processing grief

It’s Friday and I’m sitting on my deck in my sunny backyard making a grocery shopping list. The Shipt shopper will take care of the shopping that Rick used to do as his most favorite task in the world (man, were we compatible…I HATE grocery shopping). I decided to make myself a nice meal this weekend. I’m going to grill a steak and I came across a recipe for crab stuffed mushrooms that I’ll bake to accompany it.

It’s rare for me to take the time or effort to make myself a nice dinner. I eat keto (a very low carb diet) and I know it’s wise to cook ahead on weekends, so I’m prepared during my busy week , but I usually make some simple things – a large taco salad to eat 5 lunches in a row, or a slew of devilled eggs, maybe a beef stew (with radishes replacing the carby potatoes). I’m a creature of habit and can eat the same thing days in a row, especially if it means I don’t have to cook. Cooking is my second-least favorite thing to do – with grocery shopping being number one. My daily goal is to get off work at 5pm, pop something in the microwave, and eat.

It wasn’t like that when Rick was here. He loved to grocery shop – every day, in fact – and came home with all sorts of fancy dishes in mind. It was a wonder to watch how much he enjoyed planning and cooking. He made grilled chicken and steak, some fantastic hors d’oeuvres, meat loaf, pizzas with crust made from scratch, chili and cornbread, stews and casseroles, and “stuffed” things – stuffed peppers, stuffed mushrooms, etc.

He took an early retirement six years before he died (thankfully, at least he enjoyed a few years of freedom after 40+ years of work, since he never made it to his 63rd year). But even then, he was never one to be idle. He worked on our web business every day, before and after his 10-mile bicycle ride. And he seemed to spend the rest of his time cooking, or preparing to cook, or compiling recipes, or working on his cooking website. Cooking was a huge part of his life – and I was the willing and able taste-tester extraordinaire.

So on a typical Friday after work, I would join Rick on this very deck in our sunny backyard. Except in those days, I would come out to a table laden with placemats, small appetizer plates, empty wine glasses waiting to be filled with whatever wine fit the menu (usually Cabernet), and a sweaty husband slaving over the grill or plating up the special of the day.

Today, I sat alone at the bare table (well, not counting the can of bug spray and the Chlorox wipes I use to mop up the daily bird poop remnants). As I was scrolling through the food choices on my Shipt app, searching for the ingredients for the stuffed mushroom recipe I had decided on for tomorrow’s meal, I had one of those jolts of memory. Wait! Rick used to use portobello mushroom caps! And after stuffing and grilling, he drizzled them with a tangy sweet-hot chili sauce! I remember that now! How did I ever forget his delicious mushrooms? So I scrolled some more through the app and added those ingredients to my shopping list.

Then I put down my phone for a second to think back. Years and years ago now…let’s see, he got the cancer in 2016, but it was in the fall of the year, so that summer was probably the last that we enjoyed our evenings on the deck. He was too sick in 2017. And I pictured the sun, and the deck, and Rick sitting across from me. I pictured our non-stop conversation and him pouring me a fresh glass of wine. I pictured both of us saying, “No, you have the last one. Go ahead, really, I’m stuffed” as we both REALLY wanted that last mushroom. I pictured the evening as clearly as it was yesterday. And then… there it was, that awful, awful pain. The pain I’ve rarely felt in the last year, or year and a half. It was the deep, deep agony of losing something so incredibly wonderful that it can’t be borne.

And I was stunned! What was that about? I’ve been fine. It’s nearly three years since Rick died, and I rarely experience that awful gut-wrenching pain any more. And I remembered something my grief therapist told me very early on after Rick’s death.

She said my memories of our marriage could be imagined as a house with many rooms. As my grief progresses, I’ll visit one of those rooms and I’ll remember our time together, and I’ll feel the pain of loss for that thing we shared, then I’ll “clean out the room,” process the memory and deal with the grief. And when I’m done, I’ll leave that room, and I’ll close that door, and I’ll be done with that memory and the grief it evokes. Maybe I’ll revisit it now and then, but it will be mostly “sorted and cleaned” and it won’t hurt nearly as much as the first experience.

But some days, I’ll accidentally come across a different room, one I haven’t been in since he died. The memories that surface in that room will trigger grief that will be just as overwhelming as those earlier stages, because I haven’t visited that room before. I haven’t dealt with or processed the grief and come to terms with it. And every now and then, even after I think I’ve visited every possible room, some twice, or a dozen times, and I’ve tackled every possible memory of our time together, I’ll accidentally open a door to a new, untouched room. And that early, awful pain of fresh grief will come back.

Even years and years later, if I have never gone into that room in my mind, never faced that memory, I will feel a brand new grief and experience the agony of his death all over again.

So, I guess today, I entered the “Friday night mushrooms on the deck room.” I had forgotten Rick’s special stuffed mushroom appetizers until now. It’s a tiny memory in the midst of a million, in the midst of 20 years’ worth of living and loving and enjoying my time with Rick. But here it is.

I’m pretty sure I’ve successfully cried it out now, so I can shut this door. But remembering those evenings together and the care he took to make them special made me rethink my new single-life habits.

I think I may change my attitude about my dining habits, now that I’m eating alone. I asked myself – what would Rick want me to do? I have a feeling he’d be pretty happy if he saw me make myself a nice meal one evening this weekend. I think he’d smile watching me sitting at a table laden with place mats, an appetizer plate filled with portobello caps stuffed and grilled using his favorite recipe, and a nice Cabernet – in a real wine glass – to accompany them. Why not? Even though I’m alone, there’s no reason not to treat myself well and enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

I’ll be sure drizzle them with that sweet-hot chili, just like he used to do. And – possibly – I’ll decide it’s safe to revisit that “Friday night mushrooms on the deck room” one more time, but I’ll try to enjoy the memory on this visit. Because lately I’ve found the pain of experiencing most of those memories is over, and now they make me smile.

But there’s one thing I WON’T do in his memory – I’m not putting myself through the hated grocery-shopping ordeal! Those mushrooms are getting delivered. I know if he IS watching, he probably shakes his head at me and laughs out loud in frustration every time he watches me bring in a grocery delivery that was dropped outside my door. I can’t help it. He spoiled me. And now that he’s gone, someone has to do the shopping, just as long as it’s not me.


On August 13, 2017, I lost the love of my life. Rick Palmer and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary one month before he died at age 63 of complications from treatments for small cell lung cancer. He was my partner and soulmate, the love I had been looking for and finally found at age 40.

Rick was a talented writer and web designer and, in 2002, we began our own web and print design business. We worked together building the business and enjoyed traveling, writing, and playing together. Our dream was to spend our golden years together doing more of the same, but in the ten months from diagnosis to death, that dream shattered.

After Rick’s death, I quickly realized that the enormity of his loss was too much for me to handle on my own, so I began grief therapy. I also began writing through my grief in a journal of feelings, thoughts, memories, and poetry. As I navigate my new life alone, I share my journey and my efforts towards creating my “new normal” on my personal blog: The Writing Widow. I’m also on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

I recently published two books about my grief journey: my poetry book, I Wanted to Grow Old With You: A Widow's First Year of Grief in Poetry, and compilation of my blog posts A Widow's Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry - The First Year." Both books are available in print and Kindle versions on