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.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Cooler Now

Effects of death on young widow (now firmly middle-aged) almost seven years after the tragedy?

I am cooler.

Not hipper. (Hardly)


I just don't get as riled up anymore about "difficulties". Can't get so hot under the collar, if you know what I mean. I listen to people and their problems and I think about how the problems they are having now will pass altogether, or perhaps there will be worse problems down the road, or maybe this problem will lead to something positive, or maybe they'll have a good, long stretch with no problems at all. (Should you find yourself in this situation: Be Grateful. Don't be bored. Be grateful. A life without crises is a life to be applauded. Bowed to. Look up at the sun shining down on you and be thankful. Lack of crises=good.)

I think people like to make up problems. I think I used to be one of those people but that was before I faced THE BIG PROBLEM, that being death of my husband, my rock, my world, my source of inspiration and happiness. (And by the way, no more of that. No one thing or person is my world anymore. My world is what is happening around me on a day-to-day basis, good or bad.) Yes. People make up problems to fill up their lives, I guess. I don't want to do that anymore. And I try to catch myself now when I find myself making a problem. Cancer is a problem. War is a problem. Poverty is a problem. If you are sick or poor or living with a real fear of violence, I understand that these are really difficult problems that merit lots of attention, support and empathy.

As for me and my peaceful and currently healthy world: Cooler. I work to see no problem, if there's no problem. And most challenges aren't really problems. They're just unexpected events that aren't unfolding as we may have imagined in our minds.

I like this new version of myself better, the me that doesn't get troubled as easily. I've recently re-entered the workforce after a long stretch of child-raising and a long stretch of cancer and subsequent death world. So when I encounter challenges during my work, they don't feel like problems anymore, or the kinds of issues that used to give me headaches or make me angry, or make me go over and over what someone said or did in my mind. Maybe a lot of this new, cooler me is just new, older me. But I'd like to give a nod to my old frenemy: loss.

I firmly believe that if you're going to endure a major loss, like losing your spouse, you might as well get something good out of it (other than social security benefits, thank you government, death benefits help!). Find meaning in the loss. Is that too much to ask? For me, it is essential. I don't believe there is a reason Ken died, but I do think I can make my own meaning out of it. The meaning changes as I move through the years.

Today, the meaning is about how much cooler I am now. The meaning lies in understanding, finally, how to be grateful for daily life, even if everything isn't following the fantasy script of my own mind. The meaning for me is in taking it easy when life is easy to take. The meaning is in not making up problems to fill time. There are plenty of better ways to occupy myself.

My husband Ken knew all of this already way back when I met him in 1991 and he was Director of Residential Group Homes for a social service agency, dealing with very troubled children, with very troubled lives. He was cool, not only in his work, but in daily life. I just watched in awe as "problems" just woooshed past him. I didn't understand how he could do it. How could he be so unflappable? Isn't it awful that it took his death for me to become more like that? But maybe that's looking at it like a problem. Re-frame. Thank you Ken for showing me that most challenges are not really problems. Thank you for modeling a life of appreciation and light-heartedness.

This month would have been your 59th birthday. You have been gone almost 7 years. You are still teaching me things through your absence.

You were so cool. And now I'm just a little bit cooler too.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Widow Takes Two Questions

Losing my husband so young, at least younger than most, I imagine that there are questions people, might like to ask of me. After all, many of us will lose a spouse one day to death, or we will leave a spouse behind. I just happened to do it about 30 years ahead of the curve. Precociously widowed. Harbinger of baby boomer grief to come. The most obvious question is this: "How did you survive it?" Don't we all wonder how we would survive a personal catastrophe? And, oh, what is the answer to that one?

It can take a long, long time to get better. It can take a long time to realize the magnitude of the loss: years. And it can take years to allow your new life to meet you and for you to willingly take it in.  When you find your new life, your loss comes included with it, as though it is the omniscient narrator that lives in your present, your past and your future. Don't be afraid of leaving the dead behind; they come with you. They change with you as you change. They will color your days like a pencil rubbing on a gravestone.

Letting yourself become wiser through loss is a great gig, if you can manage it. There is so much to be gained from having a giant piece of yourself removed, but you have to be willing to accept what arrives to fill the void.  You could choose the route of bitterness and pity, but I wouldn't recommend it. Me? I am more appreciative of everything and now know the difference between a minor problem and a majorly unhappy happening. To me this is the greatest gift of loss: to understand that all is finite and to love what you love and fully appreciate it because nothing lasts. It's a gift just to be here. Most troubles are minor. Hold on to what you love, but not too tightly.

