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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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.

Grieving Through The Holidays

As the holidays come around, I want to offer peace and comfort to those who are grieving. I rarely offer cheerful pearls of wisdom, but rather hope that comes from the idea that it is ok to be broken. The purpose of my writing is to give pain a voice. I write from my heart, and my heart is in pain. The beautiful thing about this pain is that it lives side by side and entwined with love.
As I go through the hours, days, weeks, and now years I am finding that there are outlets everywhere for my love. Love is welcomed by all and everyone wants to know about the things in my life that inspire my heart to love. My pain, however, is shunned from the world. When pain needs to show its face, it is usually met by others with desperation to shove it back inside where it will not cause discomfort… for them. After all this time, I understand, I do. I get it. It is hard to face those difficult emotions. Our society does not have an understood social mechanism with which to greet and welcome the pain of another. We have defined strength as the ability to choke back and cut off vulnerability and weakness, but this isn’t strength, this is avoidance. Strength comes from facing those very tough emotions inside yourself, breaking down, and then getting back up knowing you will face it all again.
As I walk into this holiday season, I am determined to do it excitedly and happily. I know that this season will be very hard, it is my second Christmas without my husband and my daughter is finally starting to understand the concept of Santa Clause. I am excited to do The Elf On The Shelf with her for the first time this year. I am excited for the music and the tree and my daughters visit with Santa Clause. And I am prepared for the emotional meltdown that will happen. I don’t know when it will come or what will set it off, but I will break. I will cry and scream and beg. I will feel like I have lost him all over again and it will hurt. It will be torture. And I will welcome every moment of paralyzing pain that hits my shattered heart, because in that pain is my husband and the love we share. And because I am raising a nearly 3 year old. For her, I have to be as close to whole as I can possibly be. I have to be honest with myself. I have to give my pain expression so it doesn’t harden my heart. Pain is as real as love is, and it needs to be given the same time and attention so it doesn’t come out in the wrong ways.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. This is a tough holiday for many because it is about family and gratitude. And though there will be an empty chair at the table (which will break my heart all over again), I will give a moment to acknowledge all that I am thankful for. I will be sitting down at that table with a wonderful family and with my daughter. My little girl is my light, she is my sun and my moon, and he gave her to me. I only had a short amount of time with my husband and on some other day I will shout and scream about how unfair it is that I did not have more time with him. But on this day, and every day, I will be grateful for the short amount of time that I did have with him. I am grateful for the ways in which he changed my life, for the little girl he gave me, for the strength that I now have because I knew him.
This is how I will walk into this holiday season. With hope, gratitude, and with welcoming arms for my pain when it needs a moment of expression. I wish I had some advice or tips about how to make it through the holidays, but that is not what I do best. Someone else will do that better. All I can tell you is to be honest with yourself. Try to go easy on your loved ones who mean well as they put their feet in their mouths. Find what you are most grateful for and hold onto it for deal life, especially while you are at a gathering that brings your your loneliness and pain to the surface. If you want to scream, then scream (bring a pillow and leave it in your car, excuse yourself and go scream into your pillow). If this is your first holiday, you will feel like the odd one out, you may even feel as though people are afraid of you – like your grief is a disease that they don’t want to catch. Do your best to hold onto that love and gratitude, but don’t deny yourself whatever is true to your heart. It is ok to say “no” and draw boundaries. You are fragile, but they won’t break you. You have been through too much for any words to break you. And lastly, the most difficult one of all, try to have patience. They don’t know how to do this either. They don’t know how to hold space for you while you grieve, just as you don’t know how to make it through all of this brokenness. You are all learning and it is so hard.
If you have any advice for others who are trying to make it through the holidays, please put it in the comments. We are all doing our best to make it through. I know that I will make it through in one piece, but not without plenty of bumps and scrapes to show for it. Grieving hurts. Healing hurts more. You will get through it, even if you don’t know how.
Happy Thanksgiving. May you find peace and gratitude on this very painful occasion.

