Strategies for making it through

When my husband died suddenly in 2010, I felt like the proverbial camel with the broken back.   Before he died, I was working as a managing attorney of a small law firm that was mainly focused on civil rights and public interest law.  I was a trusted advocate to scores of people and a thoughtful employer and manager.  I had spent years listening and reporting about trauma to other people.  In doing the work I most loved, I had asked people thousands of questions about how they felt, and often spoke with counselors and social workers to help and support trauma survivors.  After marathon client meetings in which I had to come to know all of the details of the traumas experienced by my clients in order to present whatever case was at hand, the client and I were usually exhausted, because I had to understand their pain to understand my case.  After my husband died, I was suddenly the traumatized one.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted all the time.  I felt like a deflated balloon.  I had nothing left in me.  I couldn’t take on anyone else’s burden or pain.  I couldn’t even listen to the needs of employees.  I couldn’t bear ANY thing more.

My children were my only priority.  Taking care of them was all I could manage, and

managing was all I could do.  I managed their schedule and groceries and cooking, but we didn’t over commit.  If they didn’t want to sign up for an activity, I didn’t push.  We had all we could manage.  I managed the home budget and maintenance.  I managed homework and school activities, and of course, medical and emotional/mental health treatment was a top priority.  Most importantly, I wanted to have the physical and emotional strength to be emotionally and mentally present with them when I was physically with them.  I was so overwhelmed with grief and sadness and loneliness and anger, that I had to have massive energy available for simply being able to carry on a pleasant conversation with them at the end of the school day.  I had to be honest with them about how I was feeling, because I wanted them to understand that my sadness and anger was not due to anything they had done.  I wanted them to have room to grieve as well, and if I was always a basket case, how could they feel free to be sad or angry or ask me for help?  I had to somehow reassure them that I was o.k., and we were going to survive.  But all I felt like doing was retreating under the covers of my bed and wasting away.

My friends kept us alive the first year. In the early days after his death, I was struggling to even breathe through each second.  I could easily have taken my own life, or just stopped living, if it hadn’t been for my children.  I remember thinking of women who throw themselves on funeral pyres in a new light.  I understood the desire.  I felt it, but I could never do anything like that to my children.  The first year is all a sort of blur of a memory.  I remember the year as a collective activity.  We ate at the homes of our good friends more than once a week.  They came over and gave me something upon which to focus more than once a week, too, and the few other evenings, I had just enough energy to make it through.  The children and I went for long trips to visit far away friends for days at a time as well.  I wanted my children to be around people other than me, because I was a big, crying, sad mess.  Our friends were hurting, too.  They, after all, had lost a friend.  Their generosity and kindness was amazing.  I remember realizing that.  It is a beautiful, albeit sad, reality.

Today, I meditated in a spot that has been important to me, a place where I have spent hours calming my mind and rejuvenating myself during the second year-and-a-half (for most of the first year, meditation was just filled with crying and allowing myself to release as much sadness as I could).  I realized that I don’t require intense meditation as much now.  From about month 10 through 13, I put a kind of blinder on.  I used all of my strength to get through seconds, minutes, hours, days, and it was so difficult that the intense meditation was critical.  I had to just sit and try to empty my head.  I had to let myself be sad, but I also had to take a break from feeling or thinking anything. Then, refocus on exactly what it would take to make it through the day.  I wouldn’t leave each meditation session until I was focused on just what I had to do to get through the day. 

In addition to meditating and talking to friends, I turned to the books for comfort.  Young widows don’t sleep much, really.  The sleeplessness is very bad, and can be helped with medication.  In talking with my unfortunate co-hort, however, sleeplessness seems pretty universal.  So days are long, and those sleepless nights were filled with reading, for me.  Joan Didion kept me company with her Year of Magical Thinking, Isabelle Allende with Paula and The Sum of Our Days, and Elizabeth Gilbert with Eat, Pray, Love. Each of these was given to me by a friend, now that I think of it.  How did they know?  It was tremendously helpful.

Eventually, I was able to listen to music again.  I never thought anything could be as painful as music was in the early days.  I love music, and I could not bear it until some months later.  Poetry took the place of music in the beginning, and remains a good place for me.  Books, poems, and music, now, are nearly as critical as food and water: Real sources of strength, comfort and inspiration, for me.

All of this is laid out here, because I know that you will find it.  You, who need a friend in the middle of the night to help you get through to tomorrow.  I’m thinking of you.  You know that many of us have survived, and you can too.  It is miserable, but just keep reading, crying, taking care of yourself.  You’ll find your way, and tomorrow you’ll make it through, too.