Nurturing Yourself In Widowhood--#2

Self, Health And Wellness

I did what most new widows or widowers do at first: I staggered around, from tissue box to tissue box. The first thing I realized was the importance of having tissue boxes in more locations around the house: it was too much to have to get up and walk to a box; I needed them within arms’ reach at all times. Soon, the boxes dotted the house, with piles of used tissues littering the floor beneath each box. Not a pretty sight, but I didn’t care.

Plunged quickly into deep mourning at my husband’s death in October 2017, I started the process of recovery simply by coping in the most basic of ways. I talked with people when they called or came to visit, responded to emails and texts, ate, slept, bathed, and dressed as best I could, but mostly just sat around the house crying. Ralph had been the center of my universe for more than 40 years, both as my husband and professional partner, and it was wrenching to have him die. I knew it would happen inevitably and had always dreaded it, and now I knew precisely why.

During that first week after his death, I identified my first humble, goal—to get myself outside for some fresh air and sunshine every day. When you’re in deep grief, staggering around from one tissue box to the next, having even that as a goal seems ambitious.

So, I dragged myself outdoors and lay on a chaise in the backyard with some skin exposed to the sun. On some days, I managed to walk for a block or two, or take a little stroll on the beach. We’re not talking about any brisk clip; I just dragged my body along as best I could, always with a generous supply of tissues.

Getting myself outdoors was a grief recovery idea I learned from a former neighbor who had lost her brother. For weeks after this, I saw her folding lawn chair placed in the driveway where she sat for hours, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend. She told me later that the fresh air and sunshine had “saved her”, and I, too, found those soothing for me, and soothing was what I needed most.

Gradually, I came to develop more of a master plan for recovery. During this time of intense mourning over Ralph’s death, I recognized that what I most needed was comfort and caring, so I decided to become a consultant to myself to supervise and implement what I thought would be the most beneficial ways to supply comfort and caring to the aching person I now was.  

The first insight I had under the guidance of my “consultant” was that with Ralph’s death what I was experiencing was a steady dose of pain coursing through my body on a continual basis. My crying was tumultuous—I leaked buckets of tears, I clinched, I shook, I screamed out loud, and when I wasn’t actually wrenching in these ways, there was a continual sense of being weighed down. The antidote to all of this, I decided, was to administer a steady dose of endorphins to my body. As it was experiencing nearly constant pain, what it needed was some kind of infusion of good feelings. These I would give myself by getting some form of exercise on a daily basis, in order to get the happy hormones—endorphins—that come from exercise.

Beyond this basic context for my recovery, here are the beginnings of the plan my “consultant” and I developed during the first week after Ralph’s death. This list of 12 items is from the email diary that I sent to myself:

  1.  Clear out expectations at work and any place where something is expected of me.
  2.  Get some sunshine every day.
  3.  Walk some 5 days/week. Anywhere: ocean, woods, around the neighborhood.
  4.  Keep everything of his for now, except medicines or things I never liked—for example, his old plastic cup.
  5.  Make crying completely okay.
  6.  Don’t talk with anyone I don’t want to talk to.
  7.  Eat healthy… include a little chocolate daily.
  8.  Respect my body’s natural inclinations. Drag around. Get up if I can’t sleep: legitimize naps.
  9.  Don’t criticize myself for how I’m processing this and handling my feelings.
  10.  Don’t feel guilty if I’m not crying.
  11.  Handle the post-death tasks as I can manage them.
  12.  Lean back on family and friends. Let them give me what they offer in terms of help and support.

My recovery plan became better developed as time moved on, but I can see now that the essential concept was in place: That I was viewing myself as a client who was dealing with an extremely painful loss and who needed my best possible advice in order to deal with this crisis. This perspective of looking over myself and treating myself as an important client who needed professional care and consultation was critical for my being able to move through the grieving process successfully. It was highly beneficial for my recovery that I had "hired" a capable and caring consultant who understood fully all that I was dealing with and was working on my case!

Not much in this first list of 12 items was ambitious. At this early point in my widowhood, I focused on legitimizing feeling whatever it was that I was feeling and not pushing myself in any disrespectful way. Meanwhile, I recorded on a regular, though not daily basis, my thoughts and feelings in this email diary that I called Crying 1000 Times. I knew that I would have to cry a lot—way more than 25 or 50 times—to get through this amount of grief, and I figured that it would take some huge number of crying sessions—perhaps as many as 1000—to do it.

In my next installment of this column, I’ll tell you how accurate an estimate that turned out to be.


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Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C., is President of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that has taught Relationship Skills programs to more than 200,000 participants. A prolific author and developer of Psychosocial Education programs, she co-authored World Class Marriage: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted with the Partner You Already Have her late husband, Ralph Jones. Together they have trained in 15 countries around the world. His death in October 2017 brought tremendous grief as well as an opportunity to learn valuable life lessons that she shares with her readers.