7 Tips on Handling Grief

Red and green rollercoaster in the shape of a heart

Grief is an emotional rollercoaster

Grief can be caused by many things.  For me, grief came to visit when I lost my husband.  Grief is a natural response when we experience loss.  If I could only share a few things with someone on grief, this is what I would share:

1. Grieve with your children.  Don’t tell them how they should feel and don’t let anyone tell you how to feel.  We can also get lost in telling ourselves how we should feel.  We are our hardest critics.  Don’t let your children’s perception be ruined by allowing others to tell them how to feel.  Make sure that they know it is okay to cry, to yell and scream.  You might want to let them know that the library is an unacceptable place to do that though.

2. Pay attention to your health.  Get physical.  Run, walk, skip, whatever you can do, but keep moving.  Exercise has a way of clearing your mind and allowing you to focus. 

3. There is no timeline.  Cry when you need to, laugh when you want to and smile because you can. Do not let anyone tell you that you get a year to grieve or you should be over that by now.  Everyone has their own grieving period.  Grieve as fast or as slow as you need to.

4. Feel sorry for yourself.  It sucks your spouse is gone. But at some point you need to stop.  We cannot wallow in self pity forever, but it’s normal to do it for awhile.  So many people ask themselves…why me?  You will not find that answer, but if you need to search for it…do it.   Find a way to not dwell on the idea for too long or you will spend the rest of your life looking for the answer.

5. Don’t ignore the pain.  It will be hard to want to face your life, but do it with your arms open as wide as you can handle. This is how you can work through your feelings.  There might be times when you can only handle so much, so back up, cross your arms and don’t let any more pain in at that moment.  When you feel it subsiding, open up a little more and face it.  Trust me, it is scary, you feel vulnerable and it will not be fun.  One day, it will be worth it.

6. Find support…from friends or talk to a counselor.  Facing your loss is hard, and you do not need to do it alone.  Talk to friends when you need to.  Find the people you trust and share your fears and vulnerability.  You should be able to lean on your friends. Talking to a counselor helps.    An unbiased opinion will listen and guide you to a rational mind.

7. Plan ahead when you can for triggers.  Prepare yourself for the emotional rollercoaster.  There are anniversaries, holidays, birthdays and so many firsts.  The anxiety that happens before the event is almost worse than going through the event.  There will be some triggers that will catch you off guard.  It happens.  It was hard for me to remove my husband’s name from accounts we had.  I did not prepare myself for it and it triggered my emotional rollercoaster.

I hope these few tips will help you get through another moment when you feel like hiding under the covers or look in the mirror and see the stranger looking back at you.  Take the time to grieve every day if you can.  If you can put aside an hour or even a few minutes it will help.  Let your mind wander, validate your feelings and use your crazy courage.

How many stages of grief?

A woman sitting in bed with head on knee.  White backgroundIf you Google the term grief, you will find that there are anywhere from 5 to 8 stages of grief.  I can only talk about the stages that I went through.  I do not believe that I went through them in any sort of order, but I can confirm that I revisited several of the stages more than once.  When I thought I got through something like the anger, it came back in another form and I was forced to go through it again.  We never know what might spark the feelings that are associated with a stage.  This is why I believe we need to educate ourselves on grief and what we might expect.  It allows us to recognize what we are feeling and why.  This will help us get through and feel more control over our behaviors.

The very first thing, I believe everyone feels is shock.  I think back to the moment that those words came out of the agent’s mouth…you’re husband is dead.  A feeling shot through my body that is hard to describe, but it started in my heart and spread like wild fire to the bottoms of my feet to the top of my head.   I only cried for a few moments.  I believe my body was not ready to handle all the pain that was coming with my husband’s death.   I adapted into a project manager to make sure I had taken care of all that came with his death until his funeral.  I still cried a lot…every time I spoke with someone of his death, when I laid in bed, spoke with my children, discussed the funeral and many other moments.

I saw my children go through shock.  Moments after I told my son, his father was dead, he stopped himself from crying and wanted to watch Sponge Bob Square Pants.   It was his way to save himself from the life changing news I shared with him.

