5 Things No One Tells You About the Loss of a Spouse 0

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork.

 

My husband Brad and I used to joke about who would die first. It was a strange thing to joke about when we were in our 20s and had our entire lives ahead of us, but that’s how far from reality death was. It was laughable. Something that happened to other people. Something that, when it did inevitably happen, would happen much later in life. 

We finally compromised and decided that if we couldn’t simultaneously die in our sleep when we were in our 90s as planned, then I could go first. We both knew Brad was much better equipped to handle the aftermath of losing me.

But I didn’t die first. Brad beat me to it. After an unexpected and grueling 100-day battle with kidney cancer, I became a 33-year-old widow.

No one can prepare you for becoming a widow or widower. It is one of the most difficult losses you can endure. However, here are five things I wish I had been better prepared for:

1. The paperwork

 I never realized that with death came a mountain of paperwork. Paperwork that in some cases would linger for years. Medical bills, creditor notices, estate documentation – I was completely naive to the logistics of death that go beyond the memorial service.

At a time when all I wanted to do was grieve my loss, I had to go to court to validate Brad’s will. I had to cancel credit cards and bank accounts. I had to transfer real estate and phone bills and Netflix accounts into my name. I had to argue with the IRS over student loan bills. The contents of my mailbox shifted from travel magazines to daily reminders of my loss. It’s been over two years and I am still dealing with the paperwork and logistics surrounding Brad’s death.

2. The shift in your relationships

This will happen both immediately and slowly, over time. In my experience, people are uncomfortable with grief. They don’t know what to say or how to handle it. Most are unable to sit with you in the pain. It brings up their own grief and they are unable to handle both their grief and yours. So, they avoid the pain and discomfort, and ultimately, you.

You are living most people’s nightmare. You are a reminder that this could happen to them too. That reminder is difficult to handle. Usually, it’s not intentional – often people aren’t even aware they are feeling this way. But it’s real. Especially if you are the first in their life to go through such a loss. Oftentimes, friends and family you expected to show up end up avoiding you in order to continue living in the comfort of blissful ignorance.

But it’s not always the fault of others. When Brad died, I couldn’t handle living in the same home, in the same city, with the same friends, without him. It felt like my world had stopped and everything around me continued as usual. Every person and social situation was another reminder that Brad was dead. So, I ran away. I spent months driving around the country, avoiding the life left behind. And when I came back, people understandably had moved on.

Losing your partner will test not just you, but all the relationships in your life. Your social circle will shrink. And the ones who stick around – who continue to support well after the memorial service – will be share a bond with you for life.

3. The secondary losses

Losing your partner doesn’t mean just losing your spouse. With it comes the loss of the future you planned together. The loss of intimacy. The loss of income. The loss of security. The loss of health. The loss of your social circle. The loss of your breakfast companion. The loss of the recipient of your jokes. The loss of your jar opener. The loss of your dance partner. The loss of your road trip companion. The loss of your best friend.

There isn’t a single part of your life that is untouched by the loss of your spouse.

4. The grief ambush 

Grief is not linear. It doesn’t happen in a neat forward motion. It’s messy and unexpected. You will be triggered without notice, at the most inconvenient times. When you look in your fridge and realize the A1 sauce – and all the other condiments that only he used – will sit there, untouched forever. When a certain song comes on in the grocery store and you break down in the middle of the cereal aisle. When the dentist asks how your husband is doing and tears start streaming down your face with his hands still inside your mouth.

You will think you are doing better, and you will be ambushed again. Eventually the triggers become less frequent and less hysterical. Eventually you will learn to manage them better. But there is no timeline or finish line to cross where the ambushes stop.

5. You will learn to balance joy and grief

It’s hard to see that in the beginning, when the loss feels so dark and heavy. And the initial joy will probably be accompanied by guilt – guilt for laughing or being happy when your person is no longer able to laugh or be happy.

But the joy will come. And that doesn’t mean the grief has disappeared: it just means you’ve learned to balance both. You’ve learned to expand and feel more than you thought possible before. You’ve learned how fragile life is and that creates a sense of urgency to live.

Carrying grief gives you a perspective on life that others who have yet to experience such a loss won’t fully understand. Grief is hard and it constantly tests you, but you will find your strength – and joy –  again.



Dana Frost is a writer and the founder of the Forced Joy Project (http://www.forcedjoyproject.com). She is a big believer in sharing our stories of both grief and joy and an even bigger believer of kitchen dance parties. You can find her on Instagram @ForcedJoyProject.

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Laura’s Story: Meditation & Healing from Grief 1

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. In this thoughtful piece, Laura Siegel describes how meditation helped her heal after the loss of her husband.

