There are few events that make clear dividing marks between before and after. There is no bridge that can be constructed to get back to, or even visit that before. A select few life events will change your very core in irrevocable ways. My soul was and still is altered without my ever having given consent.
January 2, is the anniversary of my first husband’s death. He had been diagnosed nine weeks earlier with pancreatic liver cancer. Oncologists kept calling it very serious. My mother, a retired nurse and my stepfather a retired doctor were both given access to his records and used the words “end stage” from the beginning. My mother, in full nurse mode made sure I could give insulin injections, change bile bags on a liver stent that never quite worked, give medications, ask for hospital equipment, change out IV’s, check the line flow that included anything from from antibiotics to feeding bags. She had everything scheduled for me and there was a visiting nurse allowed by my insurance to stop in for fifteen minutes twice a week. I had a full handle as his needs changed very rapidly. I had worked out getting him to daily chemo and every other horrid test and surgery they proposed and did. I knew none of these would help him. But, it was his life and his decision. From love, I supported every one he made.
I still remember all the people I had to console during those weeks as they did not accept the reality of his mortality. In many cases these were people he had never invited into our life during our decade of marriage. They were old friends that had lost touch and now wanted unlimited access. It angered and annoyed both him and me as they took up precious time left to him. And many believed that it was my burden to stop and help them get through their denial. I make strong boundaries in general with people. During that time I was the gatekeeper and the bad guy when necessary. Please, if you lose touch with someone who once mattered to you and are now dying, do not attempt to insert yourself into their lives to ease your pain. That is yours to deal with.
When you midwife someone through death who you lived and loved every single day for ten years, reality changes. Forever. Death moves in with you, without invitation and pulls up a chair at the breakfast table and never leaves. It initiates you ruthlessly, dragging your heart, making your mind come to full attention. I was and am acutely aware of it beside me for all my remaining days in this world. Death serves a purpose. Life is suppose to have a beginning, middle and ending. While he was older than me, he was young, too young to die. His mother and great aunts and uncles survived him. It is out of the natural order and death will not be held accountable when that happens. It does not have to explain anything. Your world, their worlds being shattered, is simply the way it is.
That theory, that floats the idea that denial is an absolute first stage when someone dies is crap. I called bullshit on that, in the one and only group “grief session” I attended. I fully felt every loss that deadly cancer takes, every emergency, every complication, every feeling as he moved further and further away from this world . I acutely experienced his leaving “us” on the day of his diagnosis. He could not participate in our relationship as married partners. We were now patient and caregiver. I was fully on, as his only caretaker for what I knew would be roughly two months. It’s a heightened awareness and raw feelings that move like daggers through your body and they leave scars.
If I believed in a devil it would be grief. It pays no heed to it being more than a quarter of a century later. Nor that I am very happily remarried. It made that demarcation of before and after. It runs a course that has very nasty timing. Rogue waves would be easier to navigate. The only sure thing is, that it will come every January 2. The body is how grief keeps score. Time does let dates slip from your mind, but the body will not. If I am lucky, unexplained tears will be limited to this one day. Other years, it starts sometime in December and goes into February. As I search for the cause of this body weeping, eventually I consult a calendar and from deep in my soul the date of his death will bubble up. Grief is tenacious. It grips you at will and nothing will hurry it, until it has completed this round. I have learned to sit back and let it run an emotional roller coaster in my body. And it is my body that bears the brunt of these visits. There is a crack somewhere inside me, between before and after, that allows entry and both generates and receives the blast of pain, loss and a sense of drowning. None of this is about my first husband. No, it is about what happened to me as I focused solely on his death assuring myself I could figure out my own health problems and my new future that would no longer include him…later. There was too much on my plate, in the immediate to stop for me. It was a horrible bargain to make. If you ask me then or now, my pragmatism will still assert that reality demanded that bargain. I had no time for me during those weeks. The consequence would be a recurring one. One I have accepted, yet, I do not like,
Grief does eventually move on. All emotions do. But it’s course is spiral, not linear. I find myself stuck in some strange dark mud that demands tears, quiet and endless patience as it racks me with an odd pain mixed with emotional agony that has no basis in my current life. There is no treatment other than deciding to head straight through it. Everything else only makes it worse. Grief also has many faces. In the midst of this pain I can find myself feeling a strange invincibility. It is a dangerous yet necessary task to let that pass through as well. Other “insignificant” life chores will pull at me. In some absurd perception, I could refuse to do them with a daring, demanding them to attempt their worst. This part of grief knows nothing would be worse than what has already happened. It is a boldness born of living through a terrible event that causes strong urges of recklessness that I have learned to not act upon. I did during that first winter. In retrospect, everyone took my words and actions with many grains of salt for the first year. People who will help and understand in the beginning will move on. They will not understand when it still happens decades later. We don’t like being or watching real vulnerabilities. Things that we can’t control or decide our way out of, things that must be felt and allowed to exist until they don’t.
Honestly, there is No One. No seminar. No therapy, herb, essential oil, no spiritual guide, book , technique, meditation or wisdom that will make this better.
It’s January 2, and this is what is.