Grief can pummel you physically, emotionally, and mentally in ways that make you feel as if you will never be able to live a normal life again. The physical pain can drive you to your knees. At times you may just sit on the stairs and sob. Mentally, you can find yourself incapable of processing the simplest thoughts. Often, I would sit in front of the television and replay a scene multiple times because I could not recall the beginning of the one minute conversation.
We often ask, “How can I survive this?” During these times, the siren call of alcohol and drugs may be strong. I was very tempted to drink more, to try some weed, or to take some pain pills. I thought this would help ease my pain and let me forget what I was experiencing.
Usually when I managed to keep my intake to two glasses of wine or beer, it could calm me and take a little of the edge off my stress. However, when I allowed myself to have a third glass, I would find myself wallowing in self-indulgent sorrow and loneliness that led to more aggravated symptoms of grief. Even though I recognized what was happening, I could not pull myself out of it.
Research shows that alcohol or drugs can lead to complicated grief, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. The National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reported that widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S. Widowers all have a higher risk of alcohol related problems, especially during the first two years of grieving. If you have anger issues (e.g. anger at a doctor or hospital) alcohol may only fuel your anger further, contributing to a downward spiral of anger and depression.
Grief can introduce all kinds of life-threatening stressors and these can often trigger accompanying unhealthy old and new bad behaviors. Self-recrimination, self-doubts, and questioning your core self-image can lead to self-destructive behaviors. The temptation to go deeper and deeper into the depression is powerful. If you had problems in the past with addictive behaviors, it is even more critical that you avoid alcohol and drugs.
What helped me to deal with this behavior was to remember my wife, kids and grandkids. I knew this was not the behavior my wife would have wanted to see in me, and that now my kids needed me more than ever before.
When out with friends I learned to keep my intake down to two beers or glasses of wine and avoided mixed drinks altogether. I made sure to have food with my drinks and to spread them out over longer periods of time. At home I worked on identifying my triggers and keeping strict limits on my intake. If still tempted I would call friends or family to talk or go outside and take a long walk. Over time I learned to adhere to these limits and enjoy myself while keeping the reins on my grieving and depression.
If you are having challenges with this, talk to someone (counselor, friend, men’s group, church, or Alcoholics Anonymous). Whatever you do, don’t hide in your home and consume alcohol or drugs alone. If not addressed, this is a recipe for disaster, digging a hole that becomes increasingly difficult to climb out of. The sooner you meet this challenge the easier it will be to regain your well-being.
1) Alcohol Use in the First Three Years of Bereavement: a National Representative Survey by: Pilling, Thege, Demotrovics & Kopp
As I sank into deep grieving after my wife’s death, I became increasingly concerned about my sanity and ability to make sound decisions. At times the world around me seemed surreal, my short and long term memory became suspect, and I often just wanted to shut the door on everyone and just hide in my grief.
As I began to recognize the impacts of these issues upon me, I became fearful that I would make some bad decisions which might threaten my relationships… particularly with my two daughters, four grandchildren, two brothers, and three sisters. While buried in grief it was easy for me to become so self-absorbed with my suffering that I would forget that my family was grieving too.
I realized that I needed them more than ever now! But how could I let them know how much I was hurting, how much my thinking process was distorted, and how much my social filters were screwed up. I knew that it would only take a couple “incidents” to color everyone’s perception of me in a bad way, in a way which could threaten our relationships going forward.
My efforts to keep all the grieving to myself quickly faltered as I realized that I could not heal by myself, and that the more isolated I became the worse the grieving became. That is when I started to reach out to my family. Thank God they responded with love, support, and understanding. Over time, this gave me the confidence to re-engage with others as well.
I was fortunate to have a sister who had worked as a therapist for many years. She patiently listened to me as I verbalized the litany of issues I was confronting, and the terrible loneliness I was experiencing. Another sister who lived in the area made a point of getting me out for breakfast or dinner once in a while. My two daughters, who lived nearby, made a point of staying in close touch, stopping by to check on me regularly, and making sure that I often saw the grandkids.