My husband died three years ago, shortly after his 74th birthday. We were together for 57 years. About a year before he died, a social worker recommended a meditation app called Insight Timer and the guided meditations seemed to help him immensely. So, the day he died, I began practicing them too.

The biggest challenge I faced was the ability to focus. My mind was in a constant state of fear and anxiety and thoughts wandered every which way. My heart hurt all the time.

My rabbi recommended that I try grief meditations. These were easier for me to follow. The one that helped the most was Guided Meditation for Grief, Anxiety, and Stress by Heather Stang. Her gentle voice is so soothing, and there’s lots of space in the meditation for silence. Other meditation teachers I’ve enjoyed on Insight Timer are Meg James, Tara Brach, Kristin Neff, and Lisa Machac. Pretty soon, I was meditating five times a day and getting much-needed relief.

After my husband died, the silence of his absence was devastating.

 

After my husband died, the silence of his absence was devastating. Sure, there were friends, movies, and TV, but for the most part there was this great void of human sound and closeness. Listening to guided meditations has helped to fill this void.

Along the same lines, listening to audiobooks also helped. I was no longer able to focus on reading: my grieving brain could not process the words. But I have always loved audiobooks, and I soon realized that they were becoming my companions as well. Simply listening to a vital living voice helped me through my grief and I did not feel as isolated and alone.

I found audiobooks by other widows and widowers to be extremely helpful. We all share the same struggle. Here are a few that have particularly moved me:

  • A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • A Widows Walk: A Memoir of 9/11 by Marian Fontana
  • The Widower’s Notebook: A Memoir by Jonathan Santlofer
  • A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

I also joined several online widow and widower groups via Facebook, Hope for Widows and Hot Young Widow’s Club (you don’t have to be young or hot). Speaking to the other widows was like having a circle of nurturing support surrounding me. We are even able to laugh with each other – another important component of healing from grief.

Meditation is giving me a foundation for living a calmer, more peaceful life.

I begin each day with a 30-45-minute guided meditation (three years ago I started with shorter ones). I don’t even get out of bed. This is the easiest time for me to follow my breath and nurture myself. I do the same in the late afternoon. Right before bed, I listen to a five-minute guided meditation and then fall asleep to soothing music. My favourites are Gentle Morning by Weston Brown and Devotion by Mary Maddux.

There are other ways that I meditate, like taking walks in nature and swimming. When I am swimming it’s impossible to feel anxious or worried. I am simply moving with my breath.

I am beginning to feel the same way when I do guided meditations. My breath is guiding me. It’s as if there is nothing to fear, nothing to worry about. This is carrying over into my daily life. Things that have caused me stress before no longer have the same power. A sense of calm and contentment that I have never known before sweeps through me. I can also rest more easily. I can more easily accept my difficult feelings. I am less angry. I appreciate silence more. I can be happy with what I have.

Meditation has changed me very gradually. In the beginning I could not follow my breath without a million thoughts encroaching. And yet I’ve learned that it is the nature of the mind to think. Meditation does not mean that you stop thinking. It means that you notice thinking and return to your breath. Meditation is about learning to stay with what is.

Meditation is giving me a foundation for living a calmer, more peaceful life. Meditation gives me a way to take care of myself in every moment.


 

Laura Siegel is a writer supporting other bereaved partners through her blog, Breathing Into Healing.  She is also the co-editor of the anthology Out of the Closet, Into Our Hearts: Celebrating Our Gay Family Members.

If you liked this piece, we’d like to invite you to donate to the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society in memory of Laura’s husband Howard. You can pledge a donation here.

And for more information about meditating for grief, you can check out our beginner’s guide to bereavement meditation with Heather Stang here.

A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation for Grief 0

When you first lose someone you love, grief can feel like an unstoppable force. Even after the raw ache of it fades, the odd trigger – an anniversary, an uncanny resemblance – can bring it surging back into your life years later, painful memories in tow.

Everyone who grieves copes with this in their own way. But one technique we hear about a lot is meditation: learning to focus the mind, so that stress is eased, and distressing thoughts are placed into perspective.

So, how does meditation for grief work, and where do you start? We caught up with Heather Stang, author of Mindfulness & Grief and the host of the Mindfulness & Grief podcast, to put together these essential tips for beginners…

1. Start with some self-care

“In my opinion, the first thing to manage in the early days of grief is the physical body,” Heather explains. “Without good sleep, nutrition and hydration, it is hard for our brain to function.”

