Is Grief Holding You Hostage?

When grief freezes you it can take a long time to thaw out!

Grief is very sticky, and, as you’ve probably discovered, it’s also sneaky. Grief doesn’t go away on its own. When I lead A Widows Tale retreats I am always amazed to find that those women who have not processed their grief are the ones who are still suffering the most, no matter how long it’s been since they lost their spouse.

It’s easy to become the public mourner for our man, the second victim of his death. I meet women at my retreats who are 10-15-20-24 years out from their husband’s death and yet, to hear their stories in the story-sharing that opens the retreat, their sorrow often sounds newer than the women who are just one or two years out – when you would expect things naturally very fresh and tender.

Because they’ve never processed their grief until they hit the retreat, grief owns their life. These widowed women have given their lives away to someone else’s death. How sad is that? In my family of origin, my father was a pastor and he counseled people as part of his work. But our family motto was “Do what you have to do and put a happy face on it.”  Counseling was one of those things that other people needed.

But when my mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast disease at age 83, and I began to care for her as her life ended, I found myself coming apart. My mom was a 43-year breast cancer survivor and to this day, the bravest person I’ve ever met. She lived half of her adult life with the knowledge that she had cancer so she faced her metastatic surgeries and chemo without much of fuss. I was the one who was a mess.

You see, I too, had lived with her cancer for all of my childhood and adult life but I had never processed that. My worldview was that Mom was the victor over her cancer. So when it came back, I felt its terror more than she did. When she went into hospice, I fussed over every detail, I drove the nurses crazy. Finally, the social worker showed up at the house one day and said, “We’ve discussed your mother’s case and we think you need help processing what’s happening in your life and hers. So, we’ve arranged for you to take grief counseling. Your first appointment is Thursday. We’ll have a volunteer here with your mother so her needs are covered.”

I was speechless…I was in total shock! What? Me, in grief counseling? Of all the nerve! I pointed out to the social worker that mother was dying but she wasn’t dead so I wasn’t ready for bereavement counseling. And he smiled and said, “You’re pre-grieving very deeply and we see from your caregiver’s intake form that you have had a lot of losses in your life. Most recently, you’ve relocated, taken your parents into your home, and changed jobs. All these changes and losses have added up. You’re overwhelmed. We think you need this counseling.”

So I went to grief counseling. Kicking and screaming, almost literally, I went. Only to have this Buddhist monk of a man ask me one infuriating question after another and then make me tea. “How did I feel about my body? Had my mother’s breast cancer affected my own self-image?” What kind of question is that? I yelled at him for an hour that day. Another day he said, “How did your parents feel about your first marriage and subsequent divorce? Are there things from that time that you still need to talk to your Mom about?”

What? How did he know I’d been married before? Oh, it was on my intake form and my mother had mentioned it to the social worker. “Why?” I screamed at him. Why on earth would she do that? So I ranted for another hour about why she was still talking about that jerk when my sweet husband of almost 20 years was helping take care of her? 

But then the day came when I stopped yelling and started crying and I couldn’t believe how much grief I had stuffed up into my body. It terrified me to see it, that’s how much there was stuffed up inside me.

When my husband died at 55, I was very glad I had taken the time to do my grief work over my Mom and Dad. Because I was facing grief again but at least I knew that the danger lay in letting it freeze me over. And the day after his funeral, I began actively working with my grief, allowing myself to let go of it and heal, just a little bit, every day. Because I knew I didn’t want to be frozen on the inside.

Become a patron of A Widows Tale on Patreon for as little as $5 to support my podcasts and blogs for widows and receive a copy of my book Navigating Loss: A Survival Guide for the Newly Widowed for free!

How to Manage Grief

Did you know that grief is cellular? It manifests deeply in your body and affects almost every aspect of your life.

One widow I work with says her grief made her feel like she was being pulled out to sea by a rip tide. Just as she would get her head above the waves, the tide would pull her under again, so much so that she often found it hard to even breathe. She literally felt like she was drowning. In fact, she even called the paramedics once because the heaviness she felt in her chest made her think she was having a heart attack, which she could have been actually, so she was wise to get that checked out.

Other grieving women have described frequent headaches, insomnia, or a sense of heaviness in their body. They feel like they are walking in slow motion, as if their feet weigh 100 pounds each. Some have a sense of foreboding, or an achiness all over their body while still others have panic attacks or feel like sleeping all the time. And believe it or not, all of this is actually normal when you’re deeply grieving.

Grief is not just an emotional occurrence. Grief has significant physical manifestations. Grief affects every cell of your body.

Because grief affects us at a cellular level we have to learn how to live with it, before we can actually live through it.

You cannot run away from grief. In fact, the more times you have run away from grief in your life the more likely it is that this loss will dropkick you to your knees! You have to move through your grief intentionally or you risk becoming stuck in a dark place.

So, I have found that one of the most effective ways to deal with grief on a daily basis is to create and use a grief container. What’s a grief container? It’s a time you set aside, every day, to process your feelings and acknowledge what’s going on in your life. Grief containers are effective because you are giving yourself a place and a time to grieve. A grief container lets you honor what you are feeling. You see, your mind is not going to forget that you are grieving. In fact, if you try to ignore your grief you will almost guarantee that you’ll have a grief outburst at the worst possible moment, like in the grocery store or the bank.

So let’s take a minute now to think about when you want to schedule your grief container. Some women I with like to start their day by acknowledging their grief. They find that acknowledging what they’re feeling that day, first thing in the morning, let’s them move through their day more effectively. Others prefer to do it mid-day or in the evening when the demands of the day are over and they can relax and take as long as they want.

The time of day doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that you set aside a time, every day, to work with your grief. Journaling, meditation, and processing memories of your love and loved one are all great ways to work with your emotions during your grief container time.

A grief container gives you more control over your emotions. When you know that every day at 9 a.m. or 7 p.m. or whatever time you set for yourself, you’re going to deal with what you’re feeling, then you can steady yourself when those overwhelming feelings happen, or someone or something triggers your grief. When you have a safe time every day to release your grief and you experience a trigger, you can say to yourself, “Wow, I’m feeling overwhelmed right now but I’m going to use my grief container to deal with this instead of reacting right now.”

So think about where in your home you would like to be during your container time, get some pens and paper, maybe a CD player, some tissues and just make a contract with yourself that you will spend 10 or 15 minutes everyday honoring your grief. I promise you will see powerful results when you do.

Become a patron of A Widows Tale on Patreon to support my podcasts and blogs for widows and receive a copy of my book Navigating Loss: A Survival Guide for the Newly Widowed for free!

Are You Feeling Disconnected?

One of the worst parts of widowhood is making big decisions when you are least able to process them fully.

You’re suddenly faced with almost endless decisions about all these aspects of your life right at a time when grief makes you the least prepared to deal with it. This is particularly true if the death of your spouse was a hard death or it happened at an unexpected age.

As you know, the death of your spouse changed almost everything about your life. Your predictable world no longer exists. Your life with your spouse may not have been perfect, but you knew what to expect. After years with someone, your life takes on a day-to-day rhythm. Now that rhythm has been replaced by uncertainty.

What you are going through is very hard.

The death of a spouse is the single biggest loss anyone can experience. Men are widowed, too, and they often have great difficulty functioning after the death of their partners (many men handle this challenge by remarrying quickly). But I think widowhood is especially poignant and painful for women because we love so deeply.

We women extend ourselves, even over-extend ourselves, to care for those we love.

At first, you probably got cards and casseroles. I don’t know about you but when those casseroles and cards stopped coming after my husband died, I felt abandoned. (I sometimes still feel that way when I see a happy couple at church or out for a concert.)

I felt like no one remembered that he died, and I that made me feel really alone. In fact, I had never felt that alone ever before. The loneliness was overwhelming.

Just when I needed help the most, I found I was too depressed or too exhausted to ask for it. I was afraid that the friends and family who had been there in the beginning would be tired of helping me, or feel like I should have gotten over it by then, or that they’d be annoyed or inconvenienced so I just quietly shut down and went inside myself to sort things out.

At which point, people just assumed I was fine.

They would say, “How are you?” and I would say, “fine!”because I didn’t have the energy to tell them otherwise. Our son was 16 at the time and I used what little energy I had to take care of him. And, guess what? When I withdrew to sort things out, I disappeared. People forgot about me. I became invisible. Some days I was even invisible to myself.

