That gasping, gulping sound is me. Being pulled under.
It’s been quite the week. In nearly 27 years of marriage, I had never been away from Paul for even three or four days, let alone months, or a year! It was also his birthday this week. He would have been 60 years old. His birthday is now a grief anniversary. John Pavlovitz talks about grief anniversaries in his latest blog here. My feelings about the passage of this first year without Paul are mixed. In a way, it seems like it went by so fast that it’s a blur but also like the longest year of my life. There were times that I didn’t think I would survive the first year, and now I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that the second year may be even harder than the first, and I just want to scream.
Initially, the grief did come in waves. More lately, I have
found myself being ambushed by grief. I feel as if I am being stalked by grief.
It’s waiting for me around every corner, creeping up on me. The tears come hot
and fast, and full of anger. The works. Grief is not linear. It’s not a start-to-finish,
straight course race. It’s a steeplechase with hurdles, jumps, thick hedges,
and water obstacles. So I’ve had setback. It’s not the first one. That “I don’t
want to do any of this” feeling is creeping in again. Thoughts press in
uninvited. And the sadness is so heavy. It weighs me down. It’s like a train
that just has to roll on through. I’m stuck at the crossing watching it rhythmically
advance steadily by, and I’m not going anywhere. I find myself retreating more
and more to the safety of the house, hibernating, being in the position of
having to force myself, make myself get out and do things when all I really
want to do is disappear. This is dangerous territory, and I know it.
I am fully aware that my perception is distorted. I know
that, and yet that realization does not diminish the experience. I actually
wish sometimes that I didn’t have this insight or awareness. The insight leads
to frustration for me. It is maddening. Sometimes grief feels like madness.
I am not eating. I am not sleeping. I am not getting to work
on time. My boss looks at me sideways but says nothing. I don’t like being late
(we’re talking 5-10 minutes here folks), but I just can’t manage in the
mornings most days. The struggle is REAL. I don’t know what to DO about it
except throw my hands up and accept that I am a work in progress, and at the
moment, this is the best I can do. I don’t know what to SAY except that my
husband died a year ago, and this is what my life is like now. In the weeks
immediately after Paul died, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to go back
to work at all. I wasn’t sure I could do my job anymore.
Paul took care of me. We took care of each other. Some days,
sometimes for stretches of weeks at a time, I’m not being very successful at
taking care of myself. There’s good deal of research that looks at a lot of
different causes, but reports seem to agree that there is about an 18% increase
of mortality in widowhood. Yes, you read that right. We are a vulnerable
So, I have to go back. Go back to my Griefwork Toolbox and get down to business. When I get like this, my counselor always reminds me that I can recover. We’ve been here before. It can get better. We know it can get better. We know I’m capable because I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.
The Elephant in the
Room? Seriously. I’m running an elephant sanctuary over here.
We’ll start with the baby elephant, anxiety.
In the early weeks and months after Paul died, it was
difficult for me to leave the safety of
the house. I wanted to be where he was.
Paul and I did everything together. We enjoyed each other and enjoyed doing
even the smallest activities together. I don’t even remember the last time I
was in a grocery store by myself or pumped my own gas. Now, just riding in the
car by myself feels like a foreign country. I am not sure I fully realized it
until Paul was no longer by my side, but he made me feel safe, emotionally safe
certainly, and, in some cases, physically safe.
I admit that I have long been a bit of a “nervous Nellie”, a
little hypersensitive even from my childhood, but going through my days alone
has caused me anxiety like I have never known it before. It is at its worst in
the morning. Big surprise <insert sarcasm>. Sometimes I can’t get out of
bed. It’s a struggle just to get my feet on the floor. Sometimes I get stuck in the kitchen. I’m dressed. I’m
ready. I’m standing in the kitchen, and I can’t move from that spot. The other
prime locations for getting stuck are
in the driveway and at the traffic light as I’m trying to leave neighborhood.
When I’m stuck in the driveway, I just sit there and watch the garage door go
down trying to decide if I’m actually going to leave the house or not. If there
is no one waiting behind me at the traffic light, I will often just keep on
sitting through the next cycle or two. If I’m forced out the neighborhood by
people waiting behind me, then I make my way to my destination but struggle to
get out of the car when I arrive.
I’ve attempted to deal with this anxiety in several ways
because what I’ve really learned about anxiety like this is that it’s not going
away anytime soon. I have to manage it.
