Carole Carson: Good grief
Maybe exceptional people reach their senior years without losing a loved one. In April, I joined the 700,0000 women in the U.S. who become widows each year.
Mental health experts regard the loss of a spouse as requiring — even demanding — one of life’s biggest transitions. As those of us who’ve gone through this experience can testify, we don’t need their expertise to validate the enormous impact of bereavement. We know what it feels like to have the rug pulled out from under us.
LOSING HALF MY MEMORY
One of the unpredictable consequences of losing my spouse involved memory. Over time, my husband and I unconsciously divided our collective memories. For example, he remembered what needed fixing, oiling, and tuning up. He also kept track of finances.
I, on the other hand, remembered the details of conversations, the subtleties of relationships, and what items I bought at which stores (and whether the merchandise was on sale). I also remembered birthdays and special occasions.
Missing half my memory is challenging, but equally difficult is finding a response when my official status is requested. The standard options — married, divorced, or widowed — don’t seem to fit.
“Married but my spouse is deceased” is more accurate. It describes my mindset during the transition from 30 years of marriage to being single.
On the larger issue of dealing with grief, I’ve found no checklist that I can tick off to fully recover. I can’t get over my loss any more than I could get over an amputation. Once the limb is gone, it doesn’t grow back.
According to Patrick O’Hearn, a psychologist who specializes in grief counseling, the best I can do is find a new center of gravity. Integrating the loss into my remaining lifespan is the work of good grief.
GOOD GRIEF UNLEASHES GROWTH
O’Hearn goes on to assure us that good grief “can unleash profound spiritual and emotional growth,” and adds, “not that you know that when you’re in it.”
O’Hearn also asserts that good grief humanizes us and makes us more sympathetic to others’ losses. He also believes that allowing ourselves to be consoled is a sacred event — it blesses both the mourner and the comforter.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, who chose to go back to work after the devastating death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, said that “when I can, I want to choose life and meaning” over lost moments of “void” and “emptiness.”
Her words resonate deeply with me, especially the phrase “when I can.” Like her, I sometimes give in to overwhelming sadness and weep. But then the sun shines through the clouds again, and I’m back.
After four months of reflection, I’ve concluded that grief is the price we pay for loving, and though steep, that price is well worth the cost. Also, O’Hearn is right about grief triggering growth.
I’m reinventing myself as I create a new life in France. I also have a greater appreciation for my friends and family, both here and back in the U.S. I have a keener awareness of how fragile and short life is, and I remember to give thanks that I am alive when I awake each day. I feel stronger and more resilient because of what I’ve faced and overcome.
Most surprisingly, my health has dramatically improved — I no longer take 80% of the prescriptions I previously needed.
Moreover, I don’t sweat the small stuff because the love of friends and family is all that really matters. Possessions mean less to me than ever, and I think I’ve learned to be kinder to others who suffer a loss. Until now, I didn’t really understand what they go through. In retrospect, I am embarrassed at my callousness.
I would not have chosen to be alone at this stage of my life. I miss my best friend terribly. However, I also know that I’ll become a better person through the experience. This will be my reward for good grief.
Carole Carson, Montpellier, France, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact her at email@example.com
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