In turn, I learned to reach out to them as well. This included writing love notes from grandma to each of them (I had discussed this with my wife before she passed). We were able to share memories of her together, though this was often painful. Over the next few months the awkwardness over the topic began to diminish and we were able to gradually build even stronger bonds through the shared grief.
My sense of responsibility for my daughters and their families has only grown stronger since Theresa’s passing, and I feel that I am becoming an even better parent and grandparent. I am now much more empathetic, and more willing to assume “grandmother” roles within the family such as babysitting and taking the kids out shopping.
Gradually, as I became more grounded and more sure of myself, I was able to increasingly enjoy my new role and to find new ways to strengthen and enjoy our families. Now I feel more blessed than ever… and I know my wife would approve!
That, more than anything, helps me to feel happy and fulfilled again.
WSN-MO Dating and Relationship Coach, Christine Baumgartner asks…
What are you going to be doing on New Year’s Eve?
I’ve been talking about the holiday season and widowhood for the past couple weeks. In those articles, I haven’t included the New Year’s celebration because it often impacts people differently than the rest of the holidays.
New Year’s is all about reminiscing about the year that is ending (which you may feel completely unable to do) and looking forward to the new year ahead (which may seem impossible to even imagine).
Just to remind you:
• Depending on how long it’s been since your spouse passed away, your feelings may still be pretty raw. Especially in that first year when you’re probably in a fog.
• Some people opt to keep their traditions going as always (and to talk and cry through the memories).
• Others find that’s just too hard, and want to do something completely different.
Something to ask yourself as New Year’s Eve approaches – will it help you more to be around a lot of people, a small number of people, or by yourself?
If you feel that being with “lots of people” is the right thing for you, here are a couple suggestions:
• Restaurant or nightclub. You can get dressed up, dance, and blow horns at midnight.
• Have you heard of “First Night”? This family-friendly event is available in various areas of the country (they do it where I live). The city closes the main street, and the local stores and restaurants stay open. Shuttles take people around to entertainment (bands, comedy shows, crafts for kids) being held at local theaters, gymnasiums, and museums. There’s a fireworks show at midnight.
If you prefer being with “just a few people”, here are some that have worked for me:
• Go out to the movies with a friend.
• Plan to go to someone else’s home (close friend or family member who knows how you’re feeling) for an evening of board game playing and good snacks. Then, watch the midnight celebrations on TV or computer.
• Go out to dinner. It’s important to pick a restaurant that won’t bring up memories.
If you feel like you want to spend the time by yourself, you could:
• Go on a trip locally or far away (once again pick a place that won’t bring up memories). Being away from home can help you not feel like you’re “trying to have” or “not trying to have” your normal traditions.
• Get a pile of movies for watching at home.
• Make plans ahead of time to have a healing ritual for yourself. Include candles and music if that appeals to you. You can meditate, cry, write a list of resolutions for next year, talk to your deceased spouse – whatever brings ease to your evening.
And to restate my advice from the last two weeks: “Just feel what you feel when you feel it.” Those huge waves of feeling that crash over you won’t last forever (they only feel that way).
I’m interested in hearing about your experiences as you go through the holidays this year. Send me an email.
1. The services offered by Christine, herself a widow, does not include “dating or matchmaking services.”
2. Christine will NEVER have direct access to WSN-MO’s Facebook page. All postings will be facilitated through WSN-MO.
3. WSN-MO members can ask questions of Christine (even anonymously via private message to me) on our Facebook page which I will forward to her. You can also send questions to me at herb@WidowersSupportNetwork.com. Following, I will then post her responses.
Proactive Steps to help get you through the holidays
Last week I talked about the holiday season and widowhood:
About the widower who says with tears in his eyes, “Christmas was always her thing”.
About the grieving widow who tells me “he was such a big part of our family’s Hanukkah traditions”.
