It’s been a full year since my love died. Actually, it’s been almost a year and a month. But for me the entire month of October feels like the anniversary, so as we enter November, that feels like the start of the next year. I like to keep my posts on my blog and other social media accounts 99% about the topic at hand, which is sewing, but I also know that a lot of you are curious about the state of things. So with this important milestone, I thought I’d give everyone one last and final update. I say last, because though my job forces me to have a very public life, I am actually an incredibly private person. But I’ve chosen this job, and I know that a certain amount of privacy is lost in exchange, and I’m okay with that. Though I can tell you that future relationships will not be paraded on here as my time spent with Mike was. That is now only for the eyes of those on my private IG and FB accounts. And on that topic, I’m really sorry for anyone whom I decline access to those accounts, but please know that they are for very very close friends and family only. Thank you for understanding! Most of my life is an open book, but I do need a place of complete privacy too.
Also, if there is any chance that what I've gone through this last year could help anyone else go through loss of their own, then it's worth it for me to share. I have felt this way watching comedian Patton Oswalt go through his own loss after the sudden death of his wife, only a couple of months after Mike died. Watching him talk about dealing with the loss and how he's getting through it has been inspiring to me, so if what I have to say is remotely inspiring to anyone else, then I'm glad I've shared.
So anyway, a year. There’s so much that goes with the fact that I’ve survived a whole year without a person who’s presence I missed even while standing beside him. We had a love that honestly was so cheesy and pure, it’d make for the most lame and gushy made-for-TV film ever. I had never loved anyone or anything the way I loved Mike. He was the best person I had ever known, and pretty much anyone that knew him felt the same way too. And I’m honored that I know without question that I was the love of his life too.
Over this year, I’ve had a lot of help getting me through each day. I’ve also had a lot of people ask me about what helped me, what didn’t, and how to help their friends better in times of loss. Some friends even suggested I actually write a book about my experiences. While I don’t want to write a book, this post is so long that perhaps I should have! For this last post on the subject, I thought I’d focus on how I actually got through this year, and give some advice on how you can help your friends too. Because the honest truth is, as we age, these kind of events grow in numbers. During the last couple of years, I’ve had friends lose parents, grandparents, spouses, children, pets, and aunts and uncles. I’ve also had friends deal with cancer, brain tumors, and tragic accidents. These get more and more common as we get older, and though I wish I could go back to being inexperienced and ignorant on the subject, sadly I’ve become a bit of an expert on loss. So for the people experiencing loss, I will talk about what worked for me and what didn’t. And for the friend of the griever, I will talk about how you can help your friend.
Surround Yourself with Chosen Loved Ones
Mike died late in the evening on a Monday. Actually, I don’t know when he died, but that’s when I found him. By the time the police left and they had taken away his body, it was the middle of the night and I was in an absolute state of shock. I called my BFF Jen, my mom, and my brother. Because it was the middle of the night, both Jen and my mom didn’t answer. Thankfully my brother did. It was Tuesday morning when I talked to Jen and my mom. My mother’s immediate response was, “I’m coming out there.” (She lives in Michigan where I’m from.) In my state, I said, “no, I’m fine.” Yeah, I wasn’t fine. She called me about an hour later to give me her flight information, which I didn’t question despite me reporting earlier that I was fine and didn’t need her to come. Later that day she was at my home. This was the best decision ever. Not just because my mom too is a widow, though that helped her understand my state of mind, but because I couldn’t eat solid foods, and I was going between being completely numb and having full-blown panic attacks. I basically needed someone to take care of me. She stayed for two weeks, and by the time she left, I was in a place where I could at least feed myself and leave the house alone, more or less. Perhaps your mom isn’t the best person to help you like this, or perhaps your mom is already gone, but I highly suggest that you have one person that truly knows you come to take care of you. You will need it. And if you’re that person in someone’s life, prepare to do the same.
A few days after my mom arrived, Jen and her husband Bob came for the weekend. As wonderful as it was to have my mom there, it was really nice to have someone that wasn't my mom there to scream and yell and swear with. Bob formed plans for me to visit them in San Francisco and smash in a wall with a sledgehammer (which felt amazing) and we could laugh and cry together. I only allowed two other friends into my world on that level for quite a few months, when my friends Alexia and Danielle came to give me moments of levity, help me think about things beyond my loss, and cook for me. But don't feel like you have to let everyone in at first. Ease into it.
