Lessons learned from his own loss offer a message of hope and assurance.
I recently was saddened to find out that Celine Dion had lost her beloved husband, Rene, after being married for many years. I saw the video online of her standing sadly at her husband’s service. She bravely stood for hours, chin trembling, hugging each person that came through the visitation line, often in tears. I felt bad for her losing her husband, and also thought that it must be much more difficult being a celebrity and grieving so publicly. I was very impressed by her grace and dignity.
Sadly a few days later her brother also passed away. Although I know that no one grieves the same way, I felt a connection to her because I too lost my wife of 32 years almost four years ago now. I wish that I could sit down and talk to Celine Dion and tell her what I learned about grief as part of my healing journey. This reminded me of the chapter that I wrote in my book The Sun Still Rises, called “Hope and Assurance.”
Here is an excerpt about hope and assurance, and I realized I had already written the exact words I would say to Celine if I had a chance.
I am sure right now you are grieving and devastated. I am sure right now you don’t even think there is a light at the end of the tunnel or there is even a tunnel at all. I come bearing good news. I hold the lantern of hope and I am shining it on you. Do you feel the warmth? There is hope. I can tell you that there is hope because I have lived through losing a child and a wife. You can have hope for happiness in the future. I promise.
I have a very clear recollection of sitting many nights in my living room alone in an empty house reading a book or watching TV. I felt very lonely and sad, and I remember thinking “OK, it has been two months since my wife passed away. How will I be in a year from now? How will I feel 18 months from now? What will my life be like?” It was almost as if I was having an out of body experience, but I was thinking about how I was thinking.
I hoped for a bright future but I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through grief to get to the other side of my life. But I always had the sliver of hope and optimism. So the purpose of this particular chapter is to let you know that there is a future ahead of you, and I think you can have a bright and hopeful future where you can eventually be happy again. I am living proof of this concept.
So let me give you some general concepts to think about as you are grieving and ones that I hope will give you optimism as you look towards the future.
You are going to be OK. I just wanted to let you know that despite your tragedy and your loss you will eventually be OK. I can’t tell you how long that will be or how it will happen. I can only give you tools, tips, and techniques in order to help you on your journey. I hope you will find these valuable for you. When I talked to my Uncle Scott in California about two weeks after my wife passed away, the first thing he said to me on the phone call was “you’re going to be OK.” I thought to myself as he said this “how could he possibly know that I was going to be OK? Maybe after all I was going to fall apart or be severely depressed or not be able to pull my life back together.” After speaking with him for a while, I realized as a pastor, he not only had a massive amount of experience delivering sermons, performing weddings, and ministering to his church members, but he also had a tremendous amount of experience counseling people who were going through the grief process and conducting funerals. So I believed him. Now as you read this, I want you to believe me—you are going to be OK. Yes, you will face trials and tribulations. You have several obstacles to face as you go through the grief process, but I believe that believing you’re going to be OK is the first step. Believe it—you will be.
You can reinvent your life. I realized after my wife passed away that my life had changed forever, and she was never coming back. That very sad permanence is probably the most disturbing aspect of someone dying.
A couple of weeks after my wife passed away I started to think about what I wanted my life to be now that I was living a life without Cindy. I had the opportunity to redraw the entire blueprint of my life. I could reinvent the work that I did, where I lived, who I socialized with, and any other aspect of my life socially, mentally, spiritually, financially, and logistically.
The first thing I did is I decided that I needed to lose weight. I thought that the intense focus and concentration of dieting and working out would help me lose weight, have more energy, and feel better about myself. So I literally reinvented myself physically. I signed up for Weight Watchers, followed the nutrition plan very carefully, and worked out on a regular and consistent basis. The good news is I lost a total of 54 pounds, and nine inches in my waist.
The act of reinventing myself physically was a tremendous boost to my energy level, and I felt much better about my image as a person. So I want you to take the time to sit down when you feel ready and look at all of the areas of your life and which of those areas you would like to change or reinvent. Redraw your life blueprint from this point forward. I also believe that the act of reinvention is an act of hope and optimism because it makes everything in life brand-new.
There will sometimes not be an answer. In the famous Beatles song, Let It Be, there is a line that says “there will be an answer let it be …” I am here to tell you there will be many times you will not have an answer. I have learned to be OK with that, because there aren’t any. My wife died of a brain aneurism at the young age of 50. Why? I don’t know. The coroner said it could have been a congenital defect, but the kind of aneurism she had destroys itself when it bursts. So he said he could say without a doubt that was the cause of death, but couldn’t say why she died at 50 years old and not say 70 years old or 30 years old.
The pain will get better with time. You are in pain and will be in pain. That is the bad news. The good news is the pain will get better with time, and one day it will actually go away. How can I say that? I can say that because I lived through the pain, every minute of it.
In the beginning I was in a tremendous amount of pain and grieving the loss of my wife. Each day when I got up I realized yet again that she was not here and that was incredibly painful. I will tell you though that each day the pain got to be a little less, then a little less, then less little less, until one day I had an entire day when I did not think about the grief, and I was not in pain. Now don’t get me wrong, at the writing of this book it has been 22 months and there still are times that I am in pain, or grieving. However, the space between the times that I am in pain or not in pain continues to grow in distance. I can’t say for you what the time frame will be for your pain. I can only share with you how I have healed, and the majority of days I feel no pain of grieving at all. I still carry the experience of the loss with me, but the pain has faded.
You are stronger than you realize. I always thought of myself as a reasonably strong person and someone who was optimistic. I realize having gone through the trials and tribulations of grief has made me a much stronger person, but also led me to a realization that I already was a strong person. I just didn’t know it. Many people have said they have been inspired by my strength and the way that I have handled my grief. I can only say that I have tried the best I can each day and that’s all that I can do.
You may seriously think to yourself “I just can’t take this” or “this is the worst thing that has ever happened in my life.” My response to you would be I agree with you—it is the worst thing that has ever happened in your life, but you can take it. You are much stronger than you know. You really don’t know how much steel you have in your spine until it is tested. Then you realize you really are very strong. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said,
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
I have learned that for myself because I went through this time of tragedy and grief, it made me stronger for handling other problems or challenges that I have faced since then. It is almost as if you built up some emotional muscle to use when you need it.
You have resources. I was very fortunate to have the loving support of many friends and family members during the early days of my grief. I remember calling my best friend Dave one night around nine o’clock in the evening and telling him that I was really struggling with loneliness. Talking to him made me feel better. He understood and gave me lots of great suggestions and ideas. Mary Kelly, a fellow professional speaker, heard through one of our mutual friends that I had lost my wife. She was a widow who lost her husband about seven years before. She was kind enough to write me an e-mail saying that she was sorry for my loss and if I needed any advice to feel free to contact her. One night I called her and we exchanged stories and she gave me some great advice.
Throughout the last 22 months I have been absolutely astounded at the people who have called, e-mailed, visited, sent me a message on Facebook or text message to my phone just to let me know that they were thinking of me and supporting me. So you do have resources in friends and family who can certainly help comfort you and advise you during your time of grief. Lean on them for a while, use them, and ask them for help. There is nothing wrong with that.
You can choose your attitude.
OK I know you’re probably irritated reading this. How do you choose to have a positive attitude when you’ve lost a wife, husband, child or some other relative or friend? “What’s there to be happy about?” the cynic may ask. I have a confession: two weeks after my wife passed away I conducted my first live training program. Why would I choose to go and work conducting a full day training program when my wife had only passed away two weeks before? Well it’s simple. I decided I was not going to sit around the house and be miserable all day long. So I got up in the morning feeling very miserable, went into training during the day and felt great (I love and have a passion for what I do) and then in the evening felt sad again. Here is the key point: for eight hours that day I was able to be in a happy state of connecting with other human beings in a training program. I say there’s nothing wrong with that.
The late Zig Ziglar once said “if your thinking is stinking—then you need to get a checkup from the neck up.” Yes, this is quite a humorous quote, but I like the idea of it. I choose how I think and I choose my attitude. Six weeks after my wife passed away I went to Hershey Amusement Park by myself for the day. Many people thought I had lost my mind. “Why are you going to Hershey Park? They asked. My answer was simple “amusement parks make me happy.” Enough said.
Why would I have a positive attitude even though I’m a widower who suffered a tragic loss? I think that is an interesting question and a lot depends on your perspective. I could sit around and say “I can’t believe that my wife died it is so unfair.” Or I could just say that I’m grateful that I was married to her for 32 years. I could say that I’m grateful for my health, I’m grateful that my wife did not suffer, I’m grateful for the fact that I was home with her when she died so she did not die alone.
I think my daughter Alexis said it best; she said she was just glad she had a mom who saw her through school, got to see her graduate from high school and college, and got to attend her wedding. She said if her mom had died sooner, than at all those events she would’ve been thinking about her mom. So she said she was grateful to have had her mom as long as she did, even though she wished she would’ve been around longer. So there are many things to be grateful for, but we don’t take the time to sit down and think through them.
Beyond being grateful I’m just going to decide to have a happy attitude about life. To me life is so short and precious I’m not going to waste my life sitting around being miserable, mean, and sad. So I will choose for me to have a positive upbeat attitude.
About three weeks after my wife passed away I was visiting an art gallery in my area. The manager of the gallery greeted me, welcomed me to the gallery, and showed me some work that they were displaying. We got into an in-depth conversation and I told him that I was thinking about getting into collecting art. I was still wearing my wedding ring at the time and he asked me how my wife felt about the idea of collecting art. I told him that I was a widower and my wife had passed away three weeks ago. I didn’t mean to, but my comment almost knocked the poor man off of his feet. At first, he was speechless. Then he said “I just can’t believe that you’re a widower and you’re only a widower now for three weeks. You seem to have such a great, upbeat attitude.” I told him that it was not easy, but I decided to maintain a positive attitude as much as I could most of the time.
To close this chapter I think this quote is profound:
There is so much about my fate that I cannot control, but other things do fall under the jurisdiction. I can decide how I spend my time, whom I interact with, whom I share my body and life and money and energy with. I can select what I can read and eat and study. I can choose how I’m going to regard unfortunate circumstances in my life-whether I will see them as curses or opportunities. I can choose my words and the tone of voice in which I speak to others. And most of all, I can choose my thoughts.
-Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
If you know anyone who has suffered a loss please share this with them. There is after all, hope.
Photo: Getty Images