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 going 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 season 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 on the planet?”

But I didn’t, and 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 wonderful 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 one’s “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, 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. Follow your heart and your mood and just go with your flow.

3. Change-You may want to consider changing the way you celebrate. Incorporating              new rituals, eliminating old ones that cause distress, is a good way to ease yourself            into the newness of handling the holiday 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 reserve 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.  But a New Year’s Day brunch, or open house may seem less overwhelming and  easier to navigate.

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 .

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.

They Are with Us More Now

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My husband Chuck and I were very busy people. We had our respective careers and essentially, like other baby boomers, we worked hard at working hard. We were parents and we were children of living parents.

Before we got married, Chuck and I spent most weekends together and sometimes he surprised me with a visit after work during the weekday. He was a venture capitalist then, working at his own company and teaching business and finance in local colleges in the evenings.

I always looked forward to my time with Chuck. We would spend weekends at his apartment talking about life and our future. We talked about our pasts as we continued to get to know each other. We loved watching new movies and old ones. Chuck was a movie buff, and the first time I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s was at his apartment. He was shocked that I had never seen that movie, and I discovered that that movie reminded me of myself in a lot of ways. It reminded him of me as well, oh but then I do digress.

Eventually we developed our own rituals and traditions, many of which occurred in the summertime. Trips to Connecticut dropping my son Karim off at camp, and then, childless for two months we’d explore the surrounding environs. We took trips to Massachusetts, DC, Michigan, Chicago,Louisiana, N.C., Hilton Head, Sag Harbor,Narragansett, Block Island…….various and sundry places, traveling along together and growing closer.

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Once we were married we began to suffer from a scarcity of time. Although we did things together, and still continued with our summer vacations, time spent wasn’t of the same quality as before. Life changing events happened so quickly out of the blue back then; Chuck’s mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; Chuck’s dad became ill as well. Chuck’s sister moved away from New York, she, having been the spirit and soul of our family.

As the years went on my father became ill and would pass away in 2005. I mourned him sorely for a long while until Chuck was diagnosed with cancer. It was then that I had to be able to switch gears from silent mourning for my dad to caring for my husband. Little did we know, that the tenor of our life together was being tested and would soon be disrupted by a major challenge. Our day to day lives changed too, as did our time with each other.We were focused more on the sudden changes in our families that were taking place, than on quality time between the two of us.

The long year spent as my husband’s caregiver was consumed with his care and well being more than our relationship. He was so ill, bravely soldiering on and, although I was still working, I made sure that all his needs were met. It was tough, and I’m sure I fell short in a lot of ways, but I did my best. I got support from his family, my family, my colleagues and friends. There was no time to spend focusing on us, as I was on a mission to save my husband’s life as it slowly slipped away.

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Eventually, Chuck died and herein lies the irony. I began to talk to Chuck, to dream of him, to write to him and about him. I asked him questions, told him things that were on my heart. I thought of him all the time until he became a part of my daily being. He remained with me wherever I went. All the memories of him kept me close to him…awake, asleep…. asleep, awake. Then one day I came to an odd realization that in many ways I was closer to Chuck in death than I had been in life.

The everyday busy-ness of our lives prevented us from re-creating our premarital closeness. But now in death, now that he was no longer alive, he was closer to me than ever before. His spirit was or had become a part of me. He had become my eternal partner, somewhere in the ether…free to summon whenever I wished.

This is the odd but true legacy that I’ve gained since my husband’s death. It’s a gift out of my great loss, albeit a bittersweet one with a lesson for others: Love your partner….cherish and care for them while they are with you here, in the flesh. Time spent with each other should be more important than time spent with anyone else, because in love matters, love matters and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

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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

Do No Harm

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As I embarked on my grieving journey I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know that I would be on a journey, as I like to characterize my long period of grieving after my husband passed away. It was truly a sad, lonely and terrifying time. I begged God for relief and then stopped talking to Him altogether. I felt abandoned and full of despair.

In the early stages of my grieving (which lasted for many,many months…years really), I would recall the period when Chuck was ill. Even when I dreamt of him, which was very infrequently (almost never today) I would,initially, have dreams of an ill Chuck, mute, but bearing silent messages.

