|Living Beyond Grief
Photo by Brad Smith
Nothing can prepare you for the loss of a spouse. But as one woman found out, with some help you can learn how to work through the grief and start living again. By Gloria Givens
EMERGING FROM SHOCK after my husband, Ken, died, I discovered strange things happening around me. Each morning I found doors unlocked, the television blaring and sprinklers still spraying.
My life took a surreal turn while shopping at an outdoor produce market one day. I'd put my purchases in the car, then left to grab a quick lunch. Full, tired and ready to go home, I returned to the parking lot looking for my space. The car was easy to spot. Colorful bags filled with green beans, melons, tomatoes and berries were clearly visible on the seat, and the driver's door was wide open. Had strangers broken into the car, then left in a hurry? How could such a thing have happened?
Never questioning my own actions, I preferred to believe someone else had done it. Something had disrupted my life and I didn't like how vulnerable and exposed it made me feel. I'd been a strong, independent woman while my husband lived; now I wondered if I had what it took to live alone.
As I drove home I toyed with the idea of getting into bed, pulling the covers over my head and staying there, forever. A friend's understanding words a few hours later brought me back to reality.
"You lost Ken and nothing has prepared you for what happens next," she explained. "Essentially, you're reacting to intense pain by temporarily closing down, protecting yourself from further torment and buying yourself time to heal. But, even if nature closes you down, you still function on some level." She added, "That's where you are now, operating on automatic. And, don't forget, nobody is doing your husband's jobs."
I didn't realize before that Ken had taken care of everything efficiently and quietly: fixing, renewing, replacing and making my world safe. Currently, in my confused state of mind, if I remembered to turn anything on, I usually forgot to disconnect it, taking for granted that what needed to run, sprinkle or turn off would do so on its own. Somehow, I needed to figure out not only what his jobs had been and how to do them, but to combine them with my own tasks, as well.
Is There Help for Me?
A lot of well-meaning people advised me to find a job, travel or go out more socially until I was "back to normal" or "over it." Within a few weeks most friends and relatives had drifted back into their former routines, leaving me alone with more grieving time. I retreated to the comfort of home, where I held my private, poor-me parties. There I could be lonely, miserable or angry without pretending everything was fine.
The American Association of Retired People (AARP) publishes A Guide for Widowed Persons. It states, "Postponing a confrontation with your feelings by filling each day with frantic activity will only delay and compound the grief reaction. Denying your grief may be helpful in separating yourself from the pain. But the agony is still there and it will stay there until you acknowledge it."
Unexpected, illuminating words of advice came to me in a sympathy card from a widowed cousin in Minnesota: "The mourning process is painful and long unless you get help. Find a grief support workshop, sign up and go. There you will find the special road to recovery."
Meanwhile, I had noticed several widowed people I spoke to seemed locked in a particular phase of their grieving process. Each conversation, an almost word-for-word replay of their last one, was a repetitive recitation of their pain, sorrow and unhappiness. Plus, it powerfully revealed their inability to move forward.
More than 1.2 million people in the United States and Canada lose their spouses each year.
Before actually deciding to attend a grief workshop, however, I asked various widowed people throughout the country what they thought. Some used vague reasons for not going: "It's not my way," or "I'm a private person," or "I can't talk in front of people." Others said, "I don't need counseling," and "My husband expected me to be strong. I'll handle it."
On the other hand, a friend I trusted in Washington urged me to attend a grief workshop. She confided she had endured years of pain and loneliness following her husband's sudden death. Now she considers the time wasted. "I could have been four years further along in my recovery had I gone to a grief workshop sooner. Don't wait for a better time. Help yourself now!" she told me.
"Certainly, there is something to be said for the wakes of other cultures," free-lance writer Margaret Krug says. "Friends and relatives come together to talk about the deceased person and bring closure. It has a great value."
Krug adds, "Grief-support groups also fill that same need. After my husband died I personally required a recovery workshop based on a religious foundation so I could understand and cope with my grief."
