Reflections as I end my third year of being a widow

July 30 is the anniversary of the day when I woke up and knew something was very, very wrong.  Three years ago I drove to the hospital, following the ambulance carrying Rick.  I didn’t know it at the time, but he was never coming home.

After three years I no longer actively grieve, but I do mourn.  I miss him, each and every day.   Car rides and walks are my time to talk with him, and I do so regularly.   He was funny and brilliant and kind.  We complemented each other well. I miss his advice and support.  No matter what, he was always there for me. 

Still, I don’t live in the past; I live in the now, in a present that no longer includes Rick or us as a couple.  Much of my time is occupied with interests and friends that he never knew.

I spent the first year after his death grieving, an active and painful year filled with the physical work of going through his house and personal effects, and the emotional work of coming to some sense of acceptance over what had happened.  I had a plan of concrete things to do, and checked off each item as I completed it.   When year two started, I made a new plan, one that focused on me.  I registered for online dating, took classes, and made every effort to create a new me with a new life.  Year three post-Rick, this year just entering its final month, has been different.  I’ve slowed down.  I gave up on actively pursuing dating; if it happens, fine, but I’ve come to terms with the realization that I just might be on my own for the rest of my life.   This year, I have focused on accepting my life as it is, and trying to find some semblance of peace and enjoyment in what I have.

August remains a transition month for me.  Three years ago, I made the transition from wife to widow.  Each year since, I’ve slowed down during this month to spend time thinking about where I’ve been and what I’ve learned.  August has come to be the time when I try to derive some meaning from my past. I think I’m getting better.  I think I’ve truly left grief, that active, burning bright experience, behind me.  I feel at home in my life in a way I haven’t for several years.

I am not sure what I want from this next year, the fourth in my new life.   I know I’ll be making some major changes, though it’s too early to talk about those yet.  I hope to continue growing.  I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next, and I’m finally comfortable.  Maybe that is enough.

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True Confessions of an Ex-bookworm, or Why I Will Never Finish A Tale of Two Cities

Reading the first words in a new book sends a shiver of anticipation down my spine. I wait for the moment when I am pulled into the story, no longer a passive, external watcher but a participant. Descriptive passages seem to reflect what I can actually see in my mind’s eye, conversations relay what I am hearing. The words become a conveyance used to transmit this reality to my brain, different but no less valid than what eyes and ears do.   The world within the book becomes more real than the physical world that surrounds me.   Despite that, no matter what adventure is being experienced, it is always safe within the pages of a book. Nothing can hurt me when I am reading.

Books, for me, are magic.

For as long as I can remember, there were few things that beat the feeling of being immersed in a good book. I was an awkward, geeky kid and we moved a lot; I never had many friends. What I did have was books, and I read them nonstop.  I’ve spent many weekends sucked into a book, eschewing friends and activities to find out what happens next. There have been nights when I was so tired I could barely see, but I wanted to read just one more page – and then just another one more page – until I would fall asleep over the book.

The switch to eBook format didn’t faze me one bit. Sure, the physical feel of opening a book and turning pages was gone, but that was more than made up for by being able to take every book I was currently reading with me, and the thrill of finishing a book and being able to start a new one right away.

The magic is gone. It disappeared two years ago, during the month I spent sitting next to Rick for hours every single day. Most days he was unaware I was there; I held his hand and read. I read 4 or 5 books that month and I don’t remember a thing about any of them.

Except for the last one I read.

For some reason I had never read A Tale Of Two Cities. I started reading it mid-August. Despite being written 150 years ago about a story that was two generations old even then, the book is a great read. As with all of Dickens’ novels the characters are honest and real; even minor ones are engaging.   The story was exciting, and switching the narrative between characters kept the pacing to a much more modern level than most Victorian novels.   I am a sucker for good writing, and love to encounter a combination of words so effortlessly elegant it makes you stop.  TOTC had many of those lines.

This was the book I was reading when I looked up to see the somber faces of his doctors as they walked in to say there was nothing more that could be done; this was the book I stopped reading the day he died.

