Coping with Grief and The Holidays

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Anticipating the “first Christmas” without my husband produced a lot of anxiety within me. I remember doing last-minute errands on Christmas Eve, one stop included picking up a cake from Magnolia Bakery. My husband loved cake and sweets and getting a cake from this bakery had become a holiday tradition for us. On the first Christmas Eve, my son and his girlfriend were coming to pick me up, as it was my last stop before I went back home. There was a light snow falling and I sat outside the bakery waiting for my son to arrive. Suddenly, as I felt the snow on my cheeks and watched the Christmas Eve last minute hustle as couples walked by arm in arm, with packages and shopping bags, I began to silently weep. The tears came down my cheeks and seemed to freeze on my face. I couldn’t believe that I was about to celebrate Christmas without my husband and I was missing him terribly as I thought about how he loved the holiday and how he was no longer here to celebrate. I wanted to shout, “Hey, how can you people keep going on with your lives and my husband is no longer here?” I didn’t however, but went home, put last-minute touches on Christmas dinner, wept and wept, eventually falling into bed, silently wishing that the next day would whisk by in an instant. That first Christmas was small and we prayed a prayer of hope and healing, while acknowledging our loss. This would remain a part of a new ritual incorporated into each succeeding year. Thereafter, the pain lessened little by little for me, brand new traditions were born, now including many more who have become a part my of my “family of friends” as well as  my own immediate family.

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The first holidays after the loss of a loved one are referred to as the firsts. No, I didn’t coin that word, but a few months after my father had died, I spoke to a couple and told them I was about to celebrate my first Thanksgiving without my dad. The wife said to me, “Oh you’re about to experience the firsts”. Since then, I’ve come to refer to the firsts as the first holidays in a succession of holidays that occur in the first year after the death of a spouse or any loved one. Those who are left must figure out how to manage each occasion, now alone. Every occasion takes on a new meaning, even the less significant ones underscore the absence of the lost loved one.

After my husband Chuck died, I had to face all of the upcoming occasions of our lives, previously celebrated together, alone. There were also several new milestones that he would not be a part of. While I may now continue to share these holidays with friends and family, pangs of sorrow sometimes appear out of the blue and I just have to roll with it. Grief is like that as it comes in waves. But as time goes on one learns to manage those unexpected emotional lows as it becomes a part of our “new normal”.

The bereaved approach these annual holidays with much anxiety and trepidation, especially the first ones in the year that they have experienced the loss of a loved one. Some may feel anticipatory anxiety, while others have feelings of dread and foreboding in anticipation of the upcoming occasions.

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I too, felt some of these feelings after losing my husband and Thanksgiving and Christmas loomed like monsters in the distance. I did manage to get through each occasion as best as I could, and found that each subsequent year got a tiny bit easier.

Here are a few tips on how one can cope with grief and the holidays:

  1. Don’t be Hard on Yourself– keep in mind that the holidays will be different and if you’re hosting, ask others to pitch in and help, thus picking up the slack of not having your spouse to assist.
  2. Go along with the Day’s Activities– Avoid isolating yourself, join family and friends as much as you’re able. But if you decide that the day gets a little bit overwhelming then retreat to another room away from the maddening crowd. There you can take a breather from the stress of the occasion. If you’re not hosting, and  decide to leave early that’s fine too. Do what you can and remember you are in charge of how you want to spend the holidays. Also keep in mind grief comes in waves and any number of sights, sounds, and things said can catch you off guard emotionally. If some try to force you to stay, bless them, wish them well and leave anyway. If folks feel upset or insulted, that’s on them as you are only in charge of yourself and your well being. Follow your heart and your mood and just go with your flow. 

3. Change-You may want to consider changing the way that you celebrate. Incorporating new rituals, eliminating old ones that cause distress, is a good way to ease yourself into the newness of handling the holidays without your spouse or loved one.

4. Scale Down– Many occasions entail several days of celebrations. Try to pick and choose where and what you will attend. You want to conserve your energy to prevent becoming overwhelmed and exhausted. New Year’s Eve might be a great time to chill and relax at home, especially since the celebratory activities may not fit your mood. However, a New Year’s Day brunch, or open house may seem less overwhelming and easier to navigate.

In this time of the pandemic, social upheaval, social distancing and loss, we will all be scaling down this holiday season. To protect ourselves and others, we may not be able to have the family gatherings that we’re used to having. Some of you, sadly, may have not been able to share the last moments of a beloved family member who came down with COVID-19. Honoring our lost loved ones during this rare time in history, beckons us to create new and oftentimes unconventional ways of including them in our celebrations. During such a difficult moment in our lives we can create ways of seeing each other via ZOOM, and other similar platforms. We can share pictures and stories with family and friends, while still connecting with loved ones still here. Remember all life has value and no one has a right to put any interest above preserving lives. Now that people feel more comfortable about gathering with others who are  vaccinated, we can begin to resume Holiday traditions in person, always mindful of new rituals that continue to keep others safe.

