All posts by Elizabeth Kleinfeld

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.

How to Set + Communicate Boundaries

Last week I noted that one of the gifts of grief is that I find it much easier to set and defend boundaries. Since then, a couple people have told me that my ability to set and defend boundaries has inspired them, which I take to be quite a compliment. A colleague told me they no longer feel like they need to respond to emails immediately and a friend credited my modeling for helping them feel like they don’t need to say yes to every social invitation during the holidays.

I wrote shortly after my late husband died about setting boundaries, but since then, I’ve gotten much better at it. I wish younger me had understood boundaries better; I think I would have been a lot happier—and I think the people around me who bore the brunt of my regular resentment would have been a lot happier. Alas, I can’t go back and change the past, but I can help you feel better about having and defending boundaries.

The best boundaries focus on what you can do rather than on what you want others to do and are clearly communicated to others. Here are some of the boundaries I have set and defended, along with phrases I use to communicate them to others:

  • I leave a meeting when it is scheduled to end. I do not apologize, I do not make up excuses, I simply leave. I try to minimize any disruption.
    • How I communicate this boundary: Before the meeting, if I suspect the meeting will actually run over the scheduled time, I say, “I’ll need to leave at [the scheduled end time].” I don’t offer excuses.
  • I do not attend meetings that don’t have either an agenda or a clear purpose.
    • How I communicate this boundary: If no agenda has been provided two days before the meeting, I email the meeting facilitator, saying, “My practice is to only attend meetings with an agenda or a clear purpose. Can you please provide more details about the meeting?”
  • I do not respond to emails before or after my work hours.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I state it in my syllabi and tell my colleagues who email me frequently.
  • I do not apologize for not doing things I wasn’t responsible for doing. This seems like a simple one, but I see people apologize all the time for not bringing snacks that no one expected them to bring to a meeting, or not dressing up for an occasion that wasn’t clearly communicated as dressy. This one doesn’t really need communicating in advance.
  • I do not wait to start meetings or classes until everyone is there. I start meetings and classes at the scheduled start time. I don’t shame anyone who is late, trusting that they have good reasons that are none of my business.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell people I start on time.
  • I do not attend social functions I do not want to attend. I have learned that declining an invitation is actually quite simple—all you have to say is, “Oh, that sounds lovely! I won’t be able to attend, but I hope it’s wonderful!” No apologies necessary—just heartfelt wishes that those who do attend have a great time. Very, very occasionally, someone pushes me about why I can’t attend. If I simply don’t want to go, I may say, “I have a conflict” or “My social battery has been running pretty low lately.”
  • I do not answer 95% of the phone calls I get. I just let most calls go to voice mail and then I return the call when I want to.
    • How I communicate this boundary: When people say they’ll call me, I usually say, “I’m not a big phone person. Can we do this by email or over Zoom?”
  • I do not respond to emails that don’t make it clear what kind of response is needed. If the email is from a student or colleague, I may reply by saying “I’m not sure what you are asking of me.” I delete emails from people I don’t know that I can’t decipher the purpose of.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell my students and colleagues to make the ask in any email clear by putting it in its own paragraph or in bold.
  • I do not take other people’s boundaries personally. Someone doesn’t answer my email quickly? OK. Someone doesn’t answer when I call? OK. Someone declines my invitation? OK.

I am polite about these boundaries and do not apologize for having them. Having these boundaries means disappointing other people, but I am not responsible for their feelings. If people are disappointed that I didn’t attend their meeting or answer their email, that’s ok. I’m sure there are some people who think I am demanding or hard to work with because of my boundaries, and you know what? That’s ok. If having reasonable boundaries makes me demanding or hard to work with, then I am demanding and hard to work with. As a white cis-gendered woman with tenure, I can afford to be demanding and hard to work with. I recognize that not everyone has that privilege. Because I do have the privilege to be seen as demanding and hard to work with, I think it’s very important that I do set and hold these boundaries because I hope that will make it easier for others with less privilege to do so.

These boundaries are all focused on what I do. This makes sense since I can’t control the behavior of others. I can’t say others must have agendas for their meetings, but I can say I will not attend meetings that don’t have agendas.

