At the summit of Mt. Whitney. Mount Whitney.

Four Life Lessons Learned on Mt. Whitney

Editor’s Note: My dear friend Liz recently completed a 28-day solo (!!??@*!!) hike of the John Muir Trail, including an ascent of Mt. Whitney. As she told me about her trip, what really moved me beyond the sheer physical feat, were the insights she gained during her adventure. I asked her to share her experiences here because while not all of us will ever scale a mountain, or do a solo wilderness hike, the life lessons she learned are universal.  

At the summit of Mt. Whitney. Mount Whitney.

Life Lessons Learned on Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the Continental United States

Last summer, at age 55, I decided to solo backpack the John Muir Trail, the famously rugged 210 mile trail of High Sierra wilderness. To complete the full trail, I would need to summit Mount Whitney, which, at an elevation of 14, 505 feet, is the highest peak in the continental United States. Being afraid of heights, I told myself that when the time came, it would be perfectly okay to … well, skip the Mt. Whitney part. Giving myself permission in advance to wriggle out of the most scary element of the hike made me happy, and off I went.

Mt Whitney, captured in the alpenglow. Life-lessons learned while climbing the highest peak in the lower 48.

Mt Whitney, captured in the alpenglow. The summit is not visible from this angle, but the ruggedness of the peak is.

A view of Mt. Whitney buttress from my campsite at Guitar Lake, which sits at 3,500 feet above sea level. Life lessons from climbing the highest peak in the lower 48.

A view of Mt. Whitney buttress from near my campsite at Guitar Lake, which sits at 11,500 feet above sea level.

The accidental summit.

While preparing for the trip, I learned that it’s common to get up to the summit in time to catch the sunrise. This requires getting up at midnight as it’s about a 4 – 5 hour hike. A few days before my (theoretical) summit day, I befriended a group of four wonderful younger-than-me adventurers on essentially the same itinerary. They were planning an early start up the mountain, leaving around 4 am. They asked if I wanted them to wake me, and in my first act of daring I said, “Sure, why not?”

I had still made no decision, other than deciding not to decide, but when I woke up earlier than planned around 3:00 am, I just got up and got on the trail. Yes, in the dark, by the light of my camping headlamp. I figured if it was too dark or scary I would just park alongside the trail and wait for sunrise. No big deal, right?

the view going up the trail to the Mt. Whitney summit. Life lessons from climbing the highest peak in the lower 48. Mt Whitney.

The view going up the trail to the Mt. Whitney summit.

Off I went. As I worked my way up the mountain, eventually on very narrow switchbacks, I had the sense of a huge, dark void off to my side, but my small headlamp wasn’t able to light anything except the trail immediately in front of me.

There’s an unearthly predawn silence up there. The lack of wind is unnerving. All I could hear was the sound of my own steady breathing, the occasional clack of one of my hiking poles on the rocky granite, and my boots landing one step at a time, step by at-this-point-grueling step. The air was so thin at around 12,000 feet that my lungs had to work very hard just to maintain a slow walking pace.

After about an hour and a half, I was starting to feel more than a little peaked and decided to ‘pull over’ at the next large boulder for a snack break. Some part of me was aware that it was becoming light out, but just barely, and the trail was so narrow that I wanted to be sitting on a secure base so that I wouldn’t lose my balance when I took a look around.

I pulled over, settled my rear end onto a boulder, and surveyed my surroundings.

Immediately I felt like a sleepwalker who woke up standing on top of a 20-story office building.

Headlight view of the edge of the trail at the break spot. Life lessons learned on Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48.

My headlight-illuminated view of the edge of the trail where I sat down for a break.

I felt the worst kind of panic I have ever felt in my life. The wall I was perched on was so steep that when I looked up I couldn’t see trail, just granite. When I looked down I could see only the last couple of switchbacks that I had just ascended. I was higher than the tops of some massive mountains off in the horizon. I could look down and see the lake I had started from that morning, far below.

My breathing hastened and my heart pounded as I escalated into a full blown panic attack.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed. “How did I get myself into this mess? Of course it’s stupid hiking up a mountain in the dark!” My mind raced. “How am I going to get out of this? I can’t go up – it’s terrifying. Going back down is even worse.” I was stuck.

