Tag Archives: grieving

Grief and the (Un)Expected Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving On versus Moving Forward with Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It turns out I am living life pretty well

I’ve seen my grief therapist almost every week for nine months now. She’s asked me periodically if I’m feeling any anger and my answer has always been no. I’ve felt profound sadness, disbelief, and fear. I’ve felt some frustration and irritation, but nothing I would call anger.

Until this week. Anger arrived on Wednesday. I noticed it creeping up on me the day before when an email chain I was on suddenly seemed outlandishly stupid to me and I sent a pissy response. The anger simmered at a low level, but I could ignore it easily enough. Then on Wednesday, I felt the anger building up in intensity, starting in my stomach, moving up to a pressure in my chest and culminating in a fuming, throbbing headache. I was so angry that I ended my class 15 minutes early because I couldn’t think straight. I don’t think I’ve ever ended a class 15 minutes early in my entire career. That’s how blinding my anger was.

I will post something about the anger in the coming weeks, after I have some distance from it. Today I want to talk about how struggling with the big emotions I’ve been feeling since my husband’s stroke and then a year later, his death, often make me feel unable to participate much in life. I don’t keep up on the news, I don’t clean my house, I nap between meetings—in short, I take a laissez faire attitude toward most everything. The story I tell myself then is that I’m doing nothing, letting life pass me by.

This week, when I started telling myself that, I decided as an experiment to write down the things I have done since my husband died, and gosh, it turns out that I haven’t exactly done nothing:

  • I got out of bed and put on big girl clothes, including an actual bra, almost every single day. There have been many days in which I napped for most of the day, but I did it in a complete outfit and on the couch, so even on those days, I can claim that I got out of bed and got dressed.
  • I cooked real food at least once a week. There are lots of days when I just have no appetite and no energy to cook, but I have managed to make myself a homemade meal at least once a week and often more than that.
  • I took good care of myself. I worked out and journaled nearly every single day. I made doctor and dentist appointments I had put off while being Tom’s caregiver. I got massages. I met with a grief therapist nearly every week. I attended ten widow support group meetings.  
  • I walked the dogs every day. Some of the walks were on the short side, just little maintenance walks, but most were good walks, and we often stopped at the bench that commemorates Tom. Sometimes I even played with the dogs on their walks.
  • I spent quality time with my daughter, my sister, my nephew, my mother-in-law and her husband, my brother-in-law and his wife, my stepson and his partner, and several good friends.
  • I finished and sent out two memoir essays. One has been accepted for publication and I haven’t heard back about the other one. Relatedly, I participated in a weeklong online writing retreat, five weekend DIY writing retreats, and a four-week online writing course; I attended and participated in 12 online writing workshops; and I joined a writing group that meets every three weeks and have participated in three meetings.
  • I planned a celebration of Tom’s life that I think captured the essence of who he was and why he is so deeply missed. I also had a bench commemorated to him at the park near our house and scattered some of his ashes in Oregon, one of his favorite places.
  • I completed the probate process with/for/on Tom’s will. (I have no idea what preposition to use there, which shows how little I understand legalese.)
  • I had and recovered from major surgery.
  • I prepared for and won an appeal of my health insurance company’s denial of a $42,000 claim related to Tom’s stroke. When the claim was first denied, I thought the insurance company had just made a mistake, but then my first appeal was also denied and I began to worry. I was certain I would need to hire an attorney, but I handled the second-level appeal myself, which was a ton of work.
  • I took four trips by myself and made plans to go to Europe this summer by myself.  
  • I bought original artwork at an arts festival. The piece I bought makes me smile every day.
  • I attended and participated in Buddhist meetings almost every week.
  • I read five books and am almost done with a sixth.
  • I watched the entirety of Schitt’s Creek.
  • I filed my taxes.
  • I remembered birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates of loved ones.
  • I blogged almost every week.

Even at work, where I have significantly underperformed,

  • I applied for and was granted a sabbatical for the spring 2023 semester.
  • I revised and resubmitted an article that will be published this summer.
  • I collaborated with two colleagues on an edited collection of scholarly essays.  
  • I attended my first conference since the pandemic began.
  • I formed a committee to explore creating an interdisciplinary disabilities studies minor.

