I was an academic for more than 30 years, a social/developmental psychologist, with a focus on aging and death and dying and am now retired. As an academic and scientist, I was concerned with and relied upon evidence in the search for truth and realities about what I believed are important issues of life.
But now that I am no longer an academic, I am less needy of evidence of “what is” to guide me, and open to realities of possibilities of what “may be”.
In the course on death and dying that I developed and taught for decades, one week was devoted to the grief of survivors of a death. We looked at physiological changes, emotional responses, examined how the nature of the relationship affected grief, how long it typically lasts, studied the research, looked at the role of counseling and self-help groups, etc. This was primarily based upon the results from research involving many participants.
The author Joyce Carol Oates wrote “A Widow’s Story: A Memoir”, which was published early this year. She presents her life after the death of her husband. In an interview with Michael Enright on CBC Radio One, Oates commented that, although much well-meaning advice was given to her, the only thing a widow or widower needs to do during the first year is “just survive”. I think this underscores my belief that there will be lots of variability in how one finds a way to survive following the death of someone who is significant.
It is not my intention to try to present here my experience of grief as typical, normal, or what others likely experience or the way it should be—I believe that as individuals we are unique. The histories that two people bring to relationships create an even more idiosyncratic dynamic set of feelings, hopes, ideals, etc.—but, perhaps there are some commonalities.
Last days and S.’s death
S. and I had been together, both dating and married, for 15 years in the spring of 2008. Shortly before our anniversary we moved from our two story home into a bungalow; this was at her urging, as she recognized that we were aging, my knees were achy and not likely to get better. It was time to do some consolidating and to anticipate our son’s new life with his bride-to-be and hoped for grandchildren. We had planned our future, determined all the needed changes to the house, and started to organize our thoughts and exercise regimens for a bike trip in Germany in the summer of 2009—all was nice.
In mid-November we went to a restaurant for dinner to celebrate my birthday, and enjoyed the evening as we looked forward to the future while reflecting on the past. I remember well what she wore, what we ate, and how comfortable it was to share the time together.
A couple of days later we concluded another 8 week session of French lessons at Alliance Francaise as we began to prepare ourselves for a trip to France, likely in 2010.
S. had a persistent cold she couldn’t shake, so the following week she had some blood work done. A few days later, on Nov. 28, we received a call from our family doctor for her to go immediately to the emergency room at the hospital, with a suspected rapidly developing form of leukemia. She was admitted to the leukemia unit and the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia was confirmed.
Two days later she was totally sedated and in the intensive care unit. Ten days later, on Dec. 10, she died after first rousing herself from the sedation in the last couple of days.
Since S.’s death, the time for me has certainly seemed like I’ve been on a roller coaster, with lots of dips along the way and very few high points. It surprises me how long it took me to truly realize she had died (and sometimes it still seems unreal)—not long ago I was talking with a couple of her sisters and we all still, at times, think it is “Unreal”.
Factors affecting grief
Many things will affect our grief—whether the person was a parent, friend, work colleague, child, spouse; whether the relationship was a good one or a bad one; whether the relationship was private or public; whether the death was quick or slow; anticipated or a surprise; violent or peaceful; our support systems; whether we had to make decisions at the end of life, or whether they were made by others or whether there were no decisions to make; whether there had been discussions in advance about what should happen at the end of life as well as funeral arrangements, etc.
When reflecting on and trying to organize all that I have felt, done, and experienced during the last almost 3 years, I first thought I would take a “timeline approach”—the first few months were like. .. , the next few were . . . and on until I reached today. And this is the way a number of the published works of personal grief stories are organized.
But I found that almost nothing has happened in a linear way, with the exception of time—I moved forwards and backwards, up and down, from a bad day to a good day to a terrible day, sometimes numb, sometimes open.
Instead I find it more useful to organize things along the lines of what were small issues, medium sized issues and large issues for me—recognizing that often even the small issues seemed insurmountable and immobilizing, and often surprisingly difficult to resolve.
The small things
Domestic issues. Often the small things were domestic issues. Fortunately I was the cook of the family, so I didn’t have to learn that—but I did have to learn to cook for one, eat alone, find a place to sit. There were lots of leftovers until I learned to reduce the amount I prepared; I had to set a table for one. It took 3 days until the dishwasher was filled. The TV or radio became my meal companion, as I tried to fill the void with hoped-for meaningful content—but it is always a one-way communication and neither the TV nor radio answers my questions.
I almost never wrote a cheque as financial matters were one of S.’s roles. First I had to locate all the accounts. I even paid the water bill for our previously owned house for 6 months before I discovered that the account attached to my bank ATM card needed to be updated. S. always methodically entered cheques into the balance book in black ink, and I have continued her practice—using her same chequebook and black ink—almost three years have passed and I’m not ready yet to change this.