Ease Yourself Out Of the House
While my mom was in town for those two weeks, she took me to get groceries to stock my house for after she was gone. She made me drive to get used to driving in this foggy state of mind. And she made me do errands like go to the post office and such, so I could experience being back out in the world with her by my side. That way, next time, I could possibly do it on my own. These are the things your friend in this state of mind needs. Walking through the grocery store, it felt like I was wearing a giant banner that read, THE LOVE OF MY LIFE DIED. I swear everyone was looking at me. Of course, they weren’t. Well, they might have been noticing at how terrible I looked, but no, not everyone was looking at me. That was just in my head.
I have the fortune of working for myself, so I didn’t have to go back into a work setting and pretend that I was suddenly okay after two weeks of bereavement time. But on the flip side, becoming a hermit was a genuine concern. Also, paychecks don’t come in when you’re not working! So work had to continue. And leaving the house became more important than ever. But ease into it. Don’t stay at home everyday, and don’t go out everyday. Be gentle on yourself. And if you’re the friend, invite your grieving friend to everything (but don’t invite yourself over). They might say no to your invitations, but they need to not feel abandoned, especially after everyone else has forgotten about the loss after the 6 month mark.
Buffer Yourself From Everyone Else
It’s a wonderful thing that everyone you’ve ever known, and some you’ve never met, all want to shower you with gifts and affection. But I suggest designating someone (or perhaps a couple of people) to be in charge of shielding you from everything. I found all the gifts and messages of support wonderful, but also incredibly overwhelming. I was honored that so many people wanted to send me love, but I really couldn’t think about all of that when I was still trying to relearn how to breathe and eat. I placed my BFF Jen in charge of making the public announcement and being the main person to field questions, coordinate sending gifts to me, and helping me filter who actually got to me in real life and who didn’t. That sounds like I’m some sort of mega celebrity or something, but honestly, I was in no position to deal with anything or anyone, so she really took the brunt of all of that, which I’m so grateful for. She lost a dear friend too, and was still trying to teach middle school kids by day, and was also coordinating all my messages and gifts of support. But she did it like a champ and I needed that more than I thought I would.
Everyone else had to understand that I couldn’t do much. If they didn’t get it, that wasn’t my problem to help them with. Again, I had my own shit to figure out. So when your grieving friend says they can’t see you, it’s not about you, it’s about them. Try not to take it personally.
Find Joy Wherever You Can, and Don’t Feel Guilty About It
I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand the concept of survivor’s guilt. And I’m not sure if that’s what I’ve experienced over these months either. But feeling guilty about enjoying things is real. Is that survivor’s guilt? I don’t know. But I do know that when I’m doing something that makes me happy, there is guilt around that. Less so now, as time goes on. But as you first start to feel “normal” again, you might feel guilty for enjoying things even though your loved one isn’t there. Like somehow laughing at a movie means you don’t miss them anymore because you’re not sad in that one moment, which of course isn’t true.
I didn’t experience the guilt at first. I kept myself busy by going back to pottery classes, enrolling in ballet, and taking up knitting. Things that were for me, and not things that I would have done with Mike anyway. But when I got to Paris, I started to feel guilt for the first time. And honestly, it took me by surprise, because I had gotten quite a few months in by then. Here’s an example: We went to Paris many times together, each time we tried new things and repeated things we enjoyed from previous trips. I always wanted to rent bikes to ride around the city. Mike found this terrifying, so we never did it. Sure, I could have done it anyway, but it wasn’t a big deal to me and I never pushed the issue. It just didn’t matter that much to me. Fast forward to this year, and me renting a bike during my stay, I felt guilty. Not because I was enjoying it and he wasn’t there, but because I couldn’t stop hearing the sentence, “I can rent a bike now that Mike’s not here!” And then I enjoyed doing it. And then I felt shitty.
