Saturday, November 1, 2014

Giving Counselling Another Go


This week I tried counselling again. I am a strong advocate of therapy - not just giving it a go but, if it doesn't feel right, trying another psychologist and another until you’ve found the right fit.  I’ve had mixed success in the past but recently I decided to practice what I preach and try again.

I’m so glad I did.  One year, three months and six days after my husband’s unexpected suicide, I finally feel like someone might be able to help me find the tools I need to process the trauma of that experience.

To explain how many attempts it took me to find this fit, this was my FIFTH go with a new counsellor.  My first took place the very day after Dan died, when my best friend arranged a visit to a psychologist she found through her work’s employee assistance program.  This woman just stared at me in shock as I told her what had happened the day before.  When I finally asked her if she had any advice on how I might survive this nightmare, she feebly explained the stages of grief (failing to mention they are NOT linear!) and said I would probably feel better in a year. Wrong. I didn’t go back to see her.

In the following months I tried two others.  One of whom was fresh out of university and tried different exercises with me like ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’, which is a great tool, but way too early for me when I was still so deeply in shock and trying to make it through one day at a time. I battled on with her making me feel like I was failing her as a test case until I met counsellor number three, who ran a suicide bereavement program through a wonderful charity here in Australia called Lifeline. 

This experience was life changing and helped me to understand Dan’s illness and death in a way that brought a real sense of acceptance.  For the first time I felt like Dan’s suicide wasn’t about me or due to anything I did or didn’t do.  I also understood that it wasn’t necessarily because of anything Dan did or didn’t do - he was sick, he had a disease and he died.

I would have loved to keep meeting with this counsellor after the completion of the program but due to budget restrictions she wasn’t able to offer ongoing sessions.  However she referred me to psychologist number four, who I started seeing earlier this year. 

These sessions were good, I was able to get a lot of thoughts off my chest and it was a great outlet to vent, however I wasn’t sure if I was ‘improving’ in any way.  I always walked out feeling a bit lighter, but the same thoughts would eventually creep in.  Until one day when she asked if I was sure I wanted another appointment, because she thought I was doing so well that maybe I didn’t need counselling any more.  Well that threw me!  Was I ‘cured’?  Was I boring her or wasting her time, sitting here moaning about how I missed Dan? I mean, I knew I was functioning well, I go to work, spend time with friends, go on holidays, etc, but I’m still deeply grieving and have regular moments of being confused and overwhelmed.  So I figured maybe I didn’t need counselling any more and stopped going.

Until two months ago, a new doctor that I’d found closer to my work suggested I give it another go.  I knew I still had a lot of work to do.  I cry often, I have days where I don’t want to participate in the world and the emptiness is deep.  I have flash backs and haunting questions and reoccurring doubts and guilt but, after that last experience, I wasn’t sure if I needed more counselling or if I just needed more time. 

So that brings me back to this week.  After a particularly tough few days I thought I’d give it another shot.  I called the office on Monday and they happened to have an available appointment Thursday afternoon.  I went in and re-told the horrible story about the day he died, the months leading up to it, our love story and what my life has been like since.  As much as it was painful to re-live the finer details of his death, there was a release again, as I sat and sobbed in this stranger’s comfortable chair. 

When I finally stopped talking, I looked at her through my tear-stained eyes and said, ‘Is this normal?  Is there something wrong with me?’.  Her reply was just what I needed to hear.  While confirming that there was nothing ‘wrong’ about where I am at the moment, she explained that my brain has definitely been affected by the shock of what I’ve been through.  She said after such a significant trauma, my understanding of how the world works would have been shattered - causing me to lose trust in logic and ‘right and wrong’.  The good news was that there is work we can do to help calm my racing mind, rebuild that trust and help me long-term.   

My relief was overwhelming.  First of all, to have someone say something other than ‘you’re so strong, you’re doing so well’ and actually acknowledge that there’s a reason I still don’t feel ok was so validating.  Secondly, to hear that there is actually help – that there are things I can actively do to process the pain in my heart and the mess in my head, rather than JUST sitting and waiting (which still plays a significant part in the healing process) was also wonderful.

