In late October of 2005 my husband was in hospice after nearly dying of aspiration pneumonia and blood clots in his lungs, and my father was struggling to recover from a serious of small strokes that nearly killed him as well. I was a caretaker on all fronts because in addition to Will and propping up my mother, I had a three year old and was teaching at-risk high school students in a drop out prevention program. I wasn’t to the point, yet, of being actively dismissive of other people’s problems, but I was close. It’s not that I didn’t complain sometimes. I did. I had friends who listened, but I was still aware that being heard requires some reciprocal listening, and I did my best. At least I hope I did.
When you are in the middle of a crisis, it’s hard to think about anything else. After a while even being asked to consider something other than your own problems seems like your troubles are being dismissed as less than the tragedy they are. There are some people to whom all manner of difficulties are mountains. My youngest sister is engaged to an alcoholic. Around the time that Will was first in hospice and our dad was recovering from his strokes, her fiance was heading off to jail for a few months. He’d gotten his third DUI over the previous summer while riding his lawnmower home from the bar one evening. I guess he didn’t realize that with a suspended license he wasn’t allowed to ride any type of motorized vehicle on the road though my sister argued that this was unfair as he was on the side of the road and a lawnmower isn’t a threat to anything but tall grass. Anyway, she and her then 11 year old son lived with our parents and since our folks had basically taken over the raising of my nephew, my sister had been free to live the life of the teenager she will always be. Dad’s illness however put quite a crimp in her lifestyle. Mom wasn’t able to take full charge of her son, and she was balking at the idea of having to stay home on the weekends to parent her own child for a change. Being the oldest, I was usually asked to “please talk to your sister” whenever she and Mom were at an impasse. So, I listened while my sister complained about how unfair and difficult her life was. At one point in the conversation, in an attempt to show empathy…..I think….she compared her upcoming separation from her boyfriend to my husband’s impending death. I don’t think I got angry with her at the time. I was too stunned. The comparison went even beyond what could be considered self-absorption, even for my sister, but I think about that incident often now when I catch myself being exasperated with people who can’t seem to realize that the trees hemming them in are part of a vast forest that we all are trying to navigate.
After Will died and I had regained enough strength to look around at my new world and pay more than scant attention to the people in it, I had the widow’s blinkered view of tragedy. That is simply, I am widowed…..top that. I am ashamed to admit that I not only felt I had a right to such a view, but I supported others who felt they same way. I am not sure when that started to change. Maybe around the time I began to believe that taking as much time as I wanted to rail at life and the universe was, perhaps, not the best use of my time. It certainly wasn’t making my life better. Didn’t find me a sitter. Wasn’t the recipe for rebuilding my shattered social network. Couldn’t renovate and update my shabby home or find me a job that didn’t alternate between boring me to tears and making me crazy with frustration. What exactly was I doing, standing on the shore and letting wave after wave of sadness and regret batter my soul black and blue? I was told, by people I assumed knew better than I, that this was active grieving, and I wondered, shouldn’t I be just as actively trying to live again?
Two years is the minimum and five the maximum for recovery from the loss of a spouse. That’s what I have been told over and over and I questioned it as often as I parroted it to other freshly minted widows. But the people I knew, my friends and my family, were of a different mind. Partly because they had no frame of reference, but mostly because they loved me and they could see what I already knew which was that grieving was killing me slowly even while it was burying me alive. It was distorting my ability to gauge the height of the molehills that litter that forest in which we all dwell. My husband died, but that didn’t make my troubles more important than those of anyone else. Not everything that was wrong with my life was the result of his death. I was not cursed by the universe because this had happened. The people in your life generally speak from an understanding of any type of tragedy as their upbringing and life experiences allow and even if their experiences don’t match your own, this doesn’t invalidate their observations. Stuck is fairly easy to recognize. You don’t need much of a background to know when someone is spinning their wheels. Even though I was most ungrateful, I started to realize that despite how I felt, I was surviving this most awful of events and I needed to start being more of an example and a cheerleader to people who needed the same kind of support I had received at my lowest. And not just widowed people, though I have a special affinity for them, but everyone. People who need a sounding board or a bit of verbal hand holding as they make their way out and away from whatever despair or trouble that plagues them is something I see as giving back. It’s tiring though. Some people are “tough rooms”, and there are times I wish I could give a Friar Lawrence scolding to some. He is a character in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the one who secretly marries the two and then comes up with the not so bright idea to have Juliet “play dead”. At one point in the play, Romeo is crying because as a result of killing Juliet’s cousin, he has been banished from the city and his new bride. Friar Lawrence loses his patience and reminds Romeo of all the really awful things that could have happened instead with the following:
What, rouse thee, man! Thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead.
There art thou happy. Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slewest Tybalt. There art thou happy too.
The law, that threat’ned death, becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile. There art thou happy.
A pack of blessings light upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love.
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.
Not that it’s always possible to find a “bright side” but there is usually something to be grateful for and something worse that could have resulted. Worse than dead spouse? No, but worse circumstances to find yourself in after than most people experience. If it weren’t for my aunt I would have lost our house after Will took sick and was diagnosed because we lost nearly half our income overnight. If it weren’t for a righteously indignant email to my state senator, Will would have died before we could have gotten him on disability. If I didn’t have friends in the home health care and social work industry, I wouldn’t have found a nursing home to take him when it was clearly time. If I hadn’t worked in a really great school with an awesome principal and coworkers who believed in circling the wagons around colleagues, I could have lost my job. There art thou happy. People don’t do that kind of assessing enough and aren’t encouraged to either. It’s easier to pity and enable self-pity then risk a bit of hurt and anger.
And just as there is nearly always something worse, there is eventually something better. Faith and hope are either good things to spread via your own examples or just an annoying Pollyanna optimism.