Being invisible is very stressful. You feel so alone!

So, to feel connected to life again, try this little exercise:

Close your eyes. Put your hands on your belly just above your navel, just below your ribcage and feel your breath lifting your hand up and down as you inhale and exhale. Take 3 breaths this way, deep, slow breaths. Now with your eyes closed, try to see the room where you are sitting. Take 3 more slow breaths. Now in your imagination, walk outside and see the house or apartment building where you live. With your eyes still closed, look up and see a night sky. The night sky is deep blue with sparkling stars and a silver moon. Take 3 more breaths as you see all the stars just where they are supposed to be. All is right with the universe and you, dear one, are made of stardust. Take in a deep breath and remember this beautiful truth: You are a beloved daughter of the universe. As you take 3 more breaths, keeping your eyes closed, walk back through the door into the room where you are sitting.

Become a patron of A Widows Tale on Patreon to support my podcasts and blogs for widows and receive a copy of my book Navigating Loss: A Survival Guide for the Newly Widowed for free!

Are You Going Crazy?

I’ve worked with hundreds of widowed women, from every walk of life, and very widow I’ve ever worked with has felt stuck and discouraged at some point.

Worse yet, they all thought that feeling stuck and discouraged meant there was something wrong with them. They thought they weren’t doing something right, they thought they weren’t strong enough. Or they thought they were going crazy.

If you are feeling stuck and discouraged, here’s a few things you should know.

The first thing is, you’re not going crazy. The depth of grief we feel when the person we have lived with, so intimately, dies, is overwhelming.

When every aspect of your life changes, you have a right to feel a little overwhelmed.

Think of it this way. One day, your world was right side up. Everything was normal. Then your partner died and your world turned upside down.

If your world is upside down why wouldn’t you feel overwhelmed? Your partner died, nothing is the same.

Look at this more closely: Your love life changed, your identity changed (wife to widow, bang!), your finances might have changed, friendships change (old couple friends don’t invite you to do things anymore and your girlfriends might not be calling you either). Maybe circumstances will not allow you to stay in the home or apartment you shared together. Perhaps you find yourself needing to get a job or take a different job in order to make ends meet. Your tax status changes. If you have children, your relationship with them has changed. (Being a solo parent to young kids is the hardest job of all!)

So just for today, know you are not crazy.

Just for today, take a deep breath and know that every cell in your body is working hard to help you get through this transition from wife to widow.

Try this breathing technique: Close your eyes. Place the fingers of your right hand on your belly, just above your navel and just below your rib cage. Take low, soft breaths into this place, breathing in through your nose and breathing out through your mouth. Take fifteen more breaths just like that and know showing tenderness to yourself will help you feel better. Try this breathing technique before you sleep at night. It calms the Vagus nerve, which is command central for your nervous system.

Become a patron of A Widows Tale on Patreon to support my podcasts and blogs for widows and receive a copy of my book Navigating Loss: A Survival Guide for the Newly Widowed for free!

Do You Need a Trickle of Hope?

Click the link below to hear this blog as a podcast!

Are You Looking for Enough Water to Bloom in the New Year?

I’m a fan of bulb gardens in the winter.

I take vases, antique bowls and baskets and turn them into little islands of happiness to combat the often-dreary days of winter.

Garden stores carry the bulbs in the fall.

I buy amaryllis, jonquils, and tulips. (I’m not a fan of narcissi, also known as paper-whites. They’re tall and leggy, like a twelve-year-old model on the cover of Vogue, and they have a nasty smell. The flowers I mean, not the models.) I know most people grow bulbs during the holidays, but I save mine for when I really need them: those dark days of January and February.

Then they go into a labeled paper bag.

Because as I get older, it’s hard to remember what’s in there if I don’t. Once all the bulbs are safely in the bag, so to speak, I put them in the dark for a few months so they can “harden.”  

When I take them out in early January, they’re shedding and all shriveled up.

They look like a vagabond’s suitcase. You’d never guess life could be coaxed from one. Nor would you expect beauty to spring up from something so ugly. I grow my bulb gardens in river rock instead of soil, so their roots have something to cling to as they reach for the light. It keeps them from falling over and scaring the cat.

