Overcomplicated – Dealing With the Loss of a Loved One

It’s interesting and frustrating how we overcomplicate things. We accept the reality of some things without question. Do you want to get wet? You’ll have to get in the water. If you want to get warm, stand near the fire. Are you hungry? Eat. Problem – solution. We accept these things, but when it comes to happiness, joy, or peace… oh, these things are so elusive. I’m not happy and don’t know how to fix it. I’m grieving, and it hurts so much, and I can’t make it stop!

Perhaps, this is never truer than with someone mourning the loss of a loved one. It was certainly true of me when my wife of 31 years died from cancer in March of 2020. I was inconsolable and in so much emotional pain that I could not see anything but that. My wife had been taken from me, and I would never see her again. It was so unfair, and I’m in pain and anger: repeat, ad nauseum.

Two months after Lynn died, I started seeing a grief therapist. The visits were virtual, once a week. As the time grew nearer, I dreaded it more and more and would have canceled every time were it not because I would still be charged for the visit.

My grief therapist was a young guy in his 30’s, very clean-cut. We’ll call him Good Guy. He lived in San Franciso, and I was pretty sure he was gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I thought that his and my life experiences had to be so different; I was a 56-year-old man grieving the loss of his wife. There was no way he would be able to empathize or understand what I was going through, but he did. He just let me talk and sluff off my emotional baggage, and yes, cry. Something about how he didn’t judge or rush to offer solutions brought me comfort. He just listened and acknowledged what I said. I liked him.

We continued the therapy visits. On the first visit, he asked me what my goal of doing therapy was.

“To get out of pain,” I said. “As soon as possible, because if I am still feeling this way two years from now, I’ll kill myself.” Honestly, I felt like I couldn’t last even one year, but I said two.

Now, there was a period of PTSD after Lynn died, where my life was centered around caring for her. Once she was gone, I was a moon with nothing to orbit. So going to bed without her there was too heartbreaking to attempt. Waking up and reaching over to touch her, and she wasn’t there, put me in tears and set the tone for my miserable day. It was over four months before I felt I had adapted to the New Normal, as they say, and I hated it, but therapy helped.

The weekly sessions continued, and I dreaded them, even though I felt better afterward. Sometimes it was just a little, and sometimes it was a lot. My first six or seven visits were me opening up and bleeding all over the place. Then an epiphany came. At least, it seemed like an epiphany to me at the time.

All the grief and pain – I was doing this to myself.

No one was causing me to feel this way. It was me and my unwillingness to accept my reality that was causing me so much turmoil and pain. Yes, it was unfair that my wife was only 58 years old and died, but that happened. I was so caught up in the loss I couldn’t see anything else, and until I found peace with accepting it, I never would. I was the only one who could fix it. That, however, was easier said than done. As G.I. Joe will tell you, knowing is half the battle. But only half.

Something I discovered about grief, which may only be true for me, is that it becomes familiar over a long enough time. Not comfortable, but like any chronic pain, you get used to it. I could see this becoming a habit, one that might go on for years unless I intervened. I had to stop it, but how?

Good Guy suggested that when I start to have a “grief attack,” I change my line of thought and try to think of something else; something happy. Don’t push away the sorrow or try to bury it, but think of something else. I didn’t think that would work, but I agreed to try. So when the next grief attack hit, and I was thinking about how much I miss my wife, I forced my mind to think about my two dogs playing together. This was much more difficult than I expected. I had been down this path of grief so many times; it was, as I feared, a habit. A habit I had to break.

It was consistently hard to force my mind to less distressing thoughts, but it made me feel better. I think the reason I felt better was that I was taking control. I wasn’t just letting this horrible thing happen to me, over and over. I was stopping it, and that felt good.

I also had to reconcile some things that weren’t clear in my head. I had to acknowledge that continuing to grieve neither benefited nor honored Lynn in any way whatsoever. It was okay to stop being destroyed by these feelings. I meditated on this many times over the next couple of months. And I continued to fight the grief attacks. Sometimes I couldn’t do it, but most times, I could change my thought process to something else.

Around the six-month mark, I was to the point that I no longer dreaded another day of living. I was doing some things that I would do before Lynn died. I was cooking again and not just heating things up in a microwave, cooking! I played board games again, too, though getting with friends was difficult due to the pandemic. These are things I enjoy and that I would do in The Before Time, yet I felt different. I was altered and changed and would be forever. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and it’s just growth.

