Yesterday at my grief support group we were asked to complete the sentence, “After he died, I was surprised that . . .” Everything that happened in the thirteen months since the death of my life mate — my soul mate — has surprised me. No, not surprised me. Shocked me.
I was shocked that the end came so quickly. He’d been sick such a very long time, his health fading slowly, that his dying became our way of life. When he was finally diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer, we were told he had three to six months to live. He had only three weeks. And those weeks seemed to evaporate in just a few hours.
After he died, I was shocked by the very presence of grief. My brother died four and a half years ago, and my mother died a year later. I handled both deaths well, so I thought I could cope with the death of my mate. I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, that one didn’t grieve the same for every loss. I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, that there was a physical component to the death of a long time mate, that it would feel like an amputation.
After he died, I was shocked by the depth and breadth of my feelings. During the last year of his life, and especially the last six months, he’d begun withdrawing from the world and from me. This withdrawal, this lessening of a need to be with others is a natural part of dying, and my response to his withdrawal was just as natural — an increased determination to live. He might be dying but I wasn’t, and I had to untangle our lives, find a way to survive his dying and his death. I thought I had successfully completed this task, but his death rocked me to the core of my being.
After his death, I was shocked by his sheer goneness. Because I’d spent so much time alone that last year, I thought life without him would feel much the same, but it isn’t like he is in another room or another city or another country — it’s like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I still have no words to describe the finality, the undoableness, the vacuum of death. He was part of my life for thirty-four years. We breathed the same air. We were connected by our thoughts, our shared experiences, the zillion words we’d spoken to each other. And then he was gone from this earth. Erased. Deleted. I still can’t wrap my mind around that.
After his death, I was shocked that I felt so shattered. So broken. And I am shocked that I still feel that way at times. I am shocked that no matter how strong you are, how well you are healing, grief can slam into you at any time, especially after a good day when you’re not expecting it, and the pain feels as raw as it was at the beginning.
After his death, I was shocked by the scope of grief. You grieve for the one who died and you grieve for yourself because you have to live without him. You grieve for all the things you did and the things you didn’t do. You grieve for what went wrong in your shared life and what went right. You grieve for the past and you grieve for the lost future. You grieve for all the hopes and dreams and possibilities that died with him. It’s amazing that anyone can survive all that pain, but we do, and that shocks me, too.
After his death, I was shocked by how complicated human emotions can be. You can feel sad and unsad at the same time. You can be determined to live, yet not care if you live or die. You can know in your depths he’s gone, but still listen for him, still yearn for him, still worry about him.
Mostly I’m shocked that I am still the same person I was before he died. Such emotional trauma should have changed me, made me stronger and wiser perhaps, yet I’m still just me. Sadder, but still recognizably me. Well, there is one change. I’ve always been a worrier, but now I try not to fret about the future, try not to wonder how I’m going to cope with growing old alone. After his death, I am no longer shocked that life can remain the same year after year. Nor am I shocked that it can change in an instant.