What I learned at “Camp Widow”

photo 1For the past two days I attended “Camp Widow” in Toronto, one of about 120 widows and widowers from across the continent. There were even a couple of folks from the United Kingdom. I was one of 10 men, apparently the most to ever attend one of these events. There have been 10 since 2009, run by Soaring Spirits International. (Local sponsor: Hummingbird Centre for Hope, based in Waterloo, ON.)

What did I learn?

I should hang out with widow/ers more often. One of the main reasons I went to this thing was to be with peers. I don’t know anyone under 50 who has lost a spouse. Most of the people at this event were over 50, but therewere quite a few under as well. There was an opportunity to talk about parenting through grief, which was important to me, though it was at the same time as dating through grief, which is a topic I need to bring into focus (the woman who led that was a 9/11 widow and apparently she said “sex is very important”…. yeehaw).

I still don’t feel like a “widower”. I don’t inhabit that category, but I don’t inhabit the category “married” or “single” either. There were t-shirts at this event emblazoned with “Widows Rock.” I didn’t get one. I’m not on that wavelength. While I don’t feel like a widower, one thing I learned is that I will always be one now, until the end of my days, and part of my route to health is acceptance of this new identity, as well as much more.

Much talk in the sessions on “self-care.” I attended one session on “widowed by disease,” and I think half of the conference was there. Fifty or sixty people. And all but one of them had lost their spouse to cancer. Sometimes quick, sometimes not, but either way there was an element of being the caregiver. Widowed people, it seems, have a hard time being the care receiver. The focus is on the ill one, then the focus is on the dead one, then the focus is on the children. The widowed are “the ones who lived,” the lucky ones (haha).

You would think focusing on health and wellness would come naturally, but it doesn’t. Psychiatry recognizes grief as a kind of mental illness, but the major symptoms are supposed to wane after six weeks (haha). Meanwhile I attended a session that said research shows the second year after the death is the most difficult. This contradicts assumptions of earlier decades that assumed the first year was the worst. However, we were also told that there is little research on the effect of loss of a spouse after year two. So there is a real lack of “official data” on this experience, and a lot of anecdotal evidence that the repercussions of widowhood go on and on and on. (The second year was the worst for me. Year three seems a series of steady progressions. Weight loss, for example. Better sleep, too. But also ongoing frustration, feeling trapped in an unless maze.)

Which is why I think it will be important for me to find opportunities to meet with widowed people more often than I have been. It surprised me to find out that people attend these “Camp Widows” multiple times. I don’t know if I would go to another one, but perhaps I might. I think it will depend on how I settle into this “widower” identity. I’ve had folks say to me (with empathy) that grief takes you through a period of fog, and then you come out of it. I sort of thought something like that myself. Now I think, not so.

It seems to me now that grief inhabits you, like cancer, and you must make friends with it. Kate said something very much like this, regarding her cancer, and I know some friends found it hard to follow her line of thinking. How could you want to be friends with cancer? Well, she said, it was in her body, and we’d been told it wasn’t going to leave (at that point). So, she said, she had to welcome it. I think she thought she could develop some kind of peace pact. It would have certain areas and certain cells, and in return it would allow her to live as long as possible. In a sense, that’s how I now imagine grief. I need to make a peace pact. Give it some space. Ritualize it, maybe. Set up a special candle or something. Say, You can have that; I need the rest of my life for the future.

I attended one session for the “newly widowed.” At almost two-and-a-half years out, I wasn’t sure if I would fit in, but it still seems recent to me. It can still seems immediately present, not as if it were even “just yesterday” but happening immediately, in the moment. That said, there were people there who had lost their spouse less than three months ago. Holy shit, I thought. There is no way I would have been at an event like this in three months after Kate’s death. I felt only ready to do something like this, now. I spoke to one guy whose wife died eight months ago. He was struggling. He reminded me of myself. Eight months seems like a long time. It is not. There were folks there whose spouse had died over a decade ago, and they still reached for the Kleenex boxes in the middle of sessions. The loss that is forever.

In general, I felt affirmed. I am on a good path, I think. I have made progress. Also, this is a journey without end. That part I knew, but I wished it wasn’t so. It is hard to acknowledge. It is hard to accept. “Why be happy when you could be normal?” is the title of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir (2012). It has been my subway reading this past week. It came out right around Kate’s death, and I wish she had been able to read it. I kept wanting to point things out to her. We had many, many conversations about her childhood and her family, and, no, I’m not going to spill the beans. Those are some of the deepest secrets I hold. But there is much in this book that would have resonated with her. But I bring it up here in my context. That is, what is normal? Is it the state you are supposed to achieve once the fog of grief has worn off? If so, it doesn’t exist. I would like the fog of grief to wear off. I would like to ditch this “widower” identity, and eradicate this grief-as-cancer, but my happiness, I believe, resides in a house of friendship with this unwanted creature. (There is a great section in the Winterson book on something very similar to this, a kind of grief. Not going to give it away.)

Even before Kate died I was thinking about grief as transformation. It will change you, I read. Okay, I was ready. But I don’t feel greatly changed, though increasingly I feel like I must change. How? I don’t know. I can see the kids changing right before my eyes, and I am aware that I must keep up with them, but … even there, I am belatedly acknowledging that I must not put their needs before my own. That way lies crazy town. I need an identity that prioritizes health for me. I need to sort out what that means. I need to sort out what I need to sort out. I feel like at just the preliminary planning stages of this journey. And it’s nearly two-and-a-half years later! (Nothing.)

photo(1)I had my chakras read. This is not normally my thing, but I thought why the heck not. The results:

  • root chakra – survival issues – OPEN
  • sacral chakra – well-being – CLOSED
  • solar plexus chakra – self-confidence – OPEN
  • heart chakra – inner-peace – CLOSED
  • throat chakra – truth telling – OPEN
  • third eye chakra – intuition – CLOSED
  • crown chakra – spirituality – VERY CLOSED

Haha. I thought this is actually a good diagnosis! The woman who did this is a 28-year-old widow of an American soldier who died in Iraq when she was 22. She led a meditation session I attended, which included breaking an arrow with our throat. She was, she said, “into a lot of hippie shit, y’all.” She advised me to wear orange. “It will be good for you.”

I put “very closed” for my connection to the universe. She looked at me with wide eyes when she did that one. In the session I had written words on one side of an index card that I wanted to let go of: anger, pain, unfairness, injustice, conflict, tenseness, fear. On the other side I wrote what I wanted instead: peace, health, hope, trust, relaxed, wellness, resilience, patience. I said I wasn’t surprised of the result that I am closed to the universe. I mean, fuck the universe. What has it done for me lately? Was taking Kate away part of some cosmic plan? I have closed off that line of thinking, but maybe I need to open it up again, if I am to get the things that I want on the back side of my index card.

I have come along way in the past two-and-a-half years, but right now I feel like have not gone anywhere at all.

photo 3 photo 2Last night, close to midnight, the group went to Nathan Phillips Square (!) and released floating flowers for our loved ones. This was lovely. This is also across the street from my office, so that was weird but also telling. I need this kind of lovely in my day-to-day life, not just on special events at midnight. I came home and then slept in; I needed it; missed the final breakfast (sorry, guys). The camp is coming back to Toronto again next year. I recommend it. There’s a good chance I will be back. In the meantime, I need to find someone local to check my chakras, I think. And I need to open a hole in the top of my head.

I don’t want to end without saying something about suicide. (No, not me, Ma.) More than one person spoke about not merely contemplating suicide, but making plans; and others spoke about others who had followed through. Grief care needs to be seen in the context of suicide prevention, as well as part of broad mental health awareness. I have said that I’m not depressed, I’ve grieving, which I think is still true. But it’s also true that grief isn’t merely a fog that fades with time. And it doesn’t go away in six weeks! Mental health campaigns focus on awareness and prevention. They focus on lost productivity and research support. They focus on both the catastrophic side of brain disease and more broadly common (but still painful and debilitating) experiences, such as anxiety and panic attacks. Grief should be included in this context.

Kate found it impossible to talk to me about grief. In the past I’ve said, she didn’t want to talk to me about it. In her final months, I was suffering deep sadness, and she didn’t want to hear about it. My shrink called it “pre-grieving.” Now I think it’s better, fairer, more accurate to say she couldn’t talk to me about it. It was overwhelming. It wasn’t that she thought I was “lucky to live” (though I am, and I think she did think that). It’s more truthful to say the whole situation was overwhelming and she only had energy for a few choice things. She didn’t want me to grieve before she was gone, because she wasn’t gone, and she wanted to “be in the now” and enjoy each day as it happened. I wanted that, too. I did my best. But I felt I needed to anticipate the future, too. There are things that needed to be planned. We had to get updated wills. I had to ask her if she wanted to be buried or cremated. I would have asked her what she wanted at her funeral, but I didn’t consider that essential. I tried to stay “in the moment” as much as possible. Five days before she died I asked her about funeral plans, and she said, “We can do that later. Not now.” But I knew by then, it was too late. Forty-eight hours later, she was barely talking and had started leaving.

These are the kind of memories that widow/ers carry around with them, and can recall at any time of any day. They do not fade when the brain fog clears.

One of the groups I attended was on “signs and synchronicity.” Another large group of maybe 50 or 60. “Any skeptics in the group?” the leader asked. None. “Has anyone here experienced a sign from their loved one?” Everyone put up their hand. We spent an hour hearing different stories. That morning I’d taken a chocolate from a bowl. The tin foil around the chocolate had a message on the inside. Mine said: “Be the first one on the dance floor.” Haha. Kate would have been, and she would laugh and laugh and laugh as she pushed me outside my comfort zone. Get up there! Do it!

Yes, dear. First one. Haha.

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IMG_0243Our wedding, 2007.