All posts by Elizabeth Kleinfeld

Saying the Wrong Thing to a Grieving Person, Part 1

I’m writing this week and next week about the concept of saying “the wrong thing” to someone who is grieving. I see online and hear from people often that folks hold back from reaching out to someone they know who is grieving because they don’t want to “say the wrong thing.” People express concerns about upsetting the grieving person or reminding them of their loss. The grieving people I know through support groups do voice frustration and even anger about people saying “the wrong thing.” By “wrong things,” I mean something that makes the grieving person feel worse rather than better. It might be something that makes the grieving person feel judged or misunderstood or it might make them feel more alone or isolated.

I’ve mostly written here about the loss of my husband, but today I am focusing on my grieving of my mother, who died when I was 12. There are two incidents that really stand out for me when I think of friends saying “the wrong thing”:

1988. It was my first year in college and as Mother’s Day approached, I walked with some friends to the Walgreens near campus. Someone mentioned getting cards for our moms. I had mentioned to this group that my mother had died when I was 12, but of course, none of them (or I, for that matter) knew how I would feel about a conversation about Mother’s Day cards. They talked amongst themselves about ways they had celebrated their moms on Mother’s Day in the past as we walked, and I felt myself getting more and more agitated. Just moments earlier, I had been enjoying hanging out with my friends, but I suddenly found myself swimming in powerful emotion—feeling disconnected from and unseen by my friends, missing my mother, remembering the very complicated relationship I had with her. It came upon me without warning. I had told stories about my mom to this same group just a few days ago and not had any kind of negative emotion arise. But in this moment, I felt like I was outside my own body. I stopped walking and blurted out, “I don’t want to talk about Mother’s Day! I don’t want to look at Mother’s Day cards!” My three friends stopped and turned back to look at me, shocked and uncomfortable. I don’t remember what they said, but I do remember the genuine surprise and confusion on their faces. They had been caught up in the moment, thinking about themselves and their mother, not me and my missing mother. And although I didn’t handle the situation perfectly, I did make my needs clear: I wanted the topic of conversation to shift.

2012: I went out with a group of other mothers for brunch on Mother’s Day. Mimosas were ordered and people started remembering their own mothers, telling stories about how much they still depended on or felt connected to their mothers. I was quiet, enjoying the stories others were telling and feeling confident that because everyone in the group knew my mom had died when I was a kid that there was no pressure on me to contribute. At some point, however, someone in the group asked me how my mother died. Again, I was engulfed by strong emotions. It felt to me like all conversation at the table stopped and everyone turned to look at me. I felt a swell of anger that I was being put on the spot to talk about a painful memory in front of an audience. I sputtered, “I don’t want to talk about my dead mother on Mother’s Day!” Everyone at the table stared for a moment and then I went to the restroom to pull myself together. By the time I returned a few minutes later, conversation had moved on. As in the first incident, I wasn’t graceful about it, but I did make my needs known: I did not want to talk about my mother.

The two incidents were nearly 25 years apart and in both, my mother had been dead for long enough that the loss no longer felt fresh to me. “My mother died when I was a kid” was a phrase I said commonly and with no emotion; it was a fact about me that I could rattle off easily most days. When I think about these two incidents, I realize that the exact same conversations on any other day of the year wouldn’t have bothered me. It was the context of Mother’s Day that made otherwise benign conversation topics and questions upsetting to me.

I felt in both incidents as if the people around me should have known better—that my friends in college should have known I wouldn’t want to talk about Mother’s Day cards and that my adult mom friends should have known I wouldn’t want to talk about how my mother died. But how would they know? I didn’t even know until the moments were happening that I would react so strongly.

I now know that Mother’s Day is a trigger for me and I lay low on that day. Recognizing that it wasn’t what people said to me but the context of Mother’s Day that upset me helps me feel compassion for the people who said “the wrong thing” and for myself in my socially awkward responses. Grieving is messy and being around a grieving person is messy. It’s ok to be messy. It’s normal to be messy, especially when grieving.

I don’t have a neat and tidy bulleted list of things to do or avoid when it comes to saying “the wrong thing.” My advice boils down to this:

  • Grievers, make your needs known, even if you do it awkwardly. If you need to not talk about something, say so. If you need to be quiet, say so. If you need to be alone, say so.  
  • Friends of grievers, when the griever makes their needs known, don’t explain or defend yourself, just do what you can do reasonably to accommodate their needs, whether that means changing the topic of conversation, letting a question go unanswered, or something else.

And for both grievers and friends of grievers, I suggest giving each other and yourselves grace. It’s going to be messy.

Living through Special Dates

I’ve been told several times that one of the hardest aspects of the first year after a loved one dies is surviving each holiday, birthday, and anniversary without them for the first time. I have now made it through my late husband’s favorite holiday, Halloween; Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s; and his birthday, earlier this week. The entire month leading up to Halloween hit me hard (I blogged about it here), and then Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas felt relatively easy.

New Year’s Eve and January 1 were surprisingly tough. Entering a new year that Tom will never know or be part of felt like closing a door on him, like officially declaring him part of my past. He will never know about my trip this summer to Europe or about the memoir I am writing. He won’t be laughing with me the next time the dogs do something goofy. His favorite shirt after his stroke had a picture of the Jeff Bridges character from The Big Lebowski and the quote, “Life goes on, man.” That thought ran through my mind all day on January 1. Life does go on. I am still here, sifting through the weird bureaucracy and joy of life. The thought was simultaneously heart-wrenching and comforting.