I’m glad I gave it another shot and tried again to find the ‘right’ counsellor for my particular, unique little bundle of grief.  Maybe this will be the long-term counsellor relationship I’m looking for.  Or maybe again I’ll find out that it’s not quite the best fit.  If it doesn’t work out, I am going to come back and read this post and remind myself again that it’s worth it to keep looking.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Different Universe

Today is Halloween, and other than a few lighthearted traditions, such as our annual watching of one of our favorites: "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!", this holiday never really had much significance for us as a couple. Except that it did. It does. But not because of Halloween. Halloween just happens to fall right in the center of the happiest week of our short time together. Wedding, honeymoon, his birthday. In that order.

Monday, October 27th, was my wedding anniversary. It would have been 8 years for us, but instead, he died suddenly just 2 months before our 5 year anniversary, and so I still feel very robbed. For me, the wedding anniversary day is even harder than the death day. It is sadder. Don't get me wrong. The death day sucks big time and it's incredibly hard, but at least on that day, I usually feel like I can honor him somehow, plus I do my "Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day" each year on that day, and so tons of people are performing acts of kindness in his honor all week long. It is awesome. It helps. The wedding anniversary is way different. Unless I post publically about it on Facebook or somewhere, nobody really knows about it or acknowledges the day. Other than my parents, nobody in my family called or texted or left a message on my Facebook page or anything. Nobody said "this day must be so hard for you", or "I just want you to know that your love will never die and that I'm thinking of you today", or something like that. You know who acknowledged my wedding day? Other widowed people. And yes, a few close friends and acquaintances also said something. But the day just feels intensely private to me, like it's between me and my husband, and since my husband is no longer here, nothing that I end up doing with that day ever feels like enough. It all just makes me very sad.

Since the day fell on a Monday this year, I chose to honor it the day before, on Sunday. I did what I have been doing each year since his death - get a rental car and drive out to Sea Cliff, Long Island, where we got married, and sit on the rocks and the benches at the bay where some of his ashes are scattered, and go inside our wedding venue and have a cup of tea with the owner and look through my wedding album. Then I have a nice quiet gourmet dinner, at one of my husband's favorite restaurants, which just happens to be a place owned and head-cheffed by my best friend's husband. So my best friend Sarah and me have dinner together. I told her that she should feel honored, because she is pretty much the only human that is allowed to be around me on my wedding anniversary. It is a day where I normally don't much feel like dealing with other people. I only want to feel close to Don.

On Monday, I was supposed to teach a weekly stand-up comedy workshop that I teach in NYC, but I literally felt like I couldn't function on that day. I was so damn sad, and just kept crying and feeling pretty awful. So I asked my 7 students, who are all adults of various ages, if we could move the class to Wednesday this week instead so I could continue to be an emotional basketcase. They were so understanding and great, and said "of course. Take care of yourself." So I went into the city anyway and went to my weekly grief-therapist meetup. She knew it was my wedding anniversary, and she has been holding onto the DVD of my wedding day for months now. I had asked her to hold onto it, and when I thought I was ready to watch, we would watch together during session. So that is what we did on Monday. I finally watched some of my wedding day video, 3 plus years after his death.

As she put the DVD into the player, I felt so nervous. I said to her, in a voice that was barely audible, "Are you going to sit with me?" (because there are 2 chairs and a couch, and she normally sits in one of the big chairs across from me, while Im on the couch) She said: "Of course I'll sit with you." I was expecting to shed massive tears and cry so hard and so much that I couldn't breathe. I was expecting to perhaps explode from the sadness and shock of it all, and not be able to deal with the real world any longer, after having seen my own husband alive again - and knowing he is still dead. I don't really know what I was expecting, but the reaction I had was much different than the reaction I thought I would have.

