There’s a Sweet Sweet Spirit

When I was taking care of my husband Chuck during his bout with pancreatic cancer, some days were very, very tough, and grueling. It required patience, a virtue I was born without. It also required remaining hopeful, staying strong, maintaining my stamina and having the ability to Catch the Light,those little pokes from God that let you know he’s got you.

There were many days when a chance encounter would help to buoy my spirits. There were numerous random experiences that left me feeling temporarily cheerful and encouraged. I had to stay above the murky waters that beckoned me daily. It was important that I didn’t get caught in the undertow, as I would’ve been drawn into a sea of sadness, despair and hopelessness. Sometimes a smile or brief conversation with a stranger left me feeling buoyed. These random encounters are what I call Catching the Light. I felt that God was letting me know that I wasn’t being abandoned as I continued caring for my ailing husband.

One day the purchase of a phone made all the difference for me. I had purchased a new phone and I didn’t know how to set it up. So I made my way to the local phone store to get assistance. I was feeling a bit discouraged on that Fall day. I had been feeling kind of down and unsure of our future. My husband was on hospice care at home by this time and I was trying very hard to stay encouraged daily. We had nurses, doctors, arriving almost every other day to look after Chuck, and as wonderful and attentive and nice as they were, I just wished that my life could go back to the way it was, when Chuck was well and all was right with the world. Sometimes I hoped a nurse or doctor would say, “Hey we can fix this, he’s showing signs of improvement; your husband’s getting better”, but that never happened. Anyway, on this particular day I arrived at the store and it was very crowded, but there was a young lady who came to assist me. She took my phone and asked me several questions about my usage and blah, blah, blah. When it came time to input contacts there was a question about how many I had. At that time I rarely used my mobile phone, so I had at least 10 contacts and at the most, 15 contacts. The young lady had mentioned that her mom was new at this cell phone thing also. She talked about how my frequency of use mimicked her mother’s. We chuckled about the similarities of our phone experiences. Finally, she was about to transfer the contacts from my old phone into my new cell phone. She asked me if I had more than 250 contacts. I answered her with a question: “Does your mother have 250 contacts?” She looked at me, I looked at her and we burst out laughing. She knew the answer. We laughed and another customer chimed in and laughed with us. After she had finished with me, I left with my phone and I suddenly felt better about the day. I was grateful for that chance encounter in a phone store with a pleasant, kind salesperson who had an abundance of patience and good cheer. A few years later, after Chuck had passed away, I was in that store and saw that young lady and she immediately remembered me. I told her what a joy she’d been that day when I came in to get help with my phone. Then I went on to explain to her how much her kindness changed my outlook for that one day and she began to cry. It was a moment. I just wanted her to know how that chance meeting added a bright spot to my grueling harsh reality at that time.

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I also remember that when I would go to church alone I would sit in a certain pew, and after a while the people around me became familiar. Unbeknownst to them, I felt secure and comfortable as I made my way into the church that my husband and I had decided to join together. It was the church that we had joined nearly 12 years earlier, it was the church that buried my husband, and it was the church that, at that time, was beginning to assist me as I struggled with my grief journey. I recall a Sunday I came into church and it was crowded. I walked past my regular seat and there was someone in the seat. I didn’t want to disturb anybody and I didn’t see any more seats available so I just joined the man in the pew. The gentleman was very cordial when I had to bother him and tell him I didn’t have a program. This man, who did not know me from Adam, was so accommodating. He shared his hymnal, he shared the program, and just was very gracious to me. For a moment I felt a sense of comfort, as I used to come to this church and sit with my husband in our favorite pew as we participated in the service. So here I was sitting next to this man, who I did not know and he was just being so lovely. He didn’t seem annoyed that I was asking him to share his hymnal, he just did it automatically. I was very grateful. I didn’t want to feel as if I was a burden to anyone, even a stranger.

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Thus, here I was on this Sunday feeling a little out of sorts because I had been late and I didn’t have a program, but this gentleman was very kind and accommodating to me. I’m sure he would’ve done the same for anybody sitting next to him, but it meant a lot to me since I had come into the church flustered because I was a bit late. His kindness allowed me to get a grip, to relax and enjoy the service.
As the service continued, the congregation was called to sing Sweet Sweet Spirit. Now I love this song, and it was actually one of the hymns that was played at my father’s funeral. It was a fave of his. Unbeknownst to anyone around me, hearing it brought a tear to my eye as I thought about my dad and my husband and how I missed them both. A long time after, when I would think about that day, it finally dawned on me that the playing of that song was letting me know that there was a sweet, sweet spirit in that place that day. It was as if God was reassuring me that I was not alone, that I had not been abandoned, and that if I have faith my needs would be fulfilled. I left the church that day, not feeling alone, but grateful for a stranger’s kindness. This was a small act that would affect me beyond measure.

