Grief Waves. Grief Bursts. Grief Bombs. Whatever you call them, they exist. And they suck. There you are, going about your day operating under the assumption you are managing. You may think you are getting better and managing quite well. And then out of nowhere, your grief jumps out from around the corner and bitch slaps you. If you’re not prepared for these explosions, they are harder to deal with because we end up blaming ourselves for backsliding. Here are a few things to remind yourself of when these happen.
They can happen anytime. Grief doesn’t have a timeline.There are W’s that still have grief bombs years after their husbands have died.
They can happen anywhere. Grief doesn’t have a sense of privacy. It doesn’t care if you’re at work or the supermarket or a restaurant.
They aren’t always here and gone again. Grief bombs can be an afternoon of crying your eyes out or a week where you can’t get out of bed. It can be so overwhelming it feels like you’re starting over at the beginning.
There is usually some kind of trigger. Sometimes you can predict them-holidays or other milestones you can see coming and brace for impact. Other times, you’ll be sitting in your car at a red light, and a grief bomb goes off in the form of his favorite song on the radio. Or you’ll be at the supermarket and out of habit throw his favorite snack in the cart only to remember he was the only one that would eat it. Or you start sobbing in the kitchen alone because you can’t get the dang lid off a jar. Or you realize it’s the first perfect spring golf day and he’d be on the course. Or you start crying because you get tickets to a sold out show but the one person you want to hug or high five isn’t there. You get the idea.
You aren’t backsliding. Grief bombs just happen and are a normal part of the grieving process. Be kind to yourself. I find it helps to step back and try to identify the trigger. It doesn’t necessary shorten the meltdown but does help me take the pressure off myself.
And just a reminder for you friends of W’s. It’s NEVER okay to tell someone that they should be over it by now, no matter how long it’s been.
As disturbing as I find it, I love that analogy for what happens to us as we allow ourselves to come through the grieving process. It’s gruesome and gory. Who we were is destroyed. But in the end, we come out of it transformed. We are reborn. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve heard me say that the old Lisa died that July 10th morning, may she Rest In Peace. I chose to experience grief fully, allowing myself to become the caterpillar. I dissolved into a gooey mess that resembled neither who I was nor who I am becoming.
I’m told I’m goal oriented. I LOVES me a checklist. I set goals, and I figure out how to make magic happen. Once I set my mind to grief recovery, it became a project too. One of my W friends laughed as she accused me of over-achieving my grief. And I laughed with her! I had already given myself permission to take all the time I needed so I wouldn’t turn into a self-destructing-ticking-grief-bomb but was desperate to get as far away from the black pit of despair that almost cost me my life. So I went full bore into project mode.
The next few posts will cover my experiences with the different things I tried as I researched the Grief Recovery Project. I’ve already written about my experiences with grief counseling, and that is still at the top of my list for being the most helpful. But acupuncture, massage therapy, Reiki, hypnotherapy, travel, a makeover and tons of books and blogs also became part of The GRP. I’m far from being ready to fly away, but I can feel myself becoming solid again. I’m tired of the cocoon and getting ready to break out and flex my new wings.
This post continues my look at what to do with all the stuff my beloved left behind.
The hardest thing for me was getting rid of his Army stuff. Twenty-two years of service to his country made up almost half of his too short life. Some of it was easy, like shredding all of his old paperwork and manuals. (Dear US Army, where should I send the invoice for the shredding bill?) His challenge coins and uniforms were a different story.
But his uniforms took up three boxes in the garage. Remember how I said he kept everything? No exception here. He kept at least one pristine set of every single type of uniform he was issued in 22 years of service. That’s a LOT of freaking uniforms, boots, and paraphernalia. Dan HATED Stolen Valor so I knew that I’d have to be thoughtful about how to dispose of them. Our local military history museum was overflowing and couldn’t take them. No one else in the family wanted them. Since grandkids aren’t in the picture, a quilt wasn’t going to work. Plus, these uniforms were OLD and flammable, not really what you’d want around a baby. The best I could come up with was a ceremonial burning since I couldn’t bring myself to cut them up and toss them in the trash.
