A JOURNEY OF GRIEF
I didn’t know a human could hurt so much.
It’s not like I had never experienced loss. My grandfather died when I was six. I remember the event and the emotions of others but I did not feel devastated. I do however, remember Mom’s pain when Dad was killed in a farming accident; I was 11, the eldest of four children. Mom’s grieving was compounded by the birth of my youngest brother one week after Dad’s funeral on a bleak February day. Baby by her side, she cried in bed most of the time, for a long time. Still, my pain was not soul wrenching. I don’t remember crying, but all I really recall was the constant reminder that he was no longer there. His chair sat empty at the head of the table haunting reminder of my uncle’s first words after they took Dad’s body away, “What a big responsibility for such a young boy.” I had lost a dad and a leader. My only feelings were that of hollowness inside me and a sense of abandonment. He was gone.
Loss began to have more of an impact as I entered my teenage years. During high school I had a dog named Lady, who followed me everywhere possible. Although she may have been ugly to look at, there was no companion more loyal. When she was hit by a car and had to be relieved of her misery, it hurt. She was my best friend. I stood there watching her die and ached inside.
My first sense of deep loss as an adult came when a group of friends moved out of my life. I worked with a religious non-profit that specialized in developing teams. Quite naturally, after spending so much time together, we became very close. It was a sad day when they moved to another job assignment. Coincidentally, I listened to one member of our group say that one of the reasons she tried NOT to get close to team members is because it was so painful to her when it came time to say goodbye. To her, the loss was too deep. I didn’t agree with her logic, but I understood.
The anguish that hit hardest in my life, to that point, was the loss of my wife, Ruth, to cancer. It seemed so unfair that we were dealing with a life-threatening condition in our early thirties, but there we were. In a way, we began grieving our losses the day we received the horrid diagnosis. Ruth would not see our four children graduate from high school, she’d miss knowing her grandkids and our long-term dreams were gone – vanished. Future years of service together became a fantasy. Due to her treatments our normal life became elusive, and so it went. All this pain accumulated in addition to her possible physical death in a yet-to-be determined time frame. We set out on an intentional path to live life to the fullest in all possible ways.
Seven years of treatment, surgeries, tears and hopes suddenly came to an abrupt end the moment I watched her take her last breath. I mumbled a broken, “Goodbye…Ruth,” and collapsed into a sobbing heap in my chair. The shock was more soul-wrenching than anything I had ever experienced. I didn’t know a human could hurt so much. Her death was somehow a shock because I had clutched to hope for a few more months with her.
The following months took me through a mourning process that was foreign to me. Even though I had been blessed with a great circle of friends, an amazing team at work, caring members from the church we attended and a dedicated family, I still experienced profound feelings of loss and emptiness. Agonizing loneliness, devastating longing, missing my best friend and lover occupied my every moment. I found myself wandering around the house like a toddler looking for his pacifier.
One of the things that struck me as odd was the huge variety of ways people attempted to talk to me in the early weeks after my wife’s death, followed by a complete lack of conversation about her or my loss in the weeks to come. It was as if she had never been. Often-times I realized that the way people responded to my loss revolved more around their need instead of mine. A few who had experienced their own losses got it right. Precious few admitted they “Didn’t know what to say.”
People began pulling away from me after about the third week following her funeral, while my need to talk only increased. In truth, I would have given anything for someone to ask me, “Could you tell me about your wife’s death?” But no one ever asked.
Consequently, I began an intentional effort to find others who may have experienced a similar loss so I could talk about my experience and work through my pain. One motive for seeking out others was to comfort them through listening and understanding their heart-felt exchanges, while fulfilling my need to share concerning my own loss and process of grief. This part of my grieving process continued for six months after my wife’s death. By the end of this period I had either forgotten or gotten over the negative effects caused by those who said the wrong thing to me during my grief period.
Working through the loss of my wife left me stronger. I remember thinking that nothing else in life could be harder. The deep pain had left my feelings for others’ hurts closer to the surface.
Fortunately, the year after Ruth’s death I met a wonderful widowed lady. Mutual friends actually talked her into attending the college where I was teaching so we would meet. It certainly took nerve for her to do that. This “arranged” and seemingly innocent meeting allowed me to easily be drawn to her. You see, Judith was the most beautiful lady I had met in a long time. It was love at first sight. That next year we were married.
The day we married my four children were in their teens and Judith’s four boys were also teens. Yes, we blended eight teenagers into a family and survived. Telling that success story must be left for another day.
I could not foresee the heavy challenge emerging the year after our marriage. A policy of the religious non-profit organization with whom I worked forced my resignation from the group, against my wishes! I involuntarily left my leadership position and a 20-year career. This sudden unemployment hit me harder than a blow to the stomach. I had never experienced such depth of rejection before.
Losing my position and the relationships I’d cultivated with co-workers turned into an emotional nightmare for me. Part of the reason for the inner turmoil occurred because I failed to recognize these losses as something to be dealt with in a “grieving” fashion. I just sucked it up, acted brave about the whole situation and moved on to a new job. WRONG!
Only Judith really saw the sinking spirit in me during the next three years. She understood my silent grieving. But I pretty much suffered alone, not wanting her or the children to endure my sorrow. Occasionally while alone, I would experience sudden outbursts of grief. But I wrongly attributed those emotional bouts to residual grieving over my first wife’s death. Not always so.
My strong faith in God provided the strength to continue.
The next 20 years contained many successes both through our work and family victories. Judith and I moved two more times in response to jobs and family duties, landing in Arizona following her mother’s death.
The very next year we became concerned for Judith’s health. We both sensed something was wrong but didn’t want to consider the worst possibility. Five years of changing doctors, along with many tests finally exposed a large tumor on her pancreas. By the time doctors and tests exposed this culprit; time had run out for successful treatment.
Judith passed from this world victoriously the same month 22 years later as had my first wife.
Another deep mourning process began. Some asked if I found it easier or harder the second time. My answer: It was harder. We had only three months from prognosis to passing. During that time Judith and I intensely and intentionally mourned her impending death together. Plus, we invited each of our eight children and their families (24 grandkids) to come join me in saying “Goodbye” to their mother and grandmother. Each visit magnified the reality that Judith was leaving us and there was nothing we could do. The process hurt beyond imagination but it also played a huge part in all of our healing processes in the months to come.
As before, I was supported by a wonderful circle of friends and family. Our church group cared for us in great ways for more than three months and beyond. But just as before, even those expressions of support could not fill the empty soul-wrenching hurt in my spirit – I missed her. Only time and the grieving process would resolve the void her absence left in me. This time, not only did I face an empty bed but also an empty house. The loneliness was deafening. And as before, I observed those who admitted to me honestly, they “Didn’t know what to say.”
In an effort to help the many friends and acquaintances who expressed this sentiment of well-meaning concern, I became very open when talking to friends about my grieving process. It became obvious that my explanations opened their understanding of the grieving experience, clarifying ways in which they could help me and others through their speech and actions.
I can only express what I know and have experienced. While I am a professional, I make no claims on having official training to deal with all people in all sorts of grief. My expressions come only from my own life and from conversations with others. I recommend that individuals who seem to be in physical and emotional states beyond common dialog, be referred to professional help.
My hope is that the following experiences and suggestions will be helpful to you as you aid co-workers, friends and family encounter who are experiencing their own losses. Perhaps something you find in the pages to follow will help you be a better friend or loved one in a time of grief.
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Comments of comfort should not be geared to “fix” the problem of grief for the bereaved.