Hope and Healing Widow and Widowers Support Group
June 15, 2021 Meeting
Learning to Become More:
Grief can make you feel less but it can also become an opportunity to become more.
Our grief journeys can become a time to learn and to grow. In a similar way, we can work to learn to find ways to look at the memories of our loved ones and our lives together without the filter of our grief coloring everything and remember and celebrate our lives as they were.
Let’s look at some possibilities and ways to think about what we can do to grow as we begin the reconstruction process.
Two possibilities I want to start with before we talk about growing and becoming more is finding ourselves “stuck” on plateaus and perhaps allowing grief to turn into a habitual way of thinking that may slow or stop our movements forward toward hope, healing and wellness.
Getting stuck on a plateau:
As we’ve talked about before, our grief feelings and responses will change through time as the intensity, frequency and height of the waves changes. Usually the waves become less intense and come less often but sometimes, we may get temporarily stuck along the way.
Getting stuck is a fairly common thing I’ve encountered in talking to other bereaved spouses. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, after a period of growth there is a period of stagnation. Sometimes, especially early in our bereavement for a time, there may seem to be no change at all.
When we seem to get stuck, to not grow or change for a while and especially if it goes on for too long, we may become frustrated by having the same feelings, the same level of grieving day after day. We may become fearful that something has gone wrong, that we have somehow done or thought something to derail our healing.
There are many responses to these places that I have heard about. Some have gotten “super-busy” and found ways to hide their frustrations and grief behind a frenzy of activity and interaction. Others become “depressed”, become sure something is wrong and they lose all forward momentum and still others revert to earlier stages of their grief and become immobilized by inertia once again.
On a more positive note, we can recognize that plateaus are usually temporary parts of the process and learn to wait them out, do our best to stay positive and move on when it’s time to do so. We can choose to begin to learn new things and by doing so move into another channel of thinking and move off of the worn pathways of our grieving and began to chart a new direction.
As with grief in general, it seems to be pretty individual. How long it lasts, how often it happens, if it happens at all, what we do about it, all these seem to take each of us differently.
The important thing here I believe, is to know that these “plateaus” in our bereavement are just that. They are temporary, they don’t last forever and they may indeed be an essential part of the process, a time when we think about and digest what we have learned until we are ready to move again and when we have reached a place where we can move forward, we will.
Falling into habits of grief:
The second possibility is that through time, doing and thinking many of the same things our grieving brings to our minds repeatedly, finding the same patterns of thought and action over and over may bring us to a sort of “Ground Hog Day” of habitual grieving.
The circular and repetitive thoughts that lodge in our thinking early in our grief journeys when we have the least ability to effect them can become almost normal ways of thinking and even ways of life. The longer we stay in one pattern, the deeper the ruts become, the more difficult it becomes to change it. In a sense, we establish habits of grieving.
At some point, we all have to learn to find ways to stop the repetition and patterns of our grief. We will need to begin to learn new ways of thinking and looking at life to replace those patterns. As we substitute the new for the old, we have become actively engaged in the process of hope and healing and building our (new) lives.
Finally, I need to say, that if you are especially frustrated with being on one of the plateaus, or stuck in a repetitive pattern, if it goes on way longer than you feel it should and especially if it makes you feel worse than you were before when it doesn’t get any better, those are times, I believe it would be good to talk either with others who have shared the grief experience in a support group or with a friend you can trust. If you feel that you are not able to handle it in those ways, it would be good to seek out a professional counsellor to help guide you through to the understanding it takes to move to the next stage of your growth and healing.
How does that make you feel? Are these familiar feelings or plces you are or have been?
Onward to becoming more!
Mental, social and spiritual gardening:
A wonderful idea I got from the Carlos Santana autobiography “The Universal Tone” was that of “spiritual gardening”. The idea of working on ourselves, of growing spiritually and emotionally as well as intellectually and taking the time to “pull the weeds, to fertilize and water” new ideas, skills and emotions and to find ways to use our bereavement as a tool for improving our lives and ourselves.
Can our grief also be a time to become more! Can it be a time when we open the door to change in our lives and if we want to, a time to examine ourselves and decide what we want to do or be next. We have the time!
In the empty spaces of our grief, while we can’t replace what is no longer there, maybe we can fill that space with soil, fertilize it and water it and where the garden of our love grew, we can grow a new garden, a different one, not a replacement but still one that is full of love and honor and memory as well as growth, healing and life.
And we can also pull some weeds from our own garden of self, water and fertilize here too and find new things to grow in our social, mental and emotional life to make us better and help us to grow and live again.
While our grief is one of the most painful and disorienting times in our lives, because we have had all of our certainties and sure of’s thrown to the wind, as we try to rebuild, we also have the opportunity to work on things, to perhaps become better people, to take more time “working on ourselves” then we have ever been able to do or wanted to do before.
