How to Survive the Holidays: Tips for Widows
December 16th, 2008 by

I think many grievers become overwhelmed with conflicting feelings during the holidays. Questions arise about how to best cope during this festive season when you are not feeling festive.

1) Really be honest with yourself. Your loved one is gone physically. Acknowledge that no matter what you do, things won’t be the same. I believe that this acknowledgment can really help with the confusion and frustration that often comes up during the holidays.

2) Decide to take control of your participation in holiday events. Ask yourself if you want to continue with previous traditions. And if you do, be clear about the reasons you want to continue with these traditions. You have lost your loved one. You had no control over that, but you do have control over how you choose to spend your holiday.

3) Consider different options. If you always stayed home, consider going away, even if it is just a day trip to go hiking or for a long drive. You might also consider volunteering at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.

While the holidays can be a difficult time for grievers, they can also be a time to really review what is important in your life. Writing about your feelings can be a very informative and empowering experience. If you don’t already journal, pick up a blank notebook at your office supply store and just begin writing about your feelings regarding the holidays and holiday traditions.

Writing causes thinking. Your inner wisdom will guide you as you allow the writing process to unfold.

As you become clearer about your feelings you will begin to feel a sense of inner empowerment. This feeling of empowerment is one of the transformative gifts that can unfold through the grieving process.

Consider your option and realize that you do have choices. The holidays can afford you the opportunity to see more deeply into your own identity as a griever, but also as someone who is moving through and beyond your grief.

Grief as Transformation
October 29th, 2008 by

The life cycle of the butterfly speaks volumes about the process of grief. The life of the butterfly begins inside a cocoon, hanging inconspicuously from the limb of a tree. Silently, but deliberately the transformation begins. Anyone looking from below would have no idea what is going on inside this tiny cocoon.

In essence, there is a dissolving of one form and the emergence of another form. The cocoon starts to break open when the growth of the butterfly can no longer be contained within the protective shell of the cocoon.

Grief often begins within a cocoon of self-protection. There is comfort in the darkness, which allows for rest and renewal and remembrance. But at some point the protective darkness becomes oppressive and uncomfortable.

The butterfly actively participates in the process of her emergence from the cocoon. Her beauty is breathtaking.

This too is the journey of grief. The trauma of grief can open the heart in magnificent ways. The process is not easy and it requires action, just as the butterfly works to emerge from the confines of the cocoon.

And in that moment of emergence, her life is totally transformed into a new world of spectacular brilliance.

The butterfly is following her natural life cycle. She can do nothing else. But her journey shows us the possibilities of new life beyond the darkness of the cocoon.

I am grateful for the lessons of the butterfly.

The Emotions of Grief
October 13th, 2008 by

When you least expect it, you may find yourself overwhelmed by tears. You may sob uncontrollably. Or you may quietly feel tears dripping down your face and find yourself seeing through stinging eyes.

Just as quickly the tears can stop. You may even find yourself laughing or smiling.

The emotions of grief can be very unpredictable. And there may be inner confusion about whether the tears are from sadness or sweet remembrance of your loved one.

While these common characteristics of grief can be very painful and quite overwhelming, they are very normal responses to grief and loss. But normal does not mean pleasant.

The unpredictable feelings of grief can be really draining.

How do you handle the emotional roller coaster of grief?

July 17th, 2008 by

One of the questions which comes to mind when you lose your spouse is whether or not you wish to remove your rings. You may also question when is the appropriate time. And you may also hear advice from family and friends about how to handle these deeply personal questions.

The night my husband died I was told by the mortuary to remove his wedding ring. Wow. OK. I was in shock. I did it. For security purposes, they said. Not sure what that meant, but I had no energy for questioning. I did what I was told.

I placed the ring on my finger, but I was afraid I would lose it. I had to keep it close to me. It was a symbol of our love. It now became a tangible way to stay close to him while at the same time feeling so very lonely.

