Feeling Relief Instead of Grief?

You are not alone in this.

I was talking to a friend about her mixed emotions after the death of one of her relatives. This guy had made her life a living hell when he was alive. He was an abusive alcoholic who created nothing but drama in the family. He left financial devastation in his wake, and he was quite adept at dishing out emotional abuse. The man was toxic. I found him to be a horrible human being.

Since his passing, my friend’s life has improved substantially. Her stress levels have decreased and her health has increased. She gets more sleep. Her self-confidence is much more evident now. I’m really happy for her.

Sadly, she feels a little guilty for being relieved that the guy is finally gone. He was, after all, a relative, and she did love him to a certain extent. But she doesn’t miss him at all.

I can totally relate to this. When my stepfather died, I wanted to throw a party. But of course I didn’t. People would have been horrified. They would have thought I was callous. They have no idea what the man had put me through. The world is a much better place without him in it.

Relationships are complicated, and therefore the subsequent grief is bound to be complicated. There are many scenarios in which it would be quite understandable to feel relief and/or a complex mix of emotions at someone’s passing. You would definitely not be alone in this.

For example, if your loved one had been suffering for years, it’s natural to be relieved that that suffering is over. And if you were the primary caregiver for that person for what feels like an eternity, and that care has left you exhausted and depleted and stressed out, it’s okay to be relieved to have your life back again. If you have lost someone due to an easily preventable death, or due to suicide, you may have a lot of anger and/or guilt to process.

I’ve had several people broach this subject with me over the years. They tend to speak in hushed tones and look over their shoulders to make sure no one is listening. It’s as if they’ve committed a crime. I seem to be one of those people who silently signal that if you feel the need to confess this particular offense, then guuuurl… come sit by me.

Our culture causes us to have really strange ideas about what grief is supposed to look like and feel like. It’s supposed to be pure, sincere, and it should last for a year. (Longer than that, and people lose patience. Shorter than that, and something is wrong with you.) And if other family members are experiencing what looks like a more wholesome form of grief for the person you are thrilled to be rid of, then you are expected to suppress your feelings so as not to ruffle feathers. But make no mistake: you are grieving, too, in your own way.

Grief can’t be pigeonholed. Each person’s experience is different. In fact, your grief experience will most likely change over time, and it will be different for each person you grieve. Grief can manifest as depression or sadness or anger or numbness or an inability to concentrate, and yes, it can also include relief and even joy and a sense of freedom and release.

It’s not uncommon to encounter insensitive people as you work to process and adapt to this monumental change in your life. They often don’t realize they’re passing judgment by showing their confusion, impatience, or shock at the way you are feeling or behaving. Please remember that they don’t get to decide if you’re getting it right. There is no “right” way to grieve.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that not passing judgment should be a two way street. It does you no good at all to try to force your brand of grief down the throats of those around you, who may, in fact, not be feeling grief at all, or may be so devastated that they struggle to function. You can erect a shrine, but you shouldn’t expect others to worship at it. You can throw your own party, but no one should be forced to attend. You can wear all black for the rest of your life, or cover yourself in bright, shiny colors, but please don’t dictate anyone else’s physical or emotional wardrobe.

Another thing to consider is that you’re not only grieving a person. You are also grieving change. You may be grieving the life you never had because of the life you were forced to live while you were in a toxic person’s orbit. You may be grieving the fact that you were unable to improve your relationship with that person while he or she was still alive. You may be experiencing confusion and/or resentment and/or excitement because now you have to figure out what your life will look like moving forward.

A good rule of thumb is this: you do you. Feel what you feel and allow others to feel what they feel. Give yourself and others that gift.

And if you wish to support someone who is grieving, ask that person what they want or need. Don’t assume you know. Some people, like my friend, want nothing more than someone to listen to them express their relief without criticism. I’m glad she came and sat by me.


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The Importance of Having a Plan

Doing nothing is also a choice.

I spent many years, several decades actually, just spinning my wheels and getting absolutely nowhere. I didn’t really expect I’d ever have it better than I did at the time. Deep down I thought I didn’t deserve it.

I tended to get into relationships with men who reinforced my inertia. They were either extremely content with the status quo, completely devoid of ambition, or they had such low self-esteem or such pessimism that they couldn’t look beyond their current survival struggles. It was like living in quicksand. The longer I marinated in it, the more hopeless I felt, until I could barely work up the energy to try to improve my life anymore. There didn’t seem to be much point.

