This quote sums up what being in a new, stable, and loving relationship is like for me now… as a widow.
I’ve been practicing the act of surrender a lot since my late husband Ian died — letting go of what I thought my life should be; and embracing what it’s becoming.
I’ve done this in many areas of my life, but most recently in my romantic one. I’ve been seeing Taylor Ames since the world ended in March and it has been an emotional journey for me. I wrote about dating as a widow before and thought I had the answers, but this experience has brought forth so many questions — as well as new insights and revelations about myself, my evolving definition of love, and what type of person I desire and need as a partner.
Because this time my relationship is not coming from a place of loneliness; from a need to fill a void, feel whole or complete; or from past-patterns I picked up from falling in love when I was an 18-year old college freshmen.
This time, my relationship is coming from a place of a choice — a deliberate decision that is supported by my body, my mind and my heart being in total alignment (ie. not just choosing with my heart in decisions of love — but with them ALL).
I’m embracing what this relationship is becoming…
But it’s not as easy as I thought.
A new relationship means opening up my life and sharing all that I hold sacred in it — present, future and PAST — with someone new.
I feel it …
When Izzy runs and and jumps into Taylor’s arms when he enters a room.
When Theo and him “bro” out over how much food they can eat or playing ball together.
When the kids wrestle on the floor with him, just like they did with their biological father Ian who is no longer here physically to touch them, hold them, and do what Taylor has the privilege to do with them here on earth.
And it hurts.
Yet at the same time it feels right. It feels like love. It feels like hope. It feels like a new normal.
I like my new normal a lot. But allowing it to materialize while still holding so much love in my heart for my late husband — the father of my children, my soulmate and best friend — is hard.
It’s a balancing act of letting go and holding on; of creating sacred space to honor both old and new love; and allowing myself the time and space to process the complex emotions and feelings involved.
I’m far from mastering this, but I’m committed to taking it one day at a time and letting go bit by bit as I figure it all out! 🙂
If you’ve read this far you might be thinking that I need more time to heal. Maybe it’s too soon for a serious relationship?
If you feel that way I do think that you are partially right. I do need time to heal. But healing is a journey in itself and I’m not sure when that finish line will come…or if it even exists.
I also love this quote from @Yung_Pueblo that Taylor shared with me.
I have so many thoughts about dating, love and relationships that I want to share with you (and will in due time). Finding love for a second time and figuring out how this all materializes is part of my grief journey — which is why I’m opening my heart up to you.
I hope that this post resonates with anyone who has lost an old love and is open to letting in the new! And if you have any insights, questions or tips for me please leave them in the comments below.
For now, here’s to embracing what our life is becoming…whether we envisioned it this way or not!
Milestones are tricky when it comes to grief and loss. We tend to “prepare” for the big ones like death-anniversaries, major holidays like Christmas, or your deceased person’s birthday, by anticipating that the day might be emotionally challenging. But, what I’ve found after more than 15 months since my husband Ian’s death is that the more subtle ones tend sneak up on us — presenting an equal struggle or even more of one because they catch us off guard!
We are approaching July 4th, which for most people might be categorized as a “smaller holiday” — a subtle milestone. But for me, it’s also my wedding anniversary with Ian. This Saturday, July 4, 2020, would have marked six years as a married couple.
I don’t know how I’ll be feeling on that day, but what I do know is that I’ll give myself space to welcome whatever comes up and feel it. My grief journey has taught me to embrace the pain as a sign of eternal love — the invisible string that keeps us connected. This Saturday, I plan to visit our wedding venue up on Lookout Mountain and explore the surrounding natural scenery with my two kiddos to remember the day;
How dapper Ian looked in his designer suit. (He got very fancy after living at the Raffles Beijing Hotel for 3 years! 😉 )
His delicious smile that made me fall in love with him.
The way his eyes locked on mine walking down the aisle.
The electricity in the air from the rain storm that had just passed and from energy that everyone who attended our wedding experienced collectively that day.
Love bursting from within us like fireworks.
And while there will be no fireworks to light up the night this year due to the pandemic, I’ll never let go of the spark that connected our souls here on earth and our spirits into eternity.
I revisited my blog post from my first wedding anniversary without Ian. At the time I still wore my wedding rings, in addition to his wedding band, which I had turned into a bracelet. I was still holding on to my old identity — loving wife to Ian and mother to his kids. It’s been a painful, yet profound process to shed these identities and I’ve taken my time to move forward in a way that feels organic and true to me.
I’ve learned that while I’m no longer Ian’s wife, that does’t diminish my love for him; and while our family is missing its father-figure, that doesn’t make us any less whole.
I’ve learned that pain is the greatest catalyst for self-discovery and growth — and this theme comes up time and time again. Which leads me to my last lesson —
That there is always a lesson!
Every life experience — as tragic, unfair, and hopeless as it may seem — can teach us something new. And this awakening is pure magic.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see these lessons when you’re in the thick of pain and struggle — so if you are, I offer the advice to give yourself grace, give yourself time, focus on doing the next right thing and most importantly give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel.
And for these sneaky holidays like July 4th, here a few tips I’ve picked up from my personal grief journey:
If you make social plans, remember that you have every right to bail last minute. Sometimes we don’t know how we are going to feel right up until the moment we are “in it”, so give friends or family members a heads up.
If you’re not comfortable with cancelling, then just don’t commit! Reserve the right to join the party last minute or late. Remember — you do what’s right for you!
Remind yourself that this one special day is literally just another day. Consider making space to grieve a couple days before a holiday or milestone if you feel like something might come up. This way you can be in more control of your emotions and enjoy the special day as you envision.
Holidays bring family and friends together. So when our loved one isn’t around to attend the party, it certainly deepens the void. As you see their warm embraces and hear their laughter, it will intensity your loss. Remember to:
Take a deep breathe.
Feel the pain.
Remind yourself that pain is love.
And that love is just as alive as the people surrounding you.
If you have experienced the loss of a loved one, you know that not one day passes without thinking about our deceased person. Milestones or holidays don’t change that. They can trigger our emotions, but we have the power to prepare to lean into our grief, save it for another day, or feel whatever come up in the moment. You have the freedom and power and to choose whatever path is right for you!
So this July 4th — a day to honor our nation’s freedom and independence —, I invite you to celebrate your loved one; celebrate the freedom and power of creating your own unique journey; and celebrate the lessons — the magical transformations that unfold when we fully embrace struggle and feel it all!
Father’s Day is just around the corner — a joyous, light-hearted day to recognize Dad for all that he does! But for many of us — those who have lost their father, fathers who have lost a child, or widows who have fatherless children — the day can also bring up pain, resentment, jealously, sadness and a host of other difficult emotions.
In our next community post, Gina tells us about her story of losing her father at a young age to an addiction related accident. She explains some of the complexities involved in losing someone to an addiction and how after 12 years of suppressing her grief, she now is confronting it head on to find new meaning from her loss.
Ironically, this Father’s Day falls on the 12th anniversary of Gina’s Father’s death. Find out how she will honor his legacy by recreating one of her fondest memories of dad and how she is moving through her grief in her story below!
I remember the last time I spoke to my dad on the phone, exactly where I was, what I was wearing, what I was looking at and what he said. He said that he wanted to ‘pull through this,’ and in a tearful manner how he wanted to see his kids grow and see them have kids and be a better father. I ended the call wishing him a Happy Father’s Day. Three days later, he passed away on June 21, 2008, due to complications from a pain killer addiction.
My father was absent most of my life, struggling with mental health and addiction following a bad accident; he would pop in and out overtime. While he was still alive, I felt like I was losing him, slowly to a disease I always questioned why he couldn’t control. My three siblings and I sometimes say that while he physically left this earth in 2008, we felt like we lost him well before then.