Meeting and talking with others who have had the same type of loss is very helpful. Those who try to understand, the ones who haven't gone through it, they are wonderful, and I am so lucky to have had so many people like that in my life...but those who really know the depth of losing what you love most: their understanding is palpable and can make you feel part of a community of the like-minded, of the like-lost. They judge the least. They can be the hardest to find. They require the fewest explanations.

What about loving again? Well, if you were really lucky the first time around, it may be unimaginable or even unwanted to love again. "I could never be as happy as I was with my husband. It will never be the same." I felt this way, and I've talked to many, many widows who express these same feelings. Yeah, well, that's exactly right. You can never be happy in the same way again. It will never be the same. But you can count on the fact that new love will be different. I thought that marrying Ken was forever and I looked up to him and felt safe. That sense of safety and permanence may be an element of love that I cannot feel again. For me, it feels unwise and almost ignorant to once again believe that another human being can protect me from the worst of all pain. A man is just a man. The idol I made of Ken turned out to be mortal. I loved him so much; he made me feel that everything would be OK; he calmed my worries. He was my sea of contentment.

Now with my love I don't idolize as much or count on days of relentless tranquil and complete safety; but I am more grateful than I ever was to be loved, this time understanding that love isn't a guarantee, it's a gift to accept with as much grace as I can muster. The safest sea just might be the calm and peace that I can find within myself. But love is love. And I am lucky again to know it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cleaning the Garage of Grief

Sigh. Then there are the moments when the dead feel really, really, really, really far away. Really gone. Really dead. Really not here anymore. Really not influencing daily life anymore. Really not living. Not here. Gone. Dead. Irrelevant. Missing in action. Not a husband, not a father, not a friend, not someone who can lend you any kind of warm hand anymore.

This is not my favorite part of grief. This is just sad. This just makes me screw up my mouth in a nasty kind of shape while I'm typing. This is a feeling of complete and utter impotence. There is nothing I can do.

The other day I was looking at my cleaned out garage that used to hold all kinds of stuff that belonged to Ken. One of my handymen, as a favor, just came one day and took everything out of my garage as a surprise. I came outside, and there was everything I hadn't dealt with in a long time in a great big heap, waiting for my direction. Not just some of Ken's things, but also "garage stuff" that I just don't deal with out of a kind of sexist, that's not my territory, that's man's work,  kind of attitude. That garage really looked neglected, and it was. I am not a woman of the garage.

It was a weird kind of favor, being forced to deal with all that stuff on the spot. Piles. And you know what I did? I let almost everything go. Just let it go. See ya stuff.

The other day I drove my white Prius into the now pristine, clean garage. I got out. I looked around. And I said out loud within the now visible walls of the garage, to myself, and to Ken: "I'm sorry that I couldn't keep you alive." As if those dusty boxes in the garage were who Ken was.

Of course, that was just one experience and one set of feelings in the garage of grief. Of course, I do keep Ken alive. Only, I am better at keeping him alive by writing about what he meant to me and by talking about him with people who knew him, and by keeping pictures of him around, and by mentioning his name aloud to my kids and to friends and family who miss him like I do. I'm not so good at remembering him through his stuff. That's not where he is to me.

I find Ken is in the places where I'm now more patient, more kind and more understanding. Ken dwells where I am peaceful and not angry. Ken lives in my contentment and in my appreciation for what I have. He lives in our children. When I have compassion, there is Ken. When I let worries fly by instead of roost on my shoulders, Ken has made an appearance.

He is not in the garage. Not for me. The garage is where I park my car. Ken is where I feel better knowing that he lived and where I am better because he did.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Loss is Timeless

Loss is timeless. Ken's brother got an email the other day from someone who just found out that Ken died. He wrote to express his sympathy, six and a half years later. Good for him. Loss is timeless. You can be moving along rather nicely, whistling, enjoying the view, and then it can root you like quicksand. It holds you. You may want to escape its grip, but it's strong. When it gets you, it can be hard to move forward.

My nephew got married this month -- another timeless moment. This is the very type of occasion that sends you reeling back in time, just as it moves you even more quickly into the future. All those turning points your loved one misses: the weddings, graduations, birthdays, college tours, vacations, road trips. How ironic then that your dead husband or brother or son or father or uncle is more present at these events than usual. The dead do show up at weddings. You can't stop thinking about them, imagining how they would react, how they would enjoy, how different things would be if time hadn't moved on without them, if they hadn't stepped out of time. They show up anyway.

I have to admit that I still, at times, find it hard to accept my current reality wholeheartedly. I still shake my head. Is this just the way I am? Do I find it particularly hard to move along? Or is this what loss does?

