I Never Made it to Oprah
I sat on the edge of the bed, closed my eyes and inhaled a deep breath of pure happiness. I was in my late forties, newly married, and had just moved into the sanctuary of our recently remodeled Zen-inspired home. “I am living proof,” I thought to myself, “that a single woman over the age of forty can meet the right person, get married and live happily ever after. I could go on Oprah and share my story!”
But that never happened. Not because Oprah’s show went off of the air, or because my experience wasn’t truly Oprah-worthy. At that magical moment when I daydreamed that my story could be an inspiration to single women everywhere, I hadn’t peered into the crystal ball revealing that my husband would be dead in just a few short years.
This Only Happens to Other People
The first eight months of 2007 overflowed with activities. Jim and I vacationed in Mexico, attended concerts and entertained friends in our home; Jim reconciled with a long-lost acquaintance and his new business venture was a success.
The only blot on our joy was when our dog Max was diagnosed with prostate cancer in June of that year.
The cancer was far along, and the diagnosis that Max had about six months left with us was devastating. If anyone at that time had told me that Max would outlive Jim, I would have told them to put away their crack pipe.
I struggled with accepting Max’s fate. I had friends who had lost their pets over the years, but like many life events, I couldn’t grasp the depth of the experience until it happened to me.
A much-needed first step was reading “Surviving the Heartbreak of Choosing Death for Your Pet” which provided a compassionate outline on what to expect and how to cope. It was a tremendous amount of information to process for someone like myself who had virtually no personal experience with terminal illness and, for whom death was a far-off concept that happened to other people.
Now it was happening to me.
The ER doctors also thought he had the flu, but one doctor felt compelled to draw his blood. Later that evening, she called and said that something “wasn’t right” with his blood. When I pressed her, she said we would need to meet with our primary care physician, and that she had already arranged for a 9 am appointment the following morning.
The next morning Jim and I were seated in the doctor’s office; we knew it was serious, but we didn’t know how serious. The doctor didn’t mince any words. He looked directly at Jim and delivered the verdict: “You have leukemia.” He may as well have said “There is a spaceship parked outside and we are taking you to Mars.”
Time was sucked out of the room. I will never forget that slow-motion moment of turning to look at Jim and the look of shock and disbelief on his face. My face most likely registered the same look, but at that very millisecond in time, this was his own personal out of body experience. He must have felt so alone.
The room whooshed back into real-time, and our lives were forever altered. Jim and I had just become unwilling members of separate but connected Clubs: he to the “I Have Cancer Club” and I to the “My Husband has Cancer Club.”
Hope, Helplessness & Terror
We now had an Oncologist in our life and a few hours later we met in her office and reviewed the details on the course of treatment which would span four to six months. The treatment would require Jim to receive intensive chemotherapy treatments during three separate 3-week hospital stays, with each hospital stay punctuated by 2 weeks of rest at home. Daunting, but doable.
When you enter the Boot Camp of life-changing and life-saving medical decisions, you are barraged with lessons in rapid-fire progression: You learn a new language that you previously only heard on TV shows like ER or Grey’s Anatomy. You learn that doctors don’t know everything . . . and that they don’t tell you everything. You learn that lives are held in the balance of the nursing staff. Eventually you learn that you cannot prepare for what you don’t know.
The next day was a whirlwind of tests, including a painful bone marrow biopsy, and the insertion of a Hickman catheter into Jim’s chest to administer the chemo. The following day he was admitted to the hospital which would be our second home for the next three weeks.
The hospital setting was bright and clean, and the staff was great; I felt that Jim was in good hands. I stayed with him until nearly midnight while his body was pumped with hydration fluid before the chemotherapy began flowing into his body. When I arrived home, I changed the bedsheets to signify a clean new start.
Then I broke down in tears. Despite our positive and optimistic outlook, I was scared and doubtful. I pushed back the “what ifs” that were flooding my mind – What if the chemo doesn’t work? What if he needs a bone marrow transplant? What if there isn’t a match? – and prayed for guidance and protection.
The Terrifying Theme Park Ride
Whatever cadence you had in your lives vanishes when one is hospitalized for an acute condition. Your life becomes a terrifying theme park ride which whips around the continuous parade of test results and the body’s reactions to treatment. The encouraging news that a doctor shared fifteen minutes earlier could be blown to bits when the nurse comes in to take vital signs.
We kept a notebook next to Jim’s bed and whoever was sitting with him kept detailed notes. It made us feel like we were doing something useful while we helplessly sat on the sidelines.
But Wait…There’s More
Heroes to the Rescue
Remember Greg from “Love Part I” – the boyfriend who didn’t want to marry me? We – including Jim – had transitioned into a strong friendship and Greg took charge of Max. He declared himself as the Commander of “The Max Patrol” and pulled together a group of people to care for Max during the day while I tended to Jim and work.
I was exhausted but I never felt alone.
More Things I Didn’t Know
Jim had become painfully thin, and his body was severely weakened from the chemotherapy treatment. I was stunned when our Oncologist told me that he was soiling himself at night because he was too weak to walk to the bathroom on his own.
My face registered incomprehension when she told me that either I or a caretaker would have to stay during the night to help Jim to the bathroom and keep him clean at night.
What?!? Wasn’t that the hospital’s responsibility? I had no idea that it was customary for families to augment the hospital staff by hiring their own resources to provide additional care for the patient.
