Beyond grief: A new book blends the personal stories of widows with coping advice from experts. (Photo: Getty Images)
In this exclusive interview for Yahoo Health, Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric talks with author Kristin Meekhof about her inspiring new book, “A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First Five Years.”
KATIE COURIC: You write about widows from a unique vantage point, both as a daughter and a wife. Can you tell us about your personal experience?
KRISTIN MEEKHOF: My father died (from cancer) in 1979 when I was just two weeks shy of turning five, so my mother was the first widow I knew. I remember continuing to attend preschool after my father’s funeral, and my teacher took me aside to tell me how sorry she was — I still remember parts of her very sweet message. Her kindness mattered to me. I was an only child, so I didn’t know any other children who had lost a parent. It was a very isolating experience. I never told anyone this, but throughout early elementary school, I was deeply afraid my mother would die, too.
And then in 2007, when I was 33, my husband was diagnosed with advanced adrenal cancer; he died less than eight weeks after his diagnosis. Roy wanted to receive hospice at home and a few people gently discouraged me from doing this, since I had no medical background or experience. However, I instinctively knew that I could manage because I saw my mother take care of my father. And although I have a master’s degree in social work, nothing could prepare me for the grief that followed Roy’s death. At times, I was just trying to make it through each day hour by hour.
You’ve read so many books on widowhood (as have I). What do you think is missing from many of them?
Many books do not include the perspectives of widows, nor are they telling you how to live with the loss. Most write about getting over the loss. But one can be healthy, fully functioning, and still coping with grief.
How is this book different?
My book leads with narratives that are filled with rawness, vulnerability, and incredible strength. The voices of widows are the heart of my book, and I believe that they are a powerful source of healing and inspiration. If you can see a part of yourself in the stories of others, it can help you realize that you are not alone. We spent over three years interviewing as many widows (from various backgrounds) as possible and listening to their experiences. In doing this research, I found that there were some common issues (emotional, financial, legal) that widows found challenging post-loss. I found experts to address these stressors and challenges.
When my husband Jay died, my oldest daughter was in first grade. I had to be very proactive to make sure her school was equipped to handle it. When Jay was sick, Ellie’s class did an exercise where they sat in a circle, put a penny in a cup, and took turns sharing what they were worried about. Someone at [the non-profit organization] CancerCare recommended this to me because children don’t want to feel different because they have a parent who is sick or who has died. It was apparently very therapeutic for all the kids, according to Ellie’s teacher at the time. Eighteen years later, are schools better equipped to handle these traumatic events? What can you do as a parent to make sure your child is in a comforting environment?
Teachers who are comfortable with the difficult topic of death or dying are better equipped to help their students with traumatic events. Children instantly sense an adult’s own anxiety and will be more reluctant to share their fears. The exercise that was done in Ellie’s class is excellent because it also teaches children how to be sensitive by listening to each other.
A recent Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss says, “Research in 2012 by the New York Life Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers found that 7 out of 10 teachers have a student in their classroom who is grieving.”
As a society, we are not very comfortable with death, and teachers, as part of this society, are no different. Be very direct and indicate that you expect that your child will show signs of sadness and grief, and that it might be best for the teacher to talk with him/her and with the whole class about how children feel when they have sustained a loss. Resources for teachers can be found here.
What things did you learn from widows that were the most surprising to you?
I was completely shocked to learn how many widows thought about suicide years after their husbands had died. Many said to me, “I didn’t even tell my best friend” or “no one knows this.”
I was also surprised at just how resilient widows are, which was wonderful to see. Many of the widows I interviewed didn’t get professional help or go to a support group. … Most were able to receive comfort and love from friends and family members.
The holidays can be painful for widows and their children. What are some of your tips for managing this particualr time?
Sometimes single parents want to compensate for the loss by purchasing a special gift for their child, but it’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t replace the void. When you talk with your child about missing their father or mother, it lets them know that you still miss them, too. Even small conversations, such as sharing a special holiday memory, can be meaningful.
It’s OK if your child still wants to buy their [deceased] parent a holiday gift or card. And starting new traditions that include the memory of the deceased parent can also help.
Remember, you don’t have to be the perfect parent. There is a big push to try to make everything cheerful. But if you forget to move that Elf on the Shelf one morning, it’s OK. Give yourself a break — whether it’s 10 extra minutes alone in the car or ordering pizza for dinner.
What advice do you have for mothers who are widows and are helping their young children through grief?
While each kid is different, it can help to place your child in a grief support group for children. If the death was related to an illness, it is important to explain to the child that you and other adults in your family are healthy.
Sometimes young children express their grief through play or art. And their grief can manifest in physical symptoms. I often had stomachaches and when I look back, I know that it was due to internalizing my grief. Sometimes, young children become overly sensitive to having their remaining parent leave their presence (even if you always worked full-time). Their world is forever changed and giving them extra reassurance is often needed.
We’ve all seen in the news when spouses die within hours of each other. This is something called “broken heart syndrome.” What was your experience and what did other widows tell you about how their physical health was impacted by loss?
