Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gratitude and Grief

As we approach the National day of thanks, my mind drifts back to my first Thanksgiving without Phil. The kids and I headed out to my mom and dad's house, and dutifully began the feast preparations...fast forward to two hours later when my sisters and I were sitting on the couch crying our eyes out over the lyrics of a song! The world was all wrong, and happy seemed a foreign state of being.

The interesting thing is, that while being happy seemed completely out of reach, being grateful was an every day occurrence. I will never forget the overwhelming feeling of gratitude that kept me afloat during those early days of pain and loss. Each time I needed something, someone was there to fill that need. When I wanted to sit and cry, there was always a shoulder available to cry on. Looking around at my children, I could not help but be grateful for the blessing they are in my life. Gratitude and grief are not mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, if you look closely you may find that one leads to the other in a very unexpected way. Perhaps that is because just one ray of sunshine makes such an impact on the complete darkness of loss.

Three years have passed since Phil's death, and his absence is still felt around the Thanksgiving Day table. But added to my list of things to be grateful for is the fact that Phil's presence is also felt around the table, and in the hearts of the many people who knew and loved him. I am truly grateful to have been his wife, and I count his memory as one of my most treasured blessings.

I wish each of you a day filled with gratitude, and a heart full of memories from which you can never be parted.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Welcome to Widow's Voice. This is a new place for me to post the random thoughts that run through my head about my experience as a widow, the awesome things I learn from other widows, and share news about widowsbond.com, the Widow Match Program, and the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. Thanks for your patience in waiting for me to finally update the 50 questions that I began on the widowsbond website...that feature will be moved here permanently. Widowsbond will be undergoing a transformation soon, so visit us again now and then! For now please feel free to contact me at michele@widwosbond.com with any comments or stories you would like to share.

Healing happens one day at a time, and life can once again be precious.


The Widow Penalty

Immigration is a hot word in communities around the nation. Everyone has their own opinion on what should be done about our immigration policies, and the solutions are hotly contested everywhere from government institutions to neighborhood delis.

But there are unfair immigration practices that are swept away with the tide of negative publicity surrounding the larger issue, and they affect our sister widows.

Widowsbond advocates for women suffering the loss of their husbands...and in the case of the women you will meet below...the opportunity to live in the family home, visit her husband's grave, walk into his closet and smell his clothes. All of this and much more are taken from the women that will be featured on 60 minutes this Sunday, November 23rd.

Brent Renison is an attorney working for these women for free. He is providing legal counsel to many women who had nowhere else to turn. Due to his efforts these widows have a voice. All they ask is that their cases be considered individually by the immigration department. Brent describes what is happening and how you can help in the post below.

I encourage you to take this opportunity to reach out to sister widow's who need more voices to get behind their cause. Grief is a large enough load to carry--automatic deportation shouldn't be an added loss....


I promised to let everyone know when I would appear on CBS 60 Minutes. The time has come. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Bob Simon, the most honored journalist in international reporting, will expose the “Widow Penalty” to the nation this Sunday night , November 23rd on CBS 60 Minutes.

America is deporting widows of American citizens automatically and without appeal when their spouse dies during bureaucratic processing of the green card application.

My sincerest desire is that, after watching the broadcast, Monday morning you will do something about this terrible practice. There are a number of ways you can help to end the widow penalty. The most important is to tell your elected officials that a change must occur in the abysmal way that we treat widows of American citizens. Whether you effect a change in the way the current or future Administration handles the cases, or push through a legislative amendment signed by the President, this practice must stop. Visit www.ssad.org and click on the box on the front page to find out how you can help.

Please be a part of that change on Monday morning, and please share this information with anyone whom you believe will join us and do the right thing.

Brent Renison

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"When tears come, I breathe deeply and rest. I know I am swimming in a hallowed stream, where many have gone before. I am not alone, crazy or having a nervous breakdown. My heart is at work. My soul is awake."

~Mary Margaret Frik

The Next Answer

Did you dream about him?

