When the Light Goes Out Look Within

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I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. During my early years, I lived in South Brooklyn, in an area that is now known as Boerum Hill. I loved taking walks with my father and I’m sure my mother was relieved when I did, as I was a very precocious child, always talking, very curious, very sensitive. Life for me never was about the big picture, it was always about the details.

My father took me all over the city the.We rode on  the Staten Island Ferry, roamed through Prospect Park and the Zoo, the museums, Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, and all the iconic New York City sites of that time. I loved going out with my dad. It was a special time between me and him. I could talk all I want, and ask a zillion questions, and he never seemed to mind, in fact he encouraged my inquisitive nature and curious mind.

On Sundays we would go out to get the papers, the Sunday New York Times and the New York Post, which was actually a liberal paper at that time, the voice of the worker,oh but then I do digress.

We never got the Sunday Daily News and, believe me, this was much to my chagrin, as I always wanted to look at the funnies. This small custom set me apart from my peers because my little school friends would chat about Dick Tracy and all the other other comic strips, and I had no clue as to what they were talking about.When I told them my parents didn’t get the Daily News, as according to their politics, they didn’t consider it a paper worth reading, my friends looked at me as if I had five heads. My mother and father, both with very strong political views , felt that this paper was an extreme example of yellow journalism stoking the fears of some at the expense of others, but, oh yes, again I do digress.

One Sunday, as my father and I walked along the cobblestone streets of South Brooklyn, we passed a church, St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, located on Sackett Street. I asked my dad, “What is that building?” He explained to me that it was a church where one went to pray to God. Now I did pray to God at night when my parents said my prayers with me but I was always intrigued by the notion of God. This beautiful, archetypal old church, where I assumed God lived, indicated by the triumphant tolling of the bells, usually as we were passing by, was a place that I was very curious about. My father said we could go “sometime”. Well, don’t tell me sometime, as I figured that meant soon which meant it would be happening imminently. I was a rather impatient little girl, a trait that has carried over into adulthood.

One day my father announced that we were going to go to Mass at St. Agnes. I was so excited, and I imagined that this meant we would be wearing masks. Hey, I was four or five….what did I know. We entered the beautiful church and found a seat in one of the back pews. The priest was so far away and was speaking in a foreign tongue; I found the whole experience to be amazing and intimidating. Anyway, I recited familiar prayers, as I smelled the incense, watched the procession of priests and altar boys and considered the sacred rituals to be somewhat of a mystery, but grand. When it was time for Holy Communion, this meant that my dad had to leave me in the pew while he made his way down the long, long aisle to receive the sacrament. Now if this were the present, I would’ve been able to go up with him, but back in those days there were many things that occurred in churches, deemed inappropriate then, but permissible today.When I looked like I was about to cry, my father asked a woman in the pew to keep an eye on me. She was very nice and pointed her finger to show me that my father wasn’t going to disappear, as it seemed to me. She motioned her finger to create an invisible trail that my eye could follow which reassured me that my dad was indeed in sight. You see, my father was my was my guiding light. I knew that everything was okay as long as he and my mother were near. I felt confident and safe.

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My husband Chuck was also a beacon of light for me. I didn’t have to see him, but as long as he was in my life I felt a sense of reassurance, calm, and security. This is what his presence in my life gave to me; he was my source of light and strength. Chuck was my my cheerleader, my backup guy. My father was like that for me too, as he felt that I could do anything and he was always cheering me on.When I lost my dad eleven years ago I mourned him woefully until the day my husband’s doctor called and said,” We think we see something on your husband’s pancreas.” I immediately tucked away my grief for the loss of my father so I could give full attention to my husband and the long hard road that awaited us both. I wished my father could have been there at that time for me, but again, he loved Chuck dearly, like a son, and I know he would have been sorely pained by news of Chuck’s illness.
I always knew that I could count on both of them and I felt  that when something went  left in my life, I had an added assurance that dad or Chuck  had my back. They were both like lighthouses in the distance representing a beacon of light which guided my steps. I always expected them to be there so you can only imagine that my life came to a halt when they were both gone within a four year span. Soon after I discovered that all I had was myself to guide and cheer me on. It was kind of like rediscovering my ruby red slippers and hearing Glinda the Good Witch utter the words, “Yvonne you’ve always had the power.”After all my anchors were washed away, I had to go deep and find my own beacon of light to help me as I adjusted  my sail and traveled in a new direction.

After I’d  left my first Mass with my dad, I complained to him that I was tired after that long service. I also told him that I didn’t like the fact that he had to leave me to go to Communion as I was afraid he’d disappear. I told him too, that I felt my first church experience had been very overwhelming and that I’d be fine not going again for a long, long time. I added that I was so surprised that we didn’t have to wear masks at Mass. Later that day I heard my father say to my mother, “Well, I don’t think she’ll be wanting to go to church again for a long time.” My mother said, “Well that’s good.” I heard them chuckle to each other, and I just thought they were so right. I didn’t want to risk losing my father in a sea of sacred pomp and ceremony and smelly smoke.

After a spouse or loved one dies, we sometimes feel as though a light in us has gone out. The energy, personality of the one we’ve lost meant so much to us, and we suddenly find ourselves in a long tunnel leading down a lonely, bleak road to points unknown. Our beacons of light have disappeared and one feels abandoned and alone. However, when we’re ready, we can reach out to a myriad of grief and recovery resources and search until we find the right one to suit our needs. That connection with others will help us to begin to feel less alone as we begin to repair our broken hearts and create a new life and our new normal.

We might also discover that the light we miss has now become a part of us. Our loved ones are a part of us still and our own inner light and strength will soon overshadow our grief as we become stronger. In time,we will come to know that we are being guided and strengthened from within. I like to call this the spiritual legacy left us by those who have gone on. So after awhile, look within, and you will feel a familiar presence no longer in the form of the lost spouse, or loved one, but now a part of the fabric of who you are and who you are becoming which is brave in a new world.