This list helps me see that the story I tell myself about being so sapped by grief that I can’t do anything is just not accurate. It is true that I haven’t kept up with the news or cleaned my house. But look at what I have done! I certainly don’t want to imply that a long list indicates a life well-lived, but I do frankly find value in every single item on this list. It actually is, for me, indicative of a life being well-lived, not because of the number of items on it but because every item on it is aligned with my values.

I suspect many of us can be pretty hard on ourselves when we are in the throes of emotional turmoil. I humbly suggest that the next time you feel like you’re doing nothing with your life, you make a list of what you are doing. You might be surprised by what it reveals.

Peer Mentoring Widows

In the early days after my husband’s death, I was hungry to talk to other widows close to my age. I had just turned 52 when Tom died and off the top of my head, I could only think of one other person I knew who was widowed around the same age.

That person was a Facebook friend, a professional acquaintance I didn’t know well at all but I was aware from his Facebook posts that he’d been widowed around the beginning of the pandemic. I messaged him through Facebook and he responded immediately. We met for a cup of coffee and he told me about his experience of being a youngish widower. It made me feel less alone and freakish to sit with someone else who had been through the experience of losing their partner at a youngish age. It reassured me that people our age could assemble a meaningful life after losing the love of their life.

A few days later, my dog walker put me in touch with a friend of hers about my age who had been widowed for a few years. That other widow became a lifeline for me. We met for coffee, went for walks together, and texted regularly. She was able to commiserate with me in a way that only another youngish widow could. Being further along in the experience of being a widow, she was also able to offer guidance about how I might deal with upcoming milestones. She helped me feel normal when I found myself completely unexcited about upcoming holidays or angry about going through the many post-partner death bureaucratic requirements.

I also had two neighbors, one who was widowed very young and another who was widowed when she was a little older than me, come by to express condolences and remind me that they understood. Although I didn’t talk extensively with either of them, knowing they were nearby and open to talking to me was a constant reassurance. Every time I saw them in the neighborhood, it was proof that people survive the turmoil and upheaval of being widowed.

The widow friend my dog walker connected me to told me about widow support groups on Facebook. There seem to be hundreds of them, some focused on widows in specific geographic areas, some devoted to widows of particular religious affiliations, and others organized around interests or simply living with loss. I immediately joined widow groups oriented toward being in Colorado, travel, and gallows humor, as well as a few more open-ended widow groups. While I am not an active poster in any of these groups, reading the posts of others gives me perspective and reminds me that there are an infinite number of ways to experience and respond to grief—and at the same time, there are some constants: it absolutely sucks, some people in your life won’t be supportive, some people will be surprisingly supportive, pets usually help, and grief isn’t linera.

I also devoured memoirs by widows, starting with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Abigail Thomas’s What Comes Next and How to Like It. Didion’s memoir helped me understand some of the weird memory gaps I had in the early days as normal. What I appreciated most about Thomas’s memoir was the grim humor. (I’ve always gravitated toward dark humor, and it feels to me like being widowed offers some fantastic opportunities for it. While death isn’t funny, it is kind of hilarious that we act like death isn’t natural. What’s more natural than death?)

The experience of being widowed is disorienting and knowing others who have gone through the experience has helped orient me to this strange new world, as has being able to read about or hear about the experiences of others.

I’m now 9 ½ months out and have been widowed long enough that people are starting to reach out to me to orient newer widows. In a weird way, it feels like getting a promotion, like recognition for a job well done. To be sure, I still flounder as much as I did at the beginning, but I do it with the confidence that there is no other way to do this widowing thing. That is one lesson I’ve learned through my conversations with other widowed people, the memoirs I’ve read, and the Facebook groups I’ve lurked on.

I’ve spoken to two newer widows recently, who looked to me for some sense of orientation. It’s like being an ambassador to a place no one wants to be. Nobody gets here on purpose and we arrive with a metric fuckton of baggage, none of which prepares us for the experience. Knowing how much it helped me to have some relatable guides, I feel quite honored to take on the responsibility for others. I am not sure if my ethos as an ambassador is more optimistically grim or grimly optimistic, but in any case, I do feel oddly well-equipped to take on the responsibility of metaphorically holding another widow’s hand through the disorientation.