Superwoman Flies in on a Plane
Superwoman arrived in the form of Jann, a nurse practitioner with two Masters’ degrees. She was one of the smartest women I’ve ever known and a constant source of support for me through Jim’s illness. She was also my best friend and Jim adored her.
When Jann heard that I was paying someone to be with Jim, she would hear nothing of it. She told her family that she had to help us and immediately booked a flight from the East Coast to Los Angeles.
She was nothing short of phenomenal. To leave her husband and son to fend for themselves while she took care of Jim (and me) was beyond what anyone would dream a friend would do, but it was a natural extension of Jann’s generosity. She spent every night in Jim’s room and tended to his needs with compassion and humor.
I pondered on the unfolding of life’s episodes, and how we can unwillingly gain membership to certain clubs. Like the “I’m Over 40 and Still Single Club”, or the “I’m Divorced Club” or the “I’m Unemployed Club”. I was now a member of the “My Dog has Cancer Club”. When I shared my ruminations with Jim, he reminded me of the many other Clubs to which I belonged, like the “I’m Grateful to Have a Dog Club” and the “I’m Happily Married Club”. He rightfully reminded me of all of the blessings in my life.
Shortly after Max’s diagnosis, Jim came down with a low-grade infection or a touch of the flu. Some days he felt weak and under the weather, and other days he was back on top. It didn’t seem serious, but one evening his temperature spiked and I took him to the emergency room.
If you’ve ever had to navigate the healthcare system, especially if it’s related to a terminal disease, then you know the combined feelings of hope, helplessness and terror of putting your life into the hands of well-educated strangers who will soon become the central figures in your life. Jim had been diagnosed with an extremely aggressive case of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood.
We would need to move swiftly and start treatment within 48 hours; our doctor had already selected two potential Oncologists for us to choose. He gave us a thumbnail background on both, and we chose one.
Was she the right one? The best one? The one who would save Jim’s life? We had no clue. It wasn’t as though we could even do a quick online search - this was 2007 and there was no Yelp or Google for us to review on our Blackberries.
The next morning commenced with my new program for the next 3 weeks: Get up, shower, grab breakfast, drive to the hospital with my heart in my throat and sit with Jim while waiting for doctors to give us updates. I brought my laptop and worked while Jim was pumped with drugs through the tube in his chest. A parade of friends and family visited frequently to lift our spirits.
Finances are another aspect of illness that is often overlooked. Jim and I had finally reached a point where his solo marketing practice was doing well and we were able to cover our expenses. We had met with a financial planner only a week prior to the cancer diagnosis and told the planner, “We cannot afford to lose one of our incomes.” The following week we lost Jim’s income.
A week into the treatment, we were handed devastating news. Because of a mutation in Jim’s chromosomes, the cancer cells would continue to reproduce and no amount of chemotherapy would eradicate the cancer. Jim needed a bone marrow transplant to survive.
The doctor who delivered this news had the communication skills of a prison warden. We listened in stunned disbelief as informed us that Jim would be transferred to a different hospital for two to three months to undergo heavy chemotherapy and radiation before the bone marrow transplant could occur. He proceeded to mechanically list all of the possible risks and complications, and whisked out of the room before we could ask any questions.
I was humbled by the kindness of so many people:
− Jim needed many blood transfusions; friends flocked to the hospital to donate blood.
− Two dear friends guessed correctly that I would need help with financial expenses and started a fund (this was before the days of crowdfunding platforms).
− Another friend competed in a Triathlon in Jim’s honor.
− Another contacted the General Manager of our health club and negotiated a freeze on Jim’s account.
And what happened to our dog Max while all of this was transpiring with Jim?
We Get a Break
A ray of light shone through the clouds. We were informed that instead of transferring Jim to the other hospital for the bone marrow transplant, that Jim could rest at home until his return to the hospital for another three weeks of chemotherapy.
Jann and I transported a very frail Jim to our home. I pulled the car into the driveway and we propped Jim between us; his shaking body was so weak and spent that he could barely walk the 10 steps from the car to the front door. It was heartbreaking.
Home for a Holiday
Hope from the City of Hope
I drove Jim to the City of Hope Cancer Center to meet with Dr. Forman, an international expert in leukemia and bone marrow transplantation. Upon meeting Jim, Dr. Forman’s first reaction was “you don’t need to be in that wheelchair!” Jim was thin, but he no longer looked like he was on death’s doorstep. His energy was high and his attitude was positive and optimistic.
A long hard road lay ahead, but we were buoyed by Dr. Forman’s reputation and presence – a 180 degree difference from the doctor who had delivered the original news that Jim would need a bone marrow transplant.
I was scared. Scared that Jim’s body would become too weakened by this second round of chemo. Scared that he would catch an infection. Scared that he would lose too much weight: I saw what the first round did to him and I couldn’t imagine what this next chemo round would do to his already thin body.
I continued repeating to myself: “Jim is healed.”
"No Sweatpants for Me"
Before we left he asked: “Will I need my watch?” I told him that there was a large clock in the hospital room and no need for a watch. He removed his TAG Heuer and placed it on his nightstand.
“Bring My Laptop”
When we arrived at the hospital, Jim strode confidently into the ward and made his entrance like a celebrity on the red carpet. His effusive personality had made him a favorite with the nursing staff and they fussed over him and marveled at how vibrant he looked.
We got him settled into his room and the nurses hooked up his catheter to the bag full of fluid that would hydrate him for several hours prior to the chemotherapy treatment. I knew that he was in good hands and would spend the rest of the afternoon kibbitzing with the nurses and calling friends on his Blackberry. I kissed him goodbye and told him I’d be back to join him for dinner.
