Tag Archives: widow

Dreaming about My Husband Who Died

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emotional Overwhelm of Others’ Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being open to the pain of loss again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Ready for a “Late Husband” Today (but maybe tomorrow)

My first real experience with grief was when my mother died when I was 12. My family was already dysfunctional before that, plus I had undiagnosed depression. With no support network, a family tradition of brushing uncomfortable topics under the rug, and my depression, I expressed my grief through petty crime, passive aggressive behavior, and poor dating choices. When I felt sadness or tears coming on, I angrily pushed them aside. Over time, the sadness stopped coming up and I skipped straight to anger.

Thirty years after my mother died, I finally connected my random surges of anger to unprocessed grief for my mother. I got myself post haste to an excellent therapist who helped me process what I had buried for all those years.

When my husband died, I determined that I would do things differently. I’ve blogged about the two promises I made to myself about how I would handle grieving for him:

  • I will grieve mindfully, which means generously giving myself the time and space to be sad.   
  • Instead of pushing my grief aside, being frustrated with it showing up inconveniently, or being embarrassed about its unexpected appearances, I’ve been trying to practice what Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft calls “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace

These commitments mean that when I started trying to refer to Tom as my “late husband” last week and noticed how off it felt, I paid attention. I turned toward that feeling and realized I wasn’t ready for that. Saying “late husband” involved consciously editing my thoughts, every time. Every. Time. Not once did it feel organic or comfortable. As I explained in my post last week, I wanted to start referring to him as my “late husband” to avoid the confusion that sometimes comes up in conversation about him being dead, but I’ve decided that I’d rather deal with that confusion than the nagging sense that I’m being inauthentic when I call him my “late husband.” After two days of trying, I acknowledged I wasn’t ready to call Tom anything but my husband. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.

Oddly, I’m totally comfortable saying “my husband died last June”—but calling him my late husband, for whatever reason, is a step I’m not ready for. For me, part of  “turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace” means being ok with the contradictions and the part of my reactions that don’t follow logic.

After I decided to let go of the idea of calling him my “late husband,” I had two dreams in which Tom was present but never interacted with me. He just hung around on the periphery of my dream, never even making eye contact with me,  almost like an extra in a film scene who the camera lingers on a little longer than the other extras but never focuses on. It was comforting to feel his presence in that periphery way—it felt like he was letting me know that he knew he couldn’t be with me at the center of my life anymore but that he would still be part of it. And although it makes me very sad to write that sentence, in the dream, I didn’t feel any sadness at all, just savoring peace.

Later, I came across this article by Gil Fronsdal on letting go into something. The idea of letting go into something makes explicit that when we let go of something, we make space for something else. When I got counseling to help me belatedly process my mother’s death, letting go of my anger made space for me to feel 30 years of longing for a mother that had been building up. When I let go of calling Tom my “late husband” to avoid social awkwardness, I made space to accept social awkwardness as part of my grieving process. In the dream, letting go of Tom being at the center of my life makes space for someone or something else to be at the center.

Grieving at 7 1/2 Months

It’s now been 7 ½ months since my husband died. My late husband. I am trying to get used to referring to him as my late husband to avoid the confusion that has come up a few times when the person I’m talking to asks follow up questions and then I awkwardly announce that I am widowed. I’m not used to attaching the word “late” to any reference to him because he was perpetually early to most everything—in fact, there’s a long-running family joke about him showing up at the airport a day early for a flight.

I still have days where I get out of bed only to spend most of the day in a puddle on the couch crying, but those days are farther apart now. Last week I only had one day like that, but this week I’m making up for it. I got two pieces of news this week that my husband would have found amusing and the desire to share the news with him seems to have kicked off some intense longing for more time with him. The non-linear road into the future continues.

Because my thinking this week is scattered and punctuated by crying bouts, I’m offering a list of random observations about my experience of grief at 7 ½ months:

  • I am grateful to wear a mask on public transportation because it hides my crying. I’ve heard from many grieving folks that their commute home from work brings out their grief. Maybe it’s something about returning home to a house that is missing the person we used to come home to. I cry many days on the bus home from work. It often surprised me because I can now go a full workday without falling apart, so the crying-on-the-way-home can seem out of the blue.
  • Going to places I went to with my husband continues to be difficult. I went yesterday to the art museum and cried most of the time, flooded with memories of going there with him after his stroke, making sure the artwork was in his limited field of vision, reading the exhibit text to him, and making smart ass observations about the pieces. I had to sit down several times to collect myself.
  • I still can’t go to restaurants we went to together. I still haven’t been to our favorite neighborhood place and I avoid walking past it.
  • I avoid some of the foods he loved, which puts many delicious ingredients and dishes out of bounds—like eclairs, cherries, tomatoes, and tangerines (his first solid food request after his stroke was for tangerines)—although I have made his true love, bacon, twice, and for his birthday in January, I found some prime rib in the freezer that he actually cooked before his stroke and had that. So yes, my late husband managed to posthumously cook his own birthday dinner.

