Grief is very sticky, and, as you’ve probably discovered, it’s also sneaky. Grief doesn’t go away on its own. When I lead A Widows Tale retreats I am always amazed to find that those women who have not processed their grief are the ones who are still suffering the most, no matter how long it’s been since they lost their spouse.
It’s easy to become the public mourner for our man, the second victim of his death. I meet women at my retreats who are 10-15-20-24 years out from their husband’s death and yet, to hear their stories in the story-sharing that opens the retreat, their sorrow often sounds newer than the women who are just one or two years out – when you would expect things naturally very fresh and tender.
Because they’ve never processed their grief until they hit the retreat, grief owns their life. These widowed women have given their lives away to someone else’s death. How sad is that? In my family of origin, my father was a pastor and he counseled people as part of his work. But our family motto was “Do what you have to do and put a happy face on it.” Counseling was one of those things that other people needed.
But when my mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast disease at age 83, and I began to care for her as her life ended, I found myself coming apart. My mom was a 43-year breast cancer survivor and to this day, the bravest person I’ve ever met. She lived half of her adult life with the knowledge that she had cancer so she faced her metastatic surgeries and chemo without much of fuss. I was the one who was a mess.
You see, I too, had lived with her cancer for all of my childhood and adult life but I had never processed that. My worldview was that Mom was the victor over her cancer. So when it came back, I felt its terror more than she did. When she went into hospice, I fussed over every detail, I drove the nurses crazy. Finally, the social worker showed up at the house one day and said, “We’ve discussed your mother’s case and we think you need help processing what’s happening in your life and hers. So, we’ve arranged for you to take grief counseling. Your first appointment is Thursday. We’ll have a volunteer here with your mother so her needs are covered.”
I was speechless…I was in total shock! What? Me, in grief counseling? Of all the nerve! I pointed out to the social worker that mother was dying but she wasn’t dead so I wasn’t ready for bereavement counseling. And he smiled and said, “You’re pre-grieving very deeply and we see from your caregiver’s intake form that you have had a lot of losses in your life. Most recently, you’ve relocated, taken your parents into your home, and changed jobs. All these changes and losses have added up. You’re overwhelmed. We think you need this counseling.”
So I went to grief counseling. Kicking and screaming, almost literally, I went. Only to have this Buddhist monk of a man ask me one infuriating question after another and then make me tea. “How did I feel about my body? Had my mother’s breast cancer affected my own self-image?” What kind of question is that? I yelled at him for an hour that day. Another day he said, “How did your parents feel about your first marriage and subsequent divorce? Are there things from that time that you still need to talk to your Mom about?”
What? How did he know I’d been married before? Oh, it was on my intake form and my mother had mentioned it to the social worker. “Why?” I screamed at him. Why on earth would she do that? So I ranted for another hour about why she was still talking about that jerk when my sweet husband of almost 20 years was helping take care of her?
But then the day came when I stopped yelling and started crying and I couldn’t believe how much grief I had stuffed up into my body. It terrified me to see it, that’s how much there was stuffed up inside me.
When my husband died at 55, I was very glad I had taken the time to do my grief work over my Mom and Dad. Because I was facing grief again but at least I knew that the danger lay in letting it freeze me over. And the day after his funeral, I began actively working with my grief, allowing myself to let go of it and heal, just a little bit, every day. Because I knew I didn’t want to be frozen on the inside.
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