Friday, October 5, 2012

Pushing Toward Happiness

(Yes, this is totally a picture of me, in case your curious....)

I’m not angry.  I’m not specifically unhappy, really.  But I’m very, very dissatisfied with my life, and that dissatisfaction is driving change.  So I’m pushing with all my might against that smothering bubble that is grief.  This time, rather than being focused on what’s in my head or what’s in my heart, I’m focused squarely on what’s in my home.  Excuse my directness, but I’m living in a home that’s not really mine and I’m done.  It’s time for change.  It’s past time for change.

For years (Years!?  Really!?!? How can it be years?), I’ve opened up kitchen drawers with the best intentions, looked at the contents, sighed, and closed those drawers, not to be touched again for weeks - sometimes even years.

I’ve walked around Maggie’s clothes that haven’t moved since I last cried into them.   I’ve kept my clothes on a spare bed because my chest of drawers is full of designer jeans that I don’t know what to do with. They looked great on her. But they are in the way of my future.

I’ve lived around pantry and cabinets full of dishes, kitchen tools, and mementos that represent a life I’m not allowed to live any more.

I’ve kept expensive dishes (our incomplete wedding china set) up on the top shelf, collecting dust because just what the heck do you do with wedding china when by death we did part?  (Dear Abby, got an answer for that one?)

I’ve kept piles of various gifts given to Maggie because what the hell was I supposed to do with them?

I’ve avoided touching the nicely stacked piles of flyers given out at Maggie’s memorial.  I’ve buried stacks of condolence cards way, way, way deep in the back of the Bookshelf of Painful Memories.  Hidden throughout the house are stacks of photos from our wedding given to me from friends after she died, photos assembled specifically for the memorial service, photos assembled especially for our wedding video, and photos I’ve taken down in a fit of “Damn it!  I’ve got to make some sort of progress!  I’ll just take this down and hide it!”  (I call those little glorious, proud moments “progress seizures” which may, or may not, be followed immediately with a shot of tequila, a large beer or other assorted bad choices.)

I’ve pushed hard before and made some minor progress.  But this house is big and over the 10 years she and I were together, we accumulated a lot of stuff and, frankly, I’m flat out overwhelmed.  (At the rate I’m going, I’ll totally have my life together around 2035, just in time for time travel to be in vogue. Now, don’t get me started about the very first trip I’ll be taking in that time machine.  It will not be a trip to tell the 1994 me to buy Dell stock.)

Pushing hard sucks. But this time I’m doing things differently – I’ve called in reinforcements.  I’ve hired a friend to help.  She’s a good friend of mine, is friends with many of Maggie’s friends, and knows (and is deeply touched by) our story.  She’s also a tender, thoughtful, sincere, genuinely sweet person who truly understands both how difficult this is for me, what role she plays and what the big goal is (and recognizes when those three ideals collide.)  Fortunately, she’s also a manic, Type A, anti-hording, neat freak that knows how to problem solve and get things done.  Together, we make a great cleaning-out, re-organizing, crying machine.

For our first big push, she suggested a genius plan. For everything, choose one: A) Throw it away, B) Give it a new life somewhere else, or C) Keep it in a special box.   It’s amazing how much progress we’ve made just placing things into those three categories. Notably, it’s also amazing how few things went into the special box.  Most of the stuff has fit perfectly into the New Life category.  And, because she is wonderful and sensitive, she reminded me each timed I stumbled emotionally, that wonderful things deserve wonderful lives, even after they’ve had wonderful lives with Maggie and me.

I like to think that those re-lifed items are blessed, even though the unknowing recipients have no hint at how much love surrounded that shiny new object they’ve welcomed into their lives. In some ways, Maggie and I are sharing the aura of our love with them, whether they know it or not.  Now, that’s pretty cool.  We had a lot of love, she and me - more than most, I’ve learned.  Maggie was a person who truly wanted to make the world a better place. So, by letting the things she loved find new, happy homes, she lives on.  In pushing through this difficult time to my new life, I honor her legacy.

Most of all, I honor her legacy by refusing to live any life other than that which is wonderful to me.  I have a lot of work to go.  I will not quit.  Wonderful is around the bend.


  1. Good luck to you and bless your friends!

    Making room in our lives for more (and I don't mean things) after losing a spouse isn't easy. Anyone who comes to this site understands.

    Donating my spouse's clothes and some belongings provided good feelings and and an opportunity to make space. He would have approved of someone getting good use of what was once his.

    But there was/is so much more, like stuff that was meaningful especially to him and to the two of us. These I have found the hardest to make decisions about: they represent a past life, trigger special memories.