My friend, and fellow W, Susanne graciously invited me to use her burn pit for this. She had done something similar so it wasn’t weird for her. On a cold almost almost spring evening, we sat outside and burned 22 years of Dan’s personal military history. Some of them did indeed melt, releasing toxic fumes into the winter air. Some of it (brass buttons maybe?) created green flames. Cool. We were lucky the neighbors didn’t call the fire department. Perhaps six foot flames were a bit much. We sat out in the cold until we could see the full moon rise and the fire burn down to smoldering bits and ash. As the last of the smoke wafted into the night, the Museum of Dan was finally closed.
This post is not trolling for sympathy. In fact, I hesitated quite a bit before posting it. In the end, I decided it was important to share my story in the hopes it might help someone else. Since we collectively fear grief, it’s hard to comprehend how consuming despair can be or what to do when someone we love is drowning in it.
Why is Grief so terrifying? Why do we turn away and shield our eyes and our hearts from the pain we see in the ones we love? Why do we push them to be more positive or delete a grief-related post just because it makes us feel uncomfortable? It’s a topic I think about often.
It was about four months after Dan died that I was sitting outside in the fall moonlight with a glass of wine and my besties when one of them looked at me and said, “I have to tell you that I’m mad at you.” I was a bit taken aback. Where the hell did that come from? How much wine did I drink? What did I do?
Let’s rewind a bit.
Losing Dan pulled the earth out from under my feet. In addition to the loss of my soul mate and love of my life, I had a front row seat to his agonizing battle and very gruesome end just months after losing my Dad to the ravages of another horrible disease. PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety are Grief’s annoying evil step-sisters who crash the party. To say I was struggling was an understatement. I suffered from nightmares every single night, reliving those horrible last few moments in every gory detail. Death like you see on TV and the movies would have been a blessing. Dan’s passing was not peaceful. I was later told that he didn’t suffer because he’d been in a coma for days. I call bull$%^t. How would anyone know whether or not he suffered? It’s not like you can verify this statement.
But I digress. I wasn’t sleeping without pharmaceutical help, and the sleep I did get was deeply troubled. I was miserable. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t function. I withdrew from the family and friends (the ones that stuck around after the funeral) that were trying to be there for me. I dodged my grief counselor. And I went to a very dark place. VULNERABLE MOMENT ALERT (as if anything in this blog isn’t): I became suicidal. I went from questioning how I was supposed to live without Dan, to not wanting to live without Dan, to praying to die, to thinking about how I could take matters into my own hands. I had reached the point where suicide seemed the only logical escape from the unbearable pain I was suffering. I repeat, it seemed LOGICAL, not EMOTIONAL. So logical I was dead calm (haha, inappropriate humor is a coping mechanism) and convinced that, in death, I would be with Dan again. I was fortunate to wake up one morning with the clarity that these thoughts weren’t me and that I needed some help to pull myself out of the downward spiral. Only a handful of people knew how bad it had become. The besties were in that group and got me the hell out of Dodge hoping that a change of scenery would do me some good. Sweet Baby Jesus at Christmas-time I love them so much.
Fast Forward back to besties and wine and moonlight. She was mad at me for even considering taking my life. And she was scared. She said that if grief could shake ME to the core, one of the strongest people she knew, what would it do to the rest of them? How on earth could anyone else survive a catastrophic loss?
I loved her for trusting me enough to share how she truly felt and that she looked at this broken mess and saw strength at all. And I realized at that moment one of the reasons we fear looking at other people’s grief is that we don’t want to look in that mirror and envision that loss for ourselves. And that’s okay. We can’t live in the joy of all that life has to offer if we’re too focused on losing it. And at the other end of the spectrum, there is another truth-that in recognizing loss is inevitable, we can free ourselves to enjoy the time that we have.
