John McCain's Widow Cindy Speaks Out a Year After His Death: 'You Learn to Live with a Broken Heart'

In a personal essay for PEOPLE about life without her husband of 38 years, Cindy McCain writes, "You learn it's okay to not be okay every day"

Editor’s note: In the year since Republican Sen. John McCain died after a grueling fight with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, his widow, Cindy, has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. But the memories of John — and all that he represented — continue to play a large role in her life. Each day, Cindy and his seven children (Douglas, Andrew and Sidney, from his first marriage, and Meghan, Jack, James and Bridget with Cindy) try to “remember him with joy, not sorrow,” Cindy says.

In a moving first-person piece in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Cindy reflects on her husband’s unforgettable place in their hearts.

On Sunday a year will have passed since my husband’s death. Our heaviest grief has subsided, which I’m sure would have prompted John to wisecrack, “It’s about time.” He could never stand still, and he didn’t want us to languish in our loss. Neither did he want us to mark the anniversary of his passing with solemn commemorations and tears, but to celebrate the life we shared with him.

It was a struggle at times to reach this point. I was so accustomed to sharing life with John, there were days when I felt overwhelmed by his absence, and the habits and little problems of ordinary life seemed a challenge. But you learn it’s okay to not be okay every day. You learn to live with a broken heart, and the bad days become fewer, and the time in between richer and more meaningful.

Being a mom helped. My children are adults, but they were hurting too, and being a trusted counselor and supportive presence to them is the most fulfilling purpose I have. Best of all, I’m expecting a new grandson, a cause for tears of joy not sorrow. [Jack and his wife, Holly, are expecting their first child.]

I moved back to the neighborhood where I grew up, where John and I began our married life and where we raised our children. I feel comforted there by the lifetime of happy memories and nurtured by the familiar sights and rhythms of the neighborhood.

Finally, I assumed the chairmanship of the McCain Institute’s Board of Trustees, a big, humbling job that keeps me busy helping make sure that the most important parts of my husband’s legacy and work live on. [Last week, the family launched the #ActsOfCivility campaign in John’s honor.]

John and Cindy Mccaine
David Hume Kennerly/Getty
Cindy McCain
Cindy McCain in 2009. Ben Baker/Redux

Things are getting better, as he promised us they would before he left us. We still miss his dynamism, his humor, the adventures we shared, the fun we had together. We miss his fighting spirit, especially when it served the causes he cared about most — respect for the dignity of all people and the political values that best protect it: liberty and justice for all. He taught us how to fight for those causes ourselves and to recognize them as the bonds that should unite our often fractured society. John was never happier, never more satisfied, never more sure of himself than when he was helping the good guys fight the bad guys to help the little guys.

John believed the dignity he possessed was no less and no greater than any other person’s and that the responsibility to defend human dignity — all human dignity — from abuse by tyranny was as much his responsibility as anyone else’s. He expected us to believe the same. That’s what John wanted all Americans to believe. We have problems in common and responsibilities to solve them in common. He wanted us to fight about solutions to our problems and the means to further our ideals. But he wanted us to recognize that however sharp our disagreements, our shared moral heritage was stronger and more enduring. We owe each other the respect of assuming each of us has value to give to our country and its causes. That respect is the essence of the civility we see too little of these days.

Life with John was not for the timid or idle. It was the wildest ride at the amusement park, with lots of thrills and occasional terrors and a rush of adrenaline every day. He occupied too huge a space in our lives ever to stop missing him entirely. But he expected us to get on with life and with the purposes that invest our lives with meaning and value.

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