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Want to know how you can discover your light within ? Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse   available on Amazon.com : http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu.

 

Grab Your Girls & Go

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Several years ago, I was at an outdoor event chatting with friends. I had just begun to write Brave in a New World and I was talking with a gentleman who, after having expressed his condolences to me, shared that he didn’t know what his wife would do should he die first. He went on to explain that his wife was very close to him and to her siblings but she didn’t have any other friends outside of her family. Apparently, she spoke to her sisters by phone nearly every day. He worried that should anything happen to him, she would not have friends of her own to support, embrace and comfort her. He went on to say she belonged to a church, and yes the congregation would be there to support, but having friends who could really be there for her in the hard times, was an area in which she was lacking. He said he encouraged her to seek out girlfriends, but she was reluctant to do so as she only felt comfortable with him and her family. I know that this a common issue for many.
When widows write me, often they’re looking to reestablish their lives, and meet people, but they’re clueless as to how to begin the process of connecting with new men and women.
I’m here to tell you that along with everything else that a widow or widower has gone through, the loss, the grief, acclimating to the loneliness, and the absence of their spouse, when the dust settles and they want to branch out and meet new people, the thought of putting themselves out there can be a daunting one.

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When my husband passed away, I suddenly realized that the world had changed drastically. First of all, I was older, second of all many of our friends had been couples. I found myself thrust into an age when connecting and communicating with others was vastly different than it had been many years before. It wasn’t easy and I felt like a fish out of water. But luckily for me I’d had lots of girlfriends whom I’d remained close with over the years, and true to form, most of them rallied around me after my husband Chuck passed away. In the beginning of my loss, seeing friends became difficult for me because I didn’t want to burden them and I actually wanted to be alone most days.

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Soon, I found myself forcing myself to get out and meet those pals who were available. We’d have lunch, dinner, go to museums, meet after church, and see each other often. After awhile the meetups died down and there was the occasional phone call , but I was on the recovery journey and not quite sure where I’d land next. Luckily, I managed to make new friends which led to more new friendships. I found these people had fresh ideas and were tuned into living life in fun new ways. They had adventurous suggestions, and were available to meet, drink and be merry. After a while I began to see a future for myself as I enjoyed life more and more each day, while distancing myself from my grief and seeing life as filled with hope and possibility.

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Here’s the difference between new and old pals. Some of your longterm friends see you as you once were, now the widow. But you will be changing and the subtle nuances that are manifested may be missed by those who have known you for a long time. None of my old friends had lost a spouse, some had never married, so although they recognized the loss and sympathized with me, they sort of missed the internal metamorphosis that was taking place within me. The reason for this is because they carry your history and see you through that lens. Newer friends see you as you are, the widow, but also as who you are becoming now, therefore their impressions of you aren’t influenced by who you once were. Your tastes, likes and dislikes may begin to change once the veil of grief begins to slowly lift. For example, I may have loved to go antiquing thirty five years ago, but now I just want to search for modern accessories for my home. I may have loved to watch old movies, but because my husband was a movie buff I no longer enjoyed that pastime. Watching old movies just filled me with grief and sorrow and reminded me of losing Chuck. I once loved very light colored woods for my home, blonde shades, light oak, but my tastes changed with the times as I found myself gravitating toward darker wood stains and more contemporary styles for my home. I also discovered that friends who were a bit younger are less apprehensive about doing activities that longtime friends and peers may not encourage you to do. Online dating is a great example of one of those realms that younger pals will be more open to and will encourage you to do if and when you reach a point where you decide that you want to start dating again; but, then again, that will be up to you. Part of this shift in norms is because younger folks (even as little as 7 or eight years your junior) have grown up in an age where online dating is normal and they’re not as fearful of this new approach to connecting with people. They are also more willing to take a risk when putting themselves out there and will encourage you to do the same.This does not hold true for everyone, but it has been my experience as I recreated my life after death.
One must learn how to navigate new and old friendships, as you reshape your new alone life to suit your needs, and your lifestyle. But for those who find themselves at a loss for companions and would like to get out and do more with friends, here are some suggestions:
1 If you’ve never pledged a sorority this may be a good time to think about it. There are many graduate chapters of sororities and fraternities. This is a great way to meet new people and to have fun in the process. Check each fraternity and or sorority for guidelines and requirements for joining.
2 Become more involved in your place of worship. If you don’t belong to a place of worship and you’ve contemplated becoming a member of one, this would be a great time to visit a few churches to find one that’s suited for you. Many churches have social activities for different age groups, and they zero in on a variety of interests. I know that my church offers movies, Bible study classes, young adult get togethers, senior groups, and many opportunities to volunteer. Investigate and find a faith home that is comfortable and welcoming and explore becoming a member of a faith community. It’s a great way to connect with like minded individuals.
3 Look up old friends. Sometimes our lives become so busy especially when we’re married. We bump into people, old pals, and even discover former friends on social media. We promise to connect, but never do. After losing a spouse, this is a great time to reach out and connect with long lost friends and acquaintances. They will be so glad to hear from you and will be happy that you reached out. They will want to listen to you and be there for you as you tell them about your loss. I found that people I didn’t know quite as well, offered me the kindest words, and a patient listening ear. Sometimes, they have experienced a loss as well and the new connection can help you both to heal as you make future plans.
4 Bereavement Groups -a wonderful place to become a part of a like minded community. They’ll “get” you. You’re looking for a place where you can feel safe and steady. After several meetings your group will soon become your extended family. In my group, when the requisite sessions finished, we didn’t want to leave each other so soon, so we continued to meet for dinners for several years and even though eventually we all went our own way, we all felt stronger and better for having met each other.We had given each other the strength we needed and the encouragement to heal and to look forward to a new life without our spouses. Anything we wanted to do was encouraged by our group.We’d been through so much and we just wanted to now live our lives unrestricted and without judgement.
5 Volunteer -there are many organizations, religious communities, schools, hospitals, senior homes, and non profit organizations that would love to have volunteers. What a wonderful way to give back and begin to feel a part of a community of people again. It’s a great distraction from your own sorrows and it’s a great way to rebuild your self esteem.You will also make new friends and develop new social ties. It’s nice to meet people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Sometimes this can open you up to a whole new world that you never even imagined and soon you will be learning and partaking in activities that broaden your horizons… all this, as you reclaim your life.

