This is a story I posted on another blog in 2010. The 7th anniversary of my late wife's passing is approaching. Feeling reflective and going through the stages of grief yet again, I wanted to post this to hopefully give people something to think about while experiencing grief.
When driving on roads with traffic signals; we pay attention
to them and they tell us when to stop, when to use caution and when it is safe
to go. We pay attention and submit to their authority. By paying attention to
these signals we reach our destination safely. Moving through grief doesn’t
work that way. Grief is more like a roundabout. You pull into the roundabout
where roads intersect and drive in a circle until you reach your exit, and then
you pull out.
The benefit of a roundabout is that you are constantly
moving. A drawback is that if you miss your exit, you continue in the circle
until you come around again. If you take the wrong exit, you must return to the
circle and try again. That is more of how grief works. Knowing the five stages
of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance] is useful
information, but that is all it is—information.
Anyone who tells you that there is an order or structure to
facing the stages…well, they are foolish and probably trying to sell a book. If
you think of the stages of grief as exits from the roundabout, as you are
driving around you see them all and choose your own route—in the moment. After
you have taken an exit and driven a while, you still must return to the
roundabout to get to the next exit.
Grief is a complicated and misunderstood process and is
unique to every individual experiencing it. No one can really know how you feel
in much the same way the person in the vehicle next to you cannot know what you
are thinking as you drive.
I will share my experience with you as information and I can
tell what to expect from a particular exit you take, but you are driving…and I
will tell you that there have been many times I wished I were simply a
passenger. In the past five years I have lost five people in my immediate
family. Three of them after lengthy illnesses, two of them quite suddenly. In
order—my wife, my father, my father-in-law, a niece, and my brother. I am not
as much an authority on grief as I am a veteran.
Mariann, my wife was not feeling well for a couple of months
and visited our internist for a checkup. After some preliminary test he
recommended that she see her Gynecologist. After a few more tests the diagnosis
was pre-menopausal symptoms and a treatment regimen was established. Over the
next two months the symptoms accelerated. Mariann went back to the Gynecologist
who performed more tests and suggested that the possible alternative diagnosis
was uterine cists and referred Mariann to a GYN oncologist. Tests ensued.
On a cold October morning we sat in the conference room of
the Oncologist waiting to hear the results. Dr. Malviya [whom I love dearly] in
a very calm, kind and deliberate way said, “The original diagnosis was not
correct. You are in stage four with pancreatic cancer…the prognosis is
terminal.” As though I had been immersed in a deep water pool for the next ten
minutes my senses went dead. As though I were drowning, my life with Mariann
flashed before my eyes. I cannot imagine what Mariann felt in those moments.
As for the stages…Mariann went straight to depression and
me…denial. I had never in nearly two decades seen Mariann depressed. I could
only be there…there was nothing I could fix. The kicker you see was that
Mariann was a brilliant and very successful psychologist. Everything she had
learned, practiced and taught people to help themselves came crashing down when
her own mortality was thrown in her face. At Thanksgiving time our sons were
out of town and we decided to eat light and watch a movie together. Mariann’s
choice—“Saving Private Ryan”. The next day Mariann said to me, “I have to let
my colleagues know about this. I am going to document every moment of it to
teach.” Mariann then moved from depression to an odd combination of anger,
denial and acceptance. There was definitely a traffic jam in that roundabout.
I quit work to stay home and help Mariann. We went to every
Doctor’s appointment together and spent at least four hours every Tuesday
morning in chemo-therapy. I became an appendage to Mariann…and I was still in
denial. Another commitment that Mariann made was that she would return to work
and see her patients. Having been accepted to a trial program Mariann gained
back most of her weight and strength and in February she did indeed go to work
and see her patients. Her counts had reached a remission level—very rare with
pancreatic cancer. I was still in denial. I imagined every day that for every
disease that a cure has been discovered for, there was a day before…and maybe
today was the day before my wife could be healed.
By May it was clear that things had turned for the worse.
Mariann couldn’t keep food down, she hallucinated, and the pain meds increased
exponentially. She came home for hospice and for the next 8 weeks was a 24/7
occupation. Changing IV’s, giving injections, cleaning and changing her to keep
her comfortable, and absolutely never leaving her side. At this point I can’t
say that it was denial as much as dealing with the task at hand. I was
singularly focused and nothing else mattered…at all. There was also keeping the
family and close friends informed and fending off the fodder that cared as much
about Mariann as they did the traffic accident they slowed down to gawk at.
On a hot, hazy July morning Mariann passed leaving behind a
kind of void that will stay with me the rest of my days. I spent the next
several days tending to her last wishes, playing host to and consoling family
and living for the first time [in this way] alone. At that point I was
furiously traveling the roundabout looking for the easiest exit…and only got dizzy.
I experienced ALL five phases in those four days.
Five months later my 90 year old Father took ill and I spent
the next four months at his constant side and the cycle hit reset.
The point is that I have not had time to properly (by normal
standards) been allowed proper time to grieve any one of my family members
before being thrust into the next event. I have come to rely on two important
revelations that have helped me, and helped the people who rely on me for
strength and direction.
It is not the loss…it is
I know Mariann is gone. I know I have lost my other family.
Memory is sensory. I don’t remember losing Mariann, I remember every moment I
spent with her…and my father…and so on.
We never let go…we simply
change our grip.
I hope this helps put things in simple perspective.
Please heal and be well.
I’m just saying.
For a lighter story, I wrote a guest post on theWidowhood.com. A humorous view on coping called "The Art of Coping". Enjoy.