Two Practices That Helped Me Survive My Grief

There are two separate but related, and equally important, practices that have helped me through my grief journey. At the beginning of loss, you are simply trying to survive. You struggle to keep your head above water and try not to drown. But eventually you will have to learn how to live again. These two practices have helped me move from survival to living.

Gratitude

When I lost my husband, the earth collapsed and I shattered. Time stood still. Everything was wrong and nothing was right. I wanted to go with him, and it felt so unfair to know that I couldn’t. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make it through this new life of sorrow and pain, but I knew one thing – I knew how grateful I was, and always will be, to have had him in my life. We never even made it to our third wedding anniversary. I had him for such a small amount of time and it wasn’t enough! That small amount of time wasn’t enough time for us, and yet it was. Because he changed me. I lived so much life in that small amount of time, and in that time I felt so much love. It was enough to last through his death and through my life. For that I will always be grateful.

I am now living the life of a widowed parent, a life I never wanted for myself, yet here we are. It would be easy to spend my days frustrated and bitter about never having a break or the chance to get proper sleep, about the messy house I have neither the time nor the will to deal with appropriately, or about the inevitable loneliness that sneaks up on me when I’m exhausted from life. And then, of course, there’s the parenting… alone. Everything about parenting alone is hard. Now pile that on top of the grief and what you are left with is a mess. Frustration, anger, and bitterness are easy to fall back on, but they don’t help you. They don’t make life easier, they just making living harder. I have my days when I fall into the trap of self-pity and focusing on what I lost, but I try to keep those days few and far between. Instead, I try to focus on all that I have and who I am – an imperfect mess who tries hard and falls a lot but, despite the fear and exhaustion, tries again anyway. Because I had him, I have an amazing little girl who reminds me not of what I lost, but of who I was blessed to have had. And because I have her, I will always have a piece of him here with me. Every day I remind myself how grateful I am to have known him, and to have had the chance to share that part of my life with him. He is now part of my story, and even death cannot steal that away.

Leaning Into Pain

Because of my writings, many people have commented on my strength. But I am not always so strong, and I certainly don’t often feel that strong. No one can be strong all the time. I believe it is important to allow yourself time to break under the weight of your grief. The idea that we need to suck it up and deal with the pain by pushing it down and hoping it will go away, or by simply pretending it isn’t there, is not only detrimental to our mental health, it’s a lie. Losing a loved one can be deeply devastating to our lives and to our own sense of self and belonging. Instead, you need to bring this pain into the light, acknowledge it, feel it, let it devastate and break you. You cannot tend to a wound you won’t acknowledge. I think of the pain as a black hole in the center of my life. I could keep walking around the hole, avoiding it, but it wouldn’t make it any less there. So, I took the advice of someone who had faced grief long before I did and I leaned into it. I leaned into the pain I felt every overwhelming, mind numbing, piercing bit of it. At first, I did this every night after I put my daughter to bed. I would put on music that made me cry and I would sit on the floor and talk to Matt and cry. I would cry so many tears that I stopped bothering to dry them up with tissues, I wanted them to fall as far as they could fall. 

No matter how you do it, you need to reach into the part of you that is dying and give it a voice. Give your pain a voice. Let it speak those terrible words and feel those awful truths, because they are your truth. The overwhelming brokenness and the feeling that you are drowning in grief, those feelings are real. This is not permanent, but it is real now. And to get past it and away from this terrible truth means giving it a voice, leaning in, and then being able to stand tall in your gratitude for having had something that is this hard to lose.

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Widow’s Day: Why It Matters

National Widow’s Day is in just a couple days on May 3rd and International Widows Day is on June 23rd. I have been contemplating how I feel about the mere existence of this day for now the third year in a row.

On the one hand, speaking as a young widow, I hate it. It is a reminder that, not because of who I am, but because of something that happened to me, I am somehow separate from the rest of society. It is somehow isolating in a way that makes me feel like a bit of an outcast (which only exacerbates the already present feeling of being an outcast as a young widow). So I hate this. I hate that there even exists a day to collectively acknowledge the widows of the world for their achievement of having experienced this kind of mind numbing, life altering, soul shattering pain of losing your other half (and half of yourself).