S. was a meticulous organizer (as am I) when it came to laundry—all was done in an orderly way, and it has taken me many washings to master how she folded t-shirts, underwear, bedding—I admit, it does look better this way, and, perhaps here too I am hanging on; but I no longer cry when I fold laundry.
S. made sure my clothes were not worn out, and shopped for me (or said it was time for me to do so and dragged me along)—not that I couldn’t, but it wasn’t as important for me. I recently needed a new belt to replace one that had worn out, but couldn’t bring myself to buy one. I couldn’t figure out why, but I gradually realized it meant replacing a belt I had bought on a trip to Portugal we had taken together; replacing the belt felt like I was discounting the trip. But, as I need to keep my pants up, I wear the new belt; however, I have compromised with myself and still have the old belt hanging on the rack.
S. had a penchant for buying shoes. Months after her death I found a pair of never used shoes, in a box, as I was reorganizing a closet. I almost never bought shoes; but, in the last few months I have bought six new pairs—I think she must be smiling, and perhaps channeling herself through me.
Day-to-day things. Sometimes the small things were just day-to-day activities that caused me some difficulty, during which her absence was profoundly noted: leaving the house without her handing me my coffee, or kissing me goodbye; coming home to a totally quiet home, without hearing her say “hi dear” (a widow told me she had same experience, and said she solved it by leaving her radio on when she left the house—it worked).
Anniversaries of specific dates still cause me a bit of difficulty—her birthday, our anniversary, the date of her death—I always go by the cemetery to her gravesite for a visit.
Until recently, whenever I needed to be at the hospital where she died, I would briefly stop by the intensive care unit for a few moments and just pause and reflect; that need seems to have waned.
And sometimes, early on, just getting out of bed seemed a struggle
The medium-sized issues
Distributing her possessions. What to do with her clothes, jewelry, sewing and quilting materials, bicycle, car, garden clothes, etc.? With the help of her sisters and friends many things found new homes where they would be appreciated. Some went to places where they would be sold to raise funds for an organization. Others went to help clothe women re-entering the work force. Her wedding dress went to a program recycling such items to women who can use them. Relatives and friends found important keepsakes that had special meanings for them. Almost nothing was thrown away. This felt good, although it was difficult; I always tried to think about what she would want to be done with the items. This task is essentially completed, and little is left to distribute –maybe I will always hang onto a few special things
Sleeping. More specifically going to bed in a now half-empty queen sized bed—was a confusing problem. At first I slept on “my” side, holding onto a pillow; later on I slept on “her side”. Now I just wander all over the bed. I do miss her cold feet, kissing her goodnight and waking up with her—but it’s doable.
Dealing with other people. How does one now relate to others? I wondered (and still do sometimes) how people saw me—would they avoid, pity, come near? What do I say? Will they leave me? And even strange thoughts such as—now that S. is dead, are my sisters-in-law still my relatives and what will I be to them? They have said I am the brother they never had (not just their sister’s husband), which makes me feel great. We still consider ourselves “in-laws”, even though “the law” might not consider this so.
A difficult, but necessary task was meeting with people who didn’t know that S. had died. At first when people who hadn’t heard of S.’s death asked how things were going, I would blurt out “not too well” and that “S. has recently died”. This was a real conversation-stopper, but I really didn’t know what else to do or say. It made the other persons really uncomfortable, I could see; I tried to think more about them than me and found what I should say—that I was sad to have to tell them that S. had died in December, very suddenly from a very fast developing form of leukemia. This seemed to work; it conveyed a basic feeling and answered questions that were likely in their minds—when did she die, how and from what; they weren’t placed in the position of having to ask these questions.
The job. How, and when, do I go back to work? Thankfully my office is surrounded by women who provided me great care and comfort, and who work in the area of palliative care. How lucky I was that they took the time (hours) to listen and support and encourage. My male friends and colleagues, although few, put up with me, and, when needed listened patiently; maybe they wonder how they would function if their wife died?
Traveling. S. and I loved to travel together, whether to explore parts of Europe (ultimately a cycling holiday in Austria) or road trips in Canada and the US of two or three weeks’ duration. I have continued to travel; I think it still is to escape and sometimes to find peace in a place where nobody knows me. But it isn’t the same as it was.
The first trip I took after S.’s death was to Washington DC, 3 months after she died, for my father’s 90th birthday—I cried every time I went to a place we had been, and had to pull off the road numerous times just going from place to place. I cried at night, in the morning, by myself and with my family. We talked about S. and we also avoided talking about her; her impact was everywhere. I recently had my 5th trip to DC since S.’s death, and it was fine.
In the summer of 2009 I took the cycling holiday in Germany S. and I had been planning, accompanied by two very long-standing German friends. I did my first solo road trip in 2010 to Drumheller (visiting friends along the way as support). The cycling was good, but the road trip really felt lonely.