I just checked; I’m at page 161 of 237, 68% complete. I will never read another word of A Tale of Two Cities; it remains inextricably bound with those painful, final days of Rick’s life, with the realization that there wasn’t going to be any bottom of the 9th home run to save the game and that all hope was gone.

That day, I lost the magic.   I couldn’t immerse myself into Paris of the 1790s and forget where I was. The world – the real world – was right there and it wasn’t going anywhere.

The magic never did come back. Books are no longer an oasis. Oh, I still read, and probably more than most people do. I can critique and analyze as well as I ever could, but I don’t have that shiver of excitement anymore. I can enjoy a book, but I can no longer become immersed in it. Most of the time, I’d rather watch a movie than read.

I’m not a bookworm anymore.

When it’s a challenge to finish writing a blog post

I’m having a hard time finishing posts.  There’s a bunch of half-written ones sitting on my hard drive.  I’m feeling stuck, and not just in regards to writing.  I don’t like my life right now.  It’s lonely and I expect it will stay that way, maybe permanently.

This blog started under a different name as a way to come to terms with a widowhood that was not expected.  Writing blog posts became my way of coping with a present that seemed incomprehensible.  Its anonymity gave me a safe spot to direct anger, grief, confusion, and sadness.  Connecting with other people in a similar situation provided an ad hoc online support group.

The very act of writing was healing.  I’m a rationalist, the kind of person who likes to imagine there is a logical progression to events.  Of course, there isn’t, but I need to impose some semblance of order to chaos.  Writing provided that chance.  Creating a blog post gave me a chance to step through an event, define its genesis, and consider where it might be taking me.

Then there were those posts where I just related events as simply and honestly as possible, and the very act of documenting them was important.  I knew the smoothing effect of time and distance would eventually eliminate the sharp immediacy of what was happening, and I wanted to remember.  Writing about events as they occurred provided a first-person account of what I was going through.  Going back and rereading those raw early posts is a form of time-travel to where I was16 months ago.

That was then.  This is now.  My grief is a knife dulled from over-use.  That first year was busy; having external deadlines provided a sense of purpose and accomplishment.  It filled the void.  I realize that now, as does anyone who has gone through a similar situation.  There’s the immediate work needed in getting the memorial and funeral completed, probate managed.  The hours spent in going through effects and taking care of things.  Details vary; regardless, the work takes a lot of time and energy.   I’m struggling with the “what’s next” that comes, inevitably, to all of us who like to imagine that we can plan our way through life.  Now I’m facing the areas that can’t be managed, planned, or controlled.  I don’t want to be alone.  I don’t like my life.  I’m not happy.

All the glibly banal self-help aphorisms are useless.  I fully realize what is within my circle of influence and what isn’t, what I can control and what I cannot.  I am not stupid.  I am doing all the right things, from spending time with friends to taking classes.  I am busy, but not engaged.   There is little enjoyment from most of what occupies my time.  I look to fill time, to make the hours go by.  I am disengaged from most of what is happening around me.  I’m sure this, too will pass.  I am sure that eventually I will come to accept my new status in life, to stop expecting anything more than the reality I have.  I’ll adapt, make due.  Perhaps, even, at some point there will be something that makes me feel it’s all worth it.  Perhaps.  But not now.

Once divorced, once widowed: what’s the difference?

During a first meeting with a new friend, it came out that we’ve each been married twice.  He mentioned being twice divorced; I said I was once divorced, once widowed.  A brief conversation on the difference between being widowed and divorced came up.  While we didn’t spend much time talking about this (nothing dead-ends a potential relationship more than rambling on about past ones), it has gotten me thinking a lot about the differences between the two events.

Going through a divorce provides far more choices than going through the death of a spouse.  For most of us, divorce is an option that we choose, while the death of a spouse is something that happens to us.  I realize this is a “Captain Obvious” statement, but the implications are great.

Making choices provides a sense of power and control, even when the choices are limited.  Being a part of the group that is making decisions is always better than just hearing about decisions that were already made, whether the venue is work or personal life.

