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Blossom Your Awesome - Episode #11 - Alison Pena On Grief, Healing & Recovery After Loss

by Sue Dhillon
August 26th 2021

On this episode of the Blossom Your Awesome Podcast my guest is Alison Pena aka Bad Widow.

After losing her husband to pancreatic cancer just months shy of their 20 year anniversary Aliso... More

Hello and welcome to the blossom, your awesome podcast, episode number 11. Today we have got Allison Penna a. K a bad widow. She is a leading expert on healing reinvention in rebuilding after transition or loss. She is going to be sharing some powerful insights with us today on managing grief after loss, Overcoming recovering healing and living Fairless lee Allison, thank you so much for being here. Welcome to the show. Thank you awesome. So I am just so excited to have this exchange with you because I know you have overcome just pain and grief and loss so why don't you, why don't we start right there with you? Kind of sharing a little bit of your background and how you got to be known as Bad widow dot com, how you founded that and all of that.

Okay. Um I was married to an artist and we missed our 20th wedding anniversary by three weeks in october 2015. He was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and you know you hear cancer and your heart just drops, you hear pancreatic cancer and google is not your friend because the lifespan for pancreatic cancer is is fairly short, it is 4 to 6 months. So that was shocking. And then it was a matter of the doctor said slow down, go easy and that made no sense to us because if he had limited time then why would he not live until the end? Like really live? Right, and that's what we did. We lived full tilt boogie and I really curated an environment where we cut out the things that and the people that we didn't love as much as possible and did what mattered to us.

One of the things that happens when you face something like this is that what matters, rises to the surface very fast and becomes very clear. Talk about that a little more. Um, will you please like help give us some context there with how that kind of played out for you? Sure. Um, my, my husband, David and I were together for 25 years and in 25 years, the love sort of recedes into the background sometimes and the logistics moved forward, you know, go to work, take out the trash who's doing dinner. And it becomes a lot about that, the routines and just getting things done and moving forward and paying the bills. And when you realize that your time together is drawing to a close and it will end sooner rather than later. I mean, this was the man I thought I would grow old with.

Right? And now do you feel, I mean this, you know the way you've handled this and the way you've now gone on to kind of lead and show other people the power of resolve and getting through something so horrific powerfully. I mean, was there some sort of divinity or something? I mean, where did this come from inside of you at that moment to just be able to kind of tap into this inner light and say, hey, okay, I'm going to do this powerfully. Well when you're, when you think you've got forever to get things done, then maybe you pause to say I love you or you don't do the things on your bucket list because of course you're going to have time and then that just wasn't true. And so before he died, we really started knocking stuff off our bucket list. I had wanted to speak on stage about the work that I did and I was embarrassed and wasn't sure I would do it right And I didn't want to let anyone down and I also wanted to sing on a cabaret stage and in the 11 months while he was dying I spoke on three stages and sang on for wow!

Because what was I waiting for if time was short and it is short. I mean we have so much time to live and none of us know how much. Right. And then after he died. So I created this environment where he was painting and playing tennis and being with his friends and me and his mom and I was really sharing what was going on in a, in a big way because I thought you know, people don't talk about this. Not from inside it. Mm hmm. And I just felt driven to share So that I could provides some comfort to other people who might be going through it and it worked out that way. In fact when he died and I posted on facebook that that had happened. 300 people commented had been watching the journey. Wow, yep. Yeah. Now, so tell me, you know, I mean, it just seems for you.

It's kind of like it happened. So you really, like you say you were limited on time. So you had no choice but to just do this. But you know, so many people in that situation just kind of their stunted with grief and fear and all of these things. So for someone right now who's going through something like this? Yes. But you know what is a powerful way? What can you offer them? How where do they start with doing this? Um in a powerful way. Yeah. So bad widow came about because I was so misunderstood about what the experience was actually that I was going through. Um there are some sort of physical things that happened. I couldn't focus. I had gaps in my memory, My energy flagged. So I couldn't do the work that I was trained to do. I couldn't connect with people, right? You know, and the first year was what I called a wasteland of grief.