In the mornings, I would sit on my patio saying to myself, I cannot believe he is dead.  I wanted to deny any knowledge of his death.  Not one ounce of me wanted to believe that he died.  There was no way my husband would have died.  He was too strong to die. For so long, I believed I would hear the garage door swing open, hear the deep clump of his boots and see him walk into the kitchen.  He would give me a hug, telling me to smell his stinky arm pits and laugh (it sounded like crusty the clown’s laugh), take his duty belt off and I would watch him in his green uniform walk up the stairs to put his gun in the safe.   I NEVER wanted to believe that this would not happen again.

I wanted to see him after he was killed, but no one would let me.  They thought I could not handle it; that I did not want to see him like that.  It was easy to deny his death, because I did not see his dead body until I went to the funeral home.   There I did not see his injuries; I saw his lifeless body with a lot of makeup covering his face.  It reminded me of the picture I saw of him when he was sleeping on the floor and a few people thought it was funny to put makeup on his face.  I reached to grab his hand and it was hard and cold. Those were not the hands that I held so many times before.

It was not until I asked the investigator to show me all the pictures of the crash, which included the pictures of Mike.  Reading the autopsy report and EMT report did not provide the proof to me that he sustained the extent of injuries that would have taken his life.  Those were only words on a piece of paper.  I needed to see if for myself.

Recently a friend asked me why I would want to look at those pictures.  I told her that I needed to see if I would have been able to go to him and hold his hand.  That I would have seen him no matter what, embraced him and kissed his forehead.  I was able to validate that I would have gone, that it did not matter what he looked like.  I needed to tell Mike goodbye when there was some resemblance of life, not after he was embalmed.  I thought that was the only reason until I began to write this blog.  Now I know that I also needed to understand and see his injuries with my eyes.

My husband’s sister lived with us for a while after Mike’s death.  My two year old would ask his aunt to bring his daddy home to him every time she left for work.  He would see her uniform and he knew where she was going.  I know you may believe that a two year old may not understand what happened completely, but denial happens to all of us.  He turns five soon and he still asks me where his dad is.  I tell him heaven.  Other times he asks, “Daddy, is dead, right?”  I tell him yes, every time.  I wish I could say no just once to see him smile, but it is not our reality.

I bargained with my own life, just to have my husband back.  I was willing to replace his death with my own.  If I could have turned back time and needed him to stay home, then it would not have happened.  Talking to the life insurance company made me sick.  I thought that if I did not accept the money, there may be a chance he would come back to his children, back to me.  But I would look at my children and it would bring the reality that I alone was now financially responsible for them.  I bargained for days, weeks, months, except there was no one that could bring Mike back.

The pain that came with his death was unbearable.  There were moments I could not breathe.  The pain gnaws away at you.  It over powers your body, your brain and even your heart. It takes away all the control you had. I thought that the pain may take my own life way. My children’s whimpers, in the middle of the night, were even more painful to hear then my own.   There was a decision that I had to make.  I had to decide that I wanted to push through the pain and live.

The guilt that I felt when Mike died was for anything that I might have done in my life that could have been deemed as “bad”.  I thought that maybe if I hadn’t done this or that, then I would not have been punished.  Fortunately, I did not carry too much guilt or ponder it for very long.  What I felt were the many regrets.  The heartache that came with we could, should or would have done this sooner if we knew what was going to happen.  The hardest regret to overcome is the little baby girl that we planned.  We had two amazing sons and all we needed was a little girl.  She would have had Mike wrapped around her little finger (just as his two sons did), I often told him.  He would laugh and I would say your little princess.

The anger that I felt towards anything and everything was the most negative stage that I experienced.  I was mad at Mike for dying.  I was angry at the lady that killed him.  I was angry at my children for not grieving properly (so I thought until I educated myself on the ways a child grieves).  I was angry at the cashier, at anyone that would smile and laugh, that was living their life when I was lost.

A story I shared in Crazy Courage, was about this cashier that I did not treat so well.  I refer to it as an episode.  I was in the grocery line, paying for groceries and I was using several gift cards I had received.  As I was taking them out and swiping each one, the cashier started to giggle.  When she did this I literally wanted to slap the giggle out of her.  I could not understand what was so funny.  She said “wow did you just get married?”  I looked up and gave her the ugliest glare I could give and said with a snarl, “No, my husband just died!”  The look on that woman’s face turned from smile to a look of humility and she was horrified and unsure what to say.  I actually felt better for making her feel bad for saying that to me.

