There Are No Bad Days

One of my favorite Buddhist writers, Sallie Tisdale, advises that we not label days bad but instead call them challenging or hard days. This philosophy is in keeping with what I’ve practiced since my own stroke in 1997 which I was not expected to survive. While in a medically-induced coma, I had a “going towards the light” experience that forever changed me. When I came out of my coma, I had the unshakable feeling that I had been given a choice: that I could continue on toward the light or I could come back to the life I had been living. Both were presented as neutral, equal options. 

At the time I wasn’t thrilled with my life—I had some troubled relationships and felt a lot of angst and ambivalence. I was not someone who loved life and I did not feel deeply connected to anyone beyond my sister and then-husband. But at the moment when I made my choice, I felt *invited* to continue my life. That feeling of being invited has made all the difference in the time that followed. Rather than being sulky and resentful, I have been grateful and connected. 

I have recognized each day as an invitation to live. There have been no bad days since I accepted the invitation to live in 1997. Even the day my husband had his stroke, even the day I made the decision to remove him from life support, even the day he died—these were not bad days. These were days that were difficult, sad, heartbreaking, even—but not bad. 

I think of those days as ones in which I got to do the most loving things I have ever done. The day my husband had his stroke, I committed to being his caregiver. The day I made the decision to remove him from life support and the day he died, I let him go—absolutely the most painful thing I’ve ever done, but after fighting against it with every ounce of my being for a year, it was what I needed to do. 

This attitude has made it possible for me to be present and grounded in even the most difficult of moments. I’ve been able to be fully present with my husband when he needed me most, rather than turning away in fear and denial. I’ve been able to experience the full, beautiful depth of human emotion, even when it physically hurts.

Instead of labeling a day good or bad, I find it more useful to think about how I showed up for the day. If a day was challenging, did I show up with curiosity and patience or anger and irritation? Did I recognize the difference between what I wanted to do and what I needed to do? I find that when I label a day “bad,” I dismiss it in its entirety, but when I identify a day “challenging,” I recognize its complexity and my own role in that complexity.

The day my husband died was the most difficult day of my life, but not a bad day. It was a day of intense love and connection, as well as nearly unfathomable heartbreak. I don’t wish a day like that on anyone, but I know people I love will have days like that. These days are as much a part of life as the ones we readily label as good. I celebrate every day I get to live. 

Remembering the Love We Had

Sometimes I think I am idealizing the past, remembering in too rosy a way the life I had with my late husband. Could we really have been as happy as I remember us being? 

I spent the week of Thanksgiving with my late husband’s brother and his wife and we went through old photo albums and told stories. Photo after photo showed my late husband and me looking ecstatically happy together. There we are in the snow in rural Oregon, smiling from ear to ear. There we are in motorcycle gear in front of a seedy motel in Wyoming, glowing with joy. There we are at a family dinner in Denver, grinning like we just won the lottery. Photo after photo shows his arm around me or on my left shoulder, where I can still feel it sometimes. So many photos of him making me laugh. 

I know photos don’t tell the complete story, the way someone’s Facebook postings don’t represent the entirety of their life. I remember arguments and misunderstandings. I know every day wasn’t perfect, but I also know that every day involved laughter and ended with “I love you.” We both had the same philosophy of life: find joy in the everyday. 

The photos I looked at around Thanksgiving tell that story—the story of two people who found joy in the small things, who loved each other intensely, even when we disagreed. His mother one time observed, “You both think you’re the lucky one and you’re both right.” I know I am lucky to have had that kind of love. 

Despite having spent nearly every moment of the last year of his life with my husband, I wish I had been more present, more well-rested, more responsive instead of reactive, more . . . Everything. I sometimes find myself just wanting more. More of anything with him. More of all the things that I let myself get annoyed about before his stroke—more of the toilet seat being left up, more of his laundry being strewn about the bedroom, more of the dog food container not being refilled when it was empty. More of the kinds of moments captured in those photographs I looked at around Thanksgiving. 

I recognize every moment—the gleeful smiles as well as the picking-up-laundry-with-an-eye-roll moments—as the relationship. 