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My Wedding Party

Part of becoming a part of life again really is hastened by one’s connections to others. Whether old or new bonds, friends will guide you along the path of not giving up and inspire you to continue to live life to the fullest even though your spouse is no longer here.

It’s a good idea to develop friendships your whole life through. You don’t want to face life without your spouse totally alone. Even children will not provide the solace that a good friend will give. They will offer a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, a helping hand. Some will be able to be there for you 24/7, others may not be as reliable. But if you have several pals you will be able to share the burden of your loss with a few and not overburden just one. A good friend will not interrupt your tears, and will listen to you as you repeat over and over again the story of your loss as this is a part of one’s bereavement process.
After you’ve begun to venture out and make connections with men and women, whom you have things in common with and whose company you enjoy, you will begin to heal.
Then grab your girls (guys) and go-wherever, whenever, as you follow the path to your new life and your new beginning.

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Do It Anyway and Show Up for Yourself

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Many, many years ago  a friend of mine was going through a rough patch in her life. We were due to go out to an event when she called to cancel. I  empathized with her, but was also disappointed at the prospect of leaving her behind. So I told her to put on some lipstick, get dressed and come out even though she was feeling blue, and she did just that.

We went to our event and much to her surprise she managed to enjoy herself immensely. Getting out gave her a chance to get her mind off of her troubles and to show up for herself. She found herself feeling better about her situation and was glad that she had given in to going to the event which ended up being a distraction from her problems. Several years later she would remind me of that time and thanked me for urging her to “put on some lipstick and get out” despite how she was feeling. She said that that became her mantra and that she would fall back on that small bit of advice whenever situations stopped her in her tracks.

I have the kind of personality that when I’m sad or despondent, I do not bury my feelings. I will not burden anyone else with my sadness or distress, but I allow myself to lean into the doleful mood of the moment. When I was grieving for my lost husband, I wept mournfully practically all the time. I would not hold it in when I was alone as innately, I somehow knew,that getting it out was essential for my mental wellness and physical well-being.

In the beginning of my grief journey I stepped back from any extracurricular activities. I could barely speak at times, and so texting would eventually become a great way for me to communicate as I began to get used to my new normal. Then one day I was invited to join friends on an outing.I could barely get my feet out of bed, but I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, get myself together and join pals, despite how low I felt.I would continue to push myself to join in different friends’ activities until one day my veil of grief had been lifted.

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Participating in a variety of activities with friends became a much needed distraction for me. I needed a break from my daily painful grief and mourning. I continued to show up for myself, even though when I would return home my house felt empty and hollow and I would again be overcome by my sadness.

Then, one day, I came home and realized that the shroud of emptiness and grief had been lifted. I had made changes to my home and each change blurred the edges of my old existence, my former life with my husband Chuck. By doing this I had made room for my new life and my “new beginning”. I would eventually begin to feel alive again with renewed hope and optimism.This was a long and painful process, but I got through it.

Oftentimes people become consumed with situations they find themselves in, and as if in quicksand, they cannot pull themselves out of a trying situation. It becomes all-consuming and remaining in bed under the covers, seems like the best solution until one’s emotions settle down. But who knows when that will happen? Going out, being among friends, “faking it”, it seems like the last thing one would want to do when grieving after the loss of a spouse. Wallowing in one’s misery, isolated from the rest of the world, is not only desirable but a comfort.

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I would suggest that the way to begin to get a handle on one’s life as one grieves is to do just that, fake it until you make it . No matter how bad you feel, no matter how much you hurt, get up, pull yourself together and show up for yourself. As you continue this ritual of making yourself do “something” every day, you will eventually reap the long term benefits. Ultimately those benefits will be:

1.Getting past the pain of loss

2.Allowing the distractions to help you to heal

3 Creating new relationships.

4.Recognizing who your are becoming as your grief journey transforms you.

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All of these ameliorating actions will serve as strengthening building blocks which will push you out of the dark  and  into your new beginning. It will not happen overnight. It will take as much time as you need.  Focusing on yourself is essential but can also turn into a morbid self indulgence that can be more harmful than good.

So when you feel that you are stuck in your grief and despair, get up…get out and do it anyway. Showing up for yourself will serve you very well in the end and push you toward your new beginning.

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To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu.

After Grief : Change Is on The Way

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I can say undeniably,that I am no longer the person I once was since the death of my husband. However, it has taken me many years to be able to look back  the cumulative progression of my grief experience. I have recalled my long, long mourning, my struggle to rebuild my life and my eventual emergence into my “new normal”.

As the world turns so do we. We often find ourselves beginning again, turning from old ways to new beginnings via  life’s constantly changing circumstances and also by being exposed to new ideas. We are always given an opportunity to open ourselves up to fresher ways of thinking and living our lives. We think that things will remain the same, but they do not, and the news is that they aren’t suppose to. This is all a natural part of life, yours and mine.

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My life before my husband was just that…… before him. When Chuck and I became husband and wife my life totally changed. I was no longer the single woman I’d once been,as I was now in a sacred partnership. I had to learn to accommodate another person’s feelings, habits, routines, idiosyncrasies, values, and emotions. Chuck had to do the same with me. In so doing, we had to learn to compromise, which sometimes got a little messy, but in the end it always worked out for the highest good of each of us and our little family. Life with another involves change and accommodation. We cannot expect to hold sway in every decision, and contrary to popular thought, one person does not always know what’s best at all times. Honoring and respecting a partner’s point of view is a good way  to have a harmonious marriage…give and take….oh but then, I do digress.