The empty moments, the time we no longer fill with interactions with our spouses or partners can diminish us but it can also be a gift, once we are ready, that we can use to grow in, to learn in, to change in and especially to find ways to honor our loved ones in by becoming more.
What types of things might we do. What things can we focus on or work on that might be places for growth and learning? What can you think of that you might do to fill the time you now have available that you might not have been able to do earlier in your life? How might you honor your loved one with new or expanded things you do as you build your new life?
Learning anything helps you focus and grow:
In the first month of my bereavement, I was given the opportunity to meet with Beth, a music therapist at Pathways Hospice in Fort Collins. I have always played guitar but during the last few years of Andi’s illness, I was just too tired and probably too sad inside to pick it up and play. When I told Beth I played, she suggested bringing guitars to one of our meetings and we could play together and see what happened.
So at our next meeting, we were going to play some music. We started by talking, mostly me telling my story and expressing my grief but finally I got out my guitar and we tried to find some common music we could play together. What I found out was that after not playing for a few years, I couldn’t really play much at all, nothing came out of it except a massive frustration and another sadness added to my grieving.
I think I must have been fairly embarrassed and feeling sorry for myself because Beth finally turned to me at the end of the session and basically told me that “if I wanted to say I was a guitar player I had to actually play guitar. What I was now was someone who used to play guitar!”
Kind of bowled me over. She went on to say, “if you want to say you play then you had better go and do it, start playing and when you learn it again, then you can tell me you play guitar.” And then she left, the session was over.
Freaked me out! After I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I realized that it was one of the most profound things I had ever been told and I treasure the honesty and the directness and I believe it changed me forever. I will always be thankful and grateful to her for what she gave me that day.
I picked up my guitar that evening and began to play. I have played almost every day from that day onward. I played till my fingers were sore, till I couldn’t play another chord and after I got to a place where I could play most of what I used to be able to play, I treated myself and bought myself a pretty nice new guitar and continued playing every day. It’s been five years now and I still play every day.
I have learned an enormous amount in that time, I can play for hours now and it has become one of the great treasures in my life, it has filled the evenings for me with music and a feeling of closeness with Andi that we are sharing in the music which I believe is always a connection to spirit. And what it took to get started and get to where I am now was playing the first notes, playing again the next day and every day and letting the music take me away!
After about a year of playing, I was introduced to the idea of recording my music by my brother. He convinced me to get a digital recording program on my computer and sent me a digital converter that plugged into my guitar and let me make a digital file of the music.
All of this was totally new to me. I bought a book on digital recording and how to use the program to record and spent the next year learning how to do it. It was the mentally hardest thing I had done in a very long time. I struggled with new concepts and new ways to manipulate the data, I learned how to not just record but how to mix and modify the sound, to add more layers to the sound and ultimately how to take the finished project and make it into an MP3 file, one that could be listened to on my computer or my phone.
The big lesson to me from all of this is that learning anything requires my full attention. My focus while trying to first learn and then become proficient in both guitar and recording helped me to learn to concentrate again, to grow and keep my mind active and take me out of my grief for those parts of the day I spent in the learning process.
Here’s another lesson I learned many years ago but very much needed to relearn. One pointedness, the total focus on a task is a form of meditation. It is a calming and elevating experience. If you are totally focused, you are also totally present, you are in the moment.
We often talk about this idea as mindfulness and especially in a grief situation, our focus on a task puts us in the present and not in the past. In our time of focusing our minds, hands, eyes and ears on a task, we are not actively grieving, we are totally present and for that time, leave our grief behind.
Of course grief comes back, we go back to it when we stop focusing but the relief, the time away from active grief turned out for me to be a time of healing and growth. It is also a very powerful way to keep our minds active, to keep them flexible and not let them atrophy.
It is very important to keep ourselves mentally healthy and mentally active as we grow older and grief can add a stagnation to our thinking and our growth, it can put us in a furrow and a circle of repetitive thinking and remembering full of “what if’s” that can get deeper and the ruts can become more difficult to get out of the longer it goes on and the older we become.
In some ways, that time of learning for me has made my thinking more clear than its been in a long time, I feel more able to learn, my memory is really better than ever and I believe that the learning is the key to having rejuvenated my thinking and my ability to continue to grow and expand my understanding of so many things. It seems to have been a critical part of moving me towards healing and finding ways to create a new life for myself in ‘the wake of the flood”.
I read a line in a novel that said “once you stop learning your life becomes so much less than it could be”. I took that as a very clear message and one that my own experience has proven to me over and over.
What can you think of to learn now that you might not have had the time to do in the past? What new or interesting things might you want to explore in the time you have available now, perhaps something you always wanted to do that you never got the chance to try: learn a language, learn a new skill, learn an instrument, learn to cook, learn a craft or start a collection, writing, journaling, taking a class in something ????? You can teach an old dog new tricks!
