Yesterday, March 7th, marked the 2 year anniversary of rushing John to the ER. The day we first learned about glioblastoma. The day his 18 month, 8 day, 8 hour fight for life began.
Today our son walks into MD Anderson for surgery to remove the tumor inside his kidney.
We’re a whirl of emotions that should not exist all at once. But this Oprah article about failing friends in grief was appreciated.
Nothing teaches you harder about the impact of well-meant but misplaced words than the death of a spouse (or child), and worse when it is prefaced by a long, traumatic and even horrific journey to get there. A patient/caregiver/lovers’ journey that appears quieter than its reality, because you cannot talk about most of the grit. Because it’s too raw for anyone to experience. And you cannot go there without knowing you’re safe to open that door. No matter how desperately you need it.
The yearning for meaningful witness reaps thorns with it too. The callousness of the world levies its attention. And as the thorns collect, you cannot help but fear, dear God, did I ever do this to someone myself?
At least with the anticipatory grief that comes with a terminal illness, John and I could hold each other and witness each our tears.
With widowhood, any coping equipment you had for dealing with trauma is taken from you. The one person in your world who you always counted on and shared with is no longer there. Not to mention your every reality is permanently changed by no choice of your own. You not only lose your spouse, but everything you know and have is either taken or threatened too. Your time is stolen and effectiveness reduced; responsibilities change and magnify.
Unless a safety net can be successfully cast, your fall will be permanently disabling. Perhaps this is in part why the ministry to widows and orphans is so compelled in the Bible and in other religious texts. The alteration of reality can be crippling.
You will never ever see your husband again. You will never again feel their touch. They will never earn an income or owe taxes again. They will never put their things away ever again. They will never share the rest of your memories in any way. My John will never physically see his grandchildren and they will never get to meet him, even in passing. My heart will never recover its missing pieces. The bonding that marriage is, when you succeed – is excruciating when it is severed in trauma. Love is valuable, but it comes at a cost in the face of trauma. And the possibilities of never are endless.
Widowhood is torturous on multiple levels. The loss alone is more than enough. Grief will have its way with you, regardless of how much you understand. Regardless of your power of will. Like cancer, it is no respecter of persons. That carnivore will alter your capability in life, augmented by the quality of your relationship. The deeper the bond, the deeper the fractures. Yet the world steals more than just its lump of flesh. The startling negative things people will say. The vulnerability in a society that is still male dominant. The opportunists who come out of the wood work. But we don’t have the protection of neighbors and communities today like we once did in our history.
Even our friends get weird. They expect us to be normal, to react normal, to think normal, to remember like a normal remembers. They cannot see we lost an entire soul that once was inside. We simply cannot perform the way we did, until we recover. And maybe not even then. Maybe we’re different forever.
And then there’s the impact of silence, and the secondary vacuums that friends disappear into, which augments the feeling of losing every thing you value, trusted and recognize about the way you live, move and operate in the world.
In grief you are often forced to alter your perspective on relationships – that you did not expect to have to – along with your sense of trust and safety with others. Imagine suddenly having to reevaluate the safety of every relationship you’ve ever had. As death brings out the strange in people.
Some say cancer/illness/death shows you who your friends really are. Because friends wouldn’t hurt or abandon you if they cared, right? Especially when the demands upon you have multiplied beyond what a normal human being can expect.
I don’t know if that’s necessarily quite accurate, or even completely fair. That blanket seems a bit big.
Even now, in the well I’ve fallen into, I think that perspective is largely thanks to the filter of trauma we cannot help but be altered by. The tunnel vision we rely on in trauma, as all that we are often able to see is just the step we’re executing just right now. Blindingly looking for something to lean on, but faltering to find, because life knocked us silly and it’s not always easy for others to recognize.
No one is trained for this.
Not me. Not my friends.
I do not even now entirely understand what I need.
Just that I do. Need.
I know I’m far too vulnerable when a furniture salesman almost gets an earful from me, because my voice has been dumb for too long.
Neither I nor my friends will learn this without going through it together. And they cannot learn it if I am silent too.
I’m being forced into a rebirth I desperately did not want.
Every aspect of life as I’ve known it, in every way possible has been forcefully altered. It is unlike anything imaginable. Anguish that cannot be fathomed without experience. Something I could never wish on another. And yet desperately need witness for if I’m to heal.
We are all afraid of being overwhelmed, especially by what we do not understand. Trusting in God is helpful, but it doesn’t erase the way we’re designed. Without regular compassion to offset the regular negative, it’s no wonder that the loss of social support leads to “excess mortality rates” after the death of a spouse in our society.
Loss is part of the way of Life in this world. We cannot escape loss as part of our molding. Our losses are matched by our ability to Love. Our overcoming matched by the growth we already have achieved.
Well-meant but misplaced words injure. Silence injures less, but still injures. Silence robs friends of the opportunity to offset injuries caused by others. Because the callousness of the world will be on the doorstep. Not to mention judgement, gossip and malice. These too exist.
Am I what you expected after all.
How do we surmount both the precipice and the mountain falling down around us, as the tornadoes roar and floods gather at our knees?
There is only one answer. Face what you fear. The physical is transient. And the only lifeline is Love.
“Embrace the suck.” It was John’s message when he trained his men.
John’s words, his love, the Love of my Creator, and the love of my children and friends prop me as I face our son’s surgery today.
March 8th, 2018
by Julia Meek Chambers
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