At the time my husband left his beautiful, I was a 41 year old; a childless widow. We grew and loved one another for half of my adult life, 44 months under the cloud of Glioblastoma, just 30 months into our marriage.
We moved quite a bit in our time together for jobs and or healthcare. Our most recent move took us back to my home state of Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The University of Virginia’s neurosurgical team was recommended to us so that is where we went, ironically years earlier I shared with my Beloved that I saw us retiring in Charlottesville’s glory but little did I know how soon “retirement” would come.
As soon as we relocated we found a church with a support group; my husband’s medical care was great and very quickly in our new city we had hope. A delightful gift, right before Christmas and the for the first time since our diagnosis, 6 months prior. The leader of our former medical team, however perfect a surgeon, he was led by statistics and we were a lot of things but statistics was not going to be one of them. I refused to believe my otherwise perfectly healthy and strong husband was going to die in “12 to 14 months, 18 at best.” Those words were unacceptable to me.
For the next 26 months we LIVED. If I shared everything we did and all the family we hosted, you would not believe me. I reflect with wonder, how did we manage it all. We even got a puppy. My sister in law said with glee, “you get a puppy when you know you are going to be here a long time!” Shockingly to both of us, we bought a cookie cutter model townhouse, watched it being built, rented it back to the builder and referred to it as “The House of Hope”. There was so much life in all of our decisions but without a choice of our own, we would eventually have to face it; my Husband was dying.
He never got to live in the house of hope. The day after he passed I received the call of when the builder would be moving out.
I do not like to refer to myself as a Caregiver, I was a wife, but much of our schedule was filled with medical related things or family visits for those 44 months. It kept us very, very busy. After his passing, after the memorial, the move came, which occupied my actions and thoughts, a few friends planned random activities but by May, only three months after his passing the activities were done, my puppy and I moved in and the silence, loneliness, grief truly began. Everyday there was a new realization he was gone and never to return. I was alone. My love, my hope, my life as I knew it; all died.
Our puppy needed to walk, so he would walk me. I was in a trance pulled by his leash. I worked from home so I did not have to engage daily with people per se; I was dead woman walking. People who had been in our life were now gone; back to their families, back to their lives.
There are 86,400 seconds in a day. 28,800 would be filled with work. When the daylight lasted longer, I could avoid the silence and loneliness within the home however my objectives of the day were to be successful at work, to take care of puppy and to make it until I could go to sleep to start all over the next day. On good days I had something scheduled, a “to do” list I could work from or a glimmer of life that I would cling to until I could no longer. Other days were filled with wine, “Downton Abbey” (those young widows were my people) and an old back injury, aggravated by the stresses of life that resurfaced. The injury offered the need of a caregiver for Cooper, company for me and/or a brief, however painful distraction. It sounds odd to say but you know never when grief hits and/or you muster up the courage to go out in public and get slapped in the face with an unexpected, non-pleasant surprise. The first time I returned to church, the sermon was on “Taking care of widows” I sat there alone, people who knew me, saw me, if they spoke to me it was a surprise. What I did not realize then was I was an open, gaping wound, without a disclaimer, they could chose to look and engage or just pretend like I wasn’t there at all. There I was, a “homeless” person wandering in from the streets into their sanctuary; mortality entered their world.
One day while our puppy walked me I mustered up the courage to speak to a neighbor . . . just about the day or the neighborhood, nothing heavy. The interaction was odd but that can happen with new people so I shrugged it off. I returned home perplexed however knew I wasn’t looking my best, I was wearing my husband’s tee shirt probably stained from wearing it a few days, his sweatshorts and I have no idea when I last showered but then I saw it!!?! I had about one inch or more of dried blood on my forehead from something I had picked or scratched! No one said a word! Lord have mercy! I needed a grip on reality and this gave me momentarily “get your shit together moment”. Months later I mustered up more courage to speak with those particular neighbors again and this time I said, “remember that first time we spoke and I had dried blood on my forehead, well, my husband died a few months earlier and I know I am in rough shape but if ever you see that again you tell me!” His response was “I asked my wife what the hell was wrong with people!” I replied, “well, now you know what the hell was wrong with me so I expect if I have dried blood or Lord knows what happening you’ll say umm, Kathryn, you might want to check that out!”
I get that people do not know what to say or what to do. So here’s a few of my suggestions take them or leave them. Let the wounded lead the way in conversation or activity. Do not offer what you feel may be helpful pieces of wisdom about life. Do not expect them to be “normal” just let them be whatever they are in that moment. Ask them what they need, listen and do it if you are able. Do not ask them what they need and not do it. Schedule things, help them fill time, do not cancel on them or worse, talk about how busy your life is or be with them and be distracted. Give them your presence, even if it is brief. Allow them to cry or laugh or speak the name of their lost loved one; afford them grace. Soon, you will return home to your family and loved ones while we go back into the darkness. But please, if you see them with dried blood or their clothes inside out (been there too), let us know! In the darkness or in the light, it takes a village to get through this thing called life!