Shortly after this, I started dating and eventually met Kathy, and we had so much in common. I fell madly in love with her, and in January of 2021, we married. I have promised myself that I will never let her feel taken for granted or unappreciated. I remind her frequently, “I see you.” It’s my way of saying I love her the way she is, and I do, and I’m happy.

Grief attacks occur once in a while but are much less frequent and not so severe. I will always love Lynn, but she is gone, and I’ve accepted that. I don’t resent it. I’m no longer angry about it. It just is the reality.

So, recapping my experiences here, what were the things that really helped me?

  • I got a grief counselor to talk about my feelings openly and without expectations. In retrospect, I think this probably saved a few relationships with my friends and family, to whom I would try to vent my grief and were simply not equipped to deal with it. That I found a compatible counselor on the first try was just dumb luck on my part.
  • I acknowledged and owned that I was the only one who could stop the overpowering waves of grief. If I wanted it to end, I had to end it, and I actively took steps to do that.
  • I reconciled that continuing to grieve for Lynn neither benefited her nor honored her, and it was okay for me to continue my life and feel happy about things. So I accept that she is gone and do not resent it, nor am I angry about it. It just is.

This is only what I did. Your path may be different. Your mileage may vary. I’m not a professional. But if any of this resonates with you or you found it helpful, I’d like to know.

Thanks for reading.

Grief: Pick and Choose Your Rocks

One time, my son, Spencer, and I walked on the beach in Pajero Dunes, near Monterey, CA. My son must have been about five years old at the time, and he had a plastic bag he was using to collect shells and rocks as we walked. After about two miles, we turned around and headed back. By this point, the plastic bag was full and heavy. The bag was so heavy, Spencer couldn’t carry it and was dragging it along the beach, which caused the bag to tear open, rocks and shells spilling out, so we stopped.

I sat down on the beach with him, and we looked through the bag together. He was visibly upset and near tears that he was losing some of the treasures. I reached into the bag and pulled out a rock.

“OK. Why did you pick up this rock?”

“It’s shaped like a turtle,” he said, and so it was.

“OK, that’s special. Let’s keep it. What about this one?”

“Because it is a pretty white with sparkles in it,” he replied.

“But you have lots of white rocks with sparkles in them, here. Do you think you can let some of them go?”

“I like the sparkles.”

“Right. And what about this one?”

We went through the bag, selecting which rocks to keep and which to leave. When finished, the bag only had shells and sand dollars. I tied off the hole in the bag and gave it back to my son.

“How heavy is the bag, now?”

“It’s super light!” He said, swinging the bag around in such a way I thought it might tear open again, so I stopped him.

“That’s because the shells and sand dollars are much lighter than the rocks. Now, pick which rocks you want.”

Spencer chose seven of the more than fifty he had initially picked up; two white with sparkles, one turtle-shaped rock, two black, oblong rocks, and two nearly round rocks. He put them gently into his bag, and we carried on back to the beach house. I noticed that he only rarely stopped to pick anything up on the return trip, and he often put it back down.

We still have some of those shells and rocks he collected on that day. Some are even framed and hanging on the wall.

Now, I told you that story so I can tell you this one.

It’s an understatement to say I was grief-stricken when I lost my wife of thirty-one years to cancer last year. I had some very dark nights in the first few months of the loss where the only reason I saw daylight was because I had dependents counting on me. I was living entirely as an obligation to others.

The thing about grief is that it’s something we do to and for ourselves, even though it might feel like it’s for the lost loved one. I had to think about it, but my grief benefitted my deceased wife in no way whatsoever. It was merely me, processing the loss and coming to terms with what my life looked like without her. Neither does my grieving benefit anyone around me; in fact, it makes me a burden to them. Yes, it’s painful, like lancing a boil, but adapting to the loss and getting better is the goal. Grief and mourning are not places I could dwell in for a long time without it consuming my soul.

It’s said that time heals all wounds. It does take time, that is true, but it doesn’t just take time. You don’t just suffer, and then it magically gets better one day.  It was around five months after my wife passed that I realized I was the only one who controlled my grief. I was the only one who could make it better, and it wasn’t just going to happen without effort on my part. This does not mean you have to do it alone! I certainly didn’t – I leveraged close friends and a grief counselor, who helped me greatly. But when it came down to it, I was the one who could make it better and no one else.

The thing about this new enlightenment that I was the only one who could control my grief was that I didn’t know how to control it. If anything, I felt like it controlled me. I floundered with this for weeks, and then I realized something else: While grief is entirely a self-centered act, remembering our lost loved ones is a way to honor them. They live on through our memories of them.

