A Timeless Gift

A Timeless Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

A Timeless Gift

When a door closes . . . look for an open window . . . but it may take a while to feel the breeze.


Emerging from shock after my husband Ken died, I discovered strange things happening around me. Each morning I found doors unlocked, the television blaring and sprinklers spraying. Something shattered my life, and I felt utterly unprotected and vulnerable.

Once I had been a mentally strong, independent woman—handy qualities for a young navy wife living in strange places and rearing four children alone. My husband’s ship cruised half a world away, often through hostile waters toward secret destinations. The possibility that he might not make it back was never far from my mind. After all that experience living apart in the early years of our marriage, I now wondered if I had what it took to live alone.

A friend’s words helped me understand what I was feeling. “You lost someone you love, and nothing has prepared you for what happens next. You’re reacting to intense pain by closing down and buying time to heal. You still function,” she said, “but now you are operating on automatic. And don’t forget, nobody is doing your husband’s chores.”

Ken had efficiently taken care of making my world safe by quietly fixing, renewing or replacing what needed to be done. In my current state of mind, if I remembered to turn anything on, I usually forgot to disconnect it, taking for granted that what needed to run, sprinkle or turn off would do so on its own.

As friends and relatives gradually drifted back into their own routines, I stayed home, stared off into space and withdrew from life. It was obvious I needed help, but it was easier to do nothing, live in the past and feel sorry for myself.

Moving forward was hard, and I looked for excuses not to try. Day after day I prayed for guidance. Finally, one Sunday about two months after Ken died, the church bulletin included an announcement for the beginning of a new grief-recovery workshop. One statement caught my attention: “Grief is real, powerful and has a devastating impact on our ability to function.” The class started in two days. This must be an answer to prayer, I thought, so I followed God’s direction and signed up. It felt right to be in his hands.

My confidence wavered as I walked to the first session. It was more difficult than I ever imagined. I felt as though I wore a sign saying, “No spouse! All alone! Abandoned!”

Beginning with that first night, the seven members in my group empathized with each other’s tragic loss as our bonding included advice from the heart, the hand of friendship and a sympathetic ear. Joining this group was the first step I had taken to help myself and one that would eventually make me feel better, stronger and less vulnerable.

Our homework assignment? Do something pleasurable for ourselves. I splurged on new plum-colored sheets, transforming “our” bedroom into “my” room with a cheerful, feminine décor. Then, because I never owned one before, I bought a navy blue designer baseball cap. Checking out the hat, I glanced in the mirror and smiled. Being good to myself could easily become a habit.

Facilitators cautioned us about letting painful reminders of the dead person stay in our lives. Guilt can lure us into making our homes a shrine to their memory. I called mine “the recliner shrine.” Grandchildren’s crayon drawings, an old newspaper and a mug inscribed “Dad’s Cup” remained where he left them on a small table beside the recliner.

The chair’s emptiness served as a constant reminder that he was gone. My children looked for Dad in his favorite place each time they entered the room. It was just too painful, so they took action. They reorganized the house. Immobilized by his death and still too stunned to move, I sat in the rocker and watched them work. Couches and chairs, followed by end tables, lamps and pictures, all ended up in a new spot or a different room. I loved the way it looked. The recliner, hidden under a floral cover, was relocated to an inconspicuous corner of the house, still with us, but no longer a blatant reminder.

Grief facilitators taught me how to face the finality of my partner’s death. I realized that grieving is not a place for me to stay, nor can I go back, for my old life is no longer there. Accepting that it’s all right for me to survive is a big part of healing.

In addition, facilitators admonished each week, “Take care of yourself.” Since my husband was no longer here to make my world safe, I would do it myself. Using a twelve-point system, I secured the house, counting each job: (1) lock the door; (2) close the windows; (3) turn off the TV, etc. If I reached my bed with less than twelve, I knew I had missed a room and had to start over. Counting brought me security and peace of mind.

I resolved to simplify and reorganize my life. Feeling easily distracted and maddeningly forgetful, I bought a monthly planner that I kept in full view on the kitchen counter. I made a do, buy or be list: Do call plumber, wash car, buy milk and bread, be at vet 4 P.M. (don’t forget the dog). This visual reminder lessened the stress of trying to remember everything.

On the first-year anniversary of my husband’s death, I filled a basket with strawberries, pears, grapes, plums and other colorful fruits. Then I attached a note of appreciation and delivered it to the hospital intensive-care staff. I had been too devastated before to thank them for such compassionate care of both patient and family.

My daughter asked, “You’re not doing a shrine thing again, are you?”

“No,” I promised, “these gifts are to nourish the living, so they can continue helping others in need.”

Later that day while emptying my husband’s desk, I found a torn piece of paper from an artist’s Morilla sketchbook. The unexpected note was not dated, but I recognized Ken’s handwriting immediately. “Dearest wife and children, Forgot to tell you how much I love you—I do.” My eyes filled with grateful tears.

Ken always said things happened for a reason. This gift that arrived without a date on the anniversary of his death was very special. It reminded me that I was loved deeply, I loved him in return, and our love became part of us forever— even when one left and the other moved toward a new life alone. Eventually, the pain of parting diminishes, but the love remains forever—like a timeless gift.

Gloria Givens

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