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, November 11, 2011

Funny, but the idea of No Closure has given me some closure.

They've had a rather stunning effect on me, those words I heard on the radio when Nancy Berns was discussing her book called, Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us.

The words bear repeating because I think they are incredibly wise. It's just taken slow me a long time to get it: You don't need closure to heal. You don't need closure to heal. You don't need closure to heal.

These words have given me an enormous sense of peace and permission to enjoy my life, feel happy and content, AND to hold on to the vast and unending sadness that is the loss of my husband Ken. Adults who have lost something really big and important in an untimely fashion, like a husband in mid-life, for example, become re-made; the structure of their life disintegrates, the expected shape rearranges,  and slowly they rebuild. What comes gushing out of the pipes of security, safety, control, and certainty, trickles over time into a pool of perspective, peace, gratitude and acceptance. It sits there shimmering. You can soak in it. It can really be quite lovely. Until you start thinking about how you got there...how everything had to be destroyed before you finally let yourself swim.

But, it's OK. I lost my husband. I can't believe it happened to me, but it did. I can't believe I'm a single mother in a great big world doing all this on my own. It's simply horrible that he's not here, particularly for our children. I've grown so much. I've learned so much. The most important thing I've learned in the last few weeks: You don't need closure to heal.

It's like a mantra to me, and I wonder if it stirs others who struggle with the complex and contradictory feelings of hope, sadness, guilt and renewal that arise when one is ready to move on from active grieving. Here's how those words make me feel:

It's like after the structure of my life tumbled down and then amidst all that chaos the rebuilding had to begin immediately, if not slowly, and then finally, finally, that huge amount of dust that got stirred up and landed on every available surface, settled. Oh, once it settles, it's so much easier to breathe. There's more work, there's more clean-up, there always will be. Everything just looks better. Thanks Nancy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

You Don't Need Closure to Heal

A widow friend of mine recently mentioned a new book about grief (which I haven't yet read) called Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us by Nancy Berns. The author was speaking on NPR recently and her final words were: You Don't Need Closure to Heal.

How I love these words!  You Don't Need Closure to Heal. These words explain so much to me. They explain why I sometimes doubt my contentment when I can still shake my head in disbelief that Ken actually died. They explain why I can still become sad in the fall, the time when Ken began his decline to death, when hope and dread and stress swirled around me and all of our family.

You Don't Need Closure to Heal. These words help free me from guilty feelings of leaving Ken behind to live my own time-limited life. They help me understand why today I am a stronger, better person with a surer sense of right living -- even though I owe so much to the man who isn't here to reap the benefits of my improved self.

These six words give me permission to feel happy, to grow, to enjoy life and to honor and respect what I've lost with a gentle bow of reverence.

And for all the people who I imagine might think: your husband died in 2006 so get over it -- now I have six words for you: You Don't Need Closure to Heal.

I hope the rest of the book matches the wisdom of those six words. To hear the author, Nancy Berns, a sociology professor at Drake University, talk about the concept of closure, copy and paste this link to your browser: http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2011/10/17/closure-the-rush-to-end-grief-and-what-it-costs-us/

Take a few minutes to respond in writing to those six words: You Don't Need Closure To Heal. What do they mean to you, right now? And by the way, do you have a journal for writing down your thoughts about grief? If not, try it. It's just one tool for finding your way back to life.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

When Grief Fades

When my husband died almost six years ago:

I could not imagine how I could possibly ever be happy again.
I felt like a loser.
I felt extremely unlucky.
I was scared, anxious, worried, sad, confused.
I felt out of place and out-of-sync with others.
I felt desperate to recapture my old life --and this, an impossible task.
I felt alone in the world. 

Six years later, I find that grief has FINALLY taken the back seat to living. Here's what it feels like at the beginning of this new phase of life after major loss:

I feel so much more aware of how lucky I am to be alive.
I am far less likely to get aggravated or stressed out about daily living.
I am more appreciative and less critical of my own performance and contributions.
Surprisingly, I have become a more hopeful and positive person, despite my incredible back luck!
I have more faith that I am living my truth -- liking what I like--doing what I am supposed to be doing.
I am more open to the unknown and less attached to control.
Sometimes I still feel alone in the world, but, as when I was a much younger woman, I enjoy my own company.

And, yes, if I am going to reveal all the feelings that surround the idea of "grief fading", there is also some guilt, some sadness, and some concern: guilt that I am still alive and he is not, sadness to move forward into a territory where the loss of my incredible husband no longer dominates my world, and concern for how I can continue to honor him and keep his memory alive.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Write a Letter to Your Dead Spouse

It's an obvious exercise, but it's a good one. If you want to know what you're thinking and what you're feeling, writing is one great way to figure it out, and writing a letter to your dead husband or wife can be an excellent way to put it all out there. After all, who was once your most trusted friend? Who did you talk to about your most important thoughts and feelings? Well, you can still do it (although, sadly, it will be entirely one-sided.) Never mind about that.

Here goes:

Dear Ken,

It has been 5 years and 8 months since you died. Such a long time ago. It feels different today than it did a couple of years ago. I'm not sure how I feel about the distance that has grown between us -- the distance of years, and time, and experience -- my years of living while you have been dead.

I used to spend so much time wishing you were still living on this earth, still my husband, still a father for Natalie and Alec, still here to share a certain life we had made together. I wished that what had happened to you and to us had not happened. I was really very afraid.

I am still afraid sometimes, but not nearly as much. I also know that I can't live in a wishful state, wishing for something that will never be. I've worked from the very beginning on acceptance. Acceptance has been my mantra so that I could go on living without you.

You feel so far away from me. I've had to make too many decisions without you. I've had to go it alone even though you were once my most trusted, most loved partner and friend. I've had to go it alone.

Sometimes I feel sorry for people who are lost and asleep, who don't realize that they need to live without imagining that there is a better, different, more interesting place to be than right here and right now.

Sometimes I am afraid that I can't keep you alive enough Ken. Whatever I can do, it's not enough. You deserve so much more but you got exactly what you didn't deserve. You got to die.

I'm lying. I do wish you were still here. But there is nowhere to go with that wish. Nowhere to go. It's like wishing for my own immortality.

I'm sorry that you aren't with me or your children anymore. I'm sorry that your story had to be a tragic one. I'm glad we chose one another from the moment we met. Thank you for choosing me. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for giving me your wonderful family and for making two amazing children with me.

We didn't finish our story with a satisfactory ending. I hated the ending of our story but the beginning was wonderful.

Goodbye for now Ken. I am so sorry to leave you.

Love, Jill


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

When Hope Becomes Nope

When Ken was first diagnosed with cancer I was 40 years old; our children were 6 and 3. It was a busy, full time in the life of our family. We were scared, yes, but we were full of hope because given the statistics, he was more than likely to survive. That hope stretched out for four years, even when the statistics started looking less and less in his favor as one recurrence then another invaded his body.

How did we express our hope? So many ways. We continued to travel, he invested in his work, we'd set off on our bikes with our little kids, my chemo-bald husband and me. We got a new dog. Ken was a coach for Natalie's soccer team. We envisioned a future still. We lived. We got the best medical care America could offer us and fought for it even when the insurance company tried to deny us.

We got a boat.

Yeah, we got a little aluminum fishing boat with a 15 hp motor. Ok, I'm all for hope, but why did we have to be THAT hopeful. I wasn't meant to have a fishing boat ALONE without my husband. Uh-uh, that was a couple thing. I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH A FISHING BOAT!

Yes, it was nice while it lasted,  tooling around on Whitewater Lake with our two little kids and our crazy Airedale terrier. Ken tinkered with the motor showing Natalie and Alec how to steer the boat while I pointed my nose into the air, taking in the cool breeze, fully enjoying the ride. I saw parts of the lake that I never got to in our canoe or while swimming. Speeding along with other boaters reminded me of my own adolescence going to cottages with my friends in Ontario on rocky Georgian Bay or Muskoka where we'd spend days (and nights) maneuvering through the shoals, hanging out with boys under the stars, or just kicking back with water below and sky above. A motorboat felt like freedom, felt like fun, felt like good times, felt like youth.

