Tuesday, August 29, 2006

When Half of a Whole Feels Like Zero

The mental fog that had sheltered me emotionally during those first four months after my husband’s death is slowly, and painfully, beginning to clear. Coincidently, this occurs just as the world around me appears to need me to get out and on with my life. And so, I’m finding that this is an important time in my mourning because with my newfound awareness comes the need to take a stand, to “own” my grieving process. Sounds like I’m getting stronger? Yes, in some ways, but the reality is that sadness, crying and feeling lost are still very much a part of my day-to-day world.

Two weeks shy of the fifth-month anniversary of my husband's death, I can say, without the slightest hesitation or hint of exaggeration that grieving sucks. Ugly word? Yes. Ugly feeling? Absolutely! Grieving is neither gentle nor quiet; it is bottomless loneliness, anger and depression, until finally, a year or two down the road, I will be at peace with my loss -- or so the experts say.

But for now, there's no way around my grief; I can't hide from it (for long anyway) or run away from it -- it follows me wherever I go, no matter how fast I'm travelin'. I’m reminded, painfully once again, that losing a spouse is different from any other loss.

When my husband died after a prolonged illness, I thought I was prepared for his death. And I was - intellectually. What I now know is that we can prepare our intellect, but when death happens, emotionally, it still feels as if you are slamming into a brick wall. The rhythms of life continue around me unaltered, but I feel as if the universe is out of kilter, even on my best days.
Feeling so raw, what did I do to try to take care of myself at a time when I felt incapable of dealing with anything? Thankfully support was available in a variety of forms. All it took was my willingness to take life baby step-by baby-step and work hard to keep an open heart and mind.

The following steps I found to be helpful.

Bereavement Support Group
Profound grief was, for me, deeply isolating, because although family and friends wanted to help, it was impossible for them to relate to what I was going through. Instead, I joined a bereavement support group run by professional counselors, which made the experience more manageable. It gave the process structure and me a place where each week, no matter what else was going on in my life, my grieving was encouraged. I joined a support group -- even though the thought of being with strangers was, at that time, the last thing I felt capable of doing. No matter what other challenges I was dealing with, this was a place for me to fully know my sorrow. By its very structure, a bereavement group offers a sort of marker, one that allows you to appreciate your own ups and downs, as well as your progress. Sure, you'll cry in front of people you don't know, but they'll cry as well. And eventually, you'll cry less and laugh more as you cherish the emotional safety this group provides. You’ll also feel good about helping other group members, which in turn helps you to begin to feel powerful and whole again.
You might feel afraid that it's like going to therapy, something that might be especially scary when you're so vulnerable. Be assured that while a licensed bereavement therapist moderates the group, this is a “support” process group that deals with the here and now, it is not a therapy group that delves into your childhood in order to resolve old issues.
At this point in my mourning, these have been my most important discoveries:

Recognize who among family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers are emotionally safe right now and base your expectations on that information. Trust your ability to sense with whom you can be vulnerable, and with whom you cannot. My saddest moments are when something wonderful happens and my husband isn't there to celebrate or congratulate. By the same token, I’ve also lost the one person I could always go to when I needed a break from life’s everyday problems. He wasn't there so much to fix things, but to provide a place to rest when I needed it. It’s not the same, or quite as good, but I turn to others for that, for now.

Honor yourself and your need to put yourself first … for now. This is hard if your spouse passed away from a prolonged illness and you were, as I was, his caregiver. I’m just beginning to realize how, over the challenging care-giving years, I’d lost the ability to be spontaneous—too many doctors, dialysis, pills, procedures to be aware of, not to mention my husband’s inability to be left alone for more than an hour at a time, and even then, I was never far. Doctor appointments, medical treatments, medications, the to-do’s were many, so much so that taking care of my own needs quickly fell to the bottom of the list. Our lives revolved around my husband’s illness. Now is your time to re-learn the art of spontaneity, to have adventures and fun.

Be open with your adult children about your grief and the process you’re going through. Just please remind them that it’s not their job to take care of your grief or to make your grief disappear. First of all, no one can make your grief disappear; it is a process you will work through. They can support your effort; they just can't do it for you. By example, you will encourage them to process their own grief in an honest, open way, allowing all of you to remain emotionally open to each other.

Slow down. Meditate, nap, sit in the garden, smell the roses; the exact opposite of keeping yourself busy, busy, busy. Sure, busy might keep you from having time to think, but you also won’t heal.

. God/Mother Nature/The Universe blessed us with endorphins. Our body’s own feel-good high; it’s natural and it’s free. Allow this brain chemical to neutralize stress hormones to help you feel better. All your endorphins need is a little stimulation (experience tells me that it takes only a half hour of brisk walking to kick into gear.) Exercise need not be brutal, just regular.

Honor your own timetable for sorting out your spouse’s personal things, for changing the message on the answering machine, and taking care of the other pending tasks. The added tragedy of loss is that many of us are also left to cope with the mechanics of a business and must contend with all of this at a time when we feel unable to cope with anything. Look to family, professionals, and trusted friends -- don't be afraid to ask for help.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Live in the moment, for that's all we have any control over. The past is gone and the future holds no guarantees. Moment-to-moment, celebrate life, or rage at the forces, but stay present. For me, taking care of "the now" included honoring those close friends of my husband's who were also struggling with this loss. I wrapped personal objects of my husband’s, a treasured fountain pen, a tie, little objects from his desk at the office and sent them with a note letting each person know how special their friendship had been to my husband. It gave me a way to gracefully put closure to relationships that I knew would not survive his death because they had been his. I was uncomfortable allowing these special people to just drift without closure.

Five months in, that's all I know for now -- but I'll keep learning, making mistakes, growing stronger, feeling sad when I least expect it, and living. Oh, and yes, reminding myself to breathe now and then as I begin to feel strong enough to once again reach for my joy.

Excerpted from:

THE HEALING POWER OF GRIEF: The Journey Through Loss to Life and Laughter (ISBN 1-932783-48-2) By Gloria Lintermans & Marilyn Stolzman, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., Champion Press, 2006

Available at bookstores everywhere and online at:
Amazon.comThe Healing Power of Grief: Amazon.com,
Barnesandnoble.comThe Healing Power of Grief: BarnesandNoble.com


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