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Good Grief: 5 Lessons I've Learned Since Losing My Childhood Sweetheart

September 22, 2019

Two people on top of a ski slope

This is a guest post written by Kate Riley Johnston. Kate is a 31 year old grieving widow, traveling nomad and proud dog and cat mum, with a background in Advertising and Graphic Design. Kate is helping everyday grieving people to come to terms with their losses and make some sense of what can be one of the most challenging life hurdles that you can come face to face with. Kate has taken to social media to write her story and encourage those experiencing similar situations to share theirs too. She’s also a proud animal advocate, using her grief to raise much needed funds and awareness for farm animals in need through Edgar’s Mission Farm Animal Sanctuary.  


You could say at the end of 2017, I stepped into what was a series of a very rough few months. One might even say, ‘royally fucked’. I came home to find the one person I chose out of the whole world, to spend my lifetime with, dead on the floor of our home without warning. 


The fairytale that was

Nath was my childhood sweetheart. We met at 15 at the rodeo in our hometown. My first words to him were“I heard your brother got into a fight...” Nath:“Yeah he did.” and it was love. We stayed friends and finally at a local girls party, he kissed me in the woodshed on their farm. 

He was probably a touch over 6ft 2 and had been that height, and had a fully established beard since he was around 12. At the same time, he had the most beautifully kind nature and a face that was so approachable. 

Despite his scary biker appearance, including arms filled with tattoos, a dumbledore-esque beard and shaved bald head, he still had little old ladies asking for assistance wherever we would go. That was Nath though, a gentle giant. Someone who within a few seconds of meeting, you would instantly feel at ease with and could see how authentic and kind hearted he was. 

One in a million and I was lucky enough to have locked him down. Sitting on his lap at my 18th birthday party, he turned to me and said, “We should probably go out you know. I really like you”. 


Fast forward to November 2017—when things took a tragic turn

We’ve now been together 11 years, married for 10 months and Nath comes home sick from work with what he thinks is gastro. 

Before I left for work that next morning, I said goodbye, being sure not to kiss him since he was sick. Something I will always regret.  

That day, I received the news that I got the interview for my dream job! You could bring your dog to work. I was stoked. I called and messaged Nath all day brimming with excitement from around 9:30 in the morning. All of them unread, all of them not replied to. 

I knew something was wrong, but I didn't want to panic or make it real. So I ignored my gut feeling and finished the day to commute 1.5 hrs home.

I remember saying out loud to myself, “If I get home and he’s dead...”

I pulled into the driveway and felt the hives break out on my neck immediately. I opened the front door and called his name. I wandered into the last room I hadn't checked and switched on the spare bedroom light to find Nathan dead on the mattress on the floor. 

I felt like I was in the twilight zone. Like a drunk person had just taken a hammer to the beautiful diorama I had spent years making. 


Did I jinx myself? 

I remember sitting on the train a few days prior, thinking to myself "God damn life is good right now!" 

I'd recently married my childhood sweetheart, we had never fought in our 11 years together, we built a new home, got ourselves a beautiful dog, Nath got promoted to manager along with all the perks of a new car/phone/laptop included, I was applying for my dream job in Geelong to be closer to him and I almost immediately got this feeling of dread, like I had somehow jinxed myself. I still think about that. 


“The 7 stages of grief”

They say that grief happens in seven stages, but I really beg to differ. Grief is a real son of a bitch. 

The two weeks leading up to his funeral were filled with visitors, flowers, hugs and hot meals. The day immediately after the funeral was one of the loneliest times of my life. People go back to work, the cards and calls stop coming and you’re left here, minus the person you loved most. 

In the weeks after the funeral, I was surprisingly positive about things. It was strange actually. I remember my mum asking how I was able to talk about everything so calmly,  and how I was dealing so well considering I hadn’t been through anything like it before. 

I mean, I have never lost anyone out of order, chronologically speaking. I still had three of my grandparents? 

I turned to her and said:

“It’s not fair that he should lose his life and I voluntarily take mine with him. I’m only 29, my life isn’t over. If I crumble every time someone mentions his name, I won't be able to talk about him to anyone and a man like that deserves to be spoken about.” 

In the months following his death, I kept busy. Kept distracted.

I volunteered full time at an animal sanctuary called Edgars Mission. It was here I felt closest to him, as we had both been huge advocates of the sanctuary. I would later take part in a Trek in the Sumatran jungle in memorial of him, raising another $12,000 for Edgar’s Mission.

I later found a way to escape my triggers for a while by heading to Mount Hotham, in the beautiful Australian Alps. It was here that I formed new friendships and gave my brain a much needed break, working in the beautiful mountains, snowboarding and living life as a snow bum amongst like minded people.