Let’s normalize setting and defending boundaries!

Grateful for Grief

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’m thinking about the aspects of grief I am grateful for: 

  • Feeling more connected to others who have experienced loss. I think everyone is experiencing loss now, whether it’s the death of a loved one, a job ending, or something less tangible like the loss of security or a vision of how life would unfold. Recognizing that everyone has experienced a tremendous loss helps me feel a sense of commonality with others and compassion toward them. It makes it easier for me to be patient and empathetic when others are difficult to understand. If I assume they are acting out of a sense of loss, I can give them the benefit of the doubt and attribute good intentions to them. 
  • Accepting my introversion. I spent most of my life embarrassed by my introversion, but since my husband died, I’m much more comfortable with acknowledging that I just don’t have much of a need or even desire for the social interaction much of the time. 
  • Being a better listener. I’m interested in hearing about people’s experiences of loss, which makes me more curious. Possibly related to accepting my introversion, I no longer feel any obligation to keep a conversation going, which actually makes me a very attentive listener. I used to always be one of those people who only halfway listened and was simultaneously formulating my response. No more. 
  • A reminder that everything is temporary. One of the foundational beliefs of Buddhism is that everything is temporary, but it’s easy to forget that and become attached to how things are in the moment and want them to stay that way. Grief is a reminder that everything does change, and often with no notice. 
  • Getting better at setting and enforcing boundaries. Recognizing when I need to leave a social situation to be by myself is new. Letting others know that I appreciate phone calls but am unlikely to answer the phone when they call is new. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

Anticipatory Grief: Grief for Someone Who Isn’t Dead Yet

I mentioned Kirsten Johnson last week, in my post about Anderson Cooper’s podcast. Johnson is a guest on episode 5, which focuses on anticipatory grief—grief for someone who hasn’t yet died. Johnson’s description of anticipatory grief in the podcast is perfect: “It’s this crazy feeling of imagining the person dead while they’re in front of you and then all the feelings that that brings. There’s a lot of guilt in it. There’s a lot of just confusion in it because it’s almost sort of unbearable. The fact that they’re not quite themselves already and then the fact that it’s going to get worse, it’s like you’re on quicksand or something.”

I did not know that I was experiencing anticipatory grief between the time that my husband had his stroke and died. I knew that every moment was precious, and I constantly felt like I needed to be present, memorizing every detail with him because I didn’t know how long I would have with him. I began journaling during this time as a way to keep track of the details I knew I’d want to remember. Every moment felt precarious. He had profound sleep apnea brough on by the stroke, so we never knew if he would make it through the night. He was always at risk of falling. He was at risk for another stroke. I felt awful, thinking all the time that I needed to remember this moment in case he dies tonight.

The year was maddening because he was startlingly present in a way he hadn’t been before the stroke. I was, too. We were more tuned into each other’s emotional states, checking in regularly with each other about fears and worries. Because of my caregiving role, he had no privacy from me, and we chose to laugh about that—and he sang about it. The injuries caused by the stroke seemed to make it easier for him to be vulnerable with me. He began a tradition of ending each day by telling me what he was most grateful for about me. At the same time that we were experiencing this incredible closeness and intimacy, he was wasting away in front of me. He lost a tremendous amount of weight, he slept all the time, his memory was no longer dependable. There were times I felt like I could see him fading away and I mourned the loss of him even though he was still with me. That is anticipatory grief.

Johnson made a documentary called Dick Johnson is Dead, which is available on Netflix, that captures anticipatory grief with startling clarity. The Dick Johnson of the film’s title  is Kirsten Johnson’s father, and he’s not dead yet but he is in his 80s and had dementia. The film stages Dick Johnson’s death several times, using comic relief to help Kirsten come to terms with his eventual death.

I watched the film last weekend and laugh-cried all the way through it. It’s an incredible film, portraying the deep love Kirsten Johnson has for her father, and showing his aging and dementia without veering into pity. There is no sense that we should feel sorry for Dick Johnson. He is enjoying life to the fullest, getting lots of quality time with his daughter and grandkids. The film manages to show the joy Dick Johnson finds in his life, the joy Kirsten Johnson finds in Dick Johnson being alive, and the pangs of loss Kirsten finds in Dick’s fading away in front of her.  

