In a few days I will mark the third anniversary of my husband’s death, three years in which I have walked hand in hand with a very personal grief.
The mourning began long before that day – ten years ago now – when Alzheimer’s began to steal aspects of my husband’s essential self.
First I said goodbye to the man who had always managed our finances: The Princeton economics major and former bank director could no longer balance our checkbook
Then it was adieu to the husband who was a chef: The man who took pride in his soufflés could no longer follow a recipe.
The elegant man became one who could not button a shirt or put on his clothes in the correct order.
Somewhere along the way, real conversation between us died and the faces that had a place on the periphery of his life began to disappear from his memory bank. He could fake it, smile, seem to be interested but there was no real awareness. The eyes were often blank.
And then Alzheimer’s claimed his dignity. The dynamic adventurous intelligent husband I married was an infantilized but beautiful shell.
I began then to pray for death.
So why then, when it came did I grieve? Not for him: to him death came as a friend.
No. I grieved for myself.
What did I learn about grief during the past three years? That no matter how many medical professionals try to put it into stages, compartmentalize it, grief is an intensely personal emotion.
When one becomes a widow or a widower, one discovers a whole world of widowdom. You become aware in a new way of others who have shared this path and look to them for a way through. But no one else can really help you because their way will not be your way.
I have seem some who looked untouched: they appeared to be able to pick up their lives and keep moving as though nothing had happened. But then, I was not with them at four o’clock in the morning. Perhaps that was where, in the privacy of their own soul, they experienced their grief. Or perhaps, by the time death came, their marriage was empty of emotion. With death, they found freedom.
Many, especially the widows,become part of a group, seeking whatever solace can be found in numbers. They travel together, go to the theater together, become a subset of society, not one, but many.
Some opt for constant movement, dashing here and there, off to this place or that place, hoping, perhaps, to stay one step ahead of the reality of their lives. It is as if they believe that if they move fast enough, grief will not catch up to them. It will. And the longer one puts off walking into the center of that pain, the more painful it will be.
My own path for the past three years has taught me that grief is never static, it does not stay the same from day to day. I have moved back and forth through numbness; exhaustion; an inability to breathe; sharp, acute, very real heartache; rootlessness; lack of purpose, and the emptiness that is true loneliness.
And I have discovered the true meaning of the word loss. Loss. We substitute that word for more brutal word, death. People say how sorry they are that I lost my husband.
But I lost more than him when he died: I lost a vast part of myself. That understanding of what loss truly is has been reinforced over the past year when three of my dearest friends died. With each of them another part of my past, part of my self, has disappeared. Who will be left to testify to whom, what, I was? I am losing anchors to my past. That is loss, and it is forever.
And so, I believe, is grief. The nature of it changes. Some days it is distant murmur in the cacophony of life. But it is there, and comes at you, unexpectedly, triggered by who knows what. It is the price of loving. And that is a price I am willing to pay. For I loved, and I was loved.
The man died three years ago but the love remains.
The Alzheimer’s Diary, One Woman’s Experience from Caregiver to Widow is available at your favorite bookstore. All profits from the sale of the book support Alzheimer’s research.