A Badass Widow’s Lessons Learned from Grief and COVID-19

As we’re all struggling to comprehend and adapt to this crazy new world we’re living in, it occurred to me that many of the lessons that I’ve learned so far from COVID-19 are very similar to the lessons that I’ve learned from other extremely stressful situations in my life, such as losing my husband to a heart attack when he was only 47 years old, and losing my house to the destructive force of Hurricane Irene. Here are some of those lessons:

1. Possessions are meaningless; the people in our lives are all that really matter;

2. Offering to help is kind; showing up (even if it’s by Zoom or Messenger Kids) is love;

3. The only person’s actions that I can control are my own;

4. Forcing myself to shower, dress and put on a little makeup every day makes a world of difference in how I feel about myself and the day ahead of me;

5. Maintaining a sense of humor and being a good teammate are the two most important qualities in a significant other, particularly during times of crisis;

6. I can’t expect people to understand what I’m going through in this crisis because no two people are dealing with the same obstacles; my situation is probably worse than someone else’s in some ways and better than someone else’s situation in other ways, and everyone is focused on their own survival;

7. It’s very possible that my 5 year-old daughter jumping off the steps at the beach and getting covered in sand will be the highlight of my day; enjoy it – that’s why God made vacuums;

8. Attempting to “live like you are dying” falls short; instead, the goal should be to live like all of the people who you love are dying, too;

9. Alcohol is critical in times of crisis, as are Golden Oreos, ice cream and pizza; and, I’ve lately found myself wondering why it took me nearly 46 years to fully appreciate the potato chip?! 😂

10. This, too, shall pass. No bad situation lasts forever. And there will be parts of this bad situation that you will actually miss. So, live in the moment.

11. When you can go through hell and back, and still be able to say you’re one of the luckiest people in the world (because of the immense love of family and friends), you must be doing something right.

Hang in there, world! 🌎❤️

Finally, The Answer to the Age-Old Widows’ Question: Which is Worse, Instant Or Prolonged Death of Your Spouse?

The answer to which one is worse: NEITHER. They both totally fucking suck.

For the past four years since my husband died, I’ve been a member of several online widow support groups, and, in various forms and ways, the question always comes up: is it worse to have your spouse die instantly, or is it worse to watch your spouse die a prolonged death due to illness? The thing is, no matter how you get there, we widows end up in the same place: lost, unmoored, shattered and shaken.

One regular morning in April 2016, my 47 year-old husband Jimmy was at a dog park near our house with our Golden Retriever, Zoey. He was sitting on a bench, drinking a cup of coffee, watching the dogs chase after balls and each other. He was chatting with a friend, and then, without warning, he had a heart attack and died. Poof. The end of his life. And it was also the end of my life as I knew it. I didn’t just lose my husband and my best friend that day; I lost my future. The rug was pulled out from underneath me, and I was gutted to the core. I had to start from the beginning, and rebuild a life for myself and my children. I didn’t get to say goodbye. My children didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t have a chance to talk with Jimmy about his last wishes – because we were young and the subject never really came up. Did he want to be cremated or buried in a cemetery? Did he want to be buried next to his brother? He was a NYPD detective – did he want to be buried in his uniform or in a suit? What did he want me to do for his children? Were there any messages he wanted me to communicate to members of his family? And I was left with 17 million other unanswered questions like those….

But, on the upside, Jimmy did not suffer. He didn’t have to stare death in the face and wonder which day it would come. He wasn’t in pain. He wasn’t afraid. Our family didn’t have to watch him suffer, and we didn’t have to suffer alongside him. I only know a little about what it’s like to lose someone to prolonged illness, but I am quite sure the emotional and physical toll on the healthy spouse and family must be beyond imagination.

So, which is worse? Neither. They are both the most unimaginably traumatic experiences, shattering to the core. If you’ve been there and you’ve been thought it, the only question you need answered is “can you keep going?” – and the unequivocal answer is, you sure as hell can. You are a warrior, you have unparalleled resilience, and you are a phoenix. And not everyone will understand – but I do. Rock on. You got this.

