An article I wrote for a New Zealand Women's Magazine in 2002 (C) Lauren Roche
Yesterday in clinic I met a woman whose husband had been dead only six weeks. They’d been married 42 years when he died suddenly on the kitchen floor. ‘Mary’ had never considered the possibility that she’d finish her life alone. Her husband had been the strong one, her rock. It was inconceivable that she’d have to face life without him.
The first few days of widowhood were shrouded with pain. Mary got through the funeral well with the support of her daughters and many friends. She went to bed feeling the loss of her husband, and woke knowing something was wrong. The pain of remembering would bite after a few seconds, and the day would start again. Mary said she’d never known that a day could be so long, so empty. After ten days, she needed something to do. All the couple’s property was in joint names. On the advice of her eldest daughter, Mary set about removing her much-loved husband’s name from bank accounts, the power, phone and rates bills. Each time she struck his name off, it felt to her as though she was denying the love they’d shared, and her tears started up again. So many tears.
A month after the funeral, Mary returned to the voluntary work she’d started a couple of years earlier. Something funny would happen during the day, and she’d tell herself “I must share that with Jim when I get home.” Then she’d stop, guilt telling her it was wrong to find any fun in the world. And how could she have forgotten, even for a moment, that Jim was gone.
Mary came to see me for a check-up. She was looking for reassurance that she was physically well. I was the third doctor she’d seen in a week. Each of us had been asked to look at a different bit of her, just to be sure that there was nothing wrong. Mary didn’t want to talk about grief, or loss. She thought she should be ‘past that’ now. Six weeks was surely long enough, she felt for things to be back to normal. On talking through her life now she told me of the little things – the unexpected stab of sorrow when she peels enough potatoes for two, or sets the table for the man who’ll never sit there again. ‘When’ she asked ‘will this be over? When will it stop hurting? Will I ever be able to live my life without him?’
Loss and grief do not heal in the way an ingrown-toenail does. There is no recipe, no universal time-scale or map that helps us plan our way through it. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her fantastic book ‘On Death and Dying’ identified a number of stages of grief, which each person passes through, in their own time. Although she was alluding to the stages a person passes through when they’ve been told they have a incurable illness, the steps she describes are common to those who’ve lost a loved one too.
The first stage is denial. ‘No, it hasn’t happened. It can’t have.’
The second is anger. ‘Why did this happen? Why didn’t anyone notice and make it better?’
The third, bargaining, is where we offer all we have to god or our family and community in order to spare ourselves further pain. Bargaining is followed by depression. The anger has gone; no bargaining power is left, and reality hits home.
Finally there is acceptance. ‘Yes, this has happened. To me. I feel at peace’.
We progress through these stages at different rates, sometimes back-tracking a little. Anniversaries are hard, as are birthdays, Christmases and the odd little moments when there is something you just wish you could share with the person who has gone. My own mother died 25 years ago, and there are still times when I mourn her loss enough to cry.
Most of the time though I can remember her with a laugh, and with affection, and an understanding of her I never had as a child.
One day, Mary will think of Jim and smile, with no guilt that she’s passed through the pain of his loss to a brighter place. When this happens she’ll know that she’s navigated through the stages of grief, and feel peace.