A Hopeful New Year

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Unlike any other time of the year, the end of December pressures us to take stock. Looking back is painful. Looking ahead is scary. Whether your loss was last month or ten months ago, it feels fresh now.  But remember, you have an incredible resource, YOU.

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Surviving the loss of your partner is one of the most difficult challenges you will face. Whatever the circumstances, you’ve gone through an emotional upheaval. And though you may not know it, you’re moving on. Perhaps you don’t want to hear that phrase ‘moving on’? It may sound trite, like a section heading in a bereavement brochure. But the truth is you are moving on.

When it comes to loss, you’ll discover a few universal truths. Perhaps the most relevant today, as we contemplate the year ahead, is this well-worn phrase:  time heals. Yes, it’s cliché. It’s also true. From one widow to another, I can tell you that each month felt different, that a week made a difference…though sometimes I didn’t realize that week was better until a month later. Slowly but steadily, my grief changed. It wasn’t as suffocating. It stopped greeting me first thing in the morning, and eventually wasn’t the last thing on my mind before I succumbed to sleep. While there are no rules or timelines for grieving – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – as the days and weeks and months pass, healing takes place.

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I wish all my widowed friends a hopeful new year. Let your memories bring you comfort. Find the strength to pursue new dreams. Make it a point to find joy in every day. Don’t be shy to cry, don’t feel guilty when laughing, be good to yourself, you deserve it.

 

2017

Good Grief, It’s the Holidays

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The last thing you want to do is celebrate, but it’s everywhere. Office parties. Family gatherings. Friendly get-togethers. Is the scent of balsam making you teary? Does the sound of sleigh bells have you pining for seasons past? We can’t stop Christmas from coming, but we can cope. Here are a few tips to tackle the holiday season.

Take Charge & Step Down – If you’ve been hosting Christmas Eve or Hanukkah these past few years and have no desire to do so this year, reach out to family members – they may be shy to ask if you’re up to the task, but happy to help.

Shake It Up & Host – For those who haven’t been hosting, this year might be the time to step up. Sound crazy? Not really. For some, being busy is half the battle; preparing and cooking is a much-needed distraction. Plus, you’re in control when the gathering is on your own turf, making the get-together during this difficult time more palatable.

The White Lie – Perhaps your mind is set on no party. While others may be dreaming of a big white Christmas there’s no reason you can’t tell a little white lie. I did. It was the first Easter after Robert had passed and I felt like being alone. I told friends I’d be with family; and told my family I’d be with friends. Easy peasy. I had a quiet day alone, went to the gym, cooked my favorite foods and binged on TV in comfy clothes. The day passed painlessly and without a hint of pity. Avoid the awkwardness of being on the receiving end of an invitation you know you’re going to decline by having your alibi ready. If you stammer an ‘Oh, I don’t know…’ the good-natured inviter may pressure you into a ‘Yes.’

Find Comfort in Common – Reach out to other widows/ers, perhaps you kept in touch with members of your bereavement group. Meeting up with others in the same situation can be an oasis in the midst of holiday hell. There’s no pressure to be jolly and a mutual understanding about the challenges of the season can be therapeutic.

Pamper Yourself – If ever the rejuvenating and calming effects of a spa day were needed, it’s now. Go!

Let Yourself Spree – Indulge. A bit of financially responsible self-gifting might help ease the holidays. A pair of great boots. Maybe a makeover. Upgrade your cable.

Refresh – Don’t be afraid to start new traditions. Now more than ever, you may welcome that sense of newness. Initiate a Day-After-Christmas-Dinner at a favorite restaurant. Perhaps it’s time for a scaled down tree? Or replace the tree with poinsettia plants and some funky new house decorations.

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Holiday Health – If you see a therapist, schedule an extra session or two during the holidays to help alleviate any added pressures of the season.

Home Alone? – You don’t have to stay home. Go to the movies. Plan a museum visit. Volunteer.

