Moving On versus Moving Forward with Grief

I was working from home earlier this week when suddenly the dogs flew into a barking frenzy, jumping at the front door urgently and howling. They often get excited when someone is at the door, but this was different—there was a frantic quality to their barks and they were more exited than usual. I looked out the front window to see what they were reacting to and there was a white Sprinter van parked in front of the house. I found myself mid-sob before I even fully comprehended what was happening.

My husband drove a white Sprinter van. Before his stroke, seeing a white Sprinter van pull up in front of the house meant Tom was home and the dogs and I were about to be showered with attention. Tom never came into the house without kneeling to pet and talk to the dogs and then hug and kiss me.

Even ten months after his death—a year and ten months after his stroke—the dogs and I react viscerally to a white Sprinter van in front of the house. Will this response ever go away? I don’t know, and I’m not even sure if I want it to. I appreciate the unexpected reminder of the pure joy I felt every time he came home.

There’s a lot of talk in the grieving community about the difference between moving on and moving forward. When people talk about moving on, they typically mean getting back to the way things were before the death. The goal of moving on is to put the loss behind you and continue living life with the same mentality as you did before the loss occurred. People indicate a moving on mentality by

  • using phrases like “get back to normal” or “back to the way things were,” as in, “When do think you’ll get back to normal?” or “I just want things to be the way there were before.”
  • suggesting that the work habits, hobbies, and social commitments that felt right before the death should be resumed without modification.
  • approaching grieving as a phase with a start and end point and a progression through known stages like “anger” and “denial.” Saying “Are you still sad?” or “shouldn’t you be past that stage by now?” are markers that someone has a moving on mentality about grief.
  • believing that grief that lingers beyond that grief period is abnormal, disordered, and dangerous.

The goal of moving forward, in contrast, is to integrate the loss into your life so that grief isn’t necessarily something you stop experiencing but you learn how to carry it with you into your future. People indicate a moving forward approach by

  • acknowledging that “getting over” a loss isn’t realistic or even desirable.
  • recognizing that activities that the grieving person enjoyed before the loss may not be the same ones that bring joy and comfort after the loss.  
  • understanding grieving as an ongoing, lifelong process that begins with the loss and has no endpoint.
  • resisting the urge to label sadness over the loss problematic, even if it occurs years later.  

Moving on would mean having no reaction to a white Sprinter van parked in front of the house. Moving forward means saying to myself, “That white Sprinter van in front of the house reminds me of how happy I always was when Tom got home,” and acknowledging whatever feelings come up.

I think people have a mistaken notion that one way to judge how well someone is coping with loss is by how quickly they get back to being the same person they were before the loss. I think sometimes the admonition against making big decisions in the first year after a significant loss is part of the impulse that people should move on after loss and if you sell your house or change your job, how can you go back to who you were? I understand why the people around us want us to go back to being the person we were before the loss—they loved us as we were and they may perceive that if we weren’t suffering in the past, to get back to how we were means no more suffering. But we can’t possibly be that person again. We can be a person who isn’t suffering, perhaps, but not the same person we were before.

Well, you can’t go back to who you were, whether you make big decisions or not. Grief changes a person—the person you were before no longer exists.

This is why I prefer the concept of moving forward. I am moving forward when I allow myself to be swept up for a moment in intense emotion when I am reminded of the rich life I had with my husband, or when I take a mental health day off from work to give myself time to feel sad about an anniversary. I am moving forward when I accept that while others may wish for me to resume being who I was before I was widowed, they won’t get their wish. They may express disappointment about that, but their disappointment is not my responsibility.

My responsibility is to move forward, to learn how to carry the grief and allow it to change me.

Grieving advice that sucks: “Don’t make big decisions for a year”

One of the more useless pieces of unsolicited advice I’ve gotten regularly since my husband died is “Don’t make any big decisions for a year.” I’ve been told this by friends and virtual strangers, people who have been widowed and people who have not.

I find it to be completely unhelpful. For one thing, what counts as “big”? There are days when deciding what to have for dinner feels like a big decision—and that was true even before my husband died. For another, it’s really obnoxious, I think, to assume that everyone has the luxury to take a year off from making big decisions.

