Onwards and Upwards

Onwards and upwards has been my saying since this whole journey began.  Why?  Because it seems to motivate me.  Every time something happens and I get through it, I find myself thinking these words.  It doesn’t mean I like it, but it means I survived whatever was thrown at me.

There are many different ways to interpret these words. They always make me picture a mountain with various paths for climbing.  Sometimes you have to switch paths mid-climb, other times you might need someone’s help to get over an obstacle, but most of the time, once you’ve accomplished it, you’re just a little bit further along than you were before.

Not everyone traveling this messy grief journey chooses to move forward.  For me, after a few months, I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere by just staying in my recliner and wallowing in tears and memories.  I’m one of those people who has to be productive; has to do something.  I’ve never been one to sit around too much, although, as an introvert, I do need my down time.  So, after a few months, I got tired of myself.  It didn’t mean it hurt any less, or that the memories weren’t still throwing me back into the thick of it, but I needed to do something.  I think the first step I made was that spring, when it came time to switch out the closet from fall/winter clothes to spring/summer.  I realized that if I moved his clothes, I could have the entire closet full of all seasons of clothes and no longer have to trek up and down the stairs to make the switch. Closet space is definitely a motivator for me!  Besides, his clothes had long since lost his scent, but yet it was a very difficult decision. Luckily, I found a way to keep some of his clothes, without having them take up space. One of my best friends agreed to make blankets for us out of his dress shirts, and a quilt out of some of his ties.  Once I started going through things, it was a bit easier knowing I wasn’t truly getting rid of all his things, and I soon took over all the drawers of the dresser and chest of drawers, too.  Onwards and upwards.

I also had to do something about an income. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone inherits a windfall when someone passes.  After all, who plans to die unexpectedly at 58 years old? I had quit my job of almost 18 years just 9 months before, which turned out to be a blessing as it allowed me to spend quality time with my mother before she passed away, plus time to work on clearing out our family home.  But, with hubby’s death, the financial fears soon hit.  Onwards and upwards. Time to get things moving! And, while my initial plan didn’t work out, in the long run I’ve landed in a meaningful position that uses my skill set very well.  God is good.

Then there’s the house. Wow, you don’t realize how much your spouse does until they’re no longer here! Not only was there the hurdle of figuring out if I could stay in our home, but there were all the little repairs to be done, the never-ending yard work, and all the bills that roll in.  Talk about anxiety!  Plus, everything still looked exactly as it did when he was still here. That was another tough decision. Sometimes you realize that if you’re going to keep moving onwards and upwards, you need to make changes so that the emptiness and loss don’t drag you down day after day. Just moving a piece a furniture or changing a wall hanging can change the view from what it was when he was here, and make a physical reminder that he’s not going to walk through the door saying, “Hey, everybody!”

One of the first things I did was make a list of all the little things I accomplished on my own. It was quite empowering!  Figuring out how to change the lightbulbs in the fixture on the vaulted ceiling.  Having the railroad ties removed outside and the wall and steps put in (a project we’d planned for that spring).  The first big change I made was to repaint the master en suite.  When we painted initially, we went with a color that he liked that I never really cared for (but I never told him that, since we finally found something he agreed to).  There was no reason not to change it now, and while the furniture placement and items hanging on the wall haven’t changed, that room is now my haven. Since then, I’ve repainted most of the interior of the house and redecorated some. It’s enough the same to still feel like our home, but changed enough to feel like mine.

Having suffered through a lot of losses in a short amount of time, I soon realized that “stuff” was no longer important. I made the decision to surround myself with things that have meaning for me and that make me happy.  Over the years, I’ve collected Santas, as in I had three curio cabinets plus more in storage, totaling over 100 of them.  I’ve since downsized that collection to just one curio and a few bigger ones to pull out during the holidays. Onwards and upwards.

The journey isn’t over yet. I still face the difficult task of going through his garage workshop, and figuring out what tools to keep or give to our son.  Even now, that’s a tough job to think about, and every time I set foot in there, I know it needs to be done, but I just can’t start it yet.  That’s his sacred space. I know I’ll tackle it soon, if only a little at a time, but unlike the other things I’ve done, this one won’t feel as productive, it will only feel like losing another part of him.