Today that boat we bought with hopes of enjoying it for years to come sits on the dock of a house on a lake, a house that reminds me of better times and happier, carefree days with a sunny future with my husband, who was more than happy to drive me around in a boat. The boat, motor and all, now sits on the dock, on land,  no matter what season it is. In the winter it fills with snow and ice. In the spring, it thaws out. In the summer, well, this summer it has grown a nice little coat of moss inside, there are dandelions growing in it as well as a weed that looks a lot like parsley. The seat is covered in black dots of mold. It's a relic of times past. It's a shame.

Sometimes hope becomes nope. That's just the way it is. I'm not telling this story because I feel sorry for myself. I'm telling it because sometimes what you hoped for doesn't happen. Sometimes there is evidence. The evidence tells a story. You might want to tell that story. Why? Because it can help you let it go.


What object or place reminds you of hope that turned to nope? Take 5 minutes to write about it.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Moving Beyond Grief: The Final Hurdle

Yes folks, it's true. When you finally feel as though you've recovered from losing your spouse, you might just have one last hurdle to jump.

You can tell yourself that you feel better, that you're no longer drowning in grief, in fact, you just might feel, like I do, more fully aware of life's gifts than ever before, but still, at the base of it all lies your dead husband, the one whose death sucked all the air from your body and left you flapping in the wind like a dry husk. He's always there, always there. He's always dead. He's always never coming back.

I don't know how long it's been for you since your spouse died. For me it's been five and a half years. What I want to say is: "I feel better now."  Or "I don't wake up everyday feeling like crap anymore." Or "Some days I don't think sad thoughts about Ken at all anymore." Or "I'm thrilled to be alive and to see what happens next." Or "Fear has finally left the building."

It's really amazing when you get to this point, but it's kind of hard to fully embrace it sometimes. I'm wondering if this is the final hurdle to completely overcoming the loss of your spouse -- when you can admit you're OK without him or her, you've made it, you're happy again, life is good --and you don't feel guilty about it anymore. I'm not sure I'm there yet, but I'm closing in on it. Perhaps another sign of vaulting over the final hurdle is when you can say "I feel happy again" and you don't feel like you have to add something like: "but, of course, I'll miss him forever and it will always be terrible that he died."

I'm wondering if when we allow ourselves to fully grieve, to take the time it takes you as an individual to do what you need to do to process your loss, perhaps then it is easier to cross the final hurdle. Can you picture yourself leaping over it, arms raised high in a victory leap? I can see myself there now, or almost nearly there.

I fell so many times along the way. I was filled with fear, anxiety and pain. I was envious, sad, jealous, bitter, confused and misguided. I wrote about it. I talked about it. I got help. I figured out how I needed to live through it.

I couldn't envision reaching this final hurdle five and a half years ago. I thought I would never want to be in a place where I could be happy without Ken. In fact, I believed that getting to this point would be impossibly difficult and impossibly sad and horribly dismissive of Ken's life and what he meant to me. I also felt, way back then, that I didn't want to experience and feel and process all the grief that his death would bring my way. I knew it would take a long time, and I wasn't sure I wanted to spend years doing it.

But now, years of grieving later, I get it. Grieving fully brings your life back to you. That's why you do it no matter how long it takes. Eventually, you see the last hurdle approaching. Then you get ready to jump.


What does it feel like to imagine being at a place where you are happy again? Take 5 minutes to write about it. If you can't even imagine it, write about that.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Different Kind of Happiness

Driving down the half-mile, single-lane, dirt road with Lac Des Iles sparkling blue on one side and the  Laurentian forest shimmering green on the other, I couldn't help but feel wistful. Here we were arriving at the lake house built by Ken's great-grandfather, where Ken and his brothers spent time every summer, where Ken's mother spent her summers, Ken's grandmother and so on. And now we were traveling the winding country roads in rural Quebec toward this special place, but without Ken for the seventh year running.

Returning brought on a sense of longing for what is gone, for something lost that cannot return; a lingering, used up sadness. That's the way I'd been feeling leading up to this trip, to this place, one of my favorites of anywhere I've been in the world with its pure, cool, silky lake, its quiet, its enduring tradition. Why wouldn't I feel wistful heading toward a place that held such joy for Ken, a place I wouldn't have known without him?

But then, in just a day or two,  the beauty of it got a hold of me: the clear, black lake, the sweet air, the loons crying and the visitors arriving by canoe or breaststroke.  Ken said that memories of the  Lake could bring him happiness during his arduous stem cell transplant.

I realized in this heavenly place that I didn't want to feel wistful about my life anymore. I didn't want to keep longing for what could never be: the life I had with Ken.  In fact, as the days of this vacation went by, I felt very happy, perhaps happier than I've felt in years. Even my laugh had taken on a new, heartier sound.

I've shed another layer of sorrow and taken on a new dimension of joy, that comes from surviving loss and being grateful for what simply is. It could be so easy for me to dwell in the state of wistfulness indefinitely, but I don't want to anymore. Instead, I think I've found a different kind of happiness.

This different happiness doesn't have anything definite attached to it. It isn't predicated on any particular outcome or end goal. It contains no certainty about what comes next. And it isn't counting on everything going just right, or perfectly, or without a hitch. I don't even believe in that kind of happiness anymore.

Today I'm happy just to have a greater understanding of my own essential nature, and to follow it where it takes me. I'm happy to be open to experience and to be open-minded about what it means to work, to love, to serve and to grow.

When I lost Ken, I lost my fairytale, my happy ending, our nuclear family, but to my surprise, eventually,  I found a different kind of happiness that might just be fueled by uncertainty, surprise, the unexpected and the unknown. It took a while to get here, about 50 years. I'd like to stay for a while.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Why Widows Get Mad: A Do-it-Yourself Rant

We got screwed out of our happy ending. We were raised to fall in love, get married, raise kids, and grow old together. So much for that. We don't want to mow the grass, change the lightbulbs, fix shit, barbeque, do all the cooking, driving, worrying and planning. We don't want to sleep alone at night.

Widows get mad because we have a historical reputation of being kind of loser-ish. In some cultures, we might as well just throw ourselves into a good, hot fire.

We want someone to take care of us, buy us presents and flowers, take us to dinner, give us backrubs, tell us we're beautiful, tell us what great mothers we are, leave notes around the house for us, remind us that everything will be OK, brush off our fears.

We find it hard to raise our children alone. We find it hard to watch our children without their father and other children with their fathers, and we feel guilty that we can't be father and mother both. We get mad because we don't want to take the kids camping or build a bonfire or make something cool out of wood or butcher a fish. We are mad at ourselves because we are not men, especially when we have sons.

We are mad because sometimes mad is easier than sad, easier than acknowledging that little piece of us that will always be in mourning for everything that will never, ever, ever be. We get mad because no one can understand us, because no one wants to be us, because even though you all know how lousy our situation is you still expect us to get over it. We are mad because we know we have to get over it too but we doubt we ever will fully get over it, so get over it.

We get mad because we were so damn unlucky, our kids got cheated, and our dead husbands were even unluckier. We get mad because our future is less secure and more uncertain. Widows get mad because we want the future we had imagined for ourselves when we finally found the one.

Widows get mad because we never feel like we get enough help with our kids, our decisions, our finances, our daily to-do list. Widows get mad at people who complain too much about their perfectly good spouses. Widows get mad when you say that your husband never does anything anyway as if it's almost the same as not having a husband at all.

Widows get mad because they can't be angry if they want to be happy. Widows want to be happy. They can be. But sometimes they feel angry.


Ok. Your turn. Why do you get mad, widow? Take 5 minutes and put it on paper. Then shove the paper down someone's throat.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Lost Husband

I lost my husband
but unlike a cellphone
or a pair of glasses
I won't find him.
Unless, perhaps,
he shows up:
in my daughter's sweetness,
or my son's competitiveness.

He is missing; he won't be recovered
until I stand in the garage to ready the bikes,
water the plants inside the house,
or tackle the weeds with gloves and clippers.

I will never again live with his patience, his understanding
except for when I use
the good deal he left to me,
finally just keep my mouth shut,
choose kindness, be an optimist.