In trying to understand what counts as a “big” decision, I found the same general guidelines over and over on the internet: don’t get rid of anything, have a baby, get married or divorced, retire, quit your job, move, or make a major purchase. Given these parameters, I’m considering a “big” decision one that could haunt me if I mess it up. (I originally had as my working definition “a decision that could change the trajectory of my life,” but upon reflection and remembering how trajectories work, I realized that any decision could change a life trajectory.)

The logic behind the advice is that “big” decisions require one to be in a frame of mind that grief makes impossible. But here’s a reality check: we make “big” decisions all the time under terrible conditions. Here’s another reality check: grief doesn’t end after a year.

When someone is widowed, big decisions must be made. There’s no escaping it. What to do with my husband’s body, how to deal with intimidatingly large bills coming in related to his death, and what to do with his many belongings that filled the house and garage were decisions that could not be put off for a year. And what about widowed people who have to move because they can’t afford their rent or mortgage payments without their dead partner’s income, people who lose their jobs because grief renders them unable to continue working, widows who are pregnant when their partner dies, and other very common situations?

As with pretty much all one-size-fits-all advice, I find the advice to not make big decisions for a year to be complete bullshit.

I’ve made several decisions since Tom died that felt big, including  

  • giving away all sorts of things, including his tools, clothing, and motorized wheelchair, and quite a bit of furniture. I’ve also shredded most of his personal papers,
  • having major surgery,
  • hiring a landscaper to redo the back yard,
  • making several large-for-me charitable donations,
  • booking trips to Europe, South America, and Antarctica,
  • applying for a sabbatical that outlines a new research area for me, and
  • committing to a big, international, multiyear research project.

For the most part, making these decisions felt good. It gave me a sense of control and helped me imagine a future without Tom. Some of these decisions could have been put off; for example, I could have easily tabled travel plans for a year. But for me, making those travel plans was actually key in helping me feel like I was moving forward with my life. Having plans on my calendar gave me something to look forward to and forced me to confront head-on my fears about traveling to new places with a vision impairment and no partner to help me. Many people told me to hold off on making the travel plans, which are expensive and force me into the unknown.

But you know what? I hadn’t asked any of those people for their input. This commonly given advice, like so much advice, is typically unsolicited. I think people mindlessly repeat what they have heard without considering how helpful it is. I remind myself when I hear it that these people are either legitimately trying to be helpful or so uncomfortable with grief that they are just filling conversational space with a tepid platitude.

In contrast, a few people, when I asked for advice, told me something along the lines of “take all the time you need to make that decision” or “you don’t have to make that decision in a hurry.” These words honor the individual nature of decision-making.

As someone who has often struggled with decision paralysis, I’ve been happy to notice that grief makes priorities clear in a way that can actually help me make decisions. Perhaps the advice should be to make more big decisions while grieving.

Swedish Death Cleaning

I first heard about Swedish death cleaning when Margareta Magnusson’s book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning came out in 2018. I have always disliked clutter and felt better when my living spaces feel ordered, and the concept of death cleaning—getting rid of what you don’t need while you’re still alive so your loved ones don’t have to do it after you die—felt like a cooler, trendier way to talk about my appreciation for being organized. Eyes glaze over when I say, “I love organizing!” but when I say, “I’m into Swedish death cleaning,” people perk up with morbid curiosity. 

The marketing copy for Magnusson’s book describes Swedish death cleaning as “A charming, practical, and unsentimental approach to putting a home in order while reflecting on the tiny joys that make up a long life.” I don’t know about whether it’s charming, but it is unsentimental in that it dispenses with the emotion that often drives me to hold onto things I don’t really need or even want. I often hold onto things out of foolish optimism—for example, I’ll think, “I don’t have time to read this interesting looking book now, but I’m optimistic that I will during the summer.” By the time summer arrives, I have a stack of 20+ books to read, and even under the best of circumstances, I may actually read half of those. I’ve often joked when putting leftovers in the fridge, “I can throw this out now or let it sit in the fridge for two weeks and then throw it out.“ Adopting the philosophy of Swedish death cleaning means throwing it out or finding another home for something now rather than in two weeks. It means facing the reality that I will NOT be able to read all the books I want to over the summer and either not buying them “in preparation” for summer or giving them away when they are gifted to me.  

