Ambassadors of Grief

There has been a tiny ripple of backlash that’s fallen out from the Widow’s conference that has been unexpected, at least to me. Like any such event, not everyone is going to come away with a positive experience. Widowhood leaves many open wounds, not easily healed in a weekend of extreme cheer. Sure, some of that cheer is manufactured – a sort of laughing in the face of adversity, knee-jerk reaction to so much loss. And like any gathering of predominately women, groups form. Quickly, and more easily possibly given the extreme nature of our conversations. And I will admit to being in what others might have dubbed the “popular” group – the authors, speakers, ambassadors. But I too felt alone at times. I know we all did at one point or another. Imagining that somehow the others were having more fun, were “further along” with their grief, were more media saavy, were more of something we were not. After one is widowed, social situations are just hard. There is not a social situation that I am in anymore where I don’t feel these thoughts, at least to a certain extent. I make myself feel better by knowing deep down that I am not alone in feeling this way.

As an “Ambassador” at the conference (granted, an untagged one, since I hadn’t actually been asked), I worked harder to approach new widows and hear their stories. This is not something that comes easily to me. I am terrible at remembering names and stories and putting the right names with the right stories. I am easily distracted in social situations, because I am used to watching from the sidelines. I know I didn’t do a great job at times of nurturing. I forget a name, mix up a story, get tongue-tied. But I did make some new friends that I might not have made otherwise.

Not sure where this is going other than to say that we were all nervous and alone and trying to make the best of a very emotionally charged weekend. We drank too much, laughed too loud, made friends easily. Unless we didn’t. I know some of us hid. Plan never to return. Felt alienated.

Anniegirl’s post today got me thinking, as it has to do with putting your story out there. I am hopeless at tucking a person under my wing the way I desperately would love to do. Comfort them, make them feel at home. I have always had to write my emotions down. My father and I used to communicate our emotions through letters. He is similar to me. Not great at the emotional stuff in person, but a mush at heart. And so I wrote my book. It was my outlet, my small way of helping others, the only way I knew how.

I wrote in my comment on Anniegirl’s post:

“There is no one size fits all “solution” to grief. We are all finding our way in the dark. Each story that gets put out there helps others to see that. Memoir takes a tough skin, there is no doubt. You put yourself on the line, open yourself to emotion, criticism, perhaps jealousy and at times I think, you risk getting stuck living a cliché or living in widowhood for longer than might be healthy. You don’t have to write a book to “do widowhood right,” but if my story can help even one person, then to me all that risk has been worth it.”

We are all finding our way, messily sometimes. We do what we can do.

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  1. annie August 13, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    The original post that got me thinking took me back to the early groups I found and the lack of acceptance I encountered. I was often ignored and that’s when I was being flatly told I was wrong or that my grief was invalid in some way. So my response, in typical blogger fashion, was coming from a place of “all about me”. I’d discussed my angst with Rob before I wrote the post and it prompted him to ask what my original intent behind writing a memoir was and I realized it was about vindication. During my late husband’s illness and then after his death, people questioned my actions. Judged me. But mostly, they ignored what was happening and expected me to be okay, so they wouldn’t have to deal with it either. I suspect that might be a bit what lay behind the original post, a feeling that she was expected to buy in and move along even though that’s not where she is at and also the feeling that one is judged a bit for wanting to be a part of game yet rejecting the rules as written by the majority. Having spent most of my life on the fringes, I could relate. She spoke to me the same way many things in your book spoke to me.

  2. Debbie Thomas August 13, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    I am one of the people who were helped by your book, Abby. And I am extremely grateful to you for writing it. At the time, my husband had died weeks before and I couldn’t imagine that there was every going to be any type of light in my life again. But while reading your book, I realized that there was possibility that light would reappear, that I may feel like living again one day. And that hope was so valuable to me during the bleakest and darkest hours. I didn’t ever feel that you were telling me how to live my grief but you were sharing how you did it. We all live our grief in our own way and if people don’t want to know other’s paths or even other’s advice (as outlined in some books), then they shouldn’t pick up the books in the first place. The great thing about books is we get to choose what we read and when. Thank you for your book, and to all the others who put their books out there so everyone has a choice when they feel the need to get support from someone else’s words.

    I know that all of us at Camp Widow were in different places in our journeys. But I never once felt that any of the people in the “popular group” were anything but gracious, supportive, friendly and available. I’m sorry that a few people left with negative feelings but the reality of a conference is that it doesn’t meet the needs of everyone. And I guess it’s up to individuals to decide what works for them, without expecting that one conference can be all things to all people.

    I liked your last two sentences: “We are all finding our way, messily sometimes. We do what we can do.” We sure do. And no one should feel guilty for that.

