So much for my resolution to stop lobbing f-bombs.

This piece is for Phyllis Ring, whose superpower is kindness. She’s crazy good at it.

There is a point in my husband’s memorial service I think about often.

I’ve just arrived at the podium to give his eulogy. My feet — I can’t figure out where to put my feet. They keep bumping against the fing thing, as if whatever my brain is telling me to do with them is being overridden. I don’t know how they actually got me up there anyway. Because it felt more like gliding than like walking.

But I feel calm. That’s the good news, that I’m calm enough and centered enough to get this done. The eulogy is something I’m proud of and that is also reassuring. Just outside my peripheral line of sight, glimpse our minister, as always she’s wonderfully kind, in this gesture of staying close to me in case I get overwhelmed and need to turn the service over to her. As she’s always reminded me to do, I quickly check that my pages are numbered correctly, and they are. So I look up to begin.

It is standing room only.

I don’t know how long I stare out at the crowd trying to comprehend the magnitude of people filling the space. One beat, two beats? Three? Suddenly I’m reminded by my lungs that oxygen is not a gentle suggestion.

It’s literally breathtaking.

I’d been worried that we had chosen the wrong venue and that this “chapel” would be too grand and cavernous for the warm tribute I wanted for him. A few folks had reached out to me in the week before to let me know they regrettably would not be able to attend this memorial, understandable since it was the last week before the start of the school year and a busy travel week. Had I been preparing myself for an echo in here?

I scan back through the row upon row of faces trying to take it all in, landing ironically on the EXIT sign above the back doors as my centering point. It has to be far enough back to keep my delivery big enough. So everyone can hear. It occurs to me that if everyone who’d wanted to be there but couldn’t, had actually attended we would have exceeded the fire limit.

And then automatically, even though I am thoroughly touched to the deepest parts of my soul by this show of kindness, this bearing witness, even though I understand that the gliding sensation was really a manifestation of how truly supported I am by this community, even though I am so resonant with gratitude I am vibrating — I can’t help what I do next. Like a burrowing mole-like animal I dig down and down through my memory and draw from a deeply embedded chapter almost twenty-five years old. My hospice volunteer training. As I stand there trying to soak up every molecule of the palpable love present for me and my family, I also count forward by months — September22-October22-November22 — and realize that at three months out from this service we’ll be near Thanksgiving. Four months lands an almost direct hit on Christmas.

As this sinks in, I have one last thought before I begin.


When I trained as a hospice volunteer, people were just starting to talk about the way our culture rushes grief. Unfortunately, I don’t think much has changed. You’ve still only got about three months, four months if you’re lucky, to wrap up your bereavement. The part that shows, anyway. Culturally, the way we face our mortality is moving in the right direction, but glacially. At least now there is a now a burgeoning discussion about anticipatory grief, caregiver burnout, and a minuscule acknowledgment that the experience of grief is as varied as grievers themselves. But some things have remained very much the same. At 3–6 months out, usually just about the time any remaining adrenaline or shock is wearing off, right when the full force of the metric crap ton of emotion that has been bashing against the buttresses of our defense mechanisms finally breaches them, we tend to respond to grievers with…..crickets.

We do not mean to, but we bail on grievers.

Of course, knowing this I tried to interact as meaningfully as I could with every single person who reached out to us during the last weeks of my husband’s life and in the first few after his death. I tried to shore up every bit of caring, like a squirrel hoarding nuts in the fall. I also took stock of the considerable support and resources around us and pretended Nope. It’s not going to happen to me. I have what I need to stay neatly ahead of this trainGo ahead and do your worst Grief. I’ve got your number.

I felt completely comfortable telling Grief to bite me, for several reasonsFirst of all, I am especially blessed with the lifelong friendships of two women who were pretty much my personal coping concierges during my husband’s illness and death. One friend is a social worker in palliative care, so she knows her shit, and the other lost her husband several years ago when her children were very small, so unfortunately she does too. These two, plus a couple of other Musketeers alongside whom I have had the privilege of walking in this life, have made me laugh and helped me cry since we were just 13.

