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12 Tips for my Fellow Grievers

I’m not an expert on grief really, I certainly never aspired to be one, but I have learned a lot about the subject in the 9 and 1/2 months since my 43-year-old husband Marcus died. I have learned that even though my pain has been so excruciating, so heart-shattering, that I’ve wanted to die (and go find Marcus!), I somehow still possess the will to keep on living. I went from getting pulled out of a grief support group (because the leader thought I was suicidal!) to months of private counseling (combined with LOTS of crying), to finally getting glimpses of having a future (and even laughing a little now and then.)

My grief counselor Susan, who is the same woman who pulled me out of the support group, keeps telling me I’m doing really well, which feels as gratifying as getting gold stars on my first grade papers. Grieving is kind of like being in first grade again, because essentially you have to start your life over. A new beginning, a first step, a new grade, and, eventually, a gold star.

I get many emails from fellow grievers who have happened upon my pie blog (which is not always about pie!), emails expressing gratitude for helping them by being so honest about my own grieving process (as messy, confusing and unattractive as that process is). So I thought I would reflect a little, and share some of the things that have helped me – in hopes that that helps you. And please know, whoever you are out there, I am sorry for your loss. You are not alone. And please feel to write to me directly anytime.


1. Read everything you can get your hands on.
Here are a few books from my reading list. While reading won’t make your grief go away, you can at least glean a little hope and inspiration from others who have been dragged through the darkness and survived the harrowing experience. You will be assured you are not alone, so much so that you might even be convinced your loved one is still living with you! If not in ghost-form spirit, then in memory.

How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese A. Rando
I’m Grieving as Fast as I Can by Linda Feinberg
Widow to Widow by Genevieve Ginsberg

Hello From Heaven by Bill Guggenheim
Ghosts Among Us: Uncovering the Truth About the Other Side by James Van Praagh
Life After Death: The Burden of Proof by Deepak Chopra
Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World by Elizabeth Harper Neeld
Comfort: A Journey Through Grief by Ann Hood
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic (not my favorite, but still worth a look)

(Instead of a linking to these titles on this time, I am supporting Oregon’s independent bookstore, Powell’s Books, where I’ve purchased most of these titles. I give the public library a lot of business too.)

2. Avoid people who say stupid things to you.
I wrote about some of these stupid things in my “Dos and Don’ts” post and I can assure you I have banished these inconsiderate, unthinking People Who Say Stupid Things (or PWSST) from my life. At least for this year. Or, ahem, in the case of certain blood relatives and several close friends, I have greatly limited my exposure to them. It was tragic enough to lose my husband, but to lose family and friends too? I wasn’t prepared for this loss upon loss. But I have accepted it, made room for and sought out more supportive friends, and know that forgiveness for the old “bad” friends is within my power. When I’m ready.

And for the record, the best and ONLY thing people should say is “I’m sorry for your loss.” THAT IS ALL. And then after those five words just be a really, really good listener. Period.

3. Give yourself time and be selfish with it.
The Greeks, the Italians, the Jews, and other (can I say, more emotionally sensitive, less peppy) cultures give their people one full year to grieve. I have not, like they would in the Old World, resorted to wearing all black or even a black armband to advertise my mourning state (my puffy eyes and permanent expression of sorrow speak volumes for how I feel) but I agree with the time frame. I have given myself a one-year grace period during which, for once in my life, I will not pressure myself or beat myself up for not being some super-achiever in my career, my writing, my fitness, or any other endeavors. Not even in my pie baking. The grieving process alone is a full-time effort — and one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. I know the grief will never end — I will always love and miss Marcus with all of my heart — but I am aware of how time is passing, and how time does help ease the acuteness of the pain I felt during those first horrific months. August 19 will mark one year of Marcus’ passing. So I figure I have two and a half more months to go before I stop using grief as an excuse not to get a job, a paycheck, a life.

In the meantime, I still give myself permission to say no to dinner invitations, parties, weddings, no to visitors, no to whatever I don’t feel like doing. I’m under no obligation to anyone and while I try not to hurt people’s feelings when rejecting their offers of hospitality, too bad if I do! This is MY year of grieving. And when it’s their turn to grieve, they’ll understand the need for solitude or for simply not being willing or able to make plans or commitments.

