Category Archives: grieving

How Grieving Folks—and Everyone Else—Can Ask for More or Less Contact

I hear often in the grief support groups I’m part of that folks feel like they were forgotten by their friends and family over time. They report an immediate outpouring of support that dwindled away after a few months. I am happy to say that I have not experienced this myself, but I have reflected on my own behavior toward people I’ve known who suffered the loss of a loved one; I’ve realized that several times I lost touch with a friend following their loss.

I didn’t back away from them because of their loss but because of my own poor communication, introversion, life chaos, or the notion that I would be bothering them. For example, a friend lost a parent near the beginning of COVID. I kept in touch with her for a couple months and then my husband had his stroke and I stopped communicating regularly with her. I realized today that I hadn’t heard from her in over a year and I sent a text. To her, it may very well look like I ghosted her after her parent died. Another example involves a colleague who took another job shortly after her loss. Because we no longer saw each other regularly, I fell into the “out of sight, out of mind” trap and stopped checking in with her.

In both these cases, the other person didn’t reach out to me, either, and that could be taken as a sign that they were no longer interested in a friendship. However, being widowed has made me very aware of how much effort it takes to reach out to others in the wake of a significant loss. I have a few friends who have been very diligent about texting or calling regularly regardless of whether I respond. I so appreciate this! I feel loved and happy every time they call or text me. But because I seldom respond, they may very well wonder if they are bothering me and over time, they may stop calling and texting.

But wait! All I have to do is periodically let them know how much I appreciate the continued communication. Every few months, I send them an email or text that says something along the lines of, “Thanks for thinking of me. Although I seldom respond to your messages, every single one of them means something to me and I hope you will continue reaching out. Maybe one of these days, I’ll surprise you by answering the phone or replying to the text.”

I have been invited to a lot of get togethers over the past year that I declined. I’m an introvert to begin with, so socializing drains my battery, even when I’m having a good time and truly enjoy the company of the folks I am with. Add grieving on top of that, and now anxiety, and often the thought of spending even a short amount of time with other people feels like too much for me.  

Case in point. I had drinks with a friend last week who is much more social that I am. She regularly invites me to do things with her. I say yes as often as I can, but frankly, “as often as I can” probably equates to two or three times a year under the best of circumstances. After our drinks last week she said she was continuing on to another event and invited me to go with her. The event sounded like fun, but I knew it was too much for me. Just working up the energy to meet her for a drink had taken some effort and I was already looking forward to being back home.

I told her the truth. “That sounds like a fun event, and I wish I had the energy to come with you, but I’m feeling pretty depleted.” She said she understood.

Then I continued: “I appreciate you regularly inviting me to do things and I hope you don’t take the fact that I almost always decline to mean I’m not interested. I just don’t have the energy these days. Please keep inviting me to things.”  

“Oh,” she said, “I’m so glad you said that! I sometimes wonder if I’m being a pest with all my invitations.”

“Not at all,” I assured her. “I love being invited! And one of these days I’ll surprise you by saying yes.”

This isn’t just something grieving folks can do. Anyone who wants more or fewer invitations can make that desire known. My sister is even less social than I am and I used to regularly invite her to my events. At some point a few years ago, she said, “I’m never going to say yes. Just stop inviting me.” I said, “But I keep hoping you’ll change your mind and show up!” She said, “I won’t.”

I checked in with her again about this over the weekend. “Years ago you told me to stop inviting you to events. Do you still want me to not invite you?”

She didn’t hesitate. “I still want you to not invite me. It was stressful to have to say no to every invitation and worry about hurting your feelings. Now I never have to worry about that.”

I fall somewhere else on the spectrum of introversion. I do want to be invited—but I want the authentic option of saying no and there being no hard feelings. I’ve learned that all I need to do is tell people what I want.

Folks who are worried that they are bothering someone who is grieving, why not just ask them how much communication they want? To avoid succumbing to the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon, you can put reminders in your calendar to check in on them.