That is a miracle in itself, but in addition to that, I’ve been blessed with friendship and community throughout my life in such abundance that it’s astonishing to me. So my family and I were indeed carried through the toughest parts of my husband’s illness and death by people I adore and basically regard as bodhisattvas. Coping with his especially A For Asshole type of cancer was tough work, and many hands made it a smidgen lighter. People cooked for us and cleaned our house, took care of 11 and 13, listened to me whenever I needed to talk, wrote me notes and cards and emails, flew across the country to be with us, paid for our yard to be cleaned up in the spring and the fall (or raked it themselves), packed up Thanksgiving dinner in their car and brought it to us in a snowstorm, continually checked on us…there were so many hundreds upon thousands of gestures of caring that was a constant feature of our lives, it amazed me. In the last week of his life, as his dying became more laborious and he was unconscious and bedridden, friends took turns literally sleeping on a dog bed on the floor beside our bed. So we would never be alone.

Apparently, it matters very much to certain among them that I let you know it might not have actually been a dog bed, but a decorative cushion instead. My position has always been that it was a dog bed since it was sold to me in a pet store described as a dog bed, and while technically a dog bed is also a cushion, the one I remember had pictures of cartoon dogs all over it as well, making its own point about what it was. Even if my grief-addled brain confused it for one that got swapped out for a chair cushion at some point, if dogs were the ones sleeping on it-and they were-that makes it a dog bed. This has been a hotly contentious issue ever since, repeatedly discussed over several flavors of vodka. It is still not resolved. I will say this: I can’t help it if the diminutive statures of some of my short-ass friends caused them to look at a dog bed and, believing they could reasonably sleep on it, rename it.

Really though, they can call it what they wish. Because the point is, I have friends who were willing to help me help my husband die by spending the night on the floor beside us. And much more besides.

That, in addition to the fact that I have always maintained a firm commitment to contextualizing this as a transformative chapter of my life, which tended to interpret grief in a more spiritual experience, one that had no need to exclude joy or be defined by time limits, made me think, “I’ve got this”.

Grief listened blankly to all this, blew a raspberry at me, and said, “Blah, blah, blah blah blah”. And proceeded to go back to work writing my name on the kind of snowballs that have rocks in them.

As an intuitive, for almost thirty years I have worked with clients coming to terms with the death of someone important to them. I have seen different versions of the same energetic dynamic play out in every single one of their stories. At the moment of death, tremendous joy is released as the spirit leaves the body and becomes reborn to itself. The ego falls away from the person who has died, and an intense love is channeled down into the lives of those people who’ve had significant relationships with “the deceased”.

We don’t need to be in the same room as a person when they die for this to happen, but if we are, the effect of this is magnified. If you talk to someone who has been present at the moment of someone’s death, they will often attempt to articulate it using a variation of, “I don’t know how to describe it, the feeling was so blissful, so unlike anything I have ever experienced…”. They often look a little embarrassed admitting to feeling so fulfilled and complete, as if it’s a completely contrary reaction to loss.

There is difficulty in translating the abilities of the spirit once it has left the body. Since we as a culture tend not to believe in guiding spirits personal to us, we also do not expect our relationships to continue once someone has died. Nor do we understand the way they change after death. Through this, we have created a situation in which our dear ones become invisible to us just when they gain the greatest capacity to love us and enrich our lives.

After we die, there is a short period in which the spirit stays very close to our physical world, roughly two weeks. I’ve seen it take a little longer or zip by, but basically this time period functions as a period of adjustment for everyone, especially “the deceased”, to clarify: “Still alive. Just without a body”.

We then enter into a review of the life we’ve just completed, both as a stand-alone and in the context of all our other lifetimes. This can happen very quickly or take years, and it’s also hard to quantify using earth time language, especially because time doesn’t really exist on “the other side”. On average, most of the people that have spoken to me have said their review took about 2–6 months. When someone is in their review, it goes very quiet on my end. As a medium I cannot contact them. There is no contact between spheres during this holy, sacred time.