All the widowed people who made themselves available to me were incredibly generous to me and I sometimes wondered why. Now I get it. When an acquaintance reached out last week and apologetically asked if they could connect me to a newly widowed person they knew, I brushed aside the apology. I was honored to help. I have become a master of saying no to all sorts of requests since Tom’s stroke, but supporting another widow is something I am deeply honored to do. The loss widows feel is not more or less than the loss others feel when someone dies but it can be more disorienting. When you are used to the constant contact a partner offers; consulting them about meals, child or petcare, and all manner of household matters; and assuming their presence in every vision of the future, the loss touches every aspect of your life. Going to the grocery store, opening the mail, being in your home . . . it all triggers big feelings that other widows instinctively understand.

It feels good to be able to put those big feelings to use.

Another “First” Behind Me

I’m still having trouble with what to call my wedding anniversary now that my husband is dead. In the week leading up to the day, I called it “my anniversary” a few times in conversation, which led to some confusion. One person replied, “Has it been a year already?” thinking it was the anniversary of his death. Another responded, “Why are you so sad about it?” not realizing my husband had died.

When I called it “my wedding anniversary,” someone said, “I didn’t know you were married!” which led to my awkwardly explaining that I was but now I’m widowed.

Calling it my “anniversary with my dead husband” includes enough information to head off the most common areas of confusion but sounds weirdly necromantic.

“The day that would be my wedding anniversary if my husband hadn’t died” avoids necromancy but is wordy.

The day was tough, although punctuated with thoughtful gestures by friends and family, who acknowledged the challenge of the day with grace and generosity. Several friends texted or called. One friend brought me flowers and another delivered pastries. A widowed friend met me at the bench commemorating Tom to listen to me tell stories about him.

I had hoped to get a memorial tattoo that day but could not get an appointment with the artist I want (I did have a consultation with her and am booked to get the tattoo in June). I had also planned to go through Tom’s T-shirts to pick some out for a friend who is going to make a memory quilt out of them, but I curled up on the couch with the dogs instead.

There were some particularly tough moments:

  • While walking one of the dogs, I suddenly burst into sobs, surprising myself, the dog, and the neighbor who was in the yard we were walking past. Nearly nine months into grieving, it doesn’t rattle me much when this happens but I still prefer to keep my loud sobbing out of the streets. I worry that someone will ask me if I’m ok and I’ll feel obligated to explain my situation. One benefit of living in the city is that it’s not that unusual for someone to have an outburst in public, so no one has actually said anything to me when I’ve made a bit of a scene, but I worry a bit about it nonetheless.  
  • I attended two Buddhist meetings via Zoom, which is something Tom and I did together during the last year of his life. Although I attend at least one Buddhist meeting every Sunday morning via Zoom, doing so on our anniversary made seeing myself in a little box on the screen without Tom feel particularly lonely. When he was alive, I loved seeing the two of us next to each other on the screen. I always sat on his right because of his left neglect. I liked being able to feel him next to me and see him on the screen at the same time. He actively participated in the discussion portion of our meetings and I loved hearing what he had to say. I miss it and felt the longing to have that again intensely on our anniversary.

I had foolishly thought that once the day itself was behind me, I would feel fine, but I slept horribly Sunday night and woke up Monday morning feeling wrecked and even more emotional than I had on Sunday. I sobbed my way through work, kept my camera off for remote meetings, and avoided people when possible. Things turned around a bit Monday afternoon, and after getting a good night’s sleep (thank you, Tylenol PM), I woke up feeling optimistic and happy on Tuesday.

Tuesday brought some laughter related to Tom, too. A former employer of his emailed to say they had discovered a paycheck of his from 2019 had never been cashed and they wanted to send me a replacement check. Tom was infamous for losing money, so I had a good laugh about this windfall. I split the money with our kids, which is exactly what Tom would have done. (Actually, Tom would have spent the money multiple times, probably buying a motorcycle, taking me out to dinner, and then giving a bunch to the kids. It would have ended up costing us.)

Lessons learned:

  1. I am proactively going to block out the few days leading up to and after the anniversary on my calendar for next year. I now know that trying to work on those days is probably silly, and luckily, my job affords me the option of taking personal days.
  2. I need to either figure out how to refer to this day or be ok with not having a graceful way to refer to it.
  3. I knew I would want support on this day, so I started letting close friends know in the weeks before it that the day was coming up. They came through with those messages and acts of kindness that I mentioned.