I decided to put his ring on a chain around my neck, very close to my heart. it helped me feel close and it brought comfort.

A couple months later my ring finger began to itch beneath my own rings. There was no physical reason for this irritation. Intuitively I sensed it was time to remove them. But taking them off brought up so many feelings. There seemed to be a new finality to our relationship. There were feelings of guilt. There were feelings of disloyalty.

After several days I was actually able to remove the rings from my finger. It seemed appropriate to add them to his ring on the chain around my neck.

Surprisingly, within a couple weeks I felt like it was time to remove the necklace of rings. I placed the rings in a special heart-shaped box where they remain to this day. I open it on occasion and smile in gratitude for the shared life represented by these rings.

Removing the rings is a milestone that we each must handle in our own way. Trust your feelings. You will know what is right for you.

June 12th, 2008 by

June 3 has come and gone for 2008. It’s just another day, but for me it would have been my 30th wedding anniversary.

The prior week I noticed that memories of my husband and memories of our life together on the farm were surfacing quite frequently.

I have been extremely busy recently and it took me a couple days to realize what was going on. Yes, I was remembering. And yes, my anniversary was coming up.

It has always been interesting to me how memories can be so vivid. It’s as if you truly are transported in time.

Several years ago I became aware of how I can allow myself to fully experience the memory and also be fully present in the moment.

The memories which had previously immersed me in the past for days or even weeks, actually now became a part of the overall rich tapestry which was June 3, 2008.

The memories surfaced in specific moments in time. I noticed them. I cherished them. I was grateful for them. And then I allowed myself to flow into the next moment.

Grief and memory have become part of the circle of life that for me becomes richer and more complete as I simply allow my thoughts and feelings to be, without resistance or attempting to hold them tightly.

The memories flow, as do other thoughts and feelings. June 3, 2008 was a rich and full day, in part because of my memories from that day thirty years ago.

I had a choice to let the memories flow or to grasp them tightly. I chose to let them flow. They are part of me but they do not consume my life.

I believe grief and memories can truly enrich our lives. The hardest part is accepting what is, right now.

Becoming a Widow
June 10th, 2008 by

In the early morning hours of September 1ST 2005, sleeping restlessly, I became aware of a warm red light filling the darkness of my bedroom. As I sensed the pulsing illumination, I listened intently for an accompanying noise. Still on the edge of sleep, I realized the glow in the room was coming from my husband’s alarm clock. I thought it was strange that there was no sound—the volume was obviously turned down. Why wasn’t he getting up, I wondered? For him to let the alarm go on for so long was unusual, and I started to worry that he would be late for work.

Then I remembered. Panic began to rise in my chest; quickly I calmed myself with the thought that I had surely been dreaming. In this disturbing dream my husband Phil was dead—many family members were at our home, the kids had all been told, friends had arrived to comfort us, tears had poured out uncontrollably, and somewhere in the back of my mind I could hear myself screaming. Yes, it must have been a dream. Still, I was afraid to open my eyes. What if he really was dead? Lying there, I imagined that if I stayed very still with eyes squeezed tightly shut, the horror of this dream would fade away with the beginning of the new day.

In the background of my rationalizations the light of the alarm continued to flash, each rhythmic glow a dare to verify my untested theory. Reluctantly, I slid my hand across to Phil’s side of the bed. To this day I can still feel the cool, crisp sheet in the place where his warm body should have been. The reality of his absence gripped my heart, as the unbelievable memories of the night before came flooding back. Tears flowed again as I repeatedly reached for him, eyes still defiantly closed, wishing desperately to wake up from what was rapidly becoming a nightmare. That morning I would begin my first day as a widow.

