What the bereavement support group dress code should be and why widows often say they’ve “thrown out the rule book”: this and more when memory artist Nancy Gershman talks to Sandi Amorello, humorist, artist, and author of The Irreverent Widow: Shockingly true tales of love, death and dating…with children in towSandi is also founder of Girl Scout Dropout, (a membership-based alliance whose uplifting motto to women enduring challenges is ‘More support than an underwire bra’). To connect to other smart, rebellious, witty women averse to uniforms and support groups, make sure to visit sandiamorello.com.

The humor gene: are you one of the Haves or Have Nots?
Advice for the Bereaved & Bereaved-to-be: welcome absurdity into your day
Visiting a spouse with terminal illness?
Dress sexy and remember their jokes
Children don’t do grief – so time your crying breaks
Turn the worst day of your life into The Hallmark Movie of the Week
Clean underwear and perfume: how widows mark re-entry into the world
When the Old Timers compliment your widow look, it’s time to move on
Widows: don’t depress yourself twice by wearing sweatpants in public
To feel happy, surround yourself with stuff that makes you happy
Redecorate the funeral home’s entryway with your loved one’s “stuff”
Cheery photos of your late husband can keep a widow teary
Don’t be a Control-Freak Widow: Let your kids choose their own memories
Your To Do List

The humor gene: are you one of the Haves or Have Nots?

“My personal mantra is this: A sense of humor is the ultimate anti-depressant. Being able to see the humor in even the darkest of events has gotten me through everything in my life, including bereavement. It’s not about covering up the horrible trauma with humor. It’s not that I’m in denial. It’s not that I require full-time therapy. It’s more like what Nathan Lane once said: ‘I just like to laugh.’

My sense of humor has saved me from a decade of potential alcoholism, depression and possible child abandonment. Truly, I felt as if my life was over when my husband Drew passed away from pancreatic cancer and left me with three little kids (4, 7 and 9) to raise all alone. Were it not for my sense of humor and the gift of life insurance, I’m pretty sure I would be speaking to you from a mental facility right now.

When I was working on the Irreverent Widow Project (an art exhibition based upon the early stories I’d written about being widowed), I was mostly doing it to help myself heal. I then realized how much it could help others in their healing journeys as well.  I wasn’t intentionally trying to shock people; I was just being me. My central pieces dealt with controversial subject matter ––when you juxtapose topics like death, humor, religion, dating and sex, you’re bound to raise eyebrows.

At one point I discovered that we’ve spent tax dollars on research showing that people who laughed more moved through their grief faster. Duh. So I used my art, honesty and humor to create a comfort zone so people could talk about loss and its aftermath with each other. I wanted them to know that it’s okay (and healthy) to laugh and cry- sometimes simultaneously, alone and in public.

I’ve given talks where people actually raise their hand and ask me, ‘Were you ever sad?’ I wish I had the gallons of tears saved up in containers so I’d have actual proof. Let me make one thing very clear: I may have a sense of humor, but I didn’t come home from my husband’s funeral, put on a party dress and log onto an internet dating site. After 11 years I can still be moved to tears because I miss him. Or because my heart breaks for my fatherless children as they continue on without him. That’s part of loving someone deeply. Crying is a natural and necessary part of grieving.  Laughing is a natural and necessary part of grieving, too.  It’s cathartic – not disrespectful – to laugh through tears when you’re experiencing death and devastation.

I’d like to think that everyone can lighten up. That doesn’t mean that everybody has the capacity. Some people I’ve met take life very, very seriously and it’s difficult getting them to have a fresh point of view. They don’t seem to be born with the humor gene.  Or maybe it’s a blockage or the result of some kind of inborn guilt. Luckily I don’t have the guilt gene, so I wouldn’t know about that one.”

Advice for the Bereaved & Bereaved-to-be: welcome absurdity into your day

“No one ever thinks they will end up widowed. You get married and no one ever points out that the only way out of this is divorce or widowhood. Unless you cork off first. (I guess that’s option C.)  Who ever thinks of stuff like that when they’re saying ‘I do’?

Even before I was actually widowed, things started to hit me right away, absurdity-wise. All during the journey through his cancer, Drew had a great sense of humor. The drug administered as part of his first chemo treatment (which was totally palliative) was called “5FU.”  Anyone with even half a sense of humor can see where we went with that one.”

Visiting a spouse with terminal illness? Dress sexy and remember their jokes

“Hospitals in big cities are often filled with doctors who are quite attractive. It’s one of the only perks of spending time in a hospital. In this one particular hospital, Drew was always joking with me about this one particular doctor whom I had already noticed was a very handsome guy. Although neither of us ever uttered a pessimistic word, in his heart of hearts, Drew knew he might not be around for me for all eternity … and I’m sure Drew would have liked me to end up with one of his handsome physicians down the road. So he’d make jokes. It was his way of letting me know, I think, that he wanted me to have a life after he was gone.

