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.
was always a bit of an anomaly. He was born near the end of World War I
in rural Ontario Canada; one of six children born to poor farmers. Dad
was born at home, and as children he would have us believe that minutes
after he was born and cleaned up, both he and my Grandmother went out to
work the fields.
a quick interjection, my father used to say (as I’m sure many fathers
did), “There are 2 things you can’t avoid…death and taxes.” Well, Dad
beat the odds most of his life and in his own true fashion he passed on
April 15 (tax day) not having filed his taxes for that year.
The real story here is
the many ways Dad beat the odds to live 90+ years having experienced
more in his life than most of us are capable of remembering, much less
living. The number and severity of physical challenges he met head on
were literally a whole chapter in a book written by his childhood family
doctor. At age nine he was severely burned from his hips to his ankles
when a fuel oil drum he was straddling exploded. After the explosion,
one of the ends of the barrel was found a half mile away. As with every
story that follows, my Dad had a way of telling the story and then in
his usual unassuming and humorous way, he would cap the story with a
quip. He explained that when the barrel exploded, he was thrown away
from it with his clothes on fire. My Aunts and Uncles who were there
pulled off their clothing to beat and smother the flames engulfing Dad.
When asked what happened next, he would say, “Well, once they got the
flames out…I took up smoking.”
Doctor told my grandmother that dad would never walk again. My
great-grandmother who was a nurse took him in and cared for him through
the healing process. Eighteen months later, Dad was out running around
and playing with his friends. “What about the Doctor saying you wouldn’t
walk?” He would reply, “He told your grandmother that…nobody told me
anything…so how was I supposed to know?”
age 11 he was kicked in the head by a horse that put him in a coma for 3
weeks. “What happened next?” His reply…”The first thing I did when I
woke up…was kick the horse back!” At age 13, the beginning of the
depression Dad hopped on a freight train and headed west to find work.
Dad worked in a grist mill, on farms, and lumber camps in the Yukon
until he was in his early twenties when he joined the Canadian Coast
Guard and ultimately the Merchant Marines.
1942 and 1946 Dad made 17 trips to Europe carrying supplies for the war
effort on convoys that were regularly being shot at by German U-Boats.
During those 4 years more than half of the ships Dad sailed on were
damaged or sunk by attacks…but never when he was on them! What
incredible odds! I asked him what he thought of that and his reply
was…”Oh, I think God was just looking out for me because he knew I was a
lousy swimmer.” The photo (right) is Dad’s passport photo at age 26
(not his happy face).
stories go on. I have always been amazed at how he took what he was
faced with, conquered it, moved on and never complained. A partial list
of what he went through in my lifetime includes Gall Bladder, Thyroid,
ulcer surgery, knee replacement (he had both knees replaced TWICE), hip
surgery (both hips), quadruple bypass, eye surgery, ear surgery, colon
surgery (10 days after his quadruple bypass)…and on and on. I asked Dad
about having to go through knee replacement 4 times, and he
responded"Well God didn't guarantee the first set, so I guess I can't be
too hard on the Doctor, he's only human."
Dad’s 90th birthday we talked at length about everything he had
experienced and been through in his life, and I marveled that he had
survived it all. He simply replied, “Well, if cats have 9 lives…I guess
I’m 2 of the toughest cats you’ve ever met.”
October of 2006 at age 90 while working in his garden, Dad fell and
broke an elbow. This injury triggered a series of events and health
failures that progressed until he was hospitalized in January 2007, and
never came home again.
the 8 months that followed his injury, I pretty much spent most of my
waking hours with him making sure that he was taken care of and holding
the Doctors to task. I sat down and talked with him one night for
several hours. He was weak and tired but lucid. He put his hand on the
back of my neck, pulling me down to his face. Dad kissed me on the
forehead and whispered to me, “Son, I love you. I don’t think I can
start over again.”
I am sitting outside as the moon sets; a huge, bright, bulbous full moon shining down on this page like a lantern from olden times. I wonder how long it will take pen and paper to be relegated to the category of "olden times" and fulfill the prophecy of planned obsolescence. How funny; already before I even finished the page my pen ran out of ink! How long since I sat alone and wrote (not on a computer) during the magical moment between dawn and morning - the time Steinbeck called "the time of the pearl." So precious, fragile, opalescent and impossible not to revel in.
This is one of the many things I promised myself I would never lose; we all have that list of things we will hold on to as we get older. A way of reassuring ourselves we are not "ordinary" but marching to the beat of our own "drum" or electric guitar, or saxophone; we hear the music that no one else can. I was young and full of life; getting older would never foreclose on my precious mental tree house where precious nuggets of childhood were hidden away. This was one of them: never let the full moon go unnoticed in the sky; to not creep out at dawn and capture it in all its glory and perfection, and, finally, to hold on to the spirit of something ineffable and much bigger than myself moving through me as I felt special and truly a child of the universe. Now, the arthritis in my hands makes it almost painful to write; I am stubborn, however, and stay outside though I want to go in.
I never wanted to go in before and I start a mental list of all the other things I promised to never lose. I would never leave a path in the woods unexplored. I would never stop climbing trees. And, most importantly, I would never run to get out of the rain. And you know what, the two latter things I keep to. As far as the trails in the woods; the developers took care of those. I have my dreams though. I keep to them. And, someday, somehow, you may even find yourself reading this.
Please welcome Willow Rose to the blog. Willow writes short fiction
and poetry and will be contributing here regularly. Willow say about her
writing, “I believed in the power of well-chosen words to distill the world,
and to clarify it. My strongest belief and favorite subject to write about is
the resilience of the human spirit and our universal need for connection.
After working the long cocktail shift the night before, even yesterday's toast crumbs on the floor hurt my bare feet. The night had been interminable, and the reek of tobacco and liquor still clung to my hair and skin like static electricity. Morning always came too soon after nights like those, and I said a silent prayer to the god of single mothers that my daughter would wake up in a good mood.
While the water for the oatmeal boiled, I made my way back to her room where she lay curled in sleep and innocence. Forcing a note of cheerfulness into my voice, I greeted her, "Good morning, sweetheart, time to get up," and kissed her sleepy eyelids open.
"Mommy, I don't feel good," she told me, and I groaned in dismay. She just couldn't be sick! I had to work again today and couldn't afford to miss any hours.
"Get up, you'll feel better later," I told her over my shoulder as I raced into the kitchen too late to keep the oatmeal from boiling over on the stove. After I called her several times for breakfast, she appeared - half-dressed and scowling; the warning signs of a morning that could only get worse.
As she sat at the table and picked at breakfast with maddening deliberation, I resisted the urge to scream as the clock ticked the minutes away. "Come on, hurry or you'll be late," I urged her, feeling the familiar anxiety stomping its football cleats through my stomach.
As she brushed her teeth, I brushed her hair, feeling the knots underneath I just didn't have time to unravel. When I pulled too hard, she swung around screaming "I hate you, you're always making me hurry," and ran out the door sobbing uncontrollably. When I caught her, I held her tightly, crying "I love you," over and over, desperately trying to assuage the pain that flowed like a current between us.
Minutes later, I stood at the window watching her go, a lump of guilt, love, and futility sticking in my throat like the cold oatmeal we never had time to eat.