Loss is timeless. It can still be hard to embrace the bounty of life with full on unadulterated joy. It is marred by absence. A wedding full of happiness and a sense of life being as it should be is a powerful reminder of life's darker side when we think about those who couldn't be there. Loss attaches itself to our beating pulse like a wrist watch ticking off the hours and minutes.

Loss is timeless and it reminds us that we are not. Today is my 51st birthday. Ken died at 52. I plan to enjoy all my minutes today. I am so grateful to my kids, my family, my friends, and my Mark. And I am especially grateful to those of you who let me feel my loss and let me talk about it without judgement. I never knew that loss had infinite dimensions, too hard (for me) to comprehend alone.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Do It Everyday...If You Dare.

Yesterday I decided to commit to writing in my journal every single day for at least 20 minutes every morning. I practice Kundalini yoga and yesterday in class my teacher challenged us to establish a Sadhana which is a discipline you undertake every day to connect with your authentic self, a spiritual practice which could be anything: praying, painting, doing yoga, walking, biking, running, meditating, playing music. You must do it alone without disturbance or distraction. Ideally, you do your Sadhana in the morning in preparation for your day. Regular daily practice, it is said, helps us face challenges as it purifies and refines our consciousness. (Read about Sadhana here.)

Ok. Whoa. I know I'm getting a little out there. But, I believe that a regularly practiced solo discipline can make a real difference in your life by crystallizing your intentions and making it easier to leave life's unimportant noise and distractions behind you.

The main purpose of The Heartbreak Diary, when I first began writing it, was to share what I've learned about the healing power of writing (which has been proven by research), give exercises for those in grief who need a jump start for writing, and to share some of my own writing about loss.  I am really amazed at how much writing this blog has helped me to recover from the loss of my husband at a relatively young age.

Perhaps from the outside it might look as though someone who has been writing about loss for years might be stuck in the past or still in pain. But I find the opposite to be true. By writing out my feelings, their hold on me lessens. While I might spend 20 minutes exploring the pain of loss in a blog post, I find that the hours that follow those 20 minutes feel pretty free and unencumbered.

I encourage you to think about Sadhana. If that word doesn't appeal to you, just think about something you can do for yourself every day, consistently without fail. It might take you a while to figure out what that practice might be. Or perhaps you know instinctively what you can do.

If it might be writing, you can start with this and see where it takes you for the next 10 minutes:

Today I will write about what it means to me to have a daily, disciplined practice:

Monday, May 07, 2012

Death of Husband is Not Recommended

I'm going to write a gloomy post for a change. Normally I try to be upbeat about the havoc death brought upon me and mine. Generally, I aim to be filled with perspective and humor: after all, everyone dies. Death isn't special; it's expected. You can learn lessons from it! It can make you appreciate simple things, like waking up in the morning with your heart still pumping and your brain synapses still firing!

Today I want to tell you that I hate that more than six years have gone by since Ken died. Some days now I can go all day without thinking about him. Is that a relief? I don't know. I think it's sad. Not thinking about Ken makes me feel as though he's lost to oblivion.

I've met so many people in these last six years who will never have known me as the married woman I once was, as a mother with a husband who was my partner in a life we chose to make together. I am meeting people, more and more of them,  who will never know who Ken was. Maybe people who meet me think I'm divorced or that I decided to have children without ever having a spouse. Maybe nobody really cares why I'm a single mother at all.

Last night I attended a benefit for Willow House, a wonderful, big-hearted organization that offers free grief support services for families. If you've lost a spouse or a child, or if you're a child who has lost a parent or a sibling, you can participate in a support group with others who have had someone in their nuclear family die. These are people who understand that losing a spouse, or a child, or a father or mother or a sibling when you're young, is a loss that shapes your whole world and colors it a shade darker than the life you had before the loss.

The main speakers at the benefit were a husband and wife whose seven month old daughter died six years ago. The woman talked about how before you have a loss like that you walk on the surface of life and then after the loss, you enter a world below the surface and you come up once and a while to breath. I didn't lose a child, so I don't know what that feels like. I don't ever want to know what that feels like. But I will say something that our death-denying culture makes me feel a little ashamed to say:

Even though I can now go for a day, perhaps, without thinking about Ken, I don't know if I will ever make it through a day without thinking about the future I lost when he died. I know I will always feel bad that my son and daughter don't have Ken here with them to be their father.  What they are missing by not having him here cannot be counted or measured; it is a vast emptiness where years and years of his amazing love, wisdom and patience could have been.

