Delightful surprises could lurk behind the anticipated ‘Bah Humbug’ of a new widow’s Christmas

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BlogChristmas

For many recent widows and widowers, the idea of celebrating their first Christmas without their spouse opens a window of dread akin to being force-fed a fruitcake.

As unique individuals, we have different ways of dealing with the grief of finding ourselves alone during a holiday dedicated to family celebrations and long-held rituals and traditions. Some of us may refuse to do any holiday decorating, including any kind of Christmas tree. We may hole up in our widow’s quarters and shut out the world, wallowing in self-pity. Totally understandable.

My high school friend Don, a widower for many years now, admits he hated the idea of Christmas, since he had spent every holiday with his beloved Mary since age 17. He felt like his life was over when the holidays rolled around after her November 1 death. All his memories were wrapped up in her and he just knew he could never top the life he had once lived.

He knows now he was wrong. His daughter would not listen to his protests that he just wanted to be left alone for Christmas. He spent the holidays with her and his son-in-law’s extended family, including his Jewish and Lutheran parents. It was such a different celebration, it temporarily took his mind away from his sorrow. Each holiday since has been a little easier, even while he never forgets to honor his late wife’s memory.

For another high school friend, Donna, doing something different over the holidays helped her get through that first Christmas without her husband. “Trying to make everything the same brings up too many memories.” She reports that instead of the big family dinner, her family had a chili cook off and hit the Dollar Store for silly gifts as prizes for games. She also made a special remembrance tree ornament for herself and each of the adult kids.

“Also remember that there will be times when your spouse’s death is going to hit like a ton of bricks,” she advises, adding the examples of hearing a certain song, seeing a Christmas movie, a gift, anything. “It’s okay to have some mini-breakdowns,” she concludes.

For myself, this first holiday without my husband is punctuated with distractions. I am having the kitchen re-decorated and trying hard not to get sheetrock dust and glue anywhere near the ingredients for holiday confections that I insist on making, just like I have every year since I was old enough to follow my own mother’s example. I will never forget her making beautiful Swedish tea rings decorated with frosting and green and red maraschino cherries to give as gifts to friends and neighbors . . . (and she was German, not Swedish, but they were works of art that I drooled over).

This first year I have tried to follow the admonitions of my church to make Advent a mini-Lent through almsgiving. I went through the massive and unnecessary multitudes of our holiday decorations and gave many of them to a local nursing home. I will be going to that same nursing home on Christmas Day to have dinner with my husband’s stepmother, even though she will not remember the celebration a few minutes after I leave.

On Christmas Eve, the time I dread the most, I will be singing with a choir at two services, then having a few of the members of the group to my house for a buffet. One of them is a man who just lost his wife after a nine-year battle with cancer and is himself suffering from Parkinson’s, and the man moved this week into an assisted living facility.

I predict, that with this activity, I will fly through the holidays relatively unscathed and land in the doldrums of January just in time for a meltdown. But why borrow trouble, right? If my friends and acquaintances can get through a tough time, I certainly can too.

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For now, as the days dwindle in the lead-up to a major annual event, surprises and delights are surely in store. New memories will be made, especially with a 15-month-old grandson whose wonder at twinkle lights and a fat bearded man in red can be soaked up vicariously and eagerly, along with some cuddles and kisses. A new vulnerability will lead me to do things like I did this morning and be moved to tears by an article in the newspaper about slave labor in Thailand that produces much of the shrimp we eat.

The rawness of emotion that I now wear on my sleeve like a Girl Scout badge may allow me to feel and experience precisely what I need in a season dedicated to remembering the birth of One who will dry our tears and lead us to a reunion with all our loved ones.

I’m grateful for toilet tissue

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In all the Facebook posts about gratitude, have you ever seen someone express thankfulness for toilet paper?

Well, think about it. Where would we be today without cushiony, perforated tissue (disregarding arguments about which way it should be placed on the holder)?

Anyone who has ever traveled to a developing country and had to rough it outside the confines of a luxury hotel can tell you what a precious commodity Charmin is. In Brazil, way back when as I learned to rough it as a Peace Corps volunteer, toilet paper came only in the consistency of ugly crepe paper. Once used, it could not be put down the toilet for fear it would clog up the works, so it was confined to a wastebasket, providing a constant room un-freshener. (Sorry, was that too much information?)

