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Oct. 22, 2022

Episode #11 - The Power of Grief and Community

When tragedy reshapes your life, having a supportive community is key to your survival.  My husband died three months ago. I've been in a cave of sorts, rarely leaving the house. My neighbors drew me back into the world of the living… with a tree. 


Our journey came with the heartbreak you might imagine. It also came with surprising joy and expressions of deep and tender love. I’ve shared some of both on the podcast. 


This chapter begins on a Friday afternoon last month, September. My neighbors Mark and Angel had invited me to dinner at their home. We live in a condominium complex. They live two doors down. 


The last three months of my husband’s life were harrowing, marked by multiple falls. Thanks, in large part, to the help of those two men, I was able to care for Dick at home until he died. So when they invited me to dinner, I purchased a bottle of dessert wine and wrapped it in one of my handmade, linen dish towels. 


At 5 pm, I stepped outside my front door. Blue sky, cotton clouds, comfortably warm. Goldilocks perfection. Noticeably absent were the jarring sounds of jackhammers, cement mixers, cranes, bobcats, and back-up beepers. 


From June of 2021 to September of 2022, all six buildings in my condominium complex had been lifted in the air, the defective cement foundations removed, new foundations poured, the buildings set back down and now, today, finally, the dirt in front of each building was sprayed with the blue-green foam of hydroseed. If all went well, we’d have grass in a few weeks. 


Everyone who lived here knew that when it was time for your building to be lifted, you’d have to move. You’d have to live somewhere else for five months. Many of the residents found accommodations nearby. On Friday afternoons, they came back to collect their mail and check on the progress of their building. They also came back for a sense of community. 


My nextdoor neighbor, Carol, had initiated a standing invitation to everyone. Weather permitting, meet at 5 pm on the center island of our complex. Bring your own chair and your own beverage. The gathering gave people a chance to commiserate and share stories about their temporary living arrangements. 


So that Friday afternoon in September, at 5 pm, I stepped outside. Immediately, I heard the unmistakable, bubbly sound of Carol’s laugh. It was coming not from the center island of our complex, but from the entrance.  And then it dawned on me. Large areas of the island had also been hydroseeded that day. We couldn’t walk on it. The entrance to the complex hadn’t been disturbed at all in the construction project. It was a safe place to gather.  


I heard Mark’s voice. And Angel’s. They were with all the other neighbors gathered at the entrance. They weren’t at their home, waiting for me to come to dinner. My heart sank. 


That was September. Dick had died two months ago. In that time, I had lost paperwork, missed appointments, skipped my vitamins for days, forgotten where I put my keys, and tossed a black linen tablecloth into a load of white towels.  In this moment, all I could think was that dinner with Mark and Angel must have been last Friday, not today. And I just hadn’t shown up. I felt awful.  


Well, you mess up, you face up. 


I put the wine and dishtowel back inside, grabbed my folding chair, and headed down to the entrance, apologies on the tip of my tongue.


As I got closer, I saw neighbors who had moved away a few years ago. I saw two long tables filled with food, and a giant bucket filled with ice and bottles of wine. Friday gatherings were never this fancy.  Then it dawned on me. All six buildings were now safely on the ground. This was definitely an occasion worth celebrating.


One of the women who had moved away years ago, came up to me, her arms wide open. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she said. I agreed.  “It sure is. Everyone can move back home now.” She looked puzzled and said, “I mean the tree for Dick.”  


What tree for Dick? 


Yes, just a day or so earlier, a beautiful sapling was planted at the entrance. I assumed it was part of the landscaping project since all the shrubs had been destroyed when the buildings were lifted. 


Mark and Angel came over. Turns out the dinner invitation was a ruse, all part of a plan to surprise me. It worked. 


I enjoyed a glass of wine and a lot of hugs. Then everyone gathered around the tree. Carol talked about Dick, about what a kind and helpful neighbor he was. Other people shared memories of their encounters with Dick, about how welcoming he was to new neighbors. 


"Heart of Gold" saplingMark and Angel talked about their mission to find the perfect tree, something appropriate for a love story.  At the third garden shop, the owner smiled. He had the perfect tree. Covered with flowers in the spring, and with heart-shaped leaves that turn yellow in the fall, the tree was called “Heart of Gold.” Angel said as soon as heard that, he knew this was the tree. No need to look further. 


In the late-80s, the condo board voted to purchase 200 evergreen seedlings. Dick planted most of them himself. A few of them are still standing. Most fell victim to lawn mowers and harsh New England winters.  


I’ve talked about Dick’s sweepstakes hobby. Well, about 30 years ago, he entered a sweepstakes and won four seedlings. (Yes, there are sweepstakes for all kinds of prizes.) I don’t remember the specific trees he won, just that they were all flowering. He planted the seedlings in the backyard. One of them grew to about 6 feet. But over time, they all died. 