As time marched on and the initial shock of Phil’s death began to fade, I found being a widow to be both demanding and disconcerting. Not only was I abruptly left without a partner, but I felt the weight of unspoken expectations at every turn. All of a sudden every decision was mine to make at a time when I could hardly remember my name. As my whole being twisted in agony at the thought of life without my husband, the practical pull of daily life continued to demand my attention. Thrust into a fishbowl of well-meaning, sympathetic company, I wavered between the alarming temptation to allow the rising tidal wave of grief to consume me and the equally pressing need to prove that I would not crumble under the weight of despair. The tug-of-war between the desire to drown and the instinct to swim was exhausting. Suddenly my mind was paralyzed by previously inconsequential choices.

Overwhelmed and inexplicably unable to make decisions, I lost the self-confidence on which I had always relied. The moment I lost Phil, I was transformed from a poised, goal-oriented, content woman into a remote, indecisive, despondent ghost. I didn’t recognize myself, I didn’t recognize my life, and I saw no course that would lead me back to the person I used to be. Not only was I lost, but I didn’t care that I was lost. Anguish, fear, confusion and apathy became my constant companions.

Reading about the “stages of grief” frustrated me, because the broad concepts of denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance were not reflective of my daily experiences. The information I sought about being a widow was more personal – I didn’t want to know if other widows had been in denial; I wanted to know if they had worn their husband’s clothes. The bargaining phase did not interest me, but I yearned to find out what widows did with their husbands’ wedding rings. Being angry about losing your life companion was logical, but where was the logic in believing your dead husband could walk through the door any day? Depression threatened to consume me daily, while hope escaped me. Acceptance was a state I couldn’t even consider, so how could I aspire to it? Maddeningly, the “stages of grief” presented a road map that was deceptively linear. Each time I entered what I thought was a new stage I would quickly find myself backtracking and re-visiting an old one. Grief began to seem like an endless maze. I wanted reassurance that I wasn’t going to be lost in this labyrinth forever—I wanted to meet some survivors.

Suddenly I was certain that other widows were the source of the elusive answers about widowhood that plagued me. If I could find women who survived this loss and were willing to talk about it, the compilation of their stories would be the kind of comfort and reassurance I craved. Led by my desire to find out exactly how other women lived through the crushing loss of a husband, I traveled the country spending over one hundred hours speaking to women about their day-to-day life as widows.

The women I met while preparing to write this book changed my life. They told me their stories with courage and honesty. Each one of them allowed me into their sorrow without hesitation, unknowingly urging me to recognize that letting go of my sadness would not mean letting go of Phil. Welcomed into their homes, I met, through stories, pictures and personal treasures, the men they lost. The warmth and love evident in their remembrances demonstrated that it was possible to carry my husband within me, even as I began creating a new life for myself.

Slowly, it became obvious that there is no recipe for living through the loss of someone you love. I learned that grief is as individual as it is universal, and that healing happens one day at a time. Most of all, the intense despair these widows survived and the gratifying lives they lead now taught me to hope: hope for the day when I recognize myself again, hope that I can lead a life of purpose, and hope that love is not only a gift of the past.

June 2nd, 2008 by

Sometimes life seems to become a giant “to do” list. It’s just about getting done and checking things off the list. We forget about the journey and focus solely on the end result. Then we experience frustration or annoyance over any delays in reaching the projected end result.

The same thing can happen when we are grieving. Life can become about making it to the end of the day. Life can become about getting back home, pulling the blinds and curling up on the couch.

The goal of life can become hiding from life. There is no awareness of the process. There is no living in the moment. There is impatience and frustration and resignation.

When we lose awareness of the present moment life can feel very scary. Grief is pulling us back toward what has been in the past. The future becomes an overwhelming obstacle filled with fear and uncertainty.

Time to pay attention to now. What is happening right now? What are you experiencing right now? When you are driving, is there enough space between your car and the car in front of you? If you are at home on your couch, how does it feel to be sitting there? Are you comfortable? Is there a book you want to read? Would you rather be outside taking a walk?