For his birthday this week, I was originally going to invite his mother and son and my daughter to join me for a little remembrance at his bench, but COVID exposures scuttled that plan. Instead, I visited his bench with one of our dogs twice, posted a remembrance on Facebook, and created a Facebook fundraiser for one of his favorite charities, the Denver Dumb Friends League. I also attended a remote grief support group meeting. I theoretically worked that day, but I kept my camera off during meetings and got little done. I spent most of the day scrolling through photos and videos of him on my phone and ipad, talking aloud to him, and wandering around the house touching things that remind me of him—his yellow lifejacket, which I brought in from the garage and hung in the bedroom closet; the tiles in the downstairs bathroom, which he installed; the desk in the front room that he turned into part of his knife-sharpening station after his stroke; the Buddha statue in the guest bedroom.

Since his death, I’ve reflected often on how although we committed to spending the rest of our lives together, it never occurred to me until he had his stroke that I could outlive him. When I thought before his stroke about “spending the rest of our lives together,” I imagined we would die together. I realize now how naïve that thought is. It was always much more likely that one of us would outlive the other. How my mind managed to evade that thought for 12 years is probably related to my age—I imagine older couples might be more cognizant of the likelihood of widowhood. But maybe not. I’m sure I’ll be in love again, and in this moment, it seems impossible to think about being in love with someone and not also anticipating that one of us is going to outlive the other. But maybe the thrill of new love blurs that thought.

The next occasion to survive is our anniversary in March, and then the big doozy: my birthday. It was on my birthday 2021 that I made the decision to remove him from life support. I have no idea how either of these days will hit me, but I am keeping them clear on my schedule and allowing myself to be open to whatever emotions come. I’ve indicated them as “Remembrance Days” on my calendar.

Widow Brain (aka Mom Brain or Trauma Brain)

Last week I mentioned a trip to Portland, Oregon and said it was my first solo trip since my husband’s death. A day or so later, I remembered that it’s actually my second solo trip since his death—I took the train from Denver to Glenwood Springs by myself in November. That was my first solo trip since Tom’s death and it was amazingly bittersweet. I cried nearly the entire six hour train ride there and then did the same thing on the way back. I went to the Glenwood Springs hot springs alone, forcing myself to do a family- and couples-oriented activity all by myself because I knew I needed to get through the “first time” sooner rather than later. It was an incredible experience that left me feeling both drained and proud. How could I have forgotten something as monumental as that?

The answer is simple: widow brain. This is a close cousin of pregnancy brain, mom brain, and trauma brain. These are all names for feelings of fogginess, slowness, forgetfulness, short-term memory loss, and other cognitive blips that often accompany major life events. It is a totally normal neurological response to stress and happens because the brain is conserving resources. I like the non-technical explanation of widow brain from Widow411:

“When something traumatic happens, it’s like your brain says, ‘Ok let’s take this down a notch’ because you can’t regulate yourself so your brain’s going to do it for you.”

That captures how my brain feels a lot of the time: like it’s running on low power.

My widow brain has manifested itself in many ways:

  • I have trouble learning and retaining new things. Being a widow means having to learn to do things my husband used to take care of, so the fact that learning new things is particularly challenging right now feels ironic. A generous friend took care of my sprinkler system after Tom died and tried to explain to me how to do it myself, but I just shook my head and told him my brain couldn’t absorb the information. More recently, my daughter had to explain to me four or five times, very slowly, how to introduce our reactive dog to someone new. I kept asking her to explain the process to me one more time. Finally, I wrote down what she told me and then held that piece of paper in my hand while doing the introduction. I just could not retain the information or the order of steps.
  • I am forgetful. The Glenwood Springs trip is just one example. I have forgotten names of people I have known for years, where I keep things I use regularly, tasks I do at the same time every day (the poor dogs have gotten a very, very, very late dinner a few times because I forgot to feed them and couldn’t figure out why they were pacing and eyeing me expectantly), and more. I have forgotten events I am looking forward to. One morning in December, for example, I looked at my calendar and was excited to see that I had scheduled time to meet a good friend I hadn’t seen for a while for a drink that afternoon. I was horrified to get a text from her that afternoon telling me she was running late but would be over soon—I had completely forgotten by then! Luckily she was running late and I was able to scramble to get ready by the time she arrived.
  • I lose track of time. Time feels particularly elastic to me right now. I skip meals because I don’t realize lunch or dinner time has come and gone (I have little appetite anyway these days, so my body doesn’t reliably tell me to eat). I stay up later than I planned to because I have no idea what time it is and I’m tired all the time, so being tired isn’t a reliable indicator of bed time. I walk the dogs for an extra half hour because I don’t know how long I’ve been walking.
  • I can’t find my phone. I used to be one of those weirdos who never loses their phone or keys. The first time I lost my phone was the day after Tom had his stroke—I put it down somewhere in the hospital and realized some time later I didn’t have it. Fortunately, someone came across it and brought it to the hospital lost and found. Since then, I’ve misplaced my phone frequently and thoroughly lost it a few times in the house. For those of you who lose your phone all the time, this may seem like a normal event, but for me, it is always accompanied by the thought, “But I don’t lose my phone! How could this be happening?”  
  • I feel disconnected from what I’m doing. I often find myself “going through the motions” rather than feeling engaged in what I’m doing. Thankfully, this happens less and less; of all the widow brain symptoms I’m experiencing, this one seems to be lessening the most dramatically recently. I was worried during the fall that I would never feel connected to my job again. My work as a college professor has been deeply meaningful to me in the past and it was upsetting to feel disconnected from it after Tom died. I was relieved to go back to work this past Monday and feel some excitement about the upcoming semester. It’s a familiar old feeling I hadn’t experienced in a while.

