choice to rise back in resilience. She’s a perfect storm of compassion, resilience, purpose, and resolve, also known as the Bad Widow. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Alison Pena. Alison, welcome to the show. It’s so great to have you!

Alison Pena: Thank you so much. I’m really glad to be here with you.

Aubrey: We reciprocate, and we’re glad that you’re here. First off, let’s talk about the name, Bad Widow. What does it mean, and where did it come from?

Alison: I get so much pushback on this name. After my husband died, what I discovered is that people had no idea how to interact with or deal with someone who had just suffered a loss like mine. They would say dumb things; they would do dumb things. They had a lot of ideas about how I should be acting and feeling, and the time it should take me to get back to work, get back to connecting with people, get back to dating. Everybody else was imposing their notions about what they would do in my circumstance on me.

So, Bad Widow came about because there were all these assumptions I was running into, and I’m like, “I just need to blow this stuff up.” It’s not working.

Aubrey: Yeah. You have to shake things up. Right?

Alison: Yes. Shake things up and reeducate people. Actually, help people support someone who has suffered a loss in a way that works for them because what would happen is, someone would say something or do something, and it would be wrong or hurtful. Not that they meant it to be hurtful, but they just didn’t know what they were doing, and I would flare up in anger, and they would step back, or they would leave. None of this is good.

Aubrey: Yeah, you’re right. It’s not. You’re right.

Alison: So, I thought, “If I’m having these problems, other people like me are too. So, I’m going to start changing it up. I’m going to see what my real experience is, and then I’m going to start moving through it and sharing the journey along the way.

Aubrey: In a way, is it fair to say that you intended to – and not just for the sake of doing it, but also for you to move forward. Breaking the barriers of the assumed or the expected personas or someone who has lost a loved one, a widow or a widower, and saying, “This should not be the expected behavior of someone who has lost a loved one for the rest of their lives.” Right?

Alison: Right. Exactly. For me, it was, I was in so much pain. I was literally swimming in grief, especially that first year, and I thought, this pain has got to serve some purpose other than just being horrible.

Aubrey: Ah, sure. It’s got to, and you have found a way to turn that around and find out what that purpose is. Man! That is extraordinary. That is extraordinary! I want to go back in time and share with us. How did you and your husband meet and establish this life together?

Alison: It was pretty funny, actually. I was at a point in my life – it was 1992. I was working at Merrill Lynch as a financial consultant. Dave was an artist, and he had just had an operation on his ear, and his mom said, “Go on this church retreat, and you can relax, and do a painting, or play some tennis, or whatever.” I was part of the leadership of this group, singles in their 20s and 30s.

I was fed up with my whole entire life. I was hating my job; I was hating my roommate; I was done with men. Done! I went up in this car with these friends. This girlfriend said to me, “What you need in your life is a serious relationship.” I looked at her, and I said, “Have you not listened to me complain for the last two hours? You missed this.”

Aubrey: “And you’re telling me I need this?”

Alison: Exactly. There was this new guy there, and she said, “He’s kind of cute. You should go and talk to him. I looked over and [growls]. Then, he was getting hit on by all different women and somewhat odd women. So, I thought, “I’ll go over, and I’ll talk to him, and maybe it will be romantic, or fun, or whatever. There was a dock. We were by the Delaware Water Gap.

I said, “Why don’t we go sit on the dock and talk?” He said, “Oh, wow. I’m really looking forward to getting to bed early.” I thought, “Well, this is going to be very short-lived here.” It was funny. We went to the dock, and there were these two brothers, and they were fishing for eel for their grandmother. It was not romantic, but it was hilarious. Hilarious.

They caught an eel, and David said, “Can I hold it?” So, he takes the eel, and the eel is wiggling, and the guy goes, “Do you know what it’s doing?” Dave said, “No.” You know – serious city boy. The brother said, “He’s wiggling your hand up to his mouth so he can bite it.” Literally, his hand was near it.