One scene in the film is of a staged funeral for Dick Johnson, in which he stands behind church doors, listening to the glowing eulogies people deliver in his honor. Even though they know he is still alive, they get choked up expressing what Dick Johnson has meant to them. Dick Johnson himself gleefully listens to the eulogies and then enters the church to applause. While it’s an amazing and affirming experience for everyone, the image of Dick’s best friend sobbing after delivering his eulogy is hard to shake. That’s anticipatory grief: the person is still here, but you’re already trying to figure out how you’ll carry on without them.

In the podcast, Kirsten Johnson says how much it means to her that because of the film, people feel like they know her father. I have the same experience—I love when people tell me that through my blogging or through the obituary, they feel like they know my husband a little bit. That’s one of the ways I keep him alive.

At the end of the film, Kirsten Johnson says, “Dick Johnson is dead. Long live Dick Johnson.” It’s a reminder that a person dies, but their memory lives on. Tom DeBlaker is dead. Long live Tom DeBlaker.

Grieving or Not, You Should Listen to Anderson Cooper’s Podcast on Grief

I binge listened to 5 of the 7 episodes of Anderson Cooper’s podcast on grief, All There Is. Cooper’s openness in talking about his own losses—in these episodes, those include his mother, his father, his brother, and his nanny—captivated me. He shares intimate details of his relationships with those people, gets choked up or cries in every episode, and really dives into the messiness and ambiguity of grief.

It seems to me that a podcast like this from someone with a following and a platform is important because it normalizes loss and grief. In fact, Cooper talks about how although loss and grief are universal experiences, they make us feel alone and not talking about them makes it even worse. As I am learning, everyone is grieving. My grief experience actually connects me to others.

In addition to the message that grief is normal, a theme threaded throughout the episodes is the idea that grief is not bad. In several episodes, Cooper talks to someone who has found a way to turn their grief into something lovely. In episode 5, for example, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson talks about how even after a person dies, we can still have a relationship with them and even change our relationship with them.

Johnson says, “it’s never too late to get to know someone differently and even more deeply. We let the idea of death trap us, but we don’t have to.” She and Cooper talk for a bit about that concept of “letting death trap us,” that we think because a person is dead, the relationship is what it was when they died. But Johnson disagrees. She says that as we change, “we have new capacity to know someone,” which gives us an amazing opportunity to reframe our relationship with the person who died.

I am seeing that happen with my mom, who died when I was 12. For a long, long, long time, I had a 12-year old’s relationship with her, remembering her as she was when I last saw her. She was an alcoholic, which gave me lots of reason for anger and resentment toward her. When I turned 47, officially outliving her, my relationship with her shifted dramatically. I started understanding everything I was experiencing as something she would never experience and feeling both grateful for my experiences and sad for her not being able to have them herself. I softened toward her, feeling less anger and resentment and more compassion. My memories of her are different now because they aren’t framed with anger and resentment.

Episode 3 speaks more directly to the theme of grief not being necessarily bad. In this episode, Dr. BJ Miller says “sorrow isn’t an enemy.” He goes on to say, “[Sorrow and sadness] don’t poach my joy or my happiness in this life. In fact, as foils, they kind of set each other up. You don’t get life without death. These things must go together. They’re not at odds.” He and Cooper talk about how they are the people they are in part because of the losses they’ve experienced, crediting grief with helping them cultivate character traits they are proud of.

I can recognize my own sense of deep connection to others because of shared grief as a development in myself since my husband died that I like. I wrote last month about how hard it was for me to accept that I’ll never again be the person I was before he died. I can identify other positive changes in myself brought on by my grief experience: I am certainly more patient, more accepting and less judgmental of others and myself, and even more apt than I was before to find joy in nearly everything.

The podcast title, All There Is, echoes Oliver Burkemann’s 4000 Weeks, which my friends and family are probably tired of me weaving into every conversation. Burkemann’s title references the length of the average human lifespan: 4000 weeks. He argues that coming to terms with “life’s finitude,” as he calls it, is the key to really enjoying the time we have. That seems to be where Cooper is going with his podcast.