Ask your grandparents or parents their opinion of the evolution of bathroom dry goods. For them, toilet tissue may loom large in the comforts of life. It represents a move away from cold, smelly outhouses and Sears and Roebuck catalog pages; or worse, shelled corn cobs.

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Now to the object of this discussion: This week, as you gather with family members and stuff yourselves into oblivion so you can watch the football games with eyes glazed over from satiety, ditch the usual drama and talk to your elders. If you can’t record their anecdotes with a digital recorder of some kind, make mental or physical notes about their wisdom. What are they grateful for? They probably have not expressed their gratitude on Facebook so how else will you know what they deem their life’s blessings?

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For an ex-mother-in-law, I’ll bet that sliced, store bread would rank right up there with her first automatic washer. For her, it represented the ultimate luxury and freedom for her own mother from the daily grind of getting hands to elbows dirty with flour. It might have even been a badge of privilege to open a school lunch box to reveal: Viola! A sandwich made with store-bought bread instead of that coarse homemade stuff…. plus a scorer of brownie points with less fortunate classmates.

Our ancestors and elder family members probably found God’s blessings in similar mundane details of daily life . . . things that we have been taking for granted for decades. How will we know what those blessings amounted to unless we ask? How will their voices sing to us from the grave unless they are recorded in some way?

It’s time to draw up a new set of resolutions, well ahead of the New Year. Resolve to talk to your elder relatives, listen to their stories and record them in some way. Find out what they appreciate about toilet tissue. Soon you will be looking at this commodity with more gratefulness, through the eyes of those who saw its advent with much thanksgiving.

Widowhood: Free to be a sports fan again

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The Halloween pumpkin my son carved this year was frequently photographed by trick-or-treaters' parents.

The Halloween pumpkin my son carved this year was frequently photographed by trick-or-treaters’ parents.

During the 21 years I was married to my late husband, our lives revolved around our newspaper, gardening and maintaining a home, 20 acres and assorted outbuildings, plus a number of domestic animals. Seldom was there any room left over for sports.

But in a previous marital incarnation, sports was a family pastime. If it was Sunday, males and females alike gathered around the console television in the large living room of some family member. If food preparation was occurring in a kitchen, there was always a reassuring murmur of a familiar sportscaster as background music. If we were on the road or on vacation, the radio was always tuned to a baseball game, professional football or baseball match or college ball.

I grew up in the pre-Title IX era when girls were cheerleaders or pep club members and our main form of physical exertion took place in a school gym, while wearing ugly one-piece gym suits with our names stenciled on the pocket; this followed always by a requisite shower.

Only when I got married the first time did I put my foot in the sports waters, trying my hand at golf and a few coed softball leagues. I was a miserable failure, except for making the winning catch to end the season in a women’s softball game. But I learned to be a great spectator.

And now, thanks to the Kansas City Royals, and a newly echoing house, I’ve rediscovered my lost sports affinity.

Those who study the stages of grief always note that having a television or radio on at night helps fool us into thinking there’s someone else in the house. It can be a comforting noise, especially if you’re tuned in to an athletic competition. Golf is a sure cure for insomnia (why do those announcers talk in a whisper, anyway?) NFL football is a great background for fixing an autumn Sunday meal, even if it’s only a meal for one. I’ve learned that baseball playoffs and a successful World Series can chase the blues away magically. So thank you, sports teams, for giving me a new temporary distraction and focus.

These days I read sports articles to the end, especially since they’re the dominant front page story. All the while I marvel at a segment of journalism that gets to break the rules of headline writing and sentence structure. This is journalism that is entertaining yet informative. Until I read Sam Mellinger’s front page story this morning, I had no clue that eight of the Kansas City Royals’ playoff wins were achieved in the sixth inning or later after coming from behind, sometimes by two or more runs. In fact, our home team is the “greatest rally team in more than 100 years of playoff baseball.”

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So, I join thousands, perhaps millions, of newly rabid fans in World Series excitement and pride. I can now surprise my son by occasionally talking baseball. And I am so glad our colors are royal blue, as that is one of my Color Me Beautiful complementary shades. I was waiting to buy my t-shirt until it could say “World Series Champs.”

