The death of the mom I used to be

The other night, I sat criss-crossed apple-sauce on our hard-wood floor watching my daughter Isabelle as she practiced her math worksheets kneeling by the coffee table. With concentration and delight, she added and took away fingers or shapes to solve each problem. (I’m amazed by how much they teach in Kindergarten!) In the other corner Theo quietly snuck in some playtime with her dollhouse, delighted that big sister hadn’t caught him in the act…yet. 

I sat there in silence, soaking up this rare moment of pure contentment. 

Ease. Peace. The three of us, finally feeling…WHOLE. 

I started to cry because it’s taken me two years to feel any sense of contentment, peace, ease or wholeness as family after my husband Ian died.

In fact it’s been quite the opposite. 

The mere logistics of solo parenting after a loss present a myriad of challenges — it’s basically close to impossible if you don’t ask for help. And not only that, 99.9% of your mental and emotional capacity for anything (let alone parenting two kids by yourself) is CONSUMED by grief. 

For me, the grief not only prevented me from fully functioning as a newly single parent, but it also made me extremely bitter about my new family dynamic and resentful of my kids.

Let me explain…

The death of a partner often comes with the secondary losses of identity and purpose. Now, there are some widows who find new meaning by pouring their heart and souls into their children. 

I was not one of these widows.

I was a widow who felt TRAPPED by her kids. I felt totally suffocated by two human beings needing me — depending on me for survival. I mean, they already lost their father!!! I was the only one they had left!  And in every act of motherhood I felt like I was lacking or failing. 

I was ANGRY about dealing with my kids constant sibling rivalry, the never-ending cleanup and chaos, the night-time battles, and daily task of herding cats to get to school every morning. 

I was SAD about missing their father who was not around to experience their first lost tooth, their snuggles as we watch movies together, and their eyes widen with wonder as they live into the magic of the world around them. 

For me, it felt much SAFER to pour my heart and soul into something else — so I started moveTHRU. 

I felt guilty for wanting (and desperately needing) to spend time on this new purpose, as well as searching for my new identity, because it seemed like was abandoning my kids — even close family members questioned my motive. 

But I despised the mom I was becoming around them. 

Mean mommy
Angry mommy
Scary mommy

(No joke…I’ve been called them all.)

I missed light, fun-loving mommy. The one whose heart would melt with a small hand gently squeezing her back as she swooped them off the ground; the one whose gratitude for these precious human beings trumped the tantrums and tizzies; and the one whose EVERYTHING once was her family. 

A harsh realization (yet essential one) in my grief journey has been the loss of the mom I used to be. 

Unfortunately, she died with daddy. 

I didn’t understand this for a long time. And I resisted and denied it as the thoughts of I’m lacking, I’m screwing my kids up, and I’m not enough without my husband swirled through my head and unlocked the floodgates of guilt and shame.  

Two years later, I’ve accepted that the mom I knew and loved when she had her husband is now gone. I’m finally at peace with this reality. 

In order to get here it’s taken time (two years!) and space away from my children to embody my anger, release my sadness, and feel the full range of emotions involved in grieving the loss of the mom I used to be… in addition to Ian’s. I’ve had to explain my needs to friends and family members, asking them to trust me and in my journey, which luckily I received. I say this, because there is NO WAY I could have done this alone.  

I’ve had to trust myself. To know that deep down my decision to distance myself from my children was an act of love…

To heal my wounds.
To let go of mom I used to be.
To surrender to the new mother I was becoming.

I’m still figuring out this new mom — who she is and how she shows up for herself and her kids. And to a certain, extent I think I will always be. 

For now, I’m simply grateful that I finally feel content, peace, ease and WHOLE.

Just the three of us. 🙂 

Grief Evolves: FOUR Shifts in my Journey

 

I’ve decided that comparisons like “easier” or “harder” / “better” or “worse” don’t really apply when it comes to grief. These words attempt to simplify a highly complex process that has billions of caveats because everyone’s grief journey is so unique.

However, humans crave order to feel in control. 

So in the two years of navigating life without my late husband, I wanted to offer a look at some of the differences between my first and second year of grief. Perhaps not to show that it’s gotten “easier,” but that even through the chaos, fear and uncertainty of life…

We can find peace and empowerment by learning to adapt! 

