Grief/Dispair Mental/Emotional Health

Escaping Anxiety

When my wife passed 4 years ago, I first experienced shock and then numbness, after that anger and depression, and after that resignation and doubts about my future without her. It wasn’t until around my sixth month of grieving that I began to experience something unfamiliar to me since my 20’s and 30’s, anxiety… and I mean full-blown anxiety.

This coincided with my re-entry into life as I began to socialize again through a group called the Breakfast Club. I also started to date again via online dating services. My self-confidence was nearly non-existent at the beginning, so I had tremendous doubts about my ability to meet and engage with new people. Though I could put on a good front, I would go home after each meeting or date and question my every word and action. It was worse than when I was a teenager.

Soon, I met a widow whose company I really enjoyed, and who made me feel more at ease about the whole dating concept. However, I found that I would think that I had control and then would be overcome with euphoria and anxiety at alternate times (part of the hyper-emotional response). I did not have things under control. It was months before I saw how out of control I was during this period. Anxiety is a normal part of any relationship. While in a heightened hyper-emotional state, anxiety can become overwhelming and dominate your thinking day and night.

The ups and downs, the drama, and the uncertainty about what we really wanted doomed the relationship from the start. As our relationship evolved, I experienced increasing anxiety over possibly losing her, I am sure because of the recent loss of my wife. But I also had fear and anxiety about:

  • moving too fast, 
  • saying the wrong thing, 
  • how our relationship would impact my friends and family, and
  • her deciding it was too soon to be in a relationship again, 

The anxiety only got worse as I had more trouble sleeping, causing me to spiral out of control. If you can recognize this anxiety for what it is and confront it before it ruins all your relationships, you will be way ahead of the game.

I first got some help from my therapist, and then from reading Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, which challenges you to engage with your emotions and doubts, to face your fears and self-doubts, and to be vulnerable. However, this vulnerability actually led to more anxiety in some ways. I was still dwelling on past mistakes or shortcomings and fearful of what might happen in the future.

This led me to a spiritual philosopher, Eckart Tollé, whose central message is to stay in the present and turn away from worrying about the past or future. Tollé often quotes Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” 

Once I adopted some of his teachings that I thought useful and combined it with meditation, I began to calm down and learned just to enjoy the moment. You can find some of his talks on Youtube, which you may find helpful. Tollé is an intriguing character with a funny laugh and gentle way of speaking, but his messages often go to the core of feeling and thinking. (With someone like Tollé or Chopra, you don’t have to accept everything they say. Just take in what works for you and is in conformance with your own values and beliefs.)

Whether you decide to look up and adopt some of Eckart Tollé’s ideas or not, the key point is that I encourage you to look outside your normal belief systems and find ones that help you to deal with your grief and often resulting anxiety. Some may find solace in their religious beliefs, others may find help through meditation or yoga. When you go through the kind of trauma and grief that we all have had to do, sometimes the only way out is through a new path… one you have not tried before.

Learn to be courageous enough to try one. You may be pleasantly surprised and rewarded.

Giving Support Grief/Dispair

Widower: When Can I Stop Grieving?

When I ask former members of my Men’s Grief Group why they stopped coming to the group, the most common response is, “I just did not want to grieve anymore, and the groups became a downer after I had begun to feel better.” I often hear the same story from widows, who had stopped attending co-ed grief groups.

Grief groups provide an invaluable service as they help participants to see past their own pain, they are not alone, and they are not going crazy. Being able to share experiences is therapeutic, and when our words help another, we feel validated and better about ourselves. 

These widows and widowers spoke highly of the grief groups and how it had helped them over months or years to process their grief and begin to experience some semblance of normalcy in their lives again. 

As the intensity of my grief diminished, I too began to ask, “Why am I still going to grief group? Am I forcing myself to re-experience the grief and sorrow which has begun to decrease? When I hear widowers in their first months of grieving, it drags me down and makes me feel sorrowful again.”

As a fellow widower put it, “Sorrow is a natural response to loss. But grief can become an unwillingness to accept what is. Lingering disappointment comes about because there is a tendency to transform your loss into a story instead of accepting it as an event.” (Bill J.) 

Bill’s point is that if you want to heal, you will eventually have to allow the grief experience to recede from the forefront of your thought into the category of “most important memories” which make you who you are today. This does not mean an abandonment of your wife or of remembering her, but rather it is an allowing of new experiences, opportunities, and even joy into your life going forward. Grief will continue to be a part of your life, just not as the constant companion it is in the early going.