Whether or not you are experiencing grief over a loved one right now, what I’ve described as widow brain may sound like it fits your current experience. That could be because all of us—every single one of us—is experiencing some trauma because of the pandemic right now. We’re all working through the losses accumulating related to changes in work, housing, relationships, health, and more. Grief is about loss. So we all have trauma brain to some degree.

I’m trying to laugh about the silly things I do because of my widow brain and apologize when necessary. I try to appreciate that what I’m experiencing is normal and actually an indication that my brain is healthy. I meditate and chant to help settle my mind. I occasionally do yoga and every single time tell myself I should do it more often; yoga helps unify the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which can help with cognitive function. Note to self: do more yoga.

Bursting into Flower in Slow Motion

I recently came across Muriel Rukeyser’s brief poem in response to Sylvia Plath’s death, “The Power of Suicide”:

The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves :
Flower     flower     flower     flower
Today for the sake of all the dead      Burst into flower

I love the sentiment of living harder in honor of people who don’t live anymore. This is what I have been trying to do since my husband died 6 ½ months ago. My husband was known for living life to the fullest and when he passed away, I felt strongly that the most fitting way I could honor his memory would be to embrace life, have adventures, and bring joy to others. Although I have felt intense sadness, I’ve also felt intense happiness, sometimes at the same time.

Many times since my husband’s death, as I’ve navigated doing alone what I thought I’d have a partner along with me for, I’ve felt something like “bursting into flower,” although the phrases I’ve been thinking of are “blossoming,” “coming into myself,” and others that capture the slow, gradual nature of what seems to be happening.

Last week, I read an excerpt from Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, in which he observes, “If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly.” That reminded me that the time that Tom has been gone—6 ½ months—is just a flash in the grand scheme of time, and that this blossoming that seems to be happening slowly, is, relative to “the history of our planet,” bursting into flower. So this week, I’ve been thinking of myself as bursting into flower in slow motion.

What isn’t possible one day often feels possible the next. One day, even looking at his clothes didn’t feel possible; a few days later, looking at them felt possible; a few weeks after that, moving them out of the closet felt possible. They are in the garage now, and one day, it may feel possible to give them away. The day I collected his ashes from the mortuary I carried the very heavy box around with me for most of the day; being apart from them felt impossible. The very next day, it was possible to leave them on my nightstand. One day I moved the box into a drawer. Over time, I’ve been able to scatter some of the ashes.

I wrote earlier this month about moving the glass of juice Tom drank the night before he died from the front of the fridge to the back. Today, I took a deep breath, excavated the juice glass from the back of the fridge, and moved it to the sink. It was gut wrenching—saying good-bye to the glass of juice is just another good-bye to Tom. The good-byes seem to keep coming. Good-bye to this mug of his and that book. Good-bye to the piece of paper he wrote on, good-bye to his hats, good-bye to his toothbrush. I have said good-bye to hundreds if not thousands of Tom’s things in these 6 ½ months.

This week it was the juice glass and a jar of pickles he bought at a farm market Lily and I took him to a month before he died. There will be something else next week or the following week. Or maybe it will be a few weeks or months before I am able to part with something else of his. Twenty years from now, looking back at these months, it will probably seem as if I got rid of things quickly, packing up Tom’s 61 years of life in a flash. The deliberation over each item, the stopping to dwell on a memory, the gentle interventions of the dogs to comfort me will all be erased and all that will remain is a line of my personal history: I packed up Tom’s things.

Somewhere in my personal history, it will read “After her husband died, she traveled to Europe and South America and Antarctica.” It will appear that I burst into flower, going from afraid to travel alone with my impaired vision to traveling the world in a flash. All my minor mishaps last week in Portland, Oregon, my first solo trip since Tom’s death, will be invisible. I did not burst into flower in Portland—I tripped off a curb into oncoming traffic, I wandered onto a construction site and had to be escorted off, I needed the help of multiple strangers to find and buy a cleaning cloth for my glasses when I got caught without one in a rainstorm and couldn’t tell the difference between the sidewalk and street.

One day, maybe when I am scattering some of Tom’s ashes at the tip of South America, a place he dreamed of riding his motorcycle to, I will remember how in the days after Tom died, the idea of traveling without him felt fantastical. I wasn’t sure I could ever find my way around an unfamiliar city on my own, navigating so many obstacles with my impaired vision. The mishaps in Portland will likely be condensed or maybe even forgotten, and I may think, “Here I am, on a continent Tom never made it to. Look at me, bursting into flower for his sake.”

Six Months Out

Grieving is individualized, but I find it helpful as a grieving person to know when certain milestones occurred for others experiencing loss, so today I’m sharing what my grief is like at about six months out. December 19 will be exactly six months since my amazing husband Tom died. Half a year.

I wrote in November about being hit hard with grief. That wave seems to have crested and I’m feeling less of that raw, all-consuming grief. This week I have felt sad but my grief feels less like the open wound it felt like a week or so ago. I have survived Tom’s favorite holiday, Halloween, and my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, without him. Hanukah was relatively easy, as it’s a holiday we both enjoyed but honestly, for both of us, it’s always been mostly about the latkes.

The next big holiday on the horizon is Christmas. Christmas was special for Tom and me because of its proximity to the end of the year and all the attendant celebration connected to that. We both loved to celebrate, so we had several traditions related to celebrating in December: buying a case of prosecco at the beginning of December, hosting a party around the end of my semester, Tom going nuts lighting up the outside of the house, me decorating the inside of the house, and buying gifts for our loved ones. We often traveled on or around Christmas: one year we camped in Death Valley, another year we were in Las Vegas, and several times we rented a house on the coast of Oregon with Tom’s brother and his wife. One year when we flew on Christmas day, Tom bought a bunch of Starbucks gift cards to give to folks who were working at the airport to thank them for working the holiday.

