This Damn Grief

keysLet’s say it’s two or so months after your loved one’s death.

You are standing in the middle of the kitchen.

Your doctor’s appointment is across town and even if you left now, you’d be ten minutes late.

For the ninety-ninth time, you survey the pile of bills on the kitchen counter, and then the empty ceramic dish your youngest son crafted in elementary school that perches on the telephone table, and then the hooks on the wall by the door to the garage.

Now you start to cry.

You can’t find your car keys. And if you can’t find the keys, you can’t leave your house . . . let alone get to the doctor’s office. But that’s not the worst. Though in your early seventies and still feeling “young,” you are afraid that like your mother (who died a dozen years ago) and favorite uncle (currently in a pricey memory care facility), and also your best friend’s spouse, you are getting Alzheimer’s.

You can’t find your keys. And this morning, after your usual breakfast of granola and one slice of toasted wheat bread, you placed the carton of skim milk in the cupboard. Stupid? Forgetful? Silly? Last week, when mowing the lawn, you couldn’t locate the cumbersome green waste container for tossing in the grass clippings. It wasn’t until the next day that you spotted it in the corner of the garage. Who moved it where it didn’t belong? Gypsies? Gremlins?

Or did someone with Alzheimer’s abandon the waste container in the wrong place?

Someone like . . . you? Your tears keep flowing. Angrily, you swipe at your cheeks.

For the hundredth time, you examine the twice-broken and twice-fixed ceramic bowl to see if your car keys have magically reappeared. Still empty. But, for whatever reason, you nudge the bowl and discover your keys. They were hidden by a Post-it note reading, “Do the laundry” and the wide lip of your son’s third grade masterpiece.

Now, along with your tears, you start laughing. First, you were already preparing another sorry-I’m-late speech for your doctor. And second, you wonder if dementia wasn’t so awful since your beloved spouse of forty-nine years was dead and soon you’d forget everything, including the pain of this damn grief.

This. Damn. Grief.

You leave for the appointment, laughing and crying. When you returned home two hours later, you realized you’d left the garage door open.

The tears flowed again.

+     +     +

It was not long ago that I phoned a grieving spouse, offering support from the hospice where I work. I’ll call this person Juan. Juan was worried—no, it’s fairer to say filled with dread—over a series of events that convinced him he was getting Alzheimer’s. Juan’s father had suffered with dementia in his final years. Since his father despised doctors—and boasted that the last physician he’d “seen” had been the one who delivered him in the hospital—no one knew what type of dementia he had. Juan’s wife, who officially died from a grim cancer, had also been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

[Disclaimer.]

Juan seemed a smart and rational guy. He knew dementia wasn’t contagious. He knew research suggested the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s might involve family history and heredity, but there were a lot of variables that science was still working on.

And yet he was filled with that dread: what if . . .?

I told Juan—and I’ve told others—that grief impacts everything. Every thing. Every thing. When we are grieving, we are often forgetful. We don’t remember where we left the keys. Sometimes we don’t remember where we put the car. And because we are so vulnerable during this time, it’s “easy” to imagine the worst. But we don’t blame our random forgetting of objects or missed appointments on our grief. Instead, especially with someone like Juan and his family history of dementia, we easily leap to conclusions that are empty of logic but overflowing with fears.

During grief, people lose or gain weight. They cry with unexpected ferocity or privately doubt their sanity because they have never cried since their beloved’s death. They can’t sleep at night or get out of bed in the morning . . . or both.

We ache in places—our stomachs, our knees, our backs—and don’t think we’ve recently eaten any “bad” food or done any strange bending or over-exercising to cause any of the odd pains.

We are filled with anxiety and stress. That relentless butterflies roiling in our gut have razor blades for wings. We recall similar feelings of anxiety when interviewing for a job or waiting for the approval of the mortgage or wondering why your kid still isn’t home after a late night date . . . but all of those stressful feelings came and went. But this one—this crappy, unsettled feeling—never goes away. Do we have stomach cancer or something?

Grief impacts everything. (Yeah, I needed to repeat it.) It feels like dementia, an eating disorder, arthritis, whichever type of cancer you fear the most, and an anxiety disorder all rolled into one body . . . your body.

When grief counselors at my hospice meet with those wrestling with emotions and reactions after a loved one’s death, one of the standard questions is always: have you seen your family doctor?

Why ask that?

  • Because many who have been caring for a loved one dying from a terminal illness often neglect their own health needs.
  • Because it’s important for your doctor to know that your loved one has died. You’d tell your doctor about a rash or scratchy throat . . . shouldn’t you tell them about the worst loss of your life? Doctors, by the way, are not mind readers!
  • Because certain concerns with your body—the aches, anxiety, or forgetfulness—may be real clues about an illness that shouldn’t be ignored.

My father died of complications from dementia. When visiting my doctor, I ask her to stay alert to any of dementia’s potential warning signs. My worries may be irrational, but I want my physician to know my family history . . . and my worries. She always treats me with respect.

So please, see your physician. But also consider meeting with a grief counselor and/or joining a grief support group. And don’t neglect a heartfelt conversation about any worries you have with a trusted friend or family member. Regardless of what you do, please know you are not (to use technical medical terminology) “going crazy.”

You are grieving.

(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.)

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Comments

  1. Thank you Larry for these words. It’s been 29 months since Jim’s death and I still have those moments you talked about. It’s good to be reminded (again and again) that grief is such a powerful emotion that it can effect so many other parts of your life.

    • Thanks, Suzi.

      And I would guess and hope that the moments of “powerful emotion” come less frequently . . . but they will still happen. Grief changes and evolves as our love continues.

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