"When the grief takes you, it's like your body is not your own,” Niemi, who was married to the actor for 34 years, said during a roundtable discussion on Grief, Healing and Resilience at the Women's Conference 2009 in Long Beach, Calif. “I'm just going with the flow. I know I have to go through it."
Speaking for the first time since Swayze's death, Niemi says she's relied on a close group of friends to get through some of her darker hours.
"I have a few girlfriends that are just amazing. They have made themselves available to me 24/7. They say, 'We don't care if it's 2 in the morning, call me'," says Niemi, her blond hair pulled back into a loose bun and wearing an all-black dress. "I was in the middle of a full-blown panic attack one evening ... and I picked up the phone and called one, which is really hard for me to do because I'm used to being so self-sufficient and taking care of myself, but the very act of picking the phone up to call someone helped to calm me."
Final RegretEven though Niemi told Swayze many times every day in his last months, "I love you, I love you," and never left his side, she admits, "I've spent two thirds of my life with him ... My regret is that I didn't tell him that I loved him enough over that entire 34 years."
"I am so grateful for what I had and my connection to him, and part of me believes that I will see him again," says Niemi, her voice breaking, "and I'm just going to have to go on until then."
Niemi was joined on-stage by Elizabeth Edwards and Susan St. James, both of whom lost children in accidents. The discussion, held before a crowd of 14,000, was moderated by California First Lady and Women's Conference host Maria Shriver, who this summer lost her mother, Eunice Shriver, and uncle, Ted Kennedy.
Tsunami of GriefDescribing her feelings about their deaths and the "tsunami of grief" that has followed, Shriver told the crowd: "Grief cracks your heart into little pieces and that hurts, big time, big time. It's hard to concentrate, it’s hard to see, its hard to feel, it's even hard to breathe."
Despite how put-together she may appear on the outside, Shriver says, "Every minute of every day I can feel my broken heart. I tell all of those close to me, 'Don't worry, I'm fine, really, I am.' … The real truth is, I'm not fine. The real truth is that my mother's death has brought me to my knees."
Kelly Preston had agreed to join in the roundtable discussion and talk about the death of her 16-year-old son, Jett, but had to drop out. "Kelly called to say it was just too painful for her to talk about Jett," says Shriver. "She said the grief was still too debilitating for her. And I totally understood."
But for Shriver, Edwards, St. James and Niemi, the Women's Conference was the ideal forum for sharing their journey with others. "We all hope that this panel will help the grief-stricken among us to see that there is light at the end of what seems like an endless tunnel," says Shriver. "It is our hope that this conversation will give anyone out there dealing with a broken heart or a shattered soul a sense that you are not alone. Because you are not."
The Women's Conference 2009, hosted by Shriver and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, gathers more than 100 newsmakers and world opinion leaders with 25,000 women from all walks of life for to be "educated, inspired and empowered to be Architects of Change in their own lives, within their communities and around the world."