Grief is not a Cookie Cutter Situation
We are as diverse as can be. We have unique personalities, moods, beliefs, and expectations. How could our experiences of grief possibly be any less unique? Each experience of grief a person has is also completely singular.
What do we mean by the term, ‘grief’? To me, grief is the process of adjusting to the absence of any significant person, thing, or circumstance in our life. Grief is not a process exclusive to those who find themselves left to continue on with life, while someone they loved has moved on to their next adventure.
One thing I find people want to do is to place the situation they are going through on some sort of scale that they can hold up and compare to what someone else is going through. I have certainly done this. I have thought, ‘at least they had their son for longer than we did’, or ‘at least he got to live more of life.’ Similarly, I have had a divorced woman approach me after the passing of my first husband and say, ‘At least your husband didn’t leave you intentionally.’
While this is a normal tendency, it really isn’t helpful to anyone, on either side of the scale because we don’t know what someone else is going through. Any grief can be compounded by guilt, conflict, ar a myriad of real or imagined complications. I will talk more about this next week when I talk more about trusting and following your own path through grief.
My own experiences with grief have been vastly different. My Dad’s passing was my first experience with a deep personal loss. I remember the day my brother and I went to talk to Dad’s doctor to find out why Dad didn’t seem to be getting better following his prostate surgery. “Your Dad needs to get his affairs in order.” Those were the words the doctor chose to let us know that Dad wouldn’t be getting better, instead he was soon to leave us behind in this world. The thought that kept running through my mind was, ‘this isn’t going to get better.’ That was the first time in my life that I faced something that I couldn’t tough it out and get through. Dad’s illness progressed quickly from there. A loss of innocence, and more cynical world view characterized that grief journey.
My first husband, Wayne became very ill just a couple of years later. His initial illness – cardio myopathy, was a horrifying struggle to keep Wayne alive. When the doctor let Wayne out of the hospital the first time, more than a month after his initial hospitalization, it was with the intention of giving him the opportunity to get home one last time. He wasn’t expected to survive for long. At that point Wayne’s heart was too bad for him to be considered for the transplant list. Over the coming year, he fought his way back and soon, his heart was functioning too well for him to be considered for transplant. We had a few years together before I came home from work one day to find Wayne standing, looking out the window of our basement suite. “It’s happening again,” he said, and I was stopped, cold in my tracks. I didn’t believe him at first – there had just been no signs, but sure enough. He went into the local hospital and was transferred to Regina.
With Wayne’s return to the hospital, he knew what he was facing – all of the horrible treatments that were, at times, worse than the illness. He remembered the pain, the suffering, and all of the strength it took to survive. On top of it, was the certain return to the heart transplant list – a prospect he had never come to terms with the first time around. Wayne just didn’t have the energy to do it all again and so, he went against the advice of his doctor and my own insistence that we could beat this again and asked that no exceptional measures would be used to keep him alive.
I reeled at that prospect. My struggle was quickly multiplied. The medical team had decided that Wayne needed dobutamine. The process went pretty smoothly, which was rare for Wayne, who’s veins tended to collapse and roll. As soon as the nurses left the room Wayne proceeded to voice his anger and disappointment with me for allowing them to start the IV and administer the medication. I was stunned. He had received this medication before. I certainly didn’t think that this went against his wishes to not undergo ‘extraordinary measures’. We agreed that we wouldn’t have the IV stopped, but if it ‘went bad’, it wouldn’t be restarted. The IV did ‘go bad’ within a couple of days and Wayne’s condition steadily deteriorated. I was faced with the responsibility of giving or denying permission for all non-routine measures.
The morning Wayne left us, his parents had arrived to let me go and get some rest after sitting with him through the night. It was after 9:30 in the morning and suddenly Wayne began choking. The nurse came rushing in and asked if she should suction. I shook my head, enforcing Wayne’s desires. As he struggled through his last breaths, His eyes were so filled with fear, I ached to call the nurse back to provide the suctioning that would get us through that incident… but I didn’t. I did what Wayne had asked me to do. I let him go but I tormented myself with the thought that maybe he had changed his mind. Maybe he wasn’t ready.
The horror in Wayne’s eyes was all that I could see every time I closed my eyes. My grief following Wayne’s passing was layered with guilt, and self-doubt which was compounded by the difficult state of our relationship before he had gone into the hospital for the last time. I struggled with an utter lack of self worth and contemplated just following Wayne and my Dad into whatever came next.
Years later, I had a completely new life – a new family including 2 amazing sons and we were given the fabulous opportunity to move to Lethbridge to work and live near my brother, Lyle, and his family. It had been a long time since I had enjoyed the pleasure of sibling companionship and I enjoyed it thoroughly! Barbecues, getting together for coffee, the boys spending time with their Aunt and Uncle, Sunday evenings playing board games… it was a wonderful time.
It was devastating when they came to visit, just a year later to tell us that Lyle had been diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer. We told them to focus on the positive, that it could be beaten, but his disease progressed, and life drew us away from Lethbridge to Unity, SK.
When Lyle’s wife called, it was February, and a storm was raging. Lyle wanted to see me before he went to rejoin our Dad but I just couldn’t go. I would be travelling with kids – 6 hours over some very questionable roads – there was no way, I could make it until the storm lifted. I didn’t get to talk to my brother again in this life.
My grief at the loss of a sibling was tempered with questions about my own mortality and the value of my life.
My mom, who had been quite ill following a series of strokes, rejoined Dad and her 2nd son on her birthday. I am sure there was an exceptional celebration in heaven that night. But here on Earth, that loss left me feeling like an orphan.
None of these experiences could in any way prepare me for the absolute shock of having to walk away from the Unity Hospital Emergency room and the body that had housed the beautiful soul of my son during his visit to Earth.
Numbness. More than a year of absolute numbness didn’t let much else through. I put one foot in front of the other and I endured – because I had no choice, and because my family needed me.
During that first year, I was aware of a pit of horror – just outside of my field of vision – I could glance over the precipice into the dark pit – I could run my toe around the jagged lip of the gaping hole. I knew it was there, but I couldn’t go there. Always right there… I knew that if I let myself get too close, I would be sucked in and swallowed up. That couldn’t happen. I veered consistently away from the chasm because others needed me to stay present and engaged.
After the numbness lifted, I began pursuing some sort of justice for Errol and the way his medical care was handled. As I fought, I also began to look for answers about where Errol is now and what that place is like. I fought and I learned and almost another year later, when I completed the battle – removed my armor and prepared to face my grief, I found that the pit of horror and despair was gone. The hurt of missing Errol, of feeling his absence every minute, and that particular loneliness of not having someone who is a part of you were there – but now I am able to embrace those feelings with understanding, compassion, and hope… HOPE… there had been no hope 18 months earlier.
I don’t know if I would have made it had I pushed myself toward that abyss. As it was, God provided me with a path that was right for me. I know many people worried about me. There was much concern that I wasn’t ‘dealing with things’. I think that things happen the way they do for a reason and each of us is given our very own unique trail through grief. I think we should trust the path we are provided. I want to talk about trusting the journey more next week.
For this week, I just want to say, let everyone – yourself included experience the journey as it comes. Try not to worry or push – just accept and support.
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