Grief is complicated and makes the simplest of people complicated when they’re affected by it. We don’t know ourselves as much as we’d like to think we do…
I awoke earlier than my alarm, and didn’t want to get up – but didn’t feel like going back to sleep, either. So I just lay in bed with early morning thoughts.
Unlike most couples, though I had the expectation that Kim would outlive me (she always believed she’d go first), we put similar whole-life life insurance policies on each of us such that the house, our most-major monthly payment, would be paid off on the expectation that the survivor’s income would be half of what was coming in. The only manner in which we structured things in case we followed statistical norms is that we had MUCH higher levels of term life insurance on me than on her. (No worries: since Kim left the workforce several years ago, I experienced that halving of our income long ago. We had some tight months due to the single income, but we still lived comfortably enough, so I have few concerns there.)
With all that said, what we couldn’t prepare for is the emotional impact losing your spouse has on the survivor. Knowing Kim’s emotional structure, and as harsh as this sounds: I’m actually glad she went first. If losing me impacted her anywhere near how losing her has impacted me, I think losing me would have destroyed her, exacerbating the issues that triggered her alcoholism in the first place.
As hard as it is sometimes to accept and acknowledge, it is clear that God does have a plan, and that what He allows to occur in our lives is never more than we can handle. I think His plan here, though I do not claim to know His mind, was to strengthen Kim’s and my marriage, and to strengthen the bond between each within our family, and, perhaps, provide final relief for Kim from not just her cancer pain, but from all of the other pains she suffered, including alcoholism. And every situation He inserts us into affords us the opportunity to grow and learn – both in faith and in life.
Driving my granddaughter to school today, my mind locked on the memory of how Kim would always tell me how “amazing” I was when, faced with some esoteric problem, I’d figure out how to resolve it and implement the fix. I don’t know why, but this memory made me cry. I guess it was self-pity – who will find me amazing now?
Then, driving to pick her up from school, the Luke Combs song Forever After All came on the radio. I don’t know if I just hadn’t paid attention to that song in the past, or maybe that was the first time I’d heard it, but it seemed it was modeled after Kim’s and my life. And it, too, made me cry.
The obvious solution is, I guess, that I can’t drop Vanessa off at school or pick her up…
I can’t determine what seemed to make me so emotionally raw today, unless it was the reduced amount of sleep I normally get on the days I have to drop Vanessa to school, or, simply, that I’ve been feeling “up” for so long now, that the pendulum has begun its descent along its repetitious path?
Time and more experience with this will tell.
In other news, I “graduated” from physical therapy today. They provided me with a few more exercises and sent me on my way after telling me how much they’d enjoyed working with me these past few weeks. As a testament to what they have accomplished, I hit a patch of ice on my way off the porch this evening and did the “Fred Flintstone Dance”; the end of which had me still standing, and keeping my record of never having fallen on the ice at home intact. Thanks, Kelly and Eric!
It’s interesting: I can be in a happy mood, going about my day-to-day, and something out of the blue will choke me up. It doesn’t happen as often as it was initially, but it still does. Little things, mostly – they just sneak up on me and hit a button.
Most of the time, it will be when I’m discussing things about Kim with someone, whether by voice, email, or text. I’ll lock onto some memory or other, and that lump in my throat forms, and the eyes start watering and burning…
I’m back to eliminating the 30 years of tax records from the basement shelves. In the early days, I was a bit slipshod in how things went into the folder, so I’ve had to look at things that have fallen out of my grip. Sam’s, our second dog, adoption receipt. Receipts from the Artist’s Club and Home Shopping Network – two of Kim’s favorites, aside from Valley Vet. Receipts from the kid’s checkups, as our family began to grow. Paystubs, mapping her career from Beaumont to Bottsford, to Garden City Hospital, and, finally, Cardinal Health. Different than the last time, more of these things and the memories that come with them are greeted with a smile, but it’s melancholy happiness they bring. I still feel the urge to run up to her craft room to show her – “Hey! Remember this?”
Another odd thing: I can read these blog pages, and reread them without tears – I do it regularly, correcting typoes, or improving the prose for clarity. But I can’t TALK about them with anyone without breaking down.
This goes hand-in-hand with my conviction that you never truly “heal” from your grief. You grow with it. You learn of it and from it until you can manage the pain.
I have been interacting a lot with other widowers on the facebook Widowers Support Network group. Some have been widowed a lot longer than I have; some not even as long. I try to help console those who are in need of it, pass along things I’ve learned about what one needs to do after one’s spouse has passed, and give advice where it makes sense for me to do so.
The number one thing I keep finding myself saying to these other men, sometimes not in so many words, is “Don’t let your grief define you.”
