By Elaine Schiman
This is only the third time I’ve written or spoken publicly about loss and grief. And let’s start by saying I’m no expert. The first time was a speech at my husband’s celebration of life in December 2017; the second was at Hospice Yukon’s Lights of Life ceremony in December 2018; and, this is the third. It’s hard to say why I do it. In a way, it seems self-defeating. Because no matter how much you write or talk about it to others, I believe the experience of grief is indecipherable to everyone but those who are already there.
Maybe I write at least partly for myself and others in the same “grieving” boat. Ultimately, we all will be here, so even though it seems an impossible task, I also write for those who have yet to go through this, to give them a tiny hint of what may come, at some point in their lives; to provide a sense of what other people might be going through; and some ideas about how they might help. Because some of it was surprising, at least to me.
My husband Greg died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest, on November 2nd, 2017, about 20 minutes after we kissed each other goodbye, as he went to meet a friend. He was 59.
I got the news from the RCMP, at the door of the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse, after the concert Greg and I had been attending together.
It was the worst moment of my life, a shock for which I felt entirely unprepared. It was followed by the worst hours, when I had to identify Greg’s body and telephone our sons.
On that evening, I was surprised, and I still am, at just how huge this thing we call grief is. It fills you up, knocks you over, shatters the good things you took for granted, and overshadows everything but itself.
When Greg died, I had already lost my parents. Letting them go was hard, but I still felt strong afterwards; I felt like myself.
It was different with Greg. Because he was my life partner for 30 years, because we spent nearly every day together, because we had many hopes and plans, his loss meant that my life, as it was, has almost disappeared. I’m still in the process of re-shaping it.
There were other surprises in store. One was that missing Greg has made me miss my parents more than ever before. Three of the people I am closest to, who know me best and love me most, are now gone. There is no way to get any of that back.
I have also been surprised at how becoming a widow is like becoming a parent, in a way. Before parenthood, you have no idea how this new little person will change you and your life and, afterwards, you cannot explain it others who are not parents. You just have to get there yourself. Grief is like that too. You are changed, you have feelings you never knew existed, the loneliness runs far deeper than you knew was possible. There is no way to explain it.
Grief hurts physically. I didn’t know that. I remember hearing about people who lived with chronic physical pain and wondered how they got through their days. I now have at least a partial sense of what it’s like to carry hurt around every day.
Grief makes you question and doubt many things. When I had thought about Greg’s and my deaths, it was more about whether our wills were up-to-date, or how Greg might do, if I died first. I never feared for my own ability to manage. It’s so much harder than I thought. In addition to missing Greg (his ideas and insights, his hugs, his sense of humour, our morning coffees, preparing our meals together, and so much more), in addition to feeling badly for him about everything he’s missing, I have the indelible knowledge that life can end in an instant. It can be a struggle to find purpose and to reconcile all the decisions that led you to where you are today.
Grief makes everything more difficult and complicated: going out in public, staying home, planning vacations, just waking up to face the day. It makes you doubt yourself in new ways. There have been many times since Greg died, when I have been certain I am screwing everything up terribly. On the positive side, when you manage something well, big or small, it’s encouraging. I notice the growth of new resolve and confidence.
I have been surprised to realize how inadequately I handled the grief of others in the past. Once I felt my own grief, I couldn’t help but remember all the others in my life who had lost dear ones. I had only paid lip service to their grief, maybe saying sorry or sending a card. But I had no idea what they were going through, or what they might need from me.
I have also been surprised at what I do need, and how much I appreciate the helping hands that come my way. Food brought over (a side note: sweets are not the best option; we received far too many to consume!), invites to dinner or events, steps and driveway magically shoveled, help lifting heavy things, emails and phone messages sharing fond memories of Greg, encouraging words about something I or my boys had done. If you know someone who is grieving, make those offers, even if they sometimes decline. The timing might not be right, but it will be, at some point. Try to be specific about how you want to help. So many people say: “Let me know if I can do anything”. (I’m sure I said that very thing.) Although meant well, this general offer puts an extra burden on the person who is grieving …to think of what you should do.
I’ve been surprised at who showed up and who didn’t. Some of the people who have been most kind and present for me were friends I hadn’t seen that much of or who I didn’t know that well. Others who I might have expected to be there were not. I don’t say this to blame anyone. Sometimes you don’t know what’s needed or you’re not in a position to help. I’m grateful for those who were able to be there for me.
I’ve been surprised about how many people are in grief. Because of my situation, people confide in me about their losses. I’m often shocked when someone, who seems fine, has lost a child or a spouse, or has an illness or some great sadness. You can’t tell from the outside, and it’s best to assume everyone is dealing with huge challenges we can’t see.
I’ve been surprised by the way grief affects family. At first, I imagined it would automatically bring us closer and we would be there for each other constantly. That does happen at times, but it’s not always the case. Loss and grief throw everyone for a loop; there are new stresses, anxieties and needs…and when we’re under pressure, who best to take it out on but our own family, those we love the most. I try to be forgiving with myself and my own failings… and also with everyone in my family. We are all struggling.
The last surprise I’ll mention is that all the things you need to do to help you live with grief, are the same things you should do just to live well. Sleep enough, eat healthy, exercise, go outside. Do things you love and spend time with your people. Accept hugs, smile and laugh, find joy and peace when you can. Be thankful for what you have. Live.
I don’t know if the grief ever goes away. I don’t think so. But I have learned that it does subside at times. At the beginning, it hurt so much, I couldn’t imagine going on with life in that kind of constant pain. But now, when I have a bad moment, or hour, or day, I know it won’t stay that way.
One of our sons got married in October. I was worried … I wasn’t sure how I’d manage at an event where Greg should so clearly have been there with me and our family. But the wedding was joyful. It was fun. We had a really good time. There were hard moments, but it was reassuring to me that we could celebrate as a family, remembering the one who was missing, but also appreciating all the ones who were there.
That’s what they tell you, the books, the counsellors, the friends, the videos on Facebook, the lovely people at Hospice Yukon. They tell you that you will find joy again. And it was good on that wedding day, to find out that does seem to be true. And I know that’s what Greg would want.
Elaine Schiman is a Whitehorse writer who has used the services of Hospice Yukon.