It’s not just that we “didn’t get to say goodbye.” That common phrase, often associated with sudden death, is far too simplistic when unpacking the reality of completely unexpected deaths: accidents, homicides, suicides, sudden natural causes (e.g. heart attack, brain hemorrhage) and serious illnesses where death is unforeseen (e.g. epilepsy).
The scientific community explains that if our bodies did not go into shock as we face our new reality, the tragedy would overwhelm our system to such an extent that we would die. In this way, the shock reaction – numbness, fog, autopilot – protects us. However, it can also greatly lengthen the start of our healing journey and ability to see circumstances clearly. Some people find they cannot cry, while others cry almost constantly. Most talk about absolute disbelief that the death happened and, when alone, a desire to stop living.I once heard, “It was a thoughtful design to make our hearts beat and lungs breathe automatically.” I’m sure I wouldn’t be here if there was choice involved after my 29-year-old husband died. Dealing with his death tested me to my core and made me feel like a collection of broken pieces to just throw away. I paddled through the sea of paperwork and felt completely empty inside. I tried going back to my job and lasted two months before I completely broke down and resigned. I didn’t want to find a new normal.
Since sudden deaths most often occur in children and young to midlife adults, family members left behind experience massively changed daily lives. A woman may find herself the sole provider and parent after her husband dies. Children may move to a new city, school, and/or home after their parents are killed. A couple’s plans and dreams may shatter when they become childless. For all, feelings of self-confidence and security are seriously threatened.
To survive the aftermath of sudden death, you have to rebuild your life. And that is so much easier said than done. Part of the problem is no discussion with the deceased about how to deal with their death or how to move forward; the survivor has to figure out their wishes, finances, family, and oh yes — the grieving process. This is compounded by the reality that sometimes, last conversations are not pleasant, or survivors are left with memories that discourage them.Volunteering in a school helped me start rebuilding my life as the kids helped me realize that, if I had to still be here without my husband, life could feel purposeful as a teacher. It was an emotional struggle to complete the classes and earn my license, but I’ve unexpectedly helped many students through their grief, and that has meant the world to me. It took me longer to rebuild my personal life, as I remembered my husband saying “I could never be with anyone else if something happened to you.” I didn’t want to be betray his sentiment. For years, I convinced myself that no one could possibly take his place and it wasn’t loyal for me to want it.
PERSISTENT COMPLEX BEREAVEMENT
Once known as “
complicated grief,” this term used by the mental health community reveals an understanding that some people suffer a chronic debilitating condition. Many people experience an intense, but normal, non-linear process from anger and deep sadness to eventual acceptance, but some find permanency in acute grief. In particular, people who “ruminate over various concerns related to the death, cannot make sense of the loss, catastrophically misinterpret aspects of the loss including their own reactions, and avoid reminders of the loss”
fall into this category. Risk factors focus on the deceased’s age, extent of prior decline and expectancy of death, and the comfort and tranquility of final days and moments. Avoidance becomes a paramount coping mechanism to divert harrowing thoughts or reactions related to the deceased.While I told many people that my address book completely changed after James death (meaning that people I thought would be there for me seemed to vanish), it is also true that I pushed people away. I didn’t go to friends’ weddings, I didn’t reply to messages, and I was in constant worry that the two friends I did see regularly were going to die on their way to or from visiting me. I was overwhelmed with guilt asking them to drive to me, as well as my perceived blame for my husband’s death. I taught him how to ride a motorcycle, and if I hadn’t, he would’ve had airbags and steel protecting his body when he was rear-ended that day. Every platitude and logical explanation why the crash wasn’t my fault made me implode with rage. This lasted for three solid years before it transitioned to a fading roller coaster.
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER
PTSD, for the majority of the uninformed public, is a condition that soldiers who’ve returned from war develop. However, it affects a plethora of people dealing with grief and anxiety. While the trademark of persistent complex bereavement is sorrow and yearning, the trademark of PTSD is fear. Both conditions commonly endure disturbing thoughts and avoidance (of more possible danger), but people with PTSD re-experience the traumatic event through flashbacks and emotions, rather than a preoccupation with the person.
