Editor’s Note: My very dear friend Lynne wrote this piece on her experience of losing a spouse. Her warm, generous, smart, thoughtful husband Allan was one of the most upbeat, joyful and positive people I’ve ever met. He died a bit over a year ago and I recently asked if she’d be willing to share some of what she’s learned. Whether or not you ever endure losing a spouse, we all experience losses through life, and her insights may help you.
I lost my husband this past year and found that while grief will take you to your knees it will also make you wiser and stronger and a better friend. I am still deep in the learning process, feeling my way along, and grateful for the love and support I have received. I want my friends who have not yet gone through this passage to be at least a little bit prepared and Ligeia asked me to put down some of the thoughts that have been top of mind for me. Here they are…
Your friends will do the best they can. If you have nurtured good friendships, your friends will be there for you. They won’t always be there in the exact way you wish, but they will be there. They might barrage you with worried calls when you wanted to be asked over for a meal so you wouldn’t have to eat alone. They might send an awkwardly worded card when you wished they would call so you could talk. Try to remember people are well-intentioned, and they are hurting for you. They just don’t know what to do. So, ask for what you want. If you need someone to hold you when you cry, say so. If you need someone to make you dinner, ask for it. If you need them to talk about your loved one, or not talk about them, say so. People who love you will be guessing wildly what the right thing to do might be. They want you to tell them.
People will personalize everything, but that’s OK. No matter how much people love you, they will be thinking at least in part about themselves. What if their husband died? How would they want the funeral to be? How would they handle the grieving process? This is natural. I try to think of it like being a beacon. We don’t have to do anything particular but just by being we shine a light. By going through something hard we are being an example for somebody else. We don’t have to be brave or perfect at it, we just have to be it. We are showing how someone grieves, how someone heals, how someone copes. How someone remembers. Even mistakes we make can teach us and others.
Trust Your Gut. If you don’t get a good feeling from someone or something, pay attention and act accordingly. There may be people you just can’t be around for whatever reason. They are trying too hard, or they are too terrified by your loss so they are making you terrified, or they are clueless, or they are avoiding the subject. I remember years ago going through the in vitro process and in the waiting room of the fertility doctor there was a sign asking people to not bring infants along when they came to see the doctor. It was just too painful for those who couldn’t have a baby of their own. At the time I thought that was an over-reaction. Now I understand they were caring for their patients. Sometimes some things are just too painful and it’s OK to say “No, I’m not doing that.”
Create a safe space before you need it. When Allan and I did our end of life planning I thought about what would be important to me after he died. I wanted to own my house and everything in it free and clear. I didn’t want anyone coming into my home and displacing me or taking things or doing an inventory or collecting something they thought they were owed. I wanted my home to be mine and to be a sacred space. I also wanted to be my own executor. I didn’t want attorneys or accountants or kindly gray-haired male advisors telling me what to do, unless I asked. I understand not everyone would want that. For me, it made me feel capable and strong. Someone else might feel burdened by those responsibilities. It doesn’t matter what you choose, but creating a safety zone does matter. For example, I knew where Allan wanted to be buried. We had walked our dog there many times and it was a happy place for me, a beautiful, historic cemetery where I knew I would like to visit and I knew his spirit would be happy. That extended the safe space to the burial place and I needed that.
Deal with the kids beforehand. Whether they are your kids, his kids, or both of your kids, let them know the plan before anybody dies. The absolute last thing you want when you are grieving is family strife. If they are going to receive anything, or nothing, let them know it. Show that you have thought it out, written it down, and made decisions as a couple. Present a united front so there are no questions later. If there are specific items to be distributed, make a list and make it known. In our case, the kids are Allan’s from his previous marriage. They are very loving and kind, and we are close as a family. But the financial end of things was less stressful that it could have been after Allan died because he had talked to his children in advance about what they would inherit and explained his rationale for how he wanted things to be. This took the onus off of me to have to explain it, and it took the onus off of them to have to question me. Even in this fairly ideal situation I still felt paranoid about it—would they still love me? Would they question how I’m totaling everything up? Would they trust that I was being fair? I’m being fair? Were they being so nice because they knew they were going to receive an inheritance when I got the finances pulled together? We were able to get through the settling of the estate in a loving way, I felt naturally insecure because it is such a vulnerable time. You are going to feel exposed and afraid anyway, so you want to minimize this as much as possible where loved ones, especially kids, are concerned.
