Tag Archives: widow

Please Stop Trying to Cheer Me Up

Many well-meaning friends and colleagues have told me since my husband died that they want to cheer me up, make me laugh, or make me smile. Well, no need. I am very happy, laugh and smile regularly, and actually appreciate being overcome with grief sometimes.

One of the ways our culture’s inability to deal with death manifests is in the mistaken insistence that happy and sad are opposites and that if you are sad, you can’t be happy, and vice versa. People take my sadness to be an obstacle to happiness and determine to “fix” the problem of my sadness. There are several errors in this logic:

  1. Happy and sad are not actually opposites. The opposite of happiness is the absence of happiness—or apathy. The opposite of sadness is the absence of sadness—also apathy. Happy and sad are both opposites of apathy but not of each other. Happiness and sadness co-exist all the time—I experience deep happiness and deep sadness at the same time regularly right now. Every morning when I sit on the bench commemorated to my husband, I feel a deep sense of happiness that I can sense his presence there, that I was lucky enough to be able to raise the money for the commemoration, and that his legacy of generosity lives on in a small way through the bench. At the same time, I am sad that he’s not here to see that legacy or to sit with me on the bench and appreciate the beautiful fall colors on display around it.
  2. Sadness is no obstacle to happiness. I have felt at least a moment of sadness every single day since my husband died, usually triggered by Facebook reminding me of a memory involving my husband, or realizing it’s the anniversary of something (a particularly wonderful camping trip, for example), or a random thought suddenly connecting me to his favorite food or a saying of his or an experience we shared. Halloween was his favorite holiday, so right now I am surrounded by triggers. And yet, I have also—every single day—felt immense joy when seeing my dogs’ silly antics, visiting with my daughter every day after work, noticing the beauty of the home my husband remodeled for us, etc.

    I am not feeling less joy now that I am a widow; in fact, sometimes I think I actually feel more joy now, as if the welcoming in of strong emotion (see my comment above about appreciating being overcome by grief sometimes) opened me up to stronger happy emotions as well as sad emotions. The grief and sadness also co-exist in the moment with joy; for example, seeing my friends post on Facebook about their Halloween plans simultaneously fills me with joy remembering the gusto my husband brought to our Halloweens and an intense wistfulness that I’ll never see him gleefully describing his vision for a new costume (that would inevitably garner him second place in a costume contest—he never, ever won but was always a contender).
  3. Sadness is not a problem. It’s a completely healthy and normal response to the death of a loved one. This is perhaps the most significant reason to not try to cheer up a grieving person. Telling a grieving person they need to cheer up—and make no mistake, when you tell someone you intend to cheer them up, you are telling them that you have a problem with their current state—assumes that grief and sadness are feelings one should not have or should not demonstrate having.

Lately when people tell me they intend to cheer me up, I respond with, “I’m good with my current emotional state, so no thanks.” Everyone I have said that to has registered surprise on their face, but most people back down from the cheering up mission. One person argued, insisting it was no trouble for them to make me laugh, to which I said, “You’re not getting my point. I want to feel like this right now. It’s healthy and feels right.”

If a grieving person asks to be cheered up, by all means, go for it. But if they do not ask you to cheer them up, let them be sad, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps recognizing that you’re the one with the problem, not them, can help you refrain from insisting on cheering them up.

Grieving at the 4-Month Mark: What Helps and What Doesn’t at this Moment

I’ve posted the last two weeks about what seems possible and doesn’t seem possible now, 3 ½-4 months out from Tom’s death. Today I’m going to continue on that theme but focus on what is and isn’t helping me right now.

I’ll start with what isn’t feeling helpful right now that has been helpful in the past: journaling. I’m surprised by this because it was so very helpful for the first couple of months. I try it about once a week because I have a feeling it will be helpful again and if I don’t try it every now and then, it will just fall of my radar. But for now, it’s not holding my interest.

