August 4 will mark two and a half years since I became a widow. With that impending milestone, I’m finding myself in the midst of a grief wave.
It’s like I’m in the early days of loss: I’ve had several sleepless nights, made one too many impulse purchases, dwelled on various hopeless thoughts, cried countless tears, and felt bitter and angry about the way that my life has turned out.
I’m embarrassed to admit this. It’s been a while since I’ve written about grief, and to do so now feels like a defeat. I’ve been working so hard for things to be good again! I’ve been encouraged by the people who are happy to see me happy! I’ve been re-reading my own words, and feeling uplifted by them! Hell yes! I can do this and I am doing this!
Then the sadness creeps in, and, with the sadness, self-doubt. Is any of this progress real? I’m still trying to comprehend and navigate the reality of being content while also being heartbroken. Yes, I’m loving freelance life; yes, I’ve healed enough to support my friends; yes, I now care about other issues beyond Jamie’s death. But I also get really sad and lonely sometimes.
Not long after Jamie died, I either read or heard that it takes two years to process an unexpected death.
I took that as gospel truth. Nevermind the fact that I can no longer figure out where I learned this tidbit, or that the vast majority of advice out there states that grief varies widely from person to person. Forget all that. Two years marked a light at the end of the very dark tunnel I was in, and I fixated on that promised turning point.
Well, reader, two years came and went. I still haven’t fully processed my husband’s death.
Once I hit the two-year mark, I felt an unspoken pressure to share more positive life updates than negative ones. That’s one of the reasons that getting ear surgery was so upsetting for me. It didn’t fit into the tidy narrative I was hoping to embody: If I had to experience a tremendous loss, I had to make a tremendous comeback. An abnormal ear growth didn’t fit into that narrative, and I hated it. Couldn’t I at least have a baby or get an especially cute new haircut first?
Besides the whole dead husband thing, there are two big factors contributing to my misery:
I’m ascribing to an arbitrary and unrealistic timeline.
I care too much about what other people think.
I’m slowly but surely accepting the fact that not only has it taken me longer than two years to process Jamie’s death, but that I may never fully come to peace with it. Just last week, I was looking up articles on the likelihood of dying during a marathon (not the best move, I know; but grief waves impair your judgment!). The odds are 1 in 259,000; in comparison, the lifetime odds of dying in an auto accident are 1 in 88. In fact, that number is so low that TIME published an article with the headline, “Running Marathons Won’t Kill You.”
It’s no wonder that I’m still trying to wrap my head around Jamie’s death.
The issue I struggle with most, though, is caring about what other people think, and judging myself based on what I think they think. It’s a real fun brain game!
People want to hear uplifting stories. They want to see triumph over tragedy. People want to trust that if they ever experience something tragic — god forbid — that they, too, will come out the other side a better, stronger, more enlightened version of themselves. I get it. I really do. There are plenty of times it feels like my life is at least headed in a direction that could give others hope, which, in turn, gives me hope.
But sometimes, reality doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes I feel plain hopeless. Sometimes I look at old photos of Jamie, and feel sick to my stomach by how much was lost. Sometimes I feel confused about my current relationship, and wonder whether love after loss will ever feel easy. Sometimes I feel exhausted from trying so hard to make life suck less.
And far more than sometimes, I want to talk about how sad and lost I feel, without fear that my feelings are a disappointment to others.
The goal is not to stop having sad days. That will never happen, though I hope they’ll continue to be fewer and farther between. What I’m aiming for is to learn how to remove judgment from those days.
It’s easy to love myself when I’m doing well and people are validating me for that. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard, “Jamie would be so proud of you!” Likewise, it’s easy to berate myself when I’m struggling, and assume I’m letting other people down. Jamie wouldn’t be exactly thrilled to see me sobbing on the couch, would he?
For the past few months, I’ve been reading “Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself From the Judge Within.” It’s taken me months to read this book partly because it’s dense, but mostly because I keep re-reading important sections, pausing to let a concept sink in, or stopping to do one of its many exercises.
“A positive or negative judgment is different from a positive or negative feeling,” explains the author, Byron Brown. “A feeling is an emotional state arising in response to something. In contrast, a judgment is an evaluation of yourself as good or bad, right or wrong. Judgments and feelings are closely associated, as we shall see. However, you can like or dislike something without having a judgment about it.”
It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around this concept, but it’s starting to stick. For me, I tend to judge myself harshly based on my assumptions of what other people think about me. I’m not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, clever enough, generous enough, woke enough, etc. The flip side is true, too; when I hear positive feedback from people, I am kinder to myself — as if I’m magically good and worthy. Relying heavily on positive judgments can be just as damaging as listening to negative ones.
“Negative judgments stimulate feelings of rejection, guilt, doubt, shame, and self-hatred, while positive judgments tend to arouse feelings of self-esteem, pride, excitement, self-righteousness, and superiority,” Byron writes. “Either way, these results are conditional, and you are left dependent on the judge to reject or approve of you.”
I’m learning how not to engage with the judge, which — if you’re my sweet dumb brain — is a hard thing to do. I’m getting better at it gradually, although it’s tougher in periods like the one I’m in now, when I’m feeling especially down. My job is to view this grief wave for what it is, without judging myself in the process or worrying about how others might judge me. Grief waves don’t reflect on how good, worthy, strong, or capable I am. These feelings aren’t valid only within a specific timeframe. And my struggles don’t require a speedy and triumphant comeback.
Normally, I’d end these essays with something pithy and hopeful. But you know what? I’m in a grief wave. And I’m not going to judge myself for that.
Good job, brain
I'm reading: “All Stories Are Love Stories,” by Elizabeth Percer. I’m halfway through this book and enjoying it so far, though it’s not fully engaging me quite as much as I hoped. (That could say more about my headspace than the book!) The descriptions of the earthquake and its aftermath are vivid and easily imaginable, which is half cool and half terrifying.
I’m inspired by: ??? Gonna be honest, not feeling super inspired this week.
I'm aiming to: Go to bed earlier, and get better sleep.
The grief timeline is a myth, but here are a few ways you can identify progress.
I was recommended “Soul Without Shame” by the wise Catherine Andrews, who has been an incredible guide and resource throughout my journey to judge less. Catherine has been working with me as a personal development coach, and I couldn’t recommend her more.
Speaking of coaches, I’ve been freelancing with a startup called Grief Coach, a service that texts personalized reminders to people who are grieving as well as the people supporting that person. It’s SO SMART. The texts are wonderfully reassuring and free of judgment. Also! If you’re interested in a year of personalized grief tips, you can use the code SWEETDUMBBRAIN for 50% off your subscription.
For your sweet dumb brain
My personal development coach, Catherine, challenged me to keep a judgment journal — noting when I’ve felt especially judgmental of someone else, tracking when that judgment happened, and describing how it made me feel. The exercise has been enlightening, and it’s helping me to identify some patterns — mostly that my external judgments tend to stem from personal insecurities.
If you tend to judge yourself or others, consider keeping a daily judgment journal for the next few weeks or months. What did you learn about yourself? Does noting judgments help you engage with them less?
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who loves and supports me even when my life updates aren’t the cheeriest.