Tag Archives: widow

Mother’s Day and Toxic Positivity

For a lot of folks, Mother’s Day is bittersweet or even just bitter. Anyone who has lost their own mother or a child may find the day upsetting, but plenty of other women—particularly those who have chosen not to be mothers and are bombarded with the social expectation that all women should want to have children and women who are experiencing fertility challenges—may find the day to not be so happy at all.

I have hated Mother’s Day ever since my own mother died when I was 12. For most of my life, I ignored Mother’s Day as much as possible. Seeing the Mother’s Day card displays in stores and being asked by random strangers what I was doing to celebrate my mother activated my fight-or-flight reflex, so I learned to avoid malls and the part of the grocery store that carried cards for most of spring. It was harder to avoid those random strangers.

My late husband was a big believer in honoring mothers on Mother’s Day. He couldn’t remember a birthday to save his life, but he always knew when Mother’s Day was. He agreed with me that Valentine’s Day was bullshit and he thought Father’s Day was pretty lame, but he could never get behind the idea that life would be better without Mother’s Day.

He insisted on celebrating it. He understood and respected that I hated the day, so he mostly kept his celebrating low key, but he always made me an elaborate breakfast that day or took me out for brunch, and when possible, invited his own mother, too. The only time he ever gave me flowers was on Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day is fraught for his mother, too. One of her sons died in his early 20s on Mother’s Day, forever tinging the day with loss. When my husband died, that made two sons she had lost.

This year, she and I observed the day together by sitting on the bench commemorating my husband/her son. We laughed and cried. We remembered some of my husband’s antics and she talked about her older son who died. It wasn’t the kind of Mother’s Day celebration ever featured in brunch advertisements or Hallmark cards, but it was much more meaningful to both of us than a fancy meal.

Crying on the bench with my mother-in-law was a highlight of my day. People may hear about what we did and think, “How sad! Someone should have taken them to brunch!” But if we’d wanted to go to brunch, we could have taken ourselves. What we wanted to do was sit on that bench and miss my husband and his brother.

What my husband liked about the day was the honoring of mothers, which I respect. What I hate about Mother’s Day is the admonishment to make it “happy,” and the accompanying implication that happiness and value for women are somehow reliant on being a mother. The day is filled with toxic positivity: the urge to brush aside grief and loss and complicated maternal relationships and just be happy!!!

What if we recast Mother’s Day to be more like Veterans Day? Nobody says, “Happy Veterans Day!” There’s no implication on Veterans Day that veterans are better humans than those of us who have not served in the military. There’s no ridiculous pressure to make a brunch reservation that day.

If anyone wants to start the petition to make Mother’s Day more like Veterans Day, I’ll sign it. Until then, I am issuing myself a personal challenge to not use the word “happy” in relation to Mother’s Day.

It’s hard. I was appalled to find myself on Sunday saying “happy Mother’s Day!” to strangers. Some weird muscle memory seems to take over on the day and I find myself singing out the words before I even realize I’m doing it. I became the random stranger I spent so many years trying to avoid. But in the year before the next Mother’s Day, I am going to practice saying these phrases until they feel as natural as “happy Mother’s Day”:

  • Wishing you love on this day.
  • How is your day going?
  • What do you need this Mother’s Day?

Self care doesn’t always look the way we expect it to

I started working on a memoir with my husband after he had his stroke, and when he died, I continued working on it. Before he died, we thought the memoir would be about our surprisingly wonderful post-stroke life. When he died, I knew I still wanted to write the memoir, and for the first few months after he died, writing about our life together felt like a refuge and I spent many hours on it.

But at some point, I found writing about the year before his death too painful and I began writing more about widowhood. I wanted to return to and finish the memoir but I wanted to wait until I could do it without feeling like my heart was being ripped out.

As of last month, I still didn’t feel like I could go back to it without it being horribly painful. I finally decided to just embrace the suck of feeling like my heart is being ripped out. Last week I holed up in a hotel for two days to devote myself to working on the memoir about the last year of Tom’s life. I had to give myself permission to be useless in every other aspect of my life. It was gut-wrenching, but in a glorious way. The life we had was so delicious. Looking through my 86 single spaced pages of notes reminded me of so many details I had forgotten—a fall Tom had, some arguments, funny moments with the dogs, and so many root beer floats. How could I have forgotten about the root beer floats?