The most important characteristic of the review is the quality of forgiveness that instantaneously organizes our consciousness when we die. Not only do we have an immediate, expansive acceptance of every difficulty or challenge we faced while living in a body, but we experience ourselves as having been completely connected in love to those around us who were struggling with their own challenges too. And we realize we are still connected to them through love.

It is the natural extension of this unbroken connection that infuses the lives of the people left behind. As soon as the review is over, spirits get to work helping their loved ones’ lives transform.

In my practice, I’ve found it’s all well and good explaining this to my clients if the relationship between the person who died and their partner/relative/friend was on good terms. But what if the person who died was estranged to us? Or abusive? Or if it was complicated?

What if the person who died was simply a big jerk?

It doesn’t matter. Even if you are still feeling completely hurt by or pissed off at the person who died, even if the first thing you do when you find out they are dead is mutter, “Good riddance,” and go pour boiling water on all the ugly shrubbery they insisted on planting (true story, although not mine), you now have a new spirit guide. That guide is going to offer you protection, abundance, prosperity, and awareness. Whether you like it or not.

And as that wave of transformation and love blasts through your life, anything that’s blocking it will be removed. Your mission as a human is this: to be a sacred expression of the highest good for the greatest number, and your guides are mandated to help you manifest this.

That may mean you have to become a different person.

(Hint: If you’re worried I’m talking about you in this section, I’m not.)

Down here in Earthtown, what happened to me is exactly what I was cautioned about. It was textbook, in fact. Within a few weeks of my husband’s actual death, most people outside my innermost circle had disappeared. By three months, I was struggling with the realization that several people I had considered myself close to had also removed themselves to a safe distance. Back in hospice training, I’d learned that usually, this type of social waning continues incrementally, so at six months and at nine months, you can continue to mark each period of time in the first year of grief not only by how long it’s been since the actual death of a loved one but also by the increasing absence of people who cannot adapt to the changes in a griever without judgment or discomfort. I had been warned by a couple people, along the lines of you’re going to find out who your real friends are.

I hadn’t believed them. I see now the mistake I made was believing that because I understood this intellectually, I was somehow inoculated. I was so determined to keep moving forward and not get knocked back, I’d just bowed my head into the wind and carried on.

But get knocked back I did. In some ways, it was worse than if I’d been struggling for months to get out of bed. At least then I wouldn’t have been expecting too much of myself. The day before Thanksgiving I was joyous and filled with gratitude for how well we were doing. Then I woke up on Thanksgiving morning so sad that I could hardly move. The holiday at my relatives was so awkward that I felt like I’d walked smack into a beehive and gotten stung all over. Turns out, everyone wanted us to feel so much better that not one person asked us how we actually were feeling. We were told over and over again how well we were doing. No one mentioned my husband’s name. We were also told how often everyone had been thinking of us, which was interesting since it was literally the first time we’d actually seen any of them since the memorial service.

Which made me wonder if I’d made it up, all the promises those same relatives had made to my husband while he was still alive. About how they were going to really be there for our sons.

And then when we made the serious error of accidentally crying at the table during the annual go-round when we all list what we’re grateful for, I was jokingly chided for bragging, as if my gratitude for my amazing children who were still functioning after everything they’d been through was inappropriate. My youngest lost his appetite soon after and had to leave the table.

Itgot worse as we entered December. All through that first horrible holiday season without him, anytime I left the house I was continually told how brave I was, how I must be feeling, how strong I was, how much I was thought of. I had more offers of help if I needed anything, anything at all, thrown into conversations just before they ended. All I needed to do was ask. Except they weren’t real offers. They were signatures on conversations that were beginning to make people feel uncomfortable.

Actually “conversations” is probably a little inaccurate. I didn’t talk a lot.