There are very few 50/50 relationships. Oh, people say they do things 50/50, especially nowadays, but if someone gets ill or is out of work, or is forced out of the blue to assume an unforeseen responsibility that alters the normal routine of family life, more than likely the husband or wife will have to assume the burden of picking up the slack for the better good of the family. It is at these times when a couple must rely on their love bond, which undergirds the foundation of their marriage, in order to deal with whatever lies ahead. That love bond is the key underpinning of all successful marriages.

Through the struggles and unpredictable situations that will arise in all relationships as we live and grow older, we might be surprised to find out that after the difficulty, the outcome may bear a blessing in disguise. One’s life may take a turn and end up on a road that one never expected to be on. However, one must continue to work through the pain of  personal trials so as not to get stuck at a fork in the road.

My husband Chuck and I had a life together. We cared for ill parents, who seemed to age very quickly, out of the blue. We took on these unexpected new challenges and became the parents, in essence, to our parents. For so many of us, eventually the parent-child roles will be reversed. My husband truly stepped up to the plate. As I began to care for my father, Chuck chipped in as if it were his dad. He became not only someone I could lean on, but the man I could rely on to assist me as I cared for my dad. We adapted our lives to meet the challenges that were quickly coming our way. Our mutual love and commitment, strengthened our bond, allowing us to be there for each other as the words “in sickness and in health” became our reality in truth. Never did we imagine, little did we know, that our sacred promise would be put to the test in a way that would initially shake us up. But in the end, our collective resolve was to see things through, no matter what.We were a fierce force together until the end. After my husband died, and when the dust had settled I would soon begin my own journey through the grieving process and settle into a new lifeone that I could have never imagined.

I read many widows’ stories and laments, numerous ones mirroring my own. Women with children, women who’ve been married over 40, 50, 60 years. Some women have been married a year or two or ten. Sudden illnesses, heart attacks, rare diseases, longterm sickness, accidents.They write about the pain and how they’ll never get over the loss. They write about how life will never be the same. While it’s true you will never get over the loss,  in time the pain will change. Eventually, the hurt will lessen until it becomes a part of the fabric of who you are. You will have a new perspective on your life, friendships, the world, love, death, and all intangible aspects of being a part of the living.

My life has changed drastically from my former life before my husband died. The life I have now is rich and full of hope. It was unimaginable to me in the early stages of my grief that I would ever be in this really good place, but it was created out of the ashes of my tragic loss and formed by the tiny steps that I took to come back to life again. The things I have experienced, the amazing people who have been put in my path and have helped me grow; all this would not have taken place had my husband lived. And, although I would rather have had him here with me, I now understand that was not in the cards for me and my life alone was a part of my destiny. All the pain, and the changes strengthened me, made me wiser, more empathetic, more perceptive, more intuitive. I understand the fragility of life and how the most salient thing is to remember that people, not things, are important. Caring for others is doing God’s work.

Every loss is meant to transform those who are left. These are those watershed moments that define and shape us. You are being asked to step up to a higher level of consciousness when you are faced with unexpected changes in conditions, which can lead to opportunities for a higher state of self-awareness and the possibility of coming into more of your own.

Of course, when it comes to losing a spouse, the initial challenge is getting through the grief and pain of loss and that is always up to those who grieve. Remember, after loss, (although hard to understand when blinded by the veil of grief) you’re being given an opportunity to decide if you are going to remain in pain, running in place or shed the shackles of grief and walk toward something new.

It’s all up to you.

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To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu

Signs of Love

 

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I would have to say that I would characterize my late husband Chuck as a “holiday guy.” He rose to each occasion (birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day etc. ) showering me with gifts symbolic of his love for me. Fancy, cute, funny, always a mix of things to delight my eyes and my heart. In the beginning I loved receiving the fancy baubles, bangles, and beads, many from that Fifth Ave. blue box store, but what I cherished most were the  little stuffed animals, some of which depicted him and me as little bears, and one boy bear with a cute bow tie, similar to the ones Chuck took to wearing on occasion.

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After Chuck passed away I was faced with living each new approaching holiday alone. The Firsts: first Christmas, first birthdays, first anniversaries, and all the other special occasions that we normally celebrated together, loomed in the near distance. Anticipating the various occasions created anxiety within me as I tried to figure out how to brace myself for the rush of emotions I was surely expecting to feel.

I managed to get through the First New Year’s  Eve, with help from friends, as we celebrated New Year’s Eve together (me anticipating an anxiety attack). However, the transition went smoothly and I looked forward to 2010 with hopes of lessening the heavy burden of  my day to day sorrow.

The First Valentine’s Day was a mere few weeks after my husband’s actual death. It seemed to approach slowly and quickly, as time moves differently after loss. I no longer experienced each day singularly, but more as a stream of time: night/day… day/night.

On February 14th, 2009, the very first Valentine’s Day since Chuck’s recent death, I was searching in my collection of cards to finish writing thank you’s to those who had sent condolences. As I rummaged through the various cards I came across a beautiful Valentine’s Day card, never sent, to me from Chuck.

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I was so startled and touched, that I wept uncontrollably and fell back into my husband’s leather recliner, which had become a comfortable resting place for me. As I sat reading the words on the card paying special attention to his signature, I absentmindedly slipped my hands into the side of the chair.I felt something and pulled out a Scrabble tile with a C on it. I wondered if these were  signs of love that were being sent to me so soon after his death. Had he put the card in that place for me to find? Had he deliberately hidden the Scrabble tile in the side of his chair hoping I would find it on a day when I needed to be comforted more than ever?

What I’ve learned about love…it’s abiding and it’s all around

When we lose a spouse we cannot really know where they’ve gone to next. Are they just gone? Will they come back? Have they gone to another plane? Will we see them again? Can they hear our cries of sorrow? Do they cry with us? However, I do believe that we can receive signs from those who have passed away. We have to believe that our love for them is the fuel that empowers their spirit to reach out and let us know that they’re okay, you’re going to be okay, and it’s okay for one to move on with one’s unfinished life in this place.

