Surprising Way Patrick Swayze's Widow Copes With Grief

Swayze's widow still texts her husband when she travels, just like she used to when he was alive.

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Lisa Niemi with Patrick Swayze

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By Catherine Donaldson-Evans, AOL Health

Patrick Swayze's widow still texts her husband when she travels, just like she used to when he was alive.

In July, Lisa Niemi sent the actor, who died of pancreatic cancer a year ago this Tuesday, a text as she got on a plane.

"I just put what I always did: 'I love you,'" Niemi, 54, told People in an upcoming issue. "And then I cried for a little bit to myself."

AOL Health's grief specialist David Kessler said Niemi's way of coping with the loss of her husband is normal and even healthy.

"I encourage people to find ways to continue the relationship with the loved one," said Kessler. "If she used to text him all the time, I might expect her to continue that."

Niemi's ritual is an example of what Kessler and other bereavement experts call "magical thinking"—when someone in mourning believes things can continue the way they were and the deceased loved one is still there. Ironically, Swayze's movie "Ghost" shows his character's wife, played by Demi Moore, engaging in similar behavior as she keeps seeing him and talking to him after he dies.

The writer Joan Didion invented the phrase with her memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," about the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne while their daughter was in a coma. She said she didn't want to throw away Dunne's shoes after his fatal heart attack because she thought he might come back.

Kessler, who runs the website Grief.com, said he has known widows who bring their husbands' ashes to the movie theater when they go to see a film and parents who keep a dead child's bedroom exactly the way it was.

The coping mechanisms are healthy as long as they're not too involved or last for such a long time that the one left behind can't move forward.

"When we look at these events, we always tend to look at two things: the intensity and the duration," Kessler told AOL Health. "How long does it go on and how much does it consume someone?...If it's something that's interfering with daily life, then one might be concerned."

He said such behaviors are fine in measured doses—a month or even a year after the loved one's death.

"For someone who kept their child's room intact...for five years, the duration would be too long," said Kessler. "Or if the mom went in and sat there and talked to the child all day long, the intensity would be too much."

Sometimes wishful thinking can go too far for a person in mourning.

"There's the magical thinking that you're just going to wake up tomorrow and find that this has all been a dream and your loved one is fine," he told AOL Health.

People who lose loved ones typically go through five well-known stages similar to those experienced by people trying to kick an addiction: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Aside from the "magical thinking" ways of coping, some have vivid "bereavement dreams" about the person who died that they can't distinguish from reality. Others engage in "lucid dreaming," a controversial practice in which people claim to be able to interact with the deceased relative in their dreams.

But handling the loss of a spouse or other relative is a very personal experience.

"Grief is as unique as our fingerprint—no two people grieve alike," Kessler told AOL Health. "Grief should be a no-judgment zone."

Kessler believes Swayze's widow, who will participate Friday night in the 'Stand Up to Cancer' celebrity telethon, is handling the death of her husband well.

"If it's something that's loving, that's helping, that's connecting them, then God bless her," Kessler said. "This might be the way she finds meaning."

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