Saturday, April 27, 2019

GOOD GRIEF, "My Story"

On September 1, 2014, at 12: 25 a.m., I lost my husband, friend, and partner of 46 years. He was also a great dad to our daughter for 45 of those years. He was 69 years old and had enjoyed many years of retirement while I continued working. During this time, our roles shifted, and he took over the household tasks: doing the dishes, clothes washing, bed making, banking, and was the financial manager and cheerleader for me and my daughter.

My husband passed away in bed as he slept right next to me. The only thing that woke me was the snoring for which I turned and shoved at his shoulder — annoyed that I was losing sleep. I got no response and immediately became alarmed. I leapt from my side of the bed to run to the other side, to shake him and try to rouse him…with no success.

My daughter ran from her bedroom and started CPR while I called 911.

We are both nurses, so we did our routine CPR activity (pushing on his chest to help his heart beat and breathing into his mouth to bring air to his lungs), but this time with a more personal impact.

The emergency medical team (EMTs) arrived quickly, but it seemed to take forever. Time goes slowly during critical events such as this. I remember running down the stairs and out the door to flag down the team; the numbering of our town homes does not follow a logical order to enable it to be easily found. They took over the job of trying to save Fred’s life, but he did not respond to their efforts.

They could not get air into Fred’s lungs nor a breathing tube inserted to use as an airway, all bad signs. I requested a pause in CPR at one point to check his heart monitor (for heart rhythm) and breathing — there was no response. No heartbeat, no breathing — my husband was gone.

My daughter and I looked deep into each other’s eyes and nodded in agreement, deciding to honor my husband’s wishes of no heroic treatment in cases like this, as he had stated many times in the past. A hard decision to make when we could see him lying there.

We knew he was already gone, but we still wanted him back with every part of our being. When we shared our decision to stop CPR with the EMT leader, she contacted the hospital MD, and the lifesaving efforts ceased.

The coroner was also contacted, routine for deaths at home. We were lucky we did not have an obstacle with the coroner to deal with… my husband was under the care of a physician, and his medical history was evident.

When I was asked about which funeral home I would be using, I could not think of an answer. I criticized myself for not knowing the name of the funeral home our family used. I should know this, I told myself.

Then I remembered its location. The EMT leader knew the name and the phone number. She contacted the funeral home for us and gave us the time they would arrive to pick up the body. We said our goodbyes and thanked them for all their care.

The hardest part of this was to wait in the stillness after they all left — just the three of us: wife, daughter and the body of our loved one lying in the bed upstairs.

We went upstairs to talk to him and say our last goodbyes, to touch, to grieve together and to cry. I kissed his forehead and stroked his face, knowing that this would be the last kiss and last touch.

I was crushed. This event was unexpected — a total shock. We had survived past stressful events with him, when he had strokes and seizures, but he always recovered. This time was different, he was gone from us forever. We were in shock and felt numb. The loss of Fred’s body, spirit, and energetic presence was so profound.

As I’ve mentioned, I am a nurse and worked in critical care at one time in my career for 12 1/2 years; I have been at the bedside when death came quietly, sometimes not so quietly, to claim a patient — another person’s loved one. I have assisted family members doing postmortem care at the bedside after a death.

I have cared for critically ill adults and even “predicted” that they would die on my shift. Although I kept this to myself, it enabled me to suggest that the family member should stay a while longer. I have allowed the family to be present during the “code” of their family member, but only if this was their wish. I have supported nursing students through the patient’s dying experience, including postmortem care.

Even after all this, I was not prepared when death took my husband. I was still faced with the same questions that I helped so many others to find answers to when they faced the loss of their loved one: What to do first? Whom to contact? What about work? How is Bonnie, my daughter, taking this?

So many decisions to make…it was overwhelming. The only thing I could do was one thing at a time: one breath, one step — and then another.

The first week, we did all the things that needed to be done immediately: contact family and close friends, sharing the loss as well as the plan to honor his wishes.

