Coping With Survivor’s Guilt

I managed to get through one of the “big dates” of my wife’s passing. March 24 would have been our 34th year together. It feels like you’re standing and cringing as that date approaches. How bad will the first one feel? Who will I get through the day?

The day started off as expected, emotional. But, friends and family came through and helped out, for which I’m extremely grateful. It would have been so easy for me to just stay in bed.

This first wedding anniversary without her made me realize the grief and guilt will not be going away soon. I fully admit that “survivor’s guilt” is a part of the pain and sickness in my gut.

Those two little words, “what if,” still run through my head. A lot of my guilt stems from not forcing my wife, Sally, to go to the doctor, just for annual checkups with she turned 50. I get it when I hear the saying, “you can force a horse to water, but can’t make it drink.” Still, I can’t help but wonder.

For a long time, she was healthier than me. Sally worked out on the elliptical in a room in our house. Her job required her to be on her feet all day long. She ate well, much better than me. Honestly, I set up our insurance and future based on the fact that I would be the one that would leave first. Life threw me and everyone else a massive “blindside.”

The thought that goes through my head is that if I would have been more persistent, this cancer could have been caught early and things would be different. My sister, who is a doctor, tells me that this type of cancer would have likely not made that much difference in terms of the outcome. Logically, I understand. Emotionally, that’s a different story.

I’ll never know if things would have been different. Perhaps not knowing allowed us to live life to its more fullest. We traveled a lot the few years prior to her diagnosis. Maybe her “quality of life” would have been far worse if we did know and went through the long and painful treatments. Regardless, I still wonder “what if.”

This process of grief is relentless. You can run, but you can’t hide. One of the steps I’m trying to work on is “forgiveness,” especially for myself. It’s far from easy. Happiness is something I don’t feel entitled to, at least not now. It’s a matter of trying to be “less sad.”

But, I try to press onward with each day. I try my best to be functional. Making plans for one, two or many months down the road is hard. However, I do make them, just to get some sort of sanity.

Now, I will be bracing for the next two days, her birthday and the one of her passing. I already know the road coming is going to be rough. Again, I’m doing my best.

 

The Task of Going Through “Stuff”

From conversation and personal experience, the most difficult task that a widow or widower must face is going through the “stuff” of their beloved. Shortly after my wife, Sally, passed from rare cancer last year, I made the decision to clean out our house and sell it.

Deciding to sell the house was an easy one for me. I could no longer live in a place that had so many memories. It was also expensive and too big to handle on my own. However, because the home is located in an area that gets snow, I had no choice but to clean it out and get it on the market as soon as possible.

I literally made about 30 trips to the local dump and sold much of the furniture and other possessions. Those things, possessions, clothes and other things are not the same without Sally as we got them “together.”

Going through the majority of this stuff on my own was painstaking and emotionally traumatic, but had to be done. Each item, especially clothing, had a memory attached. I completely understand that they are “things,” but there was still an attachment to my wife.

I’ve talked with many people who still hold on to many possessions of their deceased spouse. I do understand why some of these people do that. It’s so hard to let go of anything. In my case, I gave away all of her clothes. The only thing I wished I would have kept was a beautiful green dress that she would wear on special occasions.

Despite keeping most of her jewelry, I still think about that green dress. Let’s face it, the thing would have been in the closet, but it would have been close by. However, I did make a trip to Atlanta to see my sister. We went to one spot that had a beautiful waterfall. It was a chilly day and she gave me a purple hood to wear. It was chilly enough that I decided to wear it, even though it looked a little feminine.

At the end of the day, after our nice excursion, my sister, Susan told me that purple hood belonged to Sally. I asked to keep it and without hesitation she said yes. That hood sits on top of a 3 by 5 frame with our picture.

I’m not an expert on whether it’s a good idea to keep things or to give them away, sell them or whatever. In my case, I don’t have the green dress, but I do have have the purple hood. You can let me know what you think and what you’ve done as well.

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Most People “Don’t Get it.”

When you lose the love of your life, it’s like being in a fog. There a pit in your stomach bigger than the Grand Canyon. I wake up every morning wondering how this could have happened. The center of my world was lost to cancer and I wished it would have been me instead of her.

I’ve had many people “set up” time with me to help ease the pain. Good friends let me stay at their home for 3 months as I couldn’t stay at my house. However, there are those who simply can not handle this type of situation. From my experience, they do not want you, or someone that’s been through this kind of trauma, to rock their happy existence. These people do mean well, but have no idea on what it’s like and will try to avoid you.

I’ve heard a number of comments that cause me to shake my head, or to not deal with that particular person. Less than two months after my wife passed, there was a gathering with friends. Of course, everyone asks the same question, “what are you going to do?” I said that I was trying to figure it out. What I really wanted to say was that I was just going to lay in bed for the next year.

