Being Reminded of Mortality + Connection by my Own Health Crisis

I have begun each morning since the hemorrhagic stroke that nearly killed me 25 years ago by reminding myself that this could be my last day. Depending on the day, that thought may drive me, inspire me, or comfort me. Once I have the thought in the morning, it usually floats into the background of my brain, but for the last few days, it has remained more front and center.

I went to the ER about two weeks ago because I’d been having seizures (which I have from time to time, but I had started having exponentially more in September) and balance issues. CT, MRI, and MRA scans detected a brain condition called hydrocephalus, in which the brain overproduces cerebral spinal fluid to the point where it puts pressure on the brain and starts causing issues like I’d been experiencing. Untreated, it can lead to permanent brain damage. The fix is to have a shunt implanted in the brain with a catheter than funnels the extra fluid into the belly, where it is absorbed by the body. I had the surgery on Monday.

I have heard other widowed people in the support groups I’m part of talk about how having their own health emergencies can bring on new or intensified feelings of grief and loneliness. I went to the same ER my husband was taken to when he had his stroke and then another time after that when his potassium level dropped precariously. Being in that space immediately brought back powerful memories of his decline.  

While some widowed folks have lost their only potential caregiver, I’m lucky to have a 20-year old daughter who lives just a few blocks away who was able to take me to the hospital, stay with me most of the time I was there, and then be with me my first week back home. She’s still with me, actually. She takes care of the dogs (can’t walk dogs for another week because of the abdominal surgery), helped me get around the house in the first few days when I was still very unsteady, adjusted my blankets during my epic 4-hour naps, reminded me to take meds, kept me hydrated, cleaned up after me, and kept others appraised of my condition. I also have a sister who lives just an hour away who was able to help, as well as excellent friends, neighbors, and my late husband’s family, who checked in on me, sent flowers, and offered to bring food.

The first day I was home, I felt Tom’s absence most keenly. I just wanted him to be there, not doing anything in particular, just being with me. I wasn’t lonely—my daughter was with me. It was a distinct missing of him. So much of our relationship involved each of us doing our own thing, but doing it in proximity to each other. A fellow introvert at Camp Widow described wanting to be alone with someone else; that’s what I missed. I just wanted him sitting on the couch with me while I drowsed.

I had surgery last year around this time and felt strongly when I came out of the anesthesia that I had been with my late husband while I was under. I don’t know if it was real or illusion, but I was hoping that would happen again this time. It didn’t, but for the first few days after surgery just when I was dropping off to sleep, I would feel his hand wrapping around mine. It was unmistakable and it happened repeatedly – maybe 15 or 20 times over the course of three days.

My husband died from complications after skull/brain surgery, so when I learned I would be having brain surgery, my first thought was that I could die and then I would get to be with him again. It’s a morbid thought, but it made me feel very peaceful and unafraid. As I always do before anything I perceive as particularly life-threatening, I reviewed with my daughter and sister where to find my will and other vital documents and what my wishes around life-saving interventions are. They hate these conversations, but they are used to me wanting to have them. I believe one of the main reasons we struggle as a society to talk about death is that we haven’t enough practice. I give the folks around me some practice.

When I was distraught with grief, I found great comfort from an Andrea Wachter grief meditation on Insight Timer. I appreciate the long pauses she gives for reflection, which as I’ve mentioned before, I typically require. If you’re interested, go to Insight Timer and search for Andrea Wachter’s “Comforting Grief.”

Feeling Normal for 8 Hours at Camp Widow

A conference for widows? Yes, it exists and it is called Camp Widow. Last Saturday, I spent all day at a Camp Widow pop up. Camp Widow is typically a weekend-long event, but the pop up is just one day, which makes it more accessible for some people. All Camp Widow events bring together widowed people to learn from and support each other. The events are put together by the Soaring Spirits organization, which researches and supports widowhood. It’s basically a conference for widowed people, with large-format addresses to the whole crowd and breakout sessions on specific topics.

Being surrounded by other widowed people is an incredible experience. In a support group, there may be ten or so other widows. At Camp Widow, there are 100+. Being in a room full of widows, where widowhood is not just normal but expected, is liberating. The whole time I was there, I knew deep in my soul that I would not come across as weird or be judged as grieving for “too long.” I talked to many people who immediately “got me.” Widows are my people—we can talk for 20 minutes, completely skip the small talk, and go right to, “How far out are you?” (widowspeak for “when did your person die?”) or “How are things with your in-laws?” There’s no need to worry about being the awkward person who brings everyone down or trying to figure out an organic way to mention that you are a widow.

At Camp Widow, the definition of “widow” is inclusive. Anyone who feels like they lost “their person” to death counts as a widow. There are some widow groups that parse out who gets to claim the title of “widow,” but Camp Widow uses a broad definition. Participants are reminded frequently throughout the event that no one’s grief can be measured against someone else’s. Regardless of how long you’ve been grieving or what the circumstances are of your person’s death, if you feel you belong at Camp Widow, you are welcomed.