“The only way I’m getting off this mountain,” I thought to myself, “is via rescue helicopter.” I visualized hooking onto a rescue person in an orange jumpsuit and whirling away at the end of a taut line with my eyes scrunched tight. Sure I would have to explain to my husband why I spent good retirement money on a personal helicopter airlift but so be it.

After what seemed like an eternity but must have been about 20 minutes, I started to try to think myself out of the situation. Drawing on years of a steady yoga practice, I forced myself to take long slow calming breaths.

And then I had an epiphany. It may not seem like much – but my panic attack provided the first of four life lessons about goals and achievement that Mount Whitney taught me that day.

Pre-dawn view at the break spot with no headlamp. Life lessons learned on Mt. Whitney.

Pre-dawn view at the break spot, no headlamp.

Early dawn at the break spot.

Mt. Whitney Lesson #1: Focus on the trail.

When you’re afraid of heights, the advice is always “just don’t look down.” How many times I had scoffed at that advice! It’s a cliche, but in that moment of deep desperation high up on the mountain, I recognized the broader truth: the danger itself hadn’t changed, only my perception of it. Before, when all I could see was the trail, I wasn’t afraid. Nothing material had changed.

Therefore, it was actually up to me how I chose to react to my fear. It was within my control. All of a sudden I felt powerful and while not exactly unafraid, I felt capable again.

My new mantra became ‘just focus on the trail.’ If I could do that, I would be okay. Just focus, and disregard any thoughts that weren’t related to the trail immediately in front of me. So I took a deep, slightly shaky breath, put on my virtual horse blinders, and kept going up.

How does this apply in the real world? I think it’s this: when we allow ourselves to spend time thinking about what’s not on the immediate ‘trail’ right ahead, we allow the extraneous to enter in, to our detriment. Focus is incredibly powerful, especially when things are scary; the rest is distraction.

Mt. Whitney Lesson #2: Positive experience is a choice.

I thought about these things as I worked my way on up to the trail junction where the trails from the eastern and western sides of Mount Whitney converge. The junction is at 13,500 feet, high by any standards. The final two mile hike after this junction packs in another 1,000 feet of elevation gain; again, significant at those altitudes, and tough on most bodies.

As I reached the junction, a party of four arrived from the other direction. A young woman in the group was having an emotional meltdown at the strenuousness of the journey for that final push to the summit. In a way, she was expressing on the outside what I was trying to suppress on the inside.

And here’s the insight that came to me in that moment: our subjective inner experience of the world around us is what defines our life, not the objective outer reality. That woman and I were in the exact same reality up there at 13,500 feet, but we were having two completely different experiences.

Fear and weakness and depression are always lurking out there and I believe that if we choose to pay attention to them we inadvertently make them stronger.

On the first day of my adventure, no fewer than three people advised that I not embark on the journey: First, as I was dropped off at the airport, I met a well-meaning California Highway Patrol Search and Rescue helicopter pilot who was aiding the search for a missing climber on Mount Whitney. We had a long chat, and his comments frightened me into believing that what I was about to do was unsafe as I didn’t have a personal locator beacon, I wasn’t wearing bright-colored clothing, and I was hiking alone. (Never mind that I had been preparing for a year, had a map and compass and knew how to use them, had training in wilderness first aid, had neon orange outside my pack, and much more.) Then, the cab driver who drove me to the trailhead mansplained to me why what I was doing was inherently dangerous as I didn’t have any personal knowledge of the area. Finally, the ranger at the trailhead campground convinced me that the mosquitoes would be driving me off the trail even before I started. I was struggling with depression as I started my big adventure.

But courage, strength, and optimism are also ever-present and can come from unexpected places. As I worked my way up to the summit on those final two miles, I marveled about all the things I had to be grateful for in that moment: my new trail friends who had provided such warmth and companionship. My amazingly supportive husband. The fact that the dreaded altitude sickness – which to some degree can be mitigated but is still very much a ‘luck of the draw’ – had not forced me to stop my ascent. The pre-hike cortisone shots that enabled my knees to hang in there in spite of brutal elevation gains and losses.

We must be mindful in noticing and integrating those positive influences into our experience. Gratitude is a conscious choice. I left the crying woman behind, literally and metaphorically.

Mt. Whitney Lesson #3: A well of strength lies dormant deep within us.

I carried on, past the signs that warned of lightning and unpredictable weather on the summit.

A sign full of warnings. Life lessons from climbing the highest peak in the lower 48 - Mount Whitney

Turn back Dorothy!