Acts of Service: A Love Story

According to “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, one of the five ways that people express love is through acts of service. It wasn’t until after my husband Jimmy died when I consciously recognized that his primary love language was acts of service.

Some examples, in a completely haphazard, non-chronological, and stream-of-consciousness order:

– Three pans of lasagna, carefully layered like his Little Grandma used to make them, with fresh basil leaves garnishing the top, as one of many dishes to serve to our family on Christmas.

– Our home was completely destroyed by a hurricane, and he spent 2.5 years using his skills as a carpenter to rebuild it with the strength of his own hands, arms and legs, while simultaneously working full time as a NYPD homicide detective. Oh, and let me not neglect to mention that, on the day after that hurricane, he stopped pumping the water out of our house and stopped stripping every single thing out of our house – so he could go on duty and help other hurricane victims.

– It made him feel good to send me off to work with breakfast for my train ride. Knowing that I was trying to eat healthfully, he’d carefully toast the whole wheat bread, make an egg white omelette with spinach and Alpine Lace Swiss, add hot sauce and ketchup, slice it in half, wrap it in wax paper, wrap the wax paper in aluminum foil, then wrap the whole thing in a kitchen towel to keep it warm. And, inside, he’d always tuck a rectangular yellow post-it with a little love note on it.

– I called him once to tell him I was with AAA and waiting for the guy to fix my flat tire. Jimmy was really mad at me. He said, “you should have called me first. I would have fixed it for you.” He was the first person to make me realize it’s okay to ask for help, and I don’t always have to solve the problem by myself.

– Whenever he would send me flowers, which was often, he’d always send one bouquet to my office and another one to our home. And he’d max out the character limit on the gift card, telling me how much he loved me.

– As a housewarming present for Jimmy, when we were finally moving back into our home after years of rebuilding from hurricane flooding damage, I had a sign made for him on an old piece of driftwood, and it said: “The House That Love Built.” That’s what he built for me and our family. He didn’t just build any old house. He quite literally put blood, sweat and tears into building a perfect home for us. Everything is level. Everything. Where the floors transition from hardwood to tile, there are no saddles; the floors seamlessly and smoothly pass from one type of flooring to the next. All of the lines are perfectly straight. And, speaking of those hardwood floors, he was the one on his hands and knees laying those down for a week.

– When our daughter was born and it was time for me to return to work after maternity leave, Jimmy took retirement from the NYPD so he could spend time with his baby girl. He said he didn’t want her in the care of anyone but a parent until she was old enough to be able to express what she needed. It was right that second when I realized how deeply he loved our baby girl.

– His custard French toast made with challah bread, topped with blueberries, strawberries and powdered sugar, and, on the side, brown sugar baked bacon. Don’t forget the warm maple syrup from his family’s farm in Vermont and the softened butter. I can’t even write more about that breakfast because I miss it so much, but I will say there was no mistaking that that act of service was an act of love toward every friend and family member lucky enough to taste it.

He made everything with love.

He built everything with love.

He gave everything he had, with love.

Grief only lives where love lived first. That means a whole lotta grief lives in The House That Love Built – but, the love is still here, too, and always will be.

“The Happiest Moments Will Also Be a Little Sad.”

The title of this post is a quote from one of my favorite television shows, “This Is Us.” Yes, the show about the family that learns how to survive after the father dies from a heart attack. Just like my family learned how to survive when my husband died from a heart attack three years ago. So, in some ways, watching that show is like self-imposed torture, as if I’m purposely reliving the worst moments of my life. But, in more important ways, the show is validating and comforting. The writers really get it. They’re spot on. All of the time.

One main theme of the show is about how grieving doesn’t end. It’s not as if one day we wake up and say, “okay, I’m finished with grieving and it’s time to move on.” Instead, the loved one who we’ve lost becomes sewn into the very fabric of our daily existence.

My husband is a part of everything I do, and I feel that I am honoring his life and my memory of him by making sure that he is never forgotten. My 5 year-old daughter was just about to turn 2 when he died – so all of her “memories” of him are memories that my family and I have shared with her. She knows not to crash her scooter into the living room wall because Daddy and her brother built this beautiful house for us. When I ask her if she knows who was really good with tools, or who made the best french toast in the world, or whose feet she has, she knows the answer. It’s Daddy.