4. Take lots of naps.
Be prepared to be forgetful, irritable, indecisive and tired. Very tired. So go ahead and sleep. You need it. Remember: GRIEF IS HARD WORK! It is downright exhausting. Your mind is working overtime trying to make sense of life’s unfathomable turn of events, and how that person you loved so much is no longer just a phone call or email away. And who knows what’s going on in your body on a cellular level. Cells have memories. You will discover this when you have what’s called a “Grief Burst,” an unexpected meltdown and you’re not even sure where it came from or why. Until you look at a calendar. You may not have remembered it was the eighth anniversary of your first date (or whatever, fill in the blank for your own experience), but your cells remember! I don’t know how to explain this scientifically. All I know is that you will be exhausted most of the time. So go back to bed! You might also invest in some cozy new pajamas or flannel sheets while you’re at it.

5. Write letters to the person you lost.
It may sound hokey but a psychic told me “Write him letters. They read everything.” (They, meaning the deceased.) In spite of the source of this suggestion, I can tell you, IT HELPS! It doesn’t even matter if Marcus reads my letters. Just the exercise of writing to him and sharing my feelings (ALL of them, the sadness, the regret, even the anger – especially the anger) is very cathartic. Of course, it would be great if he was actually reading my letters. Even better if he would reply! Regardless, it keeps me connected to him in a healthy, healing, expressive way.

6. Go ahead and cry all you want.
Get that pain out of your body!!! Let it out!!! My grief counselor tells me stories of people who didn’t allow themselves to grieve, and how that came back to bite them in the ass – usually in the form of cancer, heart attacks and other life-shortening diseases. Don’t think you can avoid your emotions. Pain is energy and energy needs to be released. If you have trouble crying and the tears won’t come, try this: Make a playlist of your loved one’s favorite songs, or songs that make you think of him/her, and listen to it at full volume on your iPod. Trust me, this will get your eye ducts overflowing in no time! But if crying just isn’t your thing, then do something else, something physical. Yoga. Boxing. Walking. Meditating. Staring at the wall. Just don’t keep all that sadness inside! And don’t listen to those People Who Say Stupid Things (see #2) who tell you that you’re crying too much or that your grief is over the top. THEY HAVE NO IDEA.

7. Get some counseling.
In my blog you will see many references to my life-saving grief counselor Susan. The most incredible thing about her – besides her limitless compassion and wisdom, I mean – is that her services are FREE! Here in Portland, free grief counseling is provided through a local hospital’s hospice program. I did try the support group route – also free – but that didn’t work for me. No matter what style works for you, having someone to talk to who is trained in grief is essential. And it’s especially helpful when all those PWSST(see #2 again!) start spewing their rude, unsolicited nonsense.

8. Spend time in nature.
It’s no accident I live right at the trailhead of a 5,000-acre forest. I need nature! I spend a minimum of one hour every day in this forested haven of grief. Those trails have seen their share of my tears. Those trees have heard their share of my wailing! There is something womblike about a forest. The trees, standing solid with their deep roots holding firm to the earth, represent strength and grace. It’s among these tall pines and maples where I feel closest to Marcus. Not just because we used to hike here together, but because my mind just feels clearer when I’m immersed in the quiet and solitude of the natural world, where the only sounds I hear are birds chirping and leaves rustling instead of – why yes, it’s #2 again! – hurtful comments from PWSST. (As I mentioned, someday I will forgive them. But obviously I’m not there yet.) An extra little tip: this is a good time to turn into a tree hugger. Literally. It’s as if by hugging a tree you can channel some of that deeply rooted strength into yourself. I do it all the time!

9. Keep a few mementos. Especially stuff that smells!
Some of the grief books I read addressed the issue of “stuff.” How soon do you get rid of things? How much and what do you keep? I look back now and think I was too impulsive in giving some of Marcus’ things away. I had this manic feeling that because Marcus, in spite of his exceptionally healthy diet and fitness level, died so unexpectedly, I might too. I could die at any minute! And I didn’t want to leave all that stuff behind for someone else to deal with. That panicky feeling has eased – a little. I still make sure my apartment is in order every single time I leave the house….just in case!

