Home Alone

As we were sharing with our brothers, many of us had our beloved wives pass away in our homes. We all viewed this as an incredible gift, to know she was comfortable in the home she created, surrounded by family and enveloped in love.

But after a few weeks, all of us hit a point where the home passing became an issue. The ghosts remained, especially when we were home alone.

Ghosts in the Machine

For me, indeed ghosts was a good description of what remained. Or at least the story my fragile mind was telling me.

Three precious ceramic hearts that Judy and I collected over the years on our journeys, fell off the walls at different times, One by one they shattered to the ground, over a couple of months following her passing. One for each of us who remained behind.

And in the rest of the home, lights flickered, alarm systems screamed. I struggled with perceived hauntings, and couldn’t bear to enter the room where she passed for months after.

Was my home haunted? I’m a little too engineer for that to be my core belief, but there were enough oddities to make me feel uncomfortable, in the one place I needed complete comfort. My home, the place that I relied on as my sanctuary from the stress of my business and the world, was not so peaceful any more.

So I went about trying to cleanse the home, to see if I could reclaim my sanctuary space. At the recommendation of a very spiritual friend I started with sage.

A sage smudging was conducted, taking a bundle of dried sage leaves, lit to a deep red and walked through the home, with the smoldering smoke spread throughout the space. Starting from the room in which my late wife Judy passed a few months earlier, she proceeded systematically throughout the house to rid the home of the perceived ghosts and bad energy.

The use of sage goes way back, derived from Native American tradition, who linked the sage smoke with spirituality. Today sage smudging is used to cleanse a living space of negative energy and bad spirits, and to promote healing.

We supplemented the sage smudging some time later with prayer, reading parts of the Bible in different parts of the home, and praying for the positive things I would like the home to represent again – joy, peace, purpose, happiness and success.

Did it work? After we left on a trip to Italy and returned, indeed, the home felt different and the spiritual oddities seemed to dissipate. At the very least, these actions helped me to feel much more at peace.

Researching how to reclaim and improve the positive energy of the home after the passing of a loved one, there were quite a few more recommendations that we could have applied. And tops on the list was Feng Shui Room Clearing.

Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese traditional practice which claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment. When a person dies in a home, certainly if they were ill for a long time and even in the case of sudden deaths, negative energy, yin, can be left behind.

Feng Shui tradition has you wait until after the burial or memorial ceremony, for official closure in the life of the person, and then begin the Clearing process. Clearing doesn’t mean removing the memory of the person, but will mean some physical changes to the space in order to rid any potential negativity.

The additional elements of Feng Shui Room Clearing can include:

  • Airing the Room – Opening the windows in the space, allowing fresh air and new energy into the room where she passed, to replace the old air and stale energy.
  • Removing the Deathbed – If your partner died in a bed within your home (as opposed to a hospice bed as we used), you should consider replacing the bed and mattress (as economically feasible).
  • Sound – In meditative practices, bells are used to create healing and positive energy, and can be a part of the cleansing process to attract positive energy into the room and home.
  • Light – When someone is ill, often the curtains are closed and the room is dark. Light is needed, and can immediately change the environment’s energy positively. Cleanse the room with light to begin the cleansing process.
  • Salt – Similar to how salt can capture moisture from the environment, in ancient tradition, salt is used to collect and draw out negative energy from a room. Placing salt in all four corners of the room is recommended, letting it sit and absorb the bad energy, and then removing it from the home to the rubbish.
  • Rice – Rice is thought to act similarly to salt, helping to draw any bad energy. Typically rice was used on the exterior, helping to draw the negative energy out from the interior.It is recommended that from the front door, you sprinkle rice on the threshold and then proceed around the entire outer perimeter of the home, to provide an extrusion barrier.
  • Incense or Essential Oils – Along with Sage, additional oils and scents can be used to help heal the environment, and create scents to bring comfort and peace to you and your family. Along with sage, the short list of recommendations includes:
    • Lavender
    • Eucalyptus
    • Mint
    • Sandalwood

One of the important elements of Clearing is removing the items of the departed loved one from the room and house. However, this can cause quite a bit of apprehension.

