You know how you lived in the before—but how do you live in the after?
My wife and I were shopping several months ago, and as we were checking out at the counter, we asked the cashier what her plans were for Christmas. The cashier looked at us, sighed and said, “I don’t do Thanksgiving or Christmas anymore, because my husband passed away two years ago. I don’t really feel like there’s anything worth celebrating.”
Having been a widower who lost my wife overnight, and having once lost a child to the pain of death, my heart immediately went to this cashier and her suffering. We expressed our condolences and told her that I had a book that she might find helpful. I found a slip of paper and wrote down the title and handed it to her. She reminded me of a point in my life when I was alone in grief — coping and healing. I wrote about this in my book, The Sun Still Rises. If you are trying to cope and heal, I hope it helps you.
Once the funeral was over, respects had been paid, the noise had died down, and family members all went back home, I was now trying to figure out how to cope. How do you cope with such a catastrophic life change? The problem is that everyone else goes back to their life, to work, to their families, and to their homes. Meanwhile I had a life, but what was it? It was inalterably changed. I still had my work, but I no longer had my family as I defined it, and my home had become very empty and lonely. It’s not as if the people who went home had forgotten about me. But I do think people forget how your life is as a person who is living loss on a daily basis. Everything changes. You know how you lived in the before—but how do you live in the after?
So I will share with you the tools and techniques that I used in order to cope and grieve and heal.
A Grief Education
May of that year was extremely difficult and I was grieving, but I knew that I needed to start working towards coping and ultimately healing. I’ve always believed in education and information. So my first step was to get an education in grief. My curriculum consisted of two main approaches; 1) talking to people who have had significant loss themselves; particularly someone who lost a spouse and 2) reading books about grief and grieving. This approach gave me ideas and allowed me to think through what I was experiencing. One of the reasons I decided to read books about grief is that I thought that maybe several other people had experienced what I had experienced, so they had ideas and ways to deal with intense grief.
My very dear friend Joe Townsend was a pilot who lost his wife and children in a plane crash many years ago. I ended up writing a book about Joe and his tragedy called The Soul Survivor. I authored that book about Joe’s experience of losing his wife and then leaned on Joe as my coach when I was grieving after losing my wife to run ideas and thoughts by him. He was very generous in spending time with me on the phone, giving me ideas, and letting me vent. He also was able to confirm that what I was thinking was “normal” and, on occasion, that I was not losing my mind. He was a great friend and his calm and cheerful demeanor was very helpful to me during that time.
So my advice is to seek out people in your social circles who may have experienced your kind of loss, because they immediately understand where you’re coming from and what you are thinking. It’s really nice to talk to someone who “gets it” and understands, but more importantly you feel that they understand. Seek these people out, and don’t be too shy to ask them for help. I found the majority of people I asked for help during my most difficult time were more than willing to help, and were so very kind.
I had help from many other people, although those people don’t know that they helped me, because they came to me in the form of a book. I decided to find many titles on grief and the grieving experience and read them, digest them, and study them. Overall I think I read over a dozen, and although sometimes the books about tragedy were sad, they were useful because of the suggestions for healing they contained. I have to say that I found these books extremely helpful because they were real and relevant. So think of yourself as getting a BA in grief and grief coping skills.
There is a famous axiom out there that says knowledge is power, but I don’t agree with that statement. What I do agree with is the application of knowledge as power. So I recommend not only reading books on grief but also after reading through a book once, to go back and take notes and then ask yourself how you can apply this to your life. Then create an action plan for applying them as soon as possible.
The Beach Retreat
For a couple months after my wife passed away, I had been thinking about going to some sort of retreat. In August (four months after my wife passed away) I booked four days in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It was not a vacation, it was not an escape, it was what I referred to as a retreat. Now what do I mean by “retreat?” I felt I had gotten to a certain point where I needed to just sit back and process everything that I had gone through and experienced over the last four months. Clear my head and kind of reevaluate where I was and what I was doing.
When I told friends and family that I was going away to the beach for four days their first question was “by yourself?” Of course the answer was “yes”. They asked me the purpose of my beach visit and told I them I was going to a retreat. I think there were a few people who thought I’d gone a little bit off the deep end (but that’s OK.) I decided before I went to the beach that I was not going to socialize, I was not going to talk to anyone except to check into my hotel and order meals.
Each day I went for a long walk on the beach in the morning and in the late afternoon, and I sat on the beach each day in a beach chair with an umbrella and just thought for hours and hours. Even though I was surrounded by people it seemed as if I was in my own little space surrounded by my favorite sights and sounds of the ocean. It was almost as if I went away to a mountaintop monastery or a log cabin in the woods. During that time I also wrote a journal of everything that I had experienced over the last three months. I wrote to my wife and poured out my heart. I wrote everything that I wanted to say to her that I did not get to say. I told her what I was sorry for; I told her what I wish we had done. I told her that I was sorry she had experienced such a bad childhood and was in pain. I told her what I was sad about. I told her what I was angry about and what I didn’t understand. This was all in writing. I sat in a lawn chair with a baseball hat on and dark glasses crying much of the time. Because it was hot and I was sweating, and had on the sun glasses, no one knew I was crying. I cried buckets of tears that week.
I was so glad that I decided to take the retreat to the beach. I felt like I got a lot of issues resolved and settled in my head, and was able to properly frame everything that had happened. The retreat was truly for me a transformational experience. I came back from my trip with a lighter load, clear thinking and I just felt so much better. I called my daughter on the way home to tell her that I was on my way back. When she asked how my trip went, I told her, “I don’t know how to explain this but I feel 1000 percent better.” So the retreat was very cathartic for me. One of the things you might want to strongly think about if you have suffered a loss is to schedule a retreat for you. Pick a favorite place and geography that you find beautiful and peaceful, and go there with the express purpose of just thinking, meditating, praying, reflecting on your loss.
