Jess Womack is a lawyer from Sherman Oaks and a HOPE Connection alumnus.
November 26, 2018, marked the sixth anniversary of my wife’s death. We were married for 43 years, 4 months and 2 days, and I loved her dearly. Six years later, I am still in love with her and with my memories of her. I have not deified her in death. She was human and as a human a flawed, mortal soul; but she was a very lovely, loving mortal soul whom I still love and miss, terribly.
Do I grieve her death after five years? No, I do not! I can thank the Hope Connection staff for all of their wonderful support and help, and also the help I received from those who came to Hope after joining the club that none of us wanted any part of, but who chose to travel the path to recovery that Hope Connection offers. Each of them helped me traverse a period of deep grief and five years later emerge as a person who still misses my wife, but one who no longer grieves her loss.
You too will get through your grief and I hope that this short essay offers you a few helpful and inspirational insights that will to lighten your burden and help you navigate your journey through grief and your return to a hopeful and joyful life.
This essay is an effort at refining a definition and, thereby, providing you with just a bit more strength and encouragement to fully embrace a journey that you would rather not have been forced to take. I was, as are many of you, dealing with the loss of my spouse, and that loss and how we respond, address, and get through it is my focus. Essentially, what do we do when one-half of how we perceive ourselves is taken away? I will share with you some things I learned that hopefully are helpful.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers this definition of grief: An intense emotional suffering caused by loss, disaster, misfortune, etc.; acute sorrow and deep sadness.”
That definition works for me because when I reflect on the early period of my grief, during those first weeks and months when every emotion I felt — the knot in the pit of the stomach, the endless tears and burning eyes, the confusion, the isolation, the fear — all were worn on my face, and painful tears were just a word, a thought, a moment away. I wondered would I ever get through it. Would this thing ever end?
“Grieving Ain’t for Wimps” is a statement one member of our group at Hope made when all of us wore grief’s indicia on our faces and wondered would it end. Grieving is hard and the sharing of that grief with all of the doubt, fear and pain that accompanies it is hard to do, and particularly with others whom we don’t at first know. It takes courage to allow oneself to take that journey, but the taking of the shared journey is what ultimately facilitates the recovery. I will share with you the three most important things I learned on that journey.
“What was the most important thing you learned from your spouse’s death?”
At the end of one of our sessions, a Hope counselor asked that question, and none of us had a response. Perhaps we could not because we were experiencing that period of overwhelming emptiness. She asked us to consider that question during the coming week. After much reflection, for me, the answer came as something of an epiphany.
We did not start our next meeting with that question, but at an appropriate moment I asked whether we could return to it because I wished to discuss it. She agreed, and surprisingly most of us wanted to address it. I said that the most important thing I learned from my wife’s death was that while her life ended, mine continued. What at first seemed a selfish indulgence came with an imperative; it was also my obligation to myself to carry on with my life. It was up to me to do whatever I did next. That viewpoint registered with the group. It struck a nerve and generated a substantial conversation.
For some of us, the obligation toward children, young or adult, precludes thinking that life is no longer worth pursuing. But finding oneself alone after a long relationship, for some of us that loss feels as if it’s the acceleration of our own end. At first, I felt that way for me. But I grew confident that however difficult it would be to find it, there was a future for me; and most importantly, it was up to me to create it and determine its quality.
A few days later, I told a very close friend, a Rabbi Chaplin, who was also helping me with some of my grief issues, about the question and my conclusion. She said, “That is what I said to you immediately after her death when you told me that your life was over.”
Sometimes, in the early stages of grief, we cannot hear and yet internalize some of the most powerful messages given to us.
However, once I internalized that message, I knew that it was up to me to take charge of and to chart the course for the next phase of my life. It was much like what the character “Red” said in the film “Shawshank Redemption” when he finally accepted the fact that life offers two choices — “to get on living or get on dying.” Like Red, I chose to get on living, and that was the first and most important first step in getting over grieving.
You Are Now The CEO and COO. Be Kind To Yourself.
