Holiday Survival Tips for the Widowed

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Thanksgiving ushers in the holiday season on a tidal wave of nostalgia. It’s a time of year steeped in traditions. Just what you need now, a whoosh of memories. There are crowds and colors, songs and snowfalls, parties and presents, and shiny happy people singing carols in Currier and Ives settings. Feeling like a Grinch? Don’t sweat it. We’ve all been there, seemingly on the outside looking in at all those Facebook friends living perfect lives! Stop. Relax. Breathe. You’ll get through this. The holidays can be challenging under the best of circumstances — losing a loved one makes it seem impossible. While you can’t change the past, you can take charge of your future.

  • Spruce Up – That first year I couldn’t bring myself to put up a tree – it felt too forced – but I did clean up and spruce up with a few decorations. It made a big difference having a little bit of Christmas sparkle surrounding me, prompting childhood memories.  A few poinsettias near the fireplace and the scent of fresh pine from the wreath on the door made me smile when smiles were scarce.
  • Be Charitable, Turn on Your Kindness – It’s the season for giving and although you may not feel you have much to give, you do. Any act of kindness provides an emotional boost. Check in on an elderly neighbor, donate clothing, volunteer at a charitable event. When you do good, you feel good.
  • Smile – “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”~Thich Nhat Hanh. When you smile you actually trigger certain neurons to fire (that’s a good thing). In the Psychology Today article “There’s Magic In Your Smile,” Sarah Stevenson explains the biology. “Each time you smile you throw a little feel-good party in your brain. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness.” Try it. Besides making you feel good, smiling is infectious; return smiles are almost guaranteed.
  • Host – Organize a holiday get-together with other widows/ers and those you’ve met in your bereavement group. They may be grateful for the opportunity and your common bond will foster a relaxed mood.
  • Be A Guest – Make your best effort to attend holiday gatherings (at least one). Shunning the holidays oftentimes makes it worse. We can’t stop Christmas from coming, but being with people is comforting and reassuring.
  • Be Appropriate – While we all need a shoulder to cry on, holiday parties aren’t the place. Try to put your best foot forward.
  • Take Care of Yourself – It’s an exhausting time of the year with shopping and preparation – be good to yourself, get enough sleep and keep up your exercise routine.
  • Indulge – ’tis the season for cooking and baking and feasting – allow yourself the indulgence of holiday treats.
  • Make plans – Be aware that you may need to reach out first. Friends and family, even other widowers, may be uncomfortable contacting you, assuming you’re not up for anything resembling fun.
  • Me Time – Being alone isn’t necessarily lonely. Don’t miss out on that movie you’ve been wanting to see or crossing a few items off your holiday shopping list just because you don’t have someone to accompany you.
  • Get Out – Take a walk, the winter air is invigorating. And if you’re not living in a cold weather area, even better! There’s no excuse for not taking advantage of the comforts and reassurance of Mother Nature.
  • Cozy Up with Comfort Foods – Make yourself a wonderful meal (or takeout – no judgment here at Widow 2.0 🙂 ) and settle in with your favorite holiday movie. Ignoring the holidays is almost impossible, find a way to be part of it.
  • Take a Trip – Some widows may feel the need to flee. Will a perfectly timed December vacation get you through the holidays? Know yourself. Will being on a beach keep the holidays at bay? For some, it is the answer.
  • Create New Traditions – Initiate a Girls Spa Day smack in the middle of the holiday season. Is it time for a scaled down tree? Go to midnight mass instead of a morning service.
  • Plan Ahead – You know the holidays are coming, make arrangements. If you’ve always hosted Christmas Eve or Hanukkah and have no desire to do so this year, reach out to family members – someone will likely step up, but may be hesitant to ask you.
  • Let the Good Memories Flow – Just as you can’t ignore the holidays, you can’t forget your loved one.  I found that referencing Robert made things easier on my family and friends, they knew it was OK to talk about him in front of me. Remember, you’re not the only one grieving; you’re loved one undoubtedly touched many lives. Sharing memories of your spouse with friends and family helps them through their grief.
  • Discriminate – Be with people that make you happy. If ever there was a time to rid your life of toxic people, now is that time.
  • Believe in Tomorrow – Allow me to offer up a crystal ball: it will get easier. Although each person’s situation is unique, from the widows I’ve communicated with these past five years as well as my own experience I’ve learned that the passage of time to be a great help. And a glimpse into your future can put this year into perspective.
  • Do It Your Way – There is no right or wrong way to handle the holidays, only YOUR way.

