11 Tips to Help a Grieving Parent

This post was originally published in ParentMap on May 14, 2015.


Every time there is news of someone joining the ranks of the grieving, I grieve for them. It is such a difficult road, and yet, it is an experience we will all have at some time in our lives. If that person is a parent, then I have a special place in my heart for them. The sudden and tragic recent death of Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg at the prime of his life, is another such story. A power couple in the tech world, parents of two children, they seemed to have the world at their feet. And now life has gone sideways for them all. These stories are hard to hear. They are a stark reminder of what we all have to lose.

It’s often heard among the widowed set that there are people who “get grief,” and then there is everybody else. Before my husband died, I was definitely in the “everyone else” camp. Had I been confronted with a friend who was grieving, I wouldn’t have had a clue what to say or do. I had no frame of reference. No one close to me had ever died. Chances are good that you know or will know a family whose lives have been turned upside-down by loss. Here are some tips for how become one of those who “get” grief.

1. Show up

To the grieving, it often seems as if friends disappear just when you need them most. People sometimes fail to show up because they fear they will say the wrong thing, or be too emotional, or make the grieving person cry, but in grief there are no right words, and everything is emotional. Simply showing up and listening is all that’s required.

2. Listen …

The number one way to supporting a grieving person is to listen to their stories. They need to talk about the details of their trauma because the loss they’ve experienced is massive and talking through such loss is often how one begins to make sense of it. They will also need to talk about their loved one. Many people mistakenly assume that they shouldn’t mention the deceased person because it will be upsetting to the bereaved, but in reality, talking about their loved one is all a grieving person wants to do. They want to remember, they want to keep that person alive by talking about them. Let them talk. Even if you’ve heard the “death story” over and over or know the “how they met” story inside out, and it feels like they are “stuck” or are just rehashing the same things over and over, just keep listening. Grief is a process and talking about it is the way through.

3. … but don’t give advice

While you are listening, you may be tempted to offer advice. Only offer it if the griever has asked for it. Remember, your job is to listen, to commiserate, but not to fix things which is what you are doing when you offer your advice.

4. You can’t fix things

Avoid making pat comments: you’ll feel better soon; they’re in a better place now; you’re young, I’m sure you’ll find love again; you’re strong, you’ll get through it. Grief is not a solvable condition. In a word, “grief sucks,” and there is no way to circumvent the experience. You just have to get through grief, and it’s very hard work. No matter what you do, you will not be able to take the pain away. Be prepared instead to hold a hand through incredibly intense emotions. This will likely be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done, but it is humbling to realize that you are trusted enough to handle whatever comes.

5. Each person’s grief is unique

Sometimes people will not want to talk about their grief at all and that’s OK too. Everyone grieves differently and there is no “right” way to go about it. There is no set timetable either. Some people may seem to recover quickly while others seem to languish in grief. Be careful not to judge a person’s grief. There is no playbook for this process.

6. Remove yourself from the process

I had many people show up at the door who would hug me and then burst into tears, leaving me to do the comforting. Feeling emotional is understandable, but try and remember that you are there to be the supporter and not the supportee. Emotions will be heightened, and your friend will not be able to contribute much to your friendship during this time. Try to be patient and understand that the grieving isn’t about you, so don’t take the yo-yo emotions of the griever personally. This isn’t to say that you should hide your emotions from your grieving friend. Be honest about what you are feeling, but don’t expect your friend to be able to comfort you in the way you might be used to.

7. Anticipate needs

I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “if you need anything, please call.” I never once called those people. It was the people who showed up at my door at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night with a pint of ice cream who were the people I treasured. Or they would call and offer to take the kids to the park, or the dog for a walk. I had one neighbor who simply mowed my lawn every week. These were the people who were invaluable to me. It wouldn’t have occurred to me at the time that the lawn even needed mowing. That said, be careful when trying to help out. Washing and putting away a deceased loved one’s clothes might seem helpful, but it may be the last thing that still smelled of the person and washing it would be extremely upsetting to the grieving person. Ask before moving things or cleaning up.

8. Set up a meal train

A meal train is a way of providing meals for the grieving family and there a couple of great online resources. Mealtrain.com is one. Set up a page for the family being sure to ask them about dietary restrictions, favorite foods, etc. Then you can share the link to the page via email or social media so that friends and family can sign up to provide meals. If you have people ask what they can do to help, then you can just direct them to the meal train. Most people are relieved to be given a chance to help out.

