By now, most people recognize that the stages of grief that are based on the Kubler-Ross model of how the dying encounter death are not a map. Each of us walks the lonely road of mourning loss in our own way. Still, when you are overcome with anger, restlessness or loneliness, it is helpful to know that others too have been down this path, and have managed to reach a place of healing.
But there is one aspect of grief that no one talks about it, because it isn’t “nice”. Listings of the stages don’t mention it. It’s not ennobling, it’s not romantic, it’s just plain unattractive. In this world where words are so often used to cloak the truth — (no one lies, anymore, they just “misspeak”) — the tendency would be to soften what I am about to say.
But, let’s be blunt and admit it, some part of grief is just plain feeling sorry for yourself.
Yes, I miss my husband terribly, and I mourn his absence. But within all that very real sorrow, there is also an element of self-pity. Which has its irony because during the seven years I was a caregiver, I completely rejected any thought that anyone should feel sorry for me. I would say, “It looks worse from the outside than it actually is.” And it did. Or, “I am where I want to be, doing what I want to do, there is no need to pity me.”
And I did not feel sorry for myself. My days had a purpose: I was responding to a real need, I was doing my duty and bringing to that, love. And I was getting lots back –sometimes, from my husband; often, from others. But now? There are moments when I have to admit, I am just wallowing in the Poor-Joan mode.
Why? Because I have to make serious, painful decisions by myself. Ridiculous on the surface because I have been making those decisions for the last seven years without any thoughts of poor-me. What’s the difference?
Well, then, there was hope – however improbable, impossible I knew it to be, as long as my husband was alive, there was a chance that someone would create the magic pill, that suddenly, miraculously, he would be back to take charge. Death took not only my husband, but that hope. I am now alone, the decisions are mine, and mine alone to make, that is a fact that I can’t duck, deny, avoid.
Death is the great clarifier. It brings us face to face with all the elements of our life that we took for granted. I an a sensual human being and I took intimacy for granted. Helping my husband bathe was the very last aspect of caregiving I gave up and only then because I could not safely manage it. Right to the end, to his last breath, I touched my husband, felt skin on skin, embraced him, kissed him. Now I must face the fact that at the age of 83, it is highly unlikely I will ever know that kind of intimacy again. Grievous loss upon grievous loss.
During those seven years, although I did not have someone I could talk to, I did have someone I could talk at, and the talking helped sort the problem, make decisions. Now, I talk both to and at my dog, and he is an excellent listener. His head tips to the side, he looks right into my eyes, with a serious, worried expression and he doesn’t interrupt. But he misses his master as much as I do and can only trot to his pillow, looking for the answers there.
Many of you will suggest that I consult a therapist but it’s hard to believe that someone who doesn’t know me can help me decide what to do with the rest of my life. And my Scottish soul resists the thought of actually paying someone to listen to me. How humiliating is that! Group discussions tend to just depress me even more: I go in sad and come out desperate. It does not help to know that there is not just my grief, but a world of grief out there: My misery does not love that much company.
I could talk to friends but many of them have a time limit about mourning– Two years and you are not over it? Those who are willing to listen also tend to give advice, which they expect you to follow. And if you don’t, they are likely to throw up their hands and give up on you. And many people — excuse me for stereotyping, but, especially men — don’t want to discuss the problem. They want to give you the solution. Period. Done. That is that.
It’s also lonelier now. That has its basis in more than my husband’s absence. During the last phase of the caregiving, there were two others sharing the vigil. We were a team, discussing the day with each other, giving each other encouragement, helping each other through the bad moments. The Visiting Nurse came and went, the geriatric staff checked in and then, the nurturing hospice staff: They checked on the patient, and they checked on me. All that bustle, consultation, daily sharing of concerns has gone and in its stead there is a home that is noisy in its silence.
I haven’t been abandoned: Friends do invite me out. Although I’ve always had a certain poise, and making an entrance has never thrown me, now I can’t take walking into large gatherings by myself. I prefer being with one or two people for a quiet evening of conversation. But the warmth of that just magnifies the emptiness when I return home. The contrast is too sharp. I go out to ease the loneliness, only to find that it is there, behind the door, waiting to remind me that absence is the presence in our home.
Most people who find themselves in the world of widowdom — men as well as women — also face very real practical lifestyle adjustments, many of them financial. If there was a pension, it might suddenly be less; the costs of additional caregivers will have eroded savings. Even if a move isn’t financially necessary, the house, apartment, may now be too big or simply, too full of painful memories. How does one manage? How does one move on? Build a new life when one is still longing for the old?
It’s enough to make you feel sorry for yourself. And, most of us do.