My first real experience with grief was when my mother died when I was 12. My family was already dysfunctional before that, plus I had undiagnosed depression. With no support network, a family tradition of brushing uncomfortable topics under the rug, and my depression, I expressed my grief through petty crime, passive aggressive behavior, and poor dating choices. When I felt sadness or tears coming on, I angrily pushed them aside. Over time, the sadness stopped coming up and I skipped straight to anger.
Thirty years after my mother died, I finally connected my random surges of anger to unprocessed grief for my mother. I got myself post haste to an excellent therapist who helped me process what I had buried for all those years.
When my husband died, I determined that I would do things differently. I’ve blogged about the two promises I made to myself about how I would handle grieving for him:
- I will grieve mindfully, which means generously giving myself the time and space to be sad.
- Instead of pushing my grief aside, being frustrated with it showing up inconveniently, or being embarrassed about its unexpected appearances, I’ve been trying to practice what Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft calls “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace.
These commitments mean that when I started trying to refer to Tom as my “late husband” last week and noticed how off it felt, I paid attention. I turned toward that feeling and realized I wasn’t ready for that. Saying “late husband” involved consciously editing my thoughts, every time. Every. Time. Not once did it feel organic or comfortable. As I explained in my post last week, I wanted to start referring to him as my “late husband” to avoid the confusion that sometimes comes up in conversation about him being dead, but I’ve decided that I’d rather deal with that confusion than the nagging sense that I’m being inauthentic when I call him my “late husband.” After two days of trying, I acknowledged I wasn’t ready to call Tom anything but my husband. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.
Oddly, I’m totally comfortable saying “my husband died last June”—but calling him my late husband, for whatever reason, is a step I’m not ready for. For me, part of “turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace” means being ok with the contradictions and the part of my reactions that don’t follow logic.
After I decided to let go of the idea of calling him my “late husband,” I had two dreams in which Tom was present but never interacted with me. He just hung around on the periphery of my dream, never even making eye contact with me, almost like an extra in a film scene who the camera lingers on a little longer than the other extras but never focuses on. It was comforting to feel his presence in that periphery way—it felt like he was letting me know that he knew he couldn’t be with me at the center of my life anymore but that he would still be part of it. And although it makes me very sad to write that sentence, in the dream, I didn’t feel any sadness at all, just savoring peace.
Later, I came across this article by Gil Fronsdal on letting go into something. The idea of letting go into something makes explicit that when we let go of something, we make space for something else. When I got counseling to help me belatedly process my mother’s death, letting go of my anger made space for me to feel 30 years of longing for a mother that had been building up. When I let go of calling Tom my “late husband” to avoid social awkwardness, I made space to accept social awkwardness as part of my grieving process. In the dream, letting go of Tom being at the center of my life makes space for someone or something else to be at the center.