Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Turning Toward + Relaxing into Grief

It’s been about 19 weeks since my husband Tom died and I’ve been surprised to find that after a month of fairly quiet grieving, my grieving in the last two weeks has been more dramatic and noticeable. I’ve been crying at work more than I have since my first week back in September. I’ve been crying at home in the evenings, especially after dinner, when the house and dogs are quiet and there is nothing left to distract me. I am still feeling peaceful about his actual death, but I am missing him intensely. I’ve had a few moments in the house where I was sure as I turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of him, or even worse, I turned a corner expecting to see him, and he wasn’t there. Both experiences cause a sudden welling of emotion and I find myself going from totally fine to being a puddle on the floor in an instant.

I suspect that the times I’ve cried at work are related to me feeling more connected to the routines of work rather than just going through the motions, as I was for the first six weeks I was back. I’ll be walking back to my office from class and think of a funny thing that happened in class that I can’t wait to tell Tom about it and then, BAM, there’s the remembering that he’s gone. For the first six weeks or so, “Tom is dead” played like a soundtrack at very low volume in my head during every moment. Now that the soundtrack has faded, I have moments of dramatically remembering that he’s gone.

I also am spending less time absorbed in the bureaucratic aspects of his death—settling his estate, paying bills and arguing about insurance matters related to his last hospital stay, notifying people and organizations of his death, planning celebration of life events, and the like. This frees up my brain to do more grieving.

I knew from the widow support groups I’m in on Facebook that this could happen. Lots of people in those groups post about spikes in grief that come up unexpectedly or around birthdays, holidays, and other special days. With Halloween being Tom’s favorite holiday, I wondered if the end of October would trigger more dramatic grief in me. Now I have my answer. I also know from years of therapy that I can’t hurry my process or avoid it, so I’m just letting it unfold and documenting it for you. Thanks for being my audience.

Instead of pushing my grief aside, being frustrated with it showing up inconveniently, or being embarrassed about its unexpected appearances, I’ve been trying to practice what Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft calls “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace. Tom and I discovered Doug Kraft after Tom’s stroke, when we spent a lot of time together listening to audiobooks and Buddhist lectures and meditations on forgiveness. (I’ll blog at some point in the future about the profound role forgiveness played in Tom’s last year for both of us.) Kraft has a very open, colloquial approach to Buddhist concepts, which Tom appreciated.

To turn toward and relax into something, Kraft says we need to let go of the “preverbal, precognitive, instinctual tightening” that happens inside us when we perceive something threatening. He gives this example:

When we are about to step off the sidewalk and notice a car coming our way, the body tightens. We don’t think about it, contemplate it, or decide to stiffen. It just happens.

https://www.easingawake.com/?p=ThreeEssential

Kraft explains that the tightening itself isn’t suffering, but it’s the tightening that keeps us from turning toward and relaxing into our suffering. He says that to really experience peace, we need to turn toward and relax into our suffering. I know from my 20+ years of Buddhist practicing that this is classic Buddhist thought, and I also know that I’ve never been able to do it. Now that I am working on doing it, I realize that I’ve never actually tried to do it but rather dismissed it as an unrealistic goal. Maybe because I’m older now or maybe because I’m experiencing much more intense tightening than I have in the past, what used to appear to be an unrealistic goal now appears to be the promised land and I want to get there.

As I work consciously to turn toward and relax into my grief, I notice that one of my default strategies to avoid turning toward and relaxing into my grief is working. I find myself thinking, “I don’t have time for grief, I need to be prepping for class or revising an article draft.” In reflecting on my past, I can see this as an ongoing theme from the time my mother died when I was 12. At that time, I turned toward schoolwork and reading. Whenever I experienced a loss, I dove into schoolwork and then later, work. I received praise for my diligence around schoolwork and work, so it felt like I was doing something right. Now I see that the affirmation around schoolwork and work was misleading.

Doing well at school and at work results in tangible deliverables and rewards: good grades, a publication, a line on a resume or CV, accolades from colleagues and/or students. There are defined milestones—the end of the semester or the submitting of a manuscript. With grieving, the milestones are ambiguous. There is no external recognition of doing a good job. When someone asks me what I’ve been doing lately, it’s a lot more socially acceptable to say, “I’ve been working hard” than “I’ve been immobile on the couch crying.”

For me, turning toward involves loosening my attachment to milestones and goals. The recent resurgence of my not-quiet grieving is a reminder that milestones and goals related to grief are unrealistic and that grieving is not a linear process.

I also want to note, as I often do, how privileged I am to be in a position where I can relax my focus on job-related goals without fear of losing my job. I’m tenured, I’ve been promoted to full professor; I don’t have to worry about being judged for not publishing as much for a while or not putting 100% into my teaching this semester. I will certainly be judged, but it won’t have any consequential effect on my career. What if I were at an earlier, more precarious point in my career? I was not able to give myself the room to even think about turning toward and relaxing into grief when my grandfather died and I was working as a food server. When I experienced turmoil in my life when I was working as an adjunct or when I was pre-tenure, attending to my mental health in this way could have had catastrophic effects on my career trajectory.

Please Stop Trying to Cheer Me Up

Many well-meaning friends and colleagues have told me since my husband died that they want to cheer me up, make me laugh, or make me smile. Well, no need. I am very happy, laugh and smile regularly, and actually appreciate being overcome with grief sometimes.

One of the ways our culture’s inability to deal with death manifests is in the mistaken insistence that happy and sad are opposites and that if you are sad, you can’t be happy, and vice versa. People take my sadness to be an obstacle to happiness and determine to “fix” the problem of my sadness. There are several errors in this logic:

  1. Happy and sad are not actually opposites. The opposite of happiness is the absence of happiness—or apathy. The opposite of sadness is the absence of sadness—also apathy. Happy and sad are both opposites of apathy but not of each other. Happiness and sadness co-exist all the time—I experience deep happiness and deep sadness at the same time regularly right now. Every morning when I sit on the bench commemorated to my husband, I feel a deep sense of happiness that I can sense his presence there, that I was lucky enough to be able to raise the money for the commemoration, and that his legacy of generosity lives on in a small way through the bench. At the same time, I am sad that he’s not here to see that legacy or to sit with me on the bench and appreciate the beautiful fall colors on display around it.
  2. Sadness is no obstacle to happiness. I have felt at least a moment of sadness every single day since my husband died, usually triggered by Facebook reminding me of a memory involving my husband, or realizing it’s the anniversary of something (a particularly wonderful camping trip, for example), or a random thought suddenly connecting me to his favorite food or a saying of his or an experience we shared. Halloween was his favorite holiday, so right now I am surrounded by triggers. And yet, I have also—every single day—felt immense joy when seeing my dogs’ silly antics, visiting with my daughter every day after work, noticing the beauty of the home my husband remodeled for us, etc.

    I am not feeling less joy now that I am a widow; in fact, sometimes I think I actually feel more joy now, as if the welcoming in of strong emotion (see my comment above about appreciating being overcome by grief sometimes) opened me up to stronger happy emotions as well as sad emotions. The grief and sadness also co-exist in the moment with joy; for example, seeing my friends post on Facebook about their Halloween plans simultaneously fills me with joy remembering the gusto my husband brought to our Halloweens and an intense wistfulness that I’ll never see him gleefully describing his vision for a new costume (that would inevitably garner him second place in a costume contest—he never, ever won but was always a contender).
  3. Sadness is not a problem. It’s a completely healthy and normal response to the death of a loved one. This is perhaps the most significant reason to not try to cheer up a grieving person. Telling a grieving person they need to cheer up—and make no mistake, when you tell someone you intend to cheer them up, you are telling them that you have a problem with their current state—assumes that grief and sadness are feelings one should not have or should not demonstrate having.

Lately when people tell me they intend to cheer me up, I respond with, “I’m good with my current emotional state, so no thanks.” Everyone I have said that to has registered surprise on their face, but most people back down from the cheering up mission. One person argued, insisting it was no trouble for them to make me laugh, to which I said, “You’re not getting my point. I want to feel like this right now. It’s healthy and feels right.”

If a grieving person asks to be cheered up, by all means, go for it. But if they do not ask you to cheer them up, let them be sad, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps recognizing that you’re the one with the problem, not them, can help you refrain from insisting on cheering them up.

Grieving at the 4-Month Mark: What Helps and What Doesn’t at this Moment

I’ve posted the last two weeks about what seems possible and doesn’t seem possible now, 3 ½-4 months out from Tom’s death. Today I’m going to continue on that theme but focus on what is and isn’t helping me right now.

I’ll start with what isn’t feeling helpful right now that has been helpful in the past: journaling. I’m surprised by this because it was so very helpful for the first couple of months. I try it about once a week because I have a feeling it will be helpful again and if I don’t try it every now and then, it will just fall of my radar. But for now, it’s not holding my interest.

My list of what is helping right now is much longer:

  • Going to Tom’s bench everyday. I had a bench at a nearby park commemorated in Tom’s honor. Every morning when I walk the dogs, we stop at the bench and I sit for a few minutes. Some mornings, depending on how antsy the dogs are, I’m only there for maybe one or two minutes; other days, I’m able to sit for much longer. I usually tell Tom I love him and miss him and then share a little about what’s on my mind at that moment. It’s typically nothing profound, just the kind of checking in married couples do when they are apart for a while.
  • Grief counseling. I meet every week with a grief counselor. My therapist suggested the idea of a “therapy box”: during the week when painful or uncomfortable feelings related to Tom’s death come up and I don’t want to deal with them in the moment, I can “put them in my therapy box,” meaning to basically say to myself, “I don’t have to deal with that now, I can deal with it during my therapy session.” That makes it easy to let it go in the moment and then process it with my therapist when my next appointment comes up.
  • A remote grief support group. Once a month, I attend a remote support group for widows. I’m usually the youngest person attending, but I still have enough in common with the other widows to learn from their experiences and have something to offer them. Hearing about how others are going to navigate the upcoming holidays, for example, gave me some ideas about what I can ask for when people inevitably say, “How can I help?” For example, I realize that I will be happy to go to holiday dinners but will want the option of stepping into a quiet room to be alone if I need to. Explaining ahead of time to my host that I will need that option will help everyone feel less awkward should I need to step out.
  • Attending local widow group events. Last week I met a group of 15 local widows for dinner. It’s so nice to be with a group of people who aren’t at all fazed when I say my husband died, or I start crying in the middle of a story, or I say I’ve lived in my house for 21 years and am not sure how to turn the heat on because Tom always did that.
  • Having two fellow widows I can text at any time. I met one through my dog walker and then she introduced me to the second one. I know that at any time, day or night, I can text them and they will respond without judgment or nudging me toward anyone else’s idea of “recovery.” For example, if I just text them “had a tough day,” I know they won’t try to fix anything—after all, nothing can be fixed. Tom is dead and that can’t be changed. I miss him and that can’t be changed.
  • The random cards, emails, flowers that still come in. Remembrances of Tom and expressions of sympathy are still trickling in. I love knowing people still think of Tom and recognize that my loss continues.
  • Writing thank you notes and looking at my list of previous thank yous. Seeing the long list of people who have done kind things for me reminds me that I an not alone and that there are many people I can reach out to if I need anything.
  • Asking for what I need. Earlier this week I was at work and a colleague asked me how I was doing. I told her I was having a tough moment and I suspected she was about to try to “cheer me up,” which is what people tend to do when I say I am feeling sad. That wasn’t at all what I wanted; I wanted someone to just be present during my tough moment, so I said to her, “Would you mind just being present here for a moment?” She stood in my office and let me cry for a couple of minutes.

Grieving at 16 Weeks: Things I’m Not Ready to Do Yet

I talked last week about what seems possible now. Today, I’m thinking about what, 16 weeks out from Tom’s death, still does not feel possible:

  • Going camping and rafting. Every rafting trip I’ve ever been on involved Tom as captain, and in the time Tom and I were together, I only camped once without him. I love both activities and suspect I’ll make my way back to them, but for now the activities feel too connected to memories of Tom. A friend told me about “grief floats,” rafting trips specifically for grieving people, and I’m thinking a grief float in the late spring or summer might be a good way to dip my toes in again (pun intended).
  • Going to restaurants we went to together. I have only gone to restaurants a handful of times since Tom died, but every time, I was careful to choose a place Tom and I never went together. One of my favorite restaurants is our neighborhood Italian place, and I do miss the food, but when I think of the place, I think of sitting at the bar with Tom, how we’d always reminisce about the time an obnoxiously drunk patron confided in us about some sexual escapades, how we’d order too many oysters and then too many appetizers because we couldn’t not order our favorites. As with camping and rafting, I believe I’ll be able to go to the restaurant again at some point, but not today.
  • Watching shows we watched together. The night before he went to the hospital for his last surgery, Tom and I started watching Downton Abbey (yes, very late to that party). I’d love to watch more, but when I think of the show, I think of Tom’s last night at home, how relaxed and normal the evening felt, and then I think of the unexpected news just a day later that he wasn’t waking up after surgery.
  • Reading for pleasure. I just don’t seem to have the attention span to get lost in a book yet. Before Tom died, I had started reading Sallie Tisdale’s Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them), and now four months later I’m only about halfway through it. The book is wonderful, but I find I can only read a few pages at a time and what I’m reading doesn’t sink in, so I often have to re-read those same pages when I come back to the book.
  • Making sense of the garage. Tom’s majestic garage, AKA the Garage Majal or Man Town, has always been mysterious to me—full of things I can’t name or even imagine a use for. Tom’s organizational skills were always a little shaky, so there are motorcycle-related items side by side with distilling supplies and carpentry tools, and how am I to know the difference? Before his stroke, about every six weeks, Tom would announce, “I’m going to take back Man Town,” by which he meant put everything in its place. “Taking back Man Town” was a two-day process for Tom, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be up to the task.
  • Doing something with the last of the knife sharpening stuff. After his stroke, Tom took up knife sharpening as a hobby, and in his typical overboard fashion, quickly amassed an incredible quantity of equipment, which took over the entire front of the living room. After he died, I gathered up the vast majority of equipment and donated it, leaving just one small shelving unit full of sharpening implements. In the last month, I redecorated the living room, carefully redecorating around that shelving unit. I smile every time I see it, a little reminder that I can redecorate all I want, but the living room will always be at least somewhat his space, too.
  • Getting rid of the juice in the fridge. I gave Tom a glass of grapefruit juice every night with his drugs; some evenings he only drank a few sips, just enough to help him swallow the drugs, and then asked me to put the mostly full glass in the fridge for the next night. The night before he went to the hospital for the last time, he took his requisite few sips and then I put the glass in the fridge. It’s still in there, the juice long evaporated and the pulp residue in a thick layer at the bottom of the glass.
  • Getting rid of Tom’s shoes and leg brace. It’s funny how the things Tom and I hated the most—his big giant shoes and leg brace—are among the items I can’t bring myself to part with. Before his stroke, Tom wore cowboy boots, hiking boots, or Tevas, but after the stroke, his leg brace necessitated very different footwear. The only shoes we could find that would accommodate the brace were athletic shoes 1.5 sizes larger than his usual size and in extra extra wide—yes that’s two “extras.” The shoes are big and ugly and Tom hated them. Putting them on was an act of finesse that required getting the angles just right. I thought I’d be happy to never see them again. Instead, the clear bag the hospital staff put the shoes and brace into sits untouched in the corner of the guest bedroom. I think I’m unable to even touch the bag because its contents represent Tom at his most vulnerable. There’s also an element of pride in my caregiving: Tom used to brag to his therapists that no one could get his brace and shoes on as efficiently as I could.
  • Deleting the recurring reminders on my calendar to help Tom with stretching, getting dressed, etc. My life as a caregiver was so mind-blurringly busy and overwhelming that I depended on calendar and phone alerts to remind me to do many recurring tasks related to his care: dispense his drugs, stretch his left arm, get him dressed, etc. Although I haven’t done any of these things in 16 weeks now, I can’t bring myself to delete the calendar reminders. The reminders are oddly comforting. Every day, for example, when my 9 am reminder to stretch Tom’s left arm pops up, I remember how we would laugh and make jokes about the Midnight Creeper, as Tom dubbed the arm that seemed to have a mind of its own.

I’m sure some of these things will seem more possible in the future and some will never seem possible, and that’s just fine. Perhaps my living room will always feature a shelf full of knife sharpening implements. I’m ok with that.

Grieving at the 3-Month Mark: What Feels Possible

September 19 marked three months since my amazing husband died. Grieving never ends but it does change. I’m back at work half-time (I had enough annual leave saved up that I was able to go half-time this semester but maintain my income—a privilege I wish every widowed person had) and the routine of work and the need to leave my house and interact with others twice a week have been helpful.

A lot of things that didn’t feel possible a month ago feel possible now:

  • Thinking concretely about the future, at least some of the time. For the first two months after Tom died, all I could think about was the day in front of me and maybe, maybe the day after that. In the third month, I started being able to think about the next week or month. Two big markers of my being able to think about the future are that I applied for a 2023 sabbatical, and I committed to a trip to Europe next summer, which I’ll say more about below.  
  • Navigating a new city without my husband. That trip to Europe I mentioned? I’ll spend a few days in a city I’ve never been to and I’ll go alone, then I’ll meet up with friends in a second city for a few days, and then I’ll spend the last few days in a third city, alone. With my low vision, I am always anxious about going to new places and going alone, but my husband and I had talked about traveling more and I am not going to let my fears keep me from doing it. I deliberately picked cities he and I never went to so I won’t have any memories to contend with.  
  • Doing some simple cooking. Cooking for my husband was pure joy—I love cooking and he loved my cooking, so almost everything I made was greeted with, “This is delicious, babe.” Cooking for just me is not nearly as fun—even when I try to channel my inner Tom and tell myself, “This is delicious, babe.” Nope, just not the same. Plus I haven’t had much appetite since he died. But last week, on a whim, I invited a friend over and made us dinner. Then I did the same thing this week. Friends don’t call me “babe,” but they do compliment my cooking and it feels good to be eating real dinners at the table a few nights a week.
  • Cleaning up the closet. When my husband had his stroke in June 2020, his recovery and care became the main focus of my life. It was exhausting, especially layered on top of the pandemic, and the walk-in closet in our basement bedroom—a bedroom we couldn’t use because he couldn’t get down the stairs—bore the brunt of that exhaustion. From June 7, 2020 until September 25, 2021, I did not put any clothing away. I wore only a limited rotation of outfits because the thought required to put together an outfit was too much for me, so the handful of outfits I wore just got piled on a footstool in the closet. When I did laundry, I simply put the clean clothes on the pile. The thought crossed my mind every few months that I should put the clothes away but the effort to make that happen was too much for me. Finally, last Saturday, I had the energy to do it, and now, for the first time in 15 ½ months, everything in my closet is where it belongs.
  • Asking for what I need. I’ve been able to tell people I need company, I need to be alone, I need help with the dogs, I need a ride someplace, I need time to think, I need to be distracted from thinking. For the first couple of months after my husband died, I didn’t even know what I needed, so asking for it was impossible. Now I’m able to identify what I need, at least some of the time, and ask for it directly.
  • Listening to others. After my husband died, I tried to listen to what others said, but my mind couldn’t really absorb it. I heard the words but my comprehension was limited. I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that my ability to comprehend what others are saying and to authentically engage with it is slowly coming back.
  • Donating many of my husband’s things. After my husband died, I moved most of his medical equipment to the garage and most of his clothing and other belongings into the guest bedroom and closed the door. Out of sight, out of mind. About a month ago, I was able to sort through the things in the guest bedroom and identify the things I was still attached to and the things I was ready to let go of. I made a large donation of clothing. I still have a lot of his clothes—some will become a quilt made by a wonderful new friend of mine. Some will stay in the guest bedroom for an indeterminate amount of time. Some have been moved down to a drawer in the bedroom closet that I labeled “Things that smell like Tom.” Weird, maybe, but I’m ok with that. I have still not been able to bring myself to open the bag that contains the shoes and leg brace he wore to the hospital the last time. I’m not sure why I can’t open that bag yet, but I respect that I can’t yet.  
  • Enjoying myself at the celebration of life. I was able to enjoy myself at events in celebration of my husband’s life on the weekend of September 11-12. I wasn’t sure how I would feel as that weekend approached—Would I be overcome by grief? Checked out? Overwhelmed by details? It turns out that with help from family and friends, I was able to actually enjoy the company of the people who showed up and feel truly celebratory about the life my husband and I shared and the joy and laughter he brought to the world.

I’ll talk in next week’s post about what still doesn’t feel possible.