    Then there are diplomas, yearbooks, stuff from his family to him and more.... Hard calls all.

    Our spouses were so much more than can be placed into any box.

    My house is now sold; I am packing for a move from where we lived for over thirty years. Not easy. Living where my spouse was has provided comfort. Our life together was here. That comfort will disappear soon.

    Am I scared? Yes. But I know the move is what needs to happen. As you sort, please know that there are others out there sharing your feelings, wishing you well.

    Our spouses' lives mattered. They live forever in our hearts and that is what is important.

  2. Wow Chris!
    This post speaks volumes about the part of grief that can be so difficult.
    I couldn't believe it when I read "I’ve avoided touching the nicely stacked piles of flyers given out at Maggie’s memorial. I’ve buried stacks condolence cards way, way, way deep in the back of the Bookshelf of Painful Memories. " I understand because I have a Dresser of Painful Memories (don't even let me start on his workshop and his home office)

    I was in the Dresser of Painful Memories on the weekend. I can't remember what I went in there for (most likely some moment of I need him, I want him, he's gone) I went in there for something tangible.
    I sat on the bed and looked over the hundred or more cards we sent each other over the years of our marriage. I smelled his sweater, I slipped his watch on my wrist. I read his messages of love and cried.
    Then I opened another drawer. Inside was the pile of flyers left from his service. The ones with his handsome smiling face on the front. A thick pile.
    I thought - why did they give these to me?
    Anyone who wanted one has one.
    I can't throw them in the garbage - not with his beautiful face on the front. I envision the wind picking them up and blowing them in the air.
    I can't shred them, it seems profane somehow.
    I thought of taking them back to the funeral place and saying "bury these too".
    It was a very neat pile.
    As I went to place them back in the top drawer, they slipped from my hand and fell around my feet. My husbands face multiplied around me. His handsome face.
    He would have laughed at the absurdity of keeping them.
    I gathered them all up and put them back in the Dresser of Painful Memories.
    I understand how you feel, everything you see, everything you touch - a memory is there. I have told friends it is like a thousand flashbacks a day. Songs, looks, snippets of conversations, an argument, making love on the bedroom floor - too hot to make it to the bed, his cereal in the cupboard and the image of him - ill and failing, eating breakfast while looking out the window.
    I am at two years. I have donated most of his clothes, I have painted a room and replaced the furniture, I have bought new sheets and acquired a dog.
    It is a new life.
    Not the ones we dreamt of but the ones we have.
    Wonderful comes once and awhile and it comes more frequently when we make space for it.
    Good Luck Chris.

  3. "Most of all, I honor her legacy by refusing to live any life other than that which is wonderful to me. I have a lot of work to go. I will not quit. Wonderful is around the bend."

    Beautifully said, and a quote I will carry with in in my travels these days, thank-you,

  4. Chris, I too am following the "genius plan" of throw it away, give it a new life, or keep it. You are lucky to have help, I am trying to do it on my own. Making slooow progress, but had a surge this fall. Having done this for my inlaws, and my parents, I know I do not want to leave it for my children to do some day. It was his/our stuff, and I should take care of it. I just have to keep reminding me I can take forward the most important thing, the memories and the love we had.
    Still looking around the bend for that wonderful, too.

  5. Amazing piece of writing, Chris. After my initial period of getting rid of things 3 years ago, so I could accomplish the big move, I haven't touched the rest of it. There is still a pile of his clothes in my bedroom closet, his high school band uniform, his trombone from college, his guitar, his motorcycle jackets and many other things. I even still have one of his bikes. I struggle to follow through with anything. Thank you for continuing to share yourself in your posts.

  6. So nice to know I'm not crazy :)
    Even in a new place, with new things... they are still with us. When I bought the new house...I bought the house we would have loved, the furniture... the same. We are still together, but the together is different.
    And yes, there are things that are his. All his certifications of his achievements in the martial art he practiced, his pictures of high school friends into a box they go. Maybe someday I'll throw them away...until then, what's his will go in the garage and stay. I'm on no time line and there's no reason to get rid of it. It came to the new house with me and here it will stay.

