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Building Community After Loss

It was three years of medical treatment before Bob passed.  “I was relieved when he was finally gone and out of his misery.  I, however, have a new misery.”

Maggie found Moving Forward at the persistent urging of a relative. Early in her grief, she is quiet in some discussions and active in others.  She watches the other women with great intensity as if trying to figure out what makes them tick.

Maggie reported that she is lucky she has several groups of friends who are attentive and inclusive.  The couples’ friends are a tight-knit group of lifetime friends who give her loving support.  It’s sometimes difficult for her to be reminded of what she’s missing. 

Her long-standing women’s golf league friends are well connected and thoughtful.  However, they are all busy with their own family lives of husbands and children outside of golf and lunch. 

Holidays and Sundays are her hardest times when women are busy with family events.

Maggie’s conclusion is she also needs a group of single women friends who are available for activity and companionship.  She wants to be in a circle that’s growing with new people and new ideas. 

“It would be pretty easy to nestle in my existing world and think I’m lucky.”  I need to learn so much.  I thank my cousin for nagging me to come.  This group can expose me to new thinking, share new experiences and cheer me on.  It warms me to think I may be doing this for others.”

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What a Team

Veronica and her husband built a small professional practice. He was the skill implementor and she was the administrator.  They shared and enjoyed all aspects of their chosen work.

It was purposeful and contributing, intellectually stimulating, emotionally gratifying, financial rewarding (enough), flexible for their family life.  Now in their 60s with children grown, the plan was to slowly ease back over time, reduce the number of days each week, take increasing weeks of sabbatical and travel.

Then he was diagnosed with cancer…and the treatment did not work.

Veronica describes this as the trifecta of loss.  She lost her life partner, her work, her vision of the future.  She realized her social life revolved around their clients, other professionals, parents of their children’s friends.  In living her good life, she did not have a circle of friends independent of work and family. 

AND she knew she needed to find circles that will help her create a new life from scratch.

She wandered into Moving Forward, our prelude to a Modern Widows Club chapter in Rochester from a MeetUp announcement. “ I know I need to be proactive, no matter how hard.”

“I appreciate the forward-looking focus of the monthly discussions.  I view women attending as like-minded sisters.  They are different ages and stages but they know the struggle.” 

After a few sessions, I appreciate the warm welcome, the forward-thinking topics and the different perspectives.  These women help me think! I need this group. “

At the end of one gathering, Veronica beamed at our growing band of women.  “I don’t know you all very well yet, but I will be hugging you soon!”

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Emotions Behind Grief

Understanding the emotions behind grief helps you see what lies ahead

The initial personal work that needs attention

The loss of a life partner is a natural stage of life yet it ranks #1 on the scale of stress.  It’s the cost of having this deep relationship.  I offer you a collection of core ideas gleaned from good sources for your immediate use. 

Since “brain fog” is a common characteristic in the early stages of loss, I’ve selected my choice of basic ideas.  You might not have the mental energy to work your way through an entire publication to discern useful ideas.  The objective is to reassure you that you are working through a common experience in your own unique way.

And so it has happened and emotions kick into high gear.  Emotions might follow a flow: shock, numbness and disbelief; experiencing the pain; acceptance.

Shock, numbness and disbelief

Mind and spirit go into shock with a severe emotional jolt.  Emily Dickinson called it, “the hour of lead”.

The first and natural response is to doubt or deny.  It’s an unconscious way of preventing emotional overload.  It helps to face the loss bit by bit as one gathers inner resources and external supports.

Numbness is also a buffer that makes it possible to do what must be done in the immediate aftermath of a personal loss:  make arrangements, take care of daily needs, attending to others.  This feeling of unreal and emotional distance is a temporary support.  Periods of clarity can weave with the inability to think, restlessness and confusion as the reality sinks it.  It’s the waffling between “I’m OK, I’m not OK” until the numbness is replaced by the strong presence of emotion.

