We don’t talk enough about grieving and its onslaught of confused emotions. One moment you want to cry and the next you want to laugh. One moment you feel relief and the next you feel guilt…for feeling relief.
Whether you are grieving the loss of a relationship or marriage, the death of a friend or significant other, or the end of a job or career, your individual grief is welcomed and acknowledged here.
But your grief does not define you. I know that you can both grieve and laugh; that you can miss someone with your entire body and love another with that same body; that you can mourn a loss while looking into a future filled with hope and promise.
This is a place where you are not labeled as a person in grief but rather a person undergoing a transformation.
I am still sitting with my pain and transforming with my grief two years after my partner – my person – died of cancer at the age of 40.
As Nora McInerny, founder of the Hot Young Widows Club said: we don’t move on from grief, we move forward with grief.
I wrote this raw post shortly after my partner was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer on Valentine’s Day and this post the day after he died four months later.
But this is how far I’ve come:
One month after Jeff died, I left Chicago with a one-way ticket to Europe. Life in Chicago didn’t make sense anymore. Emails from my boss looked almost like another language on my computer screen. I needed to get out.
I had always dreamed of traveling the world, and I’d even saved the money to do it. But I thought I needed a partner to travel with, and I thought Jeff would be that guy.
So it was bittersweet to pack up my apartment and finally embark on my dream – alone.
Almost immediately, though, I started seeing signs:
I don’t know if I was just looking for signs of Jeff or if they were placed on my path. Or, maybe, I just slowed down for the first time in my life and started noticing what was always there. Whatever the answer, I started to think a lot about the meaning of life as I wandered the world.
And I started to think a lot about Jeff. While I was traveling, I wrote the below essay over on my Medium platform in an effort to share the kind of person that Jeff was. Writing helped me sit with my grief:
It wasn’t always pretty, my travel experience. There were hard times.
On what would have been our anniversary, I couldn’t pick myself up off the floor of my rented apartment in Vienna. When I went to visit a concentration camp in northern Germany – research for a book that I’m writing – I was stunned by the waves of pain that hit me. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of grief with a bottle of wine.
For the most part, though, I wandered in awe around the world. Waking up at sunrise for a walk or coffee on a balcony somewhere in Europe, and making sure I saw the sunset each evening.
I walked in Jeff’s footsteps, wandering through Prague, Budapest and Vienna, retracing the steps from a trip he had taken the year before – a trip that would turn out to be a trip of a lifetime for him.
In Prague, I fought back the fear of eating alone, but sat down for the same 10-course meal that Jeff so often raved about:
In Budapest, I actually got lost in the very same place where Jeff got lost, and I stumbled on a sign in the shape of paper cranes:
In Vienna, as I mentioned, I was struggling. But following in Jeff’s footsteps pulled me out of my funk. This is also where I realized that viewing the world through Jeff’s eyes was allowing me to enjoy the world so much more.
When I returned home from Europe, I wasn’t quite ready to face the world, so I actually packed up again and left for Asia.
I was entering year two of nomadic living when a friend of mine said to me, “I’m jealous of your life right now, but I’m not jealous of the way you got here.”
That quote got me thinking a lot about living with grief and it inspired the following post written on my Medium platform:
In the above post, I write that grief creates space to grow – to transform – if you let it. While I do believe that grief is fundamentally transformational, it’s the if you let it bit where I was wrong.
Not everybody has an opportunity to travel the world while grieving. Many people have families to take care of; jobs they can’t quit.
I truly believe that society needs to transform the idea of grieving and the time that we need to grieve.
Acute grief slams into us all at some point in our lives. For better or worse, grief is part of the human experience; part of loving and losing. Grief touches everyone, but time to grieve is rare.
Until we can convince society that working people need more than a week off of work when a loved one dies, or no time off of work when a long-term relationship ends, we will need to figure out how to grieve within the space that our obligations allow.
So it’s not about letting grief transform you; it’s about encouraging grief to transform you. And finding space for that.
My advice? Look for those life-changing moments that exist outside of your comfort zone. For instance, taking yourself out to eat alone or attending a concert alone takes courage – and it’s transformational.
When I was in Vienna, after I did (finally) pick myself off of the floor, I attended my first concert alone. I then stepped that up by going to Thailand’s legendary Full-Moon Party alone. This was hard for me because I used to be so darn rigid about what I liked and what I didn’t like. And I knew I didn’t like crowds.
It was hard to step out of my comfort zone, but I’m so glad that I did. I LOVED the Full Moon Party and I enjoy going to concerts now. Even alone.
I also learned to surf in Canggu, Bali, learned to ride a bike in France, took scuba diving lessons, and ultimately did something that I never thought possible for a girl who never hiked and didn’t own a backpack: I hiked the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain.
Not all of those experiences worked for me. I dropped out of scuba-diving lessons, for instance. But I’m glad I tried.
Again, to find those life-changing moments that exist outside of our comfort zone, we don’t have to walk across a country. Small steps outside of your comfort zone can lead to the life-changing moment when you unfurl your wings and fly.
An example: Jeff always used to insist that I would love camping. I dug my high heels into the ground and said, “oh, hell no!” But in June of 2020, I set up Jeff’s backpacking tent in a practice session in my backyard. Then I hiked out into the Oregon wilderness to sleep under the stars for the first time since I was a child.
Jeff did, in the end, break me out of my comfort zone, and I ditched my rigid approach to life. I did it through small steps and big changes. I am transforming with my grief.
While you don’t need a grand gesture to encourage your grief to transform you, I did undergo and accept my transformation while walking across Spain.
I was already traveling solo around the world (out of my comfort zone for sure!) and taking my inspiration from Jeff by reading all of the books that he left on his shelves.
One of those books was The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho about walking the Camino de Santiago. They say the Camino calls you, and I felt called. I flew to Spain.
There is a tradition on the Camino in which you carry a small rock from home that represents a burden of some kind. You then leave your rock – and your burden – behind somewhere along the route.
I wrote about leaving my guilt about Jeff’s death behind as I walked into the final destination of Santiago de Compostela:
But it wasn’t just my burden that I left behind on the Camino de Santiago. I left behind life as I knew it.
I lived for 35 days out of a small backpack. I didn’t need all of the things that I once thought I needed.
Out there on the trail, I decided to go home. Not home to Chicago where I had a high-rise apartment filled with stuff, but home to where I grew up outside of Portland, Ore. to be with family and to start a freelance writing business.
I will never make as much money in this business as I once did in sales. But making less and living more is a tradeoff that I am more than happy to embrace.
We don’t move through each stage of grief in a linear fashion. Sometimes we revisit a stage.
One never really knows when grief will claw its way out of its carefully contained space in the heart and squeeze, but there is a strong likelihood that a “first” will bring with it an increased dose of that familiar feeling of loss. For me, the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first Valentine’s Day without Jeff were all days to “get through” without falling apart.
Some of those anniversaries were marked with sadness and, in the case of Valentine’s Day, which was also the day that Jeff was diagnosed with cancer, a bit of poignant bitterness:
Some of those days were met with unexpected happiness and relief, like the “last in a year of firsts” on the one-year anniversary of my partner’s death:
I won’t shy away from the reality of grieving because there isn’t enough about living through grief online. I hope it helps.
Here’s another topic that is a hard one to write about:
One of the trickiest things about grieving the loss of a lover is the process of dating again. I’ll talk about that in these pages in the hopes it will help you if you’re struggling with this situation.
Here’s a post I wrote on my Medium platform about dating after death:
And in an even more difficult topic area, here’s another post I wrote about a decision I made on the Camino de Santiago to destroy my partner’s sperm:
Dating after loss is hard, even if that loss isn’t due to death. The death of a relationship is a reason for grief. I’ll be talking about that in these pages, too.
I am here with you for this transformation. I will update this page often.
Coming soon: books to read while grieving, a video on how to respond to “why are you still single,” and ideas for what to do on a death anniversary.
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And please reach out to me to share your thoughts, stories, anxieties, and transformations. You are not alone.