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The Variety of Grief

I once heard a very kind priest friend say of a well-known priest author, “That man has never had a thought he didn’t feel he had to express.” I was a momentarily taken aback, because my friend was a very kind man who never said anything negative about anyone. I realized then that he was expressing the same mystification most introverts must feel about extroverts. Of course, extroverts frequently misinterpret introverts’ silence and need for privacy as dislike or disinterest or even distrust.
After years of studying and working with the Myers/Briggs Type Indicator, I have admitted that I don’t really know what I think about something until I manage to express it in words. And verbal dialogue is also intrinsic to my sense of relationship. I’ve learned that this is not only problematic for introverts that live or work with me, but often downright irritating.
Luckily, I have lived long enough to experience the wonderful outlet of the internet. I can express and hear myself in print at any hour of the day or night. And no one has to listen unless they want to and only when it’s convenient for them and only as long as they wish. And the introverts don ‘t have to say anything unless they feel like it and even then, all they have to do is hit one key to make a response.
Recently, I’ve been experiencing life changing challenges and I really do need to explore my feelings and insights by expressing them. Also, I think it’s possible that my describing what I’m feeling and learning may be some help to someone else out there. And happily, if not, they don’t need to waste their time reading what I write.
One of the challenges I am still facing is that we really do differ in our ways of dealing with grief. No matter how many stages are described as general, we don’t experience or work through them all the same. Partly because of differences in personality, but also because of many different factors about the way a loved one died, the timing for them and us, and past experiences with our own grief and others’ ways of grieving.
My husband was like a cat with nine lives. When I read back over his medical history, he came through so many close calls with death, I lose count. And in the last few years he fought valiantly with cardiac issues with stents and a pacemaker, AFIB, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, successful surgery for a malignant tumor in his lung, a return of lung cancer that was inoperable and that spread beyond the lungs as stage 4 cancer, stage 3 Kidney disease…..all of which weakened him too much to risk chemo therapy. He was in and out of ER’s, hospitalizations of various lengths up to two weeks several times, and finally five months in a nursing home, first attempting through therapy to get strong enough for chemo, then failing that, for nursing care and hospice.
We have five grown children who have been simply awesome in their active care giving and support through all of this. And each of them is grieving in their own way now. And I have realized that not all of them are finding my way easy to understand.
To begin with, I generally live in the future of possibilities, both negative and positive ones. In other words, I worry way ahead of things, but I also like to explore new ways of being happy or productive or creative or loving.
When my husband was diagnosed with IPF over two years ago and I learned it was incurable, fatal, and a horrible way to die, I began to worry and pray that he would be spared that death. Of course, heart failure seemed a much better way to die, but with a pacemaker, less likely. My husband’s strongest trait was perseverance. When he grew weaker and no longer able to work effectively at what he loved, he became stressed and began to have some memory issues.
Finally he had to admit that he could no longer continue working. Now he was suffering anxiety attacks, frequent pneumonia and bronchial infections, then surgery to remove a tumor in his right lung, and then cellulitis contracted during a hospitalization, and finally kidney issues and depression. The physical and emotional stress affected him in many ways and by the time he entered the nursing home with stage 4 cancer, he simply wasn’t the strong silent gentle man that I had lived with for almost sixty years.
I did not love him less. I loved him more. And I gladly learned how to take care of many of his medical needs. But long before he could accept that he was dying, I began to work through my fears, experience loneliness, take over unfamiliar tasks, and try in many ways to prepare for having to survive on my own.
The wonderful physical, financial, and emotional support our five children gave us helped me to do this. And my faith and the amazing love and faith of caregivers at the nursing home lifted me out of my darkest moments. And the nurses and support staff of Hospice were able to help me anticipate and understand the rapid changes that were happening toward the end. The dying need very different things than those who are able to try to get well.
Some of the influences on my way of dealing with the loss of my husband were my tendency to anticipate and plan ahead, my deepest fear of his having to suffer terribly fighting to breathe, my having seen my very strong mother simply close down when my father died totally unexpectedly at fifty-two, watching her die by inches with Alzheimer’s for fourteen years, but particularly my many experiences of grace and glimpses of meaning in my own and sometimes others’ suffering over my eighty-one years.
I have usually dealt with short crises fairly well. It’s been the long haul attrition kind of things that could defeat me. So, over the two and a half years of constant crises, I have learned to watch for beauty, kindness, love, tiny joys like sunshine and flowers and birds and small kindnesses and laughter. I see these as grace, as the gentle touches of God. They are all around us every day if we watch for them. They seem small in the face of death of one we love, but they are myriad.
I am a weak person, easily overwhelmed by too many practical details and emotionally vulnerable to the unexpected blow. Having a large caring family help me deal with details has been an incredible blessing. Having time and medical personnel who have been down this road before me to help me understand each phase softened each blow. The blessing of the final gentle pain free death from his heart stopping before his having to fight to breathe has kept me from despair.
At times the reality that he will never be with me again in this life feels heart breaking and overwhelms me. But so far, at least, it has not robbed me of gratitude for my caring family, of healing laughter, hope for creativity in my life, the energy to try to keep reasonably functional, or my many memories of the love and joy my husband gave me.