Having the two days to just wallow in my grief and savor it was such a luxury. I didn’t have to take care of the dogs or do laundry or wash dishes. All I did was write, cry, sleep, and eat. The pain was nearly unbearable, but I knew it would only last for two days and then I would have the distractions of dogs and laundry again.

Choosing to be miserable for two days may sound like strange self-care, but I stand by it. In fact, several lessons about self-care emerged for me during the two days:

  1. Don’t judge myself for still feeling such intense pain. The pain of my husband’s death still feels fresh and raw sometimes. I don’t beat myself up for feeling it still. I don’t tell myself I shouldn’t feel this way anymore.
  2. Give my grief a raincheck. At the same time, I don’t allow its full expression just anytime anymore. I wouldn’t be able to work and maintain relationships without some parameters around my grief this far out. One of the ways I take care of myself is by designating times to allow that pain and times to not. The two day retreat last week was time to allow it. When it’s not a designated time, I remind myself that there is a time for that pain but now is not that time.

This is a modification of a conflict strategy I learned a few years ago at a workshop at the amazing Conflict Center: the raincheck. In conflict, the raincheck strategy means committing to talking about the issue at a specific time in the future. With my grieving, it means scheduling a time to let my grief express itself, whether its during my next session with my therapist or during my two-day writing retreat or some other time. The key is to schedule it, not just put it off.

3. When the scheduled time comes, it will be easier to tolerate the pain because you know it will pass. Once the therapy session or writing retreat or whatever is over, you get a break from it. And then you can decide when you’re going to go back to it by making another appointment. I admit that sometimes my grief is so overwhelming it feels like my body is going into shock—my hands start to tingle and I can’t see straight. But it passes. It always passes. That feeling is always temporary.

4. Forgive my imperfections. In going through my memoir notes last week, I was able to feel so much compassion for my past self. There are things I couldn’t forgive myself for while he was alive—not being more patient with him when he was in pain, asking him to repeat himself because he slurred his words when he was tired, not following up as doggedly as I wish on some medical issues—but after suffering through his death I feel so much more compassion for myself. I wasn’t perfect for him but I didn’t have to be. I did the best I could in the moment. I gave everything I had, which many days wasn’t much and I wished I had more, but I still gave him everything I had on those days.

Right after my husband died, I read Bearing the Unbearable by Joanne Cacciatore. I love this quote from it:

 “I am here,” grief says. “Be careful with me. Stop. Pause. Stay with me.” (43)

I think the first three lessons I’ve listed here are ways of staying with grief, but making it bearable. And the fourth lesson is about being gentle with myself, and who doesn’t need more gentleness in their life?

22 Months Out: Every One of My Late Husband’s Belongings Tells a Story  

I’ve felt great the last few weeks, able to focus on thoughts of the future for the first time in many months. I’ve been on sabbatical this semester and actually met all my sabbatical goals early. This gave me some unexpected time to start trying to make sense of my late husband’s pride and joy, the garage, which he dubbed Garage Majal.

The task of going through the things of someone who died seems to go on and on. My husband died 22 months ago and I am still cleaning out the garage. A friend went through the garage soon after Tom died and collected and sold the valuable tools. His brother got the motorcycles.

What’s left is rafting and camping gear, random motorcycle stuff, equipment related to his many hobbies, a foosball table, and a leather couch. There’s a story behind each item, which makes going through them, let alone parting with them, very difficult.

Many times when I’ve gone out determined to organize the camping gear, I’ve been overcome by tears instead. I’ll touch the tent and remember how thrilled I was the first time we camped together and I realized he had a big tent. (No, that’s not a euphemism. 😊 I’m somewhat claustrophobic and prefer to sleep under the stars with no tent at all; the next best thing is a big tent.) The sleeping bag still has dog hair in it from his last road trip with one of our dogs—thinking “last road trip” immediately brings a lump to my throat.   

Opening the cabinet where his motorcycle gear hangs always knocks the breath out of me. Seeing his leather jacket triggers so many strong memories: the time we rode a motorcycle to Oregon with his cousin, the many times we took the motorcycle with a sidecar out on a weekend night and made a splashy arrival somewhere, me emerging from the sidecar in heels and a dress, and more.