Onwards and upwards doesn’t just apply to stuff, though.  As I look back over the last few years, I often wonder if he’d recognize me.  I think nothing now of going to a restaurant and having a meal by myself or going to a movie alone.  I never would have done that before. It would have caused a major anxiety attack.  I think of all the things I do in my job now that just a year or so ago would have freaked me out.  Making calls and just talking to people, visiting schools and businesses…. that all was so out of my comfort zone before.  I’m still not as brave as many of my friends. I know others who travel alone and have no reservations (pun intended) about it.  That’s something I couldn’t do. Just last night I passed up free tickets to an awesome concert because I just couldn’t do it alone, even though I knew I’d run into people I knew once I got there. New situations still scare me and the what ifs take over my thoughts.  Still, compared to the beginning, I know I’ve come a long way becoming more self-assured and assertive.

Holidays are still rough, and sometimes Facebook is not my friend as I watch friends celebrate anniversaries and milestones we’ll never have. I’m not looking for pity, it’s just how it is.

Looking too far into the future can be scary, but I’ve learned to take each day as it comes. There are still days where it feels like I’ve backslid a bit, but just like that mountain trek, it’s always onwards and upwards.

 

 

Fake it til you make it

One of the things I hear often is, “You’re so strong.”  Uh, no.  Well, okay, yeah, I can lift the 50# bag of dog food, so I guess I’m a little strong, but I know that’s not what they mean.  Honestly, strength has nothing to do with the grief journey.  And it’s not like there’s a choice.  One day you wake up and realize your entire life has changed, and there’s not a blasted thing you can do about it. No matter what you do, the reality is, he’s gone and gone forever.

So, what do you do? Literally, you fake it til you make it.  Those first days and, if you’re lucky weeks, after the funeral people rally around you and you get through. Sometimes it might just be breath by breath, but you get through. But, eventually, they all go away and you’re left on your own to soldier on.  As much as you’d like to curl up into the fetal position and never leave your bed, that’s not usually an option as there are details that must be attended to. There are medical bills, funeral costs, things to change to your name, the blasted death certificates to get to various places to prove to others that he’s gone, insurance stuff to take care of. The list goes on and on, and they won’t wait. In those first weeks, you have the busy-ness of taking care of all of that. For me, in those first days, weeks, and months, I often said that the only reason I was vertical was because dogs gotta poop!  And in the beginning sometimes being vertical is the toughest part of the day, but you get through it a little at a time.  In some ways, it’s okay because it forces you to get out and do stuff, but at the same time, you can’t wait to get home and just collapse again. Honestly, for me, my memory is that I didn’t leave my recliner for six months other than to do what I absolutely had to do, but those blasted Facebook memories prove me wrong. Apparently, I did get out and do things.  And for me, one of the main things I had to do was find an income!

It’s amazing the things you can force yourself to do, given any particular situation. Believe it or not, I’m an introvert, so I’ve never liked new situations, and I’ve never liked going into places I’ve never been before. I’ve never liked having to walk up to someone and initiate a conversation. My mom liked to tell the story of how shy I was when I was little; so shy that even after riding a school bus to kindergarten for an entire year, I wouldn’t say goodbye to the driver on the last day.  I’ve always been that way.  Now, after three and a quarter years post-loss, none of that bothers me anymore.  Fake it til you make it.

How?  Somewhere on this journey, someone told me, “You have 100% success rate for getting through rough days.”  That little phrase, along with searching for the blessings in each day, got me through.  And somewhere in that journey I started to believe it, and to realize the things I’ve done that I’d never done before.

Some days I wonder if my husband would recognize me now, doing things that before would have sent me into major anxiety.  But I have no doubt he’d be proud of me. And I can thank him for a lot of that; for the things he taught me, for the confidence he gave me, and for the person I became because of our relationship.  During those tough days I can hear his voice in my head telling me I can do it.

