By Beverly Chantalle McManus —
Those of us who have survived the death of a spouse receive ongoing reminders that life will never be the same. Just as we feel we’re finally able to be buoyant again, as we’re coming to grips with this most devastating loss and the profound changes that overtake every aspect of our lives, it often feels like yet another huge wave comes from nowhere, to crash into us, hurling us to the ocean’s rocky floor, leaving our mouths and lungs filled with sand and salt water.
Sometimes these waves are of a financial nature — many widows and widowers face drastic lifestyle changes with the loss of their partner’s income, sometimes forcing them to sell the home in which they’ve lived for years. Sometimes the waves are in the form of a health crisis, whether our own, or that of a close family member. (Researchers have noted that a compromised immune system is very common in survivors of spouse loss – the shock of the loss touches every cell in our body, and leaves us more at risk for infections and illnesses.) Sometimes the waves take the shape of major upheavals in our immediate and extended families: Babies keep being born, children continue to graduate and move on, weddings still take place, and sadly, sometimes other marriages unravel and end. Each of these events can leave us feeling even more out of control, even less without mooring than before.
Even though the person nearest to our heart has died, that doesn’t mean that other life around us stops. Except, of course, when it does mean exactly that. I think even more devastating and untethering than the life events I’ve just mentioned are when others in our circle of family and friends reach the end of their lives and die. We’ve already lost the most important person in our life, and then it starts to seem like everyone around us is dying too.
For me, just a few months after Steve died, one of my closest friends, Harry, sadly died from AIDs, after a courageous struggle against horrific odds. This was a friend who had lovingly filled the role of uncle to my daughters, who had been at my side through Steve’s illness and death, and who had been such an inspiration of living a life filled with joy. I regret to say that in the depths of my own grief over Steve’s death, I was not able to be as good a friend to Harry during his final days as I might have been, and I pray he knows how much he meant to me.
Two years after Steve died, my mother was diagnosed with a rare terminal blood disorder and died just two months after her diagnosis. To say I was shattered would put it far too lightly. I sometimes feel as if I am still just barely coming to grips with her diagnosis, let alone the fact that she died and is never coming back.
Later that summer, while surfing on a family vacation in Hawaii, my dear cousin Alan died, leaving six children for his wife to finish raising. A few months later, the husband of another cousin died unexpectedly of a health malady that has yet to be explained, leaving Ann a widow at age 39 with four young children.
In the time since my mom’s death, three of my aunts and one uncle have died. Although each of them had been struggling with major health issues for some time, the death of these dear loved ones has meant the loss of beloved mentors and friends.
The deaths don’t stop, nor do they slow down. In the first three months of last year, I attended five funerals, the first of which was for my beloved niece Rebecca, who was tragically killed by a speeding motorist while crossing the street on her way back to her apartment from campus on the first day of the college semester. She had been set to graduate a few months later, and marry that summer. In the blink of an eye, she was gone. I still get chills down my spine just remembering the call from my sister telling me the horrible news that January evening.
A week after Rebecca’s death, the husband of my best friend Donna died after a very short battle with cancer of the pancreas. Chris had been a good friend to our entire family, and to our entire community, and his presence is so sorely missed, and it has been hard to see Donna and their children struggle with this monumental loss. Just this evening I spoke with her and she said, “People who haven’t been through this just don’t get it, do they?” and unfortunately, I had to agree.
Several good friends, the husband of a dear friend, and the nephew of some very close friends have all died in the time since. And knowing the ages and health situations of many of my older relatives, realistically, I know that there will be yet more funerals and mourning.
What I’ve discovered: Yes, the deaths continue, yet I prefer to focus on something Robert Frost said, “All that I know about life can be summed up in just three words: ‘It goes on’.” Even though our hearts may be broken, they continue to beat, and we continue to live. And I have found that for me, what’s important is to focus on the present, to spend time with those I love, to hug the sweet friends and family members who have made such a profound difference in my life, and to let them know I love them as often as I possibly can. I also take comfort in the words of one of my favorite poets, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in her poem, “The Winds of Fate,” which I’ll share here:
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As we voyage along through life:
‘Tis the set of the soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
The ongoing deaths remind us that none of us knows how long we have on this earth, nor do we have much control over very many aspects of our lives or those of our loved ones. This poem reminds me that despite the winds that seem to buffet me from all directions, I have the power to set the course, set the sails, and determine where I want to go and how I want to feel.
How have you handled the life events and other deaths that happened after you lost your spouse? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is Vice President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Open to Hope Foundation, a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.