One day this particular doctor seemed a bit flustered by the sight of me. I’m sure he didn’t get to see too many attractively dressed women down in the radiation department. I always dressed in my hottest and most attractive “apparel” to keep Drew motivated.  So we’re there one morning and the doctor kind of stumbles through his words of encouragement to Drew. The minute he’s out of the room, Drew smiles his brilliant and devilish smile and gives me his version which was: ‘Wow, your wife has a really nice ass!… cough, cough … I mean, you have a really good chance!’

Of course, this made me laugh and love him all the more. I mean, if a 40-year-old man with terminal cancer can keep his sense of humor…we all can. There is a huge life lesson there.

Children don’t do grief – so time your crying breaks

“So after fighting pancreatic cancer for nearly three years, we had Drew in the hospital for two weeks, and home for those final two nights. He died the morning after Christmas. I was numb and didn’t know how I was going to make it to the next moment but I had to sit our children down and tell them their daddy was gone. It was beyond heart-wrenching. I don’t even know how I did it.

Of course, then you are dealing with your own debilitating grief, while also trying to help your children navigate theirs.  Children don’t understand or absorb death and grief the way we do as adults. The last thing a grieving child wants to see is their normally happy and relatively well-adjusted mommy lying in bed for weeks crying and drinking out of a vodka bottle.

Mostly, they want you to get over it. ASAP.

I remember my seven year old son looked at me as I lay there with tissue lint on my eyelashes and a red nose and said, ‘You’re sad because daddy’s dead. But that was a long time ago.’ Drew had been dead maybe two days max. What do you do when you’re the one surviving parent?  You get out of bed and play Legos.  Or you end up with a child in therapy for all eternity.”

Turn the worst day of your life into The Hallmark Movie of the Week

“Looking back at that dreadful day through Drew’s eyes (he was a filmmaker), we were total Hallmark Movie of the Week material. In fact, I still contend that he died the morning after Christmas and ended up with a funeral on New Year’s Eve just so I’d have some juicy content to work with.

One of my more prized and bizarre memories is this one. My husband was deceased for maybe 20 minutes –– his body laying upstairs getting cold–– and our 4-year-old son, clearly unable to process what was happening, was skipping through the kitchen singing, “Daddy’s dead, Daddy’s dead.” In the other direction was my widowed mother-in-law (in the early stages of as yet undiagnosed Alzheimers) with her pants down around her knees (she had apparently forgotten to pull them all the way up after using the bathroom) – devastated at the loss of her son.  Toss in the recent arrival of Santa, the Christmas tree in the living room with the choo-choo train going in circles around it, and Drew upstairs dead in the bedroom and you are on the bus to Crazyland. And possibly Hollywood.

I broke out a case of Kleenex, some cabernet and bought the ticket.”

Clean underwear and perfume: how widows mark re-entry into the world

“My big first big wake-up call about the bereavement process came while trying to find a grief support group tailored to young widows.  For me, ‘young’ meant anyone with a sex drive and children small enough to still require a babysitter. ‘Young’ did not mean anyone without an AARP card.  After maybe six weeks in the hellish reality of widowhood, I desperately needed to find that support group of peers.

What I quickly found out was that an attractive support group wasn’t easy to find- for young widows or even the not so young ones. I remember standing in my bedroom on the phone with a particular support group coordinator who told me I couldn’t join because I ‘hadn’t been widowed long enough.’  I wanted to just say 5FU, lady, but instead, I politely hung up the phone and burst into yet more tears. I needed support right at that moment; not six months down the road! Apparently, their ‘policy’ mandated that frequent crying made me ineligible.

What was even more shocking to me at the time was that when I was finally allowed to sign up for the support group for young widows, they asked for my credit card over the phone. What?? I suppose this shouldn’t have shocked me, but somehow having to pay nearly $150 to sit in a depressing hospital meeting room to cry with other sad people I didn’t even know was the final kick in the heart. After that my new motto became: You shouldn’t have to pay to grieve.

I must admit, the support group did have its unexpected perks. It was thrilling to put on perfume and clean clothes, leave my children at home with a sitter for an hour and a half, and drive off to be with grown ups. (Almost like going on a date!)

When the Old Timers compliment your widow look, it’s time to move on

Anyway, at the first support group I was the only person under the age of 50. At the time I had Drew’s wedding rings (he wore two––his own, and his late father’s) on a chain around my neck, and they would jingle like cowbells whenever I moved. When the meeting was over and the group headed for the elevators, this cute gray-haired woman said to her friend, ‘Oh look, Gladys. She’s wearing her husband’s wedding rings around her neck. Isn’t that sweet?’  Good Lord, I thought. I’m not going to a depressing grief support group for years to come.

