Lists: The New Resolutions

retro_dinnerpartyI came downstairs the morning after Boxing Day and found Jim’s friend Jim (Big Jim) at the table, head bent over a small book that he was writing in.

“Just getting everything down so I don’t forget it,” he said by way of explanation. I had to admit it was a little incongruous to see this big, 6’4″ muscular, tattooed, shaved-headed man who’s favorite topic of discussion includes ‘knives’ and ‘poop’ to be writing in a journal.

“That, and I’m writing my list,” he added.

“Your list?”

“Yeah, my list for 2016. I don’t write resolutions, I write a list of things I want to get done in the coming year. Last year’s list included hosting a float party. I nearly didn’t get it done, but then I saw it on my list, and even though it was late in the year, I got a bunch of people and boats together and we had a float party.”

I started thinking about this list versus resolution idea. The problem I’ve always had about resolutions is the assumption that you were somehow flawed the year before, and you need a resolution to make yourself better. So much pressure and kind of a crappy premise to start the year off with.

I suppose you could call your list goals, but even goals are different than what Big Jim was talking about. Goals, like resolutions, to me imply a certain deficit, and I’ve always felt somewhat guilty for not setting goals. Frankly, in the widow world, I think goals are often eschewed since we all had goals at one point and we all know what a load of crock they all turned out to be. So goals don’t really cut it either.

Therein lies the beauty of the list. There’s no pressure really to “accomplish” your list or to change yourself somehow in order to meet your list’s expectations. It’s just a fun list of things you want to do in the coming year. I immediately thought of the one thing I wanted to do more of this year (already added to my non-existent list when I turned 50), which was to have more dinner parties. But more have been popping into my head as I think of all those things I keep meaning to do, but because they are not on any list, I keep forgetting about them. Visit Tofino. Take down the tree-house. Figure out ways of making my house Jim’s house too. Visit a real Catalina (airplane that’s at the center of my grandfather’s novel that I am editing). Both Jims created lists and one item on both thier lists was “make a new friend,” which I think will be a rollover list item.

So not resolutions. Not goals. Just a list of fun stuff you want to do or get done. I think sharing your list is probably a good way of helping you take it more seriously, so here is mine (so far):

  • Have more dinner parties
  • Make a new friend
  • College trip with Carter
  • Visit Tofino (by way of Victoria) and visit friends
  • Take down tree-house
  • Make my house Jim’s house
  • Get knee in shape enough to take a dance class
  • Write an essay and submit to a contest or magazine.
  • Publish my grandfather’s book
  • Finish my second memoir
  • Visit a Catalina
  • Hike Paradise (park near Mt. Rainier)

What’s on your list?

Writing Beyond Fear

Everywhere I turn lately, I seem to bounce into the theme of fear and bravery.

It is difficult not to fear terrorism, and events of late have certainly given me pause, not to mention unpleasant memories. It is strange to have such an intimate knowledge of what those families are going through. Many people were struck by the eloquence of the Parisian husband who lost his wife, when he said,

“I will not grant you the gift of my hatred. You’re asking for it, but responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost.”

He writes of his 17 month old son:

“his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.”

I understood completely. I wrote the day after Paris, “If terrorists could see the ripple effects of power and strength that is the ultimate result of their cowardly acts, they would stop bothering with violence.”

In the face of fear, anger and heartbreak terrorists impose on the world, courage, forgiveness and love are more effective than bombs.

I was struck by an article in the NYTimes this weekend about three women who escaped ISIS. They were married off to ISIS soldiers, but fell in love with them. ISIS leaders prevented these newly married couples from having children, knowing that children would make those husbands poor soldiers and suicide bombers. These women all became grieving widows and escaped. ISIS knows the power love has over terrorism.

Oz2I know it’s simplistic to think that through acts of bravery and love we can melt all the terrorists away, like Dorothy throwing water on the bad witch, but I do believe that the power of story may have the same effect. That father’s story is a perfect example.

The very act of writing story requires courage. Speaking or writing truth is a brave act, and in telling our stories we break through fear by sharing our truth with others, giving them the courage to do the same.

I saw Elizabeth Gilbert a few weeks ago talking about her new book, Big Magic, about her ideas for living “beyond fear.” In Big Magic, she explores the need for courage in finding and living a “creative” life. She writes about poet, Jack Gilbert (no relation), recounting a story about telling one of his students when she admitted she wanted to be a writer:

“Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”

As an adolescent growing out of a very fearful childhood, she writes,

“I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. I figured out that everyone’s song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric: ‘STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!'”

In Cheryl Strayed’s interview with Gloria Steinem, talking about her new book My Life on the Road, one of the predominant themes was overcoming fear, being brave in the face of adversity and using the power of story to affect change. Some great lines from the evening:

“The scariness of writing comes from caring”

“Just telling each other our stories is the single most revolutionary act.”

“We make the invisible part of us visible so we can intertwine our experiences”

The next night, my friend Theo Nestor interviewed Cheryl Stayed about her new book, Brave Enough. Cheryl spoke a lot about the death of her mother and how it affected her life, how she immersed herself in whatever took the pain away, until she undertook her adventure of walking the Pacific Coast Trail, which she writes about in her book Wild.

Cheryl’s new book is full of great quotes, but this one nails the fear theme:

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. That nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I felt something terrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”

Not only are these messages coming in the face of renewed terrorism in the world, but they come just as I am trying to climb my own wall of fear in writing my memoir, which right now is called “Sex and the Single Widow.” This is a scary book to write, and yet a story I want to tell. I am again trying to write the book I wish I had as I recovered from the devastation of Arron’s death. Dating and sex after loss was an abyss of confusion and guilt and hope and longing, fear and courage and love. But to write it, I am going to have to reveal secrets that are scary to reveal.

I sent my proposal to Susie Bright, a well-known writer on the subject of sex and she stated my dilemma eloquently:

“I would commit to the form where you can be the most viciously honest and unsparing of the sex, the anger, the grief, no punches pulled at all. No soft landings on the hard parts or the visceral or thrill or obsession. I mean, eventually, there are a lot of soft places, but the challenge with memoir on this subject is one likely has a lot of living eyes upon you and there is an urge to protect them. I would feel that way, anyway.”

Can I do this? I don’t know. But Elizabeth, Gloria, Cheryl and Susie all seem to think so, so I guess I will give it my best shot. I am going to will myself to not be afraid because telling my story is a revolutionary act.



On The Road: Lessons on Feminism From Motorcycle Safety Class and Gloria Steinem

I am ambivalent when Jim suggests we join Carter in taking a motorcycle safety course. “What other way are you going to be able to spend a weekend with your sixteen-year-old son?” he argues. It’s a sound argument. Communicating with this certain sixteen year old boy has certainly been a challenge of late. The closest location for the class is in Silverdale, WA where Jim books us a room at the local Best Western. It has a hot tub and a pool and it’s right on the water. He does his best to sell to a luke-warm audience.

At 8am on a Saturday morning in pouring rain, we arrive at a tiny trailer in the middle of a desolate parking lot in the middle of a desolate airport. Many students are “soldier men” as Carter later calls them, young guys who work on the giant aircraft carriers in nearby Bremerton, a naval base. A couple are older men, and there is one other woman.

We are asked our reasons for taking the class. Why am I here? I’m scared of motorcycles. Though I have ridden on the back of Jim’s motorcycle on several occasions, clutching his waist for dear life, I have no real desire to learn to ride one of my own. I want to spend time with my boyfriend and son who proves entertaining in a classroom setting. No surprise. He becomes the class heckler. So similar to someone I once knew.

Carter motorcycle safety class

Carter gearing up for first class.

After lunch, we gear up (it’s still pouring rain), and select bikes. I end up with one held together by yards of black duct tape, and swipe the seat, doing little to reduce the puddle I then sit in. We learn to turn on the bike, then push them around in neutral, then crab walk them around before finally lifting our feet off the ground. I fumble the clutch and my left toe trying to differentiate neutral from first. I stall and stall and stall. I never do find neutral. I watch Jim, calm and confident. Carter looks grown up on his bike, his long, lean legs jutting out, straight back, head up. We share grins as we pass one another after an exercise.

One instructor is calm, calling out “good job!” after a maneuver, the other barks commands and makes me nervous. “Take your hand off the brake! That’s a terrible habit to get into!” I watch the other woman who can barely reach the ground with her toes when pushing her bike around corners and she seems to physically recoil each time she gets berated by Mr. Nasty. I want to kick him in the shins.

It’s not until we learn to weave between cones, that I find a certain rhythm and gain a sliver of confidence. By the end of the afternoon, we are all shivering from wet and cold. When we get back to the hotel, we sprint to the hot tub to defrost.

The next day, we take the written test and everyone passes. By 11:30, we are back on our bikes. The rain has slowed and thus the riding more pleasant. My braking hand continues to elicit anger in my instructor, but now I shrug at him. I flounder with the first exercise, the “quick stop.” I stop too soon. Or stall. Or have my hand on the brake. Or am going too slow. My confidence sags. Jim encourages me and instructs me between exercises. “You’re really solid on the slow maneuvers… Just keep it in first for that one… you’ll need to go faster on the quick stops.”

We do the pre-test and I feel fairly confident, though the quick stop still throws me. I either don’t go fast enough or I brake too soon. I do fine on the slow U-turns. I do a couple of swerves and lane changes, though don’t understand the cones and thus go through them rather than around them.

Proof that I actually drove my own motorcycle

Proof that I actually drove my own motorcycle

By the time of the real test, we have been on our bikes for 4 solid hours. The instructor asks if anyone wants to defer taking the test and I consider it. I am shaky and tired, but say nothing. The other woman in the class has already dropped out. Another of the older men also defers.

I am glad when the first test is the weave. I wiggle my way down the line, and somehow manage to stop in the yellow square. The next test is the U-turns and I am shaky. I put a foot down, I go out of the lines, I miss the stop zone. I’m convinced I have just failed. They make me do the swerve test a second time, taking it faster. I take it faster and swerve, but run over a cone. Another fail, I am certain. I shake my head at Jim and shrug. I am just too tired. I long for the test to be over. I redo the quick stop, ending with a sloppy double stop. I long for the catastrophe to be over. There is no way I have passed. It’s OK. Carter seems to be doing well. He’s the reason I am here, after all. I have no intention of actually riding a motorcycle again.

We stand outside waiting to be graded. I am shaky and thirsty and worried about the late hour. I have to be back in the city for an event. Gloria Steinem being interviewed by Cheryl Strayed about her book, My Life on the Road. I am on the board of Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers, and they have asked that I do my best to meet some specific people – wives and partners of well-known bands and companies. There will be no time to go home to change now. I will arrive at the event wearing my “biking gear” of ski jacket, jeans and tall boots. I have helmet hair and wind blown skin.

Me and Jim in blue and red. Carter to left of guy in yellow.

I text a friend I have invited to the event to tell her I will be a little late. “Badass.” she writes. I smile. I guess I am sort of badass. I’ll be meeting Gloria as a badass! Does learning to ride a motorcycle make me a feminist badass?

We are back in the trailer as the instructor brings us individually back into another room to give us our result. Jim passes. A couple of the soldier men leave quickly with heads hung, green sheets of paper clutched in their hands. I am certain I will be leaving with a green sheet as well. Carter appears with a giant smile and his card. “80 percent! I just made it!” he says. I am called. “You lost 10 points on the U-turn for missing the lines and putting your foot down and another 5 points for hitting the cone during the swerve, but you’ve passed,” the instructor says. “I passed? Are you sure? That can’t be possible! I was horrible!”

“You passed,” he repeats. “Congratulations.” I walk out, mouth hanging open. I see one the of the green-sheeted soldier men duck out quickly. How must it feel for him to watch a 50 year old mom and her 16 year old son pass? I feel bad for him.

Cheeks flushed, I sit in the audience at Benaroya Hall watching Gloria and Cheryl, the ultimate badass women banter about Gloria’s book, My Life on the Road, life, feminism, and the power of story. “Women become more radical with age,” Gloria says. I chuckle and nod.

My terrible, blurry picture of Gloria and Cheryl.

My terrible, blurry picture of Gloria and Cheryl.

Was taking a motorcycle class a feminist act? Perhaps, because of Gloria’s influence, I didn’t need to think of it that way. Or was the fact that I took the class at the prompting of my boyfriend in order to be with my son the antithesis of feminism? Did it even matter?

The prelude of Gloria’s book opens with her meeting a couple of leather-clad bikers. The woman shows Gloria her big purple Harley, and proudly tells her how she used to ride on the back of her husband’s bike, but then put her foot down and insisted on having her own. Gloria writes, “…I’ve come to believe that, inside each of us has a purple motorcycle. We have only to discover it–and ride.”

Gloria’s message over the course of the evening becomes loud and clear, as it is one that is dear to any memoir writer: The world is changed through the power of story, of telling our truths. Incidentally, this is also the power of Hedgebook, whose tag line is “Women Authoring Change.”

“Telling each other our stories is the most revolutionary act.” Gloria says. “Change comes from telling the truth and discovering that we’re not alone.” This has certainly been true in the widow world, but is also true in any instance where something or someone renders a person invisible.

Gloria speaks about a book called Sex and World Peace, that talks about the one defining factor when it comes to determining how peaceful a country is likely to be: how that country treats its women. The is an audible “ah” from the audience as the simple truth is recognized. “The treatment of women affects all levels of society.”

“As women,” Gloria says later, “we deserve to be raised to be loved and seen as equal, but boys deserve to be raised that way too.” This makes me think of Carter.

Only then do I realize that in passing the motorcycle safety class, I have taught Carter something about women and being equal. For that, even if I never again drive my own motorcycle, I am claiming my badass-ness and my purple motorcycle. Thank you Gloria.


Septembers and Tiaras

Kind David I of Scotland (possibly my 30th great-grandfather)

Kind David I of Scotland (possibly my 30th great-grandfather)

It’s September. I should know better.

Perhaps it was the one-day shift from summer to fall that happened last Saturday in Seattle, but September caught me off guard again. The melancholy has me wrapped in its fuzzy, warm cloak. I’ve become reclusive and have found a new addiction, but more on that later.

It could be the prospect of turning 50 this month, as well as having what might have been my 25th wedding anniversary, something I only just realized. 25 years. Damn. I had to do the math in my head. Could it really be?

For my 50th, my family was quite insistent that I have a big ol’ party. Since I have carved my weird Canadian niche in this US town with my “Boxing Day” parties, I figured I’d keep the Commonwealth theme alive and have a proper 50th Jubilee. Because then I don’t have to call it a birthday, right?

And yes, I plan on wearing a tiara. Thank you for asking.

Part of the 50th birthday demand from my mother is that I scan through my last 50 years of photos and come up with the most embarrassing. She specifically asked for “the one with the snake.”

Last night, I started going through them and although I laughed at many, the whole exercise made me feel sad and happy at once. On one hand, there aren’t that many photos of me, since I am usually the one taking them. On the other, the ones that I do have of myself are usually me laughing or goofing around with one or both of the kids.

My mom also asked for photos of me with Jim and me with Arron. Pulling out the ones with Jim was easy and made me smile. I avoided the ones of Arron. Should I include the shots of just Arron, since that is mostly what I have? Or do I have to scan new ones of the both of us which means opening actual physical photo albums (if you are under 30, you won’t understand this reference, sorry). And although this month will also mark 14 years sans Arron, I can’t quite bring myself to do it.

This surprises me. Yeah, turns out pulling out old photos of you and your dead husband on the occasion of your 50th birthday, 25th wedding anniversary and 14th deathiversary might actually be a little bit emotional, Ab. Go figure.

And thus I retreat inwards. Have I mentioned that I have an addiction?

Yes, my name is Abigail Carter and I am addicted to

Not some *little* addiction suited to the casual family historian, but hours, hours! spent (wasted?) behind the computer clicking through years. I now find myself in the time of William the Conquerer. I think I might be related to him. I suspect that is a sentence you will hear from any serious addict.

“I think I was related to [place any member of the Royal family in history here].”

It’s only now dawned on me that my new addiction and my September melancholy might actually be related (ha! Did you catch that genealogical reference?).

In some respects, this genealogy thing stems from a curiosity to find out where I came from, but I am keenly aware of one failing of that I think illuminates my other motivation.

Mapping. Now here’s a great opportunity for you developers. Here’s what I want: I want you to take all the places that the various branches of my family come from (England mostly) and plot them on a map. Show migrations, years, names, etc.

Here’s why: I think on some subliminal level, I am somehow trying to link my family and Arron’s. Irrational of course. But I can’t help finding great pleasure in imagining our connection in the distant past would perhaps give the present some context. Some cute (royal?) princess brushing past a handsome Viking perhaps? OK, perhaps I have also been reading too many Outlander novels (my other secret addiction).

Grief is so freakin irrational sometimes, I grant you.

I don’t think my connecting the dots is limited to Arron though. I want to do Jim’s family too. His dad’s family is from Wales. Apparently, so were some distant relatives of mine… Can we say “two Vikings?” Yes, please!

The linkages are what fascinate me. The realization (again) that we are all connected. I don’t know what it all means or why this is important to me now as I turn 50 and watch another phantom wedding anniversary pass me by.

But here I am. Suddenly a 50th Jubilee party doesn’t sound so far fetched. Did I mention that King David I of Scotland was my 30th great-grandfather?

Facing September in a tiara will it a whole lot more palatable, wouldn’t you agree?

A Precarious Balancing Act of Life and Passions

6281-BalancingActI took a generative writing class to get myself writing again. I’ve been so enmeshed in life and three jobs as I now run an Airbnb, am the Chief Marketing Officer for a startup and the booker of Country and Western bands for a BBQ restaurant. I can’t say my life is ever dull! But writing has fallen off the cliff and I’ve missed it. I forced the issue by taking a class where we do nothing but write for 4 hours.

I pulled out the memoir I’m working on and tried to find a place to start. I sat staring at a sheet of writing prompts until a line jumped out: “Take a character you’ve been having trouble really getting a handle on. Describe that character without using any visual information.” It went on, but that was all I read. I thought about how hard a time I have writing about Arron, my husband. How hard he is to describe. And so I started with an image I had of him, one of the last. It was during a fight, one of the few times I was ever really angry with him. We had been having a hard time. He started a new job, had been miserable for months in his old one, and I felt invisible to him through all of it.

I was surprised when tears started rolling down my cheeks as I wrote. My anger and sadness during that time came back, yes, but there was something more. It was triggering something: a similar feeling I’ve been encountering more recently. I’ve been hard-pressed to name what I’ve been feeling in my relationship with Jim. He’s been distracted for months, most of his energy being poured into a seaplane, to the point I’ve been teasing him about it being his mistress, his “other woman.”

It’s been difficult to fault Jim for being inattentive. I know he will always find me at the end of the day. He will always text, want to tell me the latest plane update, find time for quick dates. I know that he wants to spend time with me. But when we’re together, I can tell that he is thinking about the plane. Or he is making a list, or bent over a computer buying a part. It takes effort to draw his attention away from the plane. Or the motorcycle that he’s building with Carter. Which I adore. I admire his passion. I make room for it, because I know how important such a passion is in life. It’s his passion for life that I admire most about him.

But, in allowing the “other woman” into our lives, I feel myself shrinking. Is it attention I need? I ask myself. I don’t need him every second of the day, but when we are together sometimes, I feel invisible. I come up with ways to broach the subject with him in my mind, but each one sounds trite. “I wish we spent more time together,” sounds weak. We spend lots of time together. “You don’t seem to notice me,” sounds silly because he is so present, when he is present. Except when he’s not. “There’s something missing and I don’t know what it is,” seems to be the closest I can come. How is someone meant to react to that?

I can’t figure out what is is that I seem to be missing. Intimacy? Connection? Time together? Expressions of love? Commitment?

As I wrote about Arron, I realized that I was dealing with the very same issue with him all those years ago. I felt as if I had become and afterthought in his ever more complicated life. I was the one left to hold everything together, manage the kids, the house, the bills, the meals. I was the invisible glue that held it all together.

How often do women do this? It’s a classic tale.