Never again will I see him
proud on Damen Avenue,
or perhaps in my repetitive dreams,
arising in the building where he invested his hope
where our niece lives now,
where we lived once, where we got married,
where I try to keep the dream alive,
even when it scares me
when I don't understand why I am alone in it.

He died at the Evanston Hospital
which is just down the street from our house.
Every time I go there
for an appointment, or to visit the sick,
or remember how I gave birth to our children there,
he wavers and shimmers
like a ghost, here and gone.

He will be absent at graduations, weddings,
vacations, family meals, health scares, proud moments,
storms, and floods.
Then I will say or someone will think
that you should be here, and you arrive.

In Santa Fe once we fell in love
with a painting we didn't buy.
I can still see it hanging over our mantel
where I still admire it
where it makes us happy,
where it never was,
where it never will be again.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Have I told you that my husband died?

I can't stop myself from telling people my husband died. Now what's that all about? Ken died five and a half years ago, yet I haven't reached the point yet where I can keep it to myself. I'm like a little parrot: my husband died, my husband died, my husband died. It's like a verbal tic; it has to come out. It's the fact that must be known.

I will say that I have improved in this regard. I rarely tell total strangers anymore while standing in line at the post office and I don't open my window and shout it out into the neighborhood at random moments. Still, if I were to just meet you, and if we were to exchange words leading into a conversation, you might find out that I am currently doing a lot of work for a brand new experimental library, I have two children, I love to write, and, well, my husband died five years ago.

My eyes are blue, my hair is gray, I grew up in Canada, and my husband died when I was 44 leaving me the only parent of two young children.

The other day I was driving around doing some work with three women who I've met within the last three months or so. The conversation turned to the tornado warning we'd experienced the night before here in Chicago. Well, here was a perfect opportunity for me to mention that when my late husband had been at MD Anderson in Houston for his second stem cell transplant in 2005, we were there for both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Just can't stop myself from bringing it up.

So here's the thing: I'm quite happy now. My health is excellent. I have a very lovely boyfriend, I feel like I'm doing a great job raising my kids, I love where I live, I'm doing work I enjoy. My friends and neighbors are wonderful. I am no longer in misery or drowning in grief. I'm having a good time.

my husband died.

It's as if I still can't really believe it happened.
When I talk about it, I keep some of our story alive.
He's dead, but what happened to us is so real and so present for me.
Don't you think for a moment when you see me happy that I have forgotten him.
He died. I remember that every day, again.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

For Ken on Father's Day, 2011

Hi Ken,

It's Father's Day. Yesterday Natalie and I watched Alec get on a bus to go to camp for the next 4 weeks. It was hard to let him go, but I know how much he enjoys exercising his independence out there in the Northwoods. He is a handsome, passionate, deeply intelligent twelve year old boy. Last time you saw him he was six years old. Now he's a vegetarian who believes human beings are really mucking up the planet in a selfish manner. I'm sure you could have recruited him to put rude post-its on SUVs with you. He likes to listen to Stephen Hawking talking about the universe and he likes listening to the Beatles. He soaks up facts and general knowledge like a sponge. Good in every subject. You guys would have had fun zoning out on TV sports and the IPad together I'm sure. The other day he was teaching me the ins and outs of catching and pitching. He's a good teacher. He's incredibly good at math and games of strategy. He's never forgotten your teaching him to play poker. Now he just needs to find someone to play with him.  Too bad Natalie and I cannot play chess with him or any game of strategy. He can beat us cold, every time.  We are no challenge. He has a really great sense of humor. Despises injustice. Seeks fairness. Gets mad. He loves me. He loves Natalie. Still gives big,  hard hugs. He has a hard time remembering you. What can I say? You would love him. He would  love you. I don't know how losing you has altered his life, but I know it has, forever.

Natalie? Your little ten year old girl? She's just as sweet and kind and easy as she ever was, and now she's 15. She's beautiful, gentle, patient, thoughtful, understanding. She has your temperament. But there's some funny little Lucille Ball-like comedian in there too. She's in high school Ken. Diligent, hard-working, responsible. Tutoring handicapped kids, doing community service projects, and active on the Green (Environmental) Team. Next year she's chairing the Soup Kitchen committee. She wants to be a teen facilitator at Willow House where I am helping to facilitate grief groups for children or adults. I bet she'll do that training this year. She also loves theater and did a program at ETHS called Theater for Social Change where high school kids get together to discuss difficult topics like racism within the school, and then act them out. She's brave Ken. She's also a leader. A quiet, behind-the-scenes leader. She knows who she is. She's mature. Guess what? She's encouraging me to compost. I stopped after you died, but composting lives on in Natalie's environmentally sensitive person. So I guess we'll start that up again. Natalie remembers you well. What can I say? You would love her. She would love you. I don't know how losing you has altered her life, but I know it has, forever.

We don't like Father's Day as much anymore. But we love you still, and always.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Twelve Tips for Widows Feeling Down

1. Ask someone to do something for you. I think people really like to help each other; often, they just don't know what the hell to do. Here are some examples:

Could you please clean my grill?
I want to go on a date. Do you know anybody?
Can I drop my kids off at your house for a couple of hours while I take care of a few things?
Hey, what are you doing tonight? Can I come over?
Would you come with me to this doctor appointment?
Will you help me figure out what's going on with my furnace?
Will you show me how to unclog my own toilet?

2. What is something you actually like doing all by yourself? Do it. Then do it again. I love sitting in a coffee shop writing in my notebook. I also like going for a solo walk around the neighborhood. Even though your spouse is gone, you can still like those things that you've always enjoyed doing alone.

3. Make a list of everything you've done since your spouse died that shows how strong you are.

4. Imagine how your situation could actually be worse than it is right now. I don't know if this kind of thinking works for everyone, but I find it helpful to know that I do not live in a mud hut in an impoverished, war torn nation.

5. Do you know anyone who really makes you laugh hard? Try to get together with that person more often.

6. Rent TV show series on DVDs. Start watching from season one until the very last season. Since my husband died,  I finished the Sopranos without him (we started it together), and then I moved on to Six Feet Under, Project Runway, In Treatment, The Gilmore Girls, Mad Men, and currently watching Friday Night Lights. If you find a series you like, it's a reliable way to be happily entertained. Plus, the people in the series start to feel a little bit like friends.

7. Pamper yourself. Take a nap. Get a pedicure. Get a massage. Come home early from work. Go shopping. Take an exercise class. You're lucky you're alive so let your body know you appreciate all of its hard work in your service.

8. Have a good book on hand at all times.

9. Remind yourself of who you were before you met your husband. You were somebody once without him. You're different now. You're still changing. But you did have a life before you were married and you still have one. It's just different. It will be different again in a few months.

10. If you are having really terrible feelings of despair, write them down. Keep a journal for this. You're going to need one. Writing out your deepest, darkest feelings can help you move through them faster.

11. Reach out to people. Many, many widows feel as though they have been forgotten by friends or by couples. I think there's actually some truth to this! We do get forgotten and we don't go out with couples the way we used to. But despite this, reach out to people. Feeling victimized doesn't make you feel better anyway. Having a change this big in your life can actually lead to your making new contacts, connections and friends. Give it a try.

12. If you've lost your spouse, you've gone through one of the most stressful life events you or anyone else will ever encounter. Be proud that you've survived. You are stronger now. Be proud of yourself. Keep doing things that will make you feel proud of yourself. A life change as enormous as this one is opportunity for growth, even if you can't even imagine that yet.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Growing Anyway

Call me irrepressibly optimistic or call me nuts, but if I'm going to have to be widowed, I might as well try to make the best of it. In the early days, months and even years after losing a wonderful husband or wife, hurt predominates. I was there for a long, long time. But I hope that for others, as it FINALLY is for me (5 years since being widowed), there will come a time when you can find and make good in the new life you have been forced to create. I had a very happy marriage and I used to feel guilty even acknowledging that I could be happy without my husband, but the guilt is gone now and I can just be happy. It feels wonderful.

Before Ken died, I said to him, "I don't want to go through all the pain I'm going to feel when you're gone." But, I've done it. I've worked it. And now after all my hard work is done, I am finally experiencing some of the reward.

I once read a description of "the dandelion child". The description of this type of child has always inspired me. A dandelion child is a kid who thrives even in the worst of circumstances--like a dandelion that springs up through cracks in hard, barren concrete. 