Experience the pain.  Numbness gives way to feeling.  When grief reaches the heart, the real pain begins.  The reality of loss begins a reminder of a time that once was. Four strong emotions intertwine in endless and often troubling patterns…fears, sadness, anger and guilt.  Emotions serve their purpose and subside in time.

  • Fears come and go without warning and surface without predictability.  Fear of being alone is what motivates relationships with others.
  • Sadness is often the consuming emptiness.  Hopelessness and helplessness spill forth at unexpected times.  Enjoyment is lost, then a fleeting sensation.  Tears, though often embarrassing, are part of the healing process. Sadness redefines priorities, goals and sense of purpose.
  • Anger may be rational and focused or irrational and broad.  Feelings of irritability, bitterness, hostility and aggression are often so surprising that mourners may fear themselves on the verge of a breakdown.  Powerful energies of stress are released when issues reach a point of resolve.
  • Guilt, anger turned toward ourselves, can be disabling.  It erodes self-esteem and evokes self-condemnation.  If not resolved, the healing cannot be complete.  Surprisingly, guilt is a natural response when one first begins to feel happy again after a long path of grieving.

Amidst all the emotional turmoil, physical and intellectual stress can add layers of complications and distractions.  There are physical complaints, emotional swings, thinking disturbances and changes in behavior. 

Sleep disturbance, excess energy/lethargy, overeating/lack of appetite, confused thinking, changed behavior…Threads of stress weave together to form the fabric of mourning.

Source: 

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

Find other selections on MovingForward.pro/Education under grieving.  There are some selections directed towards family and friends on how to support.  You can do this.

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How to Write a Condolence Letter

A written expression of condolence is a powerful, loving gesture.

It is becoming a lost practice despite its unique ability to provide comfort. It is worth the effort.  Writing allows you to carefully reflect and craft your loving message.  This is an expression of what you want to say, the sentiments you want to share.  Form and format are clearly secondary.    Once you have your thoughts, feelings and memories in focus, you might use this format to help put them into a structure.  Perhaps this format will help stimulate your thinking and organize your thoughts.

  1. Acknowledge the loss. Note how you learned about the news.   Indicate dismay at hearing about the loss.  It sets the purpose and tone of the letter.
  2. Express your sympathy. Don’t hesitate to use the word death.  Share your own sadness to remind them they are not completely alone in their suffering.
  3. Note special qualities of the deceased. They may be special attributes, personality characteristics, contributions.  Remind the bereaved that the deceased was appreciated by others.
  4. Recount a memory about the deceased… how the deceased evoked your appreciation, affection or respect; how they touched and influenced your life; humorous incidents.
  5. Note special qualities of the bereaved…strong feelings of inadequacy often surface and the bereaved can beel shaky about their own basic abilities. At the time, it can cause them to doubt their most basic abilities.  And their usual capacity or self-appreciation and self-love.  Remind them of their traids that serve them through adversity in the past such as resilience, patience, competence, religious devotion, optimisim or trusting nature.
  6. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement. If there is a genuine desire to help, make a specific offer. The numbness of early grief can often blank out the general offers of help.  Once offered, be sure to follow through.
  7. Close with a thought word or phrase.

Suggestions:

  1. My affection respects to you and yours.
  2. My affection respects to you and yours.
  3. Our life is with you always.
  4. You are in my thoughts and prayers
  5. You know you have my deepest sympathy and my love and friendship always.
  6. My heart and my tears are with you.
  7. We share in your grief and send you our love.
  8. We offer our affectionate sympathy and many beautiful memories
  9. My thoughts are with you now, and I send you my deepest sympathy.
  10. We all join in sending you our heartfelt love.

Sample: When you knew the deceased:

Dear Keith

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

My heart ached when Tim called this morning and I heard the news of Ruth’s death.  Though not unexpected, the final word was still felt as a blow.

  1. Express your sympathy

Words seem so inadequate, but with this letter comes to my heart filled with love and sympathy on the loss of your beloved wife.  I loved her too.

