About Me

My wonderful husband died when I was 44 years old. Being widowed this young happens to less than 3% of married people. Writing through this loss one word at time helps me understand what I've lost and helps me continue to grow. It is how I have gradually recovered from such a severe loss. Research shows that you can benefit from taking just 15 minutes a day to write out your deepest feelings as a way of healing. On the right side of this blog, you'll see a tag for Exercises to Try. If you need some help knowing how to use writing to help heal yourself, I suggest you start there.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Loss Is Like A Vacuum Cleaner, Sucking Me Dry

I've noticed that I often compare my life since losing my husband to living on an alien planet. Where the hell am I? How am I ever going to build a new life here in this strange place? It's so damn empty.

What metaphors do you use when thinking about life after loss? Is your loss like a nightmare from which you can't wake up? Is it a black hole sucking you down? Does it look like a stark, white, empty room? How about a dark and tangled forest? Was it your last chance for happiness? Did you win the lottery only to have it taken away? Is it a car crash?

No need to be original or avoid cliches here. This is just fun and games in the medium of loss. Toss enough words around, change will happen. You'll move. Progress will be yours. Get creative with your sorrow, it's all yours.

I've assigned a certain mood and personality to my loss, and its shaping my world right now. So I think it's worth writing it out to see where the idea takes me. Give it a try.

My loss is like..........

My loss reminds me of........


My loss reminds me of an alien world where I have arrived alone, surrounded by unfamiliar people and places. I didn't want to come here. I arrived forcibly, against my will. I don't understand the language or customs; I wonder if I ever will.

I miss my home planet. Even though I once took elements of that old life for granted, I like to think that if I ever had the chance to go back there, I would be blessed with a whole new outlook. But I'll never get to go back. I'm stuck here in this new world. The air doesn't suit my lungs. It's too hot, then too cold. I am uncomfortable. Over time, I need to find a way to love it here because wherever I am, I want to like my life. I must adapt.

The hardest part of living here is getting used to the pervasive sense of loneliness. The darkness. Even that can be conquered. I will keep searching this barren place because I know there is beauty here too. I've already experienced it from time to time. After the destruction that occurred on my home planet, I find myself braver and more willing to explore this new world than I might have been had the loss never happened. What could happen here that I can't handle?

They say take-offs and landings are the most dangerous parts of any flight. I made it without crashing, without everything blowing up. I survived. I'm alive. I get to keep on going.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Progress Examined Further

Breath by breath,
shower by shower,
dish by dish,
skin sloughs off,
pain doesn't hurt as much anymore.
I don't want to say it:
You're becoming an abstraction,
where once I was in your orbit, solidly,
my life
without you
lacks gravity,
a center,
a home.
Your absence has become
its own revolution.
Your hand on mine
kept me solidly on earth.
I won't forget that
as I drift away, spinning, searching,
no longer held by your heavenly body.
Without your weight, I'm shrinking.
No one can hear me when I call your name
inside myself; it echoes.
I am getting smaller and smaller.

This is progress.
In your absence, skinned, weightless, lessened,
I rise and shine. I bounce.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Progress: Measured by a Family Portrait

Over Thanksgiving Weekend, I took my kids and the dog and myself into the city to get a family portrait taken. I wouldn't normally do something like that (kind of not my thing), but I'm not the greatest visual documentarian of our family's existence (that was Ken's job), and the photographer Rick Aguilar was offering the "mini-portrait session" for just $50 so I couldn't resist.

So there we were: the three of us humans.

The three of us. One mother. Two children. Together. Our family. Having our portrait taken. Enjoying ourselves. Laughing. Hugging. Sitting. Standing. Showing it like it is.

A family portrait may be posed, it may be unnatural, and it's absolutely a formal visual document of a point in history of a family's life.

I loved getting that cheesy family portrait taken and I know that three years ago, or two years ago, or one year ago, I was nowhere near ready to admit visually and with a smile on my face: this is what my family looks like now.

I wish more than anything that Ken were still in our family, that we had a mother and father in our portrait, that we had a husband and a wife in the picture. But I am the mother and I am not one of the children of anyone anymore. I haven't been anyone's child since the year 2000. At age 48, I may be a very slow learner, a later developer. But finally, I know it. I can't live in a world made of a wish anymore.

I am single. I am a single mother. This is our family. Nice to meet you.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Progress (Measured in Squirrels)

We have a room in our house that we call "the fish room". It is a guest room on the first floor of our house that happens to have a fish tank in it. Tonight the double doors to the fish room at the end of the hallway are closed tight. Why? Because there is a squirrel in there, and while I can handle him hanging out in our guest room tonight, (perhaps peeing and pooping on our clothes and shoes in the closet), I do not want it running through the rest of the house.

Every fall since Ken died, (there have been three of them so far), a squirrel appears in our house. The first year (2007), I was really pissed off. On top of everything else, I grumbled, I even have to get rid of rodents. Surely, that is a man's job. Why the hell do I have to not only lose my husband, but also have to take on everything he did around here, including the yucky stuff. It made me feel really sorry for myself. Really sorry for myself. Getting rid of rodents IS NOT FOR ME. That was my husband's job. That's a man's job. (Similarly, having to mow the lawn really depressed me. I'm not much for changing lightbulbs either.) I was also scared. I called my father-in-law. I called my sister. My already depleted spirit feebly whimpered for help.

Fortunately though, I was able to chase the squirrel around with a broom, open a large window, and shoo him out. Oh, yes, it took a lot out of me. I called a few people to tell them of my feat. I lay down. I took the kids out for dinner instead of cooking.

