Widow, and bereavement group facilitator Kathleen Fraser shares her struggle finding ways to meet the challenges of these difficult days after the death of her husband. Based upon her own experiences with diminished capacity, fear of getting lost in grief, and a general sense of unmooring, Kathleen offers functional strategies for planning ahead, seeking gratitude where it can be found and trusting others to help.
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Mourning And Milestones
Honoring Anniversaries, Birthdays, and Special Occasions After A Loved One Dies
By Kathleen Fraser
Turning Stone PressCopyright © 2015 Kathleen Fraser
All rights reserved.
The First Year
The First Milestones/Jubilee Week I
About two months after the death of my husband, Jack, our family hit its first major milestone. Jack used to call the week in mid-May — which includes Mother's Day, our anniversary, and his birthday — Jubilee Week. He would always take time off from work to celebrate and would often plan a trip or excursions. Jubilee Week came up very quickly after his death. I knew I would need the support of family and to get out of town to make it through.
I was the homeschool instructor for my thirteen-year-old grandson, Devlin, who was living with me from Monday to Friday. He was there when Jack collapsed, when the emergency crew arrived, and when we learned in the hospital that there was nothing they could do. I had to find a way to care for myself on those difficult days and deeply wished to include Devlin. I did not know if I would be able to provide any love and support, but I struggled to find a plan that would create the space we needed without overwhelming us. It was clear that I could not do this in our home. It was full of reminders of Jack's collapse, loving memories of celebrations of his birth, and the joy I took in his life and our marriage.
My family, including Devlin, is fascinated by the ocean, finds pleasure being in it and peace staring at it. My sister, Jean, brother-in-law, Dan, and niece Anna — all of whom love Devlin — lived in Sarasota, Florida, near the ocean. So I asked them if Devlin, my daughter, Erica, and I could visit in May. They found us a place to stay in the RV park where Dan worked. They agreed to arrange an adventure with Devlin on my anniversary day so that I would not have to think about his care. They gave me the gift of space to quietly let the day take me wherever it led. My daughter stayed with me for support, and it was needed.
I don't remember much about that first anniversary day. I know that it included talking about my marriage, being together, sharing how much we missed Jack, and healing time in the water. Jean, Dan, and Devlin had a full day of adventure and fun. Then Devlin rejoined Erica and me at the end of the day in the RV park pool. For the anniversary, I needed quiet, contemplative solo time and the space to not have to try to hold it together. But for the birthday, it seemed important to include everyone.
On Jack's birthday, we all agreed to meet in the evening at Anna's house for a small ceremony of remembrance. During the day, we spent time at the ocean, swimming and gazing out at the horizon. There were enough of us around to keep the things a bit light, but still it was a painful day. When evening came, we gathered around the fire pit near the shore of a large pond in Anna's backyard and sat chatting for an hour or so. Devlin built a fire log by log and slowly a sense of camaraderie and companionship grew as we sat around the blaze. The fire gave us space to chat or just sit quietly. At times, it was mesmerizing. Its beauty helped us move from the routines of daily life to a different, more ceremonial space.
As our sense of quiet deepened, I asked everyone to write a letter to Jack, saying whatever needed to be said. I suggested the letter could be about how they were missing him, their love for him, his love for them, or just what they wished to share about the last couple of months. Each person wrote and wrote while quiet tears were shed. Words just seemed to flow from our pens. When we were all done, we burned our missives, sending them out in the rising smoke and ash to our beloved husband, father, grandfather, uncle, and brother-in-law. No one read their letter aloud, but we did talk about writing and what we said. We sat by the fire a while longer, until we were ready to return to ordinary time. It felt as if we had done just the right thing to honor Jack and our own grief. It was enough and not too much.
Making this plan was more difficult than its simplicity makes it seem. I tried to talk with others about making a plan, but for the most part, it was up to me. I don't know if their resistance reflected the difficulty of confronting pain or respect for my loss and a sense that my grief came first. I learned later that it was very hard for people to participate in this ritual. Afterward, there was tangible relief that we had made it through, and everyone was glad they had participated.
* Sometimes, when a milestone brings up devastating grief, it can help to get away.
* Those who love you may need you to tell them what you need.
* Children may need to grieve in their own way.
* Enlist help.
* Try writing a letter to your loved one.
For me, there was really no choice. I needed a framework for the grief of the day, a place to put it, a way to combat the fear that the grief would just engulf me. Family members who had not participated in Jack's birthday celebrations over the years could have let the day slip by unnoticed. My gratitude for the choice they made to be with me will be part of me for a long time.