  1. Note the special qualities of the deceased.

Ruth was a vibrant, talented, caring woman and dearly loved by everyone whose life she touched.  But for me, she was even more.  She was a rare and cherished friend.  Through our friendship, my vision of beauty and possibilities of life grew.

  1. Recount a memory about the deceased.

As I write, flooded with precious memories, I am recalling the day when Ruth and I were driving to the cost for what we thought would be a lazy afternoon of beachcombing.  Instead, we had a flt tire.  You’ve never seen a pair of more fumble-fingered, crease covered laughing clowns than we were that day, but we did it!  And we made it to the beach just in time for a glorious sunset.

  1. Note the special qualities of the bereaved.

I know you will miss her deeply, but I also know that you recognize the blessings of the beautiful years you shared.  You were always a source of strength and courage to Ruth.  I recall her once saying that your love of life and enduring optimism brought her closer to God.  I trust these same qualities will help support and guide you during this oh-so-difficult time.

  1. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement.

You know you have my sympathy and my friendship and I would be grateful if you would turn to me for any help I might give.  I’ll call this week end to see if there’s anything I can do.

  1. Close with a thought word or phrase.

My prayers and thoughts are with you

Sample: When you didn’t know the person who died

Dear Keith

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

This morning Mr Moore told us the sad news of your wife’s sudden death.

  1. Note the special qualities of the deceased.

I extend my heartfelt sympathy to you and your family.  The loss must touch you very deeply as you face these first numbing days of grief.

  1. Note the special qualities of the deceased.
  2. Recount a memory about the deceased…

Although I never met your wife, I was always impressed with the loving mention of her in your conversations.

  1. Note special qualities of the bereaved

While our relationship has been largely in the office, I have seen you handle challenging situations time and again.  During this difficult period, I know you will draw on these same deep personal resources so many of us have come to respect and admire. 

  1. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement.

During your absence, we will address your…………………

  1. Close with a thought word or phrase.

Keep in mind that this office is filled with people who care about you and are thinking about you in your sorrow.

Sample: The most famous of all condolence letters

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the war Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.  I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.  But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.  I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

Lincoln

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

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What to Say When Someone is Grieving

How to hone your consoling skills:

The Art of Consoling Conversation:  swift to hear, slow to speak.

The silence of listening has a clear message, “I’m right here.  I care and I’m with you.  I’m not sure what to say, but I’m ready to listen”

Real listening comes from the heart because that is where sympathy and healing begins.  It’s a silent way of sharing in the moment but is also a way of helping the bereaved to find their own solutions.

The best things you can possibly say:

Frequently people avoid mentioning the deceased on anniversaries and other special occasions, thinking it will cause sadness and depression.  Talk about their partner and continue his memory.  There is a comfort to survivors knowing that their lost ones are not forgotten, that their past life experience is valued.  Remember the birthday of their partner.  Remember anniversaries.

Healing conversation starters:

  1. I’m so sorry.  Was your father ill for a long time?
  2. I am at a loss to know what to say, but I sense how difficult this must be for you.
  3. I have been thinking about you and wanted to know how/what you’ve been doing.
  4. This must be a bewildering and incredibly complicated time.  It must be very hard for you (and your family”
  5. What its like for you these days?  How are you coping?
  6. Do you feel like talking for a while?

Suggestions for positive communication:

  1. Perhaps another time…if they aren’t ready to talk or it’s not opportune.
  2. Listen without judgement… people are still sorting out their thinking and feelings
  3. Focus your attention…eye contact, lean forward, nod
  4. Avoid interrupting
  5. Maintain a positive outlook…mention the positive qualities and strengths about them
  6. Rational answers are irrational…Death can never be explained away with logic.
  7. Suggestions are better than advice.
  8. Share, don’t compare, experiences.
  9. I’d like to do something to help…give me a job.
  10. I can only imagine how hard it is/how awful you feel.
  11. I miss him, too.
  12. Spend Sunday with us, we’d love to have you.
  13. I remember when…tell stories about the person who has died.
  14. He’d be really proud of you.
  15. I’m going to take the children out for the whole day.
  16. You’re doing a great job.
  17. Shall I come round and bring dinner with me?
  18. I’ll do the driving.
  19. I’m so very sorry.