The entire event was designed and organized to be safe and inclusive. A day or so before the event, registrants received an email about a motorcycle safety course taking place at the same location as the camp; because so many widows lost their person to motorcycle accidents, the organizers wanted to give folks a heads up that they might see motorcycles. The email mentioned that support people would be available if anyone was activated by the sight of motorcycles. That’s the kind of small gesture that goes a long way toward inclusivity.

Throughout the entire event, volunteers were visible to help us find rooms for sessions, answer questions about the organization or the schedule, and guide us toward bathrooms. It was a far cry from most conferences I’ve been to where I can never find anyone to read room number signs to me—or when I do find someone, they are condescending about having to read to an adult.

There were sessions on love after loss, what to do with your loved one’s things, common concerns for people who are newly widowed, 1-3 years out, 3-5 years out, more than 5 years out, and my personal favorite: navigating widowhood as an introvert. The session itself was useful, but the best part was being able to identify other introverts during the rest of the event. I knew exactly who would be ok with sitting with me in near silence during lunch. Throughout the sessions I attended, I got the clear message that what I was feeling was normal—that there is no shelf life on grief.

For the entire time I was at Camp Widow, I was normal. I got an 8-hour respite from monitoring and managing my emotions. I cried when I felt like crying, without any concern for who would notice or what they would think. I saw others do the same. It was glorious.

The next two days were not so glorious. I was exhausted, fuzzy-brained, and anxious. Despite how amazing the Camp was and the liberation of not having to manage my emotions, there was a distinct “hangover” effect. I was in a daze most of Sunday and exceedingly cranky on Monday. Today (Tuesday) I mostly slept. Camp Widow didn’t lessen my grief at all; in fact, my grief feels fresher now, perhaps because of being able to freely express it at Camp Widow.

And I am glad I went. So much of being widowed involves “and.” I can cry and feel joy. I can be inspired by Camp Widow and the pain of my heartbreak can feel fresh again. I can love my late husband with all my heart and I can move forward with my life. To most people, that sounds like a contraction, but to my 100+ new widow friends, it makes sense.

Showing Up for Death

Watching someone die is hard. Sometimes we know we are watching someone die—perhaps they are in hospice or a medical professional has estimated how much time they have left. Other times, we may notice a slowing down and have a creeping realization that this person is moving toward death.

I watched my husband die for 53 weeks after his stroke. He faded very slowly, in fits and starts, so that it was possible for me to convince myself that he wasn’t actually dying at all. He maintained his vigor and bravado right up until the end, even when he had stopped eating. His death was a shock to me, although I knew that from the moment of his stroke, I was “walking him home,” an expression spiritual teacher Ram Dass used to express the shared experience of embracing the inevitability of death.

As painful as it is to watch, I think being with someone in their final months, weeks, days, or moments is an honor and even a responsibility. As much as we may want to turn away, I think we need to bear witness to death. Death is a totally natural part of life. Witnessing it normalizes it. Showing up for a person who is dying is one way to show respect for life itself. A person who is dying isn’t dead yet and many of their needs are like those of the rest of us: they need to be seen, heard, and acknowledged; they need to feel loved and valued; they need to feel remembered; they need to not feel abandoned.

I think one reason people avoid showing up for death is that they don’t know what to do. People who are dying are often less able to participate in conversations. We may wonder what to talk about with a dying person or how to engage them. We may feel pressure to keep a conversation going but feel nervous about which topics are “safe.” Here’s what I learned in my husband’s last year: it is easy to meet the needs of people who are dying if we focus on those needs rather than our fears.

Every one of those needs can be met by simply showing up. What is the most basic way of letting someone know they are seen and heard? Being there in person or on the phone with them. What is the most basic way of showing love? Making the effort to be there in person or on the phone. How can you let someone know you remember them? Be there. How do you let someone know they haven’t been abandoned? Sit with them.

Simply sitting in silence with someone who is dying is completely ok. I spent hours and hours in silence with my dying husband, simply holding his hand. When he had lost consciousness and was being kept alive by a ventilator, I told him over and over, “I’m right here.” In other words, I was not a brilliant conversationalist. Cake’s post on watching a loved one die emphasizes that it’s your presence that matters, not the conversation, and that silence is completely ok.

If you’re interested in learning more about dying and showing up for dying, I highly recommend Sallie Tisdale’s book, Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them). Tisdale is a Buddhist and brings Buddhism’s characteristic lack of sentimentality about death to the subject. (In my introduction to Zen Buddhism in 1997, the teacher led with, “Let’s face it: we’re all on a one-way trip to the boneyard.”) She offers concrete suggestions for what to say and not say. She recommends being kind to yourself, cutting yourself slack when you don’t show up exactly as you wish you had.

Perhaps the advice of Tisdale’s that was the hardest for me was to let the dying person talk about death and dying. My husband wanted to talk about it, but I was afraid that if I acknowledged he was dying, he would slip away faster. If I could change one thing about how I showed up for his death, it would be to not change the subject or dismiss his worries when he wanted to talk about dying. All I had to do was listen.

And now, as Tisdale advises, I need to cut myself a little slack.