5. Sit This Year Out- If the loss is fresh, and you feel as if you cannot bear going through the stressful rituals customary for your holiday celebrations, feel free to sit it out. Let close friends and family know your intentions so they don’t worry, and plan the day so that you can deal with the onslaught of emotions that may come up. Go to a movie, binge watch your favorite TV shows, or catch a movie classic that is unrelated to a holiday memory. Give yourself a spa day at home, curl up with a good book and a favorite beverage and just do the day your way. You might even want to visit the grave of your lost loved one.

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Making a plan to honor your lost loved one will help everyone to feel a part of your experience and help them to express their own thoughts on the loss as many have been impacted also in various ways. It may not seem like it in the beginning, it didn’t to me, but rest assured that the pain will slowly subside. Each moment of pain, in time, will give way to a renewed spirit and an appreciation of a life once lived, a life once shared, and beautiful memories to have and to keep.

One day you may decide to give back to others in some way during the holidays. This will help to fill the void left by your loss. Believe it or not, helping others is one way of helping yourself to heal. In time you will have gotten a handle on dealing with your loss. Remember, be patient with yourself and do not be discouraged as this too shall get easier.

I promise.

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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 .

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Love Notes: What Remains

In this month of love and romance I share these thoughts with you:

I met my future husband to be in the summer of 1987. Several people have wanted to take the credit for bringing us together, but it was my friend Kathy who initially introduced us at a fundraiser I hosted annually to benefit the Central Park Conservancy here in New York City, called the Whites Picnic. Later that summer, on Labor Day weekend, Chuck and I would meet by chance again at a friend’s barbecue in Brooklyn. He came over and reintroduced himself to me and felt my hair, mentioning how soft it was. Chuck was  marketing a line of women’s hair care products for a very high profile client,so touching my hair was appropriate and sent a tingle up my spine.

We had our first date, rather unexpectedly. I was the host and producer of a lifestyle show on cable television and was searching for single men for a show I was doing on males giving their views on the state of  male/female relationships. As it so happened, one guy could not make it but suggested Chuck as a replacement for him. It ended up that Chuck couldn’t come either, but he appreciated the invitation. Soon after Chuck would call me and ask me out on our first date. It was a freezing evening, that had included a day where I had to attend the funeral of a friend. Death, loss, and new beginnings were all unwittingly wrapped up in that day. The movie we saw: Fatal Attraction. Anyway, we were soon a couple beginning to enjoy our life together.

The first time Chuck had me over to his apartment for dinner it was the first time I would be seeing where he lived. Expecting a tricked out,modern bachelor pad, I was surprised and horrified to see a very humble studio with mismatch furnishings, hand-me-downs from relatives. But he had lit candles, that were actually melted down, and he’d prepared a superb gourmet meal for me with his little brown hands. That act of giving to me by putting in the effort to make me a dinner from scratch, was a moment in time that I treasured always as I came to love that one room studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Eventually, my son and Chuck’s two nephews, who would one day be cousins, would, on occasion,pile into his apartment and his sister, with whom I had become fast friends, and I would leave the boys there and go on our merry way. Shopping and eating on the then trendy Columbus Avenue and beyond was what us carefree single moms pursued.Chuck and the boys would have adventures of their own exploring Central Park, which Chuck knew with his eyes closed, or they’d take in a movie or some such fun. Whatever they did it was sure to include lots of sweets and food and fun, along with lectures on how to be a good, solid man. Those were the halcyon days, great memories that I never want to be erased.

Chuck and I loved the movies and went to many, Glory and Breakfast at Tiffany’s among our faves. We would cry at the sad parts and laugh at our favorite TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Dream On.

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One of my favorite movies is Heartburn with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Well, there is a part in the movie where the character Rachel, decides to whip up a meal of Spaghetti Carbonara. I was so inspired by that part in the movie that I decided to make Carbonara for Chuck.I went to a neighborhood market, Fairway, which was at that time smaller and there was only one. I happened to run into the manager and asked him where I could find pancetta which is an Italian smoked bacon. I told him that I was making Spaghetti Carbonara. He proceeded to take me to the back of the store and introduced me to the butcher, and he tells the man to “give her whatever she needs“. He then got on the phone and called someone who gave me a recipe for Carbonara. I don’t know what made him do that, but I like to think he was just happy to hear that someone was cooking in the name of love.

That meal must have been blessed by the gods because when I served it to Chuck, he was so impressed that he would think of me as this really great cook. What he didn’t know was that without that recipe, it could’ve really turned into runny eggs with bacon minus the spaghetti.

