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.

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.

The Night I Became A Widow

It’s been a while since I’ve actually sat down and written anything. Too long, really. I am coming up on two years since the night I lost my husband, two years since the night when everything changed.

I was at home with our thirteen month old daughter waiting for my husband to come home with the pizza he went to pick up for us. It was a Friday and I had had a very long week home alone with a very fussy baby. I was a stay-at-home mom and my husband had been away on a business trip. He had gotten home from the trip on that Wednesday night and come Friday, after a full week of seemingly not stop fussiness, I was tired and done and I didn’t feel like cooking. So when he got home from work, he offered to go out and pick up dinner so I wouldn’t have to cook. He even offered to take the little one with him on the drive just to give me a short, albeit much needed, break. Normally I would have happily accepted the break, but she had been just too fussy and I thought both of them would be miserable in the car. So she stayed home with me and my husband went off on his own.

Before he left the house he said that he wanted to sit down and have a serious conversation about moving when he got back with the pizza. We never had that conversation.

I called Matt to ask him to pick up milk on his way home. He didn’t answer so I sent him a text hoping he would see either my missed call or the text so he wouldn’t have to run back out later. A few minutes later I called again… and again. Matt was always on time. He was the kind of guy who would call me to tell me he’ll be 5 minutes late because he needs to stop for gas. So after 15 minutes I got worried, but I patiently waited. After half an hour I was very worried. By that time I had decided that he had been in a car accident and I just had to wait for him to call me and tell me what’s going on. By 45 minutes I decided that the car accident was bad and he was hurt and couldn’t call me, or else he would have already, and I started to panick. I tried to wait a full hour before calling the police to try to find him but I couldn’t make it to the full hour. I called the state police and told them that I think my husband had been in a car accident because he’s almost an hour late getting home. The officer asked me where I think it happened and I told him and he said he would have someone from the local PD call me. I tried to wait until they called. I tried so hard. I think I waited 3 minutes before I couldn’t take it and I called the department myself. The officer who answered told me that my husband had been in an accident and that two state troopers were on their way to my house and they would explain everything.

They don’t send cops to your home to tell you everything is alright.

The words, “what happened” got stuck in my throat at first, but I swallowed them. In that moment I knew that nothing good would come from asking this question he can’t answer. And I knew that if I asked, I would know. An eternity went by waiting for those officers. I stood at the porch door watching and begging Matt to just come home. Each time I saw headlights I would feel hope, and each time it wasn’t him I would feel the rush of dread. I remember saying over and over, “Just come home! Fuck the pizza, just come home!”

And then I saw two police cruisers pull up. Holding my baby in my arms, I ran outside and greeted them at the door, two officers: a man and a woman. I shook the officers hand and I asked him what happened. He asked if we could go inside. It was freezing out so I invited them in. When we got to the living room I asked again, “what happened?” And he said, “why don’t you have a seat.”

I don’t really know what happened next because with those words I knew. I just knew. I sat down and I looked at him and I made him tell me. I remember telling him no over and over. I was begging him to tell me he was wrong, just kidding, this is some terrible cruel joke! I hoped that Matt would be in the back of the squad car for doing something stupid, some stupid thing that he would never do because he didn’t do stupid things like that. I needed something else to be true, anything else, just as long as he was alive. Just as long as he would come home.

But instead, these officers came to my home to tell me that my husband would never walk through that door again. They told me he had a cardiac event behind the wheel, he was passed out when the accident happened.

My memory of the rest of that night is a blur, I can remember bits and pieces but nothing in detail. I remember calling my parents and telling them what happened. They got in the car and drove to my house immediately. After they arrived I had to make the hardest phone call of my life. I had to call his mom and tell her. My parents offered to make the call for me but I said no, it had to be me.

I remember going to bed. I was in a fog, I was bewildered. And as I was climbing into bed I got a phone call from Life Choice, an organization that handles the procurement of organ and tissue donations. My husband was a registered organ donor. He and I both felt strongly about donation since I had fairly recently donated my own kidney to him. He was a transplant patient and I am a living donor. So when they called and asked me the many questions they had, I told them to take it all, take everything they can. I didn’t know about funeral plans or anything like that (I was only 29 and I never thought this would happen!) so I told her to take everything and we can figure out those plans afterwards. But there was a part of me that held out hope that it wasn’t really Matt. That they were wrong.

I cried myself to sleep that night. I talked to Matt and told him how much I love him and need him and want him to come home. I laid in the bed like I did when he would lay next to me and imagined him there holding me while I cried myself to sleep. I found myself doing that quite a lot over the first year. I liked to imagine him holding me, it just made everything feel easier, even if it wasn’t real.

Over time, though, memory fades. I have forgotten what it felt like when he held me. I have forgotten many of the little things. I can’t imagine him the same way I used to. The image is more vague, his words are harder to string together in my head, I find it harder and harder to know what he would have done or said in a given situation. I don’t live in the same house anymore so I can’t look around and see the memories in my space, because he never lived in this space. That’s the hardest part of all of this – losing the memories. It’s as if that last pieces I have of him are slowly being chipped away. I feel like I keep losing him, bit by bit.

But time has continued. Our daughter gets older and life has to keep moving. Time won’t pause for me, it won’t stop and wait until I’m ready to move with it. Time will just keep moving all the same, whether I go with it or just watch it pass me by. Sometimes I have felt like time can be an enemy, but I have realized that time is neither friend nor foe. Time just is. It doesn’t care about me. It is not kind or cruel, it is indifferent. It does not care.

Two years have passed by since the love of my life died. He was 38, kind, sweet, smart, sarcastic and witty, and so loving. He wasn’t always the easiest person to be married to because he was sick with kidney disease. I wasn’t always the easiest person to be married to because I often failed to see things in perspective. But between his dialysis and hospital visits and transplant and my hard headed, forgetful, insecure ways – we were happy. He was my other half. At the end of the day, no matter what, I had him. As long as we always made the effort we would always be good. I knew that. And I think he knew that, too. Because beyond anything else, we loved each other. We loved each other enough to always work to fix the things that weren’t working. We loved each other enough to always work to make each other happy.

It has been two years since the love of my life came home, and I can tell you this: The only thing we have is time. The only thing that matters is what we do with our time. And the only thing that remains of us after we die are the impressions we have made in the hearts of the living.

Use your time wisely. Hug your kids when you get home. Pick your wife a flower. Put a note in your husband’s jacket just to remind him how much he means to you. But more important than that, remember that time is fleeting. Go make a memory every chance you get. When you fight, fight honestly and fairly. Apologize when you’re wrong, go to bed angry when you’re too angry to keep talking… but never forget to say “I love you” and never forget how much you mean it. I would do anything to have another argument with my husband, or to ruin another home cooked dinner, or to worry about his health again. I would give anything if I could get those moments back… the ones I missed, the ones I’m never going to have.

One day you may wake up and find that you will have no more moments with the person you love, so use the moments you have wisely. You will gain more from giving in those moments than you ever will from expecting. And what happens if you wake up and find that time is up?