2008...another squirrel, an assertive squirrel, that would venture up from the basement and steal fruit off the kitchen counter. This time, I shook my head, and rolled my eyes. Not again. Why me? It tired me out just to think about dealing with it. And it pissed me off too, but perhaps not as much as the year before. So I hired some professional wildlife trappers, big guys in jeans and T-shirts driving around with trucks full of trapped rodents. It was nice to have some guys around helping me out. One of them even showed me the flying squirrel he had caught at the previous house. We went out to the truck and I looked at him scampering around in his cage. He was cute. Then they set some traps for me in my basement, taped up some places to see where the critters might be getting in, and returned to take the traps away when we caught the squirrel. It wasn't cheap, but I was getting some help, and I really liked that. They even found a place in the roof where they thought squirrels might be getting in and patched it up for me.

Today, a 2009 model squirrel was perched on top of the TV in the fish room. I closed the doors to the room. I went to yoga. I went out and bought a squirrel trap for $50. I called two husbands of friends of mine to see if they would help me set the trap. Didn't hear from them. Meanwhile, my daughter's friend Anna helped me set the trap and I enjoyed mixing some cashews together with some sticky peanut butter. I put the trap in the fish room on top of a plastic garbage bag so that when I catch him he won't pee on my floor. I fully expect the trap will have squirrel in it in the morning, and I will pick that trap up, put it in my car, and release him somewhere far from my house.

This is progress. This is my work now.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Grief Then and Now

When I first lost my husband (in the first year):

I couldn't believe it.
It felt like he was still here.
I didn't know how I would manage.
I couldn't feel anything.
I wondered where all my grief was.
I lost weight and only ate for sustenance.
I couldn't read books.
I couldn't watch movies.
I couldn't listen to music.
I needed my friends desperately.
I depended on the kindness of women.
I couldn't imagine being single and on my own. (even though I was).
I hated looking at children with their fathers.
I hated looking at wives with their husbands.
I wished I had more help with everything.
I felt terribly alone.
I felt terribly unlucky.
My bed was cold.
My hair became completely gray. (Ok, it was pretty gray before he died.)
I developed an obsession with on-line dating thinking that if I could only find a new husband and father for my children all would be well. (My daughter did not share this fantasy.)
I had the whole house painted.
My friend Amy took my living room down to the studs and exposed some brick.
I bought a new dog.
I worried obsessively about my children.
I worried about what would happen if I got sick. Who would be there for me?
I had to learn to make all the decisions.
I hired a professional organizer.
I gave away some of my dead husband's clothing to his friends and relatives.
I got fit.
I bought a new computer.
I worried obsessively about whether or not I should get a job.
I spent more time than I wanted to with financial planners, accountants and lawyers.
I thought about Ken's death in the abstract more than I allowed myself to think about him.
I was awed by the goodness, kindness and generosity of everyone who helped me, and developed a realization that we are not alone, and that all we need surrounds us if we are open to receive it.

Almost four years after losing my husband:

I feel resigned to the bad luck that found me.
I still feel envious of married women and intact families.
I miss Ken, the life we had, and the life I imagine we would have had.
I don't get as much pleasure out of traveling as I used to because I'm not a brave explorer without a companion.
I now have a GPS.
I am going through a phase of reading some of the many blogs written by others who have lost big. It comforts me.
I am forever changed and still changing.
I know that without the many women who have been there for me, and who continue to be there for me, I would be lost.
The sense of loss never leaves, ever; it only changes shape.
I can let go of smaller hurts, disappointments, fears, regrets, and anger much easier now.
I can appreciate the simple pleasure of being alive more.
I appreciate good health.
I appreciate the power of breathing.
I am proud of my strength.
I am renovating my basement.
I am on the school board of a small private school.
I am writing a book.
I am occasionally concerned that my children lost the better parent. (Although I will take some credit for being the longer lasting one.)
I hope I can find love again, but I'm not so sure I will. (In lieu of love I will take: a lifetime supply of good books, new friends, old friends, a reasonable supply of money, creative pursuits that engage me, a job that fulfills me, children who grow up to be happy and successful, a body that continues to support my desire to live well, a means to contribute to the greater good, friends that stick by me, friends who I stick by, a keypad, a pen, paper, a screen, a published book, a resurgence of journalism, a reason to laugh, running shoes, a yoga class, emotions under control, openness, and the willingness to let this untimely loss give me an opportunity we seldom get in this life after we become adults: to change, to become someone different, to realize that there are infinite ways to be, to think, to respond. A major loss rearranges you; might as well be open to a different shape.)

Monday, November 23, 2009


Thought I'd try today to think about what I'm grateful for that is a direct result of losing my husband. This is a little thought experiment designed to see what happens when you take the worst thing that could happen to you and try to make it into something really lovely and grand and life-affirming. People always talk about the good, the growth, the spiritual awakenings that can arise from loss. Can I find good in the death of a good man? Of my good man? Can I find something good and special lurking here in the darkest room of my existential home? Is there a diamond or two to be found amidst the ashes of Ken's death? You undoubtedly know already, as I do, that the answer is indeed, yes.

Charles Dickens wrote in Great Expectations, "...suffering has been stronger than all other teaching...I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape." While I would give anything to return to the less improved, ignorant, but non-widowed version of myself, I take this moment to salute the sorrier, more broken, but slightly wiser me.