We are not talking about clearing out all items – with the ability to keep pictures, keepsakes and important momentos, or removing the memories of the person from your mind. But Feng Shui Room Clearing does call for removing loved one’s items from the home.

For us, we waited until after her celebration of life ceremony, and then had Judy’s dear sister Jean go through her things and donate much of it. We kept a few special dresses, sweaters and outfits that she knew my daughters would wear in the future, along with jewelry and momentos, putting these into a closet dedicated for her memories. And today, I absolutely love it when I know the girls have been sharing in Mom’s keepsakes, seeing my girls in one of her sweaters or shirts, knowing they are wearing a Mom memory proud.

Now, for many of the brothers in our widowers group, the removal of items hasn’t occurred yet, some six months or later. There is absolutely no judgment here and totally get it – all in due time. In fact, looking at the neuroscience of cleansing, you can go overboard if you don’t approach the process logically. Act too quickly with the Clearing could lead to regret for some of the key items you decided to get rid of.

Post the loss, your decision making could be compromised, which we’ll discuss in a moment, so it may be better to wait a little longer to decide what you keep and what you donate to a great cause.

For me, having her items sorted by a third party and the items we did keep in a special closet, slightly removed from our living space, was indeed healing. From this experience, I do recommend, if you can stomach it, that within the first few months to complete all these Feng Shui Room Clearing steps, including dealing with personal items.

Make a Move?

Sometimes a Clearing might not be enough.

Our brother-widower Joey admitted that he was having significant trouble being in his home at all. His girls were off to school, and sometimes the dog as well. Despite the amazing memories the home held, seeing the pictures, clothes, everything left just as it was when she passed, caused sadness.

As a result, Joey did everything he could to get away …minimizing his time alone at home. Being out and about town as much as he could – gym, coffee shop, spin class, dinner with friends. Traveling to see his girls at university, visiting with friends for long weekends in St. Pete or Miami. Anywhere but being home alone. Every time he returned home however, being alone with the memories and reminders was often too much to bear.

Some would say, “why don’t you just sell the home that you struggle to be in”. Joey definitely wanted to keep the home, knowing that this is where he and his late wife Giang raised their two girls and where they shared so many good times. He was not wanting to move away from these memories, wanting to stay connected to his late-wife and the thirty years they spent building a life together, as long as possible. And also knowing that over time, the initial overwhelming sadness in the space would be replaced with the happy memories and the positive.

Even more so, making big decisions when you are under the stress and anxiety of loss, the victim of an amygdala hijack, isn’t wise. Heck, for many of us in the initial stages of grief, making any decision can be a struggle.

When you are amygdala hijacked, your emotional, reptilian, most primitive part of your brain is large and in charge. Fight, flight or freeze is driving your thoughts and decisions. You react quickly and often in outsized and less than logical ways, because the thinking part of your brain is not activated, or is being overridden by the emotions.

Therefore, any big decisions should be postponed, and when made, should be deliberated over extensively, much more than you would have in the past. The key when under the stress and anxiety of loss is to slow all your decisions down dramatically. Postponing, delaying This can give you a chance to calm the emotional brain, and get this faster reacting part of the brain to acquiesce. This gives your thinking, slower and more methodical part of your brain, the neocortex, the time needed to ponder effectively and guide wise choices.

According to the folks at Better Health, “It is often recommended to wait six months before making any major, life-altering decisions which can include: buying or selling a home, eliminating memories or possessions of the deceased person, quitting one’s job, moving in with family, loaning money out, or even making major investments”.

Joey knew that making any rash decisions right after, like selling and moving away, would not be wise, and is staying put.

Sleepless in Sadness

One thing our widower brothers had in common with being in their homes: we all struggled with our sleep.

For me, I would wake up each morning at 2 am, coinciding with the time of Judy’s passing, and then struggle to get back to sleep.

