How would you handle losing the person who was not only the most important in your life, but who, in many ways, was your life? If you’re Kristine Carlson, you might harness your the beauty of your pain and write a moving memoir, Heartbroken Open, about the profound lessons of self that loss teaches us.
Kristine is the widow and soul mate of Richard Carlson, world-renowned teacher and author of the best-selling series, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. When Richard died unexpectedly as the two were dancing into mid-life, Kristine, a incredible writer in her own right, was left to grieve the loss of her daughters’ father, her partner and lover, and the life that she had envisioned. In this process, she wrote a beautiful account of how she moved through her grief and how she discovered herself in the process.
Below, Kristine answers some of my questions in order to help others navigate not only loss, but any type of painful and life-changing experience. Enjoy… and grow.
NTS: Tell us a bit about the person you were before the loss of your husband, Richard. What was your life life?
My life was all about being Richard’s wife and Mother to my children. I held space for him to do his spiritual work as an author and inspirational speaker, and I was “the crystal in the clock” making sure my family had everything they needed when they needed it. I had grown complacent to my own inner sense of passion, and I wasn’t feeling my life like I did after Richard died. Grief moved in and added tremendous awareness. Richard’s death woke me from my slumber; the funny thing was, I didn’t know I was asleep.
NTS: In Heartbroken Open, you take on the enormously challenging topics of loss and grief. What made you decide to write about these things from such a personal place?
Losing your spouse, the way I did so suddenly, is a devastating loss. I was blessed to have such an amazing support system but in my most primal grief, I barely felt I would survive. Richard said to me in October before he died, “Kris, what I love about the human spirit, is those people that take their greatest tragedy and allow it to move them forward, giving their lives greater meaning.” I believe he was going through a personal transformation at this point and unconsciously sensed the end of his life on the horizon. I wrote Heartbroken Open so that a real story of life, love and loss would be told uncensored. I believe that my marriage to Richard was rare, and I want to honor him and my own presence on this earth by helping others heal. It seems that any story of value must be told from authenticity, and a memoir is very personal. I answered a divine call when I wrote Heartbroken Open.
NTS: Many of us wonder how we could ever survive the loss of our spouse or someone we hold that dear to our hearts. What have you learned about your ability to survive and thrive?
The reason why Richard’s “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” book series was so popular is because those books were born from the chapters of our lives. I believe that my resiliency and strength came from living a gentle lifetime of love with a remarkable soul while practicing a healthy way through life. Any person who practices life as their spiritual journey says “yes” to all of life knowing that it holds trials and suffering along the way. We don’t always choose our circumstances (maybe on some unconscious level we do) but we can choose how we move forward. I learned to move forward, presently, invoking grace and love to help me survive. I followed a mantra: Surrender, Trust and Accept to Receive a new life. I walked into the fire of my grief and allowed it to burn me into liberation from my pain. My regrets taught me to accept what I cannot change and to ultimately let go. I can now say with a smile: I truly don’t sweat the small stuff and I have lived through the big stuff.
NTS: You speak in the book about living presently. How were you able to stay so present with your grief rather than avoiding it?
I did both. I lived with my grief and sometimes I avoided it. What I noticed quickly was that the shortest distance out of the foxhole was to be in it (grief) so that I could express it out. My body would tell me if I was avoiding it; I would have a tremendous burning in my gut. Then, I would sob and feel relief. There is no way out except going all the way in. Grief taught me presence. I lived in the now because there would be no pain there. I suppose this was my natural health stepping in to avoid pain, but what an incredible gift to practice presence for survival. I lived this way thoughtfully for much of the time. When I didn’t, I would express my emotions and return to the moment with peace.
NTS: Tell us about the process of changing your identity from wife to widow. Were there other areas of your life where you found yourself needing to change your perception of your identity?
Everything changes when your spouse dies. I was surprised to find myself dealing with issues I thought I had long left behind in my youth but they were just resting in the shadows of my relationship. Many things surfaced in my life to be healed so that I could transform to a new level of awareness. My authenticity grew as my identity died. At first, I was deeply afraid of being alone and terrified that I was now a “single” woman in mid-life. I have learned to find my way and have also accepted that I may be “single” for the rest of my life. The difference between me and many people is that I have lived the relationship of my dreams. I have survived and accepted the loss of it and found my way back to joy. My personal goal is to be complete within myself living with a greater capacity for love. This may or may not manifest in the same way or kind of relationship I had with my beloved. I trust that all will be revealed, in time, and I live life by divine lead.
NTS: On NTS we speak a great deal about staying nourished in mind, body, and spirit. How were you able to sustain and nourish yourself through the most difficult moments?
I knew not to drink alcohol, especially in the beginning, because I didn’t want to be under the influence of a depressant. I also didn’t want to use any prescription drugs that my numb me out although I did use sleep medication at times. I wanted to learn and grow because I was curious about this process of grief and how it would unfold for me. While I loathed the pain, I relished the fertile ground and the opening to my wisdom and the awakening of my spirit that this experience of loss brought with it. I hiked and I drank lots of water. I stayed flexible with my schedule often cancelling engagements so that I could grieve in stillness. I was very gentle with myself. I took baths every night and I had a professional massage every month. I committed to myself not to make any huge life changing decisions the first year. I asked for help from my family and friends when I needed it. Four years later, miraculously I haven’t been sick one time and I am the healthiest I have ever been! Go figure…you can come through your worst nightmare in greater health.
NTS: You talk about encounters you had with others trying to support you through your loss. How do you feel we can best support one another through difficult times?
The best we can offer is to hold space for grief. There is no fixing it or solving it. You can offer to assist in the stuff of life that is mundane—like food preparation, driving the kids to school or sports, and household chores. This kind of help is often very appreciated. “Listening” is probably the most important thing you can offer and the greatest gift. Sitting presently without needing to change whatever arises even when it triggers you. These are the most helpful things one person can do for anyone in grief. There is little comfort in trite expressions. Keep your advise to a minimum and you willingness to be present to the maximum, and you will be the greatest support. Create a tribe around the person in grief supporting them with the power of community. Send them to my free on-line support group (Heartbroken Open support circle) at http://www.kristinecarlson.com.