Even if you’re not grieving right now, you have before and you will again. Cooper’s podcast can help you feel less alone when that next time comes.

My Second Halloween as a Widow: Sharing Visible Grief  

I told a fellow widow recently that I was surprised that the build-up to Halloween was hitting me harder this year than last year. Last year was my first Halloween without my husband. Halloween was his favorite holiday. He started planning it much more in advance than any other holiday.

My widowed friend replied that the first year after her husband’s death she was too numb to really process all the “firsts” and that for many of those special dates, the second year hit her harder than the first. I think that’s what I’m experiencing. Last year, Halloween was on a weekend, so it was easy to just hole up at home and cry. This year, with it being on a Monday, I had to go to work.

I thought about not going. I had traveled to a conference the week before and just returned home Sunday night. Between the travel and Halloween, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted, and I suspect that my students and colleagues would have been understanding had I decided to take the day off. But I had already missed three weeks of the semester because of my brain surgery and felt self-conscious about canceling another class. I am also trying not to shy away from things I want to do because of grief, and I wanted to teach my classes.

I second-guessed my decision all the way to campus. Every time I saw a person in costume on the street, I thought of how gleeful my husband looks in every Halloween photo, how animated he got brainstorming costume ideas, how much sheer joy he conveyed to every trick-or-treater he interacted with. I thought of the annual raft-in Halloween party we went to every year, which was a highlight of the year for us, much bigger than Thanksgiving, Hannukah, or Christmas. It involved a few nights of camping, a live band, and a pig roast. Tom and I would dance together under the stars and every year, he would declare, “This is the best band we’ve had yet!”

By the time I walked across campus toward the building where I teach my morning class, I could feel tears sliding down my cheeks and my lip trembling. I knew I would have to acknowledge my visible grief to my students.

I begin each class by saying, “I want to invite you to be completely present for the next 75 minutes.” I then usually say something related to living with anxiety (most of my students seem to) and then the whole class takes three deep breaths together. On Monday, I told the class how special Halloween was to my husband, how fragile I was feeling, and that I was going to do my best to be present for the next 75 minutes but that I just wasn’t my best self at the moment. I heard my voice shaking and felt my lip trembling. I then asked a student to lead the breaths while I sat down to collect myself.

And class was ok. It wasn’t my best class but it certainly wasn’t my worst. A couple students stayed after to offer hugs and sympathy.

Back in my office, I closed my door and did some timed grieving.

For my second class, I repeated the confession of fragility and had the same experience of acceptance and sympathy my first class had offered.

Between classes, a colleague in costume came by my office, wanting to show off their costume. I was polite but said, “I’m sorry, I’m pretty wobbly today,” and they cut the visit short.

At home, neighbors invited me to join them on their porch for drinks and candy dispensing, but I declined, explaining the significance of the day. They understood.

This is the second Halloween I’ve lived through without my husband. It hurts to think of it in those terms—something to live through, something he isn’t living through. I woke up this morning very sad but full of determination to live life fully for those who can’t. The Muriel Rukeyser lineToday for the sake of all the dead      Burst into flower” is never far from my mind.

Loss-events are not disruptions of life–they are life

People use the term “get back to normal” all the time in relation to loss-events.* When my husband had his stroke, when he died, when the world went into lockdown because of the pandemic, when I had my recent brain surgery, people—myself included—said things like, “things will get back to normal” or “are things back to normal yet?”  This kind of thinking frames the loss-event as a disruption of whatever constitutes “normal” and makes the return to a pre-loss-event state the measure of success.

But I look around me and see that nearly everyone is dealing with loss of some sort, and I have to wonder, if so many people have experienced loss, isn’t loss normal? In other words, loss-events aren’t disruptions of life. They are life. These events may be disruptions of routines, of ways of thinking, of our understandings of how life is going to unfold, but they are not disruptions of life, unless we define life as only the predictable pleasant things that happen, which is a very narrow slice of what most of us experience.