First and foremost, we wanted to honor his wishes to be cremated and have his ashes distributed at Daytona Beach, Florida. So, we made the arrangements with the funeral home for cremation, death certificates, payment, etc. Fred also wanted no viewing or memorial.

After this, we packed up and drove from Pennsylvania to Florida. My daughter drove the whole way down and back. We spent some time in silence. We also rehashed the details of his death, trying to understand what happened, whether we missed something, or if we could have done something more.

We reminisced about the good times and the memories. We cried sometimes and used up many tissues. Other times, we shared smiles and laughter.

It took two days to arrive in Florida. When we rode into Daytona Beach, the first sight we saw was a rainbow over the ocean. We spotted this as it was developing, and we pulled the car into a parking lot to take a few photos. It seemed a sign of hope and confirmation that we were doing what we were supposed to do, bringing him to the place he loved.

We’ve been to Daytona on vacation for many years, and it felt like coming home. This time we stayed in a motel we had never stayed in before. We weren’t ready to revisit our usual accommodations.

We spent two days thinking about what to do next and visited some of the favorite eating/drinking places he loved. When we shared our loss with one of the waitresses at a place we frequented, she hugged us both, with tears in her eyes. We felt comforted. She shared the impending loss of her grandmother; she was glad to talk to someone who knew about loss…a shared experience.

Finally, we decided to have our ritual ceremony at the beach near the lighthouse he loved to climb. He could no longer make the climb the last couple of years due to his health. We did this last act of love for him with a celebration on the beach — just the two of us. My daughter created a sand angel next to the heart we traced in the sand with his name, the dates of birth and death, flowers from his mother and sister, and his favorite sandals. A cloud in the distance out in the ocean had visible rain pouring down — as though the universe cried with us, sharing our pain. We have a photo of this, including the sand display; we felt Fred’s spirit come to rest in the place he loved so much.

As we stood side-by-side, knee-deep in water, we spilled his ashes into the Atlantic Ocean, surprised at what happened.

“They are sinking,” I said. “I thought they were supposed to float.”

No one tells you that these ashes are different than the typical ashes from a fireplace. These ashes were the bone fragments of what remained of Fred — a weight of over 9 pounds.

Another way we paid tribute to my husband was to visit his favorite place in Daytona Beach — the Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse. We arranged for a memorial brick to be placed on this historic site’s walkway in his memory. (Weeks later, we received a small remembrance brick to keep with us.)

As we did this, we remembered our last trip to Daytona as a threesome, just a little over three months before his death. The first week he spent with Bonnie and her friend, who left at the end of the week.

I followed, a week later, to join Bonnie and Fred. We had a great time as usual. Bonnie and I didn’t think we’d return so soon and under such sad circumstances. After a week away from home, taking care of this sad business, we returned to our new reality: two, rather than three of us. The next week we spent comforting each other, doing routine chores and lots of paperwork resulting from the loss of a spouse.

Looking back, I remember well our last day as husband and wife. We spent the day together doing errands, then visited the reservoir near us to check the water level. We have water stock, and this was something he kept track of, as well as the share price. I wasn’t feeling very well and did not go out to dinner when he asked me to, so he visited his favorite off-track betting site, watched a few horse races, and had a bite to eat. Things progressed as usual at home. We never thought these would be our last moments together.

I was glad that our whole last week together was filled with wonderful memories like this. He ate all the special foods he liked (courtesy of his daughter), and he went to the places he loved to go. Still, we wish we could have had more time, did things differently, said things more lovingly, been better, etc.….

The door closed on this chapter of my life, joined together with my husband. Another door opened, forcing me to step through alone, cautiously and reluctantly into the unknown, not knowing what to expect, nor how to survive.