So, back to the quote that tops this post, since my husband is woven into the fabric of my life going forward, the happiest moments of my life will also be a little sad. This past weekend, my husband’s oldest daughter became engaged to be married. And her father, my husband was painfully absent from this important milestone. So, reverting to the only coping mechanism that’s consistently worked for me, I made a point to acknowledge the elephant not in the room. (I can literally hear him saying, “did you just call me an elephant? You got jokes?!”) I made sure to tell my stepdaughter how proud he would be of her, and how he would have definitely approved of the man she chose to be her husband.

We cried about it, but I’d say we were better off for acknowledging that the happiest moments are also a little sad. It felt better to air that truth, rather than pretending that it wasn’t happening. And, then, I sat down in an Adirondack chair in the shade of a big tree at the engagement party, enjoyed the surprisingly cool summer breeze, watched as a butterfly flew by, and enjoyed a strong cocktail and large slice of cake with family and friends as my stepdaughter smiled her way through the day.

Be Kind To Your Grief

In the first days and months of experiencing grief over instantly losing my husband to a heart attack, my body felt like its edges were jagged, as though grief had physically ripped my body to shreds. The anxiety tightened my chest and raced my heart. I felt as though any stranger looking at me could see right through my body, because it was as though a bomb had detonated in my chest cavity.

As a natural problem solver, I thought grief was a force that I could fight, a battle that I could win. I was wrong. Now three years later, I’ve come to realize that grief is more like a wave that I am riding. Resisting grief only serves to deepen grief. Avoiding grief infuriates grief. So, at some point along the way, I began what I called “actively grieving.”

For me, part of actively grieving involved a therapist, a psychiatrist, young widow support groups, and voraciously reading works by other widows to learn from them. But, the much bigger part of my active grieving involved being kind to my grief, kind to myself. I had to find a way to smooth the jagged edges and repair the hole in my chest cavity.

Being kind to oneself is something that looks different for each individual experiencing grief. For me, it looked like this: I went to restorative yoga classes and Reiki energy healing sessions. I drove to the beach to listen to the ocean and put my feet in the sand. I scheduled frequent babysitters so I could have a mini break from putting my daughter to sleep and some space and time to cry. I had many full body massages, manicures and pedicures. I forced myself to shower and get dressed every damn day. And, I went on a grief diet which consisted almost entirely of Golden Oreos and Ben & Jerry’s.

Whatever it takes. Whatever you need. Do it. Don’t feel guilty about taking time away from your family. Don’t feel guilty for spending time or money on yourself. Be kind to your grief. Take care of you – because nobody but you knows how to do that.

And, please know that the crisis/triage/emergency period of time won’t last forever – as much as it feels like it will. I remember knowing that time period was coming to a close for me when I switched from Ben & Jerry’s to Edy’s Light! And now, more than three years in, I’m still grieving, and I think I’ll always be grieving, but it feels so much different now. The physical manifestations of grief are less noticeable to me because of the kindness that I continually try to show myself. Courage.

Recent Parkland and Sandy Hook Suicides Prove: There is No Timeline for Grief

When I’m not playing the role of the Badass Widow, I am a lawyer for network news. That means I read more than my fair share about death. So much so that I’m largely desensitized to it at this point, as I’m sure many of you are, too. Even working on reports about devastated widows don’t get to me anymore. But.

This week, I was cut down to the bone by reports about the suicides of two student survivors of last year’s high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, and the suicide of the 49 year-old father of a six-year old girl who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Those deaths impacted me because, as a widow whose husband died suddenly, ripping apart the life we had imagined for ourselves, I totally understand how those three people could have died by suicide. It really hit home, with crushing sadness for the three people who were suffering so much that they saw no other way but to kill themselves, and equal sadness for the grieving families they left behind.