Depending on how long it’s been since your spouse passed away, your feelings are possibly still pretty raw. Especially in that first year when you’re probably in a fog. Perhaps the “first” holiday season is the most overwhelming, but I found I was still floundering on my second and third.
Not feeling sad around the holidays might not be an option for you. However, not feeling sad every minute of every day might be an option.
Some wisdom I learned along the way… if something funny happens (especially some of the black humor that comes with widowhood), go ahead of laugh. It’s not disrespectful, and it can be good for your soul.
If you momentarily forget your spouse is gone because your child or grandchild does something so cute, that’s okay and normal. And then, if your feelings of sadness come slamming back because you wish your spouse was here to see that cute thing they did, that’s normal too.
Some people opt to keep their traditions going as always (and to talk and cry through the memories).
Others find that’s just too hard, and want to do something completely different. Here are things I found worked for me over the years.
Plan to go to someone else’s home, perhaps a very close friend or family member. Pick someone who you know will be okay with you talking and crying and laughing (sometimes all at the same time) about how you’re feeling.
Go out to dinner. It’s important to pick a restaurant where nothing will remind you of past holidays and other memories.
Contact a local retirement home or assisted living facility. Ask them if you can volunteer there. Giving to others can sometimes make our own hearts feel a little less heavy. You will also understand their pain if they too have lost a spouse.
Go on a trip locally or far away (once again pick a place that won’t remind you of past holidays). Staying at a hotel can give you a way of not feeling like you’re trying to have or not have your normal traditions at your house.
And to restate my advice from last week: “Just feel what you feel when you feel it.” Those huge waves of feeling that crash over you won’t last forever (they only feel that way).
I’m interested in hearing about your experiences as you go through the holidays this year. Send me an email.
With the approach of Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think back to Thanksgiving 2012, my very first holiday following my husband’s sudden death. The grief fog was still very thick. Numbness created a comforting cushion around my body and emotions.
My husband had died in August. By the time November arrived, the loving family and friends who had gathered around me the first couple months had returned to their normal lives and I was on my own. The “dreaded firsts” were upon me, and I knew Thanksgiving was only the beginning.
Some wonderful friends invited me to their family Thanksgiving dinner that year. I’d spent many holidays with them when I was single, so this felt safe and comfortable. But I could still feel the enormity of this outing, if for no other reason, it was a solo drive (I’d had company on most of my drives since August).
My husband had loved to cook. He cooked for me, his kids, his friends, and the neighbors. Thinking about what to serve, shopping for the food, and preparing the meal brought him lots of joy. I was the sous chef, the audience, and the enthusiastic eater. So, each of our Thanksgivings together had been quite the event. Since his death, I dreaded grocery shopping because I never knew which aisle would bring me to tears from the memories of our being there together.
One thing he didn’t do was bake. He had a favorite German bakery that made our special occasion cakes. He also loved Marie Callender pies. As I sorted through household things after his death, I found quite an accumulation of Marie Callender pie tins.
I realized there was a Marie Callender’s restaurant close to my Thanksgiving destination, so I decided to turn in the stack of empty tins on the drive to my friend’s house. It would be good to get them out of the house (this felt like a manageable small step) and I would also get back the deposit money.
So, I left the house early, and drove to the shopping center.
As I approached the restaurant I noticed a long line of people that stretched half-way around the building. This puzzled me, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought (it truly didn’t penetrate the grief fog).
When I got to the restaurant door, I was stopped by a tall man (he literally blocked me). He asked what I needed. I looked up at him and said, “I’m returning my pie tins.”
I watch his expression turn into a huge question mark as he said, “Okay, come in and stand over by the counter.” Then he told a woman behind the counter I was returning my tins and went back to the front door.
While standing there waiting, I noticed (through my fog) that the restaurant certainly had a lot of customers today. I also noticed that the employees behind the counter were racing around gathering up lots of boxes and customers were walking out with large bags full of stuff. Boxes of pies. Boxes of food. I’m not sure how long I stood there. I do know that it was long enough for some of the fog to finally lift and I had the realization, “Oh, it’s Thanksgiving and people are picking up their dinners and desserts!”