As we watched the wedding ceremony, the first thing that struck me slowly were all the people sitting in the crowd that were no longer in my life today. All the friendships that were so strong on that day, that don't even exist now. Then I saw my Nana walking down the aisle, being escorted by my brother. At that point, my Nana already had cancer, but she was still well enough to come to New York for my wedding. She looked so tired and withdrawn on the video, like it was the beginning of the end of her lively spirit. Her light would slowly dim out after that day, and about 3 years later, she would die while living in my parent's home, from complications of cancer. As the ceremony continued, and we got to the vows we had written, my eyes fixated on Don as he spoke his beautiful words of: "I want you to know that my greatest joy in life, is watching you succeed, and watching you chase after your dreams and catch them." He teared up when he said that, and he looked right into my eyes and soul. Watching him, sitting there with my therapist, it felt like an out-of-body experience. It felt like a different version of me was watching another version of me , and another version of him. God, his eyes were so blue. He loved me, and loves me, so much. I was shaking and nervous and strange while watching, and I was tearing up, but not sobbing.

Watching my husband on video, alive, with the knowledge that he is dead, was beyond weird. However, the thing that surprised me most, and that I didn't really expect, was the strangeness and surreal-ness of being a different version of myself, watching myself getting married. I sat there, in my sweatpants and t-shirt and no makeup - a face and body that has been through hell for 3 plus years now - that has survived grief and pain and hurt every single day and been beaten by life - watching this girl on that video. This girl that had bright, big beautiful eyes, and who was smiling and laughing and giddy in every moment of this video. This girl who looked up at her new husband and said with great enthusiasm and meaning: "I do." This girl that clapped with excitment when the minister announced "you are husband and wife." To be this version of me, watching that version of me, was perhaps one of the saddest things I have witnessed. It was my own insane joy reflected on the TV screen, that made my heart hurt. Because since the day he died, I have not felt joy like that again. Not even close. Sure, I have moments of joy and happy. I laugh. I enjoy my life, in parts, now. But that joy that comes from deep love and future and possibility and hope and the naive wonder that all things last forever - that girl is gone. And that made me sad. Watching my husband alive and knowing he is dead, was very hard. But watching me and realizing that I am dead too - that version of me is dead - that was pretty devastating. Yes, I already knew that my old-self no longer existed, and that since he died, I have been re-creating a "next life" for myself. But knowing that and seeing it on video are two different things.

This new version of me is still a work in progress, but she feels so very far removed from that girl with the sparkling eyes and giddy smile. Like a seperate universe, watching another galaxy with old, tired eyes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Molten Grief

photo courtesy: USGS

We here on the Big Island - as others around the world now too - are watching in awe, horror and sadness as Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano, marches her molten walk through the community of Pahoa. It is indeed a big island; I live far, far away from that and am quite safe, but we who live here feel a kinship with our neighbors. We all hoped and prayed it would stop or change direction, as it can and has been known to do, since it started this past June.

But now, as it has indeed reached the town itself, I can't stop thinking about it. In particular, the lava recently crossed over the 100-year old cemetery down there, covering the headstones, statues and burial places. What are families going to do now? People who have lost their loved ones must bear this next loss now too. My heart goes out to them. Grief compounded. Buried twice. Markers lost forever.

Many lives are now going to have to change. Important roads and access are now breached. Homes, schools, pastureland, gardens and businesses are threatened, and another beautiful corner of this lovely place will be eternally buried under the slow but unstoppable fiery rock.

Driving home today I was thinking how all the islands were formed this way. One day many hundreds or thousands of years ago, even the road I was driving on was molten, hot and steaming. Not an inch of the place I live is free of the experience. Because of the lava, Hawaii exists. Destructive - and yet also creative.

I realized that the lava reminds me of the process of grief. It is unstoppable, searing, and can bring unwanted changes and terrible destruction to our lives. And eventually, unfortunately, it will touch most, if not all people, somehow. It is unavoidable, because everyone dies. But generations pass, and the world continues being created, changed; morphed into its new being.