9. Keep the invitations coming

It’s very alienating becoming widowed. Suddenly invitations to things you did as a couple dry up. People think you are still too sad to enjoy an evening out. Or they are unsure of how to include you, now a single person in a group of couples. Often after about the six-month to a year mark, you stop hearing from people altogether. Widowed people will often tell you that the second year is the hardest. Friends and family have made the mental assumption that the bereaved are “done” grieving and that they no longer need their support, or they might think they are being invasive if they reach out. This is often the time a grieving person needs you the most. The numbness of the first few months has worn off and the real grieving begins.

10. Exercise

Grieving often felt to me as if I had run a marathon every day for six months. I’d fall into bed at the end of the day aching. The same thing will happen to a person who is supporting a grieving person. Take care of your body. Get plenty of sleep, drink fluids, eat well and exercise. Get the grieving person to take a walk with you. Or go to the gym. Or take them for a massage. Grief has a way of getting deep into muscles and can be debilitating. Taking care of your body will make a world of difference.

11. The airplane analogy

Something I heard in my earliest days as a grieving mom was that, like in an airplane safety pamphlet, a parent must put their own air mask on before they help the children put on theirs. This idea, that I needed to take care of myself in order to be able to take care of my children stuck with me. Although this applies to helping a child through grief, this same idea works in the relationship between a grief supporter and a griever. To help a grieving person takes a lot of strength. You need to provide sustenance to yourself before you can provide it to another.

Book Reading Magic

Deirdre posing with one of my "bargain" dresses.

Deirdre posing with one of my “bargain” dresses.

The magic begins with lunch. Deirdre and I sit in a tin-topped booth table, walls adorned in giant-patterned palm tree wallpaper, a stylish bar lit with tiny drop lights. The bartender, also our waiter charms with his smile and attentive service, dosing us with copious hot water refills for our tea before finally setting a pitcher on the table.

The fact that we are able sit together in a stylish Vietnamese restaurant on a Thursday afternoon is not lost on me. Deirdre skin shines with health. Her hair, curly and greying is trimmed into a cute pixie as it grows back after her year-long assault from radiation and chemo. The brain cancer appears to be conquered and she has been busy converting those errant cells into words that will become her memoir of the experience, Brain Candy.

After lunch we shop. This is not an activity I enjoy, unless it is an excuse to extend a lunch into more time. Only with Deirdre would I dare enter “The Rack,” Nordstrom’s home for overstocks. Only with Deirdre would I know to carouse the “designer” rack and only with Deirdre would I actually find two designer brand dresses for a ridiculous bargain. Deirdre possesses the midas touch for bargain hunting.

Typical of my lunches with Deirdre, it didn’t end until 6pm. There was a time some 25 years ago in Brussels where we first met, that I would arrive at the door of her tiny 400 square foot “garden” apartment with two bottles of wine and some “chocolate” pasta, and we’d still be sitting at her table at 6pm.

The previous few weeks I spent dreading my upcoming book readings for Remember The Moon, my enthusiasm for the book lacking. Marketing the book turned out to be much harder than I anticipated, involving a whole slew of tasks that I didn’t particularly enjoy: social media blasts; setting up “free” or discount days and paying to promote them on sites where I knew I would not see a return; asking bookstores if I could read at their stores; writing media releases and contacting a long list of media outlets only to have zero response. It felt like an uphill battle and I truly wanted it over. I worried that my  attitude would bleed into the reading itself and mar it in some way. My afternoon with Deirdre bolsters my flagging spirit, as do the new dresses.

The following night, Deirdre makes me take off my coat when I come to her house so she can see the new wrap-dress and she squeals appropriately. The dress is a perfect fit, and makes me feel more confident. We drive north to my second reading for Remember The Moon. At the bookstore, a sectioned off expanse at one side of a food-court-type space, we find Lisa, my special book reading guest-star/psychic medium. I suspect I am the first author to invite a psychic medium to their reading, but our unusual alliance is a tale unto itself.

Deirdre and I join her at a large wooden table in the food-court. Lisa seems both nervous and excited, but she is all lightness, smiles and laughter. She has become more confident in the five years I have known her, but I can tell the unusual aspect of this event has her a little off kilter. I am nervous for the same reason. At lunch a few weeks before the reading we both felt a sense that we’d be playing this evening by ear.