My only challenge in watching last night’s game was calming down my dogs. Every time I yelled, they were ready to go into action and kick some butt. However, I believe the Mets were on the receiving end of some of that by some wonderful royal blue dogs.

New chapter continues: Letting go of symbols and possessions

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For widows, the farewells continue with the shedding of physical reminders of a mate's life.

For widows, the farewells continue with the shedding of physical reminders of a mate’s life.

It seems like a year has sped by instead of only three months since a new life chapter began, preceded by a death. I never dreamed that getting rid of my late husband’s truck would fill me with despair.

Every day since July I looked out my kitchen window and saw a symbol of the presence of a male at this address. Trucks are usually guy things and Lemonade Man was a great admirer of shiny hunks of metal and chrome.

We recently went a whole six months with only one vehicle. We saved a bunch of money that winter and early spring, even though we no longer had access to four-wheel drive. Inevitably, I watched his eyes scan the line of trucks at a local dealership until one day he spotted a must-have: a Toyota Tacoma already equipped with a tonneau cover,  bed liner, chrome running boards and a backup camera. It came to our house to live, even though a neighbor offered to loan us his truck anytime we needed one.

But it sat in the driveway mostly, because diabetes had reduced my husband’s vision to 20/scary. When he developed mobility problems due to muscle wasting, we purchased a big hunk of corrugated aluminum that fit in the receiver hitch of the truck and folded down to accommodate the mobility scooter he had bought years earlier in anticipation of diminishing health. That carrier was on the vehicle the week he died; never once was it used.

For weeks I had put off the inevitable trip to the nearest Car Max. Finally, I admitted there was no way to drive two vehicles at once, continue making two payments or hold on to a truck just for snow days. Delighted with the offer of purchase, I made arrangements for a ride home, dug out title and payoff information and drove that cute white thing one last time, luckily avoiding another trip to the gas pump. The low fuel light came on just as I turned the corner to Car Max.

So with things going so well, why was I so tearful? I had to choke back a flood of sadness as I signed on the dotted line and watched that symbol of married life driven to the back lot for whatever its ultimate fate would be.

It was one thing to empty a dresser full of brand new underwear or to clean out the garage and donate my late mate’s tools and fishing poles to relatives and charities. The truck was totally different.

Suddenly the singsong rhyme I had just read to my grandson (after reading it to his dad every night 30-some years ago) popped into my head. Except that “Goodbye Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown now had totally different lyrics. Here’s what happens when reality smacks a widow in the head . . . a head with an already morbid sense of humor:

Goodbye Truck (with apologies to Margaret Wise Brown)

On the great steep driveway

Was a cute white truck

And nearby a flower bed

With roses of deep red

And there were two little dogs and a white cat

Waiting inside for the man with the hat

To come in and fetch them for a ride

Or at least acknowledge them with pride.

But he didn’t come in and greet them with a hug.

He couldn’t, you see

He had left with me

Three months ago next Thursday

For just a short hospital stay.

But he didn’t return

And today it was time

To drive to Car Max and say…

Goodbye white truck.

Goodbye and good luck.

Goodbye yard projects

Goodbye plans to haul things.

Goodbye future door dings.

Goodbye visits and vacations

And hoped-for trips to far-off stations.

Goodbye to the man who was co-pilot.

He always said when he was alive

As I backed down the drive,

“Don’t hit my truck,”

Because one time I did,

In the dark,

Not knowing he would park

Right behind my car in the garage.

Goodbye truck

Goodbye mate

Goodbye to a physical representation

Of good times and bad

Goodbye sweet dreams of all that we had.

So long symbol,

Goodbye physical reminder

Of one whose end could have been kinder.

I know someday I will see you anew

In another time and a special place

Perhaps with a turn of fortunes and luck

You’ll again have a heavenly new truck.

Mundane memories and the first solo road trip

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Since my husband's death, it's my job to wind his grandfather clock...a job I seem good at forgetting.

Since my husband’s death, it’s my job to wind his grandfather clock…a job I seem good at forgetting.