But a little voice inside me was never quite willing to give up on my hopes and dreams. A few times I really did try to formulate a plan that I felt really good about, but the men in my life didn’t buy into my ideas, and certainly offered none of their own. Or worse yet was the one who pretended to buy in, but then sabotaged my progress every chance he got.

I kept being dragged deeper into the quicksand by relationships and obligations and emergencies and hopelessness and bills, and I couldn’t see a viable way out of it. I had all but resigned myself to just letting the mud close over me to sink into oblivion. But that persistent little voice kept telling me that this was wrong.

I’d like to say that a plan got me out of the quicksand, but it wasn’t that easy. I basically just jumped and hoped that there would be something to grab ahold of at the end of my trajectory. (Unless you call moving to the other side of the country where you’ve never been and know nobody an actual plan.) That jump could have ended in disaster, but for once luck was on my side.

So yes, I landed in high cotton, as they say in the South, but I knew that luck comes and goes, and I couldn’t just status quo my way through the rest of my life if I wanted things to remain this good. I needed to have a plan. No more sinking into the quicksand that was my life. I need a map. I needed a destination. I needed a compass point.

And let me take a moment to make it perfectly clear that I’m not talking about some goal to become rich or famous. Money doesn’t equate to happiness. Fame is a fleeting illusion.

No. It’s much more important to figure out what will give you satisfaction in life, and then determine a way to get to that place. And no two people will ever have the exact same goals, but it’s really important to know what you want before you get into a relationship, and have an open and honest discussion about that, so that you can make sure your goals are compatible (and also that the other person’s exist in the first place).

So how do you plan to reach your goals? Not by sitting there and wallowing in self pity. If you want to live in another place, how will you make that happen? Do your homework. Research the cost of living and the job market in that area. Apply for jobs. If you want to change your career, how do you do that? Do you need more education or training? Can you seek out a mentor? If you want to live a healthier life, how do you plan to make that happen? If you feel that the people around you are toxic, how do you plan to change your crowd? What do you want your life to look like after all your kids have grown up and left home?

I am so glad I’m now in a relationship where we’ve agreed on our goals. We’re both working steadily toward them, in tandem, and we adjust them as we go along, also in tandem. You can’t predict what the future holds, of course, but you can influence it by either doing something or doing absolutely nothing. Make no mistake: doing nothing is also a choice.

Once you have goals, you have purpose, and you have something to look forward to. And since life is, after all, the journey, it’s nice to be excited about that journey. It’s what gets me out of bed every morning.

I’ll now leave you with an amazing meme that I saw the other day. It says, “What if it turns out better than you could have imagined?”

To that I say, lucky me, it already has. Much better than I imagined, indeed. Life is what you make it, and it’s good.

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Trees Know More Than You Think

They remember. They learn.

I just read a fascinating article, entitled, “Never Underestimate the Intelligence of Trees” by Brandon Keim. It was both gripping and educational from beginning to end. I strongly urge you to read it.

Here are but a few of the things I learned from this article:

  • There is a fungal/root connection that allows nutrients to flow, but it also connects trees to each other.
  • They form networks with mother trees at the center of communities, exchanging nutrients and water.
  • Plants communicate. They perceive and receive messages, and will change their behaviors based on those messages.
  • They remember. They learn.
  • When a forest is under attack, it actually emits a defense chemistry that you can smell.
  • Trees can recognize seedlings that are related to them, and give advantages to those seedlings over those of a “stranger”. They are capable of making that choice.
  • When a plant is stressed out, it releases serotonin, just like we do.
  • If you clip a plant’s leaves or put a bunch of bugs on them, their neurochemistry changes. They send warning messages to their neighbors.

Mind officially blown. I think I’ll be seeing my next hike in the woods entirely differently. Hopefully this new mindset will give me comfort, rather than the creeps. Like I’m being watched. Like their talking about me. Hmm…

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The True Test of a Relationship

Have you ever remodeled the only bathroom in your house?

Have you ever remodeled the only bathroom in your house? I’ve done it twice with mixed results. The most valuable thing that you get out of the experience, aside from a hopefully much-improved bathroom, is learning who your partner really is.