Of course we know that our loved one that has passed wants us to enjoy our lives, with or without them. This we know intellectually. But emotionally, there is some baggage that comes with things that you’re getting to do, because they’re not there. That’s a whole other situation. So my advice to those grieving is this: do the thing. Enjoy the thing. Your loved one wants you to. They’re proud of you for doing it. And if you’re the support team, remind your friend of this too! I know that Mike would feel terrible if his death ruined my life. So as best as I can, I move forward and allow myself to experience the joy of still being alive.
Try New Things and Form New Habits
Mike and I didn’t live together. We were both artists and both had previous relationships that smothered our creativity, so we were both very careful of allowing each other the space and time to be creative, including living in separate apartments, a few blocks apart. That way I could sew at midnight without disturbing him, or he could compose music turned up to 11 without bothering me. We didn’t want to be able to see each other’s apartments from our own, as to avoid the pressure to explain that midnight run to get tacos, or art supplies, or whatever. But we wanted to be close enough to easily walk to the other's place in 5 minutes. We were together, but both very much individuals. This is only possible in relationships with the highest level of trust and support.
I spent a great deal of time at his place, and slowly we were renovating it with the idea of me moving in there one day. After so many years together, we thought we could handle it. So when he died, my immediate reaction was to move into his place permanently. A piece of advice: don’t trust any of your ideas that you think you know for certain for at least a week, because you don’t know anything. So yeah, I wanted to move in and have the apartment be like a constant hug from him, 24/7. Terrible idea. One that I thankfully figured out was bad pretty quickly. This would have halted my grieving a lot. Instead, I was able to fill my home with my favorite things of Mike’s to remind me of him, and separate myself from the place where he died. I honestly think this helped me deal with the loss a lot better. Not everyone is in this situation, and lots of people have to continue to live in the place where they lived with their now missing loved one. But even if that’s true, I highly suggest reclaiming the space for you, and you alone. Redecorate, rearrange the furniture, or get new bedding. Do something so the space feels like it is yours.
And on those lines, repeating things you would have done together can sometimes feel comforting. Like you’re taking that walk you always took together, and somehow it feels like they’re still with you. But only reliving the same things you did as a couple, but now alone, is probably not the healthiest approach to take. Do new things and create new memories that have nothing to do with your now missing loved one. These are your new experiences, and they are yours alone. There are a handful of things I still don’t do because they remind me too much of who’s missing, but there are also a lot of things that I’m now doing just for me. For the friends supporting the griever, invite them to things, even if they are events that they never showed interest in before. It might help them forget their loss for a moment.
Find and Accept Help
I didn’t go to therapy or meet with a support group, but I thought about it plenty. These things are there for a reason, so don’t be ashamed to find some help. And if your grieving friend looks like they might really need help, help them. Google where they might get support, drive them to a group, or go with them. Whatever is needed, do it. As I wrote above, my mom stayed for two weeks. During that time, a ton of gifts came to the house. One day a box from Amazon came. I opened it and inside were three self-help books about grieving. I said to my mom, “oh man, what smart ass friend sent me this?” Yeah, it was from my mom. HA! But why was that my response? Did I think I was above needing support of this kind? Did I think these kinds of books are only for the weak or something? I don’t know why I said that, because it turns out, they were helpful. Mom knew best. Go figure! Self-help books that helped? You don’t say!
These were the books that I found most helpful:
Healing After Loss - Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief by Martha Whitmore Hickman
This is a small book, dated with a full calendar year, so you can have a short lesson on grief and healing each day. Some of them are a tad religious for my liking, but none the less, I found these daily meditations really comforting.
When Things Fall Apart - Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödroön
Given to me by my dear friend Danielle, this is a more eastern bent on healing. Pema is an American Buddhist nun and meditation master and you can tell by reading this. I loved this book and highly recommend it.
How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies by Terese A Rando, PhD
This book is written by a clinical psychologist, so it has that angle to it, unlike the previous two that are more spiritual. This is divided by topics, like, How to Tell Your Kids, or Sudden versus Anticipated Death, so it cuts right to the point.