Going through the Motions

This upcoming Sunday is my wedding anniversary. I used to say “our” wedding anniversary but now that doesn’t feel right. “My” anniversary doesn’t feel right, either, but I guess since my husband died, the anniversary is mine now.

Once Tom’s birthday in January passed, I set my sights on our March anniversary. I notice myself doing that—making it past one milestone and immediately steeling myself for the next one. (After this anniversary, the next milestone on my radar is Mother’s Day, which Tom often made a bit of a big deal about despite me arguing every year that it’s a bullshit made-up holiday. He believed firmly in honoring mothers.)

I started feeling heavy sadness last Sunday night. My eyes fell on a framed photo of Tom and me and the kids the day we got married. We had been together two years when we married in 2011. When we got married, Tom was 51, I was 41, his son was 18, and my daughter was 8. I started thinking that none of the people in the photo exist anymore. Tom is dead, the kids are adults now. The kids and I have been changed profoundly by his stroke and death. The photo seemed to capture a moment from some imaginary time I no longer felt connected to. I put the photo in a cabinet, then went to the bedroom and opened the drawer of things that at one time smelled like Tom. They haven’t smelled like him in a long time, but I still think of it as the drawer of things that smell like Tom. I ran my hands over the shirts and a stuffed unicorn (after his stroke, he loved stuffed animals), and then sat on the floor in the closet and listened to voice messages from him. The smells-like-Tom drawer and voice messages always destroy me, so I limit how often I let myself dive into them. This week, there have been no limits.

On Monday I bought myself a big bundle of red tulips to put in a vase on the dining room table. One thing I have learned since Tom’s death is how to be kind to myself.

This week I am just going through the motions at work. I’ve been attending my field’s most important conference online all week, but I haven’t retained a thing. A collaborator gently suggested to me that the work I did on our project this week wasn’t as detail-oriented as it needs to be. I will likely need to spend the first part of next week revisiting the work I did this week.

My plan for Sunday is loose. If I can get an appointment, I’ll get a memorial tattoo. Tom actually hated tattoos, so it’s kind of ironic, but I love tattoos and he’s dead so I figure this decision is all mine. I already have a few small ones on my arms and want this one somewhere else—I’m trying to decide between the left side of my collarbone or the left side of my ribs. (The left side because it’s closer to my heart.) I’m also going to go through Tom’s many T-shirts to pick out 20-25 to give to a friend who is going to make a memory quilt out of them. I’ve been putting that off because I know it will destroy me, but since I know Sunday will already be a tough day, it feels right to just pile it on. I’ll go to the commemorative bench at the park by our house at some point.

I have to force myself right now to lean into the sadness. I want to push it away. I’m tired of being sad, tired of crying, tired of memories that feel painful in their beauty and fullness. This week my sadness feels different. I feel like I can only remember my life with post-stroke Tom well. The photos and memories of pre-stroke Tom, like the wedding day picture, feel almost like someone else’s photos and memories. When I think of wanting my life with Tom back, I think of our post-stroke life. I think of pushing him in his wheelchair around the house while crouching down like a ninja and singing the James Bond theme music for drama and comedic effect. I think of cheering him on during physical therapy as he took a heavily-assisted step with his left leg. I want that life back.

I know this will pass. So much of grieving is just being patient and trusting the process. I wonder how much patience I have left and I remember a conversation Tom and I had after his stroke. He had suffered one of the many, many setbacks in his recovery and he asked me how much more caregiving I had in me. “As much as I need,” I told him. I would have happily been his caregiver for 100 more years.

Today I remind myself that although I feel like I have no more patience left for grieving, I do in fact have as much as I need.

Dreaming about My Husband Who Died

I often write about the challenges of grieving, but one aspect of grieving that has given me many happy moments is dreaming about my husband who died. I didn’t dream about him for nearly two months after he died. I desperately wanted to; I was hungry for every memory, every story, every reminder of him, but the dreams wouldn’t come. Every night as I waited to fall asleep in bed, I thought only about Tom. It seemed impossible to me that those thoughts I fell asleep to wouldn’t work their way into my dreams.