Whether via a dream, soft touch, a note scribbled in our loved one’s handwriting or a former possession of our lost love, found when we least expect it, I believe that these are all signs from those we have lost. One just has to be open, and know that anything is possible when someone passes away. We must also pay attention to the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle signs of assurance that tell us that our loved ones are keeping watch and still sending love our way.

My husband told a friend that he knew I was going to have a hard time after he had died. Could it be that as Chuck straddled the fence between life and death that he could have planted these items hoping that I would discover them when I needed some tangible assurance of hope….of faith? Or was this just magic, unexplained occurrences, that are a part of the world we live in. I can never really know, but I choose to believe that they were messages from him, meant to encourage, support  and keep me going during the long, long days of my grief. To have found them on Valentine’s Day, that First Valentine’s Day, was beyond mere coincidence, timed by the Universe, so that I would come to  know that even after my husband’s death, he would still send signs of hope, signs of love.

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              Happy Valentine’s Day

 

To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu

 

 

 

Let Me Tell You How It Is

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During the early days of my loss, I was hit in the face with such excruciating pain, I wanted to jump out of my skin.Those around me, for the most part, took their cues from me as to how to be there for me.I was starring in a new role and winging it as I went along.

People offer condolences in many different ways. I experienced all the ways.There were offers to go to lunch, flowers (lots of beautiful arrangements)cards, food and just love. A few people cried with me and didn’t look down on my tears. Even now, when I gather with a few, and as we recall that time, the tears will come.We carry these memories within us even after many years have passed.Often something might ignite a memory and make us feel wistful, melancholy, and sad. These natural feelings are embedded within us as an indelible reminder of persons we’ve loved and lost, and they can be awakened without warning every now and then.

Many folks cannot possibly understand why after the initial shock of loss, it’s so difficult to recover and go back to normal. As I have said many times we will never be “normal” again, and we are on the road to our “new normal” which will occur by-and-by.

I want to tell you what I remember about adjusting to never being able to see my husband again. The first night was very tough. My son and brother rearranged my bed so I could just slip into it.They removed the evidence of what had occurred that morning when my husband passed away in our bedroom.

When I got into bed for the first time, without my husband beside me, the bed felt very empty. I stuffed the other side with pillows so I wouldn’t feel his absence and would be able to get some rest. It worked and I would continue to stuff his side with pillows for many years to come.

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In the morning when I woke up and went to the kitchen to make my coffee I opened the cupboard and saw my husband’s mugs that he used to make for his morning tea. Seeing those cups tore me apart and I stood there weeping,trying to figure out how I would ever get through the days ahead.

Empty slippers, robes, brushes,a toothbrush lying beside mine, still, never to be used by Chuck again. His clothes, and books and the things he used in life enveloped me in sorrow as I longed to see him one last time. When I would go into the bathroom and look at the set of two towels,his embroidered with his initials,I would stand there in a state of shock and cry until my eyes were blurry.

At night when I would go to sleep, bed stuffed with pillows, I would cover my head with my fluffy down comforter drifting off to sleep only to awaken to the same heartache and suffering the next day. Groundhog Day was my new normal.

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In the ensuing weeks if some news was shared, I immediately would want to tell Chuck, but then realized he wasn’t here. When friends, Jane and George, came to visit me after he had passed away, I was so happy to see them and went to tell Chuck when I remembered that he was dead.Dead, dead, dead, getting used to the D word was the worst for me, as I blundered my way through this new landscape that I never imagined becoming a part of. The word held so much finality within it, that I rarely used it and preferred to say that my husband had passed away…or left the planet.

I would sit in my husband’s black leather armchair, and try to “feel” him. Initially when I would do this, I would stick my hand down the side of the chair and find little trinkets,or a note. I began to imagine he’d slipped these little “gifts” there for  me to find and hoping I’d find comfort in them after he was gone. Sometimes I would even wander through my home looking for signs of his return, but soon I began to feel increasingly mad, unstable, and a bit crazy as I tried to manage my day to day grief and maintain my sanity. I could go on and on about losing my best friend of 22 years who had captured my heart and then disappeared. I’m sure a few friends thought I had abandoned them,but they never knew that I was no longer who I once was and I was struggling daily not to fall off a cliff.

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I recount the details of this period in my grieving journey, so that those who think that mourning is a brief walk in the park will understand the layers of emotions one endures after losing a spouse.

There will be many people who will compare their life experiences to your loss. I suppose they do this to make you feel better and to encourage you to get on with your life. They want you to see how lucky you are as compared to whatever experience they’ve been through. I’m here to tell you that comparing different experiences to someone who is in the midst of grieving is one of the worst offerings of sympathy that one can give. I have yet to meet one person who has lost a spouse who was happy to hear how someone else’s experience should make them feel “lucky” that they’d only lost their spouse”. It’s as if they’re telling you to get over it because things could be far worse.

No one can ever know what someone goes through after they’ve lost a spouse unless they’ve had that experience…..period. Try to understand that when someone dies, a part of the person dies with them, and that their life as they knew it has been turned upside down, and that they are feeling like they are losing their mind. This explanation may help those who want to share words of comfort and not statements that diminish the grieving person’s sorrow or ignores what they’re going through. The more one truly knows how to be there for those who have lost a spouse or anyone, hopefully the more patient one will become with them.

I was pretty lucky when it came to having people around me who could ride the waves with me. Those who could not – I let go. Remembering that those who grieve aren’t being self indulgent, they’re not just whining, they are heart brokenhearted and in unimaginable pain. They’re trying to make their way in the wilderness on a dark and prickly path.They need people to listen to them unceasingly, be a shoulder to cry on, give the occasional hug, and never admonish or compare (to divorces, others’ losses, separations, less than stellar childhoods). Never, never make those who grieve feel as though they are doing something wrong.And for those who are on a grieving journey,do not feel obligated to listen to folks who hurt with words. Tell them to STOP and then say,“Let me tell you how it is………”

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To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu

 

How to Draw Strength from Loss

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Daily we hear of so many tragic events that occur around the world.Recently,a woman at a gas pump was randomly hit and killed by car; people at an airport were shot and killed indiscriminately by a disturbed individual.Daily men and women lose children, parents, spouses and siblings. Sometimes people lose their whole family as a result of various accidents, and other tragic occurrences, often without warning.