Fortunately in both cases, we were able to agree on colors and designs and such. But I learned a great deal from the first remodel that I never want to repeat. It was a freakin’ nightmare. This time around has been stressful, but ultimately a lot more pleasant.

For starters, We ripped the first bathroom all the way down to the studs, including removing the floor. This meant a makeshift bathroom in the back yard for what seemed like an eternity. If at all possible, avoid this. If you can do parts of the remodel with long extended breaks in between, your relationship will remain on a much sturdier foundation.

For example, we focused on the walls this time. We removed some horrendous wallpaper, did some wall repair, and primed and painted. We replaced the light. And we recessed the medicine cabinet. We did not deal with the floor or the tub or the surround, or the paneling on the lower half of the wall. These are future projects. The counter will be replaced eventually, too. The toilet is staying put, so there was no need to do our business in the out of doors, which, believe me, gets old quickly.

In the first remodel, I would work the graveyard shift, then come home and work on the bathroom for another 8 hours for weeks on end. My boyfriend would come home to find me fast asleep. He would never see me working, and therefore insisted he was doing all he work. Granted, he would work super hard on it on the weekends, on the plumbing and flooring. But jeez, this became a gigantic bone of contention.

Sledge hammering the tiled shower stall was actually cleansing amongst all this tension. But the insulation, dry wall, paint, glass block window, and the custom made and stained cabinets didn’t appear as if by magic. It still stuns me that anyone would think that they did.

Doing this type of thing also teaches you, rather quickly, that no two people have the same skill sets. If you can identify those skill sets, it’s a lot easier to divide up the labor. You also have different energy and patience levels. There’s nothing wrong with that if you are aware of those differences and are willing to accommodate them.

But it never occurred to me, the first time around, that a plumber wouldn’t realize that a toilet shouldn’t be right up against a wall so you’d get to rub your shoulder against someone’s urine splatter for the rest of your life. Another common sense thing, in my opinion, is to realize that if you break something, you should own up to it and repair it, not leave it for someone else to do. That’s called integrity. These are challenges I did not have to face this time.

Remodeling a bathroom teaches you about commitment levels, respect, patience, skill, critical thinking, taste, and integrity. Who’d have thought? Not me.

But in both projects, no one committed murder and the bathrooms were much nicer when all was said and done. It’s really wonderful to be able to sit on the toilet with a smile upon one’s face. It’s very satisfying.

If your relationship survives a single bathroom remodel unscathed, you can pretty much count on happily ever after, as far as I’m concerned. I think the key to this is spacing the project out, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, but ultimately it’s more about choosing the right partner.

Our freshly painted walls with our brand new light, before the cabinets went back up.

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People Who Are Important to Me

Never forget that you have value.

One of the lessons I seem to be forced to learn over and over and over again is that just because I consider someone important to me, that does not necessarily mean that I’m important to them. That’s always a heartbreaking realization. Upon discovering this, I’m learning to reduce that person’s importance in my life as well. But it isn’t easy. I am loyal to a fault.

I tend to take the initiative in friendships much more often than I should, for example. I seem to forget that I deserve to be prioritized as much as the next person does. All relationships should be give and take. Not that I think one should keep score, but sometimes the imbalance becomes blatantly obvious. This lesson has intensified, for some reason, since I moved to the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle Freeze is real.

If you trust someone and they do not trust you, then they don’t think much of you. Not really. And if someone is quite happy to do things with you only if you come up with the ideas and make the plans every single time, then clearly they’re not seeing you as someone who is worth the effort.

So the lesson for today, for me, anyway, is to never forget that I have value, and that value deserves acknowledgement.


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The Great Roomie Rebellion

Sometimes it feels good to just do you.

So, my husband was going out of town for four days. I knew I would miss him terribly, as it is a rare occasion that we’ve been apart since we got married. In fact, I was dreading it, if I’m completely honest. He’s my person.

But I also knew there would be things that I was going to do while he was gone that would be akin to taking off shoes that were two sizes too small. Sweet relief. Back to the normal that I had created over 5 decades.

The first thing that I planned to do was leave the toilet lid up. Gasp! Sacrilege!

And there were dishes that he insists on hand-washing that sure as heck would go into the dishwasher. They’d get done, probably, on the night before he came home, after having sat there on the counter for days. As far as I’m concerned, the whole point of having a dishwasher is so that you don’t have to wash dishes. Any dishes. Ever. Life’s just too freakin’ short.