I used to think it would be unbearably sad to reach a place where I could feel good again. Weird, right? Sad to be happy. Back when I couldn't imagine it, I felt like being happy again would mean that I was negating Ken, leaving him behind. And that felt, at the time, impossibly sad. Today I know that having Ken die,  losing him, losing the dream of being a husband and wife raising our two children together, will always, always, be sad. But happiness can grow out of sadness if you let it.


Here are some good new things in my life that wouldn't be here if I hadn't been widowed:

I really and fully appreciate being healthy and I no longer consider it to be self-indulgent to exercise, go to yoga, meditate, eat good food, or get a massage. After seeing my once healthy husband suffer from cancer and cancer treatment, I completely understand that having a healthy strong body is an amazing gift and something to cherish.

I love making decisions and acting on them without having to always consult someone else. I feel more capable and powerful than I've ever felt in my life before because I have no choice but to make major and minor decisions for myself and my children all the time. It has been quite empowering for me.

I enjoy having a new man in my life who is not a husband. He has his own household and I have my own household and when we are together our time is not spent on domestic activities or chores. There is time for simply connecting and enjoying one another that isn't complicated by household tasks or shared responsibilities. Yes, we love helping one another out, but there is something to be said for time apart as well as time together, and even for time just appreciating what we are creating without necessarily knowing how it will all turn out.

I feel less fear in general. Now that I have survived one of the worst events that can happen to a person, I approach smaller obstacles with greater ease. This makes life so much more enjoyable and a lot less stressful.

I have more to give to others in wisdom, time and energy than ever before. Nothing matters more to me than my connections with others. I feel a greater desire to share what I know and to give what I can.

On the other hand, I am more comfortable being alone. I understand that loss prevails in the end, and I am learning to accept change and loss with more grace.

Take 5 minutes to write about the good you have discovered growing from your loss. Or, if you're not  at that point yet, write about the good you imagine or hope for yourself in the future. Or, if you can't imagine ever feeling happy again, write about that.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Help Wanted: Just a LIttle

I am 49 years old yet I had never filled my own car tires with air until today. In fact, I asked my 28 year old niece to accompany me to the gas station before I got on the highway with my kids to go home. I was nervous about my big, bulging back tire and I didn't know how to fill it. I imagined the flat I might get on the road, and how I'd be alone with my kids in the evening on the side of a Chicago highway if it got any worse. She showed me how to do it so that the next time I won't need any help at all. So thanks to her for not making me feel like a big idiot for not knowing how to do something so simple. Something that my husband would have taken care of had he been here.

Something else I don't know how to do? I hate machinery and I have a really hard time pulling the cord that gets the lawnmower started. I also have zero interest in maintaining the lawnmower from year to year, zero interest in shopping for a different kind of lawnmower, and if I never again touch another lawnmower I'll be perfectly happy. I'm in the process of completely eliminating all need of said machinery. Two years ago I took all the grass out of my backyard and replaced it all with low maintenance plants, trees and shrubbery. Front yard grass? Watch out. You're a goner in the next couple of years. Cause get what else I really don't feel like learning how to do? Growing grass in the shade. Just not interested.

I felt a little stupid today watching a bunch of relatives listen to me say that I didn't know how to put air in my tires. But when my niece so kindly offered to help, I looked at my father-in-law and said,

"Well, I do a lot of things all by myself."

Married people get to lean on each other all the time. If you're married (to someone with some degree of competence, initiative, pride, or kindness, not to mention love for you), you can partially eliminate whole categories of activities you have no interest in mastering from plumbing to cooking to planning trips to arranging classes and activities for your children. The social schedule? Your investments? Budgeting? Picking up your own underwear? Playing catch? Finding the leftovers in the fridge? Leave it to your spouse. He or she is good at it anyway. Does Mary need help with her homework. Your turn, babe. I did it last night. Johnny has a soccer game? I'm going out with the girls. Can you do it tonight honey? And, by the way, thanks for putting that chicken on the grill!

When people in a well-functioning marriage lose their spouse, they have to be responsible for so many things all by themselves that they never intended to do all alone, sometimes for years and years. Sometimes for the rest of their lives. Some of those things are very big and profound like dealing with your children's emotional highs and lows,  or guiding and advising them as they grow to adulthood, college selection, planning weddings, or facing frightening health matters or important financial decisions.

Some of the tasks you now have to do on your own are very small like making school lunches, driving your children where they need to go, moving a heavy object, unplugging a toilet, cleaning up a wet basement after a storm, showing up at school or sporting events,

or filling a leaky tire.

When somebody steps up to help with something very small, it's like a vent opening up in a lone self to let out some of the pressure that comes from living life widowed, from living or parenting on your own when you had intended to do it in a pair. This is a long and windy way of saying thank you to my niece for helping me with something small today. Many times small is bigger than you realize.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Feeling Better is Better Than Feeling Worse

I feel so fearless in these post grieving days. I feel taller, stronger, more self-contained. The intense sadness left me in this past year, left me alone with what's left of my life, left me alone with a whole new not improved but stripped back life, and amazingly, incredibly, I'm finding that it is enough. It's good. I'm happy to be here. I'm so happy to be here to be able to be a mother and a writer and a friend and a homeowner and a gardener and a traveller and a whole list of other words that describe experiences that I can have and roles I can play.

Five years ago, four years ago, three years ago, two years ago, I couldn't imagine feeling this way, I COULD NOT IMAGINE ever feeling good about life again back when I lost Ken, but one year ago the pain lifted and under it was a more grateful, less anxious, happier me who finds that I need less to be satisfied. I don't know...there's not much to fear anymore after the worst has happened and you've survived. I don't feel sorry for myself anymore. I feel sorry for my husband who died way too young and misses what goes on around here everyday. I feel sorry for people who are sick and struggling and in pain. But me? I'm happy to be alive.

In the back of my mind, I know that this pleasing state I'm in can change in an instant, but until it does, I'm enjoying myself.

So I decided a year ago when the despair miraculously (or should I say, after a whole lot of the hardest work I've ever done to swim through the muck of pain) lifted, I decided that I would just enjoy a year of feeling good. I'd revel in it. Embrace it. Treasure it. I took my kids to New Zealand, continued writing, started a new relationship, embarked on a major home renovation. It's been a very good year.

And OK, you can shoot me, you can call me a Pollyanna or a freak or some kind of deluded chick on happy pills, but I think my life is going to get even better in this next year and here's why:

I am finding work that I love to do, work that doesn't feel like work, that I believe can really cause positive change in the world. It's nothing huge and impressive, but in this last year I've found two different volunteer gigs that I believe in completely.  And what this tells me is that even though a part of me died when Ken died, (perhaps it was the part that believed in safety and security and fairytale endings) there is a new part of me growing today. It's reaching and extending into new worlds. I don't know where I'd be today if Ken were still alive, I don't know what I'd be doing or how satisfied I'd be feeling with my life. But I know that even though he left me cut and broken or maybe even because he did, from that place a flower is growing. It's just a flower. But it's pretty and I like it.

He was such a good man. I wish he could see me feeling better again.


Before I felt better, I went through a stage of feeling guilty about feeling better. Better is better without the guilt.

Are you lucky enough or have you travelled far enough to feel better after loss? Or do you feel like you'll never feel good again? Do you feel better but have a hard time admitting it because it feels disloyal to the one who died?

Take 5 minutes and write on the topic of feeling better...whether you do or not.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Here's Why You're Going to Be OK.

My neighbor Marguerite died on Monday of cancer. She was 57 years old. I didn't find out until Tuesday morning around 8 a.m. Two hours later I got in my car to go to Pilates class and blew right through a stop sign and almost crashed right into another car. I was able to stop about 2 inches before hitting metal. I wasn't thinking about the road I was on or the fast moving steel I was driving; I was thinking about how I had just seen Marguerite the day before, and how sad I felt to think of Rob at the very, very beginning of the long road of recovery from the loss of a spouse.

Rob and Marguerite were a very romantic couple, very obviously completely in love with one another. In the 15 years that I have lived across the street from them, I had only seen them display love, affection and contentment with one another. Ugh. How will Rob manage without his beloved Marguerite: gardener extraordinaire, gourmet cook, feisty business woman, full-spirited lover of life and woman of distinctive manner and grace?

