Friday, November 30, 2007

First Year Grieving

Today I'm going to shake things up a bit with a guest post from WidowNet, a great free Yahoo Group I recommend you check out. We'll let Denise take it from here:

Hello everyone

Although I don't post often anymore -- I do read the emails and thought I would share with those of you who are in the early stages of this journey none of us wanted to take. I've been a traveler for over 19 months, with both good and bad days. I came across the following thoughts surrounding first year grieving about 6-7 months after Craig died. I can tell you that there were many times I had to start rewinding because I had dropped the ball of string. In fact, it still happens -- just not nearly as frequent.

Take care everyone

First-year grief is perhaps the hardest work you will ever do. We are challenged in so many ways that we cannot take loss in all at once. We can only see the world from where we stand; and to most of us, our new world looks and feels like landscape without gravity. There are no maps to guide us through this grief. But others who have made the journey can help by listening and sharing what they have learned. They show us it is possible to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones along the way.

Grieving requires enormous energy, but pretending that you're not grieving requires even more. You begin to sense that your world is anxious for you to get on with your life, and no one understands that this is your life and you are getting on with it. "This is it, folks." Then other times you pretend and you wear a mask and perform like a trained seal just to keep what's left of your world from leaving you.

There's not a set schedule and no recovery period for grief. But, time alone does not heal -- it's what we do with the time that counts. Take the time you need to do your grief work. But also take time away from grieving to do things you enjoy, and to rest and replenish yourself. When a loved one dies, our hoped-for future dies, too. Beginning in this first year, and continuing on from there, living with our loss means taking on new roles, new relationships, a new future — without forgetting our past. Sometimes, life takes surprising turns. But, as the wise adage goes, "Life is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans." Confronted with loss, we can weave the strands of our past into a new, meaningful future we would never have planned to live. Doing so is a conscious choice.

Getting through the first year of your grief is like winding a ball of string. You start with an end and wind and wind. Then the ball slips through your fingers and rolls across the floor. Some of the work is undone, but not all. You pick it up and start over again, but never do you have to begin at the end of the string. The ball never completely unwinds; you've made some progress.

May your loved one be there to help you during this painful first year and in all the years to come.

I'll just add that, when I contacted Denise for permission to use her post, I really enjoyed her tag line:

Life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that made you smile.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I find that grieving is often about changing my perspective. It can be so easy to get caught up in myself and my desires for security, control, and approval. That's why I found it so helpful to attend a grief support group and read lots of books on grieving — it took me out of my head and allowed me to view my new life as a widower from many, many different perspectives.

I was listening to a talk Dr. Wayne Dyer gave about his book The Power of Intention when he said something that really struck me:

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

So simple, yet so profound. We don't live in a static universe, and things are constantly changing. In grief, however, sometimes we can feel absolutely horrible and despair that it will never end. What can we do at these times to feel better? We can look at our grief from a new perspective. When we do, our grief will change, and we will change.

Notice that I didn't say "improve." Sometimes the change is most unwelcome initially. I'll give you an example from my own experience. As I've posted previously, I've found The Sedona Method to be an immensely powerful tool for grief recovery. About a month after Deb died, I started reading a related work by Hale Dwoskin and Lester Levenson called Happiness Is Free.

[FAIR WARNING: This perspective will likely hit you square between the eyes as it did me. You have been warned.]

This book was about to alter my perspective to a point beyond which I could never return. It started out well enough, but by page 72 I was confronted by this:

Look within yourself and see if you are willing to live in a world without problems. If there is any hesitancy, it is probably because, without realizing it, you want to create problems in your life. We do this because as long as we think we are a limited body-mind we feel like we need to be like everyone else and to have a purpose in life. We are afraid if there were no problems there would be no need for us. And in a way we are right. Who we are not — our limited body-mind-ego — thrives on creating and then solving problems in order to justify its existence. The less we are invested in limitation, the less we need to create problems to resolve, and the less we even see problems in the world. As Lester repeatedly said, "See the perfection where the seeming imperfection seems to be."

Right. I remember reading this and wanting to reach through the pages and knuckle onto Lester's neck and shout, "gee Mr. Levenson, I guess you may not have noticed, but MY LIFE HAS BEEN FRICKEN DESTROYED!!!" The "seeming imperfection" — what was this, some sort of cruel joke?

I wasn't amused at the time, but that thought has never left me. Logically, I can see what he is saying. Why did Deb get cancer? Well, people get cancer, and Deb was a person, so she was eligible. Why did Deb die? That is what people do. They live, and they die. Seen by that angle, nothing was out of the ordinary, just life on planet earth trucking on as usual. But how far that angle was from how I felt!

Still, the thought kept gnawing at me. See the perfection where the seeming imperfection seems to be. I'm a big believer in "How" questions, so I found myself asking questions like "how is this situation perfect?" and "how could I begin to see the perfection here?" All I can say is, it is amazing what you can find once you start looking.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

How to Let Go

Letting go. Sounds simple, doesn't it? You can't read a book about grieving without tripping over this admonishment at least once. Isn't letting go the whole purpose of the funeral? I mean, she's already six feet under — how much further do I need to let her go? Eight feet? Ten?

Of course, we're not talking about physically letting go, although for those of us who still sleep curled up with their loved one's favourite sweater or robe, the understanding is certainly that, at some point, this physical reminder will need to be released. Part of the reason we feel so terrible in the first place is because of this physical separation, and our cold-turkey withdrawal symptoms do dissipate in time.

No, when reading or hearing about "letting go," we understand that there's a lot of mental, emotional, and spiritual releasing that we need to do. But are any of us so well-versed in managing our emotions that we can get on with the necessary releasing unaided?

Especially for us guys, if you ask us how we feel, you'll likely encounter a similar response to that which you'd receive if you had asked us about our preference for chartreuse or fuschia — huh? Guys aren't supposed to have feelings; we think, not feel, right? If we as widowers are a bit more in touch with our feminine side, we still probably don't understand why we feel as we do. And widows don't seem to be any better equipped to release all these deep emotions either. If anything, the data suggests it takes women longer to release their dead spouse than it does for men.

So, where do we go from here?

A major tool in my grief recovery toolbox is The Sedona Method, a book I can't speak highly enough of. It is also available as a course in audio and video formats. The subtitle says it all: "Your Key to Lasting Happiness, Success, Peace and Emotional Well-Being." Peace and emotional well-being — that is something I homed in on. To me, I desperately needed that key to unlocking these two elements so totally lacking from my life.

Peace and emotional well-being. Two concepts totally antithetical to grief, yet the very objects of our desire. How can a book promise on the front cover to deliver the very essence of what we seek?

The Sedona Method is not light reading. I'm still reading it a year and a half after I bought it, and I have found it to be immensely helpful, not just in unraveling my grief, but in every aspect of my life. It has helped me to understand what motivates me, why I feel what I feel, and how to let those feelings go.

A critical turning point for me was understanding that I am not my emotions. I had always felt as one with my emotions, that they were a part of my identity. The very notion of letting go of my emotions seemed to suggest that I give up a fundamental part of being me. The following excerpt from The Sedona Method [pp 36-7] illustrates how I was able to let go of this idea:

Let me explain by asking you to participate in a simple exercise. Pick up a pen, a pencil, or some small object that you would be willing to drop without giving it a second thought. Now, hold it in front of you and really grip it tightly. Pretend this is one of your limiting feelings and that your hand represents your gut or your consciousness. If you held the object long enough, this would start to feel uncomfortable yet familiar.

Now, open your hand and roll the object around in it. Notice that you are the one holding on to it; it is not attached to your hand. The same is true with your feelings, too. Your feelings are as attached to you as this object is attached to your hand.

We hold on to our feelings and forget that we are holding on to them. As I stated in the Introduction, it's even in our language. When we feel angry or sad, we don't usually say, "I feel angry," or, "I feel sad." We say, "I am angry, or, "I am sad." Without realizing it, we are misidentifying that we are the feeling. Often, we believe a feeling is holding on to us. This is not true... we are always in control and just don't know it.

Now, let the object go.

What happened? You let go of the object, and it dropped to the floor. Was that hard? Of course not. That's what we mean when we say "let go."

You can do the same thing with any emotion — choose to let it go.

Now, there's obviously a lot more to the method than this simple example, and there's a reason the book is 415 pages. However, if the passage above gave you even a glimmer of hope, please do yourself a favour and grab a copy as soon as you can. You'll be very glad you did.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Debunking Christian Myth

I can't count the number of times I've heard people say, "God will never give you more than you can handle." Where in the world do they get this from? Fantasyland? I certainly can't find it anywhere in the Bible. I don't consider myself religious — religion is far too dogmatic for me, and besides, my karma ran over my dogma :-P However, I was brought up in a strict Christian household, so I have more than a passing familiarity with the Bible.

Here's the passage I imagine people think they are quoting:

1 Corinthians 10:13 (New International Version)

13No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

So please, ladies and gentlemen, explain to me: how is grieving like temptation? I know I have heard and read of people who believe that it is sinful to grieve, as though it expresses a lack of faith in God. It is not a sentiment I share, all the more so since only non-widow/ers ever seem to say it. The Clearly Clueless.

Anyway, whether people are quoting Corinthians 10:13 or the happy-feelgood simplistic paraphrase of never getting more than we can handle, I think that neither of these quotes are appropriate to grieving. I don't know about you, but the acute phase of grieving was way more than I could handle! Or thought I could handle. I read posts on Widownet all the time from widow/ers who are going crazy with grief and literally screaming that all they want to do is join their dead loved one. They pray to be hit by vehicles or drowned or fall off a cliff, anything to ease their suffering and reunite them with their spouse. The pain and never-ending agony is unbelievable to outsiders.

Let's be clear: acute grieving is intense! And we're not talking a few days worth here — months and a few years are not uncommon. Who can stand up to this kind of assault? I couldn't, and believe me, I tried. I believe that grief smashes us to the ground and continues to beat on us so that we get the message: life is different now, and we can't go on living as we did when we were married. We have thousands of daily habits that must change or stop. It took me about 5 months before I got the message. Only then was I willing to chuck out all my plans for the future and just wallow in grief for a while. Once I had acknowledged that my old life was over, I could begin to slowly develop new habits and cautiously start to get my needs met in new, different ways.

Before I end this post, I'd like to quote a Bible passage that I feel is more appropriate to Christians generally and grievers in particular:
Hebrews 11:37-40 (New International Version)

37They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

In other words, being a Christian is not a free pass to a life without pain and suffering. In fact, many Christians will not receive all the benefits preached about on Sunday mornings. There are times when life just plain sucks, end of story.

Or, here's the crass, irreverent version, courtesy of

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Not a Hostage

I've heard many widows and widowers talk about the movies that play over and over again in their minds. Usually these films are about the last moments of life for their spouse, and often the following day or two, especially if the death was sudden. Whenever I hear or read of these stories, for some reason I picture Alex in A Clockwork Orange receiving the Ludovico Treatment. I know I felt like that — strapped in, compelled to watch traumatic scenes over and over again in my mind, "for my own good."

Don't get me wrong — I do believe that our bodies know how to grieve, and that these scene reviews do serve a useful purpose on our grief journey. However, they can be quite overwhelming and exhausting. A neat tool I learned helped me to take the edge off these memory reviews while still allowing my body and mind to grieve.

A number of years ago, I read Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a great book about healing inner emotional scars. Almost a year after Deb died, I picked up a personal development course based on this book and other teachings of Dr. Maltz called Zero Resistance Living. Within the first section, I found this gem:


1. Sitting comfortably in the theater of your mind, see a picture on your movie screen of a place you'd really like to be. It can be an actual place or one that you create completely from your imagination - a sunset beach, or a beautiful mountain meadow, a quiet lake or a bright city street. Make a picture that attracts you strongly - the colors rich and beautiful, the scene inviting.

2. Now get out of your mental theater seat. Go up to the screen and enter the picture on the screen. Actually be in the beautiful place you were looking at from the audience. Notice how your feelings change.

Make the experience as completely real as you can without straining. Pay attention to details.

Look around you - What do you see? What do you hear? If you're at the beach, hear the sounds of the waves and sea birds calling.

If you aren't using a mental picture, imagine a place you'd like to be in the way that is most comfortable for you — concentrate on the sounds or the way the place feels. What do you feel? The wind against your face? The sand or the grass under your feet?

What do you smell - the tang of a pine forest, the aroma of the sea - of
fresh cut grass?

Enjoy being in your wonderful place. Notice your emotions.

3. Now get out of the picture (you can float if you want to) and return to your seat in the audience. From the audience, see yourself on the screen in your beautiful place. Watch yourself move. Notice how your feelings change.

You will find that your feelings become stronger when you are "in" the picture and less intense when you are in the audience seeing the picture on the screen.

You will return to your mental theater often as you progress through your Psycho-Cybernetics lessons. You will find that your ability to create vivid, detailed images, your skill at making them brighter, closer, bigger, louder, etc., and your ability to step in and out of them will quickly increase with practice.


Being able to step in and out of your mental pictures is one of the most valuable imagination skills you can have. You will be using this exercise in many different ways through these six lessons in Psycho-Cybernetics.

By practicing this STEP IN - STEP OUT exercise faithfully, you will be reprogramming your servo-mechanism with powerful images of success, achievement, happiness and satisfaction. You will begin to create a self-image that expresses the best you, the strong, capable and productive you.

Do this exercise for a few minutes each day for the next six weeks. It is very simple and very powerful.

1. Remember an unpleasant memory. STEP OUT of the memory and watch yourself in it from the audience of your mental theater. Make the screen as small and as far away as necessary to see the memory and learn from it, without re-experiencing the unpleasant feelings. Repeat this with several unpleasant memories.

2. Then watch a series of pleasant memories on your mental movie screen. STEP IN to each memory. Relive each experience as if you were actually there again. Allow yourself to feel the pleasurable feelings fully.

In a few weeks, by doing the STEP IN - STEP OUT exercise, you will develop the happiness habit. Your servo-mechanism will begin to automatically draw you to positive, pleasurable experiences and to minimize the negative effects of unpleasant experiences.

I can't tell you how much of my stress was relieved by being able to simply project my traumatic death videos onto a wall, shrink them down, and imagine them in black and white with a player-piano as background accompaniment. As I changed the memories, I changed. I'd rate this tool as one of the more important ones in my grief recovery toolbox.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Letting Go

As my grief journey progressed, I came to realize that the end, the destination if you like, of this journey was to be at peace. Asking questions like "why did my wife die at 32 years of age, leaving me with a 2-year old son?" resulted in nothing but more fruitless questions. But we, as humans, are questioning beings. The secret seemed to lie in changing the nature of the questions — rather than "why?" I started asking "how" questions. How could I be at peace with her sickness and death? How could I be OK with everything that had happened? How could I get on with the business of living? How could I heal?

And an even more powerful line of questioning began with "what." In the throes of the waves of grief that washed over me, I clung like a shipwrecked survivor to a single powerful plank: "What could I do right now to help me be more at peace?" The answer to that question lay more often than not in the simple things: listen to peaceful music; light a candle; sit quietly on the couch; light some incense or smell some essential oils; get into some comfortable clothes. Asking what I could do at this moment to be at peace almost always led me to my 5 senses, and I did find some solace there. I had read that it is important for grievers to live in the present, and focusing on my five senses helped to ground myself in the present, if only for a moment. I was glad that I had found some readily-accessible shelter from the storms lashing at me. I took that shelter until I could venture out a little further down the road.

I have learned much from reading books about grieving, and one I highly recommend is called How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. It was in reading this book that I finally understood what grieving is: the freeing up of the emotional energy associated with my past life as a married person. All that emotional investment had to be let go and released so that I could get on with life. The tricky part, especially for a guy, was twofold: one, how did I get a handle on my emotions, and two, how did I release them?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Grief Work

After my first support group meeting, I realized I had quite the journey ahead of me. By now I was starting to really feel terrible. I learned later that, for the first 5 months or so, my brain had produced a kind of sedative to keep me pretty mellow as I recovered from the death and funeral. Now, those lovely mind drugs were starting to wear off, and reality was starting to bite, hard. In that first support group meeting, I listened to people who were still grieving intensely after 1 year, 18 months, two years, two and a half, even. And there was a bit of talk about "grief work." What the heck was that?

Well, I had a bit of an idea. A few months earlier, a friend at work had given me a copy of a book called The Grief Recovery Handbook. I had read through it once, but at the time I was still too much in a daze for it to really impact me. Besides, it is more of a workbook than a handbook, and I don't think you'll get anything out of it by simply reading it. There are about 6 weeks worth of exercises in there, and it is highly recommended that you work with a partner. I was lucky in that they guy who gave me the book was also willing to work with me on the exercises. Even though the book says it is possible to do the exercises by yourself, they do recommend working with someone else, and I recommend this approach as well.

I am glad I began working on the exercises when I did, about 6 months after the funeral. It is not easy to do the exercises, and I found it to be quite tiring, especially after each weekly meeting with my work partner. Lots and lots of tears, increasing each week. I freed up as much time as I could from any activities outside of work, simply because I didn't have the energy.

The guided grief work in this handbook involved taking stock of my entire relationship with Deb and documenting the highs and the lows in a chart. From here, I acknowledged the many things I was happy to have shared with her, the things I was sorry had caused her sadness, and the things about her which I was pissed off about. The authors stress many times in the book that death does not end the relationship, it merely changes it. So it made sense that I had all these incomplete issues that were still occupying my thoughts. I needed to let them go, and the last few exercises assisted me in writing a goodbye letter and reading it to my work partner.

I absolutely did not want to read that goodbye letter to anyone! I knew it would be hard and that I would cry all the way through it. Also, it was highly personal, and I didn't know my work partner all that well. I trusted that he would keep the letter contents confidential, but it wasn't a deep level of trust. I viewed it as a risk, one that I was willing to take. As for it being hard, well, my reference point for hard had been reset about 5 months earlier. Deciding what to write on Deb's tombstone while my 2 year old son ran around the monument shop, now that was hard. This was going to be considerably easier.

And in fact, it was all over before I knew it. Was I "cured" of my grief after I had read the letter? Hardly. I had many more months of sorrow ahead of me before I could begin feeling halfway normal again. But somehow, I now had a floor under me, a place from where I could begin to build a new life as a single man. It is quite common for widows and widowers to either idolize or demonize their dead spouse, and this seems to prolong grief. The handbook forced me to look at my completed marriage objectively, seeing both the good and the bad, and acknowledging both, and saying what needed to be said to put issues to rest. Looking back, I can see that completing these exercises were a real milestone on my grief journey.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Attend A Support Group?

Five months after Deb died, my illusion that I could go on living as though nothing had changed was thoroughly shattered. I knew I had to start grieving, but I had no idea what that involved. So, what does any sane 30-something do in such a situation? Ask Google ;-) Support groups seemed the way to go, so I quickly found the one closest to me, Bereaved Families of Ontario — Ottawa Region.

Now, there's a big difference between deciding to go and actually going. All I knew (or thought I knew) about support groups was that alcoholics went to them (AA), or they could help you sleep (Fight Club) ;-)

Let's be clear: I knew I needed to go, but I did not want to go. Fight Club was certainly on my mind, and I toyed briefly with writing "Cornelius" on my nametag. In the end, I remember sitting around a circle with about 20 other people who had all lost their spouse. I'm not normally one to engage in schadenfreude, but there is something to be said for realizing that others have it worse than you do.

In I'm Grieving as Fast as I Can [pp 136-138.], the author enumerates 15 ways a support group can be helpful :

  1. A support group facilitator gives people permission for intimacy in their conversation. Little time is wasted on polite small talk. You get to know a room full of strangers extremely well in a couple of hours. You feel connected to the world again.

  2. A support group lessens the feeling of isolation. It keeps you from feeling that you are the only person in the whole world who is going through this experience. The group facilitator does the community organization to bring young widowed people together. When you lessen your feelings of isolation, you automatically increase your feelings of self esteem.

  3. You will be able to make new friends to help fill the void in your life. It will allow you to network a new social life. You will meet people from all walks of life. You will make friends with people who never knew your husband or your wife and who will like you for the person you are now. This will raise your self esteem. You will have new friends with whom you can feel extremely comfortable because you know they understand. You can let your guard down.

  4. You will learn how to improve your communication skills with others. The goal of good communication is to tell the truth to yourself and to others. "You will let the inside stuff get out." Some formerly shy people will become very talkative as they realize that their spouses did the talking for both of them.

  5. You will feel physically comfortable in the room. There is an automatic bond between young widowed people, much like the bond between war veterans.

  6. You will serve as role models for each other and help each other find your own unique way of handling this experience. You will give each other permission to get on with your lives. How are widowed people supposed to behave? How long should you feel miserable after a death? How long do you wait before you leave the house in the evening with a friend? When is it okay to smile without feeling guilty? You will learn there is no one right way to grieve.

  7. A group will force you to set aside time to think and grieve with people who genuinely understand what you are going through. You will have your feelings validated and any feelings of guilt you have will lessen. By setting aside time to think and grieve, you will be able to accept the death a bit faster and you will feel better faster.

  8. A support group allows you to discuss your husband or wife openly, serving as a mini-memorial service to the deceased. A support group makes you feel your memories are important because you are important and your husband was important. This will also increase your self esteem.

  9. A support group will aid in overcoming your denial of the death. The fact of the matter is that you wouldn't be at the group if your husband hadn't died. You cannot sit there and pretend you are not a widow at the same time.

  10. You will get the support you need to enable you to resist outside pressure from parents and friends. It will leave you less vulnerable to "the first nice man who comes along."

  11. You will learn to recognize the vulnerability in others and thereby learn to recognize it in yourself. You will be more careful with yourself and have a greater respect for yourself.

  12. You will meet people who are coping better than you seem to be and this will give you inspiration and optimism that you can feel better too.

  13. A support group is a safe place to relax and talk to people after a death without family and friends accusing you of socializing too soon.

  14. You will be applauded for your new accomplishments. Everyone gets very excited when someone makes a stride, e.g. buys a house, gets a job, starts socializing. The group is very supportive. That's why it's called a support group. Give it a chance.

  15. You will truly enjoy the company of a group of sensitive, compassionate people. The members do not just sit around and discuss their grief. On many evenings there is so much laughter that you'd swear you were at a comedy show. After a death, sensitivity is heightened and that includes sensitivity to humor. Many young widowed people say they would have been totally lost had their senses of humor not remained intact.

If you haven't yet joined a support group, please give one a try. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Bad Trip

I've often wondered how we as widows/ers can explain what we are experiencing to outsiders. You know, those people we affectionately refer to as, "Don't Get Its" or DGIs for short — the ones who ask you, "well, it has been a week, haven't you moved on yet?" :-P

Now, my personality is such that, generally, people don't presume to tell me how I ought to run my life, so I have pretty much avoided dumb comments like these. But I know of many widows/ers who have been on the receiving end of such absurdities. I don't believe the "helpers" say these things to be mean. I have a rule: never assume malice when simple incompetence will suffice. They simply don't know what they don't know. And we should be happy for them in their ignorant bliss. Well, most days anyway... ;-)

The analogy of a bad drug trip relates our experience to them in a way that they might understand (not that I know anything about bad drug trips ;-) After Deb died, and for a long time afterwards, food didn't taste right, colors seemed off, and even the experience of time seemed distorted, almost like everything was delayed by a quarter second or so. For me, the bad trip feeling lasted for almost a year. Emotionally, I was all over the place. I could be almost euphoric one moment and plunged in the depths of despair the next. There's a reason they call it "the roller coaster..."

The drug analogy is helpful for us as well so that we can understand what is happening within our bodies. There's a section in a great book called I'm Grieving as Fast as I Can, which explains that, when we were married, we had become emotionally, physically, and chemically dependent on our mate. Our mind was flooded with endorphins (an opiate, similar to morphine or heroin) just by being around him or her. When our spouse died, we literally went through cold-turkey withdrawal symptoms. I can remember a month or so after the funeral feeling that my skin was literally crawling, like it was separating from my body. Sleep was impossible. "Drying out" was hard work, and it left me feeling exhausted. Thank goodness it finally ended, although it took a little over a year for these symptoms to ease.

I don't mean to scare those of you for whom it has only been a few days or weeks since your love died. However, I do think it is important to know that it will likely get a lot worse before it gets better. I have learned that our bodies know how to grieve, and we will grieve, like it or not. There is good news and bad news here: the good news is that our bodies know how much grief we can tolerate at one time; the bad news is, that tolerance limit is waaaaay deep in the red line and far, far beyond our comfort zone. Sitting in the front pew with my son at the funeral, I had no idea just how much I would be stretched and tried in the months to follow.

There is good news in the bad news: now that I have passed through the acute grieving stage, my tolerance for emotional stress has been reset to a level incomprehensible to most people. Stuff that drives other people batty is now like water off a duck's back for me.

If you're going through the traumatic part of grieving right now, hang in there! There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn't the 4 p.m. freight ;-)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I Hate Mind Pretzels

Doing some basement cleaning tonight, I found two thumbnail black and white passport-style photos of Deb. I'm able to smile these days instead of sob, but it wasn't long before the rush of emotions began. I found myself thinking, "I was married for 12 ½ years to this person who is no longer a person. What does that mean?"

How does one even begin to answer such a question?

Thankfully, I've acquired sufficient grief tools by now that I was able to calmly sit on the couch and become grounded in the here and now. Within five minutes I was back to my usual self, able to get on with the evening. But the questions remain: how do people exist one moment and not exist another moment? What does that say about existence? About people? About me?

I read a book not too long ago by Thich Nhat Hanh called No Death, No Fear. He talks at one point about drinking tea, and how after drinking tea we don't look to the tea leaves for the tea — the essence of the tea has been absorbed by the water, which was subsequently absorbed by us. In the same way, the essence of our loved one is no longer in their body but has been diffused into the world, and a large part of their essence has been diffused into us. So does that mean that the essence of Deb is in me? Is this what widows and widowers talk about when they say that they can feel their Dearly Departed as a part of them?

Too many questions for one night ;-)

Friday, November 9, 2007

I'm a widower. What now?

I have often thought about a description I heard concerning an Airborne Regiment Pathfinder's course. Candidates were thrown into a plane with no notice in the middle of the night, flown in circles for hours, and booted out without warning. Upon parachuting to the ground, they were greeted by unfriendly staff, given a compass and a bearing, and told simply that they would receive further instructions upon completion of this leg. After hours of bush-whacking, they would meet another unfriendly staff member and the process would repeat, this time in a different direction. The test would be over when the candidate collapsed from exhaustion ;-)

How does this relate to grieving? Well, on this journey, we don't get the benefit of a surly sergeant to give us our first bearing -- that task falls to us. And we don't get handed a compass either, nor do we even fully realize that we are lost. All we know is that we are in a very different world than the one we were in when our spouse was alive. The pointless hiking is a joy we have yet to experience, and it may be several weeks or months before we hit the wall of exhaustion. And when we do, the test still isn't over.

For me, I didn't even realize I was lost until about 5 months after Deb died, and I hit the exhaustion wall a few weeks after that. Only then was I able to recognize that I was not in my familiar world, nor would I ever be able to return to that world, and that I would need a lot of help to find my way around this new, unwelcome world. My first task was to get myself oriented and start learning what being a widower was all about. I had a lot to learn.