No one wants to experience pain. Disappointments, failures, and hurtful situations compound our fears in choices, ventures and healthy living. We have learned by experience, if not by observation, that life is not always filled with sunshine and happiness. We reluctantly accept the fact that the hardships mold our character. And, in retrospect, we see that in the most difficult times of our lives were the most active growth periods, forming our character, our behavior, our insight and our future. We do not wish for or welcome adversity or grief; however, we need to focus on the big picture of our lives and always be learning how to benefit from the cold and hard times. This is character building. Following these 13 steps for coping with losses in our lives can help us become stronger.
How to Handle a Loss
Our losses, disappointments, griefs, and failures are very personal – not exactly like another’s. What we do with them is what matters. Can we grow? Can we forgive and go forward? Can we start over? Can we once again be productive? Can we leave bitterness behind? Can we be joyful – and even happy – again? So much depends on how we walk through the valleys and where we seek our help so we can live our best lives.
There is no way to label losses as to what type are the most devastating. At the time, any loss may consume us. Nor is it helpful to categorize degrees of disaster for another person. Each must be allowed to be recognized as a legitimate struggler in any size loss. People don’t just need people: people need people who care, who are nonjudgmental and who can just be there for them. Following these 13 steps for coping with losses in our lives can help us become stronger.
Grieving the Loss of My Husband
As I think of my own life, the great loss that was mine in the death of my husband at a young age is paramount in my thinking. At age 54, my life changed completely. For 35 years we had been DonandBarbara – as if one word. Completely devoted, while being completely imperfect individuals, our love was deep and passionate. The scope of my loss was compassionately not immediately understood; it continued to unravel and unfold for the next two years. Our last child had just graduated from college. We were not financially ready to retire at that young age. There were yet six grandchildren to be born. There was yet another lifetime to live. And my name now was a single word – Barbara – no matter how I longed not to accept that undisputable fact.
At the deepest part of my grief, in the darkest of times, I saw a light in the upper corner of my thinking. Two things: (1) God was giving me the clear message that this was not a surprise to Him and that He left me here for a purpose; and (2) Don, of all people, would have been the most disappointed if I just sat in a corner and became a bitter old lady. He thought I could do anything: he was my biggest supporter.
I recently found a piece of note paper on which I had scrawled twelve points on “Surviving Widowhood”. I suppose I used these points (in italics) for a speech I gave when I was serving as a facilitator in Grief Recovery efforts in the early years of my new identity. I will share these items and then my comments of today, after living this life for many years. Following these 13 steps for coping with losses in our lives can help us become stronger.
13 Ways to Survive Grief and Loss
- Things you can do. After experiencing deep loss, we sometimes feel that we cannot really do anything. We have lost the love of our life, or a notable position, or our health or whatever is your loss. We do not feel that we are the same person. We may feel impotent in every area of our life. Writing down things that you know you can do, things that you know, your gifts, your connections – however small, list them. List them until you see the bones appear for the rebuilding of that person – a virtual phoenix as the joy of living begins to return.
- Depend on God. “Just me and you, Lord.” For me this was huge. My husband was a strong Believer, trusting completely in Jesus Christ. He was the spiritual head of our household. Now it was just “Me and you, Lord.” The scriptures seemed to even read differently as I sought answers. My love and concerns regarding everything about our children could only be shared directly in prayer; too personal for outside the immediate family. Dependence on prayer increased my personal faith and led me toward becoming a much stronger person as I began to rely on God alone. Complete dependence because I felt so weak.
- Depend on yourself. I was always a take charge type person and Don supported me and loved that about me. But I felt so alone. I could almost hear him audibly saying “You can do it, Barb.”. I learned to talk to myself – out loud – as I dressed for work or on the way to appointments. I had to learn to look in the mirror and say, “Good morning Beautiful”, “Great job, Sweetheart”, rather than tear myself down. It is what Don would have done for me. I had to trust my intuitiveness while searching for wise counsel and then to trust my judgment. I learned to do things outside my purview. I took the responsibility of buying property, building a house and then, with what proved to be good grief therapy, digging the holes to plant large shrubs in the dark of night. I gradually began to feel in control of my life again.
- Take responsibility for your good and bad decisions. I did not want to appear lacking in roots, with no convictions or to need others to make my decisions for the remainder of my life. If I was to pat myself on the back for handling something well, then I was to accept the responsibility of being seen as foolish or incompetent when I failed. Putting on my big girl panties and fulfilling the role that I had not chosen became a working reality.
- Do not let victim be written on your forehead as your identity – in personal life, business, or relationships. This may ultimately be the most difficult step. For me this must be accomplished. If I let the world think I was a victim, then I deny all God made me to be. I was not responsible for my being a widow. It is a role that came my way and I must not allow that personage cloud every relationship, every venture, every moment. I must learn to bless the 35 years that I was loved by Don and then accept my new role as survivor, yet still blessed with the same well of strength from my Lord. He and Don thought I was competent; I sometimes said in my despair: “you thought I could, but I can’t!”. And then, of course, coming to my knees before a loving God, strength for the day is poured out and I rise as the weary pilgrim, knowing I am not alone. My greatest fear was that I would be “a foolish woman.” I still pray that prayer so frequently, “Lord, don’t let me be a foolish woman.”