My list of what is helping right now is much longer:

  • Going to Tom’s bench everyday. I had a bench at a nearby park commemorated in Tom’s honor. Every morning when I walk the dogs, we stop at the bench and I sit for a few minutes. Some mornings, depending on how antsy the dogs are, I’m only there for maybe one or two minutes; other days, I’m able to sit for much longer. I usually tell Tom I love him and miss him and then share a little about what’s on my mind at that moment. It’s typically nothing profound, just the kind of checking in married couples do when they are apart for a while.
  • Grief counseling. I meet every week with a grief counselor. My therapist suggested the idea of a “therapy box”: during the week when painful or uncomfortable feelings related to Tom’s death come up and I don’t want to deal with them in the moment, I can “put them in my therapy box,” meaning to basically say to myself, “I don’t have to deal with that now, I can deal with it during my therapy session.” That makes it easy to let it go in the moment and then process it with my therapist when my next appointment comes up.
  • A remote grief support group. Once a month, I attend a remote support group for widows. I’m usually the youngest person attending, but I still have enough in common with the other widows to learn from their experiences and have something to offer them. Hearing about how others are going to navigate the upcoming holidays, for example, gave me some ideas about what I can ask for when people inevitably say, “How can I help?” For example, I realize that I will be happy to go to holiday dinners but will want the option of stepping into a quiet room to be alone if I need to. Explaining ahead of time to my host that I will need that option will help everyone feel less awkward should I need to step out.
  • Attending local widow group events. Last week I met a group of 15 local widows for dinner. It’s so nice to be with a group of people who aren’t at all fazed when I say my husband died, or I start crying in the middle of a story, or I say I’ve lived in my house for 21 years and am not sure how to turn the heat on because Tom always did that.
  • Having two fellow widows I can text at any time. I met one through my dog walker and then she introduced me to the second one. I know that at any time, day or night, I can text them and they will respond without judgment or nudging me toward anyone else’s idea of “recovery.” For example, if I just text them “had a tough day,” I know they won’t try to fix anything—after all, nothing can be fixed. Tom is dead and that can’t be changed. I miss him and that can’t be changed.
  • The random cards, emails, flowers that still come in. Remembrances of Tom and expressions of sympathy are still trickling in. I love knowing people still think of Tom and recognize that my loss continues.
  • Writing thank you notes and looking at my list of previous thank yous. Seeing the long list of people who have done kind things for me reminds me that I an not alone and that there are many people I can reach out to if I need anything.
  • Asking for what I need. Earlier this week I was at work and a colleague asked me how I was doing. I told her I was having a tough moment and I suspected she was about to try to “cheer me up,” which is what people tend to do when I say I am feeling sad. That wasn’t at all what I wanted; I wanted someone to just be present during my tough moment, so I said to her, “Would you mind just being present here for a moment?” She stood in my office and let me cry for a couple of minutes.

Grieving at 16 Weeks: Things I’m Not Ready to Do Yet

I talked last week about what seems possible now. Today, I’m thinking about what, 16 weeks out from Tom’s death, still does not feel possible:

  • Going camping and rafting. Every rafting trip I’ve ever been on involved Tom as captain, and in the time Tom and I were together, I only camped once without him. I love both activities and suspect I’ll make my way back to them, but for now the activities feel too connected to memories of Tom. A friend told me about “grief floats,” rafting trips specifically for grieving people, and I’m thinking a grief float in the late spring or summer might be a good way to dip my toes in again (pun intended).
  • Going to restaurants we went to together. I have only gone to restaurants a handful of times since Tom died, but every time, I was careful to choose a place Tom and I never went together. One of my favorite restaurants is our neighborhood Italian place, and I do miss the food, but when I think of the place, I think of sitting at the bar with Tom, how we’d always reminisce about the time an obnoxiously drunk patron confided in us about some sexual escapades, how we’d order too many oysters and then too many appetizers because we couldn’t not order our favorites. As with camping and rafting, I believe I’ll be able to go to the restaurant again at some point, but not today.
  • Watching shows we watched together. The night before he went to the hospital for his last surgery, Tom and I started watching Downton Abbey (yes, very late to that party). I’d love to watch more, but when I think of the show, I think of Tom’s last night at home, how relaxed and normal the evening felt, and then I think of the unexpected news just a day later that he wasn’t waking up after surgery.
  • Reading for pleasure. I just don’t seem to have the attention span to get lost in a book yet. Before Tom died, I had started reading Sallie Tisdale’s Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them), and now four months later I’m only about halfway through it. The book is wonderful, but I find I can only read a few pages at a time and what I’m reading doesn’t sink in, so I often have to re-read those same pages when I come back to the book.
  • Making sense of the garage. Tom’s majestic garage, AKA the Garage Majal or Man Town, has always been mysterious to me—full of things I can’t name or even imagine a use for. Tom’s organizational skills were always a little shaky, so there are motorcycle-related items side by side with distilling supplies and carpentry tools, and how am I to know the difference? Before his stroke, about every six weeks, Tom would announce, “I’m going to take back Man Town,” by which he meant put everything in its place. “Taking back Man Town” was a two-day process for Tom, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be up to the task.
  • Doing something with the last of the knife sharpening stuff. After his stroke, Tom took up knife sharpening as a hobby, and in his typical overboard fashion, quickly amassed an incredible quantity of equipment, which took over the entire front of the living room. After he died, I gathered up the vast majority of equipment and donated it, leaving just one small shelving unit full of sharpening implements. In the last month, I redecorated the living room, carefully redecorating around that shelving unit. I smile every time I see it, a little reminder that I can redecorate all I want, but the living room will always be at least somewhat his space, too.
  • Getting rid of the juice in the fridge. I gave Tom a glass of grapefruit juice every night with his drugs; some evenings he only drank a few sips, just enough to help him swallow the drugs, and then asked me to put the mostly full glass in the fridge for the next night. The night before he went to the hospital for the last time, he took his requisite few sips and then I put the glass in the fridge. It’s still in there, the juice long evaporated and the pulp residue in a thick layer at the bottom of the glass.
  • Getting rid of Tom’s shoes and leg brace. It’s funny how the things Tom and I hated the most—his big giant shoes and leg brace—are among the items I can’t bring myself to part with. Before his stroke, Tom wore cowboy boots, hiking boots, or Tevas, but after the stroke, his leg brace necessitated very different footwear. The only shoes we could find that would accommodate the brace were athletic shoes 1.5 sizes larger than his usual size and in extra extra wide—yes that’s two “extras.” The shoes are big and ugly and Tom hated them. Putting them on was an act of finesse that required getting the angles just right. I thought I’d be happy to never see them again. Instead, the clear bag the hospital staff put the shoes and brace into sits untouched in the corner of the guest bedroom. I think I’m unable to even touch the bag because its contents represent Tom at his most vulnerable. There’s also an element of pride in my caregiving: Tom used to brag to his therapists that no one could get his brace and shoes on as efficiently as I could.
  • Deleting the recurring reminders on my calendar to help Tom with stretching, getting dressed, etc. My life as a caregiver was so mind-blurringly busy and overwhelming that I depended on calendar and phone alerts to remind me to do many recurring tasks related to his care: dispense his drugs, stretch his left arm, get him dressed, etc. Although I haven’t done any of these things in 16 weeks now, I can’t bring myself to delete the calendar reminders. The reminders are oddly comforting. Every day, for example, when my 9 am reminder to stretch Tom’s left arm pops up, I remember how we would laugh and make jokes about the Midnight Creeper, as Tom dubbed the arm that seemed to have a mind of its own.

I’m sure some of these things will seem more possible in the future and some will never seem possible, and that’s just fine. Perhaps my living room will always feature a shelf full of knife sharpening implements. I’m ok with that.

Grieving at the 3-Month Mark: What Feels Possible

September 19 marked three months since my amazing husband died. Grieving never ends but it does change. I’m back at work half-time (I had enough annual leave saved up that I was able to go half-time this semester but maintain my income—a privilege I wish every widowed person had) and the routine of work and the need to leave my house and interact with others twice a week have been helpful.

A lot of things that didn’t feel possible a month ago feel possible now:

  • Thinking concretely about the future, at least some of the time. For the first two months after Tom died, all I could think about was the day in front of me and maybe, maybe the day after that. In the third month, I started being able to think about the next week or month. Two big markers of my being able to think about the future are that I applied for a 2023 sabbatical, and I committed to a trip to Europe next summer, which I’ll say more about below.  
  • Navigating a new city without my husband. That trip to Europe I mentioned? I’ll spend a few days in a city I’ve never been to and I’ll go alone, then I’ll meet up with friends in a second city for a few days, and then I’ll spend the last few days in a third city, alone. With my low vision, I am always anxious about going to new places and going alone, but my husband and I had talked about traveling more and I am not going to let my fears keep me from doing it. I deliberately picked cities he and I never went to so I won’t have any memories to contend with.  
  • Doing some simple cooking. Cooking for my husband was pure joy—I love cooking and he loved my cooking, so almost everything I made was greeted with, “This is delicious, babe.” Cooking for just me is not nearly as fun—even when I try to channel my inner Tom and tell myself, “This is delicious, babe.” Nope, just not the same. Plus I haven’t had much appetite since he died. But last week, on a whim, I invited a friend over and made us dinner. Then I did the same thing this week. Friends don’t call me “babe,” but they do compliment my cooking and it feels good to be eating real dinners at the table a few nights a week.
  • Cleaning up the closet. When my husband had his stroke in June 2020, his recovery and care became the main focus of my life. It was exhausting, especially layered on top of the pandemic, and the walk-in closet in our basement bedroom—a bedroom we couldn’t use because he couldn’t get down the stairs—bore the brunt of that exhaustion. From June 7, 2020 until September 25, 2021, I did not put any clothing away. I wore only a limited rotation of outfits because the thought required to put together an outfit was too much for me, so the handful of outfits I wore just got piled on a footstool in the closet. When I did laundry, I simply put the clean clothes on the pile. The thought crossed my mind every few months that I should put the clothes away but the effort to make that happen was too much for me. Finally, last Saturday, I had the energy to do it, and now, for the first time in 15 ½ months, everything in my closet is where it belongs.
  • Asking for what I need. I’ve been able to tell people I need company, I need to be alone, I need help with the dogs, I need a ride someplace, I need time to think, I need to be distracted from thinking. For the first couple of months after my husband died, I didn’t even know what I needed, so asking for it was impossible. Now I’m able to identify what I need, at least some of the time, and ask for it directly.
  • Listening to others. After my husband died, I tried to listen to what others said, but my mind couldn’t really absorb it. I heard the words but my comprehension was limited. I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that my ability to comprehend what others are saying and to authentically engage with it is slowly coming back.
  • Donating many of my husband’s things. After my husband died, I moved most of his medical equipment to the garage and most of his clothing and other belongings into the guest bedroom and closed the door. Out of sight, out of mind. About a month ago, I was able to sort through the things in the guest bedroom and identify the things I was still attached to and the things I was ready to let go of. I made a large donation of clothing. I still have a lot of his clothes—some will become a quilt made by a wonderful new friend of mine. Some will stay in the guest bedroom for an indeterminate amount of time. Some have been moved down to a drawer in the bedroom closet that I labeled “Things that smell like Tom.” Weird, maybe, but I’m ok with that. I have still not been able to bring myself to open the bag that contains the shoes and leg brace he wore to the hospital the last time. I’m not sure why I can’t open that bag yet, but I respect that I can’t yet.  
  • Enjoying myself at the celebration of life. I was able to enjoy myself at events in celebration of my husband’s life on the weekend of September 11-12. I wasn’t sure how I would feel as that weekend approached—Would I be overcome by grief? Checked out? Overwhelmed by details? It turns out that with help from family and friends, I was able to actually enjoy the company of the people who showed up and feel truly celebratory about the life my husband and I shared and the joy and laughter he brought to the world.

I’ll talk in next week’s post about what still doesn’t feel possible.

The Value of Grief & Trauma Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first two lines:

You can shed tears that he is gone,

or you can smile because he has lived.

And the last two lines:

Or you can do what he’d want:

smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Talk about Grief (It Will Be Messy)

I’ve posted recently about some of the dysfunctional ways we respond to grief and loss, such as asking “How are you?” with the expectation of a brief and positive answer and measuring and scoring grief. Ira Glass notes in the first segment of the recent This American Life show devoted to grief that because of COVID, a very high number of Americans are now grieving. We would all benefit from learning how to talk about grief better.

I think Americans have a very low ability collectively to sit with uncomfortable feelings such as grief. We try to glibly glide right past them or encourage people to “get over it” quickly. We tell ourselves it’s rude or awkward to bring up grief in conversation, so we don’t, but the truth is that by pretending grief isn’t happening, we make it that much harder to talk about grief and we imply that people who are grieving are a problem and they need to hurry up and “get over it” so the rest of us won’t feel so uncomfortable.

In the past I have told myself that I am doing a grieving person a favor by glossing over their grief. I have told myself that they are surely not interested in sharing their grief with their colleague or casual acquaintance or boss or whatever I am to them. Perhaps they weren’t, but what I realize now is that it is not up to me to decide what they are interested in. If somebody’s grief makes me uncomfortable, that’s my problem. My job as someone who cares about a grieving person is to be willing to be uncomfortable in order to offer them comfort.