This year, I am spending the week leading up to Christmas in Oregon, Tom’s favorite place in the world. His brother, sister-in-law, and I will spread some of his ashes in the Pacific Ocean and some at Freelandia, a wild little piece of land in Oregon that Tom’s brother owns. (Freelandia was the site of an epic Tom-on-stilts and his-brother-on-a-pogo-stick battle that both claim to have won.) I very deliberately made plans to fly on Christmas day so I can give out Starbucks gift cards to airport employees just like Tom did. It’s a small homage to him and his generosity that will help me feel connected to him. I’ll otherwise be alone that day, which is how I want it. I have always enjoyed solitude.

Other milestones:

  • I have given away some of his clothes, moved some out to the garage, and left some where they are. I have moved some of his more iconic clothing (like his Big Lebowski T-shirt, his favorite sweatshirt, and a dress shirt he looked particularly dashing in) into a basket that I’ll give to a seamstress friend to make into a quilt. A week or so after he died, I put some clothing items that smelled like him into a dresser drawer and even though they no longer smell like him, I’m not ready to give up the “smells like Tom” drawer.
  • I moved down to our bedroom six weeks after he died but left the bedroom on the main floor in place, untouched, until right after Thanksgiving. For four months, the makeshift bedroom remained and it hurt to see it everyday, but it hurt more to think about dismantling it. Right after Thanksgiving, it hurt more to see it and some friends helped me take the bed apart and haul it out to the garage. Now I have an open space that will go back to being a living room-type area at some point.
  • In early November, I went to a restaurant Tom and I went to together. I have carefully avoided doing this for a number of reasons. Tom loved good food and enjoyed everything about a good restaurant experience—perusing the menu, talking to the server, selecting a wine, observing fellow diners, tasting each other’s meals, noticing the décor. Doing all of that without him, and being committed to being in the space for an hour or more, has felt like too much. In early November, on a whim, I had brunch at a place we went to together—a restaurant that was particularly inviting when Tom was using a wheelchair and I wanted to give them some business. It was incredibly hard and I cried nearly the whole time. I was able to at least sit outside on the patio because of unseasonably warm weather, which made me feel a little less conspicuous in my crying, but it was a gut-wrenching experience that I am not ready to repeat yet.
  • The garage is still nearly completely untamed, but I did consolidate a few things and get rid of a few items. A few weeks ago, I moved the knife sharpening equipment that had been in the living room since he died out to the garage.
  • The remnants of his last glass of grapefruit juice are still in the fridge. Up until earlier this week, the glass was front and center, so I saw it every time I opened the fridge. A few days ago, I decided to move it to the back of the fridge, I did this because I will have a housesitter here soon and I don’t want them to accidentally get rid of the glass, but I wonder if not seeing it every time I open the fridge is also a transitional step toward eventually getting rid of it.

I like the graphic on the Speaking Grief website that shows a grief timeline, contrasting the expectation that grief will end with the reality that it goes on infinitely. I am still seeing my grief counselor weekly and still attending a monthly support group and I don’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon.

Related posts:

Grieving and Supporting Others Who Are Grieving during the Holidays

I’ve been trying to focus during the holidays on generosity toward myself and others. Grieving mindfully means generously giving myself the time and space to be sad. Accepting that I did the best for Tom when he was alive means generously remembering that I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight when I made decisions that I may second-guess now. Feeling connected to others right now means generously attributing positive motives to folks who don’t understand why I am still so sad.

One resource that has helped me feel generous recently is a book a fellow griever told me about, Narratives of Hope and Grief in Higher Education, edited by Stephanie Anne Shelton and Nicole Sieben. I immediately tracked it down (the Auraria Library has the eBook version) and read the chapters by folks who had lost a romantic partner (all women who lost men and all to cancer). I skimmed many of the other chapters, which covered the loss of parents, children, and other loved ones. Every single one was eloquent, beautiful, and touching. I highly recommend this book to anyone in higher education who wants to better understand grief—and I daresay even folks outside of academia will find plenty that resonates in this collection. Academics don’t grieve any differently from non-academics—we just sometimes use bigger words to talk about our grief.  

In the introduction to the collection, Shelton and Sieben describe higher ed’s engagement with grief as “detached,” and when it does exist, focused more on students than on faculty and staff. They mention that the rare acknowledgments of grief that do occur “typically either consider the ways that supporting students’ trauma affects faculty (Kafka, 2019) or focus on the aftermaths of tragedy for a campus, such as an academic’s suicide (Pettit, 2019). Much as we discovered in our own experiences, higher education regularly fails to offer sufficient support to grieving students, and it is utterly unprepared and uncertain of how to support faculty and staff members’ pain.” These observations are consistent with my experience, and were echoed in a recent tweet by Ula Klein:

While Klein isn’t talking specifically about grief, her tweet reflects the typical attitude of institutions toward the employees who work regularly with traumatized people: suck it up and focus on the client/student/customer.

There are three essays in the collection that focus on a widowed faculty member and each one offered insights and reflections that resonated deeply with me:

  • Deanna Day talks about the alienation that comes with being the only widowed person in a group of colleagues and how it can be easier to talk with students about grieving than with other academics. I have found this to be true, as well. My students have been so kind about reaching out to me to express sympathy and thanking me for sharing with them that I am grieving. A student who walked with me from class to my office earlier this week asked when we got to my office, “Do you want to keep talking or would you rather be alone?” I was touched by the acknowledgment that interacting socially with others can be taxing for grieving folks. This is a level of awareness and sensitivity I have not found in most of my colleagues.

