I apologize to every person I’ve ever met who has lost a spouse to death. I had no clue.
While I knew that your spouse died, I didn’t know the kind of mind-numbing, gut-wrenching, life-altering, hole-in-the-chest pain that you must have experienced after their death.
I didn’t know until now. And I’m sorry I wasn’t a more compassionate, helpful friend to you.
I have grieved the death of my father-in-law, my father, my mother, and several close friends and family members. The pain of those losses was severe, but I did not feel the same kind of despair and complete heartbreak that I have felt since January 4, 2016, when my husband, Al, died only four and a half months after being diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.
Al’s illness had no warning signs and his health went downhill quickly. He woke on the morning of August 20, 2015, with a pain in his abdomen. Emergency surgery found a fist-sized tumour on his colon, which led to a high-output ileostomy and numerous complications that required repeat hospitalizations over the next few months. Al passed away in a hospice bed in January, with me and several nurses at his side. Losing him has been confusing, frightening, surreal, sad, and so much more. It feels like a large part of me went with him when he died.
I try not to dwell on the discomfort he must have felt while so courageously and gracefully going through his cancer journey. (He hated the phrase “battling cancer”, so I try not to use it.) We had many beautiful, precious moments together during those last few months, but those are hard to remember when the pain is so raw.
I think about him every day, sometimes in almost every moment of every day. I know it is still early – only a month after he died – but sometimes the pain is so overwhelming that I can’t think of anything else. And I sit alone and try not to become consumed by the ache in my soul.
I try not to think of how empty my new life is right now. I struggle with finding a “new normal”.
I know, logically, that it will get better as I grieve and heal, but the heart doesn’t always work together with the brain, so I must go through this pain in order to move on. It is obvious that my journey on this earth is not yet finished and I need to continue to do the best I can to live my life to the fullest, while honouring Al and all that we worked for in our 42 years together.
I have learned a lot more about grief in the past month – from reading materials, by talking to family and friends, by attending a bereavement support group, and from experiencing it. I have also been reminded of many things that I learned in my years as a journalist about how to help others who are grieving.
What Not To Say To Someone Who Is Grieving:
“I know exactly what you’re going through. I know how you feel.”
No, you don’t. It is not possible.
Every human being is different and every relationship is different. Every grief journey is different.
You may have an idea of some of the feelings the bereaved is having, but you could never know exactly how they are feeling.
My relationship with Al and our time together before he died is very different from what anyone else experienced in their relationships. Plus, I barely know how I am feeling from minute to minute, so how could you know?
“Oh, I know. It still hurts ___ years later.”
Putting a time frame on someone else’s grief journey is not helpful. Every person is different and every grief journey is different. Phrases like this may also be an indication that you have work to do in your own individual grief journey and you may benefit from some grief counselling or support programs.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“If you’d like to talk, I will listen.”
“Can I give you a hug?”
“Would you like me to come over and just sit with you?”
“Can I call you occasionally just to see if you need anything?”
What I have learned that has helped me grieve my husband’s death:
- Breathe. Long, deep breaths.
- Be kind to yourself. You did not choose this. You need time to adjust to this new reality.
- Rest often or have a nap. Grieving is hard work. Do not expect to accomplish much each day, at least for the first while. Give yourself a break.
- It’s okay to feel sad. It doesn’t mean you will feel sad forever. It means you feel sad now and that’s okay. Give yourself permission to feel how you need to feel.
- Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, it’s okay to cry. You don’t need to explain your feelings or to apologize for them. You don’t even need to understand your feelings. You just need to feel them and express them if and when you can.
- Give yourself time to grieve. Grief is not an orderly series of stages that lines up perfectly with any given time frame. Grief has been described as “a tangled web of emotions” and it may take months or years for you to untangle some of those feelings. That is absolutely normal. Everyone’s grief journey is different. Remember that you are doing the best you can with the situation you had or have in front of you. Let that be enough for now. Try to ignore or stay away from those who think you should be “over it” or moving on with your life before you are ready.
- It is normal to feel like you do not want to go on. Usually, that is a fleeting feeling that will dissipate with time. It is not normal to consider suicide. Seek professional help immediately if you are considering harming yourself.
- Seek out bereavement support, whether that be in the form of an organized support group with facilitators, a religious or spiritual leader, a professional counsellor, or books from the library. Take what you find valuable from those resources and don’t feel bad about ignoring the rest. One of my cousins started a “grief scrapbook” in which she pasted helpful newspaper articles, clippings, tips, and meditations to help her grieve her husband’s death. I use a notebook.
- Read a good book or listen to music to distract yourself or, in my case, to bring you some happiness. This is self-explanatory, but I do happen to know of a little Canadian publishing house that has some pretty great books (wink, wink). And music can soothe the soul.
- Watch TV or a movie to give your mind a break. I have a couple of new favourite movies that have helped me to grieve my husband’s death.
- Write your thoughts and feelings in a journal, either daily or whenever you feel the need or desire to write. Don’t worry or feel bad if your thoughts change. That’s what thoughts do. Your thoughts and feelings are sure to change as you grieve and heal.
- Write a letter to your loved one. This may be especially helpful if the death was sudden or there were some things that were left unsaid. I write to Al or to God almost every night before bed. Sometimes the letters/journal entries are tender and filled with longing. Sometimes they are full of pain and tear-stained. Often, they are both. Always, they help me heal a tiny bit more.
- Make a list of the people who have offered to help you. Look at your list and choose whoever you will find comfort in during a particular moment. Then call them to chat or ask for help. My list includes people whom I can phone and ask to stay with me so I won’t be alone for the first while as I grieve.
- Don’t feel guilty about not responding to and staying in touch with everyone who contacts you. Choose what you need to do and who you need to talk to and let the rest go for now. Focus on you.
- Leave your home at least once a day. Go for a walk or a bike ride. Go for a drive. Give yourself a change of scenery. Remember that there is still a world out there.
- When you are strong enough, go places in your own vehicle. Then if you suddenly feel you cannot stay, you have the freedom to leave without disrupting other people’s plans. Be careful to drive only after your mind is healed enough to concentrate on the road ahead – literally – and to remember how you got home.
- Try not to dwell on feeling guilty. You may have difficulty accepting that it is okay for you to continue living your life. My husband, Al, asked me to promise him that I would live my life to the fullest and not let his death consume me. I replied that I would try, but that it would take time. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. Grief counsellor Andrea Mackay of Greystone Bereavement Centre in Regina SK explained that guilt is “the little bully that we all have inside us. When that guilt sits on your shoulder, flick it off, and tell it to F--- Off!”
- Try to think of the good times and be grateful, but try not to let the uncertain future break you into more pieces. You will feel sadness about the loss of future good times, but keep putting one foot in front of the other and focus on getting through one minute at a time, one day at a time.
- Allow yourself to take a break from work, if you are able to do so, whether it is for a few minutes, hours, days or longer. I am blessed to be self-employed and grateful that I do not have huge financial burdens at this time. I am thankful that I work with patient, caring, compassionate authors who have become friends and who have accepted my need to work at a slower pace and give myself time to figure out the new face of DriverWorks Ink publishing.
Thank you to all who have helped me and my family in any way during these past five months since Al's initial diagnosis.
Thank you for your understanding as I take time to slowly heal. I feel your love and it is appreciated.