I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye - Surviving, Coping, and Healing After The Sudden Death Of a Loved One by Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair, PhD
Clearly the title lets you know right off the bat that this book has a very specific theme to discuss, which was my personal situation. So if this is yours, or someone you know is going through unexpected death, this might help them.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
This is not a self-help book necessarily, but rather a journal or memoir of the time surrounding author Joan Didion's husband's sudden death. I have not gotten through all of this yet, as it's the closest thing I've ever read to my own thoughts and feelings, and that makes it incredibly difficult to read at times. There are passages that I could have written, though of course not quite as elegantly as Joan, but you get the point. I will finish it in time. Thank you to the multiple people that sent me this book. You all knew how poignant it would be for me.
Obviously these are very specific to my loss, but the point is to be open to anything and everything that will help you. And if you are supporting a grieving friend, send them what helped you. Or do some research and find out what might help them given their specific situation. No one can go through this kind of loss alone and come out on the other side a whole person. It takes a lot of work and effort on everyone’s part.
Keep a Journal
Keeping a journal is something that a lot of people just do anyway, but I have something very specific in mind with this suggestion. I realized that I had a lot of questions that I needed answers to. Unfortunately, they are questions that I will literally never know the answers to. Questions like, What were Mike’s last thoughts? What were his last words? Did he call out for me? Was he in pain for long? and such. He was alone when he died, so literally no one but Mike knows the answers to these questions. And knowing that you can never get these answers can be incredibly frustrating. Personally, I found it helpful to actually write them all down. I still don’t have the answers, those are mysteries I have to live with for the rest of my life, but the questions starting calming down in my head once they were written on paper. These questions began to fade one day without me even noticing it. Was it because I set them free by writing them down? I don’t know. But I do know it helped to make them concrete thoughts on paper.
In addition to the list of “Things I’ll never Know” I started a list of “Things I Do Know”. This again helped me have concrete things written down that I needed to remind myself that I knew for certain. Like, Mike loved me a lot, and, We were extremely happy. Of course I know this, but man, your brain gets really foggy at times and to see them written down like that proved to be really helpful. If you have a friend going through loss, perhaps suggest this as a way for them to work through some thoughts dizzying their head. Buy them a journal and give them a start by titling two pages with those headlines to get them going. It really helped me.
Figure Out What You’re Going to Say to People
It was comforting to be with people that fully understood where I was coming from, and equally comforting to be with people that didn’t know me at all. What was wildly uncomfortable were all those acquaintances that kinda knew me, but not well enough to know what had happened. So that put me in a weird place where I had to either answer the casual question of, “What’s up with you lately?” with either the most depressing thing they’ve heard in a while, or a lie. I quickly realized that no one actually wants a real answer in that moment, so I learned to just say the typical response of, “Oh, not much, just the usual. You?” Yeah, that’s a lie, but it’s a lot better than the truth most of the time, unless you enjoy bursting out into tears at the spa while getting a mani/pedi. (Yeah, that happened.)
Around people that don’t know you, it’s kind of a fun game where you are redefining yourself on your own terms. Half the time I wanted to blurt out, “be nice to me, my love just died!” and the rest of the time I didn’t want anyone to think I was any different and than nothing had happened to me. The reality is somewhere in the middle of those two emotions. But both ring true. You need to be with people that know this truth about you, and you need to be with people that don’t know that anything has happened to you. This allowed me to face it at times, and redefine myself as me, the solo act, other times. Learning to say “I” did this thing in the past, instead of “we” did, which then just leads to a whole series of questions about if you’re single, or taken, or what. After a break up, you learn to say “me” and “I” as to make it clear that you are no longer a “we”. But that’s because you’re going through a break up, and you can explain to people, “yeah, I did that thing with my ex.” But it’s a lot different and a lot harder to do the same thing with a now dead loved one, so I learned to simplify things by saying “I” and not “we” at all costs. If I’m around friends that knew him, that’s different. In fact, in that situation, it’s weird to say “I” when they know that “we” did that thing we’re discussing. See how tricky it gets? But allow yourself to figure out what works for you, and also allow yourself to become an “I” again.
For those supporting your grieving friend, the best thing is to not bring it up, especially when your newly single friend is in mixed company. Don’t “out” your friend. Let them do that on their own terms. Bring up their loved one only when it feels relevant and you are with company that knows what’s happened. Otherwise, let them do it when it feels right for them. It’s their history to share, not yours.