Today, I am more satisfied with the elements that make up my life. I no longer beat myself up about finding purpose or not somehow being "enough". Reading a good book under my warm covers. Replacing my furnace and installing new heating ducts...I mean, a warm home is really something that makes me happy. Volunteering my time to a good cause. Speaking my truth in the hope that it can help another. My yoga class. Dinner with my kids. Raking. Sitting at a swim meet all day long. Going to my college reunion. Walking around town and always bumping into someone I know. Feeling bad and getting over it. Trying hard. Contributing where I can. Laughing with friends. A phone call with my sister or brother. Dreaming. This is happiness. I get it. I'm lucky just to be here. So many people aren't anymore. My favorite person isn't here anymore.

Today, I worry so much less about the future. The apocalypse already came and went for me, and here I am. Bad things WILL happen, never fear, just brace yourself, and enjoy it all the more when there's nothing much to report. Peace and happiness lie in the everyday moments when crisis is either so far behind you that you can't really feel it anymore, or so far in front of you that you can't even imagine what it might be made of next time.

Today I know that even though I was tremendously unlucky to lose Ken so soon in our married life together, I was also incredibly lucky to have spent 15 years of my life with him. Incredibly lucky. Fifteen years is a long time. For 29 years I lived without him, and when we met, it was as though finally I had found the person who understood me and who I understood in a complete way that felt just right in all the most important aspects. I'm tough. I managed without him all those years, and here I am again without him, but this time, I have everything he gave me, including our two children and his family, where pieces of him reside. I'll never be as alone again as I was before he came along.

Today I am more compassionate. While I might not win any contest for being the kindest, sweetest, least confrontational woman you know, I do understand better now that we are all flawed, we are imperfect, we are bundles of impulses, chemicals, circuitry, conditioned responses. We try, we fail, we succeed, we screw up badly, our bodies or minds get sick, we are angels, we hurt and we rise again and again until we are silenced. We're all dying, but we all get to live for a time. It's short, even when it's long, it's just a moment, but somehow, against all odds, we're here.

Today I know beyond a doubt, and after watching my late husband suffer from cancer, good health is precious. If you feel good, don't just do it, revel in it, honor it, and do what you can to sustain it. Start small if that's all you can manage...drink more water, take a few more steps each day, keep on searching for your own path to better health.

So that's my short list of goodness arising from my loss. Greater general satisfaction. Less worry. A sense of being lucky. Greater compassion. Gratitude and great appreciation for good health.

"...suffering has been stronger than all other teaching...I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape."


What has suffering taught you? What have you gained from your most difficult experiences? Make a list. Write about it. Find your gratitude.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Loss Can Make You a Little Crazy!

Writing about loss isn't about dwelling in pain or staying stuck. It's about releasing deep feelings so that you can move forward. I write this Heartbreak Diary of my own publicly, to encourage others to write about their feelings. My goal is to introduce as many people as possible to the idea that WRITING ABOUT FEELINGS IS HEALTHY. It's not necessary to write a public blog, or even share your words, although if that feels good, do it. Writing about feelings is simply an effective, free, easy method to improve both emotional and physical health. Your body needs exercise. Your emotions do too. Write it out...you'll feel better.

Loss has made me do some crazy things. In trying to regain balance, I've teetered, sometimes too far in one direction or another trying to find a steadier path. Today's exercise is called "WHAT WAS I THINKING!!!"

Has your sense of loss or struggle ever driven you to do crazy things? Has it put you off kilter? Have you tried to right yourself using less than balanced methods? Have you had unrealistic expectations? Have you tried some crazy shit? I bet you have. (Or if you haven't, maybe you should!)

WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!!!? Write about it now.


What was I thinking when I left my young children with a babysitter, took off for the weekend a year after my husband died, drove four hours from suburban Chicago to rural Southwestern Wisconsin, imagining that a divorced organic foods activist that I met on JDate, who lived on a remote farm with two cats and life restrictions caused by environmental illness could be my next great husband?

What was I thinking when I imagined that tall, handsome "Ben", who confessed early in our relationship that he often "flamed out" on relationships quickly, that his father was married six times and possessed no moral compass, and who protested all too frequently that he "did not want to run away" from our relationship, could be my next great husband?

What was I thinking when I imagined that a law school professor who talked bitterly of his bad 20 year marriage, and spoke disparagingly of his own grown daughter, could be my next great husband?

I'll tell you what I was thinking....I was thinking: I had it so good with my great husband that when he died I couldn't imagine how I would live without all the good energy, spirit, intention, and love that he gave me on a daily basis, so in my struggle to survive my loss, I had to pretend it would be easy to do it all again, and quickly.

That's what I was thinking.

Now, what were you thinking?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Toleration, Sufferance, Endurance

Toleration. Sufferance.

Patient endurance, especially of pain or distress.

Feel like bursting out of my skin.
Maybe I already have,
And there's nothing left.

Can't stand it anymore
This uncomfortable spot.
Sometimes too cold, sometimes too hot.

How long do I have to live this way?
How long must I wait?
Itching. Painful. Sore.
Edges raw.
Healing takes infinitely longer
Than I knew.
But then,
this is my first major catastrophe.
It hurts everywhere
I am exposed.

I'd give anything to be elbow to elbow with you again.
In quiet consultation, head to head,
Your steady hand on mine.
Two worldviews meshing.
The tight fit.
The safe zone.
Our place.
The length of you covering the length of me.

No more.

Endurance. en·dur·ance
1. The act, quality, or power of withstanding hardship or stress: A marathon tests a runner's endurance.
2. The state or fact of persevering: Through hard work and endurance, we will complete this project.
3. Continuing existence; duration.