As I left to leave, he asked, “Could you bring my laptop with you when you return?”
“Jim’s in Trouble”
Around 5:30 I was finishing an email update on Jim to send to family and friends when a call came in from Jim’s nurse. “You need to come here right now,” she said urgently. “Jim’s in trouble.”
Panic snapped like electricity through my body. I threw food into a bowl for Max and ran around grabbing things, including Jim’s laptop. My mind was babbling: “He asked for his laptop. I have to bring his laptop. He’s in trouble but he needs his laptop. If I bring his laptop then he’s OK. He needs his laptop. He needs his laptop.”
I jumped in my car and drove like a crazed psycho while speed dialing family members and Jim’s best friend, Roberta to alert them of the news.
When I arrived at Jim’s room, his Oncologist rushed me into a waiting room and explained that he had stopped breathing. “But he’s breathing again and we think he’ll be OK. He might have had an allergic reaction to the hydration fluid but we’re not sure.”
The Real-Life Code Blue
A Code Blue alert suddenly blasted from the PA system. The doctor’s eyes widened and locked into mine. “That’s Jim.” She raced out of the room with me on her heels.
Unlike on TV when the family stands in the room while the doctor yells “Clear!” before placing the defibrillator paddles on the patient's chest, I was not allowed in Jim’s room while the doctors worked on him. Jim’s nurse brought a chair into the hallway and crouched next to me and held my hand. I could hear commotion and scuffling and loud voices behind the doors.
I closed my eyes and whispered Jim’s name over and over like a Mantra: “JimBardwil - JimBardwil - JimBardwil - JimBardwil - JimBardwil”.
I heard the nurse ask me in a small voice if I wanted her to call the Priest.
Priest? For what? Don’t you only call the Priest if someone is dying?
The Oncologist came out of Jim’s room. I stood up from the chair and she took my arm and led me into a small, cluttered storage room. “I’m sorry”, she said. “We lost him.”
I fell to the floor and curled into a ball. And there, amongst the filing cabinets and boxes of a nondescript storage room, my anguished wail reverberated off of the walls: “MyBabyMyBabyMyBabyMyBaby….”
The Last Email
I laid on that floor for a million years or 5 minutes. Time had no meaning anymore. I told the doctor that I wanted to see Jim. She told me that I would have to wait while they cleaned the room.
Eventually I was allowed in. I flung myself onto my husband’s lifeless body, and then drew back. It felt fake and dramatic to me. This was Jim’s body, but it wasn’t Jim. I knew at that very instant that Jim wasn’t in his body anymore.
It had been exactly 5 weeks to the day since we had sat in the doctor’s office and heard the verdict: “You have leukemia.” Jim was 58 years old.
Only two hours earlier, my husband had sent his final email to me: “Juni...You are my sunshine on the cloudiest of days. I love you with all my heart! XOXO”
The rest of the evening was a series of slow motion frames. Jim’s parents, sisters and brother had arrived, as well as Jim’s oldest daughter and her boyfriend. Her younger sister was traveling. The girls had already lost their mother to cancer, and now, their father was also gone.
My brother, George and Jim’s best friend Roberta and her husband, Stephen also stood vigil. We huddled together in shock and sorrow.
I made some phone calls, including Jann and the owner of my company. The hospital Priest arrived and joined Jim’s parents to see their beloved oldest son. I don’t know how a parent can endure the loss of a child; it felt unjust and unfair that this lovely couple in their 80s had to experience this grief.
Let the Grieving Begin
It was suggested that my brother, George stay the night with me. Later that evening, my brother and I sat at the same kitchen table where Jim and I had sat together several hours earlier. George urged me to get some rest, but I had one more thing to do.
I numbly walked into my home office, opened my laptop, and pulled up the draft proposal that I had been working on before I received the call from the hospital. I completed it and emailed the document to the owners of my firm with instructions on what to do. I reviewed my calendar and sent another email listing my meetings for the next few weeks and respective contact information and asked them to explain that I would not be attending.
I closed my laptop and placed my head in my hands. I had completed my job responsibilities and now I could grieve.
I walked down the dark hallway into our bedroom and stared at the bed that I would never again share with my husband.
The watch that Jim had removed from his wrist earlier that day sat on his nightstand reminding me that time is meaningful only in our 3-dimensional world. Jim had transcended his body and for him - his soul - the concept of time no longer existed or was needed.
No Expiration Date
The logistics of planning the Celebration of Life, the funeral service, the wake, paying the bills, are all responsibilities that must be managed. It’s a daunting and dispiriting reality, but it’s a reality with tangible end dates.
At some point in the future, the services and Celebration of Life are completed, payment plans are negotiated (Really? You want me to pay out of network for the cardiologist who didn’t save my husband’s life?), the extra car is sold, the bills are paid down, and you figure out what to do with your husband’s clothes (Jim’s clothes hung in our closet for 7 years).
Then there is the reality of managing one’s emotional and mental well-being. There is no expiration date for that.
The Love Never Goes Away
How can people survive a loss without spiritual support and guidance?
It’s my belief and experience that we need a minister, a priest, a spiritual teacher, someone knowledgeable and experienced who can compassionately oversee our journey through the darkest hours, the darkest days, the darkest weeks and darkest years. Someone who can provide insight to our questions . . . because initially you have no answers, no resolution, no sense as to why your husband died and how to live without him.