After the writing class, I saw my friend Theo and I told her about what I wrote that day until I eventually stumbled upon this pattern of supporting our men’s passions while neglecting our own needs.

“That’s all men, in a way, don’t you think?” she asked after I listed all of Jim’s commitments. “I think of my own relationships,” she continued, “and I see how often I’ve gotten into relationships with people who resemble the men I grew up with.”

I thought of my own father. He’s a man who you have a relationship with on his terms. His mantra when I was growing up was, “Sure come on by, I’ll be here.” He was always there for me, but I had to make the effort to get there, both literally and figuratively. I had to make the stretch to carve out a relationship with him, which he was happy to accept, but rarely seemed to make a reciprocal effort when the circumstance required it.

I watch Jim struggle to balance his life. He is trying so hard to establish a home base, follow a lofty dream to build and own a plane, manage two rental properties, care for his mother, excel at his job and love a woman and her kids. All very noble and time intensive quests in their own right and as I write this, I think he is no different than most people. Aren’t we all trying to balance our lives with our passions?

His hobbies and dreams are the things I admire most about him but they are also the things that keep him from me.

So should I just shut up and wait for the scales to tip back in my direction? Or will I just wind up waiting forever feeling as if tiny slivers are being sliced off my piece of the pie in order to fulfill another’s appetite. How much do I push back? And how do I articulate me own needs?

Jump up and down, crying insisting that we have lost some mysterious “something” that I can’t name? Demand a weekend away together? Insist he stare into my eyes for four minutes and answer a bunch of ever-increasing intimate questions? Sell my house so we can buy a house together and finally live together?

With Arron, I realize I did a version of the first option and finally got angry. I questioned his priorities. I re-established my own. I got his attention, at least for a moment. But by then it was too late. I had him back for one week. And then he was gone.

I have no answers, just a keen sense of history repeating itself and wondering when or if I will ever learn the lessons life is trying to teach me.

A Father’s Day Blowout

Arron with kidsIt almost seems odd to me now how much Father’s Day once had me in its grip after Arron died. The hole in our family glared in the Father’s Day spotlight. I spent those early Father’s Days on a NJ beach with a bunch of other 9/11 moms watching our kids play listlessly in the humid summer sunshine. We smiled wanly at each other, ate hotdogs grilled by other kid’s alive dads. Each time I asked myself what I was doing there.

On Father’s Day, I mourned for what my kids didn’t even know was missing. So basically, the day became all about me. I wanted recognition for the ghost role I played in my kid’s lives, some acknowledgement that I was somehow doing it all. I realize now how self centered being in grief is, which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing, it’s just part of the grieving process. But boy, being both a mom and a dad is a tough gig. A lopsided pancake seems well deserved.

The good news is that like all processes, you eventually move onto the next part of the process. This Father’s Day, I find myself in a sort of grief no-man’s land. Maybe after all that angst, there is finally a place where these events no longer have bite. In our household, Father’s Day passes without any fanfare.  I no longer feel so acutely that which is missing. Our new normal has taken hold and we exist now without the need to mark the day. I no longer feel guilty for this as I have in past years, feeling that by not celebrating Father’s Day, we were somehow not honoring Arron.

I realize that this apathy extends to other holidays too, like Arron’s birthday, Christmas, kid’s birthdays, etc. We have stopped forcing ourselves to acknowledge Arron on specific days, and celebrate him when the mood strikes. When his name naturally comes up in conversation.

My grandfather, uncles, cousin and sister during a typical "Big Birthday"

My grandfather, uncles, cousin and sister during a typical “Big Birthday”

It’s also possible that my apathy for these things just runs in the family. When I call my dad on Father’s Day, he never fails with his “Oh! It’s Father’s Day?” We’re just not big celebrators I guess. My grandmother used to have an annual summer picnic every July called “The Big Birthday” that was meant to celebrate EVERYONE’S birthday at once and where we exchanged silly presents, (wax lips, silly glasses, dollar store toys). One big blowout. Only one event to organize. It worked.

So, all you moms-being-dads out there, get some silly glasses and have a big blowout Father’s Day and know that it does get easier. And know that despite the lack of misshapen pancakes, you are doing a great job!


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. 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!