I would have several of these chance encounters that really encouraged me, or made me smile, or just allowed me to forget my grief momentarily. I consider these people and events that unwittingly helped to give me strength during what I consider the darkest days of my life, to be “sweet spirits”.Since that time, I always try to return a smile or a greeting when a stranger on the street smiles and greets me. I am a little shy so this was a bit uncharacteristic for me, but now it’s become a part of who I am now. You never know what someone is going through. A lot of times people look at people superficially and make all kinds of judgments and assumptions. But we are all humans on the planet and many people are struggling with acute pain, a disability, a dreadful diagnosis, addiction, or loss. So I try to remember to be patient and kind to others, returning a favor, you know passing on the light. I never know when some little thing I say or do will make a difference in someone’s day. Even if the effect is just temporary it can be just enough to lighten someone’s burden for a moment or two.

Life is for the living, but oftentimes people are walking zombies dealing with tremendous worries and hardships. Perhaps an act of kindness, a smile, a bit of patience, which I’ve recently acquired, will be just what one needs to get through one day. I’ve come to believe that when we try to be a sweet sweet spirit to others that after all is said and done, “without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived, when we shall leave this place”.

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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 https://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu

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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    Bow Bridge, Fall and New Beginnings

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 Central Park’s Bow Bridge symbolizes so many things to me. It reminds me of my late husband, Chuck’s, love for Central Park and how he used it’s vast natural resources to teach children science and marine biology, as well as give my son and his nephews many adventures there. They would climb hills, charging through the landscape, while exploring the high points and low points of this rich,lush, beautiful, free park. Central Park is the 5th largest park in New York City, and it is set on 843 acres of land.

At a certain point in the park, about 80th St, one can glimpse the towers of the majestic Beresford, a luxury prewar coop located on New York’s Upper West Side’s Central Park West. These towers remind me of the spires of another iconic building, the El Dorado. Seeing these towers prompt me to recall my father’s advice that whenever I got turned around in the Park going from Eastside to the Westside I should look for the towers of the El Dorado and they would always lead me home.

My Six Favorite Buildings on Central Park West - iLovetheUpperWestSide.com
The Beresford

The Bow Bridge, with its interlocking circle design on the bannisters has an even more specific meaning for me. It conjures up a memory of a lovely time at an art festival in a town far away from New York. It was five years after my husband’s death and I was beginning to live my life more fully while taking a leap of faith. As I perused the art along the streets, I was surprised to see so many artistic paintings of the Bow Bridge. I felt moved and proud of the many inspired interpretations of that beautiful bridge. Each one that I saw made me think,”My bridge”, in my little New York mind.

I truly believe everything happens in it’s own time when we’re ready ……the soul knows. This was the time that I emerged from the gray frost of winter into the crisp brilliant colors of fall. The risk to travel far from home, unearthed the key to my destiny and opened a new door for me. During that period, five years since my husband’s death, I began to write words that spilled onto each and every page from the depths of my soul.

I was no longer a bud and and little did I know, a blooming flower was about to emerge. Change and taking risks is what living is all about. Amidst all that life puts us through we are expected to have lessons, learn lessons and grow. Without learning the lessons, we will continue to have more lessons. However, if we don’t learn what we’re being taught, each new lesson will become more difficult, until we “get it”, on and on until our days are done.

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We cannot grow if we run in place, holding onto hurts, regrets, anger, jealousies and guilt. Running in place only digs one a hole until we become buried beneath our life’s “stuff”. Closing ourselves off is not playing it safe, putting up a protective shield, does not lead to growth and will not protect us from the emotional scarring that can come with living life. It only stunts our evolution, as we live with our myopic thoughts, barren and isolated, barricading ourselves behind walls of our own making.

Fall has always been a special time for me. As a former educator, that first September breeze, always made me feel that it was an opportunity to start over, to renew, to begin again. It was, indeed a new year, not unlike January 1st, which ushers in the New Year for all, this new year was a mid-year refresh. New lessons would be taught and learned, with end of year growth, hopefully. Then on to new horizons, newer lessons, chapters opened and closed, new journeys. Life is like crossing a bridge, some bridges not as beautifully embellished as the Bow Bridge, some tarnished and stained with mud, some rickety, some fragile, some painful underfoot. But by being present, letting go of the past, taking risks, each crossing will get easier and the burden lighter. These are the memories conjured up in my mind’s eye when I think of the Bow Bridge. This is a bridge that has withstood the weathering of time, and it reminds me of myself, as it and we continue onto our journey’s end…….toward always unfolding New Beginnings.

