When you reach a certain age, you begin to become familiar with death. Every year brings another round of funerals, so many that life can seem to be a long series of goodbyes. When that becomes too sad, we have to remind ourselves how glad we are that we had the hellos.
With each funeral, we realize two seemingly contradictory things: death is the universal experience yet, every death is unique.
In our minds, we categorize them. If you are a parent, the worst, the very worst, has to be the fear of the death of a child. The pain from that would be unimaginable but, even so, we find ourselves imagining it. And when it happens to the children of friends, we see that the response to death is as unique as the dying. I have seen the death of a child bring a couple together in a way nothing else possibly could; and I have seen the different ways of mourning tear a husband and wife apart and with it, their marriage.
When the daughter of a man I loved died in an automobile accident, all joy died with her. He could not allow himself to find delight in anything. "Every sunset," he said to me, "every piece of music, every good book -- I think, she should be enjoying that, not me." Yet a woman whose teenage son died of leukemia went on to absorb that loss and continue to live an engaged life. When I asked her how she survived, she said, "I am just very grateful for the years he was alive."
Grateful. John Downing, a fellow Toronto journalist, shared with me a quote from Thornton Wilder:
"The highest tribute to the dead is not grief, but gratitude."
I understand that. I am grateful that my husband lived a long and productive life. I am grateful that I met him, that we fell in love, that we married, that we had so many years together. I am grateful that he died before Alzheimer's inflicted even more indignities upon him. I am grateful that he died before I could no longer handle the caregiving, that I have no remorse. And, above all, I am selfishly grateful that he died before he forgot who I am, that he remembered that I loved him, and remembered that he loved me, that those words of love were spoken.
The death that comes to an Alzheimer's patient whose self dies bit by bit long before the body does, is very different from the death that comes suddenly; the death that comes to someone elderly, is different from the death that strikes down a young breadwinner; the death that is the end result of a long fight with pain is very different from the death that steals a last breath while someone is peacefully sleeping; the death that comes from a violent act is like no other. All those left behind will mourn those deaths in different ways.
So, please do not tell me how to grieve. I weep no tears because my husband has died. I do weep tears for the lost years. I weep tears for the young family members deprived by Alzheimer's of the opportunity to truly know him. And, oh yes, I weep tears for myself, for the silence of the house -- how can it be so quiet, when it was never really noisy? I weep for the emptiness of the days that stretch before me without someone to care for, I weep for the uncertain future; I weep for the loosened ties. I am rudderless.
Do not tell me that you feel my pain, because you don't. None of us can feel another's pain. We can try. We can experience empathy. But we cannot truly feel another's pain. The skeins of life and emotions that are part of a person's grief and mourning are unique to that individual.
So, do not assign me a stage, as if the mysteries of the heart can be reduced to some cookie cutter psycho babble. I will experience the coming days, weeks, months, in my own way, and I will work through them -- or I won't -- in my own clumsy fashion. If, after a year, grief is still the dominant characteristic of my life then, you might suggest that I see a grief counsellor. I still might hit you. But I certainly will snap at you if you suggest such a thing now. Who would I be, what kind of woman would I be, if I did not shed tears for someone I loved and lived with happily and joyously for 33 years? Leave me to my tears and to the healing that only tears can bring. Leave me to what is natural for anyone who has loved.
Spare me the euphemisms. My husband did not "pass." He died. I have not "lost" him: I know exactly where his body is, and his spirit is with me.
And. Do. Not. Speak. To. Me. Of. Closure. What a hideous word. Closure. If you have truly loved someone, you do not ever want to close off the memory of that love, the richness of that experience.
Let me be strong enough to absorb this death into my life, let it deepen my understanding of the mystery of life, let it make me wiser.
Bring me acceptance but, never, closure.