I had a meltdown yesterday and it is only December 2! After an intense session with my analyst, I returned home, ate lunch, and felt exhausted. I took a 2 1/2 hour nap with my cats and woke up feeling tired. Then I spotted the familiar red wrapped boxes in my kitchen. The day before I bought several boxes of See’s candy to give to various people. I didn’t think twice – I ripped open one of the boxes and proceeded to eat 7 pieces of candy. I then made coffee and was able to work for a few hours from the mixture of sugar and caffeine. I felt no guilt. So what was the emotional trigger? I confronted yet again the reality that I miss Roy and our holiday traditions and I am not in a serious love relationship yet (by my own choice). I feel alone.
Last week I decorated my place with our decorations, as well as those of my mother’s that I have. Now she and Roy are both dead – just writing that four letter word “dead” feels sad and heavy. I started playing holiday music on Thanksgiving eve – an annual tradition I started with Roy several years ago. The tradition was a fun and humorous point of contention between us because Roy didn’t really like listening to holiday music all day, every day, for 30 days. So now when I hear the music I reflect on how much I miss his sarcasm about the music and yet, I still love listening to it. I am grateful that I can listen to it again and that I decorated for the holidays.
Three years after Roy’s death, the holidays still warrant critical focus on physical, emotional and spiritual self care. So what am I doing? I have my five day per week exercise routine that I stick to, I eat sensibly and allow for holiday cheer in moderation (the other boxes of See’s candy will be delivered tomorrow and I put the one I attacked in the garbage this morning), I see my analyst, I journal, I work on my projects, I pray as I look at the ocean each morning, I help others by giving my time to charities I support, and I am making plans with friends and family for fun outings between now and January 1, 2015. I am creating balance in my days. I have carved out time for quiet reflection, as well as dates to be with people I love and feel at home with. This is critical for those of us who have endured the loss of loved ones. I don’t believe it is healthy to spend a great deal of time alone or to be so overextended with activities that we are tired and disconnected from our core self. Balance is the name of the game.
As a mental health practitioner and a widow of 3+ years, I know that holidays are particularly hard for those who are grieving. If grief is new to you, then your capacity to plan activities might be hindered – let someone help you plan what you will do or have someone stay with you. The late French author Romain Rolland says: “Be reverent, before the dawning day. Do not think of what will be in a year, or in ten years. Just think of today.” So whether grief is new or familiar, take good care of you right now. Cry, sob, rest, pray, eat, and love – that is enough for this holiday season.
The poet of the sixties, Rod McKuen wrote this short poem: “where do they go the friends who come into our lives like green leaves and leave like melting snow?” I think of this poem today as I remember the sunrise that I saw this morning. I was up early enough to see it because a good friend who lives 80 miles north and had a meeting close to me spent the night and needed to be on the road for her early morning meeting. Because we are participating in an an empowering program about life and relationships, she and I sat this morning with freshly brewed coffee and looked out at the ocean together and discussed men, life, and dating. And there like a magnificent expression of love from nature came this incredible majestic pink sunrise – a gift for both of us. We were in awe as we fell into silence and were at one with the sunrise. Because I was up early with my friend, I was given this gift to start my day. How wonderful is that? Pretty darn wonderful I would say. It has helped me think of this season of Thanksgiving and recall my friends and family. It is through friends that I have healed and that I can take such pleasure again in the richness of a sunrise. This is the season to not only count our blessings but also the time of year to prepare for the darkness of winter. The ancient cultures experienced the darkening of winter as a time for retreat and contemplation. In the darkness they prepared for the eventual return of light. In our modern world we follow similar rhythms in our busy lives: gathering for holidays with friends and family or retreating into nature or homes for quiet self reflection. Our modern psyches require an acknowledgement of the changing seasons and the shortening of days just as our ancestors did.
