I Am a Thirteen-Month Grief Survivor

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.

Grief: Blindsided by Lilacs

Who knew I would find lilacs in this desert community?

My life mate — my soul mate — loved lilacs. We once saw a house with lilacs lining the long driveway, and he wanted to live there, but we couldn’t afford such luxury. Shortly after we moved to the house where we were to spend the rest of his life, we dug up the lilacs that blocked a gate and replanted them around the perimeter of the yard. When we moved to that house, it was like living in an aquarium — there was absolutely no privacy. By the time he died, it was such a lush environment, it was like living in a terrarium — and there was total privacy. And the gate was once again blocked with lilacs. Apparently, we’d left just enough rootstock that the bushes grew back.

We planted all sorts of bushes and trees in addition to those lilacs, and the thrill of watching our seedlings grow to adulthood was another thing we shared in a twinned life that was all about sharing. It should have been hard leaving the place, but I was in such grief over his death that one more loss didn’t really make much difference to my sorrow.

I still don’t miss the place, or not that much. A place is just a place. I am homesick, but homesick for him. He was home. I miss him. I miss our life together. If he were to call and tell me he was waiting for me, I’d go to him wherever he was — mountains or desert, city or country, there I would be. But he’s never going to call. For months after I came here to the desert to try to figure out what comes next, I’d listen for the phone, hoping he would call and tell me that he was well and I could come home. That feeling is finally fading, but the loss of that feeling just makes me sadder — he is gone and I have to deal with the vicissitudes of life by myself.

I have minor upsurges of grief a couple of times a day, but I try to be upbeat. I have a new book published. I am getting new clothes, trying to reinvent myself from the outside in. I have made new friends (mostly people who have lost their mates. It’s amazing how quickly you can get to know someone when you cry together). I’ve been handling myself well.

And then . . .

Today, strolling around the neighborhood (it was too windy to walk in the desert), I happened to smell lilacs, and instantly, I was back in full-fledged grief mode. People keep telling me one never gets over grief, you just learn to live with it, and that appears to be true. Grief seems to lurk in dark places, ready to gush forth when one is least expecting it. And I was not expecting it today. How could I have known I would encounter lilacs growing in this desert community?

Keeping Vigil

I’m continuing my anniversary vigil, reliving the days that led up to the death of my life mate, my soul mate. This vigil is not so much conscious as subconscious, a feeling that the events of a year ago are happening again. Part of me seems to think I really am there at his deathbed — when I was out walking in the desert today, I found myself wailing, “Don’t go! Please don’t leave me!”

This is so different from last year’s reality. Then, I was concentrating on him, on his suffering, on his need to let go of life, and I never once thought of asking him to stay for me. Would never have subjected him to more pain and suffering. Would never have wished him more days as a helpless invalid. And yet, here I am, today, begging him not to leave me.

Such is grief — a place where time goes backward and forward, stands still and zips ahead.

Perhaps when this first terrible year is finished, when I have experienced this reprise of his death from my point of view rather than his, I will be able to put a lot of my grief behind me and go forward with my life. Though I still don’t know what that life is, where it will take me, or if it will take me anywhere at all. Perhaps all that is necessary is to experience life, and if that is true, well, I have certainly lived this past year.

It’s strange looking back to the long years of his dying. I thought I was ready to leave the emotional burdens and the financial constraints of his illness behind. I thought I was ready to live out my life alone. I even looked forward to the challenges, especially since he told me that when he was gone, things would come together for me. He was a bit of a seer (though he mostly saw doom) so I believed him. But neither of us expected the toll grief would take. (Well, he might have suspected. He was very concerned about me.) I knew I’d be okay, and I am, but I didn’t understand what grief was. (I’d already lost a brother and my mother, but that was not the same as losing my cosmic twin, the person who shared my thoughts and dreams, who lived in the same world I did.) I never expected the sheer physicality of grief, the physical wrenching, the feeling of amputation, the feeling of psychic starvation, the feeling of imbalance in the world, the sheer goneness of him.

