Tuesday, April 21, 2020

You Are Not Alone

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
~ Allen Saunders

This is a longer and much different post that I intended to write in February.  Life did indeed happen while I was making other plans.  What follows is a compilation of excerpts from my personal journal.  I share them, not to offer any profound insights or solutions, but in the hope that you can identify with some of my thoughts and emotions and find that at least a little comforting.

Mar. 3 - This virus - why am I only attending to it now?  Apparently, it's been ravaging other countries for weeks now.  This is the downside of not watching the news.  How many other Americans are unaware of the problems that may be coming our way?

Mar. 4 - At a recent rally, the President actually said we could wake up one day and it would be gone.  It's one thing for me to be oblivious, but the President?

Mar. 6 - Italy has shut down all of its schools.  And still, we do not seem to be taking this seriously.  This denial and even arrogance is astonishing and bodes serious concerns for us, I fear.

Mar. 9 - Why am I feeling such a sense of trepidation?

Mar. 11 - Italy is in complete lockdown.  I just watched videos of Italians in Siena, Naples and somewhere in Sicily standing on their balconies singing together to try to uplift their spirits.  One of my favorite memories is of a visit with friends to Siena on a bright afternoon, eating gelato among a throng of tourists.  Today both husbands are gone, taken by cancer within the same week and Siena looks like a ghost town. I weep at the breadth of loss.

Mar. 12 - We've canceled our April and May luncheons.  If our government won't give us a clear direction, we have to make decisions to protect our selves and our membership.  I am so proud of this Board.  And speaking of decisions, I am putting boundaries around watching the news.  I've been glued to the TV, seeking information and recommendations from the scientific and medical communities.  But too much information and I leapfrog across depression into despair.  I need to pay as much attention to my mental and emotional health as I do my physical health.

Mar. 13 - Emerging voices are sounding an alarm that we are not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude.  Not enough ICU beds, not enough supplies or personnel should this hit us the way it has hit Italy or Spain.  Not enough people taking this seriously.  The attack on science and our press in recent months has diminished their authority.  I fear this pandemic is going to accentuate the cost of our political polarity and expose the underbelly of our society.  We are certainly going to see an interesting cast of heroes and villains.

Mar. 14 - A FOX commentator asserting this is a hoax, accusing opponents of using the virus to embarrass the President.  This is not helpful.  We need facts and reliable information.  How do I remain responsible and sane amidst comments like this and the name-calling and diatribe on TV and social media venues?!  Boundaries, boundaries!

Mar. 15 - I just created a binder of lists - books to read, friends to contact, projects to complete, topics/ideas to explore, hobbies to take up again, etc.  At least, it helped to restore a minimal sense of control.

Mar. 17 - I woke this morning and set about my usual routine - breakfast, taking a few moments to notice and appreciate the shrub beyond the courtyard wall in its coat of purple spring buds, then curling up in my favorite chair with my journal in hand.  Then, I made the mistake of checking the stats - 4565 cases in the U.S. and 87 dead.  The juxtaposition leaves me at best confused and at worst, anxious.  And if I am anxious, retired here in the safety of southwestern UT, what about all those millions of people out of work, many in congested cities?  How are they coping?

Mar. 18 - Watching views of people ignoring the call for social distancing - or is it that they just don't care?

Mar. 19 - Sixteen months today since John died.  I am taken by a wave of relief that he died when and how he died - his valiant heart simply giving up the struggle, in our home, his hand in mine, my sister here to support me.  How would I have handled watching him struggle for air behind a glass barrier as I have seen images of people in just that circumstance?  What if our doctors have to decide who they will try to save as Italian doctors are facing?

Mar. 21 - Structure, focus, mindfulness, gratitude - I cling to these words.  Far too easy to descend into anxiety or outrage at the ineptitude of our federal government.  Thank heaven for some of the governors who are showing up in this leadership vacuum.

Mar. 23 - Thankfully, I have much to be grateful for - friends checking in, the network of support I'm blessed with, learning to use new technology, spring weather, living in a relatively small and safe community, and always the companionship of my sweet rescue dog, Rufus.

Mar. 26 - The cloudbursts of personal grief seem to have subsided, blown away by the larger sense of loss, existential grief as it were.  So much loss - jobs, security, trust in our institutions, in one another, in the belief that we will be strong enough, resilient enough, smart enough and united enough to emerge from this whole and healthy.  My habit of recording five things to be grateful every night is a sanity saver.

Mar. 27 - I have to remember not to try to make sense out of nonsense - it's impossible and exhausting.

