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What Does Starting a New Life Mean?

Muir Beach – one of my familiar places to walk

Here I am, six weeks into moving to California from Florida, two years after my husband’s death.  I’m struggling to find my balance, a sense of fit.  I have to build a new life from scratch, but what exactly does that mean?

When we moved to Florida from New England 5 years ago, it was for Larry’s comfort.  We were a couple.  We moved into a community of couples, with activities for couples.  Quickly we started building a new circle of friends, and then a new circle of support from doctors and support groups we discovered.   Though I was still working, the bulk of my energy and attention went to ensuring Larry’s well-being, as far as was possible.

Now I’m alone.  Yes, I have my daughter and her family nearby.  And I love our visits.  But I can’t live her life.

So I’ve been thinking about what I need to do.  What I need to find.  What I need to create to have a good life here.

What are the components of a good life?

I Googled it.  Family.  Friends.  A sense of purpose and meaning.  A sense of belonging – of fitting in.  Of community .  Of familiarity.  Fun.

Ok.  I have family nearby and I have been heartily enjoying that.

I’ve been making a few acquaintances on the dock – people living in the nearby houseboats.  But it takes time to turn an acquaintance into a friend.  It takes time to feel like you belong somewhere.

I am working and I love my coaching and my clients so I have a purpose and meaning , but it’s all virtual. And even though things are starting to open up, COVID is still a factor.  There aren’t a lot of ways to meet people.

It’s an odd feeling.  A pretty lonely feeling. I’m usually pretty content to be alone.

In some ways I felt less alone rattling around in my big house in Florida, even without family nearby.   Maybe it’s because everything was familiar.  The arrangement of furniture in the rooms.  The views out the windows.  The placement of stuff in the kitchen cabinets. The roads I walked the dog on.  The roads I drove for groceries, or for a walk on the beach.  I knew how to get places without using Google Maps.

Here everything is different, unfamiliar.  Getting anywhere requires a lot of concentration, nevermind navigating always with GPS since I don’t know my way around.  I’m trying to find a balance between exploring new places and going back to a grocery store or walking path I’ve already found.

I guess the bottom line is that this is a work in progress.  You don’t build a life in a few weeks.   Familiarity and comfort take time – like breaking in new boots.  I have a wonderful opportunity to practice patience, never one of my strengths.  I figured out how to live in the present while Larry was dying.  I have to relearn that skill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting a new life includes the fog of not-knowing

The fog rolled in yesterday in big swaths of dense white air off the mountains, changing the view that has just begun to feel familiar in these weeks of starting a new life.

In the sunshine last week, I traveled out of my comfort zone of the Waldo Point docks, drove over to the Pacific and took a walk up into the headlands.  There was no GPS coverage behind the hills so I had to rely on the old way to get there – the road signs.  I had no trail map when I left the parking lot so I just wandered along the cliff paths.  My not knowing where to go allowed me to just take in the ocean views, the smells of the sea and the wildflowers, and the gonging of the bell buoy.  My unknowing footsteps led me to discovering a labyrinth on a cliff top promontory.

Given the fog this week, I went a different direction for my foray into the unknown.  I found a sporting goods store and bought hiking sneakers – Florida was really not a place for hiking.  Then I went further north to find sunshine and a wonderful art supply store.

Allowing myself to experience the unknown is challenging, but has its rewards.

In a book I’ve been reading by Frank Osaseski (who coincidently lives on a houseboat two docks away from me) I discovered the concept of  “don’t know mind,” which seems like what we need when experiencing change.

“As we go about our day-to-day lives, we rely on our knowledge.  We have confidence in our ability to think through problems, to figure things out.  We are educated; we have training in specific subjects that permits us to do our jobs well.  We accumulate information through experience, learning as we go.  All this is helpful and necessary in moving through our lives smoothly.

Ignorance is usually thought of as the absence of information, being unaware.  Sadly, it is more than just “not knowing.”  It means we know something, but it is the wrong thing.  Ignorance is misperception.

Don’t know mind represents something else entirely.  It is beyond knowing and not knowing….