Lots and lots and lots of tears and I contracted I did to heal initially. And then at a certain point I wanted to create a bigger life for myself. Mm hmm. But the problem was that I wasn't the person I had been before. Like I would never be that person with my husband at my back. He was gone. And so I didn't actually know who I was myself. And I began literally having breakdowns and finding solutions for them. Which I called nets. And the first thing I did was I decided I was going to re engage in my life. I was actually going to get out there from where I was. And this is something that I think is really important to tell your audience. You have to start from where you are. You can't beat yourself up for not being where you were not there. Mm hmm. Mhm. You're just not there. So many people kind of you know I mean we've all done it where we lose ourselves in um life and circumstances people trauma.

So what is that way of kind of really discovering who you are? Well, it's it's baby steps. What I did at a certain point was I decided I was not broken. I felt broken but I decided I was not broken. And I decided that somehow I was going to tap into my inner resilience and trust myself again. Now I didn't trust myself, I didn't trust my body, my memory, my focus, all the things that I used to be able to do. Like my trust in my own competence was really shaken up And so I had to start to build all of that back. So the first thing that I did because I recognized that I needed to start reaching out to people and being able to connect with people again was I took a job in a Halloween pop up shop four hours a day, wow, that is awesome. It was all I could do.

I couldn't coach anyone, I couldn't deal with people. I was a medical editor and proofreader who had no memory, I couldn't focus, so I couldn't do that, but I could hang up costumes on Iraq. Mhm. And by doing that, that was a baby step. That was like a foundational baby step. It wasn't where I was going to end up, but it was where I had to start because that's where I was, that's all I could do, right. And so that was re engaged and then the next thing and this is kind of what I take people through re engage, get back out into the world, start rebuilding your trust that the world still holds possibilities for you. Because I looked out at this horizon and this future that I had dreamed of, and it was gone. I did not know what it would hold. And I did not, I couldn't see a time when I would be heart whole again, I couldn't see when that would happen.

So, I was sort of just throwing out my faith that it would that I could get there, even if I couldn't see it, I could get there somehow and just start heading in that direction. So reinvent was who am I now? And that was a matter of experimenting with everything I do. I like this don't I like this because if you're with someone for 25 years, especially at the beginning of relationships, you make compromises that you might regret later, right? I've never met a widow who didn't say that they would never have chosen to lose their husband, but they liked having their autonomy back, not a single one. And so I had to figure out what were the things that I went along with and what were the things I really loved and start taking those back. Um, and the point was because I was, I was honestly clueless clueless about who I was as a person alone to make distinctions as fast as I could was the only way I could push myself forward this time was very slippery.

It felt like it did during the pandemic. I had nothing to anchor me in time. So I had to create kind of these artificial markers that said, that promised me that I was actually moving forward even though it didn't feel like it, right? Yeah. And then the last was um, to rebuild networks to really reconnect with people. There are at least two pretty rough ugly years after you lose a spouse. The first year was wasteland of grief. You know, I could cry for eight hours in a day. Mm hmm. The grief would just rise and at a certain point you would hear. I didn't mean to make you cry Or just control yourself or stop that. And the problem is, and the thing that people who have never been through this don't understand is that you can't it's not volitional.

It's not something you're choosing. It's like the sadness just rises, right? And now tell me, so when, you know, when you're hearing, don't or stop. It's kind of what is that? Is that your own inner voice of, you know, the higher self or whatever you wanna call it? Or what do you attribute that to? No other people say that? Right, Okay. So people uncomfortable with their mortality and and there is an inner I thought I really should be able to control myself. Mm hmm. I really I don't understand why this is happening to me. I was a calm person. I'm not a calm person. The second year was zero to rage in about five seconds. In those two years, relationships get damaged, right? And people leave. They leave because you're too much they leave because it's gone on for too long. I discovered there's an artificial timeline. You get a year to grieve the death of a husband you've loved and a man you've been with for 25 years a year and then you're meant to be over it.

