Tag Archives: grief

Living Through Grief

Losing a beloved spouse is like being sliced open, with a piece of you taken out forever. Not only will you never get that piece back, but you are unavoidably changed from that time on. You still look like yourself, you may keep the same habits, but you are different.

            I have lost two husbands, fifty years apart. The first time I was 24, so young I was still unformed. I had a lot to learn, while taking care of a young daughter at the same time. The pain was intense, and I buried myself in books, which took me to a place where I could escape. Gradually, I was able to live a normal life, and to discover joy again, as the person I was becoming, on my own. I never wanted to remain single, but it took me ten years to find Jerry, a man who complemented me, and who loved me as I loved him. We had almost forty years together.

            Now I am mature, I know what I want out of life, and I feel content with the person I have become and am still becoming. It was not even a shock, as it was with my first husband, Jim, when Jerry died, from Acute Myeloid Leukemia. We had been battling Jerry’s two cancers, off and on, for 15 years, but our times together were almost all good. He was always active, and had great vitality.

            My two experiences of grief were very different. As a young person, it was devastating. My husband, Jim, completed several years in the Army, including a tour of duty in Vietnam flying medevac helicopters, from which he came home unscathed. After the service, he took a temporary job as a lumberjack for his dad’s lumber company in Pennsylvania. He had applied to several law schools and was waiting to hear if he had been accepted. One day he went to work cutting trees in the woods and never came home. A tree fell on him, killing him instantly. He was 28.

            I was in shock and had no idea what to do. I was fortunate enough to be able to live with my parents for a few months. I kept this image of a tunnel; if I could only make it through, there would be life and light on the other side. I clung to that, because I just knew the pain would get better. My brother-in-law, who lost his father when he was a teen, also assured me that time would help me heal, and I kept that message close to me.

            About nine months after I lost my first husband, I moved 500 miles away, with my two-year-old, to attend graduate school. By then, I felt strong enough to pursue a life for her and me, although I knew it would be hard.

            After losing Jerry, I suffered again, missing my special, unique man who was smart, caring, had many friends and was so full of life.  I have been very lonely without him. But this time I have noticed a strange phenomenon. I have felt vulnerable, which is normal, but I have also felt like I am experiencing the whole world for the first time, and really enjoying everything, like a wide-eyed innocent. I am reminded of advice which is given to new widows: don’t move or make any big decisions in the first year. Now I know why they say it! I keep running into people who just delight me, people I had never met or people I knew only slightly. I am enjoying the feeling of being opened up, letting down my defenses.

            I am also not afraid; I have this optimism that everything will be fine. There will be challenges, probably some mishaps, but I will be able to weather them. I will soon be entering my second year of widowhood, and I expect it to be full of exciting new experiences.

            I should note that this past year of grief has coincided with the covid-19 pandemic. How much of my experiences and attitude could be attributed to that, I wonder? For example, when I meet someone I really like, I can’t decide if I am really delighted with the person or just the opportunity to actually get out of the house and talk to someone! I feel so grateful that a new year is upon us; it just has to be better, which means my life will be fuller, and I will no longer need to be so isolated.

            Although I knew about grief, I did not know it would be so different the second time around. Perhaps I was more prepared than I realize, but probably it was just the gift of years of living, and not being blindsided. I feel like my grieving has been easier this time, and I am thankful for that. I have survived, and I am ready for tomorrow, whatever it brings.

When to Move On

Sometimes I wonder if living in this house is inhibiting my ability to move past my husband’s death to make a new life for myself. Jerry, and I lived here together for over seven years. Every room I go into is filled with memories of him, except for my office upstairs. They are happy memories, but I don’t want to live in the past. He has been gone eight months now; is it time to move on?

            The living room has become something of a shrine to Jerry, with his ashes on the mantle (being saved for his son to pick up), pictures and albums on the entertainment center, as well as a folded American flag, given for his military service. The walls are adorned with fish he had mounted, along with a black duck and a fox. The most recent addition is a plaque presented to Jerry posthumously from a local civic group where he was an active volunteer.

            In contrast, my office has always been “a room of my own.” Perhaps that is why I long to go up there to work, to write, despite the fact that my desktop computer died a few months ago. The monitor sits dark on the desk, a lonely testament, waiting for me to return. I still have my laptop/tablet, but I can work anywhere with it, so have not returned to my office. The privacy it afforded so beautifully while I wrote is no longer a factor.

            My office remains my favorite room, however, because of its captivating brightness: the early sun in one window in the morning, and the same sun, streaming through the window next to my desk in the afternoon, creating patterns through the window screen on the wall in front of me.

            My cat, Frankie, used to hang out up there, because he knew I would show up sometime. Often, I would have to shoo him off my chair, and then he would curl up at my feet. He had a hiding place in the closet, and I still leave the doors partly open so he can get in it, but he, too, never goes up there anymore.

            So I have gone from “a room of my own,” to “a house of my own.” I liked it better the old way, which defines my problem. Or is it a problem? I would be mourning Jerry wherever I was. In many ways he was larger than life. A friend from the local civic group told me that Jerry was his hero, because of the strength, resilience and grace he exhibited the last 18 months of his life.

            I recently received a text from a woman in our previous church in Virginia. She had just found out that Jerry had died. She relayed a story about him giving her a recipe for apple dumplings and telling her all the steps involved. I cherish that – it was so Jerry! He used to make a batch of apple dumplings every time his brother, Denny, visited, with plenty to take home for the freezer. It seems everyone has a story about Jerry. How can I move on when these stories keep appearing, touching my heart, reminding me of how special he was?

            I consider what it would take for me to move somewhere else, all the work involved, and I realize there is no need to even think about that. I can see that it’s not necessary to rush the grief process; it will take care of itself in due time. It is okay that my house is suffused with memories of Jerry. I don’t need to forget him to build my new life. I don’t want to forget him, and I never will.

Where Is the Comfort?

We are beginning to experience the change of seasons. We had a few lovely days last week, cool, low humidity, and the temperature has been definitely lower than summer, mostly low 80’s these days, or even cooler. But it could still get hot again. Summer was so hot I couldn’t even wear capris!

            I have not switched out my summer clothes for winter yet, but will soon. I hesitate because I have so many more warm weather clothes than winter clothes. I love the onset of fall, when I can put away my shorts and wear long sleeves or sweaters. I love to think about turning on the fireplace and wrapping myself up in a soft blanket. I bought a pair of casual shoes that I can wear all winter around the house. It is all about comfort.

            But to me, comfort is more than keeping warm as the season changes. It is about living a life that is predictable, knowing what’s important to me, and having the freedom to follow that path. It’s about getting out in the crowds and enjoying the festivals and events of fall. It’s about singing in the choir and preparing for December’s traditional Messiah performance.

             To my regret, life these days is nothing like that, because of the coronavirus. As I write, it is mid-October, and no one knows what will be happening tomorrow. Everything in our lives is up in the air, and there is no comfort. Halloween will be different, and some people are skipping it. Nothing is normal now, but I am tired of the phrase “new normal.”

             I find myself thinking about the comfort foods of my childhood and yearn to be free enough to mingle with friends I have not seen, except on Zoom, for months. I want my life back! I have hunkered down long enough, I believe, so I really do need to go out and do all the things I  used to. I am weary of “virtual meetings.” I want to hug people.

            Normally, I like to hibernate in winter, gorge myself on college basketball, not caring if I see anybody. I think this winter will be different because of my pervasive loneliness. I never realized how much I needed people until these last eight months of living alone. Everyone has experienced challenges dealing with COVID-19, but I feel my loneliness deep inside, in my bones. I will get used to being alone, and even enjoy it, I suspect, but that time has not come yet.

            The best way to describe how I feel about my current life is “discomfort.” I could throw in “anxiety,” “nervousness,” or “on edge.” I just don’t feel like myself. But that’s the problem: I am indeed no longer that person, the old identity that was married to Jerry. My life is new now, and I am in the process of grieving the old life and figuring out who I am by myself. I am becoming.

            Time is my friend, I know, but right now comfort is like a distant dream I yearn for, languishing in my mind, unattainable.

Fly Away, Jerry

I phoned my late husband’s best friend. “John,” I said. “It’s raining again!” It had rained every day all week. John and my husband, Jerry, were fishing buddies. They had gone fishing two or three times a week, mostly at the waters off Fort Macon State Park, about an hour’s drive. It was a “favorite fishing hole,” and seemed an appropriate place for Jerry’s ashes to rest. Now it was Friday, and we were planning a family trip to Fort Macon on Saturday to scatter his ashes.

            “If it rains, it rains,” he replied. “That won’t stop us.”

            Back in the spring my daughter, Stacy, had come to visit me, and we opened the sealed box of Jerry’s ashes. I had waited for her visit because I didn’t know how I would feel. It almost felt like a sacred moment. But when we opened the box, and the plastic bag inside, we saw simply tan and gritty ashes, with tiny white pebbles, not like fireplace ashes, the only ashes I knew.

            Stacy looked at them and said, “Oooh, I don’t want to think those little stones are his bones!” As I looked at them, I did not feel sad, but rather, almost detached. It did not seem possible that my husband had been turned into those tiny pebbles.

            We were filling an urn, which was more like a cookie jar, we were planning to take to Pennsylvania for a memorial service. The service never happened, because of the coronavirus. Now I am saving the urn for my stepson, Duane, who could not be with us. He wants to scatter ashes in meaningful places in Pennsylvania, where he grew up and lives now.

            Although all of our family could not be with us for our trip to the beach, the nine of us would include three grandchildren, so all families were represented. When Stacy arrived that Friday evening, we made our preparations. “Don’t you think these containers will work?” I pulled several lidded plastic containers out of my cupboard and showed them to her. She nodded, and we arranged nine containers on the kitchen island. Since we had opened the box of ashes once before, we did not feel the apprehension we had felt the first time. We put the remainder of Jerry’s ashes into the nine containers, so each of us would have ashes to scatter.

            Saturday dawned overcast, but not rainy. When all the family had arrived at my home, we drove in a three-car caravan to Fort Macon, stopping to pick up John. I was his driver, leading the caravan so he could show us the best place to park.

            After parking, we walked about a half mile, through a wooded area and then sand, as the ocean spread out in front of us, with a steady wind blowing. I used Jerry’s golf umbrella for a walking stick; (John used it going back. He is 91 and battling cancer, but he was a trouper this day).

            We were a little concerned that someone might call us out for “scattering illegally,” but there were few people on the beach and no rangers. We had decided we would all scatter first and then say words, if we wanted to. I went first, throwing my ashes out in front of me toward the water, but the wind took them, and they flew off to the right, never reaching the water. That wasn’t what I had planned, but I loved it, because it felt like he was really flying away, “to a land where joys will never end.” My grandson Michael Paul wrapped his ashes in a paper towel, weighted down with a small stone Stacy had decorated. Each person threw their ashes, and, as he threw his, John could be overheard muttering, “I was always a better fisherman than you.”

            So “I’ll Fly Away” was a most appropriate song, and Stacy played the Alison Krauss version on her phone, as she and I sang along. It is a special song for Jerry and me, since it was our signature song when we both sang with a band in our church in Virginia.

            It never rained, and it was all upbeat. Everything felt right. We all walked back to our cars with smiles on our faces. Meeting back at my house, we had lunch together. We had given Jerry the best send-off we could, and we were content.

John took a group pic of us

Through the woods at Ft. Macon
Walking with John to the beach
Singing I’ll Fly Away

Clothes Don’t Make the Man

We used to have a house with a huge closet off the master bedroom, big enough to be a bedroom on its own. I had the first half, and Jerry’s half was around the corner, where I never had to look at it, except to put away his clean laundry. When Jerry’s cousin Suzie came to visit, she exclaimed, “Your clothes don’t touch!”

            The large closet was in our last house in Virginia, a custom-built log home on twelve acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. We lived there 14 years, and hated to leave it, but we needed to downsize and wanted to be closer to two of our kids and two youngest grandsons in Raleigh. Our new home in North Carolina had few of the features we wanted, but the price was right. A new kitchen, deck and patio made it much more livable for us, and now it has been home for eight years.  

            Our closet in the master bedroom is technically a walk-in. I can walk into it, just a few feet, with clothes rods on either side and along the back wall. I can fit only my warm weather or cold weather clothes in it, so twice a year I have to switch and schlep clothes to a closet upstairs.

            For those who are grieving the loss of a spouse, the time comes when the closet needs to be cleaned out; somehow you just know when it is time. My time had come. My friend Diana offered to help me, and she showed up ready for business, boxes and all.

            We had a job to do, so I didn’t allow myself to get sidetracked, but I could picture Jerry wearing everything we packed. He wore that Hawaiian shirt at the “luau” we attended at Attitudes, a nearby pub, last year. A picture of us is displayed on the fridge. Such fun! That was the last time we danced together. He had a lot of very nice golf shirts, and more khakis than he could ever wear, but he mostly was a jeans guy, and jean shorts in the summer. T-shirts in the summer, sweatshirts in the winter.

            We had packed several boxes when Diana turned to me. “Was he a guy who left stuff in his pockets?”

            “Oh,” I replied, “All the time.” We pulled his pants out of boxes and removed the usual items from his pockets: dental picks, change, tissues, scraps of paper. As I reached into one pocket, I found a small stone I had brought back for him from a spiritual retreat I was on last year, when Jerry was in full remission. Hand-painted on the stone were the words, “Believe in miracles.” I didn’t know that he had been carrying it around.

            I remained upbeat throughout our work session, so grateful for Diana’s help. In less than two hours, even with an occasional lapse to reminisce, I could see the space developing in my closet and drawers.

            I still have some items remaining, like ball caps and a few coats. When my daughter Stacy last visited, she found a red plaid quilted jacket of his that she wanted to keep, and my grandson Michael Paul took some ball caps that were on a shelf in the coat closet. I have some more hanging on pegs on the wall behind the laundry room door, which I forgot to show him.

            Jerry was definitely a hat guy. I took one floppy hat he frequently wore fishing, washed it and claimed it for my own. It does not look any better on me than my other hats – I am just not a hat person. But I will keep it for sentimental reasons, remembering Jerry and how we bought that hat on our trip to Maine a few years ago.  

            Jerry’s undershorts and socks will be donated to a lady who distributes them to those in need at local nursing homes. I am happy they will get good use. I took the rest of the boxes to the Salvation Army that same day.

            Jerry’s clothes are gone, but the man who wore them remains in my heart.

Choose Love

I am reading a self-help book a friend gave me called Life Lessons, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kennedy. They contend that, “Love… is the only truly real and lasting experience of life.” There is power in that statement; love is universal, something we can all experience.

            The book’s authors describe love as the opposite of fear. I had always thought the opposite of love was indifference. Perhaps my concept of love was too small. I did not see how its opposite would have to be larger, gripping, disabling. Fear of the unknown, fear of loss of control, fear of being open and vulnerable is what prevents us from living fully and finding the love we are all seeking.

            In this fractured world we live in, daily life so disrupted, so rife with anger and hate, it can be hard to be loving. We live with the threat of the coronavirus, and we are steeped with the mentality of “us vs. them.”

            How do we find the love in this world? We know it when we see it: a child raising money for a sick friend, people handing out food in a parking lot to their neighbors, choruses and orchestras who get together virtually, making beautiful music together. The music brings peace and joy to us, gifting us, loving us. We can love others by passing on what we have been given. Every act of kindness, no matter how small, can mean everything to someone who is suffering. We all have a story, and we will never know someone’s story unless we see them, and listen to them.

            So the answer to finding love is to be love. If we let fear disable us we will shrink from offering something of ourselves to another. But there is everything to gain if we can move beyond the fear.

            In my current state of early widowhood, I find myself vulnerable, ready to cry at every act of kindness I see. This morning I was touched to see an old man bringing flowers to his aerobics instructor. No longer able to join the class, using a walker while recovering from a broken ankle, he handed his flowers to her. That was love. She was touched, also, but I think I was the only one who felt tears come to my eyes. Others were smiling, but only I was crying.

            My husband was a man who often presented people he cared about with gifts large and small. He gave a rose plant to his cousin when she was battling breast cancer. After she died, he gave two rose plants to her daughter, who posts frequent pictures of the roses on Facebook. I am not sure she knows how much she is loving me with those pictures; I must tell her.

            She doesn’t know how I am affected, but I know she takes special care of those roses in honor of her mother and of Jerry’s gift. Since Jerry died, so many people have told me that they miss his cookies, or his raisin-craisin bread, or something else he gave them. They are saying that they miss him and his loving acts, and they loved him in return. After he realized it was not going to work for a fishing boat, he gave his kayak to a woman friend who says she thinks of him every time she uses it.

            It is not always easy to do the loving thing. But it is so worth it.

I Need a Hug

It was early evening on a Sunday. Summer’s heat had not quite taken over, and I had the windows open to catch a breeze. Although COVID-19 has precluded parties or get-togethers in our quiet neighborhood, I heard voices in the yard next door, so I had to check it out. Walking out onto my back deck I spotted a deer in my neighbor’s yard, a big buck looking back toward Gary’s house. After my initial surprise, I could see it was not a live deer, but now I was curious. Gary and his family have not lived here long, and I do not know him well. I had met the family briefly, but since then, Gary would hail me if I was outside while he was mowing. I hail him back, smiling at how good it feels.

            Gary and another man walked over to the deer and appeared to be examining it. That was it, I had to find out. I walked over to his yard and said, “Gary, you have a deer!”

            He looked at me sheepishly, maybe a little embarrassed. “We’re doing target practice,” he said, “bow and arrow.” He introduced me to his friend, a polite good ol’ boy named Bobby. Bobby reached out to shake my hand, but I moved back, just touching fingertips.

            “Oh,” I said. “My husband used to do some bow hunting.” I realized Gary had never been in my house to see Jerry’s “stuffed animals”: deer head, black duck, fox and several fish. Jerry quit hunting years ago, but his trophies remain. Now I couldn’t invite Gary in even if I wanted to.

            Bobby nodded his head, “Yes, ma’am, I’ve heard so much about you.”

            You have? I wondered. Ah, yes, the widow woman next door. “Well, I brought over some cookies to Gary’s family to introduce myself. I guess I will have to make some more.”

            “Yes, ma’am, cookies would be most welcome.” I wanted to scratch my head over that. I wasn’t planning on making cookies for Bobby! I decided he was just being polite.

            Out of things to say and feeling awkward, I said, “I just had to check out the deer. Bye now.” I walked back to my house.

            This encounter was unusual for me. I rarely initiate contact with my neighbors, and don’t know many of them. The only neighbors Jerry and I had known well had sold their house to Gary. They were an older couple like us, and I miss them.

            Since Jerry died and I have been stuck at home, something has changed within me, and I feel I would do anything for human contact. Not just waving, not saying, “Fine,” if someone asks how I am. I need someone I can touch. I need someone who understands what I am going through and will hold my hand.

            I need a hug.

            Sometimes I hear Gary’s three-year-old daughter squealing next door and I want to go over and play with her! I taught three-year olds in a daycare center years ago. I love kids and I love that age especially. But I can’t do that; I feel like I am on the fringe, outside looking in.

            My sister and I talk via Facebook chat every Monday. Although we don’t cry much, she is the only person I can cry with without feeling embarrassed and vulnerable. She lost her husband a few weeks after Jerry died. I cherish my phone calls with Denise, but she is in New Jersey and I am in North Carolina. I would love to have her closer than five hundred miles.

            So this is where I am. I am not so much sad as starving for human companionship. Sometimes I say, to myself but probably out loud, “You can do this, lady, buck up.” But I can honestly say this is new for me. It is more than grief, but I am sure that is part of it. This is not a normal life. I never knew I liked hugs so much, but now that I can’t hug, I think about hugging complete strangers!

            I know how hard this isolation has been for so many, going on three months now. I am better off than a lot of others. I have some options that others do not. It helps when I am around people, so I am volunteering with a local organization, and it has been good for me. I go there twice a week for a couple of hours, and recently have taken on more responsibility. We wear masks and observe social distancing; I enjoy the interaction. My writers’ group has been meeting outdoors every week, maintaining social distancing. We have been together for years and care for each other. But we don’t hug, not now.

            Today I went to my first class at the Y in three months. It was outside in the parking lot, early enough that it wasn’t too hot. I enjoyed seeing old friends. We wanted to hug but we didn’t.

            I know there are people out there who love me, and I know those friends will be in touch as soon as we can get together. My daughter, Stacy, is coming to visit this month.

            Ah, at least she can give me a hug.