Tag Archives: grieving

Feeling Normal for 8 Hours at Camp Widow

A conference for widows? Yes, it exists and it is called Camp Widow. Last Saturday, I spent all day at a Camp Widow pop up. Camp Widow is typically a weekend-long event, but the pop up is just one day, which makes it more accessible for some people. All Camp Widow events bring together widowed people to learn from and support each other. The events are put together by the Soaring Spirits organization, which researches and supports widowhood. It’s basically a conference for widowed people, with large-format addresses to the whole crowd and breakout sessions on specific topics.

Being surrounded by other widowed people is an incredible experience. In a support group, there may be ten or so other widows. At Camp Widow, there are 100+. Being in a room full of widows, where widowhood is not just normal but expected, is liberating. The whole time I was there, I knew deep in my soul that I would not come across as weird or be judged as grieving for “too long.” I talked to many people who immediately “got me.” Widows are my people—we can talk for 20 minutes, completely skip the small talk, and go right to, “How far out are you?” (widowspeak for “when did your person die?”) or “How are things with your in-laws?” There’s no need to worry about being the awkward person who brings everyone down or trying to figure out an organic way to mention that you are a widow.

At Camp Widow, the definition of “widow” is inclusive. Anyone who feels like they lost “their person” to death counts as a widow. There are some widow groups that parse out who gets to claim the title of “widow,” but Camp Widow uses a broad definition. Participants are reminded frequently throughout the event that no one’s grief can be measured against someone else’s. Regardless of how long you’ve been grieving or what the circumstances are of your person’s death, if you feel you belong at Camp Widow, you are welcomed.

The entire event was designed and organized to be safe and inclusive. A day or so before the event, registrants received an email about a motorcycle safety course taking place at the same location as the camp; because so many widows lost their person to motorcycle accidents, the organizers wanted to give folks a heads up that they might see motorcycles. The email mentioned that support people would be available if anyone was activated by the sight of motorcycles. That’s the kind of small gesture that goes a long way toward inclusivity.

Throughout the entire event, volunteers were visible to help us find rooms for sessions, answer questions about the organization or the schedule, and guide us toward bathrooms. It was a far cry from most conferences I’ve been to where I can never find anyone to read room number signs to me—or when I do find someone, they are condescending about having to read to an adult.

There were sessions on love after loss, what to do with your loved one’s things, common concerns for people who are newly widowed, 1-3 years out, 3-5 years out, more than 5 years out, and my personal favorite: navigating widowhood as an introvert. The session itself was useful, but the best part was being able to identify other introverts during the rest of the event. I knew exactly who would be ok with sitting with me in near silence during lunch. Throughout the sessions I attended, I got the clear message that what I was feeling was normal—that there is no shelf life on grief.

For the entire time I was at Camp Widow, I was normal. I got an 8-hour respite from monitoring and managing my emotions. I cried when I felt like crying, without any concern for who would notice or what they would think. I saw others do the same. It was glorious.

The next two days were not so glorious. I was exhausted, fuzzy-brained, and anxious. Despite how amazing the Camp was and the liberation of not having to manage my emotions, there was a distinct “hangover” effect. I was in a daze most of Sunday and exceedingly cranky on Monday. Today (Tuesday) I mostly slept. Camp Widow didn’t lessen my grief at all; in fact, my grief feels fresher now, perhaps because of being able to freely express it at Camp Widow.

And I am glad I went. So much of being widowed involves “and.” I can cry and feel joy. I can be inspired by Camp Widow and the pain of my heartbreak can feel fresh again. I can love my late husband with all my heart and I can move forward with my life. To most people, that sounds like a contraction, but to my 100+ new widow friends, it makes sense.

Showing Up for Death

Watching someone die is hard. Sometimes we know we are watching someone die—perhaps they are in hospice or a medical professional has estimated how much time they have left. Other times, we may notice a slowing down and have a creeping realization that this person is moving toward death.

I watched my husband die for 53 weeks after his stroke. He faded very slowly, in fits and starts, so that it was possible for me to convince myself that he wasn’t actually dying at all. He maintained his vigor and bravado right up until the end, even when he had stopped eating. His death was a shock to me, although I knew that from the moment of his stroke, I was “walking him home,” an expression spiritual teacher Ram Dass used to express the shared experience of embracing the inevitability of death.

