Anniversaries: Making Progress

Exiting St.Paul’s Chapel to resounding applause.

Chuck and I were married on June 22, 1991. It was a rainy overcast day but I was determined to not let anything put a damper on my wedding day. Everything happened like a dream. Sitting in the limo on the Columbia University campus listening to Bach, while waiting for the signal to walk across the campus to St. Paul’s Chapel. I remember feeling very regal, secure and exquisitely happy as the rain fell on the windows of the limo.I was sitting in my beautiful wedding gown, and at some point waving at my girls, Lynn and Brenda, who ran through the raindrops to send me best wishes their reassuring faces let me know that they were there for me that day. They are still my forever friends. I recall sitting in a dressing room at the church with my sister who was just stunning as my matron of honor. The gracious Rev. Harger, at that time associate pastor of my father’s church, Canaan Baptist, who officiated my wedding, came into the room and was astonished at how much my sister and I resembled each other.

Chuck waiting as I entered the Chapel

I recall my cousin Bruce telling me to “smile girl” as I was exiting the church with my new husband, hand in hand. Everyone laughed, all 250 guests, and clapped so loudly that I’m sure the angels in heaven sang that day. That evening, after the fun reception, we had planned to stay at the newly opened Paramount Hotel in Manhattan for a few days. A planned trip to the Bahamas would happen in August. On our way to the hotel we stopped by my parents’ apartment and when they opened the door, guests from the wedding. who were still celebrating at their house, stood and applauded us. My friend Patricia LaPLante was in from Paris and she was among those who greeted us as was my childhood friend Sherry and her mom (may she rest in peace) who was like an aunt to me.

Our beautiful prenuptial event in Hastings on Hudson,N.Y.

It was surely a momentous time filled with love, happiness and hope as Chuck and I began our new life together along with my son Karim, who loved Chuck and Chuck loved back with all his heart. I was never more happier and I never felt more loved.

Never happier, never felt more loved.

Many years later after Chuck had passed away, each impending anniversary without Chuck was very, very painful for me. I would be aware of the approaching day and would plan how I would spend it or get through it. For many years Chuck and I had spent our anniversary celebrating with friends Jane and George and/or JoAnn and Michael. Both couples had married the same year Chuck and I had, only a few weeks apart. We had such fun together marking each anniversary as the years swiftly passed. Chuck and I had been married 17 1/2 years by the time he had passed away in 2009. After Chuck’s death and as I remembered our special day each year, I would be filled with anxiety as I planned a special way to mark the occasion.

Some years I visited the cemetery and some years I tried not to think about it just to make it through the day. In the very beginning the pain from the loss cut deeply. Our wedding anniversary, having been the most significant event that Chuck and I shared, now found me suffering through the day alone year after year.

Thus, it was surprising that in this year, which would have been our 27th year of marriage, I missed the day altogether. It was 3 to 4 days before I realized what had occured. As I scrambled  to gather pictures to create a little tribute on Facebook or Instagram I decided to write down my thoughts instead. I was suddenly hit with the idea that I was no longer under grief’s veil. I actually haven’t been under the veil of grief for quite some time, but to have totally missed our anniversary caught me by surprise. I thought back on my journey through the initial days of grief and loss and I realized that that immeasurable pain and sorrow no longer followed me wherever I went. I now live life without overlapping my past with my present life and current relationship. Honestly, I never thought I would see the day that my anniversary would slip by without my noticing.


My story of grief, loss and recovery has become my triumphant testimony as I continue to live this life, happy again. When we lose a spouse, we feel that we will never be the same and we won’t. We are not meant to be. The initial pain is unforgiving and relentless and follows us like a shadow. We’re sure that this is our forever normal, and oftentimes, many people prefer to stay in that place for fear of betraying their lost loved one or perhaps because they have no idea how to rebuild a life without their life partner. Many widows and widowers never think of looking for love again, as they’ve already lost their ONE, and no one can ever measure up to the iconic figure they have created a shrine to in their minds and hearts. Painful feelings of loss may linger for years and years as each momentous occasion passes without their spouse’s presence; this is all normal and expected.

Part of my wedding party.That was a time.