We will all grieve, each in our own way, and each at our own intensity – that’s just nature. We’re all different. But I found there are things that work to help take the edge off of the emotion. First among these are: get out. Interact with people. Be as cheerful and outgoing as you can manage. Not only does this attract people to you, giving you company and taking your mind off your loss – if even for the briefest moment – it also retrains your mind to be, well: cheerful and outgoing!
I’ve been trying to be as upbeat and positive with people I encounter as I can. My number-one testbed has been at my physical therapy sessions, twice each week. I am repeatedly told how much they enjoy my presence there, and that they are amazed at my frame of mind. I even made a new friend of one of them, and am sharing my collection of motorcycle skills books with him. There may be a few rides in the summer to practice what he’s learned with him, too (the Harley brotherhood is a strong one…).
Those of you who have been reading along know that this hasn’t always been my frame of mind. Up until last Saturday, I was having one hell of a time just motivating myself to go out the front door. It took some effort. I went out. I did things and, in doing so, had to work with other people. Plus, I’ve been in physical therapy a couple of weeks, so the impact of my “mind game” wasn’t immediate. The key seems to be taking those steps, framing your mood to present to others, and then sticking with it.
At first, I would still choke up now and again, just thinking that “Last time I was here, I was with Kim.” or “This was Kim’s favorite place.” But, with more excursions, it became easier to do those things and go to those places.
Am I still grieving over my loss of Kim? You bet your sweet… bottom dollar I am. But I’m no longer willing to let it define me. I want the memory of Kim to be something I smile over. Her last few weeks may never elicit that smile, but I note again that she smiled when she passed. I will always remember that as indicating something good for her. That she was at peace and on her way to happiness. See? You can even find something positive in the most negative situation – I was smiling as I remembered her last smile.
I have had the best mood I’ve had in over a year these past few days. Opening yourself up to others like this is a risk, true; however, it sure seems to work. Try it. It may help you attain some sense of normalcy, too.
I am a new widower. I have to keep telling myself that. Why? Because I want to be the old married guy that I was. I want to be the experienced, focused manager I’m supposed to be at work. I want to be the “super-smart, super-handy” dad to help my kids out with their needs. I want to be the loyal, dedicated son to my mom; that guy who showed up every morning with coffee in hand, and some conversation before we each started our days. To be the happy, doting grandfather… I want to be who I was. I want what I had. I guess as I have always told my kids: it’s good to want. Wanting drives ambition and achievement.
But I’m a new widower. Being a new widower has changed me so fundamentally in so little time. I still get things done – sometimes enthusiastically; sometimes like an automaton. Sometimes it takes a while to get to things, but they’re getting done. But I don’t like to leave the house, for instance. I was always a bit of a homebody, but I literally do not want to go anywhere. Is this a vestige of “Caregiver Pat,” who really couldn’t leave the house very often, particularly at the end? Or is this part of my grief? I know there’s a bit that COVID has to do with this – I mean, who looks forward to going somewhere where you need to wear a mask and stay away from everyone else? And I don’t get anxious when I’m out; I don’t feel like I have to rush back home – it’s just that first step that’s difficult: going through the door.
And my interests seem to have changed a bit drastically as well. Instead of my usual forays into things like 3D printing, Python, Arduino, and RPi or ever-engrossing home improvement projects, I find myself constantly searching for information on what I’m going through, poring over whatever I find. Without that, outside of work, and when I’m not needed to help one of the kids? I feel at sea. I don’t know what I want to do. That’s when I find myself plopping down here and either looking for more information on how others have dealt with this – or I write a blog post on where I am. Like this one.
And I’m terrified of being alone. That, too. Probably because I’m new at this.
In other news, I had the follow-up testing for the balance issues I’ve been experiencing, and it appears to be nothing more threatening than the damage done by not seeking medical treatment when I first noticed balance issues in late October. The ol’ noggin’ is already “relearning” this balance thing from the differing data coming from the right and left ear, and some “vestibular therapy” should accelerate the progress, eliminating the dizziness. That will be good – I have a few projects that were placed on hold that I need to be “ladder steady” for. Plus, the ENT ordered up some antibiotics to knock out this sinus infection that has been tearing me up for the past few days. Just in time, too – I seem to have developed conjunctivitis in the right eye as I was driving to this appointment. I think all of this lends credence to the point that grief may wreak havoc on your immune system. Make sure, if nothing else, you’re eating right and, particularly, you’re getting enough sleep.
Speaking of which, I should wrap operations up and follow my own advice.
Saturday! A day to sleep in. I managed an additional couple of hours in the sack, but, then, “brain things in my head” started up, and I got up. Part of the reason may be that I have the thermostat set the same for Saturday as on weekdays, and, when the heat kicks on, it just gets too darned hot to sleep. I guess I should spend a little time with it and reprogram it. Too, I should figure out how to make the dagnabbit Apple watch not go off to wake me up for work on Saturday. I mean: since I don’t work on Saturday.