I did mention to one person that I was selling my house and going to travel to get my mind away. He said that “it sounds like you’re going to be in an enviable position.” WHAT? I told him there was nothing enviable about that at all. There have been other comments related to this, but it’s pointless to list the examples.

I’ve been told to go seek psychological help, or asked how long until I’m over this. I will often get question after question on this situation, like I’m in a courtroom. People want you to be your “old self.” Unfortunately, that’s not very likely, at least not in the near future, as a big part of your world is no longer with you.

The best ones to discuss this horrible situation with are the ones who’ve been through it. They understand the tremendous hardships, pain and the journey. I was also warned to be careful on who I open up to about this event. Others have difficulty because they simply “don’t get it.” And, for their sake, I hope they never do.

For those reading this who have been through a similar situation, I’m assuming will have similar stories. Please feel free to share.

Once the Grieving Starts…

It’s been nearly 9 months since the passing of my adorable wife Sally. They always say that “time heals all wounds.” The pain in my heart may say otherwise.

I had a conversation with my sister, Marylynn, who just celebrated her 75th birthday. I am amazed by the energy she has. However, over the last 7 years, she has lost 2 sons. She recently told me that “once the grieving starts, it never stops.”

After Sally passed, Marylynn literally became my grief counselor. She’s extremely intelligent and became a medical doctor in her 40s. She reminded me of the day I called and said, “we need your help.” Marylynn said that after the passing of her first son, Dan, she felt that her experience and insight would help me. She was right. Many people who observe this say I’m making great progress, but there is an internal war going on inside me and my weight loss of 35 pounds shows it.

Prior to all of this, Marylynn and I only spoke a few times year, if that. Since then, we talk almost every day. My brother and I visit more and even have breakfast every other week. My sister Susan, the one who helped care for Sally, I also owe my deepest gratitude. My other sister, also named Sally, has also been there for me despite other family issues.

My mother and stepfather, Rich, let me stay with them to help get through this. In my 54 years of life, I’ve never been alone. I met Sally when I was 20 and we were together ever since.

I must confess, I don’t think I would have survived this without them too. Rich lost his first wife due to a car accident about 50 years ago, so there is an unspoken bond. He’s been very understanding and very helpful as I have received a lot of wisdom and insight. My mom also makes me feel cared for. Most of my other family members have stepped up for me, and I am grateful and lucky. But, it’s very hard to feel that way, especially since my entire life has changed.

After this experience and talking with others who have shared this unwanted journey, I’m realizing that there is no timeline to this process. I have been told of people who still struggle after decades of losing a loved one. I remember talking with a woman who lost her husband about 3 years ago. When I told her that Sally had passed 6 months prior, she told that this experience for me was still “raw.” I knew exactly what she meant.

Another one of the sayings I’ve heard is that, “is doesn’t get better, but it gets easier.” I’m not a doctor or any kind of expert, but have I’ve already had too much knowledge about this subject. As time passes, I’m learning to live with the pain, which hasn’t subsided in the last 9 months.

For those who begin this awful phase, it’s like getting on a huge roller-coaster that never stops. I’ve had a number of days when things are looking a little better. Then, out of nowhere, the grief overwhelms, and the sadness consumes. I wake up every morning wondering how this could have happened.

I realize that I have a long way to go. It does feel like every time I take a few steps forward, I will take one-and-a-half back, sometimes more. It’s just day-by-day.

There Will Never Be Another Sally

Sally’s final days were handled with pure dignity and grace. Her attitude was amazing. Her best friend, Donna, flew in from Oregon for a last visit. Other co-workers came by the house. My two other sisters, Sally, Marylynn and her husband Loo also came out. The picture below shows them all.20170507_142230 She was well enough to celebrate her birthday on May 8. That one-year anniversary for me will be here soon and I know it’s not going to be easy.

My sister, Susan, helped out with the cooking and other household chores, plus taking care of Sally and looking over me. She stayed for three weeks and I told her to go back home, especially when I knew it was getting close. Susan refused to go home as my wife Sally asked her to stay.

The pain was getting worse for Sally as morphine doses had to be increased. Hospice was called in for occasional visits and check-ups at the house. On May 20, Sally told me that it wasn’t going to be long. We decided to take her to the Hospice House, a facility often used for the terminally ill, in Idaho as we were no longer capable of providing her with the best care. This became so real that I couldn’t ride in the ambulance to the Hospice House, something I still regret.

I spent her final 5 days in the room. I never left her side and let me know how I felt. She had visitors, but Sally went almost comatose due to the medication. However, the Hospice people said that they “can hear you” in that state. I always took conversations outside that related to Sally and that situation. I only wanted her to hear the positive.

My sister Susan was exhausted and emotionally strained. Neither one of us had been through anything like this. In one sense, it felt like a long funeral. On the early morning of May 25, my wife, partner, and great love passed on. Susan was at my house and I was with the doctors when it happened. I was in the middle of doing a project on my computer.