The things my children needed, like time with those who knew my husband well, or the space to just feel bad with those that had known and loved him too, were not on offer. And the thing I needed, which was just simply to be asked how I was and allowed to have my own answer, was terrifying to most people. I still had a tight posse who held me close and gave me those things, so generously. But in general, I learned first hand about how deeply disquieting death is for most people.

Then, the week before Christmas, as if the bees that had stung me at Thanksgiving had evidently had gone on to mate with another group of even more insensitive dumbshit bees, thereby producing a special kind of hybrid killer babies whose mission was to show up and slam their stingers right into me? Well, they organized an almost comically bizarre one-two-three cluster of stings over a two-day period that sent me out to walk my dogs in the rain laughing and crying hysterically:

A woman I would have described to you as a good friend texted to ask if I knew where her lasagna pan was that she’d brought to the shiva. Not only had I had not heard from her in over two months, I hadn’t had anything to do with the shiva.

The next day my husband’s therapist called me to see how he was doing. I was literally speechless. She, astute as ever, finally said, “Did he die?”. After she hung up, I realized she was probably wanting to close out her bookkeeping for the year.

I checked the mail and read that our oldest family friends, who had made no plans with us for any part of the Christmas holidays and who my children related to as de facto grandparents, had given my husband a one-sentence mention in their Christmas letter. In passing, between an extensive description of a trip they had taken and the long summer visit they had spent with friends from overseas who visited coincidentally during my husband’s final weeks. We saw them once during that time, for five minutes, when they stopped by to say hello, on their way to the beach.

I finished the letter, put on my rain gear, and wondered if maybe they’d actually stopped by to say goodbye.

Now I do want to take a moment here to state unequivocally that I don’t believe that any of this was anybody’s fault. Although I was on the receiving end of some curiously insensitive behavior, I don’t blame individuals for my difficulty. We’re all part of a culture whose only defense against the terror of death and dying is just that — to defend against it.

I also believe it was entirely appropriate that people’s lives returned to normal around us. It would have been impossible and problematic for everyone to continue to show up for us the way they had while my husband was sick and dying. I could not have continued talking about how I was feeling with everyone who asked, or I would have had to hire someone to actually live my life for me while I was giving a continual press conference in the other room. In actuality it would have been no better to stay wrapped up in an emotional overwhelm loop than it would be to subvert the loss, under pressure from our society that tends to regard real life as somewhat icky and unclean.

I think the problem is that for periods of time, grievers will find their feelings are anything but manageable. And there is no “right way” to grieve. But when those feelings hit, hours out of a day or days out of a week, whether they be ones that are thawing out from storage where they were put during the caregiving phase, or feelings that are surfacing because the loss is one that has also ripped the bandaid off of older, deeper wounds, the accompanying mood — the gift with purchase — is deep, bone-chilling isolation.

I don’t know why. I wasn’t alone. I knew I wasn’t. Maybe it’s because even though outwardly we strive for meaningful lives, it’s kinda lip service, and people only really want the sound bites. Maybe we actually only like leaving the shallow end of the pool when it’s our own idea. Getting dragged into the deep end where you are shoved under over and over again until you are gasping for breath isn’t commonly regarded as a total blast. When someone goes into the deep end, maybe we just don’t have enough practice going there with them without feeling like we’re going to drown too.

Why did I feel so scared for my kids and alone when I knew how lucky we had been? So many people loved us! And a sizeable number of people continued to stay in touch and did exceedingly kind, generous things for us long after we began to fall off the radar for most. I realized later that the stalwarts, the ones that kept asking me to lunch, kept doing drive-bys to see if I was home, kept asking was there anything they could do? had one thing in common: they’d gotten knocked on their asses from a loss, too. And I came to appreciate those people and their simple, small gestures as deeply nourishing. Like little miracles. I cherished them as signs that the Universe had not forgotten about us. They steadied us when we fell into the very bad habit of projecting how were feeling into the uncertain future. I suppose it’s great being under construction if you know roughly what the end result is, and that it will be good. But when the worst has already happened, keeping one’s chin up is a bit more challenging. All those reserves of faith need replenishing. So anyone who did anything special or extra during this period no matter how small the gesture, was really performing a huge service on our behalf, they were in essence, reminding us that we weren’t hurtling through the void in the backseat of some space taxi driven by an alien madman. Even by telling us they were thinking of us, they were reminding us we were alive. They tethered us to what was undeniably good.

