Ten years ago a friend asked me to be a guest speaker to a group of widows and widowers at a Catholic parish community in West County, Saint Louis, Missouri. I have many years of experience speaking to groups of all sizes. Early in my career, I was a frequent speaker at weekly sales meetings. On multiple occasions since, I have accepted invitations to be the primary motivational speaker or to lead a marketing workshop at national annual meetings. I spent three years traveling the country as a seminar facilitator. I’m comfortable speaking to groups about sales, sales management, marketing, advertising, “branding,” personal development issues and fund-raising. So, speaking to groups was not the concern. The topic and the audience for this request was however, a real concern. I couldn’t imagine myself standing in front of those people. Fear prevailed. What did I have to offer people who had lost their husband or wife? What could I say that would be of any benefit?
I have been honored by family members by being asked to speak at the funeral service of a loved one. I spoke at the funeral Masses of my father-in-law, mother-in-law, uncle, and my mother. I’ve learned from those experiences that there is absolutely nothing that I, or anyone, can say to ease the pain at the time of loss. But, when requested, the honor is too great to turn down. In my case, I simply thank God for the opportunity and ask Him to lift me up. I pray that what I have to say will be of some benefit to someone in the church that day.
Despite all this, speaking to a group of widows and widowers, most of whom I did not know, was unnerving. According to the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, losing your spouse is the greatest of life’s major stresses exceeding divorce, going to jail, a major illness, job loss, death of a friend, job change, loan foreclosure, or moving out-of-town, in that order.
So, even though the audience would be small in numbers and this speaking engagement was done as a volunteer, I spent many hours in research and preparation before putting together a few thoughts that would carry me through the thirty minutes they had reserved for my speech. In the end, I shared a long list of my favorite books, a short list of my favorite prayers, and an even shorter list of insights and suggestions. The following are a few of those suggestions made ten years ago and now worth repeating to myself and my family. Today is Mothers Day. Mom passed away January 17, four months ago.
It’s ok to feel angry, lonely or whatever. The stress in your life is real. It is ok to feel helpless, loneliness, discouragement or anger during a transitional time. Grief is not a time of weakness, nor a lack of faith. Grief is the price of love.
Keep the communication channels open. After the loss of a loved one we have the right to be lonely, to feel depressed or discouraged, to need friendship, therapy and consistent encouragement. The first thing you need to do is to talk to family. Tell them how you feel, keep the communication channels open. Don’t cut yourself off from family and friends. They are your surest way to emotional survival.
Make your spiritual well-being a top priority. Pray- talk to God. Listen to God. Schedule a time everyday for you and God. Through prayer we turn our hearts, minds and lives over to God. We can and will emerge from our present difficulties with a renewed sense of joy and a renewed purpose in life.
Seek a supportive community in your life. Find a sounding board. The best sounding board are people who have had a similar loss. Find a widow or widower friend and then talk to them. Mother Theresa once said “loneliness is the most terrible poverty.” Make an affirmation to yourself. It is up to me to seek companionship. Seek a relationship where you can feel energized and upbeat when you are with that person.
Use your greatest power. The most crippling excuse of all during transition is to believe that we are victims of circumstances and powerless to change our lives. The greatest gift that God gave each of us is our power to choose. When faced with adversity we can choose to be happy or to be sad, to be positive or to be negative, to be an angry resentful person or to be a loving and compassionate person. It’s your choice. It’s up to you.
Be a grateful person. Give thanks every day for your good health, for family, for friends, for another day to be useful, another day to be of benefit to someone else. Look at this beautiful world for your eyes to see, your ears to hear. Be grateful your God is a personal God. He taught you how to love.
Be a busy person. Your best medicine is to stay busy. Find a project, clean the house, read a book, sign up for a course at school, use the Internet to learn something new, volunteer for a cause. If you get down or if you feel lonely think to yourself, “how can I do something good for someone else?” Decide what it is….then go do it!
That’s it for suggestions. As far as books are concerned, I recommended eight books ten years ago. Here’s one from those recommendations that I now recommend for you. Peace is Every Step: Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Thich Nhat Hanh). This Zen Monk author has been exiled from his home and since 1966, for his lectures on reconciliation during the Viet Nam War. In modern-day life we tend to lose touch with the peace that is available in each moment. This is an excellent book for the open-minded who recognize the connection between inner peace and peace on Earth.
As prayers go I can list many. Here are few of my favorites:
Lord, I shall pass this day but once, any good therefore, that I can show to any human being let me do it now. For I will not pass this way again. (Anonymous)
What lies behind us, and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us. (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
Peace is not something that you wish for; it is something that you are, and something that you give away. (Robert Fulghum)