Trust that your body and your mind were designed to withstand great sorrow. It sounds cliché, but when my husband died, my heart ached with such sharpness I was certain my heart would actually break with the extreme sorrow.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Potter Kenyon.
Mary Potter Kenyon graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. Mary works as a program coordinator at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Following the multiple losses of a mother, husband, and eight-year-old grandson, Mary became a certified grief counselor and Therapeutic Art Coach. She is the author of “Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace,” “Expressive Writing for Healing: Journal Your Way from Grief to Hope,” and “Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity.” Mary founded the annual Hope & Healing grief retreat and speaks on finding hope in grief for support groups, churches, and funeral homes. See more at www.marypotterkenyon.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in a small town in Iowa, the seventh of ten children. I met the man who would become my husband the summer after high school, marrying him a year later. We lived in married student housing while we both attended the University of Northern Iowa. I abandoned the pursuit of a masters in Family Services when I found myself taking final exams in a hospital bed shortly after giving birth to my fourth child. I sold my first piece of writing a few weeks later. For the next twenty-five years I was mostly a stay-at-home mom, adding four more children to our growing family. I ran various home businesses, picked up occasional part-time work at a newspaper or library and continued writing essays and articles. Shortly before my husband died in 2012, I began teaching classes on writing and doing workshops on couponing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m drawn to inspirational quotes like a magnet. If you look at my office and home walls, the covers of my journals, and even the stationery and notecards I use, it’s obvious I am lifted and encouraged by other people’s words. That’s why I copy quotes into my journals and my books includes epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, shared wisdom from other people.
That said, in relation to grief, one of my favorite quotes is “You can be broken or broken open.” I don’t know who to attribute that quote to, but it became my truth in 2013, after losing my mother, husband, and young grandson in the space of three years. Those multiple losses in such a short time could have broken me. Instead, I felt my heart break wide open with a desire to help others. By the end of 2013, I was ordering personalized fortune cookies with that message inside to hand out when I spoke to grief support groups.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
#1) I love doing research. This quality has served me well as a writer, but it’s also important in my work as a program planner and speaker. I delve deep into research for my writing and teaching. I want all the facts and figures in front of me and I’m willing to fall down rabbit holes to discover them. I couldn’t have written my non-fiction books without delving into the science behind bereavement, expressive writing, and creativity, and connections between those topics.
#2) I’m a lifelong learner. I never stop learning. I’m an avid reader, particularly of non-fiction books. I read a dozen magazines every month. I love taking classes and workshop related to my interests. I learn from others all the time, including my students in the classes I teach. There is always more to learn.
#3) I have a strong faith that guides my life. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, considering I only developed a personal relationship with God following my mother’s death in 2010. Before that, I was a good person living a decent life, but now I actively listen and practice discernment in my prayer life. It is my faith and belief that we are all here to help each other that has led me to my work with grievers.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?
I was 52 years old when my husband unexpectedly died sometime during the night three days after he came home from the hospital following a heart stent surgery. Four of our eight children still lived at home, the youngest just eight years old. My mother, the only other widow I knew, had passed away just seventeen months before, and my grandson Jacob was facing a recurrence of his cancer. I didn’t know it at the time, but he would lose his battle the following year. Those multiple losses in a three-year period changed my life. I became a different person, or as I share in my book Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace, I was truly refined by these losses.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
The worst had already happened. My husband died. Though I had a college degree, was a freelance writer and had conducted various home businesses or worked part-time jobs around my husband’s hours, I’d basically been a stay-at-home mom for thirty years. I wasn’t sure who I was outside of a wife and mother. I wasn’t sure I’d be okay, emotionally or financially. A modest life insurance policy covered the funeral expenses and the purchase of a more reliable vehicle. What remained would allow me a year or more before I would need to find work.
How did you react in the short term?
Emotionally, I was a mess for a few months. David and I had finally figured out what it meant to truly love someone, to put their needs first, and now I’d lost that? I couldn’t even care for my daughter’s other children that summer while Jacob underwent cancer treatment because I had serious doubts about meeting the needs of my own children. I certainly didn’t trust my capability to care for other small children. I will always regret my inability to care for my own grandchildren during a time my daughter needed me most. Still, I had an eight-year-old to consider and teens who were looking to me to know how to handle their own grief. I can’t say I did a particularly good job at any of it.
It wasn’t too long after my husband’s death I had an epiphany. I was looking out the window as I did dishes, when I noticed the bird feeder was empty, had been empty since David was no longer there to fill it. I broke down right there, standing at the sink. What would I do without David? What would David want me to do? I knew what he wouldn’t want me to do, and that was to give up everything that made me feel alive. He’d been such a shining example of someone who appreciated every single day since his cancer in 2006. I vowed at that moment to give myself a gift. For one year I would do only those things that I really wanted to do. I would give up my freelance work covering boring stories for the newspaper. I would not leave my youngest daughter to work part-time at my sister’s consignment shop. I would continue to do the workshops and classes that brought me joy and a little income. Not only that, I would bring my daughter with me. I’d write for hours each day, take bike rides to the cemetery, and sit in the sun reading books while my daughter went swimming at the pool. With offers from others to help keep an eye on my children, I would attend three writer’s conferences that year, getting on an airplane for the first time to travel to one of them.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
I instinctively turned to journaling, something I’d never done before, despite being a writer. After a few months, I wondered how people grieved without it. That’s when I began researching grief and the science behind expressive writing. I couldn’t just grieve. No, I had to study bereavement like it was a course I needed to pass. I read The Other Side of Sadness by George Bonanno, intrigued to discover there could be positive meaning in loss. In her book The Truth About Grief, Ruth Davis Konisberg validated that the five stages of grief I’d learned in college were invalid, something I’d already suspected considering I’d experienced no anger or denial over David’s death.
I read other people’s grief stories, picking up books by authors like C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, surmising that if they had not only survived their loss, but risen above it to write about it, I could too. I also turned to the Bible for answers, even though at that time, I had no idea how to find answers within a book that sat on my shelf, dusty and unread, except to read the Christmas story once a year. I began devouring devotionals, subscribed to a daily scripture e-mail for grievers, and allowed for quiet, meditative time each morning.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
For a while, the memory of discovering my husband’s dead body haunted me. When I came downstairs that morning, I saw him sitting in the recliner, the television on, the remote clutched in his hand. I thought he was sleeping. I went into the kitchen, made coffee, and settled onto the couch nearby to write a letter. When I went to wake him half an hour later, I realized he was dead. That moment of realization, the horror, kept repeating itself in my mind, along with the accompany visceral reaction: shock and nausea. I had to consciously replace the memory of that moment with an image from the night before: my husband’s broad smile that greeted me when I returned home after doing a presentation. David had been so proud of the programs and workshops I’d started doing just a few months before his death. He’d hated missing this particular one but was too weak to accompany me. The expression on my face must have indicated how well it had gone because as soon as I’d set foot inside the house he smiled broadly. “It went well?” he asked, and I nodded. We’d held hands and talked for a while before I went upstairs to bed. Every time my mind shifted to the memory of discovering him dead, I replaced that image with the one of him smiling broadly.
I don’t think we ever truly “let go” of the negative aspects of loss. Nine years later, I can still experience the occasional burst of grief, a swift, sharp pain of remembrance that accompanies the reminder of my loss. It happened once in a dentist’s chair when the dental assistant asked why I hadn’t been taking care of my gums. I started to answer truthfully; how in the midst of grieving mother, husband, and grandson, caring for my teeth seemed the least of my concerns. Suddenly, I was sobbing, and I couldn’t stop. Embarrassed by my uncontrollable outburst, I changed dentists. More recently, I was undergoing a stress test for my heart. Alone in a room where I was hooked up to monitors, it suddenly occurred to me that if my husband had only had this same test earlier, he might still be alive. When the ultrasound technician returned, she was horrified to see me crying. She hurried to reassure me that my heart looked fine. No longer embarrassed by my emotions, I actually started laughing, which helped stem the flow of tears. I explained I wasn’t crying about myself, but the husband I’d lost eight years before.
In the same way, I can be at a store or walking down the street and be moved to tears by the sight of a little boy that reminds me of my grandson. Or a woman who reminds me of my mother. There is no real “letting go” of the people we loved and lost, just as there is no “moving on.” There is only moving forward, choosing to live the best life we can.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
I knew I could become bitter, or better, because of the multiple losses. I was determined to become a better person for having had those wonderful people in my life in the first place. I wanted to live a life that would make them proud, trying to be more like the best of them. My mother lived a life of creativity and faith. In her honor, I would get closer to God and begin to take seriously the writing I’d been doing mostly as a hobby up until then. My husband was honest to a fault, simple in his needs. Following his cancer treatment in 2006, he’d become more genuine in his interactions with others, freely expressing affection and appreciation. Despite my natural shyness and inhibitions, I started reaching out to others, even strangers. I boldly followed the advice he’d always given me to “just tell the truth,” even going so far as to tell the committee responsible for hiring a library director, that if I got the job, I’d need to be able to have my youngest daughters with me at work. Lo and behold, I still got the job, and my youngest daughter came to work with me most days. As for my grandson, he was the kindest, most giving child I’d ever known. He’d save the prizes he won for good behavior in the hospital for his siblings at home. During a brief remission of his cancer, he collected toys for other children in the hospital. He was always thinking of others. He even reached out from underneath the covers to rub his mom’s back when he heard her complain of a stiff back, from sleeping on the floor next to the couch where he lay dying. How could I lose someone like that and not want to be more like him? I designed “random acts of kindness” cards and have been doing random acts of kindness in his name ever since. I’m not just a different person because of having had these people in my life, I’m a better person.
My systematic study of bereavement helped me as well. Studying grief and bereavement led me to become a grief counselor. I discovered helping others also helped me. By 2016, I was regularly speaking to support groups. I founded an annual grief retreat, incorporating what I’d learned regarding the connection between creativity and healing.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
My sisters rallied around me after my husband died, as did my adult children. Their love and care felt like cotton batting, protecting me from the sharp edges of pain. But of course, their lives moved on, as should be the case. I had one friend who somehow knew what I needed, despite not having lost a spouse or parents herself. Once a month, for a year and a half, my friend Mary Humston would drive 70 miles to take me out to lunch. She asked questions no one else asked. She listened. She companioned me in loss. How she knew to do this, I don’t know, but I will forever be grateful for that companionship.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
I chose to make something good out of the bad. I mined the pain for meaning and purpose and became a better person because of it. Looking back to the person I was before 2010 (when my mother died), I barely recognize myself.
I’m living a full life, knowing my loved ones would have wanted that for me. I’ve signed six book contracts since my husband’s death, continue doing workshops and classes, and discovered I have a passion for public speaking. I do more of what makes me feel alive. I try new things just for the sake of trying them, allowing for failure. I appreciate each and every day I am here on earth and am more aware of the beauty in the world. Once the fog of grief lifted, colors were brighter, music brought me to tears. I’m in awe of rainbows, love the smell of rain and fresh mown grass, relish the sounds of birds singing.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I’m stronger than I thought. I can do more than I ever gave myself credit for. With each success, personal or professional, I get closer to seeing what my mother and husband saw in me all along. As an example, I was watching television with my husband when the powerful female speaker mentioned how often she got her hair done for her public persona. My husband turned to me and remarked how someday I would be like her, and he wanted me to feel free to get my hair done as often as needed, “for my public.” I was flabbergasted. I’d just begun doing workshops and teaching beginning writing. I hadn’t done any public speaking since high school, some thirty-five years before. I couldn’t imagine doing public speaking, much less having a public. Yet a year after his death, I spoke on finding hope in grief for a large church congregation. And now, nine years later? I never feel more alive than when I am speaking to a large group.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
#1) Trust that your body and your mind were designed to withstand great sorrow.
It sounds cliché, but when my husband died, my heart ached with such sharpness I was certain my heart would actually break with the extreme sorrow. I’d heard of couples dying within hours of each other, so I knew such a thing was possible. Later, I would learn about broken heart syndrome, a physical reaction brought on by stress.
At the same time, I knew our bodies and minds must be designed to withstand loss, considering all of us will experience it in our life. Otherwise, we’d all be dropping dead, one after another. I knew there were widows and widowers living a full life, even remarrying, parents who had lost a child, still married, raising other children. My instincts were correct. Science proves we are designed to withstand loss.
#2) Find the tools that work for you.
While I incorporate expressive writing and other artistic pursuits in my grief retreats as a healing tool, I don’t expect everyone to take up journaling when someone they love dies. There’s no harm in trying such a simple, inexpensive activity, however. There are tools available that can contribute to our healing and we need to find what works for us.
That’s difficult to do when we are actively grieving. Eighteen months after my husband died, I’d yet to change a lightbulb and we had two dark hallways to prove it. It was ridiculous. How hard could it be to change a lightbulb? Yet, I felt paralyzed by the act that had always been my husband’s. Instead of telling anyone or asking for help, I worked around the dark hallways, turning on the bathroom light at the top of the stairs so we could navigate the stairwell, using a closet light to illuminate the other darkened hallway. When my daughters discovered the lights weren’t broken and just needed a lightbulb replaced, they were horrified. Why had I allowed us to walk around in darkness for a year? Why indeed?
It’s the same concept for grievers. There are things that can help us, whether it is a year saying no to whatever we don’t want to do (including changing lightbulbs), journaling, seeking God, attending support groups, seeing a counselor, creating art, planting flowers, meditation, or losing ourselves in work. As long as those activities are not harmful to us, unlike medicating with alcohol or drugs or engaging in risky behavior, we need to give ourselves permission to try different things until we find what works for us. I believe we often instinctively know what that is. I turned to journaling and reading. I tried a grief support group but it was a Bible study that saved me. We met in a church for two years, but ended up in my home for three more years, until I moved away. Members of that Bible study became like family to me. Two of them helped me move.
I allow grievers a safe space for trying different things at my annual retreat, providing materials and incorporating creativity as a healing tool.
#3) Take pleasure in small things.
At first, the joys will be intermittent and rare. Part of my journaling practice was finding something to be grateful for each day, even if the only thing I could think of that day was a smile from a grocery store clerk. I practiced gratitude so that it could become a habit. Even amid sorrow there is beauty, if we are open to it. The morning of my husband’s funeral, I marveled at the sight of the bleeding-heart plant next to my house. It had never bloomed so early or so profusely, and yet there it was, full and lush, the dripping heart blossoms mirroring my sorrow in a painfully beautiful way. There were the kind gestures too; my sister Joan arriving on my doorstep with plants she had dug up from her own yard, suggesting I could find solace in gardening, which was true. Another sister, Pat, stopped to pick me up on her way to a thrift store, caring for me through the retail therapy we both enjoyed. There was a care package from my sister-in-law Susan delivered to my front porch a month after David’s death. My sister Denise who didn’t even celebrate Christmas, sitting with me that first Christmas Eve. These small gestures remain precious in my memories.
#4) Take pleasure in big things.
It’s easy to feel guilty when we enjoy something after our loved one has died, but if they truly loved us, they would want us to be happy. Plan something to look forward to, whether it’s the art class you always denied yourself, a concert, or a trip. Keep in mind that some events and activities will be landmines that first year or two; traveling alone when it had always been you and your spouse, or taking yourself out for a special meal will likely exacerbate your loneliness. If you and your spouse planned a trip to Alaska “someday” it might not be a good idea to book the trip alone that first year. But a girl’s trip to a concert might be just what you need. The night of my husband’s wake I won a scholarship to a writer’s conference that would be held three months later, on what would have been our anniversary. While my initial reaction was that I couldn’t possibly accept, it had been my husband who’d encouraged me to apply for the scholarship in the first place. I accepted. It helped to be away from the home we’d shared on the milestone date. Later that year, I climbed aboard my first airplane to attend another writer’s conference and thank the man who was responsible for the earlier scholarship. Author Cecil Murphey is now a mentor and dear friend. If I hadn’t braved the trip, I never would have met him.
#5) Discover your purpose and your passion.
Who was I, outside of wife and mother? I had to face that conundrum after my husband of thirty-four years passed away. It helped that I’d already begun to branch out from my somewhat isolated world of mom-at-home before David died, but I never would have discovered I loved public speaking if I hadn’t bravely faced a church congregation a year after his death to speak on grief. I wouldn’t have seen how easy it is to talk about something I am passionate about. Because of my personal experience, I am authentic and approachable in my workshops and speeches.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
There are already kindness movements and I’ve been practicing random acts of kindness in my grandson’s name ever since he died in 2013, but we can always use more kindness in the world. Kindness is contagious. It’s also healing to our hearts. What if we all made the decision to practice one random act of kindness each day? What a difference it would make in our world.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to share a cup of coffee and conversation with the people who have impacted me in some way in the past ten years. It would be quite a diverse group, ranging from Austin Kleon, who authored a series of creativity books to Christian author Holley Gerth, religious leader Max Lucado, and musicians Kenny G, Danny Gokey, and Matthew West. I’d probably want at least one artist in the mix. I own many pieces created by Kelly Rae Roberts.
If I had to choose just one for a private breakfast it would be Kenny G. He wouldn’t even have to talk; he could just play his saxophone while I wrote. Yes, I’d be writing while I ate breakfast, reverting back to the years when my husband offered to watch the children while I took myself out for breakfast for a private writing session. Some of my most prolific writing took place over a plate of eggs, toast and hash browns or in the early morning before children were up, Kenny G playing softly in the background.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!