So here it goes: 

Shift 1: MOVEMENT ➡️ STILLNESS

Exercise has been and always will be my “go-to” outlet for coping with grief. During year one, I needed to physically move my body to feel and release the anxiety and anger that consumed me almost daily. I couldn’t “sit with” my grief because my emotions were too BIG — too overwhelming. If I didn’t workout I fell victim to the negative thoughts swirling in my mind and trapped by my circumstance. 

But, in year two, I started to discover the power of stillness in addition to moving my body as means to cope. I found that after I released the energy of an emotion, I needed stillness to sit with my grief and understand what it was telling me — 

What wounds needed attention? 

What limiting beliefs were holding me back? 

What external stressors were causing me so much inner turmoil? 

Entering my third year of grief, I understand that I need movement, stillness or a combination of both!

Shift 2: SURREAL ➡️  REALITY

Year one was surreal. Most of the time I felt numb and detached — disconnected from the life I was living. It still didn’t feel real because I was in shock. Yet, as the fog lifted so did the floodgates to my emotions.

I felt more anger and sadness as reality set in during year two. Everything felt more concrete and finite, which helped me accepting my loss (or rather surrender to it). But I felt SO much more!

Luckily I had learned a thing or two about grief in year one…

Shift 3: SURVIVING ➡️  HEALING

There is nothing that prepares you for the death of a loved one. So when the nightmare comes true and you lose everything you ever knew, loved, wished for and dreamed of, you are forced into a state of survival. This is a life you never wanted — in fact it’s your worst nightmare — and you are being asked to keep going! So you find a way to bear it — you endure, you exist, and day by day (sometimes minute by minute) you discover a way to pull through. 

My survival strategies in year one were asking for help, working out (like … NONSTOP), getting curious about grief, resilience and how to survive hardship, and finding hope and inspiration from other widows, communities or friends who had experienced a loss. 

I started making the shift from survival to healing when I began seeking meaning in my loss. I wanted more than to just bear or tolerate my new normal. So I focused on healinghow I could integrate this devastating loss into my life and find purpose moving forward. I’m still on this path today! 

Shift 4: COURAGE ➡️ CONFIDENCE

The first year after a loss is called the “year of firsts” for a very valid reason —  everything is totally foreign and new! From navigating the range and intensity of emotions, to taking care of the never-ending logistics, and filling in all of the gaps in your life that were once occupied by two! All of it was scary, painful, confusing and hard but with courageI did it anyways. 

With time and repeated action I found my footing and gained confidence in year two. I approached grief equipped with coping strategies, I knew my triggers, I made space for grief on major milestones — I had my roadmap!

This roadmap helped me create a healthy relationship with grief, which made it feel more manageable and freed up space to rediscover my identity and purpose.

Entering year three, I’m still get acquainted with this new, evolving version of myself.  I’m learning how to trust in her feelings and intuition, yielding decisions and actions that propel me forward.

I’m feeling confident that with time, patience, perseverance, surrender and the willingness to adapt to whatever life hands her … everything will work out. 

Maybe not the same, or “better” or “worse.” 

But different.

And I’m genuinely ok with that. 

xx,

Emily

If you’ve experienced a loss and are looking for gentle guidance on your grief journey, I would be honored to support you. You can learn more about all the ways we can work together here. Sending love and light your way!  

Emily’s Top Grief Books

While everyone’s grief journey is unique, I’ve discovered that educating myself about grief has helped me better understand my own process. Learning about the psychology of grief and trauma, reading other people’s stories of loss, healing and growth, and exploring various coping strategies has helped me begin to moveTHRU my own loss. Below are some of my favorite books that have helped me. Drop any of your favorites in the comments!

PICK #1: The Choice

This is my number one book recommendation for anyone facing a tragic loss — and it’s not even a specific “grief” book. What Dr. Edith Eger’s story did was give me was hope! She taught me how to shift from a victim mindset of why me? — to a survivor mindset of what now? In her memoir she accounts the horrors of Auschwitz, how she survived and overcame severe trauma for years following, and the went on to help and heal others. Her story made a profound impact on how I coped with my personal loss and taught me the valuable lesson  that struggle is universal, but victimhood is not. Despite how devastating and dire our external circumstances might be, we can seek freedom in our minds. As long as we have choices, we have power and are never trapped by circumstance!