Very often, the situational realities surrounding death consist of a long series of events with few choices given, and those choices tend to be quite grim.  Certainly for me, and I believe for many people, going through the experience of losing a spouse is an exercise in powerlessness.  You can’t change the course of a disease, or go back in time to prevent an accident.  Especially in situations where hospitalization is involved, the role of the spouse is bystander.  I spent a month sitting with nothing meaningful I could do to help.  By the time I needed to plan a funeral, my ability to make meaningful, rational choices was gone.  In fact, one of the more challenging parts of those first few months of being a widow was a shell-shocked feeling that hit me when I did need to make decisions.  My mind felt like half-set Jell-O, sluggish and thick.

Going through a divorce presents a panoply of choices and the ability to exercise some real power. Every step of a divorce requires action and choices.  The entire process is a jockeying for power and control.

Which leads to the 2nd big difference; change.  Death has no backsies.  Divorce does.  My ex-husband and I have a good relationship. He sent me a very heartfelt sympathy note when Rick passed away.   It wasn’t always that way.  We went through years of acrimony, but the need to continue being parents, and time, eventually brought us to the place we are now.

Death eliminates change.  Part of the grieving process is coming to terms with the realization that wherever you were in the relationship is where it stopped, forever.  Whether it was the best time of your relationship or the worst, there will never be any more growth.  It’s over, irrevocably, and undeniably.

Moving forward is another area, one I’ve written about before.  Every step forward after a divorce is a positive and affirming move; the same actions taken after a death seem bittersweet at best, betrayals at worst.  I first wrote about this months ago, when something as small as moving a bookcase seemed fraught with subtext.  Now I’m actively meeting new people, and it is causing me angst on a level I haven’t felt since adolescence.  I’m feeling more distant from my marriage; in my head it is now firmly in the past.

There’s a new level of grief with that realization.  Last year, I started every day wearing our wedding rings on a chain around my neck; they were my talisman, giving me strength and the ability to make it through each day.  In my heart, I was still married.  This year, I am not.  I look at those rings every morning, but I rarely wear them. My grief is less personal, more situational: I grieve the loss of a future that is no more, of hopes and expectations and dreams that will never be.

Divorce spurs that same loss of a potential future, but differs in that the bittersweet is less, the joy in realizing it will be a different future is so much greater.  I’m slowly coming to see that there can be joy, that there will be changes, but I’m still feeling guilt and loss over that realization.

Ultimately, I think that confusing patchwork of joy and sadness, poignancy and excitement that marks moving on after losing a spouse is the greatest difference between being divorced and widowed.

Spring for the Soul

Opening windows is a dangerous business; you never know what might happen.  Closed up tight everything is controllable, secured, known.  It’s a no-surprises world during winter: no errant breezes blowing papers around or unexpected odors wafting through the screen.

I’ve been living in that closed world for a long time, going through my own personal winter as dark and cold as the one I face outside every morning.  Nature is cyclical, and we humans are part of that cycle.  No matter how long and brutal the winter, spring always comes.

The ice and snow are retreating, and I have started to open a few windows.  I’m reawakening to the outside world.   Some of it is wonderful, scents and scenes I haven’t been privy to in a year and a half.  Other parts are not.  Spring winds blow warm and inviting, but can abruptly change.  Damages can happen.  Still… I’m tired of breathing  stale air.  I’m ready, even though I know the risk.

I opened some windows, and so far, I’ve gotten more rain than sun, more gusts than sweet gentle breezes; but that’s Okay.  I can shut the window against the rain, but I’ll open it back up again.  Because the only way to get that warm, wonderful sun and fresh scent of growing things is to leave those windows open.

Musings on a cold and snowy morning

Winter is settling in, and the land knows it. Animals, earth, and people seem intent on slowing down and creating cozy, tucked in corners. Fall foliage is gone; trees have shrunk to the bones, perennials wilted down to their roots, annuals almost disappeared. Fat squirrels rush about completing their preparation for the cold, hungry months.