And that night, the cowbells came off.

In the long run, this experience inspired me to jump in and create the things I couldn’t find when I needed support the most– a book that truly spoke to me (The Irreverent Widow), and a support organization that resonated with my own quirky spirit, sense of humor and inner rebel (Girl Scout Dropout).”

Widows: don’t depress yourself twice by wearing sweatpants in public

“I finally stumbled upon a local hospital with a new support group aimed at younger widows. Walking into the waiting room area, I saw this woman in a brilliant red jacket standing next to forlorn-looking people in sweat pants and every manner of depressing attire.  (I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I know it wasn’t something black.)  I could sense a kindred spirit. That red jacket told me all I needed to know ––that she had a life force and a sense of humor. Some people might think that’s shallow. And I admit I can be shallow when it comes to my attraction to people based on their clothing. But really it’s a signal that we’re giving the world about how we feel. Her red jacket was clearly telling the world, ‘I may be a sad widow right now. But I’m having fun again one day, dammit! And hopefully even great sex!’

As it turned out, the woman in red had actually been widowed not once, but twice. Yikes! She was about ten years older than me, in her early 50s and the effect her red jacket had on me truly reinforced my belief that what you’re wearing matters – especially when you’re grieving. I am an artist and color junkie anyway and very particular about what I’m surrounded with and what’s on my body. When you’re recovering from something like the death of a spouse, the last thing you want is to get even more depressed looking at yourself in the mirror.

If you feel down, think what everybody else is taking in when they look at your outfit, especially when you haven’t showered in three days and look like you’ve been sleeping in your sweat pants. It’s allowable for maybe a week, but after that, you’re just asking to stay stuck in a pit of despair. And a future filled with questionable clothing choices.”

To feel happy, surround yourself with stuff that makes you happy

“When you’re not in a good place, it’s not easy to remember or even care about the saying ‘Fake It Until You Make It.’ But the same principles that apply to how you dress for happiness also apply to how you decorate.

I’m a trained artist and designer so I’m lucky enough to be in touch with what colors make me light up inside.

I’ve helped friends increase their happiness levels by helping them find the right colors for their clothing and their decor. Not everyone innately knows these things, so I love helping other women discover these things, and watch it change their lives for the better.”

That’s when you may need some outside assistance about colors and objects in your home and workplace.

When the worst actually happens, there is a silver lining: you’re set free

“It turned out that the lady in red and I were the two most upbeat people in that support group, with its bad fluorescent lighting and horrible grey folding chairs. The facilitator looked depressed and she had a living husband! Some people had been coming for three, four or five years and this was inconceivable to me. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to still be coming to a support group after maybe a year, tops. It felt as if some widows were simply clinging to the group so they wouldn’t have to make any decisions about moving on.

Because moving on is hard work. Talking about it and commiserating is much easier for some people than actually doing it. But here I was, one of the most newly widowed and I was the one making everyone laugh. It made me realize I had something to give – something that was desperately needed – honesty about life’s dark side.

When the worse thing in your life has already happened (for me, losing the love of my life) –it frees you. All ‘rules’ go down the drain. It makes you question every single thing. Every belief. Everything you value. It’s like a get-out-of-jail-free card in Monopoly.

If the death of your soul mate doesn’t make you feel like you can cut loose and be who you really are, I don’t know what will. Widowhood just expedites the process. I think a lot of people have never experienced liberation before. So I tell widows to embrace your chance at a second life. Different doesn’t mean bad.

Drew’s death opened doors for me. Feeling slightly above the fray in that support group boosted my ego, and a few months later, I was ready to form my own quirky “anti-support” support group. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Redecorate the funeral home’s entryway with your loved one’s “stuff”

“Drew and I met at an art college in Philadelphia; he was a film major, I was an illustration major. Our life was steeped in creativity, on every level, so naturally I looked at everything that had to do with his funeral as a creative project. I’m pretty certain it’s what saved me from a nervous breakdown. What attracted me to Drew in the first place was that he had a childlike passion and spirit, and a great sense of fun and curiosity. We both loved vintage things.  We spent way too much time in antique stores and at yard sales searching for treasures. Neither of us was overly religious, so I knew I was not going to have a forlorn Jesus sitting on top of his tombstone for all eternity. I was also not going to have a polyresin golf ball affixed to his solid cherry casket.

As it turned out, the wake at the funeral home provided the first opportunity since Drew’s death to allow my creativity flag to fly high.