How does one get past these losses, losses that occur with random regularity?I know from my own experience it is not easy. Unless individuals have gone through the experience of losing a loved one and dealt with the aftermath, no one can possibly know what the family members face.

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My husband was ill with cancer that awful period coinciding with Barack Obama’s campaign that was built on hope. That one word became my daily mantra as I prayed and hoped for a miracle. I remained steadfast in my commitment to the care of my husband and never gave up the hope that he could miraculously pull through.

One of the things that sustained me was what people around me said and more importantly,what they didn’t say. During this time, all sorts of folks, colleagues, friends, acquaintances shared with me their own stories of having dealt with the illness,specifically pancreatic cancer, of a loved one.But they always stopped short of sharing the inevitable outcome – death.And no one told me that my husband would ultimately leave this earth, never to be seen again.

I believe that through God’s goodness and grace, I was shielded from hearing things that would weaken my resolve which would have consequently caused me to lose faith. The hope that I clung to like a lifeline, kept me going until I knew that my husband’s “soul (was) sliding down to die”. (My Father’s Eyes – Eric Clapton)

After he was gone, I became almost catatonic as I numbly prepared for Chuck’s funeral. I knew that this was my new normal, not feeling, not being present, dealing with anxiety and panic feeling nervous and shaken. Although I didn’t appear this way to the outside world, this was my inner state and the beginning of a new life without my beloved.

How did I get past this stage?

I decided to face the music. The temptation to hide under the covers until who knew when was great, but my need to survive was greater. I fought the strong urge to run in place, delay the work that needed to be done. Instead I dove right in, crying, weeping, railing at God, sorting, donating, rearranging my home and my life. I wanted to blur the edges of my life with Chuck as I entered into the unknown. Little did I know that this was the start of my new beginning.

As the eighth anniversary of my husband’s death approaches, I’m reminded of the time when everything in my life was changing.New business and residential development in my neighborhood,new friends, new work, new home. I had this feeling of hope throughout the year I cared for Chuck and that optimism, though buried within the shadow of my grief, would years later slowly emerge as I began to live my new life.

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As I look back on it all I recall that I never took on the burden of “having to be strong”.For whom would I be doing this; to show somebody, what? I didn’t have small children that I had to be there for; I had only myself.When I look back on all I’ve accomplished since my husband’s death, I know that it’s this profound loss that has propelled and strengthened me. 

My strength is not superficial,worn for the comfort of others. My strength is in the rebuilding of my spirit and my belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity, life ,love and the hope of finding joy again.

When you have lost a spouse, you must know in your soul, that you are not bound by the expectations of others. Some will tell you to be strong, you’ll get over it, you’ll be okay, but none of these words will mean anything to you. They are mere words from those who wish to help.

Finally,you can choose to ride the grief wave however you wish. You can swim parallel to it you can go with the ebb and flow of the wave, or you can dive right in, it’s all up to you. I would suggest that you succumb to your brokenness, feel the weakness that accompanies grief.Feel the pain and cry, cry, cry; do not hold it in. The grief journey is a life changing experience and it is meant to be. But, eventually, you will become stronger because of it as it will become the bedrock of your new beginning.

Loss will transform you and you will come out on the other side strengthened by your ability to have gotten through this journey and you will be emboldened by the knowledge that you can now face your new beginning.

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Read more about grief and recovery after loss in Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and all other e-booksellers.

Life’s Road Always Leads One Home

When I was a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, New York, my father used to take me to Prospect Park all the time. Each time we’d go, I would sit under the same big oak tree and wonder what my life as a grown-up would be like. My parents were very socially conscious and political activists. They were educated, cultured and interesting people. They exposed me to all things cultural: art, music, and literature. My father bought me a deck of Authors Cards and I had to memorize each author’s name and recite some of their works eg. Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems: Foreign Lands, My Ship and I, My Shadow, all from A Child’s Garden of Verses. These assignments were  part of my “homeschooling” and these lessons have stayed with me and probably added to my already active imagination, as I imagined my life in the future.

Early on I fancied myself a writer. I would sit at my desk, that my father had built, and type on my little typewriter. I was never really typing anything of note, but I felt like a “girl of letters”.As I tapped away at the keyboard I wrote stories about people, places and things. I wrote poems and some were published in what was known as the School Bank News, which was a little local school newspaper published by our neighborhood bank. These were short poems about spring, the weather, the seasons, rainy and sunny days. I would watch programs on our one TV about female writers and imagined myself living in Manhattan writing, meeting a wonderful man, getting married and living happily ever after. Well you know, I daydreamed and lived in my little head a lot.Prospect Pk (1)

As I got older, I still had a very vivid and keen imagination, however, I began writing short stories in my English classes. This all against the backdrop of a burgeoning civil rights movement, with events daily unfolding on our one TV. The Montgomery bus boycott, the emergence of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the KKK, Birmingham bombings, beatings of civil rights workers, water hoses. All of these events would soon affect my writing. What I wrote began to change from light musings of my future life to thoughts about the changing times. Soon the authors I would be reading included Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Dorothy West and Mary McCarthy a mixture of black and female authors, that helped to shape my thoughts about life and the way I would come to view the world. We would suffer many losses in the 60’s, so many…. I didn’t really understand “what was goin’ on…..”. I was young and at the beginning of everything.