I think Rob is going to be OK, and here's why:

He had a wonderful marriage and he knows it. He knows that he loved well and was loved well in return.

When Marguerite experienced a recurrence of breast cancer in 2009, twelve years after her first bout with it, I never saw either of them show bitterness, anger or denial. They were accepting and hopeful.

Rob knows how to laugh. He knows that perspective and humor can take the rough glass edges off of pain and sorrow.

He is already reaching out to others. He's open to the abundant support that is ready and waiting for him.

He knows that despite the incredible loss he's just experienced, he was incredibly lucky to have had a wonderful marriage.


It is painful for me to think about Rob being at the very beginning of his loss when I know so well how long the journey to renewed happiness can be. But at the same time, I feel like I just know that he'll be OK.  I remember very well how I promised myself five years ago that I would not let Ken's death destroy me. I knew I would have to overcome the loss of him and our marriage so that I could honor the life that I was so lucky to have.

What about you? Do you know that you'll be OK? How do you know it?

Take 5 minutes to write about why you know you're going to be all right. Even if you have doubts, this is the time to be confident. Remind yourself of your strength. Let your words remind you of your resilience.

Friday, April 22, 2011

How Loss Made Me Lucky

Does it have to take a tragedy for some people to love the life they have right now? I'm sorry to say that's what did it for me. It took the death of an incredible man, husband, and father to make me love more purely what's right in front of me.  I'm not proud of this, but it's the truth. My husband? He loved his life before he got sick. There are plenty of people just like him. But I was not one of them. So please forgive the rant I'm about to make. This is not a holier than thou speech. Because if you ever feel like you're dissatisfied too much, or complain too much, or aren't as happy as you should be, or feel stuck or purposeless, well, I can relate. I used to feel like that too often too, until I lost my husband and the dream of growing old with him, parenting our kids together, and pursuing our new life, as just a couple on our own after the kids grew up.

Sometimes we young widows and widowers just want to shake the rest of you with your intact families, your healthy spouses, your regular routines, and a big old list of complaints. Here's what we want to shout through a big megaphone:

This is it folks. This is what the good life is:  your to-do list, your kids who are great sometimes and annoying other times, your professional or domestic work, your vacations, your family trips in the car, your driving the kids around to their activities and sitting on the side of soccer or baseball fields, having your spouse there to help you, helping your spouse, the books you read, your warm home, your friends and neighbors, your plans for your children's or your own continuing education, your pets, the trees outside your house, your garden, your dreams for new possibilities, enjoying or making art or music, volunteering your time...that's what the good life is. It doesn't get better than that even if you're stinking rich or scary smart or imagine you could be doing something different, there's really nothing better than what's you've got right in front of you this minute, so enjoy it. Because there's no guarantee it will be the same tomorrow. In fact, it's all going to change, repeatedly.

As soon as I realized I could never replace my old great life, I made a commitment to myself that I would do my very best to remember how lucky I am right now. There is nothing better I could be doing right now and I am excited and open to finding out what's going to happen next.

When the worst happens, like it did to me, I gained the freedom of knowing that I can survive anything. When Ken died at 52 years of age with so much left to give to his family, friends and profession, I felt an imperative to love the life I have, that I'm lucky to have.

As a young widow, I would love you to know this without your having to lose anything at all. I wish I had figured it out sooner.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

You're Gone. You're Here.

I journal a lot about loss. The pain goes into the writing so the happiness and joy can exist out in the world. For me, writing has been my #1 tool for easing the pain of grief.

I don't care if I'm writing gibberish, random phrases, single words, stories, memories, poetry, fears or dreams. Getting the thoughts out on paper is what helps me. I just commit to sitting there with my journal, try not judge what comes out, and write for at least 30 minutes. Often one thought leads to another, and sometimes even poetry eventually comes out.

The other day I was thinking about whether or not I'm ready to "let Ken go". I was ruminating on how joyful it is to be in a new relationship, but how sad it is that Ken has to be dead and missing everything here in the world. I decided that whatever it means to let go of him, I'm not there yet. All that musing led to this poem:


I'm not letting you go
You are still needed,
still giving, still providing.
Still. So still.

I'm not letting you go
I could listen to you talk endlessly,
further, deeper, more.
We have movement
but he's got staying power

Still, I'm not letting you go
until we stop moving forward,
stop laughing,
stop talking.
I can't imagine it.
Still, it might happen.

I won't let you go.
I'll let him slip and fade
If that's what has to be.

You can stay. You can go.
We're moving toward each other
in a room, in a house, in a city
in a new life.

I'm with you
While I'm here in this coffee shop.
You're not here.
I'm still with you.
He's still with me too.

He's still.

You and me?
We're moving.
I'm going with you.
He's gone. He's staying here too.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

No More Boyfriends. Now I've Got a Manamine.

Ken died when I was 44 years old. This led to some early and compulsive dating caused by my initial grief impulse that went something like this: HELP. I CAN"T MAKE IT ON MY OWN. MUST HAVE NEW HUSBAND AND FATHER FOR MY KIDS AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.

After about two years or so that included many, many nights spent on Match.com, EHarmony, Green Singles, and J-Date, (Yes, I used them all, sometimes all at once) many hopeful yet ultimately fruitless meetings with men in coffee shops, a couple of very weird and not particularly satisfying attempts at an intimate life, and a couple of actual, though brief relationships, I got over the fantasy. First of all, my kids, who were 10 and 6 when he died, didn't share it. They weren't looking for a new daddy, they were still getting over losing theirs, one of the best men and fathers I have ever known. And I realized, in fact, that I was making it on my own. I didn't need to be SAVED.

This doesn't mean that I don't want a partner, that I like being widowed, that I've decided to give up on men, or even that I never want to get married again. Now, 5+ years after Ken's death, I've finally settled down into the life I have. This life, as of today, includes being with a man for the last 10 months. He's divorced, has two young kids, and we both have our own households that won't be merging any time in the foreseeable future. So what is he to me? The classic term is boyfriend. But come on. I'm going to turn 50 this year. Boyfriend sounds so high school. Lover sounds simply ridiculous. Partner is OK, but Mark isn't exactly my partner because a lot of our lives are lived kind of separately. 

Mark is my manamine. He's no boy. He's my man.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Widows Fear

I can remember it like it was yesterday: the heart-pounding, animal-like fear I felt when we found out that Ken had cancer. If anything is going to activate fear, there's nothing like a cancer diagnosis preceded by weeks of tests and not knowing the outcome. The doctor appointments, the scans, the x-rays, the diagnostic surgeries, the lack of control, put it all together you've got the perfect recipe for being scared out of your mind. That's just my story. For some of you, it was a call from the police, a sudden collapse in front of your eyes, a suicide, a quick and unexpected decline, or something else. Each one, I know, made your heart race.

I've come a long way from the day of that cancer diagnosis in February of 2002. I was 40 years old with a six-year-old and a three-year-old. I've had a lot of fear to wrestle down including: how will I ever survive, what will I do with my life, how will I manage everything, and will I spend the rest of my life alone. It's nine years after that cancer diagnosis which would lead to my husband's death in 2006. Interestingly, I notice that what I fear today is completely different from the things that scared me then.

Naturally, since I believe that writing is an excellent tool for processing feelings and moving forward in your life, the whole idea of What Widows Fear (and don't fear)  is today's writing prompt.

Take 10 minutes. Write about what scares you...what REALLY scares you...and what doesn't scare you. Just keep your pen going without thinking too hard. Try this exercise again down the road some time. I'll bet that your list will be different because when you work on your grief actively, you make progress, you change, and you grow.

Here's my list:

I am a little bit scared of power.
A little bit scared of sugar.
A little bit scared of emptiness.
A little bit scared of loneliness.
A little bit scared of nothingness.
A little bit scared of never changing.

I am scared of falsehoods.
Scared of phoniness.
Scared of meanness.
Scared of contempt.
Scared of bad choices.
Scared of big egos.
Scared of cruelty.
Scared of inhumanity.
Scared of ignorance.
Scared of violence.
Scared of more grief coming my way.
Scared of having to struggle.
Scared of the swift passage of time.

