A Fresh Wave of Grief

As we inch closer to Thanksgiving, grief is an unrelenting heaviness in my chest. I’m keeping busy—working during the day and socializing in the evenings. In the past week, I’ve had dinner with friends twice, gone to a movie with another friend, and have plans to meet someone else for a drink tonight. I’m working out, chanting, and maintaining all my self-care routines. But the weight in my chest is always there, ebbing and flowing, yet never quite ceasing.

This is not what I expected grief to feel like 22 weeks out. A couple months ago, I felt much lighter than I do now. I was grieving, but there was not a constant weight in my chest. I knew from personal experience with previous losses and from my reading about grief that there would be grief spikes in the future, but I did not expect a solid month of heaviness in my chest with no indication that it will let up soon. Maybe the holidays have brought on this current wave of heavy grief, or maybe the fact that the September celebration of life events, which had been focal points for me through the summer, are done has freed up my mind to fixate more on Tom being gone.

“Tom is dead” runs as a refrain through my head all the time, so my day looks like this: I drink my coffee (Tom is dead). I walk the dogs (Tom is dead). I work out (Tom is dead). I shower (Tom is dead). I take the bus to work (Tom is dead). I teach class (Tom is dead). And the day goes on like that, with that low-level whispered reminder of my loss always appended to whatever activity I’m doing.

I stop by his bench every morning when I walk the dogs and sit for a few minutes. The dogs have learned to be quiet and they typically stand guard, Luna facing to the west and Woodrow the east, while I chat with Tom. This morning, I found myself sobbing, running my hand over the plaque on the back of the bench commemorating him. Then I came home, opened the front door to the living room with the curtain partitioning off the space that I turned into a bedroom when he came home after his stroke. I still expect to see him in bed and hear him say, “Hey, babe, how was the walk?” But I am greeted with silence.

When I look at any photo of him, I zero in on his hands and can almost feel my hand in his. For the first week after he had his stroke in June 2020, I was at the hospital with him from 8 am to 8 pm, the entire stretch of visiting hours, and held his right hand the whole time (his left was paralyzed) except when he was doing PT and OT. He couldn’t talk because he was intubated and he was a man of few words anyway, so most of those twelve hours a day were spent with me simply holding his hand in silence. That may sound dreadful, but it felt oddly purposeful to me. I think because of my singular focus on holding his hand, the part of my brain that mapped Tom’s hand became intricately detailed. I am grateful for that intricate mapping and my ability to still feel his hand around mine even with him gone. In this current wave of grief, I often find myself simply sitting, feeling his now-gone hand intertwined with mine.

I know this will pass. I am still turning toward and relaxing into grief. I am savoring the weight in my chest right now, understanding it as a testament to the joy Tom and I shared. As I’ve said before, I feel happiness and even joy along with the sadness of grief. I have laughed and truly enjoyed myself in the classroom and in all my social engagements recently (Tom is dead). My appetite is finally coming back (Tom is dead). I know this will pass but I can’t imagine not feeling this heaviness (Tom is dead).

Emily Kwong’s recent NPR interview with psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor, who studies how grief affects the brain, helped me understand some of what I am experiencing. O’Connor says, “When we have the experience of being in a relationship, the sense of who we are is bound up with that other person. The word sibling, the word spouse implies two people. And so when the other person is gone, we suddenly have to learn a totally new set of rules to operate in the world.” As Tom’s around-the-clock caregiver during the last year of his life, I was preoccupied with him 24/7 for an entire year. Before that, we were like most other long-term partners: we woke up together, had coffee together, chatted about our plans for the day, checked in multiple times during the day via text or phone, had dinner together, went to bed together. A seemingly endless list of daily decisions I made involved thinking of Tom’s preferences or needs: what to make for dinner, what groceries to buy, how to organize and store items, when to walk the dogs or workout, what to wear. With him gone, all of these thought processes and habits need to change, but they still feel wired into me. Just as I can still feel the callouses on his hand, my brain still wants me to cook his favorite foods or to make sure there’s a box of tissues on the top right corner of his desk so he can reach it.

O’Connor says this is normal. She describes grieving as a process of learning and adapting. She says the grief never goes away, but the brain adapts to it being there so that it isn’t disruptive on a regular basis. I will likely get to a point where the refrain “Tom is dead” isn’t appended to everything or is a quieter refrain that I sometimes don’t even hear. But that won’t happen today (Tom is dead).

