Process of Grief

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August 4th, 2016

Last night, my friend stopped over and asked me to look something up for her on my computer. As my screen saver popped up, one of my favorite pictures of Darrell appeared. His eyes were crinkled in one of my favorite grins.

She looked sadly at me and asked, “Do you really think that helps?”

I didn’t have to ask what she was referring to; I knew it was about my grief over his passing. They say anger is part of the process of grieving. I had been fortunate that there hasn’t been really anything to be angry about. Yes, I missed him, yes, it had been hard to lose him, but really his final days had been peaceful and our relationship up to the last minute, had been so good.

Yet, a comment like this, even eleven months out, had a way of worming under my skin and setting off a bigger spark of anger each time I was questioned on how I was handling my grief.

Aren’t we all different? Isn’t it refreshing we aren’t all the same? Each of us sees through different eyes and perceives the world in so many wonderful ways around us. This is why I have always respected how differently each person handles things in their lives.  Sometimes I worry their coping methods are destructive to their health or way of life, but still they have the freedom of choice to do this.

I had so many people who were wonderfully supportive. My favorites were the ones who just listen. Or ask me how I’m coping and really wanted to hear how I was doing it.  My least favorites were those who had a preconceived idea of how I should be doing it.

I’ve been questioned about such silly things. Why are his clothes still in our closet?  Why haven’t I spread his ashes and why do I wear my wedding ring?  To them, there is a rule somewhere about this. I respect that through the years there have been some common customs developed to help people move on, but they aren’t set in stone.

I still have need of feeling some normalcy in my life, so the clothes remain until that need passes.  We had wanted our ashes spread together, so I must wait to add mine to his. The wedding ring was my version of wearing black. I needed that support, that closeness to my husband, to the way of life I had. It also helped keep away others and not have the dreaded question asked, “So are you married?”

Whatever my reasons, they should be respected. Pictures of my loved one should be a normal thing. As my granddaughter pointed out, I could have asked if she had pictures of her grandchildren on her phone. They live in another state, so why wouldn’t she want to have pictures of them when she couldn’t be with them. She still loves them even though she doesn’t see them every day and wants a reminder of them. Why wouldn’t I continue to have pictures of Darrell decorate my living space?  Just because he has passed, doesn’t mean he never existed. I can’t wipe my memory clean.  Starting over is hard enough, but I need the foundation my married relationship created for me to continue on.

Grieving people are just touchy, each in a different way. No wonder people avoid friends who have lost loved ones. It is hard to determine what will and won’t offend or hurt them. I was on that side once. I had never lost a loved one and felt a deep agony over what to say to someone who had.

But don’t worry, no matter what you say or do, we understand you are trying to help and just overlook the unintentional mistakes. Just don’t be surprised at tears, a growl or a blank look. Just keep being there for us.  We will heal; it is just going to take a little time.

 

The Flight Response

The Flight Response

Yup. I was hiding in the bathroom again.

Don’t worry; it isn’t always going to start like this!  I eventually break the habit. This day was actually a turning point. The journey had its highs and its lows. Remember, this was all new to me. I had never faced the death or illness of a loved one before.  And even though I worked as a CNA, it was a lot different caring for other people than someone close to me. The responsibility and heart connection was a whole new experience.

It had started that morning.  Darrell had insisted on sleeping in the nice recliner they had in his room. It kept his side from aching as much. He always liked recliners. I stayed with him every night, so that left only an empty hospital bed or a plastic chair for me to sleep in. I was exhausted from almost a week of hospital living. He insisted I take the bed. We decided to ask the evening nurse if this was okay, and she said yes.

The morning shift nurse that found me slumbering in his bed was not amused nor a happy morning person.

“This is against hospital policy, ma’am.  This bed is for the patient. Get out of it now.” Of course this was at 6:00 AM.

Darrell growled back at her. “We got permission and my wife is exhausted. I prefer the recliner, because frankly the bed is hard as hell.”

She huffed and bustled off, giving me the evil-eye.  When she left the room Darrell and I giggled, feeling like we had won something grand.

Next in was his Doctor, who informed us tests had come back and the gastrologist would be in to see us shortly. Relief flooded me because we would finally have an answer.

The gastrologist got right to the point. His voice quietly washed over us as he pronounced the findings.  “You have a tumor in your colon that has perforated the bowel. It has come back positive for cancer.  The best treatment at this point is surgery. Your surgeon will be in to see you next. Do you have any questions?”

I held my breath to block the sudden wave of adrenaline that turned my blood cold and tears that threatened to pour out. I thought it was a death sentence. Looking at my pink-cheeked husband, who was in the prime of life, I couldn’t see the invisible specter of the enemy.  I thought they had made a mistake. It happens, doesn’t it?  A misdiagnosis?   There was a scrambling of thoughts crashing through my mind as I stared at the demure-looking man who had just torn my world apart.

I glanced over at Darrell. He was nodding his head, a blank look in his eyes. I suspected we were both experiencing something similar except for him it had to be far worse since he was the one who actually had the cancer. I knew I had to ask questions. Darrell just went with the flow of things and depended on my limited medical knowledge. I found my voice. “Is this where the bleed is?”

The gastrologist looked relieved for some strange reason. “Yes. From the looks of it, it has been going on for a while. Mr. Gabel, have you had any black tarry stools?”

Darrell’s eyes focused and his eyebrows rose. “Yes, but I just thought it was something I ate.”

“For how long?”

“Well for a couple weeks at least.”

The gastrologist went on to explain the body couldn’t break down blood so it came out colored black and sticky. I was thinking other things, like how I wanted to strangle my husband. Why hadn’t he said something? Why hadn’t he mentioned the tiredness, the pain, the change in bowel habits? I would have known immediately to get him to a doctor. Was it all men or just Gabel men who were oblivious to the fact they were not immune to disease or illness?

