On Sunday, November 4, 2012, I participated in a venue for getting acquainted with two members of our church’s confirmation class, and to that end, they ‘interviewed’ me, and I likewise did with them. One of these boys is the teen I am sponsoring during this academic year. During the conversation, they asked me to relate to them the significant events in my life, and among those, times when I felt that God was present in my life - - times when I felt that God was leading me. Naturally, the important events include John’s illnesses and subsequent death. Both boys were sympathetic, yet curious. As with any first real conversation, each boy tried to indicate a common understanding, and yet, of course, they cannot match experience for experience. They have not been married yet, and therefore have not lost a spouse. One of them had faced the serious illness of a parent, and has watched his grandfather grieve the loss of his grandmother. As we discussed it, he abruptly said that he was sorry to keep talking about death. I guess he was afraid of hurting me, or of bringing up unpleasant memories.
As I reflected on this discussion throughout the ensuing afternoon and evening, it occurred to me that probably a lot of people fear approaching a grieving person for fear of causing that individual pain - - or evoking tears in the mourning individual - - as if crying were the thing to be avoided at all costs. Since I am now something of an expert in my own grief struggle, I decided to share some thoughts with you. I can’t say that my experience is true for others, but it is how it is for me having experienced the death of my husband.
So often over the past four months, the tears have come - - with or without aid from other people! And that’s o.k.! It’s normal that some of the memories of my husband bring me to tears! I welcome them! If I try to stave off the tears, it might mean avoiding the memories. And I don’t want to do that. Not a day goes by that I do not think of John; that I do not miss his silliness or even his tired grumpiness. For those of my readers who knew him, trust me, he DID have a grumpy, angry aspect to his personality that he tended to keep from most people, but felt quite free to share with me! He could infuriate me with his ultra-conservative political views, and we would occasionally argue, but in the end, it didn’t change what was important. We loved each other, and our being together mattered! We spent the last twenty years of his life together. We were two who became one flesh in the Father, but who have now been torn asunder - - ripped apart permanently. He’s gone and he’s not coming back! How do I wrap my brain around that? Or more accurately, how do I wrap my heart around it? My brain has accepted the facts of the situation; and yet, other parts of my soul have not. In my dreams, he and I have had conversations where he has indicated his awareness that he is no longer incarnate here with me. I wake up at first confused and then exhausted. Naturally, I am aware that dreams are often the attempts of the subconscious mind to make sense of reality.
But my reality makes no sense right now without him. I don’t know where I belong anymore! I want to scream that I feel a sort of emotional paralysis. I am unable to be consistently productive with the tasks involved in going on alone. Grief is physiological as well as emotional. There have been many days that I have escaped into sleep to avoid the dullness of another day without him, arising only to tend to the canines and to answer nature’s demands on me in the categories of personal hygiene, care and feeding. Many of those days have followed sleepless nights. Everything is just a bit ‘off’. I have bad days and some not so bad days. Once in a while, I even have a good day, but the good days are not quite tipping the scales yet. In time, they will. I think. I hope…
I recalled reading a book entitled, The Year of Magical Thinking, written by Joan Didion. I pulled it off my bookshelf, and am rereading it; and this time, it is speaking to my heart instead of just being an interesting read from a skilled writer. I’ve found myself almost saying aloud, “yes, that’s exactly how it feels!” at times. Her story is the account of the horrendous events of December 2003 and early January of 2004. Their only child became desperately and gravely ill, on life support, on Christmas night. Less than a week later, on December 30th, as they are sitting down to dinner, her husband suffers a sudden, massive and fatal coronary arrest. She and her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, had been married just short of 40 years; and it was a relationship that was intricately intertwined and interwoven. They frequently worked together on writing projects - - some of them plays or screenplays of novels one of them had written. Ms. Didion writes of being simultaneously cool, even efficient in handling the necessary business details involving the facts of the situation, while almost delusional in some of her expectations for her future. I commend the book to anyone who has experienced the loss of a spouse or a child. Or perhaps, someone close to a person who has lost a spouse or a child. In a subsequent book that I have not read, I’m told that Ms. Didion recounts the further tragedy in which she experiences the pain of eventually losing her daughter to death less than two years later.
Of course, my experience is different in some very key ways. John and I were fairly independent of each other in some ways because we had been on our own as single adults well into our thirties before we married. We did not bring children into our marriage. We did not share a career path, and we were together for about half as long as Ms. Didion and her husband. John’s passing was not the bolt from the blue to me that Mr. Dunne’s death was for Ms. Didion. I had a little bit more warning that it was coming.
One of the things I am noticing is that in telling her story, Ms. Didion recalls little details of her husband’s last year that seemed, in hindsight, to indicate that perhaps he knew he didn’t have long to live. That is ringing very true for me as well. John told me fairly frequently in his last six months that he felt that he was dying; that he had waited too long to seek treatment for the condition that ultimately led to his falling so ill. I certainly knew the situation was of supreme concern, but he had pulled through before, and I believed he would again recover. Or perhaps I just wanted to believe it. But now I realize that even though the doctors had been straightforward with me the whole time, I was not prepared for his death in any respect but the factual. I was able to report the facts to my family and his; to get his immediate family there in time for us all to say goodbye. We were all with him when he died, but I was every bit as traumatized when he took his last breath as was Ms. Didion when she realized the reason the medical staff had stopped resuscitation efforts on Mr. Dunne. I was able to tell John that I loved him, and that I always would; that it was o.k. for him to let go and find his rest in the Lord. I can remember those details so clearly, yet much of the subsequent couple of weeks is a blur.
I realize that I need to bring this to a close for now. Grief is a process with which we will all be familiar at some point. Ms. Didion very skillfully described how it has been for her in her book; this blog is carrying you along my journey through the valley of shadows that the psalmist references. For the psalmist and for me, evil is not to be feared. I know with absolute certainty that God is with me, and I know that you are, too! For that, I am truly thankful!