There are times when I am able to confront it. I can muster my courage
and force myself to take the next step. That works. Sometimes. Other times, I
find it best to avoid that which I know causes anxiety. I order my groceries
online, and go pick them up instead of doing the shopping in-store. That is a
reasonable, acceptable avoidance that does not impact my quality of life. I
have used interventionssuch as medication (short term), controlled
breathing, meditation and prayer, exercise, connecting with others, and
counseling. I doubt I am going to be anxiety free any time soon, but I have
enough strategies at my disposal to manage. For now.
So, that’s anxiety. Next up, anger.
Anger has always felt wrong to me. Wrong on a sinful level. I
have always tended to be less expressive, even stoic. It’s hard for me to
remember many times in my life when I’ve been out-right angry. It is also useless,
honestly. It’s not productive or helpful in any way as far as I can tell, but
anger is a very natural, biological emotion, and it’s present very early on in
life so it must be important. Even babies get angry. Anger in its basic form is
used, I believe, to draw attention, to demand attention. And perhaps that’s
what anger in the midst of grief is all about. A demand for a wound to be attended to. Anger can be sneaky. For me, anger over my husband’s
death comes out as irritability, being short-tempered with others, having impatient
outbursts that take me by surprise, and I think to myself where did that come from?
My anger forces me to attend to something within myself that I have pushed
aside for too long. The message to me from
me is…..Deal with these feelings, or they will deal with you. And, by the
way, I’m fed up with all the feelings. It’s exhausting, and I’m sick of it.
The anger usually abates when I acknowledge what I’m angry about. So, what am I angry about? Here goes. I am angry that Paul left me here by myself. No, he didn’t do it on purpose. I am angry about the way Paul died. No, there was nothing that could have been done differently. I am angry that I was completely helpless to do anything for him. Yes, I did everything I could. I am angry that I have to do all this grief sh*t (excuse me). Yes, yes, the grief work has helped me grow. So, do you see? Do you see how senseless anger is? And, yet, it is there.
I think the best way to sum up anger in the midst of grief
is with this clip
from the movie Steel Magnolias. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close.
These elephants are getting bigger. Ugh. Next, the twins, hurt and guilt.
Marriage, any relationship for that matter, is not all goodness and light, my friends, as I’m sure many of you well know. Conflicts occur. I suppose it is inevitable in any relationship as we are all flawed. Old arguments come to mind. I think of things that I said or did that hurt Paul and things that Paul said and did that hurt me as well. Some of the arguments were the ridiculous kind that all couples seem to have, but some of them were more serious incursions, and the hurt and the guilt are deep and impossible to forget. I have to say here that I think it’s really important to remember the love and the good times, the happy memories, and to remember the difficult, hurtful memories, too. It’s not good to over-romanticize the relationship. While it is painful to remember the hurtful things I did and how I was hurt, it also allows me to continue to learn how to improve my current and future relationships with those I love. Guilt is good. It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit that hopefully(!) prevents us from erring repeatedly.
And, finally, Jumbo makes his entrance. Regret.
I most regret the missed opportunities, missed opportunities to be more attentive, patient, to be a better listener, more accepting, to know my husband in deeper ways and to be more open so that I could be fully known. I regret the times that I fell short of being the wife he wanted and/or needed. I don’t mean to say that I wish I had necessarily agreed with him more because sometimes that is genuinely not what a person needs although it may be what they want. I just mean that I can think of times when reacting differently to what was happening in our relationship would have been the more loving and honorable way to be my husband’s wife. One of my deepest regrets came in the weeks and days before Paul died. I was in full caregiver mode. Decisions about his care had to be made every day and had to be made quickly. I so wish I could have stepped away from my caregiver role and could just be with him in those last days, but it was impossible. I was being Martha because I had to. I wish I could have been Mary.
So, how does all this junk
get resolved? Three words. Mercy, forgiveness, and grace. Mercy is when we don’t
get what we have coming to us, when we have behaved wrongly and should rightfully
be punished but are spared. With forgiveness, we can surmount the anger and
resentment. We can let it go. And then there’s grace. Grace is the clincher. It’s
the life changer, the freedom bringer. It is completely unmerited, cannot be
earned and is the highest form of love. It takes all three of these to make a
relationship work. Marriage is hard, but a promise is only a promise if it is
kept. The following passage was read at our wedding as it is at so many, but it
remains, for me, a guidebook to being in a right relationship with others.
Way of Love (1 Cor 13:1-13)
13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and
understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as
to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give
away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have
not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast;
it is not arrogant 5 or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b]6 it does
not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for
tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in
part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial
will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I
thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up
childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly,
but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even
as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest
of these is love.