On our first anniversary, I ate our frozen piece of wedding cake sitting next to him at his grave. I shared the date of our first wedding anniversary with the funeral of my grandfather. An already hard day became impossibly hard to process. Two weeks after, Nath and I's first pet cat Roxy died suddenly. I still think Nath must have wanted his cat. I can remember looking over at my sister with the lifeless body of our cat in my hands and we both burst into tears asking “what the actual fuck is going on?!” 

Around 7 months later on the day of my 30th birthday, I finally got an unexpected phone call from the coroner's office with the results of his autopsy. I remember feeling sick as the girl on the phone said the words “inconclusive”. That was one of the worst birthdays I've ever experienced.  

Grief is a funny thing. Hell no, it's not those predictable seven steps that they write in their fancy “how to grieve successfully” books. 

Grief is a king hit to the head with a wet frozen fish. It’s not pleasant.But it can provide growth, and although most likely unwanted, a fresh start. 


5 important lessons for the living

I have learnt a lot about myself in this year and a half post-Nathan. Because that’s what it is now at the moment. There’s life with Nathan and life after he left us. I’m not the girl I was, and I’m still fighting to keep parts of her that I used to love.

Here's what I've learnt:


It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how you react to it

I don’t think there is necessarily a RIGHT way to grieve. 

I remember my sister being incredibly frustrated with a past partner of hers that took the route of substance abuse to numb the pain of losing his father. On the other end of the spectrum, one of my best friends lost her mum at a very young age and chose to make it through her grief journey by staying very private. A stark contrast to my own story, but for whatever reason, that worked for her and there is nothing wrong with that.  

It made me realise that how you react to anything is completely 100% a cognitive choice that you make. You can choose to let something that is out of your control, completely TAKE control of your life. It’s your decision to grab the ropes that are thrown down to you, or to burn them and sit at rock bottom.

I believe a positive attitude and optimism have saved my life. That’s not to say that if someone were to tell me one more time that “everything happens for a reason” I wouldn't want to punch them square in the throat. Because I do. Every damn time. 


Do the things that make you happy

I know you hear it a lot, but life is really fucking short and it was far too short for Nath to have left us at 29 years old. Don’t waste your time. I’m taking mine by the balls and with each day I'm designing a new life that I love for myself. It may not have been the one I had chosen initially, but it can still be beautiful and meaningful. 

If you find yourself stuck in a job you don’t like, in a city that makes you unhappy, in a life you never wanted for yourself, just know that it’s never too late. You have all the tools you need to make changes. You just need the confidence to know that things will work out one way or another and that big risks sometimes need to be taken. 

You’ve got this. Get living. 


No Rain, No Flowers. 

Hug the people you love, tell them you love them and mean it. Because it fucking sucks when they’re gone.

I found it really difficult sorting through our home and Naths clothing after he passed away. Every little hand written note and piece of clothing was a piece of him. His toothbrush on the sink, his shampoo in the shower. I didn’t want to touch any of it. 

But I came to realise, that people aren’t objects. These things didn’t bring me any closer to him or any closer to happiness. In fact, they probably made me sadder. 

My lesson for you is to be honest with yourself and with others. Be more open than Paris Hiltons legs. Open to love, open to sharing your stories, open to change and open to failure. These things build us, break us down and build us back up again once more. 

No rain, no flowers. 


Give yourself time, the triggers will go. 

With trauma comes triggers.

I had an abundance of them, ambulances, turning on a light switch, the mention of CPR, driving down the road to our home, vomiting, gastro, movies with dying partners, looking after sick people. The list was lengthy and any mention of these would see me transported into an instant feeling of sadness or anxiety. It may not have been visible to those around me, but it was always there.   

I coped with these by spending time away from where it all happened. I got myself a job in the beautiful Australian Alps, I went snowboarding and made new friends, where no one knew my story and I could rest from the tornado that was my brain. The rest was much needed. I went from crying nearly daily to almost never. 

Basically, give yourself time. It won't be fun or pretty in the beginning, but you will get to a better place where you can function and feel happiness again. 


You can make a difference 

“Nothing really matters”—that’s exactly how I felt, but it’s not true in the slightest. 

I read a story once about a boy and his grandfather walking along a beach. There are thousands of starfish stranded and dying on the beach. The little boy, panicked, rushes over and begins to place each starfish back into the ocean one by one. “But there are thousands of starfish on the beach, how will you make a difference?” his grandfather asks. The boy bends down and picks up another star fish to place back into the ocean.

“I made a difference to that one!” 

I think about this story a lot and you should too. 

Choose your niche. Choose what you would like to make a difference in. Don’t waste a life. There are already far too many prematurely taken. So do it for them, and do it big.