When Chuck was ill, there were many things I would have wanted to say to him. I wanted to bring up how if he had done this this way or not done such and such that way maybe his predicament could’ve been avoided. I wanted to scream at him actually and list the things I felt might’ve changed his plight. But alas, I held my tongue as I felt to add insult to injury would only have caused him more pain. I loved my husband with every fiber in my body and to do him more harm with words, just to get the anger off my chest , would have been cruel and insensitive. Chuck didn’t ask for deadly cancer, and he was already in excruciating pain, so I decided it was best to let him go in peace. It was, after all about him, not about me.

After Chuck was gone, I ranted and railed at God, as I tried to make sense of the random act of craziness that had swept into our lives and disrupted our family. I remained angry with God for a long, long time. Once I was asked what I thought God felt about my being angry with Him. I answered, “God is God,He can take it… and He will still love me anyway.” God’s love is unconditional  and I had to practice unconditional love toward my spouse as I held back on things that were on the tip of my tongue.

On the flip-side, I had a few people who said rather insensitive things to me after Chuck died. Here’s a few examples: “You’re still wearing your wedding band?”, “I’m like you, because since my divorce/separation,which is also a loss…….”, “You’re so lucky, my life has been not nearly as lucky as yours because of these circumstances in my life” (then the person proceeds to list the not so great things that have occurred in their life,always ending with)”… and at least you had your time with Chuck”. Most of the time I didn’t know how to respond to these comments. Generally I would say nothing, but I slowly distanced myself as I didn’t want to be the recipient of insensitive comments from folks who thought they were being well-meaning.I also felt that people wanted to show that they understood when really, they did not. The words that were chosen were at best insensitive and at worst really stung.I was already in pain and didn’t want that pain compounded by thoughtless epitaphs.

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As I would soon encounter others who had suffered the loss of a spouse, one of the most common threads amongst all of us was how we all took umbrage with the insensitive and thoughtless things that people said to us.Sometimes, surprisingly, it would come from those who were close, those whom you would expect to tread softly on your fresh wound. At other times comments came from those who were well-intentioned but truly missed the mark.

I would suggest that if someone has experienced the loss of a spouse or loved one, the person offering condolences should select one’s words very carefully. After loss, most of the time, the grieving are in a state of shock, even if they seem to be handling everything.They’re not looking for shock therapy, but for compassion.If you care for your friend or family member you really shouldn’t want to add insult to injury by saying things that add to their pain. Some people are not like me and will lash out, others like me will back off. It’s a very vulnerable, precarious time for one who grieves and as he/she makes their way through uncharted waters, they will experience internal changes that will have personal far reaching effects as they move their lives forward.

The death of a spouse is a life-altering experience, as it should be. Be thoughtful, gentle, kind, no comparisons to divorces, and separations. Death is death and is unequal to any other known human experience in its finality. Every loss by death is different, never equal, or worse, just different.

God is the only one who can take it. You can rant and rail and scream at Him and He will love you anyway. However, you can’t get away with that with mere mortals, especially when they are in an altered state. Be thoughtful, mindful of the hurt and pain they’re going through. Be kind, gentle, hold your tongue, watch your words…….. do no harm.

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Read more in Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse               available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu

Embracing the Pain of Loss

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No one wants to have his or her heart broken. When you lose a spouse the pain can be excruciating, unpredictable and relentless. This harsh deep hurt can also be accompanied by anxiety and fear.

People do not want to feel the pain that accompanies loss after losing someone they love. It’s understandable that there are many who wish to shield themselves from it. Why? Because it hurts. Sometimes the pain is so excruciating and debilitating that it can even manifest itself as actual body aches.

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But what if I were to suggest that maybe it’s better to lean into the pain rather than shy away from it?

Although we may not always be able to embrace the pain of loss, confronting it is better than ignoring it. When you push it away,it never really goes anywhere. Then one day when least expected those old painful feelings that one mistakenly thought were gone,will make themselves known and demand to be dealt with.