Aubrey: It was near his hand. Right?

Alison: It was right by the teeth at that point.

Aubrey: Oh, my goodness. He told him just in time.

Alison: Just in time. So, there was no romance, but we were just so enjoying each other and enjoying each other’s company. We went into one of the houses, and we were talking and talking and talking and talking, making out. Around 5:00 in the morning, I said, “We really should go to sleep.” I had small groups to lead the next morning.

Aubrey: Yeah, so it was later than expected, especially with his response saying he was hoping to get to bed early. Right?

Alison: Much later. He said to me, and this is the moment where I knew I would marry him. He said, “Or we could go down and lie on the dock and watch the sunrise.”

Aubrey: Very nice.

Alison: And it was like a bell went off in my head. Now, it took him considerably longer to figure out that I was the one.

Aubrey: Wow. So how long were you married? Twenty or 25 years?

Alison: We were together three weeks short of 25 years, and we missed our 20th wedding anniversary by three weeks.

Aubrey: Oh, three weeks.

Alison: Three weeks, and we would never have met. We didn’t go in the same circles. He was an artist; I was a financial consultant.

Aubrey: You had different groups that you networked in and associated before meeting each other.

Alison: Yeah. It was just fate.

Aubrey: Was it a matter of like his friends and your friends coming together now that you two are together? Or did you have your own group of friends as a couple? How did that shake out?

Alison: We had our own group of friends, and then we had friends that we intersected with. He loved to paint and loved to play tennis, so those were things that he did mostly on his own, except towards the end when he had cancer, and he was on chemo, he was still going and painting weddings.

Aubrey: Was he really?

Alison: Yeah. Live events – weddings. At that point, I would go with him because I was concerned about if he fell over or needed to get an ambulance that I could say, “No, you’re taking him here.”

Aubrey: Right. That makes sense, and I’m so glad you brought that up, Alison. I really am because I wanted to now go to 2015. Your husband is diagnosed with Stage 4?

Alison: Stage 4. Yes.

Aubrey: I want to know, and if you could share with the listeners, how did you and your husband respond, not to the doctors, but to life after that diagnosis?

Alison: He was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer on October 12, 2015. He had gotten the CAT scan, and they said, “You need to come in today.” Now, when a doctor says, “Come in today,” this is never good news.

Aubrey: No, it’s not. No.

Alison: No, it’s never good news. “You need to see an oncologist today, and you need to—” I called up the oncologist, and he said, “I can get you in in six weeks.” I’m like, “No. It will be today.”

Aubrey: That’s right. ASAP. For sure.

Alison: Today. So, we really knocked back, initially. We didn’t fully understand what it means, and the trajectory for pancreatic cancer is, you have six weeks to four months to live, typically.

Aubrey: Wow. Small range.

Alison: Small range. So it was get the will done now. Put your affairs in order posthaste, and prepare yourself. Though you can’t prepare yourself. Then they started telling us to slow down, do less, diminish our lives. That didn’t make any sense to us. If the length of his life was now finite, and the length of our life together had now a pretty clear soon-end, why would we not choose to live that full tilt boogie?

Aubrey: Completely. 100%. I couldn’t agree more.

Alison: What happened was that he lived 11 months, and we fought for all of it. The oncologist basically said – he was 6’3”; he was 263 lbs; by the end, he was 146 lbs.

Aubrey: Oh, you’re kidding me. Wow. My goodness. Dear God.

Alison: No. He looked skeletal by the end. But what we decided to do was we decided to live fully. Now, in the course of this, his strength was diminishing. The chemo was brutal. They said he would lose his hair, so he cut his hair short. He loved to ride bikes through the city. He would get on a city bike, and he’d ride. He got on a city bike, and he rode, and he came home, and his eyelashes had come off and had been cutting his eyes.

Aubrey: What?

Alison: And his hair was flying off his head. This was shortly after, and it was brutal.