My Grieving Heart Still Begs To Have My Husband Home

No one knows how to beg like a person who’s lost their love. It was February last year when my husband died. Our daughter hadn’t even learned to walk yet. It’s been nearly 21 months now and our daughter is a firecracker! We have moved and life has changed. It’s not easy finding a way to let it be ok that he is not here, but I’m doing it. I’m here and he is not… and I have this sweet angel to get me through it all. 

I hate the terms moving on and moving forward. I hate those terms because it feels as though it means leaving behind. And it does matter that it never feels as though you are having to leave them behind. And it does matter that you don’t feel as though you are being asked to leave them behind. So I will not say that I am moving forward or moving on… but that I keep moving. I keep putting one foot in front of the other and I don’t stop. 

That old life is now a past life. But I can’t leave it in the past. That is what it means to leave something or someone behind. That past life needs to come with me on my journey through the present and into the future. That past needs to remain my present, so it is imperative that I do not leave it behind, that I do not leave him behind. 

This is why I beg. I used to beg for him to come back, to come home. Today, I still beg for him to come home. The pain isn’t over and the longing hasn’t stopped. But more often now, I find myself begging him to stay with me, just don’t leave me! Because the idea that I might move forward in this life and that he may not remain with me… that’s excruciating. So I need him to remain with me. 
You may have your own beliefs about what happens to a person when they die, but after your love dies, another persons beliefs are of little comfort. My own personal belief that he is with me is all the comfort I will ever get. And I can work to strengthen my spirituality if I choose to, but I will find my way in this on my own.

You see, I have come to believe that the very reason religion exists is because death exists. Spirituality I think comes natural to people as a whole, but the need for community and answers drive us to find religion. And I have come to believe that what you believe in and what I believe in are equally valid, because the only thing that matters at the end of the day is the comfort it brings to a heart in need. Right now my heart has found its way to a spiritual place that I am comfortable with. Right now my heart is still broken and still yearns for another moment in the past and a future that will never happen. And my heart begs. My heart begs for him to stay with me, to never leave me, to stay by my side until the end of my days. Even if I were to find love again, I need him to be with me, too. Because my heart will always love him. And it has been forever changed by losing him, and forever changed by having him. 

So hold the ones you love. Remind yourself why you love them, and then tell them that. Don’t forget. Don’t lose sight of what is important in the forward motion of the day to day. Don’t let “in a minute” become your “should haves”. Love eagerly and passionately. Don’t work so much that you can’t enjoy your life. You will never get another chance at today, and you never know when your time is up.

Healing Through Creativity

Over the last year I have spent the majority of my “spare” time and energy on personal growth. Being widowed is hard. But I am not just a widow. I am a stay-at-home widowed mommy of a toddler. This pretty much goes without saying, but sanity is relative for me. The house is always messy, even when its clean! And there is not a single corner of a single room that does not scream toddler. The biggest problem, of course, is that this new life of widowed motherhood makes it nearly impossible for me to find time for myself. But I recently made a change to this and I now have “creativity Tuesdays”.

Since shortly after my husband died, Tuesdays have been my “day off”, when my daughter goes to Grandma’s house. I used to have a simple rule for Tuesdays: NO GUILT. I spent so much time overwhelmed and broken that occasionally I could do something for myself on Tuesdays, or use it organize my life. But many days I was so tired and just wanted to sleep, or stare at the wall, or sit on the floor and cry. So Guilt Free Tuesdays was what I needed to survive.

I have recently changed the rule. I decided that it is time for me to have Creativity Tuesdays. My two creative outlets are writing and photography. The last birthday gift my husband ever got me was a very nice Nikon DSLR camera, but after he died I stopped using it. I just couldn’t see beauty worth capturing, so it ended up hiding out in the back of my closet just sitting there. Well, I dug it out and I’ve been playing with it and learning how to use it. I have started teaching myself a little here and a little there. I love it! So now between writing and photography, I finally have hobbies. I finally have something that I have started doing just for me. Both are solitary activities for me, something that I am a little surprised about. I have always thought of myself as a social butterfly, and I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed spending this type of quality time by myself so regularly. But I find it peaceful and personally rewarding, even if most of what I write is read by only myself and my photos are only seen on my walls. And as I am raising a toddler by myself, with no one coming home to me at the end of the day, without a workplace to escape to during the day, without someone to share any of these responsibilities with… it is nice to feel like I can finally breathe. It is nice to have an identity that is more than just mommy.

