How like human beings to map the stages and micro-stages of grief. We are obsessive about self-reflection, a forgivable pastime, but the first urge to define healing stages must have been because the experience hurts so badly we want to help others going through it. That’s a tender quality of the heart that is—say the experts—an inevitable outcome of grief faced mindfully.
It’s been a little over a month since my husband took his last breath. It surprises me that early on and so strong the bulk of my grief was about guilt and fear. Seems I was thinking more about me than about him.
I kept raking over the day he had that last stroke. How I circled around blaming myself and nearly zeroed in: it was a stressful day, we were irritable with each other, things weren’t going right. If only, if only, if only.
He took a week to reach his life after life. I have fewer regrets over how that week went. What consumed me was the process his doctors and I were going through to get to the understandings that we did. When he left the house in an ambulance, I fully expected him back; I figured it would be awhile and it would be hard, but he’d survived four strokes and there was this unshakable narrative in my head. Miracle man. He’s so strong. And as he delighted to say to others’ discomfort: “Not dead yet!”
But the truth is that after that gigantic stroke three years ago, when he quickly realized he would never practice law again, my husbandhad a preference for death that he simply learned to manage and mostly hide. The Not Dead Yet! Bravado was a veneer, although I convinced myself his outspoken wish that he’d never survived back then was a natural emotion in the aftermath of such trauma.
But I continued to wonder if he stayed on for me. He was never a go-getter for the struggle back to health. I spearheaded it; I was the cheerleader, dragging him forward. Not so much kicking and screaming did he go, just complaining and passive. Presented with strategies, he did grumble but make an effort, things like diet and exercise that were not a passion. That’s okay, his neurology has damaged his will, I told myself, living for the day he’d be able to self-spark a grand recovery on his own.
After last month’s admittance to the ICU brought grave looks on doctors’ faces, discussions about quality of life even if he did make it out of a hospital bed, then the wee hours of the morning when he slipped away—my first fears (raging obsessions really) were strangely specific: I hadn’t given him enough fish oil, or the right brand…we should have gotten started with his new doctor sooner…on and on and on through the catalogue of errors that I maintained could have been prevented if only I’d been on the ball. Which of course, returned to the topic of our stressful day to cinch the nomination: I was to blame for this happening now.
Eventually I discarded this line of reasoning: it was painful, incomplete, and stupid. Four strokes plus diabetes and his vascular system was trashed; it was only a matter of time. It was amazing that I got three whole years to take care of him. So what could be the possible purpose of guilt?
Probably a way of holding onto being in charge, feeling in power. It’s a familiar if gut-shredding way of life for some people to feel guilty about everything. I thought I’d lost that, and a part of me could see through the game even as it ran its endless loop, tearing me apart.
When I asked the Great All to ferry me beyond guilt, I had this idea that grief was supposed to be about sorrow and I was willing to be sad, to miss him with all my heart. I held that endeavor up for the purity of soul it seemed to represent. I thought going there would be like being with him again; his image conjured so vividly with tears of joy for all that we’d had together. However!
I should have been tipped off that sadness wasn’t going to be pure and cleansing. Watching him for a week in a hospital bed, stuck with needles and tubes and hating beyond hate these intrusions as he’d made so clear before, unable to open his eyes or speak: let’s talk about what sad IS. Watching someone suffer so helplessly…there it goes, I feel it now…the pull toward guilt—I should have talked to him even more then, I should have never left to go get clean clothes or a good night’s sleep. Thankfully, I was able by mid-week to begin to soften into the refuge of compassionate suffering-with, for there was nothing else to do. But it wasn’t easy; frankly I don’t know how people who work with the dying pull it off. They have a fortitude that I don’t.
When finally I stopped raking over the recent past and chucked the litany of should-have-done, I gave myself over to the unknown. That’s when I met Fear like I’ve never known before.
Fear of going to sleep, fear of the dreams always about funerals, fear of waking up sour with guilt again, fear of being assaulted by emotional pain during the day since it seemed to descend out of nowhere, fear of going to the cemetery, fear of “what’s next?”, fear of my own death, fear of Fear.
Why don’t I just say “anxiety?” That I was anxious, maybe nursing an anxiety disorder? Because I’ve been there and I know the difference. Chronic gnawing anxiety and the flash-points of panic are burdens many suffer day in and day out. It’s not less, just different. Having the love of your life die on you is an existential crisis. This is one of the big human moments, not a psychiatric deviation.