One day I spoke to a friend on the phone who was also grieving. She said she couldn’t stop dreaming about the loved ones she had lost. She told me the dreams about Tom would come and that maybe I wasn’t ready. I woke up the next morning and immediately texted my friend: I had dreamt about Tom!

It was a good one, too, featuring us living in a post-apocalyptic world, squatting in a four-story apartment building and driving an old Sprinter van. For some reason, we were played by actors in the dream—Tom was played by Jeff Bridges (with a 5’ long beard and wearing a long white robe) and I was played by Kyra Sedgwick. I have no idea why we were played by actors, but the casting was great, so I’m not going to belabor it. Tom was post-stroke in the dream, using a wheelchair and relying on me as his caregiver, but there was no stress or anxiety associated to it. The apartment building where we lived was abandoned except for us, but had a functioning, albeit rickety, elevator. Although I haven’t driven in real life in several years, in the dream I was able to drive the van because in the post-apocalyptic world, there was hardly anyone else around and I didn’t have to worry about accidentally running someone down. We were weirdly happy and carefree in the dream, which is not how I’ve ever thought of post-apocalyptia when I’m awake. I remember one particular moment in the dream when Tom’s 5’ long beard separated into tendrils and blew out around his head, reflecting the sunshine so he looked like a saint. I woke up feeling like I had gotten bonus time with him—it was so clearly a dream but it filled me with the kind of peaceful joy we shared together when he was alive.  

It was three months before I had another dream about him, and then I had two within a month. In the first one, he started out using his wheelchair, but at some point during the dream, he stood up on his own, and said, “Hey, babe, check this out.” He was a bit unsteady but not so much that I thought I needed to run over to support him. I said, “Look at you!” and then, in typical Tom fashion, once he got some affirmation, he started showing off: going from crouching to standing, first slowly and then picking up speed. In the dream he was wearing Carharts pants, which he always wore before the stroke but seldom after because I had to dress him and putting Carharts on another person is a serious workout. At one point in the dream, I hugged him, partly to hold him up because he was moving like the Tin Man and it made me nervous, but also because I remembered that he was dead and I wanted to feel his body to see if it was real. He felt lean and strong when I hugged him and I was confused, trying to figure out how I could be calling myself a widow when he was there in front of me showing off his ability to stand.

In the second one that month, we were staying at a hotel made out of rafts on a lake, with each room like a bouncy castle on the water. I was sleeping alone in an inflatable raft room and my room got a leak that made it zip all around the lake as the air whooshed out. I could see Tom, post-stroke,  inside the restaurant, another bouncy castle, chatting with the owner and then seeing that I was in distress. After I got rescued by a hotel employee in a kayak and dropped off at the restaurant, a woman told me it was my fault but I knew she was wrong and Tom would back me up. I felt no insecurity whatsoever, I knew he would have my back. When I went to talk to him, he was strong and sinewy, as always, wearing a tight white shirt that showed off his physique. He was lying on his left side on a booth bench so only his right side, which he could still control, showed. He said, “Hey, babe,” as I walked over to hug him. He was strong and healthy and adjusted to not having access to his left side. It felt like we had established a life post-stroke a lot like the life we had pre-stroke.

A couple weeks later, during an acupuncture session, I dozed off and had a dream that Tom was getting out of a car and into his wheelchair in front of our house and I floated down the ramp to meet him. I didn’t have to make any effort to float down the ramp, and it looked like Tom started out having to make an effort to get from the car to the wheelchair, but when I got to where Tom was, he hugged me with both arms, seeming to have the use of his left side, and then sat down in his wheelchair unassisted. I woke up with a start, overwhelmed by emotion.

A week later, napping on the couch at home, I had nearly the same dream, but this time I felt calm and happy rather than overwhelmed when I woke up. After that, Tom started showing up in many dreams as a side character, usually in his pre-stroke form, and always in a crisp white shirt. When he was alive, he had a knack for wearing white shirts that stayed crisp and spotless, even on camping and rafting trips.

