By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
My neighbor was delighted in her new life after her husband of 55 years died. I was a bit surprised. Most people don’t respond in that way. It always seemed this lovely pair were joined at the hip and enjoyed each other’s company more than anyone else’s. She didn’t like it when friends tried to tell her how hard it was going to be for her to live without her mate. She thought she was doing just fine and would continue to do so. I remained silent and just listened as she spoke of the things she finally got to do for herself, without first having to ask her husband’s opinion, or be told that it was his job, or to wait until he was ready.
That positive attitude of hers lasted about a month. She soon wearied making all the decisions alone, eating by herself, and doing all the chores without help. Change became a constant reminder that the love of her life was gone.
My elderly mother lived with us for four years. Everything in my life was scheduled to fit around her needs. When she died abruptly my life was thrown off balance. I was accustomed to the routine that had been created. I knew what to expect and what I knew what I needed to do. I knew what I should have on hand to accomplish all the required expectations.
All of a sudden my life no longer had a road map. I was freed from the somewhat burdensome hold that entwined my mother to me. Others thought I should be happy to have my life back. But that wasn’t my first insight. My identity had become wrapped up in my role as her caretaker. Who was I now that I no longer had that responsibility? Even though I fill many other roles, she had become my number one priority. Change ripped my identity from me and challenged me to embrace whoever else I am now that she is gone.
Sydney J. Harris states it well: “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.”
There are two changes that we are talking about. One is the event itself. The other is the change that happens in us or to us. Loss encompasses both kinds of change. They go hand in hand. There is no getting around this. When someone departs from our lives the landscape has changed. Things will be different. And secondary losses ooze out of the primary loss. Someone else may do the driving or the cooking or the banking or the gardening. There may be one less child to attend to or nurture. You may have to move to a new location. The list of secondary losses is endless. Change can be a huge disruption in our psyche.
I’ve become a big fan of denial. I see it as a friend who is there for us to protect us from reality until we are ready to face the truth that our lives have changed whether we like it or not. I wanted to deny that my life would change. I hated those sweet self help books that try to sugar coat all the hard stuff. I didn’t want to feel good about what was happening. I didn’t want to hear my own words “There is something good in everything. We just have to look for it.” I wanted the right to be resentful, confused, skeptical, angry, and even vengeful. I would get to the joyful and grateful part but not until I was ready.
When our housemate of 22 years died a few weeks ago I encountered more change. One simple example was that had she sat in the same place at the head of the dinner table for all those years. Now when I come to the table and someone else is occupying that seat I hear myself saying, “Something’s not right here. That’s Jo’s place. You’ll have to move.”
With every secondary loss there will be a change for us to have to face. When there are too many changes that happen in a short period it can be very disorienting. I remember back in the 80’s and 90’s when friends were dying of AIDS. Sometimes there were 2-3 memorial services a week to attend. It was hard to fully be present to the ones still alive when you knew that death would soon take them as well. In this case we had to acknowledge that change alone was not going to bring us to a higher level of consciousness and movement was not always forward. It could easily offer dysfunctional detachment as a form of self-protection. As caregivers and friends we had to confront the truth that became evident over and over: we are all going to die and life is not always fair. This change was offering us the opportunity to say “Yes” to life because we had learned how precious and finite life is. We had to be willing to love more fully. Live more fully and, yes, grieve more fully.
If you change the way you look at things,
the things you look at change.
All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.