Deirdre plies her with questions. How long has she seen “dead people?” (Since she was four.) Can she turn them off at night? (She has learned how to set boundaries, yes. She learned to wear a hat at the beginning, as a way of telling them she was off duty.) I suggest she name her planned memoir “The Hat Comes Off,” which she loves.

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Lisa and I posing with the book

I begin to see familiar faces filing into the bookstore. Soon they are gathered in a small alcove in the middle of the store, mostly good friends and acquaintances, plus a new face or two. I read a few selected pieces from the book before telling the story of how Lisa and I met. After I tell my version, Lisa tells hers: she recounts a “powerful” Arron-spirit “popping” into her car as she drives the Vashon Island highway, only her second time to Vashon, having driven up from Portland to visit a friend. Arron insists she visit a coffee shop and shows her my image. The following day, she follows his instructions and is surprised to actually see me in a coffee shop looking just like Arron said I would. I have the bizarre experience of a total stranger asking me if my husband or boyfriend has died recently because she has a message from him. Of course I don’t hesitate to sit with her at that coffee shop and a friendship begins. After she moves full time to Vashon, we do a series of psychic readings together, but instead of the usual, “this is what I see,” I ask direct questions of Arron. I transcribe as he speaks through Lisa and many of those words are woven into the story that is Remember The Moon.

As Lisa talks I notice a friend whom I haven’t seen in a few years find a back row seat. I met Rachael at a gym and eventually discovered she was a pet psychic. I smile thinking that of course she would come to this reading. As she sits down, I notice that she seems shaken, or discombobulated, I assume on account of her lateness. Only later do I learn that she has been there all along, but became so emotionally caught up in our story that she’d had to leave for a few minutes to regain her composure.

After Lisa speaks, I stand up again, preparing to read a final piece, but I am interrupted by a jazz band that begins playing in the food court drowning out my words and so the reading ends. Lisa answers several questions before a book-signing line-up forms. I am self-conscious, trying to think of something personal, fun or witty to write in each book. Deirdre approaches and hugs me with her usual enthusiastic “That was AMAZING!” Another friend tells me it was the best author reading she’d been to, how she loved the special guest star aspect and our unusual story and learning how the book came to be. The air seems to crackle with energy and excitement that surprises me. My worries of the last few weeks finally float away.

At the book signing table with Lisa

At the book signing table with Lisa

Rachael is the last to have her books signed and she meets Lisa for the first time with excitement and enthusiasm. Lisa immediately recognizes her as a kindred spirit and Rachael cutely stammers and giggles as they speak, as if she has just met her favorite celebrity.

The magic continues after the reading as Deirdre, Rachael, Rachael’s husband and I eat dinner together at a nearby pub. Our waitress, who we discover is also a burlesque dancer, is pulled into the excitement and business cards and promises of reconnecting are exchanged. Deirdre and Rachael, both social extroverts bubble in each other’s presence and it is impossible not to be caught up in their froth. There is a moment that strikes me as I watch them when I realize the book is more than me, that the words and thoughts and feelings spill out into the world, effecting magic at every turn.

How do I always forget the power of words?


Two Readings Coming Up!

If you’re in Seattle on March 15th or March 20th, I have a couple of fun events for Remember The Moon!

Sunday March 15th, 2015

Elliot Bay shot

Alchemy at Elliot Bay announcing my reading on March 15th!

For this reading, I’ll be talking about psychics, the cover’s painting, and to celebrate the Italian scenes in the book, I’ll be serving delicious Italian hors d’oeuvres, cannolis from “Holy Cannoli” and Lemoncello “special” lemonade.

Location: Elliot Bay Book Store, 1521 10th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122
Time: 3:00 pm

More info


Friday March 20th, 2015

abby and lisaI’ll be doing this reading with Lisa Fox, an intuitive medium who I met when Lisa was compelled to enter a Vashon Island coffee shop at the prompting of Arron. That fateful day began a friendship and a crazy idea. I asked Lisa if she could do a series of “readings” where I could ask Arron real questions. Over a six month period and five separate readings, I had a wealth of information, some of which became the basis of Remember the Moon.

Come and hear Lisa and I tell our story of how we met, how we collaborated and hear me read from the book.

Location: Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way NE
Lake Forest Park, WA 98155
Time: 6:30 pm

More Info


Also, the ebook version of Remember The Moon is on sale this week for 99 cents! Check it out here on March 12, and here on March 14th.



