Breast Cancer Strikes
I was married to Gretchen for 40 years. In 2007, Gretchen was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy. Then a year later the breast cancer returned and we decided that a bi-lateral mastectomy was the way to address this life threatening disease that affects so many women. This was followed by extensive chemotherapy and radiation.
We met with the doctors, including two cosmetic surgeons, to decide if she should have breast reconstruction. It was determined that this was not an option because of the damage that was done by the surgery and the extensive post operative treatment. The result…….Gretchen was left with a body that was foreign to both her and me. For the next three years she was “cancer free”.
“The greatest wealth is health.”
Sell Family Home and Downsize
In July 2011, we sold the house that we had built 27 years earlier and the place where we raised our two sons. This was a major life event and was hard on both of us but especially Gretchen. She had even told me a few times that she “wanted to die in this house”. After the sale of our home, we downsized into a very nice town home in a neighboring suburb ofChicago. We were not in our new home for more than a few days when Gretchen’s health started to fail. I took her to a hospital when her condition had deteriorated to the point where I believed she needed medical care.
Death of My Wife
Gretchen was in the hospital only one week when she passed away. This was a great shock to me and everyone who knew Gretchen. She was 63 years old and should have been around a lot longer to enjoy the various life events to come. One of these was that we found out only two weeks before Gretchen’s death was that our 29 year old son and his wife were expecting their first child in April 2012. This would be our first grandchild. Also our 31 year old son is going to be married in June 2012. It is too bad that she was going to miss these big time life events.
The reason that Gretchen’s end came so quick was because whatever cancer she had decided to metastasis throughout her entire body. When she died she had cancer in most of her internal organs, her bones and in the membrane around her brain. It was a blessing for Gretchen that the end came so quick and she did not have to suffer very long.
However, for those of us she left behind, this was tough to handle. Gretchen was always very active. We would play golf at least once a week and had many close friends in the area with whom we socialized. We also loved to travel to see our sons, other family members or just taking vacations to some of our favorite places. It was very difficult seeing her lying in the hospital bed in a non-responsive almost comatose state. When she passed away all of her family and a few close friends were around her.
“Good-night! good-night! as we so oft have said
Beneath this roof at midnight, in the days
That are no more, and shall no more return.
Thou hast but taken up thy lamp and gone to bed;
I stay a little longer, as one stays
To cover up the embers that still burn.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Questions Start – Are There Any Good Answers?
The early death of Gretchen has affected many people. Those closest to her, Erik, Mark and me, her husband of 40 years, are the ones who had the toughest time dealing with this loss. Why did God let this happen to Gretchen? Why did this terrible disease have to pick my wife and their mother? What was I going to do going forward without her? Remember, we had spent almost every day of the last 45 years together.
Why couldn’t she have been given some more time so she could see her first grandchild and hold him or her in her arms? She was such a great mother; she would have also been an excellent grandmother. Then there was the wedding of our oldest son, Erik, that was only nine months off. Who am I going to walk down the aisle with and who is going to go up to the altar with the bride’s mother to light the unity candles? The answer is probably me in both instances.
My Reaction after Gretchen’s Death
The wake and funeral are just a blur now. I remember having so many people ask me how I could be so strong. For the month after her death I only remember shedding a few tears at the wake when I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a long time and they said something that started a few tears rolling down my face. During these few weeks after my wife’s death I constantly asked myself why I did not show more emotion after the death of my wife of 40 years.
I am the type of person who does not just sit idly by and let the grief process have its way with me. I have a proactive personality and wanted to attack this thing they call the Grief Process. So I joined a group grief share program at my church. I started going on a weekly basis. It was mostly me and older women who had lost their husbands over the last few years. One thing that I did find out is that my non emotional reaction was not uncommon.
One of the women running this program calls this Divine Anesthesia. Whether this comes from the Lord or from within the body, this will occur to allow us to get through the immediate period of time after a loved one’s death when there are many things to attend to and a lot of thoughts going through my head. I can personally attest to this because there were times weeks later that I would run into a mutual friend and I would ask them if they came to the wake and/or the funeral. This was usually met with a blank stare then they would inform me that they were there. So I guess I was in a fog initially.
“Life is eternal and love is immortal;
And death is only a horizon,
And a horizon is nothing
save the limit of our sight.”
- Rossiter W. Raymond
Finally I Break Down and Show Some Emotion
About four weeks after Gretchen is gone I decide to redo some pictures in my wallet. I have a practice of carrying pictures of my family in my wallet as many people do. Upon printing these out I was hit with a major sense of loss. At the same time, the tears start rolling and I begin to sob like a baby, or better yet like someone who had just lost the love of my life.
This lasted for a few days. It was not constant but it was very intense and frequent. Near the end of this period and after, I started to feel like a cleansed man. I still had other tearful moments but nothing like the initial intense mournful days. I have heard someone that I have grown to respect, Aurora Winter, refer to this as, “Tears are like Spring rains that come to wash away all the stuff left over from Winter so the Spring flowers can grow”.
“Tears are the silent language of grief.”
“There is a sacredness in tears.
They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.
They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.
They are messengers of overwhelming grief…
and unspeakable love.”
How I Attacked Grief
I have always been a very positive, glass half full type of person. So shortly after this period of emotional release I went on the Internet and assembled two lists of videos. One was made up of motivational/inspirational videos and the other grief-related videos. Initially, I put these videos together to assist me in dealing with my loss of Gretchen. They were meant to help me start to work through the grief process. But after these lists were completed I thought there were others out there who this would help. So I sent them to my family and close friends and told them to send this information to anyone they thought were going through some tough times and could be helped by this material.
(See the article titled Motivational and Grief-Oriented Videos)
This is how I ran into Aurora Winter, who is the author of From Heartbreak to Happiness®. This is the account of her feelings and reaction after she wakes up and finds her 33 year husband, who was also her business partner, dead in bed next to her. At that time they had a 4 year old son. Aurora went on to found the Grief Coaching Academy®, where she trains others to become grief coaches so they can start their own businesses providing coaching or counseling to clients who have suffered serious losses.
“He that conceals his grief
finds no remedy for it”. –Turkish Proverb
“To spare oneself from grief at all cost
can be achieved only at the price of total detachment,
which excludes the ability to experience happiness.”—Erich Fromm