So, go ahead, dear ones. Talk about the elephants in the
room. Call them out by name. Mountain climber, adventurer, and completely blind
for most of his adulthood, Erik Weihenmayer says, “You lean in to the thing
that sort of scares you, that overwhelms you, so that you can kind of get up
close to it and you can experience it fully and then it kind of loses its power
Get up close to your elephants, friends, and the room will be yours!
In a previous post, I wrote about psychic injury and how to care for yourself as you heal. This post moves on to discussing the healing process. After the death of a loved one or a significant loss, people may refer to you as grief-stricken. Grief-stricken. It’s an interesting description, as if one is stricken with an illness, but I agree with it. It does make sense to refer to grief as an illness because illnesses need treatments and so do psychic injuries. I also agree because people recover from illness, and people recover from grief, too!
Grief is a noun, but grieving is a verb. It is active. Make
no mistake. Grieving is difficult work
and takes a sustained effort, a multi-faceted approach. For me, I felt like I
had to get it right. I have a lot of life left to live. I also want the rest of
my life to honor my husband and his love for me. He took such good care of me,
always wanted the best for me. He wanted me to spend the rest of my life happy
and healthy and emotionally free even if it was without him. The only way to
ensure that is to do this grieving thing to the hilt.
So, I have pursued grief, sought it out, searched for it in the darkest corners, fought with it, chased it, dug it up, and wrapped myself in it. Grieving is indeed a profound experience, but it is not who I am, the little girl who lost her mother, the grieving widow. God alone, not my circumstances, determines my identity.
I.Own.Grief. It doesn’t own me.
My treatment plan
evolved over time. I began with one strategy and gradually added more until I
had a full array of tools with which to do my work.
Welcome to my Griefwork Toolbox!
Individual and/or Family Counseling
I began by seeing a counselor. Best decision I ever made.
She saved my life (I’ll save the rest of that story for another post). I began
with weekly visits and gradually increased the time between visits depending on
how I was feeling. Sometimes I had setbacks and needed to return more
frequently. Sometimes I felt stronger and could go a little longer without an
appointment. I recommend choosing a counselor who specializes in grief and
someone who will support any particular religious beliefs or traditions you may
have. I also recommend that you think ahead about whether or not you want a
male or female counselor. Be sure to consider any other characteristics unique
to your situation and history. The more specific you are the better your
counseling experience will be.
Reading books about grief can be very helpful. Small, short
books with vignettes are best. Long narratives are challenging for an
overloaded brain. A brain overloaded with emotion struggles to concentrate and
pay attention. A quick search on Amazon will yield many good options. Read just
a little each day. Make it a habit. Five to ten minutes a day is all you need.
Choose and pursue an expressive outlet
There are feelings and emotions in the human soul for which there are no words and for which an ocean of salty tears would not be enough to express. For that reason, an expressive outlet can do a world of good. It could be anything – dance, theater, poetry, music, art, sculpting, crafting, scrapbooking, painting, textile arts, drawing. For me, it was music. My husband was a teenager during the seventies. His vinyl record collection is epic. I spent hours listening to those records. They made me feel close to Paul when I was struggling to adapt to his physical absence. I was able to picture him listening to and enjoying those same records, and it made me feel like we were together. They were a great comfort to me, calmed me as David used music to calm the madness of the king. Then, my father-in-law gave me a piano. I had played as a child so, even though many years had passed, it was still familiar to me. I ordered some books and began practicing each day. I was astonished at the way it literally switched off the rest of my brain as I focused on playing the notes and tune. When I am playing the piano, I lose track of time. I lose track of time. A miracle.
Try a Grief Group
I say try because
you may find that it is not for you. It also has a lot to do with timing. If
you try a grief group and it’s not working for you, by all means, discontinue,
but don’t throw out the idea completely. I did not join a grief group until 6
months after Paul’s death. The group I joined was organized around a video
series with an accompanying workbook. That aspect was extremely helpful to me. The discussions we had were short, limited
to about 15 minutes, and I didn’t speak too often. Only one other person in the
group had experienced the death of a spouse. The rest of the members had
experienced the death of adult children, parents, or siblings. My point is that
the most important benefit I received from being in a grief group was acquired
by listening. There is so much value
in listening to and understanding the perspectives of others.