Widows and widowers often mark their progress along the recovery road by specific milestones or “firsts.” These markers could be as simple and mundane as forgetting something silly, due to the distracted and preoccupied mental state we’re in at the time or to the fact that the forgotten tasks or items never used to belong to us before death intervened.

It was my late mate who always wound the grandfather clock I bought him on our first anniversary. In fact, during his lengthy illness, it became the source of an argument one day. He chided me for letting the weights get almost to the bottom of the clock case. In my typical overwhelmed caregiver mode, I retorted, “Winding the clock is the least you could do.” Yes, I know, shame on me in retrospect. Later, we always joked about that moment.

I came home from an overnight trip Saturday to find those weights almost at the bottom of the case again. That discovery followed an earlier realization that I had driven to and from Columbia, MO with less than a quarter tank of gas in the car.

I could no longer blame my oversights on my mate as being his job assignments to wind the clock or play cop to my forgetfulness where the gas gauge is concerned.

Despite the gas tank level, the trip that emptied it was one of the previously mentioned recovery milestones…the first trip away from home since my husband’s death.

Traveling is usually far from the radar of couples dealing with a prolonged illness. Pain and suffering can keep you homebound or racking up frequent flier miles at hospitals or urgent care clinics.

In spite of his disease and discomfort, my husband and I managed over the past few years to make occasional road trips to a professional meeting. We enjoyed renewing friendships with colleagues and getting a much-needed change of scenery and perspective on those rare occasions.

Shortly after my mate died, I decided to make reservations to attend the same professional gathering. Guilt over being the surviving spouse and some grave misgivings almost caused me to back out. But the dog-sitter had already been paid, so I pointed the car with little gas in the direction of Columbia and was soon basking in the warmth of familiar friends and stimulating workshop presentations. Affirmation soon showed itself in the form of an In Memorium program that I had forgotten was always part of the annual meeting. My husband’s name was on a list of colleagues who had died during the year, so I was grateful to be present at the program.

Twinges of pain and loss did crop up at odd moments during the trip. I noticed the little sample size soap and shampoo bottles at the hotel bathroom that my mate would have insisted on bringing home. Then there were the multiple pens and notebooks he would have snatched off the registration table and the many t-shirts and other freebies he picked up at the trade shows. I just discovered a truckload of those freebies stashed away in a forgotten corner of the house and now get to figure out what charity or what trash bin to transfer them to.

As I checked out of the same hotel the two of us stayed in just a year ago, I headed back west, anxious to greet the dogs and cat back home and retreat to the familiarity of my hidey hole home. But impulsively I took the exit ramp at Rocheport to grab a bottle of Grape Goose Grape Juice from the winery. Sadness soon descended at the memory of doing the exact same thing a year ago with my mate.

With the help of a Barbara Streisand CD on the car stereo, accompanied by someone suddenly freed from fears of singing off-key, I made my way back home. The sun was shining through glorious, fleecy clouds. God was present all around and hope was in the fall air. Recovery milestones are ticking by as quickly as the mile markers along I-70. There will be another one to check off on the day I don’t need reminders to wind the clock or check my gas gauge.

Widows and widowers have many opportunities to journey through grief into freedom and new joy.

Widows and widowers have many opportunities to journey through grief into freedom and new joy.

Widow Journal Part II: Knowing when to ask for help

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My almost-completed deck staining/sealing project. Sloppy for a beginner but at least it's good enough.

My almost-completed deck staining/sealing project. Sloppy for a beginner but at least it’s good enough.

The Bible readings at church this morning spoke of widows and orphans. I can now sympathize with the widows of the Old and New Testament, even though I resist that identification. They were considered the most helpless individuals throughout history, with good reason.

But fast forward to the 21st century, and at least widows are no longer deemed helpless. As a stubborn female who has always prided herself on being able to use power tools and do chores on her own, I have entered this new chapter of life without a mate determined to tackle some of the more male-oriented tasks that my late husband had to put on the back burner due to ill health.

With just a tiny bit of trepidation, I tackled the staining and sealing of our deck and patio (learning through mistakes and sloppiness). I went to Sears and bought a new self-propelled lawn mower when I became fearful that the rider in the shed was going to tip over in our steep yard. Like an idiot, I mowed both the front and back yards in one afternoon, trying to keep up with the self-propulsion that went a little too fast for my tastes and arthritic knees.

