Embracing a widower's grief: I reread her letters, I played her favorite songs
The loss of a spouse -- everyone deals with their grief differently. For me, the things that helped most were: embracing my loss, the support of my children, talking-talking-talking to whomever would truly listen, and writing, writing, writing.
I'm afraid I've given this a lot of thought over time, so please bear with my observations.
My wife, Maggie, passed away more than seven years ago. We had been happily married for 41 years, had four children and seven grandchildren.
Although she had lung cancer in 1997 that metastasized to her brain and had less than a 10 percent chance of surviving, she beat the cancer and lived for 13 more years.
In 2009, she fell down the stairs in our home, suffered traumatic brain damage and never fully recovered.
For the remaining 15 months of her life, the last 13 months of which were in our home with me as the caregiver, she could speak only a few words, couldn't walk and had difficulty remembering her children. I watched her die a little every day and struggled to understand why this had to happen to her -- to us.
Her death in 2010 was both devastating and welcomed.
I don't know what's worse: having someone you love die totally unexpectedly or watching someone you love slowly lose a little more of herself every single day -- to have the person you love leave you bit by bit, physically, mentally and emotionally. It's a loss you grieve slowly, daily, and for the entire time the person you love is struggling.
For many of my family and friends, Maggie died the day she stopped breathing. For me she was dying every day -- and a little of me died whenever I lost a part of her.
Embracing my loss
I've always believed in a statement by Robert Frost: "The best way out is always through."
So, I embraced my memories of Maggie. I reread her letters to me. I played her favorite songs, read her poems, touched her clothes and thought of her constantly -- the proverbial "every waking minute of every waking hour." Even when those memories hurt so badly, I embraced them, because in doing so, I was embracing Maggie. I was holding her close to me and keeping her part of me.
I wouldn't have, couldn't have, done it any other way. To run from these memories would be to run from Maggie, and I couldn't do that. I decided early on that I wouldn't run from my memories, no matter how much they hurt.
Too many friends and family members encouraged me not to linger on those memories: "Try to forget." "You have to move on with your life because Maggie would have wanted it that way" and "Over time the memories will fade and then it won't hurt so much."
However, by allowing myself to face my memories full force, I began to realize it's not the memories that fade. They stay strong. The hurt fades.
The pain the memories bring, that's what fades. That's what people are running from. The memories stay strong -- maybe in a different place in the mind and in the heart -- but they stay strong.
And if you run from the pain, before the memories have a chance to find that new place in your mind and your heart, then that pain will stay with those memories forever. And when those memories jolt you, when you least expect it -- and they will -- they bring the pain with them.
I was very fortunate that my three adult children live locally and that we have always been a close, supportive family.
They were not only near me when Maggie was struggling through her final months; they were always there whenever I needed them after she died. They were ever available when I wanted to talk, no matter the time of day, and came home often, simply to sit, talk and listen. We continued our family traditions on Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas, Labor Day etc., keeping Maggie an integral part of each family event, celebrating our memories and sharing our stories.
It was so important for me to talk. I believe talking about Maggie kept her alive in my heart. The importance of this to me is best described in the attached narrative I wrote "Just Let Me Talk."
Even more than talking, writing became my salvation. After Maggie died, there were so many feelings colliding inside of me (anger, fear, doubt, guilt).
I couldn't deal with many of them because some seemed contradictory. As soon as a certain feeling would begin to consume me, I would literally shake it from my head, telling myself that I would deal with it later.
It was too easy to run away from those feelings. If I tried to talk to someone about it, I would quickly change the subject as soon as I felt uncomfortable or noticed they may be feeling the same.
However, once I began writing about those feelings, I couldn't ignore them so easily. Having taken the time to put my thoughts on paper, they now sat in front of me. Oh, I could crumple the paper and throw it in the garbage, but having taken the time to write down my thoughts and having them staring up at me, I was less inclined to do so.
Now, I could look at these feelings more closely -- almost study them; and in doing so, begin to understand them better. I ended up writing a number of narratives and some poems that helped me immensely.
I joined a writers group at Indian Trails Library to share my narratives and poems, where I benefitted from the group's feedback and their emotional reactions to the feelings I shared.
With their support and guidance, I wrote my book, "Wouldn't It Be Something," that chronicles how Maggie and I fell in love through letters we wrote to each other.
I now make presentations at a variety of venues (libraries, local museums, etc.) about the power and uniqueness of handwritten letters and how they changed my life, not once, but twice. Maggie is a very integral of my presentations.
THE LAST KISS SERIES
■ Patty & Corey: The Heartbreak.
■ Diana & Joe: A widow's advice: Embrace bereavement, don't avoid it A Straight From the Source story.
■ Janice & Joe A story of someday A Straight From the Source story
■ Janice & Joe Five lessons I've learned so far A Straight From the Source story
■ Patty & Corey: The Love Story.
■ Patricia & Tim: A widow cherishes the memories of her warrior A Straight From the Source story
■ Bill & Marian: A love that lives in dreams A Straight From the Source story
■ Dennis & Maggie: I reread her letters, I played her favorite songs A Straight From the Source story
■ Dennis & Maggie: Just Let Me Talk A Straight From the Source story
■ Patty & Corey: A widow wishes she had asked for one more kiss.
■ Patty & Corey: A widow's mission to sustain her husband's barbershop.
■ Donald & Helen: A widower's essay becomes his daughter's short film A Straight From the Source story
■ Susan & Guy: A widow's guide to dealing with the loss of a spouse A Straight From the Source story
■ Ted & Donna A widower's plan to count his blessing at times of deepest grief A Straight From the Source story
■ Fred & Beverly: Unique and Devastating Loss (by Wifeless) A Straight From the Source story
■ Last Kiss Epilogue: Some widows heal from grief by healing others
■ Ken & Michele: A widower's story of a loving couple's life A Straight From the Source story
For more on the series, please click here.