Normally, Jillian runs to my mom’s with me on Saturday, but I don’t think she’s quite feeling 100%. Jeanette had bronchitis and laryngitis, and I think she gave it to Jillian and me – I’ve got a sore throat, congestion, runny nose, and headache, and Jillian was complaining of a sore throat. So, I had to be sure to leave my mask on while I was with mom. It ain’t COVID, but bronchitis is *not* what mom needs right about now…
I spent a good 4, 4-1/2 hours with her today, not doing anything really more than being there. She likes the company, even though she has 24-hour caregivers. Oh, and I fixed the coffee drawer. And made her a tuna-salad sandwich.
I discovered one of her caregivers’ boyfriend passed away a couple of weeks before I lost Kim, so I was able to have a conversation with her about grief and dealing with it. She’s a youngster and really torn up over it. Funny, though: I’ve talked with her several times before, and you’d never have guessed that that recent tragedy was with her. My mom has a way of opening people up, I guess. I hope our conversation helped, but her’s is just like mine: lines cut in glass – it’s going to take a lot of time to wear those edges down to where they don’t hurt. My heart goes out to her.
At home, I helped Kenny carry a press he bought down to the basement and then set to work finishing up a purpose-built, heavily insulated shipping box in order to send a couple of packages of Kowalski hot dogs back east for my sister. I guess you just can’t get good Polish hot dogs on the east coast – the Philistines!
One thing I noticed: the congestion that is coming with this cold (or whatever) is wreaking havoc on whatever is going on with my right ear! My balance has been horrible, and I had to catch myself more than once on the stairs. I guess I’ll be like Fred Sanford – “I’m coming to join ya, Kim!” as I cartwheel down the stairs one day.
Ah, well. Not today. I guess He still has more he wants to do with me.
I guess I’ll log into work and approve my team’s timecards. Then, I think I’ll go to bed…
We think we know ourselves. I thought I had learned all there is to know about grief when my dad, with whom I was very close, passed away in 2006. I thought I had learned about recovery from the loss of a spouse, watching my mom all of these years.
I know nothing. Grief at losing Kim teaches me new things every day. Sometimes it’s an overwhelming sense of the ragged, raw hole the living Kim held in my heart; the emptiness there. Sometimes it’s a sense of nostalgic loss as some long-stored memory surfaces; not having Kim to reminisce with. Sometimes it’s a sense of guilt thinking back on something I could have done better; some instance where compassion rather than feeling hurt or angry would have served better for both of us. And sometimes it’s the thought of all that we never did together – shattered plans, dashed on the rocks by a random biological flaw.
Grief has knowledge we cannot conceive of. Grief holds knowledge to which I’d rather not have become privy.
Yesterday, my youngest was craving a meal that Kim used to “throw together” in a ginormous frypan. Kim was going to show her how to make it, but, for whatever reason, that lesson never occurred. So, based on what we remembered was in the meal, we ventured to the grocery store (and were dismayed to find them actively remodeling it…) and bought zucchini, yellow squash, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and chicken tenders. I thought some extra fiber and protein would be nice, so I added a can of light kidney beans and a can of great northern beans to the cart.
I put the meal together as I remembered Kim would do, chopping the onion, slicing the squashes, cubing the chicken, tossing everything into the pan, and bringing it to heat. I seasoned it as it cooked until what I tasted triggered my chef’s memory of what Kim’s rendition tasted like. It was very close. And that triggered a tidal wave of emotion I didn’t expect – one that stayed with me into today, as I’ve struggled with, for instance, answering a text to the affirmative with the phrase “Yea, verily!” which led to a memory of the Danny Kaye movie The Court Jester, which we enjoyed long ago (much to the surprise of my youngest son at the time – he didn’t want to watch it, and ended up mesmerized by it! One of his favorites to this day.) – but, more pertinent to this telling, a movie that my youngest son and I watched as we sat at dinner in March of 2020 while Kim was in Florida with her dad and sister – the last trip she took without the specter of cancer hanging over her; the trip where she began to acknowledge that her “ulcer” was getting worse.
And, later, my youngest daughter was in need of colored pencils for her art class. Kim was very, very artistic; very talented. And I knew that she had colored pencils in the bag she took to her chemotherapy sessions – a lavender cloth tote bag embroidered, simply “Chemo Shit.” Well, sorting through that bag yielded another flood of heartache. All her adult coloring books – most unfinished, some not started. Her puzzle books. A sketch pad. A couple of drawings from our granddaughter with the phrase “I love you Gramma I hop you fell betr” – one depicting Kim as an angel handing something to her – eerily prescient of the angel handing an unseen person a rose as depicted on the thank you cards from Kim’s funeral.
