About Me

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

Thursday, 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.