I also strongly recommend that you do journaling during that time to process your thoughts. Take a notebook and a couple of pens and pour out your thoughts, emotions, and heart out on the paper. Just dump out everything you’re thinking, feeling, and processing since your loss. It made a big positive difference for me. If for some reason you’re not in the position to be able to go away for a retreat you can certainly do the same thing locally. You can go for a hike into the woods, stay out all day, sit by a lake in an isolated area or go up in the mountains. The idea is just to be surrounded by beauty and nature and not distracted by people, phones, computers, and e-mails.
Diet and Exercise
I did decide to go on a diet and workout on a regular and consistent basis not long after my wife passed away. This is something else I would also highly recommend. When you are eating properly you feel healthier and you feel better about yourself physically. When you are working out and getting in shape you feel better about yourself mentally and physically. I personally find that when I work out it also gives me a tremendous amount of energy, because I found grieving to be a physically draining activity and it made me very tired. But the working out helps me maintain my level of energy. An additional benefit of working out as you know is when you work out your body releases several chemicals which are actually natural mood lifters, and helps you be more positive. Make a list of all of the kinds of exercises you enjoy doing or maybe consider buying fitness equipment or joining a local gym. Exercise may give you just the boost that you need during a trying and difficult time.
Your Support System
It is very important to identify who your support system will be. They may friends, family or even acquaintances. Your support system could also include psychiatrists, psychologists, and other doctors, as well as ministers, priests, and rabbis. Keep in mind when it comes to who you need for support there are no right or wrong answers. Some people may seek out religious or spiritual support or may choose to spend time with a grief counselor or a psychiatrist or psychologist. All that counts is what works for you at that time.
I never felt the need to go to a mental health professional because I felt like I was handling it well, but that does not mean that I do not endorse the idea of counselor if you need one. I had several great support people that helped me through a most difficult time. They were available to talk to me when I called on the phone, or contacted me to invite me to dinner, or posted messages to me on Facebook or e-mail, or sent me a card in the mail. This small team of people was a huge help to me in supporting me when I needed it most. My suggestion is to make a list of who your support system should be so that when you are feeling down and out you know who to call or contact without having to think about it. Write the prescription before you need it.
A very good friend of mine, Nathan, sent me a book called Changing Rooms which was about a different way of handling grief. The book outlines the importance of signaling that you are making changes in your life by changing your space to help in the healing from your loss. After carefully reading the book, I found this to be a very fascinating concept and made some changes.
I love all things nautical so I decided to go with a nautical theme. I didn’t change any of the furniture, but what I did do is I took everything off of the walls in the living room, dining room, and bedroom. I hung new pictures in the living room and the bedroom with the nautical theme and replaced the bedroom linens on the bed. I bought new items to put on the coffee table in the living room. I also repainted my front door a completely different color. Let me tell you, that just by making the smallest cosmetic changes the house seemed like it came back alive again.
Friends came over and thought that I changed all of my furniture in the living room. When I came home from a trip it just seemed like the house was fresh and new. It physically symbolized that I was on to a new life and things were not the same. I found that to be a huge psychological benefit. It’s like the house was all “ours” in the way it was decorated. After I re-decorated the house, it was more just “mine”. Somehow that also seemed OK too. It was like the house was now in “life two” as well.
So I want you to think about possibly making some changes in some of the spaces in your house. The timing is up to you. I made those changes about three months after my wife passed away. You may want to take longer. There is nothing wrong with that either.
So what will you change? Maybe it’s the living room and dining room or your bedroom, but you would be amazed how simple changes in a room’s decor can brighten your mood.
Avoid Negative Content
Unfortunately, as you know we live in a very negative world. Negative gets ratings and generates an audience. The world is chock-full of negative news stories, negative people, negative movies, negative TV, negative radio, and lots of sad stuff and it is all around us. One of the rules that I set for myself for about the first six months was that I was not going to expose myself to any negativity.
Man, my wife had died—that was negative enough. My daughter had lost her mother—that was negative enough. So I did not need to add any negativity to my life. What I needed to add was positive. So I made it my policy not to watch sad or negative movies, sad or negative television, sad or negative news stories, because I know the damage they can cause. I have always been a fan of watching movies and had always wanted to see the movie The Green Mile—a movie that is very well regarded critically. I did not do my research very well and rented it to watch it at home. Unfortunately, of course it was very dark, depressing, and sad. I had to turn the movie off when it was only halfway over. I just couldn’t take it. My daughter was very good about warning me about movies that were out in the marketplace that were about a man losing his wife or wife losing her husband so that I could avoid them. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about avoiding reality. I knew what my reality was—I was a widower. The last thing that I wanted to do was expose myself to death, destruction, disaster, and depression. It can be a downer!
Not only did I make a commitment to avoiding negative content I also made it a point to expose myself to more positive content. Every morning I would get up and have breakfast at the dining room table. While I was eating breakfast, I would select some positive thinking book by one of the great masters like Norman Vincent Peale or Napoleon Hill. I found starting my day with uplifting positive content was a great way to start. I have a fairly large collection of motivational and inspirational books so my reading assignments were easy to fulfill.
I also was very much focused on not associating with negative people who had negative things to say. I didn’t have room for them before in my life and after I experienced my loss I found that I had even less room for them.
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