I often hear people ask, "When does it get easier?", not only in reference to grief, but most difficult situations. When I taught high school honors writing courses, many students wondered when the next unit wouldn't be harder and faster than the last. Some felt uncertain of their capabilities, alone and different from their peers. Even though others before them earned passing grades, they still wondered if it was possible considering their unique situations.
Gosh this sounds familiar, doesn't it? Life works much the same way, with our esteem wavering from our comparisons to others and internal insecurities. We feel alone, even though there are always others who can walk with us. Building strength and resilience sound important to enduring the inevitable hardships, but people rarely talk about what that looks like.
We need to work harder at helping others (and ourselves) see the options, for as Dr. Maraboli writes, "'life doesn't get easier." When one challenge is over, another will always take its place. So how do we best deal with this?
Here are my thoughts:
1. Acceptance. Get used to sharing the highs and lows of life (with other people or your journal), knowing that the only certainty in life is change. I find this truth to be incredibly empowering, as it forces me to live in the present.
2. Practice. Whether its getting out of bed, making healthier meals, writing more essays, or finding the good in others - repetition creates normalcy. When people left behind talk about hating their "new normal" - the life without their loved one - they are often in the first few years of grief. As time goes on, different experiences and people force a new life.
3. Distraction. Music, walks in nature, TV, books, games, art etc. are ways to pass time and let our minds de-clutter and refocus. No one can keep going with breaks. Realizing this helps us recognize our limitations and needed life balance.
4. Kindness. Be open-minded for yourself and with others. Everyone has a story and lessons to share. When we step outside of ourselves and listen to the wisdom around us, we can be fed with the strength of our community.
5. Reflection. When we take time to evaluate what we know, how we behave, and what we value NOW versus years ago, we can be inspired by our progress. It's the best way to review what we've learned and make decisions concerning the future.
Perhaps the most important lesson I've learned to build strength and resilience in the years since my husband passed is this: Tears are a big part of it. They show the depth of emotion, the refusal to "put on a happy face" and be fake, the frustration from working hard, and the joy when pure happiness is found again.
Further, I know that just because I've gone through trauma and loss before, I am not immune to it in the future. That's scary sometimes, yet it calls me back to acceptance of life's roller coaster and my only good choice: to live in the present with honor and compassion. It matters more to me that I live well than that I seek happiness.
He would've been 36 today.
Even after six and a half years, anniversaries of any kind are difficult. When we love people, we memorize dates that are important, that honor them or our relationship. After they die, those dates become hurdles, often lined with "I should" statements.
As I've found anticipation is often worse than the actual day, I've been thinking all week about what I should/want/need to do for James today. I could:
- make his favorite foods: cheesy potatoes, parmesan chicken, brownies
- play and sing Garth Brooks' "The Dance" on my piano, as I did at his funeral (And now, I'm glad I didn't know the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives are better left to chance. I could've missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance.)
- share the scrapbook I made of our life together with a close friend
- write him a letter
- call one of his family members and share stories about him
- visit his grave under the snow, tracing my fingers over every letter and telling him about my life now
- drive up north to the place we got married, releasing balloons over Lake Superior
- use his camera to take pictures of beautiful things still in nature
- act like he would to every person I meet, with open-mindedness, calmness, and kindness
- tell the people alive in my life now how much they mean to me
I like this list, and have done - or tried to do - all of these things. But this year something is different. Perhaps it's because I'm 36 weeks pregnant and keep thinking about how much he wanted to be a dad. I remember telling him how much the world needed more people like him, and how he'd always respond: "I appreciate that, honey, but I am who I am because of what I've been through." (Example: On our first date, I asked him to tell me about something that forever changed who he was. I know, great starter question, right? He responded so thoughtfully, sharing about his parents' divorce when he was five years old and the many types of pain that followed. "I think it would be easy to be bitter about it all," he said, "but I'm pretty sure it's why I have so much empathy today.")
Right now, at 7:50 AM, I'm imagining his energy around me. I can almost feel him wrapping his arms over my shoulders and telling me what would make him happiest.
- watch me relish brownies like he did
- listen to me play my favorite songs on the piano - rather than the one that makes me cry
- make a new page in my scrapbook about my continuing adventures
- write a letter to my unborn daughter about what makes me who I am
- send my new book about grief to his family and others who could use it
- not visit his grave, because he's not there
- reminisce about the events that made us laugh while exploring the north shore (his red neck accent, playing in the snow up to our waists, coming off valium when he dislocated his shoulder ice-skating, getting lost in Wisconsin on our way home...)
- take pictures with his camera of whatever makes me smile
- behave with love as myself and to myself, recognizing he fell in love with a woman he didn't want to change
- tell everyone who is or has been a part of my life how much they mean to me (after all, physics - and the dragonfly story - tells us that nothing in the universe is ever gone/destroyed; it just changes form)
All these tweaks to my originals sound real, James-like, and purposeful. I now know what I want
to do today. I will forever be grateful that I knew him, that he loved me, and that I can still honor him in so many ways.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I was one of those kids who pleaded with my parents for "just one more" book every afternoon and night. The first one that my lips read - or just memorized and repeated out loud - was CINDERELLA. Interestingly, I was far from a classic pink-clothed, princess-loving little girl. What I enjoyed about Cinderella was that she was resourceful and kind-hearted. How many people can sew their own clothes, consistently help people they don't like, make friends with emotionally-responsive mice and birds, and set an example of patience? I saw many positive traits in "Cinderelly," as I called her, and tried to embody them throughout my childhood.
What do your fans mean to you?
Many people are uncomfortable with the topic of loss, especially spousal loss. To be honest, the fact that most people would rather ignore this extremely important part of my life is often hurtful. While I have moved forward with my life, finding a new career and deciding I want a family again, it doesn't mean that I've forgotten my past or am now unaffected. Accordingly, I feel grateful and loved when people ask about my first husband or my writing, take the time to read and reflect, and share their own insights or questions with me. The opportunity to help others with my experiences - through writing or personal conversations - gives me the most fulfillment and purpose I've ever known.
What's the story behind your latest book?
I started writing THEN & NOW: CHANGED PERSPECTIVES OF A YOUNG WIDOW in the third year after my husband died from a terrible motor vehicle collision. We were in our twenties and had been married for only 13 months. I felt so lonely as I read book after book from young or middle-aged widow(er)s who talked about their kids or saying goodbye after a long illness; I did not relate at all. Further, the books I found were written after one or two years in grief and spoke so highly of transformation and even remarriage. That timeline was fast and unrealistic for me.
In my third year, I started writing a Table of Contents, if the day came that I ever figured out how to deal with my toughest components of young widowhood. This included well-intentioned people, depression, being "strong," expressing anger, other widows, and fear. When I became a teacher (I went back to school after he died) and started sharing with my high schoolers why I changed careers and was standing before them, many asked if I would write a book about it. Many of these students would spend their lunches with me as they wanted to talk about their own losses and anxieties, and hear how I made it through mine.
These conversations made me wonder: Could I write a book that compared the raw first year with the fifth or sixth year to highlight how perspectives change? To highlight coping mechanisms that worked? To present a long-term picture of recovery? Even though I hadn't yet made it to year five, the idea was born and I started writing what I remembered about the first year. When I made it to year five, I revisited the half-written book over the summer and was amazed at how different I felt about life and what my life now looked like. Finding a way to show this to others became a worthy goal again, and I decided to finish the book.
Who are your favorite authors?
I'm a sucker the classics and cultural conflicts, and thus love Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, and Amy Tan. All of those writers take on the nebulous human condition when fear is rampant in society. I find their explorations captivating. That said, when I'm not in the mood for serious intellectual stimulation, I love picking up the wit of J.D. Salinger and the storytelling circles of Khaled Hosseini. I met Hosseini a couple years ago, and was absolutely inspired by his love of writing. When he was a doctor, he awoke at 4 or 5am each morning before the practice opened just to work on his first book about Afghanistan. When the book became a best-seller, he said goodbye to medicine and hello to changing the world with his stories and non-profit organizations.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Since most of my teaching time is about following research, grammar rules, and collegiate formatting styles as an English teacher, I love breaking the rules in my own personal writing. Using well-placed fragments and run-ons, creatively comparing fire and water through metaphor or personification, focusing on truths of the human condition, and hoping my insights connect with others in dark places.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Wanting to be healthy and active as I prepare to meet my little girl. Honoring my dead husband and current husband by living my life fully. Feeling the morning sun on my face as I walk my excitable yellow lab, Walter.
What's your advice to aspiring authors?
Write what you know and don't plan/plot out the book. Let it develop organically, as life does.
How do you deal with writer's block?
I accept it and move on to another task of the day. I know it will pass. Sometimes I re-read an essay by Anne Lamott entitled "Shitty First Drafts," which makes me laugh and remember that the editing process is longer than the writing process. Accordingly, I should not censor myself; rather, I should just write whatever wants to come out.
What are you working on next?
I am creating a new series that reveals the life of an individual after they died, through the eyes of their family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. There will be no primary narrator; each chapter will be written in a different voice, highlighting the effects of death on various ages and relationships.
Three years ago today, I made a life-changing decision. I decided that fear of loss would no longer rule my life. That doesn't mean my fear was over and controlled, it means I decided to accept the fear that remained after losing my first husband traumatically in August of 2008. On the day I made this decision, I walked into a coffee shop and met a man named Sean. Within an hour, we decided to go for a walk on a nearby frozen lake then climb the trees on the east side. Far from the classic "first date," this simple adventure in nature was exactly what I needed to start opening up about my story and what I wanted for my future.
What an incredible dance it's been since that day.
Sometimes I'm shocked at how much my life has changed since I lost James. I paced for so many nights, wanting to end my life, struggling with the unfairness and ugliness of the world. I never thought I would consider risking love again. And now we've been married for 18 months and are expecting a little girl next month.
I am so glad that I hung on. That I made a decision rather than being defined by horrible circumstances. That I decided it was okay to live again.
When you live in Minnesota, you spend a lot of time looking at, thinking about, and slipping on ice. It's just a fact of life that helps define our famously cold winters: Last year, the polar vortex created such bitter low temperatures that we even beat Mars! Some of us wear this as a badge of honor, while others get angry at their families for settling in this numbing place.
But whether you're someone who loves or hates winter, it's undeniable that ice is a force commanding respect. It's strong enough at four inches to hold an adult male, and at eight inches, a small car. If you want to break it or check depth without an electric auger or drill, metal chisels will demand almost all of your upper body strength. And watch out for those shiny icicles, as they fall from roofs and wound (sometimes fatally) hundreds of people every year.
Working through grief, of any nature, holds many similarities to our frozen lakes and rivers. Once warm and happily entertaining children with beach balls or a young couple romancing in a canoe, the waters now require boots with ice picks for traction and many layers of clothing to prevent hypothermia upon long-term exposure. Grief necessitates new tools as well if one is to survive the isolation, depression, and anger that prevent many from moving forward. It's unfortunately easy to stay stuck in the chilling realities of loss, even though no one wants to, because our brains and hearts are attached to the familiarity of our relationships. Loving another person means a chemical change occurs, and if we lose that person, our neural pathways get easily and deeply wired to repeat associated traumatic thoughts and imagery.
One of my grief counselors often referred to this phenomenon as "the paper jam." Sitting in her office, I'd rarely finish recounting my problems focusing or ignoring insensitive comments that made me boil with anger before she'd stop me and say: "Michelle - hold on. Come back to the present. Feel the couch you're sitting on. Notice the birds outside the window. Run your fingers over that blanket." I did not appreciate being interrupted, as this was my time! I wanted to be heard, to express my anger at the world, and to free the thoughts that brought me nightmares. I thought that puking it all out in my counseling session was the way to accomplish those goals, but it turns out, I was just reinforcing cyclic behaviors. I was not in the present. I was stuffing more of the same paper in my personal shredder, worsening the paper jam. I was pouring gallons of water on already icy steps, lamenting how many times I fell.
This is NOT to say that grief or post-traumatic stress triggers are a controllable choice, or only as severe as one lets them be. It is never helpful to tell someone that "It's been long enough" or "Don't think about it so much." To this day, I cannot see a motorcycle or reckless driver without automatically picturing my husband in all his safety gear that wasn't enough or feeling my heart resist its next breath while I internally scream: "Why are you risking someone's life?"
Depending on the time and circumstances, I may need to say the latter out loud to the person I'm riding with, as I've learned that can diffuse the power of an emotion. Contrary to popular opinion, time doesn't heal. Time allows us to deal with our hardships in more helpful, graceful, and knowledgeable ways. Time can begin to melt the ice that keeps our hearts stagnant, but it does not do all the work.
The choice I was able to make in my journey was to do the work. It was not time or luck or anti-depressants.
Sometimes the work was sitting in my rocking chair for half an hour, listening to my breath and counting to three before I inhaled and exhaled. Other times at work, it was finding a quiet, dark space to bring a large container of cinnamon sticks to smell, as the powerful scent forcibly disrupted my thought patterns. When darkness returned, I found the most artistically engaging craft I could - Ukrainian egg making - because it took all of my mental focus to draw straight lines. When I felt broken from anger or fear or just utter sadness because I couldn't reflect on a nice memory with breaking down, I smashed tiles or old plates and then arranged the fragments into new patterns (mosaics).
The work that made me want to melt the ice was mentoring kids in my classes as a new high school teacher. Hearing their stories of loss and anxiety, knowing they trusted me only because I had also gone through hell, and realizing how I could keep James alive by sharing his story became a sustainable fire inside of me. Ice couldn't live there and keep me in homeostasis. In fact, when it naturally broke apart and started flowing downstream, so did a sizable chunk of indignation, bitterness and fear about the future. It led me to choose being open to love again, as I didn't want to live in the past for the rest of my life. It led me to write and publish the kind of young widow narrative I needed - one that reveals a fuller picture of recovery (six years) and answers "How does this ever change?" by comparing initial and changed perspectives side by side. And it led me to acceptance about the seatbelt-less roller coaster of life.