PICK #2: On Grief & Grieving

I read this book one year after my husband died, and wish I had read it sooner. This book walks you through the five stages of loss, which have been misinterpreted and misused over the years since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced them in 1969. However, her colleague David Kessler explains that the five stages were never intended to be linear, to put grief into “pretty boxes,” or to over generalize people’s grief. He admits that grief is messy and that people experience the stages at different times. What learning about the stages did for me, however, was validate the intense emotions and feelings that I had experienced over the course of a year. By normalizing my grief, I was able to understand my emotions, stop judging myself for feeling certain ways, and ultimately seek meaning from my loss.

PICK #3: Option B 

This book is not just for widows, but for anyone facing loss or hardship! Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, lost her husband about 10 years ago to a sudden cardiac arrhythmia during vacation. She teams up with psychologist Adam Grant, to provided data-driven evidence and practical tips on how to build resiliency and find joy in the face of adversity. Sheryl also created optionb.org — a website rich with resources on overcoming adversity including support groups and articles, videos and stories on building resiliency. Check it out and learn how we can help those suffering in silence.

PICK #4: Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief 

This book has been instrumental in finding peace in the permanence of loss. It helped me understanding that most events in life are ultimately meaningless, but we as humans give them meaning. It taught me that I can choose a meaning that adds to my suffering, or one that empowers me to move forward. I would highly recommend this book for anyone on their grief journey, as it brought me tremendous peace and comfort knowing that I could still connect with Ian by keeping his memory alive and finding ways to honor his legacy — and give meaning to his loss.

PICK #5: Hot Young Widows Club

Nora McInerny lost her husband, father and unborn baby all in the same year. Can you imagine? Probably not. I watched her Ted Talk shortly after Ian died and it gave me the reassurance that I can still move forward with my life and keep Ian very much a part of it. She is a witty writer, moving speaker and reluctant founder of the Hot Young Widows Club — an online support group for anyone who has lost a significant other. I joined and while I don’t participate in the conversation very often, it’s been helpful to read about other people’s grief journeys — finding comfort in our similarities and appreciating our differences. While the online support group is closed to widows and widowers, you can read some of the stories on their public Instagram Page. They are heartbreaking, beautiful and truly inspirational.

PICK #6: No Happy Endings

Another resource from Nora McInerny! No Happy Endings is Nora’s personal memoir documenting her grief journey. She writes about navigating the trauma of death, single parenting, filling the void, feminism, dating and eventually falling in love, re-marrying and having another child. She is raw, funny and relatable. This book helped me because it validated a lot the feelings and thoughts that I was too afraid to share with friends or family. Nora’s personal experience with grief gave me the permission to feel and do exactly what I needed to do (and still do to this day!).

PICK #7: Healthy Healing

Michelle Steinke-Baumgard (aka One Fit Widow) explains how she hit rock bottom after her husband died in a tragic plane crash and how exercise saved her. Not only does she share her personal story of using fitness as her main coping mechanism, but also provide scientific explanation for why exercise is so effective in helping us handle grief, nutritional tips, and common misconceptions about grief. The second part of her book provides a 12-week healthy healing program to help grievers incorporate exercise and healthy eating into their grief journey. I honestly only read the first half of this book because exercise is already such a huge part of my life (teaching spin and barre, and attending yoga and yoga sculpt classes daily). However, I really enjoyed learning about the science behind exercise and healing.

PICK #8: The Invisible String

Of all of the children’s books I’ve read on grief and loss, The Invisible String has been my favorite! We started reading this to my three-year-old, Izzy, when Ian started getting really sick, just to introduce the idea of loss. The story explains how even though we might not be able to physically be with a loved one — whether they be deceased or just at the grocery store — we are always connected by an invisible string of love. Izzy and I would draw the invisible string with our hands and send kisses to daddy when he was in the hospital — or even now that he is gone. This book provides a very tangible tool and storyline to help children feel connected to their loved ones, even after death.

Check back for more of my favorite grief books as my list continues to grow!

 

10 Tips to MOVE forward from loss

There is no right or wrong way to grieve — no rule book or guide! Ultimately, YOU are your best authority on your loss and your journey. However, with so much freedom comes the potential for fear and uncertainty, which can lead to added suffering.

There is nothing that will take away the pain of losing someone you love. But, I’ve created a short-guide of tips, mindset shifts and coping strategies that will support and empower you along your unique journey. 

1) Take it slow

Grief has no finish line. The journey is life-long, often messy and non-linear. You might be moving forward just fine when out a nowhere a wave of grief hits and it feels like you are drowning in sorrow — just like the early months following your loss. Grief is a journey. Not a destination. There is no need to rush the process, instead try your best to trust in it. 

