Dear Grieving Heart,
My name is John and I wanted to pass along some thoughts that I have had regarding starting a new year with grief.
I have read a number of books on grief and several grief programs. All of these have been helpful in dealing with the grief I am experiencing. And I plan on becoming part of more face-to-face groups dealing with the emotions that surround the loss of a loved one. And, as you know, these emotions are many and varied, from anger to depression to sadness to disbelief to grief, etc., etc., etc.
This is all new to me, too, as I lost Marilyn, my wife of almost 53 years (just three days shy of 53 years), July 23 of this year after complications from a surgical procedure she had just before Christmas of 2021. So I have gone through my first anniversary and Thanksgiving, and am about to go through my first Christmas and New Year’s, without her.
So, for me, there is no way that I will not be grieving this holiday season and as we enter 2023. I will remember all the ways we spent New Year’s Eves in the past, usually with friends or family. I remember writing letters to each other, recalling the past year and the hopes and dreams we had for the coming year. We would write about trips we hoped to make, things we planned to do with our children (and, over the past 22 years, with our grandchildren). Even mundane things like renovations to our house. Everything dealt with things we planned together. They didn’t always work out the way we thought they would or hoped for, and sometimes not even at all, but we worked and planned together.
And now, I will be doing the planning on my own. And I know that will not be fun or anywhere near as meaningful as it was when Marilyn and I did it together. And, in fact, from where I am now, I don’t really have any plans for the next year. Hopefully that will change as we move further into 2023, but I need to be honest with myself and where I am now.
As to where I am at the present time, my primary emotion is grief and sorrow. Disbelief also raises its head every so often, as does the realization that the situation I am in is permanent. It is not going to change, it cannot change. Naturally, the memories I have of Marilyn are mine to keep, and will never go away. I can hold those memories close to my heart, but I cannot hold Marilyn. And that is what brings the tears. That is what grieves me the most.
One of the many reasons for my grief is the fact that there was so much I did not tell Marilyn before she died. She came home from the hospital after her fourth stay since her surgery and we talked about her going into palliative care at home (I am a volunteer for a palliative care/hospice organization). She signed up for palliative care on a Friday; over the weekend we talked about what would happen if she had a recurrence of the intestinal blockage that kept occurring and ended up causing her to go back into the hospital. So on the following Monday she decided to go into hospice, which she did two days later. Very early Thursday morning she had another blockage and was in excruciating pain; we called hospice and Marilyn was eventually treated with continuous pain medications, which made her unconscious. She was conscious only for a couple hours over the next two days and passed away on Saturday.
The reason I am relating the events surrounding her death was that everything happened so quickly. First, I never imagined that she would pass away so soon after she signed up for hospice. Second, I didn’t think she would have another blockage. Third, it didn’t dawn on me that she would not be conscious and I would not be able to talk to her. Everything just happened so rapidly. And this fact is one of the many that I dwell on and that brings me grief.
One aspect of this grief is that I was not able to tell her how grateful I was that she made me the person I am today. She was very patient with me (much more patient than I was with her, I am sure). Her understanding, her compassion, her strength, her love all made me a better husband, father, grandfather and person. I didn’t get the chance to thank her for this.
I didn’t get the chance to tell her what a fantastic job she did in terms of raising our two children. As was the case for most men of my generation we focused (probably too much) on our jobs and careers. Sure, I was present for our children and shared the parenting duties and jobs, but the bulk of that fell on Marilyn’s shoulders. She never complained but I know I could have made things easier for her.
I didn’t get the chance to tell her I was sorry for moving her, and our family, around so much because of my job. We lived in a number of states and, for eight years, lived in Canada. I know uprooting her, and our children, was difficult. And helping our kids adjust to new schools and environments was mainly her doing.
I didn’t get the chance to tell her how proud I was of her in terms of her compassion and love for others. Marilyn was a true giver of her time and talents. She was a volunteer pastoral counselor at a local hospital for a number of years and listened to the patients with both her ears and, even more importantly, with her heart. Her compassion related more to her empathy as opposed to sympathy, although she showed that as well. Over the years she probably volunteered for at least half a dozen organizations.
And of course I didn’t get the chance to tell her how much I loved her. My actions over the last seven months of her life spoke of my love for her, as I was her main caregiver when she was home. But I regret not telling her how much and how deep my love for her was.
I could go on and on about her qualities as a wife, mother, grandmother and person. But I want to change gears a bit and talk about how I hope to deal with my grief as 2023 approaches.
One of the things that has been emphasized is that my grief is my grief and no one else’s. I could be talking to a widower who was married for 53 years, with two children and six grandchildren, whose wife had many of the same qualities as Marilyn, and our grief would more than likely be totally different. No two individuals grieve the same. And I have to accept that, while others can support me, my grief is, indeed, my grief. I have to own it and deal with it. And that has helped me a bit, as I know I have to take responsibility for my grief.
I also know that when others tell me how I feel, they in fact have no idea how I feel. As I said, no two people grieve the same way. So if someone tells me they know how I feel, I have to take a deep breath and, instead of as saying, no you don’t know how I feel, I just need to acknowledge that they are just trying to offer support and accept them and what they are saying.
I have to accept the fact that I cannot control the grieving process. It is going to last as long as it lasts. I certainly can take steps to help deal with my grief, to make it a little less traumatic and desperate, but it is going to last for a long time, if not forever. But it will become a little easier (not easy), and this hope can help me get through the grief.
I have learned that starting my day with gratitude in mind helps make things a little less difficult. I think of things that happened the day before, or things that I am planning for the day, such as being with my grandkids, and it brings a smile to my face and a comfort inside of me. These may be things that I never even thought of before Marilyn died, or certainly did not express gratitude for. But things have changed, and I will take gratitude over despair any time.
The word, hope, is a word that I have thought of a lot lately. On some days, or part of days, it is all I have to hang on to (not including family and friends, of course). I have found that my hope waxes and wanes, not only on a day-to-day basis but often on an hour-by-hour basis. But it is there more now than it was a couple months ago.
I tried to find a saying about hope that I could memorize and repeat to myself during particularly difficult times. One I found, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, states “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” I am at the point where I am seeing glimmers of hope, not major flashes of light, but glimmers. But those glimmers do offer me hope that at some point in time, the thought of Marilyn will “bring a smile to my lips before it brings a tear to my eyes.” (Author unknown).
And my wish for you is that the glimmer of hope is there for all of you.
John, a fellow grieving heart
Written by: John Dietrich