The Great Outdoors is Calling – There’s something about being cooped up inside that wreaks havoc on our mood. Get out. Take a walk. Go for a run. Bike. Let Mother Nature have her way with you.

Get Cozy – When you are inside, make sure your home is comfortable, uncluttered, clean and filled with good food, including healthy as well as not-so-healthy treats. ’tis the season.

Be Accepting – Your inner circle wants to help – let them. Accept offers of help with your holiday shopping, babysitting, cooking, dog walking, snow shoveling.

Be A Gracious Guest – If you feel ready, say ‘yes’ when asked out to dinner, for a drink, to a party. Please try.

Be Good – Get involved with a volunteer organization. Offer to help a sick friend. Find time to spend with an elderly neighbor. Do good, feel good.

Remember – When you’re with friends and family, stories inevitably are told and retold. Share memories of your loved one. Say their name. Tell their stories. Feel their presence. It will help all of you through your grief.

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Post-Mortem Letters

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In the spirit of celebrating love after death, I’m sharing this letter of my late husband’s to his deceased mother that I came across recently. Unlike the stereotypical mother-in-law / daughter-in-law relationship, I adored my mother-in-law.  Nancy was a character, as was her son. I like to think of Robert and his mother together now. At peace. Comfortable. Unbroken.

To my widowed comrades and those who have lost loved ones, I hope you find peace and comfort in your memories.

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[Robert’s letter to his mother, post mortem]

Dear Mom,

Did you know we were going out for Chinese food just before you died? It sounds like a book title, but just when we told you that, you finally gave up your struggle…and left us. I hope wherever you are that you got there by a rainbow.

It was the hardest thing to watch, but I guess we would all have regrets if we weren’t with you. What did it feel like? Did you hear our tears of sorrow, and Dad’s tears of regret. He did love you and told you that just before you died. He probably took your death the worst…maybe he underestimated just how much you meant to him, and what living alone means for a guy his age.

Richie, Toni and the kids are fine. Paula and I are OK too. We quote you often…all your little pearls of wisdom. Did you like my eulogy? I wanted to capture what a unique woman you were…eccentricities and all.

You were so loved and respected by your friends and family. I still feel your loss. So many times I still have the urge to telephone you…then I realize…I don’t have your new number.

Your legacy as a mother and a person still, and always will, live on in my heart.

I could always say anything to you, and you were never without an opinion. Usually well-meaning. I just wish you listened to your own advice.

Your struggle with cancer was difficult to watch, but I know we all did a good job of managing your care and making sure you were comfortable. But I must admit, after all the doctor visits, your death was a relief for us, and I’m sure for you.

I just wish you were happier, even during the years before you got sick. I realized how unhappy you were and how you often created the things that made you unhappy. I also wish that you could have treated Dad better. You both just couldn’t say nice things to each other until the bitter end…that’s heavy, and it was all such nonsense anyway.

You had much to live for, and I’m not so sure you really realized that. But your mistakes will enlighten me, and what doesn’t kill me, will make me stronger.

You were a wonderful mother, always, and I mean always, there when I needed you. From sitting outside my kindergarten class when I was afraid to stay in school, to encouraging me to be whatever I wanted to when I grew up.

What would you do if you came back to us? I still haven’t told anyone about the time you scraped the car driving home from Grandma’s. And I cherish the memories of our trip to Ireland. Thank God we went. And I was always so happy that you knew what a wonderful and fine person Paula is.

Thanks for teaching me to always be myself, match my colors, don’t be afraid to cry, write ‘thank you’ notes, put the stereo loud when I like a song, marry for love, be liberal and open-minded, speak up, give people hearty hellos, eat good food and have some sense of God. It all mattered and made me a better person.

How many times have we all wished we could take the past and bottle it. Instead, it remains behind us, with its many memories. You’re part of so many. I hope we’ll meet again someday.

We’ll be at the doll collectors show in May…wish you could be there.