When I reminisce of my father I think back to when I was younger, before the accident, when he was ‘normal’ to me. My dad had a lot of love to give; he loved Valentine’s Day and would spoil my mom, my sister, and me with gifts. He was my younger brothers’ role model — owning his own business, working hard and long hours to provide for his family of five. Many people say I took his smile, looking back in photos he had the biggest one when he was with my family.
For over 12 years, I compartmentalized my grief. I packed it up and stored it away for another day, telling other people “oh we weren’t that close,” or “he wasn’t really in my life,” — rationalizing in my mind that as a woman, I was fine because I still had my mom. But even girls need their dads too. And as I grieve, I grieve both my father who died, and the loss that I’ve had even when he was alive.
Today, now more than ever I find myself feeling that loss creep up. Grief is funny like that, it hits you when you least expect it. I think about getting married and not having my father walk me down the aisle and often excusing myself from the table at weddings during father-daughter dances. But, I never thought that even small things like grilling out, maintenance my car or small home improvements would trigger tears and flood of feelings. I recently bought my first house on my own and inherited a lot of home improvement projects. A friend shared with me a YouTube Channel called “Dad how I do” by a man who grew up without a father that teaches people without dads to do home repairs. Things such as unclogging a bathtub drain, fixing a running toilet, putting up a shelf — his videos are full of dad jokes. I checked it out and immediately burst into tears– it is just not the same.
This Father’s Day oddly falls on the 12th year anniversary of my father’s death. This past year I’ve focused on working on the grief I’ve put aside for a rainy day. One way I have focused on working through complicated grief is through movement. Being introduced to moveTHRU has really allowed me to find community in grief – something I’ve never really had. But more than that, it’s allowed my body to release the physically stored aspects of grief. As a therapist myself, it is the biggest outlet I have. Recently I started to tackle some grief work and after spending two hours discussing my loss, I came home to jump on a rented Kaiser stationary bike. It felt so good to sweat it out. Hot Yoga is also great for crying – as I found no one will know if its tears or sweat!
Recently I was in a recovery focused meeting and we were sharing the gifts of our loved ones struggling with addiction have left us. For me, my father hasn’t left me many — but one I can remember is that he taught me how to ride a bike (beyond the Kaiser one). I talked about how vividly I could remember the park and the path I learned to ride on. I haven’t owned a bike in years — so two weeks later I was able to get a used one that otherwise was going to be thrown away! It felt like a ‘God moment’. I made a promise with a friend, who too, has an absent father that this Father’s Day we will go on a bike ride together, to celebrate our dads.
When you experience one loss, death becomes more tangible — more real. You realize that no one is immune and that our loved ones can disappear from our lives in an instant. Even though we deeply understand the fragility of life and the meaningless, unpredictable ways that our loved ones can get ripped away from us, it’s doesn’t mean that it prepares us for more losses to come. It’s hard enough to comprehend losing just one person we love — so how do we make sense of our world when it unjustly takes away TWO?
Brett was just 11 years old when she lost her mother to breast cancer (six years after her diagnosis). Her death made Brett grow up fast. She learned about the certainty of death, it’s unpredictable nature, and the monumental impact it makes on our lives. So, when her father died suddenly when she was 27 years old, Brett couldn’t believe that the “universe would be so cruel to take them both.”
Brett shares her story below.
Nothing about either loss of my parents compares to the other. Drastically different in circumstance, I personally experienced the two on grossly different scales. My mother was originally misdiagnosed. Had she not been, she may still be here today. Six years in and out of hospitals, hospice at home, chemo, radiation, and morphine drips fueled the chaos of the unknown. In a daily warp of an uncertain truth that though no one had answers, no one could predict the good or bad days, and no one knew whether she’d be alive or not after school, I knew for certain that “mommy won’t be here as long as the other mommies” (her words exactly).
Most adults can’t grasp or cope with the fact that we all die one day, but as a child, having to accept that as your truth, as your norm, is quite the awakening. I grew up fast. I had too. Fortunately, my mom guided me as far as she could, leaving me with valuable lessons no mother would imagine teaching such a young girl.
After her death, I grew up with a dad who did his best to ‘mother’ an adolescent female. He was incredible, but clearly unable to offer all the female guidance a growing girl deserves. My greatest challenge was having to figure most things out on my own. My parents raised a strong, independent, warrior type girl, who was far beyond her years in maturity, but life is confusing, especially when she who taught you the lessons has already passed on to the other side. I was previously taught about what I had yet to experience, yet to understand. Growing into those understandings as a reflection of stories she had shared was at times sad, but also encouraging. I had a mother who knew things. All kinds of things and how lucky I was that she guided me, told me the truth about life before it even came to fruition.
My dad was always my hero — I was his girl! But after my mother’s death, he showed grit, a survival instinct that I could only hope to emulate one day. As a small business owner in the emergency service industry, he was working insane hours to provide. My dad remarried shortly after our mom died, it was a rough several years, to say the least. We were pretty much on our own through middle and into high school, but as a teenager, we began to reweave a relationship. I came to understand the challenges of parenting, the challenges my dad faced through his own grieving and post loss survival. I saw him as a human, not just my hero. We became friends, best friends. So losing my Dad suddenly, was far more damaging than how I lost my Mom. A period of anticipatory grief allows for a certain kind of preparation leading up to the point when you get to say goodbye. I always knew my Mom would die. I never thought the Universe would be so cruel to take them both. I never got the chance to say goodbye to my dad.
His death was my worst nightmare come true. It was a shock — like having your legs kicked out from under you. I was angry. I was sad. Confused. Baffled. My world suddenly became chaotic again, but this time, instead of a chaos induced by uncertainty, it was a chaos induced by pain and the absolute certainty — the finality of death. I could physically feel the hurt throughout my body. My challenges were more visceral this time. My body hurt and my heart ached. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I drank. I smoked. I did everything I could to self destruct while still maintaining the outward appearance of strength in order to uphold the identity I’d carried for so many years: the strong, responsible one. A warrior.
The greatest challenge after my dad’s death was recreating an identity without him, according to the new normal, and pulling myself out of the greatest darkness I’ve ever known. Each day was a challenge. Finding joy was a challenge. Being me was a challenge. Wanting to live life without him was a challenge.
I coped with my mom’s death while she was still here. She prepared me the best she could and school counselors were a wonderful resource by giving me a chance to momentarily escape the chaos by holding a calm conversation in a controlled environment. I was very loved by my dad, my family, shared growing up with my brother – my dearest friend and closest confident, and felt a sense of purpose. I felt a responsibility to overcome so that my dad and brother could do so also. I relied on girlfriends who supported me and also relied on my faith. Growing up religious – as my mother had taught me – I saw the strength she absorbed from her faith and I followed suite.
After a period of about six months that directly followed my dad’s accident – I call it the fuzzy period because it’s truly just a fog – I began to develop new routines that honored me and my body. After six months of self destruction, overworking, little sleep and unhealthy exercise, I started seeing a therapist, I began to eat regularly, drink less, and I went back to yoga. I began to run and hike again, allowing me to connect with nature. And I returned to my journal, reflecting on my reality as opposed to ignoring or distracting from it. I coped by doing the best I could each day. By taking small steps toward the lifestyle that I knew I wanted and needed to live, but understanding that it wasn’t going to happen overnight, I eventually came to a place of peace.
Fortunately I was surrounded by an infinite amount of love and support from the most beautiful people in the world. My community held me up, allowed me to feel deeply and honored my process without judgment. And it always helps to remember that my dad didn’t spend his life sacrificing and working his ass off so that I could be a victim to my losses. He did it all so we could be happy. And so I chose to be happy, I chose to be a survivor, I chose to find joy in life and appreciate my final moments (because to me, we are consistently living our final moments). That’s what dad would want me to do and I sure wish he’d had more time to do the same.