When I think back to the first Thanksgiving after Roy¹s death, I recognize that grief can be experienced like a season – a winter of the soul. Now that I have emerged from the season of grief, I notice the sunrises, the sadness of friends, the complexities of the world, the joy of my cats, and the awakening sensuality of my life. I am alive, aware and resilient. I often remind myself how is incredible it is to have more and more moments of feeling alive and engaged with the world after such a long season of withdrawal. I find my unfolding relationship to life to be like the new friend McKuen describes.. With luster and the green of new possibility. The grief has melted away … Leaving me moist and fertile for what life has to offer, always aware of the tenuousness of life. I am blessed … And for that I am grateful.
Happy Thanksgiving. Count your blessings … They are there – even in the winter season of grief.
Recently I was asked why I share such personal information on my blog. The questioner stated that he could not imagine “revealing” this kind of material in a public forum. I have been thinking about this query for the past couple of weeks. The verb to reveal comes from the 14th century old French reveler which means to uncover, to disclose, to “unveil”. The mission of my blog is to share my personal story, inform, educate, and ultimately contribute to the well-being of others who have lost a significant other and are attempting to find their footing in the new world in which they are living. In order to do this, I must “remove the veil” that could keep a distance between me and you my reader about the real experiences I encountered along my journey. I am compelled to tackle the deeper/harder issues that one encounters during grief because I believe the spirit of my experience will come through and reach people more authentically than if I stayed hidden behind a veil of discretion or academic writing. I can talk about my descent to the underworld of grief, as well as my ascent back to the world of the living. I am a straight shooter and believe that declarative writing serves me best because it allows me to make my experiences known thus allowing me to offer reflections and hopefully a life line to others. The late Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung talks about the value of going into the depths of one’s experience in order to open oneself beyond the personal ego. He believed that individuals grow continually in psychic awareness by paying attention to dreams, exploring the worlds of religion and spirituality, and questioning the assumptions of the operant societal world views.
I had a very important dream roughly two weeks after Roy’s death. In the dream, I am in Israel and dressed in the clothes that I wore to Roy’s funeral – an ankle length black skirt, a black blouse and vest and black sandals. I am walking on an old cobblestone road and I notice the architecture of buildings from ancient Israel. I am leading the funeral procession of friends and family to the cemetery. Roy’s casket is behind me in a horse drawn cart and following the casket is a very large group of family members and friends. At one point I look back at the group and tell them to settle down as they were too boisterous and not showing the decorum I felt was fitting to the occasion. As I turn back to look ahead, I see another funeral procession approaching us. The group draws closer and I see a Moslem woman veiled and dressed in black. She is accompanied by two family members on either side of her. I recognize she is also a widow. I take note that I walk alone and in front of the others and she is supported by two loving family members. I tell my family and friends to move to the side and let the Moslem procession pass by. As the black draped widow passes me, she and I turn toward each other and bow. We then stand up and look each other in the eyes – her black eyes are strained and filled with despair. My blue eyes are filled with tears. In the moment that our eyes connect, I know that we are acknowledging the universal pain that women have carried for centuries. Women are typically the ones who meet the caskets of husbands, sons, and daughters killed in war.
This dream told me that my pain was not only personal but one being shared by thousands of women at the same time all around the world. Women from very different cultures were experiencing pain like mine and in an odd and comforting way, I was not entirely alone in my pain. The dream spoke of my response and the other widow’s response to death, grief, and widowhood. Through our eye to eye contact, we recognized a part of our self in the other.
I hope that up to this point my posts have revealed to you that my journey of grief was gnarly. I needed a great deal of psychological, spiritual, and loving support from a diverse team of professionals, clergy, family, and close friends. Many of my family members and friends worried about me and were concerned whether I would make it back in tact to the land of the living. I think it is evident from my posts that I have returned with a depth of perspective and a wealth of experience. Life has never felt so sweet to me as it does now. For this sweetness, I am eternally grateful.
The moral of my story: Never give up on yourself or life.
