They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I think that there's something very true about that especially in grief. It's not that absence changes the past. Sometimes it filters it. At least that's in my experience.
I remember when John would go away on exercise for weeks or be deployed for many months. Back in the olden days we didn't have facetime and we could only speak briefly on a hand-held radio once a month. It was painful. We missed each other so much. I would dream of him coming home. It felt like my heart grew more in love in his absence. He was all I could think about. He would come home and our world would be right again. Honestly it was so exciting when he first got home. Then we would have to do the dance of rediscovering his place back in our lives. It was hard on us but we always managed to get back to us and that’s where my heart really grew fonder. It was when we were together navigating life.
Now the reality is that when someone you love dies our minds go to the good times. What was special about them. The things you loved about them. All the wonderful things about your life together. The ache you carry when they die causes your heart to grows fonder because it knows they are never coming home again. Your heart is letting you know your love is alive and it will never die.
But here's the thing...you can start to fall into a trap of thinking how do you continue on with your life without them? Believing your life is not any good without them. That they were the only good part of your life. Your life was them. Your mind has you stuck in the magic memories. Your mind is bringing you to a beautiful place that was. But…that’s not whole truth. You and your life are so much more than the person you lost. Although right now, it doesn't much feel like it.
Now other memories begin to creep in, the not so good memories. The glimpses of your real, not so perfect life. For some reason you can't remember the details. You just remember the pain or the disappointment. Now you start to feel guilty. Why are you thinking about these things? Your mind is searching for answers. It’s going to go a lot of places you didn’t plan. Grief isn't logical or linear. Grief is all about the heart.
You question yourself. Why did I think that? Why am I feeling this way? You tell yourself they were so wonderful, you loved everything about them. But did you? Of course not, they were human and so are you. There were things that bugged you. It doesn't mean you didn't love more than anything.
Nothing is ever really perfect but in grief we can create that image. A mirage to hold onto.
My grief took me all over the place.
In my grief I got suck in the last painful and traumatizing past moments of our life together. I questioned many things about myself and my value as his partner in those last few months? I wondered why was so impatient with him? Why didn't I see that he was so sick? Why was I so blind to the reality of what was about to happen? Why couldn’t I have been a better wife? These are the glimpses of the painful, not so perfect memories that flood my mind from time to time. The truth is he wasn't a perfect husband and I wasn’t a perfect wife but I believe we were meant to be. We were made for each other.
The regrets I keep coming back to are the times when I was nagging at him to try harder to do more. To be more connected with others and to use his wonderful brain. To remember it wasn’t over. That he still had value even if he couldn’t do the physical things he used to be able to do. I felt like he was giving up. I wanted him back. I wanted my John back. The old him, before he got sick. I believed I was encouraging him. Hind sight…when I look back at it now, I think he may have heard me say saying he wasn't enough. Dear Lord, he was more than enough and he was trying to tell me he was done. There wasn’t any gas left in the tank. The road trip was almost over. God, I wish I had read his subliminal messages.
Truth is I felt deep down like there was something seriously wrong with him but he reassured me it was just a part of his aging. All the health issues from his heart had settled in and were slowing him down and now this was his life. He assured me he wasn’t giving up. I wanted to believe him so I did. He didn’t give up, we ran out of time.
I felt angry a lot and I was less than kind somedays. I know I hurt him. One day in mid December I sat with him and poured my heart out and he did the same. I am grateful I got to apologized to him well before I knew that he was dying. In that moment we both got to listen to each other and hear each other’s words from our hearts. We knew what we had always known that we had each others backs. It was a gift.
I can’t change the past. He was really good at hiding his discomfort. To this day I don’t know if he knew it was more serious before the signs couldn’t be ignored. Maybe he did or maybe he didn’t. He had tried to find out what was wrong. He even went to the doctor to find out the cause of his being so tired and run down. They did blood work, scheduled x-rays, ultrasounds, you name it. But they were looking at his heart. They didn’t see it either. He never got to get most of the other tests done. It doesn’t matter now anyway.
Memories of my life with this wonderful man who loved me so completely, who was smart, funny, kind and such a cheerleader for me in our life can fall into where I fell short. Those moments are the regrets I have. I think we all have regrets in the end. Here's the thing you can’t do it all or say it all. All you can do is what you can. Love how you love. God, I loved him. I love him. He told me he had no regrets about us. I told him that I had no regrets about us either. I didn’t lie in the moment. I have no regrets about our love or about being his forever partner. I know I was a person he needed and he was the person I needed.
I gave him everything I had the ability to give him in his last days. Although if I could change things I would have but I can’t. What I can do is share what I know now. I would have had a support person with us so that I could have just been just his wife. The person who loved him more than anything with no regrets. Not the caregiver, manager and wife in that order. I know I missed so much worrying about everything, missing important moments that I could hold onto. What I hold onto now is that in all of it I loved him with my whole heart.
When I’m not in the throes of questioning my goodness as a partner I know he was the one for me and I was the one for him. I try to remember that when I fall down the rabbit hole of despair. I let myself honour that we loved each other, fought, grew closer, supported one another's dreams, worked together, parented, grand parented, traveled, disappointed one another, supported one another and were the safe harbor for each other for almost 44 years. He was my lobster and I was his...we are forever.
The message I want to share is to anyone out there who’s embarking on this journey of walking with a loved one as they transition from life to death. To someone in the depths of anticipatory grief. Whose grieving what's ahead. Whose life is being yanked out from under them.
Please the help you need. Enlist the help of end-of-life doula or someone you trust that can support you. Someone who's going to give you reprieve. Someone who's going to be there to educate you, support and advocate for you. Someone who will connect with your dying loved one. Someone who will support for both of you and your loved ones. That is something we never had. I know it would have made a huge difference. I can’t change the past. I don't have regret how we loved him through his life to his death because we did what we knew. If only we had known.
My heart is to share what I've learned. What I know now is that if your loved one can choose to die at home or in hospice or the hospital you need support. You can't do it all alone. There is help out there for you.
Take the moments that you have before you with your loved one, without jumping ahead as best you can. Its hard not to preplan or make assumptions. I did that many times. Our brains are trying desperately to find answers. To prepare us for what we cannot be prepared for. To protect us from the pain we are about to feel.
What you can do is listen to your partner. Share with them. Let them tell you anything. Ask questions? Ask them if they have any fear? If yes, what are they afraid of and why? What do they see? What do they believe? What do they want their end of life experience to be? Do they want all their loved ones around? What are they feeling and what do they need from you. Let them be sad and share their grief. If you have the support you need you can be more present emotionally to care and love your loved one and yourself.
Let your support person take the reins sometimes. They'll let you know when anything changes and if you need to be there. And it's okay if you have a nap or go for coffee with a friend. It's okay if you take a minute for yourself. I know its scary to leave them especially when you don’t understand the process. Having a trained end of life doula can help you with all of that. They can give you reprieve so you can be fully present when you are together. Giving you the capacity to say all the things you feel you need to say and listen to all the things they want to say to you. It will still hurt. You are losing your loved one. Nothing makes that pain any less but you can make the experience more beautiful for both of you.
I have regrets but in those regrets, I have hope, hope to help others going through what I went through being their support system as they navigate one of the most painful experiences of their lives.
With John's death my love seems to grow. Our love is not stagnant or cold. Our love is alive and warm within me. My grief breathes his love into my own heart. The grief I carry is not ugly or angry it is beautiful and loving just like him. The grief I carry is a gift I can bring into my work. My grief will sit on the sidelines. It will be a guide as I loving hold space for the ones who need my support. Our love with shine through.
I sit with you my friend in your grief. I hold your broken heart in mine.