During a conversation this week* with a husband whose sixty-something wife had died from cancer, the surviving spouse said, “I thought I was prepared for her death, but nothing prepared me for my feelings now.”
Several of his relatives had experienced their spouses’ deaths. Each offered advice and support and he appreciated it. So far, it hadn’t helped.
The hospice staff serving his wife had honestly discussed her dying. They’d also gently suggested reactions he might have after her death. Everything said was thoughtful and kind. So far, it hadn’t helped.
He’d bought and read recommended books on grief while attending to his wife’s changing needs as she neared death. After all, the two of them had always been planners. He sought to be ready for the inevitable. So far, it hadn’t helped.
Grief is unique . . . for every single one of us.
No one can prepare for how to handle (and not handle) grief.
Unavoidably and inevitably, we will all grieve.
In another conversation, I called* a griever about six weeks after her spouse’s death. It was the second time I’d phoned, but—a month before—I’d only been able to leave a supportive message. Now she answered.
I introduced myself, and then asked what I always ask: “Is this a good time to talk?”
“No,” she hastily replied, “Look, thanks for calling but I’m at the office right now, and I’m working like fifteen hours a day and can’t talk.”
“We’ll try to call again.”
A brief pause.
She hung up. Her voice revealed no animosity. Whenever I called again, whether weeks or months, would she give the same answer? It’s possible. I didn’t doubt she was logging the double-digit hours. Was she trying to make-up for “lost time” after caring for a dying spouse? It’s likely. Work often accumulates when tending to the needs of our beloved. Or was she burying herself in work to avoid remembering that she’d recently buried her husband? Equally likely.
I’ve talked to many (women and men) that dive into work-work-work . . . frequently to escape into known and “safe” activities in order to avoid grief’s unpredictable feelings.
Grief is sneaky.
Grief is relentless.
Grief is the only “side effect” of love we’d rather avoid.
After the call to the person working 15-hour days, I knew that my next call could be to someone who still hadn’t gone back to his or her office. How could they manage to get out of bed, let alone shower and dress to restart the regular routine?
We work too much. We can’t work at all.
We cry all the time. We never shed a tear.
We constantly graze on junk food. As night comes, we realize we haven’t eaten all day.
For every person who can’t leave bed, another views the bed as enemy. A good night’s sleep happened a long time ago and as if to someone else. The sheets are wet with tears. The pillowcases won’t be changed because the scent of your beloved lingers. Or, if the scent has faded, the memory of its memory remains.
Sometimes we’ll meet others—at a grief support group or a supermarket aisle—and she or he tells you their loved one recently died (a parent, a spouse, a child). But, last night or last week, that person visited in a dream. They relate how lovely it was.
You keep a straight face. You nod your head. You try to be polite.
But you’ve never dreamed . . . damn it! How you’ve longed to have one more deep-in-the-night moment with your loved one. You resent the person with the “good dream.” Your life, every waking moment, only seems a nightmare.
Grief finds our weaknesses.
Grief causes us—literally—to stumble while walking and mumble while talking.
Grief chuckles when plans are made. Go ahead, create a to-do list! Grief will guarantee that before the day ends, you won’t have started a solitary item. Hey, you might even lose the list.
When will you return to your “old self?”
Will you never feel better again?
But this dying and death you couldn’t prepare for (and no human can) changes . . .
EVERYTHING . . .
I recall chatting with a daughter who’d cared for her mother for several years. When her mother could no longer be alone, the daughter invited her to move in with her. It wasn’t easy. Though disagreements happened, it was an arrangement that mostly worked for both. In the room where her mother stayed, the daughter’s young children enjoyed time with their grandmother. After school and on weekends, Grandma welcomed them into the room for games, reading, or just being together.
Her health worsened. Hospice helped the family in her final months.
When I talked with the daughter, she said she wanted to do something “different” with the room.
I asked, “Was it a space with difficult memories?”
Not really. Not for her.
She decided to change it—new flooring, walls painted, replaced furniture—into a playroom for her kids and their friends. Once, grandma had lived there . . . but now it’s a different place, where yesterday’s bittersweet memories mingle with today’s giggles and good times, and where the kids are still welcome.
Would changing a room work for you?
Maybe—or maybe not?
I recall, from the conversation, the daughter didn’t make changes until she was ready.
And she also recognized that everything had changed.
*These are fictionalized versions of conversations occurring nearly every week.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by