Don’t know mind is not limited by agendas, roles, and expectations.  It is free to discover.  When we are filled with knowing, when our minds are made up, it narrows our vision, obscures our ability to see the whole picture, and limits our capacity to act.  We only see what our knowing allows us to see…

This moment right here before us, this problem we are tackling… we have never experienced it before.  When we enter a situation with don’t know mind, we have a pure willingness to do so, without attachment to a particular view or outcome.  We don’t throw our knowledge away – it is always there in the background, ready to come to our aid should we need it – but we let go of fixed ideas.  We let go of control.

Don’t know mind is an invitation to enter life with fresh eyes, to empty our minds and open our hearts.”

The Five Invitations by Frank Ostaseski

 

 

The Awkwardness of New Surroundings – Change Can Hurt

Change can hurt.  Literally and figuratively.

I sold my house last week and I’ve arrived in California.   Sausalito, to be exact, just north over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.  I’m in tiny temporary quarters until the renovations on the place I’ve rented are complete.  Though the space is small, the bed is tall – 5 ½ feet off the ground with a metal stepladder to go up to it.

First night, 4 AM (7AM on my body clock) I decided to get up.  I stepped carefully down to the first step, then automatically  stretched my leg down for the ground as I was used to doing at home when I used the small stepladder I had at home.  Yes, you guessed it.  My leg did not reach the ground and I tumbled down, banging up both my knees.

Luckily, the only damage was blacks and blues, not any serious injuries.  But it demonstrates to me how much our brains and bodies are attached to our old ways of doing things.

It’s been 3 weeks today since I left my Florida house, the house we outfitted with things to make life easier for my husband, like a touch faucet in the kitchen.  I’m still banging the faucet here trying to turn it on and off.  How long will it take for my brain to learn the new pattern?

Far more distressing is the discomfort of the unfamiliar, from the view out the window, the faces I see walking the dog, the dials on the stove, to the furniture. Our brains automatically react to unfamiliar stimuli as dangerous – it’s a survival tactic?  Consciously we don’t think that because our brains are doing an override, making sense of what’s new, but it still feels strange.  When it’s familiar our brain doesn’t have to do any work.

There’s also the complete sense of incompetence that comes from not knowing.  Not knowing where to put the trash.  How to get to the grocery store.  What the COVID rules are within the grocery store.  Etc.etc.. I felt like crying first time in the grocery store.    It’s incredibly uncomfortable to feel so unskilled.

So what’s the lesson in all this? My move wasn’t the wrong thing to do just because I’m uncomfortable, or in pain, even.  Same with any changes you go through.

Just because it feels scary or uncomfortable doesn’t mean the old way is better, though our brains will tell us that as a reflex.  Just because we feel stupid or incompetent because we don’t get it at first, doesn’t mean we won’t get it or that the change is wrong.

It’s a matter of hanging in there, letting our bodies and brains get accustomed to the new patterns, new ways of doing things, telling ourselves that the feelings of discomfort are normal.  Repeating “things will get better.”

Starting a New Chapter – Emerging from the Cocoon

Image of the butterfly saying that we may need to cocoon before we grow
Cocoon Before Emerging

I haven’t posted for a long time.  It’s been two years this month since my husband died, and I’ve just started a new chapter.

Because of COVID, I spent 380 days mostly alone.   Since nothing much was happening externally, I figured I had nothing much to write about.

Having moved to Florida only 5 years ago with no family nearby, I had no “pod” with whom to shelter in place with. I had a friend I walked with a few evenings a week.  Lots of people I Zoomed with, both friends and clients.  But I ate almost all those 1140 meals alone.  Filled all those many many hours alone.

But as I’ve started to emerge from my cocoon, I realize it helped me to learn a lot about taking care of myself.  The first year without Larry the neighbors rallied round, inviting me to lunches, dinners, parties.  I was living our couples’ life, just alone.  I did a lot of things to fill time without thinking whether I wanted to do them or no.  And some things I did to allow others to feel they were helping me.  I wasn’t spending much time figuring out who I was or what I wanted.

This last year I had plenty of time to think.  To meander through past memories, both good and bad.  To ponder the future.  To explore and experiment with what made ME happy, what foods I liked to eat, what I wanted to do and when.  I had no excuses to make about why I didn’t want to go out.  I didn’t even have the responsibility of deciding whether or not to go out and about.