For the first few weeks following Phil's funeral I went to bed each night expecting a visit from him in my dreams. I felt certain that he would, at some point, have a message to deliver to me using the dream medium. Surely he would want to tell me how much he loved me? Didn't he want to reassure me that he was okay and I would be, too? Hadn't I always heard stories of dead loved ones coming to their family members in dreams? Though I went to bed each night begging him to visit me, I awoke morning after morning to the disappointment of no dream message. As the dreamless days began to add up, I felt betrayed and angry. Persistently, and often desperately, I asked myself, and Phil, why I wasn't dreaming about him. My frustrations were compounded when friends and family began sharing with me stories about their dreams of him. For six weeks I waited, cried, pleaded, and waited some more; all to no avail. By the end of six weeks I was tired of the the daily desperation, and terribly sad about being away from Phil for such a long time. On the last day of my six week break from work I wandered the house terrified of re-entering my work life, knowing that I was actually going to have to start a new daily routine, and feeling very alone and frightened in a world I traveled confidently only weeks before. The kids were away that day, and I spent most of my free time moving from room to room in our house wishing Phil were alive. Standing in the threshold of our bedroom, I realized that Phil's side of the bed remained untouched since the last time he slept there. A sudden overwhelming desire to be near him shook me, and I lay down on our bed, in his spot, wracked with grief and awash in the tears of my despair. Eventually sleep overtook me, and suddenly Phil was there in my dreams. His face was iridescent, but there was no question about his identity. He was sitting on the couch in our living room. As I walked into the room, I cried out in surprise at his presence. I ran to him, and hugging him tight sat in his lap. Kissing him, I told him I loved him and that I missed him. He told me he missed me too, and that sometimes he forgot I couldn't see him. Next I wanted to know if he could read my mind. Phil paused and then said, "I can't answer that honey, the question is too powerful." Insisting that all I wanted to know was whether he heard me when I talked to him, he replied, "Well I definitely can't hear you when a track meet is on, but maybe during a football game!" My dream faded away just as I opened my eyes in wonder at having spent a moment with my husband. Each part of the dream reflected his personality perfectly. The confirmation that he missed me brought on a new wave of tears. Though as I cried I laughed at the mention of his obvious love of all things track and field, and I sat on the bed amazed that I finally saw Phil in my dreams.

Catching Up....

Did you spend time alone?

For the first month after Phil died I was alone very little. My family and friends surrounded me, and I moved from one moment to the next gratefully enveloped in love and concern from my support system. But at the end of those first few weeks I found myself craving solitude. In my quiet alone moments I felt free to express the depth of the despair Phil's loss created. The responsiblity of taking care of the kids, the need for managing the household, the necessity of making life decisions when my life was so upside down--each took their individual toll on my already depleted energy. In some ways the emptiness of the house when I was home alone was easier to handle than the emptiness I felt whenever I walked out the door or took care of the many things we used to manage together. The changes inside our home where obvious and expected, but I was often blindsided by the unexpected void Phil's death created in the world around me. So I did spend time alone, and though it was excrutiatingly painful those moments were also the only times I grieved without reservation.

Did you do anything daily that helped you cope with your loss?

Moments after Phil died I was struck by the concept that I would never talk to him again...turning often to the person next to me expecting to see Phil waiting to hear whatever it was I wanted to say. To suddenly be unable to call him, or tell him just one more thing, was disconerting and traumatic. On the first morning after his death, searching for a way to talk to him, I caught sight of an unused journal. Through my tears, I poured my heart onto the page in the form of a letter to Phil...and for just a moment I was comforted by having shared my thoughts with him. Eventually, I settled into a ritual of closing the evening by writing him a letter. These journal pages were not necessarily filled with details about my day; sometimes I wrote down my favorite memories of him so that they were safely stored. Other times I talked about a problem I was facing, working it out as I told him the details. Many of the pages were stained with tears; tangible evidence of the depth of my despair. Entries varied in length depending on the day, but each reflected the need of the moment. My journal went with me everywhere, storing my sorrow, my fear, and the love I held in my heart for the man I lost. My little red book became the way I could talk to Phil whenever I needed him...and an unexpected record of our love.

Did people tell you stories about your husband after his death? If so, how did you feel about hearing them?

