We’re right in the middle of baseball season. One of our family’s favorite pastimes was to attend the Giants games at the old Candlestick Park in San Francisco, where we’d shiver in the bleachers as we cheered on our team. I still picture Steve with his Giants’ cap, Giants’ sweatshirt, and baseball mitt in hand (just in case he was in a position to catch a wild ball that was hit into the stands). Our daughters and I were always more interested in the antics of the other fans, in finding that elusive malt vendor, and in just staying warm as the fog invariably rolled in over the edges of the stadium as the game wore on. The best part of the game was always the Seventh Inning Stretch, where we and the entire stadium would rise to our feet and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the top of our lungs.
It’s been six years since he died, and it’s been really hard to attend any ballgames without Steve — I think we’ve only been to a couple since then. He was so embedded in our experiences and memories of the games, and we found it extremely difficult to be there without him. In fact, we left well before the seventh inning, because the memories and lack of his presence with us were just too much to take.
Well, as I recently listened to the baseball stats announced on my favorite radio station, I realized that finally, I feel ready to return to the ballpark to enjoy a Giants game. And with that realization came a parallel one: I’ve come a long way since Steve died, since those early days of grief when I felt that my life had been ripped apart.
I vividly remember that searing pain I felt during the final stages of his illness and then even more so after he died, when the shock and numbness wore off. At that time, I had the horrifying thought that my life would always be this way, filled with pain, tears, and feelings I’d never even imagined were possible. It was such a dark time and I could believe that I would ever feel better again, that the hole in my heart would ever heal and that I would ever feel whole again.
Healing a broken heart doesn’t (and can’t) (and shouldn’t) happen in an instant. When a spouse dies, all those years of loving someone, sharing a life together, and sharing hopes and dreams for the future is torn away. It would in fact be unnatural if we could simply take a magic pill and feel instantly healed. I’ve discovered that a lot of patience, energy, and time are required to recover. But the good news is “Yes, we can heal.” Despite those initial feelings of hopelessness, as I’ve done my grief work, I’ve found that I can feel whole again. I can feel joy again.
For those who have lost a spouse, the grief journey is not a single event, but rather an ongoing process. It took a long time for me to realize that healing was not about hitting home runs, but rather getting singles.
By this I mean taking “baby steps,” and feeling good about our progress, however slow or tiny it seems at the time. A few years ago one of my friends who is also a widow started walking to relieve stress. This evolved to running, and finally she found herself working up to a half-marathon to raise funds for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. She said her initial goal was just to get outside and experience the sunshine, and as she built up strength and stamina, she gradually added small goals each day, to walk a bit further, then to run a bit longer. When she started, she says she could never have envisioned herself running in a half-marathon, and if she’d had that goal in mind at the outset, she likely would have given up because it seemed so unattainable. She says that goals are a good thing, but a dose of realism when starting out is even better.
I have come to think that the healing journey is like the running or like playing baseball. We survivors of spouse loss should not expect that by starting to jog, we will be ready to run in the next Olympic games, or to go from the minors to the major leagues and win MVP in the next All Star game. It’s all about the healing steps we take, and also about acknowledging our progress along the way.
At some points it feels like I’ve blinked my eyes and Steve disappeared, and in other cases, it feels like decades since he was here. Time is elastic, and calendars can be slippery. The process of healing takes a lot of work over time, but I found that if I began with the relatively easier tasks, starting small with the “low hanging fruit,” I was able to build up my own strength and endurance. At times I am actually quite amazed at how far I’ve come on the healing pathway.
Some of my baby steps that you might want to try:
- Writing in my grief journal. At first it was just some lists, but these evolved into deeper, more revelatory explorations of my evolving feelings. Now, I’ve filled a few journals, and plans to do even more. Amazing to re-read the early stuff!
- Exercising. After Steve died, I felt so stiff, exhausted, and sore all the time. But I started doing some simple yoga stretching. This has evolved to a full hour of high-energy Kundalini yoga each morning.
- Singing. Steve and I used to love to sing together, and after he died, I found my voice had completely dried up. I not only didn’t have the desire to sing, but I really couldn’t carry a tune to save my life, not even with well-loved church hymns. Then, a couple of years after Steve died, Santa delivered a karaoke machine and a few sing-along CDs. Initially only the girls enjoyed it, but they eventually convinced me to join the fun. At this point, I’ve turned into a karaoke junkie, and can sing better than ever, hitting high notes I only dreamed about in the past.
- Making connections. I felt really isolated after Steve died. Although my friends surrounded me with warmth and invitations, I felt so numb and cold inside, and more than anything so exposed and vulnerable. I really didn’t feel strong enough to be out, especially in large groups of people, but I knew it wasn’t healthy to stay holed up at home by myself. So I took a baby step and started by going to a movie with a friend from my grief workshop. Eventually I felt able to join in larger gatherings (hint: call a friend and ask if you can tag along so you’re not arriving alone). Now, I am pleased to say that I can handle most social gatherings. Do I miss Steve at my side? Of course. But at this point, I really do feel comfortable on my own. And – okay this is a news flash – I find myself actually open to the possibility of perhaps having someone new at my side in the future. Six years ago I could never have imagined feeling this way!
What baby steps have you taken on your grief journey? How have you changed since your spouse died? What do you consider the “singles” you’ve gotten in the ballpark? Have you had any home runs? We’d love to hear your experiences!
Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is Vice President and Treasurer of the Board of the Open to Hope Foundation, a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.
© 2009 Beverly Chantalle McManusTags: grief, hope