I can’t look at the foosball table without remembering the day Tom came home from work in the middle of the day positively giddy because he had driven past a yard sale in the company truck and scored a foosball table for $20. He had to drop it off at home to avoid going back to work with a foosball table in tow. I don’t play foosball myself, but as long as I have room for it in the garage, the foosball table stays.  

Although I’ve been out to the garage hundreds of times since he died, I still make new discoveries. Last week I noticed a gray sleeve hanging down from a shelf that is high enough I hadn’t seen it before. It was the sleeve to a dark gray hoodie I remember him wearing on our last camping trip together. One pocket was full of dog treats.

Finding the hoodie set off a weekend of sobbing. My daughter came over one night to walk the dogs and found me immobile on the couch. She stayed with me for a few hours, first holding me on the couch, then sitting on the kitchen floor with the dogs and me. We reminisced about the many adventures Tom brought to our lives: rafting and camping trips, making us dog people, living in a trailer park. We remembered my trips with him to Cuba and Europe and him putting gender neutral signs on the porta potties on a construction site he worked on where pretty much everyone else who worked there had a MAGA bumper sticker. We laughed about how nobody ever messed with him except for “some old cowboy in Wyoming,” and Tom allowed that he had that coming because he had disparaged the old cowboy’s horse.

It’s still hard to believe that this man who lived life with so much gusto could be gone, and there are still days where I feel like I will never be whole again, but they pass and I do feel whole again.

Someone posted in one of the Facebook widow groups a few weeks ago, “When I post about my husband, it’s not to get sympathy, it’s to keep his memory alive.” That is one reason I blog and am working on a memoir: as long as I keep writing about that man who lived life with so much gusto, he isn’t really gone.

Divorced versus Widowed: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Losing a partner, whether it is through divorce, breakup, or death, is disruptive. Any kind of major relationship break is considered a high stress event by mental health experts. I don’t see much value in ranking them, finding one to be easier or harder than the other, but several people have asked me how they compare and I do think understanding the similarities and differences is helpful in grasping why widowed people behave the way they do.

There is quite a bit of overlap. Having experienced both, I can attest that they both suck and I hope to never experience either again. Both involve tremendous loss: loss of a relationship and loss of identity certainly. With both, I went from being a wife to something that was less defined by society. I had to recalibrate who I was and what my role in the world was.

With both, I experienced grief for the death of all the hopes and dreams my partner and I shared.

I also found both to be expensive. Most people understand the financial hit of divorce, but there seems to be little understanding of how expensive death is. People have asked me about collecting my late husband’s social security, but I’m not eligible for it. There was no financial windfall beyond a life insurance payout that helped but didn’t make a significant difference in my finances. Losing my late husband’s monthly disability payments, and before that, his paychecks, made a huge difference in my finances.

A few people have suggested to me that being widowed is essentially the same as being divorced. I think this view overlooks some very consequential differences:

  • How it impacts kids. When my ex and I split up, our daughter was devastated but she wasn’t also mourning a parent. When my late husband died, my daughter and his son both lost a parental figure. Both kids were adults and I found it challenging to support them while going through my own loss. Supporting young children who have been bereaved is even more complicated (shameless plug for a friend’s memoir: Charlotte Maya’s moving memoir, Sushi Tuesdays, about raising two young boys in the wake of her husband’s suicide describes the intense parenting she had to do alone).
  • The finality of death. You may not want to, but with a divorce you could reach out and re-establish a relationship with your ex. But a dead spouse is gone forever. My ex husband is alive and well and we are friends, but my late husband is gone from this earth.
  • Getting rid of stuff. In a divorce, the ex typically takes their stuff with them. When the spouse dies, the surviving spouse has to deal with all the stuff. For me, that process goes on and on. There are things that can be given away or sold, but there is a lot that has sentimental value and triggers strong emotions. Last weekend, for example, I came across my late husband’s snow boots. He was perpetually cold and always made a big deal about how warm those boots were. It makes sense to give them away, but that means saying good-bye to one more piece of him.
  • An element of choice. Divorce was a choice my ex and I made because we were both better off not being married to each other. I am not better off without my late husband. My late husband and I not only brought out the best in each other, things were getting better in that regard. I miss him every day.
  • Public opinion. Moving forward after divorce is seen as a triumph. This is not the case for widowed people. I read every day on the Facebook widow groups about someone being told they’re moving forward too quickly or too slowly. Besides, I don’t want to move forward from a relationship that was profoundly nourishing.
  • Availability of peers. When I got divorced, it was easy to find other people my age who had been divorced. It was much harder to find widowed peers, which is why I was so grateful to find the Facebook groups for widows I mention all the time.
  • Obligation to preserving a legacy. Many widowed people feel an obligation to maintain some sort of legacy of the person who died. I feel like it’s important to keep talking about my late husband as a way to keep his memory alive. Someone who is divorced has no analogous responsibility.
  • Viewing divorce as a failure. I don’t happen to consider my first marriage a failure, but I’m aware that many people view any marriage that ends in divorce that way. On the other hand, being widowed doesn’t seem to be accompanied by any such judgments.