Asking for What I Need

I have been struck over and over since my husband died by how individualized grief is and what people experiencing grief need and want. In one meeting of my grief support group, for example, I shared how much I appreciated that people were still sending flowers, months after Tom died. Another participant immediately exclaimed, “I hated getting flowers right after my person died and I hate it even more if they arrive now! Who wants a vase of dying flowers in the house when your loved once just died?” We took an informal poll of the folks at the support group meeting and found that some folks wanted flowers, some wanted certain kinds of flowers (a potted plant, for example, rather than a bouquet in a vase), and some did not want flowers at all.

I could share dozens of other examples. One person wants food to just show up, while another hates not being asked what her food preferences are. Some folks want phone calls, while another feels they are intrusive. I want to be mostly alone for the holidays, while others dread being alone during the holidays.

It’s not intuitive. Even those of us who have experienced profound loss may not know what we need, let alone what someone else grieving needs in any given moment. I find what I want and need changes from month to month, week to week, day to day. (I seem to never stop appreciating flowers, though.) I think that because it’s so hard to know what a person who is grieving wants or needs, many people err on the side of holding back, not wanting to “be a bother.” I’ve had a few people tell me that they didn’t want to reach out to me immediately after Tom died because they thought I might be overwhelmed with cards, flowers, calls, and visitors. I wasn’t overwhelmed by those things and appreciated every single one of them, but I know from my support group interactions that some widows are overwhelmed by those things. How could the people who held back from reaching out to me know which camp I was in?

Yet I see a lot of anger among grieving people that others don’t know what they need or want. I hear people in my support groups say, “Everyone has abandoned me. They should know I don’t want to be alone right now.” Just as often I hear people say, “I keep getting invited to things I don’t want to do. They should know I just want to be left alone right now.” But how could others know this if we don’t communicate our needs?

I realized early on that many people wanted to support me but didn’t know how, so I posted on Facebook that I appreciated all the cards, flowers, calls, and visits, and that I hoped they would continue. I’ve not simply waited for folks who didn’t reach out to me to do so; in many cases, I’ve reached out to folks I wanted to hear from by email or text and said, “My husband died and I’ve found a lot of comfort in sitting on my porch with a friend and a glass of wine. Would you be able to come over and have wine with me next Tuesday?” or something similar. No one has turned me down yet! Someone else said they wanted to take me out to dinner and I told them I’ve been finding my way back to cooking and would prefer to make us dinner; they were happy to oblige me.

Why don’t people ask for what they need more often? Why do we feel that others “should know” what we want? Why is this so hard? I think it’s because we’re not used to it. We don’t see it modeled very often. We mistakenly think that if someone really loves us, they should know what we want or need. But given that the needs of grieving people vary so much, I think it’s unreasonable to assume others should know what we want. And even if we believe they should, what’s the harm in making our needs explicit so there’s no misunderstanding or misinterpretation?

In an insightful article for Medium, writer May Pang says that asking for what we need is difficult because we risk rejection when we make our needs clear. The irony is that by not taking that risk, we risk not getting what we need from someone who probably wants to give us what we need; and if this happens multiple times or even just once at a crucial time of need, the entire relationship can be jeopardized. Pang suggests that not asking for what we need is part of a mental pattern many of us have internalized—in other words, it’s a habit, and as we all know, breaking a habit is hard. To break that habit, Pang challenged herself to make her needs known for 30 days. In the course of those 30 days, she learned how to figure out what she needed and how to ask for it in ways that felt good to her and the person she was asking.

Here are a few examples of me asking for what I need recently:

  1. My evenings were feeling fragmented and I figured out that one reason for that was my daughter showing up at a different time each night to walk the dogs. When she shows up, I stop whatever I’m doing to visit with her for a few minutes. Once I figured out I needed her to show up at a consistent time every night, I shared this with her and to my surprise, she said, “Yeah, that would actually help me, too.”
  2. A dear friend calls me regularly and leaves voice messages which I really appreciate, but I seldom have the energy to return her calls. I told her how much I appreciate the messages and that I hope they will continue and that she will understand that my not calling back simply means I’m emotionally exhausted.
  3. I’ve realized that I love having visitors for about 60-90 minutes and that at minute 91, I feel cranky. Now when people say they are coming over, I say, “I can’t wait to see you. Let’s plan for 90 minutes, because that seems to be all I can handle at this point.”
  4. Some colleagues were trying to make a decision on something and asked me to weigh in on it. I told them I didn’t have the mental energy to come up with a meaningful recommendation. They were gracious and let me off the hook.
  5. I was sharing with a loved one that my grieving seems to be spiking a bit lately and they immediately went into problem-solving mode. I said, “I know you’re just trying to help, but I just want you to listen right now.”