Visiting the gravesite. I used to go every week, cleaning the marker, putting flowers in place, sitting for an hour or more. Now I go every now and then, usually take flowers, spend a bit of time thinking and talking with S., enjoying the sunshine, and the geese when they are around. Recently a friend of ours (mostly S.’s) asked me to take her to the cemetery, so she would know where it is; we had a nice visit reminiscing, and I learned more about S.’s life before I met her, as well as comments made to her by S. on the significance of our marriage—a very nice gift.
The BIG issues
Searching for S. When I look back on our marriage, I can’t recall a day when we didn’t talk about things. Even when one of us traveled, we tried to talk every day. I expect I am exaggerating and we likely did miss days; but it seemed that way. We were good companions for one another; and after her death I couldn’t believe that S. was far from me. I felt her presence everywhere in the house but wondered if it was real. I visited a psychic/spiritualist three times, just trying to make contact. On the first visit I was in great distress and said I “wanted to be sure she was OK”—what a strange wish, for someone who had died, and yet I didn’t feel crazy at all.
Even now as I drive the car, I occasionally wonder where she is and what she is doing; I can pat the seat next to me, feeling that she is close. I don’t know where she is, but do think her essence or spirit is somewhere. And I feel like I can have her with me whenever I want—I just have to think of her; and at times I feel presence with me.
Hanging on to her and letting go. I really didn’t want to lose her; she was the best part of my life; but for me to move on in my life, whatever that means, I have had to try to “let go”—or at least loosen the grip; at the moment I think I am doing pretty well.
She was my best friend, whom I trusted totally; we fit well together and I never envisioned a life without her—“‘til death do us part” seems like a lovely thought, until it happens.
I still slip backwards at times, often wishing she were still alive; perhaps we are now physically on separate roads but on the same map of time.
Plans—giving them up but relying on them. As I said before, S. and I were great planners and organizers. When we moved into the new house, we planned all of the changes, renovations and improvements that would be needed, and created a four-year time-line. After her death it became a lifeline for me, as I energetically and methodically completed all the plans in less than three years.
I essentially have done all that we had planned—renovations, a wedding of my son and daughter-in-law and a subsequent visit to their home; 90th birthdays of each of my parents, trips to Alberta and Germany and two to France. They have not been easy to do without her, but they are done—I seem to have run out of plans that we had made together.
Now, rather than planning years in advance, I choose to not make plans any more than 6 months into the future; I do not want to ever again have to untangle a distant future that may or will never happen. Sometimes planning a week ahead seems like a long time. The consequence has been that I feel less compelled to do things (not only am I a planner, but a completer) and can react and do things as they arise.
Believing in a life of some sort beyond this one. This has been a huge issue, involving a great deal of time, thought, discussion and help. I have no evidence to offer for this: it now just seems that there is something beyond this life. When S. died, after squeezing my hand one last time, I just knew that the body was empty of her. It did not feel like her; but I was not without her—then or now.
There is really no tangible evidence I can provide. Perhaps all that I feel and think when I sense her presence or hear her voice in my mind are neurological changes in me, the repetition of habit patterns or neural pathways; but perhaps not. Must all things that are real have a physical, evidentiary cause? Is it necessary to find empirical evidence of why a book is enjoyable to read, or a why a painting speaks to us, or music creates certain emotions? Why a sunny day makes people happy or on a cloudy one feels somber? Why a sky full of stars causes one to be awed? Why people love or hate one another? Perhaps there are reasons, but perhaps not. And even if there are reasons, is it really important to know why? I just don’t have the time to answer these questions.
Developing a concept of what makes a person a person, and discovering the “soul” or “spirit”. This one took a lot of thinking, but ultimately I found I needed to do this. I did create an understanding for myself that, setting aside the physical self, includes one’s cognitive process, emotive process and a soul that is the “essence” of what makes us who we are. Visualize these as three circles within a person. When these processes perfectly overlap within oneself, we are at peace; when they do not overlap, we are stressed. And, when two people can synchronize each of their 3 elements between themselves, creating the appearance of 6 completely overlapping circles of emotion, thought and soul, there is harmony within the couple.
And when a person dies, the domains of thought and emotion may disappear (or maybe not?), but, in accordance with the conservation of matter and energy, the soul remains—somewhere.
Worrying about either dying or death. I don’t worry about these anymore. S. set a model for me of how to die—accepting that medicine could do nothing to keep her alive (certainly not as she would want to live), that her life was at end, and without resistance. With significant people surrounding her and medicine providing care rather than cure, she died. I hope to be so fortunate. I will continue to lead what I believe is a good, principled life and when that is no longer possible, I see no reason to attempt to avoid what cannot be avoided.