Of course, what I’ve said here isn’t universal. Someone who didn’t want their divorce might feel differently. Someone who was widowed in an unhappy or abusive marriage might have a difference experience.

Supporting someone either way may be similar. Ask what they need, offer specific help, let the person grieve the loss in their own way.

What Being a Caregiver Taught Me About Gracefully Receiving Help

I’ve talked before about how accepting help from others benefits those who give the help as well as those who receive it. When I was my late husband’s caregiver, I was giving help on a large scale—and I was receiving the benefits of that on a large scale, too.

I spent most of the last year of my husband’s life taking care of him. The entire left side of his body was paralyzed. Without use of the left side of his body, he couldn’t roll over in bed or get dressed or undressed. I woke up several times during the night to reposition him in bed, I dressed and undressed him every day, I helped him sit up, get out of bed, go to the bathroom, and move from his wheelchair to the bed or vice versa.

I also had to take into account the cognitive impacts of his stroke. His speech was slower than before the stroke and his memory was undependable. He also had a mysterious condition called left neglect in which his brain didn’t process anything that happened to the left of his midline. He would start reading from the middle of a line of text because his brain didn’t process the left side of the page. He would eat all the food on the right side of his plate and ask for more, even though the left side his plate hadn’t been touched. I had to constantly remind him to look to his left.

It was a lot of work. Caregiving is never ending. Those facts are true, but what they don’t capture is that it can also be intensely connecting. I was exhausted AND I savored every moment that I got to care for him.

Many people have said to me since my husband died “I’m sure you miss him but don’t miss the caregiving,” but in his last year, the two were inseparable. Being with Tom meant always being on alert for him dropping his phone, losing track of something that was right in front of him because it was slightly to his left, having a sudden urgent need for the bathroom, becoming disoriented and anxious. It was hard for both of us. But when I remember him, my mind goes first to those memories—because it wasn’t only hard for both of us. It was also incredibly intimate and connecting.

Our communication skills got gold-medal good. We really learned what it means to ask for what you want, to not take each other for granted, and to not expect your partner to be a mind reader.

I recently read a book by Sarah Smith Rainey called Love, Sex, and Disability: The Pleasures of Care that moves beyond the exhaustion and exploitation of (mostly female) caregivers and addresses how much true pleasure can be involved. Rainey studied married couples in which one partner was the caregiver for the other. Rainey’s research is groundbreaking because her research looks at the experience of the cared for as well as the caregiver. Typically caregiving relationships are assumed to be one-sided, with the caregiver doing all the work and the cared for doing all the receiving. In fact, many of the couples Rainey interviewed reported that their relationships were reciprocal, which is what I found with my late husband.

He allowed me to take care of him, which is much more complicated than it sounds. As you can imagine, going from his pre-stroke state of being fiercely independent to his post-stroke state of needing the level of care I described above was a huge adjustment for him. I was amazed at the grace he exhibited in accepting the shift. Rather than stubbornly resisting my caregiving—which, frankly, is what I expected him to do—he put his energy into showing appreciation all day every day for my caregiving. That was how he took care of me.

The experience helped me make a commitment to my daughter: if/when I need caregiving at some point in my life, I will be as graceful and accepting of it as Tom was. I got to practice that commitment last fall when I had brain surgery and my daughter took care of me for a week. She had to remind me a few times of my commitment, but I did ok overall, and it actually got easier each day.

Most of us who live long enough will find ourselves in need of caregiving at some point. We can make it a nightmare for everyone by being stubborn and refusing to accept help or we can receive the help gracefully.

