LEARNING TO BE SINGLE AGAIN IS HARD
After 23 years of marriage it was hard to keep my spirits up as I learned how to live as a single woman again. I’m having trouble with that again during all this isolation due to COVID.
I TRIED TO BE HAPPY
I’d plan something fun to do (like go to the farmer’s market or the movies) and I’d enjoy myself! Then I’d hope and pray that feeling good would last longer than 20 seconds. But this almost never happened. Instead, the happiness would vanish and I’d find myself depressed again.
FEELING DEPRESSED IS DEPRESSING!
Worse yet, I was depressed that I was depressed again. There was something about the “up” energy of those happy moments that made the “down” energy of those sad moments worse.
AND THEN I LEARNED WHY
I was reading a book that my son, Mr. Science, had given me. This book explored the science behind happiness (WTW?!!). I was skeptical, but the author was convincing AND he had lots of initials after his name. In a chapter about something called “negative bias” I learned why it was so hard to be happy!
OUR BRAINS ARE WIRED TO REMEMBER PAINFUL EVENTS
Back when we were cave-girls and boys, this negative bias kept us alive. If we lost a tribe member to a snake bite or lion raid, our brains made sure we remembered that snakes and lions kill people. This information kept us safe. It kept us alive. We still need our negative bias for this purpose. We use it when we drive (“Stay in your lane so you won’t crash!”), we use it when we go out at night (“Did that shadow just move?!”)
BUT REMEMBERING YOUR PAIN IS NOT HELPFUL NOW
When you’re recovering from a painful event, like the divorce or the death of your partner, negative bias is no longer your friend. But you still have it, whether you like it or not.
ARE YOU CHASING YOUR TAIL IN UNENDING CIRCLES OF SADNESS?
Every time my sadness returns, I feel like a hamster on a wheel, running to nowhere as fast as I can. To continue this metaphor, I’m in a tiny cage inside my mind. My best girlfriend then and now is named Depression. She’s always available on the weekends when my friends aren’t.
HERE’S HOW TO USE BRAIN SCIENCE TO FEEL BETTER FOR GOOD
The book also introduced me to something scientists call neuroplasticity. That’s a big way of saying that your brain is, in fact, quite flexible and open to suggestion. The really cool thing is that you can literally hard-wire your brain to be happy. (There’s even a book about it called “Hardwiring Happiness” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.) But as I discovered early in my widowhood, you can’t just plan a happy experience and trust it to last. It doesn’t work that way. But it does start that way!
PLAN A HAPPY EXPERIENCE
Call your pet over for some loving, arrange a bouquet of flowers, take a long walk, bake something sweet. Having this experience is the first step. The second step is to let this experience expand in your mind. Pull those happy feelings as far into yourself as you can. Keep absorbing the sweetness of the experience. Focus on it for as long as you can. Repeat this process several times each day. Become aware of moments when you’re happy and when you feel those, stay with the happy feelings, absorb them into yourself.
FOCUS ON YOUR HAPPINESS AND YOU’LL HARD-WIRE IT INTO YOUR BRAIN
When you linger with a happy experience and expand it you are literally rewiring circuits inside your brain. The more happiness circuits you make, the happier you become! How cool is that?
But this science stuff gets even better. The more you practice having happy moments and then absorbing them for 15 or 20 seconds, the more happy moments you find in your day. If you build circuits for happiness every day in a few months you’ll actually BE happier.
WHEN DARK THOUGHTS COME, YOU’LL HAVE A STRATEGY
Your new happiness circuits are ready to help when those dark thoughts arise. When you feel depression or sorrow sneaking into your thoughts, tap into your happy memory circuit and let it touch the darkness. Expand your awareness of the happiness you hold there. Let it get bigger and bigger and bigger. Now link this expanded happiness to that dark thought. Literally let the happiness push the darkness out to the edge of your awareness, where it belongs.
AS CRAZY AS IT SOUNDS, YOU REALLY CAN WIRE YOUR MIND TO BE HAPPY AGAIN
I’ve used this science again this year as the isolation from COVID started closing in on me. When I saw my old girlfriend Depression arrive and pour herself a glass of wine I grabbed my dog and began playing keep-away with him. I let the joy in his cute little eyes burrow into my mind. I let his silliness and joy get bigger and bigger and sink deeper and deeper into me. And the more I did that, the further away she got, until finally, good old Depression took her drink and moved on.