As painful as it is to watch, I think being with someone in their final months, weeks, days, or moments is an honor and even a responsibility. As much as we may want to turn away, I think we need to bear witness to death. Death is a totally natural part of life. Witnessing it normalizes it. Showing up for a person who is dying is one way to show respect for life itself. A person who is dying isn’t dead yet and many of their needs are like those of the rest of us: they need to be seen, heard, and acknowledged; they need to feel loved and valued; they need to feel remembered; they need to not feel abandoned.

I think one reason people avoid showing up for death is that they don’t know what to do. People who are dying are often less able to participate in conversations. We may wonder what to talk about with a dying person or how to engage them. We may feel pressure to keep a conversation going but feel nervous about which topics are “safe.” Here’s what I learned in my husband’s last year: it is easy to meet the needs of people who are dying if we focus on those needs rather than our fears.

Every one of those needs can be met by simply showing up. What is the most basic way of letting someone know they are seen and heard? Being there in person or on the phone with them. What is the most basic way of showing love? Making the effort to be there in person or on the phone. How can you let someone know you remember them? Be there. How do you let someone know they haven’t been abandoned? Sit with them.

Simply sitting in silence with someone who is dying is completely ok. I spent hours and hours in silence with my dying husband, simply holding his hand. When he had lost consciousness and was being kept alive by a ventilator, I told him over and over, “I’m right here.” In other words, I was not a brilliant conversationalist. Cake’s post on watching a loved one die emphasizes that it’s your presence that matters, not the conversation, and that silence is completely ok.

If you’re interested in learning more about dying and showing up for dying, I highly recommend Sallie Tisdale’s book, Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them). Tisdale is a Buddhist and brings Buddhism’s characteristic lack of sentimentality about death to the subject. (In my introduction to Zen Buddhism in 1997, the teacher led with, “Let’s face it: we’re all on a one-way trip to the boneyard.”) She offers concrete suggestions for what to say and not say. She recommends being kind to yourself, cutting yourself slack when you don’t show up exactly as you wish you had.

Perhaps the advice of Tisdale’s that was the hardest for me was to let the dying person talk about death and dying. My husband wanted to talk about it, but I was afraid that if I acknowledged he was dying, he would slip away faster. If I could change one thing about how I showed up for his death, it would be to not change the subject or dismiss his worries when he wanted to talk about dying. All I had to do was listen.

And now, as Tisdale advises, I need to cut myself a little slack.

The Difference Between Bearable and Unbearable Grief

Returning to places I used to go to with my late husband is always a bit emotional. Being in the airport reminds me of how he made everything into a competition (I had TSA pre-check and he didn’t, so he had to go through the regular security line; he would repeatedly catch my eye from his line and signal that he was going to beat me through—he was jubilant the time my bag was selected for extra searching and he did actually beat me). Going to the local arts festival reminded me of how he would impulsively buy artwork. Shopping for produce reminds me of the time he somehow aroused the suspicion of a grocery store security guy and got followed throughout the entire store, prompting him to crouch down and navigate through the produce section like a ninja.

I have deliberately avoided going to some of the places we went to together because I suspect being there without him will be very emotional for me. One of our favorite restaurants is in our neighborhood, just a few blocks from the house. Before the pandemic, we went once or twice a month, often just sitting at the bar to eat oysters and have a glass of wine. It was our go-to place for small celebrations, like me getting a paper published or him scoring a victory at work. After his stroke, we weren’t able to go, because of both the pandemic and his mobility challenges, but we did get carryout twice. After he died, I had to work up the nerve to just walk past the place and many times I started to walk past it, felt emotion welling up in my chest, and changed my route.

Last week, my brother-in-law and his wife were in town and they suggested we all have dinner at that restaurant. I immediately agreed, with the caveat that I might in the moment not be up for it, which they understood. We decided to go on Monday night. One of my first thoughts that morning was, “I’m having dinner there.” The anticipation built up all day. I had no idea how it would hit me to actually be inside the space. I felt fragile all day—a little on edge, a little protective of myself.

There’s an Albert Gyorgy sculpture called “Melancholie” that portrays grief as a gaping hole where the heart, lungs, and other organs should be. This image of grief captures the enormity of both the loss I feel and the irony of still having a body that moves through the world. On Monday as I moved through my day, going to work and then walking the dogs, I might as well have had my organs torn out. I felt raw and vulnerable.