Recognizing Internalized Ableism on My Anniversary

Today would have been my anniversary with Tom. Today IS my anniversary with Tom. My inclination is to write the first sentence because I am no longer his wife, but I realize that whether he’s dead or alive, today IS the date we got married in 2011. There is much that was and much that still is. My love for him and the life we had together is just as strong as it was when he was here to celebrate with me. But that life is a memory now, and as much as I love the life I am living now, it is not a life with Tom.

I was at a conference last week and knew my anniversary was coming up, but lost track of which day it was. My return flight yesterday got significantly delayed and I ended up not getting home until after midnight. After crawling into bed, I was almost asleep when suddenly I realized that because it was after midnight, it was my anniversary.

That realization, on the heels of a long travel day, kicked off my anxiety and big tears. My mind kept going back to our last anniversary together, after his stroke and just a few months before he died. We went to one of our favorite restaurants and they were woefully unprepared to greet a guest using a wheelchair. The next morning over brunch, Tom took my hand and apologized for not having understood the challenges of my being disabled.

It was an incredible acknowledgment. The last few years, he had been incredibly supportive but when I first started mentioning that my vision didn’t seem right, he was skeptical. Like many people in my life, he wondered if I was exaggerating things or just not trying hard enough to see. Especially when my disability inconvenienced him, he would ask me if I was really trying. It was maddening for both of us.

I finally understood at some point that he hadn’t not believed me but that he hadn’t been ready to accept that I was going to have to deal with the challenges of a disability for the rest of my life. I noticed a similar resistance in myself when Tom’s doctor told me there was a high likelihood that Tom would never walk again. My immediate response was that of course Tom would walk again because I knew he would work hard in physical therapy.

But no matter how hard he worked, walking unassisted was out of his reach. I kept thinking he just had to work a little harder, but even as I had that thought, I knew it wasn’t accurate. All of his physical therapists were astounded at how much progress he made and how hard he did work. It wasn’t about hard work—it was about the stroke having knocked offline the part of his brain that handled his left side. I saw the MRI images and the massive infarct, the technical term for the brain tissue killed by the stroke. Two-thirds of one hemisphere of his brain just didn’t exist anymore.

Even knowing it wasn’t about how hard he worked, my own brain kept grasping at the idea that if he just worked a little harder, maybe, maybe, he would walk again. I realize now that that’s the line of thinking he followed when he wondered if I was trying hard enough to see.

This is what internalized ableism looks like: me wishing my husband would work hard enough to walk again, him wishing I would try hard enough to see what he saw. The line of thinking might originate with optimism and hoping for a “positive” outcome, but there are at least two big problems with that rationalization. First, it attributes the desired outcome with hard work and less than the desired outcome with not enough work, and second, it assumes that walking, in my husband’s case, and what is considered normal vision, in my case, are the only outcomes that can be judged successful.

On this anniversary, I miss everything about that man who used a wheelchair, including his wheelchair. His physical and occupational therapy sessions were often team efforts, with both of us working together to get him somewhere or accomplish a task together. It helped us realize in a concrete way that we were always on the same team. We hated the stroke and the pain it caused Tom, but it opened up some opportunities for us to communicate better and become closer.

I celebrated this anniversary by sleeping in, being gentle with myself, and sharing memories with my daughter. I went to Tom’s bench and talked to him for a bit. I got a few emails and texts from loved ones, acknowledging the anniversary, which I appreciated. I felt lucky to have had such a great love and proud of the life I am living now, which was shaped in so many ways by my relationship with Tom.  

One Way to Normalize Grief: Just Be Present

My husband died over 20 months ago, a fact that strikes me as unfathomable. On the one hand, the loss still feels hard and raw. On the other, my life has changed so dramatically in the time. Part of me feels like, “What?! Only 20 months?! It feels like a lifetime!” and another part of me can’t believe I’ve been a widow for this long.

For the first year after he died, I didn’t worry about anyone getting tired of hearing me talk about him or my loss. I figured everyone would give me a one-year grace period—and they pretty much did. But now that it’s closer to two years than one year, I am starting to wonder if people are tired of hearing about my late husband and my widowing. To be clear, no one has told me they are tired of it; the pressure I’m feeling to “move on” is internalized messaging.