And moving on. It's not like that. Oh my God. So how much of this and all of this is just coming up as you're going through it? Because we never really think about this, You know, you're talking about this artificial timeline, which, you know, obviously, probably I'm assuming never had occurred to you prior to that, right? Where you're kind of, you see it for what it is like. Oh yeah, I mean, one of the things that I've heard a lot from, from widows and widowers is where did my family and friends go? Mm hmm, they abandoned me. And in all honesty, what I discovered is that they just didn't know what to do or say. So they got it wrong. And then the person who was grieving got sad or got angry and they left because they didn't feel like they could provide any real support. And I was so convinced in the course of this time that all these people who wanted to help me, who were getting it wrong, they meant, well, they wanted to do it right.

Except that nobody talks about this. Nobody talks about the disconnect in experience. And so the people are trying to help, they're offering their best guess of what they would want in your situation, which they don't understand. Mhm. And it leads to a lot of frustration on both sides because the person who's going through it, it's like why can't they just do what I need them to do and they should just be able to figure it out what how do you figure something out that you don't understand, that doesn't make any sense right now. So do you think there is a way I find this so intriguing, you know one of the things I teach is mindful communication and like you said where you know kind of people don't know because we weren't taught, so you're grieving and you don't you're not really in a place to kind of empathize with a loved one who doesn't know how to show up for you powerfully, right?

Because you're caught up in your grief. So how do we get around that? Like is there a way for us to do better? Absolutely, Absolutely. And a lot of what happened with bad widow is bad widow came about because I was unwilling to just go along with these things that didn't work. So I started actually speaking out what my experience was from in the middle of it and providing some different ways to ask these questions that people ask. So a common one is people say how are you? Mhm. And I would hear that especially early on and I would think, well I had just lost the man I loved for 25 years, I am living in new york, I'm responsible for my husband's studio, my apartment on one income, which was a struggle on to how do you think I am, that's what I was thinking, but what I realized was that's not very helpful to do that um it's true, but it's not helpful and I realized that I couldn't answer, How are you?

But I could answer, how are you right now or how are you today? So if the person could bring the timeline in, Mhm they could provide some, they could get a real window into what was going on and they could provide some real help, right? And now um wow, this is really just so powerful for you to have this sort of um you know, awakening around this kind of, I think looking back, is it accurate to say that you are now seeing how you through your own grief could have done better with those who didn't know how to show up powerfully for you. Oh yeah, I definitely made some mistakes, especially in the early days, I was really scrapping and scrambling and I'm honestly just coming out of this period. Um with finances, it was very, very rough.

My husband's medications were $2500 a month. By the end, it was, you know, close to the amount of our the rent of his studio, right? And so I was not in good shape and in that state, asking for money feels very shameful. And in some instances I did not ask until I was in desperate straits and I asked in those moments as a victim and I did some damage to some of my relationships because I didn't know how to do that part and my need was so great. And I felt honestly quite ashamed that I wasn't, I wasn't the resilient, resourceful, competent person. I had been, I just wasn't and I was moving to get back there, but I wasn't there in that moment when I was needing to ask straight up.

Right? And um, so this is all kind of coming to you after the fact. Is there any reconciling that happens at that point? Or you just kind of have your own revelation around it and then you know how to do better? Well, you know how to do you, you do know how to do better. And I began to do better. So once I realized that I was doing that there's an enormous power and I'm sure you find this in your work as well with clarity. Once you can be aware of what's going on, then you can shift it once you have clarity about what you want, you can ask for it specifically and people can give it to you vagueness is not your friend in this situation. What I discovered is that people were willing and eager to give me everything I needed, but they needed to know to know what that was because nobody wants to get it wrong with the widow.