"It all comes down to the spirituality of it—giving [grieving families] hope, making them realize death is the beginning of life," says Peter Shields, executive director of the Center for Hope Hospice in New Jersey. "If we don't have that, we have nothing."
The Value of a Grief Workshop
The Rev. Simon Stephens, a former chaplain in Britain's Royal Navy and founder of Compassionate Friends (see page 23), believes, "Those of us who have worked through our grief—and found there is a future—are the ones who must meet others in the valley of darkness and bring them to the light."
A grief recovery workshop is, in a real sense, that meeting place in the valley of darkness. "It was apparent I needed help," explained a widow in Modesto, California, "because I didn't want to leave the house, and stared off into space waiting for my husband to come home. Obviously, I wasn't getting any better. To make matters worse, I continually played videos he recorded of our fun times together. Convinced I would never be happy again, I also believed no one else had this problem—only me. I felt so alone."
"The future as we planned it ended with our spouse's death. We must start life anew," says Patricia Maculak, a recovery-workshop facilitator in the Sacramento, California, area. "Suddenly decisions once shared by both must be made alone. And there is no longer any feedback on how we look, what we said or which direction to go."
She concedes that grieving is a painful process: "It's very difficult. Talking and repeating our story is important. We need support from other people who have experienced it."
The International T.H.E.O.S. Foundation reports that more than 1.2 million people in the United States and Canada lose their spouses each year. No one is ever prepared for the finality of a partner's death, nor for the physical, emotional and psychological consequences that follow the death. The griever often feels depressed, disorganized and unable to concentrate.
In addition to all those things, I was also maddeningly forgetful. Desperation prompted me to buy a monthly planner which I kept in full view on the kitchen counter. I made a do, buy or be list; do call plumber, wash car; buy bread and flashlight batteries; be at vet (with Fido) at 4 p.m. I relied on this visual reminder to help me function during a time my memory wasn't working.
Emotional and monetary difficulties frequently occur, especially for widows, along with an inevitable changing life-style. The body's need for sleep or food may increase or decrease. Illness often lurks, striking when you least want or expect it. So, pay attention to your physical needs and challenges because the body's defenses are also down.
At this same time, intense feelings of abandonment, loss of identity and low self-esteem can quickly be replaced by anger, resentment or anxiety. There is a conflict between old ways and current life changes. The griever is caught in the middle as time becomes an emotional roller coaster.
Deciding to Participate
In Mourning After, a book by Stanley P. Cornils, grief brings one to a crossroad. In one direction the griever does nothing, experiencing "low life satisfaction and unhappiness in a ‘Poor Me' place with no real recovery." Going the other way, through a support group, the griever finds "new goals and new life patterns."
I stood at the crossroad. It was easier to do nothing, live in the past and feel sorry for myself. Social-support systems don't come automatically to widows. So if I wanted help, I would have to find it myself. But moving forward was hard and I looked for excuses not to try.
A Psalm verse circled my mind one Sunday morning two months after Ken died: "How long wilt Thou forget me, O Lord? For ever?" I felt weighed down with sorrow and deserted by both my husband and God. Knowing I needed help, I prayed for guidance but really wanted something more. A sign, perhaps? I didn't, however, expect anything.
Seated next to me in the pew, my daughter, Kerry, suddenly poked me with her elbow and tapped her finger on a bulletin notice. A new grief recovery workshop started in two days. Something inside me said, "This is it! This is what I need to do." No more excuses. I signed up.
I came out of church and stood transfixed. In front of me piled high on a dozen tables was the sign I had been looking for. During Ken's final year he had discovered the ease of transferring color and artistry to contemporary T-shirts. His designs honored births, a grandchild's ball team and other happy occasions. I enjoyed watching him and the happiness that came from doing something he loved.
So I was thrilled when I saw tables on the grass and walkways all piled high with brightly colored T-shirts saying, "Family Fun Festival." I thought, Yes! The things he loved—family, fun and T-shirts. I get the message. It felt right to be in God's hands.