I am not the person I used to be and I don't believe there's any way to get her back, no matter how many years go by. Like the bereaved mother whose baby died,  I live in a darker world, even when all the lights are on, even when I am loved, even when I am happy and grateful for the life I get to live. That's what the death of my husband did to me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lost and Liking It

When I was 6 years old my family went to Expo 67 in Montreal.  I remember walking over a huge bridge in an enormous crowd of people when I reached up to hold my mother's hand. Grasping her hand, I then looked up at her face -- but it was a stranger's face, and I was holding a stranger's hand. Fear took hold of my entire being as I realized I was lost in a sea of people. I remember the sheer feeling of terror: ALONE IN A GREAT BIG WORLD!

Is this why I hate the idea of being lost to this day?

Except, I think I'm finally getting over it, at age 50, in part, I suppose, because my husband who also served the role of my navigator, is no longer here to take the wheel, read the maps, or guide me along the strange pathways I have to take if I want to keep exploring the world. You see, I love to explore but I've never felt comfortable not knowing just where I am--unless I'm with someone who has greater competence and comfort than me when in strange and unfamiliar places. So what to do when I am the captain of a ship with two children as my passengers and I am committed to showing them, and myself, the world?

Well, first step for me was to get a GPS. I did that a few years ago. And despite the scorn I felt emanating off some of my dearest relations, I knew it would open up passageways for me, ones that would otherwise be blocked by my own fear. Tools! Use them. Everyone doesn't know what you need. GPS saved my scared little travellin' soul. It also allowed me to embark on a 2000 mile road trip with my kids a few years back when my widowhood was new. Liberating. GPS freed me from the irrational fear that I could somehow be lost, and never find my way back.

This year for Spring Break, we headed off on another road trip, same GPS. Me: a little different. At first, just before we left, I felt just slightly down, a little low, a bit sad. Road trips were supposed to be with my husband. Mother, father, two kids. To me, travelling with the hubby and kids is one of the great perks of marriage, especially when your kids become great travel mates who don't wear diapers or go to bed early. So just before we set off, I was feeling a little sorry for my single parent self.

But then, the road beckoned, the GPS (I call her Garmeen) spoke her sweet words to me, Adele sang to us from the CD player as we sang along, and I realized that I don't care nearly as much if I get lost anymore. In fact, I think there may even be a new part of myself yearning to be lost, to not know, to explore a few trails with destinations unknown and untried.

Even my daughter noticed a difference in me when even the GPS kept leading us the wrong way in a city we'd never before visited. "Mom," she said, "You didn't seem to mind this time when we didn't know where we were going. You were laughing and relaxed."

New parts found, old parts lost. I want to go where I've never been.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Death Lesson #682

Perhaps it's those 15 years I spent adapting the works of America's best-selling self-help authors, new age gurus, and business speakers to sell on audiotape (oh how publishing has changed...), but I just can't help trying to find the lessons learned from my husband's untimely death. Yes, I spent 15 years of my working life filling my mind with personal growth lessons from Deepak Chopra who told me there is consciousness in every cell in my body and so my gut feelings are actually a strong form of intelligence, Wayne Dyer who insisted that our intentions create our reality, Tom Peters, who encouraged each one of us to become our own brand within a preferably flat-as-a-pancake organization, and psychic darling Sonia Choquette who insists there is no such thing as a psychic, just psychic potential within each one of us waiting to be tapped.

So here I am: with my own brand of advice giving.  I am death lesson girl, following my highly intelligent gut, still churning out the lessons, six years after my husband's death.

Death Lesson #682

I am all alone and I am surrounded by as much support as I need.

Nothing has ever made me feel as alone on this earth as losing my husband when my kids were little. The raw, crushing sorrow was mine, all mine. The problems, the family responsibilities, the pain belonged to me. It was mine to deal with as I wished. It was no one's problem as much as it was mine. Today, I'm through the pain. But, you know what? On a Friday night when my kids are busy and I don't have plans, I feel that aloneness of the empty house. Only now, I just let it be instead of frantically making plans. I embrace the aloneness. I look forward to it. I think it's important to be OK just being alone in this world, to recognize this bit of truth.

And, never have so many people stood up to help me, as they did when Ken was sick and after he died. I don't think I'll ever feel again as if there is not support for me if I make my need known. We are alone in a world of unlimited potential support.

Stayed tuned for future dispatches from death lesson girl. I can't stop myself, obviously.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

One Good Cry

I had the best cry today. Truly.

While registering my son for another session of swimming I bumped into a former colleague of Ken's. They had worked for 18 years together at the same child welfare organization. She is one of the kindest-hearted people I have ever met.