Getting help. You would think that teaching in the area of death and dying should have made it fairly easy for me to deal with the grief following S.’s death, but it didn’t. It did position me to be connected to a wonderful group of colleagues skilled and knowledgeable in this aspect of life. It also informed me that I needed help—I could not deal with this on my own. Father F. is the priest of S.’s parish, who performed the sacrament for the sick, conducted her memorial service and presided at the interment of her ashes. Almost every week for almost the first two years after S’s death I visited with him and he sat and listened, guided, reflected, commented and supported me as I unburdened all the hurt and confusion that I felt. I am so grateful that I belatedly accepted his offer “If ever you want to talk, just call”—perhaps he didn’t know what he was setting himself up for. We now get together once a month.
I’m not out of the woods yet, as I am still finding out who I am as an individual, not in relation to S. or as a husband or even as a widower. And on occasion I recognize a quiet, disruptive sense of what might be labeled “survivor’s guilt”—that I should have died before S.
What has helped me?
People. Family members have never deserted me; they have taken care of my emotional, physical and mental health. Friends—both S’s, mine and ours—did not abandon me; they visited, phoned, respected my wishes and stated their concerns. Work colleagues surrounded me, checked in on me to see how I was doing; they always put my needs ahead of what was on their desks, listened to me for hours and provided counsel.
Reading. I read many books on death and grieving; research articles; spiritual and meditative books; philosophy (I can’t believe that I enjoyed reading Aristotle, whom I could not fathom when in university); poetry; internet messages and powerpoints sent to me; autobiographic treatises of the bereaved. One friend and colleague brought me a pile of books and suggested I take anything of interest—a great approach as neither she nor I knew what might resonate with me at that time.
Music. Sometimes I enjoyed music with lyrics, and sometimes only instrumental; sometimes a capella and chants. I listened to many genres—classical, jazz, folk, blues, popular; familiar people (Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, John Denver, ABBA) and people new to me (Jorma Kaukonen). Sometimes it was foreground, requiring attention, and sometimes background. Old lyrics took on new meanings.
Talking, listening and thinking. I am sure my friends, family and colleagues thought I would never stop talking after they opened the door with “how’s it going?”—sometimes I couldn’t seem to stop, but they never backed away. I listened, hard, to the stories of others who had experienced the deaths of others—friends, family, colleagues, patients—looking for similarities and ideas of what might help.
I spent lots of time spinning all the ideas around in my head, trying to make sense of things, to create an order, make decisions of what to do—hour by hour, or day by day.
Asking for help. I quickly found that I needed help. I see myself as an independent person who is almost instinctively a helper; but I couldn’t really be of help to anyone while I needed so much support. And, now as I think about this, perhaps by asking and accepting help from others, I was indirectly helping others who need to help give help.
Not worrying about what others may think. Why try to keep a stiff upper lip? It was impossible. I found that what others thought wasn’t really too important; I just had to be what I was.
S. Strangely, but not surprisingly, she has inadvertently been a great resource to me. She pushed us (me) into the move to this new home, which we chose to be manageable by one person. The organization and approach to life and home we developed in our marriage gave me a structure and framework for daily living.
She and I often talked about the principles that need to underlie decisions and actions, and I still go back to these as they are needed or I become confused or frightened. Whenever I would look with envy at what others might have that we didn’t, she always changed the perspective so I could see how much better we were than others—and then see who and how I can help. Rather than continually feeling depressed and moping, by trying to help others it helped me and brought back a sense of purpose in life.
S. always tried to make our home, and surroundings, beautiful, relatively uncluttered, neat and organized. I focused more on function than on form. Now I seem to almost instinctively make my surroundings a place of harmony, peace and beauty. Maintaining her idiosyncrasies (black pen, folded laundry, etc.) help me continue to acknowledge, respect and simply honour her.
Our discussion of what is important in life first helped me accept her dying and death, and now helps me continue with what is important in my life.
I am truly a fortunate man, and S. not only made me so, but also has helped me recognize this.
A year after S’s death I took and completed a solo bike trip in France—the one S. and I might have been on as a culmination of our French lessons; it began as a trip for the two of us, and ended as a wonderful trip for me. The next year I went back to France—Paris, Dijon, Lyon and a small city in southern France—and it was an enjoyable adventure.
A few months after the second trip to France I travelled to Iceland and had a marvelous time, saw a place I never anticipated visiting, and met wonderful people with whom I could share food, drink, activities, the Northern Lights, stories and a rekindled sense of adventure in life.
But I admit, I still wish I could have one more dance with S., see her smile, hear her voice, hold her hand—perhaps later in time in another place beyond this one.
For those of you who have experienced the death of someone dear to you, thank you for your attention to my reflections and I hope that something in my experience will be of help to you, or others. And, if at some time you can share your experience with someone else, you may find that it not only helps them, but also helps you.