I started to learn Spanish, played the piano more than I’d had in years, swam laps every day, did hula hoop fitness in the back yard, and did a lot of writing and painting.  I took on a healthcare client who wanted to provide stress relief to their staff and did lots of research on resilience and mindfulness.  I meditated and journaled a lot!  For the first time I joined my art and writing and work with weekly resilience messages coupled with a painting.

I finally decided it was time to move.  I’d known I wouldn’t keep the large house for myself from the beginning but it was lovely to have so much space while I was house bound.  With no family around, the work and cost to maintain it didn’t seem to make sense and Florida was never a forever destination for me.

The problem was I didn’t know where I wanted to move TO.  The 15 months without family made moving close to family seem so much more important than ever before but my kids live in the most expensive cities in the country on the opposite coast!!  I think grief hampers decision making for some of us – everything compared to care giving should feel easy but for some reason making decisions alone seemed hard (even though I had been making decisions alone for years – but with a sounding board that was now gone.)

The work of getting the house ready to sell, choosing how and when to sell, and starting the process of shedding so many possessions was incredibly daunting and had me procrastinating out of fear for many months.  Fear is so sticky – I couldn’t move in any direction.  Finally I decided that if I could find the strength and skills to support my husband while he was deteriorating daily and still find joy for us in each day, then I could support myself through this next big thing!  And I have.  I moved 3 weeks ago.

When feeling fear we have to look at how we’ve come through difficult things in the past, look for our strengths, look for courage to continue to face difficult things.  Without self-pity.  Without carrying a list of all the bad or tough things we’ve had to go through.   But we also have to be compassionate and gentle with the scars we carry.  It’s a fine balance, but the only way to move forward.

 

 

 

 

50 Days of Eating Alone

Socially Distant FlowersQuarantine?  Lock down?  Shelter-in-place?  Stay Home, Stay Safe? Whatever you call it, I’ve been home alone.  I’ve kept a journal of my reactions.  And it’s a way of having a morning conversation.  With myself.  I’ve tracked it – it’s been 50 days of eating alone.  Every meal.

I see people when I walk the dog.  I’ve had plenty of conversations on the phone, or video chats with family and friends using FaceTime or Zoom.

I’ve even taken a few socially connected but physically distanced walks with a neighbor.

Mostly, though, I’ve been alone with my thoughts (and my dog).

I hate listening to the news.  I hate the disrespect for the science.  I hate hearing about and thinking about all the deaths, all the illness, all the loss – life, jobs, businesses, food, family, connection, celebrations, funerals.  There’s so much loss and grief.

But for me it hasn’t been all bad.  I don’t have to psyche myself up to accept invitations I’m not up to going to.  I’ve had time to do a lot of journaling and a lot of meditation, including loving kindness meditation where I send compassion to myself, my family, my friends, and to the world.  I practice gratitude daily.  I practice staying in the present.

I’ve done art.  I’ve started playing piano again.   I’ve gotten a lot of projects done around the house.

I get bored.  I miss hugs.  I miss being able to travel to see my kids.  I’ve had occasional crying jags where the pain of missing Larry is all too acute.  But all in all I feel pretty ok.  Actually, I feel more whole again.  I think this time has helped me finish my healing.  Not finish because I’m sure there will be more, but maybe move on from healing as a primary necessity.  I didn’t even notice the passage of the monthly anniversary of Larry’s death on May 2.

I can’t say I look forward to getting back to normal because I’ve some to the conclusion there won’t be the old normal anymore.  We’ll have to figure out a way to live in this new coronavirus infected world.  My state is opening up and people are out and about working, shopping, and socializing.  But I’m not sure I’m ready to go out.  I’m not confident of the safety.  I’m not confident it will bring me anything I don’t already have.

Except maybe not eating alone.  And a hug or two.

Grief of One Year and Grief in the World

Still life of fruit separated on a table just as we have to be separated by 6 feet in the world
Still Life: Social Distancing

Today, at 9:02 PM, unbelievably, it will be one year since my husband died. I dreaded this day coming.  Another “first.”  But it seems a bit trivial to feel sorry for myself in the light of all the grief in the world.  Great loss makes us more open to others’ pain.    I resonate with the grief in my extended family for the loss of a daughter/mother, wife, sister to colon cancer last week.  Today I resonate with the grief in the world of 48,290 families – that’s the coronavirus death count as I write this.    If each person who died had 10 people mourning them that’s 480,000 people, most of whom never were able to say goodbye or even be with their loved one as they passed from this world.

