Tag Archives: grief

Acceptance

2013-12-25 12.17.28Prologue

Before the fourth anniversary of my wife’s passing March 26, 2013, I reached out to my children and family on her side to see how everyone was doing. The fact that four years had passed struck me somehow differently than in previous years. I thought about what four years of time had meant in other stages of life. High school. College. All so significant. 

Ad it felt like I was “graduating” in some way from the grief experience as well. So I began writing the following essay but did not get to publish it before the date of her passing. So I held onto it for a week. And during that time my son Evan, who has been through quite a bit of challenging grief scenarios, expressed some confidence that he was built back up in some ways. I discussed things with my daughter and sister-in-law, who both process grief in their own way as well. And my mother-in-law and brother-in-law. And through these discussions the conclusion of this essay was drawn. And here it is. 

Some periods of life seem so much more important than others. It’s tempting to think about life in chunks.. Those elementary years making friends for the first time. The middle school years overcoming awkward physical and social changes. High school with its epic call to become someone liked and respected..Then college comes along, quickly followed by the climactic launch into real life.

 What is it about a four year periods that that seem to change us so much? Freshman. Sophomore. Junior. Senior. We even assign names to each stage. 

Four years is a long time. That’s 1,460 days. 35,040 hours. 2,102,400 minutes. Depending on how one’s brain tends to process time against other factors such as stress and other emotions from pain or joy, every second can feel like an eternity in some stages of life.

This is especially true when a period of four years marks a rite of passage for someone you love. That’s why people hold graduation ceremonies. One is a graduate because the process has been gradual

We tend to remember the passage of years whem someone familiar to us dies or “graduates from life,” we might say. My own mother died in 2005. Twelve years ago. My father passed away ten years later, in 2015. I was his caregiver all those years he lived on as a stroke victim. During a significant portion of that time I was also caregiver to a wife who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2013. That was four years ago. March 26.

I’ve written at length about our lives together. Published a book chronicling our journey. Those who knew her still share fond memories. She is not forgotten. Her memory is cherished by many. 

Our family reeled, of course, from her loss. During the last four years the healing process for me has involved a number of changes. I worked for myself a good portion of that time because it was one of her wishes for me. It also turned out to be a time for healing. When I needed relief from work, I took it. Unconventional at that stage in life perhaps. But necessary.

And in the process of self-employment I learned a lot about what like I do and where my strengths and weaknesses really are. 

For my children, the past four years has been an entirely different experience in grief. My son lived in New York for most of that time. Losing his mother gutted the young man in many ways. We’ve talked about the things he did to compensate. Some of them healthy. Some of them not so much. It has been a wrenching process in any case.

My daughter was in the early part of her 20s when her mother died. Now she’s turning 27 years old. Some of the big events in life for a young woman are coming up. Thus she misses her mother in distinctive ways from the two “guys” in the family.

We’re all likely familiar with the stages of grief in life. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. And acceptance. I would argue that the first four are stages from which we seek to successively graduate, and not always in neat categories or specific order. And people graduate from some things in life at different times. 

It’s the acceptance that constitutes our graduate degree when it comes to getting through and over a big loss in life. It’s a difficult subject to master. Acceptance is just one of the many degrees we earn in life. 

As the crocus petals fall

A close friend has been at the hospital the last few days tending to his mother. She injured herself severely in a household fall by tripping on a braided rug that her husband has long refused to throw out in their bedroom.

Such are the vagaries of old age, and sentiment. Her broken ribs and swollen brain are being treated at the hospital, but she’s not sure it’s a good idea to go on. There is fear, and there is pain.

Her son is also in pain, of the emotional kind. There has been no more faithful a son than he. For two decades he has tended their garden. Mowed their lawn. Taken them to church when necessary. His own life is intertwined with that of his parents. Because he cares.

And because he cares, he is suffering now at the thought of his mother’s passing. She is alive, but barely. Sooner or later most of us go through this experience with a parent. A spouse. Or a friend.

I know people that have even lost children. Such abrupt dissolutions.

Crocus

As I entered the house today, I glanced down to notice that the crocus in the front garden are already starting to drop their petals. We wait all winter for the first signs of spring. Then spring comes and sheds these bright signs of life as if they did not matter at all.

I have watched my mother die. I was there when she passed away 10 years ago. Recently I watched my father die as well. We emptied their house this past week. Filled a three-yard dumpster with all their former belongings. Kept a few keepsakes and practical items for our own.

My brother said, “I’m going home to get rid of 25% of what I own. If this is what happens to us when we die, I don’t want that.”

Time passes

Three years ago this March 26 my wife passed away after an eight year go-round with cancer. She lived fully right to the moment she passed away. I have always said that I am proud of her for that. But life itself sheds its hold on us like petals on a crocus.

We are reminded of all this come Easter time. According to Christian tradition, even the Son of God shed those petals of life here on earth. The faith holds that our souls are borne into heaven if we have accepted the grace, and shed the brand of pride that prevents it.