But truthfully,
and, also,
I like myself.
I love my kids.
I like my house.
I like this world.
There's more to see.
There's more to write.
I still have an appetite.


What are you tolerating? What is uncomfortable? What must you endure? Take 5 minutes and write about it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's too painful? Write about it.

I don't think anyone would argue that there are certain activities known to be good for your health, like aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, swimming, or stretching. I'd like writing to be added to the list. Research has shown that writing 15 minutes a day, about how you feel, promotes mental and physical well-being. If you've suffered a loss, it can be really cathartic to put your sad, angry, bitter, resentful, mournful, disbelieving feelings into words.

And who would argue that sometimes doing healthful activities can be painful? Ever run a 5K? Ever tried standing in the warrior pose for a couple of minutes? Ever stretch out your hamstrings? Ever try to sit still and meditate for 20 minutes? Ever do a series of squats and lunges? All of these activities can be pleasurable as well as so difficult you can't wait until they're over and you can go lie down. But keep it up despite the pain and you get toned muscles, healthy lungs, a mind that knows how to be at peace.

Writing is no different. Fifteen minutes a day of writing can be a breeze or it can be painful. Either way, it's good for you. It's like exercise for your emotions. They need fresh air too. Open up. Let them out for god's sake.

This brings me to today's topic: What's too painful? Are you out of work? Did your spouse die? Is your knee in such bad shape you can't play tennis anymore? Have you lost your great body? Did your boyfriend dump you? Has your son stopped calling since he left home? Do you never get invited anywhere? Is your mother immoral?

Think about it. What's too painful to admit? What feelings hurt? Write it down. Putting your feelings on paper gives them shape. You can make a story out of how you feel. You control the story. You can change it.


What is too painful? It changes over time but I guarantee that whatever it is that's too painful to bring to your conscious awareness deserves some attention and respect. Sometimes respecting your pain is letting it hide for a while, only sneaking a look occasionally in the cover of darkness. If your pain is holding you back or causing you physical discomfort or making you feel uncomfortably sad, it might be time to open up a bit and let some of it out.

When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer in 2002 it was too painful to imagine that he might die. Being hopeful was best, by far.

After he went through a grueling six months of chemotherapy and his cancer went into remission, it was too painful to think that it might come back.

After his cancer came back, it was too painful to think about our bad luck, so I spent a lot of time trying to tell myself how fortunate we were regardless or our bad luck.

After Ken had his first stem cell transplant, it was too painful to think about the toll this disease was taking on our young family, so we tried to live as normally as possible. Normal life was receding, but it was too painful to let it go.

After Ken's cancer returned yet again, it was too painful to give up. So he went to Texas for a second and very high risk stem cell transplant.

After the second transplant Ken lived in his hospital room for six months with a series of complications and bad news. It was too painful to believe that after so many years of trying so hard, and being such a good patient, and remaining a loving, stable, and good-natured force for those he knew and loved, it was too painful to believe that he might still die anyway.

After Ken died it was too painful to look at families that had one mother and one father; to see intact families together; to watch fathers playing with their children; to look at happily married couples.

A year after Ken died, it was still too painful for me to accept that my happy married life with him was over forever, so I began dating, believing that the best thing I could do for myself would be to try to quickly replicate the life I had just lost.


I understand that I was incredibly, amazingly lucky to have found Ken Jacobson in this big, wide world, and that when I found him I loved him and he loved me back. I am moving beyond pain to an appreciation for just how charmed I was for fifteen years of my life so far to have known Ken, to have been his wife, to have had children with him, and to have raised those children with him for a little while.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Excitement in the Unknown

When I was younger I used to be so much braver about launching off into the unknown than I am today.

The death of my husband and of my married life has left me, at times, tentative, timid, with plenty of worries about my future. What will happen to me? How will I manage? Where am I going? What will happen when my children are grown if I am still on my own? Who is here for me? How can I re-start my career? Who the hell am I now as this single mother? If I let it, fear of the unknown will take right over.

Married life has many facets. One of them is predictability, at least after you've been married for several years. When I was married, our partnership was a certainty. At the end of the day, I could always count on Ken to come home and talk with me. My many concerns for our children were shared with him, as were the many joys. He understood me. I trusted him. We fit together. Married life has many facets. Happily married life is a true gift.

Life for me today is different. At the end of the day, it's me alone, and I don't really know what that means. I didn't plan for this. I'm not quite sure how to live life in this alien world in which I find myself. It's strange and uncomfortable for me to be without my mate.

So here I am in an unfamiliar place with less predictability than I had before where I feel much less certain than I used to be. There must be an opportunity in this mess somewhere!

What I'd like to do is try to recapture the joy of risk-taking, the excitement that lies in not knowing what will come next, the acceptance of uncertainty. What better time to begin to reclaim some of my old bravery than today, in the days following my 25th Northwestern college reunion?

I wouldn't have gone at all if my good friend Polly hadn't come up from North Carolina to attend, here in Evanston, where I've pretty much stayed since I graduated. In my college days I loved nothing more than going into a crowded room not knowing who I might meet, what conversations I might have, and what might happen next. I wrote a column in the college paper, anchored the news on the college radio station, went into Chicago on my own to watch theater and write theater reviews, took on internships in New York City and Huntington, West Virginia, had boyfriends, made new friends all the time, lived in different apartments, studied a wide variety of subjects, never really thinking about security, safety, stasis. So why was I stalling an hour before our class party reunion reconsidering whether or not I should go? Why was I cleaning the kitchen instead of getting dressed?