Aubrey: That is brutal. Something as small as hair coming off simply from a bike ride. It’s not like you’re in a car going 70 mph, and you roll the window down and stick your head out. You’re on a bike. Such a situation to go through. I have to commend you, Alison, for the level of resilience that it seems like you and your husband both had to be determined to live life in that finite period of time, and to make that decision to be conscious and purposeful about it is tremendous because it’s so easy for people to think about the end and say, “Why me? Why did this happen to me? I’ve done everything I can to stay healthy.”

But time’s ticking while all the worrying and asking those questions are going by. It’s like, “Time is ticking. We’re not going to spend our time doing this. We’re going to spend our time living life, and that is tremendous. I want to thank you for sharing that.

Alison: A lot of what happens in a marriage, if you’re with someone for 25 years, it turns into logistics if you’re not careful. Who’s going to take care of this? Who’s going to take care of that?

Aubrey: And it’s almost transaction-based, it seems like over time if you don’t watch it.

Alison: Yeah. And it’s not that you don’t love each other, but you take it for granted. We reprioritized loving each other.

Aubrey: Very nice.

Alison: My aim was to create an environment where we would live. I really did this. I reorganized our entire life. There were things that we were doing because we felt obligated. Dave would be asked, “Can you come and critique my painting?” And he liked to do it, but it was also an obligation. I said, “You’re not doing that anymore. You are going to go out and paint with your friends, and maybe you’ll go for two hours instead of six.

Aubrey: You’re still doing it. You’re still going out.

Alison: We started looking and taking a real conscious assessment of what we loved and what we were tolerating. The stuff we were tolerating in that short lifespan was out.

Aubrey: I bet. Yeah. Get that tolerating stuff out because it’s not as much a priority as the current situation. Yeah. That’s tremendous. Let’s talk about when your husband passes, and from what you shared in our preliminary chat, he passed away in your arms. Is that right?

Alison: Yes. He was at home. We were alone. It was just the two of us, and I was holding him. His head was on my shoulder, and he was talking to me right at the end. I heard the song from Ghost that morning, and I thought, “This is the day.” I knew it was the day. He asked me, “Will you take care of my mom? Will you take care of my studio? Will you take care of this?” “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

In the course of the time when we were scared, what I would do is, we would just lie on the bed and hold each other, and I created a little meditation practice of filling up with love – just filling entirely up with love because it pushed back the fear a little bit. As he was lying in my arms, I said, “In a body, you need breath and love. Outside of a body, you just need love. So, when you’re ready, go out on the love.” And he literally took four breaths and left me.

Aubrey: Wow. My goodness. Can you share the swirl of emotions if it’s fair to say that after he’s gone – your loss? Then, if you can move to help us understand if it was a pivotal defining moment that you decided, “I have to pick up my bootstraps.” Or was it something gradual that happened over time as you grieved?

Alison: Immediately afterward, I actually was talking to a friend on the phone, and I said, “I’ve got to call the crematorium. I’ve got to call this.” And she said, “You don’t have to do anything. You can take all the time you want. There’s no rush now.” I think that being able to just sit there and hold him for an hour before I let anybody else in made a huge difference to my level of feeling – I don’t know – just feeling settled that we were complete, that the love was still connected.

Aubrey: Some sort of affirmation, do you think?

Alison: It was just to not be rushed.

Aubrey: That’s good advice from your friend.

Alison: I didn’t call to have them come and pick him up until 1:00, and he died at 10:10 in the morning. And they arrived at 5:00.

Aubrey: They did?

Alison: Yeah.

Aubrey: Oh, wow.

Alison: Now, I do confess to hiding in the bathroom when they put him in – they rearticulate the limbs, and they have to put the person in a bag, and I hid. I let my mother witness that.

Aubrey: Understandably so. Hiding. It’s hard to watch a loved one, the physical part of them being placed in a position like that.

Alison: Very hard. Then, your next question was, how did I pivot to moving on? The first year was awash with grief. This future that I could not have ever imagined. We had planned out this life together. I was going to be loved by this man for my entire life. Done. The last time I dated was 1992, and it was 2016.