Mar. 28 - Thank heavens for images of individuals helping their older neighbors or the creative uses of technology to stay connected, or the generosity of some of our athletes and celebrities and the amazing courage and compassion of our health care workers.  These images comprise a life preserver in this sea of uncertainty. They restore a sense of hope for me.

That's enough for now.  I hope this does as I had hoped for some of you out there - you are not alone.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Looking Back in Order to Look Forward

"Sometimes you have to look back to be able to look forward."
~ unknown

It's that time of the year when I look back to see where I've been, what I've accomplished, and where I want to head in the coming year.  I've done this every year for the past 35 years except last year.  John had died in November and the best I could do was hope that I'd endure the grief and mourning that overwhelmed me - and I wasn't so sure about that.

So, this year I dared to pull out my private journals from 2018 and 2019 (six in all) and began to read, hesitantly, a few pages at a time.  Knowing I would dredge up painful memories, bittersweet memories, but also, hopefully, memories that could sustain me and buoy up my tentative optimism for the coming year.

 I had so many questions:
  • Had I been the compassionate companion I wanted to be?  Did I do enough?
  • What help and support meant the most to John, to me, to us?
  • What help could I or should I have asked for sooner?
  • Why was this past autumn so challenging? Why am I optimistic, even if cautiously, now?
  • What have I learned from these past two years?  How have they shaped me?
  • What could I accomplish or contribute as a result?  What calls to me?
I've started at both ends of those 26 months, the early months after the diagnosis and the last months immediately preceding and succeeding his death.  And the months of this previous autumn.  It's glaringly obvious that this will take me more than a couple weeks to accomplish, as I write a minimum of two college-lined 8 1/2 x 11 pages every day and many of them are challenging to read.  I've taken on a  project that could well take a few months.

But this much I have learned already:
  • This past autumn was so challenging, in part, because the summer flew by with relative ease, and I became complacent.  I was stunned by the impact of darker mornings and earlier dusks and much more anxious than I had anticipated for the impending anniversary of John's death as well as the holidays.  My private journal pages contain more grief and anxiety than is my intention to share here.  Not that I didn't share that with close friends and a counselor, but my intention here is to be helpful and as positive as possible.
  • Speaking of intention, I was reminded that we promised each other from the very first week that, whatever came our way, we would handle it together with as much grace and dignity as we could muster.  And my reading to date reaffirms that we did, some days better than others, of course, but we clung to that promise especially in the final weeks of his life.
  • In the weeks following John's death, I was overcome with regrets.  Normal, I'm told, but so very painful.  It was, therefore, a gift, and an affirmation of the value of all that journal writing, to come across the passage where I captured one of the last things he said to me - "How was I ever so lucky to have found you?"  He thought I did enough, more than enough.  And today, that's good enough for me.  
  • Regarding support,  I learned so much about support - especially about needing it, asking for it and accepting it willingly and graciously when offered.  So much that it will be the topic of my next post(s), maybe eventually, a book.  For me, looking back is helping me to rebuild a bruised sense of self-confidence, to reassure me that I will be ok, maybe stronger than ok, and to point optimistically to a future that holds purpose and satisfaction.  
  • I'm back.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Thank Goodness for the Little Things

"In grief, the little things are the big things."
~Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D
Grief One Day at a Time

I have been expressing my thankfulness for little things in gratitude journals for over 40 years.  This practice has been a support through divorce, illness, and times of conflict and stress, but never as much as these past months since John's death.  So, upon coming across this quote recently, I decided to revisit the gratitude journal I've just completed to see what little things buoyed me up this past summer.  Could it be that noticing and appreciating these things contributed to the summer being easier than I had dreaded?  
  • a bumper crop of roses - John would have been so pleased
  • a hummingbird hovering within inches of my face
  • chilled red grapes
  • a decent night's sleep
  • and an afternoon nap on the patio chaise
  • figuring out how to program the TV on my own
  • frozen yogurt on a hot day
  • a good book - great writing, thought-provoking, elegant - the perfect book for the moment
  • an unexpected call from an old friend
  • and an invitation for lunch from a new one
  • two dozen, yes two, yellow tulips (my favorite flower) from a friend, "just because"
  • the desert sky at dusk
  • a slice of cheesecake that I treated myself to
  • chicken noodle soup when I'm under the weather
  • how much better everything sounds with my new hearing aids
  • finding an old love letter
  • a sudden, unexpected happy memory
  • a card, a joke, a silly gift -  moments that evoked giggles, even outright belly laughs
  • a customer service agent who actually provides good service
  • helpful strangers who reach objects on top shelves without my asking (I'm only 4'11 and need all the help I can get)
  • anyone who asks how I'm doing and is willing to hear the truth
  • friends who have walked this path before me and can reassure me that what I'm experiencing is normal
  • a stranger telling me how much she or he enjoyed John and misses him
  • old musicals - especially anything with Gene Kelly
  • and gripping British mysteries
  • a good news story that sets the tone for a positive day
  • stumbling on an inspirational quote
  • finding something I've misplaced 
  • and always, always, my sweet Rufus, my little companion, who greets me with pirouettes and soft growls, tailing wagging, a guarantee I never walk into an empty house
Reflecting a bit on this list, I can see that this simple practice of recording 3-5 little things I'm grateful for every night is, indeed, one of the little things that is helping me endure this grief.  Without this as an established practice, I suspect I could find it almost impossible to notice the little things. For this enduring practice of finding gratitude for the little things, I am most grateful.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