What a revelation! Outside of my grief-focused self, the rest of the world was still doing its ordinary holiday routines. It was all around me, and I hadn’t been able to connect the dots.
Soon after this, the woman behind the counter asked me how she could help me and I said, “I’m returning my pie tins and just realized it’s Thanksgiving and this is probably a weird thing to do today.” She gave me a big smile and said I was definitely her easiest customer of the day. She took my tins and returned with my deposit money and wished me a happy Thanksgiving.
As I left the restaurant I was thinking Tony would have gotten a kick out of my doing this. The thought brought both tears to my eyes and a smile to my face.
When I told this story to friends later that day, we had quite a laugh. Then, at the Thanksgiving table, we shared things we were grateful for. I said I was grateful to have special friends who made me feel like family and were accepting of me and my fog.
In hindsight, I can see that:
At one level, I knew it was Thanksgiving because it was causing me to sort through grief and memories and make decisions for myself.
But at another level, my foggy self had failed to connect this thought with the world at large (grief does strange things like this). The world out there was still going through its holiday routines – including coming to Marie Callender’s and picking up pies!
It’s no wonder so many people fail to complete grief counseling sessions that take place over a period of several weeks, with many attendees opting to bail out of such programs after just a week or two. Why? I believe one of the reasons is because too many of the programs fail to provide a real road map to the healing grievers seek. Those who grieve aren’t interested in hearing a lot of theory or advice that is short on substance. They need actionable options. Proven steps and best practices they can employ as they begin their journey toward some semblance of a recovery.
This tendency to withdraw from what are well-intentioned resources should be of no surprise to anyone, especially when speaking about widowed men. Yes, my view applies to women and men alike, but as an advocate for widowers, I have come to recognize how men who are suffering from the most significant loss of their lives want to act to make their pain go away by taking concrete steps others have previously tested. Those who fail to complete grief recovery programming are generally not interested in listening to subjective material offered by family members, friends, or a subject matter experts that are weak on specifics.
I like to tell the story about my brother Don and his wife Kathy when they were traveling by airplane. As they sat in their seats, Kathy leaned over and informed Don how the little boy seated behind her was kicking the back of her airline seat. Being a man of action, Don looked over the top of his seat to the youngster seated behind Kathy and with a raised voice, told the young man to “Knock It Off.” Kathy then leaned over and asked Don, “What did you do that for?” Kathy went on to say how she didn’t want Don to do anything; she just wanted him to know what she was experiencing. But like most men, Don is a fixer. If you give him a problem, his mental Rolodex of problem-solving solutions will begin rotating until the appropriate fix surfaces. It’s what men (and many women) do!
Perhaps that’s why I like plans. Documents that will help me navigate my way until I reach my desired destination or outcome. Plans should contain both strategic and tactical steps one can initiate along life’s journey that will lessen the likelihood of their veering off course or wasting precious resources. I believe people prefer specific, well researched, and proven steps that will advance their agenda. When such insights are available, it can allow the reader’s recovery instincts to be stimulated, causing them to tweak the best practices of others until they conform to the reader’s comfort zone. To this end, I offer the following.
Grief Recovery Rule #1 – Turn to Your Higher Power.
For those who believe in a higher power, turn to Him. Place your grief and your future into His trusted arms. There is no better place to be.
Grief Recovery Rule #2 – Grieve for as long as you wish.
Grief doesn’t end. It evolves. There are no sequences or stages of grief you can anticipate occurring. So don’t let anyone tell you, “It’s time to get back in the game,” or “Get over it.” Do so when you are ready, not before. If their nagging continues, it may be time for some new friends.
Grief Recovery Rule #3 – Forgive yourself for any lingering regrets you may harbor.