Last week, I made one of his favorite meals for the first time since he died: enchiladas. It felt momentous and I cried while eating them, but damn, they were good.

  • Many tasks that I don’t anticipate stirring up anything for me surprise me by sending me down memory lane. For example, earlier this week I started gathering receipts for my taxes. Many of them tell a story of Tom’s last days: how obsessive he was about knife sharpening, his ongoing quest to get my sister or me to buy him a ludicrous corkscrew device for his ear wax, his love of all things warm and soft, his generosity toward others.
  • Logic goes out the window. With the cold snap and snow this week, I was worried about Tom’s bench getting cold. Tom hated being cold and the idea of his bench being covered in snow bothered me. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. one morning and hurried to the bench in the dark to brush the snow off it, realized the ridiculousness of what I was doing, and sat down and laugh-cried for some time.

Simultaneous with all this, I am enjoying my job again, participating in writing workshops and retreats, and traveling a bit. Feeling connected to my work again has been very important to me. I have always been passionate about my career and very much have identified as a professor and writing center director; feeling disconnected from it was disorienting. For the first six months after Tom died, I didn’t care at all about my job and found almost everything about it tedious. My re-engagement didn’t sneak up slowly—it happened all at once with the new year. The fall semester closed with me not caring about it at all and then on January 3, I had ideas and energy around work.

Onward.

Related posts:

Living through Special Dates

I’ve been told several times that one of the hardest aspects of the first year after a loved one dies is surviving each holiday, birthday, and anniversary without them for the first time. I have now made it through my late husband’s favorite holiday, Halloween; Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s; and his birthday, earlier this week. The entire month leading up to Halloween hit me hard (I blogged about it here), and then Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas felt relatively easy.

New Year’s Eve and January 1 were surprisingly tough. Entering a new year that Tom will never know or be part of felt like closing a door on him, like officially declaring him part of my past. He will never know about my trip this summer to Europe or about the memoir I am writing. He won’t be laughing with me the next time the dogs do something goofy. His favorite shirt after his stroke had a picture of the Jeff Bridges character from The Big Lebowski and the quote, “Life goes on, man.” That thought ran through my mind all day on January 1. Life does go on. I am still here, sifting through the weird bureaucracy and joy of life. The thought was simultaneously heart-wrenching and comforting.

For his birthday this week, I was originally going to invite his mother and son and my daughter to join me for a little remembrance at his bench, but COVID exposures scuttled that plan. Instead, I visited his bench with one of our dogs twice, posted a remembrance on Facebook, and created a Facebook fundraiser for one of his favorite charities, the Denver Dumb Friends League. I also attended a remote grief support group meeting. I theoretically worked that day, but I kept my camera off during meetings and got little done. I spent most of the day scrolling through photos and videos of him on my phone and ipad, talking aloud to him, and wandering around the house touching things that remind me of him—his yellow lifejacket, which I brought in from the garage and hung in the bedroom closet; the tiles in the downstairs bathroom, which he installed; the desk in the front room that he turned into part of his knife-sharpening station after his stroke; the Buddha statue in the guest bedroom.

Since his death, I’ve reflected often on how although we committed to spending the rest of our lives together, it never occurred to me until he had his stroke that I could outlive him. When I thought before his stroke about “spending the rest of our lives together,” I imagined we would die together. I realize now how naïve that thought is. It was always much more likely that one of us would outlive the other. How my mind managed to evade that thought for 12 years is probably related to my age—I imagine older couples might be more cognizant of the likelihood of widowhood. But maybe not. I’m sure I’ll be in love again, and in this moment, it seems impossible to think about being in love with someone and not also anticipating that one of us is going to outlive the other. But maybe the thrill of new love blurs that thought.

The next occasion to survive is our anniversary in March, and then the big doozy: my birthday. It was on my birthday 2021 that I made the decision to remove him from life support. I have no idea how either of these days will hit me, but I am keeping them clear on my schedule and allowing myself to be open to whatever emotions come. I’ve indicated them as “Remembrance Days” on my calendar.

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.