Today she told me that after 24 years, she's retired from the organization. She told me that at her retirement party, she spoke of all the people who had come and gone from the organization during that time, and about Ken, one of her mentors, who is gone for good.

 At that point she teared up. And so did I. Can I tell you how wonderful it was to have a good cry with someone who was missing Ken, someone who knew how wonderful he was, someone he had touched with his good nature and wisdom, someone who had lost a friend who was my husband?

Six years after you lose your spouse, you really shouldn't be spending too many days crying about your loss. But today it felt so good to remember him with someone else who loved him, who misses him, and who knows what a good man the world lost six years ago. Sometimes I miss my tears.

That was one good cry.

Monday, March 05, 2012

What Will You Do Without Your Grief?

I am a firm believer that writing out your feelings about grief is a wonderful tool for developing self-awareness, for expressing emotions, and for cultivating emotional health. Think of writing down your feelings as exercising your emotions. Just like a body will get stiff from inactivity, your feelings can get stuck together until they are formless and unrecognizable to you. By writing them down, you sort them out. You see them for what they are: feelings that arise and come and go and change. The Heartbreak Diary isn't a sob story. It's simply a place to bring feelings out in the open.

Here's a simple sentence completion exercise for anyone who is ready to move to a different place in regard to grief or anyone who wants to imagine what it would be like being in a different place.


Take 3 minutes to write down a series of answers to the following question. Don't think too hard about what you're writing down. Just go with it.


I will be happy without guilt.
I will feel more gratitude for life than I ever have previously.
I will be less afraid to take risks.
I will be more compassionate to others who are in pain.
I will let it come visit me sometimes.
I will have a lot of empathy for others with grief that is fresh and new.
I will know that when things are going well, when there is no crisis, life is especially good.
I will treasure my good health and do what I can to be well.
I will know the difference between what matters to me and what does not matter to me.
I will be lighter.
I will not want to suffer again; but I will be prepared to go there.
I will try things I haven't tried before.
I will feel sad about my loss still.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

One Plus of Being Widowed: The Offsite Boyfriend

Widowed women get to date and have a boyfriend. Yup. You know, it really stinks to lose the husband you loved and depended on when you're 44 with two young kids, so there should be some kind of bonus delivered after all those years of worry and pain. Now I get to have a boyfriend at age 50. So there. I'm enjoying it. I haven't had one since 1992.

Having a boyfriend is really different than being married. First off, we don't live together and we don't have any kind of contract in writing,  so I don't have to get all irritated at him for leaving his socks on the floor or not fixing the sticky lock on the back door, or being late coming home from work, or pissed that he left it to me to cook dinner for the 10 trillionth time, or left a wine stain on the counter, or won't help me figure out the damned health insurance morass. No, that sort of conflict is for married people. If you have an offsite boyfriend instead of being married, at this age, you don't get all pissy over household tasks and general maintenance and administration. Nah, I'm already used to doing every single one of those things by myself. However, if my offsite boyfriend does, on the other hand, CHOOSE to help me cook dinner walk the dog change a lightbulb fix a broken table drive my kids: HE'S A GREAT BIG HERO, because he doesn't have to do any of that stuff. It's not part of the deal.

I've been thinking that maybe married people should pretend that their spouses are actually just boyfriends or girlfriends and have maybe a few less expectations around the household maintenance, administration and organization. I've realized that I can actually get on quite well with unchanged lightbulbs and sticky back door locks but, boy oh boy, when that boyfriend walks in the door, I'm so happy to see him and the first thing I do is NOT grimace at him and tell him what he needs to do for me. I think when you're married it can be easy to forget that your spouse does not exist to fulfill all your unmet needs, mop up where you spilled, and be a sponge for all your free-floating garbage. The offsite boyfriend is out there in the world independently of me, living his life, doing what he needs to do. It's kind of easier to see him for the individual that he is when we're not spitting in the sink together or wondering who's going to finally clean the mudroom.

The other benefit about the offsite boyfriend when you're middle-aged is that you don't have to see each other every day,  thus eliminating any kind of "Oh, it's you again" feelings that just might possibly maybe crop up after you've spent the last 8,978 days in a row sharing the same space. Married people: I think you might want to consider getting away from your spouse on a regular basis. I don't know how you might do it, but I think I'm onto something here.