If you were a caregiver, the spouse, or the life partner of the deceased, you might have some lingering thoughts of regret. “I should have visited more often.” “Did I find him (or her) the best care possible?” “I should have told him or her I loved them more often.” Regrets surface because deep down inside, you honestly loved that person, and you weren’t sure if they truly knew it. I have some news for you, they did. There is no need to second guess your previous actions. You undoubtedly did the best you could under the circumstances. And you can be sure they appreciated your loving care. So when you lay your head on your pillow tonight, go ahead and tell them again, “I love you!” They’re listening.
Grief Recovery Rule #4 – Watch your health.
No matter how well anchored of a survivor or caregiver, you may believe yourself to b; you are vulnerable. Now it’s time to take care of you! All caregivers and the widowed should be seen by their primary physician. As part of your exam, ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health professional. You know, someone with whom you can talk. You’ve been through a lot, and you may have suffered physically, and don’t even realized it. Besides, you have others who are depending on you to recover from your grief. This caution is especially true for widowers since most men fail to take proper care of themselves, especially when they are called upon to serve as a caregiver. Want a sampling of proof? Widowed men have a suicide rate that is 3-4x higher than married men.
For those who have lost a spouse, be advised that your loss is the #1 stressor on the stress index scale. Regardless of how tough you think you are, the human body can only handle so much stress and just for a limited period before it can affect your health.
As I said, those who grieve are vulnerable. Here’s more proof. According to the US Census Bureau, 700,000 people are widowed each year in the United States and will live on average another 14 years. Research has shown that if you are caring for a spouse and are between the ages of 66 and 96, you are at a 66% higher risk of dying than one who is not a caregiver. Sixty-five percent of those who are widowed (men or women) will experience a severe illness within twelve months.
Grief Recovery Rule #5 – Don’t make any hasty decisions.
Countless widowed individuals have felt a need to make changes soon after experiencing a loss. Time and time again, they have proven why they should not have done so. Whether you are considering moving closer to your son or daughter or downsizing your residence or even proposing marriage to a new love interest, take your time in doing so. Ask for advice from those you admire and trust. When appropriate, talk with a licensed professional with the proper expertise and credentials, even if a fee is required to do so. (Pssst – Be sure to check their references.) You’ll be glad you did.
Grief Recovery Rule #6 – Stay close to those you love.
Seventy-five percent of a survivor’s support base will vanish – or at the very least, be less available to the survivor following the loss of a spouse. Those who are suddenly unavailable may well include family members and friends. The risk is that people who feel continually lonely have a 14% higher risk of premature death vs. those who don’t.
Grief Recovery Rule #7 – Allow those who care about you to assist you in dealing with your grief.
You are not the only one who is grieving. When friends and family tell you they want to help, make it easy for them to do so. Have them cut your lawn, handle your grocery shopping, or clean your pool for the few months. (Just kidding.) But by allowing them to serve in some way, they feel like they have contributed to the healing of all who mourn, including themselves.
Grief Recovery Rule #8 – Communicate your needs or challenges.
Ask for help if you need it. Don’t make people guess. Failing to do so may cause your critical needs to be unaddressed while only trivial tasks are handled. When appropriate, communicate your needs with a subject matter expert. From financial matters to your spirituality, legal issues to mental health examinations, lean on those service providers for guidance. Should you wish, feel free to contact The Widower’s Support Network (WSN), for advice and mentoring, a free service WSN offers to all widowers and the families that love them.
Grief Recovery Rule #9 – Grief groups are a tremendous resource for people in need of support.
Grief groups (aka Support groups) can be very beneficial to those who grieve, so don’t shy away from using their services. (This goes for men too, especially those men who foolishly think they can go it alone.) Among the leaders in support services for those who grieve are Hospices, churches, civic groups, and more.