I like to think I’ve fought a few tough battles in my time. But it became all too clear that courageous fighting is counter-productive in this situation and we know that from the maps about grief-work. “Surrender” is only a first step, because you can surrender to chaos too and I’m not sure that’s helpful. Your existential fear could turn into never-ending anxiety if you don’t find some guideposts that resonate.
The classic Kubler-Ross stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and so on– didn’t make sense to me because I was whipping in and out of each one of them, and because Fear predominated. I needed to get a grip, and came across a book entitled Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart by Stephen Levine, where I encountered a new idea.
Mercy. At first I resisted the word, echoes of my Catholic girlhood where we were always asking God during Mass to be merciful to us stupid human sinners. Levine, a Buddhist, has a different take on it. I’m learning instead to wrap every ache of the heart in mercy, to investigate the pain without judgment, to notice I’m hunching my shoulders or breathing shallow and to change that. Not dutifully as in another project to take on and try to measure up, but because I care. It’s an old truism that we can spend so much energy caring for others but limit ourselves from that bounty, as if we don’t need or deserve it. It’s like the Dalai Lama once said: there is no one other than you that needs your love more.
I find this difficult because I’ve spent most of my energy over the years in self-evaluation and self-judgment that I tried to turn to self-improvement. I had things to atone for, I had things to fix, I had character that needed building. That was natural and appropriate to crafting a life. But I’m so tired of that now. Releasing into love and mercy appears to be the paradox that works better than all that work.
But of course, I’m still struggling to see how the sudden loss of someone I loved like no other, and shared daily life with for 25 years, is grist for enlightenment. The sense of being disoriented is profound. Motivation and focus are hard to come by. Stuff that must be done is nasty in its insensitivity: bill collectors want death certificates, and I can’t decide when I should give away his clothes. Thanksgiving, just a freaking few days after his burial, was a chore to be endured–the man’s absence from the table was palpable, a hole ripped out of the fabric of home.
With grief this fresh, I’m still living with fear, but I’ve invited Mercy in, and that has smoothed down Fear into fear. Which I pledge to investigate, because I trust now it’s not random, it’s calling me to see wider. To love more.
If you browse definitions for mercy, you see it differs from its close cousin, compassion. Mercy is usually given by one with the means to punish or wield power over…but they don’t, being merciful instead. How many times do we hear, “I am my own worst enemy?” We have tremendous power to punish ourselves. The act of mercy goes like this: even though you can, don’t censor and browbeat, be kind instead.
Luckily, mercy for our own grief-filled lives and our solitary pain brings another kind of relief–we cut others more slack, if not view their struggles with utmost tenderness. As I’ve been writing this I’ve stopped now and again to text a young family member struggling with boyfriend-girlfriend concerns. In the past I would have defaulted to a quasi-lecture on self-improvement. But I can see how what I was writing here flowed into texts to him. I don’t know if this young person is ready to hear about transforming hate into mercy, but I cherish the chance I had to share what was heartfelt, and find I feel differently about him too. I feel that no matter how long or hard he may struggle, there is no formula for fixing him, only love that I can give.
Blessed is this opportunity; not so much to “grow,” as I would have lauded in the past, ever bent on progress. Rather, to know. I guess aging is all it’s cracked up to be, the wisdom years. But the revelations are surprisingly basic. A whopper of a grief can humble us so low, there is nowhere to go for comfort but to break down at the wonder of it all and trust we’ll reassemble as bigger people, deeper hearts. Thus my dance with fear and grief becomes a sink or swim (float, flow) enterprise. And what’s wrong with that? Mercy me, nothing at all.
Individual Poet · December 20, 2017 at 11:49 am
This is so beautiful, honest, powerful, and important for many of us to read. Thank you, and I wish you continued insights and of course mercy up and down the path.
thenutrientpath · July 6, 2018 at 12:52 pm
As I said before, coming from you this is precious. I just saw this because the site seemed to have changed how comments are shown. I was wondering why I didn’t get any here! Thanks again.
Y Storm · January 17, 2018 at 1:16 pm
Excellent and so well crafted, a profound discussion of the personal interrogation many of us impose on ourselves, as to whether we deserve self compassion, self mercy in the aftermath of such deep loss. Even though we did our best for our loved one. This speaks to me after a few deep losses of my own. Blessings and deep peace to you, from an old friend.
thenutrientpath · July 6, 2018 at 12:50 pm
Thank you and I’m so honored to hear from you. My site changed the way comments are shown so I just saw this. Blessings!