At both of the services we planned for Phil's funeral many people shared their own stories about Phil with me. I loved hearing how his life impacted our friends and families. Sometimes the stories were bittersweet, but for the time that the storyteller was speaking--I felt for a moment like my husband was still alive. In the first months after his death, I found myself daydreaming the stories I heard about him, mixed with my own personal experiences, so that I could live in the fantasy world where he and I were still sharing the same space. There were times when the past occupied my every thought, and the future was a black hole that I preferred not to gaze into. Even three years later, certain smells, places, combinations of people, or dates on the calendar take me immediately back to the precious days when talking to him was as easy as walking into the next room. In my office I have a greeting card posted that has been my inspiration through many difficult moments. The quote on the card reads: "In time, the warmth of every memory will transform your tears of sorrow into liquid gratitude." I remember reading those lines for the first time and wondering how long the process would take. Now I believe that transformation is an on-going journey, and the flowing river of gratitude an unexpected gift.

After your husband's death did you put more pictures of him up in your home, take them down or leave them as they were?

Just before Phil died we finished several home improvement projects. We picked out paintings together, fought over where to hang shelves, sat on the floor side-by-side covered in old wallpaper, and just generally really enjoyed working as a team. One evening, after a full day of "ceiling popcorn" removal, I came out of the shower to discover that he had set up a picnic dinner for us on the floor of our empty living room. After his death every picture that was around our home was a reminder of the many discussions we engaged in while negotiating that particular frame placement. Everywhere I turned I was surrounded by the work that was a source of pleasure and pride for both of us. The only room in the house that was still unfinished was our office. Slowly what was once our office became my office, and I have to admit, a shrine of sorts. Whenever I came across a picture of him or of us that I loved--I tacted it up on the wall or put it in a frame on my desk. The collection quickly grew. I also placed some favorite shots of him in my car so that he was with me anytime I was away from home. Friends sent me photos, sleepless nights spent sorting through old pictures led to new snapshot discoveries, and my kids each began their own collections. I think each of us found comfort in being surrounded by his image. To this day, all those pictures are just where I placed them in the months after Phil's death. The difference now is that there are a variety of new ones added to my little shrine; the walls of my office have become my personal collage of support. Some of these new pictures are of people Phil never knew. Others are of people he knew, but would hardly recognize. Many of the new photos depict changes in my life, or the lives of people I love. There are shots of trips I have taken, other widows I have met, children born to friends and family, and inspirational quotes foreshadowing what I have yet to accomplish. Every once in awhile I sit back in wonder at all that Phil has missed since he has been gone. More often I look up at my support network collage and am deeply grateful for the love that has co-existed with the loss throughout the past three years.

Did you wear black clothing after your husband's death? If so, why and for how long?

This was one of the questions that drove me to begin my interviewing journey. I really wanted to know if widows still wore black, for how long, and if there was a 'right' way to observe this tradition. Yes, I did wear black, exclusively, for six weeks after Phil's death. For me, there was a beautiful symbolism in outwardly showing a sign of the depth of my personal loss. When I got up in the morning, I allowed myself to wear my grief on the outside. It was a way for my private self, who didn't want to share how damaged I was with everyone I knew, to speak the feeling without using words. Instinctively I knew that I needed to give myself a time frame, so I decided to follow my dark dress code for the length of my leave of absence from work. As the day approached when I would return to a scheduled life, I realized that my time in black was my own personal cocoon; as long as I doned my mourning clothes there was no need to hope, no need to smile, no need to put my life back together. Without a specific limit, I think my wardrobe choice would have led me to be constantly depressed, and it would have definitely limited my ability to move forward with my life. But within the parameters I set for myself, my time in black was invaluable. The day I went back to work, I put on a red shirt. Immediately, I felt lighter. That too was the value of a short dark period...on the prescribed day the sun came out--even if only in my choice of clothing.

Did you feel comfortable staying in your house alone?

When I married Phil, I had been divorced from my first husband for three years. Since the kids were gone every other weekend with their dad, Phil and I spent quality "adult time" together regularly. During this time we would plan short trips, go on long hikes, complete home improvement projects, plan outings with friends, and just enjoy being together. In the immediate aftermath of his death I was alone very little. But, once life settled into what would become normal, I began to dread the weekends that the kids would be away. It wasn't so much that I disliked being alone, as that I missed Phil so much is was physically painful. As soon as the door would shut behind the kids, I would turn toward my living room and the emptiness would envelop me. There were many a weekend when I spent hours crying and wandering about the house, as if I were looking for Phil. Even though I knew I could make plans with friends for dinner or even visit my family in Riverside, the need to keep myself busy saddened me as much as the fact that I didn't want to. My heart felt as if it were bleeding as I tried to figure out how to accept my new, unwanted life situation.

