Updated: Feb 10
This is the third of five articles to be published in The Post's Valentine's Day Series. A new article will publish everyday Feb. 7-11.
Valentine's Day can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and when it comes to the widow and widower it can mean a day to simply get through. Meet Susan Dugan, a widow who has lived the past year of her life without her 45-year partner, Mike.
Mike Dugan died Feb. 4, 2021. Today, Susan reflects on their long-time love, and tells how she has managed to cope, as well as how she plans to spend this Valentine's Day without her valentine.
Their Love Story
"I think the first time I saw Mike he was laughing, and then I noticed his blue eyes," Dugan said. "And he was a teaching tennis professional when I first met him, and let's say I noticed his physique on the tennis court.
"... When he asked me out, I said yes I'll go, and he made me laugh. I think I fell in love with his great sense of humor, that was really nice. And he was cute — he was really cute. But I noticed his kindness. I really, really noticed his kindness."
The day she remembers falling in love with her husband came just one month after dating.
It was a windy October day when Susan and Mike were leaving church and they see a man drop many papers, which the wind blew across Central Avenue.
"Mike immediately pulled over in traffic on a Sunday morning when traffic is coming out of the church and retrieved every piece of paper that went across Central Avenue," Dugan said. "And I'm sitting in the front seat of Mike's car and I'm watching him do all this and he takes all the papers to the older man and they're laughing and talking and everything and I thought to myself, this is a man I think I could love."
And when you know, you know. It was only a few weeks after that they were engaged to be married. The year was 1976, and in November 1978 the two got married.
They went on to create a life together that revolved around their mutual love for books, history, each other and eventually their daughter, Mary Kate. Over the years, Dugan said their love remained unconditional.
"Married 42 years you really learn the in's and out's of every nuance, and there was never a time he said I needed to change or do something different," she said.
"He was my best friend. He was the person I ran to, he was the person that if I was away from him and something happened, I'd think in the back of my head, 'Oh I've got to tell Mike this.' ... It was just a good time. It really was, it was a good time."
They were equal partners in life. Dugan said she felt so lucky.
"I always said, and he did too, that everything would be OK as long as we were together," she said. "Who knew?"
Mike was diagnosed with a rare aggressive brain tumor in December 2020. He died 38 days later.
Life After Death
After Mike died, Dugan was faced with a rough year. Shortly after losing her husband, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Yet she said losing her husband remained paramount.
"There's treatment for that," she said. "For the rest of this? For losing Mike? I've got to walk it everyday — everyday."
Dugan said support from her friends and family have gotten her through, but that above all else Mike is who has gotten her through.
"I've had a lot of support from my family, I've had a lot of support from my friends, but getting me through is Mike himself," she said. "He said I don't want you to be sad, and I want you to be happy. And I promised him I would find a way to live a joyful and purposeful life. And I made him promise that he would be there when I took my last breath; hold his hand out and pull me up.
"... I come from a long line of strong women and have never been the kind of woman whose going to sit in the corner and cry and turn out all the lights. I've got a daughter to live for, so that gets me through."
Other things that help her get through the hard days is looking at old photos and videos, and this one simple fact: Love does not die.
"On some days it's hard for me to believe that he's not here, and that he died from a brain tumor that he didn't even have for 60 days," Dugan said. "... I hope to bring 45 years of joy past that sadness, and that's what I'm working toward. And hopefully I'm getting there."
To remember her husband, Dugan continues to wear both of their wedding rings, she writes notes to him daily and she celebrates him on significant days, including days like Valentine's Day.
"A grief counselor told me that on special occasions like Birthdays, and we're talking about Valentine's Day, that she would go into a room with the photo and just close the curtains and she would just be there that day," Dugan said. "I can't. I have to celebrate him."
So on Valentine's Day she plans to celebrate with her sister and brother-in-law.
"I've bought heart shaped candy boxes for everybody, including myself ... (and) this Valentine's I'm going to open that heart shaped box of candy, and we have some Prosecco, and we are going to toast Mike on Valentine's Day. And hopefully we'll be doing that for a very long time.
"... (Mike) wanted everybody to be happy. He wanted everybody that walked away from him to feel better than when they walked up to him, so I know, and I've been reminded many times by my family, that Mike would not want me to be sad all the time. So I'm going to try to do that. ... He would want me to live a good life and to be happy, and I plan on doing that."
Advice To Others
"Just get up, shower, dress, make your bed and go from there," Dugan said. "Keep as much of your life scheduled as you would normally, and when you have those bad moments cry. It's OK. It's OK to not be. ... If you've got somebody to call, call. But if you find yourself in the middle of the night, call that person. It is darkest before the dawn, and you will make that next day. And just celebrate. I think that's what's helped me.
"... You have to live the moment. I've not pushed anything away at all. So, if I have any advice it is to lean into it and work through it. ... Just face it, it is what it is. There's no time that will heal this, but you can learn to breath around the grief, and that's what I'm learning to do."
Being the bibliophile she is, Dugan said she highly recommends these two reads to anyone grieving: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandber; and Permission to Mourn: A New Way to Do Grief, by Tom Zuba.
"Just love purely with no restraint," she said. "Don't hold back, give it all you've got, and when you do find that person that you can trust your heart with, you know it's right."