It’s been 22 years since I lost my mom and seven since losing my dad. I’m 33 years old. Still to this day, I miss them both. I wish I could ask my mom what it’s like to be a mother, what it means to be a woman. I wish I could call my dad to get his opinion, share a funny story or tell him I’m scared, let him save me. It’s like a kaleidoscope of emotions — all interchanging on any given day, at any given moment — mingling and overlapping, bright and beautiful or dark and chaotic. I can’t anticipate how I’ll feel each day, what will come up, how reminders will emerge. I mean, I could just set the kaleidoscope down and NOT feel, but for me, that’s not an option. And so I carry it proud and I let the shades and shapes of my emotions, memories and stories color my world. Each day is a new story, a new feeling. Their deaths will always be real and there will be more deaths to come.
And so I am grateful that I now know how to appreciate moments. I don’t take this life, or the people in it, for granted. These losses have completely morphed the way I see and walk in this world, for the better. I am lucky. Their lives and their deaths have been my greatest teacher, made me who I am proud to be.
We’ve all heard the phrase with every ending comes a new beginning. Right? But did you ever really stop and think about it.
Endings are inevitable.
We fall in love, all is well, but with time our values and needs change, so we decide to end the relationship.
We go to primary school, high school, maybe university and beyond, then with graduation, our formal education ends.
We get land a job. We work hard for however long it takes to become disenchanted, seek something new, or get laid off.
We get married. We start a family. And with each new role — mother, father, spouse, head-of-household, friend — another past identity evolves or fades away.
Endings are a part of life; and beginnings are inherently dependent upon them. Endings and beginnings can’t exist without the other.
While beginnings are viewed with excitement and vitality, endings are approached with fear and sadness.
Beginnings are viewed as success, yet endings are viewed as failure.
Our society tends to celebrate quantity — how long we stay in a job, survive in a marriage — but fail to even acknowledge quality. (How many “long” relationships do you know that are dysfunctional)?
We equate change with disruption and turmoil. Consistency with peace and stability.
And to top it all off…we qualify ALL OF IT!
Stable = good
Disruption = bad
It’s such a strange phenomenon.
And, like all the other endings we might experience in life, death is by far the most feared. The most taboo. The most avoided. Yet, the only certainty we have in life!
So why we are so afraid of endings?
I don’t have the answers, but I’m committed to asking the questions and changing the conversation around death, end-of-life and our societal fear of “endings”.
In the video below, Natalie Levy of She’s Independent — a women’s empowerment collective — and Life Mastery Consultant Kevin Carton — who helps people discover and live their soul’s purpose — join me for a conversation on the Life-Death-Life Cycle. This cycle explores how the inevitable endings we experience throughout life are merely doors to new beginnings.
Watch the video and leave us any comments or questions to keep the conversation going! I continue posting videos of virtual chats here on the moveTHRU blog. If you would like to follow the conversation live, follow me and moveTHRU on Instagram or sign-up for the moveTHRU newsletter.
This photo was taken just as the sun was rising over the Mokoluas, shortly after Ian took his last breath of air on March 26, 2019. Within minutes of Auntie Kellie and the night nurse leaving his side to sneak in a quick coffee break — Ian left this earth and made his ascent into the stars, sun and sky. He went alone. He went before the kids woke up; before anyone could make a fuss about him leaving. He simply grabbed his surfboard and snuck away to ride the waves of the milky way in a galaxy, a realm, a celestial world that we will never know truly exists until it’s our time … perhaps.
Besides saying our final good byes, it was a rather ordinary day. The kids, other family members and I ate breakfast together. We walked the beach and played in the pool. Friends and I drank beers and went for a boat ride to the Mokoluas. For the most part, we went about our day as usual. The prior months, weeks and days overwhelmed by the pain of watching Ian struggle, the anxiety of determining our uncertain future, and the ultimate fear of him dying was gone. And, in its place was a surreal sense of resolve, peace and love.
I feel that same sensation exactly one year later.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been an extremely tumultuous journey to get here! Over the past 365 days I’ve tried my best to ride the waves of intense, varied emotions — anger, pure rage, sadness, guilt, profound joy — all of it. New experiences (dating and starting a business), reaching milestones without Ian (birthdays, anniversaries), and finding stillness among the chaos to discover my own truths and purpose, have opened the floodgates of feelings for me. And just recently, with the sudden global pandemic, I’ve never grieved more than I have in the past week and a half.
But these past weeks have ironically mirrored the days leading up to Ian’s death one year ago. Being forced to relinquish normalcy made me feel the same sadness over the loss of control, the same fear of uncertainty, and the same anxiety that my life might be very different when Ian was dying. Just as the days of watching Ian struggle and slowly fade away felt more traumatic and painful to me than his actual death, so did the days of leading up to his death anniversary.
I had already been anticipating Ian’s first death anniversary when businesses started closing and social distancing measures were advised. I had planned a 3-day solo trip to Sedona to hike, journal, pamper myself, soak up the sun, and heal. But with concerns over travel and contracting the virus, I cancelled my trip.
Luckily I still had an energy healing session planned in Colorado in hopes to connect with Ian and seek meaning in his loss. But as of last Tuesday, with the new Colorado shelter-in requirements, this plan got cancelled as well. To further complicate matters,Theo fractured his clavicle — landing us in the ER the same day (he is totally fine just in case you are worried).
Basically all of my plans — my idea of what Ian’s death anniversary should “look” like — changed in an instant. It was out of my control. And it took me a day to be pissed off, cry about it, and feel disappointment that things didn’t go as planned. But, ultimately I surrendered.
I took a step back and listened to the universe. I listened to Ian. He told me to stop worrying about grieving his death and instead go live in the now. So I did.
I found stillness, spending one whole day and two whole nights by myself at home. I drank coffee, read, and did yoga on my deck. I talked to my friend Christina who has walked my path before me and soaked up her words of wisdom. And despite beliefs around its validity, I found peace and connection to Ian by speaking with a medium. I went for a long hike. I watched trashy TV. I wrote. I cried and cried and cried some more. But instead of pain and sorrow, the tears felt cleansing. It was an intense day of feeling my emotions, but in doing so, I felt a huge release.
On March 26, 2020 (the day of Ian’s actually death anniversary) I woke up to watch the sunrise, then drove to Winter Park where some of Ian’s ashes remain. I spent time with my family talking stories about daddy, caught up with friends, and indulged in his favorite foods and drinks. Just like the day he died, it felt like a pretty normal day.
The storm had past. The seas were calm.
So why do I share all of this with you?
I share because as tragic and painful as Ian’s death has been, the experience has changed me. I’ve learned so much about myself and my perspective on life, and as I keep leaning into my hard emotions, I’m discovering more. So in sharing, I hope that others in similar situations can find comfort, hope and inspiration to seek out the light during the darkest of times — even though admittedly, it can hurt like hell. But, trust me! It’s worth it.
Anyone who has been through a loss knows that the first year anniversary is really tough. In reflecting on my own experience, here are some takeaways:
1.) The “deathversary” is just a day.
As much as I wanted Ian’s death anniversary to look and feel a certain way, life had other plans. So instead of getting upset that Corona Virus and Theo’s broken clavicle changed my plans, I tried my best to let go of my expectations and make the most of it — resulting in a glorious day of stillness spent by myself. Ian’s death anniversary is a date in time and that date will be what I make of it. Whether we like it or not, life happens in the now. And ultimately, I can grieve, miss Ian, and do my best to heal on any day!
2.) Healing starts from within.
