Rachel’s Story: “Your Heart Doesn’t Close Up When Your Person Dies” 3

Rachel Brougham with her husband Colin and son Thom

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. One year ago, Rachel Brougham’s husband Colin died in a cycling accident at just 39. Here, she talks about life, love — and dating  — as a young widow.


As I walk down the sidewalk, the sound repeats itself behind me. There’s a stomp, a crunch and then laughter. Sometimes I hear, “Ooh, that was a good one,” or “That’s a big one right there!” Then it starts all over again.

It’s March in Minneapolis, Minnesota — the time of year when all that snow melts during the day then refreezes at night, creating chunks of ice and giant puddles on city sidewalks and streets.

The stomp is my 10-year-old son Thom, and my boyfriend Matt, slamming their feet on chunks of ice. When it crunches and breaks apart, they laugh. I’m walking ahead of them and smiling — not just because the two of them sound like a couple little kids having fun — but because it’s the same thing Thom and my husband Colin would be doing if Colin were still alive. I’m smiling because despite what has happened to Thom and I over the last year, we can still feel happiness. I’m smiling because I know everything is going to be OK, even though there are moments it feels like the grief is overwhelming.

I’m the luckiest unlucky person.

In April 2018, just hours after Colin was killed in a cycling accident on his way home from work, Thom asked me if I was going to get married again. Colin had been dead less than two hours, and out of all the things Thom could ask, he wanted to know when I was going to shack up with some other dude.

I mean, what the heck?

In retrospect, Thom was just grasping for something to make life seem a bit normal in what was now uncertain. Of course any new guy wasn’t going to be a replacement for Colin, but it would offer some sense of normalcy. So, Thom and I started talking about me dating again very early on after our loss. I made it clear to him that I wasn’t going to bring any guy into our lives that didn’t deserve to be there. I knew I was going to be very protective and nobody was going to meet my son unless I knew it was super-duper serious.

A month after Colin died, I felt restless. I wasn’t ready to be in a relationship, but I did want to go out and have a meal and conversation with a male who wasn’t my son or one of our friends. So I did what every other normal widowed person would do — I consulted Google. When is it too early to date after losing a partner, I typed in the search bar.

“Widowland and dating is great because if you start dating too soon, people will certainly tell you about it.”

Widowland and dating is great because if you start dating too soon, people will certainly tell you about it. It’s also great because if you don’t start dating within a certain timeframe, people will certainly tell you about it. There’s no winning when it comes to dating in Widowland, because people who have no clue what they are talking about like to put you on this magical timeline for grief.

There is no magical timeline.

I went out on a date a month after Colin died. I was still dead inside, but I enjoyed the conversation. He walked me to my car and tried to kiss me and I turned my face and his wet mouth ended up on my cheek.

I had been out of the dating scene for nearly 17 years and this is what dating is like these days? Gross!

Over the next couple months, I went on a handful of dates with other guys I met through mutual friends or found on a dating app. Dating as a widowed, 40-year-old mom felt like too much work. It was hard to coordinate schedules, find a babysitter, pay for a babysitter. It didn’t help that my responses to these guys were basically, Nope, No way, Next, and Nice, but no thank you.

I did go out a couple of times with a father of three who was going through a nasty divorce. We bonded over music, have the same sense of dark, sarcastic humor and enjoyed telling each other stories about our kids. While I knew he wasn’t the one for me in the long term, the month we were together was exactly what I needed to show me things were going to be OK and that I could feel happiness with someone else.

And that’s when something clicked — I stopped comparing everyone to Colin.

Matt and I began dating four months after Colin died, but the truth is that we’ve known each other for years. We worked together, ate lunches together, traded text messages late at night when we just needed to talk to someone. I got him and he got me. It feels like we’ve been together for years.

One night, several years ago, Colin and I were talking about who we would date if one of us died. Colin would date 90s rocker Liz Phair. I said I’d date John Cusack or Paul Rudd (line Colin, Matt, John and Paul up and you’ll see I clearly have a type). Colin looked at me, and without hesitation said, “What about Matt?”

I’m not saying Matt and I were supposed to end up together, but I’m not not saying that. Life is just really weird sometimes. Nobody knows how the universe works.

“Your heart doesn’t close up when your person dies, it just makes room for someone else. Your love for your dead person isn’t diminished by loving someone else.”

Matt knows he’s not a replacement. Matt knows it’s not a competition. Matt knows he isn’t a consolation prize and he isn’t jealous of the love I still feel for Colin. After all, Colin is dead and Matt is living. I could choose to be with anyone, or no one, and I choose to spend this second chapter with Matt.

A couple months into us dating, Matt said one night, “You know, I love you. I love Thom. And I love Colin.” That’s when I knew Matt was the one — the one I told Thom I would make sure deserved to be in our lives.

Your heart doesn’t close up when your person dies, it just makes room for someone else. Your love for your dead person isn’t diminished by loving someone else. There is no limit on how much love we can have. You can love two people at once. Heck, I have a button on my jacket that says, “I love Colin” and I don’t give a frick if it makes people uncomfortable.

Loving someone else should be a testament to your dead person. It should say that you loved your dead person so much, you want to experience that again. Whether that’s one month out or 10 years out.

Love is not a finite resource. And while I’m extremely unlucky, I’m lucky to get another chance.

Rachel Brougham is a writer and editor who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She enjoys awkward conversations, crying during long walks and tacos. You can find her on Instagram @rachbrougham and Twitter @RachelBrougham.

 

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3 Comments

  1. My husband died suddenly seven months ago. I never got the chance to say goodbye. I met him when since I was 14 yrs old. We were married for 44 1/2 years. I can’t even imagine being with someone else. I’m 63 years old, retired and still in our family home of 40 years. I have no idea what I’m suppose to be doing. Grief and loneliness is unbearable.

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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.