A few nights after Jim passed, Guru Singh and his wife, Guruperkarma came to our house and reconnected me with Jim’s energy. They spoke. I listened. We meditated. They reminded me that Jim and I experienced more love in our short time together than most people do in a lifetime.
They helped me understand that a person’s love continues to live in us forever. The love never goes away.
Stay . . . Just a Little While Longer
We Keep Going on Out There . . .
The next morning Max’s body began trembling uncontrollably from the toxins of his failing kidneys. I gave him a tranquilizer to make him comfortable and called a mobile Vet who could come to the house to euthanize him. I invited a few close friends and we sat in a circle around Max’s body as the Vet administered the drugs.
Nearly six weeks to the day after Jim passed away, Max died at home surrounded by people who loved him.
When Max had been diagnosed with cancer, Jim and I had talked about what happens after we die. “I don’t know what happens. . .” he said. “But I have to believe that we keep going on out there somewhere to another level.”
I can still picture how Jim gestured with his arm as he said those words. I have to believe that Jim was out there somewhere at another level waiting for Max with a big smile and wide open arms.
No One Tells You
- No one tells you that your heart dies every morning when you open your eyes and see the smooth flattened comforter and unused pillow on the other side of the bed - a brutal reminder that your husband is still dead.
- No one tells you that you will feel like you will never stop crying. And crying. And crying. The crying doesn’t stop and you can’t believe that eyes can physically produce so many tears.
No one tells you that you will feel so deranged and broken with grief that you will feel weary of living and life will no longer matter.
Pain Lives in a Petri Dish
Any happy energy that had been left in the house evaporated with the departure of Max.
The day following his death, I felt gut-punched with emotion and sunk to the floor on my hands and knees . . . my head bowed down and a guttural howl emanated from the bowels of my being. It was a primal wail that fused my grief with that of every animal and every human that has suffered loss from the beginning of time.
Guru Singh counseled me about pain. He told me that the only way to get through the pain is to feel it and let it pass. I listened intently when he said, “Pain is patient.”
While we are busy distracting ourselves and running from the pain, pain is sitting patiently, waiting, multiplying like bacteria in a petri dish. And when the distractions run their course – and they will - and you finally meet face to face with that pain, it has grown into a larger and stronger monster waiting to wrap its arms around you and devour your spirit.
Entering the Tunnel of Grief
The second tunnel, the Tunnel of Grief, was paved with gravel and broken glass. Sometimes the tunnel would be so narrow that in order to move forward, you would be forced to crawl on your hands and knees with the gravel and broken glass tearing into your skin, while you could barely breathe. This tunnel was cold, painful, and excruciatingly lonely. But I had to believe that as I moved forward, the tunnel would get larger, I would begin to see some light, the path would grow smoother, and eventually I’d see some flowers blooming by the roadside.
I chose the second tunnel and took my first steps into the Tunnel of Grief.
Preparing for the Grief Journey
No one handed me a manual on navigating through this tunnel, but early on I made two conscious decisions to prepare myself for this journey:
1) Alcohol: I would stay away from alcohol in the first year and reassess in the second year after Jim and Max’s passing. Alcohol is a depressant. Why would I want to depress myself more? Sharing an occasional bottle of wine with friends over dinner? Yes. Drinking that bottle of wine at home by myself? No. Drinking also leads to bad decisions (see below).
2) Decisions: Conventional wisdom cautions against making major life decisions for at least six months following the death of a spouse or close family member. This was a no-brainer, as I knew that my judgement was askew in nearly every area of my life. In less than 12 weeks I had swung from managing the enormity of Jim’s cancer diagnosis and treatment to experiencing his death followed by the death of our beloved dog. My entire being was in shock and I was living in all-consuming grief. I was in no shape to make any rational decisions.
Grief has No On/Off Switch
I returned to work about three weeks after Jim passed away. Allowing my mind and body to do something other than steep in my loss was healing in its own way. Plus I had to work. I was responsible for expenses previously supported by two incomes.
Grief has no on/off switch, but there is a pause button, and you use that pause button for your life with the outside world where you keep a lid on your anguish and grief. You don’t cry at work; you don’t break down in the middle of a dinner party; you don’t show your grief in public. But alone, you release the pause button and it all surfaces with a vehement force.
My job required me to be public facing nearly every day as I was responsible for bringing in business to our firm. I was the “Rainmaker” which meant that I attended lots of industry events, and met with clients and colleagues for breakfasts, lunches, cocktails and dinners. My livelihood centered on entertaining and socializing when I felt the least bit entertaining or social.
That’s where I used the pause button. I learned to arrive twenty minutes before a meeting so that I could sit in my car and continue to cry (I always cried while driving), repair my makeup, put on my game face and walk into a room with a smile. Afterwards I would return to my car, release the pause button, and put my head on the steering wheel and weep.
Gifts in New Packages
I was extremely fortunate to have a strong and wide circle of longtime friends who actively supported and cushioned me during my journey of sadness. New people also joined my circle of support; two people in particular entered my life within several weeks of Jim’s death and another person about 6 months later. To this day, these three people who arrived bearing torches to guide me through the tunnel of darkness are an active presence in my life.
Gift #1: “She’ll Do the Talking”
Not long after Jim passed away, Guru Singh called and instructed me to phone a woman named Michelle Murphy. He told me that she was a Medium and had a message from Jim. What!? That sounded just . . . well, weird and out there. I asked Guru Singh what I was supposed to say to her, and he replied, “You don’t have to say anything; she’ll do the talking.”