When I began to grieve, I did not know what to expect. Once I was in the throes of my grief journey I knew that it was an experience like no other.
At some point I found myself feeling as if I was whirling in a tunnel with no way out. The grief and sorrow became my shadow following me wherever I went. I soon began to feel that this was the beginning of my new normal forever and I just made up my mind to relinquish control and surrender to it.
But surprising and unexpected events happened along the way as I lived my “new normal”. In my case, my healing was connected to my interactions with others: friends,family and strangers.

As I created new routines for myself, I began to encounter people who I might never have had a chance to meet under other circumstances. Sometimes they’d share an observation, or insight or a personal memory that would give me a new perspective on my own life. Because I was able to find the strength, even as I suffered, to live life simultaneously with grieving, eventually I would see an opening in the grief tunnel which encouraged me to keep pushing forward. I soon began to understand that I could get through the muck and mire as long as I persisted.

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Persist, embrace,mourn, persist, embrace,mourn…..this is the path that I followed as I grieved.

We are born into a world where we are not immune to life’s adversities and misfortunes or death. Some people endure much more than their share, but we must trust that there will be a light that will guide us along the way. When we lose a spouse or someone else we’ve loved, although the initial pain can be unbearable, one’s acquiescence, will actually be the very thing that heals.

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We must face the pain of grief

By facing our grief and sorrow, we will find that the road to healing will be made straight in less time than we can imagine.

Remember, your spouse is sad that they had to leave, but their life is done and they want you to go on and live the rest of your’s the way that you were meant to. So don’t be afraid to explore new possibilities, don’t be afraid to take chances as you rebuild a new life on your own.
Although we think we can delay suffering, there is no avoiding it.The pain will always remain and at some point will need to be faced.In the end, leaning into the pain is when true healing takes place.

 

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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

 

 

 

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

When Grief Lingers

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When I was a young girl in my teens, I used to spend a week in the summers with a great aunt who lived in West Philly. She was a retired schoolteacher,a widow and my father’s fave.My aunt was very erudite and she loved reading and writing. She lived in an apartment on a cobblestone street.I don’t remember all the details of that time, but I do remember that I was never excited to spend a whole week with my  great aunt in Philadelphia. Don’t get me wrong she was the loveliest woman, but I was young, in my teens, and there weren’t any young people my age around except for one young girl who visited with me on occasion.

Aunt Marie and I would go sightseeing around Philly, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other typical tourist attractions and historical places of note.When we’d arrive back at her home,I was so bored I found myself counting the days to when I would be going back home to New York. In those days a week was forever, and long-distance calls were very expensive, so I didn’t call home often, but when I did speak to my parents and pleaded with them to allow me to come home early, they assured me that I would be home soon enough and that my Aunt Marie was really enjoying my company.I seriously doubted that,so those reassurances fell on deaf ears.In all honesty,I would’ve preferred to have spent a week with my cousin in DC. He was cool, he had great friends, many of whom were very good looking guys. My cousin was popular and I found that there were many benefits that came with being the girl cousin from New York,but then,I do digress.

The first time I met my Aunt Marie was in the 60’s and it was before her husband, my father’s Uncle Matt, had died. It was the only time I would ever meet him, tall dark and handsome, but at that point in poor health. My Aunt Marie became a widow soon after that.That was one of the reasons my parents wanted me to spend time with her because she was alone,  her grown children out on their own. In the beginning of my visits I would sleep in the room with my aunt,and in the middle of the night, for the first couple of nights, I would be awakened by sobs. I didn’t understand what was going on until one night I asked her what was wrong. She explained to me that she missed her husband and her daughter, a little girl who had died of an illness at a very early age. She proceeded to show me pictures of both. I felt sad for her, but I didn’t understand after so many years how she could still be mourning the loss of her child,who must’ve died at least 60 years earlier and her husband who had been gone at least 5 years, at that time.
After learning all of this I felt very sorry for her,but I also felt sorry for myself,in that typical teenage it’s all about me kind of way, as I so wanted to get some sleep.Realizing that this would be my ongoing sleeping situation until further notice, her sobs, my inability to sleep,laying awake, longing to go home, I decided to sleep on a couch in the living room. I remember it was small, as was I, 118 pounds soaking wet, but still I scrunched myself onto a tiny couch nightly counting the days to when I could return to my comfy cozy bed in my purple bedroom back in Brooklyn,New York.Purple and orange,in that psychedelic era, were my favorite colors then.