In addition to recognizing loss-events as the real meat of life, I am pondering an idea from Michele Neff Hernandez’s book, Different after You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma: the distinction between the good that may come out of a loss-event and the loss-event being seen as good. This is something I have struggled with, going all the way back to my own stroke in 1997. Without exception, I have seen the changes in myself since my stroke as positive: I am kinder, feel more connected to others, and feel more inner peace. I have heard myself tell the story of my stroke and use the words “it was a good thing” or something similar, but I never quite felt like that was what I meant. Hernandez helped me understand that it wasn’t what I meant—that the positive changes in me that came about after the stroke were because I allowed the stroke to change me, not because the stroke was good.

I have similarly struggled with my husband’s stroke. After his stroke, he was so much more open toward me and we were able to be honest with each other about some things that we had held back before. That doesn’t make the stroke “a good thing” or any less traumatic or any less of a loss-event. We both lost plenty with his stroke, including independence, privacy, and identity. I have had a hard time talking about the ways our relationship improved without feeling like I’m saying I’m glad he had the stroke. There is nothing in me that is glad my husband had a stroke.

Hernandez says that when we notice positive impacts that have come out of our loss-events, we may conflate the event with the positive impacts, which I’ve certainly see myself do. She is clear: “Tragic events remain tragic no matter what good arises afterward.” My husband’s stroke at 60, which left him paralyzed, unable to work and engage in most of the activities that had brought him peace and joy, was tragic. Facing that tragedy allowed us to grow deeper in love and to know each other (and ourselves) better. Recognizing the difference between the event and the impacts of facing the event helps me reconcile that something good came out of something so painful and difficult.

After his stroke, my husband and I had incredible joy and happiness. We loved each other more deeply, more authentically, after his stroke than ever before. When I held him as he took his last breath, that was me living life as fully as possible, completely leaning into the pain and joy. I’ve thought many times that the most loving thing I ever did in my entire life was let my husband go. That is not a disruption of life. That is life. Life is all about letting things, people, dreams go.

That may sound dark. Someone who read my writing recently told me that it was too depressing, that nobody wants to think about death. While I understand this point of view, I also think of Oliver Burkemann’s point in 4000 Weeks that all the energy we put into avoiding thoughts about our own inevitable death could be put into actually doing the things we want to accomplish in our lives. Acknowledging that I have a finite amount of time (and no one knows exactly how finite—my husband did not imagine having only a little over 3000 weeks) helps me fight the urge to put off what’s important to me until my life is simpler or less busy.

*I am experimenting with this term to capture the death of a loved one but also other events that could result in traumatic loss—losing a job, a catastrophic health event, a bitter divorce, etc.

A Grief Spike at 16 Months

I have been told so many times since my husband died that my grief will fade with time. That may be true in terms of the general trajectory of my experience, but here I am, 16 months out from his death, and I have been just flattened by some of the hardest waves of grief I’ve had.

Sunday night, all day Monday, all day today. Halloween, which was my husband’s favorite holiday, is coming and last year it triggered some pretty tough grief, so I figured that could happen again this year. Expecting it doesn’t seem to mitigate it, though.

Grief makes my head hurt, my eyes dry, my belly feel unsettled, and my chest sore. I had to go to work on Monday and barely held it together. When I got home, I immediately fell apart, sobbing all evening. Tuesday I was able to work from home and experimented with what I’m calling “timed grieving”: I set a timer for a certain amount of time, usually 15 minutes, and give myself that time to sink into the grief, sobbing, howling, screaming, moaning. Sometimes I empty myself of the grief and drift into sleep until the alarm goes off.

The dogs have learned how timed grieving works and come running when they see me moving toward the couch. They rest their heads heavily on my legs or my chest, just as they did for my husband when he was in pain after his stroke.

I’m back into that early feeling of disbelief that he’s gone. One day he was here, he was my husband, and the next day he was gone and I was a widow. It’s still unfathomable to me sometimes. I had a dream that his stroke wore off and he was his old self. Sometimes those dreams bring me joy, giving me an avenue into beautiful happy memories of the past. The last few days, though, they hurt, even though the pain is mixed with gratitude that I got to be with him in that last year and the amazing 11 years that came before it.