Yes, I did just admit that I am putting pressure on myself to “move on,” after saying, just last week, that the distinction between moving on and moving forward is important to me and that I’m a proponent of moving forward.  It is important to me, but having been socialized in a culture that wants people to move on means I have internalized that messaging.

I spent most of yesterday morning crying, alternately curled up on the couch and wandering around the house picking up photos of my late husband, his harmonica, his life jacket, and other mementos of his. I realized at some point that I needed to talk to someone who would understand and that’s when my self-consciousness kicked in. “He’s been dead for 20 months,” I thought to myself. “Everyone is tired of you moping.”

Luckily, I recognized this self-talk as inaccurate and called my wonderful brother-in-law, who didn’t seem one bit tired of me moping. We told stories about Tom, joked about his ability to spend money, and were just sad together. He encouraged me to call any time.

I did not feel less sad after talking to my brother-in-law, but I did feel less alone. I will never stop feeling sad about my husband’s death, but I am in general having fewer days like this. I’ve heard other widows say that the time between the hard days gets longer but the hard days never go away. I am experiencing that.

What I appreciate most about my call with my brother-in-law is that he didn’t try to cheer me up and he didn’t tell me I need to do anything differently. He just let me be sad and he joined me in that sadness. He normalized my sadness, and when I said, “I feel like I shouldn’t be like this after 20 months,” he reminded me that there’s no timeline for grief.

I just listened to an interview with Megan Devine on Jameela Jamil’s podcast about why so many people don’t support others in grief this way. I’ve mentioned Megan Devine before—she created the only grief journal I liked, in contrast to several others I looked at which enraged me to the point where I threw one across the room. Devine is the psychoanalyst, grief advocate, and widow behind Refuge in Grief, an online grief resource that stands out for its gentle accepting attitude toward grievers.

In the interview, Devine says our own fear of losing a loved one gets in the way of us supporting folks who are grieving. “We don’t like to think about the people we love dying or disappearing,” she explains, so instead of listening and being open to the pain our friend is experiencing, we try to fix things for them. Devine says, “It’s easier to look at someone who’s in pain if you can fix that for them, you feel more powerful, you don’t feel helpless.” She goes on to say, “We haven’t learned what our role is in someone else’s pain.”

I am learning through my own grief experience about the value of being present for someone else’s pain. When we listen to someone without trying to fix their pain or cover it up with cheeriness, we are being present. When my brother-in-law let me be sad and shared his own sadness, he was being present for me. By being present and not judging me for the depth of sadness I am feeling, he helped me pull back from judging myself.

When we try to fix the pain or distract from it, we imply that it is wrong or unhealthy, when in fact, the opposite is true. Maybe we can think of our role in someone else’s pain as one of witnessing. By witnessing and being present for someone else’s pain, we show that it is normal, that the person feeling it is normal.

Moving Forward: Adjusting to New Rhythms

I think a lot about the distinction between moving on and moving forward after someone dies. Moving on means putting the loss behind you and going back to living life the way you did before the loss occurred. Moving forward is quite different; it is integrating 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. Moving forward acknowledges that the loss experience will change how you live your life.

Being widowed has changed me. In October I wrote about trying to come to terms with the fact that I will never again be who I was when I was with my husband.  I talked then about how I still wanted to be the person I was before my late husband died but that I was trying to focus on who I am becoming as a result of the loss. I noticed then that I was more open and vulnerable and more comfortable taking about death.

Lately, I am struck by how different the rhythm of my days is now. Widowed people often find that the loss of their loved one impacts their lives in this way.

For my entire relationship with my husband pre-stroke, I went to bed around 9 pm and woke up at 5 in the morning because he was an early riser and liked to chat in the morning. I learned that serious discussions with him went better in the morning than if I waited until after work. Now that I don’t have to get up so early, I find myself sleeping until 6 and going to bed around 10 pm, but every night when I go to bed, I second-guess my alarm setting. Waking up at 5 for so long made that feel normal and setting my alarm for 6 feels off.

Other habits are changing to accommodate how my life is now. Tom enjoyed watching movies and TV, but I prefer to read, so most nights and weekends I read. What I eat has changed significantly. Tom was a meat and potatoes guy—except for when he was eating nachos or Mexican food, which he adored. Now I eat almost no meat. I haven’t eaten nachos in nearly two years. (The thought of nachos makes me smile, though—one time when I got back from being out of town for a few days and noticed that all the meals I had left for him were uneaten but the cheddar cheese and chips were gone; he admitted to having eaten nachos every night for the five days I was gone).