Seek help. I had never thought a lot about grief as a subject matter or an area of expertise, but I have learned there are knowledgeable people out there who can help you. I started seeing a grief counsellor who has been a loving and invaluable guide through the ups and downs and craziness of this first year. She is a person to whom I can say anything. I can ask her anything. I can cry with her and she will sit and listen or even hold me. I have also joined a grief group, and while I was nervous to go I ended up loving the people there and treasuring the experience. The simplest way to get help and support is to reach out through Hospice. Even if your loved one didn’t die in hospice care, they are dedicated to helping bereaved individuals. They offer groups as well as low- or no-cost counselling sessions. They have written materials and all sorts of other tools. I have found it helpful to get expertise beyond what I or my family and friends can come up with in this situation. Because I was one of the first among my peers to lose a spouse, none of us in my circle had much experience. Much has been studied and written about grief and the hospice people know it intimately. Even if you are strong and great at coping, you will probably benefit from more, wise input. Let the experts help.
Be gentle with yourself. My friend Ligeia sent me a poem by Rumi (see below) that says, basically, that all the ugly emotions are our friends; we must honor them because they make us human. I try not to be too impatient with myself when I avoid things or eat poorly or waste time or mope about. I try to honor the process and admire how well I’ve done overall. Missing Allan is natural because I loved him and he was wonderful, so if I’m miserable that is to be expected. And if I’m full of bad feelings it’s because something really bad happened. But I’m noticing it’s not the big bad feelings that annoy the heck out of me, like loneliness or depression or grief. It’s the mid-range feelings like boredom, malaise, impatience, numbness, self-absorption, or procrastination. I hate these and have spent years trying to conquer them. For better or for worse, they are part of me. I would have thought grief would uplift me and make me somehow better, more pure, more profound. And I do notice that some of my best qualities have been magnified. Sadly, so are my worst qualities. I’m more avoidant and less patient. I used to have a poor memory, now I can’t remember anything. I get way too busy, then not busy enough. I under-share or overshare. It’s all a jumble and makes me irritable with myself. I have to lean on Rumi to remind me that it is all a blessed part of my humanness.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Do what seems soothing and safe. I have a lot of “shoulds” rattling around in my head—I “should” be feeling better by now. I “should” be more productive and have more of a plan. I “should” get out there and take advantage of all the nice things people are offering. I “should” clean out Allan’s things and get the house organized. Instead, I’m trying to hold the “shoulds” at bay and do what feels comforting and soothing to my soul. Right after Allan died some friends invited me to go on a European cruise with them in the spring. I said yes immediately, thinking how nice it was that I was being included, even though I’m not in a couple anymore. I thought how great it would be to tackle a Europe trip with good friends so it wouldn’t be scary and I wouldn’t be doing it alone. I considered how it might cheer me up to see lovely sights and get away from my household in mourning. As the time came to make all the arrangement, the energy waned. It seemed stressful to be so far from home and loved ones. I felt sad nearly all the time and couldn’t picture how it would be to grieve while cruising the Baltic. I kept telling myself if I were really in a bad way I could curl up in my tiny stateroom on board and be by myself. Eventually it dawned on me that if I was going to be sad I might as well be sad in my own house where I felt safe and comfortable. I could save the trip for later. My friends understood and I stayed home. But it was hard to tell them I wasn’t up to going. I felt like a feeble invalid. It was my counsellor who encouraged me to do exactly what felt good for me.
Speak kindly to yourself. We have so many pejorative words for taking care of ourselves… “opting out”, “being lazy”, or “doing nothing”, for example. When I turned down the Europe cruise one friend said to me, “Well, just as long as you aren’t wallowing.” I felt ashamed and furious at the same time. Wallowing? You try losing your husband and then we will talk about it. And what’s “wallowing” anyway? Staying home and feeling your feelings? Letting yourself be sad, or angry, or lonely and dealing with it? Going to visit the grave and talk to your husband? I’m still ticked off about it, in part because it’s so off base. I actually wish I were better at wallowing and less stiff-upper-lipped about things. So let yourself be soothed and comforted in whatever ways work for you. For me, having my big dog and walking for miles has been therapeutic. Friends, church, movies, swimming, music, body massage, mentoring others, some work projects, certain shows on Netflix, writing, riding my horse, being out in the garden. I went through a wine phase briefly, and an ice cream phase. I started cooking again. I visit Allan’s grave on occasion. I visit my little granddaughters a lot. We act out a play in their back yard in which the six-year-old is a sleeping princess, the three-year-old is a baby unicorn, my big dog is a wild wolf, and I’m a scary witch trying to steal the children. It is directed in a domineering fashion by the six-year-old and I just do as I’m told. There’s a lot of running, hiding and screaming. It has Carl Jung written all over it, and I can tell that acting it out is good for all of us. While it sounds crazy, I’m trying to pay attention to whatever feels good to me so I have more and more soul soothing activities to draw upon. I may not always need them as much as I do now, but hope I keep them
P.S. I asked Lynne to give me a few photos for this post on losing a spouse, and she exclaimed how difficult it was to find shots of just her and Allan. Another lesson: make people take photos of JUST you and your love.
Thank you Lynne.
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A nice article on how to write a condolence note.