It is natural for widowers to ask themselves, “When is it o.k. for me to stop grieving and/or attending a group?” You may feel guilty because you are not there with the other men who have been in the foxhole with you over the months or years of your grieving process. You may assume that you have only two choices – to attend all meetings or to stop going altogether.

As a Men’s Group founder and co-facilitator, I hope that when a participant gets to the point of feeling, there are diminishing returns for him from attending, that he will consider dropping by every once in a while to update the group on his evolution as a widower. Possible times to revisit your grief group might be at “anniversary” times (birthdays, the anniversary of death, wedding anniversary) to get a little support during a rough patch, or just when you feel that you have something to share with others on how you dealt with the challenges you faced.

It is vital for widowers in the earliest stages of grief to see that there is hope and that others have emerged from their sadness and are living rewarding full lives again. Only those who have gone before them can provide new widowers with this assurance. I encourage all widowers to find an area grief group if they can and to go as long as they feel they are getting some benefit from attending. Once you are ready to move on, be willing to continue sharing what you have learned with others when you can do so.

We are a band of brothers who hopefully have learned from those who have gone before us, and now it is our turn to support those who come after us.

Giving Support Moving Forward

Widower: Financial Land Mines

My father died when he was 33 years of age, so I realized the importance of getting my finances in order while still young. I bought life insurance, started an IRA investment account, wrote a will, and made sure that my wife was the primary beneficiary. 

During one period (2008 – 2012) I was sure that I was going to die first due to a serious and rapidly spreading skin cancer. So, I doubled down on making sure my affairs were to ensure my wife’s ability to survive comfortably after my death. Then through a fortuitous set of circumstances, I was healed in 2012. However, my wife and I suspected that my health record was a sure indicator that I would go first.

Then suddenly in 2015, my wife passed as a result of a fast-spreading uterine cancer. I was so shocked and angry over the injustice of her early demise that I really did not think about the finances for a while. Eventually, I came out of deep grieving and realized that everything about our finances had been structured for her survival, not mine. She had no life insurance policy, her IRA was small, and I had given little thought to what I would do without her.

After getting a dozen copies of my wife’s death certificates, I began the tedious task of changing everything over to my name, including bank accounts, investment accounts, property deeds, automobiles, charge accounts, and much more. It took almost a year to find and change everything. 

Many widowers face lost spousal income, huge medical or funeral costs, or diminished assets resulting from long term care.  Some may have left financial planning to their wives, and may not know where the checkbook is, much less the investment account information. This can make the task seem overwhelming and lead to inertia or poor decisions made in haste.

Another threat can be family members who expect to receive immediate benefits in the form of estate distributions, insurance payments, or IRA account distributions. This can put tremendous emotional pressure on a widower at a time when he is ill-equipped mentally to deal with these demands. The temptation can be to give it all away and forget about their own self-interest. This, in turn, can lead to future financial challenges.

This brings me to an essential piece of advice we all have heard repeatedly, a bit of information that has proven its value over and over again for thousands of widowers: WAIT AT LEAST A YEAR BEFORE MAKING ANY MAJOR DECISIONS.

This applies to selling your house, marrying again, leaving your job, and distributing your assets. I know of many widowers who ignored this advice and paid a heavy price for it, diminishing their quality of life going forward. Sometimes we have no choice and must make these decisions before a year is up. But even then, you can still tell everyone, “Time out, I am going to take a little extra time to make this decision. You will just have to wait.” If others are putting heavy pressure on you, that is probably an indicator that you should not give in and make an immediate decision.

When it comes to your finances and re-marrying, be extra careful to allow yourself the time to explore all options. Wait until you feel that your head is on right and capable of making good decisions. I know there was a time in my deep grieving where I did not feel capable of this. Whatever you do, don’t do this alone. If you can, see a counselor and talk through the big decisions before you leap and are stuck with the results. 

Grief/Dispair Moving Forward

Potential and Change

by Jeff Ziegler

(24-hours before Suzanne dies)

Dear future Jeff, 

I want you to know a few things. After Suzanne dies, you will feel like there is little potential of anything ever making your life any better. Did you know that you will be scared, hurting, very much alone (even surrounded by friends and family), completely lost and heartbroken? Please know that although you could potentially just curl up in a ball and die from that heartbreak, you won’t. 