It was that old fear of the unknown, every uncertainty and bit of insecurity rising to the surface. Will I look older than everyone else? Who will I know? What if I hate it and don't talk to anyone? What if I have a really BAD time?

Walking into the packed restaurant that held the class of '84, I felt that 20 year old self of mine emerging almost immediately as I took off into the crowd to see what I could see. I talked to total strangers, made meaningful connections to the past with people I hadn't seen in years, networked, laughed, listened, and told some of my own story. I felt connected, a part, together, like I belonged. I felt lucky.

How I would love to be able to summon more and more the sense of freedom and belonging I felt when my young adult life was in formation, when possibilities felt endless, where adventure and opportunity were right outside my dorm room door for me, and where I never expected to know what would happen next, only that it would be new and interesting, as opposed to frightening.

And so, I turn to writing to ignite the spark with a few key questions that you might want to ask yourself if you want to remember and act upon life beyond the predictable.


What do you know for sure? What are you certain about?

What unanswered question is most concerning to you now?

What do you like about the unknown? What don't you like about it?

Describe a time in your life when you let uncertainty stop you from taking action. Looking back was this a positive or negative event for you?

Describe a time in your life when you readily embraced the unknown. Remember everything...how you felt, what you did, what you said.


Writing just 15 minutes a day can make you happier and healthier, but only if you write about feelings that matter, only if you write about what moves you. Today, I want to remember that not knowing what comes next can be exciting, and very often it is. I want to accept uncertainty and let go of the idea that I need to know how everything will turn out in the end. I want to remember that even though a wonderful, dear part of my life is over, I can keep on beginning again and again. I can start again, even now, even here in the middle of my life.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Describe Your Loss in Words

Writing about emotional upheavals has been found to improve...physical and mental health...to reduce anxiety and depression, improve grades in college, and...aid people in securing new jobs.
from "Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions" by James Pennebaker, Ph.D


Writing has always been the way that I navigate through life. I naturally turn to a blank page to express my thoughts and emotions about significant events. Once these thoughts are on paper, they function as a way of organizing my internal experience; my own words become a personal map that indicates which direction I'm heading, and which route I might take to reach my destination.

I like to say, "Write it out, you'll feel better." And I mean it, at least over the long haul. Sometimes after writing it out, I feel a little worse for a while. But I do believe that when we write our truth, no matter how painful, we can move forward to new joys and new hope. I am writing my way through loss for everyone who has lost a part of their dream, but still believes there is more happiness out there and is willing to embrace it.

Almost four years have passed since my husband died, and I have just "gotten" it. His life is over. My life with him is over. I have spent the last few months coming to this realization through my writing. It has taken me more than three years to be willing to really look deeply at my loss, to more fully acknowledge it. Everyone is different and moves at a different pace.

You might try some of the following sentence completion exercises to see where you currently stand in relation to your own loss. If you do these same exercises in a few weeks or months, your responses will likely be different.

What moving forward means to me now:

1. Not being defined solely by loss, although losing my husband has become a part of who I am.

2. Being willing to take on new challenges

3. Accept that a new degree of loneliness has become part of my life for now

4. A sense of grounded-ness

5. A greater appreciation for the good I have

6. Acquired strength

7. A better ability to separate what is worth worrying about and what isn't

Life Before My Loss Was:
(Old Life)
a partner
a sense of security
a sense of rightness and solidity
theater, symphony, dinners out with my guy
hiking and biking
travels to look forward to with my husband
a father for my children
raising children with two parents
someone who is always there for me

Life After My Loss is:
(New Life)
me and the kids
the house
the bills
the unknown
a future alone?
helping others through their loss
appreciation for being alive
a commitment to writing

My New Road Looks Like This:

It's long, and I'm on my own.

I'm pushing and pulling at myself to keep going.

I'm scanning the horizon for someone to join me.

I'm open to interesting, new opportunities.

I want to rediscover the love of the unknown that I had when I was younger.

I can't see the end of the road, and I have faith in life's goodness.

I'm committed to a good journey, even if it sometimes gets difficult.

I enjoy having fun and meeting new people.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Crossroad to a Different Life

I am at a crossroad.

Down one road is my old life--the one that began when I met Ken. Down this road is the memory of a life once lived.

I'll never forget the day he buzzed up, walked the steps to my apartment, entered my world with his kind eyes, compassion, and soothing voice, and changed it forever. Three months after I met him, I wrote these words.

"I can't believe I've found you. My whole life feels transformed--everything softer, everything whole. I would have settled for less and thought I was happy. That's a scary thought. I think into the future. I imagine that we can have 50 years together and it sounds too short. I imagine you dying, and me never feeling quite as alone as I did before I knew you."

Just 13 years later, confronting the medical reality that he was almost certainly near death, we talked in his hospital room at MD Anderson's stem cell transplant unit. It was the end of four years of cancer treatment which began when he was 48 years old.

"I don't want to feel all the pain I'll be in if you die," I said. "What if everything falls apart?"

His simple reply:

"Sometimes it will feel like it's falling apart."

Those feelings have found their place for me in The Heartbreak Diary. Often, the only way I can relieve my pain and create meaning out of what happened to me, to the man I loved, and to our young children, is to keep on writing about how this loss makes me feel. My heart was shattered by Ken's death. The life I'd hoped to lead was taken away from me. I am heartbroken still, but the only way I can come to terms with it is on paper. In my everyday life, I keep putting one foot in front of the other, my children walk in the door looking taller than when they walked out, and though I'm moving forward, in a way I'm still living in the past. If I can write about my loss, I can keep on living.