Many widows whom I spoke with experienced physical problems, ranging from severe anxiety attacks that led to an emergency room visit, to recurrent migraines, to gastrointestinal problems, to sleepless nights, to weakened immune systems. Personally, I was very sick within days of my husband’s funeral. I had a double ear infection, sinus infection, and bronchitis. The doctor attributed it to grief-related stress.
Recently, former NFL player Doug Flutie lost both of his parents within the same hour. In a Facebook post, as was quoted by NBC, Doug wrote this about his mom: “[t]hey say you can die of a broken heart and I believe it.”
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, is typically a temporary heart condition that is often brought on by a surge of stress hormones. Often the impetus is the death of a loved one. People with broken heart syndrome may report the sudden onset of chest pain and believe they are having a heart attack. Although this condition is rare, it is imperative to seek immediate medical attention.
Many widows continue to work full-time, as you did, after their spouse dies. It is very challenging to balance grief with a demanding career. What advice do you have?
First, it important to be mindful that you are not at your best. Every part of your life has changed and this includes the way that you approach work. Being patient with yourself is key. Second, it is OK to set boundaries with others. You may not want to talk about your loss — and that is OK — so simply saying, "I appreciate your concern but I can’t talk about this now” is appropriate. Third, yes, you by default are the center of attention and people are looking at you. While you may feel they are gawking, some of it is out of genuine concern and part of it is curiosity. It is OK not to say anything and just work. You don’t have to give explanations. Fourth, you may have to walk away from uncomfortable conversations. A co-worker will say something that you find offensive or odd and it will push your “buttons,” so walking away may be your best bet.
While you may not be able to avoid a career change, if at all possible, get several opinions from others before making sudden career moves that can’t be undone. Making an impulsive move can be destructive. We all have blind spots when it comes to our career and getting feedback from friends can offer some valuable perspectives.
Money is typically a sticky subject for widows. Your chapter “Facing Finances Without Fear” addresses this issue. Tell me about the unique financial concerns widows encounter.
Widows are vulnerable, both emotionally and financially. Fear is often the dominant emotion widows feel when discussing money. They are afraid of being taken advantage of and scared they will go broke.
In some marriages, the wife was not involved in managing the finances — she may not even know where the bank accounts are located. We make recommendations for dealing with this. Usually, the accountant the husband used is a very valuable resource.
Also, a widow who is visiting a licensed financial planner for the first time should not be asked to sign anything. In fact, do not sign anything.
Dr. Kathleen Rehl, who works exclusively with widows, suggests creating a “decision-free zone” (a helpful term coined by Susan Bradley of Sudden Money Institute) during the early phase of grief. This is literally a time during which a widow makes no new major financial commitments — especially those that are irrevocable.
Many times, people, even other family members, will try to guilt the widow into writing checks or transferring money. However, there is no need to give away money to charities, set up trusts, or do anything else in the name of your loved one in the immediate aftermath of the death. A widow’s financial picture changes the moment her husband dies and it can be a few years before it is clear how much money she is taking in, what debt has yet to be paid, and what she will truly need to live day to day.
After Jay died, I found out that many people didn’t want to “invade our privacy” and at times, I wished they would! If you know and love someone who is a widow, what can you do to help?
Offering to be there physically and emotionally is key. Many people promise to do things, but few actually deliver.
Go ahead and bring her a meal or invite her to coffee. Eating alone can be filled with sadness, and just sharing a meal, even if you are not talking about the loss, is very special.
Also, home maintenance is a source of stress for many widows and anything that can be done in this area is appreciated. One widow told me that someone came over and raked her leaves, which was a huge relief for her because she didn’t have the funds to pay for help. I remember my dear friend came over when my husband was very sick and stocked our home with paper towels, toilet paper, and other groceries. She even filled up my car with gas, something that I’ll never forget and no one else had offered to do.
After my husband died, a friend sent me handwritten cards on Valentines Day, my birthday, and other holidays. She was just letting me know that she was thinking of me and knew that this was a sensitive time for me. This gesture meant the world to me. Go ahead on her birthday or another holiday and buy her a small gift.
As far as what not to say, try not to give a widow a timeline for her grief. There isn’t a finish line and each person responds differently. Also, try not to force someone to find a deeper meaning and purpose in her tragedy — try not to interject with a spiritual platitude. It isn’t comforting. The key is to withhold judgement because grief is so personal.
Social media plays an interesting dynamic when it comes to grief/loss. For example, people are able to join groups online and openly discuss their feelings. Do you think social media is helpful for this?
Sometimes social media can be helpful because you can vent your thoughts to others who are in similar situations and get feedback, as well. However, for some people, social media is painful. They see their friends and family members continuing on with their lives while they don’t have any happy new photographs to share. Also, widows on social media often discover that they have been excluded from events, which hurts.
What outlets did you use to cope with your loss?
I did a bit of solo travel. I also found running and yoga to be very therapeutic. And I spent several years reading nearly everything that I could about grief and loss. Gaining a better understanding of what I was feeling — and that those feelings were normal and often universal — helped me better navigate this incredibly difficult period in my life.
A Widow’s Guide to Healing is available here.
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