My confidence slipped a little as I walked through an inner church courtyard to the first night's session. It was more difficult than I imagined. I felt so conspicuous, as though I wore a special T-shirt saying, "No Spouse! All Alone! Abandoned!" This step—to help myself—would ultimately make me feel better, stronger and less vulnerable.
How a Workshop Works
Recovery-workshop leaders are usually widows/widowers who have successfully rebuilt their lives. They realize what works and what doesn't. Facilitators with special training in the grief process can also be priests, nuns, nurses, teachers, researchers and, on rare occasions, even professional therapists or counselors.
California facilitator Pam Brubaker says, "Many feel a ‘special calling from God' to do this, and it is done in his name. We strive for the eternal fruit, not a temporary good."
In addition, "Grief-recovery leaders use an agenda of tried-and-true methods that have worked in the past and they are acutely aware of the things that help." Brubaker concludes, "We never forget who the healer is—‘The Great Physician.'"
There are no specific rules on "grieving right" and justly so, because we are not all the same.
The workshop agenda covers a variety of participant combinations. It can be Elizabeth Ministry's women reaching out to help other women, or the Beginning Experience's international peer ministry for separated/divorced/widowed. Others, such as AARP's Widowed Persons Service, allow only widows/ widowers. Some groups, such as MADD or SIDS, specify a certain cause of death. Session length varies from 4 to 10 weeks. Some also offer a retreat at either the beginning or the end.
My group was limited to those suffering from the death of a loved one. We had seven participants—three widowed from two to six months, and four grieving over a parent's death from a few months to seven years.
As the seven members of my group sat in a circle surrounding a square box of white tissues that first session, we cried easily. Our leaders created a safe place for us to express our feelings without interference. During such times, grievers like us are extremely sensitive, intensely vulnerable and feeling very alone.
While the grief process has common characteristics, people experience it uniquely, depending on many factors, such as their relationship while married, cause of death (sudden and unexpected or after a long illness), the griever's personality. A spouse's death is usually the most stressful of life's changes and throws the surviving partner into chaos.
Even that first night we empathized with each other's tragic loss so our bonding included advice from the heart, the hand of friendship and a sympathetic ear. Our homework assignment? Do something pleasurable for ourselves. I splurged on new plum-colored sheets to transform "our" bedroom into "my" room with a cheerful, feminine decor. Then, because I never owned one before, I bought a designer baseball cap. Being good to myself could easily become a habit.
Our facilitator cautioned that painful reminders of the dead person remained in our lives. Guilt can lure us to turn our homes into a shrine to their memory because we still lived. I called mine "the recliner shrine." It held my husband's essence more than any other place in my house. Crayon-drawn pictures from grandchildren, an old newspaper and a coffee mug inscribed "Dad's Cup" remained where he left them. The chair's emptiness constantly reminded friends, family and me that he was no longer here.
Our children insisted the house held too many memories and encouraged me to reorganize. They moved everything around. Couches, rockers and paintings, followed by lamps and end tables, all ended up in a new spot or a different room. I loved the way it looked. The recliner, now covered with floral chintz, was relocated to a quieter, less busy corner of the house, still with us, but no longer a blatant reminder.
During each recovery session my facilitator encouraged, "Take care of yourself. Be good to yourself." I took her message to heart. Since my husband could no longer make my world safe and comfortable, I would do it myself.
I developed a simple, logical solution not requiring much thought. Starting at the farthest point away from the bedroom, I secured the house counting each job: 1) Lock the door; 2) Turn off the TV; 3) Close the windows.... Twelve things had to be done or checked each night. If I reached my bed with fewer than that number mentally checked off, I realized somehow a room had been missed and I had to start over. Nightly counting became a ritual bringing me security, confidence and peace of mind.