Instead, we should hold pride in the mercies we can show others. I told that to my friend, the selfless man that has cared for his parents all these years. “You are in pain because your love is wrapped together with her life. That is pain your have earned through caring. God knows that we feel that pain, and it’s the knowledge that we are loved that sustains us through it.”

Walking right into the pain

Three years ago on Good Friday, I walked into the church I attend with tears barely concealed behind my eyes. My brother asked me why I attended the service so soon after the death of my wife, and I told him, “I’m walking right into the pain.”

That’s really the only thing we can do. You can’t escape it by walking around. It follows you like a shadow. And when I walked up to meet the pastor for a blessing that Friday evening, he was the one shedding tears in my family’s name. “You are in the right place,” he told me.

That does not cure it all. There is still the absence and the loss. The profound depression knowing that someone is gone, for good. That is grief. It must be reckoned with as well. But first we must acknowledge the pain. All else is folly. That can take time. It cannot be rushed. Yet neither can we dwell in the past, lest we forget there is life to be lived.

Preaching to the choir

I understand that church is not for everyone. I get that more deeply than you might think. My own father relinquished his churchgoing ways. He loved the camaraderie of the choir, but the words ultimately didn’t mean that much. It doesn’t mean he did not have a soul. And I do not worry for it. That is not the brand of faith to which I ascribe.

We are all flawed people, who need forgiveness for the things we do. And, we should do all the forgiving we can muster. Because the real purpose of those falling petals should be to let go the lies, and the hurts, the harsh words and the lost opportunities to say that we love someone.

That is the faith to which I ascribe. It is ultimately transcendent, even in all its fallen glory. It is not keeping the crocus past its time, but knowing that its coming and going is the real sign of hope, and of caring, and of things planted for the right purposes.

What it means to be a widow

There are tons of things that I thought I’d be in life. Being a widow is not one of them.

When I was a kid I had dreams of being a pro athlete. Then in college, I dreamed of becoming a college All-American in running, and that happened on a team basis.

Then I went on in life, becoming a writer, an artist, an environmentalist and a liberal Christian. Some of these things have earned me friends. In other cases, enemies. It’s only proof that there are some things we seek in life, while others come our way no matter what.

And yet, becoming a widow was not one of the things I ever imagined happening.

Not so early in life, anyway. Three years ago this March my wife passed away after eight years of chemotherapy, surgeries and side effects resulting from all those cancer treatments. Cancer finally migrated to her brain, for God’s Sake. That was December 26, 2012. She submitted to brain surgery and radiation, but the tale was already written. Bravely she stood before mortality and only briefly did she admit that might not work. Three months after that numbing, post-Christmas diagnosis, she passed away in her own home in the company of her two children and husband.

Survivorship

Thanks to her strength, we enjoyed eight years of survivorship together. However, I must admit that the first day we learned my wife had ovarian cancer was the day that I began imagining life without her. There is no way not to think about that. I remember crying in my car, sobbing after hanging up the phone, wondering if I’d have her a month, a year or a lifetime. The answer was: “All of the above.”

With each successive, concussive treatment for cancer, that reminder or her challenges got a bit stronger. As time went by, the cancer came back repeatedly. It was like a ping-pong ball bouncing on the table., Rap….Rap….Rap..Rap..Rap.RapRapRapRapRap…until it became evident we were not going to kick this thing.

So truth be told, my brain began to recognize that I would be a widow well before she ever died. That’s an unfair advantage in grieving compared to those on the outside the widow sphere.

However my active role and belief were different than that. We maintained hope despite this developing realization that the cancer was so persistent. After all, who was I to determine the length or outcome of her determination? Miracles do happen. Miracles did happen. Multiple times over. We were grateful for that.

Personal history

What you lose when a spouse dies is a big component of your personal history. A simple act like putting ornaments on the Christmas tree is not the same when the person with whom you’ve spent 25+ years is not there to corroborate their origin. You hang those ornaments with echoes of conversations past. Yet you live in the present. There is no escaping that.

So you carry on as a widow, because that’s what widows do. Initially that feeling of separation occurs on many fronts. You want to honor the memory of your loved one; parent, spouse, child or friend, and there are so many reminders in the first year or two of grief. Anniversaries and events. You especially want to respect and protect those memories for your own children, whose own unique and shared qualities are an extension of that life.

It’s as if there are Christmas ornaments hanging in every conversation you have with them. Sometimes they shimmer in the light. Some are fragile. Others are transparent. They bring laughter and joy.

Shared lives

It was not long after my wife passed away that I met a woman with whom I have forged a significant relationship. This was perhaps initially painful for the people in my life. My friends were immediately supportive, knowing that I enjoyed her company and we were both helping ourselves to new experiences. Yet, it was tough for people used to seeing me in the company of my wife of 28 years. These included my own children I’m sure, and my in-laws and family. They could not help be upset by the change.

Yet I know myself well, and at one point a year into my new relationship, my wife’s best friend, and former preschool director, turned to me at dinner one evening and said, “Did I ever tell you that Linda said she knew… that you would date if she passed away?”