And I would be sleeping in the guestroom, because I love that mattress. I mean, I adore that mattress. I can’t begin to tell you how much that mattress cradles me in its arms. And in the morning, that bed wouldn’t get made. Why make a bed when you’re only going to sleep in it again that very night?

And without a doubt I’d fall back into my lazy food habits. I fully intended to have ground beef with boxed mac n’ cheese for old time’s sake. My body would be annoyed, but yeah. I hate to cook. What other easy things did I eat in the past? I can barely recall.

And I’d watch the kind of TV that makes him cringe. Reality shows. Dr. Pimple Popper. With the volume up. Late into the evening or early in the morning. In bed. While eating. Chips.

When you live with someone, regardless of the relationship, you begin to make compromises, unless you are completely selfish. That’s as it should be. He definitely does the same for me. But sometimes it feels good to just do you, you know?

So, there would be fewer lights blazing throughout the house. And less hustle and bustle. And it would be quiet. Oh, so quiet.

Follow up:

Well, I survived the separation, but I learned quite a bit in the process. First of all, I no longer like mac n’ cheese mixed with hamburger. I no longer like hamburger in general. And I kept forgetting to leave the lid up on the toilet. I’ve evolved.

But yeah, I’m basically a slob. It’s probably for the best that I have someone in my life now that encourages a bit less laziness. I spent our days apart being bored silly and lonely as all get out.

Damn, but I missed him. I’d gladly give up my toilet seat preferences for life if only we didn’t have to be separated ever again. But I do stand by my dishwasher beliefs. Firmly.

Welcome home, honey.


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Put down Your Baggage

I genuinely believe that we increase in value over time.

A friend of mine told me recently that it’s really hard to find love later in life because we all accumulate so much baggage. Well, yeah, if you choose to look at it that way.

Personally, I’ve always hated the term “baggage”. It implies that as we go through life, we take on an ever-increasing amount of emotional burden that we can never shed, and it eventually weighs us down to a debilitating degree. Why not call it “life experience” or “lessons learned”? That reframes the whole concept.

Instead of being crushed under an unbearable weight, you are instead strengthened. As opposed to being less than desirable, you come with skills. Rather than being someone to avoid, you become someone with a lot of interesting stories to tell.

I genuinely believe that we increase in value over time. Remember, whatever coping skills you’ve acquired, even if they’re not ideal, have gotten you here. You’ve survived. And that is a fantastic achievement. High five!

It’s amazing what an attitude adjustment can do.

emotional baggage

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The Ice Cream Paradox

Coffee ice cream is my kryptonite.

Coffee ice cream is my kryptonite. If it’s in my house, I will eat it. In fact, that’s probably all I will eat. Even if it’s breakfast time.

Because of that, I try not to have it in the house very often. Dear husband knows not to bring any home unless I ask for it. Because the post-coffee-ice-cream guilt and depression is no fun at all.

Once upon a time, though, I was in a very unhealthy relationship, and he started bringing home pints of ice cream for me every single day. I never asked for them. It wasn’t a household habit. In fact, I begged him to stop. And yet the ice cream kept coming. It made no sense.

I did eat a lot of ice cream for a time there, and then one day I figured out what was going on. I don’t know if this was a conscious thought process on his part, or just his default passive-aggressive coping mechanism at play, but the fact was, we were in a bad place, and one twisted way to keep me in the relationship was to destroy my self-esteem by getting me to become fatter and fatter and fatter. If I was depressed and miserable, I wouldn’t have the energy to change my life, and I certainly wouldn’t find someone else.

At some point, I gave up trying to convince him to stop bringing home the ice cream. The crux of our problem was that he never listened to anything I said. So I was forced to take matters into my own hands. I’d just wait until he left the house, and then I’d take the lid off the ice cream and turn it over in the sink and let it melt down the drain.

Eventually, there were just too many examples of how he did not support my dreams and goals, and did not have my best interests at heart. He did not want good things for me. He just wanted me to stay right where I was and never change, so he could have the unambitious, never-changing life that he craved, and in fact still lives.

When I look back at that period of my life, I get really angry at myself for having stayed as long as I did. Now I know that one of the most important things to do in life is to surround yourself with people who want to lift you up, not hold you down. Those people who encourage you to educate yourself and push past your boundaries and experience the world are the keepers. I should have been taught this in childhood. But no.