How Could I Forget?

"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
~ John Lennon

Where did the summer go?  I had so many plans - plans to write, maybe travel a bit, complete reorganizing the house, lose 10 pounds (again), and of course, deal with this on-going grief as it was sure to arise.

Then, life happened.  It interrupted my plans in late May when I woke in the middle of the night with an attack of vertigo, the room spinning, my stomach churning, and the realization that should I fall, no one would know.  A realization that brought on a wave of grief and anxiety I hadn't known since the days immediately following John's death in November.

It was this event that set into motion a series of challenges and decisions that would occupy several following weeks.  First, the diagnosis of Positional Vertigo, exercises to correct it, weeks of unsteadiness and incipient nausea, and always the fear of falling.  Then, hearing testing and hearing aids.  Followed by a balance assessment and the warning that my balance was so poor that I was in danger of falling, with or without vertigo.

For a while, it seemed that each new attempt to resolve a problem only led to the identification of another problem.  It took all of my emotional energy to avoid holding a major pity party for myself.  Needless to say, I didn't travel, didn't write beyond my personal journal pages, and comfort snacking didn't do much for a diet!  So much for plans.

Ultimately, I did resolve my health challenges.  I enrolled in a balance course and made significant inroads in organizing the house.  I got an alert system which has alleviated much of my concern about being alone.  And while I haven't lost weight, I haven't gained any - a small victory considering all the stress!

So, as dawn arrives later every day and dusk settles sooner, as autumn is in the air and I anticipate the first anniversary of John's death, my second Thanksgiving and Christmas without him, I could easily descend into anxiety and trepidation.  However, the greatest accomplishment of this summer has been to remind me, not that life happens while I'm making other plans, but that I have the resiliency, the skills and support to deal with it.  I almost forgot.  

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Just Not Yet

"Don't cry because it's over.  Smile because it happened."
~ Dr. Seuss

I love Dr. Seuss and I so want to believe this.   I can recognize that I am making progress, for sure.  In those first few weeks after John died, I despaired of remembering him other than from those last six months when he declined so significantly, losing weight, losing his ability to drive, losing his eyesight, eventually needing my help for even the most rudimentary tasks.  I panicked when I couldn't remember the silly little jingle he created and sang only in the shower.  I couldn't sleep in our bed, couldn't ward off the regrets.  

I turned to a multitude of grief books, hoping to find that someone else, anyone else, who felt the way I did.  Thankfully, I found the reassurance I was looking forward.  Not crazy, not unusual to feel so frantic.  

Then one morning, out of nowhere, the jingle emerged as I was waking up.  Gradually, sweet memories from those last six months returned.  How pleased he was that our little rescue dog, Rufus, and I had "found each other."  How he would sing to me, "Have I told you lately that I love you?" several times a day.  How, when I asked if he knew how much I loved him, his response was "and do you know how much that mattered?"  How he always expressed his gratitude to me, to his doctor, to the home health care and hospice nurses who cared for him.  Memories that, though they first brought tears, could also evoke a smile.  Not either/or but both.

In recent months, other memories have returned, sometimes initiated deliberately by someone sharing a common experience.  Or when I have had the courage to sit with photo albums or my basket of all the cards he sent me over the years.  When I have had the courage to go through a travel journal - our trips to Tuscany or the one to Sicily when we came upon a relative of mine sitting on a doorstep in her housecoat and flannel slippers, a scene from a Fellini movie.  Or the photos from the helicopter ride down the face of the Jurassic Falls.  How thrilled he was to sit beside the pilot.  

There are the memories that pop up unexpectedly - when it's dusk and I can hear him call to me to "come see this.  You won't believe the sky."  Or when I wake in the morning and recall how he would ask how I slept.  Hearing that Tiger Woods won the Masters and knowing he would have said, "I told you so."  Walking into the local Starbucks and ordering an iced tea the way he would have.

The intimate memories - the night we met in a "bar in Kansas City."  Well, an elegant lounge actually, but he loved telling everyone it was a bar.  Our wedding, the way he hovered when I had breast cancer, the beautiful messages he wrote on every card until he could no longer even sign his name.  

There isn't a day now when yet another memory emerges.  Bidden, unbidden.  Most of the time I can smile, well, at least smile first.  Am I at the point when I don't cry?  Not yet.  Will there come a day when I can simply smile because it happened?  Maybe, hopefully, but just not yet.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

This Much I Know

"Healing in grief is a lot like the onset of spring.  It's unreliable and fickle."
~ Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Unreliable and fickle.  Certainly my experience.  It's uncanny how this spring my inner mood so reflects the weather - or is it vice versa?   

Some days, the skies are gunmetal gray and the temperatures have dropped by ten degrees.  It's all I can do to get out of my nightgown and accomplish anything.  A song, a telephone conversation, an unexpected request related to John's death and I'm weeping.  A grief burst to rival the cloudbursts that have been all too common this spring.  

Some days, I wake to sunshine and the expectation of a good day, but by noon, banks of gray clouds roll in and the threat of yet another cloudburst increases by the hour.  On these days, it takes so little to unleash my own cloudburst of tears.  For how could those grief experts who warn you to prepare for the first anniversary or birthday or holiday know how easily I can fall apart at the sight of the first tulip, remembering the delight he took in planting them.  Or the sight of the first hummingbird, reminding me that he is not here to fill the feeder.  Or how even anticipating the first roses brings tears as I know he will never again bring in a fresh rose in the morning to greet my day,  How could they know?

Lately, however, there are days when I think I'm making progress through the forest of my grief.  The sun shines.  It's warm and a breeze whispers the shrubbery.   I have energy, look forward to the day and getting out and among folks.  The memories are sweet.  I barely shed a tear.  I even laugh.  On these days, I can believe there will be more such days, hopefully, many more.

So, this much I have come to know about this path I'm walking - the journey is, at best, unreliable and fickle.  Grief bursts are to be expected at the most unexpected times.  They are a part of the journey, but they, like spring showers, eventually pass.  So, I do best when I take it a day at a time, some days an hour at a time.  

I know that quotes like the above help me to make sense of my experience.  I know that the good days, and there are good days, are cause for celebration. The good days, and there are more good days, are cause for optimism.  I know that somehow, someday, the firsts will not overwhelm me.  I know that I will survive, and maybe, just maybe, even thrive again.  Even if, today, the clouds roll in again.

Monday, February 11, 2019

I Am No Stranger to Grief

"Grief is not a train track toward acceptance.  Instead, it is more of a 'getting lost in the woods.'"
~ Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD

I am no stranger to grief.   I have walked the path of grief alone and as a companion of family members and friends many times in my 78 years.  I have grieved openly over the assassinations of my youth and the shootings too common these past few years.  I am no stranger to grief.

So I thought I was prepared for John's death.  I was naive enough to think I was "ready".  Moreover, I was more concerned that I would be relieved rather than bereaved.  I wasn't - either ready or relieved.  I was shocked, that the pain and fear and regret were so crippling; also shocked that I was shocked.

It has been 12 weeks now, 12 weeks today, and the initial shock waves after subsided.  I have put my feet forward into the woods, deliberately, albeit with no small measure of anxiety and trepidation.  It is helping to think of this as a journey on an unchartered path through a dense forest.  This metaphor helps me when I'm going along, seemingly upright and grief descends like an unexpected branch that smacks me in the chest or an unseen root sending me tumbling face forward to the ground.  It helps when is a ray of sunshine breaks through the canopy of grief and for a moment I feel guilty that I feel OK.

I'm pretty sure not everyone thinks in metaphors nor finds solace in them, but this one works for me.  Grief as a path, an unchartered path through a dark forest.  A path that one has to create slowly, carefully, a step at a time.  Sometimes moving in the wrong direction, sometimes stumbling, sometimes frightened and disillusioned, but eventually finding the clearing.

I remind myself that I am no stranger to grief.  I may not have been lost in so vast, so dark a forest before, but I have made it through a miscarriage, a divorce, the loss and betrayal of friends, my own cancer - I will survive.  Someday, I may even thrive again.