Freedom After Loss*
My life has changed since Dan’s death on October 20, 2015. It’s also a total and complete understatement. Examining my unintended newfound freedom feels absurd. After 14 months, the raw shock has been replaced with grief and lonesomeness. How can I think about personal freedom as a single person, a widower, thrown into loneliness suddenly, with all my mixed emotions?
This two-part essay is about exploring my newfound freedom and setting up a plan to make new and deeper connections with people and my advocacy work. In this Part I, I reviewed my lifelong experiences with Dan and my first year without him. Then in Part 2, I can begin to form the basis for writing my specific steps and goals.
2016: A Year of Shock and Grief
After a year of hard work, reading books and articles about grief, as well as the commitment and resulting healing with the wonderful folks in my bereavement group, I am moving forward. I believe a chapter in my grief journey has been completed. I have learned and experienced this past year is that I am not the only person on the entire planet who was dealt a bad hand. This may sound excessively simplistic, but by knowing that others have lost loved ones too provides a lot strength and encouragement to move forward.
Let’s start with an inventory of stability amid my emotional morass:
- my excellent physical health with regular hiking and gym workouts
- my beautiful home
- my friends
- my doggie Sammi was with me this year and died November 17, 2016
- my connections with both families, mine and Dan’s
- my Buddhist practice
- self-managing my retirement money
- my volunteer work: Palm Springs Writer’s Guild board, local Buddhist Center board, LAUSD 403(b)/457(b) Advisory Committee, this blog and my advocacy work, and revising and updating our self-published book—Late Bloomer Millionaires
- Not resorting to drugs, prescriptions, or other destructive behavior for relief
My physical surroundings and connections with friends and relatives have continued and deepened. I will continue to live in my home and drive the same cars. While my emotional experience fluctuates, healing has progressed. Grief and shock lingered for weeks and months, affecting everybody who knew and loved Dan.
For the past year, I have religiously attended a weekly bereavement group at Gilda Radner’s Cancer Center. Dan and I joined this wonderfully supportive Center five years ago when he contracted prostate cancer. When I participated in their bereavement group immediately after Dan’s death, I felt comfort knowing that Deborah, the group leader, knew Dan. She was Dan’s professional facilitator for his cancer group four years ago.
I will always feel Dan’s presence–our history will live with me for the rest of my life. Dan was the most spiritual person I knew, and for that alone, I am fortunate to have lived with him for over half of my life. Dan’s life of compassion and humor is a great model to follow. He affected people immediately with his subtle but powerful style. He showed compassion to everybody by various human tools that we possess now. We don’t need specialized training to be kind, to find humor, and to be patient. Dan’s discussions with friends and strangers alike were soaked with words of acceptance, encouragement, validation, and when necessary with healing.
Widowerhood vs Singlehood
My grief has now changed from raw shock to being lonely and widowed. My mind comes up blank when thinking of what to do next. How can I be content being single now, when I rarely experienced anything positive in my young and single years? The last time I was single, without a romantic partner, was in 1973. Thus, this past year has been the longest period that I have been single since I was 25 years old. I remember thinking as a young man that I was in a mental prison. I was always comfortable with people superficially, but found few meaningful connections. I didn’t understand why I was so afraid, intimidated, and downright shy.
Are there any positive experiences about fear and shyness to draw upon? How does this unasked-for new freedom of being single stack up at age 69 compared to when I was single at 25? For starters, widowerhood feels different from singlehood. Widowerhood wasn’t a choice while being single, or unattached, is a choice and with little history. History can be a problem for us widows and widowers as my 40 years with Dan, and the memories will never dissipate. How do you deal with 40 years of history?
What will I Do Next?
The questions for me is how do I move forward in my life without Dan? How much of his individual spiritual and philosophical legacy will spill over to me? Will a personality osmosis come into my being? Will I be able to take advantage of the wisdom he learned and freely gave to others?
The answers to these questions are both obvious and unknown. But one thing is for sure: Dan’s gifts will spill over to me because I practice and think in spiritual ways too. I will be open to more of it and take full advantage of his ageless wisdom. I have had to this past year. Living, breathing and experiencing deadening shock and grief ironically opened new doors, big time, to all the spiritual possibilities that Dan possessed that I hadn’t experienced before. I noticed friends and relatives had shared their personal problems more than before. Others have said that I am an “inspiration” while still others have noticed that when I am around the environment is more positive.
While I had a difficult social, personal and professional history before Dan, those experiences live in the past. I am different now than I was in my 20s in so many ways. It’s much more than possessing a history with Dan. Along the way, I also worked hard to self-evolve in these areas with an improved psychological, physical, health, financial, professional, and educational status. Undoubtedly, I did well. I married above my station, and I took every opportunity to continue to evolve.