- How do we not appear needy? Determining what we have, what we can do, making wise decisions, choosing a wholesome lifestyle; exercising, eating well, learning new things. Serving in non-profit organizations in order to discover those with greater needs as well as the joy found in serving – all these things make us a stronger and more productive person. We gain strength from others. We count our blessings, not our losses. We can overlook the stupid remarks from people who have no clue. We can become whole again.
- Be confident in aloneness. Aloneness need not be loneliness. It is difficult to be alone after being wrapped in a warm and caring marriage of many years. I could not bear to open all the doors in my mind and heart – some were left closed for a very long time – each was another huge part of my life confirming I was alone. That is where an abiding faith in God and the presence of his Holy Spirit in our life can comfort us in our aloneness. Yes, I still get lonely. We were not made to be alone; however, there are many and diverse reasons that we find ourselves alone. I found I needed to be a kinder, more informed, interesting, healthy – mentally and physically – person in order to enjoy my own company.
- Be aggressive in making plans. I should have added Or Else. For a few weeks after the funeral, the bereaved are treated with food and offers of help. This vanishes very quickly. As an extra, couples’ groups usually find it difficult to find a place for the survivor. Some memberships may just fade away – never intended for a lone woman. You must take the step forward. Attend weddings, anniversary parties, graduations, ballgames, concerts, etc. If you don’t have a buddy, go alone. Just go. The people who know you are feeling much more uncomfortable and inadequate than even you. Just do it. Don’t worry what people think. Meet new people. New friends. Serve on even non-prestigious committees, volunteer to feed the poor, just get out of the house. You can later decide where to focus. Do your homework so you are informed, interesting, and more confident.
- Don’t depend on your children to make you happy – too large a burden to place on them. They must struggle with their own loss that affects their lives very differently. They will always have the concern and ultimate responsibility of your care and well-being, but they cannot make you happy. It is not their responsibility. They bring you joy as did mine, but you must make your own life. When your life is full and rich, the relationship with the adult children will be so much better. They will be proud of your successes. If you can be independent, the relationship is much healthier. Be there to support and love them. I am extremely blessed by the help from my three loving children who then gave me precious grandchildren and the opportunity to be a part of all their lives. But you do not need their permission to make decisions if you are capable. They probably see you differently than the world does. Ask their advice, tell them as much as you choose about your business, but do not feel they must or should ok every decision. There will be time for that when you become a nonagenarian – or later. Do take care of business and let your family know where all the documents, etc. can be found if you should have a sudden injury or death.
- Trust your gut feeling. Remember that many people think all widows are wealthy and some folks apparently think we are stupid. Remember, for at least the first two years of your singleness, you are very vulnerable. An admirer can say just the things you want and need to hear; and you may agree in this weak time of your life. Be very wary. I could tell you story after story of women who later felt so foolish, so used, so destroyed. Take your time with any major decisions. Do your homework on any decision. Get advice from professionals or people that you trust. Lock your doors. Put in security system, lights, mirrors in garage, watch who may be following you home and proceed to nearest fire or police station instead. Be strong. Be in charge. Remember, you are not a victim. Following these 13 steps for coping with losses in our lives can help us become stronger.
- Take care of yourself. Learn to say nice things to yourself and treat yourself with affordable niceties. Keep current hairstyles, exercise and eat healthfully. Oh, did I mention that being a widow is extremely exhausting – we were not intended to be alone. It takes a lot to produce what two produced, whether we are talking finances, friends, interests, family plans, sharing of sorrows, sharing the care of aging parents, grandchildren or whatever. Be kind to yourself. Get your rest. Treat yourself with “gifts” from the deceased. The girls in our family were always eager to see what Don continued to give me for Christmas after his departure.
- Take care in whom you confide – but do find a confidant. As in any situation, do not spill your guts to everyone. There are vultures waiting to grab and share with everyone what you considered discreet conversation. Find a safe person to bounce your thoughts off. The safest place I found was with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Just talking aloud with him gives me insight as well as comfort. I can tell him just how much I hurt, how unfair things are, how lonely I was/am. His guidance has been very real in my life. It is also great to have a few good friends, or as George Eliot captured so eloquently : ”Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
- These many years later, I would add the #13: It’s good – it’s all good! God has taken me through the good times and the bad times. He does not forsake his children. Life has been rich – joyous – full of opportunities, struggles, pain and sorrow. I have retired four times and was immediately asked to become a part of another endeavor. Life has been truly lived – not by being a bystander – but by a participant. My family is so very dear and I pray for them daily. I have felt needed, included, and productive. I am blessed.
Remember: Just because someone carries it well doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy. As you recover, lend a helping hand and a listening ear to those who come after you. We all need someone. Following these 13 steps for coping with losses in our lives can help us become stronger. I hope they help you.