No Exemption From Grief April 22, 2012Posted by ijwoods in Blog+.
Tags: caregiver, caregiving, grief, grieving, hospice, preparations
I doubt we can ever really be prepared for grief, but we can certainly be informed and aware that it may be coming. We can also be aware that it can impact our life in a big way. To assume we’d be exempt from grief would be a painful mistake, which is something I learned the hard way.
Because of my experiences and attitude towards life I never took grief seriously. In my mind, death is as natural a part of existence as birth. I can’t remember being born, but it seemed to work out okay and I have no idea where I was prior to that time. Death to me is just the other part of the cycle; inevitable, inescapable and probably just as kind as birth. Yes, there are a lot of religious viewpoints regarding death and the hereafter, but in reality we only know what we see and experience. With that in mind I have maintained an attitude that it is probably beneficial to keep a tempered attachment to friends, family and loved ones because ultimately, and assuredly, they will go – unless I go before them.
Also, I happen to enjoy existence; just sheer, unadorned, and unenhanced existence. I know K felt the same way. Even during her final couple of months we continued to begin the day happy to know we were still alive and could spend more time together. Her increasing frailness didn’t stop us from doing a little morning dance around the kitchen before breakfast as an expression of the joy we were feeling. It may sound a little silly but it made us laugh a lot. It was a genuine expression, sweet and a lot of fun, especially when we did the Snoopy dance. The dance celebrated our belief in the miracle of the present. This is a wonderful memory for me.
I suppose another thing that influenced my grief denial was being a male. Men go to war. Men hunt. Things like death are supposed to roll off our backs like water on a greased duck. It’s not like I was thinking about any of this consciously, it was so deeply rooted that it didn’t need thought. This went beyond thought having been transformed into feeling, and the feeling embodied all of those ideas.
Although on some level I was troubled by the idea of losing K, the caregiving was so all encompassing that the concept of loss was way on the periphery. Not only were the day to day discoveries, emergencies and need for response unrelenting in its flow, but it also increased while at the same time I was trying to work, manage the household and keep family informed of her progress. I remember our primary hospice nurse telling me several times “please prepare yourself for not caregiving anymore. You will feel it.” I always gave her a superficial nod of acknowledgement but again I didn’t believe this was something that applied to me. In my mind grieving was the territory of old ladies from foreign lands who wore black clothes and black headscarves, not something that affected a modern day American male.
Boy, was I woefully unprepared and blind to what I was about to experience. It was very early in the morning on the day that K passed and I was already groggy with weeks of little sleep. As I sat with her body I was calm but heavily disoriented. I couldn’t understand that communication was no longer a two way phenomena. There was no longer a call and response. I couldn’t understand that the presence that had filled so many years of my life was no longer around. It’s different than someone leaving and going away, because you can always send a letter, an email or try to reach them by phone, but it’s incomprehensible that the communication will never reach its intended destination ever again. The responses whether it be a smile, a show of irritability or a kiss are all wiped off of the map of future possibilities. Although something within wants to believe the opposite, the stark reality of the situation is like running full force into a solid brick wall. The person who has over time become part of your own DNA has vanished, like the ultimate magic trick. Except it is not a trick, it is real and the accompanying pain goes deep.
More and more research is showing that grief affects a person physically reducing the strength of their immune system. Recent studies show that the likelihood of a heart attack within a couple of weeks of losing someone dear to you increases by as much as 20 times! This is serious stuff and not to be taken lightly. I would think that if someone was also the primary caregiver for their loved one, like I was, that the overall experience may even be further turbo charged. In that instance not only are you powerfully affected by the caregiving experience, but also through the caregiving the bond between you and your loved one seems to grow exponentially.
I must say that the experience of grief has been both humbling and humanizing. It took me about a day and a half to admit to myself I must be experiencing it. I had never experienced anything like it before in my life, not even with the passage of my parents and I instinctively understood I better seek professional help, which I did through the hospice. It is probably standard for hospices to offer professional bereavement counselors as ours had.
I began to read books on the subject and even books about other’s experience such as Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” in which she touchingly describes her grief after losing her husband unexpectedly to a heart attack. These are stories that meant nothing to me before but now seem like a parallel universe in which not everyone sees what’s happening or can hear the secret language. I don’t mean this at all in an elitist way, but as the best description summing up my before and after. The feeling opened up a door to a land I had not seen or understood before where people are walking around shell shocked and often alone. Never hesitate to check up on someone you think may be grieving, you have no idea how much it may mean to them.
There is an ocean to write about this subject, and so many have. There’s a wealth of material and research out there. You can get good information from a local hospice or even the funeral home. With so much help available I strongly suggest taking the time to familiarize yourself with grief if you haven’t already. Don’t get blindsided like I was, it’s not fun. As I said at the beginning, I don’t think I could have prepared myself for it, but I could have been ready and smarter about it. Here’s a couple of good links to get you going:
The Grieving Process – Good topical page on the grieving process courtesy of the Hospice of the North Shore & Greater Boston.
Grief.com – David Kessler’s site on grief. Kessler is a noted author and expert on grief and bereavement.