But life has a way of helping us to heal, subtly and slowly, until one day we cannot believe the time that has passed and we’re finally feeling better as we see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is important that we make sure that we put effort into seeking support and advice as we grieve and that we also actively rebuild our lives so that we can live in the new world that has been thrust upon us. All who grieve will one day notice that the pain is diminishing and that the anxiety we once felt as the first, second or sixth anniversary, Christmas or Thanksgiving and other occasions are celebrated, take on a different feel. We’re able to handle our emotions better and we will be able to recall, without anxiety, the memories that remain. This is not a betrayal but a healthy sign of progress being made.

I know that I have overcome a huge hurdle as time passed and the acute pain lessened, which allowed me to experience life anew. We must continue to work hard toward getting through our grief. For those of us who have been on a grief journey we understand that it is the brightest stars, once we are able to see them, that will reflect light onto all who have lost a spouse, allowing us to feel whole and revel in the progress that we have made.This is what I call our Reawakening.

The darkest nights reflect the brightest stars.” Rumi

Mommy and I during an extraordinary time in my life as I wed my beloved

                       

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

Our Memories Are Ours Alone

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I am the eldest daughter and sibling of four. For several years I was an only child and I had my mother and my father all to myself. I wished for a sister, someone I could bond with, a sisterly ally, but by the time she arrived I was 10 years old and when I was 20 she was 10, oh but then I do digress.

My mother recently turned 90, ninety is the new ninety, I like to say. She’s spry and active and independent, a retired schoolteacher, very proud, and although she acts as though she remembers everything, her memory is a little bit fuzzy. My siblings and I celebrated by throwing her a surprise birthday party in her honor and it was a grand time. As I planned her celebration, I began to think back on my own childhood and all types of memories began to emerge.

My parents were very busy people, working in the day and going to college in the evenings. My mother worked at the Bell Telephone company in downtown Brooklyn, NY and my father worked at the Main Post Office also in downtown Brooklyn. He was a part of the Greatest Generation, post World War II men, having served in the Navy.

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As the only child for several years I received a lot of attention. I went to ballet although I wanted to take tap, I took art classes and yearned to write stories and poetry. Because I was an only child then my recollections of those days are all mine. My relationship with my parents was different than the relationship my siblings would have with them in the ensuing years. I knew my parents longer than they did and lived in places they did not. I lived in South Brooklyn, my siblings did not. I lived with my grandmother in Harlem, my my siblings did not. I went to PS 32 in South Brooklyn, my siblings did not. We lived on the 13th floor at 417 Baltic St. and I could see the Statue of Liberty from my window. My siblings never had that experience.

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I remember walks with my dad and discovering my shadow, playing house on the monkey bars in the Gowanus Houses with my mom, dancing to Yma Sumac, a Peruvian singer whose exotic voice was popular in the 50s, as well as listening to my father read poetry to me. I remember going to the March on Washington in 1963 and even though my much younger brothers went also, I had gone a week earlier and stayed with my aunt and cousin. It was during that time that I developed a crush on a guy named Wilbur.I remember our long talks that week I stayed in DC and at the March he climbed up a tree below the Lincoln Memorial to get a better glimpse of  Dr. King as he was approaching the podium to make a speech.Alas, it was impossible for him to get a good view as there were just too many very tall trees which obscured his vision. I would never see Wilbur again after that time spent, but in that moment in time I had great respect for what I perceived as his political activism and civic mindedness.This was my backdrop to a special moment on a momentous occasion in August of 1963. It became my precious memory, no one else’s but mine.

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There are also the collective experiences that all of us children shared and generally those were food memories which we remembered in the same way. We would soon move to a Jewish neighborhood in East New York, where we were one of two Black families in the building. Here is where our shared memories would begin. For example, black and white cookies from the neighborhood bakery for five cents, delicious pizza from Bella Pizzeria on Van Siclen Avenue that cost just 15 cents a slice, Carvel Ice Cream cones for 15 cents. But I also have recollections of penny and two for a penny candy from a candy store that I would pass on my way home from PS 32 in South Brooklyn. None of my brothers and sisters share that memory because none of them lived in Gowanus with me except my brother Anthony who was but a mere baby.