GO GET YOUR HAPPY ON
What brings you joy? What makes you want to dance like no one’s watching? Make a list of experiences you easily create that bring you a happy moment and then take that moment and expand it for 20 seconds. Once it’s big enough to feel, let it sink into every cell, and you’ll have just created a neural pathway for joy. When you create and savor enough moments like this, your brain will learn how to crowd out the pain.
Some Ideas for Managing Stress during COVID 19.
Widowhood is VERY stressful. You’ve had to make a myriad of decisions about all sorts of things, just when you feel least capable of making good decisions. Grief stresses your physical and emotional body.
Understanding and acknowledging that your life as a new widow is going to be stressful is actually a healthy thing to do. Having a plan for managing your stress can keep it from sabotaging you! Here are some things you can actively do to help manage your stress:
Not everything is an emergency. Not every situation has to be addressed RIGHT NOW. Ask yourself how important this task will be five years from now. Focus on the things that are really important (Like your own well-being, for instance!).
Take Your Time With Major Life Changes
You’ve been through one of the biggest life changes there is, so if you don’t have to make decisions about where you’ll live or where you’ll work or buying that new car, don’t! The old adage of waiting a year to make any large decision is still a wise one.
Just Say No
Your grief has probably lowered your capacity for productivity. This is not the time to take on big new projects or increase your work load. Be kind to you and just say, “No, not now. Maybe in a year or so…”
Take Time to Relax
Set aside 10-20 minutes throughout your day to just relax and do some deep breathing. A mid- morning, mid-afternoon and early evening break will restore your body. Also leave several evenings a week unscheduled.
Make Distinctions Between Realistic and Unrealistic Worries
Worry is the girlfriend of widowhood. Make a list of your worries and then rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the most likely to happen, 1 the least likely to happen). Fearful thinking is very stressful. Don’t give into it. Address realistic worries with an action plan.
Don’t Bottle Up Your Emotions
Keeping your emotions bottled up increases stress! When you are grieving, emotions can come out of nowhere, sometimes at inopportune times! If you feel a big emotion coming on when you are in public, try to excuse yourself so you can release the emotion in private. Express your feelings to friends or by writing in a journal. Talk to a counselor…
Take 3 deep breaths in through your nose and release them slowly through your mouth. Make a habit of doing this every hour of your waking day. When you practice relaxing in this way, you are better able to use this as a strategy when stressful situations arise. Hourly breathing practice will have a beautiful effect on your blood pressure and mood!
Give Yourself Extra Time
Get up earlier, leave for appointments earlier, go to bed earlier, create holes in your schedule so you don’t feel pushed to get things done. Overestimate how much time every thing will take. Grief slows your mental processing speed.
Use these ideas regularly and you’ll feel less “stressed out.” When you are proactive in managing stress, you are less likely to be the victim of grief- related stress.
I had cabin fever. Again. Bad. I was feeling down in the dumps, frustrated with my never-ending creative projects, my aloneness, my newly evolving life as an author and online coach. I needed to get out. Itching for action of any kind, I drove to Asheville to buy some elegant, old-fashioned bottles at the big-box kitchen store. (I wanted to make some blueberry and peach infused spirits with tall sprigs of mint again as Christmas gifts and that’s where I bought the supplies last year.)
Pulling up in front of the store, I parked in the shade. (It was hot out! It’s August! Did you know that? How did that happen? I think it was June the last time I went out.) The lot looked quasi-empty but I didn’t think much of it, there is a pandemic going on after all.
Focused on my project of the day, I slid my leopard print mask up over my face and headed across the parking lot. But when I got to the door, there was a big lock on it (like the kind realtor’s and the IRS use). I glanced in the window and the store was empty. Completely empty. It was like the kitchen products had vanished in the middle of the night, or left in June, who knows which? I couldn’t get my bottles; I couldn’t make infused spirits without them. I laughed to myself that it was probably a holy sign that I should take up needlepoint instead.
And that’s when I saw her. The most enormous butterfly I have ever seen in real life. This huge, gorgeous yellow swallowtail was pressed up against the curb outside the store. I knelt to look more closely and lightly touched her wing. She fluttered but couldn’t seem to fly. The heat was radiating from the pavement and my heart melted for her. Something that beautiful shouldn’t be baked alive.