A year seems so long.  Without him.  I still feel married.  Still wear my ring,  His picture sits in front of me and his smile still makes me smile.  Yet so much has changed.   In my life.  In the world.

I miss holding hands.  I miss hugs.   I miss his jokes, and his calmness.  I miss his acceptance and his optimism.  I miss Larry!

For a roof inspection last week (too complicated to explain here) I had to read through  my journals from three years ago.    It made me realize just how incredibly hard things were for both of us.  I had forgotten???  What I read made me so much more compassionate for how much healing I’ve had to do.  Still have to do.  More compassionate for how little I’ve done to move on this year.   You can’t expect to accomplish much from yourself when you are grieving.

And now the world is grieving.  Grieving deaths and grieving lost freedoms.  Grieving loss of work and loss of income. Grieving normal rhythms and activities.  Grieving that fragile and unrealistic sense of predictability that our “normal” lives give us.

I had to  learn how to live with uncertainty.  I had to learn to stay in the present.  I had to learn to live alone.  I had to learn how to be intentionally social when I need to, and how to wrap myself in a cocoon when that seemed right.   I had to learn how to let the darkest moments of grief  wash over and through me, and also to let them go and get on with it. These are all skills that serve me well in this time of coronavirus.

I had originally thought I’d commemorate this day by flying to Maine and visiting his gravesite.  Nope.  Then I thought maybe I’d gather some friends to talk about him.   Not in these days of social distancing, and so much grief in the world.

Tonight, I’ll light a candle at 9:02, for all our losses.  If you knew him, maybe you will to.

Otherwise, I won’t do much of anything special today.  After all.  This isn’t an ending.

Lessons from Larry in this Chaotic Time

Larry looking at the turquoise waters from Sharky's PierMy husband faced the deterioration of his body and the inevitability of his impending death (yes we all know we’re going to die sometime but it’s different when you know it’s sometime soon).  Somehow he maintained his grace, gratitude, and goodwill.  I think these lessons from Larry we can all apply at this time of world chaos.

Everything became unpredictable to him, from the daily ability to hold a spoon, to the ability to draw an easy breath.   And now everything is becoming unpredictable to us, from where we can go, to wondering if we’ll have money to survive, to searching for a store selling toilet paper.   Somehow Larry learned how to accept whatever came that day, without giving up, without wasting energy mentally fighting it and without complaining.

We have to accept, and not give up, but not waste energy wishing what is happening isn’t happening.  Because it is.  And really stop complaining about being asked to stay home so as to save lives of others more vulnerable.

Larry found a way to continue to appreciate life in an increasingly small “lifespace,” as international, then local travel, then even walking became impossible. The beach was a favorite place to relax and regroup, first playing frisbee or paddle ball, then just walking, then just sitting and enjoying the water. When he could no longer navigate the sand, we’d just drive to the water and sit in the car and enjoy the view.

Now, our collective lifespace seems to be shrinking rapidly – my daughter lives in one of the California counties that needs to “shelter in place.”  Just like Larry, we have no choice, other than how we react.  We can rant about it and wish it weren’t so, or we can find ways to live with it, and appreciate life in whatever way we can experience it.

Over time, Larry lost the predictable schedule of daily work, and as many retirees find, no longer knew the days of the week by the activities on his calendar.  But in its place a different rhythm took over – a rhythm that became both comforting (and sometimes annoying).  It was the varied but predictable rhythm of physical exercises, voice exercises, and lung treatments.

We are rapidly losing our predictable schedules and it’s hard to adjust.  We need to rapidly put new rhythms in place, creating some variety and predictability for ourselves, because who else will do it for us?

Larry was open about his problems and in his acceptance of his vulnerability, he drew people to him. He was always grateful for the help he received, even though he didn’t want to be in the position of needing help.   He always wanted to help others, and worked on helping family members even in his last year.  When he couldn’t speak much, he continued to communicate and show he cared about others with a few words or a smile.

This is perhaps the most important of all the lessons from Larry.  We need to be open about how vulnerable we feel – honest with ourselves and each other.  And we need to communicate and show we care, help others, and be grateful for one another.