One of the most difficult parts of living with PTSD after a sudden loss is that triggers can exist almost everywhere. In the case of fatal car crashes, few survivors have the choice to avoid seeing cars, witnessing negligent drivers, hearing people talk about collisions (with glee), or even watching the nightly news without dealing – on some level – with that deadly moment.I was diagnosed with PTSD two years after my husband died. My therapist often described it as a paper jam, where I became stuck. I’d feel so locked up in my brain and my body, literally shaking and disbelieving I could actually make the bloody images – of my husband’s body pulled underneath a car – stop again. Two things helped me the most: a weighted blanket and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Weighted blankets contain the chaos in the body and create a feeling of security. EMDR uses vibrating nodes in the hands or an image for the eyes that make new neural pathways possible for ingrained memories.
A final thought:“There’s no point to comparing – loss is loss.” Have you heard this sentiment, too? I’ve heard it many, many times in the nine years since I became a widow. But here’s the truth: It’s human to compare and to categorize. What I’ve learned is that every major loss has elements that are worse, and elements that are better. I know a widower who watched his wife degrade before his eyes through three bouts with cancer and then literally die from choking on her own blood. This widower and I have similar and different types of memories/experiences AND we need different kinds of help. This is perhaps the most important conclusion and reason to learn about the realities of grief.
Shear, M. Katherine et al. “COMPLICATED GRIEF AND RELATED BEREAVEMENT ISSUES FOR DSM-5.” Depression and anxiety
28.2 (2011): 103–117. PMC
. Web. 2 Mar. 2017.
Andy Guice’s life forever changed when he met his wife. She uplifted and encouraged him in ways he’d never known. Then she underwent three rounds of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer and suffered a terrible death during just before their third wedding anniversary. He was 31 years old. The first part of this interview series covered her illness and the many difficult months following her death. Months that held suicidal ideation and intensive therapy. The remainder of his interview now follows, revealing wisdom and hope that have changed him once again.
JARVIE: What truths about life have you learned from your loss, and/or how do you think losing Kristin changed you?
GUICE: Life does indeed go on and absolutely nothing ever feels the same, yet that doesn’t mean happiness isn’t obtainable again… it just requires a lot of work before doing so.
Kristin was an incredibly positive person, and it perplexed me how someone like her could exist as it was foreign to me. It took me years after her death to realize that everything in life can be seen with multiple perspectives, and we have to actively choose what to give power to. Kristin learned and chose to focus on the positive, and I learned and chose to mostly see only negative things, and that colored everything else in my life.
I love the quote “I believe what I think I know.” I learned how to thrive in negativity to survive bullying, depression, embarrassment, heartbreak and life. I never learned anything to the contrary until I shifted my thoughts from being certain to being curious. From that point, it felt like a veil was lifted and the entire world became an exponentially more beautiful place to live in.
JARVIE: Where are you now in your healing process?
GUICE: I think I’ve been through the myriad of grieving emotions a few times over now, and while I don’t think I’ll ever be ‘fully’ over my loss, I have come to terms with the fact Kristin is gone.
I am ready to find love again. In fact, I wasn’t ever ready to find love in the first place – I just happened to come across it with Kristin and it happened to be one of the best decisions of my life. Losing Kristin forced me to fully embrace what she helped me see in myself and the person that I am, as well as the person I can be. I find it incredibly unfortunate that I can’t show her who I am today, but I know she would be so happy to know how much she truly influenced the fibers of who I am right now.
For the moment, I’m very grateful to be dating someone who truly energizes me. It helps reaffirm that life does go on, and that I can find love again. I’m also blessed with a renewed vigor for life itself and the relationships I keep with others. I’m no longer worried daily about How do I not scare this person away? and instead think things like How can I improve this person’s life today? It feels amazing, yet at times, also hollow that I can’t share it with the person who showed me this way of being.
JARVIE: What advice would you give to someone who is losing and/or has just lost their spouse?
GUICE: Be selfish, be sad, and be whatever the heck you need to be to survive.
Time will help make things more manageable, but that absolutely doesn’t mean it heals the wound. It only is an antibiotic to help ease the pain. We all have to learn our own way to sow the wound and help it heal, and that path is different for everyone. Not only that, but you have to want to follow it.
Find one or two ‘rocks’ in your life and talk to them. Mine happened to be my mom, my brother, my cousin, Joe, and my friend, Joe. Without them, I know for certain I wouldn’t be here today.
JARVIE: Has anything surprised you about your grief journey?
GUICE: That I am alive today and that I completed a marathon to honor my wife. I am truly a stronger person today than I was with her, and that fact will forever both haunt and bless me on a daily basis.
JARVIE: In what ways do you think men have a different experience than women in grief? Are there different cultural expectations?