I had planned my trip to Sedona and the energy healing session to find more clarity and meaning around Ian’s loss. And while these activities certainly foster the self-reflection needed to find the significance I was seeking, I discovered that I’m capable deriving the answers all by myself. For me, someone who struggles with stillness, these activities can almost be distractions. I have no doubt that I’ll take my trip to Sedona and try all sorts of different types of healings, but the takeaway here is that all of the answers, meaning and clarity were already there. I just needed stillness to listen and discover them.
3.) Trust in what you need and be open to how you receive it.
Most of my grief this year has been around the loss of the “role” of my husband. I’ve struggled with missing and maintaining my connection to Ian as the enthusiastic, carefree, fun-loving and genuine person he was. Now, I’ve never been very religious or spiritual, but since Ian’s passing I’m definitely more open minded and interested in exploring the metaphysical world. So, when I had the chance to speak with a medium before his death anniversary, I took it. As skeptical as I was going into it and am still processing everything after, it brought me the connection that I had been longing for. Whether I truly believe, whether I’m still questioning all the “hows” — in the moment, “connecting with Ian” is exactly what I needed. The rest is just the rest.
4.) Intense emotions need space to be felt.
I didn’t know how I was going to feel around Ian’s first death anniversary. But, I knew that I would need space. And, even though all of my plans around getting that necessary space fell through, I still made it a priority. I needed a break from the kids and my routine. I needed solitude. I needed stillness. And I felt my way through all of the pain and sadness to find the meaning I had been seeking.
5.) Grief is actually love.
When I told my friend Christina that I was actually surprised to be feeling love and gratitude the day before the deathversary, she helped me realize that grief is actually love. The pain, sadness, fear, anxiety, etc. are feelings elicited from the trauma of death. Once I worked through these emotions and really honed in on just my loss — what was left was love and gratitude. Love for the intense emotions felt between two human beings, and gratitude for the memories and all that he has left.
My first deathversary was tough. Weeks of emotional turmoil amplified by a global pandemic made it even harder. But, I’m grateful for it. The universe forced me to stop. To surrender. To let go of distractions and focus within. So I listened and it opened my eyes to the symmetry between my grief for Ian and the grief we’re experiencing globally. And, if there is meaning that comes from such tragedy, perhaps it’s for me to share these lessons with the world!
I got the idea to write my kids a letter for each of their birthdays after reading Nora McInerny’s book No Happy Endings. Just like Izzy’s letter, I want Theo to get a glimpse of his life right now so that one day he can look back an understand how his past experiences have shaped him into the person he has become. I’ve also had so much guilt about Theo’s first years of life because so much of my energy has been devoted to Ian’s illness and ultimate death. I’ve had to focus on loving myself — showing up for myself, before I could show up for others. So this letter allows me to process my emotions and heal.
I also just want Theo to know how much I love him and how much he matters. I want him to know how much he reminds me of his father and how grateful I am that through him (and Izzy too) I will always be connected to Ian.
So here it goes …
Dear Theo (age 2),
On Monday, March 2, 2020, we celebrated your second birthday with family, friends and Wo-Wo (your name for any dog you encounter). Watching you enter your second year of life filled me with so much joy, love and gratitude for being your mom. Yet, despite the happy occasion, I couldn’t help but feel some heaviness in my heart too. You see, your dad died of cancer shorty after your first birthday and this time of year reminds me of his final days of life — which were really sad and hard for me. I also just wish that he was here to celebrate with us! He would be so proud of you, Theo!
I see so much of your father in you. Just like daddy you observe and listen. You can fly under the radar or instantly turn into the life of the party with a flash of your suave, but goofy smile and killer dance moves. Even though you don’t say much, you bring comfort to those around you with your snuggles and hugs. Daddy was really good at that too. He was always very easy to talk to and made everyone feel validated and loved. When I ask daddy’s friends about him they call him a “rascal” — a word I use to describe you all the time! I also see the way you charm the ladies with your smile and stares — I’m pretty sure you got that from your daddy too!
Sometimes I feel like I’m failing your father because you’ve taken to walking around in Izzy’s dress shoes and putting on my makeup. But, that’s just what it’s like growing up with girls! I’m trying my best to teach you how to swim, kick a soccer ball, and play catch. You absolutely love balls and are fearless when it comes to the water — daddy would be impressed! I miss your daddy and wish that he could be here to teach you to surf and do all of his favorite things, but I promise I’ll do my best to fill his role, and when I can’t I’ll ask friends and family to help out.
The truth is, Theo, you and daddy were only on this planet for a very short time together. I don’t think you will remember much about him and I have no idea what it will be like to grow up without your biological father. But instead of making assumptions and imposing my concerns about what your future holds, I trust that you will figure it out. I trust that loving you will be enough. I trust that I am enough. And I trust that you will write a beautiful story from what most people might label a tragic beginning.
You know why? You have an uncanny ability to turn any negative situation into something good. When sadness and devastation weighed heavily upon everyone during your daddy’s final days of life, you bobbled around the beach house, eating anything you could get you hands on, and lightened the mood with your goofy grins and giggles. You reminded everyone that even though we were losing daddy, we still had so much to smile about. You taught us that we can still find joy even in the darkest of moments. Thank you for this important lesson Theo.
Even though you and your daddy only knew each other for one year, I’m confident that you will get to know him more and more with time. His friends, family and I will keep his memory alive — we will tell you his embarrassing stories, look at funny pictures of him, and do all of his favorite activities like surfing, golfing and camping with you. There will be moments as you grow up where you’ll miss daddy — when you’ll feel angry that your friends have a father and you don’t; when you’ll want to ask him the important life questions and he won’t be there to answer. During these times I hope that you experience your emotions — get mad, get upset and express yourself freely. It’s not fair. I get it! So let’s talk about it — or or maybe scream, yell dance or go for a walk. We will get through this together. As I tell Izzy, the three of us are a team.
Finally Theo, with time I truly believe that you will realize that daddy is always with us. You will get to know your father every morning when you wake up and feel him in the sunrise; when we visit his hometown of Kailua and final resting place near the Mokoluas; and when you look into the mirror at your own reflection and see your daddy staring back. Because the truth is Theo that you carry a piece of your father inside of you. As you start discovering who you are, you will also discover your dad.
It’s been a rough start. But there’s something about your devilish smirk and gleam in your eye that gives me confidence that everything will be alright…if not, even brighter.
This article was originally published on Scary Mommy. Read the original post here.
I’m a widow. I lost my husband, the father of my two children, to cancer just over 10 months ago. And, while, I miss my late husband, I also crave a new love. I had been feeling guilty about this until my four-year-old daughter admitted that she wanted a “new daddy” too.
It went like this:
Izzy: “Mommy, can we get a new daddy? I miss the old daddy who got sick and died.”
Me: “I miss him too. But daddy will always be in our hearts. We still love him.”
Izzy: “But I want a new one who can talk to me.”
Me: “We can get you a new daddy, but, mommy has to find you one.”
Izzy: “Let’s go buy one!!”
Me (laughing): “Ok, Izzy. Mommy will work on it.”
Izzy misses her daddy. But, she also wants a new one. I miss my partner. But, I also want a new one. We will never forget or stop loving my late husband — Izzy’s father — but we both crave something tangible.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and I want someone to hold me — other than my two children. I want someone to console me — other than my parents and friends. I want someone to love me and to share my life with. But when you’re looking for a new parter while grieving the loss of your old one, it makes dating, well … complicated!
Based on my own experiences dating as a widow, I’d like to share some insights shed some light on the complexities of dating after loss and eradicate any judgement — because we are all just trying our best to move forward with life. And, no one should be denied of love. A partner. Or, a new daddy.
So here it goes:
Tip #1: Trust that she knows when “she’s ready” to date
I’ve heard a range of opinions regarding the appropriate timeline to date after a partner dies — “five years”, “one year”, “never”, “once I’m done grieving and moved on.” The answers vary and the reasons entertain. So, I decided that I would be my own judge. Let’s face it, do we ever know when we are “ready” to do anything? And, the grieving never truly ends.