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I was an avid reader,so out of sheer boredom I began looking through her titles hoping I’d find a book that would hold my interest until I left for home. It was in her library that I found many interesting things to read,including the latest Reader’s Digests.Soon I landed on a copy of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.Thereafter I’d sit in my aunt’s window seat and read until so tired, I fell onto the settee and tried to get some sleep. I loved that book and in years to come, when I would see the movie adaptation called The Haunting, I would remember my time with my aunt, but from a different perspective.Years later, I began to view the time spent with her with great fondness tinged with sadness.At that time I was at the beginning of my life and I had a limited view. I understood so little about life, the passage of time, the passage of people and grief.I was as tall as a 5 foot hedge but could not see over it. Aunt Marie cried every night I was there; she was an insomniac kept awake by her profound grief. She couldn’t make peace with the deaths of her husband and her small child. These losses weighed so heavily on her that the only outlet was to weep nightly as she grieved and grieved, wept and wept.
I am sure that this was a typical way of handling grief after loss for many widows/widowers during the 50’s and 60’s. You lived your life daily and grieved quietly for your losses until your time was done.However,I also know that there were those who were able to make peace with the deaths of husbands, wives, children, and eventually were able to go on and learn to live again, have full lives some even finding love again.Sadly,this was not the case for my Aunt Marie, and were it not for my brief summer visits I would never have known about or experienced her pain and sorrow which in many ways would be a precursor to my own.

Nowadays we do not have to shut ourselves away and deal with our losses alone. Some may want you to,and others may not know how to avail themselves of the services and communities available to caretakers and those who mourn. There are many available counseling groups, grief communities, and many other forms of assistance.Bereavement counselors, pastoral care, grief and recovery groups as well as other systems of support, some affiliated with local hospitals, hospices and local health and wellness organizations  all service the needs of those who require support, comfort and grief counseling.The one element that one must have is the desire to embark on the grief journey.We can distract ourselves but so long until we finally implode,so getting assistance is critical to rebuilding a life after loss.

A few nights before my husband died, I called a special hotline and the people on the other end were able to coach me through which medicines to give my husband who at that point was in acute pain. These were heavy-duty medications meant to be used carefully and when he was in dire need. The folks on the other end of the phone were knowledgeable, compassionate, kind, and confident as they assisted me in caring for my husband by remote. On a later call I thanked them for their help and the woman answered me, “oh we have all been there, that is why we do this work, all of us.” I knew then that these wonderful volunteers had taken their experience with loss and were now helping others who faced similar circumstances. What a gift of service to be able to give back to those who find themselves as caregivers for their dying spouses.

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I’ve thought about my Aunt Marie often in recent years. She loved to write and wrote me many letters in a block style script that looked so elegant against my scrawny chicken scratch. I have a new appreciation for the grief and sorrow that she suffered, the losses that followed her daily for the rest of her life. I would never see my aunt ever again, after the last summer I spent with her, although we did correspond regularly and  talked on the phone occasionally.Eventually, she moved from Philly to Falmouth,Mass., and one end of summer afternoon,when I was in Oak Bluffs,I called her, we chatted and said we loved each other. Two weeks later she unexpectedly passed away and I am convinced  that she had continued to grieve those deep losses in her life until the day she died.

No one should have to endure a life sentence of grieving. It is important that those who grieve reach out and become a part of the living before too much time passes or they risk experiencing prolonged grief, complicated grief which can interfere with how one functions on a daily basis. It can also prevent one from moving their life forward. It’s not easy to get through the pain of loss, but with the will to survive and create a new beginning,by taking advantage of all the assistance that is available, one can go on to construct a rich life, new relationships, maybe even find love again but most importantly…LIVE!