The secret to growing a bulb garden is water.

Careful watering is the secret to growing a beautiful bloom from a shriveled bulb.

Too much water and the bulbs will rot. Too little and they won’t have enough energy to bloom. But place just a trickle of water under their “feet,” and new roots begin to emerge. Then a shoot of green will force its way up to the light.

A bulb has everything it needs to bloom deep inside itself.

That’s why it doesn’t need soil, or even sunlight. Bulbs store the summer sun so they can be ready to bloom again. A bulb is nature’s most masterful solar battery.

But this year, I’m feeling like a shriveled up bulb.

I think that’s understandable. It’s been a darker winter than usual, hasn’t it. The pandemic, again, kept us from family and holiday celebrations. From meals with friends and worship. Lord, how I miss worship.

We run around like masked bandits, trying to stay at a safe distance from people we barely recognize anymore. It’s so easy to get dried out from loneliness and the unending caution. Yet we dare not stop our vigilance now. The virus is still winning and our vaccines are a springtime hope. There’s a lot of suffering left to endure.

But it’s the New Year!

The New Year! A traditional time of rebirth; a time to try on something new, kick an old habit, take that new job. It’s time to bloom!

You’re more ready than you think!

Deep inside, you already have what you need to bloom. The trick is to find the situations and people that will give you the right amount of water.

Not everyone helps you bloom.

Some people give you so much water you begin to rot inside. (Have you ever seen a Helicopter Parent in action?) Others are too stingy, offering little or no encouragement or, worse yet, they belittle your possibility. 

But then there are people who truly believe in you.

It’s as if they know exactly how much watering you need! Somehow, they can see inside your leathery shell and they know you’re ready to burst. And they know that when you do, you’ll be amazing.

Yes, some people trickle just the right amount of water at your feet.

I’ve found the kinds of people who care about your blooming (which is not ALWAYS the same as caring about you) watch to see when you’re thirsty. They notice your droopy leaves. They have this way of providing encouragement at just the right time, in just the right way.

Places and situations can help us find the right trickle of water, too.

I often pass mountain streams in the highlands on my walk. Some have a kind of sweet, wild music that fills the air as I pass. They make me feel like blooming! Because there they are, way up a mountain pass, where no one can hear them, singing for no other reason than the fact that they can.

What songs does your heart long to sing?

In this New Year, how much water do you need?

Are you thirsty for friendliness after the animosity of the election rhetoric? Time to get off Facebook. Do you need an encouraging new friend or perhaps a savvy mentor? Or, would quiet bring just the right amount of water to your life? Perhaps you’d enjoy solitude on a hiking trail or maybe you’d like to get lost among the species in an arboretum? Is there a book that would water your thirsty soul? If so, why not buy it?

You are a rare creature.

You bloom best when gently watered. In a New Year when winter’s darkness may press upon us as never before, I invite you to find the trickle of water you need so that your life can burst forth and be made new again!

Surviving the Holidays, Part Two

On my first New Years’ without my husband. I was so exhausted from mak- ing it through Christmas without a meltdown that I didn’t think too much about New Years’. That was a big mistake, because my husband’s first massive stroke happened that night. (Both my son and I can replay
the night of his Dad’s first stroke like we’re watching a horror movie in slow motion).

Instead of doing my grief container work that morning, I made the mistake of getting up early and fussing with fancy food, so we could watch the Rose Bowl parade. Our son slept in, and I was already tired when he got up. Then we couldn’t find the right channel to stream the parade. (He was only watching it to please me.) One thing led to another, we argued, we spent time apart. Then evening came, and memories from the year before hit us both like an atom bomb, separately.

You might remember me saying that while my husband didn’t do housework, he wanted to clean the house and do the laundry the night of his first stroke. My son and I were swirling in memories from the year before and when I casually asked him if he needed to do his laundry, the roof caved in.

It was a grief-trigger that I should have seen coming. But I hadn’t thought about how to honor us that day; I didn’t have a plan. Before I knew it, we were both gut-punched by grief, and so emotionally raw we couldn’t understand or support each other. I felt stupid about the laundry thing; he was angry with me for triggering his grief. We fled to our separate rooms (after deciding not to kill each other!). In the heat of that moment, I thought I’d lost my son, too.