They won't do anything if they're going to screw it up. But if I could get clear and ask clearly so that they could be a hero in my life. I got exactly what I needed about 80% of the time. And how So I know you mentioned some of the baby steps are kind of getting back out there? Re engaging and kind of moving on. You know, as best as you're able. But what about this other kind of how do you get clarity in the midst of grief? Where does that start? Well, you keep asking questions. So, I'll give you um the most difficult thing that I did was I opened up to risking love again. And that was honestly the absolute hardest piece of coming back to thriving because my husband died in my arms mm hmm. And that pain to risk that pain again.

You know, when you know, life is short. You know, it's possible that that could happen again. And that's terrifying. Plus when I met my husband, I was in my thirties. When he died, I was in my fifties. So my body was different. I hadn't been out in the market for, you know, decades and decades. Um and yet I was unwilling to live the rest of my life without love. So, what I decided to do was to get on to Bumble, which was a dating app the last time I dated was 1992. I had no idea who I was in the matter of dating or finding love, who I wanted. I had no idea. And so I used the app to figure it out. I wrote my profile to describe myself as clearly as I could. And then I ran the whole thing like a marketing campaign. Oh, I mean, I saw what results I was getting.

What were the responses I was getting from the profile as it was? I didn't like the responses. I changed upwards. I changed up pictures until I was only getting guys. I was interested in no jerks. Now. I had a ferocious screening process. I wanted people to deselect if I wasn't what they wanted. I did not even want to meet him. And it worked. It worked. It was terrifying, heartbreaking because with the rise of desire or joy, the grief rose deep and fast at the same time. Can you help us understand that? So is that guilt? What is that? Um, it's so I have a boyfriend I live with and I have a husband, but I I didn't choose to leave my husband. So he's not an ex husband.

And this is actually true for every widow I've met, they have a husband. So unless they marry again, they have a husband, even if they have someone else in the future. Um, it felt like betrayal. To feel joy without David, my husband. And so the grief and the rage and the fear would just rise up and I couldn't trust my body chemistry. So if you're only accustomed to one person's touch for 25 years, half my life, nobody else's touch felt right. And so there were times when I was in emotional states where I literally had a feeling of revulsion and would say get back, don't touch me for quite some time. If someone tried to kiss me, I had a panic attack, but if I wanted to open to love, I needed to move myself through that I sort of recognized that these were weird reactions and that I needed to find a way to navigate them and not blame the other person.

And so when I would have one of these reactions, I had to ask myself some better questions and the questions I asked myself and I think this is useful, not just in my situation, but pretty much always I had to ask myself is it me, is it him or is it us? If I could figure out the answer to that question, then I knew what to do next. And that was really useful. And how do you go? How do you decipher that? Is it me, you know us? How how are you able to kind of decipher that? Well, if someone, if someone moves to kiss me that I want to be kissed by and I have a visceral reaction of revulsion, it's me. So I'll give you an example, this is when I truly fell in love with my boyfriend, I would say I've been crying all day, it was an anniversary and I had a date with him that night and I thought, what am I gonna do?

I mean I was a hot mess who wants this like who wants to go on a date with this person, but I decided that he was an adult and he could decide for himself. So I called up, I told him what was going on, that I had been crying all day and that I wanted to go out with him that night, but I did not know how I was going to be, I didn't know if I would cry and he said I'm okay with are going out and I said further, don't try to fix me, I'm not broken if I cry, it's just tears. And he said great, that's really helpful and it was a really powerful conversation and it was probably the moment I knew I was in love with him because he didn't try to do anything with it. And on my side I wasn't blaming him or shaming him for my experience and I was empowering him to choose either to see me or not.

And when you say, he didn't do anything with it, you mean he didn't um he allowed you to be you and grieve and have your moment. Exactly. He allowed me to be as I was and that is, you know, if you are someone who is grieving to have people around you who will let you be as you are and not make it mean something, it doesn't mean is immensely important. It's energetically peaceful right now. Tell me Allison you know, you talk about one of your things is trusting in yourself and then you, this is so hard for people. And this is why I think your story is so remarkable that you were able to come out of this and see the light, so to speak, right, That the future possibilities.