The real practicality of it became salient when my husband died and I had to go through all his things. He was not much of a packrat, so he had less to go through than many people his age, 61, might have. He left behind clothing, shoes, a few books that carried sentimental value, tools, motorcycle stuff, rafting/camping stuff, art/décor, minimal papers (blueprints from jobs he worked on, instruction manuals), electronics, knife sharpening stuff, just a few photos and mementos. Even with Tom’s fairly minimalist ways, going through his things after his death was tough. I was brought to tears by an old pair of reading glasses and a keychain that I suspected had sentimental value to him even though I didn’t know why. I find myself holding onto those items because I feel I “should.” I wonder if the reading glasses he held onto were special to him—or did he just not ever get around to giving them away? Thinking about my daughter and stepson eventually trying to decide what to do with the mysterious reading glasses and keychain they find in my stuff when I die helps me recognize that getting rid of those things now makes sense. 

Swedish death cleaning serves several purposes: 

  1. It relieves survivors of the guilt of getting rid of things. I grew up in a family that dubbed everything any of our ancestors touched “family heirlooms” and my sister and I lugged around many broken and meaningless family heirlooms for decades. It was a relief when I finally realized some of the family heirlooms were just things my father didn’t have the heart to throw out when his own parents and wife died. That realization helps me realize I really do need to get rid of Tom’s old reading glasses and keychain—or make an effort to learn the stories behind them and preserve them as meaningful family heirlooms. 
  2. It creates a tidier, more spacious working and living environment. A towering pile of books I mean to read makes me feel a touch of guilt every time I see it, so instead of having a “to be read” pile, I treat books I haven’t read yet as decor items and put them where they look good. While I am vehemently against the whole “books as nothing but decor” trend, I am even more against feeling bad about not having read a quantity of books in a summer no one could read in five years. Having the books serve a purpose, even if it’s just lookin’ purdy, makes me feel more peaceful and in harmony in my living space and campus office (yes, there were “to be read” piles at work and at home). 
  3. When I die, my daughter and stepson will have less to deal with. When someone dies, going through their belongings and deciding what to do with the clothing, the books, the mementos—it’s tricky. It’s not simply a matter of packing things up for Goodwill. Without necessarily knowing the providence of each item and its meaning to the dead person, it becomes an exercise in trying to read the mind of someone who’s not around to provide insight. Is it just a T-shirt or is it a souvenir from a trip that changed their life? Is it a book that was meaningful to them or one that they never even read? Better to get rid of the things I don’t love now and spare them the emotional detective work later. 
  4. It makes the finitude of life more tangible. “Finitude of life” is a phrase I got from Oliver Burkeman’s amazing book 4000 Weeks, which is marketed as a time management book but is actually a philosophical treatise on the reality that we are all going to die, no matter how cleverly we hack our time. Thinking about my own death isn’t nearly as upsetting as you might think. I’ve always marveled at the light, floaty feeling I get in shavasana, the yoga pose whose name translates from the Sanskrit as “corpse pose.” Acknowledging that I just won’t live long enough to read all the books, travel to all the places, and do all the things actually relieves me of the pressure to always be ticking something off my list. Earlier this week, I recycled four issues of a magazine I love because I realized I was not ever going to have time to read them. It was the equivalent of throwing out the leftovers that will never be eaten, bypassing the time consuming steps of packing them into Tupperware and rearranging the fridge to accommodate them. Once the magazines were in the recycling bin, I was immediately relieved. No more guilt about not reading those issues! 

The concept can be applied to much more than just material stuff. People who are cluttering my life, beliefs that don’t serve me—they can all go. I’ll write more about those advanced Swedish death cleaning moves in a future post. 

It turns out I am living life pretty well

I’ve seen my grief therapist almost every week for nine months now. She’s asked me periodically if I’m feeling any anger and my answer has always been no. I’ve felt profound sadness, disbelief, and fear. I’ve felt some frustration and irritation, but nothing I would call anger.

Until this week. Anger arrived on Wednesday. I noticed it creeping up on me the day before when an email chain I was on suddenly seemed outlandishly stupid to me and I sent a pissy response. The anger simmered at a low level, but I could ignore it easily enough. Then on Wednesday, I felt the anger building up in intensity, starting in my stomach, moving up to a pressure in my chest and culminating in a fuming, throbbing headache. I was so angry that I ended my class 15 minutes early because I couldn’t think straight. I don’t think I’ve ever ended a class 15 minutes early in my entire career. That’s how blinding my anger was.