Now you are back in the present moment. Now you are responding to what is, right now. You are back on the journey of your life. You can be grieving. You can be walking. You can be reading.

Grief is filled with multifaceted and sometimes confusing feelings. Our job is not to hide from them. Our job is to be in the moment with whatever we are feeling.

When the Lord Closes a Door
May 3rd, 2008 by

My friend Michelle came into my life in November of 2005. Around that time, grieving my husband had become my full-time job—I did everything else part-time. Two months after Phil’s death my life was settling into a pattern of managing widowhood, and single parenthood, one challenge at a time. My friends and family still kept an eye on me, but at the end of every day my most reliable companion was grief. Until early November when I got a call from my sister, Debi, asking for my help. My brother-in-law’s cousin had lost her husband to cancer the week before, and Debi wondered if I would write her a note. She thought I might know, better than anyone else, what to say to her.

The interesting thing was I didn’t feel like I knew anything about being a widow—except that it was thrust upon me, and it wasn’t optional. Sitting at my desk thinking of what to write, I finally settled on the truth—I was so sorry she lost her husband and the months ahead wouldn’t be easy, but I was available to talk anytime she wanted. That short message began a relationship that has changed my life.

Within weeks, the two of us felt an unmistakable kinship created by our loss experiences. We discussed all the things that we hated about widowhood—sometimes in pretty colorful language. It didn’t take long to figure out that speaking to each other could be done in half sentences—the other friend could always fill in the blanks. Some days we needed to cry, other days we needed to laugh, but with each passing day we discovered that we needed each other. Many mornings I woke up, with swollen eyes from an evening of wailing, and ran to my computer to see if I had mail. Her words became my lifeline, or perhaps more accurately, my hope line.

Miraculously, we took turns having break downs; we also took turns carrying the imaginary candle of hope. Each of us believed in the possibility of healing, but neither of us was sure how to go about it. Many days we weren’t sure we even wanted to try. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we were helping each other heal with our every interaction. Our spirits were slowly rebuilt with each tearful conversation, with the quiet acknowledgement of each other’s pain, with the certainty of a pat on the back for a forward step taken, and with the intuitive phone calls that came when the voice on the answering machine didn’t sound quite right.

Michelle was the only person who understood that I wanted to die, but that I would never kill myself. I could tell her that I missed being a wife, but I had no desire to have another husband. One day she would agree with me that neither of us would ever re-marry, and the next day we could jointly agree to the exact opposite course of action. The most telling part of our mutual understanding was that we verbally agreed that given the chance, we would immediately trade our wonderful friendship in for the opportunity to have our husbands back—without hesitation and without any hard feelings! The illogical, roller coaster of grief was much easier to ride with a partner who was willing to either clutch my arm during the frightening drops or encourage me to throw my hands in the air—depending on the day. Somehow Michelle always knew what kind of day it was.

Reflecting on the phrase, “When the Lord closes a door he always opens a window,” I realize that my friendship with Michelle is a window that opened for me after the death of my husband slammed shut a door, with unnerving finality. Through the window of our friendship I am able to see the good that still exists in my life and in the world. The frame of our friendship window was forged by the fire of grief and reinforced by the power of shared experience. Our window is draped in mutual love and unwavering support. Unless you have lived the loss experience you might not notice that our friendship window has a unique style of glass—it allows us to view the world as it could be if we dare to believe in the power of hope. The deafening crack of the door that death closed for me reverberates in my heart and in my daily experience, but when the noise threatens to alter my life view—I just look out the window.

May 3rd, 2008 by

My wedding anniversary is June 3. The first couple of anniversaries after my husband’s death were extremely difficult. There seemed no helpful way to get through this day. I would even start feeling sad and uncomfortable several days prior.

During the fifth year, my old dog began having health problems. she was 13. She looked really good for her age, but I had to acknowledge that 13 was on the older end of the life spectrum for Black Labs.

I was in the process of starting a business and felt very torn about whether to stay home with her or pursue my new career.