As for the make it part, eventually you get there.  I can honestly say that the anxiety is minimal now, unless I let myself look too far into the future and wonder about what might happen.  I can also admit there are days when I am truly happy and I know he’d be proud.  I still miss him every single day, but I know I now have the confidence to take things as they come and, thanks to a wonderful support system of family and friends, I know who I can call when I need advice or help.

Onwards and upwards! (That just might be the next entry…)

Harsh Realities

There are a lot of myths about widowhood, and the realities one must face are difficult and harsh.  I looked at the thesaurus site to see if there might be a better word than harsh, but they all describe the reality very well:  bitter, cacophonous, bleak, severe, unrelenting.  Yes, the reality of life after a loss of this magnitude is all of these.

Before I delve in to this messy business, let me preface this post by saying that I’m not posting this in search of sympathy.  Actually, it’s just the opposite. My hope is that by being brutally honest about widowhood, I might somehow help others to realize what is helpful, should they be faced with helping someone along this journey.

One of the myths of grief is that you “get over it”.  It’s not a mountain to climb, where you reach the peak and then it’s all downhill and easy.  It’s more like a wave with lots of rip currents running through it.  You might be overwhelmed and feel like you’re drowning for awhile, then suddenly it’s all smooth and you’re surfing along the top doing great, when all of a sudden, something pulls you right back under and you feel like you’re drowning again.  Now keep that cycle going, not just for a few months or a year, but for years. Plural.  Because the reality is, there will always be things that drag you back under. It might be a song, a glimpse of someone who reminds you of him, or a joke or a place. You never know what can trigger a grief attack.

This is one journey that could never be wished on anyone.  Imagine, if you will, how many times you speak to your spouse in a day; how many times you text, or think about them and know right where they are and when you’re seeing them again.  Now yank all of that away.  Whether you’ve been married over twenty years like we were or just a few years, it’s still the same.  You will never hear their voice again. Never receive another text. They won’t be on their side of the bed in the morning.  No more coffee made (or in my case, Diet Coke over ice waiting) in the morning. No more shoes by the door, or dirty dishes left on the table by the chair. No more of those little things that drive you crazy.  Other than a recording, if you’re lucky, you’ll never hear their voice again or see their face, except for in photos.  Now take your imagination and magnify that emptiness by about a million, and that’s what it’s like.

One of the myths is that if your spouse died of a long illness, then, “at least you got to have the long talks and say goodbye.”  Yes, maybe, but that doesn’t lessen the loss.  Another myth is that if they passed quickly or unexpectedly, as in the case of my husband, then, “at least he didn’t suffer.”  Maybe not, and I pray he didn’t, but that doesn’t lessen the loss.

I understand that people don’t know what to say, and they fall back on platitudes and what they’ve heard others say.  And there are some people who just don’t “do” death.  It’s easier to ignore than to face the reality that someday it will affect each and every one of us. Mortality is a messy business. No one likes the unknown, although if you’re a person of faith, it’s not nearly as scary.

Another myth is that widows are all okay because at least they got his life insurance.  Guess what? Not everyone has adequate life insurance. Some don’t have any, especially those who die too young and unexpectedly.  Add all the financial mess on top of navigating the loss, and it can all seem insurmountable.   Think about it.  Do you know everything you need to know about your house, insurance, bills, investments?  In most couples, one person knows this information and the other doesn’t.   It’s very rare that a couple sits down and takes care of it all together.  One of the most difficult things can be figuring it all out, and finding out if you can even stay in your own home.

People often think that if a woman is widowed young or middle aged, then she should immediately start dating again.  Would you?  If you’ve been married for more than half your life, would you jump back into the dating game again?

Here’s what it boils down to:  there is no right way to grieve and there is no set way to walk this journey.  Do you feel like dating? Go for it.  Do you not? Then don’t.  Not sure? Then do what feels right.

As for me, yes, I’ve gone on a date.  (GASP!)  I’m very lucky to have very good friends, both male and female, so several months ago I went out on a “real date” with a very dear friend I’ve known longer than I knew my husband.  He’s one of the good guys. There are very few who are open, honest, and as patient as this friend.  And he knew it was awkward for me and didn’t push.  I am blessed that we’re still friends, even after attempting that dating game again.  (Turns out I wasn’t ready, by the way, but I couldn’t have asked for a nicer evening with a nicer guy.)