I don’t fault my colleagues for being unsure of how to deal with me. We’ve been socialized to see grieving at work as unprofessional. Perhaps my students haven’t yet been socialized into that idea or maybe this generation of students’ rejection of many of the traditional ideas about employment includes dismissing the idea that emotion can be left at the door when you clock in.

  • Angela Kinder Mains expresses how her late husband’s fight with lymphoma motivated her “to be the best version of [her]self . . .  during [his] final months.” During that time, she—like I—found surprising strength, patience, and fortitude in herself, and she describes herself as “grateful and proud of that.” A few months after her husband’s death, however, she says “the honeymoon stage of grief was over, and [she] entered into the more difficult part of the work. I recognized that I did not actually know who, or what, I was supposed to be without Jer.” Boy, oh boy, do I connect with that. As I have shared on this blog, I was surprised by the intensity of grief I began experiencing around Halloween.
  • The final piece in the collection dealing with the loss of a partner is by Nancy Rankie Shelton. She writes about how folks were supportive and sympathetic in her first year of grieving but lost patience when her grieving continued beyond that. I may revisit this essay if/when I get to the point where others around me seem less willing to tolerate my grieving.

The entire collection highlights how out of touch both academics and the general public are with grief, and reminded me that until Tom died, I, too, was a bit out of touch with grief. This prompted me to think about how confusing it must be for people who are not currently in the grips of grief to figure out how to navigate conversations during the holidays with those of us who are. On the one hand, the holidays are—supposedly, at least—about jolliness and celebration. On the other hand, the holidays can be particularly trying and isolating for grieving people, who may come across during this season as withdrawn, exhausted, and/or bitter. How is a person who wants to celebrate and spread cheer to know how to approach the person who wants nothing more than to be left alone and assumes their grief vibes communicate this?

As the person in this scenario who wants nothing more than to be left alone, I am generously thanking everyone who invites me to a holiday soiree for thinking of me and assuring them that I would prefer to be alone at this time. I don’t apologize for turning down the invitation, I just express how much I appreciate the thought and give a firm no. This strategy has worked well for me so far.

If you are the person in the scenario getting your invitation rejected, please don’t argue. Don’t ask, “Are you sure?” Don’t tell the grieving person how much fun they are going to miss. Don’t respond to their no with, “Well, why don’t you think about it and get back to me?” Don’t get in touch a few days later to see if they changed their mind. All you have to say is, “I understand and you’ll be in my thoughts. Please feel free to come if you change your mind.” (I’ve written on the subject of folks assertively trying to spread cheer before.)

Finally, in the spirit of generosity, if you are looking for gift ideas for someone who is experiencing difficult circumstances during the holidays, here are some lists I found particularly helpful:

25+ Cozy Gifts for Someone Who’s Bedridden or on Bed Rest

12 Christmas Memorial Gift Ideas to Remember a Loved One

P.S. There’s one more essay in the Shelton and Sieben collection that I want to call attention to: “Misdiagnosing Generational Trauma and Grief: I Am Not Angry; I Am Triggered and Grief Stricken” by Nneka Greene. Greene articulates the experience of a woman of color who has “encountered grief that is not from the loss of a loved one. The experiences include assaults on [her] existence as a Black woman navigating a majority White academy, a Black woman living in a country that finds her skin dangerous, a Black woman working alongside law enforcement that continues to kill her unarmed kinsmen, a Black woman in conflict with a faith that supports the separation and denial of migrant families from safety and better lives.”

Secondary Losses

I recently discovered the Speaking Grief website, which captured my attention with its big “Let’s get better at grief” banner. If you or a loved one are struggling with grief, I highly recommend that you check out the website, which takes a humane and compassionate approach to grief and includes a link to the organization’s documentary on grief.

In exploring the website, I came across an explanation of “secondary loss.” As the website explains, “the death of a loved one is considered the primary loss” and “experiences that flow from that death are called secondary losses.” The website lists categories in which secondary losses typically occur as support systems, home, dreams, identity, hopes, financial stability, faith, health, relationships, sense of belonging, and self worth. Another website I’ve mentioned before, Cake, describes secondary losses as “unanticipated changes in your life created by the primary loss.

At just about six months since Tom’s death, I am feeling several secondary losses:  