Many of the residents of Pahoa are facing Madame Pele with a grim calm and resignation. Such is the nature of life on a volcanic island. I imagine there will be a period of grief for them, as they will mourn the loss of the way things used to be. That sounds familiar. Many have already left the area. Some are in evacuation mode as I type this. Others, I have read, hope to continue on even despite the moves and changes that are to come. To restore and rebuild this beautiful and unique community however possible. To see the lava flow as another story, another chapter, of this already unusual place. Because it will never go away, that giant scar through the land in Pahoa. The community will just have to learn how to live with, and around, the long, gaping wound of that lava flow. 

That also sounds familiar.

I sometimes feel like I'm being dragged along, pulled screaming and writhing through the molten morass of my own grief since Mike's death into a future I never asked for. I sometimes want to just curl up into a ball and make everything go away. I sometimes don't want life to go on...and I don't mean that how it sounds. I just want things to stay exactly how they are...or more exactly, how they were, maybe around Christmas 2012. But they can't. Time is a vicious, cruel creature that cannot be trained, corralled or controlled...also, much like the lava.

One day, many, many years from now, life will again begin to grow on top of the now-molten flow. It will take ages and ages, but it will happen. Eventually, the island will heal itself and nature will rebound. Similarly, facing disaster, we humans, somehow, some day, begin working towards that inner strength to persevere.  That survivor instinct. We pick up our lives, piece by piece, from the torn and scattered bits.  It might take ages and ages, it might be really hard and terrible, and it might come in fits and spurts - but it can, and will, happen. I have to believe this is possible.

Some days, I do feel an inner strength quietly forming; one that wants to release me from the bondage of this horrible fate, and set me free to explore this strange new world. I have no choice but to find a way to live without Mike; I have no choice but to wait for the heat to subside, wait for the new ground to solidify, and rebuild upon the ashes and ruins of the old.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Sometimes, when I allow myself to think of my nebulous future, and whether I'll ever have a man in my life to love again, and be loved by, I think maybe I've had my love story and that's the end of that.  After all, I can't be greedy, can I?  Many people don't have their love story even once.  I had 24 years of a love affair marriage-how can I ask for more?

So then I think, well, maybe I'll just have lovers.  I travel full-time so I can be very sophisticated about it and have lovers around the country.  That way I'll have the human, male connection with friendship and sex involved, but nothing permanent.

The only difficulty with that story line is that I've never been that sophisticated and I don't know that I can make it happen and the fact is, I would love to have another love story with one man.  I would love to have a man in my life who is a real man, as Chuck was, who is as passionately in love with me as I can potentially be with him.  I love being in love.  I'm good at being in love.  I love male energy.  So the idea sounds good to me; working it out is another whole story.

Because I can't imagine finding a man who meets my high standards.  Not in a comparing him to Chuck way-I realize that wouldn't be fair.  I wasn't, and am not at all now, high maintenance in any way.  But I do have high standards after being with Chuck and he would expect no less of me than to maintain those standards.  Where does one find a physically/emotionally/mentally, healthy male in my age group who is a gentleman, educated but not snobbish, one who is as comfortable in work boots as he is dressed up, one who slow dances, someone who wants to cherish me as I would cherish him, who would mutually nurture a relationship with me?  Is there another man out there who can be all of this?

I don't know if I'll ever really be ready to be in another relationship, honestly.  But I wonder if anyone is ever completely ready or does it just happen?  Which is what it did with Chuck.  No effort-it just was, as if it had ever been.

My husband is missing from me.  I know he wanted me to find another man to love and be loved by.  But I am so devastated by his death, I can't even imagine such a thing.  Even though my heart is open to it.  The fact is, I want Chuck and I don't know how that can ever change, the wanting him back.

It's all very confusing, isn't it?  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Turning on a Dime

I figured I'd keep with the currency theme for my post title...


There are two things I've noticed in widowhood - how time becomes quite elastic and how quickly you can find yourself in another stage, another headspace without even realising it.

