Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Year of Firsts

Someone told me that the first year after the loss of a spouse is a series of “firsts.”  First Christmas without your loved one, first birthday, and so on.  Valentines’ Day would be near the top of that list, since it’s the holiday that celebrates love and relationships. 

Paying Attention

One of the most important things Jim taught his sons about successful relationships was “pay attention to what she likes.”  So for Valentines’ Day, I never got that big, bright red heart-shaped box all decked out in ribbons and lace, because that is not what I really liked.  Store-bought manufactured chocolates don’t qualify as “real chocolate” in my opinion.  The best chocolates are crafted with dedication and love.  Every year, I looked forward to a small, plain white box of handmade truffles that Jim had personally selected from the shop that made our wedding cake. That said “love” to me in a way that a big red heart never could.

It's All About the Laughter

Jim wasn't one for the grand gesture, but he always could make me laugh.  One year he excitedly presented me with jewelry-type box.  I opened it and found a small plastic soldier that had been painted turquoise.  "It's an aqua marine!" he said. Aquamarine was our son's birthstone. Later on, I got the real thing, but that silly plastic soldier is the gift I remember most.

No one will ever make me laugh like that, but that doesn’t mean I won’t laugh again.  When you are grieving, you are also surrounded by people who want to help, but aren’t sure what to do.  The best thing you can do for yourself, and for them, is to ask for what you need. 

New "Firsts"

Recently I asked for a Girl’s Movie Night with some dear friends.  We watched “Trainwreck” and howled at Amy Schumer’s raunchy humor.  Another weekend, I joined another group of friends for a quilting retreat.  Being surrounded by colorful fabrics and beautiful projects and loving support took most of the loneliness away.  I also knew that I could just go and sit quietly by myself if I needed to.  

Navigating the landmines of memory in the first year means creating new memories – different ones that are filled with love and laughter.  Love comes in many forms, and it is waiting for us to reach out and claim it. If you are struggling with a holiday, ask yourself “how can  I make this one special in a different way?” 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Life [and death] is what happens when you are busy making other plans

This rephrasing of John Lennon's famous quote summarizes what has happened in my life since I last posted here. You, my friends, already know this, but I wanted to share with you a little of what I've learned from my experience.


It was a quiet summer Sunday afternoon.  Having read the Sunday paper, I was watching a golf tournament on TV and actually dozed off for a few minutes.  I woke up to Scout, our 10-year-old Labradoodle, woofing to go out.  I let him out and then, a few minutes later, checked on him because my husband Jim was working in the yard and I knew he'd left the gate open.  I looked out in the yard for Jim, and saw him lying face down near the pickup truck. My first thought was "oh, he's working on the sprinkler lines." Instantaneously came another thought and the first clue that my life was about change forever. "There aren't any sprinkler lines there. This is VERY bad!"  I grabbed my cell phone and ran to where he lay.


Every person who is in a long-term relationship knows at some level of awareness that one of the two partners will outlive the other.  Jim and I were married for 26 years and expected to spend at least 20 more together.  We had retirement plans, dreams of living in the Colorado foothills near our grandchildren, visions of an active and happy old age together. But in a heartbeat, all those plans became meaningless. 


I rolled Jim over, trying to start CPR, calling his name, slapping his face lightly, begging him to respond.  He didn’t look like himself because there was no life, no joy, no love in his face.  I could feel the door of our life together closing. I was shaking too hard to dial my cell phone, so I screamed for help and neighbors rushed into our yard. Pulling me away, they started CPR and called 911. It all felt like an out-of-body experience. I was watching this calmly but with a feeling of dread, knowing that, after this, nothing would ever be the same. In that moment, I felt hollow inside, having no sense of who I was or what would happen next. I was disconnected from the person I had been, and empty of the person I would become.


In  the days that followed Jim’s death, I began to move from numbness to feeling. One of my strongest feelings was fear. I was terrified -- of our finances, of Jim's unfinished work as a builder and general contractor, of being alone. Grief counselor and writer, Christina Rasmussen, speaks of the fear associated with loss: "After loss, we perceive the entire world as dangerous because the amygdala [part of the brain that process sensory input] instantly compares new experiences with this trauma and what it means in your life." I felt like I had landed in a minefield with no clear path to safety. Besides the fear of all the knowns in my life, I was terrified of the unknown. If my life could change this quickly and unexpectedly, what other changes might be lurking ahead of me?

I have learned that this fear can be managed, that taking small steps and risks will re-train my protective neural patterns to trust life again. I also have learned from Christina's book that the life I have now is a preparation for the life I am constructing out of the remnants of the past.  This new life will unfold as I walk forward, taking gradual steps, simple but sustainable steps, on the path before me, the path to my future.