By Daniel Casciato
Ellen Gerst’s widowhood came suddenly when her husband committed suicide. She was married just short of 20 years when her first husband died. According to Ellen, her husband was the sanest and most rational man she knew and this was purely a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Suicide brought up complicated grief issues for her because she also had to work through her survivor guilt before she could even address the myriad of “normal” grief issues.
“In general, a survivor attempts to apply logic to this event, or look for a cause-and-effect, because that is how we, as humans, understand and bring order to our world. Herein lies the dilemma, and the root of the guilt, of the survivor,” she says. “It is virtually impossible to successfully apply logic to an illogical situation and expect to arrive at a satisfactory answer. In truth, there are very few good explanations of why someone would choose death as a solution to a problem. When logic fails to supply any answers, guilt and self blame are always there as alternatives. The survivor continues to berate herself for missing the signs and stopping the fatal act.”
Ellen adds that it’s so easy to recognize clues in retrospect, but life can only be lived going forward and decisions made with the information in front of you at the time. Eventually, the survivor needs to have her emotional mind and rational mind travel concurrently (which is not always an easy task), eventually merge and come to a resolution.
“The resolution is that responsibility for the act lies solely on the shoulders of the person who completed the suicide,” she says. “After much soul searching, I came to accept this fact. It was then I could start to heal.”
Today, Ellen is a grief and relationship coach, author and speaker, now living in Phoenix, Arizona, and has two sons from her first marriage. Nine years ago, she remarried. She recently responded to a list of questions we had for her via email in our ongoing Q&A series.
PBT: How were you able to cope with this experience?
Ellen: I have always been task-oriented and very proactive in all that I do. Consequently, when I had widowhood thrust upon me with no warning, I set out to find out everything I could about grief, loss and suicide so I could better understand the place in which I found myself.
Always a voracious reader, as well as a writer, I made my way through the library stacks and trolled the self help sections of bookstores. I ingested incredible amounts of material and then I started to write/journal in order to figure out how I felt about all the issues in front of me; what I was going to do to move myself forward; how I envisioned my life looking like now; and how to heal myself emotionally and spiritually.
I discovered a support group for young widows and widowers under 50. I volunteered to write a newsletter for the group, and I discovered that others were comforted by what I wrote because they were experiencing similar things. As I figured out and reconfigured my life, my journey from darkness to light became their journey too. The difference was that I shared mine publicly in an attempt to help others to feel not so alone with their struggles.
Through my great loss, I forged a new career – that of a grief coach. I believe very strongly that when one is in need of support, he or she should take all that is offered – even to the point of being greedy about it! Of course, when the crisis has passed and a person has started healing, I feel it is the moral obligation of that person to turn around and offer his or her hand to the next person starting a similar journey.
So those initial newsletter articles became a book, Suddenly Single: How To Find Renewal After Loss. I went on to write other grief and relationship books including, 101 Tips and Thoughts for Coping With Grief; Understanding Grief From A to Z; Love After Loss: Writing The Rest of Your Story; In Order To Be Terrific, You Need To Be Specific!; Understanding Dating and Relationships From A to Z; and Dating Over 35+: Your Relationship Choices.
My coping mechanism was to make lemonade out of lemons by transforming the tough hand I was dealt into a contribution to the world. In this way, I have given my late husband’s death a meaning with which I could live.
PBT: How did your friends, relatives, co-workers, and neighbors treat you during this difficult time?
Ellen: A fascinating byproduct of widowhood is that you learn the true meaning of friendship. It is most surprising who steps up and who steps back. I tried to not feel disappointment in those “friends” who disappeared – only thankful for the ones who did show up.
I was lucky; though, only one friend disappointed me and I still haven’t heard from her to this day. My family was terrific. They were very supportive and allowed me to grieve at my own pace. Additionally, they did not act as if my late husband had never existed. They always remembered important days (anniversary, birthdays, etc) and were not afraid to mention his name or bring up fond memories.
I cannot say the same for my late husband’s family. After the funeral, I had brief contact with his two brothers, but haven’t heard from them in 17 years. For me, it is not so important; however, I wish they could have been there for their nephews, as my sons have no contact with that side of the family. My overriding feeling about them is that they have not dealt with their own issues about their younger brother’s death and probably found it too painful to have contact with his surviving family. Mostly, I feel sorry for both of them because their unresolved grief will come back to haunt them one day in some fashion.
PBT: How has your past influenced you as the person you are today?
Ellen: I am definitely more spiritual. I am not afraid of dying because I realize that death is just another step of life and that we can still have a relationship with those who have passed. Perhaps, it is not an everyday, physical relationship. I like to think of it as a long distance relationship! We may not see our loved ones but they retain a place in our hearts.
I am also more appreciative of the every day beauty of life and remember to take pleasure in the little things. I can go with the flow and not sweat the small stuff. I know the most important thing in our lives is the relationships we have and that we must treat the people in our lives with gentle care and not let words of love ever go unsaid.
PBT: What drives you today and how do you maintain this drive?
Ellen: I want to make a difference in the world. I want to be able to touch people’s lives and turn their perspective a couple of degrees to the positive – to let them see that there can be good even in the most devastating of situations. I am constantly reenergized by the feedback I receive from those whom I have helped on their grief journey from loss to personal renewal.
PBT: What do you think are some of the most difficult issues facing people who are divorced, widowed, or separated today?
Ellen: Society, as a whole, has failed in preparing the populace on how to handle loss. And, there is so much loss today and it is not just from the loss of a partner. There is the loss of a job, of one’s standing in the community, of self-respect; of a home and on and on.
The lack of knowledge and preparation is why most flounder when confronted with a loss. No one has been given the tools to move through grief in a graceful, healthy and successful manner. You simply have to learn “by the seat of your pants” when you lose a loved one – and it is a steep learning curve.
That said, some other issues include a sense of isolation and loneliness. Others tend to keep their distance from mourners – almost afraid if they get too close, they will catch their “disease”. We often hear the term “grief recovery”. Grief is not an illness, so there is no “recovery”. It is more a moment when life takes a pause, which allows the mourner to travel through his/her grief on an introspective journey towards self-enlightenment.
To name a few more issues: monetary (now one person supporting a family rather than two); time issues (spread too thin – one person trying to do the job of one); children growing up and not being privy to seeing how a good relationship/marriage works (research show girls growing up without dads are negatively affected and it influences their behavior throughout their lifetime); and depending on the circumstance, the lack of a same sex role model.
PBT: What advice do you have for those who are recently divorced, widowed, or separated to help them move on to the next phase of their life?
Ellen: Even if you are in a hurry to “get over it”, you must afford yourself enough time to properly grieve your loss. Moreover, you never get over it; you only get through it.
People are too anxious to get over their sad feelings (without examining them) and move on and “sometimes…wish that life had a fast forward button.” (Dan Chopin) Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. It is just plain messy, and you need to spend some time attending to your “mess” before moving on.
During this process you must also mourn the demise of your last relationship. Remember that divorce and separation are also losses and must be properly mourned.
It is very important to spend time in introspective thought and examine your life rather than live in denial about your true emotions towards your new circumstances. No doubt about it – this is a painful experience. However, looking at your “stuff” is the first step in being able to let it go.
It is also important to take the time to get the “new single you” before even thinking about getting recoupled.
PBT: Who has inspired or motivated you in your life?
Ellen: My children have inspired me the most, as well as motivating me to always be the best version of myself.
I believe in parenting by example; I never expected anything of my children that I wasn’t prepared to do myself. Consequently, if I wanted my children to be able to lead happy and successful lives, even in the face of the great loss of their father at the tender ages of 10 and 15, then I needed to show them how to cope with grief and loss in a graceful and healthy manner. This thought spurred me on to work long and hard on my grief so that I could get my life back on track. Only an emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually healthy me could provide a good role model for my children to emulate.
PBT: Do you have a motto or phrase that inspires you?
Ellen: Every event in life is neutral. It is the individual that places an emotional connotation on an event and, thus, makes it a positive or negative experience.
For more information, you can email Ellen at LNGerst@LNGerst.com, like her Facebook Page, “Love After Loss: Writing The Rest of Your Story,” visit her website, or read her blog. Ellen is the co-editor of Thin Threads of Grief & Renewal, which is a compilation of personal essays of untold grief and how each author found personal renewal in his/her life due to this experience. Reading of other’s triumphs can be a great source of healing energy and inspiration for anyone who has experienced loss. Ellen has also written books on many other topics, including: spirituality, caregiving for aging parents, fitness and weight loss, confidence, social media and networking for entrepreneurs, and the power of positive thought.