So, I tried to re-establish a life of normalcy in a life suddenly, drastically changed through the loss of a life force that had accompanied me throughout most of my life. I felt this loss of Fred keenly at first, but I tried hard to “put on a good front,” “to fake it till I made it.” Fortunately, I was supported by friends, colleagues, and even strangers I met who somehow had heard the news of the loss. They sent cards, called by phone, made personal visits. These were frequent at first, but soon tapered off. I did not live alone nor need to pick up the pieces of a broken life by myself. I was lucky that my daughter lived with me, and we had a shared experience to bind us as we moved forward.

I was also fortunate that I had a deeper strength that I could draw from — my faith. Some call this a belief in God, while others may call this source of strength by another name.

To sustain this normalcy, I continued working from September, when Fred died, until I retired in January. This time was fraught with anxiety, fear, conflict, love, comfort and caring — to name only a few emotions. As time went by, I was progressively left to my own devices, often adrift, wondering what to do.

My daughter had planned a vacation to Hawaii in January with a friend and decided for me to come along, so I would not be left alone at home. I struggled on this vacation, feeling guilty about going, yet happy for the opportunity. I kept wondering how my husband would have enjoyed this or that. Guilt followed me everywhere, as the learning and growing process continued.

My daughter and I have gone on many learning trips in the past and are already nurse coaches. I love learning. My daughter and I signed up for a course on Transpersonal Coaching in New York for April — only seven months after our loss.

While there, we practiced awareness exercises, just as we had in other courses, but this time it was different. One exercise we did was to be guided to seek our wisdom figure to answer a question we had. I had trouble deciding on my question, so I started the experience with just an open mind and heart.

As I got to the part of the experience where I was to meet my wisdom figure, I saw a blurred figure moving toward me, with no specific shape at first. I saw the form changing, becoming white and slender. I kept watching. More details evolved, yet not so many that a face was recognizable.

When the figure was close enough to touch, I felt extreme longing. I reached out with both arms and turned my head to the left to lay it on the chest of the figure — an action I’ve done frequently in the past when hugging my husband. My hands seemed to bump into white, wing-like structures that enfolded me. As I embraced the figure, he embraced me.

The figure spoke to me, “It’s going to be OK.”

I had been wanting a hug from my husband, and I had gotten it. I fought accepting this at first, then let go of my unworthiness and was grateful it had happened.

The healing continues but is not over.

It’s been over three years since the loss of my husband — but it feels like only yesterday at times. In one sense, time froze that fateful day; and yet, time still passed, 24 hours in each day ticking away as usual. Days moved into weeks, then into months, and now years.

I had no control over time. Neither will you — even if you try. I continue to take a few steps forward and then slip a few steps backward in my healing journey. Sometimes, I get stuck for a while. Other times, I make much progress and growth. The growth phase has been scary. I often wanted to stay in the past, more comfortable, and less daunting than moving forward. But, forward I moved each minute, each hour, each day, continually.

I asked, “Why?”

I wanted one more day. I was angry, sad, confused, lost and lonely. As time passed, the sorrow eased. Then came the holidays, special events, and other things that exposed my feelings of grief and loss again. I keenly felt the heartache and relived the pain, only to work through the healing…yet again and again.

You see, I went through the grieving process in my own unique way, as you will, too. Guess what? I learned a lot. I am grateful for my daughter’s invaluable love and caring. Bonnie is a beautiful, empathetic young woman who is also going through this journey of grief and loss in her own special way.

You and I, we are not alone. I am not different from anyone else in having to experience sorrow. I have a story of loss. Everyone eventually does.

In this book, I have shared some of the experiences that helped me heal on my journey through grief and loss. I hope you find comfort in the stories and use some of tips I discovered to help you when you are stuck on your healing journey and find it hard to move forward.


With her permission, I will be serializing here nurse Cheryl Barrett's valuable book on transcending grief. I had the pleasure of being her coach and editor through my Write Your Book with Me enterprise. 

Douglas Winslow Cooper, PhD

Perhaps the easiest way to obtain a copy of her book, published by Outskirts Press, is through this Amazon link: 

No comments:

Post a Comment