In February, I started having lucid dreams about Tom in which I was aware that I was dreaming and could influence the narrative a bit. I don’t remember the details of the first dream, but I do remember at some point in the dream Tom and his mother told me Tom’s stroke was my fault. The thought hit me hard for a moment and then I realized how ludicrous it was for me to take responsibility for his stroke. At the same time, I realized I was dreaming and that my brain was playing a trick on me. I was searching for some kind of certainty about the cause of his stroke, which has been mostly mysterious. Once I realized it was a dream, I told Tom and his mother that I knew the stroke wasn’t my fault and they nodded and accepted it, and I went from feeling panicky to completely calm.

A couple weeks later, I had another lucid dream. In the dream, pre-stroke Tom and I were camping beside a river. We were in our tent and he was wearing his blue and yellow drysuit. We were laughing about something funny one of us had said when his face started turning into a skull from the jawline up. As soon as I realized what was happening, I said, “Uh uh! You don’t get to show up like that. Not in my dream!” and I pointed to the tent’s opening. Tom looked embarrassed and skulked out. I was sad to see him go—it still feels really special to have him show up in a dream—but could tell the dream was going to turn into a nightmare if I let it keep going in the direction it was headed.

My most recent dream about Tom featured him, post-stroke, waking up in the morning and me, as I did everyday, helping him arrange his limbs so that he could sit up without bending anything in a way that would damage his joints or strain a muscle. He was in good spirits and we joked, enjoying each other’s company. There was very little action in the dream—it was mostly just us laughing and hanging out together while I helped him go from lying in bed to sitting up. That was a process that could take up to half an hour. The infinity sign was embedded in the dream in different ways—as a pattern on the bed sheets, doodled on the envelope of a piece of mail, in the loop of my shoelace. Sun streamed in the windows of our house in the dream in a way it doesn’t in real life. I knew it was a dream in part because of that detail–the shafts of sunlight did not reveal dog hair and dust floating free through the air. I felt capable and loved in the dream, not overwhelmed at all.

I’m happy that the dreams are coming more frequently and that I’ve been able to exert some influence over the narrative when they seem to be turning dark. I was surprised to learn that most grief dreams are positive. Dream researcher Joshua Black says that grief dreams can help people experiencing loss understand “the problem of the loved one being gone in a new way” and help us continue to feel connected to the person who died.

The Emotional Overwhelm of Others’ Grief

One of the surprising gifts of being widowed is that I feel more connected to others who are grieving—and these days, it seems like that’s a really big group. When I learn of someone else’s loss, I immediately soften toward them and feel deep empathy.

Sometimes, though, that deep empathy becomes intense enough to trigger my own grief and I find myself suddenly distraught. This has happened a few times in the past couple of weeks:

  • I was talking to a close friend on the phone whose mother recently died. At one point, my friend mentioned the challenge of getting her father, who has limited mobility, to the graveside for the service. I was already thinking of my friend’s loss; that was compounded with the realization of her father’s loss. I found myself choked up and unable to speak. While she was talking, I went from open, listening friend to devastated widow, from patiently holding space for her grief to completely immersed in mine. It happened so quickly and dramatically that I was momentarily disoriented and had to remind myself where I was and who I was on the phone with.
  • I was catching up with a colleague over coffee. She mentioned that she had lost a sibling years ago and still finds the holidays difficult. My eyes were instantly filled with tears, thinking of the big photo of Tom I had taped to a chair at every holiday dinner I attended so he would not be forgotten. For a few moments, I was physically looking at my colleague, but what I was seeing was the photo of Tom—him holding a giant martini glass with a pitcher’s worth of martinis in it, a smug look on his face. I thought of my colleague facing a similarly monumental loss and perhaps not having the strong support I have had of loved ones welcoming my quirk of taping a picture of Tom to a chair.
  • I was scrolling through social media and saw a friend’s post about his dog’s terminal cancer diagnosis. I thought of the desperate grasping at every moment that’s left my friend would surely feel in his dog’s remaining months, like what I felt after Tom’s stroke. Thinking of the immense comfort I had gotten after Tom’s death from our two dogs, I thought of how my friend’s house would feel oddly empty after his dog’s imminent death. I had to put my phone down and walk away to collect myself.

My practice of leaning into my grief means that I notice these reactions in myself but don’t try to contain them unless, like in the first situation, I feel like it would do some harm for me to let my grief run its course in the moment. In that situation, I needed to be present for my friend, so I shook my head and pushed my own grief aside until our call was done.

