There is a big push this time of year for image management. Nearly anywhere you look there are guides on preparing the right meal, the perfect card, the amazing party, and an inspired holiday letter. There is pressure, real or imagined, to appear that you are pulled together and enjoying every minute of this season.
However, there are many who are experiencing untold suffering, and this time of year is filled with angst and sorrow. If you have experienced any sort of loss (job, divorce, death, friendship) then you can somewhat relate to these sentiments. Sometimes things aren’t spectacular, and you haven’t had a banner year filled with abundance. There are moments when someone asks how you are doing, you nod, clench your jaw, bite your tongue, and reply with the happy answer because it is far easier than explaining your despair.
Whenever you tell others that everything is “fine,” I wonder if you are really trying to convince yourself that your heart isn’t breaking? Instead, why not practice brutal honesty? This may counter your spirited holiday logic, but being honest with yourself is one way to fierce contentment. Fierce because at this time of year it isn’t natural to express sadness; and yet, contentment often follows when you can give yourself a dose of honesty. For those who have suffered a significant loss, whenever it occurred, the void that the person left is often more palpable during the holidays. It isn’t unnatural to see a certain item at a store and think about your beloved. Sending out cards without your child’s name on it is beyond difficult, and this sadness won’t easily dissolve. Walking to the grave from your car are the longest steps you will take. These are moments you never thought you would encounter.
However, being completely present with your grief and rawness is difficult. Many spend years avoiding these moments. Some feel pressure to act as though they feel special spiritual healing and experience guilt for not experiencing faith as they once understood it. Practicing this sort of raw and brutal honesty, rather it is through meditation, journal writing, or prayer won’t bring back your beloved, but it will allow you to be present with your sorrow. This is the bare bones of loss. You are emotionally naked and completely vulnerable and this is why it takes an incredible amount of bravery to even enter into this space. It actually takes practice becoming this open. Some call it the road untraveled; others refer to it as holy time. Whatever you call it, healing is taking place, even though it may be in small increments.
The path to contentment isn’t found in the aisle at your local department store. For many it is discovered in the small tender moments while there’s a lump in your throat when a piece of music is played or you when you find a photograph of your loved one. The most beautiful things come to us when the light is silent and darkness is bright.
Published in Huffingtion Post Healthy Living on 12/16/2014
I’ve written about the death of my husband here —www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-meekhof/the-moment-i-knew — and I’ve written about the challenges that come with loss. Within months of my husband’s funeral, his older brother died. I flew to Florida to attend the funeral and obtained support from his family. From my perspective, much of this support faded and eventually diminished. Sadly, my husband, Roy, had predicted that this might occur. Soon after we found out that his cancer was terminal, I remember crying, and asking Roy if I would be alone. He looked at me with deep pain in his eyes, put his arm around me, and said, “I’m afraid you may not get what you want from my family.” He then gave me the names of other loved ones he felt I could trust.
This didn’t mean that I was sitting home alone during the holidays, but the loss of contact with his family was a secondary and painful loss. Before Roy died, there were some tensions with some of his family, but I had this magical thinking and believed that I would always be a part of his family. It was not an immediate disconnect, but it occurred over time. Could I have handled things differently? Absolutely. If I could have worn a T-shirt with a big red heart on it that said, “Forgive Me” to all of the family events I would have done so.
The first two years, yes, especially those first 24 months after Roy’s funeral were filled with awkward and strange conversations. In the face of grief and everything else, I was a mess. I did the best I could to show up at family events, write thank you notes (when I could remember), and reply to emails. Who knew I would struggle so many months after the funeral? Who knew I would be haunted by Roy’s words, so many years later?
The truth is that when you mix death and family you will fall apart all over again. At times, I felt total love and then I felt lonely and then came grace, and boom, back to feeling love. There’s often not a rhythm and the cycle is called grief. As painful and horrible and traumatic as it can be this is part of life. Grief, as you know is filled with disappointments, and that includes the loss of relationships.
Grief is not for the faint of heart. After death, you do not know what remains. You may hope for certain things to occur and for people to reach out to you, but you don’t know exactly what will transpire. This, however, is certain — you will be hurt all over again. You will feel wounded and want to give up, but as soon as you realize this too is part of the grief cycle, you will be okay. If I had accepted this earlier, I think it would have lessened my pain.
Original post can be found in Huffington Post, 9/6/14, View Here
This Father’s Day will mark 35 years without my father.
He died in 1979, just two weeks shy of my fifth birthday. My mother remarried a few years later; however, Father’s Day still remains a difficult holiday. Like many adult children of widows, I’ve spent more years living without my father than I’ve lived with him. While decades have passed, I’ve learned that there is no finish line for grief. Instead, I’ve learned to cope with this enormous loss. At times, like my graduate school graduation and milestone birthdays, my father’s absence was deeply painful.
I can still recall being in Kindergarten and even though Father’s Day was not part of the actual school year, we were still asked to draw pictures of our dads.
The male student next to me took to the task with little thought, and started drawing his father. I just sat there. I thought about a photograph that I had of my dad and briefly tried to replicate it. Then, I was confused. The photograph was in black and white. My kindergarten mind wasn’t sure what to do. Do I make up the color of the sport coat and tie my dad was wearing? The teacher noticed I was just sitting there unsure of what to do. She walked over to me, knelt down and in a very loving maternal tone said, “You can draw your grandpa or uncle.” I don’t think I verbally replied. I couldn’t think. Opting out of this assignment didn’t seem to be an option. I’m fairly certain that I was the only child in my class who had a deceased father. Both of my grandfathers were alive, but drawing them wasn’t the same.