My practical side kicked in. I’ve historically been suspect of psychics and the sort. Had I ever had my tarot cards read? Yes. Had my chart done? Yes. Spoken with a Psychic? Yes. Did I ever believe them? No. It was just for fun; something to joke about with my girlfriends.
Now Guru Singh wanted me to speak with a Medium named Michelle? Well, of course I called her.
Michelle lives in Toronto, Canada so we scheduled a session over the phone. I knew nothing of her, and she knew nothing of me, other than I had lost my husband.
When we spoke, she shared how it came about that she knew of Jim and me. She and Guru Singh had met to connect Guru Singh with his late mother. During this session, another entity burst in repeating “Pearls-Pearls-Pearls”. Michelle asked Guru Singh if pearls meant anything to him, but the word had no meaning for him.
This entity was insistent, and Michelle explained to Guru Singh that she connected “pearls” with the birthstone for the month of June. Did that mean anything to him? He responded, “Yes, one of my students just lost her husband. Her name is June.” Michelle told Guru Singh that this was June’s husband and asked Guru Singh to have me contact her.
I’m Holding Out . . . Until I’m Not
That was quite a story, but if anyone had the perseverance to make this happen, it would be Jim.
She continued on with Jim’s messages – he brought up golf (he loved the game), my terrible handwriting (true…he used to tease me about that), Johnny Cash (the closing song at his tribute was a Johnny Cash song), and his headaches (he suffered from migraines). All of these messages were plausible, but I was still holding out.
Then Michelle dropped the bomb.
She asked me if Jim had a nickname for me. Ah-ha. No, he didn’t. Then “but you had a pet name for him. Was it . . . “ and then she spoke the little nickname that I had made up for Jim. It was a silly private endearment only between the two of us and he had actually asked me not to tell anyone. And now Michelle had said it out loud. That’s when I knew that this was real, that Michelle was an extraordinary gift.
After Jim left the conversation, Michelle and I spoke for a while about the grieving process. She spoke with compassion and from experience. She made some suggestions to help me move through my pain; one which had a long-lasting effect was to schedule massages with someone safe and loving.
Gift #2: Paid in Advance
Gift #3: A Healer in an Attorney’s Suit
The third person bearing new gifts entered through another person’s loss. Four months following Jim’s death, one of Jim’s cousins lost his wife after an 18-month battle against pancreatic cancer. I didn’t know Steve well, but we made it a point to get together, as we could understand what the other person was experiencing. Steve had a big corporate job and to my surprise, he was walking a spiritual path. He talked about “energy healing” which I knew of through some of my friends, but the person that Steve spoke of sounded like a different level.
Steve eventually introduced me to Ken Klee, a Harvard law graduate and one of the most respected bankruptcy lawyers in the U.S. - and an extraordinary energy healer. Ken had been studying and practicing numerous healing methods including Reiki, Pranic Healing and Theta Healing since the late 90s.
It made sense to me that grief was deeply-rooted in my being and also made me susceptible to absorbing all kinds of low level energy. My energy healing sessions with Ken were (literally) other-worldly and healed me on an entirely different level.
The months crawled by and I continued to stumble and search for stable footing. I visited a grief support center but didn’t join. I knew that this could be a huge source of comfort, but I wanted an understanding about life and death at its truest sense. I needed spiritual solace that could only be gained by surrounding myself with like-minded people.
I joined a bereavement support group at the Agape Church which provided a safe and spiritually connected space to share my grief and talk about Jim and Max.
My longtime friend Nina Boski, a personal and business energy coach, truth-seeker, and the founder of LifeBites, was a steady support for my aching heart. A burst of bright energy always preceded her entrance into my home and her connection to the other side brought in threads of Jim’s presence.
One day over a cup of tea, I shared my fantasies of a Knight in shining armor who could whisk me away to fix my heartache. Her response: “Envision God as that Knight.” That’s Nina. So perfect.
New Rhythms for a Shattered Life
The rhythm of my life was in complete disarray. There was no harmony, no joy, and every note was off-key. In the struggle to ease my pain and grief, I unconsciously began to create a new rhythm for myself.
Mondays were acupuncture night. The late Dr. Jie-Jia Li was a true healer, descending from generations of acupuncturists and traditional Chinese medicine. His expertly guided needles helped to move and clear the grief embedded in my body. He repeatedly voiced his concern that my grief would convert into a heart condition - his acupuncture needles were literally repairing my broken heart.
Thursday nights were Kundalini yoga class with Guru Singh. I didn’t realize at that time that the breath work, mantras and singing were moving the energy of my lungs and easing the stagnation that occurs while grieving.
Fridays were massage nights with Tana Cole. I thought about Michelle and Sharma’s advice to get regular massages and my mind went to a woman that I had met years ago. Tana was a spiritual and intuitive woman who was a massage therapist and I trusted her. The Friday night massages were like therapy sessions for my body.
Those three evenings were sacrosanct. The activities of those evenings were not only an integral part of my healing . . . they provided consistency to my shattered life.
Jim’s strength returned with vigor. His appetite and energy skyrocketed, and he began lifting light weights and riding his recumbent bike. We talked about the unknowns of the future. We cried. We prayed. We watched “The Secret” and attempted to use words that affirmed the outcome that we desired. “Jim is Healed” became our mantra.
Remember the Daruma from Love Part I? The Daruma (Dah-Roo-Ma) is an ancient Japanese symbol of luck and good fortune and is used throughout Japan to achieve a goal or have a wish fulfilled. All one has to do is state the goal or wish, paint in the left eye, and then work for that goal every day.