Learning To Let Go

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From the Osho Zen Tarot deck

I have this Osho set of Tarot cards which I pulled out the other day and did a reading on myself. I have no idea if that’s allowed in the land of Tarot, but it’s kind of fun to do and I usually come away with some kind of interesting insight. I take the cards out whenever there is some issue in my life that keeps me up at night, which lately, well for the last few years really, has been career and money.

The “Letting Go” card commentary included this:

To choose this card is a recognition that something is finished, something is completing. Whatever it is – a job, a relationship, a home you have loved, anything that might have helped you to define who you are – it is a time to let go of it, allowing any sadness but not trying to hold on. Something greater is awaiting you, new dimensions are there to be discovered. You are past the point of no return now, and gravity is doing it’s work. Go with it – it represents liberation.

Given my question about career and finances, this seemed ominously apt. I’d like to say my widow experience has taught me to eschew material things, since we can’t take stuff with us when we die, and for the most part, I do. My daughter will tell you. She laments that I’ve carried the same purse for over three years. I still drive my beat-up, 7 year old Prius. I could care less. But oh, houses. I do love houses.

I think I knew deep down when I bought the house on Vashon Island in 2007, that it wasn’t a sound financial decision. But magical widow brain had me do it anyway. I rationalized the purchase with dreams of writing retreats and healing retreats for widowed people, a dream that has largely come true. I have donated the house to a slew of non-profits who have used it to raise thousands of dollars. The house has given me profound pleasure. I have future dreams of family coming home to nest there.

I won’t lie. Sheepishly, I’ll tell you I’ve done all that New Age “envisioning the life I desire.” I’ve meditated and “asked the universe to provide.” I’ve taken a good hard look at my “abundance blockages.”  I’ve also tried to come to terms with the strange relationship that becoming a widow gave me toward money. I felt so guilty for the way in which I came by it, that I gave a lot of it away. Donated to charities, friends, family. And I bought houses that could heal people. I desired, in an unsustainable way to help others. It seemed a better use of my money to have it stashed in a home that could give people pleasure than in cold, impersonal mutual funds.

In fact, just this past weekend, three widows who I met at Camp Widow came to Vashon and we did some healing (aka, drinking too much wine, learning to two-step, talking entire days away, and screaming for the SeaHawks in a bar during the Super Bowl). #widowweekend.

I have had a pretty nice run of living the author dream, but alas, there hasn’t been a sustainable income in it. It’s been wonderful being a CEO of a start-up, one that I hope to continue, albeit very slowly. But there’s no income in that either. I have to face the fact that it’s time to get back into the money earning world again, whatever that looks like.

I fear my widow magical thinking has left me. Anything seemed possible when I wore that cloak. So, I’m going to go wish upon a star for a six figure job to land in my lap, that Vashon will continue to be a realized dream and that I can finally get a sound night’s sleep again. But if it doesn’t happen that way, I will make peace with that too.

Take that universe!


Search For Meaning Book Festival – Feb 28th

I’ll be moderating a panel of authors from the anthology The Widow’s Handbook” at the Search for Meaning Book Festival.

Description of Presentation: In our grief, we write to process, and sometimes it is practical matters that can fill our heads. What to do with their ashes, their belongings, your wedding rings, with your dreams of him, with your feelings of vulnerability, with your photos of you together, and in general, with yourself without him? We participating contributors will talk about how our writing helped us think through these matters, and in the end, helped us heal.

I hope you will join us!

Search for Meaning flyer

Where’d she go?

eye ring

Portrait of a Right Eye, Artist/maker unknown Philadelphia Museum of Art Collection

Ok, I’ve been absent from by blog for too long and it’s over here gathering dust. Lest you think I am a complete slacker, here’s a little of what’s kept me away:

If you happen to be interested in self-publishing, here are all the latest articles I’ve written for Writer.ly (of which I am the CEO).

Along those lines, here’s another article I wrote for a self-publishing organization’s newsletter about my self-publishing successes.

A few of my posts were reposted on Huffington Post (that’s a lot of “posts!”).

I’ve also been working on a launch plan for the paperback of Remember the Moon which btw, is now available.

There are a couple of upcoming speaking engagements: I will again be visiting Theo Nestor’s memoir class at the University of Washington on January 20th; and I will be moderating a panel at the Search For Meaning Book Festival 2015 at Seattle U on February 28th:

Writing Through Grief

 A discussion with four contributors to the new anthology, The Widows’ Handbook.” (with Kristine Shorey Forbes, Susanne Braham, Connie Fisher, and Donna Hilbert)

Location: Pigott 103
Time: 2:30pm-3:30pm


Be back soon with something fun I’ve been working on.

Warning: Submerged Obstacles

927016_lake_signWe heard footsteps on the roof and the sound of the leaf blower. Huge chunks of debris began flying past the window and onto the ground. I had not even noticed the roof, or the fact that it was covered in a two inch layer of leaves and pine needles which was now flying off the roof and onto the ground. I hadn’t even remembered that the gutters probably needed clearing out, my usual Thanksgiving chore.

“He’s amazing that he does that,” Deirdre said. We were sitting side by side on the couch covered in blankets, surrounded by four snoring dogs as she wrote and I read. Jim had already chopped wood and lit the fire for us to stay warm by in our post-turkey haze.

“I know. And he really seems to enjoy doing it. He loves this house,” I said as I watched him through the window on the roof, reveling once again in how lucky I felt. I had found someone who loved me, who loved my kids, who loved my quirky old, high-maintenance house as much as I did. I didn’t want to think the words “too good to be true,” but they lurked there under the surface.

The blower eventually quieted and soon he was out with a rake and a garbage pail clearing the whole mess up.

I always have a difficult time on departure day from Vashon, my escape from the real world. I want to continue my simple life of pretending it is 1946 when life was simpler, without social media and iPhones, when the best Saturday entertainment was baking cookies or playing long rounds of Mexican Train or sitting on the couch devouring an entire book. I dread returning to my real life of feeling overwhelmed, being berated by teenagers (though even I know that hiding in 1946 wouldn’t have changed this fact of life) and being chained to the world inside my computer.

I was happy to just sit for another day on the couch, watching the whitecaps against the navy water, the winter sun warming my face. A few times over the weekend, I had taken out the binoculars to get a closer look at what looked like black heads bobbing in the rough water, but that appeared not to drift away despite the powerful waves. Each time, they turned out to be logs, partially submerged, pushed one way on the surface by the waves, while the tide worked in the opposite direction on the length that was beneath the water, which caused them to stay more or less stationary. I watched for several minutes but the logs just stayed where they were.

On this final day, I was very content sitting beside my best friend who after a scary year fighting brain cancer was happily ensconced on my couch writing her experience into a memoir. It was good to see Jim relax as well, inhaling a thick tomb of a Ken Follett novel.

I didn’t notice Jim’s absence until he walked into the living room and gave us his prognosis on our ongoing septic conundrum.

“The pump is working fine,” he said. “The alarm works. The tank is not leaking or overflowing. I have no idea what could be causing the leak on the path,” He said this as he plunked himself into his chair and picked up his book.

Jim and I have had many adventures with the septic system, the most recent involved scooping poopy water out of the tank before realizing we could just lift the pump out and disentangle a root that had been sucked into its intake. We were certain that a tiny trickle on the path to the beach had been the septic’s overflow and it seemed to disappear when we solved the root problem. But this weekend I noticed the trickle had returned. We couldn’t attribute it to rain since the weather was clear and cold.

“Do you think we should dig the pipe up a little to try and see where the water is coming from?” My mind was whirring with possibilities. One of the things I loved doing with Jim was working out engineering problems with him. We bounced ideas off one another until we (he, in most cases) figured out a solution. God knows the Vashon house had many mysteries. He had fixed the 40s era radiant floors that hadn’t worked in years; we had concocted an (unsuccessful) plan to drag heavy steel poles on a makeshift raft; he had devised an elaborate enclosure under the house to keep the otters out.

“I’m not digging up a pipe. I have mission critical chores at home I have to do and I really can’t be taking on huge chores here while stuff at home needs to be done.”

I didn’t know what to say. Did he resent the chores he did on Vashon? Was he wanting to leave now?

“I wasn’t suggesting that we dig up the pipe now,” I said, feeling meek, not sure of what emotions I was feeling. “Are you saying you want to leave now? We can leave now if you want.”

“No, I am happy to linger. I just don’t want to take on a major project when I have other things to do at home.”

His clarification didn’t ease my uncertain emotions. Since I was standing in the middle of the living room, I didn’t know what to do. Resume my place on the couch and read? Or begin the departure chores. I needed to escape and so I headed upstairs to begin packing up. I tried to squash my feelings. I was hurt. Since we had to pack up anyway, I used it as an excuse to keep busy so I wouldn’t have to think or emote.

When I came down with bags, Jim looked up from his book.

“I didn’t mean we have to leave now,” he said. “We could hang for a while and have lunch and then leave after that.”

Now I felt bad that I was making him feel bad which made me feel even worse.

“It’s OK, I said. I’m just getting ready. I went into the kitchen and put the soup on and then began the sweeping. I knew my actions were probably making it clear that I wanted to leave, but I didn’t know what else to do. I now felt Jim’s desire to get back to his house. I wasn’t mad, but I was hurt. Did he resent being on Vashon? I knew he loved it, but I didn’t know what to make of his outburst. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been bothered by it. He sometimes grumbles about his obligations in one place while being in another. It is the peril of his somewhat transitory lifestyle, living between three homes.

So why was I feeling so emotional? I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I just kept sweeping and making soup and packing up. I had to keep busy.

Later, after dropping Jim off at his house, Deirdre (smothered by four dogs in a packed car) asked if I was mad at Jim.

“Did I seem mad?”

“Yeah, you seemed furious at him.”

It was not my intention to seem furious, since furious wasn’t the emotion I was feeling at all, though I still couldn’t pin down exactly what I was feeling. I wanted to burst into tears, and when I was finally alone, I did. But I had no idea why I was so affected.

Later, after taking care of his “mission critical chores” at home, he came over and we talked. Well he talked and I wept. Why is it always so impossible to talk through tears? So frustrating. I still couldn’t articulate my feelings, but I managed to eek out a few possibilities:

1. I was feeling beat up lately by the hostile teenager in my midst while the other barraged me with texts about wishing she was home for Thanksgiving. Jim’s grumpiness came across to me as another hostile affront.

2. I felt guilty for being so grateful for Jim and all the work he did around Vashon when he really needed to be doing that work at his own home. As if I perhaps didn’t deserve him.

Now, as I dissect this in writing, I can see that the guilt weirdly brought me back to my dormant-but-lying-in-wait grief. It seems like there is some correlation between being so damned grateful for something that was once so elusive (a good man in my life) and my feelings of not deserving the great thing that came into my life. But why on earth would I feel like I didn’t deserve Jim and all the wonderful things he does?

Perhaps it comes from those early grief days of having to ask for help with things, something I hated doing. Asking/needing help is such a diminishing place for me. I like my independence. Asking for help feels like a weakness. But the truth is, I’ve come to rely on Jim which feels dangerous. Like his help could go away. He could go away.

So could all this silliness really be because somewhere deep in my subconscious I fear losing Jim? Will this annoying fear of loss ever leave me?

I feel like those black log-heads in the water: being pushed in one direction on the surface, while below an opposite force keeps me from going anywhere.


The 4 Stages of Post-Loss Dating

retro_dating-tips-for-single-women-01I stood before a group of 30-40 widows and widowers in a brightly lit Toronto hotel conference room, my PowerPoint presentation on a large screen behind me, not exactly the atmosphere you might choose to talk about post-loss dating. This was my first-ever dating workshop, and I was filling in for the woman who normally conducts the dating workshops at Camp Widow. I wasn’t sure how it would be possible encapsulate my own 10 or so years of dating after Arron’s death, but several weeks of thinking about it helped me narrow my focus. I applied my mantra of “what would I have wanted to know” as I started out in the dating world?

I wound up coming up with 4 stages of post-loss dating:

1. Curiosity

This is where the numbness of grief has begun to dissipate and we begin to get out into the world again. Perhaps we can’t begin to imagine a day when we might be ever ready to date again, but we find ourselves curious about it. We hone our hearing to perk up at any conversation having to do with dating, we might “just browse” an online dating site, watch movies about relationships or dating and we begin to notice people not wearing wedding rings. Often this stage ends with our very first date.

2. “Wild Thang”

Perhaps now, there have been several dates with one person and you realize you can no longer buy your underwear at Safeway. You crave being touched. You long for intimacy. Going through this stage was disconcerting for me, as I felt like I was going crazy. I thought about sex all the time. One boyfriend gave me my first vibrator and it began to get a lot of use. I didn’t know who this new me was, but I hoped it was normal. What I eventually concluded was that most people have a wild stage after the loss of a long and/or meaningful relationship. As it turns out, sex is a pretty good salve for grief. I described this in more detail in this post I wrote a while ago.

3. Settling In

Eventually, perhaps after a few short-term relationships you begin to want more from a relationship than just sex. You begin to realize that all those people you dated were not your loved one, and you might even begin to realize that you were just a little bit guilty of trying to find your lost partner in a new mate. You take a step back, relish some alone time and begin to enjoy other aspects of your life. You might date, but you are no longer willing to say, “oh, what the hell, life is short” in order to justify the relationship.

4. Putting Away the Photos

Once you have reached the “Setting In” stage, you begin to realize that you want more from a relationship: something real, something meaningful. You are no longer holding onto the past and have, in a variety of ways, mentally “divorced” yourself from your loved one. This can sometimes take a long time. It took me ten years or so. For me, it culminated in a feng shui exercise of putting away many of the photos of my dead husband, creating a home where two people would be comfortable (particularly in the bedroom – two night stands, comfortable bedding, cleared closet space) as a way of psychologically inviting someone into my life. When you find yourself able to do these things you are mentally ready to invite that person in.

Of course, life doesn’t always work in a nice, tidy pattern like this. You may fumble your way through these stages in a great relationship, they may all happen at once or in a different order. These aren’t rules, but simply a way I found of explaining my progression through dating.

Of course, there was much more to my talk, and I saw heads nod, people smile, I saw sadness, and resignation. I hoped I saved some people from the fear of dating, gave others hope that they would some day be ready to date, helped people to realize they were not going crazy, that dating and relationships are messy business, but worth working towards.

Having never done this particular workshop before, I wasn’t sure if I would go overtime, so of course I finished early and asked if anyone had questions. One woman asked about my own dating experience, if I had had success.

I smiled and glanced at Jim who was sitting in the audience next to Selena, Arron’s mother which was altogether a bizarre way to conduct a dating workshop where you mention the word “vibrator” several times. I pointed him out as “Exhibit A” and he blushed. It was an amazing moment, realizing a person in your life could actually embrace all of you, your past, your flaws, your successes and become “Exhibit A” with grace.

Perhaps this is the 5th stage of dating…

Shying Away From Another 9/11 Anniversary

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Catching the sunset, August 2014

My son Carter sat perched on the edge of the Zodiac driving the outboard as he towed Jim and me in Jim’s hand-built plywood barge for a trip around the point to see the sunset. Carter’s jaw was set in a way his father’s used to when Arron was being “Mr. Big Pants,” the name I gave him when he was feeling super-confident and a little smug as he trotted off to work in his expensive Hugo Boss suit. Carter’s smugness came from a day filled with man-stuff, activities that only my boyfriend Jim could make possible.

My son is at the fifteen year-old boy stage of hiding in his room, grunting replies to questions, sleeping until 2pm and racking up hundreds of dollars a month in junk food. The fact that he joined Jim and I on a weekend excursion to our house on Vashon Island is astonishing, and Jim pulled out every trick he had to make the weekend exciting to a teenager hooked on Internet crack.

In one day, Jim provided Carter with gun lessons, patiently explaining their safe handling and then schooling him in the meticulous art of their cleaning; let Carter drive the Zodiac as they dropped a crab trap and shot off Jim’s .45 a few times across the Sound; allowed Carter to practice driving his beat-up Mercedes station wagon up and down the steep, winding road to and from the house; set up a shoe box so Carter could shoot holes in it with Jim’s air gun; wrestled Carter to the kitchen floor several times; and finally, let him tow us in the barge to see the sunset.

As I watched Carter drive the boat, I could see that in one day he had grown into a man. He exuded a confidence I swear had not been there the day before. As he grows and takes on more and more characteristics of his dad, I find myself wondering how our lives might have been different had Arron not gone to that trade show at Windows on the World. What would it have been like for Carter to grow up with his father? Would they have fought? Would they have been close? Would Carter be more or less self-possessed? Would he have been better disciplined?

Only a few weeks before, my daughter, a second-year college student who was six when her dad died, came to me with an essay that she wrote in her bid to transfer into The University of Pennsylvania’s Criminology program. As a high school student, I could barely get her to do her homework and hand it in, and here she was presenting me with an intelligently written essay about why she wanted to study criminology. Written over the summer. On her own time. Without my help. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that criminology has become her passion. The twists and turns that tragedy takes as it flows through growing children can never be predicted, except when in an odd way it makes perfect sense. As I read, she sat on the stairs behind me, her arms hugging her slim brown legs, looking both like a little girl and a grown woman at once. When I finished reading it, I turned to her.

“It’s really amazing, but there’s just one thing,” I said. She bounced down the stairs and stood over me.