Father's Day I
Our first Father's Day without Jack came a little more than three months after his death. My daughter, Erica, my son, Greg, and my son-in-law, Dean, were all at my home, and we needed to be together. My memories of these early months are cloudy, but there are parts of the day that stand out for me. Father's Day can be a difficult holiday for us. Greg and Erica's biological dad died when they were eleven and eight, respectively. He suffered from recurring extreme depression and other psychological and physical issues. At best, he was an indifferent but interesting father; at worst, an abusive one. His death brought a mixture of grief and relief.
Jack was a chosen father. Shortly after we were married, Jack adopted Greg and Erica, and we began the slow process of building a two-parent family. Over time, his relationships with the two of them grew out of love, respect, shared interests, shared adventures, and conversations over dinner. For Erica, there were also late-night snacks that coincided with Jack's early breakfasts.
At Jack's memorial service, Greg spoke about how Jack had chosen all of us when he married me. In fact, we all chose him, a man who was a father who celebrated my children's accomplishments and chose to know them deeply as individuals. Of course, there were struggles. But Jack had raised three teens. His quiet, balanced view of what mattered and what did not gave him a grace and credibility that formed a basis for the mature love the three of them shared. Dean had been developing his own relationship of affection and respect with Jack and felt the loss of the future they had looked forward to together.
Father's Day knocked all of us down with a sharp, acute grief filled with thoughts of the important milestones to come that would not include Jack's physical presence. There are children who will be born who will not know him as a grandfather, graduate school graduations he will not celebrate, Greg's eventual marriage at which Jack will not give a toast. We mourned in advance all of the occasions during which Jack's presence or advice or listening ear would be missed. He was fun, interesting, loving, and eager to learn about the things each of us was learning and doing. Also, he was the only one who knew what glasses to serve with which beverages.
We were very lucky that the four of us could be together. After Jack's death, Greg, Erica, and I feared that we would revert to the tight trio we had formed after their biological dad's death. We were aware that this would not serve us well now. Making space for Dean and others who were in our lives or might come into our lives was essential. Dean's physical presence and his quiet help throughout the day joined us in our shared grief. There were meals and conversations about Jack that helped, but I cannot remember the specifics. Our primary way of celebrating Jack was to engage in a springtime ritual that he had often led.
There is a small pond in our backyard that is just big enough for fish to overwinter if the neighborhood cats don't fish them out. So, when grandchildren or a great-niece visited, Jack engaged them in helping him restock the pond. Sometimes, he just took them to the pet store for goldfish, but the best stocking trips were adventures with nets, jars, and buckets to Mendon Ponds Park. Catching very small fish in nets and jars is a pretty great activity. It takes a long time, because it is challenging, it is quiet and beautiful in the woods, and messing around in a pond gets you satisfyingly muddy.
Unfortunately, all of the usual collection gear seemed to have disappeared. So the four of us went to the park armed with various potentially useful items found around the kitchen. We located a quiet spot with easy access to Jack's favorite pond and set about trying to capture a few of the small fish that were darting all around us. The fish showed much more skill in eluding us than we demonstrated in catching them. Luckily, a young boy with a fishing rod and precision fishing skills came along and offered his assistance. Of course, we agreed because we needed the help and because, without question, Jack would have included this child in the endeavor.
We spent a couple of hours in the park wading around, looking for good spots, and fishing in the pond. Making fools of ourselves missing fish after fish lightened the day, giving us chances for easy connections. The young stranger caught all of the fish that we brought home, and some made it through this last winter.
We hold an intention to incorporate gratitude for Jack's life and what he gave us into our lives and rituals or celebrations. But it can feel forced when the overpowering feeling is loss. Our young fisherman's persistence in helping us achieve our goal, and our awareness that caring for Jack created this opportunity, made a natural opening for gratitude to slip in and soften our grief.
* Try to engage in an activity that evokes your loved one's spirit or playful side.
* Leave space for serendipity.
* Sharing grief can help.
* A good ritual can include a willingness to seem foolish.
* Mourning can include anticipation of future events without your loved one.
In 2010, approximately five months before Jack's death in March 2011, Thanksgiving was at my house; family from out of town stayed in our extra bedrooms. They brought favorite foods and collaborated to make a feast that would feed all sixteen of us into stupors. Jack and my brother-in-law Jeff had a grand time working together on the turkey, and the kitchen was full from morning until dinnertime with chefs creating the dishes that their nuclear families could not do without. When Jack and Jeff finished their turkey preparation, they gleefully retreated, good beer in hand, to enjoy the ritual of watching the football game while the turkey roasted.
Thanksgiving 2011 did not hold the same promise. The name of the holiday specifies an attitude of gratitude, but my primary emotion approaching the holiday was a pervasive weariness and some dread. Being part of a large family, a multiday gathering seemed overwhelming.