No matter what type of loss you have endured, when you commit to keeping your own Heartbreak Diary you have a place to unload your sorrows. It creates a map made of words where your deepest feelings can be recorded to reveal their wisdom. It's like a roadmap out of sorrow to new hope.

No one can understand your own brand of pain as well as you can. You are the one best suited to honor your grief, respect your strength, pay tribute to your sorrow, and then watch as your words lead you to a new beginning. All you have to do is begin. Fifteen minutes a day. You need show it to no one.

I am at a crossroads. One road takes me back to the life I had before I lost my husband.

Ahead is a different road altogether: the road that moves forward, past the life-changing moment that was Ken's death. I want to believe there is more for me in this life. But it's hard. It's hard to imagine any kind of complete life without Ken. I'm going to have to be dragged by my hair, or under the chassis of a hooligan's truck down this new road. Only I'm the one who has to do the pulling and the dragging because no one else really cares what I do for the next forty years of my life. Like it or not, I'm like a pilgrim, a gold rush girl, a new immigrant crossing the sea, a colonist in a wagon heading West. This road has a new trajectory, (though from time to time it runs along the road of memory). So I stand here at a crossroads. One foot on each road. Pushing, dragging, propelling myself forward.


Moving beyond pain requires acceptance. Acceptance of what you've lost, acceptance of what you have that is good, and acceptance of a future that is unknown. What do you accept in your life right now?

I accept that Ken is dead.
I accept that my life with him is over.
I accept that my life as his wife is over.
I accept that I am a single woman with two children.
I accept that my children are my number one priority.
I accept that I have absorbed a lot of loss and disappointment.
I accept that my life has not turned out the way I had hoped.
I accept that it is very hard to find a good partner at this stage in life.
I accept that I am increasingly lonely.
I accept that I am lucky nonetheless.
I accept that I am in good health.
I accept that I must work hard to recreate my life.
I accept that I don't know what the future holds.


At a Crossroads

Moving into the future
without you is impossible
but necessary,
necessary to my existence
on this earth,
earth where you are scattered.
Once you were the most solid one
I knew here,
here where I must
move forward in pieces
on the unsteady ground
in the dark, alien landscape
you left with your light.

Light return.
Return me to a point
where I can at least begin,
begin to remember
I have my own light
that once brought you to me
where I stood
at a crossroads.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Me Alone

No one is coming for me. At least no one I can see right now. It's like I'm waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport for a long awaited adventure; I'm standing in the street, a little desperate, as my window for catching the plane grows smaller and smaller. I contemplate missing the plane altogether.

Once upon a time, we loved to go biking in Wisconsin, just the two of us on road bikes in the beautiful countryside of the Kettle Moraine. We were happy buzzing down the roads, endless fields of corn and soy beans growing beside us, red-winged blackbirds chirping on the wires. 

The stones on the road crunched and danced under our wheels until the time my tire blew out. There was nothing to do but wait for you alone on the side of the road with my lame bike while you rode yours all the way back to the house to bring back the car for me.

It would take a while for you to come back to me sitting there all alone on the dusty, quiet, lonely road. It was a lovely solitude knowing you'd soon be back. I could look down the black top and see you coming long before you were even in sight because you always came for me, patched my tires, heard my cries, saw my view.

You're not coming this time. The scared feeling I woke up with this morning is all mine to tolerate. I'm alone on this road as far as I look down.  I'm the one who's coming for me now.


Try this:

Imagine a moment in your life when you felt completely cared for by another person. What did he or she do to make your needs met, to make you feel secure?

Now remember a time when you made yourself feel comfortable, strong and safe in your world. What were you doing, thinking, and feeling?

What action can you take now to make yourself feel safe?

What thought can you hold in your mind to encourage and remind yourself of your own strength?

How does it feel to be here to take care of yourself?


Now I Will Be the One

I will be the one who is here
Now I will be the one who is
coming when I call now I will be
the one I depend on when
scared or sad or nervous or
inspired now I will tell my story
now I will speak aloud now I
will be heard now I will help
others alone in pain now I will remember
you now I will know you
are not coming for me
now like you did back then
now it's me not you anymore
now I know it's true it's me

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Respect Your Loss

It can be easy to find oneself lost in grief. Maybe it's even necessary at times to disappear into it altogether. If the magnitude of your loss is big enough, I think it's fair to say we might owe it to ourselves to give over to it for a time.

Let's look at the opposite of grief. What if I was newly fallen in love, or attained an important goal, or succeeded in accomplishing a great career move, or bought a piece of land to fulfill a long-held dream, or finally found myself a published (and critically successful) author? I would allow myself, and others would understand if I gave myself over to my newfound joys.

Don't our losses deserve the same kind of honor and attention? Turning our back on them too early before we've integrated their meaning can leave us cut off from important parts of ourselves.  It's natural to want to celebrate a win, but losses ask for our respect too. They are just as much a part of a life well-lived.

I think I might hear an objection. Are you wondering what good it does to dwell on difficulty? I am not asking you to dwell or to feel sorry for yourself. The request is to take a very small amount of time each day to reflect on what you have lost. If you are willing to do this, I believe that instead of being diminished by your loss, you will give yourself the insight to grow from it. You will fully realize the strength and power that can be released when you honor loss as much as you honor success.

Here's a question to ask yourself: How can I honor my loss? Spend a few minutes answering this question and see where it takes you.

I will honor my loss by not turning my back on it.

I will honor my loss by using the wisdom I've gained.

I will honor my loss by writing about it.