I’m really happy to say that I’m in that beautiful place now, a place where I’m encouraged to fly. I’ll make a point to never find myself elsewhere, ever again.

Coffee ice cream

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Later Love

I’m a 54-year-old woman, so I come with accessories.

I’m a 54-year-old woman, so I come with accessories.

I wear glasses and compression socks and I suspect that orthopedic shoes are not too far over my blurry horizon. I sleep with a night guard so I don’t grind my teeth, a CPAP mask so I actually breathe, and wrist braces so I don’t hyperflex my wrists during the night and inflame my tendons. I also require a pile of pillows of various shapes to be comfortable in bed as I’m not as limber as in days of yore.

My medicine cabinet is full to overflowing with both prescriptions and over the counter remedies. There are certain foods that I absolutely love but will no longer eat because I’m not willing to bear the consequences, but I keep cures for those consequences on hand in case I forget. And, oh yeah, I keep a variety of lists because I can’t always count on my memory.

It has been a life well lived, and I have no regrets. I’m about as healthy as the average American my age.  You, too, will accumulate baggage as the years go by. Trust me. It’s all part of the process.

I often look over at my husband with a certain level of awe, because we hooked up later in life, and that isn’t for the faint of heart. I cannot believe he managed to look beyond this massive pile of accessories and was actually able to see me as the catch that he believes that I am. That is a unique gift indeed, and I treasure it. I will never take that for granted.

I can’t imagine how May/December romances actually work. At least when you are with someone of a similar age, the nightstands on both sides of the bed are equally overwhelmed with flotsam. We each have our accoutrements, so neither of us feels unduly burdened. The scale of life is relatively balanced, and that’s such a comfort. When you start off together in the land of accessories, you don’t have to anticipate quite as many future surprises, and on the rare occasion when a surprise comes along, it isn’t quite as big of a shock. What you see is what you get.

Those of you still in your prime won’t yet understand this, but there’s nothing quite as romantic as the sound of two CPAP masks clinking together when you kiss good night. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


aging hands

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In-Betweeny Times

Keep your options open.

May is a very strange month. Sometimes it gets really warm and you think, “Yay! Time to put away the winter clothes!” But every time I’ve done that, I’ve regretted it, because sure enough, here comes a cold snap. So I think of May as an in-betweeny time, and I try to keep my options open.

There are all sorts of in-betweeny times in life. There’s that uncomfortable stage in your development when you’re not quite a child, but also not quite an adult. Some days you feel more mature than others. (And come to think of it, I still feel that way, only not to such an extreme.)

There are also those times when you take great risks and you feel both courageous and scared silly. That’s how I felt when I drove across the country to start a new life in a place where I’d never been, and where I knew no one. One minute I was thinking, “Dang, this takes guts! I’m proud of me!” and the next minute I was thinking, “Holy cow, what have I done?” I had no idea that adrenaline could pump for 3100 miles and during the first several months of my adjustment to this new life. But it turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done.

I also experienced kind of a weird in-betweeny time when I started this new job. I mean, I had 14 years of experience as a bridgetender coming in, so being a bridgetender in Seattle came naturally to a certain extent. But there were also new policies and procedures and new nomenclature to get used to. It was like I knew what I was doing, but then I didn’t. That rattled my cage a tiny bit.

Another in-betweeny time for many people is when they find themselves in dysfunctional relationships, and can’t decide whether or not to stay or go. These transitional periods can also be the most dangerous for people in physically abusive relationships, because the abuser can often sense when he or she is losing power, and the violence accelerates. I’m grateful I’ve never experienced that myself. It must be terrifying.

And I hate the in-betweeny time when you suspect that there’s a cold coming on, and yet it hasn’t quite hit yet. You feel kind of bleh, but not so bleh that you have a legitimate reason to don flannel and start complaining. You just have to wait and see. How irritating.

And I’m sure that most of us have experienced the feeling of being on the brink of a major decision. Should I take this new job, or should I stay put? Should I marry this person or stay single? Should I buy a house or continue to rent?

In-betweeny times are when we are the most vulnerable, because we all want to make the right choices, but we will never be sure if we did. To this I say, keep your options open, but end your agony and decide. Because the no man’s land that you find yourself in is not a place that you want to remain for long.


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