Dear Fellow Griever,
Coping is a verb meaning “to deal with or attempt to overcome problems and difficulties,” and is often used with “learning to cope.” This is a word that I have become very familiar with over the last year, and is an action that I have become used to.
Since my wife died in July of last year the first or second question that friends that I meet ask is “How are you doing.” A thoughtful question from people who don’t really know what to ask or say (this is not a criticism, it is just a fact, since we in the United States are not taught how to deal with or talk about death). For the first few months after she died I would automatically say “I’m doing OK” which graduated to “I’m all right.” Of course neither of these was true, as I was not OK or all right, but I didn’t know what else to say. After all I didn’t want to put the other person in an awkward position, especially after they were trying to be supportive.
Then one day I was having breakfast with a gentleman who I didn’t know; his wife had died in September and a mutual friend of ours, a minister, thought we might be able to have a helpful, supportive conversation. He asked me how I was doing, and instead of the usual responses I said “I am coping.” He said that is a good way to describe what he and I were going through.
I, like you I am sure, have had to cope with many difficult issues in my life, be they family, financial, health, job, etc. Usually there was an end in sight for some if not all of these issues; it may have taken awhile, and it may not have been easy, but in most cases there was an end. With my wife Marilyn’s death, there is no end in sight; I am forced to live the rest of my life without her. The memories are there, the pictures are there, the reminders of her are there, but she is not and won’t be. So I have had to make the decision whether I am going to stay in bed all day (literally and/or figuratively), pull the covers up over my head, and let life pass me by. Or, I can put my two feet on the floor, get out of bed and push myself through the day, coping with her loss. It is not easy, there is no joy in coping, but eventually there will be better times.
Even now, after a relatively short period of time amidst my coping, I am able to be around my children and grandchildren and smile, even laugh, when someone says or does something lighthearted or funny. There was a time within the first few months of Marilyn’s passing that I was not sure this would ever be the case. By coping with her loss I put myself in a position to have positive thoughts and feelings.
Coping allowed me to spend Thanksgiving Day with my family, at friends of my daughter and son-in-law. I certainly did not want to be alone, but wasn’t quite sure how I would be when I was with others for a whole day. I had a few tears, especially when I said a prayer of thanksgiving before the meal (something my wife always did), but I made it through the day and glad I decided to spend it with them.
Coping has allowed me to begin volunteering again for a local hospice. Before my wife became ill I would visit patients on a weekly basis. Since last December, when she had her surgery and began her downward spiral, I just couldn’t bring myself to make visits. And certainly since her death I haven’t seen patients. But lately I have been delivering flowers and other gifts to individuals in their homes and
facilities. I am not quite ready to sit with patients for 60-90 minutes each week, but I am slowly getting back to where I want to be. I would not be doing the little I am if I was not able to cope with Marilyn’s death.
Every year a few weeks before Christmas Marilyn would take our grandchildren out to buy gifts they picked out, not from Santa but from grandma and grandpa/poppop. A few months ago I decided I would just hand them the money and let them go out with their parents, or if old enough, by themselves, and buy the presents they wanted. But as we got closer to Christmas I had a change of heart; because I was able to cope with the loss of my wife I took them out, went to the mall, and watched as they shopped and then paid for the gifts with money I gave them. I would not have been able to carry on this tradition if I hadn’t been able to deal with Marilyn’s death.
Coping has given me the courage to look to the future and begin to plan some things, something I would not have even thought of a few weeks or months ago. I have been asked to attend a wedding in Syracuse, New York in January (egads! Snowy Syracuse in January), after which I plan on driving to Toronto, Canada (Marilyn and I lived in Canada for eight years) to visit friends. When I first was invited to the wedding a few months ago I said that I had to wait to give an answer, and thought there was no way I would be able to go. At that time I was in no mood to fly and attend a wedding, mainly with people I didn’t know. But, as I became more used to coping with my situation I made the decision to go. And I do feel good about it.
When asked if I would be willing to write this letter, coping allowed me to say yes. I enjoy writing but was not sure if I had anything to say that would be helpful. After thinking about it I said yes but had no idea what I would write about. Then I had the breakfast when I told the gentleman “I am coping.” And I thought maybe that is what I should write about.
Earlier I mentioned that we in the US are not taught how to deal with death or dying. In particular, after a few months many people expect that a person who loses a loved one will be their old selves again, and sometimes will say things to that effect. Books that I have read say we should not force our recovery and that it will happen over time. And I agree with this advice. But I have found that, by coping with the situation I am in (and I am not sure how well I am coping or if even if I am coping in the “correct” way), I can begin to feel whole again. Certainly not normal like I was when Marilyn was with me, but at least whole enough to begin living and functioning again, which is what I know she would want.
I hope that you are able to cope with your situation as best you can.
John Dietrich, a fellow griever.
Written by: John Dietrich