Top things NOT to say to someone who’s been widowed- and why

  1. I know how you feel.  (You don’t unless you’ve been widowed…and everyone is different.)
  2. At least he had many good years. It’s a blessing in disguise. (She is now alone.)
  3. You’re being so brave.  (She’s not.  She’s just getting on with life.)
  4. Call me if you need anything. (She won’t be able to.)
  5. When my dad died, my grandmother got cancer, I was divorced etc….(It’s not the same.)
  6. Don’t cry; try to keep control of yourself.  (Everyone grieves differently.  It takes longer than you’d expect.  She’s not enjoying it.  This is not her choice.)
  7. You should be resting, taking it easy, being kind to yourself. Don’t do anything for a year.  (There are still life demands.)

Tears…

“If There’s Anything I Can Do…How to Help Someone Who has been Bereaved” by Caroline Doughty, White Ladder Press, Britain, 2007  (insight and suggestions for helping widows with young children)

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

Tears…The chemistry of tears is distinct to stress.  It’s an intense physical release that’s needed at the time. The etiquette of tears is NOT handling the tissue or handkerchief.  This rush to stop the process is more about the discomfort to the observer and only adds more stress and embarrassment to the tearful one.  Best is to just sit quietly through the moment and let him/her work through to conclusion.   Placing

The etiquette of tears is NOT handling the tissue or handkerchief.  This rush to stop the process is more about the discomfort to the observer and only adds more stress and embarrassment to the tearful one.  Best is to just sit quietly through the moment and let him/her work through to conclusion.   Placing a tissue or such nearby makes it available but doesn’t make a subtle request that the flow stops. Someone mentioned “The 8 seconds of grief” that happens with time.

Someone mentioned “The 8 seconds of grief” that happens with time.  Spurts of grief can swell despite the passing of time and are expressed in an 8-second experience.   I noticed this little phenomenon with the passing of my mother.  Something would touchingly remind me of her.  I would tear up and it would pass. I didn’t dissolve into a messy puddle of emotion.  The emotion would swell up and, in roughly 8 seconds, it would subside.   Just go with the moment without fret.  We are emotional beings with heart.

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Grieving is a Natural Process of Life

What is grief?

We do not choose it.  It rather chooses us.

It’s not a one-time event.  It’s a road we must travel on.

It doesn’t follow clock time. It adheres to deeper rhythms.

Regrets are common, thoughts of incompletion and unfinished business of struggles unresolved.

These are illusory, clingy thoughts, but you can’t wrestle them to the ground and stamp them out.

As they emerge, you can see them, and let them go

And do that each time they come back to visit.

Each of us has our light, that is what makes us loving and loveable. Each of us has our dark places, how we grapple with fear and pain-what makes us unbearable, at times even to ourselves.

Each of us has our dark places, how we grapple with fear and pain-what makes us unbearable, at times even to ourselves. We have our griminess and our glory.

We have our griminess and our glory.  But what are we, really?  We are neither.

But what are we, really?  We are neither.

We are not any of those parts.  We are all of those parts.

So, when you think of the loved one who has passed, embrace the whole person.

Resources:

Frank Ostaseski of Metta Institute as reported by Barry Boyce, Mindful Magazine, August 2016, pg 10.

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Widows Have Many Kinds of Friends

How to Help a Widow.

  • Be a sensitive friend… Understand the new context of your friendship.
  • Don’t disappear because she isn’t anxious to connect.
  • Be mindful that you might have to adjust your actions to help her adjust to her changed world.

There’s a different way at looking at almost everything.  It requires a lot of effort to address the new and emotional pain of dealing with loss.

New friends who don’t know your partner.  They help you move on with new interests, new attachments and personal growth.

Couple friends with social history…These folks can be comforting and reassuring.  It can also be hard to watch two people live and grow together in ways you never will.

Married friends who aren’t getting along well.  It’s painful to see their conflict when you experience loss.

Divorced friends who share a sense of loss but who deal with negative dynamics.

Well-meaning family solutions:  “Hey Mom, Here’s an idea!  Spend more time with the grandchildren!”  Caring for kids requires an outflow of energy and stamina. Babysitting is work!  Brief visits with children can be good reminders of life worth living.

Resources:

“If There’s Anything I Can Do…How to Help Someone Who has been Bereaved” by Caroline Doughty, White Ladder Press, Britain, 2007  (insight and suggestions for helping widows with young children)

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The Compassion to Help Others

How can you help others when they are grieving:

Educate yourself on the nature of grief.

Realize that no one can replace or undo the loss.

Be available do something rather than the right words may not be that important.  A physical touch might be the right connection.

Listen without giving advice.  As a culture, we want to “fix it”.   Reflective listening is reassuring.  It is a gesture that they are heard.

Be patient, kind and understanding without being patronizing.

Be there later, when many friends and family members have gone back to their routines.

Keep promises to “call you for lunch” or “drop by to see you.”  Good intentions without follow-through may be perceived as a lack of sincerity or caring.

Remember holidays, birthdays and anniversaries that have important meaning to those who mourn.  Honor the individual who has passed to keep the memories and meanings alive.

Allow the grieving person to express all and any feelings, including anger or bitterness.  Remember that some people will not or cannot talk about their feelings.

“How are you doing today?”,  “Does talking about Jim help or hurt?”

Resources:

“If There’s Anything I Can Do…How to Help Someone who has been Bereaved” by Caroline Doughty, White Ladder Press, Britain, 2007 (insight and suggestions for helping widows with young children)

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

“When a Spouse Dies, What I didn’t Know about helping myself and others through grief,” by Barbara R Wheeler, DSW, Plain Sight Publishing, 2012.

“Transitions, Making sense of life’s changes” by William Bridges, Lifelong books, 2004.

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Resting or Being Stuck?

There are times when resting is healing.  There are times when resting turns into becomes stuck.

Stuck is a control issue.  Stress causes a sense of powerlessness so our minds go into a heavy-duty control mode.  Holding tight to what is known feels safer.  To let go might feel like powerless chaos.  Our minds trick us into thinking that by holding on, we are in control of something we cannot control, like the loss of a loved one. It takes conscious choice in dealing with reality.  Control is actually letting go.

Self-awareness:

  • Has self-preservation turned into self-absorption?
  • Who am I really?  Am I extremely intolerant of others response to me?
  • Do I demand sympathy? Do I have difficulty with anything new?
  • St Francis prayer:  “Accept the things you cannot change and have the courage to change the things you can.”

Resources:

“If There’s Anything I Can Do…How to Help Someone who has been Bereaved” by Caroline Doughty, White Ladder Press, Britain, 2007 (insight and suggestions for helping widows with young children)

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

“When a Spouse Dies, What I didn’t Know about helping myself and others through grief,” by Barbara R Wheeler, DSW, Plain Sight Publishing, 2012.“Transitions, Making sense of life’s changes” by William Bridges, Lifelong books, 2004.

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Restocking your “Coping Chest”

Attend to yourself; attending to others is possible but very difficult

Being kind and tolerant to yourself is more healing than self-criticism

Exercise lifts mood, releases stress but does not solve the issues.

Busy is a helpful distraction from the pain.  Balance the pain with a counterweight of quiet time to do the inner work.

Journaling…Write it out.  Get it out.  Look at your thinking.  It’s a physical method for inner work.

Music can be comforting.  It can be warmth that nourishes the soul.

Accept help from others. Grief is a lonely place.  Allow others to learn, grow and prepare for their own grief by sharing your experience. Seek a support group.

There is no best way:  It’s our personal responsibility to manage our pain.  Each of us is ultimately in charge of our own healing.

“When a Spouse Dies, What I didn’t Know about helping myself and others through grief,” by Barbara R Wheeler, DSW, Plain Sight Publishing, 2012.