Nor did I expect to still be worrying about him. Is he okay? Is his suffering really over?

His death was not a silent one. He moaned for days, though the nurses assured me he was feeling no pain, that he was sighing, that it was a common reaction for those who were dying. I remember standing there, exactly one year ago tonight, listening to him, worrying that he was suffering, and then one of his “sighs” became lyrical, almost like a note from a song, and I knew he was telling me he was all right.

I keep listening for some sound, looking for some sign that he is okay, but today all I hear is silence.

The Ferris Wheel of Life

Relationships, especially between long-term couples, change continuously, but we seldom notice those changes in the whirr and whirl of everyday life. Even our images of each other change to accommodate the passing years. We are always “us.”

A day or two after my life mate died, I couldn’t visualize him, so I looked at the only photo I have of us, and I wept because I did not recognize him. Fifteen years ago, when that photo was taken, it was an exact likeness of him, but during the years of illness, he lost the fullness in his face, first becoming distinguished looking, then gaunt. I have an idea/image of him in my mind, perhaps a composite of him through the years, perhaps what he actually looked like near the end, and that single photo I have of him does not resemble the person I knew. One more thing to mourn.

That is the problem with grief, there is always one more thing to mourn.

It’s not just our internal images of a person that changes to accommodate the vagaries of age; our internal image of the relationship itself changes to accommodate the vagaries of life. Most of the transformation of a relationship from youthful and passionate to aged and (perhaps) wise and companionable goes unnoticed. We are always who we are. We are always in the present.

The big events of life — starting a business or losing one, having children or losing them — we celebrate or grieve as the case may be, but other things disappear without acknowledgement. We used to walk together, ride bikes, play tennis, kick a soccer ball, but such activities were supplanted with other, more sedentary activities as his health deteriorated. But still, there we were, on the great Ferris wheel of our relationship — always current, always us. And then he died.

When one of a couple dies, the Ferris wheel of your shared life comes to a halt. Those who have not experienced the loss of a long-time mate think that the Ferris wheel continues with the survivor, but that isn’t true. It looms there, empty. The continually evolving, revolving living relationship is dead. All you have is what has already happened, and now you can see every transformation throughout all the years. You don’t simply mourn the man he was at the end, you also mourn the man you met and the men he became during the subsequent years. And you grieve for all those little things that passed unnoticed during the course of your relationship. They didn’t matter while you were together because you were together, but now they add to the overwhelming whole of grief.

Gradually, the survivor climbs aboard another Ferris wheel of her own, but the original one still haunts. If I live long enough, my grief will fade and perhaps disappear in the whirr and whirl of everyday life, but for now, newly recalled memories keep seeping into my life, and they have to be processed, mourned, dealt with. Sometimes these are minor issues, sometimes major. And all a surprise. How could so much have happened during those quiet years?

One recurring theme in our lives was vitamins and other food supplements. We met at his health food store. The first time we connected physically was when he handed me a bottle of vitamin A and our touch lingered. The first time our gazes locked was over his checkout counter. The supplement regimen he created for me changed as new research came out, but always, there were the supplements, a symbol of how much he cared for me. Now all that loss has to be dealt with somehow.

And that is just one aspect of our shared life. There were almost 34 years worth of good things and bad. 408 months. 1756 weeks. 12,296 days. When he was alive, all those days blended together, but now each exists separately, a thing in itself. A thing to be mourned. No wonder grief is such a major undertaking.

Many Shades of Grief

When you lose someone significant in your life, someone whose very being has helped define you in some way, grief can be overwhelming. So many stages and shades of grief bombard you that at times you think you are going crazy — but except for the very extremes of grief — mummifying yourself so you don’t feel anything for years on end or saving pills so you can end your life — chances are what you are feeling is normal.

Many people who try to deal with the loss completely on their own have no idea if what they are feeling is normal. When you lose your husband, your daughter also loses her father, your sister-in-law loses her brother, your neighbor loses his friend. At first, you grieve together, but one by one everyone else puts aside their grief until you are the only one left crying. And they begin to hint that you need therapy. They got over their pain, why can’t you? After all, you all lost the same man. But you didn’t have the same relationship, so you won’t experience the same shades of grief.