Anger is so hard to control and has a way of consuming you.  I punched my pillow many nights.  It’s a good thing my pillow’s bruises did not show.  My son would beat our red punching bag, sometimes with a plastic bat.  When he left the exercise room, he usually left the anger there.  With rips on the bag to mark where he had released it.

Depression and loneliness hovered over me like a plague.  It was hard to recognize but my behavior was a tell-all sign of it.  I did things that I would not normally do and just wanted to have someone with me.  I did not want to be alone, because it would remind me that Mike was gone.  I wanted to interact with people and feel the loneliness drift away.  Only at night I would find, lying in my bed, the loneliness would appear seeping into my pores and filling my body.  I would look over and see the empty space.  It would force me out of my bed to the corner of my room to cry.  To curl up in the fetal position, just wanting this all to end.  For all of it to be over!

There were moments when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.  I was having an upward turn.   I thought that I was getting passed all the pain, denial, guilt, regret, bargaining, anger, depression and loneliness.  I would feel “good”.  But I would continue to experience the feelings over and over again.   I thought they would never go away.  Although the period of time that I would have “good” days would increase compared to the other days.  I believe we can all expect to relive the feelings more than once.

Accepting Mike’s death was hard.  So many times, I believed I had accepted it, but I had not.  I spent time not wanting to accept it.  I refused to accept it.  I did not want to lose any part of Mike.  I thought all the memories, the way he smelled and the look on his face when he found out I was pregnant would fade away.  I was scared.  I had no hope, I thought that I would just have to “deal” with it all of my life.  When I say deal with it, I do not mean in a positive way.

 Accepting his death was a slow process. It happened over time, almost like pieces of a puzzle.  I started by putting it together, building the outside first, then working towards finishing, searching for the right place for the inner pieces.   It was hard to figure out where they all belonged, but I did it.  I began accepting my life without him, accepting that I cannot control everything. Writing helped me with this.  I accepted my path and walked with one foot in front of the other.   There were many days that I took far more steps backwards than I did forward. Finally, I accepted my life story was not over, but Mike’s was.

My Forever

Mike and Samantha kissing on their wedding day.  Flowers in background

On our wedding day.

Mike and I were married in Las Vegas.  We joked about it and thought it was pretty cool to be married in the Garden of Love.

There were so many people that walked down the aisle before us, but when I turned the corner our eyes met.  It was as if this was our place where our intimate bond would be the first and last to have united in marriage in this room.  It did not matter where we got married, what mattered were the words we shared with each other in our vows.

When I said “I, Samantha, take you, Mike, to be my lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” it never once crossed my mind that death would part us before we both were retired, with grey hair, barely able to see and walk with great-grandchildren running around.

Hearing his shaky voice with tears welling up in his eyes as he said, “I, Mike, take you, Samantha, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part” I never thought that he would ever leave me behind.

I took our vows to mean forever, that there would be no end to our time together.  That we would die together in a bed, lying next to one another with my head on his chest holding hands.  That our family would cry, not that they would be sad we were gone, because the end of our life story ended the way we did everything else in our lives…together.

On September 2nd 2010, my sense of forever changed.  The part of our marriage vows “until death do us part” happened.   A woman’s bad decision changed my concept of forever.

I thought our vows would last until the end of my time, not Mike’s.   Just thinking about this and writing it down makes my eyes well up with tears and here comes the tightness in my throat.  Why did my forever have to change?  It was unfair that I had Mike taken from me and my children. I realized that I am not in control of everything and what I did with that was important.

After I watched my husband’s casket being carried away, I knew my forever ended.  I needed to redefine what my forever meant.  To me it was about love.  I can carry love…that love with me forever.  I can hold onto the look in his eyes on our wedding day and the days that followed.  Love is something you cannot touch, but you can feel.

It was no longer about rolling over in bed and watching his hair turn even grayer.  Yes, at 32 he had several grey hairs.  It would no longer be the intimate moments, making coffee before he left for work, talking on the patio about our future and laughing when we imagined our children growing older.   It was about the love we had for each other, our children and the memories we shared.

