My first wife died of cancer. From initial diagnosis to death was five years. It wasn’t downhill all the way. After an initial six months of chemotherapy we had a full and healthy four years, toward the end of which we dared to use the word ‘cured.’ Then it came back with a vengeance, and even then, between rounds of chemo, we had a good time. The last ten weeks of her life, though, were bleak. She was in great pain relieved only by high doses of morphine. She went through a lot of horrific experiences during that time until she lapsed into a final coma and died gently three weeks later, her heart slowing down over a period of hours until it stopped. My faces was inches from her’s for hours, and I couldn’t detect the moment she passed.
When my mother died a couple of weeks ago–see my grieving blogs about this–my brother and I were in the room with her. She was fine one moment, and the next she was struggling for breath, passed out, and expired. “Expired” is an interesting word for death. One interpretation of it is giving up breath. Nobody likes to admit it, but Genesis says life begins with breath; and it ends when you no longer breathe–you expire. It’s also evocative of a library book that has ‘expired’ and needs to be returned to its shelf.
After my wife died, I was haunted by images of those final weeks in the hospital room watching her die by inches, the crises that would fill the room with frantic nurses and residents, her mental deterioration. Every time I thought of her I saw her as she was during that time. It was a shame. We married quite young and she was very beautiful and I had a mental album of images of her in all the amazing places we had been; yet I was haunted by those final weeks. Similarly, now when I pray for my mother I see her as she was in those last seconds struggling to breathe, wide-eyed and terrified.
Here’s how I am dealing with grief; this is what helped me when my first wife died, and it seems to be working for me again.
1. Immerse yourself in albums of photos of happier times. Spend hours doing this. Pour through them, especially the ones where both of you, whether it be a spouse, parent, sibling, child or close friend, are happy and healthy.
2. Choose one photo to carry with you, a picture that captures a moment you remember with great fondness. Keep it handy, and whenever you think of the person and start to get disturbing images in your mind of their end of life, take out the picture and study it. Remember in your heart what a treasure it is to have shared that particular moment together.
3. If you have film or video of happier times, watch them now. Yes, you’ll cry a lot, and it will hurt, but it will also cleanse your memory of sadder, more recent images. With videos, the first time you hear their voice can be painful, but persevere. You will come to find comfort in it. It’s why many people leave a deceased loved one’s voice on an answering machine, or save a voicemail of a deceased loved one.
4. If you have young children who have suffered the loss of a parent or sibling or close grandparent and have unfortunate memories of the passing, create a special photo album for them with pictures of them with the deceased loved one having good times. Leave space on each page for them to write something in, and encourage them to do so. Don’t ask them to share it with others; let them chose to do so on their own, or not.
For those of you who have lost someone violently or traumatically and were there to witness it; first, I am so sorry this happened to you, and I cannot imagine how that has impacted you. Second, I hope and pray that what I suggested above helps you with your grief for a loved one.