The shape of my days is different. After his stroke, my day was scheduled around taking care of him. In the morning, I would wake him up, help him sit up and bring him his coffee and his morning medications. We would chat about the day and then I would walk the dogs and work out while he drank his coffee. After that, I would get him dressed and help him get into his wheelchair. He would watch TV, read, or sharpen knives (for real, that was his main hobby after his stroke) while I worked in my office for a couple of hours. I would take a break at some point to help him stretch his arms.

At midday, I gave him his midday medications and made him lunch. He usually had speech, occupational, or physical therapy in the afternoon, so I would help him go to the bathroom before that. If he had speech therapy, I worked in my office, but I usually participated a bit, even if just to cheer, in his occupational and physical therapy sessions.

In the evening, I made dinner and we ate together. Then I got him ready for bed and brought him his evening medications. After he was in bed, I would massage his legs and feet.

My entire day was structured around providing care to him. It was hard work but work I loved. The intimacy of caring for someone at that level is beyond words. When my daughter was born and depended on me for everything, I remember feeling similarly and I assumed part of the connection was that she had been part of my body for nine months. But the connection I felt to my husband while taking care of him was the same—finding every sight, smell, and sound utterly delightful, feeling absolute peace and completion when he was comfortable and happy.

As I continue moving forward, I notice intensely contradictory feelings. On the one hand, I am very happy, feeling loved by and connected to so many people and living a life that is full of joy and peace. On the other hand, I am achingly aware that as I move forward each day, I also move farther away from the beautiful life I had with my husband. I miss having those moments of care punctuating my days.

I recently remodeled my bathroom and had a tile installed that is inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold, leaving the restored piece with deep gold veins that call attention to themselves. Every time I step into that bathroom and see the tile, I am reminded that I am turning the pieces of my life into something new and beautiful. Those pieces were shaped by the love I had with my husband and they still exist, but they are held together now with something new that I am creating.

Stop telling people facing loss that they are strong

Grieving people are frequently complimented for being strong. I have been told some variation of “you are strong” hundreds of times since my husband’s stroke. I know people mean it as a compliment or an assurance that I have what it takes to make it through the grief I am experiencing. 

But it gets old. Folks who are grieving get really tired of being strong. A fellow griever recently said to me, “I don’t want to be strong anymore. I want to be weak.” But when I asked what “weak” would look like, my friend said, “I don’t know.” This post on What’s Your Grief captures some of the other problems with telling someone grieving that they are strong, most significantly making them feel like they haven’t really been seen. 

In addition to it getting old and causing the problems What’s Your Grief describes, it’s also just not an accurate assessment of what healthy grieving requires of us. 

It may be true that grieving calls upon us to be strong, but I think we conflate “strength” with other qualities that grievers rely upon, such as the ability to prioritize, flexibility, courage, self-compassion, and mindfulness. I wonder if people recognize these and other qualities in folks who are grieving, but lack the emotional intelligence or emotional vocabulary to articulate them and default to complimenting strength. 

But focusing the compliments on strength implies that strength is the most important quality one needs during a trying time. To be strong is to be firm, immovable, stoic, unbending, powerful. 

When my mother died 41 years ago, I put my head down and barreled through it, an approach that seems to exemplify pure strength. But because that approach led to me having issues with death, mothers, holidays, and more, I very deliberately took a different approach when my husband died.

Since my husband’s death, “strength” is not a character trait I’ve focused on. The compliments I get on my strength don’t feel accurate. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may recall that I’ve talked about my ability to set boundaries, my patience with myself, and my willingness to feel sadness. These qualities have helped me much more than strength has. 

As I reflect back on the conversation with my friend who wanted to be “weak,” I realize that because our minds automatically go to “weak” as the only alternative to “strong,” those very qualities that I just listed as having been crucial to my ability to navigate grief might be seen as “weakness.” 

I was recently reminded of what happens when you focus on strength to the exclusion of other things. After my unexpected brain surgery in the fall, I wasn’t able to do ab work in my workouts for a few months. I was so excited to get back to ab work this winter that I overdid it. I got a massage last week and when I told my massage therapist I was having some lower back pain and general lower body stiffness, she immediately pinpointed my tight psoas muscles as the culprit—a result of my keen focus on my abs. 