  • My identity as a wife and caregiver. Although “widow” has always seemed like a scary word to me, dripping with negative and even evil connotations (probably because of pop culture references to widows and a family member’s romantic relationship with a widow who was later convicted of having murdered at least one of her late husbands—you can’t make this stuff up), I find it feels like a better fit than “single person.” What it means to be a widow, to move through the world as a widow, is still unclear to me. A lot of what I do everyday is different as a widow than as a wife and caregiver. Whereas many hours of my day were taken up with being a wife and caregiver, I now have more time to myself and no one to be accountable to for it. That sounds lovely on the surface, but I am learning that it can feel rather depressing to realize that no one cares how I spend my time. Everything is disorienting—I am doing many of the things I’ve always done, but doing them as a widow makes it feel like a new, unfamiliar place. Cooking dinner for one person isn’t at all the same as cooking dinner for yourself and another. Eating dinner alone is certainly different from eating with a partner.
  • Hopes and dreams: Tom and I had many shared hopes and dreams. Many of our shared dreams were quiet ones: for example, he had started coming with me in his motorized wheelchair when I walked the dogs in the morning and we were looking forward to that continuing. We were hoping that once COVID restrictions were lifted, he could visit the rehab facility he “graduated” from to see his favorite therapists and show them how far he had come. Some of our dreams were more grandiose: we were going to buy him a trackchair so he could enjoy being outside (and he wanted to get the snow plow attachment so he could be a neighborhood hero all winter long). We were going to find a way to get him out on the river again and to travel. I was researching wheelchair-friendly cities. I had learned that the public beaches in Oregon, Tom’s favorite place, have beach wheelchairs available. Now all of those plans are irrelevant.
  • Energy: I am emotionally exhausted all the time. Grieving is hard emotional work that does not respect boundaries. In response to the exhaustion, I find myself napping more that I used to and unable to concentrate on intellectual tasks. I notice that I often walk so slowly I sometimes wonder mid-stride, “Am I going to tip over?” (This thought doesn’t speed me up at all—it simply adds to the suspense.) I have not tipped over yet, but every walk is a new adventure.
  • Confidence about going to new places: With my vision impairment, going to unfamiliar places is always a little nerve-wracking to me. Tom had gotten really good at anticipating things that would (often literally) trip me up, like badly marked steps, uneven sidewalks and potholes, signs that lack contrast, and the like. Navigating new places on my own is possible and I am sure I’ll get better it, but at this point, it is creating a lot of anxiety for me.

I have been lucky (so far) to not suffer two of the more common secondary losses, health and finances, but because they are so often experienced, I want to touch on them. Many people experience health impacts after the death of a loved one, and the New York Times actually reported recently on a study that found that parents who lost children have a higher incidence of heart attacks over time. Regarding finances, I’m quite lucky that my job is secure and pays well enough that I am not in danger of losing my house, which is a serious concern for many widows. I have been arguing with our health insurance over their denial of a very hefty bill from June 2020, but I am confident they will end up covering that.

I also want to mention that as heartbreaking and tumultuous as it is to survive Tom’s death, I have experienced some secondary gains:

  • Sense of compassion and connection to others. I have been touched by how many people have reached out to me to express sympathy and compassion for my loss. Often these conversations turn to losses they have experienced, and I am learning that nearly everyone on this planet has suffered a profound loss. This makes me feel connected to people I would not automatically feel connected to and helps me understand the context around negative behavior I sometimes see in others.
  • Identity as a writer. Although I have taught writing practice and theory for 28 years now and published scholarly work, I have never identified as a “writer.” With my blogging, CaringBridge posts, and longer-than-usual Facebook posts remembering Tom, I found not only that I enjoy memoir-type writing but that folks enjoy reading what I write. This has opened up for me the possibility of writing a book length memoir and shorter essay-length memoir pieces.
  • Confidence in my strength. Surviving the worst event I could imagine makes me feel a little bit fearless.
  • Deepened family relationships: My relationships with Tom’s immediate and extended family have grown stronger as we’ve shared memories of Tom and supported each other in grieving.
  • Much appreciation for my luck and privilege. As always, I recognize that as a white middle-class woman with tenure, the impacts of my grief are not made more challenging by racism.

A Fresh Wave of Grief

As we inch closer to Thanksgiving, grief is an unrelenting heaviness in my chest. I’m keeping busy—working during the day and socializing in the evenings. In the past week, I’ve had dinner with friends twice, gone to a movie with another friend, and have plans to meet someone else for a drink tonight. I’m working out, chanting, and maintaining all my self-care routines. But the weight in my chest is always there, ebbing and flowing, yet never quite ceasing.

This is not what I expected grief to feel like 22 weeks out. A couple months ago, I felt much lighter than I do now. I was grieving, but there was not a constant weight in my chest. I knew from personal experience with previous losses and from my reading about grief that there would be grief spikes in the future, but I did not expect a solid month of heaviness in my chest with no indication that it will let up soon. Maybe the holidays have brought on this current wave of heavy grief, or maybe the fact that the September celebration of life events, which had been focal points for me through the summer, are done has freed up my mind to fixate more on Tom being gone.

“Tom is dead” runs as a refrain through my head all the time, so my day looks like this: I drink my coffee (Tom is dead). I walk the dogs (Tom is dead). I work out (Tom is dead). I shower (Tom is dead). I take the bus to work (Tom is dead). I teach class (Tom is dead). And the day goes on like that, with that low-level whispered reminder of my loss always appended to whatever activity I’m doing.

I stop by his bench every morning when I walk the dogs and sit for a few minutes. The dogs have learned to be quiet and they typically stand guard, Luna facing to the west and Woodrow the east, while I chat with Tom. This morning, I found myself sobbing, running my hand over the plaque on the back of the bench commemorating him. Then I came home, opened the front door to the living room with the curtain partitioning off the space that I turned into a bedroom when he came home after his stroke. I still expect to see him in bed and hear him say, “Hey, babe, how was the walk?” But I am greeted with silence.

When I look at any photo of him, I zero in on his hands and can almost feel my hand in his. For the first week after he had his stroke in June 2020, I was at the hospital with him from 8 am to 8 pm, the entire stretch of visiting hours, and held his right hand the whole time (his left was paralyzed) except when he was doing PT and OT. He couldn’t talk because he was intubated and he was a man of few words anyway, so most of those twelve hours a day were spent with me simply holding his hand in silence. That may sound dreadful, but it felt oddly purposeful to me. I think because of my singular focus on holding his hand, the part of my brain that mapped Tom’s hand became intricately detailed. I am grateful for that intricate mapping and my ability to still feel his hand around mine even with him gone. In this current wave of grief, I often find myself simply sitting, feeling his now-gone hand intertwined with mine.

