A Man’s dying is more the survivor’s affair than his own. – Thomas Mann
I was totally unprepared for widowhood. John was big and healthy and strong and still rode a motorcycle. We walked an hour every day to keep our leg strength up for long motorcycle trips and we were into prevention (which did not prevent). We were non-smokers and none – drinkers and we ate healthily with lots of fruits and vegetables.
We were planning to buy a new motorcycle and we had already discussed our summer trips when he died.
Riding the motorcycle we had mixed with younger people. Members of the Retreads and UMCI are considered older motorcyclists because they are over 40 so we often rode with people half John’s age. He was still as fit as any of them and he had not lost his reflexes.
John had lived with me in a utopian world without funeral homes, cemeteries, coffins, dying people, seniors, clubs, flower shops wreaths, hospitals, canes, walkers, wakes, home care and hospice visits. Sure we knew they existed but so do Ebola, coral reefs, kindles, tornados, ship wrecks, igloos, wars, famines, lotto wins, Trump Tower and millions of things that have not touched our lives.
Like many who lead normal, boring organized lives, I was totally unprepared for an end to my life style, death and grieving. I didn’t even know there were seven stages of grief. I just assumed that all widows had to worry about were the funeral and will settlement. I didn’t expect overpowering feelings to enter into it.
I knew dying people went through five stages identified by D. John Kubler-Ross: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance or resignation.
John died in his sleep unexpectedly so I never got to share those stages with him, anticipating grief. One widow told me how she and her dying husband discussed the funeral and how she would carry on alone.
I entered grief cold turkey so I experienced the seven stages outlined by Father Robert E. Kavenaugh: shock and denial, disorganization, volatile emotions, guilt, loss and loneliness, relief, reestablishment.
I am still at Stage 5 – loneliness. The first three stages were frightening at times. Someone told me a widow once wrote a book called, “I have lost my husband not my mind”. I have never located the book but that is how I felt at times. I slid through guilt quickly. I felt no guilt over our married life or his sudden death. I wish he had lived longer, of course, but that was out of my control.
Loss and loneliness blind sided me without warning. I never realized how alone I would feel without John. I know I must move on to the final two steps on my grief journey but this is where I am now.
Lots of widows and widowers have gone into bereavement cold turkey as I did. Even those with pre-planned funerals tell me the emotional side was a total surprise. Over and over people have told me that sudden death is easier for the departed but harder on the survivors. Someone also told me that sudden death is harder on us at first but we recover faster. I’m not sure if this is true. I may never recover.
I feel glad that John never knew the pain and indignity of a long illness when I read in memorials that say:
In tears we saw you sinking
We watched you fade away.
Our hearts were almost broken
As you fought so hard to stay.
But when we saw you sleeping
So peaceful, free of pain,
We could not wish you back
To suffer that again.
During the shock and denial I wasn’t alone in a vacuum. I was notifying people, writing up his obituary and making funeral plans. The funeral, writing a card of thanks, and sending thank you cards took place while I was disorganized. At the same time I was trying to comfort others and keep the house running.
I forced myself to live an organized life. I ate by the clock because I felt no hunger. I exercised. I went to bed and got up at the usual times even if I didn’t sleep. I forced myself to be a good citizen, paying the bills, dressing neatly and mowing the lawn. My goal was survival. I felt no joy but I was trying to function logically in a world that was disorganized and out of control.
I was lucky. The money John had inherited and planned to spend on his new motorcycle paid for the funeral. Some widows tell me their greatest problem during these early stages was financial. An unexpected expensive death followed by funeral costs left them destitute and desperate. Other widows tell me they had another problem overshadowing everything – family feuds. I was lucky. The entire extended family approved of my traditional funeral plans.
One crying widow told me she followed her husband’s wishes for “no funeral by his request”. His relatives were very upset. When she was crying, one in-law said, “If you had loved him you would have had a funeral.”
Feuds over remains are common. Some want to bury the ashes, others want to scatter and then the debate is over where to scatter. These individual problems are not factored into the seven steps but they do exist. I was lucky when it came to money and family and I hope you are, too.
Somehow we all muddle our way through shock and denial and disorganization. Funeral over, we think the worst is over. We say good-bye to the last visitor and mail the last thank-you card with relief and then….
This is my story. If I repeat myself or get emotional, please forgive me. I am still grieving.