So I took off my mask and offered it to her as a magic carpet and she climbed slowly onboard. She pressed her wings flat against it as I carried her to the shade. I offered her a chance to move into the tall grass but she refused it. She was a gift that couldn’t be given away. On the drive home we listened to solo violin music. I’m pretty sure she liked it as much as I did.
I Goggled wounded butterfly and learned she would savor the same nectar I’d made that morning for my hummingbirds, and to put it on a sponge so she could use her feet to find it. I followed the directions and, clearly delighted, she unfurled her tightly curled proboscis to take a long drink. It turns out my new friend is a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail who is probably exhausted from laying her eggs.
Looking into the rows of eyes on her wings I was transported to an internal sanctuary. To gaze upon her is to see holiness. It had been an exhausting week, stuffed full of new ways of being, new possibility, and, correspondingly, a hundred ways to fail. It was another one of those weeks when you’re either in a cave shaking, or cliff-walking with nothing but hutzpah to keep you from falling to your death. This year seems to have brought a lot of those to a lot of us.
I needed to hit pause; to stop my monkey brain from bouncing around on my neural networks as it pondered new ways of being. I needed to find some meaning in all of it.
And as I looked at her, so wounded and beautiful, strong and soft, fragile yet alive, I began to cry. Like me, she had suffered through a true metamorphosis to become a butterfly. As a caterpillar, she had to survive five instars, sheddings of her exoskeleton. During her last instar, she transformed the skin of her soft, tubular body into a hard chrysalis, after securing herself to a branch, so that the unthinkable could happen. Inside her chrysalis she first digested herself and became liquid so that she could restructure her cells and become an entirely new creature, in a process known as histogenesis. Her ancient process is the foundation of modern-day stem cell research, how fascinating is that?
More tears flowed as I thought about my own instars in a way I never had before. Learning more about her journey helped me understand my own. What I had seen as failures or do-overs were actually a process deeply necessary to my own metamorphosis. I had to shed my no-longer-useful exoskeletons.
Without shedding and cocooning, we cannot be made new. She’s slowly fluttering her wings as I write, drinking her fill from a sponge on a plate. She is safe for now and so am I. The small deaths in my life, my journey back from widowhood, these are not things to be pitied or mourned. I’ve been undergoing histogenesis. No wonder I’ve felt semi-solid this year. My metamorphosis is almost complete. Soon I will dry my wings in the sun, and then, I’ll take flight.
Now I understand the message I was sent when I saw her pressed up against the hot pavement in a parking lot. If we can survive the threats of life long enough, stop clinging to our old skin and the baggage that comes with it; if we can digest the hard places within us, then one day we can emerge. When we let go of the old selves that no longer serve us, we become a new creature, in an ancient act of unspeakable freedom and beauty.
This is a difficult time to be a butterfly. Take a few moments to use this healing meditation to gain strength for the freedom that awaits YOU.
Here’s a recent post of mine from the international blog 60 and Me. I imagine you can relate.
Wouldn’t it be nice if grief were linear? If it could start at A and end (permanently) at Z?
But grief doesn’t work that way. Working through grief is like peeling away layers of an onion. Some of the layers are really sticky and, most of the time, you’re crying while you do it.
YOU’D THINK 9 YEARS WOULD BE LONG ENOUGH
It’s been almost 10 years since my husband died. I thought I’d worked through every emotion there was. I spent three years in bereavement counseling, another year getting my Certified Grief Recovery Specialist® training and certification, and then the next five leading retreats for widows, and writing a book.
BUT IT CIRCLES BACK
I cried just the other day. Grief hitch-hiked a ride with my son during a discussion about what he plans to take with him when he leaves for medical school next fall. When we opened his closet I gasped for air because starring back at me was the gorgeous framed black and white wall portrait of me and his Dad, taken the year we were married. We were both in leather jackets, leaning against a white marble wall at the art museum, clearly in love. That picture broke my heart open again.
AND YOU HAVE TO BREATHE THROUGH IT
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t drowning underwater again like I was in the beginning. I’ve done a lot of healing! Because I’ve done my work with my grief, I knew the only way to get over this moment was to move through it and breathe into the memory. So I made eye contact with that younger me and pulled the love on his face and mine deep into my heart, where I’ll keep it as a treasure. I won’t put the wall portrait back up, it’s not helpful to endlessly sit with reminders of the past.
TREASURE THE MEMORY AND LET GO OF THE HURT
I’ve found that treasuring the memories that are stored in my grief is a key strategy for healthy recovery and happiness. There are lots and lots of memories after twenty-three years of marriage and I’m lucky that most of them are happy ones. Knowing that I was that deeply loved by him helps me remember to love myself more than I often remember to.