On that note, today I want to focus on some of the responses I have deeply appreciated:

  1. Rambling, inarticulate voice messages from folks that were incredibly touching because they were rambling and inarticulate. The very act of reaching out when you don’t know what to say shows that you recognize the gravity of the situation and you’re willing to risk being awkward to acknowledge someone else’s pain. It is a selfless act in which someone lets go of the ruse that they have answers. Through its own awkwardness, it sets an expectation for an awkward response.
  2. Cards, notes, and emails in which people shared a specific memory of my husband or an aspect of him they would particularly miss. To me, this is so much more meaningful than offering advice or an inspirational quote because it is personalized and indicates an understanding that my grief over my loss of my husband is different from any other grief. Even just one sentence that is personalized—one friend who didn’t know my husband well simply wrote “I remember him as a genial presence at your dinner parties”—comforts me by testifying to the mark my husband left on the world.
  3. Explicit recognition that it just sucks that my husband is gone. The acknowledgment of my loss and the high suck-factor without any attempt to identify a bright side recognizes that negative emotions are completely normal and conveys that I will not be judged for being awkward or teary or morose.

All of these responses demonstrate that another human is trying to connect with me, trying to comfort me, and recognizing that there really is no comfort possible right now, that things are just going to suck for a while and then after a while, they will suck a little bit less. To my mind, there is no one “right” thing to say—any response to grief that acknowledges that grief is normal and that the pain is real is a “right” response. These responses I’ve highlighted resist the social expectation to keep conversation light, positive, and “fun.” (I’ll post at some point in the future about why the concept of “fun” often makes me cringe.)

And while I think there are some wrong things to say (examples I’ve heard are “you’re still sad?” and “how long do you think you’ll be like this?”, which imply that because my grief is a downer for someone else, I need to get over it), even those can be mitigated with a heartfelt, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant, let me try again. This is really hard to talk about for me.” In fact, asking for a do-over is a strategy I appreciate because it acknowledges the dysfunction embedded in our default ways of dealing with negative emotions and it immediately aims to repair the harm done by the original statement.

So please, be awkward. Say the wrong thing and then catch yourself. Allow yourself to not know what to say and talk anyway. Acknowledge grief in whatever uncomfortable, messy, honest way you can.

Measuring, Scoring, + Ranking Grief

Neoliberalism tends to boil everything down to a number at some level. We measure, we compare, we assess, we score, we set SMART goals. We have all sorts of platitudes about how beneficial this quantification is: what gets measured gets improved, without goals we’ll never grow, how can you know you’re doing better now if you didn’t measure where you started, etc. The underlying premise of these platitudes is that we must always be improving or growing, which to our neoliberalized ears sounds normal and even common sensical.

I will in a later post talk about what is wrong with the assumptions themselves, but for now I want to focus on how this impulse to measure even impacts our expectations and responses to grief.

Since my husband died, I’ve noticed many examples of the impulse to measure applied to grief:

  • Some people have told me I’m “doing well,” which I think they meant as a compliment, but it implies a measuring stick by which I could be doing “not well” or “really well.”  This assumes a baseline expectation of what “well” looks like. Someone today emailed me to find out if I am doing “better” this week than I was last week (they hoped I was). All of this reminds me of the ratings my university gives for performance: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, or does not meet expectations. I suppose if I am deemed by others to be “doing well,” I am either meeting or exceeding expectations. The implication is that other people’s measure of how I’m doing should matter to me. (For the record, it does not.)
  • Then there’s the grief contest, in which someone compares my grief to theirs. People have suggested that my grief over my husband must be more or less than grief they have experienced when they lost a parent, child, sibling, friend, or pet. Another version of this is the comparison of one type of loss to another; for example, someone asked me which was worse, my divorce or being widowed, and I have to wonder why it matters to the person who asked.
  • A journal marketed to widows invited me to rate how well I am coping with my husband’s death and identify areas for “improvement.” I responded by throwing the journal across the room and cursing at it, which probably brings my coping score down significantly. The implication of rating my grief and identifying where I can improve is that I should strive to be a “better griever” today than I was yesterday—that there should be a steady upward trajectory in my coping skills.  

All of these impulses to measure grief assume at some level that grieving is a phase that will end and that if we do it well, we can get to the finish line faster. Even the grief contest question about whether a divorce or being widowed is worse hinges on this logic—if being widowed is worse, then we can figure it will take longer to get to the finish line for being widowed than for being divorced.