  7. Chris,
    Heartfelt, poignant post, as always. I admire your courage, creativity and great idea of finding a sensitive friend help with this enormous job of letting go, moving forward and honoring Maggie's memory and your future all at the same time. I have the same plan this and next year. I am not naive enough to think it will be done quickly. I've already given most of Tim's tailor made suits to his nephews who are about his same size. But they don't wear tailor made shirts with French cuffs...what to do?! My friend is an actress and she will be helping me sort through what remains to donate to our local professional theatre. I love the idea of Tim's clothes being center stage and helping talented actors look very handsome in their roles. The rest is going to a local non-profit that helps underprivileged kids go to college and interview for jobs...they need nice clothes and certainly can't afford them. So, "give it a new life somewhere else" is a wonderful way to help others and honor Maggie (and Tim)...thanks for the great category B!! XOXO

  8. Chris, this is an amazing post! So close to home for me right now. I have had some "progress seizures" along the way and they felt ok, but lacked the courage to do more. It was all I could do to get rid of our 500lb TV because it was his and mine. Finally replaced it with a nice (bigger) flat tv that is more me. I too, am tired of living in a life I am not allowed to live anymore. Tired of keeping things in the same place because that's been their original place for the past 5 years. So, I've moved furniture around, changed things out, and am now onto throwing crap out. Really? A Maxium magazine subscription collection dating from 2003? (who am I to talk since I hold on to my Vanity Fair's forever too, but I'm not dead and I can) So after 4 years, I am ready to take the plunge and really look hard at the things in the house that the mind and heart already know that I don't need to keep Joe close. I love the idea that some of things I am going to get rid of will be wrapped in our love, unbeknownst the the lucky treasure finder. Good luck Chris!

  9. This is one of the best blogs I have seen. One of the most difficult things to deal with is what to do with all the things that have been left behind. the Author, Chris, said it best that he is trying to move forward and live his life while being surrounded by things that represent a life he is no longer allowed to live. I think that sums it up for a lot of us who have lost a loved one. What to do with all the things that I still have. I have trinkets and other things that were extremely special to her. Items she cherished and had saved since her childhood. how could I possibly give those things away? However, I can't hold on to all of them. I like the idea of going through everything with the following mindset. A, throw it away. B, give it a new life somewhere else or C, Keep it in a special box. I know Teri's family would love the trinkets and personal items that she has left behind. The conflict is what to keep and what to pass on. In the end I have simply procrastinated and put off the task of going through her most treasured items. In some ways it makes me feel selfish but I am not sure if you could understand how difficult it is to do this, even after 2 years since her death. I have been able to do things like change out the furniture in our bedroom, redecorated the living room and replacing our carpet with tile. but there seems to be so much more that still needs to be done. As I write this I look up to see a small stuffed animal she had as a small child sitting on her rack of CD's that she collected throughout the years. it is still sitting exactly where she left it. I guess the main question I have is: How do you move forward with your new life while still respectfully holding on to the memory of your past life. There is a middle ground in there someplace and eventually I will find it. -Chris

  10. I have a two-ton dumpster sitting in my driveway right now. It was just delivered this morning. I have a small fleet of friends and family scheduled to come over on Sunday. Our mission is to tackle the attic (my stuff), the garage, (Michael's stuff) and the basement (our stuff.) I'm not sure I will be able to part with much of Michael's stuff. He had a use for everything, so he said. It feels like I am moving away from him. This is a great post. So important to us as we rebuild our lives.
    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Two years since the day my husband was killed, and I have not touched a thing of his, except to go through some papers from his office at work, and throw away the impersonal ones. I feel downright panic at the thought of moving his suits from the closet, his shirts from the bureau, his shoes from under the bed. Reading this post and comments, I think that someday that feeling may change...Does it for everyone? Or can some of us never bear to let go of the physical detritus that is all that remains of our own personal Eden?

    1. Anon,
      you will know when it is the right time for you to do something with your husbands belongings. If you are panicking at the thought of it, it is not time. I started slowly, with things that were no longer important to him anyway, things he no longer wore; almost 3 years for me and I still have his favorite flannel shirts hanging there. No matter what someone else says or does, do what feels right for you. You know you best.

  12. Wow, you've obviously touched so many of us with this post. Your opening sentance, "....I'm very, very dissatisfied with my life..." , is a perfect description of where I am stuck. Unfortunately, I have not yet let go of the anger, that may take more time and more therapy.

    I need a compassionate Type A friend to kick my butt into gear! I have accomplished some things but I am stuck again, almost like a car in neutral, just idling. I need to find my motivation!

    Thank you for perfectly describing my world!

  13. I can so relate to you. I feel overwhelmed by the stuff too. My mother in law died before my husband so Ihave all his stuff and hers. He worked as a cabinet maker so all of his tools sit downstairs with all of the wood he had future plans, along with his clothes in his closet. I too have given things away to people I know loved him and will think of him and appreciate them. But Still I am left to deal with the rest. I have tried to get rid of the rest to friends, but there is so much I have to find someone else to take it. The wood and tools are valuable so I can not just give it away, but have no idea what to do with it. It has been 3 years and I am still slowly working on solutions, but it is difficult.