Mt. Whitney's trail requires some hand-to-hand in some places to keep balance. Mount Whitney. Mt. Whitney. Trueheartgal.

The trail requires some hand-to-hand in some places to keep balance.

At last, I was on the final mile of trail leading to the top. The final 500 feet of elevation gain. The trail was constructed almost 100 years ago, and since then there have been numerous rockslides, so what was once probably a straightforward hike now requires a bit of scrambling. There are spots where it’s necessary to negotiate boulders blocking the path, or walk over narrow ‘bridges’ with no railings, with frightening drops on both sides. 

I came across yet another obstacle: a narrow patch of icy snow flanked by razor-sharp loose rockfall on the down-mountain side. Seriously? Could I do this one more thing?

Empowered by how far I had come already – essentially unafraid of these dizzying heights, I kept wondering who this person was who used to be me – I assessed the situation. I could see from the bootprints that others had come before me, even this morning.

And then I had the most important revelation of my life: I can do this. I am strong.

I put my hiking poles in my left hand so that my right hand would be free to grab the terrain if needed to keep balance, and got down on my knees, deciding that the safest approach was to keep my center of gravity low and crawl. Paranoid, perhaps, to someone more intrepid, but the right choice for me. With my bare hands in the icy snow I made my way along.

An iconic view of Mt. Whitney's spires with the sun just hitting the eastern face. Mount Whitney. Mt. Whitney.

An iconic view of Mt. Whitney’s spires with the sun just hitting the Eastern face.

Much later, while safely ensconced in my tent during that afternoon’s thunderstorm, I had an ‘aha’ moment: I had always been able to wriggle out of uncomfortable situations in my life. But being alone on Mount Whitney gave me the gift of not having any alternative but self-reliance. There was just no place to look for solutions but within myself. I discovered a well of strength deep within that I had no idea was there.

One of the narrow bridges with straight vertical drops on both sides.

Some other hikers on the far side of an icy snow patch. Mt. Whitney. Mount Whitney.

Some other hikers on the far side of an icy snow patch.

Mt. Whitney Lesson #4: Trusting in others will help you get there.

Paradoxically, tuning in with inner strength also makes it easier to share vulnerability. For me anyway, when I know I’m strong inside, I have an easier time sharing with others during moments when I don’t feel strong, or need help.

One of Mt. Whitney's famous windows. Mount Whitney. Mt. Whitney.

One of Mt. Whitney’s famous “windows.”

My first glimpse of the roof of the Mt. Whitney's Hut - the small straight line at the center of the horizon. Mount Whitney. Mt. Whitney.

My first glimpse of the roof of the Mt. Whitney Hut – the small straight line at the center of the horizon.

During my preparation for this trip I discovered a group of women online who had agreed to wear turquoise bandanas so that we could identify each other on the trail. Now, four days into my trip, I hadn’t seen any of these bandanas.

View from Mt. Whitney's summit. Note Whitney's famous spires to the northeast (left side of the photo.) Mt. Whitney's summit. Mount Whitney. Trueheartgal.

View from Mt. Whitney’s summit. Note Whitney’s famous spires to the northeast (left side of the photo.)

I worked my way to the summit, and during the last few hundred feet as I emerged onto the plateau that is the top of the mountain, I saw the roof of the Whitney Hut – a Mount Whitney icon that I had seen on Google Earth – and almost fell to my knees with a combination of excitement, relief, and adrenaline. After stopping to sign in at the trail log, and mixing up a tasty breakfast of powdered milk, granola, and dried fruit, I started to pay attention to the dozen or so people who were up there with me.

And there was the turquoise bandana! We spotted each other at the same time. The incredible warmth I felt at meeting a wonderful stranger, who immediately felt like an old friend, and having this shared experience – the official ‘start’ of the JMT is on this summit – was almost overwhelming. Meeting my first online buddy during that most challenging time helped me realize how important it was to be connected with people even though I had embarked on this journey ‘alone’.

As I started to head back down – after all, my day was only halfway done, and clouds were starting to form – I saw my friends from the campsite the night before, just emerging on the summit. I was overjoyed to see them, as I had been concerned that perhaps they had decided not to go all the way to the top. We shared our feelings at having met each other and traveled for a bit on the trail. Once again I was reminded of the incredible power of human connection. I would literally trust those people – whom I had met only days earlier – with my life.