Silence filled the room after the gastrologist left. Darrell’s pleasant baritone filled the air as he stated, “Well that sucks.”

I turned away from the window I was staring out of while I forced myself into emergency mode and put the tears on hold. “You think, Sherlock?” I fired back.

He smiled. It was our way to handle stress with humor and sass. Anyone else would have expected my condolences and comfort. We just teased each other. It was where we were comfortable.  Besides, I was angry with him at the moment, but lecturing him now wouldn’t change anything.

The door opened again. For a room that had been empty of any medical personnel the last few days, but usually crammed to the brim with family and friends, it seemed suddenly Darrell was most popular patient on the floor.

A tall, boyish-looking surgeon strode in, offering his hand. “I’m Dr. Brown, and I will be doing the surgery to remove your tumor.  I need to do a brief examine and discuss your options.”

The usual litany of questions went on as he lifted Darrell’s gown. “Are you allergic to any drugs? How old are you? Any other health concerns? Do you smoke? For how long? Any family history of cancer? “

I watched him, wondering just how old he was. The shock of hearing the word cancer was wearing off. I wanted to hear reassurances. I wanted him to tell us that the surgery would cure it. That this was survivable. That all would be okay. Instead….

“Mr. Gabel, the surgery should take about two hours, depending how much the tumor has spread. We will be checking lymph nodes, and taking tissue to test to see if the cancer has metastasized. From there, after surgery, you will see your physician and discuss any further follow up of treatments including chemotherapy. Now…”

He stood back, staring at Darrell’s abdomen.  I had to know what was going to happen. I started asking questions. Absently the surgeon answered while still staring at Darrell.

The he turned and looked at both of us. “So I can either cut down laterally between the abdomen muscles here.” His finger traced the path down Darrell’s stomach. “Or I can do what is called a ‘Mercedes cut ‘across the chest here…”

It was at this point I panicked and ran out of the room.

It would be the last time I sought out a porcelain sanctuary during his hospitalization.

And Then….

I was hiding in the bathroom, crying.

Darrell had been admitted to the Oncology floor at the Deaconess. I knew this is where they treated cancer patients. I remember as they wheeled him into the room I wondered why.  I felt paranoid. What did they know they were not telling us?  Four long days of excruciating tests and they were still puzzled over what he had.  I was just plain scared at this point.

His room sat at the end of a hall which opened out into the nurse’s station. Next to his room was the family waiting area teeming with nervous people. Beside it were the bathrooms.

I was in what I called my ‘emergency mode”. Calm on the outside, ready to do what I had to do, but when it was all over I would flee to the bathroom to let the tears out. My family frowned on crying and I grew up seeing tears as a weakness.

And the tears were pouring at the moment. I had just watched and participated in the most excruciating test Darrell had gone through yet. They had taken a bone sample from his pelvic bone. In so many of these tests I knew what was going to happen, yet I stayed silent. Why inform him ahead of time so he could worry and fret? Wasn’t it just better to let it happen then console?

When the Doctor came in with the big burly aide, Darrell knew something was up, especially after he complied with the request to roll onto to his stomach and the aide held him down. I was in my customary place, clutching his hand, and soothing him with a quiet voice. I told him it was going to be okay, when in reality, nothing was okay.  After they numbed the skin, I watched as they bored into his back with what looked like a huge hollow needle. His eyes grew wide and I knew he was clenching his teeth. I smoothed my hand over his cheek and leaned in closer.  I had always seen him as a strong individual in both health and personality. I had thought I would die long before him, even though he was six years older. Now, he had a panicked look as his lips thinned into a straight line and a low groan slipped out of his throat.

“Just a few more seconds, Mr. Gabel, I know this isn’t pleasant.” Darrell’s brow furrowed, and if I hadn’t been wallowing in my own concealed panic, I would have chuckled. I knew that furious look well and what type of language was going through his mind.

Then I heard a soft crunch, my hand tightened on his. The bone had been penetrated. Darrell’s breath left him in a loud rush and before he sucked in another, a curse slipped from his lips.

“I know, I know it’s not comfortable. Just hang in there,” the Doctor encouraged.

Time can stand still. Really, it can. It elongates out and becomes sludge. Tears threatened to spill and I looked away, holding my breath.

How could they not be doing more damage than good to an already ailing body? He was low in blood platelets, yet they continued to take tubes and tubes of blood to test for various diseases. They interrupted his sleep at night to check to see if his heart was still beating and he was breathing.  He had a scope run down his throat and one up the other end, where nothing should ever go. And yet, they still had no answers. Now this procedure was definitely doing more harm than good.

I had thought the medical world advanced. I worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide and knew enough to be dangerous. But even with all my head knowledge, it was my heart that hurt the most. I could watch any procedure done on someone I didn’t love, but to watch it done on someone I loved, the empathy nearly killed me. And yet, my loved ones depended on me to support and get them through. It was torture. But I was quickly coming to realize that the medical field ran on one part clues, one part knowledge and mostly pure luck.

The body only gives so many clues and if they are not read correctly, a whole myriad of diseases can be misdiagnosed or missed. So as they poked and prodded him, I clenched my teeth and continued to reassure him things were okay.

The procedure was done. They gathered their tools of torture and left after reassuring Darrell he had done better than most.  Tears shimmered in Darrell’s eyes and in a hoarse voice he said, “That was the worst thing I have ever gone through. Do you know how much it hurt? They said it wouldn’t, but they lied. It hurt like hell.”

I had spent a few more minutes consoling him before I fled to the porcelain sanctuary I now cowered in.