What landmark in your town reminds you of what you have endured since having lost your spouse?

When the Light Goes Out Look Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Grief and Loss: On Losing Friends

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I grew up in Brooklyn, New York with that one famous tree, nearly a half century ago, which makes me at least a half century old (give or take a few centuries). One of my closest friends at that time was a girl named Beverly who lived diagonally across the street  from where I lived. She was very,very bright(what we called an egghead in those days) kind, good, and my dearest friend. My parents loved her and her family. lthough we didn’t attend the same schools, we did things together whenever we had some time,in between our studies.Image result for a tree in prospect park

Beverly’s life couldn’t have been more different from my own. She was one of three children and she had two brothers who were born profoundly developmentally disabled. One of her siblings lived at home and because he could not care for himself, Beverly’s mom had to do everything for him. Daily, her mom and dad would lift the brother to put him in his chair or bathe him or to carry him to the many physical therapy activities that he was a part of. Beverly’s parents’ life was difficult, but through it all their complete pride and joy was their daughter.They were very proud of Beverly as she was extremely book smart,worked very hard in school and won many scholastic awards.

Her dad felt that because of the circumstances of their family, he could not recognize any holidays. He felt that God had dealt them a raw deal and therefore there was no room for any celebrations of any traditional holidays. Their house was quiet but for the sounds that Beverly’s brother made,as his only way of communicating was by screaming or grunting. The atmosphere was cold ,very austere, sparsely decorated and somewhat devoid of good cheer, but Beverly managed to thrive as this was the family she was born into and she did not know from anything else.

My home, on the other hand, consisted of four very noisy  children, me being the oldest. Completely the opposite of Beverly’s as we were always busy, and at any given moment the house was filled with all kinds of music from jazz to classical, political meetings, music from the piano that my sister played so well, holiday gatherings and parties celebrating some academic achievement, a communion or a birthday. When holidays approached, us kids were always filled with excitement in anticipation of the tree, the Easter bunny, or some out of town relative who just dropped in unexpectedly. When we were happy, we were happy, no half stepping about it, and Beverly would soon be a part of our happy times together. It wasn’t long before she would join us regularly at Christmas.When I gave her a Christmas gift one year she said she’d never received one before. My parents came to love her like a second daughter and her parents looked at me as the same.

Sometimes, Beverly and I would do things with our dads.Packing a picnic, going to the Philharmonic in Prospect Park and listening to Leonard Bernstein was one example of how we would hang out together during our teen years.Although I was never allowed to attend neighborhood parties, I recall the time Beverly was invited to a party given by a school chum and she asked my parents if I could come along. My parents said it would be okay and they decided that her father would drive us and my father would pick us up. I remember I made a cute little black velveteen dress to wear to this party and I was so looking forward to going. Well as fate would have it Beverly’s dad drove us to the party and we got stuck in traffic (but we had to be back home by 12 midnight, kinda like Cinderella). There were no cell phones in those days and so we weren’t able to call my father and tell him that he should arrive a little later. We finally arrived at the party at about 11:30 and at 12 midnight on the dot my father was there to to pick us up and take us home. We were so upset but that was life in those days with no cell phones and a limited, very managed social life.

She and I also shared family ties, well, sorta. Her aunt and uncle lived in the suburban town of Hempstead, N.Y., coincidentally, as it turned out, directly across the street from my Aunt Eloise and Uncle Rupert. So we sometimes traveled on the Long Island Railroad together, or one of our dads drove us out to the island, she visiting her relatives and me visiting mine. Since my Aunt and her’s traveled in the same Links, Jack and Jill, Boule social circle, that made our family ties even more acceptable, especially to my aunt.

As time progressed Beverly and I maintained our close friendship throughout our undergrad and graduate schools years. She would one day introduce me to someone who would become my new best friend as the ensuing years transformed our own closeness.

Beverly would get married twice, the first time I was her maid of honor.As time wore on we eventually went our separate ways, both of us pursuing our own paths,making new friends, becoming entrenched in our professional pursuits, pursuing the dreams that were important to each of us.

From time to time, I would think about Beverly and wonder what she was doing. About a month before my husband passed away in Dec. of 2008, I was at a party and met a young woman who had graduated from Bryn Mawr. I told her that one of my dearest friends had graduated from there  many years before, and I wondered about her whereabouts. Not long after that conversation this young woman sent me Beverly’s current information. I was surprised to learn that she had moved to Seattle. I took the info,tucked it away and promised to revisit it at some point.

