Sunday, August 24, 2008

Flap Your Wings

How much of your time during the day is taken up re-hashing the events of your past married life? The good, the bad, and the ugly?

A lot?

Around the time that Deb died, I was listening to an audio lecture called the Joy of Thinking: The Beauty and Power of Classical Mathematical Ideas, and they stressed the following point:

Understand simple things deeply. We can never understand unknown situations without an intense focus on those aspects of the unknown that are familiar. The familiar, in other words, serves as the best guide to the unfamiliar.

So, to become more familiar with what it means to be bereaved, you may find it helpful to actually count the minutes you spend reminiscing about the past. "A lot" means different things if it translates into "165 minutes a day" (2 and 3/4 hours) or "480 minutes a day" (8 hours). Being specific about numbers can help us get real clear about our present circumstances.

In my case, about 9-10 months after Deb had died, I was still re-living the past about 5-6 hours a day, and I was still spending enormous emotional energy going over my past relationship with her. This occurred during the depression part of my grief, and while I knew I wasn't yet healed, I wasn't too sure about how to go about healing. I hadn't yet learned to let go of my story.

Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose talks about this aspect of letting go, and he gives a natural example of two ducks [pages 137-139]:


In The Power of Now, I mentioned my observation that after two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they will separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times, thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight. After they flap their wings, they float on peacefully, as if nothing had ever happened.

If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive by thinking, by story-making. This would probably be the duck's story: "I don't believe what he just did. He came to within five inches of me. He thinks he owns this pond. He has no consideration for my private space. I'll never trust him again. Next time he'll try something else just to annoy me. I'm sure he's plotting something already. But I'm not going to stand for this. I'll teach him a lesson he won't forget." And on and on the mind spins its tales, still thinking and talking about it days, months, or years later. As far as the body is concerned, the fight is still continuing, and the energy it generates in response to all those thoughts is emotion, which in turn generates more thinking. This becomes the emotional thinking of the ego. You can see how problematic the duck's life would become if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all the time. No situation or event is ever really finished. The mind and the mind-made "me and my story" keep it going.

We are a species that has lost its way. Everything natural, every flower or tree, and every animal have important lessons to teach us if we would only stop, look, and listen. Our duck's lesson is this: Flap your wings — which translates as "let go of the story" — and return to the only place of power: the present moment.

Find a way to let go of your story, and enjoy the deep peace that comes with being who you are right now.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Honoring Your Wedding Vows

Being married again has given me lots to ponder these last two weeks. I am truly thrilled with my bride and the life we are building together. And I am reminded often that this never would have been possible if I had not fully let go of Deb. And that's what has me pondering recently.

Tonight's post is likely to be the strongest thing I have ever written, so I'll preface it by a word or two of warning. First off, if you are newly bereaved or within the first year, this post is not really meant for you, so you may want to give it a pass.

In fact, even if you're in year two or three, you may want to give it a pass. It really is that strong. I'm writing it specifically for that one person out there who truly wants to let go of their dead spouse, but something is holding them back.

So, if you continue to read this post despite my warnings and are appalled, hurt, or angered, then I'm sorry, this message wasn't meant for you. Please spare me the hate mail ;-) The one person out there for whom this is intended will recognize that it is for them. I don't mean to be so blunt, but it needs to be said, and I have yet to read this anywhere else. And please keep in mind that I'm not some shrink in an ivory tower — I have been where you are, and I can appreciate the kind of pain you are experiencing. I would relieve you of that pain. That is my motivation, nothing more.

Last chance to turn back!

Marriage is a curious thing. As I was mentioning in the epilogue to my story, I was more emotional while reciting my wedding vows than I had anticipated. The following simple words of traditional wedding vows have been dancing around in my head:

'to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part'

It is that last line that has me pondering.

Marriage is a contract. In that contract, we state what we will do, and the conditions under which we will perform.

I've been a contractor for well over 10 years now, so I'm quite familiar with the language used in contracts. Every time I sign a new one, I always pay close attention to the "exit clause." I want to know how much notice I have to give them, and how much notice they have to give me, and when I'll receive what is owed to me, and what restrictions are placed upon me at the end of the contract, like not working for a competitor for 12 months.

Most of the IT contracts I sign run into dozens of pages and use reams of legal jargon. So it must be the simple, compact, and concise nature of the vows above that has struck me. Such a contrast from most modern contracts!

You have probably already figured out where I'm going with this. At death, we are parted, and all our contractual obligations are dissolved. There are no restrictions placed upon us at the end of the contract. We no longer have our mate, we no longer hold them, and we are no longer obligated to love and cherish them.

Yes, I know that last line is anathema for just about everyone reading it. Relax — I'm not writing it for you.

I'm writing it for that one person (you know who you are) who wants to let go of your dead spouse and go on living, but you feel a deep sense of guilt about doing so. You feel that you will be going against your word, that you will be out of your integrity, and that you will be dishonoring your late mate.

You will not be doing any of these things.

What you essentially said in your marriage vows was, "I will do all these things while you are alive, but when you are no longer alive, I will no longer do these things."

You probably never thought about it like that before, did you?

Does that mean that the moment your spouse dies, you no longer love or cherish them? No! What it does mean is that you are no longer obligated to do so. You are now free to do so, but you don't have to do so anymore. You are now free from that bond, that responsibility.

In other words, any lingering guilt you feel about letting go and living your own life is without foundation. Think back to your vows, and ask yourself if you have fulfilled them.

Now that your spouse is dead, you have completed your marriage contract. You have fulfilled your obligations. You are now free to direct your attentions elsewhere.

You are free to live as you please.

Please do so.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Conscious Suffering

I've been watching TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks since they started posting them online. Tonight I stumbled upon a remarkable talk that both summarizes and confirms most of what I've been posting about these last few months — that peace springs from being fully present in the moment, and that our troubles stem from identifying with our past and future. Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor explains in her TED talk that when she had a stroke, she consciously observed the total shutdown of the left hemisphere of her brain, and with it all her cares, fears, anxieties, and troubles evaporated. It is an amazing 18 minutes, well worth your time to watch:

I think it is really neat that I watched that video the same night as I read a fascinating article on conscious suffering. As I've written about many times on this blog, we need to allow our emotions to be, and we need to also allow those emotions to fully manifest themselves. Fully experiencing our emotions is a major component of our grief recovery.

Yes, I understand that this is a scary prospect. It requires a leap of faith. Faith that we will survive the experience, faith that we will not be overwhelmed, faith that we will not be destroyed. I took that risk, and I can attest to the healing power of the experience.

Assuming that you're willing to take the risk, it helps a great deal to have a good guide through the process. The process of conscious suffering is simple, but it is not easy. I'll quote a few excerpts from Chris' article entitled Thoughts On Conscious Suffering, and I highly encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here are the four key points:

I want to share the peace this approach has brought me with others. Thus, in this article, I'm going to describe the process of conscious suffering as I understand it. I hope it's as helpful and transformative for you as it's been for me.

As I said earlier, when you start experiencing an intense, uncomfortable emotion, if you have the time and space, find a place to sit alone and undistracted. Begin to breathe rhythmically and deeply as the sensation moves through you. If this process is frightening and painful, as it may be if you haven't been through it before, keep your mind focused on the four guideposts I discuss below. These are intended to give you comfort and perspective as you immerse yourself fully in your experience.

1. Your suffering is finite. One of the reasons we'll usually do anything to avoid intense feeling is the worry that, if we fully allow it to be, the feeling will never end. We may be entirely consumed by our rage or fear, and lose control of our actions or permanently curl up into a whimpering fetal position. Thus, when strong sensations arise in our bodies, we tend to numb ourselves with distracting activities like watching TV or diving headlong into our work.

The process of conscious suffering requires a leap of faith. It requires the belief that there is a finite amount of pain, or difficult emotion, trapped in your body, and that you can draw nearer to the end of suffering by letting yourself fully experience your pain. There’s no way, in all honesty, to know in advance that your anguish won't last forever. All you can do is look to the experience of others who have transcended their pain through conscious suffering, and trust that you can bring yourself closer to the same peace.

2. Remove your labels. Much of the suffering we experience around "difficult emotions" occurs because we label those emotions as negative or unwanted. We learn early in life that the tension and heat in our bodies we call "anger," "anxiety" and so on are bad things we should avoid if possible. Thus, when those sensations come up, we tend to fight them, whether by tightening parts of our bodies to choke off the feelings, shaming ourselves for "getting too emotional," or distracting ourselves from our experience. This resistance can be physically painful and add to our discomfort.

To release our resistance and let our sensations be, it's helpful to peel off the labels we put on our emotions and simply view them as forms of energy arising in our bodies. There’s nothing good or bad about this energy — it's just a substance that moves through us and passes away. When we let go of our judgments about the way we feel, it’s easier to allow our emotions to arise and subside.

3. Let go of the need to explain. When we experience intense sensation, often our first impulse is to look for a reason — whether in ourselves or the world — for the feeling's existence. From a young age, we're conditioned to believe we must be able to justify or explain our feelings. Otherwise, we must repress our emotions. For example, some of us learn early on that, if we can't convincingly explain why we're angry, we have "no right to be angry," or that we aren't allowed to "bother" our parents by crying unless there's a real emergency.

Our search for an explanation for our feelings usually takes the form of looking for someone to blame. If we're "feeling bad," our instincts tell us, someone or something must be responsible. Some of us blame ourselves — perhaps calling ourselves weak if we feel afraid, or overly irritable if we're angry. Others blame the outside world — for instance, perhaps they blame their parents for doing an inadequate job of raising them and saddling them with rage and guilt; or maybe they blame their spouses or children for being too demanding.

Ultimately, the only thing blame accomplishes, other than creating more conflict in the world, is to divert your attention from what you're experiencing. When you become lost in thought about who is responsible for your suffering, your attention drifts into the past — to what others may have done to "make" you feel this way — and you lose consciousness of your experience in the present...

4. Your sensations can't kill you. Particularly in our early journeys into conscious suffering, we tend to worry that fully experiencing what's going on in our bodies may harm or even destroy us. This is one reason many of us rush to the doctor or psychiatrist to medicate our strong emotions away — we worry that our bodies can't survive that sort of intensity and will fall apart under the strain.

However, on an unconscious level, we're already experiencing the sensations we're afraid of. Conscious suffering, as its name suggests, only brings those unpleasant sensations into your conscious awareness. We're only unaware of what we're feeling most of the time because we spend much of our lives looking for ways to divert our attention from our experience. If the energy flowing through our bodies could kill us, it would have done so long ago.

In reality, focusing our attention on the uncomfortable sensations in our bodies, and allowing them to pass away, doesn't hurt us — in fact, it leads to a richer experience of life. As we release our pain through conscious suffering, we become more open to and able to appreciate the rich and varied sensations life offers us.

Friday, August 15, 2008

There's no time like the present

Within the first month or so of my late wife's death, I noticed that time seemed to have sped up. I remember describing my new concept of time to friends as being like a rushing river — I was being swept along in the middle of a wide watercourse, and all those many, many things I had yet to do before I died were hurtling past me on the distant banks, far out of reach. I was powerless to do much more than just hang on.

I've recently noticed that I no longer feel that way about time. Instead, I feel like I'm in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, all the time. Yes, I am getting older. Yes, there are still lots of things that I would like to do before I die. But I no longer feel like I must accomplish those things, nor do I feel like I am growing old too quickly.

I really enjoyed reading Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, so I decided to pick up his first book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Lo and behold, he explains exactly why my concept of time has changed, and I can trace it back to my free Vipassana 10-day silent meditation course I attended in January.

In a nutshell, Eckhart shows how learning to be present with the moment will free us from the limitations of time. And my experience has been that learning to be present is the key to grief recovery as well.

[from pages 48-49 of The Power of Now]:


It seems almost impossible to disidentify from the mind. We are all immersed in it. How do you teach a fish to fly?

Here is the key: End the delusion of time. Time and mind are inseparable. Remove time from the mind and it stops unless you choose to use it.

To be identified with your mind is to be trapped in time: the compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation. This creates an endless preoccupation with past and future and an unwillingness to honor and acknowledge the present moment and allow it to be. The compulsion arises because the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.

But without a sense of time, how would we function in this world? There would be no goals to strive toward anymore. I wouldn't even know who I am, because my past makes me who I am today. I think time is something very precious, and we need to learn to use it wisely rather than waste it.

Time isn't precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time — past and future — the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.

Why is it the most precious thing? Firstly, because it is the only thing. It's all there is. The eternal present is the space within which your whole life unfolds, the one factor that remains constant. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be. Secondly, the Now is the only point that can take you beyond the limited confines of the mind. It is your only point of access into the timeless and formless realm of Being.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Story — Epilogue

As a conclusion to my story (read parts I, II, III, and IV if you missed them), I thought I would bring you up to date and give you some idea as to how I see life these days, now that I have a wedding band on my finger once again.

First off, I can't stress enough how much of a difference my free Vipassana 10-day silent meditation course has made in my life. No, I don't meditate on a daily basis, at least not in a formal way. It is more of a life perspective, a new, better way for me to look at the world. Had I not invested that kind of time and effort in fully healing from my grief, I highly doubt that I ever would have attracted my new wife.

I've been asked some interesting questions by a close widower friend of mine. Do I truly love my new wife? Yes. I didn't jump into a relationship because I was lonely and had a hole in my heart to fill. Do I love her the same way I loved my late wife? No. She and my late wife have little in common. And I am at a much different stage in my life than when I was first married at age 22. I believe we love people individually. I love my son much differently than I love my new wife, or than I love my sister, brother, father, or mother. And that's fine.

At the wedding, I was more emotional than I had anticipated during the vows. But I did not hold back any of that emotion. I have learned by now to let my emotions express themselves as they will. And besides, those vows were not empty words to me this time, or rather, concepts that I had not yet experienced. "In sickness and in health." Well, I have a much better appreciation as to what "sickness" can mean now. "For better or for worse." I have plumbed the depths of worse, survived, and am now thriving. Yet the mere act of uttering the words brought back memories to reflect that hard-earned experience, resulting in the flood of emotion. And I was reminded that all our problems in this life are a result of our memories. And that was OK. I was aware of this, and I went with the flow.

Am I happy now? Yes. But keep in mind, I was happy before I met my new wife. Or rather, I was at peace. And I am at peace still. Life is different now, sure, but life is always changing. I no longer cling to moments of pleasure and recoil from moments of discomfort. Well, not too much anyway ;-) I observe them and let them go. And yes, I fully participate in them! ;-) Vipassana hasn't made me a doormat. Oh no. It has allowed me to fully enjoy a precious moment and then let it go, thereby freeing me up to fully experience the next moment.

This is a big change from a few years ago. I am now acutely aware of just how much I was living in either the past or the future. Mostly the future. Things were going to be so much better in the future! Well, as Yogi Berra said, the future just ain't what it used to be ;-)

Over the last month or so, I've spent a good deal of time pondering just what grief and bereavement are. I think I've come to the conclusion that they are a devastation of our ego. It is our ego that is shattered. So much of who we thought we were was knit together with the life of our dead spouse. When our spouse died, our ego was undone — shattered. It reacted violently, causing a painful frenzy of thoughts about the past and a gut-wrenching deluge of anxieties about the future. It is almost like our ego is bent and determined to ensure we never spend a moment focused on the now, the present moment. Why? Because that is the beginning of the end of the ego.

Being present with right now, the present moment, is the key to fully healing from the pain of bereavement. If you examine the list I made at the beginning of June of ways to facilitate grieving, notice how each one of them is intended to focus your attention on the present moment. It is only in the present moment that we can be at peace. And really, it is only in the present moment that we can be at all.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Story IV

This is the last part of a recent speech I gave about my grief journey. Read part I, part II,and part III if you missed them.

I've gathered many insights along the way, and I'd like to quickly share 8 of those insights with you now.

The first one is that humans are notoriously bad with causality. Why did Deb get cervical cancer? Who knows. Why did she die at age 32? Who knows. Spending hours and hours thinking about these types of "why" questions didn't really get me anywhere in my grieving. Eventually, I learned to make peace with ambiguity. I don't need to know why.

The second insight is that I needed to learn how to love myself first. I had spent so much of my time caring for Deb and my son that I hadn't taken any time for me. I had to learn how to treat myself well, and that meant doing things that made me feel good, not necessarily those around me. I also learned to say "no" to pressures from work and friends to do things that would take up my time. I needed all my spare time to grieve.

The third insight is that grief is largely a feeling process, not a thinking process. Intellectualizing my grief was not very helpful, but expressing my grief with my body was helpful. The techniques I learned from The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing were very helpful. I found I could help the process along by managing my sensory environment and making choices that relaxed my five senses. I put artwork on my walls; I listened to smooth jazz at home and classical music at work; I learned a bit about essential oils and made sure my house smelled nice; I ate good-tasting food, even if my senses were dulled for a while; and I wore clothes that made me feel good about myself. I smiled a lot, whether I felt like it or not. And I walked outside in nature as often as I could.

The fourth insight is that stress exists because we insist. You'll recall that when I was trying to sell my house to move to Central America, I experienced major bodily stress. As soon as I abandoned all those plans, and decided to go with the flow of grief, that bodily stress went away. It was an important lesson. Even today, whenever I feel stress, I stop and examine how I am trying to resist the flow of life. When I stop resisting, the stress evaporates. I learned how to go with the flow.

The fifth insight is that we are goal-seeking entities. We are designed to always have a goal out in front of us. Once I started diligently learning about grief, I realized that my new goal was to be at peace with Deb's death. The question I started asking myself all the time was, "how can I be at peace?" With this question as my goal, I started finding answers.

Sixth insight: I learned this concept from the Vipassana meditation course I attended in Quebec and subsequent studying on the subject afterwards. Our thoughts and feelings are impermanent. The whole purpose of our brain is to generate thoughts which lead to movement. The pattern is: a thought comes up, which leads to a feeling somewhere in the body, which leads to action of some kind. But because grief is primarily a feeling process, we don't need our brains to generate thoughts to have feelings – we already have way more feelings than we know what to do with! But how do we quiet the mind? What I learned by sitting in that gloomy hall for 10 hours a day for 10 days was how to allow a thought to come up and pass away without acting on it. I was fine to just be, I didn't have to do anything. To put it simply, we are human beings, not human doings.

Seventh insight: I learned this from a Hawaiian healing method called ho'oponopono. When I look back on my life, I see that every single one of my problems originated from my memory. Looking back on the past and comparing it to the present is a recipe for misery. So, I learned a technique for dealing with my memories and letting them go. I can make a choice: I can live in the past, from my memory, or I can live in the present, from my 5 senses. The healing technique is very simple. Whenever I find myself reliving a memory, I say 4 simple phrases: I love you, I'm sorry, please forgive me, thank you. This helps me let go of the memory and reminds me to live in the present. You can read more about this amazing technique on my blog.

And lastly, I've glommed onto a set of simple, yet profound, guidelines for running my life. When I go to do anything, I remind myself that I'm going to do it as follows: in an easy and relaxed manner, in a healthy and positive way, in its own perfect time, and for the good of all. The result of following these simple guidelines? A peaceful, stress-free life. I love the expression, "how you do anything is how you do everything."

I’ll leave you tonight with one more insight that I learned second-hand. This one comes from Ecuador. A shaman there was recently asked what he thought the biggest problem was with North Americans. He thought for a moment and said, "They don't respect endings." Why? Probably ignorance. Endings are really beginnings.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

My Story III

This is part III of a recent speech I gave about my grief journey. Read part I and part II if you missed them.

Ten months out. I am always on the verge of tears. I cry at my desk at work. I cry eating supper at home with my son. I cry reading grief books on the bus on the way to and from work. I'm now a regular here at BFO. I tell the group session, "I feel like I'm in a nightmare that's never going to end."

Thirteen months out. I begin a BFO closed group session, meeting with ten other widows and widowers every week for ten weeks. I find it very, very helpful. Not so much because of what is being said there, but because I am now focusing heavily on healing. And I begin looking every day for helpful insights that I can share with the group.

Fourteen months out. I can't sleep. My skin is crawling, and I want to tear it off. This feels horrible. But I know what this is. By now I have read about how the chemical addiction withdrawal symptoms of grief can be eerily similar to those that heroin addicts experience when they go cold turkey. But why am I feeling like this now, at 2 am? Oh yeah. It is now Mother's Day.

Seventeen months out. I am spending the weekend with the woman I had tried to have a relationship with the previous year. She is still a very nice woman. I am still not ready for a relationship. But now, I can see that while we have a great deal in common, there are some key areas in which we are not very compatible. I am not falling in love with her. We discuss it, and she agrees that we are good friends but that's it. We part amicably, no hard feelings. I am still alone, still a single dad. I am still in pain from time to time, but the pain is less.

Nineteen months out. After some encouragement from a friend here at BFO, I start a blog and begin writing about ways to recover and heal from grief. I do this for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I want to give back and help others. You can't forget the title: My Spouse Is Dead dot com.

Twenty-one months out. I attend a silent meditation course to learn a particular meditation technique called Vipassana. I have never done any kind of formal meditation before, ever. For 10 hours every day for 10 days, I sit in dim silence and practice. Going in, I had thought that being alone with myself for this long will be emotionally traumatic, but it is not. Instead, it is an amazing experience that proves to be a major key to my healing and recovery process. I never look at the world the same way ever again. I am now at peace. The pain is gone.

Those are the highlights of my grief and healing journey. I’ll pass around a few of the books that have been helpful to me along the way. I have a complete list of all these books on my blog, along with summaries and excerpts. The The Grief Recovery Handbook; How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies; The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing; The Sedona Method.

Part IV is next...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

My Story II

This is part II of a speech about my story (read part I here) that I gave recently at Bereaved Families of Ontario:

One month out. I receive the first "AfterLoss" newsletter the funeral home signed me up for. I don't want to read about how people grieve. I just want to get on with my life. I sure don't want to read about pain and how it will go on for a long time, or how grief is forever. I don't really feel pain. Besides, I have been busy grieving ever since Deb said goodbye to me. I'm pretty much finished now. Or so I think.

Three months out. My very annoying alarm clock goes off at 8:00 am, signaling it is time to get up and go to work. Beep, beep, beep. I stare up at the ceiling and think, "Life is pointless." I do this for the next 3 and a half hours. At 11:30, I finally get up, turn off the alarm, get ready, and go to work.

Four months out. I've been noticing that my perception of time is off, like everything is delayed a half-second or so. Colours seem dim, no longer vivid. Food has little taste. I feel very strange. Later I will learn that I am still physically, emotionally, and chemically addicted to Deb, and that I am experiencing withdrawal symptoms. I am numb.

Five months out. I meet a very nice woman online, and I ask her out. Why am I dating at five months? Death did us part. As I said, my emotional connection to Deb was over 15 months before she died. And due to cervical cancer, any physical connection between us was impossible. And I want my young son to have a new mom. And besides, I know that I am happiest when I am loving someone else. But right now I am not experiencing happiness. Instead, it feels like someone is taking a big yellow marker and highlighting everything that I have lost.

Six months out. I'm starting to become unglued. I have been pushing forward with my plans to move to Central America, a huge dream of mine for many years. But as I get ready to sell my house, I begin having anxiety attacks. I can feel my blood pressure rising, and I suspect I might soon have a heart attack. Full stop. I listen to my body. I stop all plans for selling my house and moving. I break off my fledgling relationship. I shelve any plans I have for the rest of my life. I later learn that planning for the future is a major grief trigger. I stare grief in the face. Looks like I'm going to have to grieve after all. But what is grief, anyway?

Seven months out. I am in deep pain. It feels like someone ripped my chest open with a jagged sword. I walk down the stairs here for the first time. I don't want to be here. I am a little scared about what I will learn about myself here. I toy briefly with the idea of writing "Cornelius" on my nametag, like Tyler Durdon does in the movie Fight Club. In the group session, I hear stories of other widows and widowers who are experiencing similar things to me. And I hear a story from someone with circumstances worse than my own. This somehow makes me feel a little better. Maybe even a little smug.

Part III coming soon...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My Story

In less than 48 hours, the title of this blog will no longer be appropriate for me ;-) That's right, I am getting married. I can remember sitting on my couch about two weeks after I attended my 10 day silent meditation course, thinking, "I have never been so at peace, being alone, in my entire life." And of course, I met my fiancé just a few days later :-)

A lot has come together for me since I learned how to meditate and quiet my mind. Not just meeting and falling in love with my soon-to-be-wife, but also being at total peace with Deb's death. I can listen to her voice or watch a video of her and feel nothing but peace. Such a far cry from two years ago!

Because I'll be busy (!) for the next few days, I thought I'd share a speech I gave in June to Bereaved Families of Ontario. I talk a bit about my journey and the many lessons that I have learned. I hope you will find it helpful.

Hi, my name is Vic. I'm a 36 year old widower. Tonight I'd like to tell you a little bit about my story, share some of my experiences, and reveal some of the valuable insights that I've gleaned from my grief journey. At the end, I'll be happy to take any questions you may have, but I'll tell you right up front, I am an expert on one person's grief, and one person's grief only: mine. Still, there are some common threads that bereaved people tend to share, so it is my hope that you are able to take even just one thing home with you tonight that would be both helpful and healing.

First, a bit of back-story. I was married to my wife Deb for 12 and a half years, and she died at age 32 of cervical cancer. We found out in childbirth. Or rather, I had my first inkling that something was wrong just a few hours before my son was born. We were working with a midwife at the hospital, and when she was checking for dilation, she noticed something. "Probably just a polyp," she said, smiling. But her eyes weren't smiling. This is my first clue.

September 2003. Two months after my son is born, Deb finally has her consultation with her gynecologist. She meets me after work with the stroller, in tears. Cervical cancer. At this point in time, we aren't thinking about death. It is caught in the very early stages, and besides, young people don't die of cancer. We are more upset about the upcoming hysterectomy and the resulting loss of fertility. No more kids.

Six months later. We get the results of a PET scan: no traces of cancer. The operation, chemo, and radiation are a success. But we do not celebrate. These tests aren't foolproof. Somehow I know that things are going to get worse. How much worse, I have no idea.

Christmas, 2004. The results of a test are in. Yes, all this recent pain is a result of the cancer that is back, hard. We are looking at major, major surgery and heavy chemo. The oncologist says, "There's more to tell, but that's enough for now." This is my second clue.

Late January, 2005. The doctor says, "You have a mean survival time of 3-6 months." When we get home from that terrible hospital meeting, Deb looks at me and says, "Well, I guess this is goodbye." And the emotional connection I share with my wife is over, just like that.

March 29, 2006. Fifteen months, countless chemo, radiation, and surgical procedures later. I'm leaning up against the back of my car in the parking lot of the hospital, eating a banana. I have been up for over 48 hours. I have just kissed the lifeless forehead of my now dead wife minutes before. Strangely, I feel nothing. My thoughts at this time are, "Well, that's over. Now I'm a widower. Now what?"

Part II tomorrow night...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Your Original Face

Thoughts become things... choose the good ones!®
-- Mike Dooley

Now that our spouse is dead, who are we? An easy answer is "a widow" or "a widower." But what does that word mean, really? How does that word map on to who we are? We used to define ourselves by words like "I'm a husband" or "wife" or "companion" or "mate" or any other number of descriptive words to indicate our relationship with our love.

But now, we have to start over again in so many ways. And our self-descriptive language changes as well, especially the language we use to talk to ourselves, that ongoing conversation in our head. Perhaps now the language changes to phrases like, "I'm scared," or "I'm angry," or "I'm frustrated," or any other number of ways to describe our new life of limitations.

The caveat here is that what we think about expands. If we think about ourselves as weak, hurting, lost, alone, or troubled, we will get more of the same in our life. It can be very difficult to break out of these thought patterns, especially when we are in the terrible pain of grief. Yet we must.

The following excerpt challenges us to examine our lives from an earlier time, a time before we found ourselves in our current predicament. No, not before our spouse died — before we were born:

Who Were You Before Your Identity?

A while back, I happened to read about a Zen koan, or saying, that goes "show me your original face before you were born." Not surprisingly, my initial reaction to this was "that makes no sense — I didn't exist before I was born." But I also noticed that, when I seriously pondered what I was like "before I was born," I experienced a peaceful emptiness in my mind. Most importantly, all the negative thinking I usually did about myself, in that moment, disappeared as if it had never been there. For a few seconds, I was free of my limiting identities.

I was fascinated by the peace the koan brought me, and for a few months I regularly thought about it, hoping for a deeper understanding of its meaning. One sleepless morning at about four a.m., I finally came to a realization. In the words "before you were born," "you" means your identity — the beliefs you've formed about yourself and who you are in the world. You "gave birth" to your identity when you made decisions about who and what you were. The purpose (or, at least, one purpose) of the koan is to show us we existed — we had an "original face" — before we adopted any beliefs about ourselves. We are not our beliefs, in other words — we are their creator and believer.

When we contemplate the koan, we get a firsthand experience of what life was like before we developed all these harmful ideas about ourselves. As I discovered for myself, that identityless state gifts us with a peace and freedom we rarely experience in our lives. At first, when we try to remember what we were like before we adopted our identities, we feel like we're "drawing a blank," not coming up with anything. However, we only see it that way because we're so accustomed to having all these thoughts about ourselves, and in the identityless state those thoughts don't arise. In fact, that calm blankness is who we were before we decided we were this or that.

I also recognized that, whenever I wanted, I could return to the peace of my "original face." Whenever I started running myself down, replaying memories of difficult interactions with others, or generally thinking negatively, all I had to do was remember how I experienced life before I adopted the harmful beliefs. This memory gave me more than pleasant nostalgia — it actually put me back into the tranquil emotional state of my very early life.

In that state, life took on a joyful and effortless quality. Without all my ideas about my limitations as a person, the anxieties about relating with people that used to trouble me simply faded away. Spiritual teacher Osho's description of this state in Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously captures its essence well: "Just be what you are and don't care a bit about the world. Then you will feel a tremendous relaxation and a deep peace within your heart. This is what Zen people call your 'original face' — relaxed, without tensions, without pretensions, without hypocrisies, without the so-called disciplines of how you should behave."

As always, I'll offer an exercise to help others experience the peace this practice has brought me. If negative beliefs about yourself have been limiting you, try the following. When some harmful idea about yourself arises — for instance, "I'm too scared to do this," "I'm not an interesting person," "people are going to mock me if I try this," and so on, pause what you're doing for a moment. Ask yourself when you decided that this was true. Then, see if you can recall how you felt before you developed this hurtful notion.

You may, like many people, experience the feeling that your idea has "always been true" — that you've "always" been inadequate, unattractive, not smart enough, or something else. If this happens, ask yourself how you felt when you were an infant, before you were born, or — if those two questions yield the same answer — before you existed. As you inquire into how you thought about yourself further and further back in time, you'll eventually come to a point where your mind becomes blank — where you can't come up with anything you believed or felt about yourself.

Don't give up here simply because you don't think you can remember anything — allow the blank sensation to persist, and hold your attention on it. As you simply give the emptiness permission to be, you may find a sense of calm and focus pervading you. This is the experience of your "original face" — your natural state before you learned to label yourself in limiting ways. You can return to it any time you feel restricted by your thinking.

[This article is by Chris Edgar from Purpose Power Coaching (]