Somehow, in losing my husband, that transition from wife to widow changed everything and I lost me. I am starting to feel as though I am getting me back. Not the same me, that person is gone and won’t be coming back… and I am fine with that. I like the new me. I am not the person that I once was. I have changed in ways that I couldn’t explain if I tried, in part because I don’t exactly know who I am yet. I’m working on it… thanks to my husband.

When Will Good Enough Ever Be Good Enough?

 

I am a widow, and the mom of a toddler. It isn’t easy to be both of those things. Hell, it isn’t easy to be either one of those things, but here we are. When I lost my husband everything changed. My life changed, everything was different and I didn’t know what to do. But I knew that if I was going to give my daughter any chance at the life she deserves, I had to change.

Self-compassion is something I learned only after Matt died. Everyone would tell me to go easy on myself, but to me these were words that had no meaning. As much as I wanted to understand what this meant, I had no idea how to do it! I had my ah-ha moment after doing a lot of work with my therapist and doing a lot of soul searching. And then one night, as I was hanging pictures on my wall, I dropped a picture frame. It wasn’t a special or important picture frame, or one that I even particularly liked. It didn’t break, I simply fumbled and dropped it. But when I did, the words that came out of my mouth were terrible, and they were cruel. You’re so stupid! What is wrong with you? I hate you. This may seem like an over the top reaction to dropping a picture frame that didn’t break and that I don’t even like. It is. This is an over the top reaction to absolutely anything. And these are things that I would NEVER say to anyone… except me. But on this night something was different because I stopped myself, and I said out loud, “Stop it! Shut the hell up. Go to bed.” And I did.

I made a habit of doing that until I learned how to give myself a break, how to speak to myself the way I would speak to anyone else. Now I try to follow one simple rule; to speak to myself the way I would speak to a friend. I practice this and it isn’t always easy, but it is important to me. It is important that those terrible words don’t enter my house or my head. They are not welcome here anymore.

I did all that soul searching and healing of old wounds because I knew in my heart that I could not heal from Matt’s death if I didn’t heal other things about myself first. I couldn’t be the person he would want me to be, or the mother that my daughter deserves, if I didn’t heal myself. So I put my grief on hold for a while and I dealt with me. It’s all just so much work! It’s hard to be a widow. It’s hard to be a mom. I need to be the person standing in my own corner, picking myself back up. I need to show myself the same kindness and compassion that I can no longer look to my husband for.

I want only the best for my daughter. I want to teach her that she can do anything. I want her to be confident enough in herself to be authentically her. To figure out what she really wants in this life and then to be courageous enough to go for it. I want her to dream big, knowing that big dreams take hard work and a lot of failure. I can’t teach her any of this if I am not living it. I can’t teach her to believe in herself if I don’t believe in myself. So I’m figuring it out.

I told this to a friend of mine recently and now I am reminding myself:

Sometimes surviving is a full time job. Sometimes it feels like you can’t handle as much as you think you should, because you forget to include all the things you are doing that you can’t put on a list or on your schedule. You are picking up the pieces and going a thousand miles an hour… and trying to be normal. But he died. This isn’t normal. Nothing about this is normal. You can’t be superwoman because this isn’t a comic book. Don’t try to be superwoman, she’s not real. Be you, you are real and you are wonderful. Don’t risk getting lost trying to be more than human. I prefer you when you are human.

I’m not the same person that I used to be. I am not yet where I want to be but I am working on it, and that is good enough for me because I am healing.