I even put both my dogs on the grooming bench yesterday and trimmed their muzzles and the fur on their feet, just like I’d watched my husband do so many times before.

But by golly, a simple little 48 inch fluorescent light tube nearly did me in. I’ve replaced those suckers before without too much cursing. Today nothing worked. Add to that the fact that my old washer finally gave out and leaked all over the basement. I’m not strong enough to move it out of the way and my newer one into place.

Finally admitting I could qualify as a helpless widow, I called my brother-in-law to ask for help from my nephews, knowing my son would not appreciate driving 45 minutes one way to put a light tube in a stupid socket.

See, that’s the thing. We are called to be humble, and widowhood will put you there fast. Widows, widowers and others on their own need to learn the power of discernment. We have to overcome our embarrassment and fears of being a burden on others and admit we need the help occasionally. We also should realize that most folks welcome the opportunity to be helpful to widows and orphans; they just might need to be asked.

So, when my basement family room is once again illuminated, when my standby washer is maneuvered into place by my much stronger and more capable nephews, I will go back to doing my normal widow things. These things include, but are not limited to the following:

–Marking time by how many weeks have passed since the funeral and doing a self-assessment of mental progress and spiritual growth.

–Marking the time also by mundane things like trash days and daily to-do lists.

–Staying insanely busy to keep from being overwhelmed by emotional pain and self-pity; just letting those things descend on nights and Sunday evenings, and then only just a little.

–Learning the full meaning of the term “third wheel” and of cruel sayings like, “It’s a couples’ world.”

–Thanking God and the entertainment industry for Netflix while wondering what to watch once I’m finished with 130 episodes of “The Medium.”

Comfort food and lots of it could prove to be less than healthy.

Comfort food and lots of it could prove to be less than healthy.

–Realizing with a pang of guilt that keeping grief at bay by eating my way through Great Harvest Bakery’s offerings and those little Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cups might not be the healthiest thing to do.

–Slapping my hand off the iPad before ordering yet another item on the Internet that I probably don’t really need, knowing my late husband would probably come back to life to chastise me for it if he could.

–Noticing with disgust that the air conditioner hose is clogged and leaking all over the basement floor, then wondering if I am up to getting the compressor from the garage to the basement and then figuring out how to unhook said hose. Maybe this is a nephew call.

–Realizing that calling for help too often would quickly wear out my welcome. I have a friend whose widowed mother could not understand why her grandsons would not be able to come and mow her yard once a week, driving 150 miles one way to do so, even though she promised to pay them $10.

The Widow Journal: Helpful Tips for Surviving the Death of a Spouse

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Planting living things of beauty can provide soul-cleansing activity as well as being a fitting memorial to a deceased loved one.

Planting living things of beauty can provide soul-cleansing activity as well as being a fitting memorial to a deceased loved one.

Monday marked four weeks since my husband died in a local hospital. His death finally ended the suffering brought on by multi-system ailments–one of those cases where an exit brings a kind of blessed relief, calling to mind the trite saying, “Well, at least he’s not suffering any more.”

Suffering is for survivors. And so is cleaning up, sorting out, legal wrangling, bill paying and spending sleepless nights adjusting to a quietly echoing vacuum where a spouse once resided.

There is no right way to grieve and no one does it the same way, with the same circumstances. So there are no rules or roadmaps, but for those who travel that road or will in the near future, here is a list of what is proving helpful for this new widow.