But the kindness of the people who knew to keep knocking, or send jokes, or bring some small yummy treat, threw a certain kind of shade on another category of relationships that were in the process of melting down.

By three months, certain of my relationships had basically gone back to the way they always had been. But I hadn’t.

They all were moving on, into very very “busy” lives evidently. They spent a lot of time telling me exactly how busy. I, however, did not have the energy to keep connection intact at any cost. My energy was completely tapped out getting through each day, getting used to being a single parent, trying to conceive of a hopeful future. It’s not a bad thing, to work hard to keep connection to someone we love. But very significantly, I was noticing how some of the people (I’d thought we were closest to) were acting and speaking like they were really there for us….but we actually never saw them anymore. Had it always been this way? Without thinking about it had I just always just done a large amount of the heavy lifting, likely more than my share, to keep connection intact? Under the scrutiny of the pressure that the loss put on these relationships, I was starting to notice discrepancies that yes, had always been a feature of them. I’d gotten most of my emotional needs met from giving, was tolerating what was intolerable, constantly providing a kind of selflessness that I thought was character building, but now couldn’t maintain.

And I did not like it anymore.

And while it was quite true that the holidays are a busy time, I had a burgeoning sense that busy was one thing but absent was more likely what was going on. It hurt too much for these folks to get too close to death. I was hoping someone would step up and join me in trying to make some special moments for the boys, whose father was acutely gone. Whether they had their own encapsulated loss, and had to keep moving in order for it not to surface, or for some other reason, I noticed we became a little contagious to them. They were quite happy, from a distance, to comment all the time on how remarkably I was doing, how in awe of my strength they were, but they also disappeared from any real contact. That way they wouldn’t risk being there when my kids burst into tears or we fought the exhaustion (and lost) that made us a little dull to be around. I know they didn’t mean to act this way. In all of the cases, I know they also have no idea they were doing it.

But it hurt, quite a lot, and this became the tipping point at which I started leeching sadness. I ended up spending a lot of time staring off into space or playing bubble-popping games on my iPad, or binge-watching crime dramas on Netflix. And I despised this in myself. It made the pain worse to see myself as somehow impaired or incapacitated by my husband’s death, so I worked harder to be fine.

Yeah, that did not work at all.

What finally helped was just belly flopping right into it. Never very good at saying, “Ouch,” I had to just lay down and let the feelings be as intensely horrible as they were. I felt abandoned. I did, and Goddammit, I was so pissed about that! It made me feel all victimy and mopey. That was such a repellant feeling, it ate up whatever reserves I had left and drop-kicked me off the edge into deep, deep sorrow. It surprised me with its potency.

There at the bottom of Five Month Canyon, I made my long list of all the things I simply couldn’t believe people had done or said, or hadn’t done and hadn’t said. But very quickly I clearly saw that embedded in my upset were expectations, that people would act towards me in the way that I would towards them in a similar situation. In each relationship leveraging the most disappointment, I’d actually had no evidence, and sometimes evidence to the contrary, that these were people who despite what they declared, actually were inclined to act the way I hoped they would.

With that realization, I began to suspect the transformation train had well and truly pulled into town. Even though every room in my house was being turned upside down with repairs and renovation, even though I was taking car load after car load of donations to the thrift store of things I no longer wanted or needed, even though I was redefining my work in new ways, I had tried to keep a part of my heart on reserve, immune from suffering.

The pain slowed me down, enough so I might say “Yes,” when I finally saw the opportunity in front of me. First of all, I needed to learn to tell the truth and say “ouch”, with full legitimacy. But also, it would help if I ditched the need to judge who was “ouching” me. And the need to judge myself for why I hadn’t done a better job protecting myself from hurt.