Studies show, "Grieving persons are best helped by others who have had a similar experience and have successfully rebuilt their lives," according to AARP's special Widowed Persons Service (WPS).
Two hours every week for six weeks our recovery group studied different grieving aspects such as physical, emotional and spiritual. Additional topics included what changes to expect, what helps or hampers recovery and other available resources. Grievers resolved personal guilt and anger each in their own way. Some talked it through. Others privately wrote journals or letters expressing their feelings, but chose not to share them.
We learned that getting stuck in grief prolongs our pain, but avoiding it postpones recovery. Putting anger aside, we recognized that leaving us was not our spouse's choice or desire. We ended our frustration with God for taking them, because we realized that death, for them, must be like falling asleep and waking up at home, in God's mansion. Sharing pictures of our loved one that final night gave us closure as we put faces with now familiar names.
No Longer Pretending
Noted anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "When a person is born, we rejoice...but when they die we pretend nothing happened."
On the first-year anniversary of Ken's death, I filled a basket with strawberries, plums, grapes, pears and other colorful fruits. Then I attached a thank-you note for Mercy Folsom Hospital's Intensive Care Unit staff. I felt compelled to finish what I had not been strong enough to do before. My daughter, Kendi, teasingly asked, "You're not doing a shrine thing again, are you, Mom?" "No," I promised. "This gift is to nourish the living."
Eventually, we all experience loss, because life has no absolutes. In addition, there are no specific rules on "grieving right" and justly so, because we are not all the same. Accepting it's all right for me to survive and still be here in the land of the living is a big part of healing.
The grieving process is a transitional passage on life's road with many detours, side roads, peaks and valleys. There is no set time for travel or a speed limit. Grief is not a place to stay, nor can you retrace your steps and go back, for your old life with your loved one is no longer there. Life may never be the same, but it can still have great meaning, joy and beauty, as different roads are taken.
Life became a single journey after my husband died. Yet I am never alone, because the Lord journeys with me and I feel his presence.
I pondered my future as the dogs and I walked along the river at dusk. An hour later as I neared home, I noticed the night sky sparkled with a multitude of stars. I remembered hearing an old Eskimo fable. It likened stars to openings in heaven shining down to let us know the ones we loved and lost are truly happy. Those stars also serve as a twinkling reminder, to the rest of us, that we are to find happiness, too.
Gloria Givens is a free-lance writer from Orangevale, California. She and her husband, Ken, were married in 1953, and had two sons and two daughters (plus three grandchildren). Ken died in 1995. She says, "My husband's death after 42 years of marriage was devastating. I personally experienced how grief affects life, and with the help of trained facilitators learned what I must do to recover."
Grief often obscures our ability to notice beauty, experience joy or delight in life's pleasurable moments. So, out of the letters G O O D G R I E F, I compiled my list of suggestions for feeling better, doing something just for fun or improving the quality of life. Use it to spark your own.
Give thanks for God's loving compassion and constant presence, God's amazing gifts. Delight in bright-hued sunsets, rainbows and songbirds heralding new days.
Outdoors: Walk, hike, garden, golf, count the stars. Organize and simplify my life, reduce stress.
Open my mind to the future; set goals. Others—reach out and help someone—volunteer.
Daily devotions or Mass. Do eat nutritious food. Don't ignore health problems, hold grudges, live in the past.
Giggles and laughter miraculously improve moods. Go to a play, concert or parade—just for fun. Give back to my parish, library, school or community.
Relax with music. Read or listen to books on tape. Take an out-of-town road trip (a self-efficacy booster).
I (as in me, myself and I) I believe in my inner value or, in the words of Muhammad Ali, "Me, Whee!" Invest in my future, upgrade job skills, take classes. Positive attitudes influence positive changes.
Exercise. Educate my body and mind. Energize at a retreat with spiritual reflection. Enjoy a hobby.
Friendship, Fellowship, Family—important in life. Figure out goals for today, tomorrow, next week, next year. Find my new self. Face fears—the future begins now.