A while ago I wrote about avoiding going back to work.  I've tried to find the post, but in my pre-coffee haze and with that elastic time thing going on, I can't find it.  Must be older than I think it is, although I swear it's only a few weeks.... 

hmm... checked. 

It was three months ago.

Anyhow back to the present. Not long after that post, the marketing guy for the CPA come into our accounting lecture, as they do about this time of year, and he did to the 'hey join us, not Chartered' thing.  As an off-hand comment, he mentioned my state's Auditor-General's office was recruiting.

So I decided to take a look - they were recruiting for graduates for ongoing employment and students still with a year to go for a month long summer internship for February.  Timing sucks as my parents are usually skiing in the northern  hemisphere for February, but I spoke to my childcare provider and they'd be able to take John for the month full time.  Yep - a month full time is doable.

Ok, so I applied.   And promptly forgot to attach my academic transcript.  Figured I would wind up in the pile of candidates culled in the initial review of applications.

Well, I was gobsmacked when I got a call for an interview, which I had yesterday*.

I'm not sure how I went - especially since I mucked up a basic thing - but I'll hear later this week. Although I study in our central business district, I'm usually dressed as a student.  It was nice to be there in corporate attire - and it felt right.  Maybe going back won't be so tough after all. 

I figure if I get it, it gives me a chance to really test the waters of going back to work.  Especially since I'll most likely need to go back full time when I re-enter the workforce in 2016.

It's funny how quickly things can change without you realising you've moved into another space.

*Once at home I had to get a three and a half year old to put pants on.  That was tougher than the interview.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Flip Side of the Coin

As you all know, Cassie felt that it was time for her to share her writing spot with another widowed writer. I want to begin this post by thanking Cassie for her years of dedication to Widow's Voice. She has changed so many lives on Monday after Monday after Monday...mine included. Thank you so much for sharing your heart with us Cassie!

Also, we have a new writer joining us next week. Her name is Tricia, she lives in England, and she will be sharing her story with you starting next week. Welcome, Tricia...we look forward to getting to know you!

For today though, you have me filling in as the Monday writer! I am the 'founder' of this blog and also the editor. My job, as I see it, is to provide relevant content for a blog about living life as a widowed person. I ask our writers to share their thoughts honestly, and to write about their now. Finding writers for the blog would be much easier, actually, if I asked writers to share the wisdom they've collected as they look back on their loss journey. But as they say hindsight is 20/20. What I want is the minute to minute trudging through the pain, the confusion, the questioning, the incredible growth, the flashes of clarity...I want to read about those moments, as they happen. So, that is what I ask from our writers, and they consistently deliver. They are rock stars in my eyes.

I love thought provoking posts. Kelley Lynn's blog on Friday about her experience with opinionated folks who offer comfort via forcing their religious beliefs upon grieving people is a perfect example. In my experience, platitudes rarely provide the intended comfort, but instead create further emotional distance from the griever. However, religious platitudes have the extra consequence of forcing the grieving person to either remain silent about their personal beliefs or risk the bashing that may occur if word gets out that they don't believe in a "better place."

Personally, I don't believe in the use of phrases that include the words 'better place' or 'another angel' or 'hopefully your loved one was saved.' I've spoken to enough widowed people over the past nine years to know that these words often wound, despite whatever genuine desire to provide comfort prompted the saying. I founded Soaring Spirits (the organization that hosts this blog) to be a secular organization very intentionally, and regularly hold our programming, and our message, to that secular standard.

Here is the irony, my desire to ensure that every widowed person has access to a community of support regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, marital status, race, political grounded in my personal faith.

When I read Kelley's post, I struggled with a keen desire to apologize to her, and to every one of you who commented, about the pain that has been inflicted on you by another person in the name of religion or of God. I wanted to say, "We aren't all like that! There are quiet people of faith who don't need you to believe what they believe in order to offer incredible support and understanding." I almost wrote those words in reply, and then I remembered. Oh yes, she isn't talking to me. Right, she pointed that out in the beginning of her post. Yet, as a person who believes in God, I feel somehow silently responsible.