My husband had been ill, subsequently died and I was soon caught up in my own grief vortex. I would look at that paper from time to time, and tell myself I’d get to it until one day when I decided that I would give her a call I could no longer find the information.

A few weeks ago I decided to Google her and after trying her name several ways, I decided to add PhD. You can only imagine my surprise when up popped her obituary. I was stunned, as I read the short notice which gave few clues to her life for the past few decades.

I readily began to mourn my childhood friend of long ago.You see, although we had been out of touch, she had been an integral part of my adolescent life. We were best friends, parent approved,and shared secrets and dreams and trips together. She even took a trip with me and my grandmother to Montréal one summer and we had a really wonderful time. I remember going to visit her in Philly when she was still in undergrad school and meeting up with mutual friends, spending the time having fun. I was young, I was free and I had my whole life ahead of me and Beverly shared that part of my life with me. I mourned the fact that Beverly had been a part of my world when I was very young and we were both at the beginning of everything. I mourned the memories as I wondered what her life had been like.

Luckily, I was able to connect with a friend of her’s who filled me in on the past several decades of her life. She had lived in various cities in the Northeast, she continued her work as a practicing psychiatric social worker and teacher. She married again, divorced a second time and finally settled in Seattle.Beverly was principled and well-respected. She’d even adopted a son. She battled various forms of cancer in recent years which finally consumed her.Her son was her life and she put in place people to look after him as she realized that she was not long for this world.

I appreciated her friend’s recounting and sharing with me Beverly’s life that didn’t include me. We had gone our separate ways but the impact she’d had on my life came back to me in a flood of memories: picnics, tennis, many outings sometimes shared with our now long gone dads, horseback riding, Links luncheons every year the day before Easter, and visits to our respective families together. Fun filled times with common adolescent girls’ chatter,hiding insecurities,sharing hopes and dreams. She was able to find love twice and pour all that she had into her work and her son. I am happy that she created a good life for herself and that she made her parents proud. I am happy that we shared time together on this planet in our youth, before we stepped into the lives that awaited each of us.

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In 2019 I lost 2 very good friends finding out about both deaths after the fact.My friend Patricia LaPlante Collins, and my friend Bruce Williams.They were both an integral part of my growing up life, at various times in my life. Patricia and I favored each other so people always thought she was a part of my family. And although she was not an easy personality, my parents embraced her and she loved my family so much that she was flattered when people mistakenly thought she was a daughter. She came to all my son’s early birthday parties and was a great auntie to him. We shared many amazing times together as she was a grand party hostess, a very capable gourmet cook and and fun to be around, albeit in small doses. I remember one evening, when my baby son Karim was in the hospital with the croup, my mother and I were leaving the hospital on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It was a freezing night and the streets were so icy that the 5th Avenue bus kept slipping onto the sidewalk.What a scary ride! As it approached the transverse that would lead us home, the bus driver announced that it was closed. My mother and I got off on 86th St. and 5th Ave. I called Patricia from a phone booth (no cell phones in those days) and she invited us up to wait for awhile. I went to the now long gone Madison Avenue Deli bought some pastries and we spent the next couple of hours in Patricia’s lovely apartment laughing, sharing stories and enjoying time together.

Bruce was an early boyfriend fromthe early 70’s and although we would eventually part ways, he remained a part of my life, reappearing now and then.When I was in my first apt, and my roommate left to live with her boyfriend, leaving me in a lurch, it was Bruce who offered to take me away on a short vacation because he knew that I was under great stress, having to move suddenly out of the blue. After all, he had helped me move into that Brooklyn brownstone and he felt badly that I was suddenly scrambling to find new digs (which I did find readily in Manhattan ).When my parents were in the Peace Corps and I was gathering items to send to them, he took the items to them in Jamaica where they were stationed. When My dad was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, Bruce, who was then an occupational therapist, would come and check on him and make sure his mobility devices were up to code. He would remind my dad of when we would all played tennis together. So many memories of my friend who’s friendship I had cherished.

I have a bit of regret that I was not able to connect with Beverly, but knowing that her life was full in all the areas that she desired does give me a sense of satisfaction. As for Patricia and Bruce, whom I loved, I wish them all  well where they’ve landed next, and as I weep for my friends, gone in the prime of their lives, I know that they are free of pain and soaring in that infinite place of calm and serenity that we all  wish for and seek, even here on earth.

 

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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/jnjs5

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

 

 

 

Let Me Tell You How It Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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