Tag Archives: buddhism

A Grief Spike at 16 Months

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing My Vulnerability + Awkwardness as a Widow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savoring Peace in Grief: I am Happy (and Crying)

It’s been just about 14 months now since my husband died. The shock of him being dead is mostly gone, the bureaucratic aspects of his dying are mostly complete, and I have mostly established new routines and rhythms that feel good. And yet, I still miss him and the life we had intensely.

There is a lot of contradiction in my life right now. It’s hard to explain that I’m not at all lonely or depressed, but I cry every day, sometimes off and on for most of the day. I still keep boxes of tissues in every room of the house and always have some with me when I leave home.

Someone watching me cry off and on all day might say, “But your crying is getting in the way of you writing more or cleaning your house more or blah blah blah.” Real talk: noting is getting in the way of me cleaning my house more except for my dislike of cleaning. I could write more, I suppose, but I’m actually satisfied with the amount of writing I’m getting done right now. My crying isn’t keeping me from doing anything I want to do. Odd as it sounds, I sometimes prefer crying to doing something “fun.”

The platitudes about keeping busy, making new friends, and reinventing myself as a widowed person aren’t helpful. I am busy, I have made new friends, I am reinventing myself as a widowed person.

My life is full of love and laughter—and crying and missing my late husband. I don’t want for love or joy or laughter, I want for that love, that joy, that laughter that he and I shared. There are things I miss that he and I did together that I could do with others or by myself. For example, I haven’t been camping since he and I went in May 2020, right before his stroke. I have a number of friends who would take me camping if I asked, but I don’t want to go camping—I want to go camping with him. I want to snuggle into our big red double sleeping bag and joke with him about the dogs snoring. I want to wake up in the morning to him making cowboy coffee. I want to read in camp while he goes for a motorcycle ride and then listen to his stories about what an epic ride it was.

For me, this is what 14 months out looks like and I’m not concerned about it. My continuing grief is only a problem if I identify it as one—and I don’t. I am at home in my grief and also in my new life. I have plenty of meaningful work, hobbies, and relationships.

I think I am simply continuing to turn toward and relax into grief. When I originally blogged about that, I noted that Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft identifies “three essential moves” of grappling with difficult emotions: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace.  (Technically, Kraft says these are three essential moves of Buddhism, but because Buddhism focuses on letting go of suffering, I think it’s a fair paraphrase to to say the three essential moves can be applied to difficult emotions.) I began turning toward and relaxing into my grief last fall. I think what I am experiencing now—the feeling of being at home in my grief—is “savoring peace.” When I first read about “savoring peace,” I had no idea what it really meant, but now I do very much feel at peace and there is an element of savoring, of really enjoying and appreciating the depth of my grief experience, free from any sense that I should be feeling or doing something differently.

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.