In order to be truly transformed, I would need to accept the capacities of others without expectation or blame. And then stop investing in those relationships with everything I had.

In no way did acceptance mean I had to tolerate what was intolerable. It did not mean that I wouldn’t need to cut the other people, who as much as humanly possible showed up for me, some slack now and then.

Acceptance was the gateway to truly having a choice. For the first time in my life, I could choose into which relationships I would invest my heart, energy, time, and treasure.

If there had been a mad crush of people tending to me at the time, I doubt I would have had the quiet or space for these old patterns and illusions to reveal themselves to me, in just the perfect way for me to examine them and say, “Enough!”

Of course one relationship that needed changing was with myself. I saw that to the exact extent that I chose to be hurt by the ways in which people had bailed, I was exactly and in equal measure, guilty of bailing on myself. I saw the price I had paid for beating the hell out of myself reflexively as a response to difficulty, for just for being human, or making mistakes, or being in pain. I clearly saw that if I could not enthusiastically embrace the idea of having compassion for my own damn self, every lesson of my life would return me to that practice point anyway, so I’d better adopt a friendlier posture to it. I had just been through one of the hardest things a person can go through, and I deserved my own appreciation of how hard it was and how well I’d done. I deserved my own kind regard.

Good God it was dark down there at the bottom! But there was just enough light to illuminate the next step. I found myself wondering finally, who was I to withhold my own worthiness from myself ? What was I waiting for?

Most of the time I am not grieving what people think I am. In large ways and small ways, the message that’s been constantly conveyed to me is that my grief is the horrible agony of missing my husband, that will always be present like a hole in my heart, a deep chasm, a spiritual void, and I must learn to bear up under its deep, dragging pain for all eternity. It’s impossible, but trudge on I must.

Um. Not really my version. Generally not a needy person, plus I talk to him anytime I want, plus I could hold forth for a long time on how us Grieving Widows think it’s pretty sexist contextually. Adam’s rib and all. But my point is, who wouldn’t be sick of this grief narrative? Three months up next to that situation, I’d bail too!

Listen, grief is loss, of course it is. I feel the missing them part. But grief is also the change part, the psychic and spiritual readjustments required of those who didn’t die. It’s also the release part, the physical demands of caregiving and sadness that require a restoration of the body. It’s also the empathy partWhen I think of how the loss of their father will speak to who my children are, I cannot stop crying. When I reflect on how hard my husband fought against the reality that he was dying, because the actual fact of it was so cruel and incomprehensible, that at 51 years old he was being ordered away from the people he loved the most in the world, it lays me flat.

But grief is also the transformation part. In which, mysteriously, we become more, even measured against the sum of our losses. In which the wave of energy moving through our lives leaves us with greater capacities: to be more honest, stronger, more resilient, kinder, more capable of fun and joy.

Life must go on.

Fuck yeah. It so does.

Especially for one brave woman, my friend who slept in a chair, which was next to my husband’s bed, which was next to my cot. The three of us in a hospital room on the night he died.

Should we warn her? After all, she was there in the room at the very moment of death. She stirred awake when his breathing stopped and noticed his head had turned toward me. He was gone and I was still asleep. This wonder of a woman let herself fall back asleep so I could discover on my own that my husband had passed.

So would we be equally as kind to give her a head’s up on the imminent tsunami of transformation that any minute now will be raining change upon her? Sorta like radiation poisoning?

Maybe the Universe, in its more gentle way, has already given her a hint. Single for almost a decade, she recently revealed she’d been on a date. And that it had gone well. And although she wasn’t feeling charged up about it, wasn’t needing it to be anything more than it was, being already in possession of a rich, full life that is a good fit…she noticed something. A little, quiet something. Indescribably subtle, yet significant. This person, out on this date with her, felt…..different.

And she felt different.

Go, Girl.

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