My wife was in bed. She’d been there for about three weeks with what we had been told was a back problem. One day the doctor came and took a blood sample. He soon communicated the results to me.
The doctor called me into a private office and told me he was sorry, but my wife had malignant melanoma. She probably had but a short time to live. I was shocked, dumbfounded and broke down crying, hardly believing what I was hearing. I asked him how long she had. Six months, perhaps a year.
Everybody dies. Diseases, accidents or old age claim everyone eventually. The death of the loved one may come from an accident or from natural causes such as age or disease. Of course, there is little one can do to prepare for accidents, except to try to prevent them. They happen, and we adapt to meet the crisis. Old age and disease are common visitors, and we do sometimes have warning that the person is nearing death.
Such events leave behind grieving widows, widowers, parents and children. This article is written as a result of some self-observations I noted as I passed through the various stages of grief.
The tragic message
The doctor quietly left me alone in the room. I stared out the window, struggling to grasp the significance and the implications of what I had been told, trying somehow to make some sort of reality out of it and get control of my emotions. My wife was waiting at home for me to return from the doctor’s with the test results. Somehow I had to tell her, but what could I say?
I drove the few minutes home, crying, and went right past the house without stopping. I parked and continued crying. Again, I drove by the house. This time my son saw the car from the window, so I drove in the driveway. I entered our bedroom and knelt by my wife. I put my head in her arms and sobbed. She said: “It’s all right, dear, I know. I’ve got cancer, haven’t I?” I said yes in return. At that moment, my mother and my brother and his wife arrived and walked into the room. They shared our sad news with us. How wonderful it is to have family around to comfort at times of grief.
Blood tests followed to confirm the first diagnosis. The hospital did bone scans to determine the extent of the disease. Then we as a family settled down to wait. Three months later, my wife died. During this period, my mother had moved in to help us. My brother and his family visited frequently and often stayed with us on weekends. The people from church rallied around and called on the phone, sent cards and visited until that became impractical. So it was a family time devoted to taking care of the one who was dying.
The attitude of the dying
Most people feel they would rather suffer themselves than see a mate or child suffer. The reason, often, is because they find the situation easier to accept and cope with somehow. Often the person dying is, in one sense, the most realistic and “comfortable” of all. Many times he or she quickly accepts what is happening, while those around — the family and friends — find themselves having a difficult time.
To illustrate the point: At one stage toward the end when my wife was close to dying, she asked a question that tore me up emotionally: “If I die, you will get married again, won’t you?” My reaction was to cry and tell her that I just couldn’t think about that now. But she had already thought through the course of events to their natural conclusion. (As I write, years later, I am again very happily married.)
Another thing she did was to sort out in her mind to whom she wanted to give her possessions. Again, it was difficult for me to comply to her request — to sit down with pen and paper and make a list detailing her desires. But I did, and followed through on those requests. She obviously was preparing everything in her mind for her death.
At one stage she said, “Don’t worry, dear, it won’t be long now before I die.” I can only conclude that her practical approach came out of a deep belief in God and his promises. I also have those beliefs, but being the one doing the nursing, I found such forthright and realistic statements difficult to handle.
Telling the children
My wife died peacefully in her sleep at 1:50 a.m. I was surprised at my calmness as I sat by the bed waiting for it to happen. I suppose that being around a terminally ill person prepares you for the inevitable to a certain extent. I woke my mother, who was nearby, and together we made preparations and tidied up the room whose walls had observed so much.
In the morning I woke my two sons. I held them both, as they sat on my knees, and told them that Mother had died in the night and she was not suffering any more. Their reactions differed. The elder cried a little, while the younger sat on my knee rocking back and forth and nodding his head, indicating, “Yes, I understand.” I felt it best then to send them out with Grandma to buy a newspaper. The undertaker had been contacted and arrangements made for him to come while they were gone. I felt it best that the boys be away at this time.
It is important that events have a natural conclusion. While funerals are emotional, they are necessary events for the whole family to experience. They signify the completion of the cycle of birth to death. The funeral is an act of finality. So our family laid to rest the loved one who died.
The stages of bereavement
Thinking back on it, I don’t remember anyone telling me of or advising me to read about the stages or emotions I would feel or pass through during bereavement, so I discovered the various stages one at a time. I am surprised how predictable the emotions and feelings are:
1) Shock and numbness. 2) Emotional turmoil. 3) Emptiness — loneliness, despair and depression. 4) Acceptance.
Let us explore each of these four stages briefly, understanding that they are not necessarily clearly defined stages or phases. Loss of sleep, lack of appetite and extremes of emotions are common throughout bereavement.
Shock and numbness
Despite preparation, it still comes as a shock that a person is about to die, either immediately or a little later. It’s a time I describe as a lack of feeling. By that I mean you are so deeply involved with your thoughts and feelings that events around you lose immediate significance. Deep preoccupation perhaps best describes the state you’re in. You may need reminding to eat or turn off the boiling kettle on the stove. This is nature’s sedative that allows you to do some necessary things — contact relatives, attend the loved one’s funeral, pay the bills and carry on immediately after the death.
