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.”

One thought on “Being Reminded of Mortality + Connection by my Own Health Crisis”

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Liz. It was so beautiful and reminded me of the times I have felt my mom’s presence in those in between states. Sending you a hug. Thank you for your openness about your grief and loss.

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