I know this will pass. I am still turning toward and relaxing into grief. I am savoring the weight in my chest right now, understanding it as a testament to the joy Tom and I shared. As I’ve said before, I feel happiness and even joy along with the sadness of grief. I have laughed and truly enjoyed myself in the classroom and in all my social engagements recently (Tom is dead). My appetite is finally coming back (Tom is dead). I know this will pass but I can’t imagine not feeling this heaviness (Tom is dead).

Emily Kwong’s recent NPR interview with psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor, who studies how grief affects the brain, helped me understand some of what I am experiencing. O’Connor says, “When we have the experience of being in a relationship, the sense of who we are is bound up with that other person. The word sibling, the word spouse implies two people. And so when the other person is gone, we suddenly have to learn a totally new set of rules to operate in the world.” As Tom’s around-the-clock caregiver during the last year of his life, I was preoccupied with him 24/7 for an entire year. Before that, we were like most other long-term partners: we woke up together, had coffee together, chatted about our plans for the day, checked in multiple times during the day via text or phone, had dinner together, went to bed together. A seemingly endless list of daily decisions I made involved thinking of Tom’s preferences or needs: what to make for dinner, what groceries to buy, how to organize and store items, when to walk the dogs or workout, what to wear. With him gone, all of these thought processes and habits need to change, but they still feel wired into me. Just as I can still feel the callouses on his hand, my brain still wants me to cook his favorite foods or to make sure there’s a box of tissues on the top right corner of his desk so he can reach it.

O’Connor says this is normal. She describes grieving as a process of learning and adapting. She says the grief never goes away, but the brain adapts to it being there so that it isn’t disruptive on a regular basis. I will likely get to a point where the refrain “Tom is dead” isn’t appended to everything or is a quieter refrain that I sometimes don’t even hear. But that won’t happen today (Tom is dead).

Asking for What I Need

I have been struck over and over since my husband died by how individualized grief is and what people experiencing grief need and want. In one meeting of my grief support group, for example, I shared how much I appreciated that people were still sending flowers, months after Tom died. Another participant immediately exclaimed, “I hated getting flowers right after my person died and I hate it even more if they arrive now! Who wants a vase of dying flowers in the house when your loved once just died?” We took an informal poll of the folks at the support group meeting and found that some folks wanted flowers, some wanted certain kinds of flowers (a potted plant, for example, rather than a bouquet in a vase), and some did not want flowers at all.

I could share dozens of other examples. One person wants food to just show up, while another hates not being asked what her food preferences are. Some folks want phone calls, while another feels they are intrusive. I want to be mostly alone for the holidays, while others dread being alone during the holidays.

It’s not intuitive. Even those of us who have experienced profound loss may not know what we need, let alone what someone else grieving needs in any given moment. I find what I want and need changes from month to month, week to week, day to day. (I seem to never stop appreciating flowers, though.) I think that because it’s so hard to know what a person who is grieving wants or needs, many people err on the side of holding back, not wanting to “be a bother.” I’ve had a few people tell me that they didn’t want to reach out to me immediately after Tom died because they thought I might be overwhelmed with cards, flowers, calls, and visitors. I wasn’t overwhelmed by those things and appreciated every single one of them, but I know from my support group interactions that some widows are overwhelmed by those things. How could the people who held back from reaching out to me know which camp I was in?

Yet I see a lot of anger among grieving people that others don’t know what they need or want. I hear people in my support groups say, “Everyone has abandoned me. They should know I don’t want to be alone right now.” Just as often I hear people say, “I keep getting invited to things I don’t want to do. They should know I just want to be left alone right now.” But how could others know this if we don’t communicate our needs?

I realized early on that many people wanted to support me but didn’t know how, so I posted on Facebook that I appreciated all the cards, flowers, calls, and visits, and that I hoped they would continue. I’ve not simply waited for folks who didn’t reach out to me to do so; in many cases, I’ve reached out to folks I wanted to hear from by email or text and said, “My husband died and I’ve found a lot of comfort in sitting on my porch with a friend and a glass of wine. Would you be able to come over and have wine with me next Tuesday?” or something similar. No one has turned me down yet! Someone else said they wanted to take me out to dinner and I told them I’ve been finding my way back to cooking and would prefer to make us dinner; they were happy to oblige me.

Why don’t people ask for what they need more often? Why do we feel that others “should know” what we want? Why is this so hard? I think it’s because we’re not used to it. We don’t see it modeled very often. We mistakenly think that if someone really loves us, they should know what we want or need. But given that the needs of grieving people vary so much, I think it’s unreasonable to assume others should know what we want. And even if we believe they should, what’s the harm in making our needs explicit so there’s no misunderstanding or misinterpretation?

In an insightful article for Medium, writer May Pang says that asking for what we need is difficult because we risk rejection when we make our needs clear. The irony is that by not taking that risk, we risk not getting what we need from someone who probably wants to give us what we need; and if this happens multiple times or even just once at a crucial time of need, the entire relationship can be jeopardized. Pang suggests that not asking for what we need is part of a mental pattern many of us have internalized—in other words, it’s a habit, and as we all know, breaking a habit is hard. To break that habit, Pang challenged herself to make her needs known for 30 days. In the course of those 30 days, she learned how to figure out what she needed and how to ask for it in ways that felt good to her and the person she was asking.