This story is another example of the explosive power that holidays can have.

In addition to helping you keep your cool in front of friends, relatives, and co-workers, pre-planning lets you celebrate the holidays in meaningful ways. A well-laid plan honors the intense emotions you may feel on that day while also letting you celebrate the day with a sense of safety.

If you want to celebrate Christmas or New Years with others, contact the people you want to be with and get a plan going. It’s a horrible feeling to be alone and waiting for an invitation to celebrate a holiday. Decide who you want to be with on those occasions, and call them to make arrangements. (Remember to make your gathering small this year because of COVID.) If you decide to host a holiday, take it easy on yourself. You get the place ready and let the others bring everything else. Everyone loves a potluck! You can provide the space, and others can bring food. It’s easy and often very comforting!

Here’s the most important thing: Make sure you begin and end each of these days in your own grief container time. Private grief time is how you will prevent grief bursts during the day. When you work with your emotions before the day gets going, you’re less likely to be ambushed by them. When you have a plan to honor your feelings later that night when everything is over, you can tell yourself, “I’m not going to react to that now. I’ll deal with it tonight.”

When you honor your emotions in private, it’s much easier to enjoy others and have self-control in public. Accepting yourself and your grief by making a plan is a healthy way to get through any special occasion or holiday!

Try It Out!

HOLIDAY STRATEGY TWO: take a piece of paper and write important holiday dates in a column on the left. Next to each date, write how you want to celebrate and anyone you’d like to celebrate with. This is the year for YOU to make a plan for each holiday that honors YOU. Plan something fun to look forward to. That could be watching a holiday movie or streaming The Nutcracker from the internet. It could be calling friends to wish them a happy New Year. (Or all of the above!)

Surviving the Holidays Part 1

Holidays and special occasions (like Christmas, anniversaries or birthdays) often bring overwhelming emotions and cascades of memories for a widow.

If you don’t have a plan for how you’ll honor your grief and emotions, then these “special days” will ambush you. Without a plan, grief can attack you out of nowhere and leave you bleeding on the pavement or weeping in front of family and friends months after the death.

STRATEGY #1: Get out a calendar and mark it with the dates this month and next that could be filled with more grief than usual (like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve).

I learned to make a plan with a calendar in hand the hard way. My husband’s death anniversary came in early November. Then our wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years (the anniversary of his first stroke) came racing in, one on top of the other. By January 2nd, I was exhausted.

It started with our wedding anniversary, which arrived the week after his funeral, the week before Thanksgiving. I was still in shock and had spaced on the date. My house was a mess; I was a mess, and I decided I should dust. (Why I do these things is a mystery.) Anyway, I was cleaning up my den and went to feather-dust our wedding photo when I accidentally tipped it off the mantle with the duster.

Of course, the hand-painted ceramic frame fell to the floor and broke. The tears came, as did the screams and shouts of anger that I’d done something so careless and stupid (thank God our son was at school).

When I took the pieces into the kitchen I glanced at the calendar and saw it was our wedding anniversary! How could I have forgotten? My knees buckled. I sank onto the big slabs of gray and blue tile, shaking and crying so hard I thought my bones would break. When the tears finally stopped, I curled up in a fetal position and rocked myself there for almost an hour.

The power of that uncontrollable outburst shocked me. It was a powerful encounter with the rage and sorrow that were living inside me. I decided right then and there I wouldn’t get ambushed like that again. What if our son had been home? It would have scared him to death!

So I took that to heart and made a plan for every “special occasion.” These strategic plans, which included working with my emotions, helped me stay safe and sane. My pre-planning was a wise strategy.

Pre-planning for your holidays and special occasions is so powerful I might even call it life-saving. At the very least, it will save your sanity. “Special” days have extraordinary power. Without a plan, they can, and will, drop-kick you to your knees. So get that calendar out and mark those dates.

FREE Zoom Event: How to Have a Happy Holiday Even If You’re Alone or Grieving

Please join me for a fun and upbeat conversation!
Friday, Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. (EST)

Few things can disrupt a widow’s life as much as the holidays.
No matter where you are in your grieving process, or how many years it’s been, the holidays are thick with memories and the “we used to…” and “we always…” thoughts.