Now, tonight, the boyfriend is trying to get me to go Swing Dancing! Is that crazy or what? I mean, it's Tuesday night, after all.  He has already once before convinced me to go Tango Dancing, an event which I found frightening and fun and one which had me laughing pretty much the entire time out there on the dance floor. With the boyfriend, you try some new activities. Hey, research shows that long married couples have to reinvent date night because doing novel things can make your relationship more exciting, while simply going to that favorite restaurant AGAIN can feel as old and tired as...changing a lightbulb. You can read all about that study here http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/12/health/12well.html

The Offsite Boyfriend: he's not my husband, my kids still don't have a father, and he doesn't live here, but he's got a lot going for him. I look forward to his next visit.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Twelve Reasons Why I Write About Grief

 Many times over the years I have asked myself why I continue to write about loss. One day, I suppose, I will stop, but I'm not there yet. I don't write because I'm still actively grieving. I don't write because I have no one to talk to about my thoughts. And I don't write for pity. Here are 12 reasons why I keep on writing about grief.

1. Nothing has awakened me to life more than my loss.
2. Pondering grief makes me appreciate how lucky I am to be healthy and alive.
3. Loss is lonely, until you find others who understand. I write for others who have had a loved one die.
4. Loss connects everyone. No one gets through life without experiencing a major loss.
5. I still find it to be an interesting topic.
6. Writing about what loss means to me makes me a happier person.
7. I can't do anything to stop loss, past or future. But I can process it and accept it more gracefully through writing.
8. Our death-denying culture is unhealthy. Embracing mortality can help you live more fully.
9. Writing about how my husband's death has affected me makes me feel connected to him in a real way.
10. Losing my husband at a younger than normal age has altered my perspective on life.
11. Every step of the way, through crisis, illness, and defeat, I've found that writing benefits mental health for the writer, and builds positive connections with readers, even when the subject matter is difficult.
12. I hope that more people, when faced with a loss, will try to use writing as a tool for recovering.


That's why I write The Heartbreak Diary.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Rethinking Grief. And Then Rethinking Grief.

Are you ready to stop thinking about your late husband or wife on a regular basis? Will you ever get enough of those old memories? Will next year's anniversary of the death pass by without psychological mayhem? Will you ever stop wanting to say his or her name aloud around those who knew your wife or husband best?

Probably not.

Even though my husband died 6 years ago, and even though I have a really loving, handsome, good man in my life, and even though I now feel pretty happy and well-adjusted to life after a major loss, I still think a lot about my husband who died.  I think about how radically different my life feels without him and the life I had envisioned for us, and I still think it's really lousy that he kicked it at age 52 when our kids were young. I really like being with people who knew Ken; it's comforting when they are willing to talk about him or share memories.

I think about him, and about losing him, quite often.

Turns out, thoughts and feelings about losing a spouse can last a lot longer than you might imagine. For those of us who have had a wife or husband die, the idea that grief reactions endure will come as no big surprise.

An interesting study on this topic, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology a few years ago, confirms what many of us know through experience. You can find happiness again after being widowed, but the thoughts of your spouse and what you lost can last and last. The study is called: "The Time Course of Grief Reactions to Spousal Loss: Evidence from a National Probability Sample." Its major finding? "The widowed continued to talk, think, and feel emotions about their lost spouse decades later."

This isn't bad news. It's just the way it is. It's normal. If you lose your spouse here on earth, you can pretty much guarantee that he or she is going to stick around in your thoughts. Some of them will be sad. Some will be happy. Some might even promote some personal growth.

Here are just a few of the findings from this national study which included interviews with 768 widowed men and women whose spouse had died anywhere from less than one year to 64 years previously:

 *  Even 20 years after the loss, it was common for a typical survey respondent to think about his or her spouse at least every week or two, and to talk about him or her every month.

*  The frequency of upsetting thoughts about one's loved one decreases over time, but happy thoughts don't decrease, and they may help to maintain connection with the spouse who died

* Intense anniversary reactions can occur for years after the loss; they are common, even decades after the death.

* Over time, personal growth often arises from surviving the loss of a spouse. Growth can come from positive memories or finding other positives stemming from the loss, from spirituality, and from taking on new tasks that one's spouse used to handle.

For those of you who have been widowed, whether you've remarried or not, whether it's been one year or 20 since your spouse died, know that the thoughts you have about your loved one are normal, and they aren't likely to go away completely during your lifetime. In fact, your memories are a very real bond that connects you to your love.

If you're a friend or family member of someone who has lost a wife or husband, know that the one who died is rarely far from the thoughts of those left behind. It's how we love them after they go.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Just Get On With It (Life) Already!

Shortly after my husband died, my six-year-old son said the words that would pretty much mark his style of grieving, so much different than my own.

"This is our family now," he said emphatically, giving me and his sister a big hug.

Whoa, boy! What do you mean? Could you possibly be saying that we must, right now, face the reality of what is right in front of us (three people, not four)? Are you saying that your father is dead and we have to go bravely forward without him? I think that's exactly what he was saying, and he continues, six years later,  to preach this kind of stoic, fact-based, feelings-be-damned approach.