I will honor my loss by saluting my strength in surviving the loss of my husband and the father of my two young children.

I will honor my loss by trusting myself to take care of my family.

I will honor my loss by using it to help others as I write my way through it word by word.

Surviving your loss:
The most impressive
feat of bravery
I've ever achieved.
Neither willing nor ready
Not prepared or experienced.
Kicked, shoved, beaten down
to the hard, concrete bottom
of the base truth: one life is over.
Slept fitfully or not at all
on the cold, empty floor 
where I owned it all in disbelief.
Awoke to the sound of my own words:
I am still here,
ready, willing.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What Have You Lost?

It has taken me about this long, three and a half years, to be willing to look more closely at WHAT I LOST. After Ken died, and during his illness, I worked very hard to stay strong, and this meant and still means only tolerating the reality of my loss in small pieces. It was easier for me to tell myself and others that even though I had lost big, I was still better off than many others. Viewing myself as fortunate despite my pain kept me from falling to my knees when I had children who weren't all that much taller than my knees. Now that my kids are bigger, now that time since Ken's death has grown longer, I am more capable of acknowledging the magnitude of losing Ken.

What does your loss look like? Does that sound like an obvious question? Understanding your losses, acknowledging them, and giving yourself credit for surviving them, can help you move forward. Writing about your loss is a powerful tool for recovery akin to exercise, or meditation, or talking to a supportive friend or therapist. It is a tool you can use to improve your life. It can free you from the heaviness of pain so that after spending 10 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour a day writing about matters of deep importance to you, you can move on with your day, your goals and your plans. Making your thoughts visible, makes your own wisdom available to you. Devote 15 minutes a day to healing your loss through writing. Keep a Heartbreak Diary. Write it out. You'll feel better.


Can you "play" with the concept of loss? I think so. What does your loss look like? Describe it for one full minute, whatever comes to you, sensical or non-sensical, let's go:

My loss is a wall that cuts me off from the rest of the world.

My loss is a red light flashing on my head that screams: "Look at me, I'm a widow."

My loss makes me feel unlucky, unhappy and lonely.

My loss is a dream that more and more becomes my reality, but it takes a long time to wake up to this new life and accept it.

My loss won't break me, won't kill me, won't beat me down.

Let's "play" a little more. The flip side of loss is gain. What have you gained through your loss? Give it another minute and see what you come up with:

I've gained a sense of fearlessness because I know that loss can be managed.

I've gained a sense of resignation -- Aha! Life can be very cruel and there's nothing I can do to change that. I have to accept that.

I've gained a willingness to tackle more challenges because I have to, because it is necessary, because I want to.

I've gained a large, encompassing sense of peace.

I've gained a better perspective.


I get it now.
You are really gone.
Grasping your infinite absence:
Like trying to understand
We're part of the Milky Way
While we stare at it overhead
On the darkest of nights.

You aren't coming back to me ever
Even if I hold your memory like a baby,
Even if I never stop writing you onto these pages.

And you are never leaving me either.
I can't write you out of me
Or find you when I pin my hopes
On the wrong guy over and over, I try.

You're staying here
Where you entered,
Where you launched
The gentlest, most peaceful takeover in the history
That continues word by word.

In the darkest night I am
Always alone now.
You are everywhere and nowhere.
I am lost in your magnitude
As I have been since the day
You crossed my threshold
And the night you crossed yours,
Never and completely disappearing.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

How to Tell if You Might Benefit from Keeping Your Own Heartbreak Diary

1. Your friends look off uncomfortably into the distance as you describe the barren reality of your life, again.

2. Your feelings chase you around without stopping, wake you up early, or prevent you from sleeping.

3. You've lost big or you're a big loser, take your pick.

4. You're trying really hard to accept the way your life has turned out but you're still not quite there.

5. You believe that the only one who cam make your life better is you.

6. You want to know the answers that only you can give yourself.

7. You believe it's possible that your own words and thoughts when expressed have the power to change your current circumstances.

8. You just need a place to bitch. You realize that a blank page may be a lot more forgiving than your friends and relatives.

9. You've lost a spouse, a child, a parent, a job, your confidence, your home, your income, your dream, your pet or your center and you'd like to feel better than you do right now.

10. You'd like to try what research has proven to be true: expressing your feelings in writing, (even if no one ever reads your words, even if you throw out the pages after you write them,) can improve your health and well-being.

You can write your way through loss to a better place. Want to give it a try?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Writing as Medicine

Why oh why should I continue to write about the effects of Ken's death on my life?

After all, it's been three and a half years already. Isn't it time to live in the present, to launch purposefully out into the future? Wouldn't it be better to just stop thinking about it? Isn't it time to just MOVE ON? Turns out, I have no idea what moving on means. I put one foot ahead of the other. I have moments of joy and glee and good humor just like the next gal...maybe even more than the next gal, depending on who she is. I turn the calendar at the end of every month. I make goals and accomplish them. I am open to the goodness that exists. Yet still, I am compelled to keep on expressing my feelings about losing my husband.

Writing, as it happens, is an effective, useful way to recover from a personal trauma. Dozens of studies conducted over many years by James Pennebaker, Ph.D, a research psychologist from Southern Methodist University, have shown that writing about your troubles can improve your health and emotional well-being, reduce anxiety and depression, and even heighten your immune function. Proven: writing can help you heal.