A period of emotional turmoil follows the shock and numbness. One may feel such feelings and emotions as anger, resentment, guilt, bitterness or fear to varying degrees of intensity and duration. Many people conclude that because you have coped so well in the initial stages, you no longer need their emotional support, and they become unavailable when you most need it. I was grateful that my family and friends were there during the times I thought I was going crazy. Sometimes my thoughts were wild and extreme. Sympathetic ears and a few reassuring words were of inestimable help.
Up to two years later, I was still availing myself of friends to use as sounding boards for my feelings. Frequently, these chats were accompanied by tears. How profitable and beneficial these situations were, for they helped me come to terms with my emotions. I recall having many regrets at this time. Frequently the “If only I had…” feeling invaded me. But self-recrimination changes nothing. The opportunity to treat another loved one differently may present itself in the future.
Loneliness, despair and depression are typical emotions, and they stay around for quite a while. I remember my mother saying to me one day, “Son, I have experienced loneliness like you’ll never know.” I think I now understand how she felt after the death of her husband, and the void that followed.
Coming to terms with loneliness is important. I strongly felt that I had to survive and make it on my own doing the daily physical things. I felt equally strongly about coming to terms with loneliness. You must learn to live with it and be careful not to avoid it by leaning too heavily on someone or something else.
Sometimes people lean on others or use alcohol to blunt loneliness. Extreme caution needs to be taken, especially with alcohol. You don’t want to become dependent on a bottle, nor do you want to wear out your welcome with friends. Remember, the bereavement process takes time. Don’t be impatient with it.
I call the final stage acceptance. This is when you’ve done all your crying, grieving and fretting. You’re basically on an even keel again and your emotions have settled to an acceptable equilibrium. You will still feel lonely and miss the person. That’s to be expected, for you will never be the same again as a result of bereavement. You will, though, come to accept the status quo in time.
Perhaps the surest sign that you are recovering is when you begin to take an interest in life again. You have a renewed spark to do things you haven’t done for a long time. For me, it was playing squash. For months I had lost all interest in playing. Eventually, the interest returned as I began to feel more normal again.
In the past, people followed the expected social custom of mourning. In many respects this social timetable fit closely the natural progression of grief. Today, in our fast-paced and busy lives, modern society leaves little room for the time-consuming and natural process of grief. I think it would be wise to take a page out of the past and consider it.
A time not to make decisions
Too often today people try to rush this natural process and fill the void that has been created in their lives. People have sold their homes and moved or made rash decisions that they have regretted. Sometimes such decisions are financially urgent and necessary. Often they are not. I know of cases where widows and widowers married too soon after the death of a mate. They were not over the deaths yet and ended up making tragic mistakes by acting in haste.
I do not subscribe to a return to Victorian rigidity, but I do advocate caution. There ought to be respect for the dead and their memory for a suitable time. I personally feel it takes about one year. Others may feel a shorter time is acceptable. The Bible does not give any specific length of time for mourning. In many instances, though, great or grievous mourning took place (Genesis 50:11). The important thing is to be sure you are emotionally over your first marriage before entering a new phase in your life, such as dating or another marriage. Be sure you really feel like doing something before you do it.
Speaking from experience, I found it convenient not to date until two years had passed after my wife died. When I did, it came naturally. I had been encouraged earlier by well-meaning colleagues and friends to get dating again. I was advised I didn’t owe my past wife anything and that I should feel free to date. The latter statement may have been true, but the fact that I just did not feel ready was sufficient reason not to do it. So I did not! I found it extremely embarrassing simply contemplating the thought of asking someone out for a date.
Slowly, a bit at a time, I came to the place where I wanted some female company. I began dating a few women that I had gotten to know through a friend in a similar situation. One of those women eventually became my wife.
What do you say?
People feel awkward or embarrassed around a grieving person. They don’t know what to say. They don’t want to upset the bereaved, but they want to say something. I clearly remember a couple who wanted to give me their condolences but did not want to upset me. They were talking to my brother, and he advised them to go ahead, as I was standing nearby. So they came over and saw me. During our brief conversation, I was overwhelmed with my feelings and began crying. I know it was embarrassing for them, but it was good for me.
People ought not to feel they need say much at all. “I’m sorry” or “You have our sympathy” is fine. If the person cries, we ought to recognize that this is normal and not feel responsible for the crying because we spoke. The person will probably cry many times initially, but I know that a simple word of sympathy or encouragement is appreciated.
Death is a part of life that either is or will be common to all (Hebrews 9:27). We do not often see the growth that can come from some experiences until they are over. Rising to the occasion and overcoming produces character. We should expect trials, for they will come (1 Peter 4:12).
God also tells us that he will not test us beyond our ability to stand a trial (1 Corinthians 10:13). He also says there is a resurrection and that our loved ones will stand again (1 Corinthians 15:50-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). It makes it much easier, while we lick our wounds and recover from our hurts, to know the divine purpose God has for all humanity!