I wouldn’t have known that others experience this mental murkiness if I hadn’t joined a grief group. And I wouldn’t have joined that group without the gentle suggestion of my primary care doctor. When I saw her in the first weeks after my husband’s death, she listened to the litany of issues I described, then said, “I’m going to send you to a psychiatrist who’ll prescribe something to help you sleep. And here’s the phone number of a therapist I recommend. It’s important for you to have that support. Also, I’ve heard good things about the bereavement group at the community center near you. Check that out.”
Like reaching out to clutch a sapling while sliding down a muddy slope, I followed all of my doctor’s suggestions. Going to a doctor for medication, talking to a therapist – those were in my comfort zone. A grief group? Okay, I thought – worth a try, but would it help?
A week later, I walked into a standard issue classroom in a church annex and took a seat at a long fake wood table with metal legs. Looking around, I saw faces of all ages, subdued, unsmiling. An older woman in a modest long-sleeved blouse and tailored skirt welcomed us and passed out some literature. “Let’s begin with introductions,” she said, and started with herself. As we went around the table, I thought: How odd to identify ourselves by name and bereavement circumstances.
In halting voices, tears breaking through, each of us tried to distill into a few words the life-altering losses of the spouses with whom our lives had been interwoven. The co-owners of so many memories. What a mix: Sofia, a hairdresser in her thirties whose husband had succumbed to kidney disease; Janet, a composed but clearly heartbroken mother of teenagers, whose husband had suffered a fatal heart attack; Suzanne, a smartly clad woman whose husband, a community leader and aspiring political candidate, had lost a battle with cancer, leaving her with young children; a heavyset black woman, recently retired from the phone company, who’d been enjoying long-awaited cross-country travel, rallies, and social gatherings with her husband and their Harley Owners Club chapter until a stroke claimed his life.
I asked her, “What were some of your favorite trips?”
Her face came alive when she said, “Oh, we had a great time in New Orleans, and enjoyed those mint juleps when we joined other clubs at the Derby.”
While I strained to picture her as a helmeted, leather-clad biker, my heart hurt when she said, “I can’t drive the Harley, but our social life revolved around that club. Will I lose those friends?” As a recent transplant to the D.C. area, I sorely missed the support and company of old friends. I wondered: was social isolation in store for her?
Every Thursday evening for ten weeks, emotions raw, each of us recounted our struggles: to assume both parenting roles; run households alone; summon the energy to get up each day. The handouts from those meetings ran the gamut from “Falling Apart,” “Steps to Survival,” and an important message from an excerpt from The Journey Through Grief, by Alan Wolfert, Ph.D, (Routledge; August 1, 1997): “Others have been where you are now, have moved through the phases of grieving that are new to you but not new at all, and have emerged changed, but whole.” In the first throes of grief, we couldn’t imagine the end of that journey, but it was some comfort to know that we were expected, even likely, to follow a well-traveled path.
Teresa, the slim, sweet but needy hairdresser with unruly auburn curls, had to close her home business to comply with neighborhood restrictions. She’d been visiting salons to find a good fit but seemed lost, unable to make decisions for herself. Patty, the trim, composed mother of teen boys, on bereavement leave from her government job, had turned to her priest for solace; Leslie, the suburban housewife, overwhelmed by her own loss, struggled to help her bewildered children; and Thelma, the Harley rider, found no reason to leave her bed until noon, then spent each day eating comfort food and watching TV. And I, recently relocated, newly retired, with no professional calling or colleagues, no family nearby – how would I fill in the blanks?
As the weeks went by, starting each meeting with guidance from the group leader and handouts – practical and philosophical – we’d go around the table sharing how we were getting along. One day I mentioned, “I’ll be writing a note or working at the computer and suddenly I’ll lose my concentration, as if a ‘service interrupted’ sign had popped up on my brain.”
“That happens to me, too,” someone said. “In the middle of a conversation I’ll lose my train of thought.” Then one after another joined the chorus. Puzzled, I turned to Google for an explanation, typing “brain fog following bereavement.” Immediately articles captioned, “Widow Fog,” or “Grief Brain” popped up. Oh.
Intense grief triggers a chemical reaction throughout your body and brain that often lasts about three months. And the amygdala gets into the act, causing too much or too little sleep. I’d fall asleep easily, but wake in the wee hours and stay awake. The psychiatrist solved that problem with a tiny dose of a powerful drug. The therapist helped me cope with the myriad of practical, social, and emotional challenges. “There’s a lunch and learn group you might enjoy at the civic center, and try your library’s book club. Get out of the house every day, even for errands.”
From the first week, my daughters took on new roles. Jenna said, “I’ll draft obituary notices and send them to the Houston paper and his hometown paper. I brought copies of Dad’s magazines home to Arizona so I can cancel his subscriptions.” Jake, single and ten years younger than his sisters, stayed with me for the first two weeks. “Before I go back to L.A.,” he told me, “I’ll sell your car and Dad’s and get you a new one.” And he did. Before she went back to Chapel Hill, Sandra, closer to her father than her siblings, said, “When Jake visits me, we’ll scatter Dad’s ashes at Topsail Beach on the Outer Banks. Dad loved that spot.”
I started checking in with Jenna each morning so someone would know I’m alive and well. When tackling matters that Dan used to handle I’d call my children for help – a lifeline. Dan died in December. Weeks later I called Jenna to say, “They’re predicting a hard freeze tomorrow night; the weather alert advised covering outside faucets. I have no idea how to do that.” She and her husband had left winters behind when they’d moved to Phoenix. She sent me a link to foam covers available on Amazon. The next evening, dressed in triple layers of my warmest clothes, I tramped through the snow looking for outside faucets, fumbling around, eventually attaching the odd-shaped gismos.
Day after day, month after month, I slogged through the tasks, notifying the Department of Motor Vehicles, setting up utility accounts in my name (a multi-year battle with the electric company), canceling insurance policies in both names, deciding what coverage I’d need for policies in my name, finding a lawyer, figuring out how to restructure my will, ordering a memorial plaque at the Houston congregation where we’d raised our family … adding Dan’s name to our parents’ – who expects to do that?
Some tasks were time sensitive, others not, like sorting through Dan’s clothes, tennis and fishing equipment, and “stuff.” I gave Jake the cashmere overcoat and sent my grandson the well-used but long-idled Prince tennis racket.
My biggest project, finding a home for Dan’s fishing tackle, dragged on – checking the value of each rod and reel, posting ads on local listservs – trying but failing to find a charity that could use them. That gear held his happiest memories, out in the Atlantic battling swordfish with his dad, landing a 50-pound white marlin on our Bermuda honeymoon, and catching red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston on weekends. Outdoors he was in his element, breaking the silence of the natural beauty around him to cry, “I’ve got one on! It’s a keeper!” Those rods and reels trace the arc of our marriage – hunting bonefish in a flat-bottomed skiff in the Florida Keys, dock-fishing at night in Sarasota, frying up a trout our daughter caught in a Colorado stream, squealing with delight, her daddy coaching her, “let it run; now pull it in slowly.” No wonder I kept those rods and reels, hooks, sinkers, and fishing line long after he was gone. Other widows must have similar untouchables – books covered with handwritten notes, or cameras, lenses, and beaten-up leather camera cases. Letting go of those memory-laden objects meant letting go of a lifetime together. Ten years later, the fishing gear has taken up permanent residence in my basement.
My to-do-list was long. The learning curve was steep, the decisions challenging, the tasks tedious. It didn’t help to have a veil fall over my thought processes again and again. Or did it? Maybe that was a blessing, dulling the pain, diminishing the discomfort during a period of devastating disorientation.