At one point I was in two grief groups, Hope Connection, and another focused on people grieving the loss of spousal cancer deaths. My wife died of lung cancer; no, she was not a smoker. Earlier in life she had been, as had I, but we both quit years ago. It was in the cancer grief group that one of our members offered what for me became a second powerful insight into how we can get through grieving the loss of a spouse.
He was businessman and he thought in those terms, but he was correct. One of the most common feelings expressed during grief is the sense of being overwhelmed by life and feeling worthless because of it. He suggested that we need to remember that in any marriage, be it of short or long duration, spouses divide the labors of managing the family. Why, how and what they divide differs with couples, but we decide on a spousal division of labor. Death totally disrupts that organization, and for a while the principal responsibility for all family affairs fall on us, the surviving spouse. And for a time, it is overwhelming.
First and foremost, all of the rituals of death — spiritual, legal, and otherwise — have to be handled, and those occur and can go on for months when we are most raw and vulnerable. They become just one more thing that makes one feel useless, hopeless and lost. The most powerful thing I did for myself at that point was learn to handle what I could handle, and allow others who had the expertise to help me handle some of the others.
I am a lawyer who hated tax law and taxes. My wife was a businesswoman who should have been an accountant. She loved a balanced ledger and taxes, and for as complex as our taxes were, she handled them beautifully for 20 years. When she died, I got help. For some other matters where she had principal responsibility, I either handled them or got help. By the way, she totally disliked cooking; that was principally my responsibility, or we ate out.
The lesson I learned there was an acceptance that I could not do it all at the usual pace. Some things slowed down a bit and some were farmed out to others who could do them better than I, but most importantly, I stopped berating, belittling, and being angry with myself for not being able to do it all. I began to focus on what had to be done on a given day and on doing that. I learned to take my time on things that could be delayed. Most importantly, I accepted the fact that dealing with my grief was a part of the process, and by accepting that, it made being simultaneously CEO and COO difficult, but no longer overwhelming.
Take It One Day At A Time
The most important advice I got at first seemed trite and trivial. It came from a dear friend, a person whom I have admired for years for his intellect and character. His wife, also a dear friend, died of breast cancer. When he responded to my question, “how did you get through this,” by saying, “Take it a day at the time,” I thought he would have had more to say. However, in those few words, he in many ways said it all.
The deep grief that I, and I again will say we, feel is one so painful, so withering and so sorrowful that what I wanted most were some magical words or incantations that would teleport me through the process, ease the pain, and make it all go away. There is no such thing. We are left to do what homo sapiens have always done when death terminates a pair-bonding relationship. We go through a process that takes us through it. We grieve and go on.
I recognized clearly that the death of a spouse is both universal and unique. For as long as humankind has existed, more often than not, the long-term pair-bonded relationship ends with one person alone to grieve the loss of the other. That is universal. Death did not single me out to inflict punishment on me. Death is a part of living.
But the death of my wife was highly personal and unique because it had never happened to her or me. I had to travel to my own path aided by the wisdom gained from the universality of the experience.
Taking it a day at the time meant accepting the fact that she had died, and that it was up to me to create my future. It meant accepting the fact that things did not move as fast as they had in the past because I was doing her job and mine. It meant learning to be kind to myself and accepting help where help was available. However, most importantly it meant learning to embrace each day and to accept the challenges that each day brings while also being open to possibilities that each day offers for creating something new.
There are still times when I do not want to get out of bed (but I did not like getting up when I was 16, either). But now, I remember that for the last 10 months of her life, she was paralyzed due to a stroke caused by a blood clot from the lung cancer, and she could not get out of bed without help. I now remind myself that Beverley who loved living could not get herself out of bed. I can; and in getting up and making my bed, preparing my breakfast, picking up my house — all things she did — life often offers me beautiful days and wonderful opportunities to continue this journey called life.
So, yes, you can get through that horrible thing called grief. No, it ain’t for wimps. It takes work and courage, but you can get through it. You will never forget the reason for it, nor how you experienced it. It takes courage to endure it. How am I? Yes, at times I am sorrowful, but I am again joyful and able to embrace this new me; and yes, much of that is possible due to the help I received from Hope.