When my brother-in-law and his wife arrived, they asked me if I was still up for going to that restaurant and I said, “Let’s do it.” I was no more up for it than I had been a few months ago, but I was tired of carefully avoiding walking past the place. Stepping into the space, smelling the old familiar scents, seeing the dark wood that my late husband loved so much, having flashes of so many memories of celebrations at the bar, was overwhelming for a moment. The place was busy and we were surrounded by the buzz of other diners. The three of us took a long time going over the menu, with me telling stories about which dishes my late husband had particularly enjoyed. One of the benefits of a busy restaurant is that everyone else is too absorbed in their story to notice three people crying at the next table.

We toasted him repeatedly. I kept noticing the empty chair beside me, where Tom would have been. His absence was so tangible it felt like he was there, one of the many ironies of loss.

It was a delicious meal, full of love. I felt deeply connected to my brother-in-law and his wife. I think it would have made my late husband very happy to see the three of us there together, laughing and crying and toasting him. When I got home, I sobbed for a long time, lingering over the memories we had talked about at dinner, savoring each one and mourning that there will be no more.

I loved feeling so close to my brother-in-law and his wife and being flooded with memories of celebrations with my late husband. It didn’t lessen my grief one bit, but it allowed me to share my grief. It didn’t make my grief more bearable, but it made it differently bearable. If grief is a gaping hole where my organs should be, for the time I was in the restaurant, I knew I wasn’t the only one with that gaping hole. But the hole is still there, and it might be even bigger because I have a better understanding of the gravity of loss my brother-in-law and his wife feel.

The grief was exactly as hard and painful as I thought it would be. I had anticipated it to be unbearable, but I did bear it, so it turns out the grief was bearable. The only difference between what I felt and what I thought I would feel is the label. It turns out I can sit in a restaurant for 90 minutes feeling completely gutted. I had mislabeled that as unbearable, but now I know it is bearable.

There is no hack to make it more bearable.

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.

Grief by the Numbers

My husband has been dead for over 13 months. I have been a widow for over 13 months. 13 months, one week, and one day, to be exact. 1.104 years.

I crunch numbers related to his death regularly. I repeatedly do the math on how long it’s been since he died in weeks, months, years. I calculate the percentage of our relationship after his stroke (9%), the percentage of my life that I’ve been a widow (2.12%), how old he would be if he hadn’t died, how long we would have been married if he hadn’t died. I redo my math sometimes daily as if the numbers matter in some consequential way.

I recognize all this calculating as an attempt to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. The questions the numbers answer are relatively simple and the answers are clean, tidy, and neutral. I don’t have to like that 9% of our relationship involved me being my husband’s caregiver, but it’s a cold hard fact.

Questions like when will this get easier or how long will my heart hurt don’t have neat tidy answers, but how long has Tom been dead? Now that’s an easy one.

Question: When will this get easier?

Answer: Over time.

That’s a pretty useless answer. What can I do with that? And while I know it’s the best answer I’ll ever have, I want to argue with it. What if I do more therapy? What if I take a yoga class? What if I sleep more? But the answer doesn’t get any more satisfying or clean—it remains maddeningly vague.

Question: How long will my heart hurt?

Answer: Forever.

This answer makes “over time” look almost precise. How long is forever, exactly? I can’t seem to find it on my calendar.

Sometimes I calculate what percentage of the day I spent crying or napping or moping. This is more complicated because I typically don’t know what time it was when I started crying/napping/moping. These things sneak up on me and I suddenly realize I’ve been crying/napping/moping. And then I get tangled up in taxonomizing the activities: does it count as crying if I did it while engaged in another activity or do I only count it as crying if it disrupted something? Is it napping if I didn’t actually fall asleep but was merely immobile on the couch for an hour—or is that moping? And then once I have my calculations, making sense of them kicks off another round of absurd questions and judgments. Is crying for 10% of the day acceptable? If so, where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable? If 10% is acceptable, how about 11%? 14%? Surely 20% is too much. Right?

Sometimes the calculations are a shortcut to imagining what might have been. I used to wonder why people would post on social media something like, “Jack would be 87 today if he hadn’t died.” I thought, “But he did die and he’s never going to be 87.” Now I understand that the person posting that is imagining how Jack’s life would have unfolded had he lived to be 87. When I say, “Tom would be 62 now if he hadn’t died,” that’s shorthand for, “And I would have made him a German chocolate cake for his birthday, and we would have had another year of making each other laugh, of him calling my coffee Nectar of the Gods, collecting sword canes (true story), and breaking out into song in random moments.”