We painted in the left eye on the Daruma and wrote the following words on the bottom of the doll: “Complete Cure & Recovery. Jim Bardwil. 10/10/07.”
Max was home and we embraced our little circle. Each of us was broken and cracked in our own way, but we were together and grateful for the present and our own little holiday.
Jim had been home for eleven days and we had one more day together before he returned to the hospital. Then we received a call from his Oncologist. They wanted to start the Consolidation Chemotherapy immediately and were expecting us at the hospital in the next two hours.
As before, whatever cadence that we had managed to create vanished and with a single phone call our safe bubble was abruptly popped and deflated.
Jim was in favor of getting started a day early. After he showered, I asked him if he wanted to wear his sweatpants.
“Sweatpants?!” he exclaimed. “There is no way I’m wearing sweatpants and walking in there like a sick person.” He marched to the closet and picked out a pair of white jeans, stylish shirt, and loafers.
Max stopped eating the day after Jim passed away. He laid on the floor and wouldn’t move, almost as though he was paralyzed. I tried picking him up, but each time he plopped down on the hardwood floor again.
I thought he must be dying and called Guru Singh. He said fiercely, “Max is not going to die right now.” Almost like he was willing Max to live. The next morning Max began to move and eat. He had decided to stay with me.
Max’s health stayed stable. His appetite was strong, and he loved his walks. But the incontinence increased and unlike before, when he would sleep for 10 hours straight, he had to be let out of the house several times a night. The Veterinarian told me that he was suffering from severe kidney failure.
One night I took Max for his usual evening walk. When I tried to turn around to go home, he tugged on his leash to keep moving forward and we had an extra-long walk that night. I didn’t know that he was saying good-bye to his neighborhood.
I knew that I would be tired. I knew that I would be sad. I knew that I would need time to grieve. But I could not have imagined the degree of exhaustion, unadulterated anguish and paralysis that would penetrate my being. And this wasn’t just for weeks, or months. For me, it was years.
- No one tells you that grieving is hard work.
- No one tells you that you will lie in your bed and scream and scream and scream from the horror of losing your husband.
- No one tells you that you will want to take your husband’s baseball bat and destroy everything in your home because what is the point of all of that stuff when your husband is dead?
I stood at a crossroad facing two tunnels. I could choose to stand rooted and paralyzed in that spot, or I could choose to walk through one of the tunnels. The first tunnel was well-lit and paved. The second tunnel looked like an endless black hole.
The first tunnel looked like the better choice, but it was an illusion. It was the Tunnel of Distraction where I could drink cocktails and wine, eat at nice restaurants, shop, travel, and be endlessly entertained. But I sensed that the tunnel of bright shiny things would turn into an empty abyss where one could not crawl out. I’d be stuck in a world made up of sparkly stuff and none of that stuff was lasting - and eventually that tunnel would hit a dead end.
My second unexpected gift arrived through a client who had turned into a friend. Carolyn had encouraged me to see her therapist, Sharma Bennett who had been a huge support during her divorce. She said that Sharma was very spiritual, which resonated with me, but I felt too weary to make an appointment.
It’s difficult enough to find the right therapist during normally stressful times. I felt that finding the right fit had the potential to shatter my fragile spirit.
One day, Carolyn called me and said, “I paid for your first session with Sharma so now you have no excuse. You have to see her.” What a friend, right?
I met with Sharma the week after I met with Michelle. Carolyn was right. Sharma’s calming and knowing presence was exactly what I needed.
Her counseling style of practical knowledge and compassionate kindness added a layer of wisdom and serenity to my life.
Sharma’s office and her presence was a space to hold my grief and darkness. As had Michelle, Sharma also encouraged me to get massages; she reminded me that humans have a fundamental need to be touched.
Five Seconds of Peace
In the beginning, that feeling might last for only five seconds, but it was five seconds of peace. Over time, that place of peace and solace expanded from seconds to minutes to hours to days to weeks.
The Beginning of the Second Year
Give Me Back My Old Life
The biggest joy in my life was gone. I felt like my life was just bullshit. All of this meditating and chanting and praying wasn’t bringing back the only thing that I truly wanted: my old life with Jim. I was tired of cultivating gratitude and thankful for what I have. I just wanted my husband back and I didn’t want to be here.
Ken Klee spoke to me about creating a spiritual harmony – of letting go of the relationships with Jim and Max the way they were and to move forward seeking my own happiness in my Earth life. “For what?” I thought. “What happiness?”
A New Mantra. Take That, God
I created a new mantra. God is a Fucker. God is a Fucker. God is a Fucker.
I lost my motivation to change my state of being and I didn’t feel like meditating, praying, chanting or doing yoga. I went through the motions, but I wasn’t feeling anything. I stewed in this place for a long time.
I knew that I had to let go of this anger towards God. I decided that for one day that I would set aside this anger towards God and be grateful. I tried this for weeks and found much for which to be grateful, but I still felt hopeless. During one meditation I saw a photo album hovering in the air in front of me. The album was flipping on its own showing me each page. Each page was completely blank.
This was my life right now, a blank album of unmemorable moments.
"FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE"
I began having difficulty getting out of bed in the mornings. I felt desolate and became scattered and disorganized. I would show up at meetings on the wrong day. I was sleepwalking through life.
I met with Guru Singh. We sat on the floor in his Studio, and I described my state of being.