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Morning Songs – What Happens When the Songs Stop?

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The first morning after Robert passed away, I woke to the signature song from The Wizard of Oz, Robert’s favorite movie, playing in my head. Over. And over. I hadn’t gone to sleep with the TV on, hadn’t seen the movie recently. And yet ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ was looping in my head, waking me from a deep sleep. It felt like Robert was reaching out to me, letting me know he was OK. And that I’d be OK.

For months after, though not every day, I would wake with a song in my head, a stanza or chorus repeating. I’d jot it down so I wouldn’t lose it, the way you do with a dream, then Google the lyrics later. The words would be incredibly revealing. And the songs were often so obscure, that I couldn’t imagine this phenomenon was generated by my subconscious at work, but rather, I chose to acknowledge it as a communication. Music was so important to Robert, if there were a way to get in touch, what better means than by song?

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Eleven days after Robert’s death, I woke to the unlikely and annoying:  “My name is Michael, I got a nickel, I got a nickel, shiny and new…” The high-pitched, sing-songy style was stuck in my head all day. Later, however, when I read the lyrics to Playground In My Mind, it was stunningly appropriate:

When this old world gets me down

And there’s no love to be found

I close my eyes and soon I find

I’m in a playground in my mind

Robert was an alcoholic, escaping into a bottle – closing his eyes and going to the playground in his mind. While I hope he didn’t feel there was no love to be found, I’ve since learned that alcoholics with seemingly wonderful lives sometimes feel this way.

I’m a Dylan fan so it was no surprise that one dawn brought with it “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” When I emailed our friend Chris that morning, he typed back: “Don’t Think Twice is about a man leaving his woman…wow! Go to sleep quick and wake up and let me know what the next one is.”

The next morning’s song was Swing Low Sweet Chariot – when was the last time I heard that? – followed by All That Jazz. Robert was a big fan of Broadway musicals. Me? Not so much. Which was why I was surprised that — not knowing the lyrics — the song still somehow played in my head:

Find a glass

We’re playing fast and loose

And all that jazz

Right up here

Is where I store the juice

And all that jazz

Robert found lots of glasses. Hid lots of bottles. Drank lots ‘juice.’ Call it juice, call it hooch — the meaning was inescapable. Each song resonated with a message.

And the songs kept coming. The Bangles’ Eternal Flame, The Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By, Words of Love by the Mamas & the Papas. I thought Don Henley’s song The Heart of the Matter was called Forgiveness, hearing it looping in my brain one morning, until I looked it up online.  When I read the lyrics, I wondered if Robert was asking for my forgiveness. The phrases “empty arms” and “I’m learning to live without you” struck a chord, as Robert had been withdrawing from our life together, retreating to his man cave in the basement, cozying up with a bottle of scotch.

Tuesday Afternoon by the Moody Blues came on a Wednesday morning, the day of the memorial service being held at the university where Robert taught. The lyrics astounded me.

 

Tuesday afternoon,

I’m just beginning to see, now I’m on my way

It doesn’t matter to me, chasing the clouds away.

Something, calls to me,

The trees are drawing me near, I’ve got to find out why

Those gentle voices I hear explain it all with a sigh.

I’m looking at myself reflections of my mind,

It’s just the kind of day to leave myself behind.

Were the morning songs a way of mourning? Or my unconscious mind trying to make sense of life with an alcoholic and the world of widowhood? Or Robert reaching out to me? I was convinced it was the latter, a theory I shared with only a few people.  Chris — my concert buddy, a fellow rock n’ roller, and a close friend of Robert’s – chose to believe my theory, as well.

Initially, the songs were startling, but it wasn’t long before I found them comforting and had grown accustomed to the routine. Discovering the meaning in a stanza spinning in my head became a game of sorts; and I enjoyed talking with the friends with whom I’d dared to share my morning songs theory.

“What happens when the songs stop?” I’d asked Chris.

Without missing a beat, he responded, “That will mean you don’t need them anymore.”

I couldn’t imagine a day that would be true. But eventually the days came when I no longer woke to a song in my head. Chris was right, I no longer needed them.

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