Aubrey: That’s a good stretch of time.

Alison: Good stretch of time. I was so a ‘we’ that even figuring out who I was, was almost impossible.

Aubrey: Even the question of finding love wasn’t even in your peripheral at all at that time.

Alison: Not on the table.

Aubrey: Okay.

Alison: Not at all on the table. What happened at the beginning was that – and this is one of those assumptions I was talking about. I felt broken, and the people around me treated me that way.

Aubrey: Those assumptions. The expectations.

Alison: Those assumptions. Yep. What I’m discovering is that it’s even broader than loss of a loved one. Anything that turns your world upside down creates this kind of [whish sound]. You have this unknown future, which is terrifying. It’s terrifying.

Aubrey: Amazing.

Alison: The first thing I had to do was start building nets for myself. My pivotal point was when I said to myself, “I feel broken, but I’m not. I can’t be broken by my circumstances. Nobody can.” Then it was, “It sure feels that way. How do I begin making my way out?” It started with building little nets. I would come up against a challenge.

For a while, I had a little card on my door. It said, “Keys, shoes, coat.” And it came about because I had walked two blocks in my slippers because I didn’t think. The only reason I realized I had slippers on was my heels started getting cold.

Aubrey: Were you preoccupied, or just your mind wasn’t on putting on shoes at the time?

Alison: One of the really practical effects of this kind of a loss is the loss of focus, the attention span of a fruit fly, and variable energy.

Aubrey: Wow.

Alison: It makes it really hard to plan. It makes it hard to reach out. What I began to do was, I began to see the challenges that I was coming up against. Remember to wear shoes when you walk out the door. If you get out of the shower, and you’re still dry, even if you think you took a shower, you didn’t. These are real things that happened. I was so contracted, and it was so hard for me to reach out to a person because it took energy to make a plan, to do something practical. I was a consultant who couldn’t talk to people.

Aubrey: And that’s the number one prerequisite for that occupation.

Alison: Right. Yeah. Exactly. The other thing that I did was I was a medical editor and proofreader – that required focus. I couldn’t do that either. As I began to push out my own boundaries, the first job I took, because I wanted to get back to work, but I knew that I couldn’t do anything I was qualified for. I felt completely incompetent because I couldn’t remember directions. So, the first thing I did, I had a friend who had a Halloween Popup Store, and I knew that I could hang costumes on hooks. I could do that.

Aubrey: Slow action, just motion of the hand. Pick up the item. Put it on the hook.

Alison: Yep. I could do that. She agreed that I could work. No one else could do this, but I could work four-hour shifts. At the end of four hours, I was wiped out. Completely wiped out. But I was beginning to push my own edges out.

Aubrey: Perfect. That is beautiful, Alison. The reason I asked that question is, it’s incredibly tremendous and important for our listeners, a lot of them who have gone through some very, very dark times, who are currently in these big ruts, trying to find a way out, trying to find how do I turn this around? Listening to your strategy, you’re setting your own little nets of small things that you have to do to function day-to-day. And then, you’re establishing your own boundaries as far as stretching to do more, to grow on your way back, and your way of moving forward, and that’s tremendous because that’s incredible insight for those who are really stuck in a rut going through dark times. I appreciate you sharing that.

Alison: That’s Step 1 of how I got through was to start re-engaging, start re-stepping into life. Then I began to reinvent myself. I began to figure out who I was without Dave because I was a we, and then I was an I, but I didn’t know what that I was anymore. The key to making progress there was to just try stuff and ask myself lots of questions.

So I thought of it as a game that children play. “Like that. Don’t like that. Like that. Don’t like that.” I would do something, and I would like it, or I would not like it. Then, I knew what I wanted more of. So the game was to make as many distinctions as I could because the future I was building was not the one that I lost because I wasn’t the same person.

Aubrey: Amazing.