Now that Tom is dead, it is easy for me to see that getting annoyed about those things was a choice and that I could have made different choices. Not to get what I wanted in the short term—laundry being put in the clothes hamper, for example—but to get the big picture of what I wanted: harmonious time with my husband. I regret every moment I lost to silly annoyances.  

I am lucky to have had the year with him after his stroke, when he was physically unable to put a toilet seat down or place his laundry where it belonged or feed the dogs. I got that time to realize that the things that annoyed me didn’t really matter. I got the harmonious time with my husband. 

I think many of us who have lost a loved one remember their imperfections with love and generosity. I am resolving to greet the imperfections of my living loved ones with the same love and generosity I feel toward those of my dead loved ones. 

The Art of Being Alone

One of the adjustments being widowed has required is getting used to doing things alone that I used to do with a partner. Traveling, attending events, and dining out are all activities that I was used to do doing with my late husband. Shortly after he died, I got a crash course in being alone at an event I would normally attend with him when a cousin got married. Luckily, I wasn’t alone at the wedding by a long stretch—my daughter, stepson, son-in-law, mother-in-law, and several other family members I’m close to were there. But it was the first big social event I went to sans date that I would normally have gone to with my husband. The irony of being unwillingly alone at an event celebrating partnership was tough to handle and I did excuse myself at one point to go cry in privacy.                    

Despite being very introverted and needing lots of alone time, there are many times when I don’t want to be alone. Going to social events and places where most people are with others makes me feel very conspicuous about being alone. There’s comfort in having a partner in crime with you, someone who can make you feel less awkward when you walk into a wall or can’t read a sign (as a vision impaired person, this happens to me all the time and having someone else with me makes it funny instead of embarrassing), who can make idle chit chat with you so you’re not left standing alone, or who can swoop in and relieve you of talking to the person everyone has warned you about.

Although I would prefer to have a partner with me at many events, I am not going to let being widowed keep me from enjoying things I want to do. A few months after my husband died, I went to a place I had gone to many times with him and never alone: some popular hot springs in Colorado. It was somewhat terrifying because my vision in hot springs is particularly bad—the steam makes it harder to see and fogs up my glasses, so when I used to go with my husband, we would hold hands and he would lead me around. On top of the vision challenges, pretty much everyone there is with a partner or their kids. Going there by myself felt scary, which is why I picked it for one of my first solo outings. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. As a bonus, the steam made me feel like the tears running down my face the whole time were less noticeable.

In reflecting on 2022, I noticed that one of my standout experiences was something I did alone: riding a horse in Iceland. I signed up for the ride not knowing how many other people were going, but I assumed everyone else would be part of a couple or group, and I was right. Of the ten riders in my group, I was the only person on my own. If I had gone with someone else, at least part of me would have been focused on that person, but because I was on my own, I focused more on my sweet horse, Pitla.  In fact, after our ride, everyone else went into the office for hot chocolate, while I stayed out in the paddock with Pitla, petting her, talking to her, and removing her saddle. I got so absorbed that one of the employees finally came out to tell me everyone else was in the minivan and ready to go back to Reykjavík—would I be ready soon?

In a year and a half of doing most everything alone, I’ve learned a few things:

  1. It’s quite unlikely that anyone else even notices you. You think everyone is noticing you because you’re the protagonist of your own story, but the flip side of that is that you’re not even a character in other people’s stories. Maybe they notice you do someone embarrassing, but it’s just a blip on their radar, and more likely, they don’t even notice it. In all the times I’ve cried at restaurants or events, no one has ever seemed to notice.
  2. If you look for other solo people, you’ll probably find them. You’re actually not the only person there alone. Case in point: last week I went to a concert by myself. As I was walking into the venue, a colleague of mine appeared. She was by herself, too. We ended up sitting together but the topic of us each being alone never came up. On my way out, I ran into someone else I knew who was there alone. These two run-ins happened without me actually looking for other folks on their own, so imagine how many folks I might have found had I been looking.
  3. I’ve seen in online forums travelers who are on their own called “solo travelers.” I like that so much better than “traveling alone.” I’m trying to reframe being alone as being solo. It sounds more powerful to me.                
  4. Before I go to an event on my own, I usually give myself permission to leave early if I want to and I review my options for doing so. Knowing I have a plan for leaving early makes me feel calmer. I usually don’t leave early, but I like knowing that if I want to, I can and it will be easy.

