Grief: Cleaning Up the Past

Thirty weeks and still counting. I’ve already stopped counting the days since my life mate — my soul mate — died, soon I’ll stop counting the weeks, and eventually I’ll stop counting the months. Perhaps there will even come a time when the anniversary of his death goes unnoticed. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens in my life, he will always be a part of it — almost everything I do, feel, say relates to him in some way. He was instrumental in making me who I am, and his death is the catalyst to make me who I will become, though I still don’t feel different from who I was before he died. So much of the change in me came before his death, during the long years of his dying.

During the last year of his life, as the cancer spread from his kidney up to his brain, he spent more and more time alone. I thought I coped well with the situation, continuing with my life, taking his dying for granted. I thought I’d moved on. In fact, I told him I’d be okay after he was gone, that I’d finished with my grieving. And I believed it.

After he died, the depth of my grief stunned me. His death shattered my state of suspended animation, and I was appalled by the way I’d behaved that last year. How could I possibly have taken his dying for granted? How could I have refused to see what he was feeling? How could I have become impatient with his growing weakness, his reclusiveness, his inability to carry on the long ping-ponging conversations that had characterized our relationship? How could I not have treasured his every word? Even after his diagnosis, even after we’d apologized for any wrongs, even after we become as close as we had been at the beginning, I continued to think I wouldn’t grieve. How could I have not known how much I still loved him?

I’d been living that last year over and over again in memory, trying to make it come out right, but no matter what I did, I could not change the past. It haunted me, that year. I could feel everything I refused to feel back then, and it about crushed me. A few days ago, while I was crying uncontrollably, I remembered hearing something during my grief support group session that struck a bell, so I checked back over the paper the counselor had read to us. “Self protection — denying the meaning of the loss.” Aha!

I had never denied his dying, just the immediacy of it. (Which is not surprising. He had the strongest determination of anyone I’d ever met, and he kept rallying until he couldn’t rally anymore.) But unconsciously (or subconsciously), I had denied what his death would mean to me. Denied what he meant to me.

After my aha moment, I started wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t gone into suspended animation, and I realized if, during that last year, I had let myself see what he was feeling, let myself feel what his dying and his death would mean to me, I would have been in such agony I would have cried all the time. He would have hated that he was causing me so much pain, which would have made me feel even worse. I still couldn’t have done anything for him, so eventually I would have blocked out all that was happening. I would have gone on with my own life and left his dying to him. I would have become impatient with the restrictions of our life, with his weakness, with his retreat into himself. In other words, even if I could have gone back and relived that year knowing the truth of it, my behavior would have been the same. And he would still have died.

With that realization, my tears stopped. I continue to have teary moments, but I am at peace with the way I acted that last year of his life. I still wish I could have done something to make that last year easier for him, of course, but perhaps I did — with all his troubles, at least he didn’t have to deal with my grief.

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8 Responses to “Grief: Cleaning Up the Past”

  1. Carol Ann Hoel Says:

    I think you are right and you figured it out. I think I told you that I grieved during the four years that my husband was dying. This softened the blow at the end. Soften doesn’t mean eliminate, but you will agree, there is a lot of room for varying degrees in such a monster thing as grieving. My husband was a great man. He fought hard to live but he wasn’t bitter about dying. When I would kneel at his chair and put my head in his lap and weep, he would tell me that I would be okay and that he’d had a good life and everyone dies sometime. He spent those four years comforting me. We are all different. I couldn’t have been silent during those four years if I had tried. My brother has a terminal illness. If I mourn about his situation in his presence, it distresses him terribly. I must not do it. My husband wasn’t troubled by it like my brother. We are who we are. I am thankful that my husband reacted the way he did to my grief. He helped me cope.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      One time when I started to talk about my plans for a future without him, I teared up and apologized for making his dying about me. He responded, “The last time I looked, there were two of us in this room.” When I go through times when the grief isn’t overwhelming, I feel as if in some way I am still carrying on “our” life. I no longer wish I could live that year over again, nor do I wish for him to come back and put him through those years of torment again but I do I wish I could talk to him. Sometimes I think of meeting him at one of the places where we were happy so we could talk about what we both went through (he always thought I had the worst of it, I thought he did).

      It’s hard, isn’t it? I’m glad you had someone to help you through your grief. And now you’re helping me through mine.

  2. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Wow! Your insight is amazing and beautiful.

  3. Karen Says:

    Pat~thank you … knowing that I am not alone in all the crazy thoughts/feelings that I have makes things look a “little” brighter…twelve weeks into this, I know it is only beginning, but I am thankful for your blogging and can relate to so many things!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Karen, Twelve weeks must feel like a lifetime and an instant to you right now. I am so sorry you are having to go through this. It’s hard, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure if I should post such a personal story, but I’m glad I did if it helped even one person. It seems grief is one of those things no one wants to talk about, so that makes us feel even more isolated than the crazy thoughts and feelings do. If you need someone to talk to, I am right here. Just leave a comment on any blog post.

  4. Irma Fritz Says:

    Dearest Pat:
    This Saturday my husband and I are about to bury he last of our beloved parents. True, they were all getting on, but it doesn’t lessen the grief of their loss. Both my parents died of cancer; my mother less than a year ago. I miss them every day. Afterwards my mother-in-law also died of cancer, and now the last of them, my father-in-law, who could not wait to join his bride in death. My heart goes out to you, my dear friend. I know the hurt of losing parents and can’t even imagine losing my life partner.
    During the last year of her life, my mother seemed well, but she always told me that she would die soon. I denied this vehemently, and was often impatient hearing her talk of about death. Like you, I’ve been drawn to the past, wishing to be able to re-live my mother’s last year with the full awareness of what her loss would mean to me. But, as you say, we are not able to function this way.
    You’ll be in my prayers, Pat!


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