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.

Stop Asking IF Your Students Have Questions!

I asked one of the worst questions of my students last week after I explained an assignment to them: “Does anyone have questions?” How do I know it was a bad question? Because no one answered it. I gave my usual ten seconds of silence before speaking again, and when I did speak, this is what I said: “What can I clarify?” Instead of silence, this time I was greeted with SIX requests for clarification.

While the two questions may appear to be very similar, the dramatic difference in reception indicates that they are actually not that similar at all. Here are some of the differences:

  1. “Does anyone have questions?” is a closed question with only two acceptable answers: yes or no. In contrast, “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, inviting a range of responses.
  2. Because the only acceptable answers to “Does anyone have questions?” are binary, and as with all binary options, one option is privileged over the other, there is actually only one “good” answer to the question. Every student knows “no” is the correct answer. To answer yes either challenges the brilliance of the authority figure posing the question because, using the example of the assignment I had just described to the class, it implies that the assignment wasn’t written clearly, or exposes the student to being perceived as lazy, stupid, not paying attention, or some other negative descriptor. Because “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, there are no obviously privileged answers.
  3. Because the privileged answer to “Does anyone have questions?” is “no,” it silences questions while appearing to invite them. It normalizes not asking questions. “What can I clarify?” is open, so it normalized asking questions.  
  4. Because “Does anyone have questions?” silences people with questions and implies that no questions should be asked, it positions the asker as more powerful. On the other hand, because “What can I clarify?” assumes that clarification is needed, it positions the asker and the answerers as working together to make meaning.

Another terrible question that I find myself asking from time to time is “Does that make sense?” While asking that conversationally with a peer can be somewhat effective, asking it of students in a scenario similar to the one I describe above is likely to meet with the same silence as “Does anyone have questions?”

Faculty know students have questions. I hear faculty wondering sometimes why students don’t ask more questions. Perhaps it has something to do with our own questions.

Noticing Ableist Assumptions about Meeting/Class Discussions

Last week I was in a meeting of about 20 people in which a topic I have very strong opinions about came up. I very much wanted to contribute to the discussion, but other people were jumping in so quickly that I had a hard time really processing what they were saying while simultaneously trying to organize the complex thoughts in my head. Every time I thought I had my thoughts organized enough to articulate them aloud, someone else would start talking and I would need to leave my thoughts aside to listen to the speaker. After about 15 minutes of spirited discussion that I had not contributed to in any discernible way, the discussion slowed down and finally, the person facilitating the meeting asked if there were final thoughts. The following three seconds of silence gave me the opportunity I needed to finally organize my thoughts and I was able to share them.

Had there not been those few seconds of silence, I might have not contributed at all to the discussion. To others in the meeting, it might then have appeared that I was completely disengaged or had no opinion or thoughts on the topic, which was not at all the case.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common experience for me. I have moments of being able to think quickly enough to jump into a conversation immediately, but it is more common for me to need some time—sometimes just a few seconds, as in the example above, and other times a few minutes—to collect my thoughts and get them ready for prime time. This was true before the exhaustion of being my husband’s caregiver and then unexpectedly a widow kicked in, and it’s gotten more pronounced since then.

While silence during a discussion can appear to be evidence of lack of engagement, there are many other reasons someone might not participate in a discussion:

  • Like me in the example above, they may be a reflective thinker who needs time and/or quiet to process thoughts.
  • They may be a deep listener who actually pays 100% attention to what others are saying, which means they aren’t simultaneously formulating what they will say.
  • They may have a cognitive processing difference that makes it hard for them to make sense of rapid or overlapping speech.
  • They may be tired, undernourished, and/or underhydrated. All of these conditions affect cognitive function.
  • They may be anxious, either about a particular situation in their life or they may have an anxiety condition. Either way, cognitive function could be affected.
  • They may be introverted and despite all of society’s pressures to participate in the type of discussions typical of meetings and classes, that simply may not be the way they are wired.

Despite all these very good reasons for not participating in discussions, I hear colleagues immediately judge students and colleagues who don’t participate in discussions in meeting and classes as “lazy,” “disengaged,” or “in over their heads.” I do it, too; in fact, I’ve noticed that my default is to wonder what is “wrong” with the person. This is an ableist way of looking at the situation, assuming there is something defective about the person who is not responding the way I want. I’ve been working over the last few years to notice myself having that thought and remind myself of all the very good reasons a person may have for not participating in a discussion. To mitigate my own tendencies to make this unfair judgment, I have been working on ways to build some silence and processing time into facilitating discussions.

As a teacher, I begin each class with a five-minute writing prompt designed to help students collect their thoughts for the discussion we’ll have in class. I also use the classic “count to ten in your head” after asking a question before I speak again. As an NCFDD coach, I allow generous silence during conversations to allow folks time to collect thoughts. But I do not typically allow silence in the meetings I facilitate, in part because I have prided myself on running “efficient” meetings and silence does not appear to be “efficient.”  

I have much more work to do on this front as a meeting facilitator. Allowing silence in meetings means sacrificing efficiency; I hate meetings and want to get them done as quickly as possible. But I recognize that getting them done quickly at the expense of restricting fruitful discussion is counter-productive. I am going to start playing with beginning important discussions by asking everyone to take two minutes to jot down their thoughts.

As a meeting participant, I am going to start asking for a moment to collect my thoughts. For example, in the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, I could have said, “I have some thoughts to share but I need a moment to collect them. Please bear with me.” I have never seen anyone do this in a meeting and I suspect other participants who don’t need the time I need to collect thoughts may find it unprofessional or even disrespectful of their time. I have tenure and can afford for people to think less of me, so I am going to try this strategy, but for folks with less privilege than I have, it may not be a viable strategy.

Meeting facilitators could allow folks to continue conversations that begin in meetings by email or on a discussion board for a certain amount of time, which would allow folks who need time to collect their thoughts to do that. In the past, I’ve been criticized for sending email follow ups after discussions in meetings for “dragging on a conversation that is over.” I’ve been told, “Too bad you didn’t bring that point up in the discussion when we could have done something with it.” These responses rely on the assumption that not contributing to the discussion in the moment can only be due to laziness or other negative characteristics.

At the end of chapter two of Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price describes many clever ways of making class attendance and participation policies less ableist. Many of the strategies she describes could also be used in meetings.

What can you do to allow time and space for reflection in the discussions you facilitate or participate in?

The Value of Grief & Trauma Communities

Grief is isolating and the way we (don’t) deal with it in our culture—glossing over it, minimizing it, focusing on “the bright side” and “the blessings” and pushing the negative feelings aside—makes grief even more isolating because it can make us think we are the only ones who feel the way we do.

Being in multiple widow support groups has shown me that there are lots of people who can relate to the pain and sadness I feel. I have learned that I am not the only person to wonder about how long to wear my wedding band, how to deal with unwanted questions or advice, and how to cope with holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays.  The particular nuances of my marriage, caregiving experience, and widowing are unique but not nearly as different from the experiences of others as I had expected. For me, connecting with others who have experienced a similar loss has made me realize that although I am alone in being widowed from my amazing husband, I am not at all alone in being widowed from an amazing husband. Understanding that I am actually surrounded by people who are also grieving, even if they are grieving very differently from me, helps me feel normal about my process and also makes it more possible for me to extend compassion to myself and others. The support groups have given me a chance to see a wide range of responses to grief and a wide range of ways to offer support.

I wrote last month about resources for grieving that I’ve found, and now, 11 weeks out from my loss, I want to emphasize how learning about grief through blogs, podcasts, TED Talks, and support groups has helped me feel at peace with my grief. I don’t mean I’ve felt less sadness or cried less or experienced any less of negative emotions than before I learned about grief. What I mean is I have felt normal about my grieving. I have not judged myself when I have started crying in person, been triggered by something completely random, been unable to dump out the now-11-weeks-old glass of juice in the fridge that was my husband’s last glass of juice, or done any of the many, many illogical things I have done since becoming a widow. While my grief experience has been challenging, I have not had the extra challenge on top of it of feeling like I’m “doing it wrong” or I “shouldn’t be feeling/acting this way.” Nope—I’ve known because of what I’ve learned about grief by joining formal and informal communities of people grieving that I am doing it exactly right and there are an infinite number of ways of doing it right.

I’ve been speaking specifically of grief, but I think what I’ve said about grief can also be applied to trauma. Like grief, trauma is isolating. Just as people seem to feel free to judge the grieving others do, people seem to feel justified in judging how others process their trauma. As a sexual assault survivor, I have often felt the judgment of others about my process of working through the trauma I experienced. My participation in sexual assault survivor support groups helped normalize the pace at which I was processing my trauma and many of the confusing emotions I felt.  

Grief and trauma are isolating; when you think you are the only one feeling what you’re feeling and that nobody else can relate, you may further isolate yourself. Finding a grief or trauma community, even if you participate minimally or only as a lurker, can be powerful. It can make you feel less self-conscious. It can help you stand up to those who judge the way you are grieving as wrong or going on too long. It can help you stop comparing yourself and your grieving to others and their grieving.

As an introvert, I understand that the idea of being in a support group could be really uncomfortable. There are many grief and trauma communities that you can passively participate in, such as online support groups and Facebook groups. I joined six different widow support groups on Facebook and only participate actively in two of them, but I find value in reading the posts in the other four groups even if I don’t post or comment. I think for some folks, listening to podcasts and reading memoirs by people who have experienced similar losses or traumas could be as effective as participating in a support group. The point is to connect, whether passively or actively, with others experiencing something similar.

Supporting Student Wellness beyond “How Are You?”

I’m hopeful that the pandemic has made us a little more compassionate and aware of how stressful the lives of our students are, and I’m happy to see faculty on social media talking about building mechanisms into their classes to check in with students about how they are holding up. My own institution has repeatedly reminded faculty of the resources available to students and urged us to connect students with those resources, but I know from personal experience that it’s a lot more effective to tell students about the specific resources they need than to tell them about a few dozen resources they might need. When someone feels a need, they pay attention.

One of the cleverest check-in tools I’ve seen was created by my amazing friend, Alex Lockett. She wrote an online survey that she will send to her students once a week during the semester to allow her to understand what they are dealing with and how. Depending on the feedback she gets on the survey each week, she can curate the support and types of resources she suggests to the class.

Alex gave me permission to share her survey. I want to highlight that she is generously sharing her work here and asks only that you give her credit if you end up using or modifying her survey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Here is Alex’s survey.

What I like about this survey:

  • It’s not about making sure students are “doing wellness right.” The survey isn’t used to penalize or shame students who are struggling with self-care. The questions are authentic, caring inquiries into students’ wellbeing. I can imagine asking these questions of individual students during office hours or in the transition time before or after a class meeting. They are conversation openers.
  • Students can opt to complete it anonymously, which further removes any connotation of shame or judgment.
  • The survey is about wellness rather than productivity. So often, wellness and productivity are conflated, with the measure of a person’s wellbeing becoming how many deadlines they met or how many pages they read or some other “how many” metric. Alex’s survey avoids that by focusing on what people did for their wellbeing rather than on how much of something they did or what they did not do.
  • The question that asks students “how are you feeling today?” offers students nine faces to choose from to represent their current state, ranging from a toothy grinning face to a red nearly exploding face. To my mind, this is so much more effective than asking folks to rank themselves on a scale of 1-10 or to choose from likert-type options (good, very good, etc.). It also shows audience awareness—emojis are how our students are more likely to express their moods.
  • The question on different aspects of self-care serve as reminders of what people taking care of themselves should do each day. For example, “Have you eaten in the past 12-24 hours? If you say no, you need to feed yourself. If you don’t feel like cooking, try eating a handful of nuts or some fresh fruit. I highly recommend always keeping some trail mix around because sometimes we get so preoccupied that we neglect a sustainable meal schedule.” The question itself offers concrete suggestions about what self-care looks like and the suggestions are appropriate for college students.

This survey is designed for use in a classroom setting, but I think it could be easily modified by department chairs or managers of non-academic workplaces to check in with folks. I’m going to create a version of it to append to the form tutors in the Writing Center use at the end of each shift to summarize and reflect on the shift.

Rejecting False Choices: Moving from OR to AND or even NEITHER

There’s a poem that gets a lot of traction in the several Facebook widow support groups I’ve joined called “He Is Gone” by David Harkins (the pronoun in the title is flexible—I’ve seen the poem called “She Is Gone,” too). You can read the poem in its entirety here if you like, but the first two and last two lines alone will tell you everything you need to know about the poem for the purposes of my discussion here.

The first two lines:

You can shed tears that he is gone,

or you can smile because he has lived.

And the last two lines:

Or you can do what he’d want:

smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

The ten lines between the ones I’ve quoted present several sad or mournful responses to a partner’s death and then the word “or” and a happy or celebratory alternative. It’s a poem that I suspect is meant to inspire positivity and an attitude of gratitude rather than of forlornness among folks who’ve lost a partner. The repeated contrast of the “sad” and socially awkward behavior to the “happy” and more socially-approved behavior drills in the moral lesson that it is better to be happy.

The poem makes the rounds in the support groups so regularly that I see it at least once every few weeks and it was even read aloud at a face-to-face widow support group meeting I went to recently and discussed as being “inspiring” and “aspirational.”

This poem makes me cringe for several reasons. First, it fails my favorite grief writer Megan Devine’s “platitude check.” Devine says if you can tack “so stop feeling so sad” onto a statement, it is a platitude. Cha-ching! Tacking “so stop feeling so sad” onto the lines I’ve quoted above from the poem makes it clear the poem is a series of platitudes. Platitudes are insipid and unoriginal, but the real harm, to my mind, is that they convey moral judgment and are often said with the implication, “You’re doing it wrong.” When someone posts this poem in a widow support group, they are implying that those of us who are crying over our loss are doing something wrong.

But being made up purely of platitudes is not this poem’s worst offense, in my opinion. Even worse is that it uses the flawed logic of “or” to imply that a widowed person has only two behavioral options: (1) “shed tears that he is gone” OR (2) “smile because he has lived.” I can think of lots of options between these two. Just today, I’ve laughed about a few wonderful memories of my husband, cried and smiled at the same time while looking at photos from our last camping trip together, and had a (albeit one-sided) conversation with my husband about a decision I am trying to make, which involved neither tears nor smiles. As my examples show, it is also totally possible for someone to do both of the behaviors that the poem sets up as opposing behaviors–in other words “shed[ding] tears that he is gone” AND “smil[ing] because he has lived”—and to do neither of the behaviors.  The logic of or insists that someone must make a choice, that there are limited options, and that one choice is the wrong one, so there’s built in judgment.

Not only is there built in judgment, but the “right choice” is not the one that is even necessarily in the widow’s best interest. No, it is the one that is socially acceptable and makes everyone around the widow feel good, but it may very well require the widow to deny what she is actually feeling. The poem reinforces the idea that what matters more than a grieving person’s actual griefwork is how the people around her feel—do they feel comfortable? is everyone smiling? is there a general air of positivity around every interaction?

What makes this poem especially dangerous is that grieving people themselves are sharing it and aspiring to live it. As I said, I come across this poem on widow support group pages and in support group meetings—this is not something others who don’t understand what being a widow is like shared with me. This is being shared by widows with widows. That is how internalized shame around grief works.

In general, my hackles go up when I hear two options with “or” between them because it so often implies a false and morally charged choice. I think of “male or female,” “single or married,” and “happy or sad” and find each binary to be deeply problematic. From a rhetorical standpoint, a question offering two choices with “or” between them persuades the person answering the question to choose between the two options, even if they don’t like the options or feel neither one fits them. When a situation is framed as having only two possible options, we find it hard to think outside those options, so the framing of the question actually shapes what we are capable of thinking of. A grieving person asked to choose between tears and smiles will often have a hard time thinking of other options.

I had a challenging interaction with a nurse before my surgery last week that illustrates the power of being asked a question with only two possible answers. In the course of collecting demographic information from me, the nurse asked whether I was single or married. When I answered that I was widowed, she said I had to choose between single and married. My mind immediately went to trying to figure out which answer fit me better, although I knew I didn’t identify as either. Finally, I said, “Neither, I’m widowed.” The nurse told me I had to choose either single or married and we went back and forth for a bit, with me refusing to choose and her refusing to accept “widowed” as my answer. In this situation, I had to exert a significant amount of energy to continue pushing back against the false choice with my answer of “neither.” (If I am asked this asinine question in the future, perhaps I’ll just refer the asker to this blog post.)

I came across this Martha Beck quote in Tricycle magazine, which I think captures the “and” concept beautifully:

Grief is like a stream running through our life, and it’s important to understand that it doesn’t go away. Our grief lasts a lifetime, but our relationship to it changes. Moving on is the period in which the knot of your grief is untied. It’s the time of renewal.

Instead of presenting mind-numbing and preachy platitudes or false choices, Beck acknowledges that grief—and I would argue, most complicated emotions—flows throughout our life and we don’t have to reject it for more comfortable emotions. We can feel grief alongside all sorts of other emotions, including happiness. We can grieve and smile. And we can grieve in ways that don’t look like stereotypical grieving. Right now, my tending of my late husband’s garden is a form of grieving. I am choosing and and neither regularly and I pity the fools who tell me I’m doing it wrong.

***

On a completely different note, the current situation in Afghanistan is devastating to everyone, but particularly women. It’s not lost on me that if I lived in Afghanistan, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave my house as I have no male relatives nearby, the closest being my stepson, who lives 30 minutes away. This post on Joanna Goddard’s blog suggests some concrete ways to help.

Say Thank You instead of I’m Sorry

Earlier this week, some colleagues and I were discussing by email a decision that needs to be made. I tried to follow the discussion, but six weeks out from being widowed, my brain just wasn’t up to it. I couldn’t remember the context from email to email, couldn’t make myself care about the decision in the grand scheme of things, and as each new email contribution to the discussion arrived in my inbox, I felt less capable of even reading.

Finally, I sent a reply-all email that simply said, “My brain is not able to process this right now, so I am going to defer to all of you on it. Thanks for understanding.” (Actually, as proof of how unable to process anything my brain was, I actually wrote “Thanks for understand” and only noticed my mistake later when I caught a glimpse of the email in my sent folder. Nonetheless, I think my message was communicated.)

Now I can’t say if my colleagues were irritated to get my email or if they did understand or if they thought I was a big slacker for opting out of the conversation, and frankly, as a past therapist told me, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. What I do know is that I felt instantly relieved to have practiced a small bit of self-care. I set a boundary by explicitly opting out of a conversation that did not require my participation; and perhaps even more importantly, instead of apologizing for it, I thanked people in advance for their understanding.

Whereas “I’m sorry” assumes the reader will react negatively, “thank you for understanding” gives the reader the benefit of the doubt and predisposes the person to be understanding because they’ve already been thanked for being understanding. It would be awkward after being thanked to then be a jerk about it. “I’m sorry” assumes there is something to be sorry about; “thank you for understanding” assumes the reader should be understanding.

In the case of the conversation I opted out of, there is nothing for me to be sorry about. I have five brilliant colleagues who can easily handle the decision without my input. Plus, after a year of intense and exhausting caregiving and then unexpectedly being widowed, it’s normal to have limited capacity. If I were to apologize, I would imply that someone in my position should be able to actively participate in the conversation.   

I hear colleagues—mostly female—apologize regularly for things that do not merit apologies: not taking on a service role that is known to be thankless, not bringing fresh baked goods to a meeting, not being able to attend a meeting that conflicts with a child’s performance or game or pick-up time, not having print outs at a meeting at which everyone was told to do their own printing, not being able to stay beyond the scheduled end time of a meeting, needing accommodations, and I could go on. Of course, women have been conditioned to be apologetic, but those of us with privilege—and I have a ton, being a white tenured full professor—can help normalize that no one should be sorry for having healthy boundaries by stopping with all the damn apologies already.

I cringe every time I get an email that begins with an apology for taking so long to answer. Email is not for urgent communication and taking a few days to respond to an email is ok. It does not merit an apology. But the apology implies not only that the sender should have replied sooner, but that the recipient should not be taking a few days to respond to emails either. In other words, the apology implies that everyone should feel bad for not answering emails immediately, which obscures the fact that most email does not warrant an immediate response—in fact, a lot of email doesn’t warrant any response at all.

Our compulsion to apologize for having healthy boundaries that acknowledge that work is only one part of our lives actually undermines our ability to have healthy boundaries by implying to others that our boundaries are a problem. “Thank you for understanding” normalizes those healthy boundaries.

On that note, thank you for understanding that I am having surgery next week and will likely not post. 😊