Always hopeful for miracles, Drew and I hadn’t discussed a wake ‘if and when he died.’ So I was operating without a net. But when I walked into the funeral home and saw shelves upon shelves of old lady-ish and unattractive antique cranberry glass vases, I waved my hands and told the director I wanted all of that gone and that I was going home to bring back boxes of Drew’s favorite ‘stuff.’  I believed those objects held Drew’s spirit, and I wanted everyone coming to the wake through those doors to feel and absorb his essence. Drew was not antique cranberry glass from a grandmother’s china cabinet. Drew was playful. Fun. He was vintage toys and memorabilia collected from the NY1939 World’s Fair.

I got a lot of positive comments. The greatest gift was having friends, family and even complete strangers walking away from my husband’s wake saying, ‘It’s just so clear who he was. You could feel his smile, his energy, how much he loved life and his family.’

The artist in me had no choice. The soul mate in me had no choice. I know I accomplished something, even in my crazy, newly widowed fog.“

Cheery photos of your late husband can keep a widow teary

“Maybe part of the reason I kept crying constantly during that first year of being widowed was because every time I turned around, I kept seeing Drew in a picture frame. Not the flesh and blood Drew, but photos reminding me that my husband was dead. At first, I wanted to see Drew everywhere I turned. I wanted that reminder because I was afraid of forgetting him. But eventually, I realized it was paralyzing me.

Slowly I started room by room, putting those photos of Drew away into big Tupperware bins. It was holding me back. I didn’t need dozens of visual reminders anymore. I knew he was gone.

When I started dating again, I was still living in the house where he had died. One of the first men I dated lived in another state, two hours away. He would sometimes drive down, sneak in after kids were asleep, and leave again at 5 a.m. In the interim hours he’d be making love to me, while a photo of Drew sat there on my bedside table, looking over his shoulder. Or whatever body part was closest.

Much later, after we’d broken up and were still friends he jokingly pleaded, ‘You’ve got to get rid of that photo. No man, no matter how virile, is ever going to be able to perform at his best under those conditions.’ I remember laughing because I hadn’t even given it a second thought.

You have to go through phases before you can decide which things to keep in your line of vision, which to hide away, and which to preserve and pass along to your grandchildren.”

Don’t be a Control-Freak Widow: Let your kids choose their own memories

“I purchased three beautiful collage-style picture frames during the first year that Drew was gone. Over a decade later and after we’ve moved twice, I found those three frames still in a closet.  Empty.  I’m a storyteller and a loving mother –– and after he died and I’d stopped crying on a daily basis, I had this lovely idea to create a photo collage of Drew for each of our children. I never did it because I was trying to force a story from seven pictures meant to represent their life with Drew. And it was not only impossible to narrow down the photos, but also too emotionally difficult. Being an artist and being very close to my kids, I realized I shouldn’t be forming their memories of their father. They needed to do that, when and if they every wanted or needed to. And if that day ever comes, they know I’ll be here to help them.”

Your To Do List

Know a young widow with kids who’s dating again?  Ask her The Nightstand Question:  “Just curious – but right at this moment, where would I find the best looking photograph of you and your husband?” If she answers “my nightstand” —

1. Have “The Talk” with this young widow. Suggest another location for the photograph when a gentleman caller is in the vicinity. Or ….

2. Create a non-romantic legacy portrait.  Have the young widow brainstorm with a memory artist about creating a brand new photo that removes the romantic overtones of the original photo in lieu of telling a legacy story about her deceased husband that’s for everybody. Maybe it’s a portrait of the children doing something they loved to do with their Dad which also says quite a bit about his personality or pursuits: like flying kites, or cooking, for example. The memory artist would digitally photo collage several images together from different photographs until it looks like somebody just took the photo! You can swap in new backdrops, meaningful objects as well as people and pets.


Nancy Gershman’s Tragicomedia

For the sake of oral history, memory artist Nancy Gershman interviews darkly funny people about their experiences with loss and regrets, meaning-making and memory to prove – once again – that laughter reminds us to breathe.

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Nancy Gershman

Memory artist and psychotherapist, Nancy Gershman creates pictures of memories you have (or wish you had) of your loved one for healing, legacy and celebration. Bring her the stories that mean so much to you, and she will fashion a fine art, storytelling “photograph” from your personal photos and her own image library. So versatile, so dreamlike and so spot-on are her “Dreamscapes" that families display them at memorial services, mail them as thank you cards, wear them as reunion T-shirts, or snuggle up with them as blankets. To see how her bereaved and end-of-life clients feel about their Dreamscapes, visit Nancy’s gallery website, Art For Your Sake online, or call her at 773-255-4677 (EST).

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