  3. diane August 14, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Interesting reading from two perspectives. To offer up an objective viewpoint:

    People attend conventions of all kinds for different reasons, or for a combination of reasons. Some people come to present material as professionals in the particular field. Others seek connections. Either business connections, or emotional connections. Yet others just come for the information presented. And then there are those who just want to cut loose and have some fun.

    Nothing wrong with any of that. The problem comes in when you are dealing with a heavy subject like grief. There are many people who attended that conference who are there because they have only recently suffered a loss. They are in a raw emotional psychological state…numb actually. In fact, I remember you very well at that stage Abby. You walked through a sidewalk of wet cement and didn’t realize you were doing it until the neighbor yelled out at you…
    I’m sure there were “many” cement walkers at that conference.

    Those who come to a healing conference (like the widow’s conference) as presenting professionals however, come with an added responsibility. Yes, they have suffered too and are still healing themselves, but to a much different degree.

    People who come to a conference in a professional capacity of any sort, in any field, come with the additional responsibility to “be” professional. They have to be “extra” mindful of others. In tune into the sensitivity others, “always” presenting themselves in a professional light…even over extending themselves and making themselves available whether they really want to 100% or not. It’s not necessarily party down time at the grief conference. Once you are tagged a professional, it’s not so much about your particular needs, and what “you” want any more. It’s all about the other people.

    The flip side of that, is that maybe there are some people who attended the conference who really weren’t ready for that type of social environment and stimulation quite yet. Or maybe they thought the conference itself would be more of a somber, serious and healing environment then it actually was (to them).

    Food for thought for both sides of the coin. Whatever though…learn, forgive, heal and move forward. We all have to in life.

    enjoy your day!

  4. Sarah August 14, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    i consider myself a very social and outgoing person and even i wanted time alone (and sought it) throughout the weekend. grief is so personal and unique to each person. and it’s all about what you put into it as well. i found the weekend was not at all what i expected. but on the upside, some of the things i didn’t expect were really amazing …like meeting people i only previously knew online. those connections were priceless and have gotten me through some dark times.
    i found you to be very approachable and down to earth 🙂

  5. Dampdynamite August 14, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    Grief is too complicated to put into a “conference.” Too many diverse emotions that reflect the most personal time frame. Of course we will always compare our progress in grief when given the chance. It is only human to to do that. I am sorry some people got sadder or madder. Sounds pretty normal to me!

  6. tiffany August 15, 2010 at 7:48 am

    you were a great (albeit untagged) ambassador! you introduced yourself to me, and to chris, at the opening reception. you certainly didn’t have to do that – but you did. you made us feel welcome right out of the gate. thank you for stepping outside of your comfort zone, it definitely made a difference to me!

  7. Jackie August 16, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    This year was less terrifying for me, BUT I will say that last year, I certainly felt ‘taken under your wing’. I can not tell you how good it felt to talk to you that day and have you say, “Oh! Yes!! The reckless stage!” and realize that it wasn’t a ‘bad’ thing, it was just how I was coping at the time. I felt comforted and safe talking to you….and for that and for your book, thank you, Abby. You are stellar and I love ya.

  8. Abby August 17, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Its so easy when you are grieving to feel completely alone, like no one understands, like you are being judged by everyone. Our voice of reason has died and so we fumble along. To a certain degree I think we all have periods of feeling on the fringes, even those that appear not to. And large gatherings of people can make even the most secure feel marginalized, and lost.
    Thank you all for your wonderfully kind words. Its great to feel that I am helping, even when it feels like I am bumbling along like everyone else.
    Perhaps I will suggest to Michele a “quiet room” a gathering place at the conference for those who are feeling overwhelmed. It could be “staffed” by an ambassador at all times, and people, if they are feeling lonely or vulnerable or needing to cry or whatever can go there and feel comforted and safe.

  9. Boo Mayhew August 22, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Abby, it was a pleasure to meet you briefly and I’d like to say thank you for the drink at “Rock Bottom” as well as volunteering to run a workshop. I appreciate your doing this especially as I am beginning to understand that however long you have been widowed, it still hurts and so in my humble opinion you are brave and a true ambassador x

    1. Abigail - Site Author August 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm

      Thank you all for your kind words. Grief is a strange beast, making a conference tricky business. I remember how difficult it felt to try and forge new friendships in those early years, to be emotionally available to another person and even still, its something I continue to struggle with and continue to live in my hermity ways. I honestly can’t tell if its grief or just getting older, probably a little of both. I think the conference does represent the incredible adaptability to new situations that so many of us have gained through grief, and I see it as a celebration of just how resilient we all are.

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