I’m settling in too. My weekly visits to the cemetery have been put on hold until next spring, when I’ll look for flowers sprouting from the bulbs I planted a few weeks ago. With colder weather and closed windows, I’m noticing how grimy the house looks, and have started work on turning it back into a home – my home – that I can enjoy. It hasn’t been that for a long time. Not since Rick started being sick, certainly not during the frantic few months that took me from wife to widow, not over the last year as I struggled to adjust to my new station in life. I’m cleaning now, reviewing everything to determine if I still want it. It’s sad work, changing the look and feel from “our place” to “my place”, but it’s work I need to do. I’ve lost patience with being in this in-between phase of life.

I’m not sure what I’m aiming for; I’m flying blind, just randomly reacting to things with no set plan. Slowly, though, I’m starting to get ideas. The second bedroom was used as an office when Rick was alive, and is now a staging area for everything brought over from his house. I’m starting to see a picture in my head of a room with worktable and bookshelves, a comfortable chair and good lighting; a place where I can retreat, but also a welcoming place for visitors to stay. Before I can create the vision that is starting to appear in my mind’s eye I will need to finalize Rick’s things. I need to get moving, to select what can be sold, what to keep, and what to get rid of.

My throat has been sore the last few weeks and it scares me. My attitude towards mortality has changed. I’ve always assumed that any ailment I contracted would heal, and that’s always been the case. Until last year, when I watched Rick go from initial diagnosis to death in under two months, and when what had seemed to be small unrelated things suddenly became the unrecognized signs of a major problem. I’m no longer cavalier about minor symptoms, now thinking that each cough or headache is a sign of some horrible problem. I’m terrified about all the bad things that could happen to me at home. What if I choke on something, or fall and hit my head, or cut myself: I’m alone; there will be no one to help.

I never thought about things like this before, but I do now.

Walking to work this morning in the first snowfall of the winter, I realized that another season has started, that my life is moving on whether I want it to or not. It’s hard work, coming back from grief. Last year at this time, I was experiencing the first two “firsts” of my widowhood, my birthday and Thanksgiving. I skipped my birthday last year, refusing to acknowledge or celebrate it. Thanksgiving was just barely noted; I spent the day with friends, but came home to a lonely dark house.

This year is different. I did celebrate my birthday, going out to dinner with friends and seeing a show. It brought home how much quieter and sadder my life is now. There were no flowers waiting for me after work, no week of finding small gifts hidden around the house, no cards left on the pillow. I’m cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year, but not really feeling any excitement about doing so. It’s an assignment, something to check off a list.

I realize I’m rambling, but these seemingly random and disconnected thoughts match how my life feels right now. It lacks a narrative theme, the unifying connective tissue to pull the individual parts into a meaningful whole. I lurch from one mood to the next. This weekend I started planning what I want to do with the extra bedroom, but also spent time sobbing uncontrollably about all I’ve lost. I’m starting a new phase, moving away from what I was to a new me. It’s too soon yet to know what that new me will be, but I know I’m not the same woman I was 15 months ago. I’m harder and softer than I was, tougher and more vulnerable. Less afraid of taking risks, more afraid of what the future will be. It’s a journey, one I’m just beginning.

and now for something completely different

A few weeks ago I asked for help in selecting a new blog name. It’s been a little over a year since my husband died, and I wanted to move forward from being identified solely as a widow to something more.

There were a lot of thoughtful and wise comments, and I have taken all of them into consideration. After due deliberation, I have decided that the Monty Python tag line “and now for something completely different” is the most evocative of my current status and outlook on life.

If you’re not familiar with Monty Python, check them out. I’ve loved them since first first viewing them on Chicago’s WTTW, when I was in high school. This comedy troupe created magic on TV and screen starting the in late 1960s. They began with a 30 minute TV show on BBC that careened from one sketch to the next. They lampooned everything from religion to politics to fashion, and they did it hilariously. One of the trademarks of the show was ending sketches smack in the middle of the script, often with one of the characters deciding that the sketch no longer made any sense or was “too silly.” At that point there would be an abrupt edit to something else.

John Cleese, one of the members, had the ability to sound like a Very Serious Adult. A voice clip of him saying “And now for something completely different” would be heard, and the video would be of him stark naked sitting on a piano bench, wearing a Beethovenesque wig and getting ready to play with an insane grin on his face, or doing the fish slapping dance.

