Untangling grief: Living beyond a great loss

Pink heart on cracked concrete torsion;  broken heart concept

“The horse has left the barn.”

These six words, said by my husband’s oncologist, changed our lives forever, even though the feeling of impending loss started weeks ago with a blood test. There will be more tests, exams and visits to specialists. While George and I waited for a final diagnosis, we were negotiating with ourselves and with the universe. When we finally met his cancer treatment team to review all the tests, George’s 6-foot-2-inch frame struggled to fit into the space on the small table, as we made an effort to follow the conversation. Hearing the word metastatic – meaning the cancer had spread throughout his body – was like his fingernails on a board.

But there is no real way to prepare for grief, which is an inescapable trait in the human condition. The stress of the death of a loved one can lead to physical illnesses: cardiovascular disease, broken heart syndrome (takotsubo cardiomyopathy), cancers, and ulcers. Emotional distress often causes physical distress known as physical symptoms. The way each person deals with grief is different. Comfort takes different forms for different people. Although my journey is individual, my story touches on global themes, especially for those experiencing the grief of the time of COVID-19.

Anticipatory sad hits first

George’s diagnosis was advanced metastatic prostate cancer, which had spread to the lymph nodes and bones. There will be no surgery. No radiation. There is no chemical treatment. Palliative care only.

Some days, George just wanted to talk to me. On other days, he wanted to talk to those who were “in the same boat.” He saw himself immersed in the shores of a new, unknown continent. I felt showered with him. The National Cancer Institute describes these feelings as anticipatory sadness, a reaction that anticipates an imminent loss.

In time, we returned to the daily routine. Sometimes we would laugh and not think about his illness. George even conceived and hosted an annual party for his best friends – the men who would be the bearers of the casket – and their partners. The “Coffin Bearer Party”, as it came to be known, was a wonderfully boisterous event. The old men laughed until they cried. Every year, at the end of the night, I knew tears were for the expected loss.

George lived another 11 years, more than double what was expected. But the expectation of losing him did not ease my broken heart.

Sadness after death

George died in May 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown. Despite the dress rehearsal of the pallbearers, there was neither a funeral nor a gathering of loved ones. Nothing to soothe my overwhelming pain.

In those first few weeks, time seemed short, moments repeating themselves like musical notes on a scratched drum. I felt untied, ungrounded, lost. I was crying. My knees were unstable. I don’t remember eating.

At the funeral home, when I saw George in a coffin, the great room seemed bright from the lights striking the shiny wooden floor. Later, I realized that the room was much smaller and dimmer than I remembered, and its floor is not glossy but covered with oriental carpets. Burgundy curtains block the sun’s rays. And while I was at the scene, my chest was very different from what I remembered, and my chest rose and spasmed.

These physical reactions and perceptions are common in acute grief. The death of a loved one is accompanied by waves of physical distress that can include muscle aches, shortness of breath, stomach upset and difficulty sleeping. Food may have no taste, and some have visual hallucinations. Grief sufferers may not believe that their loved one is dead.

Grief in the time of COVID-19

Restrictions in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the social rituals that connect us during grieving. in Atlantic OceanEd Young describes this lack of much-needed support as the “ultimate pandemic betrayal.”

Even though my husband died of cancer, not Covid, I experienced a loss of ritual comfort and a feeling that my grief wasn’t really acknowledged. Experts call this grief deprived. Some predict that the prolonged grief disorder caused by this pandemic may reach appreciable rates only in survivors of natural disasters and wars.

Sadness is a sign of love

The loss of loved ones is not easily integrated into our life story, even though it has become a part of it. Finalization and acceptance of a heavy loss takes time. in year of magical thinking, Joan Didion captures the sudden tragic death of her husband: “John was talking and then he wasn’t.” Life changes in an instant. However, it takes time to untangle and embrace all that that means.

My life must now be reshaped and reimagined without George. Letting go of sadness happens hesitantly. Gradually, I noticed that more of my memories of George were happy memories, slowly crowding out the all-consuming early grief. Over time, I began to re-engage with the world.

Just like George did, I found that I wanted to talk to others in the same boat. The bereavement group helped. I started exercising more. It helped too. When our dogs died, I got a new puppy. Above all, I learned to be kind to myself.

If you’re also experiencing loss, experts advise a few basics: try to eat, sleep, and exercise regularly; consider a bereavement group or look for others who are grieving; Stay open to new possibilities – new hobbies, people, and opportunities. Talk to a professional if, after months, you are preoccupied with thoughts of your loved one or find no meaning in life without them. These could be signs that your grief is interrupted or prolonged. Effective treatment can help.

All the “firsts” without George – his first birthday, his first wedding anniversary, the first anniversary of his death – awakened the early days of great sadness. However, the experience of living through each made me realize that I could survive. I think George would be happy.

Additional Resources

Grief and loss, CDC

NIH News in Health: Dealing with Grief, National Institutes of Health

Prolonged Grief Center, Columbia University

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