As the 70’s approached, I began to lose my uncles, my father’s brothers, right into the 80’s and 90’s. These were all sad events in my life. I lost my grandmother in the early 80’s and my godfather, Dr. Eugene Massy, then also, both while my parents were serving in the Peace Corps. These last two losses I considered to be the greatest at that time as they were the two people I was closest to, especially my Nana, who had been in my life since “my beginning. I would mourn her quietly for many years.

When my father passed away in 2005, my life stood still. I had been daddy’s little girl and he was the one who inspired me to write and write and write. His mother, my grandmother, had been a schoolteacher and a published author in her little town of Lowmoor, Virginia. My favorite aunts, Anice and Ailleen, as well as my father often mentioned how I reminded them of her. After his death, a light in me went out. I would mourn him sorely and quietly up until the day that my husband became ill in December 2007. I’d built up a lot of hurts inside keeping everything in, but the pain from the loss of my dad and others became a shadow grief that never really went away.

So it seems fitting that after the death of my husband Chuck, I would eventually put pen to paper and express my feelings of enduring loss, sorrow and the rebuilding of my life. Only this time, after having lived a full and rich life, I could now share my experiences, advice and wisdom with others.Image result for writing pen on book images

When I look at my life’s trajectory and the road that I’ve traveled, full of losses, pain, and silent grieving, I can see how I’ve arrived at this place. Now that I’ve felt the pain and endured the suffering, I feel free.

This is the road that has led me home.

 

To find out how you can survive grief after the loss of a spouse read Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon.com just copy and paste this link to purchase your copy:   http://tinyurl.com/qghzw3e  

Uncluttering and Discovering Yourself

My late husband Chuck was a real pack rat. He kept so many mementos from his early days in high school, college and business. He had old report cards, and letters, playbills and tons of old record albums. He even had his college beanie emblazoned with the H which stood for his undergrad alma mater, Howard University. These items along with his faded Howard University athletic tank were  all tucked away in a duffel bag in a closet.

We were city apartment dwellers with no basement to hide and store memorabilia and personal keepsakes. Chuck did pull out the shirt often and wear it around the house. My husband loved to read and thus had a huge collection of books. He liked to reread his favorites usually about History, American History, wars and a good mystery now and then. He read all the local papers daily including the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal.

I  am a collector of things also: old postcards, letters, jewelry, letters from long gone relatives and beaus and long-ago pen pals, along with all the correspondence from my parents which were sent to me when they served in the Peace Corps in the 80s.

I have old photos and lovely Limoges boxes, a collection of beautiful timepieces which I try to pull out and wear with regularity. I have many of the books my son read when he was a little boy, and some of his baby clothes neatly packed away for the future grandson (or granddaughter). I used to want to hang onto some classic styles hoping that they would make a comeback. A white button-down shirt, black ankle pants, Mary Jane shoes. Although I was right on a few occasions most of the time when the style did make a comeback, it would reemerge tweaked in a way that suited the prevailing fashion trends.

I used to plead with my husband to throw out all the papers that he had accumulated over the years. He promised that he would, but he never really did; they were like a security blanket for him. The more the piles rose the more secure in his fortress he felt. My husband’s insistence on holding onto everything made me very sensitive about my own predilection for collecting “things”. So I put myself in check and would periodically ditch those items that no longer held meaning for me.

He was Inspired to Purge

After Chuck died, I was faced with many decisions, one of the most important being what to keep and what to throw away. The year Chuck was ill was the year he finally “got it”, unfortunately it was a lot too late. During that period, while I was at work, Chuck sorted through all of his papers and documents and photographs and began to get rid of an accumulation of many years of “stuff”. The items that he treasured he put into an album. These included awards, letters of commendation, and all sorts of treasures that were important to him. He began creating a visual legacy for he knew that his time was limited.

It would be a long while before I could pore over his carefully curated collection. These were the items that he felt would tell “his story” and leave his mark in this place.

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 A Very Sacred Task

Eventually, I edited his belongings and kept only those things that had meaning to me. This very sacred task got me thinking about my own assortment of keepsakes which included correspondences, journals, notes, postcards, and pictures. I realized that I was holding onto items from my past that no longer held the same meaning that they once did. There was a lifetime of old photos of grammar school chums, names I could no longer recall. Books, with tattered covers falling off, vestiges from my undergraduate psychology class, my graduate school philosophy and education classes too. They filled up my library and made it look very impressive, but I never opened them as they no longer held meaning for me. I found drawings that I had created years before in art classes that I’d taken at the Brooklyn Museum and the Art Students League. These were proof that I had once dabbled in pen and ink, and watercolor, and that I loved drawing portraits of anyone who would sit for me (usually a reluctant brother or my sister). As I purged, I came to the realization that these were items that were part of a life that I no longer had. I no longer needed to prove anything to anyone about my intellect or artistic talent. After all, I was me  ,just as I am, after all was said and done. I also decided that I did not want to leave my only son with tons of items to sort through that would hold little meaning for him once I had finally left this place.

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 A Final Act of Love

As I sorted through all of my things I began to feel a bit freer. It was like going to a resort or hotel and breathing a  sigh of relief at being away from the hustle and bustle of city life, having arrived only with the bare necessities in my suitcase. Thus, in a big way, my husband inspired me to do my own housecleaning. There was enough to deal with after he died, so the fact that he considered me in his final days and finally got rid of the clutter was what I considered an extreme and selfless act of love. I didn’t have to wonder what this meant to him, who these people were in a pic, why a document was important. It spared me the sorrow, I surely would have felt, as I touched and smelled more items that were a part of my husband’s life here.The memories that my purging, decluttering, sorting and ditching conjured up were snapshots of a former life and times long gone. And even though I no longer have the tangible items which I never looked at anyway, I have the memories permanently etched in my mind that I can access whenever I like. I decided that I no longer needed those material things to help me relive my past, particularly now that I was embracing a new beginning.

