The Transformative Power of Grief

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Several years ago I had a neighbor, whom I didn’t know very well. We would meet some mornings in our apartment building’s elevator. We were generally rushing to our jobs, but we were always very cordial to each other. She was an attractive young woman who dressed very stylishly. Her style was very conservative, classic and stylish and she always looked neat and prim. I liked her style, and we would compliment each other on our shoes, bags, outfits and so on, a lot of superficial, feel good morning blah, blah blah. She had a husband and one little son and from what I could see they were a nice little family. One day I noticed that her husband had lost weight. It didn’t seem unusual because we all were on the endless gym, run around the reservoir, diet hamster wheel in pursuit of health and fitness. Then, one day, someone mentioned to me that he had died. He’d battled cancer and now he was gone. This guy couldn’t have been any more than in his late 30’s, early 40s. After that, I would see the woman, my elevator friend, and she always looked pale, fragile and drawn, the new widow. She would stand in the corner of the elevator and it appeared as if she wanted to disappear into the wall. I didn’t know what to say to her really, but one day I told her I was sorry. She said thank you and she never spoke to me again after that.

The years went by and one day I saw she had a friend. He looked like a British rocker with one earring, spiky hair, very cool, funky and hip; the exact opposite of her conservatively styled now deceased husband. He was also of a different race, she being Asian and him Caucasian. The woman’s appearance  had also changed, she now had spikey hair; no longer neat and prim, now her clothes were hip, current and very downtown chic. When I saw her I thought, “Wow, that lady has gone crazy since her husband passed away. I mean she must’ve had a bit of a breakdown.” I just didn’t get it. I figured that her husband must be rolling over in his grave. I really didn’t know what that meant either, but it seemed an appropriate reactive thought. Eventually, I no longer saw her in the elevator, as she had moved away, off to a new life away from the old.

When I look back on that woman, having gone through what I’ve gone through since the death of my own husband, I realize now how little I understood about losing  a loved one and grief. I didn’t understand what one goes through nor did I really care. Losing a spouse had nothing to do with my life so how would I know or be interested in what a widow or widower goes through. After all, all the important men in my life were still alive at that point so, therefore, that whole scene was the farthest thing from my reality.

Losing a spouse is a transformative experience for the one who is left, and the changes that one goes through are an integral part of the grief journey. Some people remain fixed, frozen in time not able to move forward or evolve. Others, falsely believe that if they move on they will lose the essence of their deceased spouse, they will forget him or her or they will “betray” them. Others discover that another part of them emerges, seeking new experiences as well as searching for a new identity. As time goes on, they rediscover themselves minus their spouse. It’s all a part of the grieving journey, should one decide to embark on it.

There are many facets to human beings. Sometimes we’re not given an opportunity to explore all of who we are within our lifetime. After losing a life partner, one might have a desire to try a new hobby or travel to exotic far off places, search out new and different social connections, or go back to school. The death of a spouse, after the pain has started to subside, actually can inspire one to think about who they will be next, what they want to do next. The possibilities are limitless if we open ourselves up to the chance to reach for that unbearable lightness of being whomever we want to be, no holds barred. Rather than wallowing in one’s grief for the rest of  life, one must realize that there is an opportunity to transform one’s life and have a new beginning. This is what my neighbor did, I’m sure.

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It can be a little tricky if someone who has lost a spouse begins to make drastic changes in their lives.Well-meaning family, particularly in laws, and friends may not understand what their loved one is doing or going through. I would suggest that they keep a watchful eye, but to not interfere. When people grieve the first stage is the numb stage, and after they’ve moved through the tunnel it is as if they are awakening from a deep slumber.They have been sleeping wide awake. When they reawaken they begin the task of rediscovering themselves. They are  trying to make his or her way into their new world, bravely. The bereaved are, after all, still here “on the ground where it can be tough sometimes “, and after having gone through losing a spouse, they have a right to explore all possibilities for restarting life anew. This will take time, and those around should not set time limits on their loved one’s transformation after grief.

