A few weeks ago, my friend Kumar asked me to speak to a group of ministers training to do a special type of work in hospitals and prisons. Kumar is a pastor who I met years ago, and someone with whom I’ve done a variety of events. We talk a lot about grief. But we also talk a lot about life, since grief is a part of it.
He wanted me to talk about what I needed when Shawn was hospitalized, and then what I needed after he died. Initially, I thought about all of the logistics – the carpool rides for the kids and the grocery runs and the extra help at work. But as I thought about it, I realized this wasn’t exactly what he was asking. People training to work in hospitals as chaplains aren’t likely to be running to Trader Joes for those they are serving (though, hey, that would be kind of awesome.) No, what I think he wanted to know was this: what non-material supports did I need in those days of deep pain?
I thought back to that time. What I remember most about the hospital was how cold it was – the floors, the corridors, the thin blankets. Shawn was often really hot, so it made him more comfortable for it to be cold, but I was freezing.
Mostly, I just wanted another blanket.
Every once in a while, for no real reason, I’d find another blanket next to my chair-that-converted-to-a-bed.
Somebody was watching me.
Maybe it wasn’t all the time, and maybe it wasn’t even one specific individual. But this small simple act made me feel so wonderful every time that it happened because it told me one really important thing: I wasn’t alone.
And, wow, I felt so alone back then. Even when Shawn was alive, I felt alone in my suffering. As I said to him once after a particularly bad day I had, “I’m not going to complain to you!” Once he died, I obviously also felt really alone.
I think there are a lot of ways that people going through crisis can feel alone. I mean, for one, they can actually be alone without any supports. That wasn’t my situation (I had my family and friends) but plenty of people are without anyone. But even for caregivers who have other people around them, you can feel really alone.
I sat down and tried be more specific. Here are the really tough things I struggled with:
- I felt isolated from other people – and the normal lives they were living. I felt like no one knew what it was like to be me, which was such an isolating emotion. It didn’t matter that there were other people who existed who had watched their loved ones die. I still felt like I was the first person to ever experience such a painful time period.
- I felt abandoned by God. I know a lot of widows who feel this way. I felt like I was all alone, because those tearful prayers in the shower at night? They certainly weren’t being answered.
- I felt alone in my grief – both before and after Shawn died. Even if other people loved Shawn, they didn’t love him like I did. (That may not have been true, but it felt like that for me.) Other people were sad, but they didn’t get it, and thus I didn’t have anyone that I could really share my emotions with.
The thing was, there wasn’t really anything that one person could do to cure my feelings of alone-ness. And yet, I think there are some things that a friend (or a trained professional) might be able to do to address each of these things and ease suffering, at least a little bit.
First, for isolation. While no one should ever utter the phrase, “I know how you feel” even if you’ve been in a similar situation, I do think it can be useful to hear from others who’ve been in similar situations. When Shawn was sick, I was desperate to talk to other cancer survivors. When he died, I needed other widows around me. But if that’s not you – if you don’t share the same situation – I still think there are things that you can do for someone going through such an isolating time period. I still wanted to get texts about the funny thing that happened at school drop-off, and I still wanted to hear about the crazy colleague we knew would say something wild at the staff meeting. I wanted to feel like I was still part of a normal world. If you don’t know the person well, I think (at appropriate times) talking about non-cancer (or non-bad-thing) stuff can be hugely helpful. I’ve never liked home-improvement TV more than when Shawn was dying, which is kinda messed up but that’s about what I could handle. Sometimes I just wanted to talk about HGTV, and when I could connect with a nurse or a random friend who was visiting about some mindless TV talk, it made me feel a bit better. Go figure.
Second, for the abandonment by God. Okay, first, I think people who are not religious can also feel a similar way. They can feel abandoned by the universe or the goodness of humankind, or whatever other higher power they might understand. But for me, it was God. Why wasn’t anyone listening to my pleas? What had we done to deserve this? I was angry for a long time with God. And also, I was comforted by so many people of faith – our church rector, the Jewish chaplain at the hospital, even the doctors who stood around Shawn’s bed as we prayed, although they may not have been religious themselves. But it wasn’t the prayers that helped, not exactly. It was the way in which all those people listened to me scream about the unfairness of everything, and didn’t try and change my emotions. Yes, it was unfair, they said. Yes, you are right to be angry. Yes, there is so much we don’t know. They did not say, “God has a plan” because if they had, I would have said that it was a stupid fucking plan. Instead they showed me that they saw my pain – a pain that was real and a pain that exists in this world. And in those moments, even when I wasn’t sure about God, I could see the work of God in the humans that surrounded me.
Third, for feeling alone in my grief. I remember feeling like my emotions were abnormal. I’d lost my mom years prior, so I thought I understood grief. But I didn’t know what it felt like to lose a partner, and my grief was deeper than I could have imagined. I felt crazy, a lot of the time. Rational people didn’t think about another dead human 100% of the time, right? Shawn had so many loving family members and friends, but I just didn’t think they got it. And honestly, most of them weren’t in as much pain as I was. But, one thing I found that was helpful was for people to ask me about him. When he was sick and unable to act like his normal self, it was comforting to talk with other people about how he threw great parties when he was healthy. And after he died, I loved remembering all of the parts of him. I loved when friends told stories, and I especially loved when they let me tell mine. And for strangers, “tell me about him,” was my favorite thing anyone could say. It didn’t make my grief go away, but it made me feel less alone.
Four days before he died, we learned that Shawn had only a short period of time to live. We both didn’t really know what to do with the news, and I stood at his bedside, silent. After a few minutes, Shawn turned to me and said, “I guess I’ll find out if there’s life after death.”
I took a deep breath. These were the sorts of things we said to each other in the last days. “Send me a sign,” I said back to him, trying to smile.
“I doubt that’s allowed,” he said, smiling back, “but I’ll do my best.”
I looked for that sign for many months after he died. I wanted to see him, I wanted to know that he was sending back some sort of love for me.
The sign never came.
Was there no love in this world anymore, I wondered?
But then, someone would ask about Shawn, and I’d remember that glint in his eye when he was telling a funny story and it would make me feel some sort of warmth inside. And I would remember how he made the doctor laugh when he did his rounds, and the look of compassion that the same doctor gave me when he told me that Shawn was going to die.
And then I would remember the blankets, the ones that someone left out for me when I was freezing cold in the hospital. Those acts, of course, were done by humans who were trying to ease my pain, my suffering, my grief.
But maybe they were acts of God, too.