Forever is the desire that I have in my heart to write this blog, my book; to educate people about trauma, about loss and what it feels like to have your marriage ended without having a choice.  It’s telling my children when they do something just like their father.  It’s fulfilling the promises I made to Mike when he was alive.  It is about letting go of my anger, forgiving him for dying and remembering our life together.  He still holds a corner of my heart, but has a different place in my life now.

My forever is about facing my new life with courage and living again.

A Widow’s Connotation continued…

A woman cashier in a grocery lineHow are we supposed to feel as a widow?  There are days when I felt angry, sad, depressed and when I was in shock.  I did want others to be as angry as I was and feel what I felt.  I did have breakdowns, blow ups (one happened to be at the funeral director and another at a cashier in a local grocery store) and overall depressive behavior. These are “normal” feelings that society expects.  What about the days when I was smiling, I didn’t cry or feel sorry for myself.  How does society react to this?  It’s like people get even more confused when you laugh at a joke or smile at a neighbor after you lose your spouse. The fact is, we are human and there are days when I did not feel like crying.  I was so tired of crying and being depressed.   I would wake up those days and vow that I was going to have a “happy” day.  I would not let the emotions control me that day.  If I wanted to have some light at the end of the dark trauma tunnel, I needed to laugh. 

When I became a widow, I was young.  Did this change what society’s connotations of my widowhood?  I believe so.  There are widows that are much older than I was and they thought that since I spent much less time with my husband, Mike, I did not get the respect or carry the sorrow that they did.  So even amongst the “group of widows” there were some beliefs.  We both felt robbed of time with our loved one.  When we took our vows of marriage, no matter how old we were or how long ago it was, we thought it was for the rest of our lives.  Not once did I think it would be for the rest of my husband’s life.  On the other hand, you might think that someone that becomes a widow at 70 is lucky they got to spend so much time with their significant other that they did not miss out on much, but they do.  What about dating again or getting married again?  There are connotations on this as well.  People have expectations on how much time should go by before this happens.  There are also certain expectations that come with how old you are.  The expectation differs if you are a man (widower) or a woman (widow) that has lost their spouse.   I believe the fact if you have children is considered by society as it relates to society’s beliefs on how you should feel or act.  The fact of the matter is there is no right timeframe, age or gender that should impact beliefs.   We are our own person.  Life is full of unexpected events, like the passing of your loved one.  Why should there be expectations on timelines on other events in life?  There shouldn’t be.

As a widow I felt responsible for so much.  I was responsible for Mike’s last wishes and keeping his memory alive.  I put a lot of responsibility on myself.  I wanted to make sure I was doing what Mike wanted me to do.  I even developed a saying “What would Mike do?”  It helped me get through some tough decisions that I had to make.  I am not sure if it was society’s connotations that created this feeling or if it was my own doing.  The community does feel a strong need to take care of the widow.  This is something that needs to remain.  The support those around us can get us through the day or even the next hour.  I wonder if this was created by passages in the Bible or culture.

Over time, widow connotations have been developed, just as other connotations in society are developed.  Words mean different things to different people.  It all depends on your experiences, but society has a role in this.  We can change what society believes, but what is important is that we believe in our own decisions and ourselves.  There are people that do not completely understand or can’t comprehend what a widow goes through emotionally and physically unless they have become one.  We make our own path in our life story from what is given to us, even if we have to make it on our own. 

I encourage you to not always follow the connotations, but to muster the courage to face the unexpected, unfamiliar life to begin to heal, love and live again.

 

A Widow’s Connotation

Jackie Kennedy in black dress and black vail.  With her two small children. With John Jr. saluting at JFK's funeral.

Jackie and her children at JFK’s funeral

There are many contributions to what we develop as our beliefs.  Society has a large impact on what we deem as “normal”.  Although I am a big believer there is no normal.  When I became a widow, I did not know how I was supposed to act or what I was supposed to do.  As we grow up we look at people for guidance and search for mentors.   I had seen my grandmother become a widow, but I was young to really understand behaviors.  A famous widow that I can think of is Jacqueline Kennedy.  There are pictures of her all over the internet and President Kennedy’s funeral was all over the media, as was his death.  Jacqueline Kennedy is really an icon.  When you picture her, you might see her black dress, dark eyes and hair.  She wore a pearl necklace quite often and large sunglasses.  Is this what a widow is supposed to look like?  There were so many times that I could have used some validation that what I was doing was right.  I even wondered if I looked like a widow.  I thought I could be recognized by anyone as a widow and for some time wanted to be recognized that way.  If they recognized me as a widow then all of the connotations that come with the word would not need to be said out loud by me.