We’re all in this together.  Unlike Larry, we will survive.  Let’s pay attention to these lessons from Larry, his gift to us, and let’s help each other survive with grace, gratitude, and goodwill.

 

 

We Need More Words for Grief

Mountains of Santa Fe in purpleJust like Eskimo tribes are said to have 200 words for snow, we need many more words for grief. Is the grief I feel today the same as the grief I felt when Larry first died? Is the rush of “ambush grief” that overtakes me unawares and strikes me down, the same as the gentle fond grief I feel when I catch sight of one of his photos?

I was reading a post on a widow/widower discussion group that talked about someone naming grief that lasted too long “stale grief.” That strikes me as wrong in so many ways. What’s too long? When I cried in my neighbor’s arms this morning and it’s almost a year since Larry died is that stale grief? Would it be if it had been 2 years?

I remember my mother tearing up talking about my father who had died thirty years earlier. She’d gone on to figure out how to live alone, how to parent alone, how to fall in love again, and have a wonderfully happy second marriage. Was her grief in that moment of remembering “stale grief?” We need more words for grief!

Words help us make sense of the world. They help us see similarities and differences. They help us understand ourselves and others. “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see,” wrote noted author Joseph Conrad. How can I understand, or help others understand, when I can’t find the words?

Do we not have more words for grief because the English are not ones to be comfortable around grief, don’t really want to talk or hear about it?

I was curious about words associated with grief in different cultures. In Persian, the word for grief is also the word for regret and the two emotions are seen as similar. In a particular regional Russian language, the word for grief is more similar to anxiety. In Austronesian languages the word for grief is often paired not only with regret and anxiety but also with love. There is a Farsi word for sadness or grief that has a more physical connotation – ,Ghoseh – to have emptiness.  And a Japanese word, natsukashii, which is the sadness and longing for something that will never come again. Or even the German word, Mutterseelinallein, which is a feeling of being abandoned by everyone you love, literally translated as “your mother’s soul has left you.”

There are times when I feel grief, like today, that has more of a sense of anxiety of being alone in the world, and how to make/take the next steps alone. Other times I experience grief I would identify more as the deepest sense of loss – a major part of my life, myself, gone missing. Sometimes grief feels physical – like being sliced open by a machete. Sometimes it’s like a rush of love.

I experience grief at different intensities.  Sometimes it’s a tiny drip, sometimes it’s a fire hose unleashed.

And then there are the different relationships we’ve had with the lost – mother, daughter, wife, brother – and the quality of those relationships – loving, estranged, angry, complicated – that change the way we feel grief.

These feelings are not the same, even though we use the same word. I wonder if it would help the process make more sense, help us talk about it with more clarity, if we had more words for grief, words that would describe the nuances of grief.

Ten Months of Grief and the Flu

An empty road aheadYesterday marked ten months since my husband died. Ten months! And I’m just recovering from three weeks of illness – Influenza A, then sinus infection and bronchitis.  Ten months of grief and the flu is not a good combination.

Grief at this point mostly sits in the background, always there, but more of a low buzzing than a loud drumbeat.  Except when those “grief ambushes” occur.  The problem is that the low buzzing still uses brain power and heart power to manage, leaving not a lot left over for the normal challenges of life, like the flu.

I read some research several years ago about students who were put in a room with warm chocolate cookies and told they couldn’t eat them but they had to solve what in effect was an unsolvable math problem.  They gave up on the math problem very quickly, compared to the students who were told they could eat the cookies.  The first group’s emotional control got used up on resisting the cookies and they had no stamina left to confront the math challenge.

That was me, after the succession of holiday grief ambushes.  I told someone it was like I had been in a prize fight with a much stronger opponent.  I get in the ring and get pummeled by Thanksgiving and go down.  I struggle to my feet, wipe the sweat from my brow, or the tears from my cheeks, and I get punched again by Larry’s birthday.  Thankfully the bell rings and I have a few weeks in my corner to marshall my strength for Christmas.  Then back into the ring where I’m knocked down again.  I stumble to my feet and get pummeled again by New Years.  Now I’m staggering, nothing left to find my balance, and then I get sucker punched by the flu.  And… I’m down for the count.  Now I really and truly physically feel like I’ve been pummeled by a prizefighter.