Then there was also the time one of my brothers disappeared all day, reappearing 12 hours later, (he had spent the day at St. Gabriel’s Church (we all attended the Catholic school) watching weddings and horsing around with pals. There were no cell phones in those days and my parents were very distraught, but they were so relieved when he finally reappeared safe and sound that he didn’t really get punished. That seemed a little unfair, as I couldn’t help but think if that had been me I would have had to have hid in a closet for a few weeks until the dust had settled. After all I was the oldest and was expected to set an example.

Because my parents were on tight schedules, they charged me with caring for my siblings. I actually hated that responsibility but I had no choice. We were to eat, do homework, study, with no TV. However, in those days TVs had tubes, which got warm when the TV was turned on. I was a very studious individual, a top student and I studied hard but I also studied that TV and tried to figure out how we could circumvent that no TV rule. I missed watching my favorite TV shows in the evening, so I figured that after our school work was done we would watch the TV up until a half hour before my parents were due back, and then I unplugged it so that when they arrived the set was cool, school work was done, and off to bed we’d go. My parents never figured out that that’s what I had done, which was unusual because they were sharp and it was difficult to pull the wool over their eyes. Now that’s a great experience we all shared, indeed, but I’m the only one who remembers.

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My point is we can grow up in the same family and have experiences that are different and the same.We also can have  a totally different perspective and relationship with our parents. Many family squabbles as adults are around these distinct relationships that we have with our parents. When a parent passes away oftentimes that is the first time that brothers and sisters share stories and everyone hears for the first time about each one’s relationship with the lost parent. Surprising discoveries and tales unfold , some great while others not so much.These interpersonal relationships impact how each child mourns the loss of their parent. Some are closer to a mother, others are closer to a father. Parents share secrets and views with some while others have been excluded from family secrets and lore. Sometimes it’s deliberate and sometimes it’s not.

It’s important to keep in mind that when there’s more than one child in a family, not all parent-child relationships are the same and knowing this should mitigate hard feelings as we learn new information about each one’s experience that has bonded one child to a parent or has caused a severe disconnect for another.

We must try to be open and understand that time in the family and age differences will play an important role in how each sibling views their parents and this impacts the memories that they hold dear as well as the way they mourn after the loss of a parent.
As we enter into adulthood, we must learn to honor each family member’s experience in the family without harboring feelings of malice, jealousy or resentment. We are all individuals and process our family connections in ways that are relevant to our distinctive relationships with our parents. There is no right way to do this and whatever joy, fear, happiness, sadness, or anger we have in our hearts for our parents, these should not be feelings expected to be shared by siblings in the same family. We can respect how a sibling may feel, but we do not have to feel the same way. We all internalize our experiences growing up differently, and we must work through any issues that we might have. We should keep in mind that although siblings may be connected by blood, they are individual human beings and therefore different. So many factors influence our emotional attachments within our families and it’s complicated. All we can do is respect each other’s journeys and honor our own.

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St. Gabriel’s Church

So it goes as all individuals in the same families have their respective relationships with their parents and feelings can vary considerably. But you know what, it is all okay.

I can’t expect my siblings to remember the night I thought Santa was knocking on the window of my bedroom. (I was told that Santa gained entry on Christmas eve by knocking on the window). They have no memory of going to see Peter Pan at Radio City Music Hall with my dad, and when Capt. Hook pulled out his sword and I (only six years old) pulled out my plastic knife and fork from my pocketbook and screamed outloud, “I have a knife too.” This happened much to the chagrin of my father. We can never know the degree of closeness that a sibling has with the same parent unless they tell us; we assume that it’s always the same although it may not have been. We should acknowledge  that our childhood memories may drastically differ from theirs.

After a parent dies, the degree to which we mourn a parent should not be measured against the experiences of our brothers and sisters, as it is deeply personal and cannot be measured by collective memories or remembrances. It’s all about our individual day to day relationships that effect how we feel toward our parents and siblings.

Remembering that we’re not the same, although born into the same family, is important as we learn to respect each other’s perspective and relationship with parents. Honoring each other’s stories helps to create harmonious sibling relationships as we share our family experiences, find out that they’re not identical and that our own special memories are ours alone.

My mother at 90 with her four children

 

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

Did I Sign up for This?