At the summit of Mt. Whitney. Mount Whitney.

At the summit.

Find your challenge. 

If you want to change, you’re probably going to have to experience some pain. Like a hard slap to the face, it’s something we’d all prefer to avoid. If I hadn’t started going up the mountain in the dark, I never would have made it all the way; I’m fairly positive I would have become intimidated early on and turned around.

Uncertainty and doubt will do their level best to talk you out of doing whatever frightens you. But this experience has taught me that it’s worth it to try. Your lessons will of course be unique and certainly different than mine, but here’s a summary of what I learned that will hopefully provide some inspiration:

  • Focus on the trail: don’t get distracted from the immediate goal at hand
  • Notice what will serve you and keep you feeling optimistic about your goal
  • Dig deep enough to find the incredible well of strength within
  • Trust in others: there’s no getting there without other people

Challenge is relative; literally thousands of people summit Mount Whitney each year, but for me it might as well have been Mount Everest. I think if you can set up the right conditions to challenge yourself at a level that is appropriate for you, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn about yourself and your relationship to the world.

See you out there.

Mountain daisies at Guitar Lake. Mt. Whitney. Mount Whitney. Trueheartgal.

Mountain daisies at Guitar Lake.

_________________________________________________________________

After summiting Mount Whitney, Liz Greer went on to complete a 270-mile through-hike of the JMT in the summer of 2016. When not planning her next mountain adventure, she is a dog photographer based in Marin County, California. Learn more about her work at lizgreer.com.

 

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10 Ways to Make A Difference

It’s been over a week now, and we are still alive. The unthinkable happened,  and no amount of marching, or signing petitions, or sharing angry posts on FB is going to change this nightmare scenario that has come to pass – at least not right away. As we get over our grief, rage, horror, sadness, fear and exhaustion, we must decide – where do we go from here. I have outlined 10 ways to make a difference now.

I am preparing to fight for the next four years. The incoming administration is not a normal Republican, we are facing levels of corruption on a scale we have never before seen in this country.  Yes be nice to everyone, but this incoming administration is hell bent on eliminating environmental protections that have kept our land, sea and air safe for us all, and he (the one who asked seven times why we cannot use nuclear weapons during a recent military briefing) has access to the most annihilating weapons in the world.  We are facing a man who is the least-qualified person to hold the Presidency who has praised dictators, who is openly supported by the KKK and white supremacists, who refuses to release information about his taxes or business holdings, who has incalculable conflicts of interest, who has admitted to sexual assault, who is openly trying to castrate pillars of journalism, and who, for the first time ever – has an official propaganda outlet in Breitbart news.

Kindness is good, inclusiveness and standing up for our fellow citizens is absolutely necessary, but much more is required.

On the outside, I am a white, 58 year-old, tall, skinny, blonde (please no comments here from my hair colorist), happily-married, Pilates-loving, animal owning, college-educated, introverted woman who is still wearing an “I Am With Her” Hillary t-shirt, and living in Blue state California.  But on the inside, I am a woman warrior.

Xena, the warrior princess on her horse. Make a difference.

Women warriors -we can make a difference!

Ways to make a difference. Ronda Rowsey in the ring.

Fighter Ronda Rowsey is a million times tougher than I will ever be, but seeing her helps remind me that I can too can find my own ways to make a difference.

Female Viking. Ways to make a difference.

Tough woman Viking.

centaur_by_prinzesser

Once I crawl out of this whole of despondency and horror, (Obama gave us until Thanksgiving, so I’m heeding his advice. If you haven’t yet, take a look at his comments. They are always eloquent and inspiring, but here – perhaps because I need to know how to make a difference, they are especially so), I will make an action plan. When I do, I will let you know what I intend to do. In the meantime, other people have already written eloquently on immediate next steps.

What is your plan?

10 Ways to Make a Difference

Register Disenfranchised People to Vote
A brilliantly articulate and fierce blogger is going to focus her energies on registering Native Americans to vote, and helping them get to polling locations (of which there was exactly ONE for the entire Navajo nation last week.)

Contact Government officials
Contact your Senators, Representatives. Let them know what you think! Hold them to account. Let them know you are watching, and thank them when they speak out on your behalf.

A practical guide to get your Congressperson’s attention, from a former staffer.

Donate to Planned Parenthood
A bright woman started a GoFundMe page to do just that.