Everything hurt – eyes, teeth, whole body.  Even my hair hurt.  I wondered if that was how Larry felt toward the end.

Being sick is rotten but being sick alone is awful.  The first days of the flu when my fever was up over 103, I just ached and slept.  But once the fever broke, I started down the self-pity path.

I had nothing left emotionally to combat the slide.  I wanted Larry.  I wanted my Mom. I could find no comfortable place in my mind, my imagination, or my heart.  I had so many hours with not enough energy to do anything, and just enough energy to pay attention to how much I missed my husband.

Finally I started to think about why the flu – why now?  I’m sure I was exposed to flu germs over the last three years and never got it.  Every year I get the flu shot and this year was no exception.  So why?

On top of the holidays, I was putting pressure on myself to make decisions about the future.  I was facing lots of new options that were confusing.  I pushed myself physically – draining my last energy on an 8 mile kayak trip.

So my body gave out.  I began to wonder if my body remembered how to be well.  But I also wondered  what benefit was this illness providing?  I didn’t have to go out and face the world.  I couldn’t have much in the way of visitors because I was contagious.   The flu provided an enforced cocoon.

Maybe that’s exactly what I needed in order to rebalance.  Maybe that’s what I needed to restore – like a farmer leaving a field unplanted so it re-nourishes itself.

Ten months of grief and the flu took their toll, but I’m still here, quietly getting ready for whatever will come next.

 

New Year’s Grief

Original Painting of feeling underwater
My pastel of Cal Academy Aquarium

Who knew that New Year’s Day would bring such new year’s grief? Actually, a friend who is a retired grief counselor knew but we didn’t get together about it till yesterday.  She said she’d always warn people about it and they wouldn’t believe her

Thanksgiving was hard as I wrote in my last post. I survived Christmas quite well, making new memories with my kids, staying in a houseboat in Sausalito and seeing the sights my 3 year old grandson favors – the zoo, the aquarium, etc.

Then I flew home on New Year’s Eve and enjoyed sunset on the beach with friends. All ok.

Sailboat in the setting sun
Last Sunset of 2019

But starting the next morning all resilience was gone. Although January 1 is just another day, it seemed so significant to start a new year without my husband. The first of many. Impossible.

I felt bereft without Larry.  So lonely.

I could blame it on the jet lag, and certainly that didn’t help.

But there’s no question that all these “Firsts” are hard to navigate and they’ve come so quickly. My first birthday without him in October. My first Thanksgiving without him in November. His birthday in early December. Christmas. And now the new year.

There’s something so symbolic about the new year.   It’s all about the passage of time, and the passage of time makes you look at yourself and your life – both past and future.  After all, the custom of resolutions is associated with the start of a new year, whether or not you make them or keep them. At the very least, it’s time to tackle all the things you postponed until “after the holidays.” At the most, it’s a fresh start, a time of new beginnings, time to start new things, and leave others behind.

So what did I postpone as I worked to hold myself together through the holidays?  Not little things, big things!

All the big decisions about new beginnings.  What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Should I try to rebuild my consulting business? Should I do some other kind of work ? Retire? Where am I going to spend the rest of my life? When should I sell my big house that I rattle around in alone, making me feel even lonelier – a single small being in a space meant for two, or three or four.

I pushed myself hard in the last few days to start making some of these decisions. Then I started having panic attacks and I haven’t been sleeping.

The passage into a new year facing an unknown future alone is scary. And it feels sort of like leaving Larry behind in last year.  I miss him. There is no place of safety or security in my mind or in my heart.

Finally I realized I have to do more healing first, before pushing forward. Get over the holidays. Get past this first rush of new year’s grief.  Get my feet back under me. Stay in the present. Adjust to being home, to being alone after being with family. Not worry about big decisions, until tomorrow, or next week or month.  To stay present in today.

I’ve meditated, alone and in a group. I’ve allowed myself to cry. I’ve gone back to exercising, to yoga. I’m journaling and studying a bit about healing trauma – as caregiving over time involves traumatic experiences.   I’m doing artwork.   I’m tackling little projects, errands where I can feel like I got something done.  I’m seeing friends.

I’m still feeling crappy, but I am feeling less crappy than last week. I’m okay with that as progress through the new year’s grief.