The juxtaposition of that pompous voice and the ludicrous video is priceless. In fact, one of the greatest things about Monty Python is the way they continually remind us that life is not controllable, that unusual and strange things do happen, and that the best approach to life is to embrace all its bizarreness and just keep laughing.

Last year I encountered the Spanish Inquisition, and as the wise Python lads state, no one ever expects it.

Unlike the Norwegian Blue parrot, I am getting better.

I hope my new blog name communicates that all of do, indeed, encounter situations that completely upend our expectations, but that we can make it through and move on to whatever that something completely different is – even if it is the Spanish Inquisition.

The 10 Things that kept me (mostly) sane over the 1st year

Staying busy

The first few weeks were unbelievably challenging.  The reality of what happened was a fresh surprise every morning.  I wasn’t ready to engage in long, thoughtful discussions; I needed some way to stop thinking and just make it through the day.

The house my husband had lived in for 25 years had finally sold and I had 3 weeks to remove the accumulated personal and business items from it.  Between that and the messy financial and legal issues to wrangle with, my days were kept busy.  It didn’t seem lucky at the time; in fact, it was difficult and stressful, but I realize now that keeping physically busy was the best thing that could have happened.

Prioritizing: now versus later

Not everything had to be done RIGHT NOW.  Figuring out the difference was challenging.

The house closing was a set date, and the time spent working on that was unavoidable.  As was the time spent meeting with lawyers and real estate agents.  When I drove home after the closing, it was to a house with boxes piled high in the living room.  I became consumed with examining and sorting every item in those boxes, planning to work straight through without stopping, and then moving on the storage locker.

It was depressing and debilitating.  About a week later, I had an epiphany; there was no timeline for this work.  I pulled all the boxes into a room, dropped the storage locker key on top of a box, and shut the door.

I didn’t open it again for 3 months.

Staying socially engaged

People said, “How can I help” or “Don’t hesitate to call.”  I took them up on the offer.  Some responded and some didn’t; I’m grateful to those who did.  I have friends who were wonderful during those first few months.  They made sure I had options other than sitting home alone on the couch, staring at the wall.  To be sure there were plenty of times when staring at the wall was all I was capable of doing, but knowing there were people out there for me helped.

Simplifying my life

Grief is draining, both physically and emotionally.  My house is a mess, the refrigerator is full of spoiled food, and there are still times when just managing to make it through the day is exhausting; and that’s after a year has passed.

I dropped my standards, big time.  The bills were paid on time, and I showed up at work, but beyond that, I gave myself a ‘bye’.

Accepting the dark side

Late nights spent obsessing over what could have been done to prevent or fix things; weekends locked in the house unwilling to go outside; hours spent looking at pictures and listening to recordings.

That first year was a tumult of emotions.  I’d be on the upswing one day, thinking positive and affirming thoughts, knowing I’d make it through, realizing that I would come of this a better, wiser person, confident in my ability to honor his memory while still living my life.

Other days I was more like the poster child for grief counseling.  Casual remarks from people at work discussing their weekend plans were enough to spin me into despair.  I was furiously angry, deeply despondent, hopeless about any chance of a good future, often all in the same day.

Realizing these mood swings and dark thoughts were normal was helpful.  Accepting that it was Okay to feel real anger at specific people (including myself) was even more helpful. I didn’t self-censor.  I did make sure to avoid sharing these dark thoughts, but I never thought it was wrong to have them.

Planning a future

The week after his funeral, I laid out a timeline for the next year.  It contained all the things I knew had to be done and all the things I wanted to do.  I went back to that list every few months and checked off what was completed.  It started with all the “have to” items; clearing everything out of his house, going through the closing, dealing with legal and financial issues.  The middle stage tasks focused on going through items and determining what I would keep, what would go to family members and what could be disposed.  The final items were future focused, ending with planning a trip and a doing something new that would be a bit scary and get me meeting new people.

Having that silly little plan made me face forward.