I have written steadily about Ken's death, and before that, his four-year illness, since 2002. Our children were just three and six years of age when he was first diagnosed with cancer. He went through multiple rounds of treatment including two stem-cell transplants, one of them requiring that he live in Texas for six months with me going back and forth between a critically ill husband and my two small chidren back in Chicago. At the end of all that treatment, he died from complications due to his transplant. Despite this huge, on-going, long-term, major stressor, I have remained remarkably healthy. I believe that writing out my pain, keeping a Heartbreak Diary, is one of the primary reasons I have stayed so healthy after losing so big.

Three and a Half Years and Counting (Slowly)

What moving forward from Ken's death means to me after three and a half years:

Not being defined solely by what I've lost (although it remains a huge part of my identity).

Beginning to be willing to take on new challenges.

Time to admit that I might find another partner and I might not. Stop obsessing about it.

Accepting that loneliness is a sometimes part of this new life.

Acknowledging the great strength and sense of groundedness that I've gained through this hardship.

An ability to not worry as much since nothing else even compares to living through Ken's illness and death.

A greater appreciation for the good that I have.

The desire to help others who are in pain.

Grasping my role as a single parent and growing in confidence that I can take on what the kids need to the best of my ability.

Accepting that single people are rarely included in couple activities.

The deep understanding that life is finite.

The realization that I am still fortunate even though I lost the best friend I ever had, the person I loved more than anyone else ever, the one who I trusted completely, who made me laugh, whose perspective I understood, who I had chidren with, who I lost three and a half years ago.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


checking email checking email checking email
checking facebook
I'm a widow I am involuntarily single
calling friends
checking email
looking for jobs I'm not ready to take
checking facebook
worrying about money
worrying about my kids
checking email
checking facebook
feeling unworthy
feeling worthy
looking for jobs I'm not ready to take
checking email
checking facebook
reminding myself that I'm OK
I am a widow I am involuntarily single
checking on people who aren't OK
trying to contribute
checking email
checking facebook
growing older/feeling better/getting stronger
kundalini yoga
toning muscles
staying healthy
call my sister
call my brother
write it down
write it all down
men are not on my list of obsessions
men do not appear on this list
checking email
checking facebook
call a friend
tone my body
do some push ups
write it down
fix the house
checking email
checking facebook
check the answering machine

Friday, September 04, 2009

I give up

I give up. I declare it here and now. I am giving up my obsessive pursuit of a new soul mate, a new partner, a lover, a new man to share my life with. It's too hard. I've tried. I've spent more nights than you want to know looking at pictures and reading profiles and driving into the city or meeting at Peet's for coffee with hope in my heart. I give up.

When Ken died, I couldn't think about the magnitude of my loss. I still can't, really. I could barely let myself think of that real man, that warm-bodied, soft-hearted, intuitive man with whom I shared a world-view, a good laugh, children, ..a bed, a life.

Instead, I had to skip over all the memories of our life together, my romantic marital dream, and try to imagine that I could just have it all again with someone different. How could I live without it? I had defined my objective: I will not be alone in the prime of my life, I will not be sexless and partnerless and alone.

Oh sure, if you dared me, I'd have a permanent status report on Facebook that would scream: Doesn't anyone know someone for me? I don't want to be single. I want to have a partner.

But no. I give up. And I open myself to what comes next whether it's watching Madmen alone at night after the kids go to bed or making it to the NYT bestseller list and launching a new career. I turn my back on the dream I had that I could have again the dream I once had which was the life I had once with Ken Jacobson.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More than three years have passed since Ken died. I can finally say that I do feel better and that my life is somewhat less defined solely by what I have lost. For the first time in a long time, I have moments of complete happiness. Losing Ken has changed my perception of life forever. I now truly understand that even those things that feel "forever" like home and family and good friends and good health are actually temporary gifts that only provide us with an illusion of safety and security. I won't knock the illusion, but I don't believe in it anymore. Instead, I believe that it's incredibly important to know what you want and reach for it. And when you get it, love it now, because whatever "it" is, "it" will be fleeting. I've also learned not to be as afraid of losing anything. If I could lose Ken, and still come out OK, I can take anything. I'd rather not have had the lesson, I'd rather be afraid, but it is quite a gift that I accept anyway.

I wish that Ken could still be here because I know the world would be better with him in it than with him gone. When I think of my sister and brother and their families, all the Jacobsons, and all the great friends I have who have helped me through, I am incredibly grateful for their continued presence in my life. That won't be forever either.

I have learned so much from going through illness with Ken, and from the intense suffering caused by his death. But I know that ultimately I learned the most by being so close to him, by being in his orbit, for 15 years. I wish I could have been all that I am now with Ken. I wish he could have seen how I've grown to understand that almost nothing is worth worrying about, and that life is meant to be appreciated in every moment. I understand more now. I am more compassionate. I am less hard on myself and others. I worry about very little anymore. And damn it, now that the kids are older, I have had more time to take care of myself and I've become fit in a way that Ken never got to see. I know he would have appreciated it though! But I do wish I could have given him this better self that I have developed, ironically, through the suffering caused by his death.

There is never a day that goes by when I don't think about Ken, or at least try to think a little like Ken. He was the most evolved person I've ever had the privilege to love. Sometimes I used to think he was too perfect. And sometimes that pissed me off.

The worst consequence of his dying is that he left Natalie and Alec without his guidance for the rest of (most of) their lives..and worse yet, they are stuck just one parent...with me.

But lucky for me, in his perfection, when he left me behind, he truly left me nothing but good. Ken was a gift, he possessed incredible gifts of compassion and understanding. And I intend to pass that gift around. I won't do it as well, but I'll keep trying for as long as I'm lucky to live.