The sponsoring agency may have designed their program offerings themselves or may have licensed programmings, such as Walking Through Grief, (available at Walkingthroughgrief.com), GriefShare (GriefShare.org), and Soaring Spirits International (Soaringspirits.org). The cost to attend such support groups are modest, with many are available free of charge. WSN’s first choice is Walking Through Grief programming, available in many communities across America. You also have the option to stream and view individual programs for as little as $8. See Walkingthroughgrief.com.
Many support groups address the needs of individuals, caregivers, or survivors dealing with specific diseases or ailments. For example, PanCan has support groups across America for Pancreatic Cancer sufferers. Compassionate Friends is a terrific organization that enables families to grieve the loss of a child. By using your computer’s search engine, you can easily find support groups for virtually every kind of ailment or illness, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Chron’s Disease, and countless others.
For those who don’t wish to attend meetings outside their home, you will find books, DVDs, and more available at the OpentoHope.com, GriefToolbox.com, and GriefDiaries.com, all excellent resources for healing videos, books and more.
Some who grieve may enjoy getting away from their current environment and enjoy a transformational journey at sea, featuring the nurturing and coaching made available from a world-class team of grief experts. Such experiences are available from Grieving Seminars at Sea on The Bereavement Cruise. The beauty of such an outing is that it allows you to find yourself in a neutral arena, absent the trappings and triggers of everyday life and the memories you may find troubling. To learn more, contact our office at herb@WidowersSupportNetwork.com
Grief Recovery Rule #10 – Get on your feet and out of the house.
Widowed people need to reestablish their own relevance. It is essential to have a purpose when you rise out of bed each day. You can accomplish this in many ways. Volunteering has been found by many to be the best grief recovery tool. Reach out to a non-profit who supports a good cause, your church, or perform a kind gesture for someone who can’t pay you back. Perhaps this is why I established the Widowers Support Network, as it provides me with such gratification. Besides, it gives me purpose.
Grief Recovery Rule #11 – Commemorate the life of your deceased loved one.
Perform charitable works in their name. Turn their articles of clothing into “Love Pillows” and give them to those they loved. Celebrate their birthday by joining forces with friends and family in aiding their favorite support group.
Grief Recovery Rule #12 – Never lose HOPE. (Hope Trilogy)
As Alexander Pope wrote, HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL. Feed your subconscious mind with healing thoughts offering reasons to have hope. View, read, and listen to the lessons learned and the opinions of those who have been where you are today. To begin, allwho grieve (men and women)should register at WidowersSupportNetwork.com. Once registered, request your free copy of WSN’s powerful HOPE TRILOGY, the story of three remarkable men, and their mastery over adversity. Write: info@WidowersSupportNetwork.com
Grief Recovery Rule #13 – Take Care of Business
As my deceased brother, Dan taught me when I was just a teenager, “Take Care of Business First.” Failing to do so can cause significant hardship if not expense during the remainder of your grief journey. While matters such as career preservation, legal affairs, and financial wellness may not be the “first” thing you address during your journey, putting off such essential matters can cause catastrophic outcomes later. Again, seek professional assistance when needed.
Grief Recovery Rule #14 –Consider acquiring grief relief from a Therapy or Service Dog.
“Therapy dogs bring comfort to those in need of companionship while Service dogs have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Across America, there are many animal shelters, SPCAs, and civic, service, and charitable organizations that have programs that can assist you in learning more. A supportive pooch is worth considering. Personally, I would run out and get a rescue dog from the local SPCA, even if it isn’t a “service” dog.
Grief Recovery Rule #15 –Celebrate the life of the one you have lost by living yours; they would certainly want you to do so.
When considering what actions widowed men can take in hopes of accelerating their healing, they may only have to reach down to the pet seated beside them. I witnessed the power of pets often during Michelle’s illness, especially during the final hours of her life when her son Jacques carried each of Michelle’s three golden retrievers, one at a time, from his car up to her hospital room. The nursing staff placed a gurney beside Michelle’s bed so her beloved Charlotte, Spencer, and Carolina could lie beside her one last time.
In this appendix, I’ll discuss the positive benefit of pets, and also direct you to resources for pets that are specially trained to provide support and assistance.