Keeping active

The one thing I made sure to keep doing; even when I had to drag myself there; was exercise.  On my worst days, an hour of physical exercise would make me feel better.  Maybe it’s the endorphins being released, or maybe it was just being so physically engaged I couldn’t dwell on things; regardless, I always felt more positive leaving the gym than when I entered.

Just hanging on

Early on, a friend warned me that the first year would be filled with ups and down, and that the best strategy was to just hang on.  Oh, how right he was.  I couldn’t prevent the mood swings, and trying to suppress or ignore them would have been counter-productive.  I just accepted them as part of the scenery.  They’re still there, but the fluctuations are much less.

Trying something new

I signed up for an improv class.  It’s been great to meet people who don’t know me as a widow, and to try something entirely new.  I want to take a vacation.  I’m trying to teach myself a craft.  Every time I do something new, it’s a chance to realize that I can still have a life.

Accepting the positive

This is the hardest, the most difficult, the toughest of all, which is why it is listed last.

There are some positives coming from this horrible situation.   Regardless of the specifics, it is hard to acknowledge them without becoming tremendously guilty.  The tricky part is accepting that my life is moving forward, and that there will be joy and good things and happy moments.  Contemplating this is a bit bittersweet, and that’s as it should be.  It means I’m getting better.

 

It’s time; for a new blog name

It’s time. I spent the last year working through grief. It was a year of mostly downs, with some ups. The roller coaster of briefly feeling good followed by the longer slide down into despair. Playing detective in a futile attempt to make sense of what happened, as though this had been a mystery that just needed a neat explanation. Mostly just trying to hang on and make it through the tumult of emotions that came and went like Midwest weather patterns.

It’s time. I gave myself a year to process what had happened and come to grips with my new life. The year is up. Oh, I’m still in mourning; I’m guessing that, to some degree, it will continue throughout my life and end up a part of me; but I am not going to make the slide into professional widow.

It’s time. I’m still a widow and will always be one, regardless of where my life goes or what happens. I want that to be a badge of courage and inspiration and proof that terrible and sad events do not have to destroy. I made it through this first year.

It’s time. The people I feel I’ve “met” through this blog, the comments from other writers, the posts I look forward to reading; all have helped. I’ve learned I’m not alone, that many, many others have been through similar experiences.

It’s time. My goal for year 1 was to just make it through. It’s time for a new goal. This first year was focused on basic survival; now it’s time to live. Part of my moving forward is a new blog name. I’m still a widow, but I want to identify as other than sad, not just as a widow but as a person with a full life and a questing spirit and a desire to continue living.

It’s time. To change the name of this blog; and I’m asking for your help in coming up with a new name, one that I can move forward with as I move forward with my life.

Respecting the past while anticipating the future

Our culture prizes quick responses and the ability to shrug off what happened in the past.   At heart, we Americans are a “suck it up and move on” kind of people.  We talk about closure, but it is less about pulling the meaning from an experience than a way to get past something.

One year ago today I was in the ER, holding vigil as my husband was admitted to the hospital and being given reassurances that the chances of his recovery were excellent.  It’s hard not to think about that as I go about my life today.  I’m old enough to have experienced other periods where my life underwent major changes within a single year; certainly the 12-month period that ended with a 3-month old child was one.  The difference is that this time, nothing was gained; there has only been loss.

Years ago my mother told me she had a miscarriage a few months before she became pregnant with me.  Had she not miscarried, I would not have been born.  Perhaps in another universe that pregnancy was carried to term, and my parents have a different first child.  Knowing that my conception was based on the ending of another didn’t hamper my parent’s ability to love me.

One of the hardest parts of grieving is learning how to move forward in a manner that is both respectful of what was lost while still being open to what can be found.  It requires a cognitive balancing act to mourn the loss of someone while simultaneously being open to finding joy in things experienced only because of that person’s loss.   The other option is to stay in the same place, to live in a state of permanent mourning, turning aside from real life to live in a fantasy land of what was and what could have been.

I think the key to making it past grief is to embrace that strange and confusing logic, and to accept that the happiest and most meaningful parts of our lives happen because we are in the right place at the right time; and that we arrive at that right place and time because other places and times ended, often earlier and in more tragic ways than we wanted.