How did you fill your time after your husband died?

When Phil died, I owned and operated a personal training company. This kind of work requires the ability to create positive energy...as you might imagine, I wasn't feeling capable of being anyone's motivation! My clients were wonderful and patiently awaited my return, six weeks after Phil's death. During the time I was off I focused all of my attention on taking care of the kids. But when they weren't home, I alternated between sitting on the couch staring at the wall, and dealing with the variety of chores death leaves behind. After about four weeks, most of my family had returned to their lives, and I realized that whether I liked it or not, my life was heading in a whole new direction. One evening I sat on the curb outside my house, and looked up at the stars...searching for some way to make sense of the chaos my life had become. That night I knew I had to learn how to direct my life instead of letting my desperation and fear make all the calls. I have never been more afraid or uncertain than I was in that moment--I didn't know how to march forward when my chest felt like it could burst from the pain that I carried with me every step of the way, but I prayed for strength to take the first step and tried not to think about the next one.

How were the first few days after the funeral?

Immediately after the funeral, I was relieved to be done with all of the services. Being around people was very draining--partly because I wanted to curl up in a ball and stay locked in my house, and partly because I wanted to be able to comfort the many family and friends who lost Phil too. With the conclusion of the services, came the opportunity to hide from the world. While we planned the memorial services my emotions had been dulled by shock--I kept a constant vigil in my mind for signs that the past few days had been an awful dream--but as the days after Phil's death contiued to pass, reality continually crushed my wishful daydreams. The worst time was always first thing in the morning. Each day after the alarm went off, I would lay with my eyes closed for a few minutes. Before I opened them for the first time I would slide my hand over to Phil's side of the bed to check and see if he was there. Upon finding a cold, empty spot on the bed, I would shed the first tears of the day, because once again his absense confirmed that the life I was living was not a dream. For several weeks I started the day with this ritual...I remember being sad the first time I woke up and knew before I opened my eyes that Phil was gone.

What do you remember about your husband's funeral, were you able to plan for it?

It amazes me how the human mind works. When Phil died, my brain was shut down by shock--there are many parts of the funeral I remember, but others that are a total blur. Since he died in an accident, I did not plan any of his service in advance. Phil and I only spoke about dying on very few occasions, but I did know that he wanted to be cremated. What I was unprepared for, however, was how I would feel about signing the authorization at the funeral home. My hand shook so badly, I took breaks while signing my name. Every funeral preparation I participated in forced me to acknowledge that Phil wasn't coming home. His physical absence from our home was one thing, but each procedure I agreed to regarding putting his body to rest, made me feel sick to my stomach. Irrationally I felt I was making it impossible for him to come home if I cremated his strong, beautiful body or donated his organs. How could he live if I gave away his liver? He couldn't come home if I let someone burn him up! My mind was whirling with fears and doubts as my family made the funeral arrangements. For the first two days after his death I sat in a daze on the couch--listening for his truck to pull into the driveway. But, though I was mentally absent for many of the final preparations, when the time came to attend the services I was overcome by a need to represent my husband well. I cherished the opportunity to be recognized publicly as his wife for the last time--I knew after the funeral I would always be thought of as his widow. Getting dressed for the funeral, I prayed that I would be able to keep my growing despair in check, so that I could be truly present as our children, family and friends said good-bye to a spectacular human being. Looking back now, all the hugs I accepted, the kind words that were spoken, and the outpouring of compassion from our loved ones penetrated my numb exterior--and spoke to my heart. I am very grateful that some of the memories of that day remain.

Was your husband an organ donor? How did you feel about that decision?