I will post something about the anger in the coming weeks, after I have some distance from it. Today I want to talk about how struggling with the big emotions I’ve been feeling since my husband’s stroke and then a year later, his death, often make me feel unable to participate much in life. I don’t keep up on the news, I don’t clean my house, I nap between meetings—in short, I take a laissez faire attitude toward most everything. The story I tell myself then is that I’m doing nothing, letting life pass me by.

This week, when I started telling myself that, I decided as an experiment to write down the things I have done since my husband died, and gosh, it turns out that I haven’t exactly done nothing:

  • I got out of bed and put on big girl clothes, including an actual bra, almost every single day. There have been many days in which I napped for most of the day, but I did it in a complete outfit and on the couch, so even on those days, I can claim that I got out of bed and got dressed.
  • I cooked real food at least once a week. There are lots of days when I just have no appetite and no energy to cook, but I have managed to make myself a homemade meal at least once a week and often more than that.
  • I took good care of myself. I worked out and journaled nearly every single day. I made doctor and dentist appointments I had put off while being Tom’s caregiver. I got massages. I met with a grief therapist nearly every week. I attended ten widow support group meetings.  
  • I walked the dogs every day. Some of the walks were on the short side, just little maintenance walks, but most were good walks, and we often stopped at the bench that commemorates Tom. Sometimes I even played with the dogs on their walks.
  • I spent quality time with my daughter, my sister, my nephew, my mother-in-law and her husband, my brother-in-law and his wife, my stepson and his partner, and several good friends.
  • I finished and sent out two memoir essays. One has been accepted for publication and I haven’t heard back about the other one. Relatedly, I participated in a weeklong online writing retreat, five weekend DIY writing retreats, and a four-week online writing course; I attended and participated in 12 online writing workshops; and I joined a writing group that meets every three weeks and have participated in three meetings.
  • I planned a celebration of Tom’s life that I think captured the essence of who he was and why he is so deeply missed. I also had a bench commemorated to him at the park near our house and scattered some of his ashes in Oregon, one of his favorite places.
  • I completed the probate process with/for/on Tom’s will. (I have no idea what preposition to use there, which shows how little I understand legalese.)
  • I had and recovered from major surgery.
  • I prepared for and won an appeal of my health insurance company’s denial of a $42,000 claim related to Tom’s stroke. When the claim was first denied, I thought the insurance company had just made a mistake, but then my first appeal was also denied and I began to worry. I was certain I would need to hire an attorney, but I handled the second-level appeal myself, which was a ton of work.
  • I took four trips by myself and made plans to go to Europe this summer by myself.  
  • I bought original artwork at an arts festival. The piece I bought makes me smile every day.
  • I attended and participated in Buddhist meetings almost every week.
  • I read five books and am almost done with a sixth.
  • I watched the entirety of Schitt’s Creek.
  • I filed my taxes.
  • I remembered birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates of loved ones.
  • I blogged almost every week.

Even at work, where I have significantly underperformed,

  • I applied for and was granted a sabbatical for the spring 2023 semester.
  • I revised and resubmitted an article that will be published this summer.
  • I collaborated with two colleagues on an edited collection of scholarly essays.  
  • I attended my first conference since the pandemic began.
  • I formed a committee to explore creating an interdisciplinary disabilities studies minor.

This list helps me see that the story I tell myself about being so sapped by grief that I can’t do anything is just not accurate. It is true that I haven’t kept up with the news or cleaned my house. But look at what I have done! I certainly don’t want to imply that a long list indicates a life well-lived, but I do frankly find value in every single item on this list. It actually is, for me, indicative of a life being well-lived, not because of the number of items on it but because every item on it is aligned with my values.

I suspect many of us can be pretty hard on ourselves when we are in the throes of emotional turmoil. I humbly suggest that the next time you feel like you’re doing nothing with your life, you make a list of what you are doing. You might be surprised by what it reveals.

Peer Mentoring Widows

In the early days after my husband’s death, I was hungry to talk to other widows close to my age. I had just turned 52 when Tom died and off the top of my head, I could only think of one other person I knew who was widowed around the same age.

