Monday, February 11, 2019

In Grief: Mother Loss vs. Spouse Loss

[Reviewed and updated July 5, 2020]

Make friends with guilt. Guilt is a beautiful emotion that alerts us when something is wrong so that we may achieve peace with our conscience. Without conscience there would be no morality. So we can greet guilt cordially and with acceptance, just as we do all other emotions. After we respond to guilt, it has done its job and we can release it.  ~ Glenn R. Schiraldi

A reader writes: My mother was diagnosed with cancer and was given 6 weeks to live. She died six weeks later. Just one month after that, my husband was told there was something in his lung. By the time he was finally diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, it had spread to the lining of his lung and his bones. My husband was 57 and had just retired 3 months before we knew he was ill. Within eight months after diagnosis, he was dead. So I have had two great losses in a ten-month period. 

I have been on an anti-depressant for the past year and they decided to try another as this does not seem to be doing the job. At the start of weaning off I thought maybe I don't need these, but the past few days have been like the first few days after my husband's death--no positive thoughts for the future, just bleakness and lots of tears. I am sitting here at 2 am writing in my journal. You can see by this that I don't sleep well and haven't for the past year and a half (since my mom was diagnosed). I thought that was the worst I could possibly feel --to know I would lose her in just 6 weeks--but after my husband was diagnosed just one month after she died I fell apart. I have been told that I started grieving for him at that time, even though I really hadn't started to grieve for her. 

I sometimes feel great guilt that it is now him that I miss so much and not my mom. She was 75 and did not want treatment. She was ready to die and truly felt that she was going to a better place. The only thing she was afraid of was the pain she might have to go through to get there, but she was lucky and her passing was peaceful. My sister's son was getting married soon and she was determined to be at the wedding, but had to go on morphine the day before and didn't make the wedding. She died early the day after, in the morning just at dawn. She was crazy about loons and as she took her last breath a loon called. I had asked her to let me know that she was okay after death. I was sitting at our cabin and watching a loon so far out from shore. I moved to an entirely different area and was crying and asking her when I would get her sign and where was she, she felt so far away. Just then a loon popped up in front of me. It actually turned and faced me and her words came into my head and it said "Here I am." I laughed out loud. I truly believe that she was telling me all was well. If I had made those words come I would have said to myself "There she is."

My husband was another story--he did not want to die. He was just 57 and felt there could be no better place than right here and now with me. He fought with everything he had just for a little more time. He was stage 3 at diagnosis, then a bone scan changed it to stage 4. He just retired three months before and didn't even know he was so sick until he went to the doctor for something entirely different--a sore on his ear. His PCP wanted a chest x-ray because he had a cough and he was a smoker. It was very hard for me as I saw him getting sicker by the day. His first 5 chemo treatments weren't too hard on him. He was sick for 2 weeks and felt not too bad the next two, but they changed chemo and the next two were terrible. He had great pain in his back and the thing we didn't understand was that it wasn't in the area of his cancer. An MRI showed it to be a pinched nerve and he had just had radiation and was waiting for the pain to subside and the next type of treatment to start when he just died at home. It was totally unexpected at that point, both by the doctor and by us--but it was peaceful as well. 

 I carried an even greater guilt because the night before he died I prayed and asked that if remission was not to be, would God please take him quickly--then he died about 5 hours later. I wondered for so long if I had killed him with that prayer, but was told that I couldn't possibly tell God what to do. I know that in my head but my heart still wonders??? I know I have a long road ahead of me and I am grateful for your writings. 

I also asked my husband for a sign. My sign from him was the eagle that hovered over the cemetery at his service and then appeared in our back yard when the service was over. The eagle was beside me many time this summer as I did things I had never done before--such as highway driving. We used to often watch the eagle at camp. My kids laugh at me--they say you have made grandma a loon and dad an eagle--but I believe that is how they each in their own way let me know they are okay and that I will see them again one day. I'm sorry that I have rambled on. I just meant to thank you for your helpful writings, and thank you so much for really caring. I wish I could find more of that.

My response: There are so many things in your poignant letter that I feel a need to address ~ so even though you did not ask for it, I hope you’ll accept some further input from me.

First, you say that the last few days have felt to you “like the first few days after my husband's death.” I think it’s important for you to know that it is precisely around this time (at the sixth or seventh month into the mourning process) that the initial shock and numbness begin to wear off, and you are hit with the full force of the reality of all that you have lost. This is normal ~ even predictable ~ and yet, if you don’t expect it, you can be caught completely off guard by your reactions, and even fear that you’re not going to make it through this grief of yours. This is why we grief counselors so often suggest that a grief support group (or an online Discussion Group such as ours) can be so helpful, most especially at the 6-7 month point. 

You say that you’re feeling guilty that the grief you feel at the death of your husband is so different from the grief you feel at the death of your mother. First, keep in mind that feelings aren’t always rational – they just are what they are, neither good or bad, right or wrong. That said, it is completely understandable that your reaction to these two losses is quite different, one from the other. Much as we love our mothers and would prefer that they remain with us forever, it is in the “natural order of things” for our them to grow old, get sick and die ~ and if we are all grown up and on our own, we are not as dependent upon our mothers as we once were. In addition, we’ve grown more accustomed to loving our mothers in their absence, as most of us adult children who are married do not live with our mothers.

Not so when we lose a spouse. Most of us women expect to grow old together with our husbands, and no matter how “independent” we think we are, we depend upon them to take care of us. When your husband died, especially at the fairly young age of 57, your entire assumptive world was shaken to the core. Your financial future may be severely affected and forever changed. Your vision of who you are and where you are going in your life has been turned completely upside down. In addition to losing your husband, there are so many secondary losses as well: loss of your identity as a wife; loss of your dreams and visions for the future; loss of sharing with your husband, having no one (a best friend, a confidant) to listen to the little things (and the big events) of day-to-day living; loss of choices, in the sense that you have no control at all over your life, since this new life-style was not a conscious choice. The list goes on and on. Your reaction to losing your husband is different from how you feel at losing your mother, but that is simply because these are very different losses, each with very different effects upon you and your future.

You torture yourself with guilt for having bargained with God to take your husband quickly if a remission was not to be. I can only tell you that, once again, feeling guilty is simply not the same as being guilty. Would a jury of your peers convict you of this “crime” of loving your husband so much that you did not want to see him suffer one more moment than was necessary? Did this desire to relieve him of his suffering stem from selfishness on your part? Or was it a measure of your selflessness? And which is the greater measure of love? You see, my dear, as an objective third party here, I can see clearly that your motives were pure, so it is easy for me to forgive you for whatever crime you think you may have committed. But my forgiving you is not the issue – what matters here is your ability to forgive yourself. (See my articles Grief and the Burden of Guilt and Grief and Regret in Grief for further comments on guilt.)

Your stories about the loon and the eagle touch my heart, as these are perfect examples of the sort of After-Death Communications stories we so often share in our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups. (See also my article, "Am I Going Mad? Mystical Experiences in Grief.)

Finally, my dear you thank me for "really caring" and say you wish you could find more of that. If you permit yourself to become a member of our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, the support you’re seeking will continue to go on and on, just as long as you feel a need to be with us. Please consider this as a gift you can give yourself ~ and on those nights when you are sitting at your computer at 2 or 3 in the morning, you will always find one of us there, just waiting to reach out to you with all the compassion and understanding you need and deserve. 

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