Poor boy. His sister and I were all for grief groups and therapy, writing down memories of his father in a journal, participating in much bittersweet reminiscing of days past, and getting all worked up as the anniversary of his death approaches each year. He really does, I think, find it tiresome. Granted,  he doesn't remember too much about his dad...but still....does he have a point?

I think it's really easy for young widows and widowers to get a little "woe is me-ish". (Guilty as charged here.) We didn't sign up for the early death of spouse or single parenting or having to start all over again, or grieving. It was completely unexpected and out-of-sync with most people we know. It's also easy to stay stuck in the past longer than might be necessary, because change is hard, and enforced change can feel unfair and nasty.


I think my son has a point. This is our family now. This is our life now. This is my life today. Worth remembering. Worth....a writing exercise!


Sentence completions are one of my favorite types of writing prompts for visualizing your own thinking. Take each prompt and time yourself for two minutes while answering each one. There are no right or wrong answers, and sometimes your answers may even contradict one another. It's really a clearinghouse for your own thoughts on a topic.

This is my life right now and I need to:

This is my family now and I enjoy:

The past is gone. What I see in the near future is:

Since my spouse died I have made positive progress and change, for example:

Friday, January 20, 2012

Laugh about Death (Ha Ha Ha)

Grieving is heavy. Ugh. It's such a load on your back. It's all depressing and sad; it makes people want to turn away from you, change the subject, have a drink or drive really fast or eat too much or too little food just to get away from the heaviness of it all. (Ha ha ha!)

The sadness of grief can last a long time, longer than anyone wants to know. When you've lost someone integral to your daily life, especially: a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent. Maybe you feel like you've got no right to be happy when someone that close to you can't be happy anymore, can't be anything anymore, has to be dead. Perhaps pure joy, silliness, levity, excitement, enthusiasm for your own vital future feels a tad wrong or out of place. (Ho! Ho! Ho!)

Grief changes you. It sucks the lightness from your life and hovers over you like a giant shadow, arms outstretched, threatening, looming, staying put. The shadow can block out the sun; with no sun there is no growth. (Tee hee!)

Major loss keeps rapping on your skull: hello in there, guess what, shit happens! It can happen to you -- again, so beware, don't trust and don't get too comfortable. (Hardy-har-har!)

Last night I had a great experience at Willow House in suburban Chicago www.willowhouse.org, where once a month I go to help facilitate grief groups for children and their families. Usually, a mother or father has died too young leaving young children and a spouse behind to carry on without them. The theme for last night's group was laughter, a wonderful theme, a fantastic departure from the weightiness of death, for people needing support as they heal and move forward past that heavy, heavy load of loss.

The evening was filled with exercises and activities that either had participants literally laugh together (on demand about absolutely nothing in particular), then share happy or silly memories of the loved one who had died. Oh! What a relief to laugh about death and to revive happy times! The energy last night was life-affirming and joyful. I couldn't help but think that the dead mothers and fathers would be grateful for their children having a good guffaw in their permanent absence, and that they would wish for more and more of these moments for their children, and their spouses as well. They would want their children to remember them in their funny moments and happy times, and not for messes left behind or scary moments of crisis. Being dead, they must be thinking...geez, get happy, you're not the one who died. LIVE WHILE YOU CAN!

So lighten up folks. Have a laugh thinking about the one who died. Let the funny and the happy push away that big old ghostly cloud. Put a smile on it. It's not that serious. It's just death and it ain't going away in your lifetime. Laugh about death for a change. Do it frequently. (Snicker.)


Now's the time to get out your journal (what do you mean you don't have one?) OK then get out a piece of paper or since you're on the computer now, open up a new WORD file, and write for a full ten minutes. Here are a few prompts for you to use...use one or use them all, or make up your own.  It better be funny.

Remember five different occasions when your loved one made you laugh and write about it.

Describe some of the ridiculous habits of your loved one.

What did you and your loved one do for fun? When did you have the most fun?

Describe an amazing adventure or vacation you had with your loved one.

What kinds of gestures, gifts, or surprises did your loved one give you or do for you that made you feel loved and important.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sometimes It Feels Like Everything Will Fall Apart

When it finally hit us that Ken was likely to die pretty soon, hope continued to blind like being wakened by a flashlight following major surgery for multiple gunshot wounds. We were stuck in a hospital room across the country from our home, our friends, and our kids. Ken had been in that room for almost a full six months of stem cell transplant complications. We were exhausted. He wasn't going to get better.