Rabi (pronounced Robbie) had been through a lot with me. She sat on the floor with me amidst piles of books while I wrote my Master’s Thesis. She had been our “trail guide” when my husband and I went on horseback riding vacations. She snuggled with me many times during my husband’s final months, tears falling on her soft fur as we comforted each other.

As my husband’s death grew more imminent, he continually asked me where Rabi was. He knew how important she was to me and how much more important she would become when he was physically gone.

The night he transitioned, Rabi really knew. And she also knew of my increased need to be close to her. She and I became constant companions.

Rabi was the one constant in my life through all the overwhelming changes which occurred after my husband died.

Rabi died on June 3, on what would have been my twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. How could this be? It felt so very cruel. She was really my last connection with the physical life my husband and I shared on our farm. And now she too was gone.

My husband was gone. Rabi was gone.

The next winter as I took a walk in the snow, I looked down and saw a perfectly shaped heart made of snow. It looked like it had somehow formed out of a chunk of snow that had flipped off my boots. I ran back to the house to grab my camera.

Of all the places for me to walk, here I was, gazing at a heart in the snow. Somehow my heart felt more peaceful. Somehow in this moment I was able to feel that the Universe had given me a message about the fragile and yet enduring power of love.

Soon the sun’s intensity melted the snow enough to transform the shape of the heart in the snow. It melted into air and water. It melted into the vastness of the Universe.

I will never forget that day. I will never forget the heart in the snow. But I hold it gently in my memory, as I now hold other days more gently in my memory.

Thoughts On The First Anniversary
April 15th, 2008 by

As you approach the first anniversary of losing the amazing man that shared your life, your love, your joys, and your sorrows; I have a vision I would like to share with you. I am imagining you wearing a heavily laden backpack. This pack is filled with the searing pain of separation, the desperate fear of the unknown, the intense longing for the touch of someone who loves you, the emerging hope you have for the future, and a new love for today. You are surrounded by the beauty of the Arizona countryside, heading up the North side of the Grand Canyon. The landscape is breathtaking, sometimes the beauty of your surroundings causes tears to run down your cheeks—other times it makes you draw in your breath in wonder.

As you begin to ascend the canyon, you are feeling your legs, aware of the strain the climb creates. Your muscles feel weak at first, but as you continue ascending you realize there is strength in your legs you didn’t know you had. Each step forward requires effort. The grade of the climb changes often, once in a while the steep angle makes you lose your footing and fall back. Yet, even with the backward steps you move forward, pressed on by the thought that you are capable.

Following the winding path up the trail, you realize that the journey to the bottom of the canyon was fraught with pain and fear. There were days you felt you were free-falling and other days when you sat on a ledge unable to move either forward or back. No markers indicated where the bottom of the canyon was, so the descent felt as if it would last forever. Then, without warning, you found yourself standing on the banks of the majestic Colorado River. You are out of breath and a bit dizzy, but miraculously still in one piece. Trying to get your bearings you are shocked to discover that the descent is over. Calm surrounds you as you become aware that you have survived. You no longer need to wonder if you can live through the treacherous freefall of loss, suddenly you know that your goal is to climb out of the gorge you dropped into—one step at a time.

With each passing moment the strength in your muscles gives you confidence. The weight of your pack seems to change as you climb. Perhaps you have grown accustomed to the added load, but whatever the reason, you feel able to bear the weight. Climbing all the way up the opposite side of the Grand Canyon suddenly seems possible. Though you have a distance to go and your destination is not in plain view, you know it is there—not by sight, but by instinct. You can envision the outer edge of the canyon, and you have no fear of disappointment. Your journey will be whatever it is meant to be, and you are at peace. You have learned the lesson of the descent–you only have today. Today is what you live for, tomorrow is what you hope for, and yesterday is where your heart learned it’s most poignant lessons.

Onward friend.