I’m finding lots of weird little triggers like that. Seemingly innocuous activities that will set me travelling down the road of sadness; sometimes at breakneck speed…
I messaged with the husband of the woman to whom I gave Kim’s horse, Roxy, today. Roxy is doing very well with them and seems to have adopted her new mistress. This is a testament to all the work Kim did with that once easily spooked, shy horse. And they absolutely love her. I made the right choice there.
Kim had wanted her sister to take the horse for her niece, and her sister told Kim that they would. After Kim passed was when I was told they couldn’t afford to take the horse as the farm where her niece’s horse was stabled was full, and her sister just didn’t have the heart to tell Kim that. I only discovered this by accident when I contacted the barn, and they told me not to worry: they were finding a good home for Roxy. Thank goodness I made that call! Though I’m sure Roxy would have been fine with whomever the farm found to place her with – they’re good people whom Kim trusted and I trust as well – Kim really wanted Roxy to go to someone she knew and respected. The woman to whom I gave Roxy used to ride Bert with Kim back in the day, until her husband’s job pulled them out of Michigan (he and I were good friends, too – and would brew beer together as often as we could). They’re back, they have taken Roxy, and I think Kim would be very, very happy with this decision. In any case, his message was that he’s not a horse person, and even he is enamored with Roxy; that she has given him what Kim used to call a “horse hug.” Again: the right decision was made.
I’ve also heard back from an old friend who lost his wife under similar circumstances over seven years ago. He told me that the hole in your heart never fills. He has found someone he loves who he has now been with for several years, but she doesn’t replace his first wife, nor fill the place in his heart she held. I can see that. The hole in mine is fresh and raw, but I honestly don’t see how it can be filled. It’s huge.
And, finally, an old friend from work who had been battling lung cancer for as long as I can remember finally gave up on all the chemo and radiation in December, about a week after Kim left us. He passed yesterday. I was sure that, if anyone, he would beat it. He seemed to be doing so well.
Sometimes it comes at you in buckets.
So, I’ve had several binders of records on my “desk” that grew from one thin binder to two three-inch binders and several folders of various construction as we travelled along on what they called Kim’s “cancer journey.” (I hate that colloquialism; particularly when applied to pancreatic cancer. A journey toward what? A precipice?)
Today, I went into the attic, got a box, and put them in it. Page after page of information, research, meeting records, logs… Painful memories. There remains a bag from the funeral parlor containing the sympathy cards sent to us at and after the funeral, and, of course, the prayer cards, guest book, and remaining “thank you” cards from her funeral. The former simply wouldn’t fit in the box; the latter? I’m not sure what to do with them.
This is part of my grieving process, I guess. I promised myself that I wouldn’t make any changes to the house immediately, and I didn’t. As I go about my life after Kim, things that need to be dealt with come to the fore, and I’ve been dealing with them, one by one… These records. Her toiletries in our bathroom. Useful items still in her nightstand and other places that the kids can use…
Still other repositories of Kim’s stuff remain – and among them, there remains two veritable elephants: her clothes, and her craft supplies.
Long before she passed, but shortly after Kim received the diagnosis, she went through her closet and pulled out clothes that she knew she no longer needed or wanted. These remain in a rather tall box in our bedroom. I haven’t the heart yet to go through them. She also went through her craft room, organizing and cleaning. This struck me as odd because it was just like the “nest cleaning” she would perform a week or two before the imminent arrival of one of the kids back in the day. Maybe it’s the same? Maybe it was her “rebirth” into His kingdom she was preparing for? Or, maybe both were just a means to occupy the mind and body while waiting; dealing with the near-certainty of death. I don’t know.
And I don’t know why dealing with these things – this “stuff” – is so hard for me. She’s not coming back. She has no use for them. Few, if any, of her clothes would fit any of our daughters. Some of it goes all the way back to when we were dating.
And the piles and piles of cloth and other crafting supplies – who will use them? I don’t think I will – though I will maintain her equipment, frankly, I don’t know when I’d have the time to learn how her embroidery machine works – or, for that matter, any of the other equipment she would use regularly. Maybe the girls might.
I’m not alone, facing this Matterhorn. I know that widows and widowers throughout history have faced the same. That knowledge gives neither confidence nor purpose for the task. The knowledge also gives no solace.
So, I’ll make a label for that box of records, and I’ll put it on a shelf in the basement. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’ll know why a few years down the road, but it seems like the thing to do rather than discarding them. And then it will be on to the next after-Kim task that suddenly commands my attention with inexorable compulsion.