    1. Anon,
      Does a school near you have a trade center? My husband was also a tradesman, carpenter...I have donated to our local Habitat for Humanity, but the remaining wood and tools I am hoping to donate to a school. My husband used to teach (math) so I think he'd like this. Yes, it is so very difficult to find solutions these days. I, too, have my in laws stuff, as well as much of my Mother's (I am the only girl among 5 brothers, and they all assumed I would take things). When I feel overwhelmed, I step away for awhile. Recently I cut up some scrap wood, and could not believe the memories the smell of the wood triggered. I miss that so, as well as all else in the before life.

    2. anon. my hubby had a lifetime of electronics tools and parts--not easy to find homes for. A local student ham radio club got some, but the rest is still here.

      As for the wood and tools-look for a specialty wood supplier in your area. Or check for receipts he might have kept. They'd have some ideas for you. Habitat for Humanity ReStores gladly take the small and large tools to sell and raise money for their projects. You can write off as a tax deduction. I think he might agree that would be a good thing. Call your local dept of Education or Supe of Schools if yiou want tools too go to a HS shop classroom. Or call Rotary or Kiwanas, as they do all sorts of community fix-up projects they need tools for.

      ((((hugs)))) it IS hard, but worth it.

  14. Dear Anon above, ( I am also at two years see long post above).
    I know for me one day I walked into the closet and seeing his "empty" clothes was so painful and produces so much conflicted emotion. His clothes were there but he was not, that I couldn't stand it any longer. Was it painful? Hell, yes. It took me all day and I sobbed the whole time. My son took many of his finer shirts and suits and coats. I donated the rest to a place that helps people new to the country with suitable clothing for job hunting etc. It helped to know someone with very little would be able to use his things to help them in their new lives.
    I still have the "Dresser of Painful Memories" that hold the last shirt he wore, the shorts he pulled on each summer so he could say proudly "they still fit", cards, all of his jewelery, our love cards, his sandals, small gifts the grandchildren made for him. All fo these are memories so precious that I must keep them. But I find as time carries on, the other things are easier to let go of. His workshop remains - all his tools in perfect condition. They were to be his retirement hobby. Building things. It is very painful to go down there and look at his unfinished dream. I thought if i empty this room it will be worse, I don't need the space. I hope someday my son, will be able to use these things.
    For me - I go to that dresser in grief. Knowing that everything in it will produce a memory that is precious, that I want the reminder of, the tears to fall. I go there when I feel numb from trying to live without him.
    I would say if you feel "panic" then it is not time. You will know when it is right. As Chris articulated so well, you just feel it. You feel - this is holding me back, I can't live in this life anymore because it is not real. I have to make it mine now. I know in the beginning I couldn't part with his toothbrush and comb. . . .time moved me here.

  15. Thank you so much for this post. Your words describe only what my tears can express. I know I don't belong in the life I shared with my husband anymore, but I don't have a new life yet. It is so hard to make progress when you are still mourning your old life. This month will be my first wedding anniversary without him and it's so been hard. I guess I am fragile right now. I hope that some day I can get to the stage where I can start to release things.

  16. My husband was an outdoor gear expert...he developed individual equipment for the military, later worked for THE NORTH FACE and later started a gear business that was shut down by the holding company he sold it to. I have a house full of high end outdoor gear & clothes that would make adventure type guys salivate. I am going to send it to his friends...trouble is this has turned out to be a HUGE project. I have decided to enlist the help of some friends to figure out who to send what. He has only been gone 5 weeks but I want to do this NOW since he is on peoples minds and getting gear of his would mean a great deal to them.

    I threw some stuff away from our bathroom this week and I packed up some shoes to send to a nephew who wears the same size. His school ring is going to a museum (some military uniforms are at another museum) funny for a guy who was only 50.

    I was terrified of what to do with his wallet, sunglasses, watches...then his siblings each asked for a personal item...thank God they did, I felt good about giving them his stuff.

    His nephew was thrilled to be given his military sword (what the F would I do with a sword?). The flag from his casket I gave to his parents...heck, I gave HIM back to his parents (I buried him "back home" far from me, close to them).

    I do OK til I get to his socks...his dirty socks in the hamper...I normally did laundry on Saturdays but he died suddenly on Saturday morning and his full hamper just sits expectantly...I dont do will with his clothes...I loved how he filled out his clothes, he was so handsome...yea, now Im crying.