Project 1-15-15 is mired in celebration, joy, passion, and well-being. I am blogging, being of service, releasing weight, being social, participating in Landmark Education, and I am healthy. Mazel tov to the possibility of life, l’chaim to life. My personal suffering has lifted and I am completely available to the possibilities that life presents daily. I am experiencing a growing trust in the process of living, loving, and laughing.
The late psychologist Erik Erickson states that trust is the first skill we learn as an infant – trust in mother to come to us when we cry, trust that we are protected from harm’s way, and trust that we will thrive in life. These are the building blocks that lead us to develop a sense of trust in ourselves. I am learning to trust me in this new phase of life. I am fully celebrating the re-emerging passion I feel growing within me each day.
In his poem “Everything is Going to Be All Right”, Irish poet Derek Mahon states “there will be dying, there will be dying, but there is no need to go into that … The sun rises inspite of everything and the far cities are beautiful and bright … Everything is going to be all right.”
I know more intimately than ever before that everything IS going to be all right. I have recognized that there is both sorrow and joy and this is the essence of life. People will die, I will die, wars will break out, disease will kill, and the beauty of a sunrise will make my heart quicken. Everything is going to be all right.
This post reflects the beginning of a new chapter in my life. One of the primary side effects of grief has a somatic nature and can be experienced as weight gain or loss. In my case, I gained a significant amount of weight as a result of the medications I took for severe depression, anxiety, deep emotional churning and distress. I used eating as a way of coping with the abject sadness that weighed on me.
On January 1 of this year I commenced Project 7-11-14 which was focused on weight loss and health, and a commitment to my professional development and goals. I also put my toe into the dating pool. So on July 11, I was in San Francisco with a good woman friend and officially toasted the successful completion of this project. I have released 12 pounds, all my health tests came back superb, my website and blog were launched, and I taught a course at a local university. Moreover, I have had approximately 2 dozen dates. I have been on fire!
So now I am beginning a new phase which I have entitled Project 1-15-15. This project continues my weight loss efforts, as well as my ongoing inner work. I am connecting with new parts of myself – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When I became a widow, I was no longer a wife. I find myself re-imagining who I am now that my primary identity as Roy’s wife is gone. The late feminist psychoanalyst Karen Horney describes the importance of unlocking a woman’s inner life – one that is not defined by what the external patriarchal world provides her. Horney encouraged women to work from the inside out, not from the outside in. What I know about my inner world is that it has been shaped by the demands of patriarchal standards – questioning whether I am thin enough, pretty enough, and smart enough to live successfully in a man’s world. What I am driven to design for myself at this stage of my life is an inner framework that challenges the patriarchal domination of my psyche. I am moving towards becoming a woman with a life of her own and with questions of her own.
I have been asked since starting my blog of how I managed to get through the early days of grief.
During the first 12 months, I depended greatly on a poem by the late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, entitled “On Grief” from To Bless the Space Between Us, which I have included below. A colleague sent me this poem perhaps three days following Roy’s death. I read it at Roy’s memorial service. I knew the minute I received it that it would be a critical part of my learning to understand what had happened to me and what was to come. I referenced it frequently during the first year – attempting to understand exactly where I was intrapsychically – within myself, not necessarily in the world. What I know from my journey is critical for those of us left behind to get reoriented to a very different world. It begins by going inward and then outward, in a slow and uncomfortable oscillating dance. Poetry took me inward and participating in a widows’ group took me outward. I also logged my dreams on a regular basis. I no longer see the gap in the air that O’Donohue references at the end of his poem. Roy is a fully embodied presence within my intrapsychic world. Yes I visit his grave and leave flowers. But most of all I dialogue with him regularly by having dedicated a permanent seat for him at the table of my inner life. We feast together and celebrate our love – he from afar and me right here on Mother Earth. Meanwhile I also stay busy with becoming my own person – a woman with a life of her own.
When you lose someone you love, your life becomes strange. The ground beneath you becomes fragile. Your thoughts make your eyes unsure; and some dead echo drags your voice down where words have no confidence. Your heart has grown heavy with loss; and though this loss has wounded others too, no one knows what has been taken from you when the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret for all that was left unsaid or undone.