So what is that? What is the most powerful way for someone grieving? You know, suffering loss or just, you know, be it some other kind of grief? Right? How do we come out of that? Uh and say, hey, okay, I'm done. Or there's more, this is not me, I'm not going to carry this unendingly. I guess the simplest thing is to to seek joy, to look for moments of joy and create moments of joy. What can I do today that will move me towards joy because as humans, we organically move towards joy move towards love move towards light. And in a moment of grieving, we contract and and sort of go into a a curl, right? And and are not reaching out side of ourselves.

But if you can find a small thing that brings you joy, then there can be another thing. So it could be go for a walk. I like to blow bubbles standing on line to get into a museum with Children behind me because their delight delights me right? And and and that pathway and and remembering that the joy brings up grief at the same time and I think the thing that's really important to know is there's nothing wrong with that. It means it's working. It means you're coming back to life wow. Now, you know what I'm gonna ask Allison here in closing is what is, you know, just some really powerful wisdom insights just from the heart that you can share with someone going through this right now.

Um I would say trust yourself in the face of the indecision and the not necessarily knowing who you are after a loss. Other people will come in with their advice, filter all their advice through what's right for you because whatever action you take and every journey is very individual. You live with the consequences. So make sure that it's something that you want. Um I would say self care is critical. Self care will expand your capacity to be at peace. Getting present in your body is one of the best ways to escape the pain honestly, what else? Um that's that's the two things that I would say um most of all you are not broken, you are grieving, you are heartbroken, but you are not broken unless you say so, wow.

And now you know, you said something here that I kind of want to just touch on is the, you know, the self care aspects of things. It's so hard to do that in grief, right? So what is the means of kind of leaning into into that? Yeah, so hard. And, and one of the things I did, you know, I talked about nets so one of the nets for self care was I reached out to um my friends who are really, really good at self care and I said, give me all your best self care tips and they sent me 100 specific ideas which I wrote on a big board. Mm hmm. Because that way, when I needed self care, but I was so exhausted and so heartbroken that I could not think I could look at my list and pick something and that was critical.

Right? And now, um so it's just, you know, moving through grief on your own timeline and I think this is human nature, right? We all kind of go through it in our own way, but we all have the capacity to come out of it. Exactly. Exactly. And I it's funny that you say that because I have literally just finished writing a book on this, um which is called The Bad Widow Guide to Life after loss, Moving through grief to live and love again. And I was startled that you used very close to exactly the words of the subtitle, wow, just a little serendipitous there. Huh. Exactly, Exactly. I was like, wow, clearly that works right now it works and we all, I know we all go through this where it's like you just, you think you don't have it in you, you just, it's like it's over.

How are you going to move past this? How will you ever get over this? How will you ever love again Or laugh again? Yes. Yes. And I am here to tell you that it is possible and it is there's one other thing I'd like to say actually in facing someone you love who who dies and facing big loss there rises up an appreciation for life that's really different and an unwillingness to settle for less than what you truly want. And that is the other side. That's the gift of it. Mm That that's so beautiful. This there rises up and appreciation for life. So all of a sudden you find yourself grieving over here but recognizing and honoring time and um you know everything else in ways that you didn't prior to that.

Exactly. That was that was shocking honestly and unexpected, wow. And now anything else you would like to leave us with and um just share um I really look at people, especially people who have gone through great loss and I see their magnificence when they can't see it. And what I would encourage you to do if you can't see it in yourself is to find someone who sees it in you and can hold that space until you can get back there yourself. That was beautiful. That was just a perfect way to um leave people with that insight. So Allison, thank you so much for this and um I look forward to your new book, we're gonna be keep in touch with that and I'm going to have links to how people can reach you and reach out for help and get your guidance and all of that.

And thank you for your wisdom and your love and your insights today. Thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it. Thank you Alison. Okay, bye bye bye. Mhm mm hmm, mm hmm, mm hmm.

Blossom Your Awesome - Episode #11 - Alison Pena On Grief, Healing & Recovery After Loss
Blossom Your Awesome - Episode #11 - Alison Pena On Grief, Healing & Recovery After Loss
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