2) Let go of the idea of “normal”

There is no “normal” after someone you love passes away. The world as you knew it is gone, and YOU are forever changed. Instead of trying to recreate what was, try to focus on rebuilding something new. This is a chance to restore an old version of yourself, or perhaps something even stronger. Understand that the process of rebuilding will be scary, hard, often painful and will take time; but nonetheless is possible. 

3) Stay grounded in the present 

The process of moving forward and creating a new normal is extremely overwhelming. There are so many secondary losses and logistics, in addition to the feelings and emotions of grief that you learn to navigate with time. Instead of thinking too far ahead, try to focus on just one task at a time. Complete the task, celebrate yourself for your achievement, and then set a goal to complete another one. With time, these will add up into long-term coping strategies and a life that you never dreamed possible. 

4) Get curious

Start to learn about grief and other’s stories of loss to understand why you are feeling the way you do. Learning about grief and loss helps normalize your experience. Read self-help books or memoirs about overcoming hardship and tragedy! Not only will you take away some great tips, but when you realize that struggle is universal, it’s harder to get trapped in the victim mindset. Instead of asking why me? You’ll start to ask what now? — and begin making the mental shifts necessary to move forward. 

5) Get support 

It’s ok to ask for help — someone to pickup your groceries, to babysit your kids, to cry on a shoulder, to offer you professional guidance, in order to navigate this extremely foreign and difficult situation. Even if you have a hard time asking for support or feel like a burden doing so, remember that when you are grieving you are in survival state. Communicate your needs! Join grief groups and communities who provide unconditional love and support; and create boundaries around people who can’t. You don’t have to do this alone! 

6) Process your loss 

An essential step in the grieving process is accepting the reality of your loss. The path to surrender  — of letting go of what should/could/would have been — and in turn, adapting to the life that is unfolding before you, is different for everyone. But finding ways to process your loss and own your story, perhaps through talking about it, journaling, meditating or finding moments of intentional movement like yoga or a walk in nature helps you quiet your mind as it tries to make sense of this life-altering change. 

7) Flow instead of fight the process

Grief is a natural response to a loss. However, our society teaches us that it’s not ok to feel many of the emotions such as anger, sadness, guilt, and anxiety among others that come up during the grieving process. My advice is to flow with your feelings instead of fight them. Try to let go of societal definitions and standards about struggle, as well as the need to qualify your feelings. Experience your emotions and feel them without judgment. Feelings are just feelings. ALL of them matter and deserve to be felt.

8) Get moving 

Whether you believe that you are capable of moving forward from tragedy or not, the mere act of exercising moves you. Emotional memory and trauma are not only stored in you brain, but also in your body. After a loss, it’s common for your nervous system to get stuck in a state of hyperactivity — you might feel frozen and feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, sadness and guilt become all encompassing. When your mind convinces you that you are not capable of moving forward, the only thing that can break this cycle is by moving your body! Movement is medicine  — especially when it comes to coping with grief.  

9) Give your loss meaning

Moving forward doesn’t mean moving on. Participating in a new life without your loved one doesn’t mean that you have to “let go”, forget about, abandon, or suppress any of the beautiful time or memories that you shared with your person. You move forward by finding ways to integrate your loss into your new life — by exploring how to keep your loved one’s memories alive; how to maintain a relationship beyond the physical; and honor their legacy in a way that brings purpose and meaning to your life. 

10) Believe that transformation is possible 

I would never tell you that surviving a loss, navigating grief, and building a new life without your loved one is easy. It’s by far the hardest experience I’ve endured to date. And while I don’t wish this experience upon anyone, I know that it has transformed me for the better. I’m proud of the person my loss has made me. I’m excited about who I am becoming. I’m ready for the waves of grief to continue crashing upon me — sometimes gracefully riding them, and other times sinking — because I know now that they have something important to teach me. 

I believe that transformation is possible for anyone who has experienced a loss; but, also that this powerful force of grief can trap you and add unnecessary suffering. 

What I know for certain is that you can create whatever meaning you want from this experience. If these tips helped you — shifted your mindset or helped you believe that you are capable of moving forward — this guide is just the start.

I offer 1:1 and group coaching programs where I learn about your story of loss and personal struggles, and we collaboratively come up with a plan to help you move forward. You don’t have to do this alone. 

Check out all the ways that I can support you here.

Sending love and light,

– Emily