Full Circle Moments
Look for and take advantage of full circle moments. I call them goodbye moments. These usually happen at places that were special to us, a restaurant, the beach, gardens, cities we liked to visit, vacation spots. One of these goodbye moments occurred recently at a local plantation. The last time we had been there was Mother’s Day 2016. Our son wasn’t able to be with us that day. I was feeling a little blue about that so Paul planned for us to enjoy a day out. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We strolled the gardens through walkways of flowers. We talked and smiled and laughed and held hands. We thoroughly enjoyed just being with each other. On this recent visit to the same plantation, I was with my brother and his family. As we walked in through the main gates, I recalled the memory. Shared it with my family. Smiled at the thought of it. Celebrated Paul’s life. Embraced it, and let it go. Full circle.
Any form of exercise will do, but I encourage you to choose
an exercise that has the potential to be social, a two-for-one as it were. The
physical and mental benefits of exercise are, of course, numerous. By adding a
social component, you also get the benefit of connecting with others. In addition,
I encourage exercises and/or activities that have a meditation or mindfulness component
as well as a focus on breathing, something like yoga or the martial arts. All
of this together will help ease anxiety and the processing of intense emotions.
If church was part of your life before the death of your
loved one, try to continue to go. I know it is difficult, but it can be an
important and stabilizing force in your healing process. I think the way to get
through it is to not have any expectations. Just be there in His presence and
trust. The rawness of grief in the midst of worship can be very challenging. Go
anyway. Do it anyway, but make sure you have escape routes, places you can go, people you can go to if you get
overly emotional or completely overwhelmed.
My counselor encouraged journaling early on, but I was not able to do it. I couldn’t gather my thoughts together well enough to get them on to paper. I couldn’t concentrate. My emotions just didn’t translate. It was months before I was able to write short responses to questions in my grief workbook and several months more before my ideas began to freely flow. If you are not able to journal initially, try again after some time has passed. It can be a powerful means for reorganizing thoughts and memories, integrating new experiences, and assimilating new routines and life patterns.
Spending time with pets can have a profoundly beneficial impact on anxiety, depression, and mood. Try spending more time with your own pets if you have them. Walking them and playing with them even for a few minutes can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and improve your outlook. If you don’t have pets of your own, spend time with a friend or family member’s pet. Many organizations have access to pet therapy. Handlers volunteer their time and their pet to visit with people undergoing medical treatments or in need of emotional support. I will write more about our own amazing experience with pet therapy in a future post.
Connect with others in a meaningful way. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return on their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Griefwork truly is a labor. By connecting, we can help each other through it. Work on strengthening your current connections and reaching out to others to form new ones. Everyone is experiencing some type of grief. No one gets through this life unscathed. The more we reach out and connect with each other the better off we will all be.
Find opportunities to serve others in need. Yes, even though
you are in a position of need yourself. Serving others grows gratitude for your
own circumstances. It also takes your mind off of whatever your mind is on. On
our first Christmas Day without Paul, my son and I volunteered to serve
Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House, a place for families experiencing
medical hardships. It was the best place for us to be that day. We were busy
serving others. It took our minds off the absence of our beloved husband and
father if even for a little while. I was recently reading Luke’s account of
Tabitha. Tabitha was a disciple of Christ and worked to help the widowed and
poor by making clothing for them. Tabitha fell ill and passed away. Her
community was so distraught that two believers went to get Peter who was
visiting in a nearby town. Peter arrived and prayed to God on behalf of Tabitha,
and God restored her to life. She got her life back. Every time I do something
for someone else, when I serve, I feel like I get a little bit more of my life
Go. Serve. It’s good
for others. It’s good for you.
Only what is embraced can be transformed. Only by embracing
the grief can it be transformed into peace. Embrace it all, the emotions, the
memories, the hurt. Breathe it all in so that you can breathe it all out. Don’t
run away. Run towards it! Memories are so interesting. When my mother died, I
purposely did not remember and forgot so
much, whole swaths of time from my childhood. The pain was too overwhelming,
and I had no support. Now, I use my memories as a way to visit with Paul, and it brings me joy!
Cry. Wash. Repeat.
Cry. A lot. Then, wash your face. I received this advice
from a widower, and he was right. There is great power in the physical act of
washing your face. The water is refreshing. It takes the tears with it down the
drain. It’s energizing, too. It gives you a moment to catch your breath, gather
your courage, and face the day once more. Repeat as often as necessary. It’s an
emotional cleanse that’s good for your psyche.
If ANY of this is
helpful to you, dear reader, then I have been of service and have gotten a
little bit more of my life back.