GUICE: Men are told to provide, to nurture, to protect. They’re not usually told to embrace their emotions and talk about their feelings. I lost a TON of friends over the course of this due to people simply thinking I’m a whiny little baby about my ‘problems.’ No joke…
I think women offer a much stronger and more compassionate support structure than men have. That isn’t to say there aren’t great men out there, but it just requires a bit more searching to find the ones you can confide in and truly lean on for anything. I am forever grateful to have those people – both men and women – in my life.
JARVIE: I understand you are dating again. What’s that like?
GUICE: It is both fun and horrible at the same time. While I’m not the hunkiest guy around, it is admittedly a bit fun to feel like a worthwhile bachelor amongst a sea of the hideous men that end up on dating sites.
I attempted dating before therapy and it wasn’t overly successful, but it did show me that I could be liked and possibly even loved again. It also made my mental instability very omnipresent as I struggled to maintain a level head on a day-to-day basis. Dating post-therapy has been more successful, but the constant flashbacks of my former life and the uncontrollable yearn to be back in the arms of my lost love continues to haunt me to this day.
It sucks to be vulnerable and put myself out there with the glaring chip-on-my-shoulder that is being a widow. However, life begins outside of your comfort zone. I know I can find love again, and I know that life goes on. I know I can rebuild and I’m pretty sure I will survive.
If losing Kristin has taught me anything, it has taught me to understand and respect exactly what I am, and what I am not. It taught me I am worthwhile and possibly even a good person, and now I’m honored with the privilege to be able to love again.
Everything worthwhile in life is difficult at some point, and dating is no different.
JARVIE: What does resilience mean to you?
GUICE: It means perseverance through life’s challenges. It is the will to live for the sake of living, even when it feels like there’s no will to do so. It means finding something to hold on to despite feeling helpless, powerless, and hopeless.
Originally published on April 4, 2017 at opentohope.com
The night of April 21, 2016, I opened my email and saw the following subject: “My dentist, Melanie, gave me your name as a fellow griever…” I thought back to my last cleaning and kind dentist who always remembered and asked about my journey. As I clicked on Andy Guice’s name and began to read his message, unveiling the heartbreak of cancer and young widowhood, I most recognized the plea to not feel alone. I stayed up late that night, meditating on his words and what I could offer in return. I was 23 when my husband was killed on the road; he was 31 when his wife died in the hospital after her third round of chemotherapy. We discovered, over the course of several more emails and then social interactions, that our journeys had much in common – especially the leveling of our address books. Perhaps that’s why both of us, being eight and two and a half years out respectively, continue to search for young people changed by traumatic loss and willing to share and listen about it. (Andy and I are now part of a national movement of millennials called The Dinner Party, where people in their 20s and 30s share a potluck meal and discuss their losses, anxieties, hopes, etc.)
At the time he contacted me, Andy was participating in an intensive therapy program that met every weekday morning for six months. He took an extended leave of absence from his job as a software engineer to do this, knowing that he could not move forward in his grief and anger without help. While his wife Kristin’s death was the paramount reason he enrolled, he also recognized the need to process effects from a very unstable childhood as well. A childhood that suffered abuse and neglect, producing low self-esteem and deep cynicism about the world. He described therapy to me as retraining his brain to see himself and his circumstances in a more truthful way. Born in Los Gatos, California as a twin, Andy has been a Minnesotan since five years old. He met his wife on a night his friend forced him out of the house to go bowling; she didn’t notice him that night, or the next five. Eventually, they came together and shared a prodigious romance and life he never thought possible. This interview is presented in two parts: the first on his wife’s illness and pain of young widowhood, and the second on the healing process.
JARVIE: How do you describe the journey of her cancer, both literally and emotionally?
GUICE: I first discovered Kristin had cancer via a voicemail message. I didn’t hear my phone ring, and when I checked the voicemail, it was a message from Kristin telling me she had a cancerous tumor in one of her ovaries. The previous day, I had successfully executed an elaborate proposal for her at the Strip Club (Steakhouse) in St. Paul. I went from the highest high I’ve ever felt, to feeling totally hollow and lost inside.
The first battle was so incredibly tough and I had no idea what I was in for. Our love life diminished, our date nights became fewer and farther between, and I became more and more emotionally distant in order to just try and survive the unknown. I watched the love of my life become weaker and weaker; all I could do was try to react appropriately, ask questions, and show up. We eventually won round one, and it felt incredible. We got married soon after on July 17th, 2010.
Round two came less than a year later. We missed the thin window to try and have kids because of the scarring that came with round one. Kristin once again went through chemo and after months of weakness, fear and despair, we made it through again. It was only slightly easier, and the next few years were absolutely the best years of my life. I had my beautiful wife back, she was cancer free, and we could finally live the lives we wanted!
We went on a Caribbean cruise, got healthier and started running 5Ks together, traveled to various places, started up an adult mini golf league, and ultimately, were happy again. It was fantastic. Kristin epitomized everything I wanted in a wife, and thinking of life without her was unfathomable. We beat two cancers together, and we were finally in the clear…
A few years later, we played Whirlyball with some friends and Kristin had a residual pain in her shoulder. I forced her to see a doctor, in which we discovered that yet a third cancer round was upon us. I absolutely lost it. I screamed in agony, I ran into my bedroom, slammed the door and started punching the wall over and over again until my hands bled. It felt like it was the beginning of the end, and little did I know, it actually was true this time.
We treated this cancer the same as the others, but it certainly wasn’t the same this time. This cancer manifested in her shoulder area. Her neck was swollen to two times the normal size. She couldn’t sleep, she could barely eat, she was constantly uncomfortable, and it wasn’t getting better with chemo. I constantly cycled out Friends DVDs and massaged her legs to try and keep her comfortable, but it never felt like enough. My wife was dying on me before my eyes. I cried constantly, but I never let her see or hear me do it.
Roughly five months into the third cancer battle, Kristin’s condition declined swiftly and I was forced to call 911 out of fear. Two days into her hospitalization, I was told that Kristin will die, and I have to choose when it happens – either immediately, or to try and prolong her life as long as a day or so. At that point, she could no longer talk and our communication was reduced to hand squeezes – one for yes, two for no.
I chose to prolong her life, call as many people as I could possibly muster to call (to come say goodbye), and find a way to survive the inevitable worst day of my life. I didn’t want to live anymore. What was the point? It felt absolutely pointless to go on.
Before I lost her, I made her a promise: to run a marathon in her honor. (I completed that on October 4th, 2015.) A short while later, I walked out of the room to cry and collect myself; during that moment, she passed. I didn’t get to say goodbye, and it was single-handedly the most painful time of my life.
I still continue to struggle daily whenever I have to recall the day I lost her, and I think I always will.
JARVIE: What coping mechanisms did you find most helpful after her death?
GUICE: When I needed to cry, I cried. When I was scared to be alone, I found a way to reach out to people and have them come over, or talk on the phone; sometimes I sought out random discussions with strangers on Reddit. I took solace in whatever outlets felt okay to leverage at the time.
Exercise is huge, but incredibly hard to do some days. I just tried to do it whenever I could. Promising a marathon to her and committing to my promise was possibly one of the best things I could have done to survive the grief. It was incredibly therapeutic.
I wish I would have gone to support groups. I hated the ones I went to because they had HUGE religious ties and I’m not religious. I refuse to believe that God’s plan is for my amazing wife to die unnecessarily and for my weird self to live on without her. That’s a horrible plan and in my opinion, not comforting in the least to hear from some random stranger.
JARVIE: What have the hardest days looked like?
GUICE: I have been extremely close to suicide on three occasions. The hardest day was after I broke things off with my then-girlfriend and committed to full-time therapy to work through my demons. It really hurt my morale and I simply shut down. I went home and felt so angry, lost, and hopeless. I was fuming from everything up-to-and-including the ride home and decided I was just done. I parked my car and closed the garage door, but didn’t turn off the car. I spent about 5 minutes sulking in this and texting my mom saying “I’m sorry,” but then couldn’t send it. I thought about the unconditional love I get from my mom and how it would tear her apart, so I opened the garage door and cried.
I ended up going to therapy the next day with intent to quit the program, but I couldn’t hold myself together and was deemed unstable to drive, which forced me to talk out my emotions and eventually put me into a better emotional state.
I still think of Kristin on a daily basis. Some days it impacts me greatly, some days I’m able to brush it off. It really just depends.
Keeping busy, and being with people are also things that have helped me cope. Being able to accept that I’m going to have rough days has also been huge. It is one thing to know I’ll have them, and another thing to shame myself for having them.
Originally published April 2, 2017 on Opentohope.com
By David Garcia of www.spiritfinder.org
You’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But this model is an extreme oversimplification of all the ways people experience loss. In fact, even Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the creator of the five stages heuristic, acknowledges
that grief can’t be packaged into a tidy model.
The reality is, grief can take many shapes, and everyone processes grief in their own way. Here are a few other things you may experience after a tragic loss:
Anxiety When someone close to you dies, your entire world is turned upside down. Suddenly, everything feels unpredictable and fragile, and you may find yourself having obsessive thoughts about the death or ruminating over your own mortality. Anxiety is a very common reaction to loss, and when paired with the more well-known grief symptoms of sadness, detachment, and stress, it can make it difficult to deal with the demands of everyday life.
Regret and Guilt When you lose someone you love, you may have feelings of regret over things you did or didn’t do. You could also feel a sense of guilt, as if you could have prevented the death in some way, or guilt for surviving when your loved one cannot. Wondering over why’s and what if’s is a normal part of trying to understand something that’s beyond comprehension.
Depression While the five stages of grief model includes depression, it doesn’t factor in that sometimes the depression doesn’t go away. About one in five people
will develop clinical depression
after the death of a loved one, but depression is all too often brushed off as nothing more than sadness. However, when a person’s negative emotions start to turn inward, instead of focusing on missing or yearning for their loved one, it’s more serious than just grief.
Magical Thinking Magical thinking is believing that one event has caused another, without any plausible causative link. While magical thinking
tends to be associated with grieving children, it’s not uncommon for adults to face similar thoughts.
You may find yourself imagining if you do things just so, or live the right way, that your loved one will walk through the door as if their death had never happened. Or you may feel that the death is the world’s way of punishing you, or that something you did somehow caused the death. Even if you logically understand these things to be untrue, a tragic loss can warp your sense of reality and make the surreal seem possible, if only for a moment.
Numbness Emotional numbness is probably one of the most common reactions to grief. You may feel empty, emotionless, and unable to relate to the people around you. You may even find yourself incapable of crying. Unfortunately, since numbness isn’t a reaction that’s talked about, people who experience it end up feeling like there’s something wrong with them. When you expect your grief to look like raw, open sadness or bitter anger at the world, feeling nothing much at all can be a profoundly alienating and isolating experience.
Grief can take many forms, none of them more right or wrong than another. Unfortunately, the five stages model has permeated through our understanding of grief so thoroughly that it’s easy to feel like you’re not grieving the “right” way if your grief looks different. When you’re mourning a loss, it’s important to be accepting of your grief however it comes, and to seek the care and support you need to get through. And if your grief has taken a form that is making it hard to carry on with daily life, seek professional help so that you can arm yourself with every tool you need to cope. Image via Pixabay by isakarakus
Last night, while I was emptying my kitchen to redo thirty-year-old contact paper, I came across this book. It was one of my absolute favorites after James died. I looked at the meditation for yesterday, remembering how much I struggled to accept its wisdom in my early stages of grief, and marveling at how much I respect it now:
"It is a world we do not want to enter, a world for which we have no hunger. We would turn from it if we could. Yet we find ourselves in it. And our company is a multitude.
There is a story of a woman who came to the Buddha seeking help after the death of her child and was told that, for healing, she need only find a mustard seed from a household that had never known sorrow. According to the story, she traveled over all the world in vain, never finding such a household, but found instead-understanding, compassion, friendship, and truth.
The world of desolation is a world that calls many of us. There is no going around it. There is only going through it, if we are to find healing and new life."
Nothing is to be gained by turning away from the truth. When the circumstances of my life are grim, I will face the grimness, learn what it has to teach me, and walk on through.
Many people ask me What's it really like? being re-married. My widow(er) friends want to know if I'm as happy as I was in my first marriage, if I compare my two husbands, why I'd risk being a widow again, and most importantly, if my new husband is understanding. Can you talk about James with him? Is he jealous?
My other, non-widow, friends want to know if I'm happy and if I ever think about James anymore (that is, the friends who aren't uncomfortable acknowledging his death). If we throw my writing into the conversation: Do you think your articles about James and widowhood make him feel bad?
When I told my second husband, Sean, about my ideas for this composition, I asked for his reaction. "It sounds like you're being honest," he said. "Neither of us is perfect, and our marriage isn't perfect, but ... I still think it's really great." His simple words about our relationship are, in fact, the conclusion I'm hoping to form about re-marriage in this essay.
It's really hard some days, unsurprisingly. Just like the first two years of widowhood, the first two years of re-marriage provide many "firsts" and reflections on the "new normal." The first Christmas I celebrated with my second husband's family felt disastrous, as my brain descended into a PTSD attack 10 minutes after we arrived; I heard a conversation that made me envision my new husband dying, and I lost it. Not the impression I was hoping to make. I remember thinking: I didn't rush into this marriage. I waited five years, I went to therapy, I was ready! How could I be back in this vulnerable place? For a while, these thoughts were part of my new normal as a new wife.
As the anticipation and "firsts" dissipated with time, a mix of sadness and gratitude filled their shoes. Sadness because of the acceptance that it's a complicated, emotional road I'm walking, and I will need to tolerate and prevent triggers as much as possible. Gratitude because of my fortune to know and be changed by James and Sean, and to live now with more purpose and presence than I could before.
What has come to be the hardest part of re-marriage for me is the pedestal on which my first husband stands; he was my best friend and, for three years after he died, I couldn't picture ever marrying again. Due to the fact that James and I were only married for 13 months, rose-colored glasses superglued over memories. When communication would degrade between Sean and I, I'd picture James handling the same problem a better way. When Sean became upset, I'd imagine James' calm demeanor. You get the picture. After my brain followed this exercise a few dozen times, I felt great shame. And anger. I didn't want to disrespect Sean or this second chance at love and life, but it felt so ... automatic. How could I turn the comparisons off?
I went back to therapy, unpacking my ability to be happy and honorable to both men I loved. I was so pleased to find a therapist who, like me, was a widow in a new, long-term relationship. Known as "the grief expert" in the area I live, with a therapy dog in her office whose motto (on the wall) was to "shed frequently," she helped me feel comfortable right away. She taught me to start by chipping away those rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that a 13-month-marriage is not an accurate picture of "marriage." Then she focused on lowering my expectations of myself. Comparison is inevitable, but people usually do it more when something in the current marriage bothers them. She was right: I was feeling overwhelmed with my day-to-day responsibilities and disappointed that he worked so much. My new therapist taught me creative ways to approach him and have productive conversations -- the kind I didn't often need in my first marriage because it was so short.
I couldn't believe how perfect our conversation started becoming. I felt understood, appreciated, and loved. And the thing is, he'd made me feel that way many times before -- during conversations that I thought might be our end. Sean reminds me occasionally that I tried to break up with him about 50 times while we were dating. That seems like an exaggeration, but I do remember a frequent impulse to run away. Not because Sean did anything wrong, but because I felt so broken and worried all the time. What made this impulse slowly retreat was Sean's ability to see how my grief made me a better person.
"I'm not interested in a woman who has led a 'normal' life. You've been tested to your core, and you found your core: what really matters and who you strive to be," he'd say. "I don't see you as broken, I see you as real, purposeful, compassionate, and ... inspiring."
These words of grace and understanding are why I chose to take the risk again. Humans are social creatures, and the feelings that a partner can create within us have the power to energize us toward our best self as well as to relax us into the journey of ups and downs. Sean has brought wondrous things to my life: a passion for travel, simplicity, and parenthood are tops. It helps that these opportunities are ones I didn't share with James, as I stay more easily engaged in the present.
We've been married almost four years now. He still remembers hard anniversaries and asks me what I need. He has never made me feel uncomfortable when I've experienced a PTSD trigger or attack (which are thankfully down to one or two per year now). He has always supported my writing and connections with other widows, as he knows and values the joy and meaning I have found in using my story to help others. He is an amazing dad who is somehow never too tired to listen and/or give my shoulders a rub at the end of the day. I really love him.
Neither of us is perfect, and re-marriage can be hard, but we have a great life. I'm so happy that I took the leap and opened myself up to a new family. I could've found satisfaction in throwing myself into work as a teacher and keeping my house a museum for James the rest of my life, but I know there would've been a lot of emptiness. Emptiness can be an important mental state as you process loss -- I'd never recommend rushing through it -- but it's not a place to live.
I want to LIVE. To be fully present. To share my resilience and learn about others. And ever since I made that decision and moved forward, I've never been happier.
Originally published on January 4, 2017 at opentohope.com
The New Year represents a veiled dichotomy for many people enduring grief. There is relief in being father away from one's worst event, and also heartbreak in being farther from the life and person they loved. I was glad for more distance between the day I met state troopers whose news altered my life forever, yet sad and dejected in my new normal of widowhood. Unsurprisingly, I didn't celebrate the New Year for a long time.
I feel immense gratitude that time has helped this conflict in my heart. Not healed the conflict -- helped it. I still love and honor my first husband and that chapter of my life. But the difference, after 8.5 years, is that there are many more chapters. Chapters where I grew from my pain and mentored others. Chapters of re-marriage and a child that brings adventure, love, and presence. Chapters of perspective and appreciation for my beautiful life then, and my beautiful life now.
Wishing you a new year full of trust in new chapters, acceptance of the dichotomy, and compassion for yourself and our world.
I never could have imagined the relationships and purpose I would form because of my loss. And that gives me such bountiful hope, as I think about everything my future has yet to unfold.
Today in the mail, I received a thin brown package from a young widow containing breath-taking postcards of her beloved's illustrations and photography. (We became email correspondents and friends after she found an article I'd written for a grief foundation and decided to connect with follow-up questions and thoughts.) Through this inspiring gift, I've been meditating on the importance laced within listening, holding hard copies, and helping others not feel alone.
I've met so many people in the last eight years who want or need to share - their person, their fears, their conflicted emotions - but don't feel like they can open up. The people around them are uncomfortable with the reality of grief, or they just feel too much pressure to look resilient. Often, when I've decided to share even a minute of my story, I'm met with extreme gratitude and the privilege to hear defining moments of another's journey.
I hold these opportunities and people close to my heart.
Wherever you are in your journey, there is light to be found in sharing, listening, and being open to the people who are in your future.
“I like the concept of Sisu: perseverance, guts, determination. But I also think that’s what gets me in trouble.” With family hailing from Finland, Sisu is a common household word, encouraging bravery and resilience. But for my new friend, Heather, it’s extra pressure that makes her feel like she should be able to “do it all on my own.” When she lost her first baby at 20 weeks, after years of dealing with the agony of infertility, confidence was at an all-time low.
Heather and her husband started trying to have kids in 2009, and ended up spending multiple years with specialists, waiting for treatments. Fortunately, intrauterine insemination (IUI) proved successful on their second attempt and they started tracking the baby from the time he was the size of a poppy seed. In fact, the baby would be referred to as “Seed” throughout the pregnancy and for many months after. It wasn’t until after the baby’s official due date that Heather’s husband decided to formally name him: James.
Heather was over the moon to be pregnant, but also, understandably, very anxious. As an engineer, she is a numbers person. When you’re pregnant, statistics can be both comforting and alarming; while one in four women will bear a miscarriage, more than eighty percent occur within the first trimester. Consequently, when Heather went to the doctor at eighteen weeks pregnant with a Listeria scare, she was relieved but not totally surprised that her baby was fine.
But just ten days later, her scheduled twenty-week ultrasound found a problem. “I knew something was wrong when the lab tech said ‘I’m going to go get your doctor.’” With no heartbeat confirmed, Heather felt the heavy weight of guilt pull her underwater. As she thought back to the possibility of eating or touching something infected with Listeria, what-if questions piloted her thoughts. Despite genetic testing and counseling to investigate any chromosomal issues, there was never any answer/reason that her first baby died. This made it even more logical to blame herself. “I don’t think I’ve accepted there was no reason. It’s just too hard to live with the mystery.”
Two days after the ultrasound, on October 18, 2013, Heather and her husband presented back to the hospital and prepared for surgery. Given the option to be induced and deliver him or undergo the dilation and curettage procedure (D&C), Heather chose the latter. She never held or saw her baby, as the vacuum procedure doesn’t separate tissue from the baby. Like many parents who undergo this kind of miscarriage, Heather and her husband used a funeral home and were able to cremate all of the remains. Their baby, James, now rests on top of their dresser in a pressed sand urn with footprints covering its surface.
“Everyone was so kind and compassionate at the D&C. The loss nurses helped us so much. But the person I remember most clearly was actually the anesthesiologist.” When he arrived to prepare Heather for the surgery, his simple “Well, this sucks,” were the most reassuring words she’d heard.
I can relate to that. So many well-intentioned but hurtful words come out of people’s mouths after a sudden loss. As many young widows like me were told that “You’re young, you’ll find someone else,” many parents who endure miscarriages are told, “You’re young, you can try again.” And here’s the thing — it’s not that these statements are untrue. Said out loud, they devalue the life of your loved one by implying that this loss shouldn’t be life-changing.
Pregnancy loss and infant death aren’t discussed out loud like other losses are. They are complicated and often invisible. Heather found minimal relief herself talking at an infant/miscarriage/stillborn loss group that the hospital facilitated; hearing everyone else’s story elevated her fears about trying again, and how much worse her own situation could have been.
The peace that Heather eventually found was centered in the earth, specifically a community memorial for children, hand-crafted jewelry, her own garden, and meditation. The memorial, named Angel of Hope Arboretum, is a collection of pavers/bricks that families purchase after a child dies. The bricks form a beautiful pathway around an angel statue, which is one of more than 50 “Christmas Box Angel of Hope” statues in the world, all for persons grieving the loss of children, with a design based on a best-selling book by Richard Paul Evans. Each year, the community gathers for a secular Candlelight Memorial, a Walk to Remember, and the National Day of Remembrance and Loss; approximately 300 people attend the events.
When Heather goes to the arboretum now, she wears special jewelry that was custom-made after James died. Specifically, a necklace that honors both his name and the truth that “I will carry you in my heart forever” with engravings and dark green Tourmaline — October’s birthstone. Truth be told, Heather’s not much of a jewelry person; she doesn’t even wear her wedding ring consistently. However, on special occasions or times with her friends and their children, it’s something tangible she can hold.
Throughout the seasons, she also honors James’ memory by maintaining a garden surrounding an apple tree her family planted in their backyard for him. The garden’s first flowers were blue irises, as they are noted for remembrance, as well as poppy flowers, since Heather and her husband first called James their “poppy seed.” Focusing on those specific varieties were helpful for that first year, but now, it’s become more important to see bright, lively colors. “I like going out now. Kait can play a little bit independently. And just being out there and seeing it bloom, I can kind of be with both of them.”
On January 14, 2015, Heather successfully gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Kaitlin. Therapy, massage, acupuncture, meditation, cleaning the house, and eating only cooked vegetables helped her deal with the anxiety of this pregnancy. She swears by them all, especially meditation, which she began after losing James. At a yoga center in Minneapolis, Heather practiced guided meditation. Concentrating on candle flames and other natural elements, the shaman paired classic imagery with gentle yoga techniques and heart drums. “It helped me get my body to relax. I would be super tense and have trouble with clenching my jaw after the miscarriage. With meditation, I breathe deeper and calmer.”
(On a humorous side note, one of Heather’s therapists advised her to “just blow some bubbles.” This therapist was not seen again. And it’s important to share, because finding a good therapist takes trial-and-error. Many times!)
Kait’s road has not been easy — being born with reactive airway disease, low muscle tone requiring physical therapy, and then suffering pneumonia twice and bronchiolitis at least three times in her first fifteen months — but Heather’s experience with James unpacked a new perspective. “It’s made me super appreciative. If you would have told me when I was 30, that I’d be a stay-at-home mom, I would have laughed. Even the idea of having kids was crazy enough. But now, I’m completely focused on my family. When we got pregnant again, I didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl.” The phrase — “as long as they’re healthy” became her mantra.
This year, 2016, was the first year that Heather didn’t cry at the Angel of Hope statue. “It was different: the walk was close to Kait’s bedtime and we were on a schedule. Sometimes I still struggle with the fact that if James was here, I wouldn’t have Kait. I feel guilty for thinking this way, but then, it does help. She’s an absolutely amazing little kid.” While Heather thinks about him less now, she also knows her grieving, and complicated feelings, for him will never end.
Again, I find myself able to completely relate. My child, born just one month after Kait, has been a huge source of unexpected healing. Years ago, I used to say things like “I’ll never be this happy again,” but the truth is, my daughter makes me happier than I’ve ever been. It’s just different. Kids have a way of forcing you to live and think in the present; they demand your complete attention. Like the little boy at our restaurant, whose head popped up over our booth every thirty seconds as we finished our conversation. With his infectious smile, enthusiastic “Hello!” thirty-six times, rumpled hair, and inability to sit down, baby James felt a bit closer.
And as she reflected on her progress, Heather’s Sisu felt closer too.
Originally published on November 8, 2016 by OpenToHope.com
A friend of mine, who lives about three hours north of me, took this picture today. It brought me back -- to the days when the only beauty left in the world was nature. It wasn't "enough" for my heart to stop breaking or my loneliness to end, but it kept me open to seeing another day. Sometimes, that's all it takes.#natureheals