Phil was adamant about his desire to donate his organs to people who could use them. I have to confess that when he was alive, I fully agreed with him, but upon his death I found the process to be more difficult than I would have imagined. There was no question in my mind about donating Phil's organs, but when the time came to authorize the procedure, I was in shock, aching for my husband, and horrified by the idea of cutting him up. There you have it, all I could think of when talking about the donation was that he was going to be cut up. I was shaking as I spoke to the very kind representative on the phone. While I agreed, individually, to donate each organ I realized over and over that Phil would never use that eye, or kidney, or tissue again. Yes, someone else would--and thank God for that--but I have to admit I wasn't much comforted by that thought in the moment. When I was asked if I would like a letter telling me what organs were used and how, I said, "No, thank-you." As I write this today, I am so glad I followed Phil's wishes, and even more grateful that other people benefited from his strong, healthy body. My advice to everyone is TALK about organ donation NOW. If I had been at all unclear about Phil's wishes, I am not sure I could have gone through with the process--not because I don't believe in it, but because I was hurting so badly at the time. Because of Phil's determination, someone in the world has the eyes of a wonderful human being that they look through everyday--I sometimes wonder how it has changed their outlook.

Tell me about your husband's death.

On August 31st of 2005, Phil left the house around 5:00PM for a bike ride. It was the first day of school, and I was cooking dinner while the kids worked on homework. About thirty minutes after Phil left, the phone rang. When I answered, a woman's voice came on the line and told me that my husband had just been hit by a car. I was out the door within minutes, and headed to the place on Long Canyon Road where the caller told me I would find Phil. I arrived in time to tell him I loved him--he died of blunt force injuries to the head and chest less than an hour after he kissed me good-bye for the last time.

What were some of the things you loved about your husband?

I enjoyed asking this question, because there was always a misty look in the eyes of the woman I was talking to when she answered it. It is a pleasure to remember the wonderful things about the man you love, even as you mourn his loss. So, what did I love about Phil? He was one of the most loyal people I have ever met. Though he tended to relish shocking others with controversial comments, he actually valued both family and religious traditions. He refused to wear shorts to Church...the few times he did he squirmed through the whole service! I loved his smile which was closely linked to his crazy sense of humor. He was constantly pushing my conservative buttons, and enjoying every minute of my reactions. Phil had the kind of quiet confidence that lit up a room. People were drawn to him, because he was both witty and kind--which is an interesting combination. He was ridiculously gifted athletically, making it virtually impossible to keep up with him while running or riding...but I could kick his butt in the water! I was always happy when we went for a run, AFTER he had already been on a long bike ride! Funny thing though, he always wanted me to come with him whenever he was working out. When I would insist that he should go out on his own so that he wouldn't have to wait for me, he would tell me, "I like waiting for you." One thing I miss about him is that he believed I could do anything. Sometimes I would laugh out loud at the things he thought I should try, but what a gift it was to have a person as dedicated, strong, loyal, and generous as Phillip Hernandez in my corner. I miss him.

Tell me about your courtship and marriage...

Phil and I dated for only one month before he asked me to marry him on Valentine's Day of 2000. For any of you who knew Phil, you should be laughing out loud right now! He was the anti-valentine...yet proposed on the magic day of love! Having both spent a few years on our own after our previous relationships, we were very confident about what we were looking for in a partner. From our first date we realized that we enjoyed the same activities, loved the time we spent together, encouraged the best in each other, and found that life was sweeter if we lived it together. We were married on a trail in the hills of Simi Valley in June of 2000, surrounded by a small, wonderful group of family and friends. Having three children each gave us the nickname of The Brady Bunch...though with three dark and three fair children I doubt we fit the mold of the original bunch. Our first year of marriage was spent figuring out how to be a couple, step-parents, and most importantly a family. After many challenges--and a lot of fun, too--we did manage to turn a pack of eight individuals into a family unit. Phil and I relished our time alone, and planned lots of weekend getaways to recharge and celebrate the things we loved about being together:hiking, biking, running, and racing were all regularly on our agenda, making life full of both fun and love.

How did you meet your husband?

Phil and I first met while coaching track and field for our community track club. He coached the 12-15 year-old boys, and I coached the 5-7 year-old girls. Since everyone shared space on the track, we girls learned to move over fast when the "big boys" went speeding past us. What I remember most about first meeting Phil was his quick, infectious smile, and the natural way he interacted with kids of all ages. In addition to our common interest in coaching, he was a member of the gym I managed, and many times we ran into each other at various community sponsored running or biking races. Sharing a love of all things athletic meant we crossed paths frequently; I was always intrigued by his self-assured, quiet manner and the devotion he inspired among the people who knew him best.