People say there is
not a right way to grieve and I
agree, but I also believe there is a wrong way because I did it the wrong way
once and can clearly see the impact of that on my life. I have had two
significant episodes with grief
during my life. I am not talking about losing a grandparent or dear friend who
has reached the end of their natural life span and dies an expected death. I am talking about the kind of life altering grief
that comes with an unexpected, tragic death. My mother died in a car accident
when I was twelve. I struggled with grief for years. Actually, I take that
back. I made grief my friend. I used it to drive me in fact. I was comfortable
with it because it meant I didn’t have to let go of my mother and move on. The
problem was there’s really no way to suppress one emotion and not the others.
So, while I had a lid on the grief, there was also a lid on my ability to
experience joy. Eventually, the trade-off wasn’t worth it. With the help of my
husband and a good counselor, I was finally able to come to terms with my grief
and find joy in my life and relationships again. However, when it came to my
relationships, my people, I still operated under the false belief that if I
took care of them well enough, loved them enough, made all the right decisions, that I would not lose
the ones I loved again. Yeah, I know, irrational, but grief has an element of
irrationality to it and without some objective checks and balances the grieving
mind can convince itself of anything in order to feel safe and attempt to avoid
being hurt by loss again.
This time was
different. I knew I had made mistakes in how I previously dealt with grief, and
I was determined to get it right. I
began seeing a grief counselor the week after Paul died and continue to do so. I
joined a grief group at church called GriefShare. I read books about grief. I
confronted the painful stuff head on, early and often. I took a deep dive. Some
people call this leaning in. I’ve
worked hard at it, and the experience has been powerfully different.
Let’s talk about
psychic injury. Grief is an injury to the brain, the psyche. You have been
injured and steps must be taken in order to heal properly. When you break your
leg, you get treatment, a cast, medication, physical therapy, and see a doctor
regularly to monitor the healing process. Your brain, your psyche, needs the
same attention. Grief can be defined as a transient state of mental disorder.
In my opinion, that is fair. The word disorganization could be substituted for
disorder. There is a fog that comes with grief. It is difficult to concentrate
or think straight. In the early days
after Paul’s death, several people told me grief comes in waves. I had no idea
what they meant. Now, I do. In fact, sometimes, in my mind, I am standing on
shore, and I can see the wave coming in the distance. There’s nothing I can do.
It’s coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop that wave of grief and overwhelming
sadness any more than I could stop a real life wave coming toward shore on a
day at the beach. It’s coming. The only real question is How long will I be under? How long will it toss and tumble me
beneath the surface before I am able to come up for air. When the wave arrives,
crashing through my mind and my life, some of the things I hear myself say
frequently are “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do any of this!” and “My
thoughts are not my own. Thoughts, images press in without being invited, and I
can’t push them away.” My husband’s illness and death was traumatic, and I
experience flashbacks. I have moments when I am back in his hospital room, and
it is real. All of my senses are involved, and I can feel every moment of it
again. I have learned that this is normal, and as time has gone on, the
flashbacks are fewer and farther between. Grief can also be complex. It can be complicated
by identity and attachment issues. I met my husband when I was very young
having just turned eighteen years old. We spent 30 years together. A lot of my
personal identity was wrapped up in our relationship. Complex grief apparently
occurs when the departed and the bereaved were unusually close to one another.
Hmmmm, I would say we definitely resemble that remark.
what you can do to take care of yourself while your psyche heals.
Rest as much as possible. Grief is exhausting! If you need medication to help you sleep, that’s ok, but do so with the intention of it being temporary. Put an expiration date on any medicinal intervention. Take time off from work as needed, if possible. If it’s not possible to take time off because, well, life happens, then make time during the day to have a mindfulness walk or a mindfulness moment. My mindfulness walks include three phases: gratitude, reflection on places where I have fallen short, and petitions.
Exercise is crucial. It doesn’t matter what it is, but consider something that is social because building new relationships and making new connections is also crucial. I enjoyed playing tennis before Paul passed away, and I made sure to continue, but I also started walking or running daily. I took it a step further and joined a local running club. I enjoyed yoga before Paul died, too, and continued that as well. ANY exercise you do will help in all kinds of ways. I even tried “goat yoga” and a kickboxing class! Talk about working out your emotions! My main tip here is to just not take it too seriously. You might have to make yourself do it, but you won’t regret it. You will feel better!
Eat healthy foods, or at least don’t eat too much junk food. Remember, your mind is in the midst of a healing process and needs good fuel.
Learn as much as you can about grief. Reading about the grieving process and listening to the perspectives of others can be very reassuring that your experiences, while unique, are a normal and natural part of being human. It is also reassuring to know that people do recover and you can, too!
If you are reading this blog and grieving the
loss of a loved one, please know you are not alone. I am thinking of you, and
praying for you!