Touched by loss. Empowered through community.

The Veteran

Date: 
Monday, May 18, 2015
Posted By: 
Jeannine Love

A few months ago I went out for coffee with a few others from CYWC. Two of us had been widowed for over two years, the other two were under a year on this journey. As we often do at these outings, we took a group photo to share on the CYWC Facebook page, and when it was posted the caption labeled me as a “veteran” widow. I’ll admit that it was a bit of a shock at the time. Although I’ve gone through the “year of firsts” and learned a lot about dealing with loss, grief, and widowhood in the past two and half years, I still find myself often grappling with the reality of loss. There are still many moments when I stop and think about the fact that Aric is gone and it still feels so surreal; I often still feel like I’m lost in a horrible nightmare.

But, in the last few months my veteran status has resurfaced again and again as I find myself in a supporting role for others in my life who are dealing with end-of-life decisions, then grappling with the enormity of loss, the fog of grief, and the inevitable struggle of making sense of life post-loss. It is a blessing to be able to share what I have learned, to feel that there is some benefit that my experience can help others on their own paths, but at the same time the process is emotionally exhausting. It brings back memories and pain, often sharply, as I relive my own grief in supporting those I love, in seeing the pain I know too well echoed back to me in their struggle to try to make sense of their own pain and loss.

What I am beginning to understand in sharing my own grief with others as they walk their own paths, however, is that through sharing our experiences, in reliving our pain with those faced with this pain anew, is an unexpected blessing of healing. It is difficult, no doubt, to see others in this pain and to know all to well the unbearable grief of losing someone so dear. But, in sharing their pain and our own, it allows others to see that there is hope, it allows us to see how far we have come on our own journeys, and it can help further the process of healing.

And, for me, it has finally allowed me to begin to let go of my last “what if.” In the immediate aftermath of loss we are often overcome with those “what ifs,” the “if onlys.” The trying to second-guess ourselves, trying to see some alternative outcome, some better sense of resolution that is always just out of reach. The hope that there might have been some alternate universe in which we might have made different decisions that would have allowed a bit more peace, a little less pain.

For me, the “what if” that has haunted me for two and a half years is the fact that I was not there when Aric died. His last day had been a day filled with emotional turmoil: a difficult last night together in the hospital followed by an afternoon of yet more “family meetings” with huge teams of doctors, and the dreaded news that Aric would have to be moved to hospice – that the doctors had given up all hope. When asked, they told me that how long we had was unknown: weeks, maybe even a month. So, that last evening I went home to get a good night’s sleep and come back the next day well-rested to begin the final move into hospice and the process of saying goodbye.

It ended up being a decision I would regret and would struggle to grapple with over the next two years. In reality, we didn’t have weeks or a month. We had a mere matter of hours—hours that I missed. At 2AM I was awoken by the phone call. He was gone and I should come to the hospital to say goodbye.

Since then I have heard countless other widowed folks tell stories of how they were at their spouse’s side at the end, that they had insistently slept in chairs in the hospital room unwilling to leave the bedside. And, these stories have only added to my crippling guilt that I had left him alone. I spent fifteen years by his side. Did my share of sleeping in hospital rooms. Only to be gone at that last moment. It was devastating.

But very recently I was by a friend’s side as she faced end-of-life decisions with her mom. As the prognosis shifted, she was faced with making those dreaded decisions, with the “family meetings,” with arranging for hospice. Thinking of my own experience, I insisted that she not go into those meetings alone, that she have a friend at her side. I was wary of the demons this would stir up for me, but also knew from experience the importance of having support at this time. And, totally unanticipated, what I gained was an ability to finally begin to let go of my own guilt. When faced with similar circumstances, with an even more dire and definite timeline, she made the same decision I had made. Go home, get some rest, and come back ready to be there until the end. Only, unlike my situation, the plan worked as anticipated and she was able to be there, fully focused, in the final moments.

What I took away from that experience is hard to put into words. But, it made me realize that life unfolds in unexpected ways. That each of us can be faced with similar circumstances and make similar decisions, with very different outcomes. It was not that I made the “wrong” decision, things just happened to unfold in a different way. It was chance. It was not my “fault.”

When another friend recently lost her husband I was overcome by reliving my own pain, by knowing in the core of my being the pain and turmoil she would be facing in the years to come. I found myself spiraling backward into those first moments after Aric died. It had been so long since I had felt that overwhelming and debilitating grief. I wanted simultaneously to reach out to her, and to hide away inside my own pain. And, it was a frightening realization that being widowed at thirty-five means that there will be so many more instances like this in the years to come. But, I also realized that these are not only chances to provide a loving and supportive role for others in their grief, but also a chance to put my own hard-earned experience to work in helping others, and to continue my own very personal journey of healing and moving forward.

The lesson of these recent experiences was further brought home to me in a recent meeting with an old acquaintance. We had met for coffee to discuss something very different, but as conversation evolved we came to sharing our own recent, albeit different, losses. And the point was made that sharing our own stories, being open about our grief, and being there for others, is a true gift, particularly in a culture that leaves us so ill-equipped to talk about death and grief.

What I am learning is that although it is difficult to be a “veteran” in the process of grief and loss, it is also an honor to share my experiences with others and provide support for them on their own paths. And, this is not a purely selfless act. As we share our stories, and stand side-by-side with others in their pain, we allow ourselves to continue our own process of healing. In sharing our stories, and in being there to support others, we may open ourselves up to reliving our pain, but just as importantly to finding ways to continue to heal as we reach out to others.

Comments

What a wonderful writing piece. It had great heart to it. Taking care of yourself in this process is a good thing but it is difficult. Thank you for sharing your experience in this blog.

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