Dick had served a term on the condo’s board of directors many years ago. The woman who was president at the time reminded me how every time the landscaping budget was up for discussion, Dick would argue that everyone, all 24 families, should have their own tree in their front yard. Based on how the buildings are arranged, the idea isn’t  practical. That didn’t matter to Dick. He viewed having a tree as having roots, something he thought everyone should have. 


That memory surfaced just as Angel showed me a plaque with the words:  In Honor of Dick Christian, our Friend and Neighbor. Angel placed it at the base of the tree. Thank goodness I had tissues in my pocket. 


I learned that the construction company that had been on the property for over a year and had probably seen Dick and me walking around the circle umteen times…well, they dug the hole for the tree. And all the neighbors, even the ones who had moved away, and the new ones I hadn’t met yet… they all donated money to purchase the tree. 


I couldn’t find the words to express how grateful I was. So I told stories. 


I talked about how much Dick loved trees, how we’d go for rides just to look at trees in all four seasons.


I talked about how Dick came up with the title for my first historical romance novel. It was set during the Klondike Gold Rush and featured a special wedding band. Dick suggested I call the book, “Band of Gold.” I did… Now, because of Dick, I have Band of Gold and Heart of Gold. 


I told them about a tearful conversation I’d had with my daughter not long ago. Laurie had asked me several times about moving closer to her. She had just listened to one of the podcast episodes. I’d been talking about how I wanted more than anything to care for Dick at home until he died,  and how the only reason I had been able to do that was because I had neighbors who helped me. Laurie worries about me. That day she said she finally understood. She could see that I have community, real community.  


I was glad she understood. I do want to live closer to her. Right next door, in a duplex. Just not yet. Because here I am, a month shy of 75, and it’s the first time in my whole life I’ve lived alone. 


I need to get to know me. I want to do that here, where I can picture Dick sleeping in his favorite recliner, or sitting across from me in the breakfast nook, working alongside me in the garden, or walking with me around the circle. 


I think the grief that comes from losing a spouse is particularly hard because we lose the person who knows us, really knows us, sees us in a way that nobody else does. That’s because in a strong marriage each spouse is vulnerable to the other. Each one knows the other’s weaknesses, hopes, dreams that were never fulfilled, embarrassing moments, and more. Though Dick isn’t here anymore, remembering him might help me learn more about myself. I want to see myself through his eyes, because that man loved me to the moon and back.  


Meanwhile, my community still supports me. Every weekday morning I’m now one of five women ranging in age from 60’s to 80’s, who walk around the circle for 30 to 40 minutes. We gather at 8 o’clock. I’m getting over an awful cold right now and some days, I have trouble keeping up with them. So they slow down. 


Every Monday afternoon, one of those women, Helen, still comes over for tea. As our friendship grows, our conversations deepen. I feel comfortable. If something reminds me of Dick, I cry. Helen’s husband died several years ago, just after she moved here. She talks about him and she cries, too. 


I don’t know if the “widow wound” will ever close. I suspect it will grow a protective covering, some kind of tough and tender film that stretches with the years. 


Grief. Five letters. I’m tempted to ask how a word with just five letters can change a life forever. And then I think of a four-letter word: Love. 


Hold on to that  word. It will help you get through another day. I’m not talking only about the love you feel for your spouse or whoever you're caring for. I’m talking about self-love, the kind that acknowledges the pain, the frustration, the anger you feel. 


I’m talking about the self-love that says “yes” when someone offers to help you. 


I’m talking about the self-love that forgives the  impatience, the frustration, the fear disguised in harsh words you can’t take back. 


I’m talking about the self-love that reminds you that you’re human, just like the rest of us. 


I’m talking about the self-love you’ll need when it’s time to go on alone. 


In my office, I have a love altar. The center piece is a Swarovski crystal birds’ nest. Dick bought it for me not long after we were married. Two little birds sit next to each other on the edge. Inside the nest I have threads of green linen and a pink stone shaped like an egg. It reminds me that love needs to be nurtured and protected. 


A Self-Love Ritual 

Here’s a simple ritual. You can do it anywhere, anytime. No tools needed. 


The intent – and that’s what makes this a ritual – is to create an expression of self-love. 


Simply use the index finger of one hand to draw a heart on the palm of your other hand. Now press your palm to your lips. Imagine that your next words will be enchanted with the magic of the universe. … Say, out loud: I am doing the best I can. 


If you’re in a public place, whisper the words into your palm as it covers your lips. I am doing the best I can. Because you are. 


In the meantime, drink plenty of water, sleep whenever you can, eat healthy food. No one can do those things for you. Talk with a friend. Ask for help. When I say take good care of yourself, those words aren’t fluffy. They’re fierce. We need to survive.