The Age Old Advice: Don’t Make Any Major Decisions For a Year
We all know this advice, but it’s a common piece of advice for a reason: because it’s true. No, don’t decide to move for a while. Don’t quit your job. Don’t sell everything you own and backpack around the world. Sure, do any or all of these things after you’ve thought about them for a year. But avoid major decisions, done in a grief-filled head, and probably decided in haste. Yeah, don’t do that. Within the first 48 hours of Mike’s passing, I had decided that I was absolutely going to leave LA immediately, I was never ever ever going to leave LA because this is where I was with him, I was positively never going to be able to go back to France ever again, and I was getting on the first plane to Paris stat. Yeah, you don’t know shit. No really, you don’t. So don’t even try. Okay, well think about stuff, sure. But don’t fool yourself into thinking you actually know the answer to any of these things for a while.
Somewhere around the 10 1/2 month mark, I felt like I was clear enough to finally decide that I did want to leave LA at some point in the near-ish future. Around 11 months I was pretty sure I knew this for a fact. And now at almost 13 months, I’m positive I’m going to leave LA. But this decision isn’t made in reaction to my grief. Rather it is made as I’m looking to the future and thinking about the next chapter in my life. Where do I want to live? What kind of life to I want to have? Who am I now? And how do I want to interact with the world? These questions take time to answer, so don’t rush into them. And though it took me almost a year to know some of the answers, it might take you longer. But don’t try to know the answers in less time, because it will be hard to trust them.
For the support team, allow your friend to day dream, fantasize, and be excited about what is ahead for their life. Support them and their choice to stay, or leave, or dye their hair, or get a dog. Whatever. My friends helped me brainstorm about all kinds of possible decisions, from quitting my pattern company, to moving to France, and all kind of other fantasies. My friends also have been amazing with my decision to leave LA. I’m not sure where I’m going yet, but it is down to two cities, and I will be deciding by the end of the year. I think I know, but we’ll see. I know better than to rush into the choice, because even though I’m stronger than I was a year ago, I’m still a little fragile.
Walk Through It, Not Around It
This is so much easier to say than to do, but if I can give myself any credit for the last year, it’s that I didn’t avoid what happened to me. I looked at it squarely in the face, gave it a good cursing, and walked through the fire. You can walk around it, but it’s not going anywhere. So if you don’t face the music now, you will have to face it later. That’s just the truth. I figured that I was going to be a mess for the first year or so anyway, so why put it off? I already felt like shit, what’s a little more? A lot of people commented on how brave it was that I went to Paris right on schedule as if nothing had happened. But I figured if I didn’t go now, all those ghosts were just waiting for me the next time I visited. And who knows, maybe next time I go I’ll be with a new man, and isn’t it rather awkward that I’m bursting into tears at the drop of a hat? I wanted to face it now, on my own, to bookend the time I spent there with Mike, and to properly honor it. To say goodbye to our Paris. The next time I go, it will be about that trip, and not about all my past trips. That’s a lot more fair to the future me, and my future partner.
And while we’re on that subject, yes, I do hope for a future partner. A lot of people have asked me about this, so I’ll just say it plainly, that yes, I do hope to find someone again in the future. Being deep in love is the greatest feeling ever, so why would I not want that again? It doesn’t diminish what I had in the past, because it has nothing to do with the past. That’s a future relationship. You might think, “oh, if my partner died, I couldn’t ever imagine being with someone else.” And yes, I’ve had people say this to me, as if to point out how in love they are, which in actuality only judges my decision for wanting to be in love again. And honestly, they have no idea how they’ll feel after their partner dies, because no one can truly imagine it happening. I couldn’t. We were madly in love too, and no, I couldn’t have imagined being with anyone else ever. But I also couldn’t have imagined him dying, leaving me single at 45, which to me is far too young to decide to be a dried up widow. I figured I had two paths: the hardened widow (your Patti Smith or Yoko Ono type) or the hopeless romantic that was open to loving again. And well, I can’t help it, I’m a hopeless romantic. Sue me. If Mike really thought I was wonderful (crazy man), surely he’d hope that I’d find someone new that felt the same. Closing yourself to love is just sad to me, and I’m tired of being sad.