The mission of my blog is to speak openly and honestly about grief; to take grief out from behind the black curtain, and make it a socially acceptable topic of conversation; to help people who are grieving understand that they’re not alone; and to help people whose loved ones are grieving by providing some insight into what grief is really like. So, with that mission in mind, I’m going to share more of my personal grief journey with you now. I’ve made the following admission to some very close family and friends, and now I’m going to admit it to you, because speaking honestly about grief is the only way to effectuate change. Here it is: there is no doubt in my mind that, if it were not for my daughter and my three stepchildren, I definitely would have died by suicide after my husband’s death. Definitely.

In the early days after his heart attack, the pain was so intense and so unbearable that I would often fantasize about driving my car at 100 mph into the back of a Mack truck. I never would have actually done it, because, when he died, I instinctively went into protective mama bear mode and focused on my children. That focus quite literally kept me alive. Without them as my focus, I could see no reason to keep moving forward on this earthly plane. When he died, it seemed as though my future died with him. I could barely figure out how to make it through the day, much less envision a lifetime without him.

We, as a society, need to talk more honestly and openly about grief. There is no shame in grief. And there is no timeline for grief. After the wake and the burial, the real grieving begins. The first year after his death was a complete blur: my brain shut off, and I went into protective mode. The second year was when the reality of my loss really hit: this is what my life is now. My life no longer includes Jimmy. As I’m now nearing the third anniversary of his death, I’m in a much stronger place, and I do see a very happy future for myself. But it took a helluva long time to get here – and, for all I know, another grief trigger will happen tomorrow or the next day.

If you know someone who is grieving, they don’t need your flowers or your Mass cards nearly as much as they need your continuing support over the coming days, weeks, and years. Put the death anniversary, the birthday of the person who died and other important dates on your calendar, repeating annually, and send a note saying you’re thinking of them on those days. Check in on your grieving friend often. Ask how they are doing today. Recommend therapy and support groups. Talk about the person who died. Tell funny stories about them. Re-live favorite memories. Don’t worry, you’re not reminding us that our person died; you’re letting us know that you remember that our person lived!

Grief fucking sucks. And it doesn’t have a timeline. It doesn’t go away in the one year since Parkland. And it doesn’t go away in the almost 7 years since Sandy Hook. Everyone grieves at a different pace and in a different way. Let’s all keep a watchful eye on the grieving folks around us, and may the souls of Jeremy Richman, Sydney Aiello and the unnamed Parkland student rest in peace.

Do you see the butterflies circling my head?

Maybe you’re curious about why my blog is papered with butterflies.

My husband died in the middle of April 2016, and, by May 1st, my stepson had to choose which college to attend, just two weeks after his father’s death.

Three different times during our visit to several colleges upstate, my then two year-old daughter looked around and said, “Butterflies, butterflies!”‘ We were in hotel rooms or public restrooms when it happened, so I was confused, wondering what she could be mistaking for a butterfly. So, when we got home from that trip, I Googled “what does it mean when a child sees butterflies?” And I found this:

“The caterpillar dies so the butterfly could be born. And, yet, the caterpillar lives in the butterfly and they are but one. So, when I die, it will be that I have been transformed from the caterpillar of earth to the butterfly of the universe.” – John Harricharan

Several weeks later, at Trader Joe’s, my daughter pointed toward the plain white ceiling and said “Butterflies, butterflies!” I asked her where she saw butterflies, and she pointed to the ceiling and said it again. That was the first time since our college trip that she had seen the butterflies again.

Then, in June of that same year, I took the kids on a road trip to Philly to keep their minds off of the fact that it was their first Father’s Day without their father. We saw the Riverdance at the Academy of Music, had a picnic in Rittenhouse Square, visited the Liberty Bell, went to the Franklin Institute, wandered around the tree-lined streets with cute shops, and ate at some fabulous restaurants. And then, as we were getting ready to leave the apartment that I had rented for the weekend, I was getting my daughter dressed, and she suddenly had a far away look in her eyes, staring up at the white ceiling. I asked her, what do you see? And, she replied, “butterflies.” What makes this occurrence even stranger is that, while roaming around in an old Italian neighborhood in Philly that weekend, we came across a daycare center that had cutouts of all different kinds of animals, birds and flowers in the windows. As we pointed to each thing, my daughter would identify it (yellow duck, red bird, etc.), but, when we’d point to one of the many butterflies on the window, she could not identify it. In other words, the only time that the word “butterfly” was in her vocabulary was when she was seeing ones that nobody else could see.