Identifying what we need and asking for it is actually a good practice, I think, whether we are grieving or not. No one can read our minds.

Moving Forward with My One Regret

In all the reading, listening, and reflecting I’ve done on grief, I’ve found that it is typical to feel regret when someone dies. Folks often wish they had spent more time with the person who died, or been more patient, or approached a particular situation with them differently. I am lucky to feel relatively little of this, in part because the fact that Tom’s recovery took place during the pandemic meant that I was home with him and we were together nearly 24/7 for the entirety of the time between his stroke and death. It simply isn’t possible for me to have spent more time with him. I also am at peace with the caregiving I gave him, feeling very proud of the high level of care I was able to give.

There is one regret I find coming up with this new wave of grief I am experiencing: wishing I had responded differently to his pain. He was in constant pain. One particularly cruel aspect of his paralysis is that although he couldn’t control his left side, he could still feel intense pain in it. His left leg and arm were always painful in some way. Simply brushing against his left arm would cause him to wince violently. His left leg was wracked by excruciating muscle and nerve spasms. He also had headaches from both the stroke and his multiple skull surgeries, and pain in his right knee because his right leg had to work so hard to bear weight that his right leg couldn’t handle during PT sessions and the brief periods when he walked. His leg brace caused chafing all along his lower left leg and foot. He regularly experienced nausea and indigestion as side effects of his 14+ medications. On top of all that, he had sinus issues and a bit of arthritis, neither of which had anything to do with this stroke, but just piled aches and nuisance discomfort on top.

It simply wasn’t possible to medicate all that pain away and although he seldom complained, it was apparent that he was always in pain. He moved gingerly or sucked in his breath if I jostled his left arm or leg or withdrew into quiet resignation. It was hard to watch.

My typical response took two forms: One was to try to fix it. I badgered his doctors about pain relief medications and spent endless hours research non-medical treatments online. The other response was to try to control Tom’s reactions to his pain, making suggestions about what he should do or offering to make him some tea; sometimes those suggestions and offers veered into nagging territory. That would sometimes led to us bickering about the best way to deal with his pain. The most difficult arguments occurred when we bumped up against the cognitive changes Tom experienced after his stroke—sometimes he didn’t understand the logic connecting some medications to particular types of pain relief, for example, or he didn’t remember that some of his pain was caused by his brain even though he felt it in a limb. I would get frustrated and fixate on making him understand the logic, even drawing diagrams on a whiteboard.

In hindsight, I realize Tom knew I couldn’t fix his pain and what he probably really wanted was just for me to say, “I know, it totally sucks,” and sit quietly with him in empathy. At the time, that felt like “doing nothing.” I realize now, though, that the approach I took actually created distance between us and probably made Tom feel like he was dealing with both pain and a grouchy wife.

That is where my regret is: that in trying to help him, I actually added to his suffering and hindered intimacy and empathy. I’m not wrapped up in telling myself I “should” have behaved differently. I am giving myself grace and recognizing that I did do the very best I could under challenging circumstances. I am focused on learning from the insight I now have about my behavior and in using it to help me move forward.

In a Doug Kraft lecture I listened to this week on “fluidity of life,” Kraft suggests that one cause of suffering is the compulsion to “leap into trying to fix” things. He says, “Imagine an awareness that is deeply engaged and yet so loving that it has no need to control, change, or fix anything.” I connected this exercise immediately to my regret about how I responded to Tom’s pain. I wish I had allowed myself to put the energy that went into trying to fix Tom’s pain or control his reaction to it into simply being lovingly engaged.  

I know I did the best I could in the moment. But I am taking this hindsight and working to apply it to my grieving. I am not trying to fix or change or control my grieving. I am “Imagin[ing] an awareness [of my grieving] that is deeply engaged and yet so loving that it has no need to control, change, or fix anything.” Here’s what that looks like right now:

  • Just as I tried to make Tom understand logics that were beyond him, I notice myself trying to reason my way out of grieving at some moments, thinking, “There’s no logical reason for you to feel sad at this moment.” When I catch myself doing that, I shift my thinking to just noticing that I am sad in the moment.
  • Refraining from apologizing when I start crying or getting emotional during interactions with others. I try to make an explanatory statement instead, like, “My grief has been sneaking up on me lately and here it is again.”
  • Not trying to distract myself at all when grief hits and really sinking into it. It feels good, actually, to miss him intensely and to just let myself feel the pain of him being gone, to not deny how profoundly shitty it is that he died, and to acknowledge that grief is demanding my attention.