But back to the walking through it lesson. I remember sitting at home with loved ones, not long after Mike died, wishing I could fast forward to a year in the future, to a time that hopefully I’d feel whole again. But you can’t feel whole again with wishes. It takes time, work, effort, and patience. There’s no rushing the healing, and it is forever ongoing. It’s not done now, and it won’t be done probably ever. But it does get easier. And if people around you can’t understand why you burst into tears over weird random things, fuck them. That’s their problem, not yours.
What to Give Your Grieving Friend
The number one thing I was asked, both during and afterwards, was “what do you need?” Or “what can I get you” etc. The honest truth is, I had no idea what I needed. Your friend probably won’t know either. Aside from the self-help books I already mentioned above, what else might be good to give to your friend? Here’s what helped me:
The amazing thing about the world we live in now, is that almost all grocery stores have on-line shopping, and/or gift cards. Awesome. Some friends that know my eating habits well enough bought me groceries on-line and had them delivered to me. But unless the person is going to be home when the groceries are delivered, and you really really know what to get them, I suggest buying them a gift card for grocery delivery instead of buying them stuff they won’t like. Even stuff I like didn't necessarily feel good at that time. Are they vegetarian? Gluten free? Vegan? Don’t bother with that stuff and just get them money to spend on their own groceries so they can get what sounds good at the time. A lot of people gave me Whole Foods gift cards. That was absolutely amazing and probably the best thing anyone could have bought me. I highly suggest this.
- Prepared Meal Delivery
Equally awesome to getting groceries was getting a prepared meal delivered. Another very popular gift to me were gift cards to places on-line that let you pick out meals that are ready to go, and just need to be cooked in the oven. I saved these for days that I wanted something kinda special. Like for New Year’s Eve, I knew I wanted to just be home alone because it was rather emotional entering a new year without Mike, but I also wanted to have something special. So I spent some of my credits on a nice meal and dessert that was delivered to me the day before. That way I could “cook” my nice dinner at home. It felt fancier than getting take out, and yet a lot easier than having to prepare it from scratch. I highly recommend these services and most places have something like this to offer on-line.
- Self-Care Products
This was wonderful, as after losing the love of your life, you’ve never felt worse about your physical appearance. You’ve been beaten up and it shows. So things like candles, creams, bath salts, and the like were so nice. They were such lovely treats. I also was gifted quite a lot of gift certificates to spas for massages, mani/pedis, facials and such. This too was amazing, and not something that you need to be nearby to give to somebody, thanks to sites that allow the recipient to pick from a selection of spas near them. I spent about 9 months to use them all up, spreading them out for maximum impact.
This might seem like something only distant friends give because they don’t know what else to do, but my home was filled to the brim with flowers for a solid month, and it was so very nice. They came from far and wide, from people I didn’t even know, and varied dramatically from big formal arrangements to bouquets of wildflowers. All were welcome, and your grieving friend will likely agree. I did get one living plant, which seems nice in concept, but then when I killed it a few months later, I felt pretty guilty about it.
Final Thank You’s
When the gifts started pouring in on the day after my mom arrived, she quickly jumped into action and started a list on a note pad, much like you would at a wedding or baby shower. That way I could write proper thank you cards to everyone later. But I really underestimated how long my head would be foggy, and while she kept a tidy list of the gifts coming in, I did a terrible job keeping a tidy list of the thank you cards going out. I’m certain some people didn’t get one, while others might have gotten two. And looking back, I have no idea what I wrote to anyone. Really I should have waited at least 9+ months to even try to write them, but I had this self-imposed pressure looming over me and I felt like I had to thank everyone swiftly. Instead, I failed big time on this. So if I didn’t send you a thank you card, or if you got one that sounded cold and weird, or if you got two, please accept my sincere apologies. Chalk it up to the fact that while I thought I was clear enough to do it, I just wasn’t.
So here is one giant THANK YOU to the hundreds of people that sent me flowers, food, groceries, books, sewing goodies, knitting goodies, meals, cards, money, art, and digital well wishes. I survived this year and I am optimistic about what’s to come. The huge hug of support that I feel from around the globe keeps me going. So thank you to all of you that helped me get here.