Before my husband died, we spoke every single day. My favorite part of every workday was being reunited with him when we both finished work. We had a lovely tradition of dropping everything when the last one got home to greet each other with a hug. In warm weather, we would then sit on the front porch with drinks; in cold weather, we snuggled on the couch with drinks. We’d spend a few minutes catching up with each other before I started making dinner.

When we weren’t together, we spoke on the phone in the evening. It was usually a very brief call—often just a couple minutes, focused on “I love you” and “I miss you.” Occasionally, when he was rafting or camping without me and didn’t have cell service, we’d go a few days without talking. It was hard. I would eagerly anticipate hearing his voice again

After his stroke, we were together 24/7. His quiet presence filled the house with love. Just knowing he was in the house, whether he was dozing in the bed I had moved into the living room for accessibility, sitting at the front window with his binoculars, watching neighbors and squirrels, sharpening knives (the hobby he picked up after his stroke), or watching videos on his phone, made me feel warm and loved. Sometimes he got studious and wheeled up to the dining room table where his books on Buddhism were piled. I loved hearing him moving around the house from my office, the sound of the wheelchair wheels making their rubbery squeak against the wood floors.

I’ve now gone 488 days without him. 488 days of no moving Buddhist books out of the way to clear space on the table for our dinner, no rubbery squeak of wheelchair wheels against wood, no “I love you.” Buddhism reminds me that everything is temporary, including this wave of grief. It will subside and dreams of my husband will again feel like a delicious gift.

Embracing My Vulnerability + Awkwardness as a Widow

I posted last week about working to come to terms with the fact that I am no longer the person I was before my husband died. As I was pondering that, an image popped up in my twitter feed of a pink satin heart broken open and imperfectly stitched back together. That image gave me a visual for the me that is becoming since my husband died.

I think when your heart is broken open the way it is when your partner dies, you can either batten down the hatches or go out into the world with your heart exposed and open. The before-I-was-a-widow me would have battened down the hatches. That’s what I did when my mother died. I hunkered down in my grief and withdrew from people. That was 1982, and attitudes toward grief then were even worse than they are now. I don’t recall any adults reaching out to me when my mother died besides the middle school guidance counselor, who seemed relieved and sent me back to class after I told her I didn’t want to talk (coming from a dysfunctional family, I had learned well that you don’t talk to others about what happens at home).

When my husband had his stroke and my fears about losing another loved one began knocking on my door again, I knew I had to do something different. Battening down the hatches had been a dismal failure, leaving me isolated and angry. That’s why I made my commitment to turn toward and relax into grief. Now I can’t seem to stop myself from being open and vulnerable. Exhibit A: this blog.

I talk about my late husband all the time and about death in general pretty often. I love spending time with others who are comfortable talking about death and its aftermath. I think that’s why being with other widows is so powerful. This past weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a good part of the day with family friends who lost a member to suicide a few years ago. Being able to talk openly and conversationally about our shared experience was wonderful. We remembered our loved ones who have died, shared happy memories of them, acknowledged how much it sucks that they are gone, and commiserated about how hard it is to find others who are comfortable talking about death.

Talking about death all the time can be awkward. The before-I-was-a-widow me was uncomfortable with my imperfections and many awkward traits. I’ve been fascinated since my husband’s stroke with the idea that the imperfections or perceived brokenness in something is actually a thing of beauty. Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem” that everything has a crack in it—“that’s how the light gets in,” reframing imperfection as beauty and opportunity for inspiration. There’s the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold, leaving the restored piece with deep gold veins that call attention to themselves. While reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I learned that “in bonsai you often plant the tree off-center in the pot to make space for the divine.”

Outside of bonsai, circumstances may push you off center, like my husband’s stroke did. The most remarkable thing my husband did after his stroke was accept that he needed me to be his 24/7 caregiver. The most remarkable thing I did was accept that I needed to be his 24/7 caregiver. That embracing by both of us of our dramatically changed roles and circumstances made it possible for us to bypass resentment and guilt and grow closer and more in love. Our last year together provided plenty of space for the divine.