So, try to get back into good habits by sticking to a routine: three meals a day, plenty of water, an early night. Look after yourself. As you do, you can start introducing a few simple meditation exercises to help you get the rest you need:

“Focusing meditation practices send a signal to our body that we are safe, switching off the stress response that prevents us from sleeping,” Heather says. “You simply choose one thing to focus on, place 100% of your attention as best as you can, and practice, practice, practice.”

Want to try? Start by breathing in deep, and then breathing out slowly, repeating a word over and over each time you exhale. Begin again each time you forget.

It’s more important to practice a little each day than binge-meditate one or two days a week!

2. Work your way up to the harder stuff

“Start small,” Heather recommends. “Ideally, you want to practice for 10-20 minutes a day, but I have many clients who say that just a few minutes of practice can improve their mood. It’s more important to practice a little each day than binge-meditate one or two days a week!”

Guided meditations for grief are a good start, with apps like Insight Timer, Calm and Headspace taking you through soothing exercises. You can find free videos online as well: Heather’s site hosts a relaxation meditation for grief, anxiety and stress, while YouTube is a veritable treasure trove of guided meditations on all sorts of themes.

Having a community can also help, Heather explains. “Whether you join an online meditation for grief group, or start attending classes at your local meditation center, connecting with others like yourself will kick-start your practice and help you stay on track and overcome practice pitfalls.”

3. Find the right technique for the right moment

Different types of meditation can help with grief in different ways, Heather tells us. The key is to know which technique to use when:

  • Focusing practices, such as mantra-based meditations, or counting from one to ten and back down again, can help steady a ruminating mind and calm anxiety. These are particularly useful for helping us get the sleep that can be so evasive when we’re grieving.
  • Mindfulness practice, which is paying attention to the present moment and what you can see, hear, smell and feel with a sense of openness, can help us “understand what’s real, without all the stories that our mind makes up,” Heather says. “It can also help us appreciate what we still have, tapping into our inner wisdom and knowledge.”
  • Compassion meditation, which uses visualisations and mantras to encourage us to feel more kindly towards ourselves and others, can help us feel more connected – and, says Heather, even reduce feelings of loneliness.

As you practice different grief meditation scripts and techniques, you’ll also find that some work for you better than others. Pay attention to the way you feel before and after a session and mentally bookmark the methods that really transform your outlook.

When you meditate, you have a skill that helps you decide how you want to be with your thoughts.

4. Remember, anyone can meditate for grief

Forget your preconceptions: you don’t have to have a New Age-y interest in incense and candles to meditate, or even a naturally calm demeanor. As Heather explains, anyone can do it:

“Many people think they ‘can’t’ meditate because they have an active mind. But the reality is that no one has a calm mind without practice – and even if you do meditate you will still have thoughts. The difference is that when you meditate, you have a skill that helps you decide how you want to be with your thoughts. And it is a skill: you can learn it, it just takes practice.”

That said, Heather recommends that people with post-traumatic stress disorder, intrusive images or other hallucinations talk to a mental health professional before meditating. You may also want to seek out a trauma-sensitive meditation teacher or yoga therapist. “This does not mean meditation won’t work for you – it might – but it needs to be approached with care and modified in a way that cultivates safety,” she warns.

Just remember that there are no good or bad meditators. There are just people that meditate and people that don’t.

5. Don’t be hard on yourself

It’s not always easy to meditate. Sometimes, you’re just busy, or tired, or your thoughts are too loud to settle down properly, and you struggle to focus. This is natural. According to Heather, the most important habit to get into when you’re using meditation for grief or healing is self-compassion:

“Rather than trying to be perfect, just be kind to the person you have the most control over – you.” She says. “You’ll forget to practice one day, two days, a month. Your mind will wander off a million times during a 5-minute practice. Self-compassion means that instead of judging yourself or giving up, you just begin again when you remember.”

When you stop pressuring yourself to be perfect, you’ll find that it’s easier to pick yourself back up and try again.

“Just remember that there are no good or bad meditators,” Heather advises us. “There are just people that meditate and people that don’t.”


 

Heather Stang is the author of Mindfulness & Grief and the host of the Mindfulness & Grief podcast. She runs online meditation for grief groups and leads programs around the US for grief professionals and bereaved people alike. Heather also holds a Masters in Thanatology (death, dying & bereavement) and is a certified yoga therapist.

You can find out more about Heather and her approach on her website here, and you can buy Mindfulness & Grief from Amazon here.

 


 

If you’d like to find out more about meditation and grief, it’s well worth taking a look at Laura Siegel’s powerful story, Meditation and Healing After Grief. In it, Laura describes how meditation and mindfulness helped after the devastating loss of her husband.