The woman in her mid-50s sitting across from me is describing the routine her late husband diligently adhered to each morning: out of bed by 6:30AM for a shower before breakfast and driving to work by 7:15. Except that six weeks earlier his morning routine had been interrupted by a cardiac arrest. She sobs inconsolably as she wonders aloud how she can possibly piece together a life without the person who had taken care of everything since marrying her over 30 years ago. “I’ve never even paid a bill,” she says, “He took care of all of that. I don’t even know where to start – I wouldn’t even know what our financial situation is.”
The husband of another client, also in her late 50s, who died three years earlier, and within six months of being diagnosed with a terminal illness, shares a similar scenario. She had married by arrangement when she was barely 16 years old, his brother acting as his proxy. Her husband was significantly older, and they barely knew each other when she sailed across the world to be with him. Nonetheless, their marriage had been exquisitely successful. He loved holidays, adventure and socialising and she loved letting him take the lead in all matters. Only now she was alone. She didn’t drive, her two adult daughters tried to support her but had their own children that distracted them from their mother’s grief, and friends had long ago stopped calling as they returned to their own lives. “Don’t you contact your friends or go to your social club still?” I ask. “I don’t know how to do that on my own” she answers.
A young widow in her mid-20s grapples with the sudden death of her equally young husband a little over 12 months ago at a time when they had both intended to start a family. She looks at me quizzically and asks, “What now? What’s next?”
The topic of death and adjustment invariably invites the insights of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who maintained there were five stages of grief, whether experienced by those dying or those who were left: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The understated elegance of this model reflected a sequence of transitioning from disbelief to the final recognition that death was an inevitability. Google ‘Grief and Loss’ and the response is awash with advice around ensuring that symptoms don’t elevate to a point that triggers a depressive episode and always the steady assurance that with care and time, the situation will improve.
The grieving are advised to take care of themselves, eat, connect with others, rest, take time to recover … don’t rush
The process of bereavement may feel surreal, an experience perhaps magnified by the undivided attention of others. Initially, there might be a steady entourage of visitors with flowers, casseroles, cakes, cards and more cards. Condolences are generally accompanied with a desire to hear how you’re travelling, the finer details of ‘what happened’ and all the while typically insisting that you’re not to move a finger, that obligations and responsibilities will be attended to on your behalf – just sit and breathe.
Then one day the flowers are dead, the cards stop as do the calls and emails and the world suddenly becomes silent. That’s when things get real. Obligations that may have been placed on hold are now knocking at the door and the hard, cold reality is that regardless of personal circumstances bills still need to be paid, even if additional flexibility is provided due to circumstances. Likewise, employers have a finite amount of wiggle room where leave is concerned and if you’re employed, there will be a point at which you need to state your intentions regarding returning to work.
Everyone seems to return to their former lives and the world continues its regular orbit – even though yours hasn’t – and while there may be a generous pool of advice around adjusting to the early impact of grief, there’s comparatively less on coping during the intermediate period.
Everyone grieves differently depending on circumstances and beliefs. Further, adjustment doesn’t necessarily entail moving beyond the loss in such a way that the deceased is relegated to a slice of history, but rather the relationship continues to evolve, albeit with changes. Nor does recovery necessarily equate with simply ‘moving on’. Nonetheless, adjusting to a world without the predictable input and support of a significant other, whether a spouse, parent, child, or friend, can adopt the complexity of learning how to breathe underwater.
Yet, as indelicate as the following suggestion may sound, progression is unavoidably reliant on acceptance and adjustment, not just to the deafening silence left in the wake of others returning to their lives, but to the task of accommodating loss constructively.
The examples above had more than a deceased spouse in common, each of them was waiting for something magical that would ease the harsh reality of their loss. However, as any practitioner who works with those experiencing chronic illness will attest, adjustment doesn’t involve waiting for the unpleasantness to subside, but rather learning how to accommodate the peaks and troughs of a condition into daily life:
- Introducing structure rather than letting the day decide for you;
- Critically evaluating the value of available resources (including friends and family) rather than wishing for the unobtainable;
- Considering the possibility of gaining new skills to supplement deficits in capability rather than wishing problems would solve themselves.
Passively waiting for life to return to ‘normal’ following the emotional turmoil of a death only serves to exacerbate the loss. Alternatively, formulating strategies for managing less than ideal moments provides the impetus to push on rather than claim defeat. I conceptualise the gradual adjustment to loss in much the same way as building muscle: initially it may feel impossible and even painful on occasion, but with a commitment to continue in manageable steps improvement and progress is possible.
Carolyne completed her qualifications in psychology at RMIT University, Victoria, and is currently completing her Masters of Human Rights Law at Monash University, Melbourne. While completing her undergraduate and post-grad studies, she worked in direct care with children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
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