Recently, I came across this recipe as I looked through old mementos. I thought back on that time and how, our love, for movies, food and my love for Chuck inspired me to make a meal that was special, just for him. His caring love for me had inspired him to do the same. As the characters in the movie were at some point professing their disdain for marriage and vowing never to do so, in the next scene there they were getting hitched in a prewar apartment in the Apthorp located in this city that I love.

I, the dreamy romantic, would like to think that my Carbonara, made with my little brown hands, sprinkled with all the love I had for Chuck, is what touched his heart and drew us ever closer together. Eventually, we too would walk down the aisle of New York’s St. Paul’s Chapel, beginning our new life, till death do us part.

In the years since my husband has been gone, ten to be exact, my life has changed drastically. Thoughts of Chuck come into my mind now and then but not, as in the beginning, every single moment of every single day. I’m incredibly grateful for having been able to spend a large portion of my life with him. I learned many things, I expanded my thinking, I became purpose driven and I recognized my own strengths, as well as my very strong will. I found my voice and speak up for myself instead of holding it in as I was prone to do.I learned from Chuck not to “suffer fools gladly” particularly if I realize that they mean me more harm than good. He changed my life and took me to another level. But then,that is what relationships should do: help each other to grow instead of stranding each other on a barren cold island in the middle of a desert. I am different now and have discovered that I will need someone different for this part of my life’s journey. Grief, life after death, entering my new normal, changed me, for the better, I think. God didn’t abandon me after all, as he sent me friends along the way to make me laugh, wipe my tears and gently push me toward that light at the end of the tunnel. In the end, I did make it through the loss of my husband, which let me know that if I could, anyone who wants to can.

My time spent with Chuck was magical, real, full of life’s travails and moments of pure joy. It was all meant to be and then like magic it was gone. But like the memories and random love notes that conjure thoughts of days long gone, the love remains still, spiraling, like spaghetti, up to heaven.

Happy Valentine’s Day

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

Sacred Ritual

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When I was in the midst of taking care of my husband, I was actually in a vortex, the “caretaker vortex”.When I stepped outside of that bubble, I did normal things. I went to work, ran errands, did everyday chores, but once I stepped back into that “caretaker mode” I had a routine that kept me focused, organized and helped me to make sure that all of Chuck’s needs were met without interruption. It was my official responsibility, which I did with regularity like clockwork, over and over again. It was the same day every day, but there was a comfort in those routines, as I cared for Chuck and prayed for a miracle.

This was a special, almost hallowed time…doing those repetitive routines. I made sure his meals were prepared, doctors appointments were made and kept, the house was clean and germ free for him and I was always near in case of an emergency, of which there were many. This was my life, my new life after Chuck’s cancer diagnosis. I was thrust into this new world without warning and I had to step up to the plate. No more summer plans, no more family reunions, no more holiday family gatherings, birthday parties, movies or other normal activities that we did together. I was just making sure that my husband would survive his circumstance so that we could one day get back to  life normal. As I look back on those days which were hard, tiring, relentless, repetitive, and long I now take comfort in that very special time. It was a sacred time between my husband and me.

After my husband died and I emerged from the bubble, I felt as though I was stepping into a brand new world, a new life without my husband. It was all so unsettling and I felt off kilter. Soon, I would be able to move forward, but that would be a long time coming.

I am now convinced that my prayers for a miracle were answered. No, Chuck did not survive his circumstance, but he did have stage IV pancreatic cancer and there are many who do not survive past three months. My husband survived for one full year after diagnosis and I believe that our love, bond and routine kept Chuck here for a little while longer. Our new life was held together by our commitment to each other, our faith and our belief in hope. I’m sure I was more hopeful than he as his health began to rapidly decline toward the end of 2008. I’ve even come to the realization that our routine, my life in that sacred vortex with him, delayed his death. I am also convinced, had it not been for me, he would’ve let go of this life sooner than he did. I believe he hung in there for me and I know I kept him here for me.

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I’m not absolutely sure that I did the right thing, clinging to my husband’s fading presence, but I know that a long while after he had passed away, I would look back on that last year with him as something special. As hard as it was for me, I know it was even more difficult for my husband as his body, riddled with pain, deteriorated bit by bit. Little did I know that that experience was preparing me for the life I have now and since his death, I have, in time, been reborn.

Palm Sunday represents the foreshadowing of death and the road to triumphant rebirth. For me, it symbolizes all that I went through and with the advent of Holy Week upon us, I am reminded of my own long, dark journey into grief with the hope of a glimpse of light. When, after a long while, I finally saw it, I knew that that was my rebirth…..my new beginning.

I have now come to the conclusion that in the 22 years that Chuck and I were together, the period in which he was ill, saying that long goodbye, was truly my most sacred time with him. And when he died, I knew that he had also been reborn.

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