On the other hand, it’s nice to be acknowledged. Widows are easily forgotten and pushed aside. Widows are a very tough reminder of pain and fear and mortality. To acknowledge a widow’s pain takes courage, and not all of us are quite so courageous. So as time goes on, we start to view a widow’s widowedness on a diminishing scale. The more time that passes, the less we allow her/him the space to feel pain and the patience to grieve. And the younger she is, the less we accept her as a true widow. We decide that she is young and has the time and potential to find another life partner to love and settle down with, as though the solution to the pain of losing a spouse is to simply find another. We forget to acknowledge that the loss of the love she used to have is no less significant a loss than if she were 70, 80, 90 years old. It’s a different loss, but it is no less significant. The loss of what could have been is no less significant or traumatic than the loss of what was. It is different, but not less.

Many young widows have felt the social pressure of those who say “get over it”. I have been there, though typically, those actual words never get spoken. Instead we hear words like “time to move on” and “let go of the past” and “you’re still so young”. And there’s my personal favorite, “there’s plenty of time to have more children, you’re still so young!”.

I just want to scream “fuck you!”… but I don’t. No matter how much I want to scream it, and sometimes I would absolutely be justified in screaming it, I don’t. Not because of some social protocol or because they mean well despite their poor decision to say words to me regarding something of which they know nothing about, but because they genuinely don’t know better. They haven’t experienced this loss and their judgements about how I handle my situation speaks more about them than about me. You can think of this as ignorance, though I prefer to think of it as simple naïveté.

The truth is, if this happened to someone you know instead of you, you probably would have handled it wrong in some way or another at some point in time. You would have said the wrong thing, spoken when you should have said nothing, or done nothing when you should have simply showed up. If this were someone else instead of you, you would have gotten it wrong, too. And chances are, you, too, would eventually forget that a widow, no matter how young, is a widow for life. Your ability to maintain that relationship would depend on your ability to listen and empathize, and all that would still be relative to so many other things.

The thing is, it isn’t easy to support a young widow, but it is much harder to be the young widow. If you haven’t stood in the shoes of a widow then you have never known how lonely loneliness gets. So I guess I’ve decided that I am supportive of National Widow’s Day. In some ways I really appreciate it. I appreciate it because to be a widow is to be an outcast. And to take a single day in the year to acknowledge the significance of widowhood is to acknowledge the significance of her loss, something that society tries very hard to ignore. And to ignore the impact of her loss is to ignore her and everything she has become since that loss. To ignore that is to ignore the person she lost. There is no greater crime to a widow than to ignore the life that once made her whole.

If you know a widow, support her, applaud her, and most of all, hold space for her. If you know a young widow, learn from her. She will always ache for the life that was almost hers. She will always wonder what could have been. And she will always love the one she can no longer hold. No matter how young or old, she has experiences that you do not have. She knows things you don’t know. She grieves for something that she wishes you could understand but hopes you never will. A widow is not a sad little person with some pathetic life. A widow has profound knowledge of life, love, and death that is hard to put into words. And most of all, a widow has a unique compassion that comes from her life experience.

National Widow’s Day happens on May 3rd. If you know a widow, please remember her on this day. Truthfully, she would rather you remember her every day, or at least on any other day than this, but at least give her this one. Widows feel invisible and forgotten. They are lonelier than lonely and often feel expected to satisfy some expectation of “happiness” that may or may not be real simply because some allotted time has passed. A widow knows how to master the fake smile, talk the small talk, and tell you how well they have been doing, regardless of the truth that you may or may not want to hear. A widow knows that talk about sleepless nights, unstoppable tears, or the fears of living a life without the one we miss are all topics of conversation that will leave us feeling emptier than ever before, so instead we talk about anything that leaves you telling us how strong we are; a phrase most despised among the bereaved, but often brought on by our own decisions to put on the strong face.

So this Widow’s Day, please acknowledge a widow. She is lonely, whether she admits it or not. She hurts, whether she talks about it or not. She hates how happily married you are, even though she loves it for you and wants you to live happily ever after (this not about you, this is simply envy that she will never get that happily ever after herself). At the very least, send her a message, give her a phone call, or just post on her Facebook wall. If you are feeling ambitious, send her flowers or make some kind of thoughtful action that tells her she isn’t invisible to you. I know how much that would mean to me. Just don’t forget the widows of the world. Healing doesn’t happen on some time table, and while you wait for her to heal she gets lonelier and life gets harder. So just don’t forget to remember her this year. Life is full of treacherous terrain, and widows are the ones who put on that smile and feel greatful for the pain and torment… because at least they got the chance to experience joy and love and laughter and life.

To my fellow widows and widowers, Happy Widow’s Day. If you hate reading those words, me too. I understand and I can take those feelings so don’t hold back with me. I get it. What I want you to take with you is that we are a community. And whether you have ample support or are feeling forgotten or left behind, I do understand. It’s easy to be left behind in today’s world living this life of a widow. This is why I write, and this is why I believe social media can be so influential on the healing process.

It’s nearly Widow’s Day. Reach out to a widow and affect her day, because you never know, it could affect her life.

Widows Can Be Happy, Too

My husband and I had shared many plans, many dreams… we had so many things we looked forward to doing in our future together. But the future is not set in stone. And that future is something you can plan and hope and want, but it is never guaranteed. Our future together came to a very sudden end on the night I lost him. He was torn from my life when life was ripped from his body. It’s been more than two years since then and I feel like that was another lifetime ago, and in a way it was. I am not the me that planned all those plans and dreamed all those dreams. I am not the me that kissed him goodbye that night. The me that lives on today is a lot like that girl that I knew, but I am so vastly different. 

My daughter and I are in England on a trip to visit my mom. As much as I wanted to come over here to visit my mom, I had a hard time wanting to make this trip because this was supposed to be the three of us. I had visited here before a few times, but never with Matt. I wanted to make this trip with him. I wanted to see the sights and experience the culture with him. And now he’s not here and I can’t do those things with him.

I realize that those plans that we planned will never happen… for him. And for us. But some of them can still happen for me and for my daughter. Life has changed, everything is different. But here I am in England giving my daughter this experience that he will never have, doing things he will never do with us. I am heartbroken that he isn’t with us, but I am glad that I can give this to her. I am sad that I will never have the memories that I wanted to make with him, but I am happy that I get to make memories with my daughter, the little girl he gave me.

My life will never be the same. I am now a widowed mom to a three year old and a nanny, which means that everything falls on me all the time. I do not share the responsibility of caring for my daughter with a daycare or school or another parent. It is on me every moment of every single day. I do not get a break. I’m tired and stressed, I’m sad and broken. But I’m happy. I am happy because I owe it to my husband to look around and appreciate the things that I have that he is now missing. I am happy because of my daughter. She will never know her daddy, not really. She will never miss him or grieve him. One day she will start to grieve the parent she missed out on having, and that will be an easier loss for her to handle than the loss many children have to grieve. 

I am happy because I owe it to my husband to be happy. I want to live up to the person he saw when he looked at me. I need to be the mother he believed I would be. I need to be a happy mom for my daughter, and so I work at it. It’s not always easy to be happy. Sometimes it’s hard work just to push past all the reasons I want to give up on happy. But I’ve been working at it for two years now and I’ve gotten the hang of it. My daughter is a happy child. She lost her father at 13 months old and for the last two years she’s been raised by a grieving widow… and she’s happy. So I can’t help but think I must be doing something right.

I hope I am making my husband proud. I think I am. And I know that she will be ok, because I will be ok. We will both do fine because I have decided that happiness is a choice that I get to make, and I will continue to make it. 

Widowed Parenting: Stress, Anxiety, And The Fear Of Never Enough

Parenting is the hardest job in the world. So much rides on everything you do, every decision you make, and even who you are. The future of the tiny humans who call you mom or dad rests on your shoulders. The pressure is insurmountable.

Widowed parents know the stress and anxiety of parenting better than anyone. I am a widowed parent to my three year old toddler. I have been parenting alone for the last two years, since she was 13 months old. I guess in some ways it might be easier for me because I’ve always been a “single” parent to my toddler. I never knew what it was like to co-parent a toddler. I lost my husband when she was an infant, I never had the chance to settle into a parenting routine because by that age the routines were constantly changing. And on top of that, I’ve been a widowed mom for twice as long as I was a married mom. I haven’t had anyone to rely on to help raise my little girl in so long that I don’t really remember what it’s like to share the responsibility.

Being a widowed mom is a lot like being a single mom… except there’s an entire added dynamic of anxiety and emotional trauma that is directly intertwined with all aspects of parenting. Every time your child reaches a new milestone or does something fantastic, it is met with happiness and pride. But for a widowed parent, it is also met with sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, frustration… any number of emotions that make the good times bittersweet. And then there’s the lows. No parent experiences ONLY the joys of parenting, you also have to fight the battles that come standard with every child; and fighting these battles can be especially difficult for the widowed. We are reminded every time we enter another battle (be it large or small) that we are alone in this. And that this was never our choice.

When my child throws another tantrum on the floor because she said twelve times that she was done eating and I had the audacity to clear her plate before she was apparently finished, I have to brace myself not just for her emotional breakdown, but for mine too. Because with every tantrum, every sleepless night and far too early morning, every time her feelings get hurt because I forgot that I promised her last night that she could wear her Minnie Mouse socks today but now I can’t find her Minnie Mouse socks and I have betrayed her trust in the most atrocious way a mother could… I break a little. Because every single time this happens, it agitates the open wound that I was left with when my husband died and those emotions spill out. The loneliness, the heartache, the broken feelings, the anxiety of doing this all alone. Am I doing it right? Why does it always feel like I’m doing it all wrong? What is wrong with me? I am a broken parent and my kid drew the short stick when she was left with me. Why me? What did I do so wrong to deserve this life without him? It’s all just too much.

I recently filed a preschool application for my daughter for the magnet school lottery in my area. The moment I hit “apply” I got an instant surge of excitement and hope that my daughter will get a spot in one of these schools. I coasted that high for about 60 seconds before I got another surge. This one was dread. Yes, I want my daughter to get in more than anything, but I’m not ready. Her daddy never got to see this moment. Her daddy will never see her first day of school, he will never celebrate her good grades or send her off to her first school dance, or take her to the father/daughter dances. He will never coach her lacrosse team, never teach her to drive, never watch her graduate. He will never do any of these things because he didn’t live long enough to watch her walk or quit drinking milk from a bottle. He didn’t live long enough to hear her put words together into a sentence, or learn to play with other children. He only knew her as an infant and now there is an entire lifetime of achievements and firsts that he will never get to be a part of. There is a lifetime of mistakes and broken hearts that he will never help to heal. She will never turn to her daddy for advice, he will never walk her down the aisle, they will never share in their own special bond that is completely theirs. Because everything she will know about her daddy will come from me.

At the same time, I can never turn to him for help. When I’m too tired and stressed and in desperate need of a break then that’s “too bad, so sad” because there is no one coming home to give me a break. There’s no one to bounce ideas off of, there’s no one coming in with new ideas. No one to help enforce rules or to celebrate with. There’s just no one. I’m alone. It’s all me. And with every high I am reminded that he will never get to see these moments and celebrate them, I am reminded of how much life was taken from him when he died. And with every low, I’m reminded just how alone I am and how much I wish he were here with me, if for nothing else than to just tell me itll be ok, and that I’m not fucking it up. Because it sure feels sometimes like I’m fucking it all up.

The truth is, my child is happy. She’s smart and funny, she has a great personality, she’s adorable and lovable, and she’s an all around great kid. But despite that, and no matter how much I try, I still sometimes can’t help but to feel like I’m totally fucking this up.

For the widowed, grief and parenting co-exist. Parenting with grief is so hard and so emotionally draining that it seems to leave so much less of you available to your child. The good times hurt. The bad times hurt more. You try to give everything you’ve got to your kids, but widowed parents seem to start with less to give because so much of their emotional energy is drained by grief. It all hurts. But what I have found is that just because we start with less to give, that doesn’t mean we give less. We in fact give just as much or more, but we have less to give ourselves. It’s a battle we will always fight, a balance we will always struggle to achieve… but our kids will be ok. As long as we keep fighting for them and loving them through it all, they will be ok. And so will we. It takes strength to be a widowed parent, and there is no one stronger than us.

Struggling Through Deep Grief; The Complexities of Healing

They say that time heals all wounds. They think that there is a time table, that you allot a certain amount of time to grieve and then you get over it, pick yourself up, and move on. But the truth is that grieving deep loss is much messier than that. How easy would it be if this process could be so simple?  But how lonely would it be to never love so deeply that healing from loss could be anything but complicated and messy?

I once believed that grief was experienced in seven stages, and that to be healed meant to be good as new again. But deep loss isn’t a surface would, it’s an amputation. Healing is a long and arduous process that feels more like learning to swim while you’re drowning. It’s hard, it hurts, it’s exhausting, and it can be very hard not to give up at times. The waves hit and you get pulled under when you are already too exhausted to keep fighting, but you fight anyway because what choice do you have? This is what it feels like to struggle and heal through deep grief, it’s like learning to swim while drowning.

One of the greatest misconceptions about grief is that healing is a finite process. That eventually you will move on and rejoin the world just as you always were. But this isn’t true. Deep loss, like the loss of a spouse or a child, is like an amputation. That person was a part of you, a part of your identity and your day to day. That person has been infused into the very essence of who you are and how you live your life.

I am two years into my grief journey. I have changed so much along the way that I don’t fully remember the person I used to be because I am so different than her. I was happy with my husband, he was my other half and my “meant-to-be”. Losing him shattered me. For the first time I understood why they call it heartbreak because I could physically feel the pain in my chest. My body ached all the time, and in my worst moments I would feel as though my chest were being crushed by a stack of bricks and I would struggle to breathe. At first the grief would come in waves that would swallow me up and I would feel as though I could barely catch my breath. It was exhausting. Sometimes just waking up in the morning would be draining enough to send me back to bed. My world had crumbled. But over time I started to learn to swim. The waves would come, but they would come less frequently and eventually they stopped hitting as hard as they once did.

Many of you are new to this grief, some of you are further along than I am, and some of you have never experienced this depth of grief before. For those who are new to this and are struggling to see anything but darkness, I want you to know that I have been there and I know how it feels to be consumed by so much pain that it seems as though all goodness has died out. Give your pain a home inside you, welcome it. I know it seems counterintuitive to welcome the very thing that is tearing you apart, but it is necessary. Lean into your pain and into the darkness. Feel and embrace the agony that is consuming you and tell yourself that it is OK to be this broken. That is self-compassion and it is healing. No one needs compassion more than the lonely and broken hearted, but grief is isolating. Those who haven’t been through it don’t understand what you are going through and that can make you feel like a pariah. It’s a compounding situation where loneliness exacerbates loneliness. But no one can do this alone, and you should never be afraid to reach out for help. I used to attend a Young Widows Support Group in my area that is absolutely amazing. And though I no longer attend the group meetings anymore, there is a core group of us that branched out and continue to meet regularly. They are some of my dearest friends and I owe so much of my healing to them. I also still see my therapist every week. He is that safe place where I can walk in and not feel as though I’m carrying the world on my shoulders. He makes the baggage feel lighter. I believe in reaching out for help when you need it.

There is no right or wrong way to do this. So whether you cleaned out his closet in that first week, or it’s six months later and her bra is still hanging from the bedroom door – that’s normal. Whether you moved to get a fresh start or decided to never leave the home you shared together – that’s normal. Some widows will start dating sooner than others, and some never will. It is normal to be angry, and it is normal to feel guilty for being angry. It is normal to cry, and it is normal to not cry. However you do this, whatever your process, however you need to look at yourself and the world in order to make it through this – that’s OK. Eventually you will live again, but getting there isn’t easy.

Moving Day: Leaving The House That No Longer Feels Like Home

Dear Husband,

Today is moving day. Last night was the last night I will ever spend sleeping in the same house that I once shared with you. Now I must take this packed house and start a new life in a new place. A life without you in a place that isn’t yours. This isn’t a day of celebration, nor is it a day to grieve. This is a day for both simultaneously. I do not celebrate moving into a new life without you; but rather, I acknowledge that this is the first major step in accepting that you are not coming home. I know it seems that I should have accepted this by now, but how do you accept the unacceptable truth that that the one you can’t live without is gone.

This house stopped feeling like home after you died, but in this place I still hold onto this hope that you will be coming home. That there has been an impossible mistake and you aren’t really gone, or maybe this is all a dream and I just need to wake up. Leaving feels like giving up hope and I don’t want to go. Every time I tried to pack up this house it broke me. I have spent more time sobbing on the floor than accomplishing anything useful. So I asked for help and found it in the most amazing place. Your coworkers packed this entire house. There were so many of them. They came with a plan and didn’t ask anything of me. I think if I had sat on the couch sobbing the whole time they would have just worked around me. They were wonderful and exactly what I needed. I am still speechless from everything they’ve done for us (I know… me… speechless!). But as soon as they finished, I broke down into tears because I realized that the time is here for me to take my first step away from you. You have already left, I know that, but it is so hard for me to have to be the one to take this next step into this new life without you.

They tell me you will always be with me, that you are still here in my heart. And I know that. But it’s not enough. And moving from this house does feel a little like leaving you, even though I know you will be no more gone than you already are. But on the nights that I really need you, I will no longer be able to close my eyes and imagine that you are there in that space the way you once were. I will not be able to close my eyes and go back to the moments that I don’t want to let go of, and just be in them with you. I won’t be able to stand in the places you once held me and imagine that you are right here, that you are holding me like you once did. I still have my days where I just hope and pray that I will hear you come up those stairs. The closer we get to this move the more I have been wishing for you to just undo this and come home. We can just fix this and go back to the way it always was, the way it is supposed to be. But I will never go back to the person I was before, and we will never be able to go back to how it was.

Today I am moving out of our house and into a house that you never called home. The strength that it takes to move today is a strength I am not sure I have, but I know that even if I’m not strong enough to move this mountain, it will be moved today. I have learned something that you learned years ago before I met you, and something you continued to face through the years that we walked together into battles with your health. You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is no longer a choice. You were strong. And I am admitting now that I never realized the strength it took for you to face what you have faced every single day when you were sick. Every day you ached, every day you hurt, every day you watched everyone else go through “normal” while you were stuck with sick. And every day you got up and kept going as if you didn’t feel the hell that I know you felt some days. So I am following your example. I am doing what you did, or at least trying to. You have given me so much strength, and you have given me my reason to stay strong and power through this. You have given me reason to heal, not just survive. I don’t want to survive this. I want to heal. I hope in time I can find the same grace that you had when you watched everyone else go through normal while you were living through the unfair, the broken, the harder than “normal”.

So today I am moving. Today I am taking this first step away from the life we lived together. Today I will survive this, tomorrow I will break from this, and the next day I will start to heal from this. I miss you every single day. I love you with every piece of me that is still here. You will always be in my life, you will always be my family. You will always be my love.

Love,
Me

A Widowed Mother’s Wish

“I may be imperfect and mess up a lot. I may say things I will later regret. But never doubt for one moment that I love you and want you to live a great life.”

There is no doubt that any mom is imperfect, but a widowed mom carries with her the fear that her imperfections will no longer be balanced out by the one she can no longer turn to. She fears she will never be able to be both mother and father. She won’t be. She can only be herself. She can only do her best. And when her best isn’t as good as she wants it to be, she can only learn to forgive herself for not being more than herself. And then learn that forgiveness is not needed because she is good enough on her own. These are very hard things to learn. I am trying to learn them myself. I do my best, but I am not perfect. I will never be perfect, but I no longer strive for perfection. I strive to be good enough.

You are good enough as long as you stay in the fight. Don’t give up. Don’t decide that you will never be as good as you think you should be. Don’t settle for mediocre, because you are not mediocre. Decide that you are good enough and you will find that you are.