Why has telling my story, now after Susan’s death, been so incredibly helpful to my own healing?
After Becky’s death I felt a sense of diminishment and powerlessness. I was such an outlier; I knew no other 20-something-year-olds who had been widowed, and I ached to hear Becky’s name mentioned or to be able to talk about her, about us. People dismissed my loss or at least that is how I felt—as if because I was a young adult and would undoubtedly re-marry that it meant my grief wasn’t so deep. I decided finally that my life would be Becky’s legacy. What a life it came to be; a life with Susan.
Susan, who I loved so deeply and Susan who showed so much respect and caring for what Becky meant to me and what we had. Susan, who let my love transform her life and whose love changed mine. In living through Susan’s breast cancer together we were never diminished as a couple, and our life together, in our bubble, was as precious as always. Susan talked about her demise and death, and her strength gave me the courage to do the same.
After Susan’s death I was now ready to write about, and talk about, grief; my losses and my struggles to cope. Several people have remarked that they respect that I have revealed so much of myself, and yet something in their remarks makes me think they are wondering, “Peter, do you think it is wise to do all of this writing and talking?” What they don’t know is that when my experiences flow onto the paper they lose their power over me. When my words go out into the world, they remove my sense of shame at having such overpowering sadness, hurt and loss, and replace it with strength, and even joy. The sharing connects me now with those who know: Those who have loved and lost and know the strange and frightening world of grief.
Somehow I have become articulate about grief; tapping into many of the universal experiences of grieving. Somehow I have transformed my pain into joy, and hurt into the deep affection I feel for those who share their stories with me. Susan is certainly smiling about this, and I hear her voice encouraging me to keep sharing, and to keep healing.
More information on writing to heal:
The American Psychological Association – Writing to Heal
(The physical and emotional benefits of expressive writing)
Psychology Today – Expressive Writing
(How to begin writing)
In the space of three weeks this spring, two of my dear colleagues and friends lost their husbands; one of them was five years younger than me and one five years older. One death was totally unexpected and the other followed a period of serious illness and a terminal diagnosis. I have talked with these widows across the months, and we share so many experiences; from the experience of gratitude for our relationships, to an overwhelming disruption in the normal flow of life, and wondering what life path we will take.
“How have you managed?” they have asked, and I find myself at a loss to describe how my days of anguish turned into days of joy and normalcy once more. For me, I use Susan’s life and our love to turn away from despair and turn back to living fully, a process I return to even still. Healing at some level does require a conscious choice and commitment.
I see and hear in these women the incredible ups and downs of coping with acute grief. It is so unlike any other life and emotional experience; shaking the very foundation of how each person defines him or herself. These similar experiences happen regardless of age. I am close to two 85-year-olds who also became widowed this spring, and their grief and journey to healing is filled with many similar challenges. There are no sure-fire tips on what to say and what not to say, but my guides for conversations are these:
- Focus questions on the present: Ask “How is today going for you?” instead of “How are you?”
- Provide affirmation during each and every conversation.
- Asking about eating and sleeping is a non-threatening way to enter into a conversation about current challenges.
- Always remember the grieving person is the expert on his or her grief; they are living it 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
September brings with it cooler days in Michigan. The bugs give up their ceaseless biting and it becomes perfect for Michigan hiking. I gave up playing competitive basketball in my early 30’s, turned my attention to tennis and jogging (which Susan and I loved to do together) and after my knee and back problems and Susan’s cancer diagnosis we decided to concentrate on hiking.
For the nearly four years Susan had Stage IV breast cancer we hiked in Grand Haven, the Manistee River Trail, the Highbanks Trail near Oscoda and of course all of the state and local parks around us—especially Maybury. Our weekend hiking trips put us into the bubble; a world in which it was just us, and cancer had to wait its turn and allow us to share our bodies and souls. The beauty of nature, the sharing of gorgeous sights and sounds, and the conversations, flowing from light and funny to deadly serious and somber—these were always empowering, always uplifting in that our hiking never failed to connect us in deeper ways. Beauty, fatigue, humor, all allowed both of us to open ourselves more fully and completely. My mind can always conjure the images from our hiking as I am surrounded by the pictures we took of ourselves, smiling on a hill, or by the water; in love with each other and loving the opportunity to drink in nature together.
We hiked from the very start of our relationship. One year, when our youngest child was 18 months old, Susan surprised me with a full-day sitter—a day for us to hike and later go to dinner. After our incredible hike on the Silver Lake trail, we came down to the lake about three weeks before the beach season would open. We climbed up on a picnic table and for 20 minutes fell into a deep sleep in each others arms; waking with laughter and an appetite for a delicious dinner.
Coming home and facing the Chicago echoes, I wondered how long it would take to bounce back. It turned out that it was just a few hours. Once I shared my echoes with Debbie, and she shared some in her life, I was back in the rhythm of feeling good and living easily.
“Healing does not mean forgetting . . .”