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When Chuck and I were married all I could think about was our future together. It was no longer, just about me, just about him, it was about the both of us. When I look at pictures of the newly betrothed, I generally see blissful couples about to embark on their new journey… together. Although they are still individuals, with their own personalities, tastes, idiosyncrasies, habits and cultural backgrounds, they’re also two people coming together, merging their lives creating a new unified one and beginning to develop goals, merge dreams and thus creating new memories. There are expectations of enduring love, and the hope that all things are possible together.Couples go on to build their lives , raise children, and create family traditions that suit their common dreams and goals.They will bask in the joy and excitement of the highs that life will  bring their way. They will also weather the storms of their union, the ups and downs of life, that they will inevitably experience.

My marriage to Chuck was like that, peaks and valleys, highs and lows, but through it all my love for him and his for me, remained the foundation that bolstered our union as we lived our lives together. Love should be the foundation of every marriage, the absence of it can make tough times tougher. I believe that when one takes those marriage vows and signs that marriage certificate, it’s important that there is an understanding of the seriousness of this new undertaking. Chuck and I understood that, as we had a mutual respect and friendship which are key components of a healthy marital bond.

When Caring For A Sick Spouse Shakes A Marriage To The Core | Kaiser Health  News
Over time the love may begin to erode because of various stresses that a marital relationship will inevitably experience. When that occurs, a couple needs to face their issues head on and decide how they will deal with each circumstance that comes their way. Never ignore an issue as it will always loom in the ether, waiting to be sorted out and resolved. Marriage should not be entered into lightly. I will say this again, marriage should not be entered into lightly. Premarital counseling is recommended so that couples can understand the seriousness of what they are embarking on and also learn the practical and spiritual tools they will need in order to  have a strong and satisfying life together.

I knew a woman whose husband became suddenly ill, and who found herself in a situation where she was caring for him for many, many hours a day. The illness happened out of the blue, interrupting summer vacation plans. She asked the question, “Is this what I signed up for?” When one becomes a caretaker, particularly out of the blue, it stops life in it’s tracks. One partner must shift from a normal routine to become “caretaker in chief”. This applies to men and women equally. Disruption of normal family activities to the point where one person must bear the burden of being the one to aid an ill spouse doesn’t come with a choice. That responsibility, “for better or worse” is implicit in traditional marriage vows. So although some may wonder whether or not this is what they signed up for, my answer is, “Yes, yes you did.”

Traditional marriage vows speak of “in sickness and in health.” We think it will always be a healthy union, but “situations beyond one’s control” can occur that will alter a couple’s life in ways that are unimaginable, and we, as the remaining spouse, have a moral obligation to be there for their beloved.

I once heard of a gentleman who has cared for his wife, for many many years, as she was stricken with a debilitating illness over 30 years before. He sacrificed his retirement years to make sure his wife was cared for, putting his own dreams and desires on the back burner. Many feel he’s a good guy doing the right thing. Some may feel that he has gone beyond the call of duty, but he just feels he’s sticking to his end of the bargain as well as keeping his moral obligation to his spouse. Commendable indeed, but it is exactly what one must decide to do if faced with a situation where a spouse becomes ill. Of course it’s not all black and white and if one finds themselves in a long term stint as their spouse’s caretaker, one must decide how to also create a balance so as not to become overwhelmed, depressed or get caught in a bubble with no way out. And those decisions have to be made by the caretaker/spouse in order to help her/him maintain his/her own sanity and well being.

I’ve heard horror stories too where a spouse , who is terminally ill, is abandoned by their partner, left to die alone. Those who remain, must live with their decision to abandon an ill partner and ignore the marital promise. These are personal decisions that show the character of individuals. These are the times in our lives that ask us to show love, selflessness and humanity toward a human being whom we have loved. The choices that are made in these instances are a matter of life and death for those who are faced with life and death.7 Things I Wish More People Understood About My Arranged Marriage | SELF

I suggest that before folks marry, there should be several conversations about each person’s values, likes and dislikes, political views, and expectations. Finding out about one’s partner, every aspect, is important, as well as discussing what each would do if one of them became ill. A question one might ask is,”Do you think that you would be able to take care of me if I became ill?” Nine times out of 10 individuals will respond with,”Of course, yes….without a doubt”, but beyond that it will force people to really think about the road they are about to travel on. We do not want to burden ourselves with thinking about relationships ending before they start, but giving thought to the future is a good and healthy way to be clear about one’s commitment to their partner. We want to be prepared, but not dwell in the what ifs.