Donate to organizations that are going to be under pressure during the coming Administration
A list of Pro-Woman, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations. Give what you can, as often as you can.

Support Investigative Journalism
I am copying Dan Rather here, as he says it best:

So if you want to know what you can do, please choose to support the press. If you find a news source you like and you think it is doing a good job, pay for the subscription. This doesn’t just help the bottom line but it is a vote of confidence in the system. Share smart, thoughtful pieces on social media and in emails to your friends. Let’s run up the clicks and views of the best of journalism. Also, I think we can not be passive with our news any longer. If you like what you see, let the publicans and journalists know through all the digital tools at your disposal. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, let them know as well. Or turn it off, refuse to follow the click bait.

The press is a vital partner in out democratic process. It is under incredible strains from a drastically changing media landscape and a potentially hostile in-coming administration. As citizens we should care deeply about this and vow to do something to help.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or donate to ProPublica, a non-profit, nonpartisan investigative journalism organization. These institutions must be operating at full capacity for us to make a difference.

Support Science (now that our government won’t anymore)
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is just one worthy recipient. Find one you love and support it.

Volunteer.
A list of organizations that need your time. If she’s old enough – bring your daughter, and demonstrate to her that there are ways that she can make a difference.

Find Inspiring Voices
There are many fierce and brilliant women out there who are writing. Find them and read them. Share what you read. Here’s Amy Schumer, Virginia Heffernan, Lena Dunham, Mikki Halpin Alyssa Mastromonaco (Obama’s former Deputy Chief of Staff) Cup of Jo blogger, Joanna Goddard and Gloria Steinem to get started. Here’s Hugo Schwyzer, a man worth reading now as well about why he’s not going to calm down, and the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof in a great piece he wrote today (11/17) in which he recommends getting involved on the state and local level, among other things.

Take Care of Yourself
This is very big for me, and for many, many people I know. When I am sad, I cannot eat, or sleep and I don’t exercise. We need to be strong, so here are some tips. Remember, self care is resistanceI got to the gym yesterday and today, and I feel much better. Being around my dog, horses and chickens helps too. I am also deeply grateful I have a smart, level-headed husband (a former life-long Republican) who is just as outraged as I am, understands what we are facing and is who takes better care of me (making me eat, getting me to the gym, reminding me that this is like a death, so grief is natural) than I probably deserve .

Whether it is poetry, paintings, music, dance, theater, film, or any other expression of the human experience, find any and all that moves you and reminds you why it is good to be alive.

I’ve found opportunities to laugh few and far between this last week, but here are a couple good ones. And of course, laughter is great medicine.  Biden and Obama memes. Preparing for a Trump Presidency. 

March
Participate in the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday, January 21, 2017 to show solidarity. Bring your daughter, your niece, your granddaughter, your sister, your mother and your friends. Showing up in big numbers will help make a difference.

Don’t Spread Fake News
Fake news was key in defeating the Democrats this cycle, and it is everywhere. Here’s a guide to help you decipher what is real and what is not, and here is a guide listing specific sites to avoid from a college professor.

Please consider sharing this post. Click on one of the boxes below to share on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. Copy the URL and email it to your friends. Thank you. I need you. We need each other. It’s going to be a long battle, but we need to each find ways to make a difference. Let’s get FIERCE!!

XOXO

 

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On losing a spouse.

On Losing A Spouse

Editor’s Note: My very dear friend Lynne wrote this piece on her experience of losing a spouse. Her warm, generous, smart, thoughtful husband Allan was one of the most upbeat, joyful and positive people I’ve ever met. He died a bit over a year ago and I recently asked if she’d be willing to share some of what she’s learned. Whether or not you ever endure losing a spouse, we all experience losses through life, and her insights may help you. 

On losing a spouse. Trueheartgal. A photo of the guest editor Lynne, with her husband Allan in happier times.

I lost my husband this past year and found that while grief will take you to your knees it will also make you wiser and stronger and a better friend. I am still deep in the learning process, feeling my way along, and grateful for the love and support I have received. I want my friends who have not yet gone through this passage to be at least a little bit prepared and Ligeia asked me to put down some of the thoughts that have been top of mind for me. Here they are…

Your friends will do the best they can. If you have nurtured good friendships, your friends will be there for you. They won’t always be there in the exact way you wish, but they will be there. They might barrage you with worried calls when you wanted to be asked over for a meal so you wouldn’t have to eat alone. They might send an awkwardly worded card when you wished they would call so you could talk. Try to remember people are well-intentioned, and they are hurting for you. They just don’t know what to do. So, ask for what you want. If you need someone to hold you when you cry, say so. If you need someone to make you dinner, ask for it. If you need them to talk about your loved one, or not talk about them, say so. People who love you will be guessing wildly what the right thing to do might be. They want you to tell them.