So, I focused on my memories of over thirty-two years I had known my wife. I remember when I proposed and she said yes. I remember when we agreed to adopt our son, I remember hundreds of small, special, wonderful moments I enjoyed with her.

 As you might imagine, in that amount of time, not every memory is a treasure. I have chosen to let those memories fade. Like the heavy rocks in my son’s bag that were not notable, I dropped them, lightening my load in the process. It wasn’t easy at all; doing an emotional inventory of my memories was draining, and some days, I couldn’t face it, but I felt better afterward when I did. I slowly reached a place where I could appreciate all the memories without mourning the loss. Yes, I still miss her, and I always will, but I no longer mourn the loss.

Since then, I have even remarried a wonderful, loving woman, and I’m truly happy again. I’ll have my moments where I feel bittersweet when an old memory surfaces, but it doesn’t rob me of the enjoyment of life like it once did.

We all do this in our way, at our speed, but if you are grieving, I wish you to find your way through it as quickly and painlessly as possible because I know it’s a miserable existence. Grief does not have to be a chronic condition, and life is short. Please, do not misguidedly think, as I initially did, that it honors your lost loved ones by continuing to mourn them any longer than you need to get to a state of peace. They have moved on, and we have to do so as well. When you’re ready, drop your rocks.

Until then, KFG.

When It Got Better – Grieving the Loss of a Spouse

If you’re grieving the loss of a spouse, I’m so sorry. There is no grief, no emptiness, no pain I have ever felt like it. All through the grieving process, I was looking for some relief, something to make it better. What I learned was, for me, the only way out of it was through it. While everyone does this differently, I’m going to relate the process where I turned the corner and finally started living again, with the hope that it may offer you some insight, or hope, or a sense of not being alone. I’m not saying this is the way you should do it – it’s just what I did.

It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that Lynn was gone and was never coming back. She lost her fight with cancer on March 6, 2020. For months after that, I was overcome with grief and depression that left me incapacitated and barely able to function. I was surrounded by constant reminders that she was gone.

One thing that continued to worry me was, if there is an afterlife, and Lynn is in that place, I don’t want her hanging around here because she thinks she needs to look after me, or worse, wants to be with me but can’t. That would be profoundly sad. If she is in some unlikely afterlife, I sincerely want her to move on with her new existence, knowing that I loved her dearly. And I need to do the same. So, that was a strange conversation I had with a dark, empty room one weird, inebriated night, but it gave me peace when I was done.

Then, about six months after Lynn died, I got an offer from my Sister-in-Law and her husband to help me clear out Lynn’s belongings. This is something I had not been able to face alone. It was three months before I could even pick up her shoes left beside the bed, much less clean out drawers or closets. I gratefully accepted the offer, and as it turned out, they did all the real work, and I just pointed at things that needed to go, and they took care of it. Still, I was reduced to tears several times a day during the process, and it was emotionally exhausting. I felt like I was throwing away what I had left of Lynn, but then I would remind myself, rightly, that these are just things, and Lynn is already gone. I can’t throw away what is already gone.

When it was over, the closet, bedroom, and bathroom had been cleaned out, and most of Lynn’s belongings were gone. It was a huge load lifted from my shoulders, and it felt good not to have this unpleasant task hanging over my head, waiting for me to address it. I couldn’t do it alone, and I’m very grateful to Joe and Karla for the help.

For me, cleaning out Lynn’s belongings was a seminal event. It was when I began to accept what was. I even started looking forward to what might be, and this was when I began to regain my love of life again. I could relish the memories rather than mourn the loss, and for the first time in a very long time, I could see the possibilities for my future.

Over the next month or so, the loneliness began to take hold. I had emotionally released myself from my previous marriage, but I missed having someone special to share life’s moments. That’s when life is the richest – when it is shared. So I began actively seeking someone, but it turned out that I was not quite ready, and I backed off. I let myself grow into being single for a while. That was when I really found myself and became determined to enjoy my life again.

When I was ready, I began dating. In the age of Covid, that meant lots of phone and video calls. It was pretty surreal at times, not only the virtual aspect of meeting new people, but dating at my age was just odd. Eventually, I met Kathy, fell in love, and I am going to marry her. We’re really good together.

So that’s where I am, now, over ten months later. It may take you more or less time. It just takes as long as it takes. Your seminal moment may be from something completely different. Whatever it is, whenever it is, whatever it takes, just get through it and hang on until you do. That’s the tough part. Just get there.