  1. Busy is best, the more physical the better. Once the flurry of funeral activity ends, it can be soul-cleansing to tackle a project you may have put off when you were in a caretaking and supportive role. For me, it was planting three hydrangea bushes in my back yard and finally tackling the weedy expanse that bordered my driveway. Maybe it’s just me, being a Kansas country girl from birth, but digging in the dirt and watching things grow can be so satisfying and therapeutic. And even if you don’t have a green thumb, you might find solace by just visiting a greenhouse and smelling the plants and soil, feasting your eyes on colors and textures and using your nose to take in the living, thriving things. It could take your mind off of the opposite.
  1. Take care of yourself. We hear this admonition all the time as widows and widowers, but it is important, since it is all too easy for the grief to lead to despair and illness. The next advice does not apply to the male griever, but there is surely an equivalent activity to treating yourself to a trip to a hair salon or nail salon. I am eternally grateful for the trend in modern salons to massage your scalp during a shampoo and to massage your arms and legs during a mani-pedicure. So grateful, in fact, that I plan to make these treats a regular regimen, as long as the bank account will allow. Which brings me to a third tip, dealing with finances.
  1. Learn to deal with the scary arena of money. If you are one of those unlucky survivors whose spouse always handled financial transactions, enlist the help of a trusted advisor to help you navigate the treacherous waters of changing bank accounts, applying for survivor benefits through Social Security, changing beneficiaries and title on death clauses, filing life insurance claims, etc.

This area can be overwhelming for the uninitiated, but getting organized and developing a degree of expertise is a must. Just breathe deeply, tell yourself you can do it, and dive in. The water is cold at first, but you’ll get used to it.

  1. Don’t panic, don’t rush to decisions. Give yourself time to adjust to your new circumstances. You don’t have to put your house on the market, sell a vehicle or make a rash decision that you could live to regret. Again, breathe deeply, let your rational self come to the forefront, and your many years of life experience will eventually prevail. One of my first thoughts was to trade my two vehicles for one to lower my car payment. Wisdom (and my wise son) said to wait and perhaps use life insurance funds to eliminate any car payments, especially since my monthly income is suddenly dramatically reduced by the lack of a second Social Security check.
  1. Tap into your spirituality. This is the most important time in your life to learn to put your trust in God. Answers come in prayers, comfort comes in dreams and healing can ensue from attending church services. Yes, you may be brought to tears like I was when the responsorial hymn the day after my spouse’s funeral was from Psalm 23, his favorite. But tears are another soul cleanser and don’t be embarrassed by them.

One of the few benefits of being alone, for me, is that I now pray aloud in the mornings, and sometimes even sing. There is no one but my pets and God to hear me and nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, that may be how we are supposed to communicate with Him.

  1. Create some kind of personal memorial to your deceased loved one. For me, this is taking the form of using my mate’s 159 ties to make a colorful quilt top. The other clothing that filled three closets (he would have been a good candidate for an episode of Hoarders-Clothing Version) is going to a local charity that will find good uses for 250 dress shirts in their original packaging. That, to my way of thinking, is a great recycling memorial. The living memorial is in the back yard hydrangeas.
  1. Don’t forget to laugh. I have spent a lifetime looking for the humor in everyday situations. My late husband didn’t always appreciate being made the public subject of laughter in my newspaper column, but it gave him an identity that our readers loved . . . made him more human and loveable.

I had to laugh at myself yesterday as I put sealer/stain on half the deck. This was a must-do project and I made a sloppy mess of it. I am sure my spouse was laughing at me from the Other Side while I was learning to handle a paint roller. He was a perfectionist in the painting department and would never have allowed me to tackle such a project.

I also find much humor in grocery shopping nowadays. Things like single serve Asian dishes and personal pan pizzas find their way into the basket as I try to get out of the habits of stocking up for a famine–habits inherited from depression-era parents–those same parents who told us to clean our plates because there are starving children in China.

  1. Don’t rely on Facebook and fiction. Being newly alone is not fun. Nights and weekends are close to terrifying. Taking regular and early doses of Melatonin are now a part of my nightly regimen, just so I can finally fall asleep. And I have learned to stop my use of electronic devices early in the evening and switch to a book in print while trying to get into a drowsy state. This being said, I know that relying on Facebook and fiction for human interaction is not healthy. I have had to force myself to get out and about, making my car head to the local YMCA for an arthritis swim class three times a week, reaching out to family members on the phone and quickly accepting dinner or lunch invitations from dear friends.

Now, thanks to things like setting up a trust, scheduling a dental visit and dreaming up places to go and visit, my calendar is filling up. And the daily kisses I get from my two dogs . . . the comfort that comes from a cat that curls himself around my legs and hugs me with his tail . . .  the squeals of laughter and the joy that exude from my precious grandson . . . all of this eases the pain of loss and tells me I still have a zest for life and so much to look forward to.