Support group members and facilitators helped me to ask the tough questions. Dedicated to Steve and Diane.
Diana M. Martin has been an adjunct professor in The Writing and Reading Center at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, for over 15 years. She has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction and has published articles in the areas of parenting, health and cultural arts. When her husband lost his battle with cancer of unknown primary, later identified as bile duct cancer, she became the sole caregiver for their adult son, Alex, who is autistic.
The bereavement support group I have been attending for more than a year now is coming to an end. It met once a week on a Monday night for 90 minutes, but it often lasted longer than that. All of us were over 50 years old and had lost a spouse within the past year or two. Many of us were married to our high school sweetheart or had been in marriages which lasted over 20 years. The amount of grief that room held was immeasurable.
I think most of us are on our way to coping better, though I wonder how I will make it through the second year without them. The facilitators, widows themselves, asked the hard questions that always made me think. Their sense of compassion, coupled with humor, made me laugh. Both volunteer facilitators had lead bereavement groups for years and were especially well-trained. I wondered how they could lead a group of emotionally and physically devastated people year after year and not break down. I hope that this contributed to their own healing. Lucky for me, and the members in the group who I hope to meet with on a more casual basis, they knew that we would and could help each other. Even when I was angry, exhausted, emotionally drained, sick, fed up or just silly, I never felt judged. This is only a small capsule of what I learned from them and the other group members:
1. It is OK to keep your wedding ring on for as long as you need to. Legally the marriage is over, but emotionally it will be forever a part of us. So move the ring to the other hand, take the stones out and make a new setting, continue to wear it or not. There are days when I don't wear my rings and days when I do. It depends on how I feel. I'm not worried right now about the message I am sending by wearing them or not.
2. It is OK to admit that the happiest time in your life was when you were with this person and that you think you may never find this happiness again. After more than 20 years of marriage, it's not unusual to think you will never find another love. I said this in the group and one of the facilitators replied that it could be possible to find someone with whom you could even have a deeper relationship. That made me think.
3. You are not the same. Your life has been profoundly changed. It may take some time to figure out who you are without this person. You were once part of a team that has been dissolved. It's OK take some time off, to be confused and to try new things and to not know what the heck you are doing.
4. Triggers. They come in all forms. Just when you think you've mastered living in the same house, hearing that special song, seeing the refrigerator magnet with his/her picture without sobbing, something else triggers an epic meltdown. I thought that if I sold the house, there would be fewer reminders. The facilitator pointed out that what triggers us is more emotional than material. A location change may not be a panacea because our feelings reside within us wherever we go.
5. On that note, if you are ready to date, that person needs to accept the photos on the wall of your loved one. One of the facilitators actually lives in the same house she and her deceased husband shared with her new husband. They are both widows and have photos of their spouses displayed. They openly talk about their prior marriages and each has an understanding and mutual respect for the other's experiences.
6. The people you will meet in a bereavement group will know you better than you know yourself. They will teach you how to be resilient - something you probably already are - and give you honest feedback. They are the light that shines in between the brokenness. If I am blessed, these people will be my friends for life.
So, now I will have to ask the tough questions like: Why do you think you did that? Would you have done that if your spouse was alive? What would your spouse have wanted you to do? How does that make you feel? I can answer that one. It makes me feel uneasy, a little afraid, but hopeful. I think.