The first year of marriage is an eye-opener, even if two people have lived together before. That little piece of paper adds a higher level of commitment to a relationship. With love and friendship as the foundation and the knowledge that there is no one else with whom you’d want to spend the rest of your life, you’ll know your answer to,” Is this what I signed up for?”, a question many ask when forced to care for their beloved. As for me,I never asked that question as there was no doubt in my mind as to how my own challenge would be met. We had to prepare to begin the most difficult journey of our lives,and I knew, without a doubt that it was my duty to care for my husband. Eventually, I would come to understand that it was an honor and a privilege to care for Chuck, that God trusted me enough to entrust me with his care. An awesome, tough responsibility and yes, “I would do it again.” Every individual must answer this question with careful consideration for what’s at stake.

For me it was in sickness and in health; for better or worse. A life altering challenge that has led me to the place where I currently dwell ….on higher ground.

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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

Happiness is Reaching Higher Ground

I write often about striving to reach higher ground. Many people subscribe to the philosophy that we live, life is hard, life isn’t fair, and then we die. Live and then die?  We might as well give up before we start. I believe that there must be a point to our lives, and in this endeavor, all lives matterIt is the manner in which we live, think and handle the tough times (that will surely come our way) that determine whether we remain stuck on the ground or rise up above it and live the lives we are meant to live.

I often hear people say that all people grieve differently; that is true and should be as we are not programmed robots and grieving consists of various complex stages sometimes happening all at once.The way that we grieve conforms to each individual who grieves. It’s a personal thing subject to the complex emotions and reactions of each individual who faces loss. However, this is where intention plays a huge part in how we move through the grief journey.

Do we wish to grieve forever or do we want to be able to move our lives forward at some?

In the beginning of my mourning period I didn’t know how long my depression would last.It crept up on me and before I knew it I was on a downward spiral. I felt sure it was my new normal, as I never imagined feeling any other way ever again. I grappled with anxiety, melancholy, deep sadness, tears and fear and felt as though I couldn’t get a handle on the complicated and painful feelings that were flooding through me everyday, 24/7. But after many months of dealing with the anguish and the pain, I not only noticed that I was beginning to feel better, but I also was aware that I was not going to be my old self ever again.

Having experienced an illness and the death of someone I loved so up close and personal changed me. I began to have a new perspective on my life, the world and the events that had shaped my life. I no longer took anything for granted and began to understand that one’s life experiences have a deeper meaning to them than we think. I became acutely aware of myself and the whole of my life up until that point, and set aside time to just explore the events of my life, while attempting to figure out what my purpose truly was. I was no longer living an ordinary life, and I began to seek a higher purpose as I came to the realization that this life, and everyone’s life has meaning no matter how big or how small.

 

Just like my husband who left Earth, and entered a higher plane, my grief experience led me through a new door through which I walked and began to ascend higher. My life became illuminated with this new perspective and I gained insights that I did not have before. After I watched my husband pass away, I learned so much more beyond just how fragile this life is. I had become witness to a sacred moment meant to enlarge me, meant to allow me to understand more and to be more. Suddenly alone, I had to muster up courage and become brave, and as I did so I would later be able to understand this period of tragic loss as an opportunity for my own personal growth. All the questions I had were eventually answered and I was able to move beyond death’s door.

The tragic circumstances of our lives are meant to lead us higher, to that place that teaches us lessons and gives us opportunities for growth. Losses are not only a part of life but necessary, as the various seasons of our lives evolve, come to an end and begin anew. I’ve learned that life should not be a haphazard experience. We should not just live and then die. There is meaning in all of our experiences, the good and the bad, and these events of our lives are essential for our growth, wisdom, and change. After we lose a loved one all that we experience as a result is meant to transform us, those who are left.We often hear people say that change is hard, and sadly many people remain unchanged throughout their lives, blaming others for their circumstances or sticking to the belief that life is meant to be tough.

We must take the time to go from the initial shock of grief and eventually move onto another level of understanding as we begin to examine the deeper meaning of the loss. As we allow ourselves to evolve, we are also healing. We are evolving spiritually during these times and if we give ourselves permission to feel and heal we will discover that we have not only allowed light to enter our souls, but we have moved our lives forward, upward, empowered and strengthened by the experience, as we move onto higher ground.
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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

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