So, what can you do if you have a friend who’s widowed?  The best thing I can recommend is listen and be there.  People tend to rally around the first few weeks or months after a loss, but the reality is there is no set time limit. There can still be rough patches even years down the road.  I think most widows would agree that the worst part of the whole journey is the loneliness.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have family nearby or kids and grandkids around.  For young(ish) widows, it’s rough because friends all still have their spouses and families, so you’re either on the outside looking in, or you’re the extra wheel.

It boils down to doing what feels right for you.  For myself, I’ve become incredibly brave post-loss. It’s nothing for me to go out to eat by myself now, or go to a movie alone.  I never would have done that before.

It’s a strange mix, this journey.  I often wonder if he’d recognize me now, because there’s so much I do now to take care of things, that I never did before. The rip tides still come and drag me under, but they’re fewer and farther between.  But it boils down to this:  there is no right way to travel this path.  You do what’s right for you.

 

 

 

Blessings

People often ask me how I keep going, or how I “got over” my husband’s death.  Well, first off, you don’t “get over” it, you get through it.  And even then, you never really get through all of it, because it’s never-ending.  There is no end to this tale until we’re reunited someday after life on this earth is finished.

But, I digress….  How to get through?

A good friend of mine from college, who was also widowed at a young age, came to my rescue. Five days after the funeral, a package arrived at my door.  In it, was a very special empty journal and the most beautiful letter I’ve ever received.  This special lady, who had been widowed for several years and since remarried, revisited her own grief journey in order to help me start out on mine, whether I was ready or not.

The letter is much too personal to share in this forum, but she so generously gave me a blueprint of what I could expect ahead of me, and lots of assurances that whatever I felt, did, or didn’t do, was completely normal. Just to have that in writing and to be given that permission was incredibly affirming.

The journal was a guided journal, where each page walks you through what the weather is like that day, how you’re feeling, what you’re grateful for, inspirations, quotes, for whom you are praying, prayers answered, acts of kindness, forgiveness, and what you would like to see happen tomorrow. The back side of the page is for open journaling.  This journal trained me to look for the blessings in every day, even on the worst days when it felt like I was just drowning in all the sorrow. In looking back at the journal now, three years out, it’s so very easy to see the hand of God in those entries and to see the answered prayers.

As time went on and the journal filled up, it became a nightly practice of mine to look for the blessings in each day.  It’s amazing to me the people who have been there during this journey. The saying that you never know how your actions affect others is certainly true.  People who I had considered  acquaintances have become dear friends.

Somewhere, someone told me this saying, “You have a 100% success rate for getting through rough days.”  That has become my mantra.  There are blessings to be found in each day, even the rough ones.

Do I still miss him? Every single hour of every day.  But, it’s true, with time, it does change.  And it’s very obvious that God is in control of this path.

 

A Widow’s Might

“Looking up, he saw rich people putting their offerings into the treasury; and he noticed a poverty-stricken widow putting in two small coins, and he said, ‘I tell you truly, this poor widow has put in more than any of them; for these have all put in money they could spare, but she in her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21: 1-4

Why blog about widowhood?  Why the play on words for the title?   Well, three years and almost four months into this journey that none of us ever ask for, I have discovered that there are many misconceptions out there about what widowhood is like, many stereotypes and generalizations (as there are with so many things).

I don’t intend this blog to be a trip down memory lane or a pity party, but rather I hope to offer some hope to my fellow travelers and perhaps a bit of advice for those who find themselves encountering others on this road.

So, why “might” instead of “mite”?  Because for most of us, it takes every bit of our energy and might to travel this road, whether we’re on the first day, the first month, the first year, or on our way to the rest of our lives without our loved one.  Oh, it might not feel like that every day, but in this messy business called grief, it certainly can come back and gut punch you when you least expect it, even if you’ve been traveling the road for several years.

I don’t intend to share this blog widely, so please ask before sharing.

Here we go!