Still, it was almost impossible to discuss what his impending death meant. To me. To him. To our young family. To our children. Discussing it would have meant that it was real and true. Talking about it felt like giving up on hope.

In the end, we didn't talk too much about what his dying meant to me or to him. It was one of those things that was just too terrible to face; it was a time where words just couldn't do the talking. But, there was one reply he gave me that I will never forget, one reply from my husband, a trained and born therapist whose world of work navigated the world of emotions. His words were inexplicable, obvious, hard to grasp, disturbing, comforting and true all at once.

"Ken, what if everything falls apart after you're gone?" I asked.

His simple reply was this:  "Sometimes it will feel like everything is falling apart."

Sometimes you feel like everything is falling apart. When you are there, in that feeling, you can know that you won't always feel that way. Emotions come and go and change. What a gift he gave me. He didn't try to falsely assure me that everything would be OK, or tell me that I would survive or happily move along. Ken told me what he knew from experience. If my life ever felt as though it was ruined, and it probably would, the feeling would not be permanent.


Sometimes it can be hard to imagine you will ever feel differently than you do right now. What difficult feelings are you holding now? Write them out where you can see them. Sometimes you feel this way; you may feel this way now, but it is likely that these feelings will not last forever.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Web of Memory

Nineteen years ago this month, I married Ken. It was inevitable because after we met we were happier together than we were alone. We made our decision to marry while standing outside the wolf pen at the Lincoln Park zoo on October 31, 1992. Our wedding would take place just two months and two days  later with seventeen attendees, all family. I always liked the way we decided to get married in the company of wolves who mate for life.

Many things I'll never forget, like the excitement I felt driving to his place in Ukrainian Village, a neighborhood which in 1991 I had never heard about or visited. The drive there from my place in East Rogers Park, when we were just beginning to date,  was always this wonderful journey on an adventure I couldn't wait to begin. There, right on Damen Ave just south of Division St., he was growing peaches in his yard and tulips in his garden, in a neighborhood where, back then,  anything not chained was likely to be stolen. Once, the iron gate to the yard was ripped right off its hinges, and one year, to Ken's deep chagrin, even the peaches were taken.

Most often when I arrived at his place, I could see him through his sliding glass doors, talking on his cell phone, dealing with one crisis or another in his work in residential treatment for children.  Maybe a young girl had run away to be with her much older boyfriend. Maybe it was a call to deal with a suicidal teen. The calm with which he handled these frequent calls was impressive. Here was a man who could handle tough situations with ease, and with empathy. His empathic nature was like nothing I had ever encountered in my life. He was an emotional home I had never known.

January holds not only Ken's and my wedding anniversary, but also the anniversary of his death which falls on our daughter's birthday. The power of emotional memory this time of year is like a vast spider web, lightly descending and enveloping me.

He's been gone six years now, a long time. His children are growing up without him. His son hardly remembers him. And me? I am doing my best to accept a different life that feels vastly less secure than it did before that day in February of 2002 when we found out he had cancer and my dreams became inhabited with coffins flying through a black universe or vast holes suddenly appearing in the foundation of our home.  Sometimes I wonder if one of the most amazing things about a great marriage is the illusion it can give of a safe, secure world. I don't think I'll ever feel as safe or as secure ever again, the way I did before cancer stripped me of the center of my life.

There's a part of me that likes the way this time of year throws me back into a place of memory and sadness. Conveniently, it corresponds with the holidays, when everything shifts out of the typical work/school schedule and there is added time for rest and reflection. I like knowing that the tears are still there. I want to feel how much Ken meant to me back when he was still here.

Soon, the year will move along. We'll all get busy again and I will need to remind myself that: "I can do this!" "I am not afraid anymore!" "I can handle this solo-parenting life I never expected to be living!" "I am happy!" "I can be a breadwinner for my family!" I will be my own cheerleader, my own motivator, my own engine.

Every Friday night I drive my son into the city where he plays a card game called Magic with a bunch of guys much older than himself at a storefront that caters to such activities. I drive there, I drive back to Evanston, and then I drive back to pick him up. It's a lot of driving; fortunately, one of my pleasures is driving while singing and listening to the radio.   This Friday, my top favorite song ever, Stevie Nicks' Landslide, played as I drove.

Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Mmm, mmm, mmm

Well, I've been afraid of changing
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older and I'm getting older too


Sometimes I feel bolder. I definitely feel older, as are my kids. I built my life around Ken, and what's left is simply change and how to handle it, as well as I can.

Happy New Year to all. If you're with a life partner, well-chosen, may you truly appreciate what you have and step lightly over perceived imperfections as if they don't exist at all.