But life is too short (as you well know) to allow the past to ruin your present.
It’s going to be harder this year than ever because of
COVID’s isolating reality. But, trust me, you can do it!

You CAN have joy this holiday season.

It’s all in how you approach things, how you honor what’s happening in your heart, and
make plans that suit YOU. Plans for doing things that bring YOU joy.

But there’s too much to talk about here so I’ve scheduled a fun afternoon
conversation for this Friday on ZOOM. (If you don’t have the app, it’s a free download.)

Donna Marie Todd is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
Topic: Widows Pre-Holiday Meet-Up
Time: Dec 4, 2020 04:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 301 208 8815
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I hope to see you there!

Transitions: Part One

Transitions are so awkward.
You have one foot one place and one foot somewhere else. You’re afraid to leave and can’t wait to go all at the same time. 
They’re rarely neat and clean.
Transitions often come with a lot of back and forth. For instance, I’ve taken my fleece jackets in and out of the closet for the last 30 days. Ditto all my long-sleeved tops. One day it’s 70 degrees and the next it’s 50. Or its 60 when I go to bed and 37 when I wake up. It’s hard to know what to wear so I go with layers and shed them all day like a snake.
The wild kingdom is in transition, too. The bears are back, raiding our trash, and the squirrels race to and fro with their cheeks stuffed full of acorns, which are huge and plentiful this year. The trees have shed most of their leaves. The vines clinging to the garage are the last stronghold
of last months’ reds and yellows.
Transitions are clumsy.
Being anxious during transitions is utterly natural. I’m not sure it really matters how many times you do it. Each transition brings its own angst, its own set of harsh realities and challenges.
You’ve been in transition your whole life.
Starting when you were forcefully ejected from the warm, quiet safety of your mother’s womb and came screaming out into a
glaringly bright, loud, busy world.
The fun continued when you learned how to walk, which started with you falling down a lot. Human bipedalism is a dicey thing to master. And before you could take the first step, you had to build your strength and coordination. You had to pull yourself up again and again. And there’s a never-ending irony to that. It’s like my pediatrician’s nurse always said, “We tell our babies to hurry up and walk, hurry up and talk, and then we tell them to sit down and shut up.”
No wonder we’re leery of transitions.
I think half my adult insecurity comes from my first day in kindergarten. I remember standing in the doorway of a cavernous space in the “other” big church in town, First Baptist. As the Methodist pastor’s daughter, there I was, behind enemy lines, holding my mother’s hand, and looking at all these little people my size that I didn’t know. Mother handed me off to the teacher who led me to my “place” at a long table filled with paper and crayons. Learning “my place” has been a life-long activity.
At the end of that day, I had a clumsy drawing of the letters A through D, a belly full of graham crackers, Kool-Aid stained lips, and no new friends. I was the new girl on the block most of my childhood. All those childhood transitions made me good at meeting people and slow to make friends.
Transitions are risky affairs.
The status quo is boring but predictable. The transitions we’re in right now are like playing a slot machine without any quarters.
We’re transitioning from one president to another. We’ve gone from stock market highs to struggling economies; from the safety of a first world nation to victims of a pandemic that has no national boundaries.
Between the presidency and the pandemic, we’re faced with an ugly truth:
As a widow, you already know we’re not in control of life’s transitions.
Transitions are awkward, clumsy, risky things
they make us feel insecure and out of control. But the truth of the matter is you and I aren’t in control. You never were in control and you will never be in control. Control is a delusion – a fatalistic one.
The only control you ever really have is over how you react to what is.
So perhaps with all the transitions coming your way, it may be time to take a step back and quiet your heart. To feel your breath rising and falling, entering and leaving. Every inhale gives you another moment of life while each exhale rids your lungs of what no longer serves you.
When transitions are hard, security can seem very far away. No matter what transition you are facing, know that God is there. Remember that God is in control and God is already on the other side of that transition, ready to give you your next breath.

Never forget that God is there.

The holidays are coming. If you, or someone you know,
would like some ideas as to how to move through them
gracefully, click here to download my free planning guide.