That was like a Christmas ornament of its own. It was something my late wife never said to me. That was not really her style. But it meant quite a bit to hear it from so close a friend.

Ornaments

As I’ve taken Christmas ornaments off the tree this year and put them away as carefully as possible, it has become obvious that there is a dynamic at work in all our lives. We’re all widows in some sense. Memories are often attached to things, and things are attached to experiences. We lose grandparents and parents and people we love. We end marriages or relationships in love and work. Along the way we try not to misplace, damage or otherwise abuse the better ornaments of their memories. But it’s tough to do.

On a broader scale, being a widow is also like being an architect. You build these experiences in your life. That’s where your memories reside. But you must learn that it is not necessary to knock down one building to create another, nor should you.

After all, we don’t often live in the same houses all our lives. Yet we keep the memories of those homes in our minds, or feel them in dreams, our imaginations and ourselves. Because that’s the real place where we live. It’s a process of grieving the past while embracing the future.

And that’s what being a widow is like.

Organizing things by heart

It is said that when you know something “by heart” it means you have it memorized. You also know it so well that you can play or recite it with minimal effort, but perhaps more emotion.

The flip side of knowing something by heart is being unable to recall anything about a song, a poem or a business speech for that matter.

In between there lies a zone where most of us operate day to day. We are organized enough to function and know enough things “by heart” to get along and get our work done. We know the path to our jobs or other obligations.

Stuff

Keeping up appearances and being organized can become a job in itself. When life interrupts with multiple demands, our organizational systems can fall apart. Or, we accumulate stuff by habit. We promise to go through and sort it all out someday. Often that someday never comes or the need arises much sooner than we’d like.

My late wife pulled me close to her a few weeks before she died and said to me, “Chris, I’m sorry about all the junk.” We’d been so preoccupied with all the health care issues and making finances work that talking about our broader needs was just not possible. “I wanted to clear it out,” she told me. It was true. We’d accumulated some layers of stuff in 28 years of marriage. It was sweet that she was concerned how much work it would take to go through.

Doing the hard work of sorting through keepsakes versus clutter can be challenging. That sometimes emotional task is only compounded when grief is woven through the choices. I found welcome homes with women friends for much of my wife’s clothing. Same went with her jewelry. We held a nice party at which friends could choose from the jewelry pieces she’d collected, many of them hand-crafted by her talented sister.

Fixations

BathroomThe process of de-cluttering the house and moving forward has taken more than a year. There is still much to do.

In the meantime it was time to fix a broken shower in the master bedroom. We’d jury-rigged that thing for years because it was always inconvenient to get it fixed with everything else going on. Plus it required knocking out some shelves to gain access to the plumbing inside the wall. I tore down the old blue tile and carefully chose a new look. My daughter’s boyfriend climbed into the space between the walls and installed new plumbing. No more leaks or creaky shower handles.

The whole operation took six months but it is finished. That let me organize things all over again in the bathroom. During the process there were tile boxes and hammers and drills, nails and screws and grout bags. It was a mess, and it spilled into the organization of other things in life. The bedroom was a cluttered mess. Too much other stuff was always in the way. Plus there was the mental process of wanting that bathroom finished.

Mixology

There was grief mixed in with that as well. For years my wife had put up with that creaky bathroom where the hot water would sometimes come shooting out at you like a fire hose. I felt some guilt in never having completed that while she was living.

I’m also very forward-looking in all these matters. To be emotionally healthy we need to organize things. We also need to be organizing things by heart. There is something about a cluttered mess that prevents real and healthy grieving. It also prevents you from moving on and finding that place where memories are not so much cluttered as they are appreciated. More can be shared in this world if we don’t allow things to remain or become a mess.

Sock drawer of the soul

That’s not to say that getting messy emotions out where you can see them is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. For a casual example, sorting through daily ideas or a lifetime of memories is quite akin to organizing a sock drawer. There’s an understanding and a peace that comes with things paired up as they should be. It happens the same way with photo albums and other keepsakes. We really need to sort through it all to appreciate their significance.

Ultimately, some of it needs to be given or thrown away. We can’t keep everything. Nor should we try.

Yet I decided after a year of experimenting that the appropriate way to encase our wedding rings was to place them on a bed of corks saved from years of wine we shared together. I used to buy “Wine for a Year” and it was a fun gift to open one of those bottles each month.

It’s also a fact that in these matters of the heart, no one else can do the work for you. Yet it is also important to share. I have not shied away from talking about my late wife with my current companion. Even my wife’s best friend turned to me recently and said, “Did you know that Linda told me that she knew you would date after she was gone?”

Statements like those are gifts to be shared when it is time to open them. This entire process of organizing things by heart does not happen all at once. We process. We grieve. We celebrate. We share.

It is not perfect. I am not perfectly organized and never will be. But the commitment to live well actually honors all those whose lives impact you, and whose lives you impact. And thank God for that.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com. 

Right Kind of Pride Image