About six months after I lost my husband, I downloaded a dating app. I had been spiraling downward into this depth of loneliness. I needed a distraction — even if it wouldn’t necessarily lead to anything. And it worked! I contently swiped away, messaging prospects and getting excited over potential dates — maybe even a future together! I went on a handful of dates, but what I discovered is that even though I was ready to date, my potential partners were not. My loss made them uncomfortable. Keep reading …
Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to talk about the death
I indicated that I had kids on my dating profile. So during the first date, the topic of their father always came up. When I shared that my children’s father had died and no, we were not divorced, I would get two standard reactions —
1.) Overly dwell on the death, how fragile I probably am, and speculate on my “readiness” to date (DUH, I’m here aren’t I?). Or…
2.) Completely dismiss the fact.
It would go like this…
Me: “My husband actually passed away from cancer about six months ago”
My date: “Oh wow. I’m sorry. So…what else do you like to do?”
Me: Smile awkwardly … pass!
Newsflash! Someone dying is a huge, traumatic, life altering event. If a widow brings this up, TALK TO HER about it. Or, at least a little bit. But DO NOT. I repeat, DO NOT just blaze over it and move on to her interests and hobbies, or what country she wants to travel to next.
Tip #3: Don’t underestimate her ability to love
After about one month on the app, I found someone who I actually liked. Someone who gave me those butterflies in my stomach again and who I could envision a future with. And his feelings seemed to match mine!
But, about three months into our relationship, the phone calls started to drop, we saw each other less frequently, and everything fizzled to an abrupt end. He dumped me.
What happened? I learned that Joe (his name for now) felt like a “placeholder.” Joe knew that I still loved my late husband. We didn’t “end it” by choice. Joe was aware of the void in my heart. And, he thought I was filling it with him. Joe believed that my feelings for him were temporary — just there to alleviate the pain from my loss.
While Joe was wrong, his concerns were valid. When the person you’re dating still loves her dead partner, questions and insecurities will naturally arise. So let’s break this down:
I loved my dead husband and had feelings for Joe at the same time.
My heart has room for both — old love and new.
Neither love diminishes, competes, or replaces the other love.
They are separate, yet they co-exist.
They co-exist in the sense that when we love someone, that love shapes us. A part of us is forever changed. We carry a piece of that person with us — whether the relationship ended by choice or not. We can hold love for one person, andbe in love with somebody entirely new.
They are separate in the sense that the sole act of being is now.Being requires breathe, life and exists in the present. Being in love is feeling it in the flesh, having it reciprocated, and tangibly experiencing the magic of our world when we share it with someone else.
About six months after my husband Ian died, the loneliness of my world without him really started to sink in. I would begin and end the day alone — waking up and going to sleep in a king size bed that felt so empty and vast without him. His sink in the bathroom vanity was crystal clean, untouched. His clothes (the majority packed up or given away) but, his special keepsakes — his favorite Aloha shirts, Broncos jerseys and wedding suit — just hung in our closet collecting dust.
Ian and I loved cuddling together on our couch to watch movies and shows at night once the kids went to sleep. But after he died, I couldn’t bring myself to sit on it without him there. I didn’t have someone to snuggle with, to laugh with or to figure out the plot twists with. The empty couch was just a reminder my loneliness — like so many things I encountered throughout the day.
Sometimes when I drove in my car I literally reached over to the passenger seat to rest my hand on his. But it wasn’t there. I wanted to call him to ask for his advice, but no voice would answer. I wanted to wrap my arms around him to share my contentment for life and feel a warm body against mine, but all I felt was air. A profound hollowness. Almost one year later, I still feel like this at times.
Loneliness is a feeling often experienced in the grieving process. When someone who we interact with — whether its for infrequent holiday get-togethers, weekly phone calls, or seeing them daily — just disappears from your life, there is nothing but emptiness left in the space they once filled. All of the activities and milestones you shared with that person are just reminders of that person’s absence. Even certain clothing, special songs or favorite restaurants can be reminders that your special person is missing. And this emptiness leaves us feeling so alone.
During a playdate, I expressed some of the struggles I had been experiencing as a newly single-mom. Another single-mom (by divorce) chimed in and said that she totally “got it” and continued to share in my misery. While a lot of our challenges were in fact similar, her divorce was not the same as my husband’s death. “How could she not get this? And, how could she make such a comparison?” I thought to myself. Although she was just trying to level with me and help, it actually had the opposite effect.
This sense of aloneness is not only caused by someone special in our lives dying, but also from the feelings of isolation that arise when we think that no one else understands our situation. People often say “Oh I can’t even imagine what you are going through.” And, it’s true! They probably can’t. Nor, do many people know how to talk about death. Unless you’ve experienced a loss, it’s difficult to fully empathize with someone grieving. When no one seems to understand, it can feel like we don’t belong and that we are truly in this struggle alone.
At the peak of my loneliness, I decided to download a dating app. I needed a distraction — even if it wouldn’t necessarily lead to anything. And it worked! I contently swiped away, messaging prospects and getting excited over potential dates — maybe even a future together! But, after a few months of casual dates that were really just plain bad, and then a three-month-long relationship that came to an abrupt end over a text message (future blog post coming. Stay tuned.), I realized that the only person who could fix my loneliness — was me.
I read this post from Mark Groves (aka @createthelove) and everything clicked. I was looking for all of the answers to my loneliness outside of myself. But, what I needed was to focus the attention within. I needed to identify the thoughts that drove these feelings of disconnectedness — the fear that I would never find love or feel whole again; the illusion that we only get one true love; the discomfort of physically taking up space — alone. These were all thoughts that I was telling myself, which in turn, fed by loneliness!
As I started to identify what thoughts triggered my loneliness, I was able to change my perception of them. I asked myself how I could enjoy being alone? How could I use my alone time to learn something new about me, about my passions, or the world around me? When I felt physically alone, I turned to my fitness communities — moving together on a spin bike or at my barre studio — which reminded me that even though I was alone without my partner, I had an entire community who loved and supported me.
Our loneliness is often what we make of it. Sometimes its hard to separate the stories that we tell ourselves from reality, and when we don’t, they become our reality! Sometimes we just need some space to feel our feelings to recognize what’s really going on inside our minds.
When Ian first died, it felt like my entire world was falling apart. The range of emotions that surfaced combined with the fear and anxiety of starting a “new normal” without him left me feeling paralyzed — left me feeling stuck.
Fast-forward to now — almost 10 months since his death. I’ve taken time to process his loss, feel my feelings, explore my core values, and redefine my self-identity and purpose in life. I’ve started a new business, dipped my toes into the dating world, and feel more and more confident as a single-parent in my family of three. I’m turning a corner in my grief journey and moving forward in so many exciting ways, but am now stuck in an entirely new way.
Right now, I’m stuck between past and present.
Between honoring my tragic history that has brought me to this point, and giving myself permission to get excited about this new chapter. This state of limbo that I’m stuck in affects so many aspects of my life.
Relationships with friends and family that Ian fostered in the past, are different without him. I’m navigating how I preserve the bonds that Ian created between the significant people in his life, and figuring out I fit in without him moving forward.
Relationships in terms of dating are far more complex than I imagined. I feel like there is room in my heart for both old and new love, but potential partners don’t necessarily understand that. How do I honor the love in my heart for Ian, without scaring away potential new love?
Redefining myself — transitioning from stay-at-home mom, caretaker to sick husband, to becoming a widow, head-of-household, single mom and entrepreneur — is an exciting, second-chance to make an impact and bring something into the world that I care so much about. But when I think about how I got here, it’s by tragedy. By losing Ian. How do I not feel a sense of guilt about the new story that is unfolding for me?