When my husband died, I redid our home to suit my own taste. To my surprise my own tastes were changing so I was able to make mistakes until I got it right. It was all a part of my personal evolution. I looked at my life and began to create a new one as I discarded the things that were no longer me, the old me. Everything became colored by my recent loss.I developed new preferences and tastes and discarded old ideas  that were no longer me, the new me. I became closer to some friends and more distant from others as my life took on a new shape. Some people remember you as you once were but, I soon discovered I needed people to see me as the new person I was becoming. Every change was a progression as I shed the skin of Yvonne as Chuck’s wife, and became me , Yvonne OMO (On My OWN).

There shouldn’t  be an expected code of behavior for the bereaved. They should be allowed to express themselves free from the criticism of others who expect the familiar. In fact those around should expect the unexpected. I am sure I am no longer anyone I ever was and I’m thrilled not to be, as I’m contented to be who I am now. The life-changing experience of losing my husband gave me an opportunity to be reborn. That same thing, I suspect, is what happened to my elevator friend. I understand everything now, and so much more.

When you are grieving you’re sleepwalking, but if one grieves consciously, he or she will begin to see the positive effects that a spouse’s passing can bring.There will be an opportunity to know more, to grow and to change, as one’s life should never be one of just passing through. I know that this is a different and new way of thinking about how a loss can be turned into something positive for those who are mourning. It is the opportunity for one to have a new beginning, finding yourself, your new self, being brave as you emerge anew. One can be transformed into a rock star or a rock; it’s a choice you’ve been given. Consider it a gift and a legacy from the one you’ve loved and lost. My advice is to always choose life.

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Sacred Ritual

 

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When I was in the midst of taking care of my husband, I was actually in a vortex, the “caretaker vortex”.When I stepped outside of that bubble, I did normal things. I went to work, ran errands, did everyday chores, but once I stepped back into that “caretaker mode” I had a routine that kept me focused, organized and helped me to make sure that all of Chuck’s needs were met without interruption. It was my official responsibility, which I did with regularity like clockwork, over and over again. It was the same day every day, but there was a comfort in those routines, as I cared for Chuck and prayed for a miracle.

This was a special, almost hallowed time…doing those repetitive routines. I made sure his meals were prepared, doctors appointments were made and kept, the house was clean and germ free for him and I was always near in case of an emergency, of which there were many. This was my life, my new life after Chuck’s cancer diagnosis. I was thrust into this new world without warning and I had to step up to the plate. No more summer plans, no more family reunions, no more holiday family gatherings, birthday parties, movies or other normal activities that we did together. I was just making sure that my husband would survive his circumstance so that we could one day get back to  life normal. As I look back on those days which were hard, tiring, relentless, repetitive, and long I now take comfort in that very special time. It was a sacred time between my husband and me.

After my husband died and I emerged from the bubble, I felt as though I was stepping into a brand new world, a new life without my husband. It was all so unsettling and I felt off kilter. Soon, I would be able to move forward, but that would be a long time coming.

I am now convinced that my prayers for a miracle were answered. No, Chuck did not survive his circumstance, but he did have stage IV pancreatic cancer and there are many who do not survive past three months. My husband survived for one full year after diagnosis and I believe that our love, bond and routine kept Chuck here for a little while longer. Our new life was held together by our commitment to each other, our faith and our belief in hope. I’m sure I was more hopeful than he as his health began to rapidly decline toward the end of 2008. I’ve even come to the realization that our routine, my life in that sacred vortex with him, delayed his death. I am also convinced, had it not been for me, he would’ve let go of this life sooner than he did. I believe he hung in there for me and I know I kept him here for me.

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I’m not absolutely sure that I did the right thing, clinging to my husband’s fading presence, but I know that a long while after he had passed away, I would look back on that last year with him as something special. As hard as it was for me, I know it was even more difficult for my husband as his body, riddled with pain, deteriorated bit by bit. Little did I know that that experience was preparing me for the life I have now and since his death, I have, in time, been reborn.

Palm Sunday represents the foreshadowing of death and the road to triumphant rebirth. For me, it symbolizes all that I went through and with the advent of Holy Week upon us, I am reminded of my own long, dark journey into grief with the hope of a glimpse of light. When, after a long while, I finally saw it, I knew that that was my rebirth…..my new beginning.

I have now come to the conclusion that in the 22 years that Chuck and I were together, the period in which he was ill, saying that long goodbye, was truly my most sacred time with him. And when he died, I knew that he had also been reborn.

 

 

To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guideto Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu