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.

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.