Greg and Erica were in Rochester with me. My stepdaughter, Elizabeth, and her son, Devlin, live nearby. Devlin was living with me during the week for homeschooling, but he was with his mom for the holiday. There is a great deal of stress between our homes that has only amplified since Jack's death. Our challenge was how to get through the day without rubbing in how hard it was without Jack. He always played a big role in the preparations and provided the glue that made this group a family.
It took days of thought to come up with a plan, but for the first time in my memory, I did not work hard to make sure that Thanksgiving was a success for my extended family. It was worth the preparation, because we ended up with a nice holiday together. Prior to Thanksgiving Day, I made it known that I was not up to preparing the traditional meal for everyone. Elizabeth and Devlin planned a turkey dinner for themselves with their next-door neighbor. Erica made evening plans with local friends, and Greg and I planned to attend an evening Thanksgiving dinner with a group of adults who create family out of friendships.
As the day neared, I began to see just how important it was for Devlin that I find a way of acknowledging we were all still a family who could celebrate together. Luckily, I saw an ad for a lunchtime Thanksgiving feast at a favorite Indian restaurant. This worked for us. Elizabeth was glad for the invitation, and the five of us met in a good way for a meal on a day meant for feasting with family.
The food was dramatically different from a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, giving us space to create something new. Since it was not at home, Jack's empty chair did not stare us in the face. Because the feast was a buffet, all of our various dietary needs could be comfortably met, and we did not have to sit around hungrily waiting for our order. Going back and forth to try new dishes gave us something to do, and we recommended choices to one another. We even had a good time conversing cordially, toasting Jack, and chatting with mutual respect for our shared loss.
* Is there a new or different way to be with loved ones?
* Starting to think about a plan early can reduce the stress of celebrations.
* It is not necessary to force yourself to feel the expected holiday emotions.
* Acknowledge that grief causes fatigue.
Having dinner later at a friend's house gave my son, who is an avid and creative cook, a chance to make a couple of dishes to share. This preserved the important piece of cooking favorite foods while relieving us from the chore of preparing a whole meal, setting the table, and cleaning up. We needed this space to take the day a little gently and to acknowledge to one another just how hard it was. Grief is tiring. Not having a lot of extra work made its burden a little easier.
When my first husband died, one of the best pieces of advice I received was, "Do the holidays differently." Clinging to this advice on the first Christmas after Jack died helped me accept that I simply needed to get out of town. I did not want to face putting up the tree and decorating it without him. I especially did not want to take it down alone. Each year, I would want to enjoy the lights for as long as possible, and Jack would be the one to face up to taking the ornaments off and bringing the tree to the curb.
I worried that I would not have the emotional energy to be a loving grandmother on Christmas Day. I felt the weight of somehow trying to be both grandparents in the same way that I remembered trying to be both mother and father when my children's father died. I could not do it then, did not really need to do it then or now, but could not shake the feeling that somehow I should be able to.
There is no way to ignore Christmas. At home, the rituals of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner seemed like chores to be endured, not celebrations of joy, new light, and life the season brings. Yet the rest of us who are alive needed a way to be together on these days of celebration throughout the world. Even though I felt like I would prefer to pass on it, the holiday is real, and it mattered to me and to my family. Being a part of a bereavement group helped. We were asked to make a list of what would be most helpful for the holiday season and to share our lists with one another. The exercise strengthened my acceptance that finding it all so hard was a part of normal grieving. It gave me support, ideas, and clarity.
A solution came our way because my son-in-law, Dean, had to be in the Texas desert at the MacDonald Observatory over the Christmas week. He was a graduate student astronomer who had to take the time on shared equipment that matched the time the object he was studying was visible at night. Making the plan to join him felt like family building.
Since my daughter, son, and I had never been to West Texas, the trip would not provoke any memories of Jack. An extra benefit was that one of my stepsons, his wife, and twin six-year-old daughters would be able to drive from their home in Austin to spend a few days with us after Christmas. We had a lot of time to put this plan together, so each family member who was involved in the trip could be part of the planning. We rented a small, three-bedroom house with a functional eat-in kitchen and pleasant little living room.
Excerpted from Mourning And Milestones by Kathleen Fraser. Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Fraser. Excerpted by permission of Turning Stone Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword, by Theo Munson,
Part One: My Journey,
Chapter One The First Year,
Chapter Two Sucker Punches and Surprise Challenges,
Chapter Three Planning, Preparing for, and Performing the Ash-Scattering Ceremony,
Chapter Four The Holidays Revisited,
Chapter Five The Second Anniversary of Jack's Death,
Part Two: Others' Journeys,
Chapter Six Stories and Ideas from Others' Experiences,
Chapter Seven Formal Acts of Remembrance,
Chapter Eight Conclusion,