The Ladies

Dinner out with the ladies was, as usual, healing.  There is nothing like meeting with people who are in the same type of condition as you are.  The conversation was a little stilted at first, we seemed to be skirting around why we meet.  Fact is, under any other circumstances we would never have met, we are a diverse group with little in common.  But we did, because of death and loss, and because of our need to find some sort of light to guide us out of the darkness.

Consequently, our fluffy conversations don’t flow.  We can’t talk with ease about the little stuff because we don’t share the same values or priorities.  So we met and tried small talk but it just fell into silence until someone commented on a milestone or accomplishment and we slid into harmony again.  Then the chatter began.  I think at this point this is when we advance this specific friendship.  Like the friends you make at work, you have work in common; and the friends you make at the hockey arena when you’re watching your kids play hockey – you have hockey and kids in common.  We have deceased husbands, it may sound ghoulish, but it isn’t.  We have a common loss.  Talking about it helps.

For me, I usually have specific questions I want to ask.  I need to normalize the things I am experiencing, thinking or feeling.  And these meetings help, for the most part I leave feeling relieved.  I get the chance to ask, ‘am I odd, or has anyone else noticed …’ and ending that question with whatever is bothering me.  I may not get the response I want, but I definitely do get feedback that is informed, practical and sympathetic.

Looking back, it was a good thing all those months ago attending that grief group.  The strangers that I met there have now become an important part of my safety net, and I hope that they feel the same way about me.

Plan the plan

The Grief Counselling ended last week and I have to admit I was sad. It was nice for a while to attend a group where everyone had been levelled to the same state of despair.  That sounds mean- spirited, but it’s not meant to be.  We, all the ladies in my little group, were all hurting in ways and to depths that many people cannot understand.  It was a safe place to let down one’s guard, to not have to pretend about anything, and to listen with an open heart to the sorrows of another person.  It was tough in some respects; sometimes I left with that awful ache I had in my heart the first few months after Kevin died.  That ache is difficult to describe – it makes it hard to breathe, it threatens your sanity (is it real or imagined?) and it makes you face your own mortality. Sometimes my heart ached so badly that I would get everything in order before I went to bed at night.  I’d leave the inside door unlocked (so no one had to break the lock to get in), I’d write down lists of where everything could be found (wills, safety deposit info, etc.), and do all sorts of things to make life easier for the kids, just in case I didn’t wake up in the morning.  Overall, the counselling sessions helped me to understand my compulsions and, to some extent, to ease that ache.

Today was the first snowfall of the season.  It is lovely and crisp and white outside.  It makes it painfully apparent that there will need to be decisions made about this Christmas.   For sure, we will have Christmas this year at the house.  I won’t put up Kevin’s Christmas tree though.  Not this year, it would simply be too hard.  I bought a new tree to use this year, pre-strung with lights.  Smaller – just like I feel this Christmas will be.  I will bring out some of the family decorations, but it will be a modest display this year.  It’s an unknown emotional plane we are heading onto, and consequently there is a lot of trepidation associated with this particular Christmas.   There can be no glitches in how this goes off; there is no place for unnecessary drama or stress – I simply can’t and won’t allow it.  This year, the most important aspect of Christmas will be that my little family can share in memories of love, laughter and the adventures of a life well lived.   That, and the food of course.

Grief Counselling

Last week was the first session for grief counselling.  Ironically, it was exactly six months on the calendar from the day Kevin died.  It was a tough day and I went to the session knowing I was tottering on the edge of composure.  I had worried about the participants that would be joining me in the sessions, especially that there could be a large age gap.  I wasn’t wrong – I was the youngest widow in the group by a good number of years.

My worry was not that the grief is any less or any more relative to age, it’s just tremendously different.  We, Kevin and I, had not made it to the retirement stage, our grandchildren are babies for God’s sake.  We had mountains of plans, dreams and goals still to achieve.  His death leaves me empty, wondering about all the things that could have been.  For those other widows, well, they’d made it to retirement; their grandchildren were old enough to give them great grandchildren.  They’d retired together, wintered in warm places together, and started the inevitable retreat into a cozy world that was mellow, slower and gratifying.

Those other widows had spent even more of their lives loving, caring, almost blending into their husbands.  Their grief must break their hearts in ways I can’t even imagine.  And they can’t imagine mine.  Fortunately, that’s not the purpose of the group – to understand each other’s grief.  The purpose is to allow us to understand our own individual grief.   The course is guided by a DVD series.  It provides insights into the experiences of a variety of individuals whose spouses, children or parent have died.  It deals with the emotions experienced but not the emotional scale.

It’s daunting to get past the feeling, based entirely on the age factor, that I am out of place in the group.  I may be younger, but I remind myself that I am there because of my experience and for no other reason.  I have to wonder though, knowing as many people as I do, that are around my age and that have lost spouses, what do they do to get by?  I have a healthy circle of friends and my family support is second to none, is that enough for most people?  Am I more needy than most?  To me, with respect to attending the counselling classes – why not?  My only investment in it is my time, which I have plenty of, so why not see what else is out there, and that includes this course.

There are eight sessions, one per week, and attendance is completely voluntary.  I can attend or not, there is no obligation, I paid no money, the instructors receive no compensation.  The hostess of the session has a small library of books available to borrow and, as last week’s class ended, she suggested a book for me specifically, “I’m Grieving As Fast As I Can” by Linda Feinberg.  I’ve started to read the book, it’s under 200 pages in size; however, as is the case with any book on death, some chapters are harder to read than others.  I won’t have it finished before this week’s class, which I do plan on attending – if I can glean even one more coping technique or enhance my self-awareness it can only help me.

Take a little trip

The last week of August into the first week of September have always been emotional weeks for this family.  Within a span of seven or eight days this family would go from an extreme high to an extreme low.  This was because the 28 of August was my husband’s birthday and the first week of September meant a return to work for him – it was back to school.  Unlike the vast majority of teachers my husband was never ready to go back to school.  When the calendar flipped to September he’d become very quiet and irritable.  Don’t get me wrong, he loved his job, he just didn’t like working.  Seems contradictory, but it isn’t.

Kevin, my husband, would always laugh and say ‘I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I love.’  He loved music and he loved art, and that’s what he taught.  He was an Art, Drama and Music teacher in the elementary school system.  The perfect gig.  He’d done it for so many years there was little prep required to get him ready for the new school year. He didn’t have a classroom so there was no classroom to open.  It was just a matter of going in a day or two before school started to get his schedule and unlock the cupboards that held the instruments, and then to show-up the first day of school. This aspect of the job was easy enough.

Nope, it wasn’t the job he performed  that he didn’t like.  The fact that he had to “answer to the man,” was a big part of his reluctance to go back into the classroom.  The rigidity of the educational system was one of his concerns; that something as personal and expressive as art was evaluated using standards that actually curtailed creativity.  It irked him that the music programme was so far down in the valuation system for most educators, it ‘didn’t matter’ as much as mathematics, English and science.  He was passionate about how musical training would improve a student’s performance in academic endeavours, and how essential creativity was in the development of well-rounded personalities.

Overall, the biggest contributor to Kevin’s dismay about returning to work was that it forced routine and structure back into his world with a resounding thud. Throughout the summer he could follow his heart’s desire.  Especially after the kids were grown, he’d paint all night if the mood hit him, or drive to Algonquin Park to sketch for the day, stay at the cottage to just putter around and think.  Usually, I’d have to work most of the summer so I never knew what I was coming home to.  Sometimes a coffee on the deck while a lovely dinner cooked on the barbeque, other times a call at work to say let’s go out or meet me at the cottage.  Other times, when his creative mind was at work, I’d know he was getting ready to travel someplace to find something to spur his artistic expression, he just didn’t know what he was looking for.  In these cases he could be gone for a day, sometimes more.  If I wanted or needed him to stay he would, but seldom was that the case.  He’d be renewed when he came back, having satisfied some intrinsic need. He was a free spirit then and is likely still.

If only it were that easy to move past the sorrow, if I could take a little trip and find my renewal.  Right now the feeling of loss is incredibly intense again.  I wake in the morning missing him, throughout the day I find myself weepy.  I guess it is just the ebb and flow of the grieving process.  The end of this month I start with the grief counselling group, eight weeks of sessions in a small group setting.  The coordinator for the group told me I am likely to ‘strike up a friendship or two’ as a result of it.  Maybe, maybe not – so much depends on the group demographics.  Regardless, I know that the grief counselling programme is a tried and true one and that I will benefit from it.  It’s a fool that turns her back on a helping hand.

The Grief Group

It’s now almost five months since my husband, Kevin, died.  I’ve accomplished my return to work and have tried to create a new normal in my life, both things which were extremely hard to do.  Since his death I haven’t had a lot of down time as I feel there is a collective conspiracy between my family and friends to make sure that they keep me “busy”.  This weekend was one of the first ones that I’ve had almost all to myself (minus a little sister time yesterday morning).  It’s allowed me some time to think.

Life is still rocky and I definitely have my moments.  One of the key pieces to me getting back to work was I needed to have my own space, an office with a door – not a cubicle.  Moments of sorrow hit out of the blue and there’s no stopping the tears.  It is awkward for some coworkers, and for others, who have suffered a loss like me, it’s too painful a reminder.  Just this week past I was talking to a woman I work with and the tears were trickling down her cheeks – we were talking about work, not about life and death.  Finally I asked her what was up and she told me that it would be 15 years the next day since her husband had died. So, for a few minutes, we talked about her and her deceased husband.  It was the right thing to do, she needed it; obviously the pain is carried in your heart forever.  However, tears are contagious, and after that I went to my little office and sobbed away.

I decided to pick up the phone and call the funeral home that had held Kevin’s service.  They routinely run grief counselling sessions.  Right after Kevin had died the doctor had talked to me about these sessions.  She encouraged me to wait at least four to six months before I joined.  ‘There’s a process you need to work your way through’, she’d said, ‘you’ll know when the time is right.’  Shortly after Kevin’s funeral service I had spoken to the funeral director who had handled Kevin’s arrangements; she’d said the same thing, but had qualified it by adding, ‘unless you really need it sooner.’  So I’ve waited, and now at almost five months down the road, I called.  The next session will start the end of September and I plan to be in it.  In the interim I have received some copies of a publication called AfterLoss distributed as part of the AfterLoss Grief Recovery Program.  It’s a generic, one-size-fits-all support that provides some generalizations about what to expect and how to cope; generic because everyone is so different in what they experience.

In years gone by I would have anticipated that the grief group would be dominated by older individuals, people in their 70s and 80s, or by adults grieving the loss of their aged parent, but now I am not so sure.  Lately it seems that in my little community death has been unsparing, from the very young to the very old and everything in between.  Needless to say, the service is offered by the funeral home to anyone who has had the need for their services, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will use it.  Death, although such a public event, is an intensely private experience.  It strips away our pretensions, erases our security, depletes our energy levels and physically hurts our hearts and minds.  There are some individuals too private to ever air their grief in public.

For me, Kev’s death meant a full stop. I was transfixed, life was still coming at me but I couldn’t fire up the neurons necessary to get out of the way.  The return to functionality has been slow despite my own relative good health.  So was my response the same as most others?  This is one of the things I hope to understand better through the grief group.  I don’t anticipate it will be easy sharing a physical space with a bunch of strangers all self-absorbed in their own losses; a space clearly, if invisibly, labelled ‘heartache’.  I wonder if any of them, like me, have tried to get some answers or insights through the books available on death and dying.  I wonder how the session counsellor will manage the session.  I wonder if I will even benefit from it.  I don’t know and won’t know unless I put myself out there.