Potential is an interesting word. It means, “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.” When Suzanne dies, you will feel like there really is no future to develop into. 

When that time comes, all you will want to ask yourself is, “What’s the point?” I mean, there won’t be a single thing that truly appeals to you as having any real potential for your future. 

Work? You will no longer be interested. Dating? Nope, you will start too soon and be heartbroken again (but luckily, you will meet someone new who will accept you as and where you are). Living? Well… if I am honest with you, the only thing that will keep you waking up every morning and wanting to go on living is your daughters.

Thing is, Jeff, when we grieve hard, our tendency is to spend too much time in our heads. We grieve for the life we had. We grieve for the life we no longer have. And we grieve for the life we had envisioned for the future. You will miss every aspect of that life. You will feel empty without it, and you will be lost.

Because we grieve the primary and secondary losses, we lose not only our vision of a future with our person, but also the vision of our own future without that person. It doesn’t make much sense, I know, but it’s true. Too often, we close ourselves off to any real possibility of achieving our own potential when we are grieving. We tend to lose our core Self. We lose our focus and our center. We forget who and what we are. 

When this happens, anyone can be like you will be for so many months after Suzanne dies: you will be floundering, lost, feckless, aimless, self-sabotaging, bleeding all over people who did not cause your wounds, and you will feel like you can’t go on. 

But you will keep going. And when you reach the 21-month “Deathaversary”, you will write about how you are a completely different person than you were in those first few days, weeks, months, year and longer after Suzi dies. 

Your life will have changed in so many ways that you will no longer recognize yourself. I won’t lie—it will take some SERIOUSLY hard work to completely and radically change your Self. Especially after how deep your grief was, and will be up, as recently as just a few months previous.

Some of the changes will be physical and “superficial.” In 21-months you will have lost 15-lbs, you will grow a beard (you’ll start it for the “November” movement, like it, and keep it). You will travel a lot. You will buy and move into your own home—the first without Suzanne. You will meet someone new. 

You will also get laid off from your job—the one you were planning to leave anyway—and you will start your own coaching business designed to help others like you find new purpose in their lives and find ways to work at something that truly makes them passionate. It will be some of the most rewarding and difficult work you will ever do.

But none of the changes you will go through will be bigger than the internal, mental and emotional transformation you will undergo. You will truly begin to self-actualize (defined as “the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities; a desire for self-fulfillment, namely, the tendency to actualize one’s own potential”); and you will rediscover your true Self. 

You will do all this because becoming self-actualized means you will be fulfilled, doing everything you can to achieve your fullest potential. And you will do all this because you want to be the person that Suzanne would have wanted you to become anyway.

So, in that vein, let me mention what I believe is another meaning for “potential.” That meaning is to release the “latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success.” And this is where you will be on the day of Suzanne’s 21-month Deathaversary. 

You will be successful, because this letter is meant to help you, Jeff. I want you to understand and know that no matter how desperate things may seem (no matter where you are in your grief journey), there is hope. You can be and become the best version of your self by believing in the potential you have inside to heal and to grow.

While no one is perfect—and you know I believe we are all perfectly imperfect—you will have worked very hard to change. You will have accepted the grief. You will have also accepted that you were not always the best husband or father, and you will have stopped most of the behaviors you exhibited when Suzanne was alive and when the girls were children. 

As part of your work, you will forgive and accept your true Self and that will completely change your emotional and spiritual outlook. You are going to be far more present with others (and with your own self) than you ever have been before. 

And you will create a true vision—not a dream, but a vision—of the future Self you see inside; and you will want to bring him out to the world. You will like that person very much. That person has the amazing gifts of love and kindness to give to so many other widows and widowers, and to the world.

So now, I will repeat what I just said a few paragraphs ago: there is hope, Jeff. No matter who or what you think you are (and where you may think you are in your grief journey), there is still a chance for you to be and do better with your true self. But it’s not going to be easy. It will nearly “break” you. And you will have to let it. You will shatter the old you and become someone and something better: the best version of you.

Be open, be accepting, and be able to let go of the things you think you wanted. Truly take the time to discover your own purpose, passion and internal power… Those will be the keys to change. The catalyst will be knowing and realizing that truly “you are enough.” 

By doing the hard work when it might feel easier to avoid it, you could save yourself a great deal of hurt. And you will set yourself up for a much better life if you choose one.

Dearest, kind, loving, Jeff. You have all my love and hopes for the future you…