“I don’t think you should apologize for your poor high school marks. Show them how far you’ve come instead.”

“I wish I knew in high school what I know now. I wish I had studied more.”

“It’s OK. It’s never too late. You know it now. That’s what you need to show them.”

She smiled. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she said as she tied her hair into a high ponytail, grabbed her purse and headed out the door to the gym. I was struck suddenly by how strong she looked, both physically and mentally.

Another 9/11 Anniversary is upon us and I can’t decide how I feel about it. The truth is, I feel nothing. Dread perhaps, if anything. The day an unwanted spotlight shines upon us, in ways mostly good – filled with well-wishing “thinking of you” emails and phone calls from people I love to hear from and catch up with, but uncomfortable as well. I feel obligated to write or respond to each one, “Thank you for your thoughts…” when my instinct is to curl up and hide from all the odd attention. I love that people think of me, I’m just not all that thrilled with why they think of me. 9/11 is such a giant weight to bear. I keep searching for ways of making it bearable, or to give it a positive spin which in some ways is easy, in other ways impossible.

It seems after large-scale tragic events, there is an overwhelming desire to find someone responsible, to seek the whys, the should haves, the could haves. Reform is demanded and sometimes implemented, but rarely are the changes effective. We take off our shoes to board airplanes, we killed Osama, we’re no longer fighting a war in Afghanistan so therefore we must be safer, right? Since, you know, we’ve wiped out terrorism and all.

As a firefighter, Jim often says he is safer at work than he is at home due to all the rules and safety regulations in place to protect firefighter’s lives. His station is near a river that people occasionally drive into, but because the firefighters are required to wear life jackets during water rescues, they are often forced to watch helplessly as someone drowns because, with life jackets on, they are unable to dive under the water and rescue them. I can only imagine the fire safety requirements implemented in the wake of 9/11.

I have an entire book gathering dust on my bookshelf devoted to all the changes that America was committed to making as a result of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. Streamlining the CIA, shutting down the financial sources of terrorist groups, a unified, national emergency response unit, federally standardized birth certificates and driver’s licenses, setting up a “Youth Opportunity Fund” to better educate Muslim Youth, better managing our borders to name but a few. We certainly implemented a regimented airport security system, but it seems some of the other recommendations have been commandeered for different purposes. Suddenly, “better managing our borders” is a hot political issue and has slid into the realm of immigration control. Immigration control, gun control, the justification for invading countries are cloaked in that “war on terror” cover story and thus we wind up deluding ourselves that we are safer now than we were then.

The world seems impervious to the lessons we were supposed to have learned from 9/11. The war over Palestine/Israeli territory continues to wipe out thousands; planes are shot from Ukrainian skies; journalist’s heads’ are lopped off in Middle Eastern deserts; mentally ill people walk into to schools with guns and open fire; unarmed boys are shot dead by the people meant to protect them. The crappy stuff keeps happening. Countless lives are turned-upside down on a daily basis, leaving kids to grow up without fathers and mothers, and parents who will not see their child become adults.

The anniversary of 9/11 seems like a day to be reminded that crappy stuff still happens, despite all the so-called safeguards and changes we make to prevent it from ever happening again. No wonder I have a hard time being remembered for it.

Maybe then, to give 9/11 a more positive spin, the lesson should be that despite such tragedies, fatherless fifteen-year-old boys still manage to grow up to become confident men, to learn the art of acting like “Mr. Big Pants,” to look and act just like the fathers they never knew. Daughters who muddled through high school can suddenly shine in college and discover their strength as they try to find meaning in their pasts.

Maybe that’s too simplistic: Crappy stuff happens, but we all still grow up regardless of our circumstances. Yes, we are resilient. I suppose it makes sense then, that for me, the anniversary of 9/11 has become a moment when I am reminded to look at that resiliency first-hand. It’s a moment for me to take stock: to notice the confident set of my son’s jaw, to marvel at my daughter’s strong legs and awe-inspiring essay.

Crab for breakfast? August 2014

Crab for breakfast? August 2014

This morning, Jim and I pulled up the crab trap and found a crab too small and too female to keep. We brought it to Carter’s room where he was just waking up (it was 1pm after all) and Jim held it, legs wiggling, over the bed. Carter giggled his dad’s giggle.

After the crab’s little adventure to the bedroom, we set her back on the beach and watched her crawl sideways back into the water and shuffle away, thankful no doubt and perhaps a little wiser.