Other times the calculations give me strength. I’m not at “forever” yet, but I’ve managed this heartbreak for 13 months, a week, and a day, and I’m sure I can go another day.

The part of me that loves gallows humor wants to write a bunch of word problems like the ones I struggled through in school:

If Elizabeth’s husband has been dead for 13 months and the annual inflation rate is 9.1%, what percentage of time should she expect to spend crying on the average weekday?

No equation is going to make me miss Tom less, but ridiculous word problems will at least make me laugh.

Don’t Be the Grief Police—Please!

The Grief Police is what I call people who feel they can judge other people’s grieving and tell them they are doing it wrong—or sometimes even worse, commend them for doing it well. There’s a faction of the Grief Police specifically dedicated to widows: the Widow Police. Those are the people who feel they can dictate who gets to call themselves a widow, determining that someone who lost their long-term partner but wasn’t married isn’t a “real widow” and the like.

Glennon Doyle’s podcast, We Can Do Hard Things, recently featured a conversation with grief advocate Marisa Renee Lee, author of Grief is Love. The title of the episode, “Why Grief—Like Love—is Forever,” gives the gist of Lee’s philosophy of grief: it doesn’t go away. It may become more familiar, comfortable, and bearable, but it will never go away. But the Grief Police still think they can say when and how grievers should “move on” or “get over” their grief.

Lee’s message that grief is forever resonates with me. I’m now 13 months out from my husband’s death, and most days I do not feel overwhelmed by grief, but I still have the occasional day in which I seem unable to function in any meaningful way beyond napping, moping, and crying. Even days that are not napping-moping-crying days often have a napping-moping-crying component. I still miss my husband terribly every single day.

Lee says “the love that we share with people leaves a permanent mark on our brains,” and people grieving a loss will never “get over it”; rather, they learn to live with the loss.  In my experience, learning to live with the loss happens one day at a time and you’re never done learning. My mother died 40 years ago, and I’m still learning to live with that loss. My husband only died about a year ago, so I have a lot more learning to do there.

Lee emphasizes that grievers need to give themselves permission to “be a mess,” and notes that this is harder to do for some folks than others. I’ve been grateful to be in a relatively supportive work environment for that, but I recently spoke to another widow whose boss told her that after three years, she should be over her husband’s death and not need to take his birthday and death day off from work. Yes, that boss is a member of the Grief Police.

Beyond supportive bosses, there’s an aspect of privilege involved in being able to express your grief at work or in social situations; as Lee says, “Vulnerability requires a sense of safety that is not equally distributed in our society. Some people are too busy, too female, too poor, too Black for vulnerability.” The Grief Police I’ve met are not interested in unpacking issues of privilege or in creating safe spaces for vulnerability.

One of the most heartbreaking Grief Police stories comes from an amazing woman I know whose son died many years ago. Someone told her, “You must never speak his name again.” I like to think we are past that kind of ridiculousness in 2022, but unfortunately, I know we are not. In the widow support groups I belong to, people frequently share stories about being told that they need to stop talking about their spouses who died. The Widow Police tell them that it’s off-putting for potential romantic partners or confusing for children. I think it would be more confusing for a child to see that a flesh and blood human who died is erased from their loved ones’ memories.

Lee points out that one of the best ways to support a friend who is grieving is to let them talk about their dead loved one. I think hearing your dead loved one’s name is magical. Many grief support group meetings begin with each participant introducing them self and saying something about who they are remembering. I love saying, “I’m remembering my husband Tom, who died last year.” Saying his name out loud to people feels concrete. In those moments, he has not evaporated into the ether. He feels present with me. I can never say that sentence without crying, but I’m smiling, too.

I have the same sensation when I go to the bench commemorated to him a few blocks from my house. There’s a small plaque on the bench that reads “Tom DeBlaker, 1960-2021. Audacious life. Indomitable spirit.” Seeing his name on the plaque always makes me smile, and often makes me cry. I often read the plaque out loud when I’m at the bench and sometimes run my fingers over the engraving.

I never tire of hearing his name from other people. His brother texted me last week to say something funny had happened to him that he wished he could share with Tom. Just seeing Tom’s name in the text made me smile—and cry. The smiling and crying seem to coincide regularly.

The Grief Police only notice the crying and deem it awkward, inappropriate, and upsetting to others.  It’s easy enough for me, as a white person with tenure, to dismiss the Grief Police with an eye roll or a curt comment, but folks with less privilege may not have that luxury. It’s up to those of us who do to push back where we can.

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.