Yesterday was a good day. There were many moments of sadness, tears, and sorrow, but there were also moments of healing, laughter, and grace. It was good.
I am grateful for any "good" part of any day that has come my way since my husband died in January 2016. Anyone who knew my fun-loving, hug-giving Al knows that my life isn't nearly as "good" or as funny now as it has been for the last 40 years with him by my side. But I am trying, and yesterday was a big step towards more healing, learning, and peace as I was one of about 60 people who participated in the first-ever, full-day Heart 2 Heart Family Grief Retreat hosted by Palliative Care Services of the Regina and Qu’Appelle Health Region. It was fabulous.
We spent most of the day in group sessions that were specific to our type of loss and age group.
The session in which we shared our individual stories of losing our spouse was one of the hardest parts of the day. It was an important exercise that led to more healing, but many of us found it extremely painful to talk again about our losses – all involving palliative care circumstances – and to listen to the stories of the others in the room. However, telling the story is an important part of the process of grieving.
This sharing forged a strong, almost instant bond among us. We built on that as we attended workshops, yoga, meditation, made pebble art, exchanged information and fun stories about our loved ones, ate snacks and meals, discussed coping strategies, and so much more.
I was exhausted emotionally and physically at the end of the day, but the memories and the toolkit of tips and reminders that I carried home were priceless.
I was reminded that I am not alone on this grief journey. Others are also hurting, but there is help available if we are brave enough to seek it. Talking to other widows and widowers can be painful but helpful as they have also experienced the excruciating loss of a life partner. They do not judge; they listen and support. These are difficult skills to learn and put into action. I’m still working on them myself.
We received a wonderful handout with information from Victoria Hospice. I will read this handout many times over the coming days and months, and check other resources online and with a counsellor to continue with the process of grieving and healing.
I was reminded about the tips in my own blog post, “What I’ve Learned About Grief”, that I wrote just one month after Al died. I decided it would be important to share that information again because it could help someone. (Here’s the link.) I was reminded to reread my own blog post and to try to live those words, being gentle with myself – especially in my sadder, lonelier moments.
I learned about the power of self-compassion meditation from a Regina meditation instructor who also told us of the meditations of Tara Brach, available online. The instructor led us in an exercise where we placed our hands, one on top of the other, over our hearts and tuned into our breathing and feelings. The theory is that you let your thoughts float gently through your mind without judgment and you concentrate on your breath, just being in the moment for a few precious minutes of your busy day.
We talked later about how, when we lose our spouse, intimacy in the form of a daily hug or touch of a hand on the shoulder or arm is gone. We need to learn to be kind and compassionate to ourselves. We learned that touching our own hand, stroking our own cheek, or holding our hands over our heart can calm us and give us comfort. This 15-minute exercise helped many of us and gave a name to something I had found myself doing often when I felt anxious or sad. I learned this hands-over-heart idea a few months ago from my dear friend Susan. I did not know it had a name or a specific, science-based purpose until now. I was grateful for this meditation session.
On my way back to the retreat sessions from the park where we meditated, I noticed an abundance of beautiful flowers on the edge of the community garden nearby. I had sat by the other side of this large garden earlier in the day during a moment of grief after I saw all the photos of deceased loved ones, including a photo of my Al, on a memorial table. My mind quickly said, “He doesn’t belong there,” but I’m sure every other person at that retreat thought the same about their loved one. Still, the sight of Al's photo on a table with about 40 other photos hit me in an unexpected moment and I went outside and cried, stared at the garden, collected myself, then went back inside.
I had not noticed the flowers at the edge of the garden until then.
I stopped to not only smell the roses but to take some photos.
Flowers make me smile and, at that moment, this garden was the fitting end to the meditation session. Flowers are colourful and full of life. They give me pause and hope for the future.
We ended the day with a memorial service for our loved ones. We wrote their name or a note or a wish to them on a small paper “ornament” and hung it on a tree as we entered the chapel. We listened to inspirational words, in prose and poetry, sang a song with piano and guitar accompaniment, stared at our lit candles, and sat in silence.
“Grieving is hard work,” a friend and pastor reminds me regularly. So yesterday was a good day of hard work.
I left the retreat grateful for the counsellors, leaders and volunteers who did so much to make it a good day; for the other participants who shared their stories and wisdom so freely; and for my family, who supported me with a debriefing and constant love as I made my way one more step along this road that we did not choose.
This summer when I was visiting my oldest daughter and her family, I bought a garden stone that sums up this story.
Gardening brings me peace. Gardening is good.
We are never sure of what tomorrow may bring, but we can carry on and live in hope, with the help of others.