I am really afraid of cancer.
Really afraid of heart disease.
Really afraid of stress.
Really afraid of being overwhelmed.
Really afraid of poverty.
Really afraid of wasting my life.
Really afraid of not being loved.

I am not afraid of my life anymore.
Not afraid of silence.
Not afraid of rejection.
Not afraid of being on my own.
Not afraid of remembering.
Not afraid of remodeling.
Not afraid of lighting a fire.
Not afraid of downsizing.
Not afraid of moving.
Not afraid of writing.
Not afraid to speak my mind.
Not afraid to love.
Not afraid to be a mother.
Not afraid to try new things.

Your turn!  10 minutes of writing about fear (and not fear). Get it out on the table where you can look at it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

After the Fairytale, A Different Story.

Hey! I was reading that!
Once upon a time I was part of a certain type of family: we were a happily married couple with our two kids, a house and a dog. We lived in a neighborhood with other families like ours. We had a lucky partnership with a full future ahead of us. Together we would love and influence our children, return to our twosome when they left home, and then enjoy the gifts of later life.  It was the kind of family that I came from myself; the only kind I had ever imagined. A great classic tale.

But then the twist to the story (a horror story?) -- the big bad cancer wolf showed up at our house, started eating up the book, tearing away at the pages. He ate up the husband and father completely, but he spared the rest of us so that we could figure out how to write a whole new chapter.

How do you start a new family story when you're a widow and a single parent of young children? When you're married with kids, there are typically two different choices you have.  Either you stay married, or you give up on that and you get divorced. But when you're divorced or widowed, you have a whole slew of different options.

You could try marriage again. It's what many of us worked toward in our 20s, 30s and sometimes 40s back when we first entered the search for a partner or potential future co-parent. Yes, you can do that again, move in together, figure out how to blend your families, share, divide, sell, and rearrange the accumulated stuff every older adult has put together over the years. After my husband died five years ago, that's what I felt I needed to do to have a full and complete life once again. My kids need a father! I need a husband who lives here with me and shares my bed! I need it now! (My kids, however, were not so interested in reading THAT classic tale over again.)

Nine months ago, I started seeing somebody new. He has his own form of gobbled up family -- his was eaten alive by divorce, mine by death. Either way, our nuclear families have been blown apart. The story of each of our lives shredded mid-way through the book.

Suddenly, I'm not so sure about how it all ends...the story, I mean. Back THEN, before the wolf came around, I was confident I knew just what was going to happen. I liked knowing the ending. Since that wolf came around, though,  I have switched genres completely. I'm not reading fairytales at the moment.  Now I'm engrossed in a mystery. Surprisingly I like it. I have no idea how it ends.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How To "Trick" Grief

When you're in the throes of grief, you need a few personal tricks to keep on moving through the pain, especially in the early months and years after sustaining a major loss. We all have tricks we play, we just may not be aware of what they are. Joan Didion called it Magical Thinking. I think a little mental magic might be essential to the new widow or widower's survival.

I was partial to frequent lunch and coffee dates with sympathetic friends because they made me feel that I wasn't alone after Ken died. Through laughing, crying, eating and talking together on a regular basis, I forgot for a while that Ken's loss had the most immediate and long-term effects on me and my kids, on our little family -- that his death was my problem more than anyone else's. My sense of community was heightened through these frequent coffee shop stops at the same time that my nuclear family had been blown apart, and I had become less like others around me. Pilates and yoga classes made for a nifty trick because while my faith in a good life had been severely weakened, my body was getting stronger -- a strategy I highly recommend for its ability to bring on personal power during an otherwise powerless time. Then there was the rock I bought that had the word "acceptance"etched into it. I kept it displayed prominently in the living room, an ever-present visual mantra that sat there staring me down every day. Why the word "acceptance"? Well, death had come to town, this time straight to my door, and who was I to resist death, something as natural as birth and breath? This loss didn't make me special; it made me human.

I used pilates to strengthen my core, yoga to build mental clarity, friends to remind me I was still connected to something even as I was cut loose, and acceptance to move forward with grace, and even joy.

The whole "why me?" avenue was not a logical destination, for me. Instead, and surprisingly so, I found comfort in the stories of so many who had lost before me, and those who will follow -- in effect, every single person on the planet. Anger felt illogical to me; my internal argument went something like this:

Babies die. Toddlers die. Teenagers die. Young adults die. Middle-aged people die and elderly people die. People are born in mud huts in impoverished war torn nations, or in stuffy train cars to parents escaping to give them a better life, or in nice suburban homes with every comfort. My husband died at 52 after two high-tech stem-cell transplants and the best medical treatment science had to offer. It was the worst thing that could have happened to me and our kids, and yet it was our crisis to honor and memorialize and come to terms with and understand and share and deal with and ACCEPT simply because we are human. But I couldn't do it without my little tricks.

Ken possessed a nature that was one of the most calming forces I have ever encountered. Just sitting with him could lower your heart rate, just recounting a troubling tale with him could turn it into something of little importance, and just feeling his steady hand on mine reminded me that everything would be OK no matter what feelings roiled inside me. People would say of Ken that you always left a meeting with him feeling better than when you had arrived.

No wonder in his absence I found that I needed that rock that proclaimed "acceptance." It's solid, firm, reliable, unchanging. It has weight. I trust what it says. It doesn't waver. I know, it's just a rock, but I gave it the magical power to help me. I needed to believe something. For me that something was the idea of acceptance.  So what tricks do you have to get you through the wild ride that is grief? Acceptance is a word I grabbed onto like a zipline of a mantra that smoothed my way over the hills and valleys of life after loss.

There's an old oak library table in one corner of my living room. On it are houseplants, a collection of amethyst rocks, a fake Tiffany lamp which was my one and only purchase from a home shopping channel, and a collection of smooth stones from the beaches of Rockport, Massachusetts from one of many vacations there with Ken and his entire family.  On one of those beaches, some of Ken's ashes were scattered. Among those stones, I've placed the one that sits solidly and steadily and says only "acceptance." Nice trick. It's one that I have learned to do too.

Magic won't make grief disappear altogether, but a few good tricks can help us get on with living. Even when one life disappears altogether, there's still magic in the world, and you can be the magician that makes amazing things happen all over again.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Priceless Gift You Can Give To Your Children After the Death of a Parent

When Ken died, our children were little. I didn't want them to forget the memories that belonged to them of their father; not just the stories others would tell them about him, but their very own personal memories. So, night after night, in the days following his death, we'd sit together on one of our beds and we'd each tell one of our favorite stories of Ken. Natalie, who was 10 at the time, was the official scribe who would write our memories in a special journal. Alec, who was six, would struggle more with coming up with a memory night after night, but he did it, and now they are all written down for him.

Natalie told the story of what her dad sometimes did when he put her to bed:  he would take off his glasses and try them on all of her different stuffed animals. That was news to me, and I loved hearing it. Alec recalled that Ken would call him "my bestest buddy" and how they would play a wrestling game at bedtime that involved lions and cubs and a scoring system. I talked about the delight I would feel every time Ken would drive his old Saab down the alley toward our garage as the kids and me played in the park next door,  knowing he would soon be joining us there with his open arms and open heart wearing his long brown trenchcoat.

This ritual helped us manage the early, surreal days after Ken died. We'd all gather together on one of our beds, snuggle up, talk and write. We were connected by our home, our warm bodies, our memories and each other.

In the early days and months after the death of someone you love, you are not at all ready to let them go. You're barely ready to admit they are, in fact, gone. By getting your family together to write down the little and big things you remember and love about the person who has died, especially early on, you are accomplishing a lot of important work including holding the person close to you before you are ready to let them go, and valuing the memories they left in your care.

Natalie and Alec lost their father five years ago. While there are many different ways we can remember him, one of our favorites is to take out that journal of memories we wrote together so many years ago when we were raw and sad and grieving hard. Today we can read those memories with a lighter heart. We remember how hard it was back then. We see how far we've come. We're reminded of how what we did together as we wrote made us stronger.

