On May 22nd at 2:20 in the morning, my husband died. As I was sleeping in an armchair by his side in the hospital, his nurse gently woke me with the words, “He’s gone.” Reaching over, I put my hand on his arm, stunned by the coldness of his skin. As my world shattered into a million fragmented pieces, I softly sobbed, my head falling slowly until it rested next to his on his hospital bed. After a devastating battle of two and a half years, the ups and downs of fighting disease, his body had finally given out. The fight was gone; we’d lost the war.
My sister, who had traveled from the east coast, had been by my side in the hospital during these final weeks. Sensing my need to be alone for the last time with my precious husband, she tiptoed out of the room to make whatever arrangements were necessary at the nursing station.
After a while, the nurse explained that she needed to prepare the body for transfer to the mortuary. Body?! Rick was now a “body.” A few minutes before, he’d been a person. My sister walked out to the parking lot with me, her arm around my waist for support. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. As we reached the hospital parking lot, the warm Southern California sun began to rise, yet I felt cold, a chill I was afraid would never go away. We drove home. All I wanted to do was sleep, yet I could only weep.
In the blink of an eye, my world was completely out of step, or I was completely out of step with the world. I felt totally disconnected to anything but my sadness. Once home, I heard the phone ring, but wouldn’t answer it. My family offered food, but eating was out of the question.
I needed to decide what Rick would be wearing for burial. Although he’d lost 60 pounds from his 6’2,” 200+ frame during his illness and nothing fit properly, I still chose the suit he wore when we were married, his favorite tie, and bedroom slippers so that his feet would be comfortable.
The next day my son, sister, Rick’s two daughters and I went to the mortuary to choose the casket. As I stood in front of the selection, tears ran down my face. I couldn’t believe that what was happening was real; it felt like such a horrible dream. My family gathered around me, wanting to comfort me, to take the sadness away. Nothing helped.
Finally I made a selection and we met with the mortuary director to complete the paperwork. Did I want the body embalmed? No! And no makeup! And a closed casket! After all the suffering my husband had endured during his illness, the tests, the surgeries, the pain, I didn’t want to subject him to anything further. I was numb, yet angry, all at the same time. But who was I angry at?
The funeral is a blur; I had only enough energy to weep. Thinking to offer consolation, people would say: “Take comfort that he’s no longer in pain.” I would nod, all the while thinking to myself, but he’s gone and that’s worse! Time and time again, I found myself in the position of having to take care of peripheral friends who thought they were taking care of me, but I kept my rage to myself.
As they should, in time, my family had to get back to their own lives. My sister returned to the east coast, all the while saying, “If you need me to stay longer or to come back, just let me know.” She wanted to take care of me and would have stayed as long as I asked her to, but I knew somewhere in all my numbness that no matter how long she was there, this was a pain I had to deal with alone and, on some emotional level, I think I believed that if everyone around me got back to their own lives, so would I. But what I hadn’t considered was that my life was now irrevocably changed, my day-to-day life and my couple future.
Trying to take care of what needed to be done was exhausting. I felt confused, nothing felt real. Going through Rick’s belongings was something I couldn’t even think about, much less do. I had lived alone years before we met, but found the darkness of night took away any defense I had against the overwhelming sadness.
For weeks, I slept with lights on all over the house. Yet, no matter how much I slept, I never felt rested. A debilitating weariness was ongoing. I joined a weekly bereavement support group, not really knowing why, sensing it was something I needed to do. As one day melted into the next, I had no protection from my sadness or the feelings of disconnect from the world I’d known.
The earliest feelings of mourning include the initial shock (this can’t be happening), the denial of the reality, and feeling overwhelmed and numb. It is not uncommon to feel some loss of self-esteem and extreme vulnerability. Symptoms usually include a variety of internal complaints, a great deal of crying, insomnia, waking from sleep or not being able to fall asleep, feeling anxious, loss of appetite, possible sweaty hands and heart palpitations. You may also experience irritability, lack of patience, forgetfulness, distractibility and loss of concentration. Feelings of sadness and loneliness accompany feeling bewilderment.
Disassociation of feeling is common. “I feel split off and distracted; I’m not there.” Or, “I feel like I’m on ‘automatic pilot.’” These feelings are normal. It is important to develop the ability to self-nurture during this most stressful time. On the Homes and Rahe Social Readjustment Scale, death of a spouse ranks at 100 percent as a stressor.
Concentrate on self-care and physical check-ups, appropriate nutrition, rest and exercise. Talk honestly of what you are feeling to friends and family. Feelings are not right or wrong; whatever you are feeling is appropriate. Acknowledge that there is no “script” to follow and know that talking about your feelings to understanding family and friends is good, yet be aware that no one understands grieving until it is their experience.
Excerpt from THE HEALING POWER OF GRIEF: The Journey Through Loss to Life and Laughter (Sourcebooks, Inc.; ISBN 1-932783-48-2) by Gloria Lintermans & Marilyn Stolzman, Ph.D., L.M.F.T.