He said, “You are depressed.” No shit. I already knew that.
He continued on: “You need to have discipline in your life. You need to do yoga every morning.”
“OK”, I responded, “for like what, the next forty days?” I was referring to the significance of the forty-day cycle upon which many meditations are based.
Guru Singh leaned forward and stared at me with his intense blue eyes. “No. Not forty days. FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.”
I started my mini Sadhana the next morning. Three days later I felt more energized – not like I could run a marathon energized – but more in touch. The depression lifted and didn’t return in this form again. The fact that I was already meditating, chanting and doing weekly yoga probably helped to accelerate the change, but I knew that daily morning yoga would be my lifelong practice. Not just forty days.
Tearing Off a Limb
During this time that I was struggling with depression, my friend Jann stopped returning my calls and emails. I sensed that she might be experiencing a difficult time in her life. I wanted to support her and respect her privacy, but once our communications were severed, I didn’t know what to do or think.
I conjured up dozens of possibilities as to why she had shut me out: Had I pushed her away with my neediness? Was she angry with me? Was she herself in pain and incapacitated? Had she been kidnapped by a cult?
None of my imagined scenarios mattered. Guru Singh teaches that unless we can see through the other person’s eyes, it is a futile exercise to imagine the reasons for another’s behavior.
I couldn’t see through her eyes. After several months of silence, I had to accept that she no longer wanted to be my friend.
Jann and I had known each other since we were sixteen years old – over 35 years. She was my closest friend and knew more of who I was than anyone else. In my emotionally fragile state, being disconnected from her felt like a limb had been torn off. And now Jann was gone, just like Jim and Max. I felt abandoned and alone at the lowest point in my life.
The Greatest Gift
I had no choice but to accept my situation. Jim, Max, Jann . . . within a year and a half, three of the most important beings in my life had been torn away and were no longer in my physical world.
I needed the pain to ease up. My prayers, my meditations, mantras and rituals all focused on one need: To nurture peace in my heart.
And here is where I received The Greatest Gift: I eventually understood and embraced that I could still have a relationship with people and beings who are not physically present in my life.
I harkened back to when Guru Singh and Guruperkarma had sat with me a few nights after Jim’s passing to help me understand that a person’s (and an animal’s) love continues to live in us forever.
My Ultimate Life Lesson
This revelation began to fill the cracks in my heart – not just about the loss of Jim, Max and Jann, but for everyone I had “lost” in my life.
Having grown up in the transitory lifestyle of a military family, the seeds of abandonment had been planted at an early age. I had a deeply instilled fear of losing the people I care for and spent my entire life fearing the pain of people leaving my life.
Knowing from the core of my being that the love continues to live in us forever began to fill my heart with peace.
Jann will always remain my friend. All of the people and beings that I love, whether physically active in my world or not, live forever in my heart.
And Then I Laughed
There was one other thing that happened in the second year after Jim and Max’s passing: I laughed for the first time.
I was with a group of women visiting the home of our friend, Lillian in Palm Springs, and I laughed in genuine joy. That weekend, I felt a lightness that gave me hope.
A few months later I made a joke during a group dinner. My friend Clara, who had met me after Jim and Max died and only knew me as a sad and broken person, stared at me and exclaimed “I had no idea that you had a sense of humor!” (the fact that she nurtured a friendship with me speaks volumes to her loving heart).
Moving a Quarter Inch at a Time
Judy Tatelbaum, an author and speaker on overcoming grief and emotional suffering wrote:
“Grief is a wound that needs attention in order to heal. The truth is that grief experienced does dissolve. Grief unexpressed is grief that lasts indefinitely.”
I chose to travel through that second tunnel – that seemingly endless black hole - I chose to fully experience grief. I crawled through a lot of gravel and broken glass; the tunnel was unbearably painful and excruciatingly lonely. Sometimes I would see a light far off in the distance, only to take a wrong turn and stumble into another dark tunnel.
But I kept moving . . . some days it was just a quarter of an inch, and not necessarily moving forward, but I kept going. And as I had hoped, there came a time when the tunnel felt warmer, the path became smoother, and I could breathe without a sob getting caught in my throat.
Transforming Grief into Gratitude
There is no end to this story. There is no pretty ribbon tied around this box because I choose to keep the box open and remain a student in the Art of Living.
Healing takes time. Growth takes time. The journey is humbling and one of continuous learning and being compassionate and patient with yourself.
I stick with what works. And what works for me is consistency in daily healthy practices. Meaningful rituals. Meditation. Journaling. Kundalini yoga. Fostering heart connected relationships. Learning from thought leaders and spiritual influencers such as Guru Singh, Pema Chodron, Paramahansa Yogananda, Sharon Salzburg, Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra and Dan Harris.
This is how I was able to emerge from the tunnel and transform Grief into Gratitude.
Graduating with Honors
Loss: Lessons Learned – Filling the Cracks with Gold
1. Time Does Not Heal all Wounds.
“Time heals all wounds” is a familiar saying. I believe that it is what we do with our time that heals our wounds. The only thing that time does is put distance between the event (death) and the present. Grief doesn’t heal if we don’t help it to heal.
It is so tempting to numb temporarily dull the pain that is permeating your being. It can also drive us to medicate with alcohol, drugs or food which perpetuates even more pain.
Guru Singh said to me: “Pain is patient. If you don’t face the pain today, you will be in greater pain tomorrow.”