As I began monitoring my sleep with a wearable monitor (think Apple watch, Whoop, etc) the results showed that indeed, I was extremely sleep deprived. With my workouts getting more intense, and sleep being interrupted, the activity app would recommend 9 hours of sleep time or more, just to get me back into a somewhat, much less optimal level of recovery. I was not trending the right way where rest and sleep were concerned.

I didn’t need a monitor to know it was having an impact, as I yawned way too often during the day, had trouble most afternoons keeping my eyes open, and was more irritable than usual (which was scary on top of my normal crankiness).

I wasn’t alone. My widower brother Joey spoke about how little sleep he was getting too, waking up several times throughout the night with his head spinning in thoughts. This was impacting, him daily too.

Sleep deprivation, even over a relatively short period could result in some serious issues, including obesity, depression, and suppressed immunity. Less than normal sleep over a period of time can wreak havoc on hormone production, including suppressing growth hormones and testosterone and increasing the release of additional stress hormones, such as norepinephrine and cortisol.

Already compromised, decision making can be affected. Sleep deprivation can degrade neocortex function, affecting logical decision making, judgment and discernment, and the amygdala, boosting emotions like fear, anxiety and irritability. A lack of sleep has also been tied with memory challenges and learning barriers.

Chronic lack of sleep can add up to serious health impacts that I didn’t even realize, with higher incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke. Not good for me and a few of the other brothers, with heart disease a part of their family history and DNA.

So how do you get better sleep? As we discussed it among the group, we shared the following tips:

  • Get to bed earlier – With an early wakeup call for workout, dog walk or work looming each morning. If you don’t get to bed early enough, you don’t have a chance to get the sleep needed. My friends make fun of my habit, but my regular schedule of “early bird” dinners allowing me to get in bed well before 10 PM have helped me to boost my deep sleep.
  • Ditch the caffeine – In the book Caffeine, Michael Pollan indicates that more than 90% of Americans drink caffeine – in our coffee, soft drinks and more. A positive boost to your nervous system, which can help you early in the morning, but drinking caffeine into the afternoon, anything after 3p for most people, can start impacting sleep. One study indicated that consuming caffeine up to 6 hours before bed significantly worsened sleep quality.
  • Dim the lights – Artificial ambient light can mess with your circadian rhythms, making us think nighttime is day. Think about that streetlight coming through the blinds, or nightlight left on. It is key for getting to and maintaining deep sleep, to make your bedroom environment as dark as possible. This means turning off the night light (use motion sensor switches instead), covering windows and keeping the outside lights from disturbing the darkness. Blackout shades and drapes help. Some even cover up power indicators and other electronic power lights to further create a dark as possible sleep environment.
  • Get off the devices and turn off the TV – blue light impacts our circadian rhythms even more so than ambient light, making us think nighttime is day, and therefore our brains ability to know it’s time to sleep vs. time to wake. Besides the light, whether it be your email, news, drama or action video, stock quotes or social media, this content isn’t conducive for relaxation.
  • Don’t eat too late – When your body is focused on digestion, blood flow to the digestive system is maximized, leading to less blood to the brain. Deep sleep needs that blood to flush the brain, and you will not get this important cleansing when you eat dinner later, or snack before bedtime. And tanking that fluid before bed, guaranteed to wake you up mid-night for a bathroom run.
  • Exercise to fatigue – I found that when I skipped a heavy workout, those days I had the most trouble getting the needed sleep. When I worked out well earlier in the day or early evening, my body was exhausted, my mind clear and quiet, which made it easier to sleep. However, working out too late in the evening had the opposite effect, keeping me pumped up and unable to get to sleep earlier.
  • Calming your thoughts – Meditation can be used to quiet the stress and anxiety voices in your head, which for many, make it hard to fall asleep initially, or if you wake up mid-sleep. Breathe work like leveraging repeated yoga breaths can help quiet your mind, while meditation applications can be leveraged to guide your meditative practice and boost effectiveness.
  • Cover with white noise – Ambient sound in the environment can be an issue, especially in more urban environments. That siren, car racing by, airplane overhead can all disrupt your sleep. White noise can help to cover up these sounds and for me, help me set my intention for bedtime, associating the sound with sleep.. I use “Waves of Santa Barbara”, my favorite waterfront with some incredible Judy memories, in a loop from Spotify almost every night.
  • Keep it cool – Here in Florida, it can be difficult to get and keep bedrooms cool enough for optimal sleep. In fact compared to noise, one study indicated that bedroom temperature affected sleep quality more, while other studies indicated that increased body and bedroom temperature can decrease sleep quality and increase wakefulness A rather cool 70°F (20°C) is reported as the comfortable temperature most people leverage for best sleep.
  • Boost the Melatoninmelatonin is the brain’s naturally occurring hormone, produced in the midbrain pineal gland, that is responsible for triggering sleep. Darkness prompts the pineal gland to start producing melatonin while light causes that production to stop. So you can think of melatonin as your internal light switch. Many of us under the stress of loss have suppressed melatonin production, and that combined with light challenges in the sleep environment, can have suppressed melatonin. In order to help the internal light switch for sleep function, you can take supplements to boost melatonin, or to use when you have trouble sleeping, however there are side effects and it is not recommended that melatonin be taken every day like a multivitamin.
  • Other Naturals – Besides melatonin, many friends of mine swear by one or more of these additional aids, often consumed in sleepy time tea or via supplements:
    • Ginkgo biloba: A natural herb with many benefits, it may aid sleep, relaxation, and stress reduction, but the evidence is limited.
    • Glycine: A few studies show that taking 3 grams of the amino acid glycine can improve sleep quality.
    • Valerian root: Several studies suggest that valerian can help you fall asleep and improve sleep quality.
    • Magnesium: Responsible for over 600 reactions within your body, magnesium can improve relaxation and enhance sleep quality
    • L-theanine: An amino acid, L-theanine can improve relaxation and sleep. Lavender: A powerful herb with many health benefits, lavender can induce a calming and sedentary effect to improve sleep.