Healing is a normal part of grief; but what is it and how can you tell if you really are healing? In my book Grief and Healing I described various metaphors about the grief and healing process, and the times I thought I was farther along than was actually the case.
Let’s start with what healing is not. Healing does not mean forgetting, and healing does not mean never to yearn or hurt for the person you lost. There isn’t a day that goes by without my thinking of Susan, and of Becky, too. Mostly my thoughts are of gratitude; thanking them both for having enough faith in me to love me and to make a life with me.
Healing, to me, does mean life feels normal again. For me, this meant I started sleeping well at night again; and during the day I didn’t feel a pressure to “cope.” I began to take things in stride again, and not get stirred up with minor daily stressors. I noticed that I started laughing often, and was often feeling good even when I was alone and nothing particular was going on. In my world these are definite signs of strides toward healing.
I was in Chicago this past Friday to give a presentation to a national group of elder law attorneys. I was excited to do this, had a fabulous time presenting and meeting a new group of colleagues. I walked by Lake Michigan, north of the Hancock building; something I had never done before. I felt good the entire time.
Why then, are my Chicago echoes so present in me today, now that I am home?
I first went to Chicago on June 20, 1982; the first day of Becky’s and my married life. I was both exhilarated by the city and frightened of it. We stayed near Grant Park — back then not the safest place to stay. During the day we explored, laughed and played, and during the night parked ourselves in our hotel room. Two weeks before Becky died we took my mom to Chicago for the day and we had an amazing time.
Chicago was also special for Susan and me. One winter conference we walked the Magnificent Mile, went up the Hancock tower and saw forever across the lake, went to the Art Institute and shared an amazing day. In subsequent years we returned. First, as a family with Emily, we took her to Chicago and she flagged down all of the cabs for us. Then we took the entire family and stayed at Wicker Park when Thomas, age 8, memorized the entire L train schedule and took us around to the museums. We went back the year before Susan got sick, swam behind Shedd Aquarium, and rented an apartment in a high-rise in the Grant Park neighborhood (now quite safe) where Susan and I had our own room. It was paradise to look out over the lake late at night together.
Sometimes it is the lack of continuity that stings. Where did these two lives go? How could they end so soon? Sometimes it is the survivor guilt that stirs; why didn’t they live and I die? I wouldn’t have minded going first if it would have saved even one of them. Bottom line in grief, sometimes you want so badly what you can never have again; not even just for an hour, or a day.
Four months after Susan’s death, I arrived home from a three-week trip with our children. My heartbreak at not having Susan there to greet me was lessened by the Valentine card I found that day, one she had purchased for me months before. At six months, I found her writings about our life together and my search for validation was over.
On Tuesday, 2 ½ years to the day of her death, while looking for some classical music CDs to put in my car, I came across Susan’s first Valentine’s day gift to me: A country Valentine mixtape that opened with the song Valentine by Willie Nelson, and included powerful songs such as Looking in the Eyes of Love by Alison Krauss, and ended with I Swear by John Michael Montgomery, which ends with the words “Til death do us part I’ll love you with every beat of my heart.” I had our son Thomas put all the songs on my iPod, and on my 4 ½ mile walk today I listened to them.
The songs affected me in two ways: First, I pictured Susan and me — kissing her at the tennis court, laughing as we hiked up or down a big hill, shaking my head in awe when Susan pointed out the reasons why the movie I thought I liked really wasn’t any good; stopping in the road on our walks to kiss her and tell her how much she meant to me, sitting side-by-side working on our research projects and papers. All of these and so many more images flooded back to me. Second, I heard through these songs, Susan reminding me how special love is and how you have to open yourself up to find it.
I shake my head, thinking that a month ago, I got frightened and broke off my relationship with Debbie. Fortunately it was a very short-lived rupture, and Debbie graciously agreed to take me back and to continue our relationship. With my fear put away, I have had the best time with Debbie, and gotten to know her more and more. Susan was reminding me to keep being open to Debbie and to remember how unique love is in life and the important place it has. As I was writing this, I put the playlist back on and realized my mistake; the last song was Who Showed You the Way to my Heart by Tish Hinojosa. I wonder who is showing Debbie the way.
Support groups remind me of the clothing store “Hit or Miss”. Sometimes they are so helpful and what is shared is so helpful and comforting and sometimes they are so somber and I leave feeling stuck. I have learned through the caregiver support group first, and then the grief support group, that hanging in there, and learning to be yourself and say your own truth can be a powerful experience inside a support group. In one sense we learn that our hardships are often relatively less than those of others in the group. Many women in my grief support group had to sell their homes, some had also lost their jobs. Money is often tight and family conflict is often present. Others are coming to the support group 3, 4 and even 5 years after the death of their spouse. Sometimes support group members voiced things that so directly applied to me such as fatigue, anger or simply sadness. I also learned about how being widowed twice helped me deal with Susan’s death. I listened to the complaint of the group, for instance, that no one reaches out to them in quite the right way. I learned from Becky’s death that you have to sustain your own support network and cannot wait for people to continue to flock to you. I did not do that after about 6 months after Becky’s death and it really harmed me. I continue to keep my support network active now and I invite people to do things with me; no waiting around!