And there are actually some benefits to being at events alone. For example, you can leave when you want to without consulting anyone else. The most surprising advantage I’ve noticed is that I am often more present when I am alone because my attention isn’t split between the event and the person I am with.

Get Better at Allowing Others to Help You by Understanding What They Get Out of It

Last week, my daughter and I arrived home from an outing and as I got out of the car with two small bags, my daughter offered to take one. I let her.

That last sentence may not read like the seismic shift in my behavior that it represents, so let me give you some context. For much of my life, I have been someone who absolutely refused to accept help beyond a door being held open, and even that sometimes was too much for me.

In fact, it’s not allowing someone to open a door for me that precipitated my long journey to become a person who does accept help. About twenty years ago, I was getting ready to drive back to Denver after spending the summer out of state. As I was bringing bags and boxes out to my car, my sister-in-law offered to help. “No, I’m fine,” I said, balancing multiple bags over my shoulders and carrying a box in front of me. “At least let me get the door,” she said, moving toward the door, but I shook my head, limped to the door as quickly as I could to be sure I got there before she did, teetered dangerously as I tried to not drop anything while opening the door myself, then headed out to my car.

When I came back in, my sister-in-law said, “You just really pissed me off. There is no good reason for you to not let me help you.”

She was right. (She usually is.) There was no good reason for me to say no to her offer of help. That day was a turning point for me. Most of the time these days I say yes. But I admit, it’s been a long, slow learning curve. I cringe thinking about all the times I was scaling the shelves at a grocery store like a BASE jumper to get something from the top shelf and said no to the stranger who offered help.

When my late husband had his stroke, I became very good at saying yes to help because I desperately needed it. That was another turning point for me. While my sister-in-law got me started on this journey, I still often had to fight the urge to say no when people offered help. My husband’s stroke pushed me into the territory of defaulting to yes.

Here’s what I’ve learned about accepting help from others:

  1. Saying yes to help allows relationships to deepen. Saying no to help is a distancing technique. When I said no to help in the past, it was often a way to keep people at a distance. Sometimes I had good reasons—for example, allowing a toxic person to help can mean opening yourself up to complicated feelings of indebtedness or guilt. But often I said no simply because I had developed the habit of saying no to help under any circumstance.

I also failed to differentiate between asking for help and accepting help that is voluntarily offered. I thought accepting any kind of help would make me appear needy and people would judge me negatively for it. But accepting offered help is simply good manners and as my story above about staggering under a heavy load to beat my sister-in-law to the door shows, rejecting offered help can lead to hurt feelings.

Accepting help is an acknowledgment of vulnerability and interdependence. After my brain surgery, a neighbor offered to pick up groceries for me. Giving your grocery list to someone else can be surprisingly intimate. That person now knows what you eat and how picky you are about your dairy products (maybe that’s just me). Allowing someone to pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy lets them know what drugs you take. Letting someone walk your dog means they may find out that your dog has a really embarrassing habit of . . . well, never mind.

My point is, accepting help means letting someone else know about these little quirks—which is one of the reasons that people like to help. They like to learn these little quirks about us. They find them endearing. It makes them feel invited into our lives and special.

2. Saying yes to help gives others an opportunity to feel good about themselves. After my husband’s stroke, I could see how relieved people were when I let them help me. They felt helpless in the face of our situation and being allowed to help let them feel less helpless. Even more significantly, it allowed them to feel like they were making a positive difference in a crappy situation. They got to feel generous.

When I think of times others have let me help them, I always feel good. I remember helping someone write an obituary, providing food that I know was welcomed, and giving books that made someone feel less alone. Instead of I-wish-I-had-known-what-to-do anxiety, I have a feeling of gentle connectedness with these memories.

3. Saying yes to help often allows others to show off their skills and talents without bragging. When I was planning a quick trip to Iceland earlier this year, a friend who had been there before offered to write up a suggested 3-day itinerary—it turns out she’s a whiz at travel planning. A neighbor who maintained our front yard after my husband’s stroke is an incredible gardener. A friend who hung some shelves for me is a talented craftsperson.

Once I began understanding accepting help as something I can do for others, it became much easier for me.