Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How Do You Grieve?

This has been a tough year. A little over a year ago my ex wife, Angela, was diagnosed with ALS - Lou Gehrig's Disease. It is a diabolical disease that attacks the body through its own genome. It slowly starts shutting down parts of the body that will never again be functional. Eventually, the lungs shut down and the person will die of suffocation.

When Angela and I were discussing her disease and the future of our two children something hit me. We had a nasty divorce with a great deal said and done that was purely hateful toward each other. I said, "Now is the time for forgiveness and I ask that you forgive me for anything I have done to hurt you. The past is the past let's move forward." At that point we both were in tears and we both promised to do whatever we could to help her and to make sure the kids would be alright.Angela had remarried and her husband and I got along well, so this went smoothly.

Then Angela started losing her ability to speak and swallow. She was given a feeding tube then was taken in for a tracheotomy and had her little keyboard she could type into and a computerized voice would speak for her. This "routine" procedure was complicated when they were removing the temporary tracheotomy tube to be replaced with a permanent one. Something dislodged and she fell into respiratory arrest, all of the while my son Nathan was at her bedside. This was followed by months in a hospital and then a skilled nursing center on a ventilator. She eventually was allowed to go home on her ventilator. Curtis her husband, my daughter Sarah, my son Nathan and others cared for her, letting her have a sense of familiarity. Then on May 22, 2011 I had the privilege of being at her bedside as she passed away. Her husband holding her hand on one side of the bed and me holding her other hand on the other side.

Throughout this time I was conscious of how different people face the death or severe illness of someone they love. Right now my wife Josephine  is in Ireland. Her father has Hodgkin's Lymphoma in his liver. My Mother-in-law has now endured two months of her husband of 50 years plus being in a hospital an hour away.  

Here is what I have observed and my recommendations for how to help in a time of need:
  1. Realize we all deal with situations like this in different ways. As a young teen, I watched as one by one my family died. At thirteen, I arranged the entire funeral for my aunt who raised me as a son. My grandmother had dementia and my father was over seas. So it fell on me. I have a defense mechanism to view death with a very unhealthy detachment. (At this point, my only blood relatives are Sarah and Nathan)
  2. Some people throw themselves into work or some other activity to push back the pain.
  3. Others become planners. They want to control everything surrounding the illness or death.
  4. Some have the "John Wayne" approach and just stuff it all inside, until they are alone with their pillow - they will not show vulnerability.
  5. While others get angry and release their pain on the nearest or most convenient target.
  6. Then there are those who become paralyzed with grief and depression. 
Here is where the difficulty comes in. As these and other coping mechanisms kick in, we can often find fault that others are not responding as we are. One doesn't care, another is too emotional, another is a "control freak" and the list goes on and on. This doesn't even take into to consideration of the will and how assets are dispersed - that is an entirely different mess.

My advice is to try and put yourself into that other person's position. For instance, the person who is angry isn't really angry at you. They are trying to process something that is overwhelming to him or her.

Realize each person is in pain and that by bickering it only pushes the resentment and pain further inside of each of us - taking it longer for us to heal. Sometimes that bitterness can destroy a family that should be united during this crisis. We lose focus of the person we are worried about or grieving. And all it does is violate the desires of the person we are there for.


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