Kindness vs. 2020

Is there anyone who would disagree that 2020 has been one of the worst years of their life, if not the worst year? I don’t think so. Here’s the thing – while we’re all going through 2020 and the constant hell it pitches at us, it’s not the same for us all.

It’s like we’re all in the same storm, but some of us have yachts, some have canoes, and some are just trying to tread water. Yes, and you know which one you are. I certainly know which one I am, and I would have gone down if it was not for others’ love and kindness.

Sometimes, this empathy came from close friends and family. My sister-in-law and her family were fantastic support during Lynn’s illness and treatment. A friend threw me a line when I looked down a long dark tunnel that was my lonely future without Lynn, and I saw no light at the end, whatsoever. I’m so glad I have people like this in my life. But I was helped by other people. People that may not even know they helped me.

I have Facebook friends that continued to bolster me through bad days with a few words of encouragement. I belong to a closed Facebook group for those who have lost loved ones to cancer, and we help each other through the horrible days and nights as we transition into being widows and widowers, sharing experiences and sympathizing in ways no one else could.

I bet when these kind folks wrote the replies, they thought nothing of it, but it helped me. When you are drowning, you will grasp at anything that floats.

That’s what I want to emphasize here: In such shitty times, being kind where and when you can will make a difference in someone’s life. You may not know what or how much, but it helps. I know your life is probably no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise (a nod to Freddie), which makes your effort to be kind all the more thoughtful.

Even as I was barely keeping my head above water, I would see someone else floundering as I was, and I’d reach out to them, and somehow, we were able to help buoy each other, comfort each other, if for only a little bit.

Now, I have personally come through the worst 2020 could hurl at me, and I’m still standing, but that is thanks to others’ kindness and support. I couldn’t have done it alone. But this pandemic will extend into the next year until most of us get vaccinated. The political divisiveness and hatred that troubles America now will continue beyond the current administration, possibly for a long time. The unemployment and businesses that didn’t make it and will take a long time to recover. And people we love will continue to die. None of that stops because of the year incrementing. We must keep being kind to each other.

People, 2020 was no good for any of us. It was worse for some, and still much worse for others, and for that, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to be entirely overwhelmed by daily responsibilities. I know what it’s like to wake up and not be able to think of a single reason to get out of bed. I know what it’s like to look into the future and see nothing but pain and loneliness. If this is you, I say this specifically for you:

Keep Fucking Going.

You won’t see why you should, and that’s okay. Just keep fucking going.

You won’t think it matters, and that’s okay. Just keep fucking going.

You might think the pain is too much or the love in the world is too little, and it’s not worth it, and that’s okay. Just keep fucking going.

Just keep fucking going, because one day, when it’s time, you’ll turn a corner, and you will see things differently. You don’t have to believe me; just keep fucking going. Just hang on. Please.

Keep fucking going, and be kind to yourself.

I Read a Book

Have you ever read a book that you so thoroughly enjoyed, you were sad when you finished it? You so loved it; you just wanted it to go on and on, endlessly.

I read a book like that. I was enthralled with it. Every day, I woke up and would immerse myself in it, and the story was so rich. The prose was immaculate. Sometimes, the story took an unexpected turn and challenged the protagonists. I dearly loved that book. All too soon, it ended, and I was unbelievably sad. So that book, as cherished and loved as it is, is done.

That book I so dearly loved was my marriage to Lynn. It was amazing and fulfilling, and it ended heartbreakingly when she died earlier this year.

I always thought I knew what depression was. I thought I had had times in my life where I was depressed. Then Lynn died, and I realized I was wrong, and I have never been depressed before. That was just sadness. This feeling, this – this is depression, and it is soul-crushing. Slowly, throughout seven months, I began to heal and regain my love of life. It was hard fought, but I learned to relish the memories rather than mourn the loss.

So now, I’m lonely. I have love to give and no one to give it to, and I know Lynn would want me to be happy. I have no book to read, and I haven’t opened the cover of another book for 32 years. Before Lynn, I had read some awful books. Crazy, even. I dreaded starting another book, but I had to.

I tried starting a couple of books but they weren’t right for me. Then I found Kathy. Or she found me, or whatever.

Turns out, Kathy is a wonderful book. Yes, of course, it was the cover that first attracted me, but the depth of the story sucked me in. Every page I turn, I’m enchanted by what I learn. It’s as if this book was written just for me. I adore the prose, and I can see myself settling in and losing myself between these beautiful pages for a long, long read with her. Yes, I love her.