Why I am trying to make friends with my anxiety (and taking drugs in the meantime)

A tricky thing about anxiety is that once you experience it, you begin to have anxiety about anxiety. I found this happening almost immediately. After my first anxiety and panic attack, I began worrying, “Will it happen again?” Once I began having trouble sleeping because of anxiety, I began dreading bedtime, worrying about anxiety kicking in.

Anxiety and panic thrive on and create fear. The more fear they create, the more they thrive. It’s a self-serving cycle that is hard to break.

This reminds me of a famous quote attributed to the Buddha: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” What we hold onto, we become. Holding onto anger makes us angry and bitter. Holding on to fear about anxiety makes us fearful and anxious. In the case of anger, I have learned through experience that letting go of it enables me to move on and be happy. In the case of grief, I’ve learned to let it pass through me at its own pace. If I try to control that pace by pushing it away and telling it to come back later, it outsmarts me and shows up at the most inopportune time.

A year after my husband died, I am still liberally turning my camera off during remote meetings and crying during face-to-face interactions. When I feel my emotions coming on, I let them come on. That’s the #1 rule of “turning towards.” Turning towards means not allowing the instinctual tightening to happen and to instead relax.

Applying this idea to anxiety means making friends with anxiety. The idea behind befriending or embracing anxiety is that anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations, in my case, the loss of my husband, which stirred up my fears of being alone, of not being enough when he was dying, and of dying myself. Acknowledging my fears and my anxiety about them lessens their grip.

Trying to make friends with my anxiety is somewhat terrifying—it’s like seeing a tiger charging toward me and deciding to hold out my hand to see if it’s friendly. Trying to outrun it is pointless.

This means when I feel anxiety bubbling up inside of me, instead of steeling myself against it, which signals my brain’s fear response to ramp up, I try to think to myself, “Oh, there’s anxiety. I wonder what it wants.” The tiger sniffs my hand, strolls slowly around me, and then sometimes slinks off. Sometimes. Other times, it just keeps strolling around me, slowly, keeping me on edge for a bit. It eventually loses interest.

Making friends is not something that comes naturally to me—I am socially awkward and introverted. I don’t seek out opportunities to make new friends, and I feel similarly about making friends with anxiety: I’d rather not. But anxiety is a tiger that keeps stalking me.

I’ve been listening to guided meditations on the app Insight Timer with names like “Befriending Anxiety” and “Embracing Anxiety.” While traditional Buddhist/Zen meditation, which focuses on clearing the mind, simply makes space for my anxiety to take hold, guided meditation gives my mind a focal point so that space doesn’t get created.

Like everything else hard in life, it is a process and not a linear one. I am getting help along the way with therapy and drugs. The drugs help me relax, which allows me to get enough sleep to function, and to resist that instinctual tightening. I’m taking Escitalopram, an antidepressant that helps with Generalized Anxiety Disorder; Ativan, which I take at night to help me sleep; and hydroxyzine, which helps with acute anxiety during the day. Ideally, I will be able to ease off the medications within a few months, after I’ve made peace with my new pet tiger.

I had anxiety all wrong–and maybe you do, too

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I have started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. For about three weeks, I have had a near constant nervous feeling in my stomach and a tightness in my chest. This constant low-level anxiety spikes a few times a day and becomes a panic attack in which I start hyper-ventilating. Sometimes I burst into tears. As someone who has meditated for decades, I’ve been shocked to find that meditating right now makes things worse, especially at night when I am trying to sleep. Emptying my mind seems to create space for my brain to go directly to my darkest, scariest thoughts, and touching on those thoughts seems to plunge me directly into a feeling of dread and doom.

While meditating isn’t helping, other aspects of my Buddhist practice are helping a bit. Chanting works better than meditating because instead of focusing on clearing my mind, I can focus on the chant. My go-to chant is nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, which is shorthand for the concept of karma. Chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo allows me to focus on the order that does exist in the world. I also know that at the exact moment that I am chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, someone else somewhere else in the world is, too, so it helps me feel connected rather than disconnected. My late husband used to chant nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo when he felt overwhelmed by the challenges of his stroke, so the chant also makes me feel closer to him.