I’ve written about how tragedies like loss are defining moments. Do we stay stuck in tragedy and let the defining moment define us? Or do we move forward and keep living?
Right now I’m stuck right in the middle of remembering my tragedy and moving forward with my new life ahead. It’s a process and I’m sure I’ll get unstuck and stuck again. For now, I’m exploring what this space feels like and learning how to moveTHRU the stuck.
The feeling of being stuck is a universal theme. Whether we have experienced a loss or not, there are moments in life where we simply feel powerless. We know the necessary steps to achieve our goals — to lose 10 lbs I need to eat healthier, workout more and cut down on alcohol. Yet, despite having all the tools and steps necessary to achieve our aspirations and telling ourselves that we can do it, sometimes we just don’t. And, when we don’t, we beat ourselves up for it.
When we focus on our failures and the associated shame, then we do in fact get stuck. We get stuck in a negative thought cycle that continuously loops, sending the message that we are incapable of making productive change in our life. Powerless. Paralyzed. Stuck.
CALM SEAS ARE WHERE YOU’LL FIND PEACE, BUT STORMS ARE WHERE YOU’LL FIND POWER.
January 13, 2020
On January 1, 2019, I woke up groggy and tired, not from the New Year’s celebrations the night before like most 30-year-olds, but from my husband, Ian, tossing and turning from excruciating cancer pain all night. In the early morning I rolled over to ask how he was feeling. He looked at me anxiously and said that he couldn’t feel or move his legs. Instantly alarmed, I jumped out of bed to help him. I bent his knees attempting to swing them around the bedside so that he could stand, but they flopped back down on the mattress like two dead weights. I immediately dialed 911.
An ambulance arrived and Ian was transported to the closest hospital. MRI results showed a tumor compressing against his lower spine and doctors started prepping us for emergency spinal surgery — or Ian would be paralyzed from the waist down. It was a skeleton crew that New Year’s morning and the odds of Ian walking again, even with the tumor removed, were extremely low, but we decided that spinal surgery was our best bet.
I remember bursting into tears when the surgeon delivered the news that the surgery went well … but he didn’t think Ian would be able to walk again. I knew that if Ian couldn’t walk, let alone run, swim, surf and enjoy all of the other activities he loved, then the fight would be over. Cancer would win.
When the nurse informed me that I could visit Ian post-surgery, I cleaned up my red eyes and tried to push my fears aside for the moment. As he laid in the hospital bed, I leaned over to give him a kiss. He looked back at me with his playful smile and said, “Happy New Year, Emily!”
After two weeks of rehab, Ian left the hospital … walking.
If anything this last year has taught me it’s that we never truly know what each day will bring. We live in the unknown. As soon as we accept this fact, instead of fight it, we can just be in the moment and appreciate each day for what it is.
Now, we will not always like what each day brings. And when this occurs — because it will! — we are tasked with turning inward to gain a sense control. By focusing on our reactions to people, places and events; our minds; the voice within; the questions we ask ourselves; the choices we still have, we can experience freedom despite anything life hands us!
This way of thinking is entirely new to me. Before Ian died, I was not required to look inward because my life seemed perfect. It was everything I ever wanted. I was in control. Battling cancer and ultimately losing Ian was my rude awakening.
2019 has been a year of painful lessons. Lessons that have caused profound, beautiful shifts within, but at the cost of losing a human life — the love of my life. My children’s father. A son, a brother and friend to so many. These are lessons that I would unlearn in an instant if I could have him back. But the reality is that I can’t.
These twisted life tradeoffs are in my mind best described by The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” (Listen here if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Not just the lyrics of this song, but the tone, melody and overall mood allude to the overwhelming tragedies that occur throughout life, but once experienced, add more clarity, beauty, love and appreciation to it.
I’ve made a list of some of the tradeoffs (or takeaways rather) that I’ve personally experienced in the past 365 days — and yes, it’s taken a full year to realize that good can come from tragedy. I’m hoping that by sharing them, you can learn these life lessons without experiencing the tradeoff. Or, at least maybe change your way of thinking about the world.
Because the truth is that we are all battling something. Maybe not cancer. Maybe not losing a loved one. Whatever the hardship might be, if we stop asking “why is this happening to me” and start asking “why is this happening forme” (thank you Mark Groves), we can start to see the silver lining and grow.
Takeaway 1: The pain makes us stronger.
As much as it’s cliche, its just as true. Discomfort promotes growth. Yet, as a survival tactic, our bodies are biologically trained to avoid discomfort. In addition, society teaches us that discomfort, pain, and struggle are bad. So we tend to shy away from anything that is perceived as challenging or hard. We stay in our comfort zone. Content, confident … complacent. Often we don’t know how strong and capable we truly are until life kicks us out of our comfort zone.
When our world is rocked — brutal breakups, tragic deaths, unpredictable layoffs, terminal diagnosis — we are faced with two options*:
1.) Bury ourselves in the rebel
2.) Rebuild something stronger
These are the defining moments. Some of us stay stuck in the pain — buried — allowing the defining moment to define us. Why me? Asks the victim. Some of us stay stuck in this state the rest of our lives — and therein lies an entirely new tragedy.
Survivors ask what now? (nod to Dr. Edith Eger). We embrace the hardship, feel all of the emotions, dig deep within ourselves for strength, and lean on our communities when we can’t find it within. We put one foot in front of the other not because we know where we are going, but because we can! We can keep living! The process itself is painful and hard, and in the thick of it, we might actually feel weaker. But with time we gain the gift of perspective. We look back and see just how far we’ve come and how strong we really are.
When Ian’s cancer first metastasized I often thought about what my life would be like without him — and it terrified me. I couldn’t fully comprehend it and doubted my strength to survive a loss of that magnitude. Ian was my world. But when the nightmare became my reality, I saw two choices — become another tragedy or become something stronger. Looking back on the past year, I’m not just becoming strong…I am.
Takeaway 2: The heartbreak opens us up to love deeper.
Love. Hate. Excitement. Surprise. Anger. Frustration. Heartbreak opens us up to not only love deeper, but to feel deeper. After losing Ian and learning about grief, how thoughts drive emotions, and how feelings are a product of the mind, heart and body, I can honestly say that I’ve never truly felt like this before (in more ways than one!). I mean that my ability to feel and awareness of my feelings has been intensely heightened.
Before my heart was broken open, I lacked genuine empathy for others’ hardships. I heard their stories and saw the the pain in their eyes, but I didn’t truly feel it. Now, my body literally reacts when I hear of someone else’s struggle. My throat tightens, my breath shortens and the tears start to well up. And when this happens, I don’t disguise my sadness — or whatever feeling I’m experiencing. I embrace it and find so much beauty in the gift that I can finally FEEL what’s happening within.
My friend Amelia sent me a quote something to extent of “We have a tendency to judge our emotions. Love, joy and happiness are good. Sadness, anger and pain are bad. Feelings are just feelings. They all deserve reverence.”
Yes, my heart broke when I lost Ian. It broke it open so that I have more room to feel it all.
BLESS THE THING THAT BROKE YOU DOWN AND CRACKED YOU OPEN BECAUSE THE WORLD NEEDS YOU OPEN.
— REBECCA CAMPBELL
Takeaway 3: The loss helps us see all that we already have.
As I walked down the beach on my recent trip to Hawaii I wondered how Ian must have felt during his final days in his hometown. I imagined him crinkling his toes in the sand, questioning if this would be the last time he felt the beach beneath him. I cried thinking of him watching our kids play in the waves, potentially asking himself which one of his friends would teach them to surf if he wasn’t around to do the job himself. I listened to the wind and the sound of the ocean and recalled Ian lying still in his hospital bed in the back room of the beach house that overlooked the Mokoluas. Where he held on to the last sense the cancer couldn’t rob him of — sound.