All of these concepts allow me to see the stitched together heart not as something that was broken and mended but as a beautiful creation on its own. I can see my grieving self as not broken by grief but changed by grief into something new and beautiful. All my weird awkwardness is a way to make space for the divine.

I am not going to go back to being who I was before my husband died

I’ve been reading Different after You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma by Michele Neff Hernandez, the woman behind Camp Widow, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. I think the book is geared more toward someone who experienced a sudden loss rather than those of us who saw their loved one die slowly over time, but even given that I’m likely not her ideal imagined audience, I found quite a bit of value in it.

She focuses on the idea that you can’t be the same person after a traumatic loss as you were before the loss, addressing the common idea that a marker of having healed after loss is that you are “back to being yourself.” Hernandez says there is no going back. She says that version of yourself died with your loved one and suggests that instead of trying to return to who you used to be, it is better to focus on who you are becoming as a result of the loss.

It’s a tough idea for me to swallow, in part because I really liked who I was before my husband died—and particularly, who I was before his stroke. I like myself now, too, but I do want to be that carefree adventurous person who hosted big dinners that I was before his stroke. That person who rafted and motorcycled on weekends and showed up to work on Monday with hilarious stories about an unexpected swim in a rapid or a trip detour that provided an unofficial opportunity to test some new gear. Who I am now in comparison is pretty dull.

This shifting in identity is considered a secondary loss. Last December, I posted about the secondary losses I was noticing at the time: my identity as a wife and caregiver, hopes and dreams, energy, and confidence about going new places. Today when I think about secondary losses, I most notice the activities that I loved before my husband’s stroke that are not part of my life anymore. This includes rafting, hosting dinner parties, local travel (within Colorado but outside Denver), and camping.

A lot of what I did before his stroke just isn’t possible for me to do now because of my impaired vision. I had to stop driving in 2019 because of my vision. I have depended on public transportation since then to get to and from work and to run errands. My husband did all the driving when we camped, took road trips, or needed more groceries than I could carry by myself. When his stroke made it impossible for him to drive, our world became a lot smaller. His stroke was just a couple months into the pandemic, when a lot of people’s worlds got smaller, but now that most pandemic restrictions are gone, the smallness of my world is more noticeable.

I have been slowly creeping up on the idea that I may not ever go back to being who I was before my husband died. For example, I had noticed that the idea of hosting a big dinner no longer even sounds appealing to me. I used to love setting up a long table that spanned my dining and living rooms that could seat 20+ people; my husband even made me a table extension specifically for that purpose. I enjoyed planning a meal and cooking for a crowd. Now none of that appeals to me. I seem to have become much more introverted, for one thing. When I imagine having a house full of people, I think of all the noise and how draining it would be to have to talk to everyone and make them feel welcomed. I think, too, about how complicated it would be to get groceries for such a big meal without being able to drive. It’s doable, of course—I’m sure a friend would be willing to drive me—but the effort to arrange a ride and then have to be social on the ride feels like more than I can handle right now.

Hernandez talks about how she stopped riding her bike after her husband died. At first, she felt uncomfortable telling people she no longer rode the bike, as if it reflected poorly on her love for him. Over time, she became more confident owning the decision. I think this is what’s happening for me with hosting dinners. Folks do ask me from time to time if I think I’ll host another dinner. Most recently when someone asked me that, I said, “I think those dinners are a thing of the past,” and it felt good to acknowledge that. Once I said it to someone else, it became more possible for me to think of my life in the future not involving giant dinner parties. Before I said it, hosting big dinner parties again felt like a worthy goal to work toward. The pressure to host another dinner party was coming from my expectation that healing would mean going back to being who I was before. Releasing myself from that expectation is a relief.

Coming to terms with losing those parts of me that are gone, at least for now, is painful, even when it is also a relief. The dinner parties of the past were wonderful and I had no sense when I hosted the last one that it would be the last one. I probably had already started anticipating the next one before the last one was over. I see in this sentiment that I am grieving the life I lost when my husband had his stroke. I miss that life tremendously, even while I’m enjoying the life I’m building now.