That person was a Facebook friend, a professional acquaintance I didn’t know well at all but I was aware from his Facebook posts that he’d been widowed around the beginning of the pandemic. I messaged him through Facebook and he responded immediately. We met for a cup of coffee and he told me about his experience of being a youngish widower. It made me feel less alone and freakish to sit with someone else who had been through the experience of losing their partner at a youngish age. It reassured me that people our age could assemble a meaningful life after losing the love of their life.

A few days later, my dog walker put me in touch with a friend of hers about my age who had been widowed for a few years. That other widow became a lifeline for me. We met for coffee, went for walks together, and texted regularly. She was able to commiserate with me in a way that only another youngish widow could. Being further along in the experience of being a widow, she was also able to offer guidance about how I might deal with upcoming milestones. She helped me feel normal when I found myself completely unexcited about upcoming holidays or angry about going through the many post-partner death bureaucratic requirements.

I also had two neighbors, one who was widowed very young and another who was widowed when she was a little older than me, come by to express condolences and remind me that they understood. Although I didn’t talk extensively with either of them, knowing they were nearby and open to talking to me was a constant reassurance. Every time I saw them in the neighborhood, it was proof that people survive the turmoil and upheaval of being widowed.

The widow friend my dog walker connected me to told me about widow support groups on Facebook. There seem to be hundreds of them, some focused on widows in specific geographic areas, some devoted to widows of particular religious affiliations, and others organized around interests or simply living with loss. I immediately joined widow groups oriented toward being in Colorado, travel, and gallows humor, as well as a few more open-ended widow groups. While I am not an active poster in any of these groups, reading the posts of others gives me perspective and reminds me that there are an infinite number of ways to experience and respond to grief—and at the same time, there are some constants: it absolutely sucks, some people in your life won’t be supportive, some people will be surprisingly supportive, pets usually help, and grief isn’t linera.

I also devoured memoirs by widows, starting with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Abigail Thomas’s What Comes Next and How to Like It. Didion’s memoir helped me understand some of the weird memory gaps I had in the early days as normal. What I appreciated most about Thomas’s memoir was the grim humor. (I’ve always gravitated toward dark humor, and it feels to me like being widowed offers some fantastic opportunities for it. While death isn’t funny, it is kind of hilarious that we act like death isn’t natural. What’s more natural than death?)

The experience of being widowed is disorienting and knowing others who have gone through the experience has helped orient me to this strange new world, as has being able to read about or hear about the experiences of others.

I’m now 9 ½ months out and have been widowed long enough that people are starting to reach out to me to orient newer widows. In a weird way, it feels like getting a promotion, like recognition for a job well done. To be sure, I still flounder as much as I did at the beginning, but I do it with the confidence that there is no other way to do this widowing thing. That is one lesson I’ve learned through my conversations with other widowed people, the memoirs I’ve read, and the Facebook groups I’ve lurked on.

I’ve spoken to two newer widows recently, who looked to me for some sense of orientation. It’s like being an ambassador to a place no one wants to be. Nobody gets here on purpose and we arrive with a metric fuckton of baggage, none of which prepares us for the experience. Knowing how much it helped me to have some relatable guides, I feel quite honored to take on the responsibility for others. I am not sure if my ethos as an ambassador is more optimistically grim or grimly optimistic, but in any case, I do feel oddly well-equipped to take on the responsibility of metaphorically holding another widow’s hand through the disorientation.

All the widowed people who made themselves available to me were incredibly generous to me and I sometimes wondered why. Now I get it. When an acquaintance reached out last week and apologetically asked if they could connect me to a newly widowed person they knew, I brushed aside the apology. I was honored to help. I have become a master of saying no to all sorts of requests since Tom’s stroke, but supporting another widow is something I am deeply honored to do. The loss widows feel is not more or less than the loss others feel when someone dies but it can be more disorienting. When you are used to the constant contact a partner offers; consulting them about meals, child or petcare, and all manner of household matters; and assuming their presence in every vision of the future, the loss touches every aspect of your life. Going to the grocery store, opening the mail, being in your home . . . it all triggers big feelings that other widows instinctively understand.

It feels good to be able to put those big feelings to use.