In the other instances, I just let my grief express itself. My colleague knew about my husband’s death and didn’t seem to think it was odd at all that I reacted the way I did to her disclosure about her brother. My own tears didn’t derail our conversation and I suspect that just as I felt closer to her knowing of her loss, she probably felt closer to me seeing my vulnerability. In the third situation, I was home with my daughter, and she’s used to seeing me fall apart at random moments now. She and I both have random moments of tears and emotional overwhelm and that’s pretty normal at our house.

In each instance, the grief of another brought my own grief dramatically to the surface, and my own grief allowed me to resonate more deeply with the loss the other person was experiencing. I am grateful for that deeper connection with others.

Being open to the pain of loss again

After my husband died, I realized for the first time that nearly every couple that doesn’t break up is going to see one of them widowed. I knew it abstractedly, of course, before Tom died, but the idea of living through the death of my partner seemed so unlikely and distant that when it did happen, it felt almost unnatural. But there is nothing unnatural about one partner outliving the other. That doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does put into perspective that being widowed is something an awful lot of us will experience, some of us more than once.

After his stroke, when it became clear that he was going to have significant health challenges for the rest of his life, my husband wanted to talk about me surviving him. Even knowing the facts of his medical condition, it seemed like an outlandish possibility to me. He was only 60. We were in love. We laughed and enjoyed the hell out of every day. Even paralyzed, plagued by pain and cognitive issues, he lived fiercely. I couldn’t imagine him ever not living. I evaded the discussion for months but finally he said, “This is important to me. I need to have this conversation.”

He wanted me to find love and happiness with someone after he died. I promised him I would, mostly to end the conversation. Imagining a world without him in it seemed farcical to me. Many days, it still does. Even with the celebration of life done, most of the paperwork done, the estate settling nearly done. Even with most of his clothes given away, the knife-sharpening stuff moved out to the garage, the makeshift bedroom on the main floor dismantled. He is still so present in my thoughts and conversations that it seems absurd sometimes that he’s dead.

“Now that you know how much it hurts to lose your life partner, will you open yourself up to that potential again?”

This question comes up regularly in the widow support groups I’m in. There are always some who say no, they have no interest in ever being vulnerable to that pain again. Others say yes, that vulnerability to another loss is a reasonable risk for the rewards of love. Every widowed person has to answer that question for themselves and there is no right or wrong answer. It’s a very personal decision that can be contingent on the role trauma has played in a person’s life, the circumstances of their partner’s death, their tolerance for emotional pain, and more.

Despite how personal the decision is, many of the folks in my support groups have been told by others what their answer should be. Just as people think they can tell grieving people how long their grief should last, they also sometimes think they can tell us whether or not we should pursue another relationship. Someone suggested to me that falling in love again would “tarnish” the story of my relationship with my husband who died; I gave them a salty response. A couple others have told me what timeline they think would be acceptable for me to find another relationship—I politely informed them it was none of their business. (Well, maybe I wasn’t that polite to one of them.)

For me, the answer to the question is automatic and doesn’t involve a bit of hesitation: hell, yeah! I think the conversation with my husband about my life after his death plays some part in how easily I can answer the question. It is certainly a gift to know not just that he was ok with me finding someone else but that it was a thought that gave him peace near the end of his life. The very fact that he died also inspires me to be open to love again. The harsh demonstration of how suddenly a life can end motivates me every day to wring out every bit of joy I can.

I think I will probably love even bigger in the future than I did with Tom. Part of that is my natural streak for resistance. It’s my way of saying to the universe, “Oh, you thought that would slow me down? Ha!” It’s also a tribute to all I had with Tom—I know what it means to have someone who loves me unconditionally and accepts my love with grace, and damn it, I want it again, but this time with even more cowbell.  

I will go into my next relationship knowing that my partner may well die before me. I imagine that will make me a better partner in some ways than I was for Tom. I think of times I let a petty work situation or insecurity cast a shadow over a dinner or times I kept an argument going longer than was productive. I think my clearer understanding now that one of us is going to outlive the other will help me focus on what matters.

I talked last week about Gil Fronsdal’s idea of letting go into something. For me, letting go of the fear of being widowed again allows me to let go into the possibility of being in love again.