As hard as it is to admit it, when children lose their parents at a young age, there are many important facts and intangibles they either will not remember or will never be given because of their father or mother's absence. By helping your children unearth and write down their authentic memories before they slip away, you are giving them a priceless inheritance that could otherwise disappear forever.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Relit and Realistic

Delighted now
Or should I say
After your ashes spread
I scattered
away from the sun.
Artificial, indoor light
bulbs burning all night long
through the winter
after you had gone.
Spring 2006 came on
like a dirty rat,
revealing everyone's bliss,
my empty, messy lot.
I didn't want to look,
didn't have the right lens,
needed a box with a pinhole
to take in the brightness
shining off the more fortunate.

Delighted now
Or should I say
Years of energy preserving
left me
flickering on and off
high and low
desperately working the bellows.
willing to be still,
accepting less warmth, less everything,
I invited in emptiness.

Delighted now
Or should I say
By your new love
that I stare at open-eyed
not believing
we will always be healthy
always be here
always be alive.
Delighted now.
Relit! Reignited! Revived!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Worst Thing My Late Husband Ever Said To Me

I don't remember what I did to make Ken say it. He was rarely angry. Never mean. So I must have been awful, critical and pissed off. I must have really been giving it to him good. I have no idea what I was upset about then, more than twenty years ago. We were vacationing in Puerto Rico. Steady Ken driving us around the island on the frightening, perilous roads where huge, lumbering trucks passed us as we approached blind curves. I can still remember how the drivers came right up on our bumper before lurching around to make the aggressive move past us. But I can't remember why we were fighting.

I imagine that I was angry. I imagine that I went on too long about who knows what now. I imagine feeling very entitled to my boiling anger. Then there was Ken with all that controlled calm. What did he know about intense emotion anyway? Uh, well, he was a therapist, so I guess he knew a thing or two, but he rarely displayed anger himself.

This time, though, he gave some back to me.

I wonder now what I did and said to make him strike back.

This I remember. I apologized for my angry words. I said I was sorry. I said, "I know I'm lucky to have you."

And he said this:

"Well, I'm not lucky."

I'll never forget it. It was the worst thing he ever said to me.


It's easier to remember all the great times in your marriage once it's over. It takes more courage to look at the rough spots. Take the halo off for a moment. What harsh words or fights did you engage in with your partner that can still make you cringe today? Spend 5 minutes writing about it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Let Your Grief Be Like a Storm

To get the value of a storm we must be out a long time and travel far in it, so that it may penetrate our skin and we be as it were turned inside out to it, and there be no part in us but is wet and weatherbeaten...

Henry David Thoreau

Your grief is not something to be judged or analyzed or compared. It may be understood by few or by no one. No, you are not taking too long, or dwelling on it, or selfish, or ungrateful. It is not your fault. Grief comes and goes. If you are sad now, you will get better. If you are joyful now, you will be sad with grief another time. Grief is as inevitable as snow in winter and rain in spring. It can ruin you. It can restore you.

When your grief comes, let it storm.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Who Will Be There For Me?

A really good friend of mine had a bad bike accident a week ago. It had started raining during the ride. While going down a hill, she started thinking to herself, "I'm going too fast, I'd better do something."

The next thing she remembers is her husband at her side crying while she lay in a hospital bed.

Here's what she said to me while convalescing at home from a head injury:

"You're married to this guy all these years. Something like this happens. I just NEEDED him so much."

That really got me thinking. First, I felt so glad and relieved that she has such a devoted, loving, good husband, especially at a time like this. But I also couldn't help thinking a few other things.

Of course, since this is The Heartbreak Diary where I hope to inspire others to write about their loss, I couldn't help but come up with a new writing prompt for you to try.



After losing my husband too soon, I don't know if I can:

Count on someone to be there for me if I ever become really sick or incapacitated.

Ever again allow myself to need somebody and to believe that they will be there. Because, hey, they might not be!

Trust in more than just today.

Go back to a time where I felt as safe as I did with Ken.

Allow myself to depend on somebody else.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Today My Loss Feels...

I'm repeating myself here but only because I think this is one of the most powerful and healing writing prompts for anyone who has suffered a traumatic loss.


I encourage you to use this writing prompt at least once a month. Spend, ideally, 15 minutes, just writing whatever comes to mind. It's really helpful and it costs about 100 or more dollars less than seeing a therapist. (This is not to say that I don't value therapy, au contraire. My late husband was a damn good therapist and I believe that every adult can benefit from psychotherapy, whether you've suffered a big and untimely loss or not.) Just find yourself a quiet place where you can take 15 minutes to write without any editing or criticism. Sometimes writing the prompt down again if you are stuck can help keep your pen moving along and keep your thoughts flowing. You can even write ridiculous nonsensical words. Just keep writing.


I have been using this writing prompt myself since Ken died five years ago. At first, it would elicit all kinds of sadness, despair, hopelessness and exhaustion. Then, occasionally, glimmers of hope would show up amidst the sadness. Or, repeated themes would emerge. Or I might see an area where I needed and had to ask for help. Sometimes an idea for a new goal or a path toward change presented itself. Lately, there's hope, gratitude, and even new happiness in there. Using this prompt regularly can show that you are making progress, or show that you are stuck, or show that you need help, or show that you are ready to try something new.


Awareness. It's all about awareness: knowing where you stand in the present when you hold yourself up next to the big wall that is the loss of a spouse. Maybe the wall never gets knocked down completely. Maybe you don't want to knock it down completely, leaving some of it as a memorial to the person you lost and to the part of yourself that's been lost. But, probably, most of us don't want a big old wall of loss blocking off the rest of the life we get to live. A little awareness can help keep you moving on through, like a hurdler.

Today is February 10, 2011.


Distant, distant. And present, present. Like fuel that can take me anywhere I want to go. Unbelievable, still, unbelievable. Not so scary anymore. Like its made me so much more aware of my own mortality and of how short life is. That combined with turning 50 this year...it makes me fear the seeds of illness that may be imbedded in my own genetic makeup, cancer, heart disease, ugh. I don't want to be sick. Lately I'm just so incredibly happy to be healthy, and that my kids are healthy. Grateful to be alive. Really, I feel pretty darn satisfied with everything else. I feel, even, lucky. Whoever imagined I could feel lucky again?


Like a new path that will take me somewhere interesting, towards something that matters deeply to me. I've become a children's grief support group facilitator at Willow House in the Chicago area. It is so completely and utterly rewarding to feel that I have something to give to others who have lost a loved one. I am so grateful to write this blog and to hope that I may help someone with my words, in the same way that others who are writing help me.


Like my greatest worry is for my children and how losing their father so young will affect their lives, for the rest of their lives. Will they be wounded in ways that can never be mended? In ways that will makes their lives unhappy? Or will it fuel them in some way toward a good and happy life? I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate that my children lost their father. I hate it so much more than the fact that I lost my husband because I feel like at least I was an adult, but they were just young and innocent children. HATE IT. What if I can't help them? The older they get, the more I worry.


Like it's your turn.


Monday, February 07, 2011


I expect less now. Less of just about everything. I can live in a smaller house, work in a smaller job, have less love, understand that my body will fail me eventually, realize that I cannot control the fate of my children.

I can be happy and at peace with less, especially when there is an absence of crisis. I am almost to the place where I think it's shameful to complain about anything at all when you're simply -- healthy.

Acquiescing to loss feels like a fist tightening inside me squeezing anger inward, releasing spasms of contentment and discontentment simultaneously. I nod my head. I am happy with less. I shake my head, no.

The closer and closer and closer I creep to feeling acclimatized, OK, feeling better, feeling contentment, despite your eternal goneness, there is an accompanying relapse of disbelief. Can this be true? I am happy and without you?

It feels good and wrong to be satisfied this way. It's satisfaction skating on shattered ice. If I fall right through, I won't be surprised.

I wish it was spring, these mountains of snow melted overnight. Just one green shoot is all I need.


What does LESS mean to you? Anyone who's suffered a major loss lives with less. What's it like? Spend 5 minutes writing about LESS.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

How To Love a Dead Husband, Five Years Gone

The purpose of this blog, The Heartbreak Diary, is to encourage people to write about their loss as a part of their recovery plan. Today's exercise asks you to create a brief, bullet-point list of how to love your dead spouse. Depending on your own unique circumstances, the lists will differ from person to person. I'd love to see your list! So quick...without too much thinking...give me fifteen ways to love the one who died.