Watching a loved one fadeaway is one of the most painful, heartbreaking events I’ve experienced to date. I’ve realized that every breath, every heart beat, every pain-free movement — is truly a gift.
We tend to forget this in the hustle of life. We get comfortable. We get complacent. We start taking our loved ones, our jobs, our cushy lifestyles for granted. We treat people and ourselves unkindly because we are stressed out over the small stuff, when we don’t realize what a privilege it is to simply be alive.
Losing someone opens our eyes to the only certainty in life — death. It blatantly reminds us that nothing is permanent, our time is limited, and to embrace and appreciate all of it!
In the months after Ian’s cancer metastasized, Ian woke up every morning to sit on our back deck that overlooks the Denver skyline. Sometimes he would read or the kids and I would join him for breakfast. But, more often than not, he would just sit there. He would soak up the sun, feeling the warmth permeate his skin, and fully appreciate what a gift it was to see another sunrise.
BE PATIENT TOWARD ALL THAT IS UNSOLVED IN YOUR HEART AND TRY TO LOVE THE QUESTIONS THEMSELVES … LIVE THE QUESTIONS NOW. PERHAPS YOU WILL GRADUALLY, WITHOUT NOTICING IT, LIVE ALONG SOME DISTANT DAY INTO THE ANSWER.
— RAINER MARIA RILKE, “LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET”
Takeaway 4: The questions drive us to live into the answers.
I thought I had all of the answers. Until that one tragic day that I didn’t.
Now, all I have are questions. Lots of questions. And, I’m learning to be ok with that.
This is perhaps my greatest takeaway from the year. Instead of fearing the uncertainty or getting over anxious about rebuilding my life without Ian, I’m seeking the silver lining in discovering this new unknown world. And honestly, I’m at a point where I can say that it’s kind of exciting! (Please note — this is a recent shift! Ask me this six months ago and I would have burst into tears overwhelmed by the bleakness of my loss and new normal.)
There are many people who will try to answer our questions for us. Tell us how we should behave, what we should care about, who and when we should fall in love, and what career path we should take. But what I’ve learned in the last 365 days is that when a storm hits, you need a strong foundation to weather it. The storm forces us to find our inner strength — our power — put one foot in front of the other even though you don’t have a plan, and simply keep asking what now?
In 2020, I plan to be my own guide.
I want to understand my authentic self. I want to trust myself and my intuition. I want to take risks — not mistaking that I need confidence to try new things, but instead courage. Courage to just do it, not because I know that it will work out, but because I believe it will. I want to let go of the future story and instead, let the story write itself.
On January 1, 2020, I woke up groggy and tired, probably from partying my ass off with all of my incredibly friends in Hawaii, like most 30-year-olds do. The sun shined brightly. The sky was blue. And the sea was calm.
If this New Year’s Day was another page in my story that’s unfolding daily, I’d have to say that it’s promising foreshadowing for an amazing year ahead!
Please note: This article was originally published on Medium.com. Read below or by clicking here.
When I lost my 32-year-old husband to a Uveal Melanoma eight months ago, my entire world fell apart. I went from being a loving, supportive wife and stay-at-home mom to a 19-month-old and four-year-old, to assuming several new identities including widow, father and head of household. I felt lonely, numb, scared, angry, resentful and totally incompetent trying to navigate this foreign world without my husband — my partner in crime, my best friend and soul mate who I met as a freshman in college when I was 18. We’d been together almost half of my life!
His absence left a profound void not only in my heart, but in every aspect of life — raising my kids alone, being a single 33-year-old, navigating our finances, household handy-work, the various accounts set-up in his name, and the massive list of “to-do’s” when a spouse dies. All of the intense emotions of grief in addition to the anxiety of starting a “new normal” without him, left me feeling paralyzed. I didn’t know how to even start. I was shocked by the trauma of living my worst nightmare to date and totally stuck in grief!
I remember one morning when the profoundness of my feelings left me crying in bed all morning. As a former ballerina and current spin and barre instructor, I decided to go to a yoga sculpt class and just start MOVING. Although my thoughts told me that I was stuck, my body disproved them. While I felt trapped in my mind, I felt a sense of freedom with every burpee, a hint of courage with every rep of a heavy weight, and a glimmer of hope with every drop of sweat fleeing my body. As I laid in shavasana the instructor left us with three words — I AM ENOUGH.
It was all I needed to hear.When we lose someone special in our lives, we feel a range of emotions — sadness, loneliness, despair, emptiness, numbness, fear…the list goes on. The compounded effect of so many feelings in addition to navigating life without that special someone can be overwhelming to the point of feeling helpless. Instead of trying to deal with these emotions we look for ways to escape, numb the pain and fill the void with anything we can get our hands on. For some, it’s retail therapy — shopping until the emptiness in our heart is full. For others it’s over-eating, sex, drugs, alcohol or seeking other pleasures to alleviate the pain. The list of coping strategies goes on and on. But what I’ve found through my own personal grief journey is that exercise — good old sweat therapy — has helped me not only move forward from my husband’s death, but also personally grow and find even more purpose, love and gratitude for my life without him.
Whether we believe that we are capable of moving forward from tragedy or not, the mere act of exercising moves us. Our bodies physiologically change when we workout and no matter how devastated, how paralyzed, or how hopeless our circumstances might feel, our biochemistry has shifted!
By now, we all know that exercise produces endorphins and endorphins make you happy (thank you Elle Woods!). But research goes a step further to reveal how exercise specially benefits victims of trauma — in this case someone special dying. Drawing from this body of evidence and my own personal loss, here’s a closer look at the reasons why moving helps us effectively cope with loss:
1) Grief manifests in our bodies
After my husband Ian died, there were mornings when I woke up and felt totally hungover. I had all the symptoms — headaches, brain fog, fatigue and body aches, but the thing was, I didn’t drink alcohol the night before! I felt this strange sensation in my body and didn’t understand why. So, I started learning more about grief and how it manifests in our bodies, and discovered that what I was experiencing was a full-blown grief hangover!
*Berkeley professor Robert Levenson explains that organs, tissues, skin, muscle and endocrine glands all have peptide receptors on them and can access and store emotional information. This means that emotional memory is stored in many places in the body! — not just or even primarily, in the brain.
Ah-ha! This explained everything! I can’t tell you the amount of times after Ian died where people would ask me how I was feeling and I honestly just couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t name it, but I felt it. I manifested my grief in a physical sense — not a mental one. I talked to a therapist about my feelings, which definitely helped. But, the hangover was still there.
2) Exercise creates a flow state
You know the phrase in the zone? That’s flow! Physchologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi named this state of being totally absorbed in a a task that results in enjoyment in the process. Flow can be essential to people experiencing grief because joy is at a deficit. When people are deep in grief — feeling the sadness, the loneliness, the hopelessness — it’s hard to recall what it’s like to feel happy or even normal again.
As Psychologist Adam Grant and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explain in their book Option B, “people who’ve experienced a loss often only report feeling joy because they are so engaged or absorbed in an activity.” The total engrossment in something — anything else but grief — helps people feel happy.
We can experience flow in a lot of ways. For some it’s cooking, talking to a friend for hours on end, hiking in nature, or for someone like me, it’s working out. In moments where I felt like my world was entirely unraveling and I was too emotionally, I would jump on a spin bike and lose myself in the music and choreography. I would forget about my sadness as I energetically jumped out of the saddle and escaped my loneliness watching the entire room full of bodies move together as one. It was sweat therapy at its best.
But here’s the thing…we need more than flow to truly heal. To me, flow is just the start.