People will personalize everything, but that’s OK. No matter how much people love you, they will be thinking at least in part about themselves. What if their husband died? How would they want the funeral to be? How would they handle the grieving process? This is natural. I try to think of it like being a beacon. We don’t have to do anything particular but just by being we shine a light. By going through something hard we are being an example for somebody else. We don’t have to be brave or perfect at it, we just have to be it. We are showing how someone grieves, how someone heals, how someone copes. How someone remembers. Even mistakes we make can teach us and others.

Trust Your Gut. If you don’t get a good feeling from someone or something, pay attention and act accordingly. There may be people you just can’t be around for whatever reason. They are trying too hard, or they are too terrified by your loss so they are making you terrified, or they are clueless, or they are avoiding the subject. I remember years ago going through the in vitro process and in the waiting room of the fertility doctor there was a sign asking people to not bring infants along when they came to see the doctor. It was just too painful for those who couldn’t have a baby of their own. At the time I thought that was an over-reaction. Now I understand they were caring for their patients. Sometimes some things are just too painful and it’s OK to say “No, I’m not doing that.”

Create a safe space before you need it. When Allan and I did our end of life planning I thought about what would be important to me after he died. I wanted to own my house and everything in it free and clear. I didn’t want anyone coming into my home and displacing me or taking things or doing an inventory or collecting something they thought they were owed. I wanted my home to be mine and to be a sacred space. I also wanted to be my own executor. I didn’t want attorneys or accountants or kindly gray-haired male advisors telling me what to do, unless I asked. I understand not everyone would want that. For me, it made me feel capable and strong. Someone else might feel burdened by those responsibilities. It doesn’t matter what you choose, but creating a safety zone does matter. For example, I knew where Allan wanted to be buried. We had walked our dog there many times and it was a happy place for me, a beautiful, historic cemetery where I knew I would like to visit and I knew his spirit would be happy. That extended the safe space to the burial place and I needed that.

Deal with the kids beforehand. Whether they are your kids, his kids, or both of your kids, let them know the plan before anybody dies. The absolute last thing you want when you are grieving is family strife. If they are going to receive anything, or nothing, let them know it. Show that you have thought it out, written it down, and made decisions as a couple. Present a united front so there are no questions later. If there are specific items to be distributed, make a list and make it known. In our case, the kids are Allan’s from his previous marriage. They are very loving and kind, and we are close as a family. But the financial end of things was less stressful that it could have been after Allan died because he had talked to his children in advance about what they would inherit and explained his rationale for how he wanted things to be. This took the onus off of me to have to explain it, and it took the onus off of them to have to question me. Even in this fairly ideal situation I still felt paranoid about it—would they still love me? Would they question how I’m totaling everything up? Would they trust that I was being fair? I’m being fair? Were they being so nice because they knew they were going to receive an inheritance when I got the finances pulled together? We were able to get through the settling of the estate in a loving way, I felt naturally insecure because it is such a vulnerable time. You are going to feel exposed and afraid anyway, so you want to minimize this as much as possible where loved ones, especially kids, are concerned.

Seek help. I had never thought a lot about grief as a subject matter or an area of expertise, but I have learned there are knowledgeable people out there who can help you. I started seeing a grief counsellor who has been a loving and invaluable guide through the ups and downs and craziness of this first year. She is a person to whom I can say anything. I can ask her anything. I can cry with her and she will sit and listen or even hold me. I have also joined a grief group, and while I was nervous to go I ended up loving the people there and treasuring the experience. The simplest way to get help and support is to reach out through Hospice. Even if your loved one didn’t die in hospice care, they are dedicated to helping bereaved individuals. They offer groups as well as low- or no-cost counselling sessions. They have written materials and all sorts of other tools. I have found it helpful to get expertise beyond what I or my family and friends can come up with in this situation. Because I was one of the first among my peers to lose a spouse, none of us in my circle had much experience. Much has been studied and written about grief and the hospice people know it intimately. Even if you are strong and great at coping, you will probably benefit from more, wise input. Let the experts help.