So for my W’s who are in that dark place, it gets better. I promise. You will reach a point where the light breaks through and finds you. But we can’t always do it alone. When those who love you are throwing you a lifeline, reach out and grab it and hold on with all your might.
The Wandering Widow
Suicidal thoughts are a serious matter. If you have them or think someone does, please get help. Those closest to me had suspicions but were afraid to take action in case they were wrong. Old Lisa was “strong” and independent and apparently a scary bitch who would have freaked the F out on someone if they dared mention it. If I hadn’t woken up that morning with the epiphany that I was about to fall off the cliff, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
This is an article I wrote for a recent Treasure Valley Hospice newsletter. Special thanks to the wonderful women of The W Club who contributed their thoughts on the topic.
Starting the moment your loved one breathes their last, a flurry of activity takes place. Family and friends are notified, funeral plans kick into high gear and you are surrounded by people 24/7. You are in shock, even if it was expected. You are surrounded in casseroles, flowers, stories and love.
And then the funeral happens. And then there is silence. The friends and family that were at your side disappear, returning to their own busy lives while you are left behind. This is normal, but painful. Even if you’ve been warned about it, it will be unexpected. Why do the people we need most disappear after the funeral? Some of them thrive on crisis, which is now over so they move on to the next adrenaline filled tragedy. Others have been strong for you and now need to deal with their own grief and pain, and will try to hide it from you to protect you. Others find your pain too much to bear because they love you so much and don’t know what to do, so they turn away. In fear of saying the wrong thing they say nothing. Silence.
Regardless of the reason, their disappearing act doesn’t reflect on you. It doesn’t lower your worth, or mean they love you any less. We live in a grief phobic society. We aren’t taught how to handle these situations. Our friends and family are desperate to help us, but usually don’t know how. Most people feel useful if you can give them busy work, an action job or task that needs done. Tasks like mowing the lawn, cleaning the kitchen, grocery shopping or even getting the oil changed in your car. If they ask, have a list ready (or show them this newsletter). And to those of you who want to help your W, if she can’t think of anything, just pick something you know needs doing and do it. It will be appreciated.
W’s we can help them help us by simply communicating. When they ask what we need, tell them the truth. Be honest, even if you don’t know the answer. After visiting with some of my fellow W’s, here are some examples we came up with:
Call or text me every day to let me know you haven’t forgotten me.
Don’t disappear or stop asking me questions, even if you think I’m being negative. Help me talk about him, and listen when I do.
Don’t let me become a recluse. Keep inviting me out, even if I say “no” a lot.
I don’t know what I’m feeling or what I want.
I just need to be held or to talk and you don’t have to fix anything, just be here with me.
I just lost everything. Please don’t leave me too.
Don’t offer me solutions or advice, just give me time to pull through this with you at my side.
And most importantly don’t hide your grief from me. I want to know you loved him as much as I did. It makes me feel less alone.
You really aren’t alone, even if it may feel that way. So do yourself a favor and help them help you.
I know your employee handbook probably has a sentence or two about bereavement leave, and that’s where this subject ends. Hey, don’t feel bad. We live in a grief phobic society, so why would the workplace be any different? As I get ready to celebrate 11 years with THE BEST FREAKING COMPANY ON THE PLANET, I thought I’d share some tips for other employers on how to help their employees who are grieving a loss. Here are a few things you may want to consider:
Grief affects you both mentally and physically. Brain fog and a short attention span are pretty normal. So are increased irritation and anger to things that previously wouldn’t have phased them. Your employee is back at work because they want or have to be, and are doing their best. If you have concerns about their performance please talk to them. Be gentle, but don’t beat around the bush.
Your three-five days of bereavement/funeral leave is woefully inadequate, but appreciated. Grief isn’t something you check off on a calendar. Please be aware that it can take months or years for some of us to be back to full capacity. If you offer a longer unpaid leave option and feel your employee might benefit from it, please offer it to them if you can handle them being out. Weigh the options…potentially losing them for good vs. a short leave of absence. If you can be creative with work schedule or roles that may be another way to protect the investment you’ve made in a great team member. The most appreciated words my boss ever said to me were the day before I was scheduled to come back to work. She told me that if I came in and it was too much, to just turn around and leave and not worry about saying anything to anyone. She may not remember it, but the memory of that care and consideration is carefully stored in my heart the way I used to keep my Snoopy watch and other treasures in my jewelry box when I was nine.
If you offer an Employee Assistance Program that covers counseling, remind them of that resource too. (Depending on your state, you may want to run that by HR first. Some companies don’t like to cross that line into human decency due to fear of litigation).
Please understand that social anxiety (grief’s annoying evil step-sister) can make being around people hard, especially upon first returning to work when you’re more likely to get The Look**. Your employee may walk out of a room in the middle of something. You may find them crying in a bathroom stall or in their cars or at their desk. Crying is healthy. They aren’t doing it to get attention. It will pass. I promise.
Some people bury their grief and want to act like everything’s normal. That’s okay too. You can’t force people to talk about it if they don’t want to. For some, work is an escape from the reality that sets in as soon as they get home to an empty/emptier house. Please give them that reprieve if that is what they want.
Grief isn’t restricted to the death of a loved one. Divorce and other losses can be equally profound, and aren’t covered by bereavement policies.
If you truly value your employee, please do what you can to reasonably accommodate their grief. I’ll tell you, that makes for one hell of a loyal employee.
The Wandering Widow
**The Look: the look of pity or sadness one often receives after a tragic loss or terminal diagnosis, usually dispensed freely by those who don’t know they are wearing it; sometimes accompanied by sound effects and uncomfortable personal bubble violations by huggers; to be avoided at all costs.
As we wrap up what has been, by all accounts the most challenging year of my life, I’m forced to reflect on what I’ve learned about life, death, love, and grief.
1.We all grieve for different things throughout our lives…lost loves, lost innocence, lost opportunities, even election results. None of life’s previous losses prepared me for losing Dan and Dad. I quickly learned that grief doesn’t just make you sad. It can be an overwhelming pain that affects you on an all encompassing level: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and financial. If you would have cleaved me in two, I don’t think it could have hurt more than the pain I’ve endured. For the first time in my life I had no answers, no plan, and no solutions. I couldn’t fix it. All I could do was keep breathing…and that was harder than it sounds.
Grief also seems to come to the party with anxiety. This was a surprise, but it is pretty common even for those that never struggled with anxiety before their loss. I’ve decided that it’s the pressure (unintentional, of course) by others to be back to normal (not an option), have a good time, perform on the job, etc. that makes the anxiety so much worse. You wouldn’t believe the amount of energy it take to smile or hold back tears. I think as women we are taught to focus on others so much, that even in our worst pain we don’t want our grief to make others uncomfortable. So it’s just easier to hide.
Screw that! When your W doesn’t want to go out, leave the house, or do anything but live on the couch, support her in that. Unless you’ve been through it, keep your advice to yourself. (On that note, every single W I’ve talked to encourages couch surfing as a survival tactic). If her grief makes you uncomfortable, perhaps you should take time to reevaluate what kind of a friend you are, because it’s not about you buddy!
2. In the darkest depths of despair, there are so many shining lights of hope. So many lovely people stepped up to surround us with love and light and support. The meals, the angels who showed up to rake the fall leaves, the friends who never gave up on checking on me, even when I withdrew, all shining examples of the good in the world. As Dumbledore wisely said, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Sometimes we just need someone else to help flip that switch.
3. You can’t do it alone, but being alone is okay. I continue to survive with the help and guidance of my grief team: which includes my BFFs, family, grief counselor, financial advisor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, reiki master and others. I’ve also had my fellow W’s surround me in a ring of love and acceptance and support. Their unique understanding was something no one else could provide.
But being alone was also a key component to my survival. After spending years in caregiver mode, giving myself permission to take care of myself was the best gift I could have ever received. And while nothing will ever replace my perfect travel partner, I’m looking forward to finishing out our bucket list as a solo traveler. There is something therapeutic about being alone…it counters the anxiety/pressure of being with others.
4. Grief isn’t linear. It gets better. And it gets worse. And it’s different for everyone. On some days it’s hour to hour, or even minute to minute. So you shouldn’t beat yourself up about having a backslide because there is no forward and back. There is only now.
5. “There’s our old Lisa,” was one of the most painful things (even worse than the first time someone referred to me as a widow) someone said to me AD (after Dan). I wanted to scream. The Lisa you used to know died that July 10th morning, half a second after Dan took his last breath. And FYI she won’t be back. I think that’s one reason the pain is so excruciating…you are really grieving for two. In addition to learning to live without your love, you are mourning who you used to be. And that’s not all that died that day. Your hopes and dreams for the future were also snuffed out. So you grieve for all of you. And that is almost freaking impossible to shoulder.
So as most people enter the new year with new goals, new dreams, and new hopes, those of us drowning in grief just focus on continuing to keep breathing. And you know what, that’s damned good enough if you ask me.
Many of you ask for help with what to, or not to, say to the grieving widow. It’s pretty easy in the initial period to find help on what not to say (please reference God has a plan; Everything happens for a reason; Some day you’ll realize this was a blessing; et al). But what about when a period of time has passed? You know, six months from now, a year from now, or three years from now? There’s not a lot of advice out there. What should you avoid saying?
Please write this one down. Under NO circumstances do you have the right to question what a W does with her wedding ring. None. Zip. Nada. Zero. I don’t care how many years it’s been.
I’ve been lucky and no one has talked about my rings to my face. I’m horrified at some of the things my fellow W’s are asked (or told).
When are you going to stop wearing your wedding ring?
It’s time to stop wearing your wedding ring.
Why are you still wearing your ring?
You’re taking off your ring already?
SERIOUSLY! None of these are okay to say! If you’ve already f’d up and said one, get down on your hands and knees this instant and start apologizing for being a judgemental ass. Assure her that you love her and would never knowingly add to her pain. A hug won’t hurt either.
Here’s the deal–it’s different for everyone. Some W’s will wear it for a year. Some will change out the stone but keep wearing the ring. Some will wear it forever. Some will stop wearing it immediately. Some will keep it for children or grandchildren. Some will sell it. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you support your W in whatever she decides.
From the minute we got the terminal cancer diagnosis, we were hustled into counseling. Dan’s was different than mine. Mine should have been called “How To Become A Widow” counseling (totally vomit inducing since I hate that word), but one thing was constant. Every session, every social worker, psychiatrist, and grief counselor all said the same thing…you should journal.
I am VERY good at following instructions, so I did. I wrote out everything I was too afraid to talk to Dan about. And after he died I wrote out my pain. It was endless. And horrific. And sad. And miserable. And lonely. One day I was complaining journaling how I missed being able to talk to him. How I missed being able to share my thoughts, fears, and dreams with my best friend in the whole wide world. In that moment I decided to stop using my journal to log my misery, but to start talking to Dan. I decided to write the same kind of letters I did when he was away on military training, and something crazy happened.
This promised coping mechanism finally started to help me start coping. The tone of my journal entries changed. Instead of focusing on how awful I felt, I was reminded that I WAS actually doing things. I wasn’t as stuck as I thought I was. By writing to Dan as if he was still alive, I was slowly helping myself realize that I was still alive. The darkness was starting to fade.
Will that approach work for everyone? Of course not…is there anything that works for everyone? It’s working for me, so I’m sharing it with you, my lovely W’s.