Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How Do You Grieve for Your Partner?

Sorry for the absence. I was with a friend who was dying from leukemia and then with her husband and adult sons after her passing.

She and her husband were one of those lucky couples who totally adored each other, from the day they met. And he continues to adore her after her passing. They were so loving to each other that even when they fought, each person tried to comfort the other for the pain he or she was inflicting. To be angry and compassionate is a high state of relationship.

Sixty people stood by her open grave for over two hours on a bitingly cold New England afternoon. Many shared stories that commemorated her selflessness, her vivaciousness, and her love for her husband, family, and friends. Everyone helped shovel dirt onto her plain wooden coffin, an act of final respect her community and family paid to her.

The husband is bereft, robbed of half of his spirit, his memory, his daily reality. How can he preserve the forty years they spent together; and how is he to grieve for the remaining 20 or 30 years he will have without her? Right now he is being a good host to all those who have come to gather in her memory. He is worried about how his children are doing. He went back to the hospital where she was treated and died to thank the nurses and aides and doctors who cared for her. He has had a few episodes of crying on the shoulder of some dear friends. He cries more freely at night, alone, in bed.

I took him on a walk around their neighborhood. He started to tell me how sorry he was that she had so much loss and pain in her life. Sorry that he could not diminish it or protect her from it. Sorry that he could not help her. I told him to tell her. Talk to her. Say to her, "I am sorry you had pain and that I could not make it better for you." He asked me to tell her for him. I did. Then he cried. A few minutes later he sighed deeply and said, "I did make it better for her. I did." Then he turned to me and said, "You know, this is like a prayer. Better than a prayer."

We are so amputated from expressions of grief in our western, U.S. culture. We hurry grief along as if it were not a river. We don't have a catalog of possibilities for holding and expressing our grief, so we wonder what is OK and what is not. Some may have religious ritual to guide them; many don't; and even religious ritual may not offer all the forms of expression a mourner might need.

Mourning, I believe, does not only occur after the moment of death. I think we (both the ill and the well partner) experience forms of grief with each diminishment of function and possibility that illness inflicts throughout its course.

Grief, I believe, is not completely apart from celebration. Grief forces memory, and memory connects us to experiences we cherished and invites us to reclaim a life that was a force of joy. A life that merits celebration.

Her husband wrote this in an email he sent to me:
"People have told me that I should be nourished by my memory of our relationship. I cry because the despair, the yearning ache I suffer, is just not sated by remembering the way in which she and I loved any more than my hunger is satisfied by remembering a delicious meal I once ate."

I emailed him back:
I think remembering is not a substitute, it's not even an approximation. It's one way to remain connected to not only her, but to a vital part of ourselves. The good part -- the part she inspired us to get better at.

Remembering, talking to her, seeing her in her favorite chair or playing with the dogs. These acts bring a rush of sweetness that is too soon eclipsed by the overpowering sadness. But I want the sadness as much as I want the sweet memories. It all helps me to feel close to her, to feel her in my present and not just the past.

In the Jewish tradition, we don't ask that the mourner be nourished by the memory of the person who died. We say - May her memory be a blessing to you.

I think that means that at some point in time, maybe now, may the ways in which she lives inside you help you to continue to be the best person you can be.

How have you mourned for your partner, or for yourself? What advice or counsel or comfort did you receive that was helpful? What did you receive that was definitely not helpful?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the insight, Barbara. I cry as I read this. We also grieve for the loss of "normal" life with any loved one who becomes acutely ill, even if we do not lose them entirely. We do lose that life together, and either grieve for it or create another. That is the chasm I'm struggling to cross at this moment, and your words bring some welcome light into a "dark night of the soul".

Barbara K. said...

Hi Anonymous -- it is indeed a chasm to cross, each time we transition from the new normal to a different state of illness and functionality.

A chronically ill friend who went through several of these state changes once said to me that the light actually shines brighter when its enclosed by darkness. Personally, I'd rather have a duller light and no pain. But her words are a good reminder that often there is no choice, and there is always some light wherever you wind up.

Regina Holliday said...

I really am glad I found your blog through a tweet by DrVal. This is a great post on the process of grieving. As a widow, I can attest it is indeed a winding river.

Thank you