So what might you look for in a support group?
1. A good leader: This makes so much difference because without one there is a tendency to shy away from the difficult topics, or to have only a couple of people dominate all the time.
2. Acceptance. The group doesn’t have to agree with you, but they should accept your reality as valid.
3. Regular meetings and flexibility around attendance. Sometimes it is too hard to be in the group or not meeting your needs. You have to be allowed to take a break and then come back if you want.
There are few people with whom your relationship deepens as you grieve.
Kathleen Hardy, the social worker at the Weisberg Center of the Karmanos Cancer Institute, is one of those people who is truly there for me. She met and became close to Susan during Susan’s long periods of chemo and radiation treatment. She encouraged me to join the caregiver support group, which I did, and later the grief support group, which I also joined for 15 months.
Two years ago in August, I wrote this about Kathleen:
“When cancer was defeating my spirit I would make an appointment with Kathleen. Each time I would only need a single session or two with Kathleen to put me back on the right path. She talked about herself and her experiences, and about other patients and caregivers and their experiences, and she listened with full caring and attention. She told me about how often we have to live in two worlds during the journey of cancer; the world of Stage IV incurable cancer, and the world of today and joy and the usual stuff of our life. She helped me normalize my feelings, and somehow she always chipped away at and banished my sense of failure. I met with Kathleen after Susan died, and even talked about her incredible impact on both Susan and me during my eulogy for Susan.”
Last week I had a chance to visit with Kathleen and give to her and the Weisberg Center copies of my book Grief and Healing. It was another conversation filled with love, honesty and affirmation. She was thrilled to hear about Debbie, and understood well that I sometimes am between the world of grief and the world that is evolving for me here and now. I left as I always do; amazed that Kathleen — who shared with me that knowing Susan changed her — continues to support my healing journey.
Perhaps nothing epitomized Susan and my life together more than Manistee, Michigan, a Victorian Port city on the shores of Lake Michigan. We discovered it when Sophie was a baby and spent one or two weeks each summer at the same condominium complex. We walked together in the early mornings, played tennis, swam at our favorite beach and, for Susan and me, it was like being on a one or two week date. It was heaven.
Because my children wanted to keep coming here, we have returned each year; this is the third summer vacation at Manistee since Susan’s death. The first two years were filled with activities (e.g. hiking, fishing, kayaking) so that it wouldn’t seem so empty. It worked—sort of. I wasn’t certain I wanted to come for a third year. This year, Manistee was, however, a vacation for me again, and a definite marking of time for my children. As I watched the young families in the pool, I realized that I no longer had little children; somewhere between last year and this Sophie, my youngest, grew into a pre-teen, and Thomas, now 15 into a full blown adolescent. They have come so far; 2 ½ school years, developing friendships and interests, and not letting grief defeat them.
Me too. For the first half of the Manistee vacation, Debbie, a woman I have been dating for several months, shared the vacation with us. It was magical; the walks, the sunsets, having the time to talk and not hurry. It was easy for me and Debbie, and it was easy for my children. It was lonely after Debbie left, and it was tempting to get lost in my memories with Susan. Instead, I reached out to Debbie and let her know I missed her. She understood perfectly; as wondrous as Manistee is, it is truly extraordinary when you can share it with someone. I hope we will all be back for a 13th consecutive year in 2017.
If you are looking for ways to help your children cope with their grief, I recommend these resources:
My mother and I are extremely close. She was diagnosed with multiple myeloma one week after Susan was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. Although I am writing here about Susan and my mom, my mom also loved Becky deeply. The closest my mom ever came to having a daughter herself was her relationship with Becky.
My mother loved Susan from the moment she met her. She loved Susan’s openness, laughter, intelligence and especially Susan’s calming influence on me. My mom, over time, became extremely close to Susan, so that by the last year of her life, Susan spoke to my mom every week by phone and I was the only other adult who Susan spoke to as much (lucky for me I got to speak to Susan every day!!). Mom was so supportive of my relationship with Susan, and when I got nervous five months into our dating and worried that Susan was pulling away, my mom hugged me and said, “She loves you Peter. Don’t let those worries grow.”
My mom is one of my chief supports during my time of grief and healing. She and I talk regularly. More than anyone else in my support network, she knows how to give affirmations to me, and to regularly listen and talk with me about my experiences. Sometimes when my feelings of grief overwhelm me into a deep sadness it is my mother who praises me for my resilience, and she who reminds me that healing will take a good long while and not to worry about the rest of my life. At those times (so much less frequent now) she turns my day around. Amazingly, she is doing well; feeling better now six months after all her treatments were suspended because they had stopped working, and after she expected the end to be near. Her good health is certainly a great blessing.