Flow gives us the glimmers of hope — that light, that temporary relief, and belief that our life really isn’t all that bad. It gets us moving! Yet, the existing doubt, lack of self confidence, and fear that’s still lingering — that’s grief. And all the feelings and thoughts driving those emotions needs to be confronted and felt to truly move forward and heal from tragedy.
3) The act of moving helps us heal
As a society, we tend to charge our emotions — sadness, loneliness and anger are bad ; happiness, joy and love are good. But, they are all feelings and they all deserve reverence. Unfortunately, grief brings out a lot of these “bad” emotions, resulting in guilt or shame by the individuals experiencing them. There’s also a fear that if we get too angry we might lose control, or if we get too sad, we might get stuck — so we avoid these feelings all together.
But, bypassing these emotions increases our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them! Think of it this way, avoiding the intense emotions is just the short-term strategy. Pretending we are ok. Seeking activities — working longer harder, retail therapy — where we don’t have to deal with our sadness. But, the reality is that grief is something we can’t escape. Ever.
*In research by PhD Peter Levine, when the nervous system is stuck in a state of hyperactivity — trying hard to push the difficult feelings aside and live a normal, happy life when you’re world is falling apart — our flight or fight survival response gets caught in a loop. We get stuck. We feel like we are frozen and feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, sadness and guilt become all encompassing. All of our attention is then fixed on negative thought patterns and we get stuck in them. This pattern is hard to break and can lead to depression if not addressed.
So how do we break the cycle?
We simply get moving! Levine explains that in the animal world, after an attack by a predator or any event perceived as stressful, animals will physically shake and then run to naturally recover. They move their bodies! Humans do not have this automatic physical response, making it more likely for us to get stuck in the negative physiological, cognitive and behavioral loops that can create dissociation and a general feeling of powerlessness. When we workout, our bodies, mind and breath come together to fight off negative limiting beliefs and feelings of stuckness. This powerful combination helps us feel more in control, empowered and able to move through our pain.
So as much as exercise fosters a state of flow — an escape to a certain degree — it also provides us with an opportunity to disrupt the negative thought process and really feel the emotions that are brewing just below the surface. It helps us own our emotions so that we feel empowered by our grief, instead of a victim of it. I mean, have you been to a yoga class and cried in shavasana? THAT’s what I’m talking about! The emotions are there, but sometimes we simply need to move our bodies to break through through surface, process our feelings and truly feel them.
4) A workout comes with a kick-ass community of supporters!
One of my favorite quotes from Option B was that “resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us.” I incorporate this mantra when I teach spin classes, telling clients that when they are feeling weak and lack inner strength, to look to their neighbor for support and inspiration. I remind them that we are never alone because struggle is universal. We are all going through something — inside and outside the fitness studio. And each of us is an example to the other that we can survive…if not thrive.
There is NO WAY that I would surviving, without all of the love and support from family, friends and my fitness community. Losing someone can be terribly isolating and it’s not often that young adults know how to talk about loss — making the experience even more lonely.
After Ian died, I received a bulletin board full of pinned post-it notes containing handwritten love-filled messages from all of the riders at my spin studio! My barre studio set up a meal train for my family and sent me a beautiful picture of the constellations in the sky at the site, date and time of our wedding — a profound reminder that my husband would be with me forever despite his physical absence. Clients who I barely knew besides me screaming at them to go faster on a stationary bike individually reached out to me to share their own stories of loss and support me in my grief.
Although I felt so much pain from the void in my heart from losing Ian, the support I received filled the space of emptiness, making me feel whole. It’s been one of the most profound experiences to feel so much sadness about an event, but also gratitude for the beauty and love that resulted from it as well. The reality that we never are alone because everyone suffers, everyone feels pain, and everyone somehow survives is part of the human experience that unites us all.
5) Exercise mimics life
Since Ian died, exercise has become so much more than burning calories, toning muscles, or increasing blood flow, brain function and longevity of life. For me, fitness has become my way of life. I exercise every day. Every day, whether it’s spin, barre, yoga, HIIT or just going for a run I transform my workout into an opportunity to test my limits. I make a habit of getting uncomfortable. To me, the discomfort is an analogy for life. It’s an analogy for all of the unforeseen events that can occur — children, spouses, parents dying, accidents resulting in total paralysis, homes burning down, school shootings — all the potential trauma that would drastically alter the course of our lives. It’s the realization that there are no certainties in life and when you are truly faced with adversity you have no other choice but to adapt.
To me, fitness is practice for life’s greatest curve balls — these experiences that rattle our world, our notion of safety, comfort and what our life should look like. Exercise — testing the limits to see how heavy you can lift, how fast you can sprint, or how long you can hold a pose — shows us what we are made of. It’s proof of our ability to overcome a challenge, so that we are ready when true adversity occurs.
Tragedy. Trauma. The events that shake us so much to the core that we feel completely broken and like our whole world has fallen apart. With these events comes a choice:
to become a victim of the cards we are dealt
to rebuild to normal, or
to rebuild to something stronger.
There is not a day in the last eight months that I haven’t thought about my husband. I see his mischievous smile in my 20-month old son and his love for the water in my four-year-old daughter who would live in a pool if she could. I miss him. We all miss him. And surviving as a family of three is certainly not the life we would have chosen.
But, even though life chose this path for us, I’m profoundly aware that I still have a choice. After watching my husband lose that choice as the cancer slowly killed him, I realized how grateful I am to have that choice.
I have the choice to allow hardship, struggle and adversity to trap me — to accept the victim mindset and ask why me? — or to survive and ask what now?
My circumstance is not a choice, but I choose joy anyway. I choose to live, to be happy, and to not let this tragedy define me.
Exercise prepares us for this choice. We can give up when it gets too hard, or embrace the challenge and discover what we are truly made and maybe even get stronger.
Every time I finish a workout I’m reminded that movement is a privilege.My choice is a privilege.
After my husband Ian died, my entire world fell apart. I went from being a loving, supportive wife who stayed at home to raise her children, to assuming several new roles and identities including widow, father and head of household. I felt lonely raising my kids alone and totally incompetent trying to navigate our finances, household handy-work, and the various internet, gas & electric, insurance and other accounts and bills that had been set up in Ian’s name. I was overwhelmed tackling the “to-do” list of a deceased spouse, not to mention worrying about getting a job so that I could make money after being a stay-at-home mom for four years! The sadness of losing Ian combined with the fear and anxiety of starting a “new normal” left me feeling paralyzed — left me feeling stuck.
When we lose someone special in our lives, we feel a range of emotions — sadness, loneliness, despair, emptiness, numbness, fear…the list goes on. The compounded effect of so many emotions in addition to the navigating life without that special someone can be overwhelming to the point of feeling helpless. We feel stuck because we don’t know how to move forward.
I remember one morning when the profoundness of my feelings left me crying in bed all morning. I decided to go to a yoga sculpt class and just start MOVING. Although my thoughts told me that I was stuck, my body disproved them. While I felt trapped in my mind, I felt a sense of freedom with every burpee, a hint courage with every rep of a heavy weight, and a glimmer of hope with every drop of sweat fleeing my body. As I laid in shavasana the instructor left us with three words — I AM ENOUGH. It was all I needed to hear.
I was no longer stuck, because I had just MOVED. And, although everything outside of me was unraveling, I was reminded that I HAVE ME. Even though I didn’t know all the answers to resolve my external situation — solo-parenting, career, being single again — I realized that all I really needed was inside of me. Through movement and intention I discovered that I AM ENOUGH.
Whether we believe that we are capable of moving forward from tragedy or not, the mere act of exercising moves us. Our bodies physiologically change when we workout and no matter how devastated, how paralyzed, or how hopeless our circumstances might feel, our biochemistry has shifted! We’ve movedTHRU!