While I find all of these impulses to measure grief problematic, I don’t fault the individuals I’ve alluded to here. I am sure that before my husband died, I compared griefs and tried to measure grief, despite having lost my mother, several good friends and colleagues, and beloved pets. Experiencing grief doesn’t necessarily equip us to resist the neoliberal air we breathe. When something feels common sensical, we do it without thinking, and until my husband died, I responded to grief in others without thinking.

I’ll talk in a later post about the intersections of disabilities studies and grief I am finding; for now, I’ll simply note that all of the “measuring grief” comments I’ve heard echo “measuring disability” comments I’ve heard. I’ve been complimented for handling my vision impairments well, I’ve been asked do I think losing my hearing would be more or less difficult than losing my vision, and I’ve been asked to score my vision impairment coping. Whether it’s focused on disability or grief, this urge to measure and assess rests on a foundation of ableist assumptions about what’s “normal.” For example, the question about which disability or grief is worse suggests that “normal” is no disability or grief and that some forms of disability or grief are closer or further from “normal.”

My experience of the grief I’ve felt in the month since my husband died is that how it goes one day is no indication of how it will go the next. Things I can handle one day are not necessarily things I can handle the next day. Scoring myself on how I handle things or aiming to handle things better today than I did yesterday does not feel useful or helpful in any way. What does feel useful or helpful is simply allowing my grief to unfold in whatever way it needs to on a particular day. That means I spent more time in bed yesterday and the day before than I did on any day last week. It also means thinking about grieving not as a phase I am going through but as a part of my life moving forward. There is no finish line, just a long winding path into the distance.

Grieving in the Workplace (and Beyond): The Dreaded Question, “How Are You?”

My amazing husband, Tom DeBlaker, passed away on June 19. I’ve written in this blog about becoming his caregiver after his stroke. Now I am navigating being a widow.

One of the toughest aspects of grieving is being asked an innocent and well-intended question: “How are you?”

I know no one asks this question maliciously. No one is trying to put me on the spot or make me feel inadequate in my expression of grief. Most people who have asked me this question since my husband died know that I just lost my husband, and many of them, in fact, after asking me how I am, immediately follow up with something along the lines of, “Oh, what a terrible question, but I don’t know what else to say.” We are used to asking the question as part of a greeting; it’s a default for us and we have to think deliberately to deviate from it.

I ask struggling people “how are you?” too. Since my husband died, I’ve caught myself asking his mother, brother, and son, “How are you?” I’m talking specifically here about asking the question of people who are grieving, but this question is one that also causes anxiety for folks with disabilities. My husband often struggled to answer the question “how are you?” when he was wracked with pain or frustrated because of the constant challenges his environment presented for him. He wasn’t fine and didn’t want to imply that he was, but he also didn’t want to let loose with a litany of his troubles.

I’m now looking for an alternative to the question. The brilliant Kat Vellos discusses what’s wrong with the question in general—for example, the way it is used socially assumes that a short, to the point answer can be provided—and offers many better alternatives here. What makes Vellos’s suggestions particularly useful is that they are broken down by whether you are communicating by text or in person and by whether you are ready to “listen deeply” or not.

Most people who have asked me “how are you?” since my husband died are friends and family who are genuinely interested in how I am doing. I’ve been responding with “crappy” and “not great” or just a shrug, although I went to a coffee shop today and when the barista asked me how I was, I got choked up and then kind of mumbled, “Oh, you know . . . “ Tom’s mother said she is responding to the question by simply answering, “I am.” She said it’s the only response that feels accurate to her. With the exception of the barista, the people asking me how I am know that I recently lost my husband.

When I do go back to work, I’ll be asked the question by folks who don’t know that my husband died. Simply answering “fine” will work because they will, for the most part, be asking as a form of greeting rather than as an authentic inquiry about my well-being. But “fine” doesn’t feel right to me when I’m not fine, and damn it, it’s ok to not be fine! I could try, “Today is a tough day, but I’ll get through it,” which feels more authentic and is vague enough to—I hope—not invite follow-up questions. There’s also the slightly evasive, “I’m ready for this meeting” or whatever is the reason I’m seeing the person.

I think I’ll pilot “good enough, thanks” the next time someone asks me. It’s short, doesn’t invite conversation I don’t want to have, acknowledges the social function of the question, and is likely true, implying that I am “good enough” to have the meeting or conversation or whatever has brought us together.

I’m going to use Kat Vellos’s list of alternatives to break myself of the habit of asking “how are you?” Some of the suggestions she offers that I like are “It’s good to hear your voice” (for a phone call) and “It’s good to see you” for a face-to-face meeting.