My first exposure to the phenomenon of pet therapy was back in the 1990s when my bank duties included leading KeyBank of New York’s annual Neighbors Make a Difference Day. On this day, the bank would close at noon to free up employees to go into the neighborhoods they served and perform community services. One time, bank volunteers took a group of dogs from the local animal shelter to a nearby nursing home. Some dogs were even invited by the seniors to jump up onto their beds. I still remember the looks of joy and comfort on the faces of the seniors when petting and playing with the dogs. Neither the home’s residents nor the dogs wanted the visit to end.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in people with a range of health problems including those suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder.” AAT is the use of trained animals to assist patients in achieving established health objectives and is the first of two therapies grouped under the heading of Pet Therapy. The second is animal-assisted activities, which has a more general purpose, such as what the seniors experienced when the KeyBank volunteers visited them with the dogs.”
The Paws for People website (pawsforpeople.org) adds: “It’s well-known (and scientifically proven) that interaction with a gentle, friendly pet has significant benefits including releasing endorphins that have a calming effect and can diminish overall physical pain. The act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, reducing the amount of medication some folks need, lifts spirits and lessens depression, encourages communication, lowers anxiety, reduces loneliness” and more.
Widower Mark R. Colgan had this to say about his two Labrador retrievers, Murray and Tucker: “The evening Joanne died my two Labradors proved to be more than companions, they were family members that were grieving the loss of Joanne. As I sat downstairs, reflecting on the day’s shocking events, I heard an unusual cry coming from the bedroom. The bedroom that Joanne had died in earlier in the day. As I peered around the corner of the bedroom door, I saw how the cry was coming from one of our dogs, Murray. He lied on the bed in the spot Joanne had died and was crying in a way that I have never heard a dog cry before. He was mourning.”
But it’s not only dogs that provide us support and solace. Some widowers are more the cat-lover type, and similar benefits have been attributed to cats and other pets.
Professor Carr notes that pets serve another important purpose: they give widowers a schedule and routine. For many widowers, especially those who are retired, days can feel long and empty. Some widowers struggle to get out of bed. However, a dog eager for a walk or a cat meowing for her morning kibble force us to get out of bed, face the day and set up routines that can be a healthy and important source of structure.
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…
It’s true! No matter how painful your grief may be, getting up and off the couch and into your community to serve others is guaranteed to make you feel better. Whether you volunteer for the fire department or the Red Cross, become a scout leader or work in a soup kitchen, serving others will energize your heart as it searches for joy.
About 2 1/2 years ago, while volunteering at my church during their annual fall festival when a fellow parishioner approached me and asked, “Have you ever considered joining the Knights of Columbus?” I replied no, but I would be willing to consider doing so. I ended up joining the KofC and have enjoyed working side by side with some terrific gentlemen on a wide variety of volunteer efforts, not to mention having an opportunity to serve my Lord and his church.
Recently, the members of KofC Council 12761 honored me by electing me as their Chancellor. I assumed my new duties last evening during a special ceremony held at my church.
Why do I tell you all of this? Its to point out how serving others, no matter the organization or environment in which it is orchestrated will brighten your day. It gives widowed men “purpose,” and every man needs “purpose.”
As we travel down our never-ending journey of grief, each widowed man will have moments when he can choose to accelerate his own healing. One of the ways to do so is in the service of others. After all, there is no greater reward than what one feels after they have done something for someone who can’t pay them back. Celebrate the ‘life’ the of your bride by living yours. The choice is yours.
So what are your thoughts on this topic? Let’s hear from you.
So go ahead and register with WidowerSupportNetwork.com and then log-on to WidowerSupportNetwork.com FORUM. Read what others are writing. Learn from their mistakes. And when you’re ready, share a story or two of your own. It’s easy. It’s fun. And communicating with other widowers can help those who are suffering heal…including you. Besides…like everything associated with WidowerSupportNetwork.com, its FREE.