But I discovered very quickly that I did not want to be associated with all of society’s beliefs about widows.  Although the connotations today have changed over time, some of them remain the same.  In the past, widows were to wear black for the rest of their lives to signify they were mourning.  In some instances the widow wore black for the first year after their spouse’s death.  People still use a year as some sort of magic number.  As a widow we will mourn for the rest of our lives, but how changes through first few weeks, months or years.   In certain cultures, a widow is required to marry within their late husband’s family.  Could you imagine if you were required to marry someone specific after you lost the person you loved?  Especially if all that was eligible was Uncle Bob.  But the best idea of all that I have learned about is that the widow is to throw yourself onto the lifeless burning body of your husband at their funeral.  This is called a sati.  I understand that there are certain culture and religious beliefs, so to each their own.  But if someone told me to jump on the fire and burn myself, I am not sure I could do it.  Actually, I can guarantee I would not be able to do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my late husband.  I am just not willing to burn myself alive.  If I did, I can only imagine what he would say to me.  He might ask me if I ate my “stupid sandwich” for breakfast that day.  On a serious note, there was a time when I wanted to die right along with my husband.  I even pictured my own death.  Thankfully I got through those feelings.

 Return Friday for more on my thoughts on widow’s connotation.

The different journeys during the healing process.

Woman with white coat, hand on her forehead sitting in graveyard leaning on headstone.  With grey skies

We have our own journey to healing.

If I were to compare my own journey with others during our healing process they would vary in some way.  You might have a mother that lost a son, a sister whom lost a little brother, a son that lost his father and a wife that lost her husband.  Each of these people will be impacted differently.  They can be impacted by what role their loved one played in their life story:

  • A mother who gave birth to her son who is not supposed to die before she does
  • A sister who grew up with her brother and was at his side through many accomplishments; you might say they were best friends
  • A son who relied on his father to protect and comfort him
  • A wife who made those sacred vows with her husband and made so many plans together

All of these individuals will have their own personal struggles, but will definitely have one thing in common and that is the loss of their loved one, the fact that they will miss the presence of them and will have a long journey of healing.

As a widow, I thought as I was meeting other widows during their journey that we would have experienced our healing the same way.  The fact is: we don’t!  During my journey, I have met many other widows, and each widow went through her own individual process of healing.  We will likely experience some of the same things, but not every thought, feeling, or experience will be the same.

There are so many factors that will affect the way a person heals.  I noticed things that, I believe, have affected the way in which someone has healed or is healing. If they have children, that can impact the process.  The widow/er will need to be a mother or father to the children as each of them is healing. Maybe a spouse died before the couple could have a child; then the spouse left behind must deal with the fact that they will never have a child with their spouse.

How the last moments were spent with their spouse alive, as well as the marriage overall, impacts the healing process.  The couple’s financial status can have a very big impact on how a widow manages through the process.  Other factors that will impact healing are how well you get along with your in-laws, friends that you have and the overall support of the people around you.  

Another thing will be how the person died.  You may not think that it could play that big of a role in the healing process, but it does.  What if the person left one night and did not return or you might have watched your spouse suffer from an illness before dying?  Maybe they were murdered or they could have taken their own life.  These instances bring different questions and trauma with them.

In the end, after you watch your spouse’s casket being carried away, you realize that you are left alone; without the person you had dreams with, the person who was a part of your everyday life, the person who brought you purpose, the person you love. This is when your journey of healing begins.  The one where you will meet many crossroads and where you will have to choose a path.  Choosing your path is difficult; the whole healing process is difficult.  There is nothing easy about it. 

This trauma brings you to your most vulnerable raw state as a person.  The people around you will really get to know the person you are and watch you transform as you walk the journey of healing.