Here are a few examples of me asking for what I need recently:

  1. My evenings were feeling fragmented and I figured out that one reason for that was my daughter showing up at a different time each night to walk the dogs. When she shows up, I stop whatever I’m doing to visit with her for a few minutes. Once I figured out I needed her to show up at a consistent time every night, I shared this with her and to my surprise, she said, “Yeah, that would actually help me, too.”
  2. A dear friend calls me regularly and leaves voice messages which I really appreciate, but I seldom have the energy to return her calls. I told her how much I appreciate the messages and that I hope they will continue and that she will understand that my not calling back simply means I’m emotionally exhausted.
  3. I’ve realized that I love having visitors for about 60-90 minutes and that at minute 91, I feel cranky. Now when people say they are coming over, I say, “I can’t wait to see you. Let’s plan for 90 minutes, because that seems to be all I can handle at this point.”
  4. Some colleagues were trying to make a decision on something and asked me to weigh in on it. I told them I didn’t have the mental energy to come up with a meaningful recommendation. They were gracious and let me off the hook.
  5. I was sharing with a loved one that my grieving seems to be spiking a bit lately and they immediately went into problem-solving mode. I said, “I know you’re just trying to help, but I just want you to listen right now.”

Identifying what we need and asking for it is actually a good practice, I think, whether we are grieving or not. No one can read our minds.

Moving Forward with My One Regret

In all the reading, listening, and reflecting I’ve done on grief, I’ve found that it is typical to feel regret when someone dies. Folks often wish they had spent more time with the person who died, or been more patient, or approached a particular situation with them differently. I am lucky to feel relatively little of this, in part because the fact that Tom’s recovery took place during the pandemic meant that I was home with him and we were together nearly 24/7 for the entirety of the time between his stroke and death. It simply isn’t possible for me to have spent more time with him. I also am at peace with the caregiving I gave him, feeling very proud of the high level of care I was able to give.

There is one regret I find coming up with this new wave of grief I am experiencing: wishing I had responded differently to his pain. He was in constant pain. One particularly cruel aspect of his paralysis is that although he couldn’t control his left side, he could still feel intense pain in it. His left leg and arm were always painful in some way. Simply brushing against his left arm would cause him to wince violently. His left leg was wracked by excruciating muscle and nerve spasms. He also had headaches from both the stroke and his multiple skull surgeries, and pain in his right knee because his right leg had to work so hard to bear weight that his right leg couldn’t handle during PT sessions and the brief periods when he walked. His leg brace caused chafing all along his lower left leg and foot. He regularly experienced nausea and indigestion as side effects of his 14+ medications. On top of all that, he had sinus issues and a bit of arthritis, neither of which had anything to do with this stroke, but just piled aches and nuisance discomfort on top.

It simply wasn’t possible to medicate all that pain away and although he seldom complained, it was apparent that he was always in pain. He moved gingerly or sucked in his breath if I jostled his left arm or leg or withdrew into quiet resignation. It was hard to watch.

My typical response took two forms: One was to try to fix it. I badgered his doctors about pain relief medications and spent endless hours research non-medical treatments online. The other response was to try to control Tom’s reactions to his pain, making suggestions about what he should do or offering to make him some tea; sometimes those suggestions and offers veered into nagging territory. That would sometimes led to us bickering about the best way to deal with his pain. The most difficult arguments occurred when we bumped up against the cognitive changes Tom experienced after his stroke—sometimes he didn’t understand the logic connecting some medications to particular types of pain relief, for example, or he didn’t remember that some of his pain was caused by his brain even though he felt it in a limb. I would get frustrated and fixate on making him understand the logic, even drawing diagrams on a whiteboard.

In hindsight, I realize Tom knew I couldn’t fix his pain and what he probably really wanted was just for me to say, “I know, it totally sucks,” and sit quietly with him in empathy. At the time, that felt like “doing nothing.” I realize now, though, that the approach I took actually created distance between us and probably made Tom feel like he was dealing with both pain and a grouchy wife.

That is where my regret is: that in trying to help him, I actually added to his suffering and hindered intimacy and empathy. I’m not wrapped up in telling myself I “should” have behaved differently. I am giving myself grace and recognizing that I did do the very best I could under challenging circumstances. I am focused on learning from the insight I now have about my behavior and in using it to help me move forward.

In a Doug Kraft lecture I listened to this week on “fluidity of life,” Kraft suggests that one cause of suffering is the compulsion to “leap into trying to fix” things. He says, “Imagine an awareness that is deeply engaged and yet so loving that it has no need to control, change, or fix anything.” I connected this exercise immediately to my regret about how I responded to Tom’s pain. I wish I had allowed myself to put the energy that went into trying to fix Tom’s pain or control his reaction to it into simply being lovingly engaged.  

I know I did the best I could in the moment. But I am taking this hindsight and working to apply it to my grieving. I am not trying to fix or change or control my grieving. I am “Imagin[ing] an awareness [of my grieving] that is deeply engaged and yet so loving that it has no need to control, change, or fix anything.” Here’s what that looks like right now:

  • Just as I tried to make Tom understand logics that were beyond him, I notice myself trying to reason my way out of grieving at some moments, thinking, “There’s no logical reason for you to feel sad at this moment.” When I catch myself doing that, I shift my thinking to just noticing that I am sad in the moment.
  • Refraining from apologizing when I start crying or getting emotional during interactions with others. I try to make an explanatory statement instead, like, “My grief has been sneaking up on me lately and here it is again.”
  • Not trying to distract myself at all when grief hits and really sinking into it. It feels good, actually, to miss him intensely and to just let myself feel the pain of him being gone, to not deny how profoundly shitty it is that he died, and to acknowledge that grief is demanding my attention.