I was in such pain after losing my life mate that I decided to go to a grief support group, hoping they could tell me how to survive the agony. I was afraid, at first, that I would be overwhelmed by everyone else’s pain; instead, I found a group of people who knew what I was going through, who listened to my sad story and who, because of their own survival let me know that I would survive. And that was comforting. I also learned that the only way to survive the pain is to go through the process of grieving.

It’s the hardest thing I have ever done, embracing grief.

Grief takes you to the ends of your limits. It makes you question everything you thought you knew about life, about yourself, about death. It can make you scream at the heavens, make you cry until you think you’re drowning in your own tears, make you want not to live. All this is accompanied by a host of physical symptoms, such as dizziness, tightness in the chest, restlessness, irritability, inability to focus or organize, inability to eat or sleep (or to eat and sleep too much). And when you think you’ve cried all your tears, finished with your panic attacks, come to accept that he isn’t coming back, grief returns, but this time it comes in a different shade, perhaps not so black as in the beginning, but still dark.

Right now I’m going through a time of pearl gray days scattered with storm-cloud gray moments. Though I’ve done the work of grief in my own way, I have had one great benefit that many people don’t have — that grief support group. Because of their support, because I know someone is paying to attention, I have felt free to embrace my grief fully without worrying that I’m crazy or that I need therapy. Because of them, I know I am coping well, I know my grief is normal, I know I am completely sane. I just haven’t finished with my grieving yet, and it’s possible that I may never be completely finished. And that too is normal.

Sucker Punched by Grief

After the first excruciating months, dealing with a major loss is like being in the ring with an ever-weakening opponent. The feeble jabs inflict little pain, and you start feeling as if you can go the distance. Gradually, as the blows come further and further apart, you let down your guard. You even welcome the blows that do land, because they remind you why you are fighting. Then . . .

Wham!

Out of nowhere comes the knockout punch.

My knockout punch came after a restless night. I finally fell asleep in the early morning hours, and I dreamt.

I dreamed that my life mate was dead, but I woke to find him alive and getting well. It was wonderful seeing him doing so much better, and a quiet joy seeped over me.

I started to wake. In the seconds before full consciousness hit, I continued to feel the joy of knowing he still lived. Then . . .

Wham!

The truth hit me. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Then, like an aftershock, came the raw pain, the heartbreak of losing him . . . again.

I’d only dreamt about him once before, and that was at the beginning when my defenses were still in place. In that first dream, I told him I thought he’d died, but deep down I knew the truth, and there was no shock when I awoke, just a feeling of gladness that I got to see him once more. But this time, I had let down my guard. I even felt a bit smug that I was getting a grip on my grief so early in the process, and so the dream caught me unaware. In the depths of my being, I believed that he hadn’t died.

I cried on and off for two or three days (I lost count; grief tends to override time) but now I’ve regained my equilibrium — at least until the next time.

A friend who counsels the bereft told me, “In my experience with grief, a healthy person, such as yourself, is going to grieve in a gradually diminishing way for two years.”

Two years??!!

If so, I have a very long way to go. I’d planned to stop blogging about grief. I don’t want people to think I am eliciting sympathy, nor do I want to seem pathetic, grieving long after the non-bereft think I should be done with it. But if I’m going to have bouts of pain for many months to come, I might as well share them and let others take whatever comfort they can from my learning experiences.

This episode with the dream taught me to be patient with myself. I’ve been thinking that I’m mostly healed, and I’ve been feeling like a slacker, just taking life a moment at a time, not doing anything to prepare for the rest of my life, not doing much of anything but reading, walking, writing a little (a very little), taking photographs, and going through my mate’s collection of movies. Now that I know the power of the sucker punch, and how easily it can gain the upper hand, I understand this simple life is all I can expect of me right now. And perhaps that’s the way it’s supposed to be.