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The Past Can Block One’s Future

As time goes on we find that we have accumulated so many things that we don’t ever use and never look at. They become a security blanket of sorts, but they can also become the “thing” that can prevent us from moving forward. Of course many people have collections of items that they display, that they change seasonally, that they look at frequently. Then there are those items that you may want to save for future generations to peruse as they research who their ancestors were. But oftentimes there’s just an accumulation of memories from our past that can prevent us from being in the now. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold on to timeworn treasures that tell “our stories” but we have to discern, at some point, whether our story is going to mean anything to those who come after us….those who have to go through our stuff deciding what should stay and what should go. Our friends and family will not know why we held onto a collection of coins, or who certain people are in faded photos, now faded and torn, or why a special handkerchief  is neatly folded inside a Ziploc baggie.

 Locking The Memories in My Heart

I decided to lock these memories in my heart and save my only child from having to deal with a puzzle after I’m gone.

There’s a lot to be said for living with less, not more. One’s  history is an accumulation of a life well lived (or not), but experiences all. Many of these events in life are meticulously recorded or collected in the form of keepsakes and memorabilia with the intention that we will one day look back on our lives with sadness, fondness and sentimental thoughts. But often these items can clutter our lives and prevent us from living or moving forward. Sometimes, unwittingly, we hold on tightly to the past which prevents us from truly living in the present.

I was able to let go of a lot of my husband’s items in stages over about a five year period. I was able to give away most of his beautiful clothing in the beginning, which I rushed to do, because I was afraid if I did not it would be hard for me to do it later the longer I held onto them. I did not want to go into the closet and look at his clothing every day, with a very lightheaded feeling of anxiety, as I put my face in his coats and shirts and weep and weep and weep. I was already weeping without having to have the constant reminder of the daunting task that awaited. But there were little items like cufflinks, and watches, and glasses, and handkerchiefs, gloves, etc. that I was able to let go of as time ensued. Time does give one a new perspective on things and gradually, I was able to hold onto a modest collection of his possessions without having to have felt overwhelmed had I taken on the task of getting rid of everything initially.

Open a Portal to New Experiences

At some point we must begin to think about the items from our past, and decide whether it’s necessary to hold onto everything. We will want to keep some things from deceased loved ones for sure, but we may find that as we gradually discard those objects that no longer hold the same meaning that they once did, we will be opening a portal to new experiences that will be just as fulfilling and maybe even more meaningful than the old.

Life is finite, and our experiences are always unfolding. Let’s make room for new ones and keep the old ones locked in our hearts.

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To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu

Hope in the Dark

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After we lose a spouse, this new silence in our lives is deafening.We are used to the familiar sounds of our loved ones and, after they have slipped away, we must now get used to the din of nothingness which inhabits the space where they were once alive in all their glory.

That’s how it was for me after my husband Chuck died. I could no longer hear his voice, his laugh. The noiseless TV sat still, no longer the constant backdrop to our lives. That period, in the beginning, was one of the most difficult periods of my grief journey. Getting used to the absence of his presence in our home, in my life, and in my heart, was excruciatingly painful. I realized, during the early days of my grieving how close we had been, so much so, that I felt as though I’d lost a limb, and was now crippled with sorrow. As I wrote in my book, Brave in a New World, I felt as though I had been flung into a dark tunnel,with an ability to exist in the outer world, my day to day life, while facing another inner reality, adrift in a sea of darkness.

Oftentimes my mind would drift as I struggled to maintain my sanity in this new and dreary world. I had to remember to do everything consciously, notice where I was putting my keys, pay attention to whether I brushed my teeth so as not to forget and end up doing it again or making sure I didn’t pay the same bill twice. Simple tasks became difficult, and I became very forgetful of people’s names, events, and where I put things.When someone would ask me if I remembered something and my answer was no, they would occasionally insist that I must recall a person, place or thing. I would feel anger and frustration and I wanted to scream out that my husband had died and I was just trying to remember who I was. I was having a hard time staying on top of  the small tasks so I could get through each and every new day. In order to go to church on Sunday, I had to prepare a day ahead. If I didn’t, I might get confused as to what to wear or misplace my church envelope, which would delay my getting to service on time, making me so frustrated I would give up altogether. I rarely lashed out, but instead slowly distanced myself from those who just didn’t “get it”.

Even as I continued to move forward through the Firsts: Chuck’s birthday, our anniversary, Father’s Day, Christmas, I struggled to push on. I didn’t want each occasion to hinder my progress as I feared becoming frozen in place, interrupting my hard work toward recovery and reawakening. I yearned to be free, free of the pain, the hurt, the day to day battle to remain lucid and aware. I endured these struggles each and every day which, at first, seemed to have no end in sight.

I continued on like that for months, years really, and then one summer day, I decided to write a book. I wanted to let everyone know what to expect when they lose a spouse. I felt that they should know that the feelings they’d be experiencing were going to seem scary, deeply painful and unexpected. I wanted to talk about the experience of grieving because no one ever tells you what it’s like. I wanted to bring this unspoken issue out into the light and remove the shroud of secrecy. Let’s face it, nowadays we talk about everything else, so why should the topic of  grief and loss be so off limits, taboo in the twenty first century?

I wanted to validate the feelings of  those who silently grieve and let them know that they are not alone. For some, it’s an experience that can and does last forever. Some widows and widowers die within a short period after their spouse, because, for them,to live life without their husband or wife is not an option. After the actor Christopher Reeves’ death, his wife Dana would pass away two years later. It’s so important that we check on our loved ones who grieve so that they can remain vital, maintaining the will to live and not grow the desire to die. For those of us who wish to get on with our lives it’s important to understand that grieving and the pain that ensues is normal and  expected.

Eventually I did see a glimmer of light at the end of that tunnel. Initially it was very small, just a pinhole, but eventually it grew. Soon I recognized that light as hope, hope in the dark. This was my signal, a sign, that as I drew myself up out of the pit of despair and became open to my new future without Chuck, I would be supported in that effort by God, the Universe and all of humanity. All that I needed became available for me, at my disposal until I finally could see a tiny twinkling light beckoning me into my new beginning.

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To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu