If you are not putting your needs first and filling up your bucket, you’re not going to be able to take care of others.
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 Melissa Pierce of Filled With Gold.
In 2011, Melissa’s husband Dave died, leaving her a widow raising their two young sons on her own. Melissa’s first priority was to take care of herself so that she could care for and support her children who needed her strength more than ever. Her daily practice of radical self-care helped her to process her grief and move forward with her life. Today, Melissa is an author and founder of Filled With Goldmonthly subscription boxes providing resources and personal care items supporting widows with their self-care.
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?
You bet! I grew up in the Portland suburb of Tigard, Oregon and was a middle-class kid of the ’70s and ’80s. Before my family got cable, we could only get a couple channels, so I didn’t watch a lot of TV. We lived on a dead-end street and I spent a lot of time outside playing tag, running around in the forest next to my house and building forts with the neighbor kids. I was an above-average student and loved the performing arts, so I was in choir and plays throughout middle school and high school.
I was the youngest of three kids and the only girl. If you ask my older brothers, they’d say I was spoiled because I didn’t get into as much trouble as they did, but if you ask me I would say that I was smart because I watched them and didn’t make the same mistakes.
My dad travelled quite a bit for his job, and I remember my mom carrying a lot of the day-to-day parenting load. She is one of the most positive people I know — with a sunny attitude, but I think it was hard on her at that time. It’s probably why I’m such a “pleaser” — I never made waves or got into trouble. I just didn’t want to add to her stress, so I was always trying to make everyone happy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be kind to people — you never know what they are going through”. We are all grieving right now during this pandemic. We are grieving the loss of social and physical connection, grieving the loss of our lives as we knew it, and some are broken-heartedly grieving the death of loved ones. Treating others, as well as ourselves with a little kindness and compassion at this time is so important. Grief is hard work both physically and emotionally.
I know I was not at my best when I was grieving the loss of Dave and I’ll always remember the kindness and compassion of friends, family and folks I barely knew who took care of me and my kids during those first few months after Dave’s death.
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.
Good question! I know that I’m empathetic and I have a passion for service. I can feel and sense what others are going through and put myself in “their shoes’’ so to speak. Being a young widow and single-parent is not the “norm”. I felt like I was the only one moving through this experience and I was really frustrated that there were not more books or resources for me to access. That’s why I wrote my book and created my business to support other widows.
I want other widows to know they are not alone, there is no Widow 101 guidebook, but there are guides out there who can help to show others there is hope for the future.
I’ve also got a pretty decent sense of humor. Sure, there were times when I was at my lowest lows and I thought I would never laugh again, but what helped was dark humor, comedy shows and connecting with others who “get” the experience of losing a spouse or life partner.
Eight months after Dave died, I went to Camp Widow at a hotel in San Diego and this one older guy joined a group of us widows in the elevator at a moment we just all happened to be laughing our asses off. He glanced at our badges that basically stated in big fat letters that we were widows.
“Widows?! ” he said. Widows could laugh? What about?
After he bolted out of the elevator, we completely lost it. So, laugh, even if it makes others uncomfortable — it helps manage the stress and pain.
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?
Yes, I talk about in my book and in my business so here goes…
The night before I found Dave dead in our bed, he told me he wasn’t feeling well, like a chest cold was coming on and he was going to head to bed. He told me he loved me and kissed me on the cheek so he wouldn’t get me sick. Those were the last words I heard him say. The next morning, I got up and saw Dave’s leg. It was sticking out from under the covers, and it was gray.
I performed CPR on him, but he was cold. He was stiff. I started to scream and shake. I knew he was gone. It made no sense to me and it still doesn’t. There was still so much we had to do together. Overnight I became a widow and solo parent to our 10 and 13-year-old sons.
The medical examiner determined that he died due to sleep apnea and a respiratory illness but that didn’t make sense to me. So, what do you do when you need real answers? You go to the experts. So, that is what I did. I searched for answers by seeing two different psychics about a year or so after Dave died and they both told me that he died from a cardiac event.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
The first two days after Dave died, I didn’t sleep until my doctor convinced me to take a sleeping pill for a while.
My heart was also beating abnormally so I had to go to the hospital for an EKG and was put on a heart monitor — it felt like my heart was literally broken.
I was terrified that I would die too, so I immediately had a will drawn up to establish care for our kids in case something happened to me.
I was scared that my kids would stop breathing in the night, so I regularly checked on them in the middle of the night, sometimes waking them up to make sure they were still alive.
I was a mess.
How did you react in the short term?
For several months, I didn’t believe Dave died and had to remind myself that, yes, he really is dead — that I performed CPR on his dead body, I picked out clothes for his funeral, I touched his body at the funeral home. I had to convince myself that he was not coming back. I had to convince myself that I was alone now.
For those first few months I didn’t cry that much, and I thought that was weird. Like I didn’t love him enough to fall apart and cry all the time. I literally had no feelings about anything — I moved through life like a zombie and it really scared me.
The tears would come later after the shock wore off and I allowed my emotions to move through me.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
Solo parenting after the death of your spouse is no joke! We were all hurting and grieving in our own ways, but the boys still had to go to school, I went back to work after a five week leave of absence, the boys played sports and had homework, bills had to be paid, carpools, meals had to be prepared, groceries bought, etc. There was no one to share the load. Dave was gone. I was doing it all. I was exhausted.
Around the six-month mark, the realization hit that I was truly alone and this was my life now. I was in a lot of emotional pain. Initially, I soothed myself with wine in the evenings. At that time, I felt like I’d never feel love, joy or purpose again. It was like being in a deep dark hole.
My drinking was getting out of hand, so I sought help — not easy for me to do — I don’t like being vulnerable and asking for help but I had to let go of all that because I knew that the wine was only temporarily making me feel better and helping me sleep.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
I don’t really believe I will “heal” from the trauma and grief of Dave’s death. It is a part of me that I try to understand, move through and manage.
What I try to let go of is thinking that I actually have control over anything other than the way I respond to “out of control” situations.
Engaging in grief counseling helped me understand my emotions. It was also nice to have someone tell me I wasn’t going crazy, that all my thoughts and feelings were pretty “normal” in deep grief. My counselor guided me to the awareness that I was being really hard on myself and to acknowledge that I was moving through an unimaginably difficult time with Dave’s “out of order” death and that I really needed to be kind to myself and to honor all that I was doing to keep my family afloat.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
I started writing in a journal. I was never someone who journaled, but it did help. I noticed that a specific theme was coming up around how a lot of the emotional pain showed up in my body. There were times when I felt like I was going to burst out of my skin, and I knew I needed to shake loose that pain. The grief that was literally stuck in my body, and I needed to loosen it up and release it so that I could have some clarity and space to deal with the trauma of Dave’s death.
I knew in my gut that I had to start taking better care of myself so that I could take care of Brad and Bryce. It’s like when you’re flying on a plane and they tell you to put the oxygen mask on first before assisting your child with theirs. I knew I couldn’t help my kids process their grief if I wasn’t dealing with my own.
I decided to be open to anything that might make me feel something (hopefully good). I started with my body and got regular massages and pedicures. I took a lot of baths because I liked the feel of warm water on my skin. I tap-danced, took a singing class, practiced yoga and read any book about grief I could get my hands on.
It didn’t feel indulgent to do this.
It was like I was giving myself permission to take care of me and writing myself a prescription for it. Self-care was a game changer for me as I began the work of processing my deep grief and practicing tons of self-care to move forward. It took time, but I did find that I wasn’t alone, and I could experience joy, confidence, and even love again.
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?
Dave and I were part of a tight-knit group with two other couples we had known for years. Our families would vacation together, have barbecues, play music and sing. After Dave died, we still got together and never once did I feel like the “5th wheel”. One of my best girlfriends from this group called me regularly, took me out to dinner, babysat my kids — whatever I needed. I relied on her heavily and she was up for the task. I have a lot of love for her. If you look up “grief ally” or “widow champion” in the dictionary, her picture is there.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
Yes! In 2017, I wrote and published my book, Filled With Gold — my story of loss and moving forward as a solo-parent eventually finding love again with my “Chapter Two”, Sean. This was the book I wanted to get my hands on after Dave died; a story of a young widow and solo parent moving towards hope.
I really needed to create or make sense of Dave’s death and I knew there was more I could do to help others navigate the pain, loss and trauma of losing their life partner, so I created a business around supporting widows with self-care. Who better than someone who understands and can empathize what they are going through? Well, I guess that’s me. I can be a guide to other widows and let them know they are not alone and that there is hope. There is always hope.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
Before Dave died, I was letting life happen to me. I was a classic pleaser from childhood on. In processing the aftermath of Dave’s traumatic death, I became the person who I am today. I am a strong, resilient, amazing, empathetic, and compassionate woman. I loved Dave and we created a beautiful family, but his death was a catalyst for change in so many ways. I take nothing for granted. I make decisions from my gut and take action because tomorrow is not guaranteed. I am grateful for the lessons life and death have brought me.
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.
Yes, I would love to share what truly helped me move through my deep grief to get to a point where I felt hopeful for the future. I truly believe it’s everyone’s birthright to feel joy and live a beautiful life.
- Heal the way you talk to yourself. When Dave died so suddenly, I lost all confidence in myself. His death shook up my entire life, including my sense of self. Dave and I had always functioned as a team, and then one day I woke up and my team was gone. Everything I knew was turned upside down. With all the grief work I was doing I noticed, for the first time in my life, how I talked to myself. Were the words I said to myself kind? Not really. Why was I being hard on myself? Dave wasn’t there to bolster me up and I had to do that for myself. I made a conscious choice to be super patient and kind with myself. There’s a trick I use to change this negative chatter up. It may sound weird but just try it. Record yourself on your phone saying a few really nice things about yourself and listen back to it several times a day. It helps — I swear.
- Heal that part of you that thinks putting yourself first is selfish. If you are not putting your needs first and filling up your bucket, you’re not going to be able to take care of others. It’s not easy to put food on the table, pay bills, help with homework, grocery shop, carpool to school, and attend basketball and soccer games. I tried, but I couldn’t keep all the plates spinning in the air. How could I? I was last on the list of “things to do! After several months of haphazard “plate spinning” I was going downhill and the kids were going with me and that was not going to happen! So, I made a big decision. I made a commitment to place my needs at the top of the list. My self-care was imperative. Once I began to put myself first, I shifted into a more caring and effective parent to my kids. It sounds selfish, but it’s not. Self-care is not indulgent, it’s necessary.
- Heal the way you think about challenging emotions. You hear people say, “feel your feelings.” I kind of hate this phrase, but it is true. Tapping into difficult emotions is no day at the beach. Let me tell you, my feelings were all over the place and I had no time or patience to deal with them. I had to make mac and cheese and learn new math to help my kids with their homework. Deal with my emotions? No thank you! But when I truly sat with my feelings and let them wash over me, well, they moved through me and didn’t take over as much. I didn’t feel so stuck, and I was building up the confidence that I had lost. I was still me but also transforming parts of myself that didn’t serve me. I was becoming more compassionate with myself.
- You don’t always have to push so hard. Yes, life moves forward, and you are moving forward with it. But, remember to take a break and do something that soothes and nourishes you. Ask yourself a couple of questions like: What makes me feel good? What do I need right now? Listen to what comes up. Is it a nap, a hug, a cup of coffee or tea, a walk in nature, talking with a grief ally? Know and understand that you’re moving through hard things and you’re doing your best. Be proud of yourself and love yourself through it.
- Heal the way you think about loss. Dave’s death completely and utterly changed my life and I’m a different person now because of it. I’m more compassionate toward myself and others, I listen to my gut and make decisions from there, and most importantly I ask for help when I need it. Grief can exist alongside hope. I’m here to tell you that you can thrive in life. It takes work and there are others who have moved through this experience that can help you. Ask for help, people want to help.
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 some fantastic organizations out there for widows like Soaring Spirits International, Modern Widows Club and Hope for Widows Foundation. Being a part of these organizations was my inspiration to create a business supporting widows with self-care. Widows helping widows is what it’s all about for me!
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. 🙂
My dream is to share a KFC bowl with Patton Oswalt! I hope he sees this! I saw him live in Portland, OR a few years ago during his Annihilation stand-up comedy tour after the death of his wife. He’s brilliant at mixing pain and humor. He’s one of my heroes and so relatable at the same time.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The Filled With Gold monthly subscription boxes supporting widows with self-care are available on my website www.filledwithgold.org. It’s a great way to care for and support a widowed loved one in your life.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you. Take care of yourself!