When it happened, I went and sat back down at my computer, completely emotionless. Some say that is normal, but I don’t have an idea of normal is. Susan drove over from my house and took me home, which would be the last night I would ever sleep in that house. The following day, Susan flew me to her home in Georgia.

Sally and I had many discussions, and nothing was left unsaid. She told me that it was ok to eventually find someone else. I quickly said, “there will never be another Sally.” I once heard that George Burns say, “there will never be another Gracie,” and he never remarried. I completely get it. We took a lot of trips, especially in the past few years. We both agreed, “it was a great run.” But, I never counted on it ending like this and so soon.

Writing all of this down is very tough, but maybe it will help someone else. But I have to say, the Hospice people are amazing and wonderful. My good friend’s sister works at Hospice and I don’t know how they do it. They are indeed special people.

Cancer Finds A Way

When dealing with cancer and treatments, it’s like an emotional roller-coaster that doesn’t stop. When my wife, Sally, went through the rigorous treatments of 6 chemotherapies and 32 radiations within 7 weeks, there was hope that her Stage 4 vulvar cancer was going to at least be contained, but there was a strong chance it would return. We were hoping for years, not much sooner.

At the time, things were looking promising. She actually went back to work in early March, but it wasn’t going to last. After about 3 weeks, Sally was starting to experience pain in her abdomen. She wasn’t scheduled for a scan for another several weeks, but the doctors pushed through a new scan, something the insurance company didn’t want to do.

Waiting for the results was agonizing. In the waiting area, one of the doctors came out and said that her main doctor would call her. The look on his face told me that it wasn’t good. The next day, her cancer doctor called and was crying on the phone. Her cancer had spread into her lungs, spleen and bone. I talked with her separately and the doctor said that the love of my life only had months to live.

At the doctor’s office, her doctor mentioned that they were going to try another treatment. But, I’ll never forget what she said to Sally, “cancer finds a way.” I’m sure that many others can relate to this as I’ve heard other stories of cancer returning to people, even ones I know indirectly.

Sally went through two more brutalizing treatments and the lymphedema got worse again. After a month, the doctors decided to stop the chemotherapy as the cancer continued to spread. A few months was now turning into weeks.

My sister, Susan, flew out from Atlanta to help me take care of Sally. We had no family in Idaho as they were spread out. I couldn’t have gone through this part of the journey without her.

I was already going through the grieving process, but I mostly did it alone. I thought I could handle what was coming, but one of my good friends, Bryan, told me that it was going to hit me very hard when she passes. He was right. From my experience, there is nothing that can prepare you for the loss of the great love of your life, even when you know it’s coming.

The picture is one of the last ones that was taken with the both of us.

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A Brief Period of “Normal”

Sally finished all of her treatments in early January of 2017. Things were starting to look up. The lymphedema seemed to be subsiding and after four to six weeks, she started to feel better. I was starting to think that things were going to be okay.

My wife was one the hardest and most dedicated workers you would every meet. She worked at the cosmetic counter at Macys in North Idaho. She managed the Estee Lauder counter and helped countless people with makeup, fragrances and skin care.

Sally wasn’t just good at her job, she was the one of the best. She rarely called out sick. One year, on Black Friday, she developed laryngitis and could barely speak above a small whisper. The mangers were told about her condition and they asked to her come into work anyway as they were short-handed. The next thing I know, she’s getting ready for work, but I decided to drive her.

At the end of the day, she had one of the highest sales totals for that day. I was surprised, but yet I wasn’t. She had so many people who would come to Macy’s just to see her. Other associates who were available, tried to help Sally’s loyal customers. Instead, they would stand and wait for Sally to finish up with another customer. It drove the other associates nuts, but I thought it was awesome. At the end of the day, though, her coworkers loved her. The picture below was taken on New Year’s Eve. How Sally got the strength to go to that party was nothing short of incredible.

I used to television weather at the local station. Sally was a good sport when people would come up to me as ask about the weather, say they recognized me or in a few cases, have her take a picture of me and a fan. But, there were many days when I thought she was famous one. I lost track of the many times we would have lunch and a Macy’s customer would come up and say hello to her or ask when the next gift with purchase was going to be.

When Sally put her mind to it, she could sell anything. When she first took a job selling fragrances at another department store when we lived in Vermont in the early 2000s, she was very apprehensive as she never sold a single fragrance. However, in about six months, Sally was breaking sales records.

When Sally was first diagnosed with cancer, I told her to “life her life,” and she did. In late March of 2017, she went back to work. For a brief time, I thought that things were going to go back to some kind of normal. We would go to lunch during her break and watch TV in the evenings, just like we used to.

I remember one day when I overheard her telling a customer that she was cancer free, hoping that she was right. A short time later, things changed.20161231_203507