In my apartment I keep in view mementos of our life together – the glass bowl from Italy, the candelabra from our German wedding, the ceramic incense dish from Mexico – but my biggest source of comfort comes from having kept Marcus’ red plaid bathrobe. Even after nearly 10 months it still smells of him. I keep it sealed so that on my loneliest days I can bury my face in it to breathe in his scent, and somehow that makes me feel better.

(PHOTO: Marcus, early one morning, in the red plaid robe. And for the record, he never liked this picture of himself.)

10. Make a shrine.
I have a little Buddha statue/tea light candle holder that I gave Marcus as a Christmas present, the last Christmas he would ever have. Sigh. I paid $14 for it at World Market, but it is worth a million dollars to me now because it is my shrine to the man I loved and lost. I light the candle every day and even talk to the little Buddha statue, which sits in the middle of my studio apartment on the butcher block island. The burning flame represents life, light, God…and Marcus. It’s like lighting devotional candles in a church, only more convenient. Having a shrine at home is also more accessible than visiting Marcus’ grave, which is in Germany. He’s not at the cemetery anyway. He’s in my heart. And sometimes I think he’s in my apartment. Ghost Whisperer” anyone??!!

By the way, the shrine is in addition to the dresser that also serves as a memorial. It’s loaded with framed pictures of my husband. Then there are the pictures of him all over the refrigerator door. And his pictures next to the bed. And the ones on my desk. The ones I carry in the car. The 300-image slide show of him on my computer. Um…yeah. My whole life is a shrine. And if anyone thinks that’s too much, well, just remember this: It does NOT matter what anyone else thinks. It’s MY grief. Or in your case, YOUR grief.

11. “If you are feeling blue, do something nice for others.”
You will see this sentence repeated many times throughout my blog. These are words I live by. And for once I want to publicly credit the woman who taught me this indispensible, life-changing phrase. She is Kathy Eldon, a writer, filmmaker, activist, fellow Iowan, fellow pie baker, and the brightest ray of sunshine you will ever meet. (And I’m not just talking about her red hair!) She lost her son, Dan Eldon, when he was 23. He was a photojournalist for Reuters covering the war and famine in Somalia in 1993, and he was stoned to death by an angry mob. (I met, and moved in with, The Eldons in Nairobi, Kenya in 1986.) This woman KNOWS what grief feels like, and if there is anyone who can set an example of resilience it is her! Among her many book, film and other media projects, including the Emmy-winning CNN documentary “Dying to Tell a Story” and a forthcoming feature film/bio-pic about Dan, she established the CREATIVE VISIONS foundation to nurture and launch other young artist-activists, keeping Dan’s spirit very much alive. I also recommend buying Kathy’s book (co-written with her LOVELY daughter Amy Eldon Turteltaub) called “Angel Catcher.” It’s a journal of loss, a place to collect memories of your loved one…so you don’t forget.

12. Make a TV show about pie!
You can interpret this one in several ways. One is to keep yourself busy doing something creative, which also honors the memory of your loved one. I may have a little pie TV series in the works – about how pie is helping me ease my grief over Marcus – but Kathy Eldon has a whole media empire devoted to her son. For you it might just be a scrapbook. So what?! The point is to create – and to keep from sinking too deeply into the quagmire of despair. Two is that it can help to get involved in a project where you meet people, NICE people, people who like to bake pies kind of people. When we shot the TV pilot for two weeks in January I was in no shape to be circulating among the human population. I had very little energy to do anything but sleep (bawling your eyes out is so tiring!), yet I got lured into this pie project and I see now that this TV pie project was the turning point for me. I met the most loving, caring, warm, wonderful people (who just happen to be pie bakers), people who cried with me, hugged me, breathed life back into me, and fed me pie. Just like the lyrics in our promo video theme song suggest, this project – and these lovely people who participated in it – gave me something to hope for.

So that, my friends, is all I have to say for today. I hope this has been helpful to you. Writing this has been a reminder of where I’ve been, the progress I’ve made, and how far I still have to go – and as such has been helpful to me. Thank you, hang in there — it WILL get better — and keep your emails coming.

(Note: I dedicate this blog post to my high school classmate Susan Chiappini whose 49-year-old husband died last week. I hope this helps her a little.)