My daughter saw butterflies two more times that summer, during our trip to a lake house upstate with two of my stepkids. One of those two times was in the same restaurant off the highway where she saw the butterflies when I took my stepson on that college trip.

That fall, during our trip to my stepson’s college orientation and to visit my dad’s family in upstate NY, my daughter saw butterflies three times: once in our hotel room (my stepson heard it that time), once in the party room where all of my family was gathered (several people heard her say it), and the final time was again in the SAME restaurant where we had stopped on our way home after each of our other trips that summer! She said it in that restaurant each time we went there, although, on that third visit, instead of saying it in the bathroom while I was changing her diaper like she did the other two times, this time she said it while sitting in her highchair at the table (my stepson and his girlfriend heard it). Every time we went on a trip in those first few months after he died, he let us know that he was there with us by appearing for our daughter in the form of a butterfly. Maybe that sounds crazy to you, but I’ve never known anything to be more true.

Then, that September, it was the first birthday of mine that I had to spend without my husband. At a family birthday party the day before my actual birthday, my aunt took the above photo of my daughter and me. Then, on my actual birthday, I was looking more closely at the photo as I was about to post it on my Facebook page, and that’s when I noticed something around my head in the photo. Zoom in. To me, it looks like little butterflies circling around my head. Do you see them? Usually, my daughter was the one to receive the butterflies, but, for my birthday that year, he gave the butterflies to me! 🦋

Do Not Compare My Dead Husband to Your Dead Cat.

Grief is filled with so many irreconcilable contradictions, and equally as many universal similarities.

On the one hand, grieving the death of a spouse is unlike any other trauma. Please do not compare the instantaneous loss of my 47 year-old husband to to the loss of your 92 year-old grandmother. Also, please do not compare the death of my spouse to your divorce. You may not have a husband living in your house anymore, but he likely has joint custody and lives not too far away from your kids. And I’m not kidding you when I say that one of my colleagues actually compared my loss to the death of his cat. His. Fucking. Cat. I’m not saying my grief is any worse than those other losses (okay, it is definitely worst than the cat), but it is fundamentally different from and incomparable to those other losses. And I’m also keenly aware that many other people are suffering from grief that is objectively far, far worse than mine – like the parents of the college kids recently shot and killed in a bar in California. There’s no way I could ever comprehend the depth of the loss of a child. So I’m not going to compare my loss to theirs because their loss is fundamentally different than mine.

On the other hand, as much as losses cannot be compared, and as much as I’ve always said that you can’t understand the pain that someone is going through unless you’ve experienced that same pain yourself, there is a fundamental universality about trauma and loss. For instance, when the brother of one my colleagues passed away, I sent a sympathy note that said, “Grief sucks.” As she well knew, I’ve earned the right to speak in such a flip and honest way about grief – because, on the most basic level, I do understand her pain. I can feel its jagged edges. And, as much as I have no idea what it’s like to lose a brother, the universality of loss allows me to process, understand and empathize with many kinds of trauma and loss.

And, actually, lately I’ve been struck by how similar the trauma of losing a spouse is to many other non-death-related traumas. For instance, when my mentor of 20 years recently and unexpectedly left the company, my brain processed this loss as a trauma. Obviously it was not as severe a trauma as losing my husband, but my range of emotions mimicked my grief response: I was shaken, disoriented, and broken. Another example of my reaction to a non-death-related trauma is when our house was completely destroyed by Hurricane Irene, we lost nearly all of our possessions, and we were displaced from our home for more than two years. I didn’t know it back in 2011, but my reaction to that flooding trauma was astoundingly similar to my 2016 loss of my husband. Shaken, disoriented and fundamentally broken. Both times, I was in shock mode, triage mode, panic mode, trying to make sense of my new reality and the rug that had been ripped out from underneath me.

If you’ve suffered any kind of trauma, you have a window into the way my trauma feels. But, remember, it’s just a window. And please also remember, my husband is not your fucking cat.

Death Put Warts On My Pumpkins

Like most people who have experienced the death of a significant other, I mark time in my life as either “before he died” or “after he died.”