Your loving son,

Robert

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Your Late Husband’s Blessing

 

Crash Widow Lady Mary of Downton Abbey has an emotional scene at Matthew’s grave.  “I will always love you,” she vows.

The inevitable questions persist:  Would they approve? Would they be happy for us? If circumstances were reversed, would they do the same?

Like many widows who have had the good fortune to meet someone, Lady Mary declares: “The truth is I love him.”

Love after death can be fraught with complications, but letting your heart be your guide is perhaps the best way to move on and love again.

Death Anniversaries

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We remember our dearly departed throughout the year, but on death anniversaries we can count on the calendar to trigger our emotions. Similar to remembering where we were on 9/11, a death anniversary of a loved one is steeped in our psyche because of its tremendous impact on our lives. On anniversaries loved ones may visit the grave, light a candle, say a prayer, raise a glass in toast.

That initial anniversary in widowhood was the most powerful, having survived the Year of Firsts. As each anniversary presented itself, life was a little different. I was different.

Today marks seven years since Robert passed. I once stumbled upon a morning ritual of Robert’s during a challenging time in his life after he lost his mother. Before he left for work, he queued up his favorite Aretha Franklin song, closed his eyes and listened.

Robert, I hope you’re at peace. I hope you’re with your mother and father (and I hope they’re getting along up there!). Thank you for all the wonderful times. Please know that I am happy and that…I Say A Little Prayer for you.

 

 

Learning About Death From David Bowie

An interesting article from my friend and colleague, Liz Seegert, about end-of-life conversations.

 

Celebrity deaths and moving end-of-life conversations forward

Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, The Atlantic.com, New America Media, AARP.com, Practical Diabetology and Home Care Technology report. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College in New York City, and co-produces HealthStyles for WBAI-FM/Pacifica Radio.

Photo: Jonathan Bayer via Flickr

It’s been some month. With so many high-profile deaths reported this January — David Bowie, Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, Dan Haggerty of Grizzly Adams, thehusband and the brother of singer Celine Dion, Mott the Hoople’s Dale Griffin – it’s enough to give you the shivers.

We know about these deaths because they’re high-profile celebrities and rock icons.We don’t generally know about the thousands of other, less-famous people who also died this month from cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, complications from multiple chronic conditions or other causes. With the world paying attention — in part thanks to Bowie’s final gift of “Blackstar” – it’s an opportunity to extend the discussion surrounding palliative care, hospice and how we want to die.

A palliative care physician wrote a moving post-mortem letter to Bowie, thanking him for helping to move this conversation forward with another patient. It’s a tough talk for anyone to have – so tough that the Journal of the American Medical Association devotes nearly its entire Jan. 19 issue to palliative and end-of-life issues.

The publication incorporates a wide range of thought pieces – a daughter with a care planfor her mother’s final days; a young medical student confronted with the struggle between suffering and curing disease; an editorial from Atul Gawande who wonders if medical care for those at the end of life has actually gotten worse. Kudos to the editors for including articles on family perspectives about treatment at end of life — describing the agonizing debate so many of us – regardless of the celebrity status of our loved one — must go through. It’s a struggle that Charles Ornstein, past president of AHCJ, wrote about after his mother’s death.

There’s no doubt it’s difficult for clinicians to discuss end-of-life care, as this article from the Health Journalism 2015 panel discussion on the topic reminds us. Cancer patient and advocate Amy Berman points out that treatment isn’t necessarily the best approach. For a refresher on covering this issue, take a look at my two-part Q&A with Nancy Berlinger from the Hastings Center on what journalists should emphasize and how to approach end-of-life coverage with sensitivity.

While the medical community has done much to extend life span and help people live well into their 80s and 90s, many people will still die before reaching old age. Bowie was 69, Frey, 67. Haggarty, 74. And Dale Griffin, who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s, just 58. It’s why experts in end-of-life care stress the importance of having conversations with family and providers before disease strikes, to prepare advance directives, designate health proxies and ensure that the individual is as fully in control as possible about end-of-life decisions.

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