What helps you when grief circles back?
Check out my new book: Navigating Loss: A Survival Guide
My podcast has been accepted into RODE microphone’s $150,000
2020 International Podcast Contest. Please log on and vote for me.
Each podcast can only be 2 minutes long and mine is an excerpt from my new book on widowhood: Navigating Loss: A Survival Guide for the Newly Widowed. It won’t take long to listen and I’d appreciate your vote!
From our work together in retreat, I imagine when you hear it, you’ll see yourself mirrored in the story.
Love to you this day and always, Donna Marie
I went to Zombie land today (also known as the home improvement store) because I’m in the process of some apartment repair and Dane and Davey needed more supplies. (When you get into a project like this, the supply lists breed like mice.)
Pulling in next to all the dualie trucks loading lumber was humbling. The dualies remind you that you are a woman entering a man’s world before you even venture inside. I slid the straps of my quilted leopard-print mask around my ears and began practicing my construction-speak on the way in. “Yeah, listen, gimme some almond switchplates, 3 with two and a 3, matching outlet covers, and 3 GFI’s. Oh, and throw in a white 30 inch range hood, self-vent.”
Thanks to Dane’s coaching and careful instruction I actually knew what all those things and I didn’t ask for “electrical thingies” in that embarrassing way women do. He teaches by the show-and-tell method, pantomiming his electrocution to explain the GFI, which I now know is a ground fault interrupter, and helping me count how many openings each switch-plate had (1, 2 or 3! Who knew? Seriously, I would have bought the wrong ones I’m sure).
My rehearsal was worth every minute. The clerk typed in my order, no questions asked, took my money, and then I moved to stand on an X in the delivery area, which is where this story actually starts.
Because you see, I haven’t been out in the world for over two months. And I found being thrust into the presence of all these people I didn’t know, who had also not been out in the world for two months, disconcerting, disorienting really. I was afraid of bumping into someone I knew and equally afraid of people offering to cut my hair. Who knew cutting your partner’s hair was the new disco dance?. Waiting on my orange X, feeling like a kid in kindergarten again, worried about who I would meet or who would cut my hair, I suddenly felt very silly because no one was making eye contact with me. People moved slowly and furtively past me as if they were on the other side of some invisible wall and were afraid of getting caught and deported.
I know the politicians have said American is again open for business, but the grand reopening seemed forced and sad, hopeless even. Maybe helpless is a better word. And suddenly this awkward helplessness I was feeling, reached back and connected to something I’d felt 9 years ago.
For the first few months after my husband Perrin died, I didn’t venture out much. I didn’t want to have those awkward, impersonal encounters in the grocery store or post office. I hadn’t slept much or gotten my hair cut and I looked a wreck. My brains had fallen out and my emotions were all over the map and frankly, I was still working on feeling safe most of the time, just like now. My world was upside down and I was trying to make some sense of it, just like now.
Because my brains had fallen out, I couldn’t remember peoples’ names, which was embarrassing. Of course they couldn’t remember my husband’s name either, so I guess we were even. “Oh! I’ve been thinking about you!” some vague acquaintance would say, “I’ll bet you miss Tadd. But we’ve all been wondering, was he a drinker” Who? Admittedly, Perrin is an unusual first name but Todd is a fairly ubiquitous last name. Not quite as common as Smith but close. Encounters like this made me want to stay inside.
Just like my grief then kept me on guard, socially isolated, and withdrawn, the COVID pandemic seems to be doing the same thing to me.
I’ve had so many memories arise lately from other helpless moments in my life, too: signing my Mom into hospice, taking the keys to my Daddy’s electric scooter so he couldn’t run away from the nursing home, and standing in a bitter November wind, listening to the kids in the marching band play hymns as people arrived at Perrin’s funeral, the black plumes on their hats blown back by the wind, tears streaming down their faces, and mine.
Memories are swirling with reality; fear is mingling with fact. Like kissing cousins at a cocktail party, this is my daily bread. These are my pandemic thoughts and I spend too much time on too many days sorting them all out. What will happen when we mingle, will infections rise? How many people will be evicted from their apartments when 38.6 million Americans have applied for unemployment while corporations took the lion’s share of the small business loans. It’s business as usual and yet it isn’t. We’re navigating a whole new world.