Talking with Your Spouse Before Tragedy Hits
Dan and I talked about the eventuality of being widowed. What would we do? From our discussions, we agreed about some basic preparations—such as getting legally married. We updated our will and beneficiaries. We did not want to be on life support—if the quality of our life decreased so much that we would never recover to our otherwise healthy self, then it’s over. We wanted to be cremated and have our ashes buried on Mt. San Jacinto State Park. For the survivor, we agreed about resisting making major decisions such as selling our house, moving and isolating ourselves. We did not ask for unrealistic promises, and we both wanted the survivor to move on, be happy and perhaps remarry eventually.
Attending a bereavement group was a no-brainer. Asking for help via professional or self-help programs to address life’s challenges was easy for both of us. Dan was in Alcoholic Anonymous, the famous 12-step self-help program for 48 years. For years, we sought help when we were in our 20s and 30s, trying to figure out this adult responsibility stuff (we had met at a group encounter workshop in Big Bear). Sixteen years ago, I attended a cancer support group when I was diagnosed with colon cancer. Once again connecting with other cancer patients showed me I was as not the only patient. This group was a source of information so that I could be my own advocate to get the best care.
Those previous conversations and experiences prepared me for this newest challenge–my new life as a widower and being single. If I have not learned at my age that life throws us both positive and negative experiences, then I need to grow up. However, that was not the case. I have done everything I could to treat my grief, because, as most would agree, there is little emotional preparation for significant loss.
What 45 Years of Life Can Do
Of course, I am different from when I was a 20-something. In addition to the stability in my life in the inventory above, look at what I have going for me. I am fortunate that I don’t have to be employed. I draw a teacher’s pension and self-manage my investments to support my commitments to my personal finance blog, serve on boards and committees that reflect my values. I have skills, wisdom from life’s experiences, sustainable values, friends, community, family, and money, not just because I am 45+ years older, I have worked at improving myself too. And I am lucky that motivation and required discipline to learning new things, and learning from mistakes, came easily to me.
My attitude about continuing to change, recognize and implement good ideas whether mine or someone else’s idea are tremendous assets. I am ready to take on the biggest challenge of my life. Will I be open-minded and fearless about taking on my singlehood with renewed energy to my advocacy projects and volunteer activities? Can I experience the newfound freedom to fulfill my dreams as a happy, single person, or remarry or take on unknown future challenges and recognize opportunities?
There is Hope. There must Be.
Yes, I will, because I have already demonstrated my gusto and fearlessness to reach my dreams. There is one huge positive attribute I can draw upon from my less than positive youth experiences. During my 20-something years with my loneliness, frustration, no money, college drop-out, dead-end jobs, and consumed with self-doubt, I had something going—perhaps an unknown skill or natural intuition, or just plain, good-old-fashion luck. Doesn’t matter why. With all my youthful foibles, at age 27, I made the best decision in my life, when I decided that Dan was the one.
*This post originated by a question asked by my friend and life coach, Felina Danalis (Link to her blog: http://www.felinadanalis.com/). A life coach overlaps as a psychologist and a career counselor. Fourteen months ago my life was literally turned upside down. I was in shock for months but through thick or thin, attending a bereavement group, keeping in touch with family, staying involved, and hiring Felina, slowly I am readjusting to living as a single person for the first time since I was 25 years old. This entire post was a direct result of one, (of many), of Felina’s simple but profound questions: What is freedom after loss?
**Stephen A. Schullo, Ph.D. (UCLA ’96) taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for 24 years and UCLA Extension teaching educational technology to student teachers. Steve wrote investment articles for the United Teacher-Los Angeles (UTLA) newspaper for 13 years. Thrice featured retirement plan advocate in the Los Angeles Times and U.S. News and World Report. He co-founded an investor self-help group (403bAware with a colleague, Sandy Keaton) for teacher colleagues and wrote 6,500 posts in three investment forums since 1997. Frequently quoted by the media, testified at California State legislative hearings and honored with the “Unsung Hero” award by UTLA for his retirement planning advocacy.
Frequently quoted by the media, testified at California State legislative hearings and honored with the “Unsung Hero” award by UTLA for his retirement planning advocacy. For the last ten years, he has served on LAUSD’s Investment Advisory Committee as a “Member-at-Large” and former co-chair. The committee monitors the district’s 457b/403b/PARS of 55,000 former and current LAUSD employees, worth $2.2 billion in total assets. Steve and his late husband, Dan, were featured participants for the award-winning documentary, PBS Frontline: The Retirement Gamble, aired April 23, 2013. Lastly, Steve was quoted in the brilliant five article series on the 403(b) published in the NY Times, October, 2016.
Steve is the author of an additional new book, released last year, “Fighting Powerful Interests: Educators Challenge Tax-sheltered Annuities and WIN!” A story of how a handful of LAUSD educators struggled for years to improve the 403(b) to no avail. But we never quit! We were instrumental in LAUSD’s implementation of the new 457(b) plan, and ended up with a “Plan Design” award.