Here's mine:

1. Think about him often.

2. Tell stories about him to anyone, even strangers.

3. See him in your children and then tell the children what you see.

4. Learn from your relationship, and even if it was an excellent one, as ours was, pledge to do even better the next time, if you're lucky enough to have a next time.

5. Really live your life and try to leave behind self-doubt, guilt, anxiety and fear. Live for him. Live for the life he had cut short. Live in honor of him. Live as well as you can so that you can teach his children that life is great (even when you lose big.)

6. Laugh alot.

7. Honor your good health, mental and physical. Don't take your sound body and mind for granted. Exercise your body, your mind, and your emotions. (One way to exercise your emotions is to write about them.)

8. Remember how he loved you and love yourself that way.

9. Write about him.

10. Listen to music he loved. Read books he loved. Do activities he loved.

11. Honor his values.

12. Love his parents and siblings and other relatives.

13. Try to get something positive out of a loss this huge. Try to live a better life.

14. Love life.

15. Remember your love and let it guide you to better days.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I Wish My Dead Husband Had.....

Dear Ken:

Even though I am eternally grateful for your being such a truly excellent husband and father during our 2 year courtship, or 13 year marriage and our 10 years of being parents together, there is one thing we forgot to do during the 4 years you were sick. Gosh, we had so much time sitting around in doctor's offices and hospital rooms...I can't believe we didn't put this together.

(Eternal hope for recovery down to the last minute can really screw up one's efforts to plan for the dying part!)

We forgot about putting together the handbook on how a mother can also be a father. This handbook would have had the following chapters:

Chapter One:

Fun activities and Games to Play with Your Son at ages 7 thru the rest of his childhood and adolescence

Chapter Two:

How to talk to your daughter so that she grows up feeling that she can do anything, be anything and feels as though she is the most cherished girl/young woman/woman in the whole world

Chapter Three:

How to Teach Your Son the Secret Essentials of Manhood

Chapter Four:

How to teach your son, left fatherless at age 6, that life can be trusted, people won't leave you, you're not weird because you don't have a dad, and you will somehow fill the gaping hole that is the absence left by your father's death and find fulfillment and satisfaction in your own life.

Chapter Five:

How to ensure that your daughter will be able to trust a good man's love.

Chapter Six:

This chapter catalogues every single parenting situation that I will ever encounter in my whole life and what your response would have been had you still been alive and actively fathering our kids

Chapter Seven:

How to teach the kids that mommy isn't trying to hurt them, annoy them, or trying to replace you by having a new man in her life. Within this chapter you would have written a paragraph on how to show the kids that they might even be able to get something positive themselves out of mommy's new boyfriend because he's really a good, loving guy. This chapter will remind them that you can never have too many people in your life to care about and love you.

Chapter Eight:

This chapter veers off into the supernatural/spiritual dimension. This is where you promise the kids that you will meet them in their dreams on a regular basis and just when they need you for advice or angelic guidance. (Feel free to stop by and visit me too if you get a chance.)

Chapter Nine:

In this chapter you leave the recipes for potions that all of us left here on earth can ingest to take away the acute pain that comes at select times because of your absence: holidays, graduations, birthdays, weddings, visits with old friends, trips, all that good stuff.

Chapter Ten:

Here you remind the children how much you love them even though you left too soon. Uh...you know what? Redundant. Let's scrap this chapter. You did a great job loving all of us. I think that's been done already.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wedding Anniversary

I did not mention it aloud

this year.

It was terrifically cold that day.

In our dining room

women played recorders.

Tom juggled.

Alyse had a bad cold.

My parents looked sharp

in their great clothes.

Naomi was pregnant;

so was Shereen,

who organized

some picture taking.

Pat recorded it on video.

Susan chatted, whispered.

Mark observed.

Anna played "Skye Boat Song"

on her new clarinet.

Evan announced time to begin.

A famous Chicago judge

Jewish for my father

declared us married.

The littler ones threw confetti,

Rebecca had a new sister-in-law

married to the identical twin of her husband.

Alan and Linda and Paul were happy

not to know

that in thirteen years

this pair (these pairs)

would be halved.

We spent the next two nights

in a beautiful suite

at The Drake Hotel.

Far below

our warm, elegant room

we watched

little cars, workers,

travel north and south

on snowy Lake Shore Drive.

To the east, reliably so,

great Lake Michigan,

beautiful, huge, dark,



Monday, January 03, 2011

I Think I'm Done Grieving...But I'm Afraid to Say It

Is it OK to say this? I think I'm done grieving the loss of my husband.

Oh boy. I'm not sure about this. Just writing the words makes me feel uneasy.

It's been five years since Ken died. In these five years I have dwelled upon his death, worked hard to understand its effect on me and on my children, gone to hours of therapy, attended grief groups, written extensively about Ken, cancer, death and widowhood, renewed my self and spirit through friendship, yoga and exercise, felt sorry for myself, experienced deep pain, sadness and loneliness, and adapted to life as a single woman and single parent. I used dating as a strategy to push away the pain of losing my husband only to find that in being rudely dumped by one guy I finally got it: my wonderful husband was actually gone and never coming back; there would be no repeat of the incredible piece of good fortune that was our meeting and our marriage. (It took about three and a half years to REALLY get that my terrific marriage was over, Ken was gone, and my life had to essentially restart in foreign territory.)

I once read that it takes a "significant life event" to make profound change occur once you've reached adulthood. Well, Ken's death was that event and I am now changed forever. I feel like a different person, a better person, a more content person, a more sober person. The contentment comes, ironically, from truly understanding that one day I will die and this wonderful life and all it holds will be gone. And so, I cherish it more and worry a whole lot less. I am not the same Jill I was before. I have lost a great deal. And yet, I think that I am through grieving. For now, that is. Because my "significant life event" has taught me that there is life on the one hand and loss on the other. Those hands are clasped together. You can't live without loss, you can only decide how to live well despite it.

Yet, I feel bad thinking that I'm done with grief, like I'm not supposed to ever be done. It's a fix I'm in. If I were still mourning Ken's loss and living in the middle of grief 20 years after his death certainly I would be stuck...I wouldn't have successfully managed to accept his death and to go on with my own life. But to believe that I have reached a place where I am no longer grieving? What does that mean?

Here's what it means to me:

I have accepted Ken's death and made a decision to live as well and as joyfully as I can anyway.

I can now think about Ken with primary emotions other than just despair or sadness or hopelessness or guilt or regret. Mingled in there now in equal measure are happiness, contentment, gratitude, joy, peace, and strength.

It will always be painful that Ken died. There will continue to be many moments that make me cry for the infinite absence, the hole, the lost future, the what-could-have-beens.

When someone dies, a common refrain the widow hears goes as follows: "Your memories will sustain you" or "He'll live on in your thoughts." I once wrote soon after Ken died that the thought of living on memories is like driving on fumes. But today, five years later, I'm starting to understand what it means to be sustained by memory. I will turn 50 years old this year. More than half my life is past. There is so much precious material to be mined in those years now gone. I can see that now.

Once again, I can see a future that excites me instead of one that feels hostile, unknown and foreign. When Ken was sick and I feared he would die and leave me alone, I was filled with fear and dread so severe I couldn't live with it without turning to medication. After he died, my world felt as though it had crumbled. I actually had a dream in which the floor of my kitchen developed an enormous crater in the middle of it -- my foundation was disintegrating.

I have rebuilt in these five years a completely different structure that may have more doors and windows. I feel more open to possibility, more willing to embrace change, more able to be just who I am without apologizing for myself, more inclined to see what's out in the world, even if it's unexpected. Loss has informed me: there is no one way to safety. There isn't safety. There's just experience, good, bad, neutral. When you live, when you're not dead, what you get is to experience. I compare myself to Ken who can't experience anything anymore: not love, not loss, not pain, not pleasure. I'd rather be alive to take it all on.

Yes, I think I'm done grieving for now. I never thought I'd get here. It was the hardest work I've ever done, but I'm glad I did it. I gave it my all.

There, I said it.