There are days when you wake up happy; again inside the fullness of life. Until the moment breaks and you are thrown back onto the black tide of loss. Days when you have your heart back, you are able to function well, until in the middle of work or encounter, suddenly with no warning, you are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself. All you can depend on now is that sorrow will remain faithful to itself. More than you, it knows its way and will find the right time to pull and pull the rope of grief until that coiled hill of tears has reduced to its last drop.
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance with the invisible form of your departed; and when the work of grief is done, the wound of loss will heal and you will have learned to wean your eyes from that gap in the air and be able to enter the hearth in your soul where your loved one has awaited your return. All the time.
Since Roy’s death almost 3 years ago, I have cultivated an inner strength through writing, dialoguing, meditating and re-discovering what I love to do. My marriage to Roy was the source of my strength. Now I stand on the shoulders of our marriage and draw from the insights and breakthroughs that I am discovering as I move on with my life as a single woman. I derive enormous strength from the words of the Middle Ages mystic Julian of Norwich “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”. I hope all is well with you!
I recently returned from a five day trip to Tucson where I attended my niece’s wedding. My family and I had a good time – we laughed, danced, ate, drank, and caught up with one another’s lives. I travel with more confidence now. This trip was easier than others because I was with my family most of the time i.e., there was familiarity and structure to my days. Nor did I stay at a hotel.
Traveling alone is hard for me. I can’t say I enjoy doing it, I just know that I can. It is critical for my sanity and unfolding life to know I can do anything and everything on my own – that way I am not trapped or limited. I also know who to call when I don’t know how to do something. I don’t know if I will ever savor the experience of planning a trip alone, but I am grateful that my world has expanded to its current dimensions that includes traveling.
I miss Roy when I am at airports … I watch other couples and am pulled back into 23 years of memories. I remember our extensive travels: memories of holding hands when each flight took off and landed, sipping champagne, and watching each others’ carry on bags when a bathroom break was required. I miss planning trips with Roy, traveling together, and feeling his warm body next to mine in unfamiliar hotel beds. I just miss him. Period. However, now I get the aisle seat on flights … One tiny pleasure that I can admit to on my blog.
The journey to today has required the simultaneous embracing of fear and being committed to healing from this tragedy. I am still catching up emotionally with the new landscape of my life … I cognitively and realistically understand all that has transpired, but feel my emotional intelligence is continuing to unfold. I still wonder what would Roy do in particular situations. I suspect I will always wonder because I have internalized him into my inner world … I argue and agree with my inner Roy on a regular basis. I love having him there … Wherever “there” is .. My mind, my psyche, my soul? This is part of the grieving process – to detach from our loved one’s physical presence while internalizing them into our inner world. It took me a long time to do this. I feel that I have successfully made the separation and yet feel joined with Roy in a new and different way. And as I said I miss him everyday. This is the complexity of death and loss – we who are still here need to choose life in order to heal which entails saying goodbye to what we knew. It is hard yet doable.
My late husband Roy died suddenly and unexpectedly on July 10, 2011. I will soon be arriving at the three year anniversary of his death. The journey of grief from that fateful day to today was filled with terrible emotional pain, severe depression, unending despair, and unbearable mourning. I would say that this first phase of my journey of grief lasted a full 12 months. I had a housemate for most of the first year as living alone was too overwhelming for me. She was a god-send in so many ways.
The second phase of the journey began one year after Roy died when I sold our home and moved into a new place not too far from where we lived in the foothills. I chose a smaller place on the ocean knowing I was creating a healing sanctuary for myself. The second year was hard in a different way. I was living in a familiar yet unfamiliar place. I was in a new home that I found and bought without Roy. I was living alone for the first time in 25 years. I felt like a fish out of water for most of the first year of living in my ocean side sanctuary. I scheduled my first trip 16 months after Roy’s death to participate in a 5 day workshop. It was being held in a place we had not visited together – Santa Fe. After this workshop, I became aware of subtle signs of hope, a gentle process of renewal, and a slow rebirth process unfolding. I soon was traveling to Arizona, around California, and onto Europe and Mexico.