The remedy? Backing off of strength training and focusing on flexibility. 

Oh, the irony! That’s exactly what I’ve done emotionally! Now I need to treat my body the way I’ve treated my heart. 

The next time someone suffers a loss and you want to wish them strength, stop. Consider what might be a real struggle for them and offer them that thing. Are they often hard on themselves? Wish them self-compassion. Do they like everything done just so? Wish them flexibility. Are they highly independent? Wish them the freedom to depend on others. 

Our focus on strength as a positive trait minimizes the value of other traits. This quote from the Buddha captures the fallacy: “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins—not through strength but through persistence.” 

19 Months Out: Emptying the Last Bag from His Last Hospital Visit

For 19 months, I was unable to use one of my reusable shopping bags. The gray polka-dotted bag was tucked away in the back of a closet, full of the items I had put in it when I packed things to go with my husband to the hospital for the surgery he would never wake up from. Almost everything he needed fit into one suitcase, but there were a few odds and ends that I tossed into the bag: salt and pepper (he was oddly enamored of the food at the hospital his surgery was at, but felt it lacked seasoning), a CBD patch (the medical staff frowned upon the use of CBD products because of the lack of long term testing, but knowing I had one packed made my husband feel more confident about being able to cope with the post-surgical pain), and six of his favorite condom catheters (he liked the ones I bought better than the ones available at the hospital).

When I came home from the hospital a widow, I put the suitcase in the area of our living room that we had used as a bedroom after his stroke, our basement bedroom rendered inaccessible. For a month, the gray polka-dotted bag sat on top of the suitcase. At some point, I emptied the suitcase, but when I picked up the gray polka-dotted bag and saw the things inside—all items intended to make my husband more comfortable—I quickly closed it and pushed it out of the way. While everything in the suitcase was typical stuff one might take to the hospital, the items in the bag were specific to my husband. In fact, he had specifically requested each item.

Over time, as I collected his belongings, giving some away to friends and family and donating others to charities, I began putting items I either wanted to keep or just couldn’t deal with yet in a plastic bin. The gray polka-dotted bag ended up in the plastic bin. For months, the plastic bin was in the dining room, a reminder to me that it and its contents existed. It made sense to have it easily accessible because I was still finding things to add to it, but over time, its contents stabilized, and I found that I was no longer adding anything to it. I moved it to the closet in my home office.

Whenever I bought groceries, I noticed that the gray polka-dotted bag wasn’t with the others and I went through a process of wondering where it was, recalling that it was in the plastic bin, remembering what was in the bag, and making the decision to leave the bag in the bin, untouched. This went on for a year and a half.

Two weeks ago, I went to gather up my grocery bags to go shopping and realized that my daughter had borrowed one and I didn’t have enough on hand. I considered getting the gray polka-dotted bag from the plastic bin, started walking toward my office, and stopped. I wasn’t ready. I went to the store but got only some of the items on my list, careful to limit myself to what would fit in the bags I had. Perhaps my daughter would return the bag she had borrowed before I needed groceries again, I thought.

Last week, the borrowed bag still with my daughter, I took a deep breath and got the gray polka-dotted bag out of the plastic bin. I brought it to the dining room table and spilled its contents out. The salt and pepper shakers, CBD patch, and condom catheters represent an anticipated outcome to his surgery that didn’t come to pass. I was expecting him to joke about enjoying the food so much he wanted to GrubHub it when he came home. I was anticipating panicky phone calls from him at 3 in the morning, asking me to talk him through the pain. I was looking forward to him showing off to the nursing staff that he had brought his own condom catheters.

That is not how things went. He never woke up from surgery. I am grateful that he did not experience the nearly unbearable pain.

I sobbed for some time over the bag and its contents—and I laugh-cried over it, thinking of the “I dare you” look he would have given anyone who threatened to take his CBD patch and the gleeful way he would have told staff he brought his own condom catheters. And then I put the salt and pepper shakers in a kitchen cabinet, the CBD patch with the painkillers, and the condom catheters in a box I’ll eventually take to a medical supply donation center, and I took the gray polka-dotted bag to the grocery store.