Be gentle with yourself. My friend Ligeia sent me a poem by Rumi (see below) that says, basically, that all the ugly emotions are our friends; we must honor them because they make us human. I try not to be too impatient with myself when I avoid things or eat poorly or waste time or mope about. I try to honor the process and admire how well I’ve done overall. Missing Allan is natural because I loved him and he was wonderful, so if I’m miserable that is to be expected. And if I’m full of bad feelings it’s because something really bad happened. But I’m noticing it’s not the big bad feelings that annoy the heck out of me, like loneliness or depression or grief. It’s the mid-range feelings like boredom, malaise, impatience, numbness, self-absorption, or procrastination. I hate these and have spent years trying to conquer them. For better or for worse, they are part of me. I would have thought grief would uplift me and make me somehow better, more pure, more profound. And I do notice that some of my best qualities have been magnified. Sadly, so are my worst qualities. I’m more avoidant and less patient. I used to have a poor memory, now I can’t remember anything. I get way too busy, then not busy enough. I under-share or overshare.   It’s all a jumble and makes me irritable with myself. I have to lean on Rumi to remind me that it is all a blessed part of my humanness.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

–Rumi

Do what seems soothing and safe. I have a lot of “shoulds” rattling around in my head—I “should” be feeling better by now. I “should” be more productive and have more of a plan. I “should” get out there and take advantage of all the nice things people are offering. I “should” clean out Allan’s things and get the house organized. Instead, I’m trying to hold the “shoulds” at bay and do what feels comforting and soothing to my soul. Right after Allan died some friends invited me to go on a European cruise with them in the spring. I said yes immediately, thinking how nice it was that I was being included, even though I’m not in a couple anymore. I thought how great it would be to tackle a Europe trip with good friends so it wouldn’t be scary and I wouldn’t be doing it alone. I considered how it might cheer me up to see lovely sights and get away from my household in mourning. As the time came to make all the arrangement, the energy waned. It seemed stressful to be so far from home and loved ones. I felt sad nearly all the time and couldn’t picture how it would be to grieve while cruising the Baltic. I kept telling myself if I were really in a bad way I could curl up in my tiny stateroom on board and be by myself.   Eventually it dawned on me that if I was going to be sad I might as well be sad in my own house where I felt safe and comfortable. I could save the trip for later. My friends understood and I stayed home. But it was hard to tell them I wasn’t up to going. I felt like a feeble invalid. It was my counsellor who encouraged me to do exactly what felt good for me.

Speak kindly to yourself. We have so many pejorative words for taking care of ourselves… “opting out”, “being lazy”, or “doing nothing”, for example.   When I turned down the Europe cruise one friend said to me, “Well, just as long as you aren’t wallowing.” I felt ashamed and furious at the same time. Wallowing? You try losing your husband and then we will talk about it. And what’s “wallowing” anyway? Staying home and feeling your feelings? Letting yourself be sad, or angry, or lonely and dealing with it? Going to visit the grave and talk to your husband? I’m still ticked off about it, in part because it’s so off base. I actually wish I were better at wallowing and less stiff-upper-lipped about things. So let yourself be soothed and comforted in whatever ways work for you. For me, having my big dog and walking for miles has been therapeutic. Friends, church, movies, swimming, music, body massage, mentoring others, some work projects, certain shows on Netflix, writing, riding my horse, being out in the garden. I went through a wine phase briefly, and an ice cream phase. I started cooking again. I visit Allan’s grave on occasion. I visit my little granddaughters a lot. We act out a play in their back yard in which the six-year-old is a sleeping princess, the three-year-old is a baby unicorn, my big dog is a wild wolf, and I’m a scary witch trying to steal the children. It is directed in a domineering fashion by the six-year-old and I just do as I’m told. There’s a lot of running, hiding and screaming. It has Carl Jung written all over it, and I can tell that acting it out is good for all of us. While it sounds crazy, I’m trying to pay attention to whatever feels good to me so I have more and more soul soothing activities to draw upon. I may not always need them as much as I do now, but hope I keep them

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P.S. I asked Lynne to give me a few photos for this post on losing a spouse, and she exclaimed how difficult it was to find shots of just her and Allan. Another lesson: make people take photos of JUST you and your love. 

Thank you Lynne. 

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A nice article on how to write a condolence note.

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