As I approach the three year anniversary, I am fully creating a new life as a single woman. I have started dating and am enjoying it – there are some wonderful men out there. The woman I am today is not the same woman who left her home on an early Sunday morning in July to drive from Santa Barbara to San Diego for an overnight meeting. I lost two people that day – my wonderful husband and friend, Roy, as well as the “me” who I knew at that time – a happily married woman in a successful 23 year marriage. She was married to her best friend and soul mate.
My last view of Roy was of him sitting at his desk, facing his computer, posting on his Facebook page, and wearing his tan and cream colored robe. At about 8:10 am that morning I told him that I was ready to leave for my overnight trip to San Diego. I entered his office, approached him from behind his chair, hugged him, and kissed his head. As I hugged him, I told him that I loved him and that I would call him when I arrived in San Diego. He responded that he loved me too and murmured “talk to you later, drive safely”. As I proceeded down the hallway towards the garage where my car was loaded with new CDs, water, and my luggage, I felt something in my gut telling me to yell back one last time “I love you dear, have a good day, drive safely wherever you go”. He yelled back “love ya dear”. Those were the last words he told me.
Arriving in San Diego roughly 3 ½ hours later, I called him from a Subway where my friend who I picked up on the way and I had stopped to get a bite to eat before our meeting. I was surprised that he did not answer either our home line or his cell phone. I tried him multiple times through out the afternoon while I was at my meeting. I wondered if f he had gone to a movie, had been called to a family emergency, or was napping. By 6:15 pm I knew something was terribly wrong. I told my friends I was very concerned and that I would call the security guards at the gated community we lived in. I headed towards my car and sat in the driver’s seat. My friend came with me and sat in the passenger seat and my car was surrounded by many friends as I awaited the news. The guards went to our home but there was no response. They called me with that info and I told them where the house key was hidden and gave them permission to enter our home. As I waited in my car for another call back from the guards, I was reviewing the past couple days in my head – Roy had not felt well, complained of nausea and fatigue. He told me he was feeling better the morning I was going to San Diego. I reflected that I would not have gone had I thought there was something wrong. Wouldn’t I have known if something was wrong? Why did I go? My cell phone rang and I was told that 911 was called and that I would hear back once the paramedics arrived. By this time I knew I would need to return home rather than spend the night as previously planned.
I remember being surrounded by women friends. I received the next call from my favorite guard Bill who told me the paramedics needed to talk to me. My stomach was in knots … I asked the paramedic “is my husband ok”. His sentence began “I am so sorry Mrs. Mankovitz” … I began to scream “No, no, not Roy”. I was crying and screaming barely able to hear what I was being told. I was being told that Roy was dead on the floor of our bathroom. From visible signs it was a sudden heart attack and it been awhile since he died. The paramedic told me he would call the coroner’s office and that I would hear from them when they arrived at our home.
One does not forget the moment they learn that someone they treasure and love is dead. Frozen in time and space the eyes begin to retreat within … the scope of the physical world pulls in on itself and the future does not exist except in painful stabs of memory … he is not here, what will I do? In those initial moments of hearing the words that Roy was dead, my friends were asking what is wrong, what is going on, and I responded in agony that “Roy is dead”, “Roy is dead”. I am taken from the driver’s seat and placed in the passenger seat – my friend takes the wheel and we head back from where we began 12 hours earlier. During the drive, I begin the unbearable task of calling my stepchildren, sister-in-law, my family and our friends as my car weaves its way along the San Diego freeway. I reflect that the last time I was in the passenger seat of my car was 5 days earlier when Roy drove us to a 4th of July party.
Looking back from today’s vantage point, I see that the road to now has been the hardest journey of my life. In this blog series on grief, I will share what I have learned along the road. I will unpack how I have come to know that there is “Life after death … after the death of someone we love”.