I faced the pain by integrating consistent healing practices that remain at the core of my everyday life: Meaningful rituals. Meditation. Journaling. Kundalini Yoga. Fostering heart connected relationships. And always, always, opening myself to people who are infinitely more evolved than I.
2. Ask for Help . . . “Let Me Help You Help Me”
My friends supported me the best they could after Jim died. Like me, they were also navigating unknown territory and many of them didn’t know what to say or do to support me. Some of them thought that I wanted to be left alone because I was too paralyzed with grief to respond to their calls, cards and emails.
When I finally recognized what I needed, I communicated my needs to my friends. At the most basic level, I needed to know they hadn’t forgotten about me and Jim. That was it. I asked my friends to leave me voicemail messages letting me know that were thinking about me and remembering Jim, and to forgive me if I didn’t respond. Receiving those messages buoyed me through the many lonely months and years.
I also told them that I couldn’t bear to answer the question “How are you?” because my answer would always be the same: “Really shitty.” They got it.
3. Open Up to a Community of Support
Compassionate support and true friendship were instrumental in transcending the deep morass of grief. I was extremely fortunate that I already had Guru Singh as my spiritual teacher, Nina Boski as my friend and Dr. Li as my acupuncturist.
I believe that we are all channels for each other, and support is manifested through people.
After the deaths of Jim and Max, I prayed and yearned for peace to replace the torment in my heart. I opened myself to guidance and like mini-miracles, my support emerged in the form of wise and skilled people to guide me through my journey of grief.
4. Unpack Your Suitcases
It took me a while to recognize that I was carrying past baggage while slogging through the Tunnel of Grief. Sorting through that extra baggage was hugely uncomfortable, but I had to open some of those suitcases and discard the items that were weighing me down.
The heaviest item was my fear of being left behind: The Fear of Abandonment. The seeds of this fear had been planted during my childhood and continued to expand during the course of my life. I was forced to face this fear in the most extreme sense: my husband was dead; my dog was dead; my best friend had rejected me. They were gone from my life.
But were they really? I learned to embrace and understand that love never ends. I can still have a relationship with anyone who is not physically present in my life. Years later, embracing this Truth allowed for a much softer experience when my parents passed away within months of each other.
5. Grief Expands the Heart
Experiencing grief gave me the opportunity to evolve and expand my heart and led me to a different level of compassion. Everyone carries pain in their heart, but they hide their burdens - especially at work.
My “Church and State” attitude about my business and personal lives changed after Jim died and some of my most profound and intimate conversations occurred with people in my work life. I couldn’t hide that my husband was dead, and I was stunned when people in my industry went out of their way to support me. Grief was a catalyst for these genuine heart connections.
I will never forget the entertainment executive who sat outside waiting for me before I entered the building for a meeting. Without saying a word, he took my hand and we cried together.
I continually reflect on these kindnesses to fuel my support for those who are experiencing grief and pain and, in this way, I pay respect to the lives and deaths of Jim and Max.
Every action in my life was about replacing the grief in my heart with peace.
One day I found a box in my closet containing several small stones, each engraved with a different word. I selected seven of those stones and set them on a small table in our bedroom. Every night I sat cross-legged in front of the table and closed my eyes and picked up one random stone: Promise – Strength – Forgiveness – Trust – Peace – Gratitude – Grace.
Placing the stone in the palm of my hand, I meditated on the meaning of that word in my life. For example, if I picked up “Trust” I meditated on my trust in God’s love and Jim’s love and said a prayer of thanks. If I chose “Forgiveness” I would meditate on a person that I needed to forgive and pray for strength to forgive.
Carrying out everyday rituals of mantras, guided meditations, deep breathing and prayer never failed to blanket me with a feeling of peace and solace.
Michelle Murphy counseled me that the second year would be difficult in a different way.
In the year after Jim and Max’s passing, I was blessed with the arrival of a new energy in our home. After a monumental search, I was directed to Beau, dynamic 2-year old Border Collie mix. He was a gift from the beyond and returned some purpose to my life. He truly saved my heart from dying and for a while, was the only reason that I could get out of bed in the morning.
It greatly upset me that the small details of Jim and Max were starting to fade. I wanted to be able to see them, feel them, hear them, but all of those nuances which had been in sharp focus were like a fading dream. Michelle likened it to our childhoods – the details fade, but it doesn’t change the foundation of who we are. She also said that my soul was absorbing Jim’s memory, and this is a deeper grief.
No way! I looked at him in disbelief and sputtered “Do you realize how early I have to wake up to do that? I’ll have to get up at 5:30 every morning!”
He shook his head and countered “So what? That’s a half hour earlier. Do you think that I enjoy waking up at 3:00 every morning to do my Sadhana (referring to the Kundalini practice of yoga, prayer, chanting, and singing 2.5 hours before the sun rises)?”
Guru Singh went on to tell me that he often struggles with rising early every morning. Having him share that with me gave me motivation.
He added one more thing: “If you stay this way, Jim will kick my ass. I can hear him now: “I left June with you and this is how you take care of her?!”
And . . . remember when Jim and I painted in the left eye of the Daruma? We had written “Complete Cure & Recovery. Jim Bardwil. 10/10/07” on the bottom of the doll.
After Jim died, I held the Daruma in my hand and felt angry when I read our inscription. It didn’t work. Jim wasn’t cured. He was dead.
But later, I realized that it did work. He had been completely cured. Just not on our human terms. I eventually filled in the right eye with profound gratitude in my heart for this good man who had completed his life lessons and graduated with honors.