Another aspect that is helping a bit, which I will talk more about next week, is turning toward my anxiety rather than away. This means rather than trying to avoid anxiety, and push it away when I feel it bubbling up, I try to respond with curiosity and compassion. I actually talk to my anxiety; for example, when I feel it building in my chest, I’ll say, “Oh, hello, anxiety. There you are. I wonder what you are trying to protect me from right now.” It might seem cheesy, but it gives me some distance from it and helps me not identify with it.

I’ve also started reading a book recommended by a friend, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Claire Bidwell Smith. As the title makes clear, Smith suggests that anxiety is a typical part of grief. My own grief therapist echoed this, saying many of her clients experience anxiety. In my case, my worsening vision coinciding with the anniversaries of my husband’s stroke and death may have been the perfect storm for anxiety and panic to manifest.

I had it all wrong

This new experience with anxiety is making me understand how ignorant I have been abut anxiety in the past. I have had countless students tell me they have anxiety. My daughter struggled hard with anxiety in high school and continues to be challenged by it. While I am not someone who ever questioned whether anxiety is “real,” I have minimized its impacts. I have misunderstood it as unmanaged stress. I have minimized their experiences as being about lack of good sleep hygiene or stress management skills.

That has led to me making misguided suggestions (unsolicited, too) about strategies to try. Yes, I have been that person who has said, “Have you tried yoga? Or meditation?” Yoga and meditation have helped me with stress throughout my entire adult life, and because I was equating anxiety with unmanaged stress, the suggestion made sense to me. But now that I understand that anxiety is something else altogether, I feel foolish about those suggestions—and I am embarrassed that I broke one of my own rules about not offering unsolicited advice.

If you are one of the people who has born the brunt of my ignorance, I am sorry. I will do better from here on out.  

Now that I understand the distinction and the actual experience of anxiety, I am filled with compassion and admiration for folks who live with it. It’s a reminder to me that if I haven’t experienced something myself, I need to listen, accept how others describe their experience, and ask clarifying questions.

Speak from your experience

Since I’ve been talking about experiencing anxiety and panic, several people have reached out to me to offer strategies and resources that have helped them. What I appreciate about this help is that it is coming from people who have experienced anxiety and/or panic attacks themselves. Right now, I want as many strategies as I can get, so please, keep them coming—as long as you are speaking from personal experience.

The Strokeversary

Two years ago today, my late husband had the massive stroke that left him paralyzed on the left and with a long list of medical concerns. Overnight, he went from being the most energetic and physically strong person I knew to being unable to perform most daily functions on his own. He needed help to dress and bathe himself, to go to the bathroom, to sit or stand or move to a lying down position. His memory was impaired, he was unable to follow conversations, and he was in tremendous pain. 

Last year on this day he was still alive. He had just gotten his long-awaited motorized wheelchair a week or so earlier and was excited to have a little more independence through that. That morning when I walked the dogs, Tom showed off his independence by waiting for me to get about a block from the house and then he used his motorized chair to go down the ramp, turn onto the sidewalk, and follow me. I had no idea he was back there. The dog kept glancing behind us, but I was used to the dog being distracted and didn’t check to see what he was turning around to look at. Finally, after a few blocks, I heard something behind me that made me turn around, and there was Tom! It was a huge and beautiful surprise—he had decided to follow me, put his sunglasses on (a serious challenge with only one hand and having to navigate around his helmet), and negotiated his way down the ramp and across two streets. I ran to him and gave him a big hug, and he gave me his usual low-key, “Hey, babe,” as if there was nothing special about what he had done. He followed along for the rest of the walk. 

At the time, I thought it was an indication that we were turning the corner on the struggles of his post-stroke life. Eleven days later I would have to make the heartbreaking decision to remove him from life support. 

I have been anticipating this strokeversary with dread, unsure of how it would hit me. I am having to remind myself constantly right now to be open to my emotions and my grief. That felt much easier to do a few months ago, and as this strokeversary and the anniversary of his death have gotten closer, I’ve experienced more and more anxiety. 

A dear friend texted me a beautiful reframing of the strokeversary. She said

I hope you are finding a lot of peace today. Just wanted to let you know that I am thinking about you and how this day started off the most amazing year of love and caretaking that I have ever seen, ever. 