My father died from cancer when he was thirty. I never saw him walk because he was confined to a wheelchair. The cancer had done that much damage. I know about my father through others, primarily my late maternal grandmother and my paternal uncles. It is a strange experience to learn about your father through the lens of others. Once, my paternal grandma said my father had a wool red coat and loved it. Coincidentally, I also had a red winter coat, and decided to wear it whenever the weather permitted. I felt close to my father in this small way. I spent most of my twenties getting to know my father through my grandmother. I clung to every story she shared. I wish I had recorded all of these conversations.
This Father’s Day, I encourage you to reach out to a child who won’t be spending Father’s Day with their father. Even if a child doesn’t articulate their father’s death as you may think they would, I’m here to tell you that this is a significant loss. It is a magnificent void that no one can fill. However, you can ease the pain of this void by being completely present with a child on this day. If you can’t think of anything to say, it is enough to offer these thoughts, “I’m sorry that your father isn’t here with you, but I want you to know that he would be very proud of you.” Someone once spoke these words to me on Father’s Day, and it brought me tremendous comfort.
You can also read this article on The Shriver Report.
In 2007, my beloved husband died from adrenal cancer. He was asymptomatic, and there was little warning before his death that he was gravely ill. I was 33 then, and we had no children together. After he died I was truly alone. My center of gravity was grief. Shifting that center was important to me and seemed critical, so I sought out a widows’ support group. I thought this type of social support would help with the healing process. Truth be told, I sought out more than one support group, but I’m only writing about one of those experiences.
I remember walking into the basement of an old church and seeing about 10 chairs formed in a circle. I walked past the room and made a bee line for the bathroom. I was nervous, and wanted to dodge any small talk. Thankfully, after I exited the bathroom, the room seemed to fill. Within minutes, we were all seated and began to share our stories of how we became widowed. I heard about types of unbelievable death-inducing illnesses, diseases, and accidents. Most of the stories were so unique, the student in me wanted to take out a pen and jot each story down.
As the hour progressed, words like hope, grief, sorrow danced on the lips of these widows like it was their native tongue. Honestly, I couldn’t tell if they believed anything of what they were saying, but I listened. At one point in the discussion, a senior-aged widow sitting next to me reflected on the difficulty her adult daughter was having with their family’s sudden death. The widow was concerned that her daughter may have to leave the Ivy League school she was attending and move back home. I mumbled, “That’s tough.” The widow turned to me and stated, “Well, you’re too young to know about this.”
While holding back tears, I gritted my teeth and began to count slowly to 10. I wanted to interject that I was nearly 5 when my father died from cancer. I was fairly certain that his death and now my husband’s death secured for me a tenure status in the department of grief. I was seeking compassion and support, and suddenly all I wanted to do was escape. I actually began to plan my exit strategy long after this woman stopped her lament. Of course, my planning ended when I realized there was only one door.
I’m not against support groups, and I recognize their importance. However, my grief was darkened by this experience. I felt more lonely in that group than I did sitting home alone.
Last month over dinner, I was sharing this experience with a friend who actually facilitates support groups of a different nature. She was looking for honest insight into group dynamics. She asked me what would have made a difference. I said, “We all walked out to the parking lot together. If one woman, would have reached out, I think I would have returned.” Then I paused and added, “Actually, maybe I wasn’t ready for the group.”
Grief uniquely impacts each person. Listening to yourself and respecting where you are at with your journey is important. Grief is complex, and no two situations are the same. While we may seek compassion from others it is critical that we are first compassionate with ourselves. Give yourself grace.
You can also read this article on the Huffington Post
In 2007, my late husband was diagnosed at the University of Michigan Cancer Center with an ultra- rare form of cancer: adrenal. There is a one in a million chance that someone will be diagnosed with this form of cancer and unfortunately, my husband was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Approximately eight weeks after his first visit to his primary care physician (not associated with the University of Michigan) he died. At the time I was 33, and we had no children together.
C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know that we are not alone”, and I couldn’t agree more. While reading this blog about my story will not resolve your problems, there is comfort in knowing that others have traveled the same path. As part of my research for my upcoming book, my co- author, psychologist James Windell and I interviewed dozens of widows. I also read many books about grief. What I have learned, to my surprise is that each widow’s journey through grief is unique. Many widows speak about the intense loneliness (regardless if they live with children) and the cold sharp emotional pain. Death does damage. However, the pain will not always be as intense.
During the first year after my husband’s death, I found that the last thing I wanted to do was reach out to others. This was before text messaging and I wasn’t a part of Facebook; however, I had no desire to email or call someone. Most of my friends were married with their own families. Few people know what to say to a young widow. However, I found that when I did email or reach out that I was pleasantly surprised how good I felt. If for only brief moments, during a meal, I was distracted. There were a handful of awkward moments when a friend didn’t know what to say, but I went with the silence. I learned that most people are very kind and want to support you. However, they don’t know where to begin.
I know that you think others should call and stop by, but it is difficult. Time and again, those near and dear to me would say, “I just didn’t know what to do for you….. how to help you”. Eventually, I figured out that I needed to reach out and it helped. Others began to open up when they saw that I didn’t want to be alone. They extended invitations for coffee, dinner, weekend trips. Their kindness mattered to me.
Whether you are reading this as a widow or your loved one just experienced a loss, I encourage you to reach out. Shortly after my husband died, a dear friend, who lived several miles away, each morning would email me either a heartfelt ‘hello’ or a beautiful quote. I saved all of those emails. This quote from Frederick Buechner, still remains with me today, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid”.