When 'religious people' are misrepresented by the loud, obnoxious, intolerant people who cause harm in the name of a particular set of beliefs I find it frustrating, and disappointing. I can never figure out why people don't know that their actions speak louder than their words. How anyone can think that hate breeds love is beyond me. But, at the end of the day, the squeaky wheel is the one that is heard, and we remember pain more often than we remember kindness.

Today, I want to be the representative of the quietly religious folks here in our community, those of you who didn't comment on Friday because you were worried that you might be lumped in with the extremists by accident, but who vehemently disagree with the tactics they often employ. The more I thought about this problem, the stronger I felt about voicing an apology. I want to apologize to any of you whose opinions and beliefs have been disregarded by someone who felt you needed to 'find God' in your time of grief. I want you to know that not all religious folks find daily comfort in their loved one being in a better place. Call me selfish, but I can't think of a better place for Phil, than here with all the people who love him. I don't claim to know what the 'plan' is, and like many of you, I have disagreed loudly with the 'dead partner plan.'  Kelley's post wasn't speaking to me, but I will accept responsibility for the hurt caused by others, because your collective pain makes my heart ache. Sometimes the sins of the few are born by the innocent many.

At the end of the day, aching hearts is what brings us to this space each day. Thank you for the kindness you show each other. Thank you for participating in the culture of tolerance that allows us each to espouse our own beliefs without risk of retribution. Thank you for understanding that grief is both universal, and oh so personal.

Grief has broken our hearts. That brokenness has the potential to expand our view of the world, because every barrier has been crushed by the magnitude of our loss. We stand together in a powerful emptiness, imagine the good we can build from here.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Trying to Keep an Open Heart

I just want to be alone so much lately. I've always been a bit introverted, but I literally haven't wanted to be around anyone at all lately - and that's not like me. For me, it can be so easy to just close off from the world. I know it's one of those things I have to be careful about keeping in check. Particularly as an artist - it is extremely tempting to only express my emotions through the things I create. While this is very healing way to express my pain - it can also turn on me and become a way of keeping the world at a distance if I'm not careful. I can begin create an image of myself through my art - let people see my pain the way I want them to see it. Sometimes, it's tempting to only let people see my pain that way.

Which is why I'm grateful for being able to write here - because it's one of the places I feel like I can let my hair down. Today, while sitting and reading over some of your comments from my last post - I just burst into tears. All my emotion came out just be reading heartfelt words from others, words that heaved themselves over my carefully constructed walls. I was surprised I was crying. I was surprised at how quickly I went from seeming just slightly melancholy to really really painfully sad. I guess sometimes we need someone else to pull that out of us… to notice it in us so that we can notice it in ourselves. It reminded me that I need remember to let people in more… to let them help me cry, or sit with my while I cry. Not just let them see what I create out of my pain - but let them see my pain, just the way it is. Gosh, why is it so hard to do that? Why is it so easy to just want to hide it away - especially when we know that it's what connects to each other the most?

In a strange way - it's actually something I miss about the first year. I was SO raw and so broken open that I did not close off from people. I couldn't. It didn't matter if we'd known each other five minutes… there I was, spewing my emotions out on any unfortunate soul who crossed my path! And to my surprise, in return, most of the time they gave so much love and support. They didn't gawk or walk away. And they still do give so much, but it seems over time I have slowly retreated and allowed people less of a chance to help me. I've become comfortable again at not letting people see me cry. It's a constant dance to try and remain open-hearted… a dance that others - including everyone here - helps to make a lot easier. I honestly don't know what I'd do without my widowed community. This amazing army of people whom I never - not once - feel ridiculous with. I hate that we all get it - but I'm so very glad we have each other. You help me keep my heart open and you help me to remember that sometimes even a really strong gal just needs to cry. And sometimes she needs to cry a whole lot maybe - and maybe even for seemingly no particular reason other than she's just sad. Thank you for all you do for me.