Her reminder of how close and loving Tom and I were in the year between his stroke and death was exactly what I needed. The stroke was horrible and I wish it had never happened, but Tom’s intense care needs and my willingness to provide for them gave us an avenue to trust, love, and intimacy that was incredibly special. We were able to talk about things in the last year that we had been guarded about before. We got to witness each other facing tremendous hardship with love and grace. We were able to be completely vulnerable with each other. I was already madly in love with Tom when he had the stroke, and my love bloomed exponentially after that. Seeing him face his challenges with grace and humor every single day inspired me to be my most patient and generous self. My caregiving inspired him to keep fighting through the pain and exhaustion. 

This is a tough, sad day, but one that is also full of endless love for my amazing husband. When I see myself through his eyes, it is also a day of compassion for myself. Lately I have focused on what I see as my failings as a caregiver: the times I didn’t know what to do, I wasn’t as patient as I wish I had been, I got frustrated, or I didn’t understand the depth of his pain. I know Tom forgave me for my imperfections and appreciated my effort. I was surprised by how honored I felt to be able to care for him. Having considered myself a selfish person my whole life, I was amazed at how easily caregiving came to me and how fulfilled I felt by it. It allowed me to be fully present for more than a few moments for the first time in my life.

My friend’s text reminds me that I can see this day as a tragic one that led to my husband’s untimely death or as the beginning of the sweetest year of our time together. This is the anniversary of the day when I found out what both Tom and I were made of. 

Panic Attacks, Grief, and Fear

I’m still experiencing double vision and unable to read or write very much. Because of the dismissive attitude I’ve encountered about my vision from most eye doctors, I don’t want to see anyone but my favorite eye doctor, and she’s booked out for 3-4 months, so I haven’t seen anyone about this latest development. I’m making do for now by minimizing time spent reading and using Google’s voice dictation for writing.

I think this latest vision issue, along with the fact that the upcoming two-year anniversary of my dead husband’s stroke is on June 7 and the one-year anniversary of his death is on June 19, is contributing to a new wrinkle in my grieving: panic attacks. I had panic attacks for some time 20-30 years ago, always connected to interactions with a particular person. They were bad enough that I would hyperventilate, but because they were so clearly connected to interactions with a particular person, I could predict and prepare for them. What has started happening in the past week is different.

I’ve had two, one during the day and one at night. They were very dramatic, disruptive, and unexpected. Both times, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by a feeling of impending doom, heaviness in my chest, and trouble breathing. That quickly escalated to hyperventilating. I was in a Zoom meeting with very understanding colleagues the first time. The second time, my daughter, who has experienced panic attacks, was with me.

I attended a grief support group meeting over the weekend in which we talked about how the lead-up to difficult anniversaries and milestones is often much more difficult than the anniversary and its aftermath. That was my experience with my wedding anniversary and my dead husband’s birthday. With the stroke and death anniversaries coming up and the added stress of my double vision, I think my brain was overwhelmed and started sending distress signals out.

This TED Talk gives a succinct explanation of the current theory and understanding of panic attacks. Most interesting to me is that the fear of another attack can actually bring on more attacks. After having one at night, which woke me up and made it difficult to go to sleep again, I spent much of the following day dreading what would happen when I tried to go to sleep again. This is exactly the cycle that can cause another one. Once I realized what was happening, I was able to take preventive measures: I did yoga, had a cup of herbal tea, practiced box breathing, and listened to soothing children’s audiobooks.

Meditation made things worse, which surprised me. I’ve been meditating for 30 years and it’s been my go-to method for stress relief for decades. It turns out that emptying my mind just created space for panic. For me, engaging my physical body through movement, breathing, and the sensory experiences of drinking tea and listening to audiobooks seems to help assure my brain that I am not in danger.

I’m experimenting with giving myself permission to have big feelings of fear. That feels scary and overwhelming sometimes, but I think that pushing those feelings away when they come up builds up my panic response to them. Perhaps refusing to allow myself to think about losing my vision completely or being unable to read and write again has trained my brain that those thoughts are dangerous, so when they start to rise up, even in small ways, my brain reacts by panicking. I’m trying to allow those feelings, like I’ve leaned into my feelings of grief. This means engaging very consciously again with meditation teacher Doug Kraft’s “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace. It’s hard. I don’t want to turn toward my fears about my vision. I want to push them away, but inviting them in and getting to know them is what will make them feel more familiar and less terrifying.

I don’t usually acknowledge my fears about my vision. Before my husband died, it was easy to tell myself that if I went blind, he would take care of me. But I’m on my own now. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted on this blog that I do worry about going blind. Writing that sentence and leaving it there for you to read feels like some major turning toward. I’m not ready to relax into it. Maybe next week.  

Check Back on Tuesday

I’ve been publishing my blog posts on Thursday or Friday, but I’ve been thinking about shifting the publication day to Tuesdays. I wasn’t quite ready to make the shift, and then my eyes intervened: I’ve had double vision for 8 days now, making it impossible for me to get something ready to post this week. The double vision seems to be improving a bit, so I am optimistic about being able to get something ready to post by Tuesday.

Thanks for checking in–and please check back next Tuesday!

Grief and the (Un)Expected Death

A year before he died, my husband had a massive stroke that left him paralyzed on one side, severely brain-injured, and with a long list of complicated health issues. He ultimately died after the fourth of a series of surgeries on his skull. A few people, upon learning of his death, said something to me along the lines of, “Well, it’s not a surprise,” or “You expected this, didn’t you?”

The thought that he could die was in the back of my mind ever since he had the stroke, but did I expect my 61 year-old husband, who had been strong and healthy his entire life and was working his ass off in PT, to die a year later? No. I knew his health was precarious and the surgery he was undergoing came with risks, but that didn’t make his death any less surprising for me. When people suggest that I wasn’t surprised, it feels to me like they are minimizing the impact of his death. When they suggest that I should have known he was going to die, it feels like a negative judgement on my grief.

Whether or not the death of a loved one comes as a surprise does not make the grief a survivor feels more or less profound. People who lose a loved one to a protracted terminal illness knew their loved one would die and that might allow them to make arrangements that ease some aspects of the death, but it does not make the loss less painful. The loss of a loved one is the loss of a loved one, regardless of the amount of surprise involved.

The grief for a death that is sudden versus the grief for a death that comes after a long decline or a terminal diagnosis can’t be measured or compared. How can I compare the sudden death of my mother when I was 12 to watching my husband wither away over a period of a year? The two deaths cannot be compared and I see no benefit to me to compare them. No two losses are the same and they can’t be measured against each other.  

I’ve talked before about the tendency folks seem to have to rank, measure, and score grief. I think categorizing things helps us make sense of them, but 10 ½ months into grieving my husband, I have not found a categorizing system that makes my grief easier to experience. I have found much to appreciate about my grieving experience, but it has all been painful. I think people want to believe that a loss that is less surprising is less painful, but with or without the element of surprise, the loss of a loved one hurts.

Since everyone dies, it could be said that no death should ever be a surprise. And yet, there seems to almost always be an element of surprise—the timing, the circumstances, or something else. I may not have expected my husband to live forever, but I did not expect him to die that day. I was surprised by so many things: that my last conversation with my husband was in a hospital; that he was only 61; that we had only 12 years together; that someone could never wake up from a surgery that was technically a success; the clarity I felt about removing my husband from life support; the sense of honor I felt holding him while he took his last breath; that I would never again sleep in the same bed with him or refill his prescriptions or dress him or laugh with him.

There are many things that could have made his death harder on me: had we not had financial stability or health insurance; had I not had solid relationships with his family members; had our marriage been complicated; had we not talked at length about the types of medical interventions we might want to keep us alive in dire circumstances. But nothing could have made his death easy for me. I may have been less surprised by his death than by my mother’s, but I did not expect it. I may have had in the back of my mind the idea that Tom could die, but that didn’t make the loss any less devastating to me.

I think the idea that an expected death makes grieving easier is based on a misunderstanding. Grief is about loss, not about expectations being met.

Moving On versus Moving Forward with Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swedish Death Cleaning

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

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

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

Swedish death cleaning serves several purposes: 

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

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