By Karen O’Connor
Dr. Wu closed the door behind him as he entered the small, sterile room where my husband Charles and I sat, clutching each other’s hands. “I wish I had better news,” he said, glancing at the oncology report on the computer screen. “Charles, you have late-stage cancer that has metastasized to your liver. But we don’t know what kind it is or where it originated, so I can’t offer any treatment. If I could, I would—I assure you.”
Silence filled the small room. After a moment I stuttered a question in a small voice. “When should we call hospice?”
“Tomorrow.” Dr. Wu shook our hands and wished us the best.
We thanked him and wobbled out the door and to the car, holding tight to each other and to God’s grace.
The following day, before I had a chance to make the call, the director of hospice in our community phoned to make an appointment to enroll Charles in the program that would sustain us for the next four months.
A New Passage
My grief began that day, even though at the time I didn’t know how much time we had left. But of one thing I was sure—I was going to lose my husband; our marriage would end, and never again on this earth would we share a meal, cuddle in bed, walk in the park, camp by a lake, play with our grandchildren, sing in the choir, or attend a movie with friends.
I remember a day about two months in when Charles walked across the living room and I jumped up from my chair and threw my arms around him. “I don’t want you to go,” I sobbed. “I want to keep you with me forever.” As I write this I’m feeling again the deep and unrelenting grief that gripped my soul in that moment. I couldn’t imagine my life without Charles at my side. I just couldn’t get it. We’d been together for 35 years—nearly half a lifetime.
A New Life Alone
My dear husband died peacefully at home on March 6, 2015, after our children and grandchildren visited him during his final days, loving and kissing him, singing to him, and reading to him from the Bible. I’ll never forget the hour the undertaker ushered his body out the front door of our house—the place Charles had loved so much and had poured so many hours into, making it a beautiful home for our final years together.
Well-intentioned friends reminded me that I will see him again in Heaven, but somehow I didn’t find that encouraging—at least then. I missed Charles here and now in the flesh. I missed watching him trim our roses, polish my shoes, run a load of laundry, surprise me with a bouquet, pray with me, catch me with a hug and a kiss when I was overfocused on writing an article or book, and suggest we eat out on a much too busy day.
A New Way of Living
I knew I needed help, so I took advantage of the grief support offered by hospice, attending eight sessions of one-on-one counseling and several months of weekly group meetings where people in similar circumstances talked and cried and shared their process with one another. I found it enormously helpful to put words to my grief. The more I talked, the better I felt. Some participants couldn’t get past their tears. Words clogged their throats. Others left early or stopped coming. Still others said they just couldn’t take all the sadness.
Two of my close friends did not enter any kind of recovery process. “I don’t need it,” said one. “I had two years to grieve while Hank was so ill. Frankly, I’m worn out. I want to get on with my life, not sit and cry with strangers.” Another said she and her husband had gone through a difficult marriage and in some ways she was relieved to be on the other side of it.
Still other men and women I met opened up for the first time and were able to talk about their mates and themselves in honest terms. One man regretted that he had been emotionally closed during his marriage and wished he’d have been more available to his wife when she was alive.
Group leaders assured us that everyone has his or her own way of grieving and there is no one way that is best. It’s as individual as each person. For some people, grief seems to be on hold for months and then suddenly it breaks through. For others (and I’m one of them) it’s essential to talk and cry right from the start, to let out our feelings as we feel them.
A neighbor of mine shared that he just couldn’t let go of his tears. He held onto them, pushing away the sadness to the point that he jumped into another relationship within a couple months after his wife’s passing and was engaged to be married before the year was out. But then without warning he woke up one day and was engulfed in grief for his wife. He broke the engagement and moved back to the house he had shared with his wife—long enough to come to terms with his loss. A few days ago I noticed a sold sign on the house. When I ran into him he said he was ready to move on now that he’d completed a grief program and realized that he was not ready for another marriage—at least right now.
A New Healing
After I completed the hospice support series, I enrolled in a 13-week program called GriefShare offered at my church twice a year and at various churches throughout the country. (You can check for locations on the website: griefshare.org.) Each week is self-contained and includes a theme-based video seminar with experts, a workbook for study and personal reflection, and a time of group support and sharing. I found it very helpful and also at times challenging to face my strong emotions and memories. But being able to express them in the loving presence of a trained leader and other grief-stricken people led me up and out of the depths.
Here I am, 21 months later, living my life without Charles and doing surprisingly well. I cling to the grace that God renews each morning, just as he promised, and I have family around me. But it took time to surrender to the loss and to accept it. I needed help to get there and I reached for it. If you are in a similar situation, I hope you will seek out support as well.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer from Watsonville, California (karenoconnor.com).
Helpful Books on Grief
He Gathers Your Tears: Words of Comfort for a Widow’s Heart by Phylis Moore
The Tender Scar: Life After the Death of a Spouse by Richard L. Mabry
Experiencing Grief by H. Norman Wright
A Widow’s Journey: Reflections on Walking Alone by Gayle Roper