Re-finding old hobbies:
Besides finding something new to learn, re-finding old hobbies was another important learning experience for me in its own right. Since there was now a huge amount of time in my life, I needed to fill it with things to do once I began to overcome the early inertia and actually wanted to get off the couch and do stuff. I spent a lot of time soul searching and self-questioning trying to find things I might like to do and remembering what I had enjoyed earlier in my life that I might bring back into it and enjoy doing now.
I knew I wasn’t going to go back to “partying” but I realized that there were a few things I had done that were hobbies over the years that I would have liked to have spent more time doing in the past but that I had stopped doing for any number of reasons. But in thinking about them, I realized I still liked the idea of doing them but though I had put them on hold, I imagined that the skills would return if I started doing them again.
I gradually added each one of those hobbies back into my life and while there was indeed a re-learning curve and it took some time to get my coordination and skill level back to where it had been, to where it allowed me to enjoy the hobby again, I was eventually able to let them all resurface into my new life and help to fill some of the lonely time I had that I didn’t want to just sit around and feel badly in. towards hope, healing and wellness.
Are there some hobbies or things you stopped doing over the years that might be interesting or fun to reintroduce into your lives?
Honoring our loved ones by trying to live with purpose and intent as we create our new lives
What would our loved ones want us to do/be/work on in ourselves and our lives as we move forward? Can we honor our loved ones by giving them the gift of us making these changes in ourselves?
I’ve written about this before but it has been such an important component of my growth and healing that I feel I should include it again here. If we are going to grow and move forward in our lives, which at some point we all have to do, if we are going to change, then we also have an opportunity to do those things as an act of love. We can make those changes with purpose, we can choose to change in ways that honor our loved ones.
We can choose to work at growing in ways that are perhaps what our spouses or partners would have liked for us to have been or done earlier in our lives and that perhaps circumstances did not allow us to do. We can also believe that they would be happy to see us do those things even now.
While we might wish we had done them earlier, that may not have been possible in the living of our daily, often very busy lives but now, with all the time we have to fill, we can take the time to work on those things. As we do them, we also don’t have to feel remorse for not having done them earlier, we can just make them a gift to honor our spouse or partner as we do them now.
We can also use those changes to honor the memory of our loved ones in our external dealings, we can become more of what they would have wanted us to be and more of what we would wish to be and people can see those changes and we can remind people of our love (and our loved ones) by how we change and grow and act in new and more positive ways now.
Something from my Journal:
“You don’t fight to the end as hard as Andi fought only to have your husband wimp out and give up because it hurts to have lost her. The message to me is to also fight to the end of my strength in my own way against my own pain and try to honor Andi’s fight by doing mine with as much grace as she did hers.”
I know that not everyone’s spouse got to fight to the end. Some were taken quickly or suddenly but the lesson applies. At some point, when we are ready, we will all probably want or need to move forward. At some point we will want or need to “stop drowning in our sadness”, to have a “phoenix moment” and rise out of the ashes of our grief. We can honor our spouses and ourselves by the courage and strength with which we build our new lives.
Making changes and not just talking about them. Fighting mental inertia (again).
It’s usually pretty easy to think of things you want to do or be. Throughout my life, I have had “great ideas”, made promises to myself, made “resolutions” and made plans to do things, to change things and to learn things. In the business of living however, many of them never got done, something came up or I just didn’t have the will or the time to follow through or carry them out. In general, I think that’s pretty common behavior for most people.
In this current part of my life, I don’t feel I have the luxury anymore to not follow through, to not live up to the mental promises I make and the intent I have. Since much of what I try to do is also to honor Andi, I also have that strong desire and commitment to making these things come into being.
A very important part of making changes in my life, of becoming better and more and of doing things to honor Andi, of doing things I know she would affirm and also in doing things for my own purposes, is following through.
If I let myself become mentally lazy, if I say I want to do something or change something, (and maybe more so in the mental and emotional sense than in the material sense) it is important that I go forward and make it happen, that I work on it and practice it and keep at it until I master it.
I wrote about this for an earlier session but if I make a promise to Andi or to myself to change something, to learn something and to become better, especially in ways I may be sorry I didn’t change earlier in my life, or if I want her forgiveness for something I might regret, I need to deserve that forgiveness and not just think the thought but also do the act. I need to become the change I promise and so honor and affirm our love and my willingness to actually become better or different and not just make noise about it. Not an easy task, but very well worth the do!
Hope and Healing:
Finding Hope and Healing and moving to Wellness is never going to be easy. It takes time and effort to learn and grow and make something new out of our often shattered lives. I believe that if we are kind to ourselves and we help each other and encourage and support each other, we can make the journey at least a little easier by telling our stories, sharing our grief and knowing that we are not alone, others are and have been there too.