Before he died, October was a magical month. My very favorite month, in fact. It was the month when he and I first met (at a dive bar in my hometown), and it was the month we went on our first date (sushi for dinner and then walking through the middle of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and stopping right in the middle of it for our first kiss). October was also the month we got married (under a tent on the water in Montauk with 20 of my best friends dancing down the aisle and a party that went on for many hours after it was supposed to end). And, it was the month when we’d celebrate that he and his daughter were born on the exact same day (he always said having his daughter born on his birthday was the best birthday present he could ever ask for). Before he died, October was also a month filled with cozy oversized sweatshirts, blankets on the couch while watching football, homemade sauce that he’d make on Sundays, and trips to fall festivals to eat apple cider donuts and pick out our pumpkins.

After he died, warts grew on my pumpkins. They are different than everyone else’s bright orange smooth pumpkins. Every morning in October when I wake up, I think to myself, what memory of him do I have from this day in October? Those are still happy and good memories, but they’re different. They’re not the advent of family traditions with our kids; they’re just memories. And now that’s he’s gone, there’s a new milestone in October; October 13th is the half year anniversary of his death. So, as of this year on October 13th, it was 2.5 years since we lost him. And now every October reminds me that my sweet stepdaughter has to live the rest of her life sharing her birthday with her deceased father. That sucks. And today, on what would have been the 8th anniversary of our wedding, I’m writing this post while on a flight to Orlando for work, having left our 4 year-old daughter at home with family and her nanny. I used to fly all over the world. In fact, the top of my bucket list is to travel to all 7 continents, and I have 5 of them under my belt so far. But, in the 2.5 years since my husband died, I have not taken a flight anywhere: paralyzed with the largely irrational fear that I will die in a plane crash, leaving my daughter and my three stepkids to carry on without me.

So, in this still-new era of “after he died,” my pumpkins will never look the same. But, ya know, those warty pumpkins are kinda cool. They have character and intrigue. They stand apart from regular smooth orange pumpkins because they’re rough and tough. And my kids and I are rough and tough, too, because we keep putting one foot in front of the other, tackling each new challenge that life presents to us. Challenges like getting on a goddamn airplane – and, ya know what, this flight is about to make a safe landing in Orlando. Life is different now, life is in many ways harder now, but I’m a stronger person in this era, and I’ve realized that it’s okay to say that life is good, even without him here with us. Life is good, bitches.

PSA: Do Not Send Cut Flowers to Grieving People

It’s been almost 2.5 years since the sudden death of my husband – not exactly a recent trauma – and yet I still can’t stand the sight of cut flowers.

As you’d imagine, when he died, family, friends and colleagues wanted to express their sympathy. What’s the most common and accepted way to express sympathy? With flowers, of course. Gorgeous vases full of cut flowers and wreaths made of cut flowers filled the funeral home for his wake. Everywhere, there were flowers. The notes included with the arrangements warmed my shattered heart. They came from a broad spectrum of people, many of whom I hadn’t heard from in years. All of their hearts were in the right place. But, they just didn’t know. They didn’t get it.

After the wake, one of my stepdaughters surveyed the funeral parlor room full of flowers and quite rightly decided that it would be a shame to let all of those flowers go to waste – so, she and others loaded up all of those flowers into several cars and brought them back to our house. If you’ve ever been at a wake, you know that funeral flowers look very different than birthday flowers or Valentine’s Day flowers. Funeral flowers are formal, stiff, sad, and pungent. And now our home was filled with all of that sad, smelly energy.

And do you know what happens when cut flowers sit around for a few days? They die. Please let me say that again: THEY DIE. So, now, because you gave cut flowers to me, I had watch them wilt and die. And then, I had to empty the vases of all of that stinky dead flower water (who doesn’t know the smell of dead flower water?!), and throw all of those flowers in the garbage. Because they are dead. Because they are DEAD.

What’s the moral of this story? Please, please, please send a plant instead. Send a plant! The best gift that I received when my husband died was a plant in a pretty wicker basket. It was beautiful. And it took a full two years before I killed it. Whoops.