One thing not on this list of my recommendations are pharmaceutical options for sleep aid.
This includes options like:

  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Doxylamine (Unisom)
  • Zolpidem (Ambien)
  • Butabarbital (Butisol)
  • Temazepam (Restoril)

I try to stay away from pharmaceuticals like these until I have optimized all non-pharmaceutical options first, tackling the recommended natural sleep list above. Unfortunately, many physicians don’t even discuss the natural remedies, as it’s easier to get a patient to take a pill than it is to change behavior, even though the behavior changes are the real long term solution.

And when a pharmaceutical is leveraged, I only do so for short term use. To get over a near term issue until I can get the natural, longer term solution to take effect. Each of these pharmaceuticals listed above has important negative side effects to consider, and some are addictive, making the risks perhaps outweigh the rewards.

Another common remedy, alcohol, is definitely not recommended, and actually has the opposite effect. It may dull your senses and quiet your thoughts, and even help you get to sleep quicker, but that nightcap may be affecting your sleep quality, in particular the deep sleep we need to recover.

“Alcohol may seem to be helping you to sleep, as it helps induce sleep, but overall it is more disruptive to sleep, particularly in the second half of the night,” says researcher Irshaad Ebrahim. He is the medical director at The London Sleep Centre in the U.K. “Alcohol also suppresses breathing and can precipitate sleep apnea,” or pauses in breathing that happen throughout the night. The more a person drinks before bed, the stronger the disruption. One to two standard drinks seem to have minimal effects on sleep, Ebrahim says.

Giving up alcohol immediately after my late wife’s passing, I know this to be true, that alcohol prevents a deep sleep and giving it up, leads to instant relief. Although my sleep wasn’t flawless, I wasn’t snoring any more, and definitely improved sleep quality by giving up alcohol for good.

Sweet Dreams

Sleep, take me away
Into my dreamland

Beauty first meet
Radiance shines
Broken, gone
Scars, healed

Clear my mind
Cleanse my sadness
Enrich my soul
Raise my spirit high